Keces S3 DAC/Headphone Amplifier/Preamplifier Review Page 2

Listening

The bulk of my listening was done using the Meze Empyrean – a headphone I simply can't recommend strongly enough. I pulled up Qobuz (the lossless "Studio" tier, of course) via Roon and went straight to my "favorites" section, packed with varied gems in about every genre you can imagine (and some which defy traditional categorization).

Russian artist Keott's album Thaw is an electronic masterpiece that I just keep coming back to. Equal parts ambient minimalism and droning beatscapes, there's a real sense of purpose to each track, and the Keces-based system definitely brings that emotion to the forefront. Highlights include the sparse yet beautiful "Thaw in Siberia" as well as the more rhythmically-driven "Night Furia.” The Keces S3 pairs extremely well with Meze's Empyrean, giving an immersive, wide-open presentation that lets the music flow freely. This is not a "doof-doof" album by any means, but it does have a firm low-end drive interspersed throughout, and the S3/Empyrean combo delivers the goods with authority.

Switching gears rather drastically, I went with the 2008 release Tail Swallower and Dove from post-hardcore quartet These Arms Are Snakes. Aside from his primary duties laying down beats, drummer Chris Common also does an excellent job producing the band. The album has a strong sense of raw, visceral energy, whilst possessing a level of fidelity not always heard in this genre. Tracks like "Woolen Heirs" come through via the S3/Empyrean with the perfect amount of dynamic bombast and guitar crunch, while vocals – alternating between dreamy and screamy – are beautifully represented and "just right" in the mix. I've heard other DAC/amp units and particularly other headphones fail miserably with this particular artist, but the Meze/Keces duo never falters.

Qobuz describes Purity Ring as "chilly electro-pop,” which I suppose is as good a label as any. Whatever term we choose, their latest release Another Eternity is all about ethereal synths, sultry vocals, and driving beats seemingly mixed and matched from a variety of classic drum machines. It's the sort of thing that comes across as fun even from the most basic headphones/speakers, but when played on a great system you notice a lot more of... everything. The S3/Empyrean combo delivers the sense of atmosphere large enough to get lost in – I played the entire album through multiple times, with each new listen revealing hidden details and nuances. Once again, imaging and soundstage are a major strength, along with excellent microdetail retrieval.

Switching from Qobuz to my personal library – a seamless operation thanks to Roon – I gravitated towards my collection of SACD rips and settled on Duke Ellington's Masterpieces. Truly an apt name, this mono release sounds shockingly clear despite being nearly 70 years old. The Keces S3 allows Meze's planar magnetic headphone to shine with lifelike dynamics and beautifully accurate timbre, highlighting what is in my opinion one of the very best releases of Ellington's prolific career. The SACD uses the same master as the acclaimed vinyl release and the Keces S3 truly does it justice. I could (and did!) listen several times through in one sitting, just taking it all in. 

I could go on and on with specific musical examples, citing everything from double bassist Larry Grenadier to Rachmaninoff piano trios, Curtis Mayfield, and many, many others, but I'd quickly surpass my allotted word count. All genres were portrayed in a uniformly excellent manner – clear, spacious, and well controlled, with accurate tonality and rich low-end texture. Similarly, I could talk about how I switched from Empyrean to the Audeze LCD-3, Sennheiser HD800, Focal Elex, Sony Z1R, and various other headphones across a wide range of prices, and did not find any significant weaknesses or poor matches. The Keces S3 is amazingly versatile. 

My one and only complaint (such as it is)? The integrated headphone amp is too much for sensitive in-ear monitors. Even with the gain switch set to Low, it just isn't a good match, unless you enjoy background hiss and almost zero volume adjustment range before hitting ear-bleeding levels. As much as I love IEMs, I also recognize that many (most?) potent headphone amps with enough power on tap to drive stubborn planar-magnetic headphones aren't ideally suited for driving the sensitive little buggers. 

Using the S3 as preamp to drive the Adam Audio F5 monitors gave more of the same pleasing performance. I switched to various external sources and could clearly discern the character of each. My ModWright Oppo UDP-205, its modified analog stage replete with tubes and Lundahl output transformers, has distinctly richer tone colors than my old (and stock) Oppo BDP-95, which is nicely detailed but with a thinner tonality – less "meat on the bones" so to speak – and a slight treble etch mainly noticeable upon direct comparison. The preamp capabilities of the S3 are such that this distinction is readily audible, even with the "entry-level" F5 monitors which are among the most affordable Adam Audio has ever produced. 

With just a pair each of RCA and XLR inputs, the S3 clearly wasn't intended to replace a big dedicated preamp packed to the gills with inputs. But it's just right for a simpler system, perhaps using a turntable and an SACD player along with a music server or streaming device connected via digital cable. I'd connect the disc spinner via SPDIF to tap the Keces DAC section for CD playback, as I found it's superior to many, but not all players out there, whilst using the analog connection for SACD listening due to copy protection (thanks again, Sony). Note that the vast majority of DACs on the market, even those with quality volume controls on board, could not be used in this fashion due to lack of analog inputs. 

Conclusion

The Keces Audio S3 really does everything one might ask of it, and does it impressively well. While it can be used as a quality stand-alone headphone amp, a highly resolving dedicated DAC, or even a simple but excellent preamp, I believe the biggest value comes when combining multiple functions. The headphone listener who wants a single-box DAC/amp solution capable of driving pretty much any full-size headphone should give it serious consideration. And if said user might also integrate speakers into the mix – either active monitors or passives with a separate amp – they will find the S3 to be a superb control center for the entire setup. It satisfies my previously mentioned criteria of features plus sound quality, in a compact and well built package, for a price that is surely advantageous compared to buying separate components. For that, the S3 is enthusiastically recommended. 

Specifications

  • COAXIAL: PCM support up to 16-24Bit/44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz. DSD support up to DSD64 (DoP).
  • OPTICAL: PCM support up to 16-24Bit/44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz. DSD support up to DSD64 (DoP).
  • USB: PCM support up to 16-32Bit/44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz, 352.8kHz, 384kHz. DSD support up to DSD64 (DoP)/DSD128 (DoP) DSD64/DSD128/DSD256 (ASIO Native).
  • Analog Input: XLR Input impedance: 47k Ω, Max input level 10Vrms. Input/output gain: 0dB.
  • RCA: Input impedance: 47k Ω. Max input level: 5Vrms. Input/output gain: 0dB.

COMPANY INFO
Keces/Power Holdings Inc.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Simply Nobody's picture

May be JG could listen to the Meze Empyrean with the Chord Hugo2 DAC/headphone amp, and tell us how that combination works :-) ...........

John Grandberg's picture

... but unfortunately not together. I like Hugo 2 better than the original in both sonics and usability (first one was awkward in several ways), and of course you can probably tell I love the Empyrean. I assume they would pair quite well together but I haven't actually tried it yet.

Pharmaboy's picture

...review from John Grandberg. A lot of sonic & functional information is conveyed in this relatively compact review. I especially appreciate the comments about the review unit's preamp capabilities--that's a topic that often gets lost in reviews.

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