Keces S3 DAC/Headphone Amplifier/Preamplifier Review

Separates.

Everyone loves dedicated components in theory, but many people don't have the money or the space or even the need to isolate each individual piece of the chain.

Hence the popularity of integrated amps which combine the preamp and amplifier into one handy unit. More recently that same line of thinking has led to various interesting permutations which might also feature digital inputs, headphone amplification, network streaming, direct file playback, and more – all in one component.

What makes a combo unit worthwhile? My first thought usually centres around "features,” as in the product must have the appropriate functionality to cover all the necessary bases. These requirements will obviously vary from one user to the next, as we all have different systems and correspondingly varied needs. The other aspect, no less critical, is the quality of implementation for each part. It's no good to combine a preamp and amplifier along with digital inputs if the built-in DAC is terrible, or the amp section sounds thin and lacking in gusto.

So the formula ends up being quality plus functionality, where hopefully the end result equals a killer multi-faceted unit that can do the job of several stand-alone products in a smaller and hopefully less expensive package. And that's exactly what we get with the $1,399 USD Keces Audio S3.

While not exactly a big name in the audio scene - at least from my North American perspective - Taiwan-based Keces Audio has been quietly making excellent, high-value gear for nearly two decades. Starting around 2008, they did cause a bit of a stir at forums such as Audiocircle and HeadFi, where their affordable DACs became popular recommendations. USB DACs were pretty rare at the time yet Keces offered several USB-capable models for very affordable prices, which really appealed to the emerging computer-audio crowd.

Keces has now returned to the North American market with a continued focus on bang-for-buck. I've been using their P8 linear power supply for several years now with excellent results, so I figured it was time to explore other models. Today's focus being the Keces S3.

Design

The aptly-named S3 aims to fulfill three different roles in your system: DAC, preamplifier, and headphone amp. It's what I'd call a modestly-sized piece at roughly 12-inches wide by nine-inches deep and three-inches tall. Build quality is excellent, and very reminiscent of the classic Plinius Audio look with the rounded front corners and tank-like construction. The tasteful design is centered around a front panel OLED display which gives useful info such as sample rate and volume level. That display is flanked by switches for gain selection and swapping from headphone out to line out. Aside from those, everything is controlled by the multi-function knob which can be pressed to make selections or held down to activate standby mode. The whole thing is very simple and users should master operation within the first few minutes of use.

As a headphone user, my eyes immediately lock on the pair of front panel headphone outputs. Keces gives us the standard 1/4" jack but also a four-pin XLR balanced connection, which is a sign that they take the headphone amp seriously. Around back, we get the expected RCA and XLR outputs, plus a corresponding pair of RCA and XLR inputs – fairly unusual, but remember this is billed as not just a DAC with volume control like so many others these days, but also a preamplifier. Lastly, digital inputs come in the form of DSD256-capable USB, along with coaxial and Toslink.

Moving on to internals. The DAC section is built around an ES9026Pro, which is from the latest Sabre Pro line yet relatively rare (Wyred4Sound uses it in their DAC1v2, and that's the only other example I'm aware of). That DAC section is flanked by a linear power supply sporting a large toroidal transformer, whilst a special isolation circuit separates the grounding for digital and analog sections.

Volume control is handled by a special 128-step relay-based attenuator, which gives precision channel matching even at very low volumes (an area where traditional potentiometers often falter). The headphone output is potent – two full watts per channel using balanced mode via the XLR out, or 1200mW from the single ended 1/4" jack, with both having an output impedance lower than one ohm. A simple yet effective five button remote control rounds out the package, sporting a robust metallic build just like the S3 itself. 

Associated Gear

I assembled a system just for testing the Keces S3, as it has more going on than a basic DAC. Incoming power was cleaned up via an Equi=Core 1800 balanced power conditioner, which fed all components using Audio Art Power 1 ePlus AC cables. My transport was a Euphony PTS acting as a Roon endpoint, pulling files over the network from an Asustor AS6404T running Roon Server. The Euphony was powered by the previously mentioned Keces Audio P8 linear power supply, and I used an iFi Gemini3.0 cable to split the signal between the data and power legs since the P8 offers an additional outlet for clean USB power. The S3 drove a set of Adam Audio F5 active monitors using Audio Art IC-3 e interconnects, whilst headphone listening was primarily centered around the superb new Meze Empyrean headphones leashed with an Audio Art HPX-1SE balanced cable, with various other headphones from Sennheiser, Fostex, Audeze, Noble Audio, and AKG being thrown in the mix for a second opinion. Lastly, I tried a few external DACs and CD players to test preamp functionality on the S3, using another pair of the same Audio Art IC-3 e interconnects feeding the analog inputs.

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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