May 2004Audio Magic Stealth Kukama Digital-to-Analog Converter
by David Millman
I suspect the people at Audio Magic pondered these questions -- and they decided to forge ahead anyway. The Stealth Kukama is a $2495 DAC that uses a five-year-old chipset built into a black box of truly modest design. It's also sold direct, which will put some potential buyers off, I'm sure. It's an audio product that follows few tried-and-true methods and still manages to succeed.
But first a little about me
I love standalone DACs. Back in 1996, I found myself interested in audio again after a lengthy hiatus, so I started visiting hi-fi shops. One in particular carried a small list of well-chosen components, and the owner was happy to work within my limited budget. I took home a Rotel integrated amp and CD player, plus a pair of JMlab bookshelf speakers that seemed to speak to me with considerable midrange magic.
Unfortunately, once home, I couldn't get the speakers to lose their tubby bass, so I called the dealer for advice. He told me, "Box 'em up and come back; I have an idea." I exchanged the JMlab speakers for his demo pair of Vandersteen Model 1Cs, and because there was credit still left, the dealer handed me a California Audio Labs Sigma DAC, a modest tubed affair. I thought he was nuts, but he said I had nothing to lose, so I took it home and prepared to do some listening.
Wow. All of a sudden, what had been a good budget system really blossomed into something wonderful. I can still remember being mesmerized by Chet Baker's Chet [Riverside 1135], the way Pepper Adams' honking baritone sax just leapt from out of nowhere, how Herbie Mann's flute simply danced, and how Baker's trumpet poured out so mournfully. I spent many a blissful hour on the sofa -- listening, listening, listening.
A few years later, that CAL DAC gave up the ghost, but by now MSB's Link DAC had come to great acclaim, and a fellow from Portland named Dan Wright had begun modifying them to achieve even better performance. I ordered a Link II from Dan, and once again I was floored by what an improvement an outboard DAC could make. This DAC was less bloomy than the CAL, but it was far more detailed. I suddenly started going places my ears had never been before.
As I write this, I am completely convinced that adding a good DAC is the quickest, most cost-effective way to get to high-end sound, especially if the rest of your system is decidedly mid-fi. I also think it's an upgrade that even non-audiophiles can readily appreciate, although it takes some explaining as to how it fits into the system and what differences it can make.
Now it's 2004, and although my head tells me that I should move toward a one-box digital front-end, I'm still in love with outboard DACs. My trusty MSB Link II with ModWright goodies is still improving that same Rotel CD player, and I've been enjoying a Perpetual Technologies P-3A, also with ModWright improvements, in my main rig for about two years. The P-3A was an interesting change from the MSB DAC -- it really widened the soundstage and added a level of naturalness I didn't know was missing. At about $1100 (with mods), the ModWright P-3A isn't cheap, but it's a tremendous piece of gear. Now if only I could get past the feeling that Perpetual Technologies has orphaned it, but that's another story.
And now a little about Audio Magic
Jerry Ramsey formed Audio Magic in 1991 as a means of marketing his cable designs. Eventually Audio Magic added power conditioners to its product lineup. According to Ramsey, his friend Henry Lamb had been working on a DAC for some years, and by 2002 it was so good -- so much better than everything else anywhere near its price -- that he had to ask if it could be released as an Audio Magic product. Ramsey agreed and presented prototypes at CES 2003. Those have since been tweaked, and now the Stealth Kukama is available to all.
According to Lamb,
The heart of the Stealth Kukama DAC is the circuit that converts the current output of the DAC (a 24-bit/96kHz-capable Burr-Brown PCM1704, which Audio Magic chose because purely because of its sound quality) into the analog signal -- in other words, a discrete output stage. In this case, the Stealth Kukama uses both integrated circuits and surface-mount components. This approach allows the circuit to be optimized to the PCM1704, something that isn't possible with either approach alone. According to Audio Magic, the output stage is a critical part of the Stealth Kukama; it is responsible for the sonic character of the DAC.
I was surprised by the Stealth Kukama's size -- 17"W x 12"D x 3 3/4"H. It's not small like the P-3A or heavy (at 8 1/2 pounds) like the MSB Link II. It also doesn't have nearly the fit'n'finish of those two products. The front panel has two simple switches, one for power and the other to toggle between the coaxial and optical digital inputs. On the rear panel, there is an IEC receptacle to accept the power cord of your choice (none is provided), a 20-amp fuse holder, the two coaxial and optical digital inputs (an option), and a pair of RCA output jacks.
For $2495 USD, I was expecting the whole package to be something more substantial, less garagiste. On the other hand, a friend pointed out that he has owned a lot of gear from small companies, and that the Stealth Kukama reminded him of the very early PS Audio gear or his Mitchell Cotter phono stage.
So how does it sound?
I replaced the ModWright P-3A with the Stealth Kukama, connecting it to a Pioneer DV-434 DVD player (with Level II ModWright enhancements) via a Jena Labs digital cable, and in turn connecting the DAC to a prototype ModWright tubed preamp via Jena Labs interconnects. The amp is a ModWright-modded PS Audio HCA-2 digital amp, and the speaker wires are Mapleshade Clearview, connected to Vandersteen Model 1C speakers.
The difference was immediately apparent. The whole soundstage literally doubled, and everything came sharply into focus. I realize that the definition of a good soundstage is open to debate -- some listeners feel it can be oversized or beyond lifelike. Personally, I think audio playback has virtually nothing to do with live performances (even if you're playing a live recording), so I don't mind a big soundstage as long as everything is proportioned correctly. If I'm playing Bags Groove (preferably on XRCD [JVC JVCXR-0046-2]), I want to hear Miles clearly, but not in exaggerated form or at the expense of everyone else.
Voicing is an interesting concept, the idea that a designer has a specific sonic goal that he or she wants to reach. It involves a lot of technical expertise, and more so, a great set of ears, so that one ultimately ends up with the decidedly non-technical idea of satisfaction. Clearly, the Stealth Kukama is one DAC that was designed to let music be, to let it breathe, to convey the heart and soul behind and within each note. The words "real" and "lovely" kept popping into my head.
Playing various tracks from the wonderful Mosaic set The Blue Note Stanley Turrentine Quintet/Sextet Studio Sessions [Mosaic 5-212], I was repeatedly struck by the beauty and clarity of the horns. Turrentine, with help from Curtis Fuller, Blue Mitchell, Lee Morgan and others, is superb. Through the Audio Magic DAC, I felt connected to the playing, and I couldn't help but marvel at the way I could get inside the bell of the horn. When a door like this opens, I feel like walking into the performance itself, which is one of those holy grail experiences that any audiophile covets.
Another piece of music I've been listening to incessantly is an unreleased live recording of Harold Budd in Italy. Working with Italian musician Eraldo Bernocchi, this is an extraordinary collaboration that drifts, with purpose, over the course of nearly 75 minutes. Budd's piano, which uses some reverb and a heavy dose of the sustain pedal, is as much a part of the performance as the notes themselves. He invites the listener to consider all parts of the performance, and through the Stealth Kukama DAC, I would often find myself entranced. Perhaps it was the way a note seemed to hang forever, or maybe that I could both delineate and feel the complex overtones.
Another new piece of music I enjoyed is the latest CD from the Los Angeles-based group Trespassers William, Different Stars [Bella Union 56]. The band is simply amazing, in a Cowboy Junkies meets Mazzy Star way, and they were recently invited to open for Damien Rice in Europe. The songs are low-key and melancholy, but somehow not sad or tragic. Guitars strum by, drums reverberate, and singer Anna-Lynne Williams' laconic meditations on love feel fresh and pure.
My friend Graham manages the band, and when he was recently over, I played him their latest recording through my main rig, including the Stealth Kukama DAC. He was blown away, remarking that he was hearing things he didn't even know were on the record. Given how many dozens of times he's heard the new album on all sorts of gear, I think that's high praise indeed.
My co-worker is a freak for D'Angelo, so it's not uncommon that Voodoo [Virgin 48499] comes up for a spin every now and again. The other day she put on D'Angelo's stunning version of the Roberta Flack tune "Feel Like Making Love," and I had to get up from my desk and bring my chair into the sweet spot (in my job promoting music, listening to high-end equipment during the day is encouraged). Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson is a rhythm machine, and here his mechanized drumming takes center stage. Pino Palladino's liquid bass just slips and slides around the beat, and then there's D'Angelo -- his vocals a bit back in the mix, inviting the listener to step inside for a moment. Fabulous.
As I mentioned earlier, Audio Magic started as a cable company, and so it's not much of a surprise that when the Stealth Kukama arrived, an Audio Magic Illusion Power Master power cord was tucked into the box. Toward the end of the review period, I slipped in a more generic power cord and was not surprised that there was a pretty dramatic downward shift in the sound quality. I didn't have enough power cords on hand to do a serious comparison, but it's clear that the Stealth Kukama benefits from a good power cord, and Audio Magic's Illusion Power Master certainly seemed like an excellent match. At $1100 for a two-meter length, the Illusion Power Master isn't cheap (and brings the total tariff to $3600), but if you're going to go for it, you might as well go all the way.
At various points during the review period, I put my sturdy Perpetual Technologies P-3A with ModWright Level II mods back into the system. The comparison is intriguing because the ModWright P3A is a detail machine with terrific speed, and the upsampling adds a light touch and lots of air around the instruments. Listening to the lovely Ben Webster compilation Quiet Now: Until Tonight [Polygram 543249], I was struck by the gorgeous tonal purity and the excitement around instruments like the drums and cymbals. While the instruments seemed to rise in the soundstage, and though the upsampling added air and float, there was a comparatively white treble presence that seemed forced, the soundstage shrank, and the instruments weren't nearly as precisely laid out as before. In contrast, the Stealth Kukama conveyed a larger, fuller sonic picture, with a broader and lower soundstage. No matter what CD was spinning, these differences were consistently present.
Going back and forth was a treat - I really like both of these DACs. In the end, I was left with the impression that the P-3A is an audiophile's DAC. It just does more of those kinds of things -- and if you're reading this, I know I don't have to spell it out. The Audio Magic DAC, on the other hand, is simply about the beauty of music.
When it comes to audio purchases, I fully appreciate that marketing hype has value in a crowded marketplace. The average consumer will only get to sample a small number of the available products in any given category, and marketing-speak helps steer the herds one way or another. Such crutches can also help make one feel good about a potential purchase.
The Stealth Kukama comes with everything but those crutches. It doesn't look cool, there's no new technology, and it isn't cheap. But it is something that will make you feel really good about the hundreds or thousands of CDs that you have in your collection, because it's musical, rewarding and provides delightful insight into what Red Book digital currently offers. And, as designer Henry Lamb pointed out, "The layout of the Kukama DAC allows for an upgrade if a standard for the transfer of hi-res data is established."
Until then, do yourself a favor and audition the Audio Magic Stealth Kukama with your CDs. It sounds wonderful, something we all require in our audio purchases.
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