The Speakertec Kitty is an ingenious DAC/Amp combo that lets you swap out the DAC for a completely different one, – ESS or AK? No worries have both!
Disclaimer: The Speakertec Kitty sent to us is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion. We thank the team at Speakertec Kitty for giving us this opportunity.
You can read more about portable amp/DAC products we reviewed on Headfonics by clicking here.
Speakertec is a brand new company, at least in terms of audiophile years and timescale, that is based out of Berkshire, England. Not too long ago, their CEO had sent me a really interesting portable DAC/AMP.
Not only is their “Kitty” adorable, but also probably one of the coolest ideas for a portable DAC that I’ve seen in a while. Today, we will put the Kitty DAC through the paces of testing and see far it fairs in the market of late 2017.
What Is The Pitch?
Cell phone DAC’s really aren’t even acceptable-tier in quality for us audio enthusiasts. Sure, there have been a load of micro-USB output based portable DAC’s intended for use with modern phones and apps, but I can’t recall any of them that are intended to be a bridge and stepping stone to much better things.
Usually, the company that is regarded as the one that gets your toes wet in the ocean will be the one who drives the most success. That stepping stone to higher quality later is what it is all about for beginners. The first taste, so to speak. Right now, we finally have something interesting and useful: The Speakertec Kitty.
The Speakertec Kitty comes with a box that can be converted into a carrying case. Cool! Also, the innards are all shaped and cutout for each piece of the product, along with written text that dictates how to operate the DAC and also the names of each piece.
Despite said box being a sturdy cardboard, I still am giving high praise for the thought process involved here. I’ve not seen anything like this before and feel it is one of the most unique box designs I’ve seen, no doubt.
The Speakertec Kitty also comes with a magnetic “kitten” shaped metal piece that adheres to your phone and that magnetically attaches to the same metal piece embedded into the Kitty DAC itself. Really great box, really cool design. I am absolutely in love with the setup and presentation here.
The Speakertec Kitty is a modular DAC, meaning, you can eject the primary core that produces the sound signature of the device and allows you to manually replace it with an entirely new one that alters the sound further.
The Supplied DACs
The 9018K2M cartridge pops right out just like a Nintendo 3DS cartridge or old school Gameboy did, allowing you to swap sound and tonality on the fly if you choose to. We’ve waited years for something like this in the audiophile universe. I do not want to be stuck with the core sound of just this single DAC inside this product, due to the sound signature of a certain DAC inside being unsatisfactory to my personal preferences for this type of music, or specific track.
That really becomes a non-issue for tonality needs when regarding this Kitty. Some tracks sound better with the 9018K2M, others sound better with the AK4452VN. It is just as easy as swapping out an older Pokemon game, syncing what you caught to your Poke-bank online, removing that game and popping in the brand new generation game and uploading your fresh catches into the game was just released.
Game Boy Familiarity
I reference that Pokemon bit because you get attached to those characters in a game you spend hours with and want them in the new game that comes out later. Just like how you might really want a tonality and specific sound type on this or that album or track that you listen to for years maybe, and later, if you want it, you can swap to another sound type via a new DAC, or stick with the old one on a new system (phone).
It is pretty much the same formula there and something I highly regard and prize in my listening experiences, due to the fact that some tracks simply do not sound as nice on a personal level to you with this or that amplifier. More doors are open here and that is always a great thing.
We want this. We want this as an industry standard. Burson does this and has for a while with their larger, desktop amps. For example, their Conductor series used a stock 9018 DAC that could be freely and very easily removed and replaced with a 1792 DAC. What was the result? The 9018 was purer, very clinical. The 1792 was warm, wooly and much softer on dynamic impact. So too, the same type of experience happens with the Kitty’s 9018K2M vs the AK4452VN. Finally. Someone listened.
A Note to Readers: I am going to mesh qualities of both DAC chips here into one section, for each quality of the listening experience and only briefly touch on tonality differences. Why? Because I’d be reviewing two DAC’s and the review would be super long…and for your sanity and mine too, let’s try to avoid a giant 20-page report.
The 9018K2M is more solid feeling, quantity is more moderate and kick-factor is just a bit harder. The bottom end feels a bit more full and lush at times. This is the same DAC used in the iBasso DX90 portable player, so expect just a little warmth and fun factor down yonder.
The AK4452VN is a bit more pure feeling, more clinical and less prone to feeling lush. In turn, it also is lesser on dynamic kick and impact. It feels softer but is also less colored in tonality.
Both chips seem equally as responsive as the other and neither really changed much with EQ active. Bass boosting is pretty much always required for me, but that is because I am a bass-head, to begin with. If bass is your thing, I recommend using a music app on your phone that has a fantastic equalizer. What little you can squeeze out via a good booster is very much appreciated by me. But, this is a DAC thing and a not a quality thing overall.
These two DAC’s are not at all known for excellent bass quantity. They max out at the low end of moderate there, so I can’t really fault it. Going overboard with boosting makes the experience undesirable, so avoid too much extra down below and you’ll be fine.
Both of these DAC’s feel exactly the same in placement. Neither are very forward or thick feeling. Both are moderately relaxed in terms of placement of vocals and most instruments in the void. If you want forwardness, I’d hope for a 17xx series DAC release from Speakertec in the future. For now, not sure if they had plans for such a thing, but I would very much love the 17xx family series as well because they are my personal favorite on a subjective level.
Objectively though, both the 9018K2M and the AK4452VN are just fine for starting out. In fact, probably the best chips out there to get newbie audio enthusiasts into the game. Don’t expect highly engaging vocals though on these chips. Do expect something more relaxing and less dynamically engaging (kick factor).
Make sure to match your headphones accordingly too, you’d not want to purposely pair a very forward sounding headphone with this Kitty. For starting out though, it is fine and as mentioned, a great stepping stone to something more rig centralized for your needs with much more expensive DAC’s that are android/iOS capable via your phone.
I am not at all fond of the AK4452VN’s top end. I find it underwhelming at best and never enjoyed this circuit, always preferred the more dense feeling 9018x series and family chips for treble needs. It isn’t that it is bad quality, it is just that the 4452 is lacking density and substance. It feels just a bit emaciated by comparison to the 9018 and that isn’t a good thing for me.
Some listeners love a very dense feeling tone, others prefer a more moderate approach and if that latter version is something you prefer, then the 4452 is probably more your style. But that circles right back to why this is such a cool idea in the first place. If you don’t want it, grab the 9018K2M instead and rock on. These chips noticeably increase the stock treble quality out of my Samsung J7, so I approve of both.
I detect almost no staging differences between the 3.5mm output on my Samsung J7 and either of these DAC’s used in the Kitty. Oddly enough, using the same tracks with a newer android phone resulted in the opposite: a larger space in the Kitty vs a more restrained image in the new phone.
Weird. I’d expect the newer gen phones to improve there. Well, that just means the Speakertec Kitty is more needed than ever now it seems. Imaging is just okay in my book here. Swapping to my Cowon Plenue, while expensive at $799 now, is still not what I consider a very nice imaging DAP to begin with yet, the Kitty and my phone’s 3.5mm is noticeably inferior. So, sound staging is not super nice, but it gets by just fine. Would not be a good pairing for exceptionally vast sounding IEM’s, at least, not in my opinion.
Not too long ago, I reviewed an XRK portable amplifier, which was one of the best overall portable amplifiers I’ve ever touched. Even at $179 or so, it outperforms most portable amps that I’ve ever reviewed and pairing said XRK amp with the Speakertec Kitty and my phone results in a sound that is near identical to my Cowon Plenue M alone. But, therein lay an issue. In my testing, I found that exceptionally clean and powerful amps negate the need for a DAC output on my phone. Example scenarios:
1 – J7 phone + Kitty + headphone = a good sound that I am enjoying for sure.
2 – J7 phone + Kitty + XRK amp + headphone = very good sonic results.
3 – J7 phone + headphone = something I don’t want to hear again.
4 – J7 + XRK + headphone = pretty much the same as just Scenario 2.
The reason Scenario 2 and 4 are similar and I nearly failed blind testing in, is because of the portable amplifier of the XRK being that monstrously good, that a DAC is nearly totally not needed and running off a 3.5mm output to the great amp is more than sufficient, dare I say preferred even.
The Stepping Stone
But the problem there is hardly anyone is willing to pay a few hundred dollars for a portable amp in the general consumer market. This XRK was a $179 amp that performed at the $500+ level for portable amps and pretty much any cell phone on its own + a great amp is grounds for a very good result. So with that in mind, we route back to the stepping stone statement I made. The Kitty is a very good stepping stone product that will open the door for newbie audio enthusiasts who prefer to use their cell phone on the go.
The Speakertec Kitty is an excellent value that is well thought out and implemented. I am impressed with the design and functionality, I’ve not had a single problem with it. I want all DAC’s to house this type of a swap-friend feature because I hate being stuck with what I buy and I love to mod and change the tone.
This is appropriate for us audiophiles and I hope dearly that this company does well enough to develop a much more expensive version later, something in the High-End tier, near Summit ($1000+) because the thought of using my phone as the source, as slick and great as the OLED looks, is something I vastly prefer over dedicated audiophile DAP’s that have no internet and are still in the dark ages with features.
How the Zune from 10+ years ago could have WiFi and my newer age and originally $999 Cowon player has nothing like that is just beyond me. I’d rather use my phone. No doubt. This Kitty is a great idea. Massive respect for them for the cartridge design for a product priced in that tier. I think it is the first one to do this at this price range.