So a little while ago I contacted Henry audio about a review sample after seeing the launch of the successor to the critically acclaimed DAC 128 MK1. Little did we know that this email would result in a home visit from the designer (Børge Strand-Bergesen) of the DAC as he was in the UK a few weeks later!
Well what a treat that was. Both Sonny and I were pretty blown away by the amount of electrical detail this guy went into about the inner workings and technical improvements over the previous version of this DAC and how those improvements had been made using electrical components. I will be honest, some of it went flying over my head and I think Børge knew this, but it really was great to see someone so passionate about their work and what they had produced. We even got to look at the CAD circuit boards on his laptop for both the budget DAC and his extravagantly priced CD player, what an insight it was to see how a DAC is developed and how he is able to separate the analogue and digital stages and pick components all from his laptop and even how he layered the PC board! What an open source project this DAC is!
Installing this product and getting it ready for use is really easy for both Mac and PC users with an Asio driver being downloadable for windows users before a quick press of the mode button on the rear of the unit itself preparing it for high res stuff. Lovely jubbly.
The product in its current state is not exactly full of features, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be at £210, if the sound is good that is! It is a purely asynchronous USB device, that is what powers it and that is the only input it has; the USB is a mini by the way, not the usual USB-B for audio. The single output is an RCA so again nothing more than I would expect and nothing less. It uses an Asahi Kasei AKM4430 DAC chip and a good quality clocking system too. It kept being emphasised to me how many capacitors there were in this product, with little electrical wisecracks being dropped in every now and again to emphasise the effect of this, oh and the size of them. Power and bass is what I was told but we shall see… The DAC is capable of just PCM conversions, no DSD here, but it can handle up to 24/192 so all your high res material is safe to be heard and its best.
The 128 is made from an aluminium chassis with the reverse of a PCB utilised as the front plate for the DAC, with just the LED and the sleek Henry logo present here. All very subtle in design and I have to say I really quite like it! In terms of size, the footprint of the DAC is actually around the same sort of size as an objective 2 amplifier. So it’s pretty small, very portable from a desktop product viewpoint. Its weight also means it can be transported easily too, it really is light.
My only issue with the size and weight etc. is that the unit sits on three rubber feet. Two at the back one at the front, and this has meant that the product doesn’t sit flat sometimes which grinds on me a little bit, but with a bit of cable resting this is quickly solvable.
Sound quality of this unit in comparison to the MK1 is not something I can comment on due to the fact that I never heard the initial model.
What I can tell you about is the sound of this model.
When sound is isolated we really must remember that price tag of just £210. Sometimes, especially as a reviewer it’s easy to get caught up in what you know DAC’s are capable of and what you come to expect from the DAC’s that come through the door. You may remember our little DAC shoot out we had on our Facebook page a little while ago; well the Henry was brave to take on the rest of the field with the next least expensive being double its price! But when you listen to the Henry 128 MKII alongside products around its price point you understand that it does have some lovely characteristics that are hard to come by at this sort of money, but also some that remind you that you haven’t spent the big bucks.
The very first thing that struck me about this product is the quantity of bass; this really is a bassy DAC. It was initially in the HiFi rig and my god when bass is called upon it was big, powerful too. Not in an overly warm signature strangely enough, it just had big bass. It was imposing; I knew the Henry had arrived.
While the LS50 is a mini bookshelf by many standards, it is capable of kicking out some bass, they are also pretty revealing in the low end. While price rivals might be able to match the Henry for quantity they sure do struggle to match its more natural decay, extension and impact. In a headphone or Hi-Fi rig it might be worth bearing in mind this rather bass heaviness might not synergise as well with an already bassy headphone or a warm amp for example, it might all become a bit much. I found this when plugging it in with the IMF TLS80’s, too much for my tastes, a bit wobbly.
Another nice area of the MKII for me is the sense of air you get from the mid-range through to the treble; this is a characteristic I’m used to finding in gear with a much higher price tag! The Henry has a rather spacious presentation anyway which lends itself to this airiness. A natural and easy listening experience is the result and I have to say, it’s really quite enjoyable, it’s a signature I am a fan of but a characteristic usually not accompanied by big powerful bass in my experience. This can unfortunately make the product sound a little lacking in cohesion and smoothness throughout the frequency range but it is something you could get used to.
The top end as I say continues the sense of air and spaciousness which honestly is a really nice thing, something I haven’t found near the modest price tag of the 128. The treble actually extends really nicely too, sometimes a little on the cold side, bordering on a little metallic occasionally and it can definitely have a tendency to be a little splashy with more complex tracks.
I really do want to speak a little about the general presentation though; I admire Børge for managing to achieve a level of performance that surpasses my expectations in this area. Vocals have warmth and realism at the centre of the stage that demands your attention; a touch forward, but I quite like that, it sounds confident, surefooted. The same can be said for the width and depth of the stage, several tracks I use, of all genres, allowed the Henry to demonstrate an ability to allow tracks to dance across the room left to right. It’s the depth in the mid-range that’s really nice though, it gives vocals a natural characteristic which makes everything sound more real, more believable.
Instrument placement is varied. You have one or two instruments and a vocal? It will do a good job positioning each piece in its own area, in space. Unfortunately, if you throw out a thicker textured track it can become a little messy, confused, muddled. Seriously though, this DAC sounds good at its price. So naturally, we tested this thing against DAC’s of double the price up to 10 times the price, we wanted to see exactly where it fell down.
It really does have its flaws, the treble can be a little splashy, thicker textured tracks can become a bit muddled and confused, and yes, the bass could be more agile, precise and controlled, and to me the whole sound could be a little more cohesive, but seriously the cost of this product means you can’t really feel anything but happy with its performance. It is more spacious than I would imagine, more honest than I would have imagined. Well to put it bluntly this is a really nice DAC at £210 I really am impressed with this little guy. Don’t get me wrong though, if you have double the price to spend, you can get yourself a better product, but at this price I haven’t tried anything I could recommend over this in terms of sound solely over USB and I can’t say fairer than that.
For these reasons the Henry Audio DAC128 MKII receives the Inearspace Great Value award.