At the end of last year I got obsessed with DACs as you know full well and one of the brands I come across were North Star Design who are based in Italy. While not in the UK being in the EU excited me as a lot of the best DACs I have tried at this sort of price range come from Asia or the US, which ends up making them more expensive due to import duty. A good option from the EU is needed. North Star seem to lack structure though, which is not something you want or expect from a EU company, maybe from a smaller Chinese company things can become confusing with dated websites and poor distribution but these guys are from Italy. They spent money totaldac show off their gear at Munich but their site is basic, annoying and lacks up to date information. It has been under construction since I first contacted them in late 2014, seriously? Distribution is not any better as although they have representation in the UK via Audusa the websites are a maze sending you to different version of their site to simply get a price (£1,390) and finding any individual information of the Incanto is impossible. The product listing still has new for 2013. On top of that I can find no dealers selling the Incanto other than Frozen-Banana.co.uk which lists at just £690 but with a picture of the Intenso model, if legit (it is linked from the UK distributor) you can get a real bargain there and I would jump on it.
Todays Standard Features
North Star seemingly do more than just DACs but when it comes to them they have quite a range of models over a small price range, making selection quite a head scratcher. The Incanto’s differentiator to most of the others is its headphone and pre amp sections, making this a much more versatile device. That being said that is hardly a unique feature set for a DAC in this day and age, in fact we are quickly moving away from pure DACs. On top of that this feature set is extremely simple. Two optical, two coaxial and 1 USB digital input and both balanced XLR and single ended RCA analogue outputs do nothing to stand out from the crowd and neither does the standard 1/4 inch headphone output, the BMC PureDAC with its 4 pin XLR headphone out just puts on a more serious face. Keeping with todays trend North Star offer native DSD (up to 11.2mHz) via DoP. To do this they picked a chip capable and while brand of choice was rather obvious with ESS Sabre, oddly they have not opted for the flagship 9018 but the model underneath, the 9016. Now I have seen 9018 DACs a lot cheaper, in fact the Yulong DA8II (£899) I am reviewing right now is one of them but I have a feeling there is more too it than cost as BMC also opt for the 9016, maybe these companies know something I don’t about the ESS chips, maybe the 9016 has more potential. As well as all DSD rates it can also do PCM up too 32/384.
It also has a lot of customisation of use through various sub menus that are as hard work as the North Star website. Lets try and keep this simple, there are 13 different set ups:
- Ax – This mode is basically pre amp mode, the headphone output is turned off and the line out has volume control activated.
- AHx – This is headphone mode, the line out disappears and instead you have access to the headphone out.
- Dx – This also gets rid of the headphone amp and fixes a true line level output. For use with pre or external headphone amps.
Then for all of these modes you have the option to chose the analog gain from 1, 2 and 4 Vrms, I really like this as it lets you optimise the power to your other equipment. Great idea indeed. You then have a sub menu with in all 3 analog gain options for the headphone out mode to change the headphone gain between low, medium and high. I told you things get complicated and in essence you have 9 different headphone out options, woah!
Once a mode is selected the device boots but before you do that you can play around with some filters such as hi and lo slope PCM filters and high frequency cut off filters for DSD (-3dB at 47, 50, 60 or 70kHz). Lastly you have output phase selection and bandwidth locking. Thankfully all these settings save so once you have optimised to your desired choice the unit will always boot with them. What the unit wont always boot with is the digital input selection and I can’t stress how much of a pain that is. It starts off flashing coaxial meaning that coaxial is not connected and then you have to navigate to your choice of input which is never easy. Buttons aren’t responsive they sometimes work, they sometimes don’t and even with the input connected you cant guarantee it will register right away. At first you may not worry about this but trust me, trying to get too USB every day as been such a chore, I want to press on and listen to music, it should be that simple.
Metal is a Good Choice
North Star Design build choice is metal. There is not a patch of plastic on the entire chassis and the same goes for the included remote where the solid steel feels cold in your hand. From the front the Incanto has a special effect, the front plate seemingly catches the light and causes a wave pattern. It is different and I like that. The rest of the chassis is bog standard. There is some venting on the top and of course it feels sturdy, but so does the very similarly built Yulong. I actually think the way the back and the bottom of the unit are black and not silver is additionally tacky. The screen on the front that has text in bold abbreviates everything, which you get used to. It is rather bright and you can not opt for a screen off which is a shame. It only gives you the simplest of details when playing music which is the mode it is running and the sampling rate. I have the DA8II running next to it and the info it gives you is so much better, so is the quality of the screen, which in turn makes it easier to use. That being said its a DAC and once set up you only want the most important statistics.
One thing I do love is the remote, while it isn’t NAD quality, its easily trounces the plastic you get with BMC, Exogal and totaldac and is on par with Antelope. It fits well in the hand, buttons have a nice click to them and everything is clearly labeled and does its set task.
Using as a DAC
First of all I want to talk about this solely as a converter feeding an external amp. My external amps are obviously better than what is inside the Northstar (and that shouldn’t concern you) and even though I like the new standard of DAC feature sets, I still mainly use them with a direct line out. After the 9016 DAC chip we have a pair of Burr-Brown OPA1611 op-amps to amplify the analogue section. I actually tested this section as both a pre amp along with some Amphion Amp100 Monos and in direct mode with my Questyle CMA800R. The signature seems to be punchy, fast and a little bit bright, which is quite typical of a Sabre DAC, even when I try not to let stereotypes take to much of an influence on my opinion, you just sometimes can’t ignore it and now I have heard enough Sabres. Now being someone who lives with one of the most analogue of DACs (totaldac d1-tube-mk2) it really shows up the character of inferior DACs (which I don’t shame in saying this is at like 1/6 of the price). While the Exogal Comet is not bright or grainy, it was still very artificial. This sits in the more digital sounding camp along with something like NAD M51, very lean, tight and with obvious treble. Being digital doesn’t mean bad DAC, its just how some are. In fact for some applications they are perfect and I will proudly say I preferred and used this more than the totaldac with the Amphion Monos and Argon0 speakers. They had relaxed treble and were a bit blurry so the added tautness and treble energy was a blessing. With something like my HD800s and an amp such as the Aurorasound HEADA, you can expect some fatigue to set in and quite a helping of treble splash.
The frequency curve could well be a slight gradient going up, only slight but one nonetheless and the amount of decay has a similar plot. The bass is very nimble, not the deepest reaching nor the biggest hitter but has exceptional distinction between notes. Timbre is a bit on the empty side because of this and doesn’t completely grab you but with a bassier pair of cans ie. Audezes or Fostex TH900 this extreme level of control will work. The midrange has a great emphasis on clarity with it subtly preferring female vocals and the slightly upper regions. While detail is pretty good (not quite M51) it doesn’t feel like it is there on its own accord, it is a little forced, but gobs of it. The midrange timbre is better than the bass but that doesn’t stop still sitting on the lean side, especially in the lower mids were the decay is equally as quick as the bass. By the time we get to the upper mids and transit into the treble, decay is lasting longer with a bit of splash and buckets of energy.
Dynamics are surely one of the selling points and we see a lot of controlled explosions. It has the ability to be explosive but all times keeps its head about things, never stepping over the mark. Even though decay increased up top, the entire sound is always speedy and edges are hard and vivid. The soundstage never hits me as being extra special, it isn’t a wide as the Lampzator Lite 7 or Exogal Comet, as deep as the totaldac but it doesn’t exactly feel claustrophobic, a bit flat but not tiny, on par with the DA8II.
An obvious comparison is the slight cheaper Yulong DA8II that uses the DAC chip up from this. The sound is warmer and more bodied with less treble energy and attack in general. The North Star is generally faster and harder and details throw in bigger quantities. The bass hits are punchier but can sometimes feel a tad anaemic and hollow in comparisons although I actually prefer the better control. Mids are better balanced with the Yulong, which is nice because vocals are a bit tinny or even girly from the upper mids boost on the Incanto. While the Yulong does have evidence of the Sabre treble artefacts, it does a better job of hiding them than the North Star, which is both brighter and livelier in the treble. While macro details are better on Incanto, DA8II is mellower and smoother through out. They do have some similar qualities, mainly in treble presentation but I think they are two DACs on a very similar playing field, with signature being the bigger differential and the DA8II being the less fatiguing listen.
I have found that the Incanto does a good job stepping things up with DSD. Listening to the same track in both high res and DSD there was a substantial step up in quality with DSD track, much more so than I found with the totaldac.
Using as a Amp
The headphone amplifier stage apparently is not something to be scoffed at, being designed as intensely as the DAC stage and not being an afterthought and for those wondering it uses Burr-Browns LME49610 op-amps.
To start with I wanted to check its versatility so I set it to AH0 mode in Lo gain and plugged the new Jays Q-Jays in, which are pretty sensitive. A mechanical hum was present 30dB before we even got to any sound and it only got louder. The gain suited IEMs with low of play on the volume pot but the background noise was just a no go, it didn’t take much listening to work that out. Fortunately when I plugged my HD800 in no longer was there a background hum and we could go to work. I started off in AH2 mode with Med gain to see how things went. I tried the other modes but this seemed to offer the blackest background and best dynamics so I stuck with it. What is very clear though is that it is in control of the 300 ohms HD800s, which is not something I say regularly. It doesn’t even sound too bright with them.
Combining the amp and DAC and a new signature is yielded, some more body developed and a better texture in the bass along with more controlled treble. No longer does the midrange feel wonky and the treble is not so fatiguing, it still is energetic with lots of sparkle but doesn’t feel as grating. That being said the amazing dynamics of the DAC also seemed to have been subdued ever so slightly although things are still fast. The soundstage also feel very impressive horizontally. Overall the unit is much better as a DAC/amp and it seems like the two areas synergise well to get the best of each side. It is less fatiguing and slightly more natural although clearly being a digital sounding DAC.
Again the Yulong comes to mind as something to compare to as it boasts a headphone section. Strangely the comparisons are flipped on their head and this time the Yulong seems brittler, brighter and is harder work to listen to. It still drives the HD800s but leaves them so bright after a few songs you need a rest, and I am a die hard HD800 fanboy, self confessed. The upper mids are forward and treble very splashy. It also is no where near as expansive as the Northstar.
Compared to the Yulong there is less upper mids and treble, almost a swap to the DAC section comparison. Northstar is much less fatiguing and digital.
It Just May as Well Come From China
This seems to be a product with the price tag of something from EU but that is about it. You can normally pay the premium for better support, a fancier look, a few niche features and even a website that is in your language but the Incanto lacks all of that and doesn’t seem to be anything more than the Yulong DA8II, in fact I actually prefer the navigation and screen of that as well as the DAC sections performance (while this has the better dac/amp combo). For that reason I feel that price tag is a little much and at the same price would swing somewhere like the BMC PureDAC. The sad thing is, even if I did want to recommend it. That being said if Frozen Bananas is selling it at just £690, you may well get a heaps of value in this DAC.