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ALLO Katana DAC Review

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So you’re curious to know how the Allo Katana DAC sounds, aren’t you?

The Allo Katana DAC is surely the most anticipated and waited I2S DAC this year. I won’t be boring you saying how much Allo is innovative, clever, etc. But sure they managed to get quite some attention when they announced their bold intention to create “The best implementation of ESS9038 DAC”.

Given the reputation they’ve established with their past products (Kali, BOSS and Digione, just to name a few), no wonder that this DAC has been awaited by many so badly, me included.

So after 7 months after their announcement, I finally got the Katana delivered to my doorstep. Allo sent me the full, ready to play Allo Katana Player and a Allo Katana DAC stack (DAC only).
I got therefore the chance to live the “customer experience on both products”, and I would like to start with that, since for this product it’s especially important.

THE KATANA EXPERIENCE

The Allo Katana DAC is definitely a learning experience: you have 3 boards stacked one on top of another (from the bottom: DAC, Output Stage, Microcontroller), and you immediately notice it’s full of Power Supply sockets, jumpers, selectors, wires…

So, in fear of making a mess, I immediately started to read Katana’s manual, immediately feeling like this thing needed a proper and cautious setup.

Long Story short: the Katana is not an easy plug and play DAC, it’s not for beginners and it’s not something you want to wire up the wrong way. Allo made sure their manual is clear and detailed, but surely I would not recommend to a novice of the Raspberry PI world to start with it (I will instead recommend getting the full player, we’ll see later why).

It reminds me the first sensations I had when back in the days I was restoring turntables: the constant feeling of dealing with a delicate equipment, that understanding how to treat it is fundamental to not make a disaster and that getting the most out of it is a matter of patience, study and effort.

If I shall make a remark to Allo: if there is a way to simplify the 3 boards, do it. As of now, it feels too complex even for expert users. I know for some this can be a good thing, but I definitely think that simplicity is the ultimate sophisticacy, and I don’t see an effort in this direction with the Katana.

With the Allo Katana Player instead, you get basically everything ready to play, configured, and packed in a nice case. I’ve no fear to say that at the moment, the Allo Katana Player (with Volumio of course) is the BEST Price\Quality ratio streamer on the market. And given how easy Volumio has become, and how good Allo packed this wonderful DAC, it’s definitely suggested for those wanting to get their first serious streamer.

THE ALLO KATANA TECH 101

The Allo Katana DAC consists of 3 separated components, working together and stacked one on top of another:

Allo Katana Dac Stack

The DAC board itself

This board hosts the pulsing heart of the Katana: the ESS9038 DAC, probably the most praised piece of silicon in the industry today (at least by Audio designers…). On the same board, we find also the ultra-low phase noise NDK oscillators for the DAC.
This has been Allo’s trademark when it comes to design: make sure the DAC works in Master mode (making it immune from Pi’s poor and jittery clock) and put excellent oscillators in the mix.

In my experience, such design choice results in excellent instrumental separation and great rhythm (every audio sample is played in the very exact moment it’s meant to).

The Output stage

That’s the really interesting bit in my opinion. Allo went all-in with an extravagant, but brave, choice: a class A opamp output stage. The first contradiction here is that Opamps are usually associated with bad sound, while class A is usually a synonym of top-notch circuitry.

The second point is that you would not expect to place a current-sucking class A design on top of a low power device (with no trace of heatsinking) like the Raspberry PI.

Ioan from Allo repliying to my questions, commented:

  • Opamps are usually associated with Monolitic opamps (really cheap semiconductors that just get the job done, used where price and board real estate is crucial), while Allo has teamed up with an analog designer (sparkoslabs.com) that designs Opamps made with discrete components (they actually contain transistors, capacitors and resistors). Add that the analog circuit is designed (and trimmed) by hand, using premium capacitors, premium resistors and it runs in class A, Allo states that this output stage is completely transparent.
  • The Output stage can be eventually turned off, by operating a switch on the MCU board (except when fed with +-15 external power). I initially thought that the MCU had the capability to detect the DACs idle state and turn off the output stage, but it turned out not to be the case. But this can be a really brilliant feature (mainly for those who leave their unit on 24/7) and I would love if Allo manages to implement it.

The Microcontroller

The ESS9038 DAC cannot be easily integrated into pure i2s implementations (like all Raspberry PI Audio shields), for a variety of different reasons. So the most common way is to stack a microcontroller between the PI I2S BUS and the DAC itself, and this DAC makes no difference. Therefore nothing special here.

POWERING IT UP

The Katana is designed to be powered up in 3 different configurations (quoting Allo’s manual, from the worst in terms of Sound Quality to the best):

– Single power (1 5V 3A PSU, USB type C connector to the MCU Board)
– Double Power (1 5V 3A PSU, USB type C connector to the MCU Board + 1 5V 3A PSU, Micro USB Type connector to the Raspberry PI)
– Triple Power (1 5V 3A PSU, USB type C connector to the MCU Board + 1 5V 3A PSU, Micro USB Type connector to the Raspberry PI + 5V 3A via black and red wire)
– Quad Power (1 5V 3A PSU, USB type C connector to the MCU Board + 1 5V 3A PSU, Micro USB Type connector to the Raspberry PI + 5V 3A via black and red wire + -+15 Power Supply)

Quad Power supply is what theoretically will allow the best Sound Quality, although Allo specified that “A very good Power Supply must be used to get better results than our onboard regulators”. So what Allo recommends as best SQ in the manual is actually triple power supply, where no +-15 Volts requires to be fed. In this configuration, you need however to wire (and potentially solder, if you like clean jobs) two power wires carrying 5V.

Allo Katana DAC power options

I am trying the Katana Player in double PSU configuration, powering the PI with a generic 5V 3A power supply, and powering the Katana Controller board with an ifi iPower (to get the most out of this combination I’ve added an iFi groundhog, useful to get rid of any possible ground loop in my system).

My listening impressions are therefore related to this configuration (which is, with Allo’s words: medium Sound Quality settings), so I will try it with 3 different PSUs and update this review accordingly (although I won’t keep the system in this configuration, unless I see no less than Angels and Goddesses, since it will be a pain to have all those wires in my listening position, see later).

The worst part of this design choice is that achieving its full potential is quite a tradeoff: 3 different PSU are needed: 2 x 5V 3A power supplies, and a dual +15-15.

So, getting the most out of the Katana requires at least some electronic skills (playing with DIY power supply is potentially very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing), and you necessarily need to add about 100 euros to its base price ( to get the additional PSUs) and that the Katana player setup will involve a quite messy wiring scheme in your tidy electronic shelf.

THE SOUND

Enough talking, let’s get straight to the point of how the ALLO Katana DAC sounds.

In two words: resolution and quantity.

This is the first time the word “resolution” comes to my mind when describing a music equipment. The quantity of details, instrumental separation and micro-dynamic is unmatched in the whole I2S DAC world. I would say that also it clearly surpasses my main DAC (Opera Consonance Don Curzio, Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital) in this aspect. I’ve heard many details of my music which I never suspected the existence, and notably, it happened especially when I was not paying attention.

Some examples: in some tracks I’ve heard for the first time the tail of Charleston (Take Five), or an organ background (Mammagamma). This DAC is therefore not detailed, but rather Hyper detailed.

I am the kind of guy that love hearing every subtle detail, but the Katana experience is like a binge detailing session. It sometimes feels too much, and it easily becomes fatiguing.

Another double-edged quality of this DAC is that it’s able to deliver a hugely emotional experience: as always, this is one of the aspects I care the most (and it’s probably where the advantages of being a jitter-immune Master DAC comes into play). While listening to it my feet started to tap to the floor, and I was totally immersed in the rhythm.

This DAC catches your attention. It’s involving, demanding. This is probably what I like the most about it, because the emotional transport it’s able to convey it’s unmatched in my whole listening history.
But this is also what I don’t like about it.

It’s tiring: it throws at you a huge lot of information in the musical message. And, at least for now, I can’t sustain a listening session of more than an hour without wanting to stop the music and take a rest. Last but not least, as with all very detailed DACs, the quality of the recording is crucial: lo-fi tracks becomes quite tedious to listen, as you’re exposed to all their defects.

I’ve discussed with Allo about such aspects and they reported me that they all had the same impression: powerful but fatiguing. They then suggested to let it burn-in for at least for 24 hours, and the DAC will keep improving until about a couple weeks of use.

I am not a fan of burn-in, mainly because I can’t completely understand the reasons for such a phenomenon. But Allo’s Ioan explained that

“We have over 20 film caps and 2 Suprecaps which need to stabilize. The burn in period is 2 weeks. Dac will become slightly better because Supercaps need a longer period than film capacitors. Like a good wine Katana gets better with age”.

I really hope, and I have no reasons to doubt Ioan’s words (other past Allo products proved to improve considerably after some burn-in time), that this is actually the case. The Katana is on a whole new level on pretty much any aspect on anything on the I2S panorama, and if burn-in actually reduces this “too-much” effect that this brings in, it’s definitely my favorite DAC.

I will update my review after some days of usage to confirm if that actually happens, and what the change magnitude is.

The last mention of honor goes to the low-end of this DAC. That’s the best bottom line I ever heard. One of my favorite bass ever is in the song Allarme by CCCP, and boy this is the first time I ever heard it this way. If you’ve already heard the BOSS DAC, that’s the same bass signature, but multiplied per 10 (so I guess the Supercapacitor plays a role, and the difference is increased by the output stage).

Allo Katana Player

A COMPARISON

The ideal candidates to compare against the Allo Katana DAC are the DACs I would place in the “Top-tier I2S DAC” category, namely:

I will exclude the TauDac (since it costs about 4 times as the other contenders), and put the comparison this way:

The Allo Katana DAC outperforms the contenders when it comes to: detail, PRAAT (let’s call it rythm), bass response, ground noise floor, instrumental separation. The TerraBerry is a more suitable choice for those wanting a “relaxed” listening experience, while for those wanting overall tonal balance probably the ApplePi is to be preferred.

CONCLUSION

The Good

  • Fantastic musicality
  • Hyperdetailed: you will rediscover even the tracks you know best
  • Amazing and powerful bass
  • It’s the most “involving” DAC I’ve ever had, to me it’s a plus

The Meh

  • It’s not for everyone, not totally beginner friendly
  • To get the best out of it, 3 Power supplies are required
  • It’s so good, that for some this can be “too much” (to be verified after burn-in)

 

I must admit: the Katana in itself is a revelation, it is a “different” listening experience. It is, without a doubt, the most interesting piece of equipment for music enthusiasts although it’s not for everybody (some skills are required to get the most out of it).

The Allo Katana DAC can be seen as the most revealing, musical and involving DAC currently on the scene, and its qualities can make it either the absolute love for some or a tedious overwhelming listening experience for others. I am, slowly, starting to love the revealing effect it is offering me.

As always, if you like Volumio and want to get the Allo Katana DAC or Allo Katana Player, by getting from our Shop you’ll be supporting our beloved project.

And you’ll be getting also a really nice bonus:
a voucher code for 4 months of MyVolumio (which is about to receive TIDAL support, BTW…). So you can test your brand new Katana with Hi-Res streaming…

I’ve no fear to say that Volumio + MyVolumio + Katana Player is without doubt the best quality\ratio streamer currently on the market. 

 

UPDATE 1

Errata corrige:

There have been some mistakes in my review (I’ve corrected in the main text, but I’ll write them down here for those who like diffs):

  • I’ve erroneously mentioned that “The Microcontroller unit is programmed in a way that it turns off the output stage when not used, saving power.” That’s not true: the MCU cannot shut down the output stage, but it can be done manually by switching a selector on the MicroController board (J27, assuming you’ve not powered the Opamp stage separately, in which case this jumper would be set to off anyway, getting power from +-15 external source).
  • I’ve erroneously mentioned that there are 3 ways to power the Katana, while there are actually 4:
    – Single power (1 5V 3A PSU, USB type C connector to the MCU Board)
    – Double Power (1 5V 3A PSU, USB type C connector to the MCU Board + 1 5V 3A PSU, Micro USB Type connector to the Raspberry PI)
    – Triple Power (1 5V 3A PSU, USB type C connector to the MCU Board + 1 5V 3A PSU, Micro USB Type connector to the Raspberry PI + 5V 3A via black and red wire)
    – Quad Power (1 5V 3A PSU, USB type C connector to the MCU Board + 1 5V 3A PSU, Micro USB Type connector to the Raspberry PI + 5V 3A via black and red wire + -+15 Power Supply)

Quad Power supply is what theoretically will allow the best Sound Quality, although Allo specified that “A very good Power Supply must be used to get better results than our onboard regulators”. So what Allo recommends as best SQ in the manual is actually triple power supply, where no +-15 Volts requires to be fed. In this configuration, you need however to wire (and potentially solder, if you like clean jobs) two power wires carrying 5V.

  • I’ve written that “Opamps are usually associated with cheap designs”, but it would have been better expressed with “Opamps are usually associated with bad sound”

I’ve now left the Katana to burn in for about 48 hours, and I am doing more (relaxed) listening sessions. I am taking some time to understand if and how things changed with the burn-in process, and I will report my listening impressions. In the meanwhile, I discovered 2 great tracks which will stay in my test track list for long time to come: Low by Lenny Kravitz and Opening by Philip Glass. And guess what: I am listening them via TIDAL native integration which has just been released into MyVolumio beta.

UPDATE 2 

I have the Katana in my listening room for 6 days now, so the “burn-in” effect should have made its way into my unit (Allo states however that Katana will keep on improving, although slightly for 2 weeks). Before moving on I would like to remind once more that those are my subjective opinions, and as such they should be taken (even though it’s my duty and ethical obligation to be as objective as possible, given the great responsibility I feel towards this community).

To be fairly honest I did not notice a tangible improvement after this burn-in process (except the fatigue which slightly dimished). What was immediately clear however was the difference in performance when powering it in triple mode (3 X 5V 3A PSUs): The Katana with triple PSU gains even more detail and instrumental separation. I’ve made sure I’ve listened to tracks I know very well, and for each one I’ve heard instrumentals in the background which I did not notice (or were not that intelligible) before. My assumption is that the DAC gets an additional bonus in signal\noise ratio, and the effect is clearly audible.

What’s worth noting is that powering the Katana player this way is a bit like of a ritual: first power up the Katana, then connect the type C USB PSU to the MCU board (top one) and finally (after the LED on MCU is lit) power up the PI. Those of you wanting to plug the 3 PSUs to a single multiple socket and turn this on and off to power the whole thing might, therefore, be out of luck (or maybe there is a way to do so, but I am not aware of it).

Another experiment I did was to change the DSP programs of the Katana. Volumio allows (from playback options) to change the DAC DSP on the fly, so it’s quite easy to evaluate their impact. You can choose between various DSP filters, and I found my sweet-spot on the “Apodizing Fast-Rolloff Filter” (if I recall correctly that should be the default one).


Coming to deemphasis, I noticed that selecting 44.1 kHz removed the “harsh” effect on the high range that I experienced in my Studio setup. On the other hand, selecting this value while playing on my main gear felt like removing “the real deal” from the musical message (so on my main setup, I do not use deemphasis by selecting “Bypass”).

Another very positive aspect of the Katana is 3d soundstage: the spatial reconstruction (on well-recorded tracks) is excellent.

Another point I noticed is that Katana was not a very good match with my Studio setup, while in my main setup it was giving its best. To me it looks like the Katana is one of those devices which require a “matching” setup: if your setup is on “the brigth side” then it might exacerbate the Katana tendency to offer great details in the high range (resulting maybe too bright and sometimes harsh). This is what I felt in my Studio setup (which is a near-field, monitor-like bookshelves setup, very generous on the higher range of the spectrum and with little bass response).

My main setup instead was giving justice to the Katana, and the overall balance whole chain resulted in a definetely pleasant listening experience. I want to remark once more: the Katana has one of the best bass ever, but combine this with the high quantity of details on the high range and you get sometimes that the two extremes of the band are in slight evidence compared to the rest.

The word that comes to my mind after 6 days of listening sessions with the Katana is “realism”. This DAC, more than any other I’ve ever listened to, gives me the illusion of the real deal. There has been one moment, while I was listening on Dope Noir by Waldeck, where I felt that what I was hearing was the actual original event: everything sounded so “vivid” and “true”. I recall this as one of the few “wow moments” in Hi-Fi I’ve had lately.

My conclusion with the Katana is: it’s probably the best I2S DAC on the market as of now when it comes to details, PRAAT and realism. The Katana gives its best with good-recorded tracks, and if fine tuned and with a matching setup it will deliver the “real deal”, what we audiophiles are always looking for. The only problem with that is that sometimes to me it felt “too much”.

In any case, the Katana is staying in my main gear, in place of my was-reference-DAC.

Side note: some have taken my words about the Katana not being beginner-friendly as it being “Expert only”. It’s not. Katana will suit the needs both of novices (especially the ready to play player) and the tinkerers, but bear in mind that getting the most out of it requires study, attention and a bit of pain (like 3 or 4 different power supplies and subsequently one of the worst WAF ever).

 

 

Test Tracks:
Pink Floyd – Money (flac 24/96)
Stevie Wonder – Higher Ground (flac 24/96)
The Alan Parsons Project – Mammagamma (flac 16/44)
Tame Impala – Why won’t they talk to me? (flac 16/44)
Vivaldi – Le 4 stagioni – L’estate (flac 16/44)
CCCP – Allarme (flac 16/44)
Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Sir Psycho Sexy (flac 16/44)
Radiohead – Everything in its right place (flac 16/44)
Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder (flac 16/44)
Led Zeppelin – Since I’ve been loving you (flac 16/44)
Io sono un cane – Il corpo del reato (mp3 320)
Alabama Shakes – Don’t Wanna Fight (flac 16/44)
Sebastien Tellier – La Ritournelle (flac 16/44)
The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Take five (DSD64)
Yonderboi – No Answer from Petrograd (flac 16/44)
Ezio Bosso – Unconditioned, following a bird “Out of the Room” (flac 16/44)
Bob Dylan – Mr. Tambourine Man (DSD64)
Moderat – A New Error (flac 16/44)
Richard Wagner – The Ride of the Valkyries (DSD128)
The Rolling Stones – Sister Morphine (flac 16/44)
The Whitest Boy Alive – Island (flac 16/44)
Moon Duo – I’ve been gone (flac 16/44)
Royksopp – Remind Me (flac 16/44)
The Rapture – In the grace of your love (flac 16/44)
Pink Floyd – Wish you were here (flac 24/96)
Waldeck – Dope Noir (flac 16/44)
Rino Gaetano – E la vecchia salta con l’asta (flac 16/44)
Kraftwerk – Das Modell (flac 16/44)
Muse – New Born  (flac 16/44)
Nina Simone – I put a spell on you  (flac 16/44)
The Prodigy – Breathe (flac 16/44)
Tom Waits – Romeo is bleeding (flac 16/44)

 

My Setups

Main
Amp: Naim Nait 5i
Speakers: Sonus Faber Toy Tower

Studio
Amp: QUAD Artera
Speakers: Axiom Audio M3

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Michelangelo Guarise

Passionate. Heretical. Deeply in love with Technology and Music. I live in Florence, Italy where I teach Interaction Design and Marketing. I'm Volumio's founder and CEO, and I love every second of this great adventure. My audio gear is some strange mix of valve and digital amplifiers, all self built in some cold winter sleepless nights. And I just can't turn that volume knob down.