Out of the three main components technically needed to build an entire headphone system (DAC –> amplifier –> headphone), I find DACs the most interesting. The reason being is that they don’t change anything in terms of tonality or frequency response rather, it’s all about presentation. To explain this further, I like using the “food analogy.” Think of the main components/elements of a dish as follows:
- type of dish = different headphones
- quality of ingredients = quality of amplification
- plate presentation = DAC presentation
Much like a headphone system all of these can be equally important and can contribute to an overall satisfying experience, especially as you progress further in this hobby. Shifting towards this mindset helped me digest the differences between DACs and how they contribute to the bigger picture (your audio chain).
Note: I purposefully didn’t include source here (ie. streamer, server, transport, vinyl, etc…) even though it can matter as much. I’m just generalizing for the sake of simplicity and illustrative purposes.
Audio chain: Holo Spring 3 KTE –> Allnic HPA-3000GT –> Focal Utopia/Final Audio D8000 Pro/Sennheiser IE 900
TLDR: The overall presentation of the Spring is fairly smooth and pleasing with a micro-focus lean. In addition to its expansive, albeit slightly exaggerated, stage it conveys a very black background and prioritizes a forgiving nature over a more neutral accurate profile.
In a general sense, the overall presentation of the Spring is relaxed and a bit diffused with a focus on micro-information and slightly exaggerated space. It’s not a neutral-sounding DAC so I find it to be fairly colored in its presentation and, in addition, relaxed and easygoing yet technically competent. Also, it isn’t as quick and is rather soft-sounding, at least compared to the Amber 3 (more on that later).
Starting with standouts, the Spring excels at bringing out lower-level information, presenting a really black background, and converting crap sources into good sounding 💩 (check the Miscellaneous section for further detail). Additionally, it handles timbre/tone and bass texture fairly well for the price. On top of that, it wraps it up in an inoffensive and pleasing presentation that I assume will please most listeners. In other words, it’s an easy listen (lol).
As for weaknesses, the Spring can end up sounding a bit too smooth or blunted in its transients/attack. Also, I think it sacrifices some engagement in favor of a more colored and romantic approach. Lastly, I do find the upper mids/lower treble to have a bit of grain. It’s difficult to pick up on unless you have something similar or higher-tier to compare. So while it’s not an obvious weakness, I think it’s worth pointing out. I honestly didn’t notice it until I compared it with the Amber, so I don’t think it’s too concerning.
For the so-so, I would lump in stage, punch, and treble quality here. Although staging on the Spring is grand and expansive, I feel like it overemphasizes everything to a point where it becomes slightly inaccurate or a bit too dramatic. It’ll mostly come down to preference, so I decided to put it in the so-so section. If the Spring had a bit more punch and/or better macro-dynamics, I think it would’ve added that extra bit of engagement it needs but, all in all, it’s not too bad. Finally, treble quality could use a bit more bite and extension. You can probably lie blame on its R2R technology, but if it’s possible with other R2R DACs maybe it shouldn’t be used as an excuse. Either way, if a bit of smoothed-out treble is what you want, then that’s what you’ll get.
Spring into Amber
(a comparison between the LampizatOr Amber 3)
Note: Why am I comparing a ~$5k (to ~$6k) DAC to a ~$3k (to ~$4k) DAC? First, I only have these two DACs on hand. Second, the Amber 3 (SE version) can be regularly found on the used market for ~$3k. On top of that, the Spring 3 usually goes for about the same retail price whether it’s new or used. So ultimately (between these two), you’re looking at DACs that can be bought at ~$3k to ~$4k. Personally, buying used is what I try to go for but sometimes it’s not always the case. Anyway, just keep in mind that there are more options out there if you’re willing to look and are willing to be patient.
*Used prices may vary (these days especially)
I haven’t had as much ear time on the Amber as I have with the Spring, so this will be somewhat brief and general. As usual, sprinkle some salt! The one I have is the rare balanced version with a nice white/silver finish, and an amber-colored LED. By the way, ain’t LampizatOr such a cool name?! I think so; we need more of that (lol).
TLDR: The Amber and the Spring are both very different in sonic presentation. The Amber, overall, goes for a fun and very engaging presentation, while the Spring goes for a relaxed and smooth overall approach.
So I think the Amber is definitely a step-up over the Spring in terms of straight performance (resolving power); it’s a better DAC overall IMO. It shouldn’t be surprising given the price difference when bought new (Amber probably competes more with the May). That being said, the Spring does come close in terms of low-level information, and also the background blackness is noticeably better on the Spring. BUT, I did not account for how the Amber improves with better digital sources, so this was done straight out of a laptop and into the DACs’ respective USB inputs (not the most ideal). At least this highly suggests that the digital implementation of the Spring was done a fair bit better (assuming KTE) out of the box than the Amber.
In terms of presentation, the Amber has the more compelling one overall IMO (not accounting for synergy matching). The Ambers’ strengths lie in its very organic, fun, and engaging presentation while remaining fairly technical. I do think the Amber is the more neutral of the two (slightly neutral warm overall) with excellent macro performance, great perception of punch, a tinge of midrange warmth/richness, nice extension to the treble, solid timbre, and expansive stage (not overly done).
Note: Keep in mind I have the Spring paired with an Allnic HPA-3000GT tube amplifier which is, overall, fairly clean, neutral, and no-nonsense. So, this does not account for how it would perform and match in other systems. Also, I do have other headphones but these are the three main ones I use.
Synergy is… good with the Utopia. Through this system, the Utopia takes a more mellowed out and disengaged approach. As a result, some of its strengths are hindered just a bit and, IMO, it’s just a bit too much. Though I still think it can work well depending on your sonic goals, individual preferences, and synergy matching.
Final Audio D8000 Pro
Synergy is OK on the D8kP. But treble can get a bit hot sometimes and it’s really lacking some punch in the midbass IMO. I’d say the Utopia, in general, synergizes better with the Spring so it wouldn’t be my first pick for the D8kP. But, again, things can become very different on other systems. I do think the D8kP is a more forgiving headphone overall when it comes to source gear (especially against the Utopia), but maybe it just didn’t really work in this case. It’s not THAT bad…
Sennheiser IE 900
I’m probably one of the very few that cares about this but I’ll share my experience anyway (lol). If anybody wants a sound recap, I did write an article on here if anybody is curious (click here).
Paired with the Spring, the 900 mellows out a little bit and the overall presentation skews into a more balanced profile. Some standouts include a very nice sub-bass presence, a largely natural midrange, really good texture, and some pretty good dynamics (both micro/macro). Overall, I would say that although the Spring softens up the 900 to a point, the synergy ends up working quite well, perhaps even more so than the Utopia and D8kP, IMO.
Tangent: To be completely frank, I personally wouldn’t aim for this level of DAC with the Utopia or D8kP (hear me out). Over the many months of owning and living with the Spring, I’ve never felt satisfied in terms of straight performance and resolution (even before hearing an Amber). That being said, I’m not implying that it cannot sound enjoyable or that it sounds unacceptable. But if you want to hear (or start to hear) what the Utopia/D8kP can be capable of, I highly encourage shopping DACs around the $5k range new, or ~$3k used if you can swing it. After getting the Amber, I realized that that’s when you start to approach the actual value the Utopia/D8kP sells for. I know it sounds stupid having to spend more to approach the value a TOTL headphone goes for, but I think that’s just the nature of the hobby. Anyway, it was an observation I made over the time I’ve had with a DAC like the Spring 3, and it’s just a suggestion you may or may not want to consider when aiming for flagship-level headphones such as these.
I personally have the preamp version of the Spring 3 and I find it does a good job of balancing convenience and value, with the caveat that there is no true way to bypass it (setting it to 94 effectively puts it at the same output as a Spring with no preamp according to Tim from Kitsune). Unfortunately, setting the volume below ~50 introduces some harshness and thinness, so I encourage experimenting with volume placement while keeping it as high as possible. If you think you’ll need the preamp for whatever reason then it would be something to consider including but, at the same time, it’s not something I’d automatically check off before purchasing (certainly not for 2-ch as you’ll probably want something better although, of course, it depends).
Warm-up time is also something to note about the Spring; it takes a damn long time. You want at least a few hours (more if brand new) of warm-up otherwise, it’ll sound quite harsh, thin, and underwhelming (sounds like 🤢). I leave mine on all the time within reason.
The build on the Spring is really fantastic and is noticeably better compared to something like the Amber DAC; it is denser, tightly tolerated, and meticulous. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the Amber build is crap; it’s just not as great (although the internals of the Amber is all high quality).
When I mentioned that the Spring converts crap sources into good sounding 💩, I’m not suggesting that the Spring can’t take advantage of higher-end sources (ie. streamer, server, transport, DDC, etc…). I’m implying that the digital implementation of the Spring is really good out of the box and that it’s not something most people should urgently want to address. You may find that simply upgrading the USB cable will suffice (yeah, it can make a difference/improvement).
For those wondering, no, I did not test out upsampling software such as HQplayer on the Spring. I’m sure it has its specific use depending on the situation, but I’m not confident enough to fiddle with upsampling software at this moment. Regardless, if a DAC requires you to synchronize with software to make it sound acceptable then, IMO, it might not be worth considering. That being said, it’s not a bad idea to try and experiment.
In closing, the Spring generally is a solid choice if you want to mellow/relax or soften up lean, bright, or intense-sounding amplifiers/transducers. Although I don’t personally like associating audio gear with specific genres/libraries, I do think the spring does really well with slower-paced or “simple” music, in general. Faster-paced or complex music loses some composure with the Spring.
The Spring really does sound good out of the box (after all the warming up that is) and it takes little effort to get it to perform well (basically plug and play). Unfortunately, I did not end up loving the Spring; it’s an easy DAC to like but it’s also very easy to move on from. That being said, depending on individual preferences and synergy matching it’s still a solid DAC to consider around this price (bought new).
I’ve been wanting to share some thoughts on the Spring, but I held off as I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Anyway, it was fun writing this. For any further discussion, here’s the thread for all things Holo, the wisest of wolves (anime reference)!
Just another random person on the internet into this very niche hobby…