Keces S3 DAC / Balanced AMP / Preamp – My Favorite Warm Performer
Keces S3 is a high-end top of the shelf DAC / Balanced Headphone Amplifier made in TAIWAN, and priced at 1300 USD. The comparison list will include Audio Analogue AAdac, Wells Milo, iBasso DX300, and Mytek Brooklyn DAC+. The pairing list will include HIFIMAN Arya, Rosson RAD-0, and Audeze LCD-MX4.
Oh my, would you look at the time. I actually had the S3 for almost a year now, and only now got around publishing the full written review. The reason is that the unit is too good. I always figured I’d need more time with it, more time to fully experience it, and more time to be able to express my thoughts and feelings in writing. The company was founded in 2002, so they are nowhere near new on the market, and they come from TAIWAN, the leading country where semiconductors are made (yes, I also assumed that would be China, it is TAIWAN). The company strives to deliver music at the maximum, an endless quest into the absolute, delivering both the functionality and beautiful design along the way, but also excellent build quality, and excellent support for their customers, making the S3 I am reviewing today one of the most sought for DAC / Headphone Amplifiers. S3 also has a Preamplifier function, so you won’t need a separate PRE for your speaker system if you decide to go for S3.
It should be noted that I have absolutely no affiliation with Keces. I’d like to thank Keces for providing the sample for this review. This review reflects my personal experience with Keces S3. Every opinion expressed is mine and I stand by it. The purpose of this review is to help those interested in Keces S3 find their next music companion.
First things first, let’s get the packaging out of the way:
We have a really nice package with S3, and inside we can find a remote for S3, which I found to be really handy while using it. The usual manuals are included too, but that’s about it as far as the important stuff goes, but you won’t need much more to use it.
Including entry-level default cables for everything would have been nice, but not really needed as most folks using an S3 probably already have, or will want to invest in some high-quality cables for their speakers or headphones.
Keces delivers right on spot with the Aesthetics, and S3 looks a bit better than most competition, and feels, looks and is build like a flagship DAC / Headphone Amplifier, rather than leaving the aesthetics behind. The unit is large-ish, somewhat tall, and heavy, with a ton of inputs and outputs. At the front we have an LCD display, useful for figuring what volume the unit is at, and we have a volume wheel, at the right, next to a Gain selector. There’s a PRE/Headphones selector at the front as well, next to an IR sensor, and a 6.3mm Single Ended or Unbalanced Headphone output, next to an XLR Balanced output. The unit is rounded at the lateral edges, although it is not chamfered at the top and bottom edges.
The input selection includes both digital and analog inputs, with the digital having a Coax, USB and Optical inputs. I noticed no noise coming from using the USB input, which is really cool, and even more expensive products do have some noise, like the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+, while the S3 is absolutely silent. The Analog inputs include Unbalanced RCA, and Balanced XLR inputs.
The Outputs include Unbalanced RCA outputs, and Balanced XLR outputs. There is a power input too, with its own fuse. The unit is completely made of metal, with large feet that have rubber, and there is very little ventilation to dissipate the heat. This being said, the unit does not get overly hot, and there is a selector for 240V / 115V, so the unit can work by default all over the world.
I noticed no strange behavior with S3, it works flawlessly with my computer, it does a great job all the time, and it has enough driving power for very power-hungry headphones like HIFIMAN Arya. It also has no odd noises, and is made very well. You can use it as a standalone DAC / Headphone Amplifier, or you can connect it to another DAC and use it either as a Headphone Amplifier or as a Speaker Preamplifier. You can also use it as a standalone DAC and connect either the Balanced or Unbalanced outputs to an external Headphone Amplifier. You can’t really disable the PREAMP function while using it as a DAC, but that function adds no distortion and no noise.
Generally, I found similar quality to the sonics when using it with the USB, Coax and Optical inputs, and there is no reason to use one above the others, except for your personal convenience. You can use the S3 as your multimedia center and have your PC, TV and one more device connected to it at the same time, since you can use the remote to select the input. You can also use the remote to quickly mute it. Since it has a selector between headphone output and PRE / DAC functions, you can only use one at a time.
It is not recommended to use both the Balanced and the Unbalanced outputs at the same time to power two different systems, regardless whether we’re talking about two headphones or two speaker systems. Although our photography tends to be overly optimistic and dynamic, the unit is actually heavy, and you can tell that the power converter is what weights the most inside, being a really well done power stage, and no power conditioners or tricks will improve the sound too much, so this time around you can’t use the Plixir BAC400, or rather you can but it won’t do too much for your sound.
For the headphone driving part, hard to drive headphones are better suited for S3. IEMs have some noise if they are sensitive, but I haven’t been able to avoid that noise with anything. iFi’s iEMatch helps, but it also has some effect where it cuts on the dynamics, so I do not recommend it. IEMs like Final E5000 are silent, some noise is audible only with very sensitive IEMs like Campfire Atlas.
I’ve spent far more time with Keces S3 than with most DAC/AMPs I review here, and that is because it really reached a side of me I never knew existed. I am getting a really strong emotional response while listening to it, despite the sound not being exactly my typical listening preference. Keces S3 can be described as really thick, warm, smooth, dark, full bodied, lush and deep, with tons of impact. I generally prefer slightly more neutral and more dynamic presentations, but the excellent driving power of S3 means that I can have it on my desk and drive pretty much all of my headphones with it. This is golden for me, because as a reviewer, I need to test, pair and compare tons of headphones every week, so Keces S3 has been a real help with the process.
The bass of S3 can be described as really full, punchy, deep and really well rounded. It is really nuanced and has an excellent amount of impact, depth and layering. I was listening to Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters the other day through Keces S3 and using HIFIMAN Arya, and I was astounded by what a clean and clear bass reproducing the pairing has. It is incredibly smooth, yet realistic. For most of my youth I have been a metalhead, and I heard tons of metal live, also playing it with my friends, and reproducing a real bass guitar has always been a difficult task. Most headphone and AMP setups will be dry, or hollow compared to the actual energy and depth that an actual bass guitar is supposed to have. Keces S3 is magically able to reproduce that guitar, in all its depth and nuance. Even EDM and Dubstep sounds really pleasing, with ultra-low impacts being delivered with the full wrath they’re supposed to have.
The midrange, as presented by Keces S3, is quite dynamic, clean, crisp and slightly dark and thick. It is clear that Keces wasn’t aiming for the most neutral tuning with S3, and they instead went for that natural, deep, and thick presentation that we all love, especially judging by the popularity of DAC/AMPs like Chord Mojo. Keces S3 is really delightful when it comes to both male and female voices and although it doesn’t speak the latest word in absolute technical performance and prowess, it is plenty enjoyable and happy sounding, which makes most music a really fun experience with it.
The treble of Keces S3 will either be its strongest point, or weakest, depending on your listening preference. S3 presents the treble with an extremely smooth character, lean and pacifist overall impact. This means that if you’re looking for something with a thick and heavy bottom end and with an airheaded treble, S3 will sound perfect for you. I personally love my treble to be sparkly, and I enjoy a more airy presentation, S3 being a bit smooth for rock, metal and post-hardcore. On the other hand, with most other music, it is perfect, S3 being one of the best DAC/AMPs there is if you want to lean back and enjoy your music without worrying about anything at all.
It is important to note that price isn’t anything when picking comparisons, and when something is priced above 1000 USD, it should generally be compared with everything that’s better out there. The main comparisons for S3 are AAdac from Audio Analogue, iBasso DX300, Wells Milo, and Mytek Brooklyn DAC+.
Keces S3 vs Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ (1300 USD vs 2000 USD) – The first comparison is between S3 and something enthusiastic like the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+. The biggest differences in design are in the shape, where DAC+ is smaller, and s3 is considerably larger. It is also much easier to use a Balanced cable with S3, since that can be theoretically done with DAC+, but you need special cables that you need to purchase separately. The sound is much more neutral on the DAC+, with less emphasis on the lows, more emphasis on the treble, and with slightly better clarity. Keces S3 sounds far more deep, more lush, more organic, and fuller. This comes at the cost of treble, which is slightly recessed in comparison, and while the sound is never boring, it can be slightly less dynamic thanks to the stronger bass. I never felt like S3 sounds rolled off thought, just smoother and more relaxed.
Keces S3 vs Wells Milo Amplifier (1300 USD vs 2000 USD) – Milo does not have a DAC, yet it is sensibly more expensive than S3, even more so if you push up some upgrades for it. The sound of Milo is similar to that of S3, but I noticed a much stronger bottom end on S3, more push and more impact, more power and better drive factor with pretty much anything, including really hard to drive headphones like HIFIMAN HE6SE. Milo tends to do a thing where it has some loud-ish pops while turning the volume and it does that mini pop with each increment, like the potentiometer slides at maximum volume for each pop, while S3 does not have such an issue. S3 sounds really clean and is hassle-free. I can’t talk about the cool factor, and Milo looks a bit better if you want something unique and designed from the scratch, where S3 looks a bit more typical for a desktop device. While I can’t stop you from purchasing Milo, Keces S3 may have a better value than Milo, and depending on what you’re trying to drive, it will sound warmer, deeper with more punch, so if you have thinner sounding headphones, and something that needs some beefing up, then Keces S3 will be happy to deliver.
Keces S3 vs Audio Analogue AAdac (1300 USD vs 3500 USD) – It is a bit unfair to expect S3 to really stand its ground against something roughly three times as expensive, but somehow it manages to still impress me even after I heard the AAdac. The thing here is not about the features, or about the technical performance, and I had to use both on Single ended to be able to compare them properly, as AAdac does not have an XLR Balanced headphone Output. The overall sound is more dynamic, more open and sweeter, yet lighter on AAdac. By comparison S3 sounds thicker, deeper and with more bottom end. The treble is smoother, more relaxed on S3, with more focus on the body of each instrument, and this leads to a more practical, more realistic sound for full bodied instruments. This holds true for both the DAC and Headphone AMP performance, AAdac tends to have a really delicate bottom end by comparison, where S3 is full and delightful, lush and fun.
Keces S3 vs iBasso DX300 (1300 USD vs 2000 USD) – For about the same amount of money, you can now purchase iBasso DX300, which surely has more functions and covers all the functions of S3 as well. The trick here is about what you would rather use. S3 is a full desktop device, where DX300 is a portable DAP, with interchangeable modules. The sound is actually more neutral on DX300, also a bit more nuanced and more dynamic. It does not have an XLR DAC output, and would be straightforwardly uncomfortable to use as a desktop device, but you can drive tons of headphones and have tons of portable fun with it. Keces S3 has more driving power, sounds thicker, warmer, smoother and more powerful with more impact. It also has more inputs and outputs, and makes a better entertainment center compared to DX300, which is mostly a DAP.
Although I haven’t done pairings in a while, especially for entry-level products, but even for some high-end ones, for the best I will still be doing this. The main pairings for Keces S3 will be with Rosson RAD-0, HIFIMAN Arya, and Audeze LCD-MX4. I generally do not recommend Keces S3 for IEMs, and in my personal experience it has a slightly high output impedance, which causes IEMs to have background hissing that is continuous and not connected to USD or power delivery noise.
Keces S3 + HIFIMAN Arya (1300 USD + 1600 USD) – Starting with the Arya, I was surprised to hear a heavier, thicker and beefier bottom end than with most DAC/AMPs, but with no reduction to the clarity, overall soundstage or resolution. This is the beautiful part with Keces S3, it manages to have a really nice overall sonic performance by beefing up the lows, without losing the touch with the finer parts of sound like resolution and clarity. The final sound is really agile, and Arya never felt underpowered or bland with S3, sounding rather controlled, and well driven out of it.
Keces S3 + Rosson RAD-0 (1300 USD + 2200 USD) – RAD-0 is a tricky one because you’d expect S3 to overdo things, especially given how beefy and strong RAD-0 already is with the lows, but instead of overdoing things and introducing distortion, S3 actually manages to give them a really powerful, punchy sound, with great resolution, excellent overall soundstage, and great instrument separation. The sound is really dynamic too, has tons of detail, and while the treble isn’t necessarily better, it is never lost, and present smooth, refined and clear, in the background compared to the bass and the midrange, which is typical for RAD-0.
Keces S3 + Audeze LCD-Mx4 (1300 USD + 3000 USD) – You can also do some mastering to your music using Keces S3, if you have some high-quality monitors like Audeze LCD-MX4. While I would have liked to pair S3 with something like the Audeze Euclid, the MX4 is much better as S3 sounds best with headphones rather than IEMS. The sound of LCD-Mx4 when driven by S3 is full, lush, deep and powerful. LCD-Mx4 never sounded dull or too lush with S3, rather having a controlled, deep and fun sound that is always enjoyable, and precise.
Value and Conclusion
The general consensus about Keces S3 has always been that it has awesome value, but I can confirm this personally now that I have been using it for a long while. It comes with a tiny remote that’s a really handy doo, and it has all the inputs and outputs one could ever need. Having a Balanced output for the headphones adds to the value, and so does having XLR outputs too, especially for those systems that work better on Balanced like the Qualiton APR204.
The overall build quality of the S3 is perfect too, it is large, made of metal, made to resist a war if it needs to, and it has a beautiful overall aesthetic too. It comes with less features than those systems that have streaming abilities embedded like the A1X PRO from Soundaware, but Keces S3 is beautifully natural in sonics, and this makes it all the more interesting for someone like me, who mainly uses a DAC/AMP as a DAC/AMP rather than rely on it for streaming.
If I was to be absolutely honest, I would say that my usage scenario is 90% while working on programming for Eternal Hour, with my DAC/AMP connected to my computer, and usually I simply do not need more features, and things work perfectly well as long as it doesn’t have driver issues with Windows or weird noises while being used with the USB Input. I can confirm that Keces S3 works perfectly in this scenario, and I can connect something else like a console via the Optical input too, making it a really good option when I’m too lazy to connect and disconnect cables.
Before the end of today’s review, I want to add Keces S3 to Audiophile-Heaven’s Hall Of Fame for the overall quality you receive for your purchase, build quality, sonic performance, and for having a handy remote included with it.
At the end of today’s review, if you’re looking for a really capable DAC/AMP with an excellent sonic performance that sounds natural, lush, organic and deep, and if you’re looking for excellent reliability too, and a great price / performance ratio, Keces S3 should be perfect for you.
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Full Playlist used for this review
We listened to more songs than those named in this playlist, but those are excellent for identifying a sonic signature. PRaT, Texturization, Detail, Resolution, Dynamics, Impact, and overall tonality are all revealed by those songs. We recommend trying most of the songs from this playlist, especially if you’re searching for new music!
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