as reviewed by Dave Clark, Bryan Gladstone, Mark Katz, and Art Shapiro
The Hermes DAC belongs to the Kora line of products we have had the good fortune to review. Like the rest of the line, the Hermes is beautifully designed ergonomically. As for esthetics, based upon the comments visitors have made upon eyeing the Hermes, the Eclipse preamp, or the Titan amplifiers (which have ranged from " Gee thats ugly," to "Wow thats beautiful," to "For that price it should look better") youre either going to love em or hate em.
As for the sound, the Hermes is a highly refined DAC that brings the music out into the room, placing living, breathing performers at your feet. Well, not actually at your feet, more like between you and the speakers. What it did not doat least in our systemwas transport us to the venue. Never once did I feel that I was there at the performance, which is really what Carol and I are after. The tendency in the high end is to turn the wall behind your speakers into a window onto the performance, with a deep and dimensional soundfield. This is what we have heard on many occasions, as components that reach for the stars (and the high price tag) come through our system. However, we have always preferred to have the music out into the room, where the experience becomes much more upfront and personal.
The Hermes soundstage is wide and stable. This may not be what we hear live, but what audiophiles tend to accept in our homes, which is fine with me. I like a soundfield to be big and enveloping, and I like to hear images that are stable when need be and dart around when called upon. The Hermes did this very well, but so does our EAD/HRS combo. With the Hermes, however, images tended to move farther away from the speakers, producing a more distinct outlinenot an image I could get up and walk behind, but one that was distinct and tangible.
The Hermes was never brittle, forward or fatiguing. It was smooth, natural, and very well balancedway smoother than the EAD/HRS combo, especially on vocals. Listening to any vocal track produced beautiful, velvety images of articulated mouths actually producing song, not just snapshots or somewhat dimensional images, as heard from the EAD/HRS combo. This was a grain-free, texturally rich, dimensional, and most enticing portrayal. No glare or grit, no digital nasties. Is it the tube complement sported by the Hermes? The elaborate power supply? The conversion of the digital signal? A combination of all three? Who cares? I am continually impressed by our EAD/HRS combo, but the Hermes is playing on another level. The EAD/HRS combo is a tad warmer and less detailedcall it veiled and dark if you must, but not to a degree that is objectionable. The Hermes was just more "there" in its portrayal of the music.
From the upper bass and up through the treble, I could find little to fault in the Hermes. There is little of the classic sound we attribute to tubeslushness and warmth. If the music is strident, then thats what youre going to hear. On the other hand, put on a disc that falls to the warm and euphonic side of the spectrum, and well, you get the idea. The Hermes is honest and neutralnot neutral in the sense of flat and sterile, but neutral in the sense that there is no accentuation of whats in the music. Music is just more like "real music," as opposed to what we have come to accept as real music. A prime example of this is how the Hermes deals with the reproduction of cymbals. Live, struck cymbals produce a complex waveform comprised of a resonating metal crash trailing off to silence. The Hermes is able to capture this illusion in all its infinite glory. Cymbals literally burst into the room, in a way that was most "live." This is also evidence of the Hermes ability to be dynamic, with slam and pace equal to that of the EAD/HRS combo.
Shortcomings? A few, like a tendency to somewhat soft bass. If your
system is not up to the task, you may not notice this, but compared to the EAD/HRS combo,
the Hermes was cutting off a little earlier, and what was left tended to be less defined
and lacking in impact. It may be possible to mitigate this flaw by swapping tubes, or the
AC cord, which is detachable. Oh, did I mention that we are of the group that is NOT so
fond of the Hermes appearance? Can you say industrial chic? The Hermes is a
wonderful product, that could be the final piece in any music lovers system, but
wed chuck that chrome faceplate!
Lets face itas politically incorrect as it is, were all attracted to the physical. Some audio gear has sex appeal and some doesnt. Gear lust rears its ugly head not just because a piece of equipment is great to look at, but because it exudes quality and good internal and external design. Thats when you cant wait to get it home to try it out.
So why was I not initially interested in the Kora Hermes? Because its ugly! Ive seen that polished steel and black Plexiglas face somewhere before... wait, I know, it was in the 70s, in one of those homes with the orange shag carpeting, foil-backed wallpaper, and the egg chair! I know, I know, fashion is cyclical, but Im just not ready to embrace the 70s as the classic style it clearly wasnt. The Hermes chromed faceplate has four screws welded to its back to attach it to the front of the case. The welding leaves four dimples (not the cute kind) on the front. Behind the faceplate is a painted sheetmetal case of only moderate quality, which seems quite vulnerable to vibration and ringing. This is the kind of stuff you can find in any electronics store, and it just doesnt give you a good feeling when youre spending this kind of money.
But Looks Arent Everything, Are They?
Sometimes, much to your surprise, you get quite taken with someone you normally wouldnt have given a second look. So, despite the Koras lack of physical attraction, why did I become interested? Once I got past its looks, the Hermes made a very good impression. The first thing I noticed after letting it warm up was, well, nothingno hum, no hiss, no filament crackle, nada. Despite its tube output stage, the Hermes is one of the quietest pieces of gear Ive had in my system (using the low output setting).
The first disc I listened to was Lou Reeds Set the Twilight Reeling, a wonderfully-recorded studio album, and here is where it gets interesting. The Kora boogies! I was immediately struck by the tight, deep, and tuneful bassnot at all what I expected from a tube unit. The Kora reaches much deeper than my Meridian 606, with far greater power and authority but no hint of tubbiness. The bass has depth, weight, dynamics, subtlety, even detail, which is no easy feat. As Lou Reed says, "I Guess Im Falling in Love Now."
Hmmm, This Is Getting Exciting!
The first few weeks of a new relationship is always exciting, but they dont call it the honeymoon phase for nothing. You cant have a relationship based on a great low end. The midrange is really the heart of the matter, and if it wasnt right, I knew wed be headed for a speedy separation. I should have checked out the midrange before we got so involved, but sometimes you just get carried away. So, were we gonna be able to live together?
Yup. The Hermes renders voices and instruments with a certain lifelike rightness. It has a midrange roundness that gives human voice a sense of coming from the diaphragm and chest of a living being, rather than emanating from a two-dimensional throat. Yet, though the Hermes mids are very neutral, they are possibly just a bit too neutral for my taste. While it never tips toward being lean, thin, or edgy, I tend to favor sound that is slightly on the warm side. Dusty Springfield sounded quite lifelike, but I missed that bit of richness that makes her so sultry and sexy with the Meridian.
Offenbachs Gaite Parisienne on RCA is another example of this. The ballet is made up of jubilant, joyous, and dynamic sections with full orchestra in counterpoint with small-scale waltzes. Wonderfully dynamic, the Kora was fantastically exciting in the full orchestra sections, but the waltzes should ooze with sweetness, and I missed just a bit of this. Micro-dynamics were readily available, making for exciting pacing, but while macro-dynamics were very good, I thought the difference between fortissimo and pianissimo might have been just a touch greater. Im not sure if I wanted the fortissimos to be louder or if I wanted the pianissimos to be quieter or sweeter in contrast.
You Want Details? Thats Kind of Personal, Isnt it?
The Kora was astonishingly good at revealing nuances Ive never heard with my Meridian. To begin with, the background, both the spaces between notes as well as the perceived physical environment, was much blacker than the Meridians. This seemed to give a quieter, and hence more revealing setting for detail to come forth. It just seemed as if there was more of what was supposed to be there and less of what was not.
On Keith Jarretts Standards, Vol. 1, the piano was presented wonderfully, from, say, a tenth-row perspective. Through the Kora, you can clearly hear felt hammers striking metal strings, ivory keys (or are they plastic these days?) clicking together, pedals moving, and, especially, Keith Jarrett himself. Jarrett, who hums as he plays, is not miked, and is both clearly defined and a separate being from his piano. Violin sections in orchestras sound more like many individuals playing together rather than a large group of instruments. The ends of notes and reverb tails seem to go on forever, smoothly getting softer until they finally disappear.
With all this detail, I expected a great presentation of air and space, but this was not the case. On recordings such as the Gaite, there was not as much of the expansive sound of the hall. On Tony Bennetts MTV Unplugged, the audience did not feel as large or expansive as with the Meridian. The artists and musicians seemed more alive, but the illusion of being amongst them, the audience, and the hall was reduced.
Uh... Honey, We Have A Problem!
No relationship is perfect, right? As the Kora and I lived together, I began to be plagued by a nagging high end. The Hermes continues to be silky smooth into the upper registers, but I did begin to detect some of that old digital grunge in the topmost frequencies. Admittedly, the ProAcs are very revealing of the high end, and the Kora is much more extended than my Meridian, but I found this to be extremely fatiguing at times. For example, on Other Voices/Other Rooms, Nanci Griffith sounded a bit kazoo-like. Newer recordings, that often accentuate the low and high ends, seemed exceptionally problematic. Roseanne Cashs Interiors became very sibilant, with ss and ts trailing off in a hiss of distortion.
All right, I had enough! I had to do something about that high end problem of ours or we just couldnt stay together. Sometimes, to make a relationship work, you have to admit you are wrong and make some compromises. After some experimentation, I found that the Hermes was very dependent on digital cables. I originally used a Canare cable. I made several of these some time ago, after auditioning many digital cables and feeling that the price/performance ratio of most of them made spending a lot of money unreasonable. Swapping digital cables made huge differences with the Kora, but not without tradeoffs. Several higher-priced cables were able to tame the gritty high end, but not without losing at least some of the energy and immediacy that I found so appealing. Taming the high end meant slowing the pace, easing transient energy, and relaxing the image ever so slightly, but it also made the Kora sound far more pleasant during long listening sessions. The Hermes is very revealing, so dont take your cables and transport for granted if you want to get the best out of it.
I guess I didnt exactly break up with the Kora as much as have it taken away by the next guy in line. The problem is, I didnt realize how much Id miss it. Now I find myself daydreaming about our time together, romantic evenings at home, discs we listened to together. Like most higher-dollar gear, the Kora Hermes requires patience and work to bring out its best, but given the proper attention, the Hermes is a first rate performer that deserves your attention. Bryan Gladstone
I have taken a real liking to French equipment over the last couple of years. A number of French manufacturers produce components that impress me with a delightful rightness of soundthat abstract quality that is often termed "musicality"this from an audiophile who has never, upon reflection, had a French component in his system. Indeed, my top three rooms at last Springs Hi-Fi 98 were entirely French. I had never heard of Kora before, and would have voted their room either Second or Third Best In Show. This was quite a triumph for a system that, while not inexpensive, did not occupy the ultra-stratospheric financial realm in which most of us will never dwell.
My co-writer, Mark Katz, was even more impressed with the Kora room, pronouncing it Best In Show by a clear margin. He was captivated by the combination of musical satisfaction and astoundingly fast bass shown by the system. Subsequently, he took advantage of a model changeover and purchased their now-superseded lowest-end preamp at an attractive closeout price. We both found the preamp to be a commendable unit. Okay, it couldnt better my CAT, but then it was much less expensive.
We were anxious to encounter other pieces in the Kora line, so when audioMusings offered us the chance to evaluate the Hermes DAC, we jumped at the chance to hear if the magic we experienced at Hi-Fi 98 would carry over into our own systems. As luck would have it, Mark was in the midst of electrical problems with one of the components in his system, so our listening was solely in mine over the course of several weeks. Mark listened at length on four or five different days, so his opinions are not cursory. I believe we both arrived at essentially the same assessment of the Koras strengths, weaknesses, and overall sonic characteristics.
The Hermes looks are flat out-and-out gorgeous. I found its distinctive hexagonal mirrored faceplate, with its contrasting black center section, to be especially appealing amidst my predominantly black components. On the other hand, I think too much of such a good thing would be over the topa rack of Kora units with similarly mirrored faceplates might offend the sensitivities of many consumers. Mark was less entranced by the faceplate, finding that it provided too much contrast. The unit appears to be well constructed. It is heavy for its size and features massive, sharp, spiked feet. Heavy jacks proved well able to withstand the massive turbine connectors on my Monster M-Sigma 2000 interconnects. About my only quibble is an obvious discoloration and metallic distortion on the faceplate at the four spots where the bolts holding it to the chassis have been brazed onto the other sidea flaw not expected in a product at this substantial price point.
I temporarily dislodged my turntable from its spot on a homebrew sandbox atop a Lead Balloon, and put the Kora in its place. This made it convenient to use the same digital and analogue cables presently attached to my EAD 7000 III DAC, with the cable switchover taking only a few seconds. Of the two selectable output voltages on the Hermes, the 5 volt setting was unacceptable, allowing a range of only a couple clicks on the CATs stepped attenuators, so all listening was done in the 2 volt position. Even this was one or two clicks louder than the EAD, though not a serious impediment. We level-matched by ear when switching between the two units. The unusual location of the power switch (on the rear, above the IEC power connector) would not be convenient if the unit were in a rack, but was not a problem with the unit atop the Lead Balloon. Not being privy to any documentation or owners manual, I could only guess that Kora intends the unit to be left on at all times. Sorry, I just wont do that on a tubed unit. We always let it sit idle for a few minutes upon turning it on to ensure optimal sound.
From the moment it was powered up, the Hermes wowed both of us, and our mutual enthusiasm continued unabated during the weeks I had it. I was initially concerned that my limited time with the Hermes would prove inadequate to discern and articulate the characteristics which might differentiate it from my EAD 7000, itself a well-respected DAC. Not to worry. The Kora was such a spectacular performer that we had it pegged within the first few minutes, and our views remained unchanged during its tenure.
There were two characteristics of the Hermes that proved highly desirable in my system. One of "Arts Lemmas"a lemma is a fundamental proposition, for those unfamiliar with the termmaintains that a slight bit of that abstract quality termed "warmth" enhances the musical experience, at least for serious (classical) music. (Note that I use the adjective "slight." I am not lauding the excessive syrupy warmth of some older tubed equipment.) It has been an ongoing struggle to push my system in that direction from its inherent neutrality, and the Hermes was just what the doctor ordered. CD after CD struck us as more musically appealing and "right" with the Kora. Typically, this manifested itself as a greater realism and palpability when compared to the EAD. On the Reference Recordings CD of the John Rutter Requiem, the massed choral voices impressed us with their realism and richness. Ditto for the soloists and small instrumental ensemble with basso continuo on the Dorian recording of Bachs Coffee Cantata. Both the glorious male and female solo voices and the beautiful melodies of the flute wafting through my living room were simply more lifelike than Id previously been able to reproduce in The System.
While warmth is typically considered to be the converse of detail, often the Hermes proved the antithesis of that stereotype. While there were CDs in which the EAD seemed to provide a closer look at the music, with the Hermes slightlynot substantiallyless detailed, often the opposite held true. The Dorian Bach, for example, belied the adage, for despite the richness of sound we both felt that we could hear more inner details such as flute nuances. On the unusual Propius CD entitled Antiphone Blues, which offers duets of saxophone and organ, the rewards of the warm presentation of the Hermes were similarly coupled with an ability to hear more of the inherent tonal characteristics of the saxophone. Over and over again, the musical rightness of the Hermes continued to impress. Mark observed a number of times that the music sounded more "cardboardy" when returning to the EAD.
The second positive trait of the Hermes was a greater spaciousness of sound. I am relatively insensitive to this audiophile concern, unlike Mark, but was clearly conscious of the enhanced sense of space when using the Hermes. Mark was highly impressed with the imaging provided by the Hermes, both lateral and front-to-back. I could easily appreciate the larger, and not inappropriate, perspective on such works as the Rutter Requiem. At times, when we switched back to the EAD, Mark held his arms outward and moved his hands closer together, articulating in a simple gesture how constricted the EAD sounded by comparison.
The bulk of my normal listening is to solo piano, an extraordinarily difficult instrument to reproduce well. Typically, a somewhat lean, dry sound is advantageous in resolving the complex waveforms of this percussive musical instrument, so one might expect the EAD to better the warmer Kora with piano music. Interestingly, this was not the case. On a Conifer CD of Kathryn Stott playing Rachmaninoff, which incorporates the greatest dynamic range Ive yet encountered on a CD, the Koras warmth did not seem to detract from the complexities of the pianos sound, even in the faster passages, and that warmth was quite effective in portraying the deep, resonant low end of the keyboard. The result was a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying musical experience.
In an attempt to thwart my ever-increasing enjoyment of the Hermes, I pulled out two piano CDs that are problematic in different ways. A Dorian CD of Ivan Moravec performing a Chopin recital has always struck me as only marginally acceptable at the upper endI am always slightly disquieted by the somewhat muted treble on an otherwise exceptional recording (in terms of both performance and sonics). Would the Kora exacerbate this, or might it atone for the sonic problem? The answer was "neither." The properties of the Kora neither detracted from nor corrected the failing in question, although once again the wonderful rich and spacious presentation made it the product of choice.
The second problem CD is a recital of the "Suites for Two Pianos" by Arensky, on a Hyperion CD that suffers from clattery, over-resonant, closely-recorded pianos recorded with excessive detail. On the wrong system, it is utterly unlistenable, as the listener is assaulted with too much information to comprehend. Alas, the great resolving power of the Kora overwhelmed the listener beyond its ability to provide warmth amidst inherently non-warm tonality. In this case, the somewhat drier, flatter EAD was better able to atone for the sins of the recording. But on normal or superior piano CDs, such as the terrific Gershwin recital by Earl Wild on a Chesky release, the coherence of the piano tonality, the ability to reproduce the fast treble runs and figurations, and the decay of individual notes was presented with greater musicality and realism through the Hermes.
Conceptually in the same sonic ballpark as the piano, the harp seemed worthy of an audition through the Kora, so we pulled out a diverse recital by harpist Isabel Moretti on Harmonia Mundi. Through the Kora, we were quite conscious of the surprising power that can be projected by a concert harp. As with the piano, we could not fail to be impressed with the exceptional resolution of the decaying notes, and felt that nothing was being sacrificed in the fast runs. There was simply no noticeable blurring when compared with the drier EAD. There may have been a tiny loss of detail on the figurations when compared with the solid state DAC, but the overall presentation was assessed as superior on the Kora.
One afternoon, Mark brought over his Museatex Bidat for comparison, a unit whose excellence is undeservedly unrecognized by much of the audiophile community. While this solid state unit and my EAD were both drier than the Kora, the EAD is slightly darker than the Museatex, which tended to be a bit clearer and more dynamic (except, notably, on HDCD-encoded discs). Apparent detail, such as the flute solo in the Dorian Coffee Cantata, was superb, but with the Kora the flute sounded more dimensional and present. With an AudioQuest CD of the Bruce Katz Band, on which we auditioned the track "Crescent Crawl," the Museatex again was clearer, and the EAD very smooth and detailed, but once more the Kora seemed more relaxed and natural. The Kora was also surprisingly quiet for a tubed DAC. We both preferred the Kora to either the Museatex or the EAD on the majority of music, and it deserves accolades for besting such worthy competition.
Were there any areas in which the Kora could not be a unanimous winner? Yes. The very lowest parts of the musical spectrum reproducible through my ESP Concert Grands began to roll off a little with the tubed DAC. This showed itself as a little less rumble on some of the viscerally exciting organ pedal notes on the Rutter Requiem, and perhaps on the lowest notes of the electric bass on "Crescent Crawl." Mark sensed it as not so much a frequency rolloff but a slightly lessened tightness at the subterranean extreme.
The second area in which the EAD proved its mettle came with HDCD discsa non-HDCD DAC cannot hope to consistently compete with the EAD on such CDs. We tried three of my small collection of HDCD discs. On the Reference Recording Exotic Dances from the Opera, we did not discern an enhanced sense of warmth or space with the Kora. The EAD provided the greater sense of realism. Ditto on the Reference Recordings choral CD entitled Postcards, on which we auditioned a totally chantedno instrumentspiece by Ernest Toch entitled "The Geographical Fugue." The EAD once again out-Korad the Kora, with an enhanced palpability and sense of presence. And on a big band CD on Reference Recordings entitled Swing, the musical content of which is so irritatingly nondescript as to make it impossible for us to listen for more than a few seconds, we nonetheless felt that the EAD rendered a more satisfying portrayal of the music. I think it very interesting that on the Rutter piece, also an HDCD recording, we nevertheless found that the ability of the Kora to resolve and present the large chorus made it the product of choice over the EAD.
Finally, Mark made the observation that there was a slight loss of subtlety when fingers brushed strings on harp or guitar. This was by no means obtrusive, and may simply be the inevitable trade-off between warmth and detail.
trust it will be obvious that we both loved the Kora Hermes, the strengths of which
clearly outshone its slight deficiencies. This was the most musically satisfying DAC
Ive had the pleasure of auditioning in my system, and one whose natural presentation
bettered my existing DACs by a greater margin than I thought possible. The slight
warmth it provided, coupled with an excellence of clear, punchy sound, was a sonic joy
which I would not have predicted for a tubed unit. Using adjectives like "flat"
and "cardboardy" to describe my present equipment was not my expectation. After
the first few days, I was certain Id be able to tell you that I paid the ultimate
reviewers compliment and bought the review sample. That was not to be, however, as a
sudden opportunity to upgrade another part of my system arose, and the audio budget was
decimated for the foreseeable future. But that is the sole reason that I didnt buy
the Hermes, and it was with more than a tinge of sadness that I returned it to
audioMusings. I would not be surprised to find this exceptional performer in its rightful
place in my system further down the line.