Audio: Listen to this article.
Part2: A couple of questions to David Aubert from AUDIOPHONICS.FR
… about AUDIOPHONICS:
Audiophile Style: Bonjour David, how did it start it all in 2005?
Audiophonics.fr: In 2005, for the ones that was here, the amount of goods available online was a fraction of today. There were already several shops, but there was a lot of products that couldn’t be found online. Audiophonics started with 0.5m² of stock, 0 employee and a DIY E-commerce web shop. First added brands were Supravox, Viablue, Mundorf, Sommercable, Hifi2000 …
AS: For the last 5-8 years you’ve maintained a special place as perhaps the main independent distribution channel for Chi-Fi in Europe, providing shipment in Europe and proposing European standard guarantees and service provision. Are you today competing mainly with international resellers like Shenzhen Audio, Linsoul and HiFigo or rather with Amazon’s European distribution?
A.fr: I would say both are competitors, and strong ones when as a French company, we have to invoice 20% VAT, pay French taxes, offer 2 year of warranty and 15 day of return. But we’re not doing too badly.
AS: When did you start to manufacture Audio products in France for you own brand?
A.fr: We started with simple product like cables 15 years ago, but it was really low volume. In 2012 with Raspberry Pi streamers, we put it at a next level with one, then 2 dedicated people. With Hypex/PuRiFi amplifier we again jumped to a next level, with a demand that saturated our production capacities, (and) which permits us to develop our assembly service and product range.
AS: How many products do have on offer, that you actually manufacture on your own work floor?
A.fr: Our workshop team build around a hundred of different references, split between cables, amplifiers and power supplies.
AS: Do you sell more RaspDacs or PuRiFi amps in a one-month period?
A.fr: We sell more PuRiFi amplifiers than RaspDacs streamers, although both are appreciated by our customers. Purifi (and Hypex) amplifier have a wider range of use.
AS: The Armature brand of Audiophonics - which afaik did license i.e. Holo Audio / Denafrips technology - served at their debut in 2017 the upmarket customer’s interest with a kind of Greek-Roman touch to their names (Phobos, Asterion, Oberon). Today they offer USB galvanic isolators and power sockets. Will this brand experiment be revived in the future?
A.fr: Maybe, but not trying to rebrand existing products. We may publish some of our assembled products under this brand, or a custom produced one from another brand. (ODM)
AS: How did your UK business develop after BREXIT in terms of shipping to the UK and taking over business formerly conducted from the UK to mainland Europe?
A.fr: The main change introduced by BREXIT has to do with the payment of taxes (different statutes apply for purchases below 160€ and purchases over 160€). To insure the best shipping experience for our UK customers, we chosen to only allow orders above this 160€ threshold.
… perhaps the most important questions for your future North American clients:
AS: Could you describe the process of ordering from NA (USA, Canada, Mexico)?
A.fr: Customers create an account on our website and log into their account. They can add
all the products they want to their carts and then go on to validate their order by selecting a carrier and a payment method. Alternatively, customers can make an order directly via Paypal, without creating a customer account, themselves (it creates one automatically, that can be logged into at a later time). For a delivery to the US, Canada, or Mexico, we only offer UPS as a carrier option, as they clearly provide the most efficient service at the best price possible for those destinations. (On average, the delivery time for the US and Canada is 2 to 4 days, 3 to 5 days for Canada, and 4 to 5 for Mexico)
AS: How about Tax and shipping costs?
A.fr: Once customers from the US, Canada, and Mexico are logged into their accounts, al
prices displayed are the duty-free ones (both those of the products and that of shipping). Shipping costs depend of the total weight of the order, there are displayed into shopping cart. Customs are incumbent on the customers. They will be collected by the carrier, once their parcel reaches its destination country. The feedback collected from our customers on the matter testifies to the efficiency of the process as handled by UPS.
AS: How does it work for guarantees and maintenance?
A.fr: In order to contact our after-sale service, customers simply have to open a ticket directly from their customer account.
AS: Is it correct that North American customers pay for themselves to ship defect devices back the European mainland?
A.fr: Return fees are incumbent on the customers only in the case of the exercise of their rights of withdrawal. In case of a malfunctioning or damaged product, our after-sale service insures the collection of the defective product directly at the customers’ homes, with no additional charge to the customers.
AS: Do you offer them to buy the return voucher issued from your company account to avoid falling into the trap of private customer’s schemes vs. business customers?
A.fr: Unfortunately, we cannot edit return labels for the US, Canada, or Mexico. That is why we offer to set up the collection of the product at the customers’ homes, so as to make this process as easy as possible for our customers.
From left to right: HPA-S250NC, MPA-S250NC, rasptouch 9038q2m, eco sabre symmetrique 9038q2m, matrix mini i3, DA-S250NC
… about the DAW-S250NC:
AS: There is no reference to drivers for XMOS, ASIO or firmware on your website?
A.fr: XMOS drivers are integrated into W10, W11 and Linux. No Asio drivers or firmware are provided to the final user.
AS: Is the DAC device software upgradable from the outside (USB/WIFI)?
AS: Am I assuming correctly that the streaming firmware would update via Wi-Fi connection?
A.fr: If it needs update, they will come from the Linkplay application.
AS: Is there an option to use Amazon Alexa as controller for the device through the WIIM application?
A.fr: No, and it’s not planned at any point.
AS: Will the unit get the same continuous updates in streaming functionality (i.e. Chromecast, ROON, Squeezelite) as we have experienced it from the original Linkplay WIIM devices?
A.fr: Yes, it will get Linkplay update, but it does not add feature like i.e. Chromecast
AS: What’s the power consumption in standby?
AS: Is there a display management available?
A.frR: For the OLED? No!
… about DAC & DSD:
AS: The E9038q2m chips allows native DXD-DSD512/DOP DSD256/32bit-768kHz when used with certain firmware, this device is spec’d with both: DOP DSD256 and PCM768, but no DXD/DSD native specs are available? (My 2018 Topping NX4 with the same configuration did DXD and DSD)
A.fr: Native requires the use of (Thesycon) drivers which require a license.
AS: Is this a lack of spec communication or you do have deliberately chosen a limited configuration for the device, not using the full capabilities of the XMOS chipset? I’d be happy about a response with an engineering insight on that topic.
A.fr: Yes, we chosen to limit the communication of the capabilities based on the generic driver. Because we think that the number of customers using DSD, and more over requiring native DSD for an all-in-one streaming amplifier is not so high.
AS: Is it correct that the use of UPNP/DNLA via Wi-Fi does only allow PCM 24/192/DOP64 and DSD/DXD as limited by the receiving A98 chipset?
A.fr: We ordered this module with a modification in order to be able to get sample bit perfect output, meaning that if you read 44 or 96khz file you can get native frequency.
AS: Does the DAW-S250NC have the same BT capabilities as the DAW-S250NC, when using the BT device on the DAC board?
Info: The DAW-S250NC has two Bluetooth stacks, one on the DAC board (QCC5125) and one with the Linkplay module (Broadcom?).
In my limited BT expertise, I would suggest using the on-DAC BT Qualcomm chip may be the better choice? Is it correct that I could not use the WIIM app for it – and only use it through the remote control? And that the QC chip is always on and can't be put into sleep mode?
A.fr: About BT, the included ”on the DAC” one is going to support higher res codecs such LDAC and APTX HD, which are going to provide less compression and better quality (on paper). In all our BT testing we used the direct function of smartphones and not the WIIM application.
And yes it's always on when the amplifier is powered up.
AS: Is this ESS DAC module as well available as DIY unit in the Audiophonics store - like the CL-99WB Linkplay A98 module?
AS: Would the DA 250 perform objectively better in testing than the DAW 250 - as the performance would not be limited by the A98 module CL-99wb? In comparison, the WIIM pro is announced with 102dB SNR /0,005% THD+N at line out, while the CL-99wb shows 95 dB SNR and 0,03% THD+N - over I2S?
A.fr: On paper maybe a little ... but ultra-purists are not the target of this product.
AS: Thank you, David!
Sound bites - The Critical Listening Playlist
For this playlist, I’ve selected a mix of European and American artists which I partly enjoy since decades and whose art, interpretation and presentation proved valuable to me in testing music systems. I paired them for some reasons. Most of them you’ll find in my Qobuz Spring playlist.
Sound is in the Air
Einstürzende Neubauten – ½ Mensch (Some Bizarre, 1986 - Qobuz)
The All Star Percussion Ensemble – Arranged and conducted by Harald Farberman (First Impression - DXD Mastering, 1983) - Qobuz)
Input – CD via COAX / Redbook FLAC local via RPI4-Volumio3-USB
While arriving from completely different planets in the universe of modern music, the self-taught industrial noise artists Einstürzende Neubauten (Eng.: collapsing new buildings) from Berlin/Germany and Juilliard alumni Harold Farberman from New York share the idea that music isn’t alone about composition but in particular about arrangement and performance caught on the recording. This idea seems to be valid at least for these two recordings, which were published in 1983 and 1985, respectively. I’ve chosen one “song” from each album (of which I would recommend both albums, wholeheartedly)
Genuinely, these share this extreme preference for creating sound effects throughout the audible space limitations of the recording. That happens subsequently in your listening room, if your system performs correctly. The All Star Percussion Orchestra assembles 10 solo percussionists of leading orchestras to interpret a classical rewrite (Fantasy) of Bizet’s Carmen theme, while the “Neubauten” are dealing with the impact of amphetamine for body and mind. One is fleeting- touching with some hash of sugar plum fairies and surprising crescendos while the other succeeds in transcending their metal machine music into mid-eighties dance floor music. Strange?
The track “Yu Gung (Fütter mein Ego - “Feed my Ego”) seems much closer to Yello’s solid pleasures of electronic dance music than to fellow avant-gardist noise explorers Throbbing Gristle, thus it touches you with its directness - even you don’t understand the full meaning of these German word cascades Blixa Bargeld (as vocalist – not as the guitarist we know from Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds) uses to invite us into his amphetamine fueled mind. The rhythmic escapades are presented almost everywhere in the ether and thoughtfully arranged to allow the definition of depth, height and space in your reproducing system.
Works excitingly well with the combo under review, and best with an additional pair of subwoofers.
The highly dynamic delivery demands some decent amplifier headroom which the NCORE module is happy to provide. The producer of the recording, Gareth Jones, who could be called the former house producer of the Mute label, or “an Englishman in Berlin (courtesy of Hansa Studios)”, had quite a strong impact on the 2nd wave of the “Neue Deutsche Welle” and earned credits with his continuous working with artists like Tuxedomoon, John Foxx, Nick Cave and Depeche Mode.
Perhaps he had, too, found inspiration in the creative work of the percussion wizard Farberman, because his ethereal arrangements aren’t too different in style and conception from the “Carmen Fantasy, part I”, although the artists are.
The instrumental arrangement in Farberman’s fantasy of Carmen, which often leads us to turn heads following instruments and their changing direction, demanded from the artists to change places permanently.
Consequently, we can hear their feet’s tapping through the studio from instrument to instrument at times and may approve these cues with a smile.
Arranged for an audio trip, nothing for background radio.
Overall, the two compact discs surprised me by providing – for my ears – the cleanest of sounds through the digital input of the DAW. I couldn’t match that via USB or Wi-Fi, neither with my hard disk copies nor the Qobuz streams. It could well be in relation to their recording, mastering and pressing quality.
For Atmos users – consume with consideration, the Neubauten’s oeuvre can be a very intensive experience, the Farbeman’s fantasy seems more on the delightful side.
Tip-in 1: Brown University (Providence/RI) alumni Jon Spencer, who called his former noise rock band after a James Bond character, Pussy Galore, has made an English worded cover version of Yu-Gung.
Tip-in 2: The Adrian Sherwood mix of Yu-Gung form me is a waste of resources, because the original is already a real piece of art.
Tip-in 3: This album was considered the second best industrial album EVER by PITCHFORK, only beaten by Throbbing Gristle’s 1979 oeuvre “20 Jazz Funk Greats”.
Great Emotional Depth, Different Angle
Eric Truffaz – Rollin’ (Blue Note, 2023 - Qobuz)
Metallica – 72 Seasons (EMI, 2023 - Qobuz)
Input: UPNP/DLNA streaming over Ethernet/USB and Wi-Fi
Eric Truffaz is my favorite French contemporary Jazz trumpeter since a couple of years. His latest project, a re-imagination of mostly European Art house cinema soundtrack pieces - published this Spring by Blue Note France - is just head cinema, even you haven’t seen all the cinematic oeuvre they’ve once accompanied.
I’ve selected – in order to listen to the Q Acoustics 3030i’s tweeters in particular – the lightly floating and gleaming title theme from Fellini’s “La Strada”. A tender & sentimental song of less than 3 minutes bringing us tenderly from the road into great emotions but spares us the final breakdown scene at the beach side.
Almost all of the other themes share the same embodiment of an extraordinary performance. Not surprisingly, one could feel the great emotional depth of this masterpiece with a budget speaker like the 3030i. Such a great piece of art.
Metallica’s “Screaming Suicide” was already available via streaming and video since February. I would call it solid adult rock with evergreen character, but musically nothing spectacular. An interesting pitch of Rob Trujillo’s deep bass playing in the second half.
Outstanding is the theme that it covers: Suicide! Something generally unspoken of, presented with a great energy level aiming at fighting the unspeakable. My dire respect for that.
The track is demanding for the lower register, nonetheless it’s quite limited in dynamic range. For regular listening I was forced to limit the output level by 5dB (DAW display) just for achieving an acceptable listening level.
To note: adding two subs didn’t add a lot to the system for this type of music apart sequences of sub-bass.. Evidently, these small woofers are capable of managing a great workload.
French Bliss & Beauty
Duo Jatekok – Plays Rammstein (Vertigo Berlin, 2022 - Qobuz)
Input: USB / Qobuz / Bluetooth LDAC
Corpo-Mente had been another project of the French chanteuse Laure Le Prunenec and the multi-instrumentalist & composer Gautier Serre, whose musical interests roam freely between Baroque, break –core, trip-hop and death metal. Unfortunately, that chapter ended far too soon. In 2021 they parted ways, officially only her depart from the French avant-garde super group IGORR is confirmed yet. The atmospheric track “Dorma” develops slowly-steady on the extensive timbre of Le Prunenec’s voice into a catching ambient rock piece with a baroque chant.
Looking at the studio recording videos of DORMA, some of the musicians already knew that they done a great piece of (art)-work. A well-produced piece of surprisingly easy to access contemporary art rock. A lullaby in a fairly unknown language.
A separate piece of beauty is the 4-hand / single Piano rendition of Rammstein’s “Frühling in Paris” from the 2022 CD “Duo Jatekok plays Rammstein”
The Duo Jatekok are two French piano prodigies who decided in 2007 to perform miniatures and piano pieces by the Hungarian composer and pianist György Kurtág, who is known to publish his work with the German ECM label.
Naïri Badal and Adélaïde Panaget have performed as Rammstein’s support act on live shows since 2017. They look and sound like a welcome evolution to the band’s 2015 “XXI – Klavier” album. I love the visual and acoustic contrariety to the wild live shows of Rammstein. The duo uncovers tenderly the well disguised depth of emotion of the provocative & deeply controversial German rock group. The budget system never killed my joy of layered dynamics with this type of music.
A Distinct Case for Female Voices:
Natalie Merchant – Keep your Courage (Nonsuch ,2023 - Qobuz)
Lotte Kestner – The Bluebird Of Happiness (Saint Marie Records, 2013 - Qobuz)
Input: Wi-Fi /Qobuz
Two excellent female vocalists from the USA, one generation gap in distance by age. One I have adored since her early success with 10.000 Maniacs and one more I’ve just discovered at the end of a “The Last of Us“ episode in February 2023. When Lotte Kestner’s (her name’s appears to be an homage to the German novelist Erich Kästner, who wrote “Lisa & Lottie”?) beautiful version of “True Faith” from New Order was performing the outro of the “The Last of Us” fourth’ episode, I have learned quickly that her rendition was already used in the underlying video game - however - the studios forgot her credits.
Researching her work, I found, too, her cover of Beyonce’s “Halo” - simply stunning, thus added it to my 2023 Spring playlist. I need to admit, even I knew this song existed, I had never heard it consciously before in the radio or elsewhere. Now I don’t need that anymore ;-).
Madame Merchant’s “Big Girl” caught me as well with a big smile. I had read the Guardian feature on her recent Album in April and remembered how much I loved her latest collaboration with The Kronos Quartet on “Folksongs” in 2017.
“Big Girls“, itself is a strange kind of song, starts in classic piano ballad instrumentation, flares of John Lennon’s “Jealous guy” and Elton’s “Your song” touched my sub-consciousness before the rock band kicked in, a violin starts to underline the urgency and the song gives space to a full chamber orchestra, making you feel you’ve arrived - all of a sudden - at a 7Oies baroque pop piece with strings and trumpets. I found this quite stunning and loved the widely dispersed task to the audio system. In my opinion, the system could have performed a bit more involving, thus it didn’t disappoint me at all.
This is the Way
Finally, I’ve tested the Toslink input with “The Mandalorian” and “The Bourne Supremacy” through my Smart TV. I came to the impression that the sound quality of “The Mandalorian” series is a slight bit overemphasized by Star Wars clientele. I allow myself to admit that there are perhaps better produced versions outside, perhaps aimed on ATMOS?
To the contrary, the latter impressed me by it razor sharp sound effects and unexpected involvement through spatial cues. I am happy to confirm that the devices under review did perform like expected and I have no lags to report from the Toslink usage with a 2020 cheapo smart TV.
After all, I’ve left out my experiments with DXD and DSD because it couldn’t really allocate anything new about the DAC’s performance with this kind of material. If you are into DSD, the device allows you to enjoy up to DSD256 over USB – and it sounded as good as a ESS9038q2m can sound with that material.
A Couple of Final Thoughts:
This combination may be not the end of all audiophile wisdom in this particular price range, however it is more than a proper value proposal only & in my opinion very exciting. Depending on your personal needs you may like to choose one of the three flavors Audiophonics is offering – and be done.
The Q-Acoustics 3030i is one of the greatest values in the sub 500$/pair segment of stand-mount speakers. But they aren’t alone, you could find some interesting Andrew Jones designs in the segemnt as well, for example. Sometimes you’ll - too - get the chance during sales to snap up speakers with higher much MRSP at the 499$ price breaking frontier – and find the 3030i for less than 350$. As so often I life, your budget could be the decisive driver.
I would recommend the 3030i wholeheartedly, especially with this Hypex driven amplification. Nevertheless, I feel the need to underline their design won’t fit in everywhere. It rather excels in a living room close to the wall or free-standing - thus with some distance to your ears - than on your desk on arm-length.
In regard to the AIO amplifier, I have naturally some more thoughts to present, as we are dealing with three different components and the responsibility to control your system for a couple of years.
What I Really Like About this AIO Device:
- The sound quality
- The design
- The “easy going” simplicity
- The value proposition
The device performs without doubt at an audiophile level we get usually proposed by Cambridge, Peachtree, NAD or TEAC at three times the price. For sure, there are some additional features on these devices which may differentiate them, thus the basic audio performance might not differ greatly.
For any starter, I’d go the Audiophonics route, because it offers extraordinary value and performance for limited budgets. Don’t forget to choose your personal flavor.
I remember starting my own Hi-Fi adventure around my 16th birthday with a 1,000 Deutsche Mark (1980) system, including a TENSAI* receiver, an AIWA tape deck and a suiting TENSAI belt-drive turntable. Speakers were INFINITY 1500b, which I kept for almost two decades. In US-Dollar this would amount to -at least - 2,040 USD today, depending on the currency converting website used. It was back then as much a proper value proposal as the DAW-S250NC combination with the Q Acoustics 3030i offers us today.
*Tensai had been a sub-brand from the Japanese brand AKAI (Roberts in the US). distributed in Europe during the early 80s
In order to achieve financial parity (my OCD, my bad), one could add i.e. a BT vinyl spinner. Personally, I do love the design & features of the TEAC TN-400. However, for people without an eclectic record collection the TEAC TN-280 may be the better fit and it could leave some budget for records, too.
What Would I Buy?
Having acquired some experience and some bits of knowledge throughout the years, I may consider a different purchase decision for myself today. Which means, I would rather feed my interest in experimenting with separate components and select the double mono HPA-S250NC for my older self, allowing me to select different DAC flavors, diverse streamers and an additional analog source of choice - my vintage Nagamichi tape deck for example ;-). Just kidding … ;-)
I would keep the 3030i’s for a starter, as I regard the liaison of the Hypex amplifier modules with Q Acoustics cash cow / sweet spot as dangerously promising. I would pair them perhaps with an upmarket streamer- DAC. I’ve noticed quite recently a excellent streamer / DAC by Eversolo that would fit my needs, and extend the budget closer to the 2k mark. But that’s me and I’ve perhaps grown out of that target audience, lately. ;-)
What Should YOU Buy?
Destined for affordable practicability –> one device that rules it all -> with a pair of bass heavy 2-way speaker for a decent budget – avoiding to add new devices & extra cables to fulfill your musical needs, I wouldn’t look any further.
It’s all here, and you could even upgrade around it, once the proverbial itch kicks in. For instance:
- One or two WIIM minis for a multiroom setup.
- Or - A Bluetooth connected record player.
- Optional – Subwoofer(s) with low pass filter to extend the bass performance (only for bass heads).
All that circles around an AIO system with a decent price point which isn’t a proxy for a lack of quality. It ticks all the necessary boxes for users with limited funds and curiosity how good a digital Hi-Fi chain can sound without paying more than they would cash out for a 5 feet power cable (SR, that is!).
Links to Manufacturers:
Audiophonics DAW-S250NC here, integrated amplifier
Dynavox Perfect Sound OFC Copper w/Banana plugs, 3 m, here speaker cable
Components used during the review
WIIM Mini streamer (Toslink) - link
iFi Audio Micro BL (COAX) link
Pioneer DVD (COAX)
RPI 4/4 with Volumio 3 (USB)
CAPS Zuma with JRMC 31 and FB2K (USB, Wi-Fi DLNA & UPnP)
Philips 43PUS6704/12 with Amazon Prime / Netflix (Toslink)
Spring 2023 Qobuz playlist – link