Audio: Listen to this article.
When a product upgrade is released, I often don't read the marketing materials or even seek to find the differences between the versions. I also do my best to avoid conversations about the upgrade with friends. This is the only way I can objectively evaluate the upgraded component without outside influence. While the term upgrade in and of itself should equate to a raising of the bar, I always consider upgrades to be changes, neither good nor bad, until proven otherwise.
In addition to my desire to remain objective, I have zero interest in knowing about the parts used in an upgrade. I've been down that road, driven off the cliff, and wasted a lot of time and energy focusing on items that brought me no closer to determining the worthiness of a product as a whole. Compare all the different converter chips and custom conversion techniques with the objective and subjective evaluations of different digital to analog converters. The results are all over the board. In my experience, the single factor that matters most is the human factor.
I'd much rather have photos from Ansel Adams, shot with a disposable Kodak and developed by him in his darkroom, than a pretty good photographer using a Hasselblad X2D 100C with seven soft stops of in-camera image stabilization. People, experience, and creativity matter most, in all pursuits, whether they are photographic or otherwise.
A Box of Apex Chocolates
Today is Valentine's Day, and I'm sitting in my listening chair to conduct a final evaluation of the dCS Rossini Apex DAC. There is no better way to start this listening session than with Boz Scaggs' version of My Funny Valentine. The track was recorded by Chris Tabarez and only included as a bonus track on the Japanese release of the 2003 album But Beautiful. If you know this one, then you know. If you haven't heard it, you can thank me later.
Wow. Right from the initial hammer strike, this track sounds better than I've ever heard. Period, end of story. I can hear the piano as if it's an 88-key color palette being worked over by a master musician. This track is by no means a demonstration of piano prowess, rather it's an absolutely beautiful, reserved example of serving the song with sounds that tell a story and have an emotional impact on the listener.
When Scaggs' voice comes into the track at 0:20 it's game, set, match. I've never heard this vocal sound so realistic, as if he is standing between my Wilson Audio Alexia V loudspeakers. I've heard this track countless times at trade shows, in the listening rooms of friends, and in my own system with many other DACs. Through the Rossini Apex, I can hear Scaggs' vocal as if it hasn't gone through a microphone, A to D, post processing, and D to A conversion. There is an unprocessed sound to this presentation that's truly stunning.
I can clearly hear the beautifully differentiated tones in Boz Scaggs' voice when he alternates between phrases that emanate from his throat to those that are worked up from deep within his chest cavity. Everything from the delicate upper registers of his voice singing "Stay little Valentine stay" to the deeper baritone delivery of "Each day is Valentine's Day," is reproduced through the Apex with a clarity, vibrance, and texture that paints a sonic picture like no other DAC I've had in my system.
It goes without saying that great recordings must sound great on a high-end system. Like everyone else, I only listen to Patricia Barber or other recordings of similar quality. Only joking. Most of my music collection sounds like it was created by musicians focused on creating art with passion, emotion, and vulnerability rather than the Steely Dan-style revolving door of session musicians who either get it right or hit the bricks.
An album I just discovered 30 years after it was released is Bill LaBounty's self-titled album featuring some of the most talented musicians of the time. Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Jennifer Warnes, Steve Lukather, David Sanborn, and James Taylor among many others. The talent on this album reminded me of Bill Schnee's record label Bravura Records, which used the slogan, Real Talent in Real Time. I reached out to Bill to see if he'd heard the album and to express my surprise that nobody ever talks about this album. Bill hadn't heard it either but said it sounded like a Russ Titelman production, based on the musicians. It turns out, Bill was right. Titelman produced the album.
Anyway, the album is loaded with talent and great music that sounds really good, but not crazy audiophile quality. This is a yacht rock hidden classic, if there is such a thing. On the opening track Bill LaBounty's Rhodes piano evokes an emotion that suits the song so well and creates a nice counterbalance to Ian Underwood's synthesizer. The stars of this track though, are LaBounty's vocal performance and David Sanborn on the Alto Saxophone. The classic 1982 sound, when heard through the Rossini Apex, is as good as it gets. Not perfect, but also not editorialized with something added. Through the Rossini Apex, LaBounty and Sanborn transport the listener to the desk of a boat floating off the coast, where the sun is shining, beverages are flowing, and good times are had by all.
Isn't that what this is all about? How can we listen to our favorite music, and make it sound as good as possible, without adding or subtracting anything. The Rossini Apex is the vehicle for such a pursuit. From James Taylor's beautiful backing harmony on Didn't Want to Say Goodbye, to Taylor and Warnes harmonizing on Never Gonna Look Back, this album played through the Rossini Apex somehow transports me to a time and place that is absolutely unfamiliar to me, but a place that's incredibly vivid in my mind. The music sounds so human and real that I somehow identify with it, yet I feel like it shouldn't be this engaging. However, I'm happy to accept the reality that the Rossini Apex is the one item in my system that's changed, and it has brought my system to the highest level it has ever been. Of course, my favorite music is going to sound better than ever.
I'm not a classical music aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, but my appreciation for it grows every year. While I work to understand the more "inside baseball" aspects of it, I still enjoy the heck out of the music on its own. Case in point Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphonies 1, 14 & 15 from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony on Deutsche Gramophone (2021). Whoa, this entire performance is a stunner in all aspects, musicianship, musical content, sound quality, and emotion.
The performance opens with Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10, an emotional rollercoaster that gives the entire symphony and my audio system a thorough workout. Through the Rossini Apex, I heard clarity, separation, spatial cues separating all the musicians and at the same time coming together to reproduce a whole that bests the sum of the parts by a wide margin. In photography terms, I could listen to each musician and pixel-peep, but music isn't about that style of listening for me. I want the entire performance presented to me with individual instruments clearly identifiable on the soundstage, but the whole that blows me over, Maxell cassette style.
At 5:50 into Allegretto - Allegro non troppo, the Rossini Apex delivers a Mike Tyson level punch and the delicacy of a Butterfly landing with sore feet. This DAC somehow manages to deliver the best reproduction I've ever heard of a huge bombastic crescendo along with simultaneously reproducing the tiny triangle being tapped way back on the symphony stage. It's all audible, and it all sounds like I'm sitting at the symphony.
In addition to the top and bottom ends of the frequency spectrum, the Rossini Apex reproduces the string section of this piece with the lush texture of a horsehair bow full of rosin, in the hands of the best players in the world, on a level that's second to none. For example, from the start of Allegro (track 2), the rich, organic texture of the string section is front and center, and sounds oh-so-elegant. From the violas and cellos on the right to the violins on the left, the sounds bouncing back and forth, and at times in concert with each other, the Rossini Apex delivers the goods better than not only its peers but also better than previous versions of the dCS flagship Vivaldi. Yes, the Rossini Apex is better than the pre-Apex Vivaldi. I had the original Vivaldi here many years ago and have heard the Vivaldi countless times over the years. I love Vivaldi, I've always wanted one, but now I feel like I have something better than that which I dreamt about only a few short years ago.
Given what I've heard with the Rossini Apex, I can only imagine, for now, what the Vivaldi Apex sounds like in a controlled environment, paired with some commensurate components and speakers.
I used the Rossini Apex with a number of sources, testing several of its digital inputs. JPLAY for iOS directing files from MinimServer to the Rossini's Ethernet interface was a great combination that combined a great app with great sound. My Aurender N20, which I believe is the sweet spot in the lineup, is a terrific match for the Rossini on its own or with an external clock because of its word clock input. My favorite sonic combination during this review period was Audirvana on my MacBook Pro, outputting via Ravenna to my Merging Technologies HAPI Mk2, then to the Rossini Apex via AES/EBU. It delivered a sound that was purely magical enough to engage me for the entire 2 hour and 38 minute Boston Symphony Shostakovich performance, not once, but twice, start to finish. I realize the biggest question is, how do I have that much time on my hands, but when something is this good, I make time to enjoy it and live in the moment, forgetting the incoming emails, text messages, and phone calls. Life is good, if you make it that way.
The dCS Rossini Apex is, as its name indicates, the peak. It's unequivocally the best Rossini ever made and in my opinion it's better than the pre-Apex Vivaldi. Comparing the Rossini Apex to other DACs or previous versions of Rossini is like comparing a Van Gogh painting to a photograph of the same painting. In person the real painting shows Van Gogh's impasto technique, with use of thick paint to sometimes create flowing undulations and at other times jagged edges that rise and fall like tiny peaks. A photograph, or a lesser DAC, doesn't do the art justice.
The Rossini Apex enables listeners to see into recordings or to pull back and let the recording as a whole come to them, hearing it better than ever and experiencing music in a way not previously possible through other components. I was thrilled with all types of music from my favorite Japanese jazz (Three Blind Mice record label), to yacht rock, to a 2.5 hour performance of Shostakovich by the Boston Symphony. The Rossini Apex enabled me to sit in my listening chair and block out the world, while it brought the music to me on a silver platter.
The Rossini Apex is on another level. Period. End of story.
Complete Audio System Details with Measurements - https://audiophile.style/system
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