- Part 1 - Introduction and Digital Audio Optimization Foundations (Link)
- Part 2 - Enter the Extreme (Link)
- Part 3 - First Impressions and Basic Configuration (Link)
- Part 4 - Tweaking Up the Extreme (Link)
- Part 5 - Extended Listening Impressions, Learnings, and Conclusions
So enough A/B testing and back-breaking lifting and moving. Time for some extended listening with the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme! (for details on each track and what I listen for for each, please see the end of Part 1 of this review)
Extended Listening Impressions
When I finally settled in for some extended listening with all the tweaks and optimizations in place, I was struck again and again by how real and present everything sounded. It really was a kid in the musical candy store experience, and such a delight to get connected again and in a new way to so many remarkable musical performances.
On Noche Maravillosa (Begona Olavide), I was struck by the tangibility and presence of the percussion. Each instrument and player is remarkably distinct, but the overall performance comes together into a wonderfully coherent whole. There was a subtlety and layer of expression in some of the performances that I had never heard before (caught me short actually...I’ve heard this track many hundreds of times), with a sound stage that easily extends well through 180 degrees. Todd Garfinkle of MA Recordings is both a remarkable musician and recording engineer, but hearing his work in this way really gave me a new appreciation of how he blends both perspectives into his recordings.
That same remarkable nuance extended to the vocals on Voglio De Vita Uscir (La Chimera). Even more, I was struck by the coherence of the performance (it is rare for me to hear this level of coherence outside of a live performance). The sense that the musicians are listening and reacting to (and creating with) each other is tight and palpable. Control and dynamics are off the charts, but absolutely controlled and relaxed. The combination of incredible dynamics with absolute control is striking, and the hallmark of the Extreme sound.
Fischer’s Mahler #2 is an incredible recording and performance, riding a roller coaster of emotions and dynamics with the master at the helm. With the Extreme, I get a wonderful sense of the mastery that Fischer demonstrates with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The canvas of sound is vast, but at the same time subtle and dynamic. The overlay of themes and musical lines is magnificent. Hearing the incredible nuanced artistry in a performance of this caliber through the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme + Chord DAVE + Voxativ 9.87s is truly remarkable. Even in the most aggressive moments (of which there are many), control remains absolute, and nuance and subtlety of the individual musical lines and performances still shine through.
Going back and revisiting Reiner’s Scheherazade, but now in a fully optimized configuration, what I’m hearing is absolutely glorious. This is a time machine back to 1960 Chicago. A magical performance for the ages. What an incredible experience. Truly, hearing a performance like this makes all the effort and investment in building an audio system worthwhile, just to bring such incredible artistry to life once more.
My reaction to Fischer and Reiner was a bit emotionally overwhelming. In general, I have a bias for smaller ensembles and more intimate musical performances where I am connecting with the individual performers, but with the Extreme, the full force of large scale orchestras sits in perfect harmony with the individual grace and humanity of the individual players, and indeed brings them together into something much larger still. I get the feeling that with the Extreme, there may be a lot more listening-time spent with these large orchestral works in my future.
Choral works like Hodie Christus Natus Est (Dunedin Consort) are extraordinary. The sublime performances and harmonies are really something to experience at this level. The speed and dynamics of the Extreme really brings out the nuanced intonations of the vocalists, and the remarkable sense of space and spatial resolution brings the chorus together in a way that gives me even more admiration for a performance of this caliber.
On the magnificent Arnesen Magnificat (TrondheimSolistene), it really all comes together: the choir, the orchestra, the organ, the sweeping cathedral where the performance took place. In this recording, I’ve always felt that the cathedral should have been credited as a performer on this album - the sense of space and music reverberating within it is so remarkably engaging and encompassing. With Extreme in my system, the hologram is even more tangible still. Absolutely glorious!
Moving back to small scale recordings with the Bassface Swing Trio, the speed and dynamics of the Extreme really bring out the best of all three performers: the sense of tangibility and nuance of the bass line, the attack and physicality of the drums, and sense of being with a real piano, where every note dances with every other note and across the soundboard. All this with performers who are absolutely tight and dialed in. Just delightful.
Revisiting the gift that is Shamus-Ud-Doha Cader-Ud-Doja (and the remarkable Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), the master has me in literal tears from his opening call. With all that is going on in the world, I can’t separate how much of this overwhelming emotional reaction is because of what I’m hearing vs how much I am in need of hearing it, but I am enormously grateful for this salve for the soul.
After a brief break to recover, back to some more intimate recordings. Rob Wasserman’s bass on Stardust (from the “Duets” album, with Aaron Neville) has never felt so deep and so resonant and so present. The full soundboard is tangible, and the complement to Aaron Neville’s full body singing style is a lovely pairing. Each singer and Wasserman’s bass is a real tangible physical presence, and the artistry is truly off the charts.
On Alison Krauss’ live rendition of Let Me Touch You For A While, the masterful level of musicianship of Union Station really shines with the Extreme, with each player complementing each other beautifully, and the nuance and presence of each instrument blending in a way where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.
Eva Cassidy’s Fields of Gold (from “Nightbirds”) has always had a recording that fell short of the (remarkable) performance for me. The stresses and strains of recording equipment being pushed beyond where they should have been always has me on edge waiting for a break. The speed and dynamics of the Extreme greatly diminish my wincing at the more saturated parts of the recording, but I still get a slight flinch at times. Overall though, a much more inviting and engaging experience than I’m used to, which for this performance, is a gift worth appreciating.
Turning my attention to some favorite piano recordings, for me that means revisiting some favorites in the Blue Coast library of recordings. Cookie Marceno (master of the house at Blue Coast) has a lovely and lovingly mic’ed vintage Steinway in her studio. When I hear her recordings, the character of that piano is unmistakable, and I am always reminded of the sounds etched into my heart and soul of my daughters playing our vintage Steinway as they were growing up. With Extreme, that “whole piano” experience that I so appreciate in real life is there in Cookie’s recordings in all its glory - all the strings and soundboard and room coming together for an experience that I know all too well and miss all too much. In particular, Sareena Overwater’s One World has a vividness and realness that takes a breathtakingly beautiful and relevant performance and elevates it to an anthem.
Moving to guitar and voice, that “whole piano” feeling becomes a “whole guitar” feeling, with the strings and fretboard and soundboard all present and tangible. The speed and controlled dynamics of the Extreme shine a particularly compelling light on stringed instruments. Meghan Andrew’s 99 hits even harder for this soon to be empty nester, and then listening to Willie Nelson’s Vous et Moi (from “Night and Day”) reminds me even more that the best is yet to come. On Vous et Moi the sense of friendship and mutual respect and flat out joy of the performers is so intoxicating and full of grace. The Extreme makes that studio real again, and I’ve pulled up a stool to sit with the band.
On Arianna Savall’s exquisite L’Amour (from “Bella Terra”) all the nuance and beauty of the remarkable resonance between Arianna’s harp and her voice is absolutely breathtaking. As she harmonizes with her harp, the harp responds and sings with her. The layers and interplay and exquisite dance between voice and instrument are taken to a new level with Extreme.
Shifting to some favorite binaural recordings, I was very excited to hear what the Extreme can really do. I have found that when my system is dialed in just right, the best binaural recordings become true 360 holographic surround (all around?) sound experiences. Alas, it takes vanishingly little to have that all around-you and above-you sound stage and collapse it.
Listening to Melissa Menago’s Traveler (from “Little Crimes”) I’m in David Chesky’s favorite Brooklyn church, and it is raining outside. The rain accentuates the sense of space, and it is all just right and blissful (wonderful). Airplane (from the same album) has wonderful articulation of vocals and instruments. Speed and dynamics are awesome, as is naturalness and realness of the performances.
Amber Rubarth’s “Sessions from the 17th Ward” shows that the same naturalness and realness is still there even with more complex binaural performances. The strings on Don’t You reach right out, command your attention, and draw you closer in a way that live violin always does, but recorded violin rarely does (Amber’s voice does as well).
Carla Lother’s Ephemera (from “Ephemera”) is a remarkable interpretation of a remarkable poem by William Butler Yeats. It is also a near perfect recording that is remarkably delicate on playback. Over the years, I’ve looked to this incredible song (and poem) for inspiration, but also to shine a bright light on how my system could be keeping it from being fully realized. Listening with the Extreme, the remarkable speed and dynamics of the Extreme render Ephemera the finest I’ve ever heard - clear, vivid, real, engaging, and engrossing.
Turning up the volume, it was time for some Daft Punk (Get Lucky, from “Random Access Memories”). Fantastic album, and I adore the care and passion that went into the performances and capturing the performances. As you would expect, the Extreme really brings the speed and dynamics here, but I’m even more impressed with how transparent and natural things sound (no bloat, no overshoot, no sense of sloppiness at all).
Closing out with some favorite jazz performances, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five (from “Time Out”) again surprises with the combination of naturalness and speed and transparency. I get the sense that I could listen for days, which has always been difficult for me on this recording.
As always, I closed out my listening session with Mile Davis So What (from “Kind of Blue”). As I mention in my tracklist way back in Part 1 (LINK), I consider this one of the finest recordings and performances of the 20th century. Until there is a time machine to take me back to March 2 and April 22 1959, I will buy every new remaster of this album, and play it on every piece of high end audio kit I can find.
With the Extreme, the masterful grace of Bill Evans is completely out of this world. Cobb’s percussion line is the finest I’ve ever heard it. Coltrane absolutely erupts into the room, and I know who I’m going to be listening to for the next several hours...wow! Hearing performances like this in this way makes all the system optimizing and tweaking work so worth it.
So What Is Happening Here?
Reviewing my notes, what comes through again and again is “speed”, “control”, “dynamics”, “transparency”, “naturalness”, “wow”. The Extreme is delivering remarkable performance by being remarkably performant, but also by being capable of so much more performance than what is needed that it can maintain remarkable control.
While the name certainly brings a smile when you take a look at what the Extreme brings to the table, “Extreme” is also the perfect representation of the design philosophy behind every single component, design decision, and execution element of the Extreme. Everything is over specified and over allocated and over built not as a flex, but as part of a very purposeful design to have dynamic loads on the system during music playback perturb core components as little as possible. Have the best possible, most powerful and fastest components you can possibly have, and use them as little as possible.
Does one need 40 logical Xeon cores and 48GB of hand selected custom memory and 700,000uF(!) of ultra premium capacitors with a 10gbps USB channel in a 100 pounds of precision milled aluminum and copper and panzerholz case to stream 44/16 Redbook files to a DAC? Of course not.
However, having that type of capacity available means that processing loads and heat loads and power loads can be spread and isolated as much as possible, and that the act of music playback registers as little change as possible on the system. The result is sound quality with speed and precision and transparency and dynamics and naturalness and control that are way beyond anything I’ve ever heard.
Vocal intonations have a level of subtlety and physicality that is simply stunning. That sense of music coming from the head and throat and chest is tangible, and the emotional connection is vivid and real. The speed and control on string plucks is striking. Like the physicality of vocals, there is a tangibility of the soundboard on the stringed instruments that I’ve only experienced in front of real instruments. More than just imaging, the coherence of sound coming from the performer and the instruments is letting my brain perceive the performance as real and reconstruct the scene, with striking speed and physicality and realness.
With the Extreme, everything is better, but I did note a surprise outsized benefit to marginal or dynamic-range-compressed recordings. It was as if the speed of the Extreme was able to increase the perceived dynamic range of these compromised recordings, and certainly make them more enjoyable and listenable.
Perhaps the most interesting and compelling part of listening to music with the Extreme is that the remarkable dynamics and speed don’t overwhelm and over drive the music. The incredible speed and dynamics is balanced by every more remarkable effortless and complete control. The combination of speed, dynamics, and effortless control reveals a level of nuance and subtlety in recordings and performances that I simply have never heard before. For the best performances, there is a whole new amazing layer of artistry that has always been there, but that has somehow always been held back or washed out by other systems I have owned.
Bringing It All Together
Reviewing my experience with the Extreme, the best I was able to do to improve things was to give it better inputs (network and power), and better outputs (USB), and a better place to hang out (vibration isolation). Everything else is already tuned and optimized way beyond anything I could do for myself. Below is a final snapshot of my new optimized reference system:
Although the diagram is seemingly complex, when you boil it down I am going fiber internet from the street to ONT to EdgeRouter to opticalModule to Extreme to USB to Chord DAVE to speaker cables to Voxativ 9.87’s. This is the simplest and most transparent system I can imagine, leaning heavily into the design and engineering genius of Emile Bok (digital servers), Rob Watts (digital to analog converters), and Holger Adler (analog transducers).
As an added bonus, after literally years of digital audio experiment after digital audio experiment being strewn all around (and over and under) the living room, here is how my listening setup looks today:
Yes, for all the lost and forlorn civilians out there waiting for their audiophiles to come back from the depths of madness, there is hope at the end of the Extreme rainbow (at least until the tweaking gene kicks in and it all starts over again...maybe it’s time for an ultra short throw projector and a 10’ screen?
So Where To Go From Here?
So where to go from here? Other than hitting the gym so it isn’t so painful to move the Extreme next time, my spidey-sense is that there is still goodness to be found in the USB implementation in the Extreme, maybe a bit more to be squeezed out on the network side, and I am always hopeful that there is more to be found by upgrading the power supply.
The ASMedia USB 3.1 gen 2 controller in the Extreme has phenomenal performance, but there is a new wave of USB controllers coming (including from ASMedia). In addition, the ASMedia controller in the Extreme is clocked and powered by the ASUS motherboard. An add-on USB card like the JCAT USB XE (with external power and high quality clocks) could give a lift above what the brute force ASM controller can deliver. I look forward to being able to audition these kinds of cards in the future.
Similarly, there are many audiophile network cards available on the market, and exciting reports about the impact of a new generation of audiophile switches. There may be opportunities to tweak up performance even higher, but sound quality of local content vs streamed content on my system is so danger close, I may be at the point of diminishing returns (at least until AT&T gives me a key to the fiber concentrator up the road, and I can convince Sean Jacobs to build a carrier-class LPS for me.
Lastly, for the Extreme power supply, I mentioned in Part 2 (LINK) that I believe that much of the secret sauce of the Extreme starts and ends with the remarkable extravagance of the Extreme power supply. I have yet to hear any piece of digital audio equipment that did not improve with better power, and I have to believe that there is more goodness to be found with the Extreme, but what direction could that take?
With that level of investment in filtering capacitors in the Extreme, there may be an opportunity to push for even bigger and faster and more dynamic power sources, and be able to elevate system-wide performance higher still. My hope is that the extravagant filter bank may be able to support even more “extreme” brute force in the power supply, making even faster power available while not losing that remarkable control that the Extreme excels at. Alas, there is nothing for us DIYers and tweakers to do here, except trust that if there is more sound quality to be found via the power dimension, Emile will find it, and he will find a way to get it to all of us.
So Is It Worth it?
So, after ~26,000 words, the $26,000 question: Is it worth it?
Weighing in at 100 pounds, the price of the Extreme is roughly equivalent to what you pay for 100 pounds of silver or 1 pound of gold. This is rarified air for even the most audiophile obsessed among us.
Having now been able to spend several weeks with the beast, the Extreme is a marvelous achievement, and a stunning embodiment of the design philosophy and expertise of Emile Bok. It is quite simply the finest digital server I’ve ever heard (by a LOT). In a hobby where there is never consensus about anything, the universality of the opinion amongst those that have heard the Extreme speaks volumes. The Extreme is a seminal product, and one whose influence will be seen in other commercial offerings and DIY builds for years to come.
So yes, one would expect that a $26,000 server will sound good. The capital Q Question is “Is it worth it?”
As with all such questions, worth is in the ear (and wallet) of the listener. For me, as I have traveled into the digital server rabbit hole, the Extreme has taken anything I could have tried or would have wanted to try to many many levels beyond what I’d ever even be able to try (a 700,000µF Mundorf and Dueland capacitor bank?!? Are you kidding me?!?!?).
But does it make sense to push things to these extremes? Can one get 99% of the value at 20% of the cost, or even 5% of the cost?
There are many quality and respected digital audio server options that fill the (considerable) gap between my current optimized NUC setup and something as extravagant (and expensive) as the Extreme. Where do they fall on the price/performance curve? Is there more value to be had with the fine solutions from companies like Innuos and Pink Faun and Aurender and the many others that are delivering very capable digital audio solutions these days? Or even some of the more advanced DIY builds like are being shared in the outstanding Building a DIY Music Server thread and elsewhere?
Alas, I do not have ready access to these systems to do a proper side by side comparison to be able to answer that question (and Alas2 Pandemic-induced restrictions make it even more difficult to cajole folks to bring their systems over for side by side listening). As others are able to hear and compare the Extreme with other fine server options out there, I look forward to reading their reports.
For me, as I was looking at what could have been another 3 or 4 iterations of builds and upgrade cycles to get to an end game optimized server, I did the math (materials, power supplies, master clocks, case work, time, frustration, rework, messes, disruptions, etc.) and got within spitting distance of the cost of the Extreme, so the math worked out for me (it was an easy call actually). Moreover, Emile is an absolute delight of a person to be working with, and I'm very pleased to support the work he and his team are doing, and to benefit so greatly from it.
Is it the right decision for everyone? Absolutely not. Aside from the heavy cost of entry, there is a lot of satisfaction to be found in DIY builds, and the opportunity to make targeted investments in components that matter the most for you.
However, if your budget can tolerate it and you want to jump to the ultimate best solution and skip all these intermediate steps, the Extreme delivers on everything it promises and much much more. It brings the relaxed welcoming sensation of listening to the finest analog setups, with the precision/speed/detail and dynamics/noise floor of the finest digital setups. Performance is at such a stunning level that you can clearly hear when processes are running and not running on a 40 core 48GB Xeon monster. For all the incredible power and speed and dynamics the Extreme delivers, there is a level of control and naturalness and grace which is greater still. The result is being able to hear (and feel) nuances and artistic subtlety in performances that I’ve never heard before.
I’m sure someone can and will do better at some point (that fact that seemingly small changes in network and power are so audible confirms that), but if your pocket and back muscles can take it, the Extreme is a true reference against which all other digital front ends should be measured.
Acknowledgements and Thanks
My sincere thanks to all those in the audiophile community that have blazed the way for digital server optimization (most of that trailblazing happening right here at Audiophile Style). Your work and generous sharing of experiences is incredibly appreciated. My special thanks to those that contributed insights and feedback on this novella of a review, and to all of you who braved this week long Extreme Week odyssey!
As an addendum, in another thread this week the very legitimate question was raised about the wisdom of something like Extreme Week with all that is going on in the world. (I hope the OP forgives me for repurposing some of that discussion here)
While this journey started for me before most of our worlds turned upside down, was it still one worth pursuing and sharing now that all our worlds were decidedly upside down?
I did reflect a lot on this over the last couple months, and struggled with it. During a very difficult time, music (and a new way to enjoy music) has been a very welcome and meaningful part of my life, and an affirming and hopeful balance against the many serious things that are happening all around us.
Alas, there is never a good way to deal with what no one should ever have to deal with. In a world of no good choices, I often return to a favorite poem from Mary Oliver (reproduced below) and remind myself "Joy is not made to be a crumb". Remembering to feel joy, to feel the vast canvas of emotions at the core of the music we all love and enjoy, has been a cherished candle for me in a time of great darkness.
Peace and health and joy to all of you in a very difficult time, and my thanks to Chris for hosting this community and this conversation, and for giving space for that candle to shine.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate.
Give in to it.
There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be.
We are not wise, and not very often kind.
And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left.
Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world.
It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins.
Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty.
Joy is not made to be a crumb.
~ Mary Oliver
Community Star Ratings and Reviews
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