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Middy

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    Middy reacted to ray-dude for an article, Reality Quest: Power and Digital Audio with the Sean Jacobs DC4 and Sound Application PGI TT-7 (Part 1 of 2)   
    Reality Quest: Power and Digital Audio with the Sean Jacobs DC4 and Sound Application PGI TT-7 (Part 1 of 2)
     
     
    A hundred years ago at the start of the pandemic, I had a few words to say about the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme digital music server. 
     
    In that piece, I detailed my high level strategy and hypothesis for digital optimization:
     
    First Law: Invest in cabling, power, and digital hygiene to do as little harm as possible (directly or indirectly) to the DAC’s clock, ground plane, or reference voltage plane Second Law: Invest in a digital endpoint that moves bit perfect digital data from ethernet to a USB DAC with as little variability and as much timing and signal integrity as possible (aka, as close to precision real time data streaming to DAC as possible)  
    The Extreme delivers on the Second Law of Digital Audio to a level way beyond anything I have ever heard, and has only improved during the last 100 pandemic years (look for a future Part 6 to my Extreme review later this Spring). 
     
    Any interesting side effect of pushing the Second Law to the Extreme (ouch) is that it has made it incredibly easy to discern the impact to sound quality from any other change in my system. With this clarity, it was finally time to revisit the First Law of Digital Audio (“Do No Harm To Thy DAC’s Clock, Ground Plane, and Reference Voltage Plane”), and see if better power could make things better.
     
    For a couple years now, I have had the very good fortune of having a custom Sean Jacobs DC3 power supply powering my Chord DAVE DAC. It completely transformed what I already considered the finest DAC I’ve ever heard, bringing a level of dynamics and control and spaciousness and reality that I had never heard outside of a live performance. Later, I added a dedicated 30A circuit with 10-2 Romex to the party and a Topaz ultra low capacitance isolation transformer, and all this awesome just got awesomer.
     
    So when I heard that Sean had released his new DC4 power supply, I reached out to see if I could arrange a loaner for review. He graciously agreed, and in doing so gave me a good excuse to revisit the First Law in my system, and see what new truths were waiting to be found. 
     
    For good measure, since I was already breaking the seal on the First Law, it was long past time to put aside my well-practiced denial about power line conditioning and give the Sound Application TT-7 power line conditioner a proper listen. For many years, many trusted ears had urged me to audition Jim Weil’s Sound Application PLCs, but with the universal warning to not do so unless I was ready to purchase one. I resisted, mainly so I could get the rest of my system dialed in first. With the Second Law well in hand, it was time to set aside my denial and give the PGI TT-7 a proper listen. 
     
    Spoiler warning: all those that urged me not to listen to one unless I was ready to purchase one were absolutely right (wow!).
     

    Background on Power and Digital Systems

    First my usual caveat: Digital optimizations and hygiene in audio can be a contentious topic (bits are bits, right?). Rather than debate mechanics, I am sharing my experiences in my home with my equipment and my local power grid with my ears and my biases and my aspirations for connecting emotionally to remarkable musical performances. Almost certainly yours will vary. Hopefully my experiences are helpful to you, but if not, that’s OK too.
     
    As I noted in my Extreme review, any time I have inserted a better/faster DC power supply (Paul Hynes SR4, Uptone Audio UltraCap LPS-1.2, LDOVR DXP supplies, etc) that delivers well-regulated voltage under very dynamic current loads, sound quality has improved. Similarly, better conductors and better shielding consistently improves sound quality, as does reducing mechanical vibrations on power supplies and digital components.
     
    So what is a possible basis for this? Digital systems are inherently switching systems, with current being switched on and off potentially billions of times a second. Like a light switch, every switch causes a surge in current, which then gets turned off when the switch turns off. The job of the power supply is to keep a perfect reference voltage (“On”) and perfect reference ground (“Off”). In the real world, no power supply is perfect, and it lags in how quickly it can respond to changing current demands. That lag can impact the reference voltage and the ground plane. In a DAC, that can be particularly bad, since the digital to analog section can be impacted by this noise, making it audible.
     
    DAC designers go to great lengths to filter or isolate this induced noise, but there are practical limits based on cost targets, availability of components, size/heat, etc. However, if there were no pragmatic restrictions, the ideal power supply would have perfect voltage regulation, be infinitely fast with an infinite reserve of instantaneous current, a perfect ground, and wiring that has zero impedance (resistance, capacitance, and inductance).
     
    In practice, nothing has zero impedance or unlimited instantaneous current capacity, so choices must be made, and accommodations made elsewhere in the design for the pragmatic realities of any given power supply.
     
    For example, the stock Chord DAVE DAC (>$10,000, so no slouch on the available budget for power supplies) uses the XP Power ECM40UT33 (~$40 part) for its internal power supply. I’ve read reports that more recent DAVEs use the EOS Power LFWLT40-3002 (a ~$18 part). 
     
    Of course, that is only part of the picture.The power supply is only part of the power network for the DAVE, with gobs of filtering and voltage regulation engineered into the DAC itself. Since we can’t (easily) hack the DAC printed circuit board to tweak power, what can we do to improve the key areas where power makes a big difference to a DAC?
     
    John Swenson, designer of first-class products for Uptone Audio and Sonore among others, has written extensively about power supplies and their impact on digital audio. His main areas of focus have been leakage current, and output impedance. 
     
    For leakage current, John has focused our attention on high impedance leakage current (an issue with switching power supplies, like the SMPS in the Chord DAVE), and low impedance leakage current, which impacts both switching supplies and linear power supplies. John argues that leakage current can cause voltage variations across the ground plane, causing jitter.
     
    For output impedance, John has focused on output impedance as a function of frequency. The lower the output impedance, the better a power supply can deliver a stable voltage at different current levels.
     
    There are more subtle characteristics as well. In an extremely informative post, Rob Watts (designer of the Chord DAVE, and decidedly not an advocate for power optimization for his designs) outlined the key areas of consideration for power when designing a DAC. This is a master class, and a roadmap to power optimization for DACs, which because of its importance and relevance, I am quoting in full here:
     

    RF noise. This by far is the most important thing in a PSU and analog electronics; it's something I talk about a great deal. The problem is that analogue audio components are non-linear, and very non-linear at RF (and by that I actually mean 20 kHz to several GHz). When a random RF noise gets into active audio components, it distorts with the wanted audio signal and creates inter-modulation distortion - and some of the inter-modulation distortion has an audio component - audible random noise. What happens with this is when there is no audio signal, you get no inter-modulation distortion, hence no extra noise. When the audio signal increases, the inter-modulation products increases, and noise goes up - so noise levels becomes linked to the signal level and you get noise floor modulation. Now this issue is easy to measure, and taking steps to remove RF noise lowers noise floor modulation. Additionally, you can improve the analogue electronics open loop RF linearity too.


     
    The problem with noise floor modulation is the ear/brain is extremely sensitive to it, and certainly can detect levels of noise floor modulation that is below the ability to measure. My own tentative conclusions (or rule of thumb) are that one can hear levels of noise floor modulation down to -200dB - currently we can measure noise floor modulation at -180 dB, and Dave has zero measured noise floor modulation. In terms of SQ, if noise floor modulation is say around -120 dB (typical class D) you get considerable hardness and glare; at -140 dB its grain in the treble; below -160 dB then things sound much smoother with better instrument separation and focus. This continues until about -200dB (and perhaps even lower - reducing RF noise is not something that has an acceptable limit).


     
    But to get this level of performance required me to do many things; and part of that was the PSU system. I call it a system because it is lots of parts working together, with sources of noise within the DAC contaminating other parts. One source is the mains power, so this is dealt with a filter that starts at a few 100 Hz to several GHz - each PSU line (+15v,-15v,+5v) from the SMPS is individually filtered with a complex multistage filter. That covers RF noise initially, but every analogue part is individually regulated and RF filtered again. Moreover, each digital module is individually RF filtered too, as each digital part of a DAC is a huge RF noise generator.
     
    PSU impedance. The impedance of the power supply is crucial too as it can create distortion which is audible. The actual mechanism for distortion from an amplifier is due to the fact that an amp draws signal related current from the PSU; this current then creates a voltage drop in the power rails (an error) that is signal dependent; this error then is fed back to the amplifiers output by the amp power supply rejection ration (PSRR); the error then creates distortion in the output. For Class A it is second harmonic, for class B it is very serious HF harmonics extending to infinite harmonics. Now its very easy to design the amp to avoid this problem; simply use low enough output impedance PSU and an amp that has a large enough PSRR. It is easy to calculate your requirements; much more difficult to design a stage that meets those requirements. So with Dave I wanted no measurable effect from this; this meant a PSU impedance in the OP stage of 3 milli ohms, which would make this effect un-measurable at -180dB. And that's exactly what I achieve; loading the output stage shows no measurable PSU induced distortion at all.
     
    Reference supply. So far I have talked about the requirements for the analogue section; and this is an interaction between amp topology (sensitivity to RF and PSRR) against the actual levels within the PSU. So you could use a poor PSU with an amp that had amazing RF and PSRR or vice versa. My approach with Dave is to use both strategies - get the best innate isolation with the best filtering I could do. But there is a PSU where whatever happens on the PSU will be directly on the output and this is the reference PSU. Now nobody talks about the reference for two reasons - it is buried inside a DAC chip, and because people are not aware of how crucial this component is. The reference supplies the voltage that is used to create the analogue voltage (or current) output on the DAC, so clearly if that voltage changes it will have an immediate and 100% impact on the output. Normally, with a silicon DAC the reference presents a problem; noise on the reference will appear on the output, so making the SNR and dynamic range (DR) depend on the reference. Its actually extremely difficult to have a 120dB reference voltage on chip; so to overcome this they use a differential structure (balanced + and -). This means the reference noise, when its reproducing small signals is cancelled as it becomes common mode. So you get good DR figures from a poor reference. But when the signal becomes larger, the cancellation stops and you then see the reference noise and you get noise floor modulation - which is very measurable and very audible. It's one reason why chip based DAC's have large amounts of noise floor modulation.
     
     
     
    Rob clearly has made a HUGE investment in his designs to minimize any adverse impact from power issues. If he believes that the stock DAVE medical grade power supply delivers the best performance and further investment in power supply won’t have a material impact, who are any of us to say otherwise? 
     
    While there is literally no one in digital audio that I respect more than Rob Watts, on this my ears respectfully disagree. When provided with better and better power, the Chord DAVE scales beautifully (incredibly actually), and reveals a quality of dynamics and sense of space and relaxed naturalness that is otherworldly and must be heard to be believed. Both the Sean Jacobs DC4 and Sound Application PGI TT-7 not only have a place at this table, but are essential foundational elements to build around.
     

    BEWARE!! Here Dragons Dwell…

    Before going further, a reminder that what is described here is most definitely not supported nor endorsed by Chord or any DAC manufacturer. It involves opening the case (a no no) and replacing the power supply to the unit (a big no no). 
     
    Before attempting anything like this, please appreciate that you are likely voiding warranties, putting your equipment at risk, and potentially putting yourself at risk. If you are not comfortable doing so, or if you have ANY doubts about your skills and ability to work safely with electronic circuits and live power, please do not attempt any of these modifications to your system. 
     
    To very intentionally belabor the point, anything you choose to do is at your own risk. If you have doubts about whether you should attempt any of this, please do not attempt it!!! Frying your equipment or yourself simply isn’t worth it.
     

    Enter the Sean Jacobs DC4

    Note that the DC4 supplies can be spec’ed and leveraged in a variety of scenarios, not just to power the Chord DAVE (for example, Sean does offer a variant tailored to the Chord Blu2 transport, and Sean has been designing and building power supplies for Naim and Innuos and others for years). Depending on the voltages and number of voltage rails you require, each build is unique. 
     
    When I first approached Sean for a loaner DC4 to review, he suggested that given his workload and backlog, I work with @Nenon here in the US, who is licensed to build supplies based on Sean’s designs for the US market. For the purpose of this review, I requested a custom 3 rail DC4 with 5V, +15V, and -15V as required by the Chord DAVE, which @Nenon graciously agreed to build and provide for review.
     
    (Disclosure: I have no financial affiliation with Sean Jacobs, @Nenon, or anyone mentioned in this review other than as a customer who has purchased their products. Moreover, I have no commercial interest or affiliation in any of the vendors discussed in this review. Review units were provided without condition or expectation. My thanks to Sean and @Nenon for the opportunity to hear the DC4 in my system, and Jim Weil for the opportunity to hear the PGI TT-7 in my system.)
     
     

     
     
     
     
    All Shiny and Chrome
     
    Physically, the DC4 (on the right) is considerably larger and heavier than my Sean Jacobs DC3 (on the left), but thankfully quite easy to move around. The Modushop case is upgraded from the DC3, with IsoAcoustics Gaia feet for vibration isolation and a Furutech gold plated IEC inlet.
     
     

     
    Cracking the case, the build is gorgeous. From right to left, there is a custom wound 600VA transformer fully loaded with internal shielding and a stainless steel shell. The DC4 transformer is a better-spec version of the transformer used in the DC3, with a laboratory measured and selected core, precision wound windings for low mechanical noise, and the entire assembly has been potted in epoxy and a stainless steel outer can for mechanical isolation and shielding. For further mechanical isolation, the transformer assembly is mounted to the inner chassis via four vibration isolation mountings.
     
     
     
     

     
    The transformer assembly is connected to three independent rectification and capacitor array (RECAP) boards, each with an updated design versus the previous generation DC3. In addition to higher grade components on the board and a gold plated printed circuit board, the DC4 RECAP boards sport four 10,000 µF Mundorf capacitors (versus two Mundorfs on the DC3) and improved filtering for each of the three voltage rails. 
     
     
     
     

     
    The DC4 also includes three of Sean’s new CX voltage regulator boards (CX-REG), configured to 5V and ±15V (each rated to 5A continuous output). The regulator boards also sport gold plated PCBs and upgraded components compared to the DC3 (Vishay Z-foil resistors, Audio Note KAISEI capacitors, etc), an optimized circuit layout and star-ground management (vs the DC3), all resulting in reduced output noise and ground noise, with enhanced performance versus the DC3 design. 
     
     
     
     

     
    Note that the CX boards in the DC4 have new built in circuitry to significantly improve noise rejection at low currents (up to 3A). The lower the current, the more effective the CX filter is. Interestingly, the CX filter can be enabled and disabled with a jumper on the regulator boards (it is enabled by default for DAVE configured units).
     
    With the Chord DAVE typically drawing ~1A on each of the ±15V rails and ~2A on the 5V rails, the CX filter should have a noticeable impact (more on this later).
     
     
     
     

     
    All components are mounted to the case using vibration isolation materials, and the case is lined with vibration dampening materials on all sides (for these types of supplies, the transformer and large caps are particularly susceptible to vibration). All internal wiring is typically Neotech 7N OCC wiring with teflon insulation, although this particular review unit had been upgraded to use optional Mundorf silver/gold internal wiring.
     
     
     
     


    On the output side, there is one connector for 5V and ground, and a second connector for ±15V and ground. This unit came with Sean’s standard Neotech 7N OCC DC umbilical, which combines the DC lines into a single Molex connector to be attached to the DAVE PCB. 
     
     
     
     

     
    The umbilical contains clamping hardware for mounting to the DAVE case, with the 4 pin Molex connector mounting directly to the power connector on the DAVE PCB (the white connector in the photo above).
     
     
    The Sean Jacobs DC3
     

     
     
    In comparison, the build of my circa early 2018 Sean Jacobs custom three rail DC3 supply is a bit more compact. This DC3 was configured with high current CHC-REG voltage regulator modules, so it is also capable of supplying 5A continuous current on each of the three ±15V and 5V rails (at least for short stretches).
     
    While this unit has a single output connector, the ±15V rails and 5V rails are separate from each other, and only join together at the 4 pin Molex connector that connects to the DAVE PCB (same as the DC4 cable). The DC4’s configuration is more robust with two output connectors, keeping the lines for the digital side (5V) and the analog side (±15V) separate until the connection on the DAVE PCB.
     
    Like the DC4, the DC3 uses a custom toroidal transformer with ESS (shielding between primary and secondary windings) and GOSS band (mu-metal wrap around the transformer to shield against emissions), but is of an older design than the transformer in the DC4. Unlike the DC4, the DC3 transformer does not have epoxy potting or the stainless steel can (for mechanical vibration control and shielding).
     
    Each of the three Schottky rectifier bridges in my DC3 feed two large 10,000 µF Mundorf capacitors (versus four Mundorfs in the DC4), which in turn feed three Sean Jacobs CHC-REG regulator modules. Two of these regulator modules are connected in series to give the ±15V rails and the third one is the 5V rail. 
     
    The smaller Modushop case is solid, but lacks the vibration isolation details found in the DC4 case. The umbilical with my DC3 is made from OFC (vs the Neotech OCC with the DC4).
     
    While the DC3 is a world class audio power supply, with the DC4 Sean looked to design the ultimate “cost no object” supply, elevating component, design, and build quality at every level. 
     
    Alas, the DC4 does come with a requisite ~3x increase in cost: US$7,300 as reviewed (with pricing in flux because of Brexit), versus what was at the time ~US$2,500 for the DC3 (DC3 for DAVE is now discontinued). 
     
    Compared with the DC3, the DC4 has improved circuit designs (for noise and performance), and significantly higher-spec parts to maximize performance. The assembly itself has also been optimized, with a significant pervasive focus on vibration isolation (including the premium IsoAcoustic Gaia footers), and premium connectors and internal wiring.
     
    As someone who had purchased a DC3’s to power a Chord DAVE back when this was more of a science project than a product, I was very excited to hear what Sean had come up with in his latest generation design.
     

    Installation (CAUTION!)

    For both the DC4 and DC3, installing them involves opening the Chord DAVE, and removing the stock switching power supply (please DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS unless you’re willing to void your warranty and assume all responsibility for any damage done to your system or yourself). 
     
    If you’re willing to void your warranty but do not want to install yourself, check with whomever is building your supply for you to see if they are willing to install the power cable for you.
     
     
     

     
    The process to install the DC4 (and before that, the DC3) was straight forward, taking me about 20 minutes the first time, and less than 10 minutes subsequent times once I got to know where all the pieces are. More importantly for me, it is completely reversible.
     
     
     
     

     


    To open the DAVE case, unplug the system and remove all the screws around the display, then move the faceplate and ring. This will reveal 4 additional screws. Only remove the bottom screw, DO NOT remove the top three screws (this mount the display to the top plate of the case).
     
    Next remove all the screws around the top left and top right of the case. This will free the top of the case from the bottom of the case, allowing you to remove the top.
     
     
     
     

     
    To remove the top, gently lift the top (careful not to drop it, it is heavy!) to reveal a ribbon cable connecting the controls on the top of the DAVE to the main PCB of the DAC. Carefully disconnect the cable from the top, then fully remove the top from the unit and set aside.
     
     
     
     

    Internally, the DAVE stock SMPS is mounted in the front left of the case (already removed in this photo). After confirming that power has been disconnected from the system, make a note of how the white 4 pin Molex on the far left of the PCB is connected (take photos!). The Molex is not keyed, so it is possible to plug in backwards and fry your DAVE. 
     
    Once you have the orientation of the Molex captured, carefully remove it from the PCB. Next, slide up to remove the power switch/inlet assembly from the back panel of the case (there is nothing holding it in place). Finally, carefully remove the 4 screws holding the SMPS in place, and remove the entire stock DAVE SMPS assembly.
     
     
     
     

     
    To install the DC4 (or DC3), confirm that the DC4/DC3 is unplugged, mount the DC umbilical in the rear left of the case, and carefully connect the Molex connector to the DAVE PCB. 
     
    CAUTION!!!! The Molex connector is not keyed. It is possible to put in backwards (or displaced by one pin) and fry your DAVE PCB. Be very careful to note the proper orientation when you disconnect your stock DAVE SMPS, and double and triple check that you have the orientation right when you plug the Molex back in.
     
     
     
     

     
    Once all is hooked up, carefully reconnect the ribbon cable to the top of the case, rest it securely to the side, and fire up the supply. If all goes well, DAVE will boot as usual. If not, immediately power down and figure out what went wrong. When you’re good, power off and unplug the supply, and put the top back on.
     

    Listening Impressions

    Time to put these supplies through their paces and see how they stack up. Like all components with these large Mundorf capacitors, it takes a LONG time for them to properly settle in, and the DC4 is no exception (I had very similar experience with my DC3 and my Taiko Audio SGM Extreme). That being said, you can’t have something like the DC4 in the house and not give it a listen right away!
     

    First Impressions – DC4 straight out of the box

    As I mentioned earlier, I have been using a DC3 with my DAVE for almost three years, so my first impression listening to the DC4 straight out of the box is compared against a well burned in DC3.
     
    Even without burn in (the Mundorf caps need a LOT of time to settle), the DC4 was clearly a step up from the DC3. Within the first 5 seconds of listening, I heard the characteristic bump in all the attributes that made the DC3 such a winner for me: control and viscerality of bass, the presence of the space, and a surprising increase in “relaxed naturalness” (something I’ve come to associate with a lower noise floor and better control). 
     
    One area I was expecting more (given my DC3 experience) was an increase in dynamics and detail, but my initial impression was that the fresh-out-of-the-box DC4 was being held back a bit. There was also a sense of some sound stage instability, but significantly less (based on my notes) than similar impressions I had when I first plugged in my DC3. 
     
    With my DC3, these dynamics and instability nits completely went away after running the unit for a month or so, so I had full confidence the DC4 would do the same (which it did, and then some). 
     
    Looking back to when I received my DC3, the improvement from DC3 (new) to DC3 (run in) was MASSIVE. Listening to a fresh out of the box DC4, if this is the performance I’m hearing before any burn in, I can’t wait to hear how much things improve as the supply settles in. Be patient with these caps, and your patience will be rewarded!
     
    True to form, after playing music through the DC4 + DAVE to Abyss headphones continuously for ~6 weeks (at least when I wasn’t listening to music) it VERY nicely settled in. All sense of instability was gone after ~1 week, and dynamics and clarity rapidly improved and just kept improving before settling out after ~6 weeks.
     
    With the DC4 well burned in after 6 weeks of 7/24 operation, it was finally time to pivot to critical listening.
     

    Stock DAVE SMPS versus Sean Jacobs DC3

    To reestablish a common baseline, I reinstalled my stock DAVE SMPS, plugged into a normal shared house electrical outlet with a stock computer power cord, and listened to music for several days. While the loss of viscerality and physicality of bass, resolution, and dynamics was immediate (and missed), I wanted to have this common baseline to incrementally step up the ladder and evaluate the incremental impact for each incremental change to my system.
     
    It had been almost three years since I had the stock DAVE SMPS in my system, so hearing the stock presentation did evoke no small bit of nostalgia (amazing how music and smells can sometimes take you to another time and place). After a couple days of holiday albums and favorites playing in the background, I had reestablished a baseline of my system with stock power and stock SMPS for the DAVE, so I was ready for some critical listening.
     
    Going through my standard test tracks with the stock DAVE SMPS and standard wall power, I was struck first by how different tracks presented so differently. The best recordings presented a good sense of space and physicality (that “realness” which is the experience I find so intoxicating) but still hinting at what is possible. Most recordings sounded good, but lacked that sense of depth and the sense of the space the recording was made in. Attack and dynamics were also muted, and the viscerality and extension of bass was noticeably (mostly) absent. From a resolution and detail perspective, things were not what I was (now) used to.
     
    Make no mistake, the stock DAVE was a life changing experience for me, and started me down this Reality Quest. Out of the box, it was the best I ever heard (by far) and still is, but very clearly the stock SMPS is significantly holding back the speed and dynamics and control that the DAVE is inherently capable of. Alas, once you hear what it is capable of, it is difficult to go back.
     
    So with the stock power and stock DAVE SMPS baseline established, time to swap in the Sean Jacobs DC3 (also plugged into the same generic wall outlet with the same generic power cord), and see what the DC3 brings to the party.
     
    After several days with the stock DAVE SMPS, the DC3 was a very welcome return to the characteristics I’ve learned to love of DAVE with an upgraded power supply: MUCH better/faster dynamics, significantly improved resolution and clarity and control, a viscerality and detail and presence in bass that is very engaging, lower stress and a more relaxed presentation, and an incredible sense of space.
     
    With the DC3, although volume remains the same, attack and grip on transients are just stronger and more dynamic. If you’ve had the experience of listening to a recording with poor dynamic range, then a recording with strong dynamic range, with the DC3 tracks sound like they are getting the qualitative equivalent of +4-5 dynamic range boost. Obviously the recordings themselves have not changed and the dynamic range is still the same, but the speed and control of the dynamics feel like they are much sharper and more controlled. Poor recordings become very good recordings, and good recordings become great recordings.
     
    Of particular note is the control in the bass range and the high treble. What was boomy and indistinct before becomes visceral and the detail in the bass becomes palpable. You can feel and hear the strings on the bass vibrate, and sense the resonances in the sound board, all with an incredible sense of effortless control. At the high end of the tonal range, recordings that were hot or border line harsh before now have a clarity and openness and naturalness that wasn’t there before. 
     
    The DC3 supply is simply able to drive and keep control of the output much better, while having much faster dynamics and more precise transients. In addition, all that wonderful sense of space and timing accuracy that DAVE is famous for gets taken to the next level with the DC3.
     
    Simply put, if you have a Chord DAVE, you haven’t heard what it is really capable of until you’ve heard it with an upgraded supply like the DC3 – a world class power supply reveals the DAVE for the world class DAC that it is.
     

    Sean Jacobs DC3 versus Sean Jacobs DC4

    When I first installed my DC3 several years ago, it was the most significant upgrade I had ever introduced to my system (even more impactful than adding mScaler to my DAVE). Prior to the DC3, I used to think that it was certain recordings that were holding back DAVE from what it was capable of. After hearing the DC3, I thankfully learned that it was the SMPS in DAVE that was holding back DAVE, and that better power revealed an amazing magic that had been waiting in the recordings all along. It was that experience that set me down the path of optimizing my digital server to maximize dynamics and transient performance and minimize noise (ending up with the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme), and now back to revisit power to my DAC.
     
    With the Sean Jacobs DC4 now fully broken in (those Mundorf caps take forever to settle in!), is there more magic in the DAVE that an upgraded power supply can reveal? Switching to the DC4 (also plugged into the same generic wall outlet with the same generic power cord), it was time to find out.
     
    Right out of the gate, it was obvious that DC4 was taking all the goodness of the DC3 and kicking up several notches: faster and more controlled dynamics (to put it mildly), breathtaking resolution and clarity and control, a true physicality and presence in the bass, and (most importantly for me) a remarkable holographic sense of space that spreads from behind the speakers to next to me on my sofa, and even above me. If DC3 makes instruments real and physically present, DC4 brings the performance into the room and up next to you, creating a hologram of the space of the performance that must be experienced to believe.
     
    I typically listen to small ensemble works, looking for that jazz club or coffee house live music experience. With the DC4, complex orchestral works are now a completely different experience. The sense of being in the hall (or at the conductor's podium, depending on the recording) is absolutely intoxicating. The resolution and dynamics almost allow you to pick out individual performers (like you can in a live performance)...so close but even this small taste gives a sense of intimacy and participation in the performance that is incredibly moving and intoxicating.
     
    With the DC4, this is a fundamentally different experience of music than I’ve enjoyed before, and hints that there may be even more that the Chord DAVE is capable of finding in these recordings. While I wait (and wait and wait and wait) patiently for my Paul Hynes custom three dual-regulated-rail SR7 to get to the front of Paul’s build queue, are there other things I can do to reveal all that DAVE is capable of doing? 
     
    Incredibly, yes there is. In Part 2 (LINK) of this review, I will share my experiences with the Sound Application Power Grid Interface TT-7 power line conditioner.
     
     
    - Ray
     
     
     
  2. Thanks
    Middy reacted to gmgraves for an article, At Long Last! Listen To Your (Physical) SACDs Through an Outboard DAC   
    At Long Last! Listen To Your SACDs Through an Outboard DAC
    George Graves
     
     
    When Sony/Phillips Announced their new Super Audio CD format (SACD) in 1999/2000, Sony opened a marketing office in NYC to advertise and promote the new format. They reached out to a number of  audio writers (including, yours truly) with the “gift” of a new Sony SCD-777ES player (listing for $3500) and a “subscription” to all SACD releases as they came out – regardless of label! As a result of that, and the many SACDs that I received from companies such as Telarc and Reference Recordings, etc, after Sony shut that office down (not to mention the ones that I bought myself), I have hundreds of SACDs!
     
    For years, I used my SCD-777ES player to play them and enjoyed what I thought was great SACD playback. After all, the Sony turned out to be, at the time, the best regular CD player that I had heard. Why wouldn’t the SACD portion of the player be just as exemplary? Then, about five years ago, the 777 stopped being able to play SACDs. It still played regular CDs but it wouldn’t even “recognize” the SACD layer in the dual layer discs and the early Sony SACDs, which were single layer (and culled mostly from the Columbia Records catalogue) wouldn’t play at all. I was devastated. I had recently bought a really cheap Sony BDP-BX37 Blu-Ray player on E-Bay and when I subsequently discovered that it would also play SACDs, I was ecstatic! Sadly the euphoria didn’t last long as this Blu-Ray player’s SACD playback was terrible and certainly not satisfying to anyone who was used to the SCD-777ES.
     
    In the meantime I had taken the 777 ES to the Sony warranty repair shop in my area, and was told that the problem was that the laser LED for the SACD portion of the player had failed and there were no more spares (an old story with Sony) as they made only a certain number of spare laser assemblies and this turned out to be a weak spot in the player’s design. In other words, almost all of the 777s either had failed or will fail in this manner! So the player could not be fixed (anyone interested in buying that brick from me?).
     
    The Blu-Ray player sounded so mediocre playing SACDs, that I essentially stopped listening to them. My SACD copies of Miles Davis’ “Kinda Blue” and “Sketches of Spain,” Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out,” Bernstein’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and all the other Columbia SACDs that I own couldn’t even be ripped to iTunes or JRiver’s Media Player because these were single-layer discs with no Red Book CD layer.
     
    When I obtained an Oppo UDP-205 media player, I was heartened because the player used a state-of-the-art DAC section built around the top-of-the-line ESS “SaberDAC” ES9038PRO DAC chip and it supported SACD. Again, I was disappointed. The SaberDACs are of the Delta-Sigma variety and are (in my humble opinion) far inferior to many of the modern R2R (ladder DAC) designs for PCM, but due to their single-bit architecture should be perfect for SACD. So, I don’t understand why the SaberDAC Pro sounds so mediocre in this regard.  Both the Schiit Yggdrasil and the super-cheap Schiit Modi Multi-bit DACs performed rings around the ES9038PRO chips in the Oppo on PCM, but alas, none of the Schiit DACs support SACD. The Oppo, while it does support SACD, it really doesn’t sound all that much better than my cheap Sony Blu-Ray player. 
     
     
    Out of the Box Thinking

    I was contemplating writing-off my entire SACD collection because, let’s face it, who wants to listen to SACDs that sound, essentially no better (albeit somewhat different) than their Red Book versions? I was pretty much at a loss. When I received the Denafrips Pontus DAC, I was interested to note that all of the company’s DACs support the I2S digital interconnect protocol via HDMI. I also noted that the Oppo had two HDMI outputs. ‘VIDEO’ was, of course, for connection to one’s TV for playing Blu-Ray discs and DVDs. But I found the second one was labeled ‘AUDIO’ and that intrigued me. I also knew that even though no SACD player (to my knowledge) ever broke-out the DSD signal (the actual SACD digital format) from any player, that DSD signal was available as part of the HDMI digital video protocol.
     
    That got me thinking. I wondered if I could just connect an HDMI cable from the AUDIO  output of the Oppo directly to the HDMI input of the Pontus DAC. Even though I really didn’t expect it to work, I figured that it was worth a try. It couldn’t harm anything, and who knew? I might “get lucky”. Well I wasn’t disappointed when it didn’t work, after all that’s what I suspected would be the outcome.

    But, I was still intrigued with the possibility. The fact remained that the DSD signal from an SACD was available on the HDMI interface. But further reading of the Pontus manual told me that the HDMI input was dedicated solely to I2S digital signals. Was there any way to convert the HDMI from a Blu-Ray player to I2S? I went on E-Bay and searched for “HDMI to I2S”. My ad hoc search yielded a series of circuit boards and complete units that took an HDMI output from video sources and output I2S over HDMI as well as coaxial and optical SPDIF! All of the units and boards seemed to be the same thing from different vendors. The bare circuit boards were around US$45, and the complete, packaged units (same circuit) seemed to be US$55-$60. I ordered one of the complete units from China (naturally) and waited for it to arrive.
     
    Here’s the URL for the E-Bay page containing all of the converters from different vendors: https://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p2499334.m570.l1312&_nkw=i2s&_sacat=0
     
     
    Connecting the Oppo Through the I2S Converter Box to the Denafrips DAC
     
    The I2S converter arrived from China during Christmas week. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer Christmas gift to myself. My friend Ted and I busied ourselves hooking it up.
     
    Let’s take a look at the converter unit. The box is about four-inches by four-inches by about two inches. Normally, this unit does not require an external DC power supply as most players will provide the needed 5 Volt DC via the HDMI cable. But, in case it does require external power. It's connected by the kind of barrel connector that often comes with wall-wart type supplies. The converter, however, comes with no power supply, wall-wart or otherwise, and the buyer must supply his own if his player does not supply the needed voltage or if the current from one’s HDMI source is insufficient. I felt that a better supply, than that available from my Oppo player, might be worth it, so I employed an ifi brand ‘iUSB’ box that I wasn’t using and a cable that had a USB Type A connector on one end and a suitable barrel connector on the other (BTW, about the unit’s power supply polarity; the unit comes with no documentation, and I had to test the polarity myself with a multimeter. So, to save any readers who want to try this project, the trouble of checking this themselves, the barrel is negative and the “tip” is positive.).
     
     
     
     

    The box has three HDMI female connectors, one is located on the audio output interface side of the unit. This is the output that goes to one’s DAC. The “output” side also sports a coax and a Toslink SPDIF connector and an I2S connector that I don’t recognize (and isn’t used in this application). The ‘HDMI side’ of the unit has the HDMI input from one’s player, and an HDMI output to one’s TV. Also provided is a three-position slide switch that enables the user switch the HDMI output between one’s TV, an amplifier that takes HDMI in, or ostensibly both (it’s labeled DUO, so I suspect that’s what it means – No manual, remember?). Then of course there is the 5 volt external power supply jack and a red LED indicating that an outboard power supply is connected and is turned on. 
     
    With the Oppo UDP-205, one connects the “Audio” HDMI output of the player to the input of the I2S converter box (if your player doesn’t have an audio-only HDMI output, use the video HDMI output) and the output of the HDMI side of the converter box goes to the HDMI input on one’s DAC.  That’s pretty straightforward.  
     
    Unfortunately, unless one is lucky (and depending on the brand of I2S connected DAC), that’s not all one must do. Apparently, there is no standard for connecting I2S over HDMI. The manufacturers can use any pins not used by the HDMI standard in the connector for the I2S interface. In many cases the user would have to find which pins on the converter box have the I2S signal on them and then perhaps rewire the DAC’s HDMI (or other I2S connector) to match. It is possible that your DSD-capable DAC doesn’t have an HDMI connector for I2S. The converter box also outputs I2S over both coax and Toslink. Denafrips has thoughtfully provided their DACs with a method for using the front panel switch buttons to allow the user to try all the different possible combinations. When the correct one is found, the I2S light on the front panel illuminates. Rather than go through the procedure here, I invite interested readers to go to the YouTube video listed below:
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
    The video says that it's for the Venus II model, but it also applies to the Pontus, and both the Terminator and the Terminator+ models. The only Denafrips DAC that doesn’t support I2S is the entry level Ares II.

    As luck would have it, if you are using one of the Denafrips DACs that support I2S, The correct pinout to interface with the Chinese converter bought from E-Bay is the default Denafrips’ configuration!
     
     
    Operation
     
    Once the I2S light on the front panel is lit, you’re all set. Just insert an SACD into the player’s transport and hit play. The DSD light will come on and 44.1 KHz sampling light will illuminate, and the 1X light will also light-up. Ignore the sampling rate light, but the 1X light will indicate that a DSD 64 source is playing. DSD 64 is the default for SACD, and 1X is probably the only light that one will ever see. 2X would mean DSD128, and 3X would indicate DSD256. DSD512 is not supported, but that’s OK because there are no SACDs (to my knowledge) in either DSD 128 or DSD 512.
     
     
    Sound
     
    Be prepared for the best SACD playback that you have ever heard! I wish that my SCD-777ES was still functioning, to compare, but I do have the Oppo UDP-205 with the highly touted ESS ES9038PRO DAC chip and I have an inexpensive Sony Blu-Ray player that also plays SACD. Neither of them are even in the same galaxy with the Denafrips Pontus I2S configuration! The bass is deeper than the ESS DAC, the highs are cleaner and much less grainy. The soundstage is both wider and deeper and the image specificity (in recordings where such exists) is simply more holographic. Of course, all of this is contingent on what brand of I2S-capable DAC you end up using. In short, I noticed similar sonic characteristics with the Pontus that I experienced listening to 24/96, or 24/192 LPCM sources on the unit. 
     
    In conclusion, just for fun, I tried the setup with my cheap Sony BDP-BX37 Blu-Ray player (for which I paid less than $50). I turned on the DSD over HDMI option in the audio settings and connected it to the I2S converter box via the video HDMI out on the Sony. It worked perfectly as I suspected it would, but unexpectedly, the output from the Sony, though, supposedly merely a digital DSD data stream (after all, we are only using the players as transports), sounded much worse than the same SACDs with the Oppo as the transport!
     
    If you choose to go this route, I suspect that any Blu-Ray player that advertises that it will play SACD discs via HDMI will play them without hassle, but be aware that the end result will depend on the quality of the transport player every bit as much as it will depend on the quality of the I2S compatible DSD capable DAC. 

         
     
  3. Thanks
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Meet The Audiophile Style Community | Volume 10   
    Welcome to the tenth installment of our Meet the Audiophile Style Community series. All previous installments can be found here, in the series index.
     
    Please send me a message or email if you'd like to participate. The response so far has been wonderful. It ranges from hardcore audiophiles to those who are more interested in numbers and graphs, and even people in the industry are eager to participate. This series is all about getting to know everyone and sharing a bit about yourself that others will find interesting. 
     
    Thanks for participating. I look forward to publishing more of these in the coming weeks and months. 
     
    Thanks to Audiophile Style community member @AudioDoctor for participating in volume ten of this series. I love reading this stuff even more than publishing it. As I say to myself after reading each one of these, you guys are so much more interesting than me.
     
     
    1. General area of the world in which you live? 
     
    St Paul Minnesota, Native Minnesotan with real Viking (from Norway, not the atrocious football team) blood running through my veins.
     
     
    2. General description of what you do or did for a living? 
     
    I currently fly a small corporate jet for a family friend that owns two local companies that if I named, you would all know. Previously I practiced medicine in a local ER, and in the US Navy. Before that, I enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of 17 and did my 4 years before being accepted into an ROTC program and attending the University of Michigan for both undergrad and medical school.
     
     
    3. What are your hobbies? 
     
    Other than listening to music, I enjoy sailing and fly fishing. I guess you could say my car, 2016 Porsche GT4,  is a hobby as well. I enjoy tracking it, and socializing with other Porsche owners in the local chapter of the Porsche Club of America. I like the outdoors as well, hiking/camping/etc… are some of my favorite activities.
     
     
    4. When did you start this wonderful journey into music listening? 
     
    Music has always been a part of my life. Growing up my parents were always participating in the local chorale, bringing us to performances of the MN Orchestra and Jazz performances at The Dakota jazz club. My Dad had an extensive record collection and lots of musician friends as well. We never had what I would call a HiFi system, the emphasis was on the music and appreciating it and the art more than the gear it was played on. I remember listening to The Jazz Image with Leigh Kammon on Minnesota Public Radio, on Saturday nights, in the den with my Dad on a tabletop radio. I have a very special vinyl album of Duke Ellington and Alice Babs in Paris in 1963 titled Serenade to Sweden that came to me via a friend of my dads from Leigh himself. It was the background music he would play during the time in-between songs and is absolutely beautiful music.
     
     
    5. What was your first “album?” 
     
    The first album I remember buying was, of all things,  Michael Jackson’s Thriller on CD...
     
     
    6. What does your music collection look like, number of physical records, CDs, etc… and number of “favorited” albums streamed? 
     
    The majority of my music collection is vinyl albums that I mostly inherited or was given by friends and family. I have over 6000 vinyl albums of which maybe 150 I have purchased. I have roughly 500 CDs currently ripped and another 500+ left to rip, and 1300 give or take favorited albums in Qobuz. I no longer buy a CD unless the music isn’t available in any other format digitally, not counting MP3 which I do not buy unless again, no other source.
     
     
    7. What was your first audio component / stereo? 
     
    My dad gave me his Marantz 2230 when I went to college.
     
     
    8. Is there one component that you no longer have that you wish you wouldn’t have sold or that you wish you still had? 
     
    Yes, the Marantz 2230 my Dad gave me when I went to college.
     
     
    9. Is there one current component that you wish you had in you system? 
     
    Not really, I am happy with the equipment I have now. Where I go from here depends on whether or not my ear situation is resolved. I am in the process of building an audio specific room in the house my Wife and I just finished rebuilding/rehabbing so the only equipment I am considering are power related such as an isolation transformer.
     
     
    10. How much time to you spend listening to music each week and on which systems does this listening take place (main system, car system, mobile system, office system, etc…) 
     
    Actively listening, only a few hours a week at the moment, if that. I am in the middle of moving to a new house, not to mention its summer in MN and that time is meant to be outdoors. Family issues have taken up a lot of time lately as well. However, that Klipsch bluetooth speaker thing I was asking about a while back has been getting a lot of use lately.
     
     
    11. What’s the first concert you ever attended, best concert you’ve ever attended, most interesting concert venue you’ve ever attended? 
     
    I have no idea what the first concert I ever attended was. The first one I clearly remember was going to see The Nutcracker performed by the Bolshoi Ballet Company, along with their own Orchestra to perform the music, here in St Paul when I was in HS with the rest of my Russian class. Trying to pick the best is nearly impossible, so many of them have been so great. I remember seeing Diana Krall live which is when my crush on her started, haha. More recently Kat Edmonson was a fantastic show. I am not a country fan but I saw Faith Hill once live, and met her backstage, that was memorable. Other shows are memorable not for the performer, but the company I saw them with. I have seen my parents perform Beethovens 9th with the MN Chorale during a holiday performance/dinner event. Every concert I have attended has a reason it is special or unique and I could write pages and pages about each and every one of them most likely.
     
     
    12. What components are in your current audio systems and can you provide a photo? 
     
    I can promise I’ll provide a photo when I am done moving…   Currently I have a McIntosh MAC7200 pushing its 200 watts to a pair of Sonus Faber Olympica 1 monitors and a Zu Undertone Sub. I am using a Schiit Yggy instead of the DAC2 module. The bits are provided to it via a Raspberry Pi4 running an NAA image. I also have a Technics SL1200G with a Lyra Delos cartridge and a Zesto Audio Andros 1.2 phonostage. I have a headphone system as well consisting of a Donald North Audio Stellaris Silver Special head amp, a pair of HiFiMan Susvara headphones, a Lampizator Pacific Balanced w volume control and a Sonore Signature Rendu SE Optical. None of this stuff is hooked up at the moment however due to the move. Additionally, I may be selling off the higher priced headphone stuff due to my ear problems that arose shortly after it all arrived in my house. I have also recently completed a build of a CAPS server following Chris’s guide almost to the letter, which will run Roon server and HQPlayer desktop. Regarding networking, I have a whole house Ubiquiti system consisting of a Dream Machine Pro, multiple wireless access points, and hardwired connections for the audio gear in place awaiting connection. I will shortly have Fiber Gigabit internet as well, it will be a great day when I tell Comcast to stick it.
     
     
    13. Anything else you’d like to say? 
     
    Music is meant to bring people together, not divide them.
     
     
  4. Thanks
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Review | AURALiC ARIES G2.1   
    Over the last couple days tech writers have released their initial reviews for Apple's new Mac products containing the M1 system on a chip (SoC). The opinions and measurements are nearly unanimous, the new platform's performance is objectively and subjectively better than all but the highest powered Intel based Macs. The battery life is lightyears better than everything that came before the M1. Following the glowing prose, the conversation usually turns to the reasons why Apple continues to succeed in this and other areas. The technical reasons are twofold. First, Apple has the engineering expertise and second, Apple controls both the software and the hardware. It's this tight integration between software and hardware that enables the best engineers to go beyond the capabilities of split systems and enables consumers to realize the benefits with respect to performance, usability, customization, and product support. 
     
    What does this have to do with the AURALiC ARIES G2.1? The answer is simple. AURALiC is a next generation HiFi company that controls both the hardware and the software in all of its products, and the ARIES G2.1 is the newest iteration of a digital centerpiece that's clearly the result of this complete control. The ARIES G2.1 is the best ARIES AURALiC has ever developed and hosts its class leading Lightning DS software platform that is also currently the best version the company has created to date. Let's take a look at why the ARIES G2.1 is a digital source component around which to build an entire HiFi system.
     
     
    From Zero to Point One
     
    The new G2.1 series is the culmination of AURALiC's research into hardware design that squeezes every ounce of sonic performance from its original G2 platform. The G2.1's unity chassis II is a serious upgrade over the original. G2.1 features a chassis within a chassis design. The external visible casework is made of high grade aluminum. Fans of AURALiC have come to know and love the look and feel of this outer shell. It exudes quality visually and to the touch. The new internal enclosure is made of audiophile favorite, and for good reason, copper. This new chassis design enhances EMI shielding and is extremely solid when given a knock with one's knuckles. Doesn't everyone do that with a product that looks bulletproof? 
     
    Helping take the G2.1 literally to new heights is what AURALiC calls a sculpted metal base, heavyweight foundation. Visually it's a slice of luxury that serves equal parts form and function. The base adds mass to the G2.1 that wasn't possible with the original chassis. This base also provides the simplest visual distinction between the original G2 and G2.1 products. 
     
    Tying the exterior to the interior is a new suspension spike system created to help isolate vibrations. According to AURALiC, "Potentially harmful vibrations are absorbed within the six-coiled-spring, acoustically-calibrated core of each foot, with each spring tuned to a different tension point..." Isolation has always been important to high fidelity, but recently more companies have released separate vibration control products such as Wilson Audio's Pedestal. The beauty of the ARIES G2.1 is that this type of engineering is built into the product. 
     
     

     
    Internally the G2.1 series received a USB upgrade to better support more USB DACs and the separate HDD USB port received a slight power boost due to more power hungry external USB drives. 
     
    Looking at the hardware upgrades in and of themselves, the G2.1 isn't a revolutionary upgrade. This is why AURALiC wisely elected to call it a point one upgrade rather than trick consumers into thinking the update was massive by calling it G3. The upgrade is easily worth it for those of us who must have the best, for those of us who like to have the newest version, and for those who have ARIES versions prior to G2. Without an original G2 here for comparison, I can't easily quantify the sonic difference between G2 and G2.1. Given the engineering that went into this upgrade, it's certainly an audition I'd undertake if I owned a G2 and was considering moving to the G2.1. 
     

    ARIES G2.1 As A Centerpiece
     
    The AURALiC ARIES G2.1 is a component that should be considered the centerpiece of one's high end audio system. Its feature set is fantastic, sound and build quality are fantastic, and AURALiC is a company I frequently recommend to friends. The team is principled, honest, and full of people who are fun to talk with over a pot of tea (Young mountain's Organic Nepali Golden Black if I'm hosting). I can't stress enough how important the people at HiFI companies are when it comes to product selection. Yes, the actual product must perform and be priced in one's range, but I always recommend purchasing from companies like AURALiC, who provide much more than a box.
     
    Many DACs have somewhat similar capabilities, as the ARIES G2.1, built-in, but a separation of powers usually equates to more powers in each device, greater flexibility, better performance, better features, and more options. I'm a big supporter of splitting my digital interface / source from the rest of my system because it enables me to have the best of both worlds. The best digital interface and the best DAC. 
     
    Speaking of interface, AURALiC's custom developed Lightning DS software interface / platform is both an indicator of this company's technical chops and a huge differentiator between it and much of the competition. With the exception of desktop systems, most of us only use a graphical user interface (GUI) to operate our HiFi systems and peruse our music collections. Thus, the importance of such software can't be underestimated. 
     
    I recently reviewed the Bryston BDA-3.14. A product that features Bryston's Manic Moose software and works with a few third party applications. To be 100% honest and fair, that system isn't even in the same league as AURALiC's Lightning DS. Lightning DS is unequivocally better in every way. The problems I had with Manic Moose were major and showstoppers for many people. The problems I have with Lightning DS are usually items on AURALiC's list of coming improvements or have been resolved quickly by its capable technical team. With a great foundation, that's developed in-house, it's easier to expand upon the features and resolve small issues that pop up. Lightning DS is a solid foundation and one that alleviates any anxiety about the platform's future. 
     
    When I received the ARIES G2.1, I also made sure to obtain a third party optical CD drive (model: ODPS1203-SU3). This is because the Lightning DS platform also supports CD playback and ripping. The process of playback or ripping is extremely simple and it's a great way to easily add new music to one's collection. There are better ways to rip an entire collection of hundreds of albums, but I think LIghtning's CD functionality is more than adequate for new library additions. One item to consider is the esoteric number of new CDs to be added via this method. If most new CDs ripped by Lighting are very rare imports without much distribution, the metadata may need to be added manually after the disc is ripped, using a third party application. On the other hand, if new CDs are fairly popular releases, Lightning will have no trouble ripping and tagging them. 
     
    In my tests, it took 15 minutes to rip Little Girl Blue (TBM-33), 8 tracks, and 40 minute total running time. Lightning isn't the fastest ripper, but that's by design. Accuracy of one's data is paramount. Ripping a little slower enables Lightning to ensure the CDs are ripped perfectly. Similarly, if a CD is used for playback, it is read multiple times and buffered into memory prior to playback. In essence, playback is the same as playing from a USB drive or NAS because the data is sent to memory using any one of these methods. 
     
    When it comes to features, sonic performance, and nearly any other measure, the ARIES G2.1 more than qualifies to be the digital centerpiece of a HiFi system. 
     
     

     
     

    In My System
     
    I've used almost every AURALiC product made to date, yes this includes the very underrated and little known GEMINI 2000, and I've used them in every way imaginable. This includes numerous different combinations of NAS, Roon, internal storage, etc... AURALiC's platform and products are so flexible that the options are endless. Reviewing the ARIES G2.1 I decided to use only a USB connected hard drive to store my music. The option is there, and I'm sure it's a great one for many people without gigantic music collections, so I thought I'd give it a try. I tried both a large USB flash drive and my recently discovered Yottamaster HC1-C3 SSD drive with built-in cloning for backup. 
     
    I initially copied my music to the USB drive while it was connected to my computer, then connected it to the ARIES G2.1. When new releases arrived I attempted to copy them to the USB drive while it was connected to the ARIES G2.1. Doing this I discovered a bug in the platform. This was reproduced by the AURALiC team and fixed in an update to the Lightning platform. One beautiful thing about controlling everything from hardware to software, is that support is much simpler for the manufacturer and the customer benefits greatly. Since the fix was applied, I've been copying new Three Blind Mice albums to the ARIES G2.1 over the network without any issues. 
     
    Using the Lightning DS iOS app to scan my USB stored library and stream from Qobuz was very nice. The app was blazing fast when it came to browsing, searching and playback. The more I use Lightning DS, the more I like it. I can very easily see people using only this app and the ARIES G2.1 as the Lightning server, and calling it a day. There's no need for a third party application to get the most from the ARIES G2.1. That said, I know a few people who absolutely must have Roon. Fortunately, the ARIES G2.1 is a certified Roon Ready endpoint and works flawlessly in this configuration. 
     
    Note: One benefit to using Lightning DS as opposed to Roon is that Lightning DS will show the user all the new releases from Qobuz/Tidal as soon as they are available. Roon requires a cloud database update to even see these releases. This can take a day to accomplish and leave the newest releases unavailable through its interface. I played the new Taylor Swift via Lightning DS while Roon couldn't even see the album. This is nice to have for those of us who love music and have no patience. 
     
    One thing I'd like to see in the Lightning DS iOS app is the ability to identify high resolution and explicit releases in Qobuz search results, without tapping into each album. I want the highest resolution releases available and I absolutely must have the most explicit version available. Radio edits without swearing didn't work for me in grade school and nothing has changed with respect to my desire for the original work of uncensored art. The reason I really want this feature in Lighting DS can be shown in the following example. Taylor Swift's new album has four versions available on Qobuz. I want the high resolution explicit version. Yet, I have no way to determine which version is the one I want, without listening for explicit lyrics. I can tap into each album to see the resolution, but even that could be displayed on the album cover in search results. Anyway, not a showstopper by any means. Just a nice to have feature.
     
     
     
     

    I listened extensively to the ARIES G2.1 in several systems I have running in my room. One great thing about this digital centerpiece is that it works with so many other components. I connected it to a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 3 via AES, an EMM Labs DV2 via USB, and a Denafrips Terminator via USB. All three of these require different things from the ARIES G2.1 and it succeeded without issue at all tasks. 
     
    Listening via AES and the flagship Berkeley DAC, the ARIES G2.1 delivered a pristine digital stream void of any noise or any possible sonic degradation. I know many of my friends are big fans of the Berkeley Alpha USB to clean up audio signals prior to the Berkeley DACs, but I'm not certain such a device is necessary when using the flagship ARIES G2.1. Given the RS3 only accepts PCM signals, the ARIES G2.1 easily converted all DSD signals to PCM at sample rates accepted on the RS3's input. Extensive listening reveals the G2.1's AES output is very good to say the least. 
     
    Connected via USB to the flagship EMM Labs DAC, I used the ARIES G2.1 mainly to send DSD over PCM / DoP data as a test. Yes, this should work and sound fantastic given the system, but testing is always required. It was no surprise that the G2.1 is a stellar source when paired with an EMM DAC. As a recent example, I listened to the new Taylor Swift album Folklore: The Long Pond Sessions, several times through this system and my RAAL-requisite SR1a headphones. These are the best headphones I've ever heard and most transparent audio device I've ever used. If there's a problem with the ARIES G2.1, I would've heard it easily (as I have with other components). This new album sounds great from the ARIES G2.1 to the EMM to a Constellation Audio amp to the SR1a. 
     
    I recently took delivery of a Denafrips Terminator, and just had to use its USB input for native DSD at ultra high sample rates. I configured the ARIES G2.1 to resample all DSD content to DSD512 before outputting via USB to the Terminator. This not only worked flawlessly, it sounded flawless. AURALiC's resampler is very good at outputting these ultra high DSD sample rates. I actually expected to find an issue with this, using native DSD, but there was nothing to be found. Listening to my beloved Three Blind Mice Supreme Collection 1500 from 44.1 to DSD512 through the ARIES G2.1 was fabulous. I have no doubt the G2.1 is a reference level component on par with the best digital source components available. For example, playing the Isao Suzuki Trio's album Blow Up through the ARIES G2.1 and the Terminator revealed everything from the micro details at the heist frequencies to delivering the heft and texture of the lowest cello frequencies. BY the time I passed one minute into the first track, I didn't need to listen any longer to render my unequivocal opinion about the ARIES G2.1, but why mess up a good thing. I listened to the entire album uninterrupted, transported to Aoi Studio in Tokyo, Japan in 1977. It's hard to believe how much information is on old recordings. After using the ARIES G2.1 for several weeks, it's not hard to believe that this information is there for the taking, or should I say listening. As long as one's components are in the same class as the G2.1, it's all possible. 
     

    Conclusion
     
    As a company, AURALiC represents the next generation of HiFi, of HiFi progress and innovation, and limitless capability. It has in-house talent on a level about which 99% of manufacturers can only dream. Full control over both hardware and software, and the engineering prowess to actually do something about it, is standard for Apple but is rare in HiFi. The end product from all of this is the flagship AURALiC G2.1 series. The ARIES G2.1 is the best all digital  Streaming Transporter the company has ever built. The difference between the original ARIES products is large in every category while the delta between the G2 and G2.1 is likely appreciable for the most avid HiFI enthusiasts. 
     
    I've been a fan and user of the AURALiC ARIES series products since day one. I know them inside and out and know just how good the hardware and software are compared to the competition. The ARIES G2.1 is without a doubt a perfect component to have as the centerpiece of one's digital universe. It has features for days, sound quality on par with the best, future upgradability via software, great support, and is designed and manufactured by a company I proudly recommend to my closest friends. Recommended with enthusiasm.

     
     
     
     
     
     
     
    Community Star Ratings and Reviews
     
    I encourage those who have experience with the AURALiC ARIES G2.1 to leave a star rating and quick review on our new Polestar platform.
     
     
     
     
    Product Information:
     
    AURALiC ARIES G2.1 ($4,799 or $5,199 with 2TB Internal Storage) AURALiC ARIES G2.1 Product Page AURALiC ARIES G2.1 User's Guide (1.2MB PDF)  AURALiC ARIES G2.1 CD Playback & Ripping Guide (1.1MB PDF)   
     
    Associated Music:
     
    Audiophile Style 50 (Qobuz) Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist (Tidal)  
     
    Associated Equipment:
     
    Source: QNAP TVS-872XT, Aurender W20SE, CAPS 20 DAC: EMM Labs DV2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS3, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, CAPS 20.1, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 Digital Signal Processing: Accurate Sound, HQPlayer Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, JRemote, Aurender Conductor Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro Playback Software: Roon, JRiver,  Network Attached Storage (NAS): QNAP TVS-872XT Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables, Gotham GAC-4/1 ultraPro Balanced XLR Audio Cable (40') USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables Power Isolation: one 4kVA and one 5 kVA 512 Engineering Symmetrical Power Source Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables Fiber optic Cables: Single Mode OS1-9/125um (LC to LC) Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption,  ATS Acoustics Bass Traps Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 16 XG, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, UniFi FlexHD AP, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x6, Commercial Grade Fiber Optic Patch Cables, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload  
     
     
    Listening Room:
     
    This graph shows the frequency response of my room before (top) and after (bottom) tuning by Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The standard used for this curve is EBU 3276. This tuning can be used with Roon, JRiver, and other apps that accept convolution filters. When evaluating equipment I use my system with and without this tuning engaged. The signal processing takes place in the digital domain before the audio reaches the DAC, thus enabling me to evaluate the components under review without anything changing the signal further downstream. 
     

     
     
     
  5. Thanks
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, UPDATE: Amazon Music HD Is Still Lossy*   
    Last month I wrote about Amazon's issues with streaming lossless audio (link). The company advertises high definition, yet doesn't offer lossless CD or HD audio. At the encouragement of a few Audiophile Style readers, I obtained a Bluesound Node 2i for testing. The Node 2i enabled me to test streaming from Amazon without using any of Amazon's applications for Windows, macOS, or iOS. The audio routs from Amazon's servers, through the Bluesound Node 2i's coaxial digital output and into my DAC. I could've use analog outputs in the Node 2i, but for the sake of testing the digital outputs were required. Below are my testing methodology and my findings. 
     
     
    Testing Methodology 
     
    I use a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 3 that identifies and decodes HDCD on all sample rates. When an unaltered HDCD file is played, the HDCD indicator on the DAC is illuminated. The HDCD flag is on the 16 bit for CD files and the 24th bit for high resolution files. Any alteration, DSP, volume leveling, etc... changes this least significant bit and won't enable the HDCD indicator to illuminate. That's the hardware piece. 
     
    With respect to source files, here's what I do. 
     
    I have a list of roughly ten known HDCD albums (although I could use more if needed). Many of these albums were only released as HDCD encoded CDs/files. There is no alternate lossless version. For example, Reference Recordings only releases music that's HDCD encoded. 
     
    I set a baseline by playing my own local copy of the albums and make sure the HDCD indicator illuminates.
     
    I used the Bluesound applications on iOS and macOS for playback during this test. Outside of the Amazon native apps, that I tested previously, the Bluesound app/ecosystem is one of the only systems to integrate Amazon Music HD and stream content up through 24/192. 
     
    Through the Bluesound app and Node 2i combination, I streamed my known HDCD releases first through Qobuz, then through Tidal, and finally through Amazon Music HD. I wanted to use my local file baseline, then two streaming service baselines, before testing Amazon.  
     
    Absolutely there are possible holes in my methodology, but I believe I've minimized them as much as possible. The two major ones are source material. Sure Amazon could have different source material from all other lossless streaming services, but after checking with labels, I highly doubt this is the case. The second one is Amazon's adaptive bit rate. Amazon could be sending me lossy versions of the files and sending other people lossless versions, but I think this is highly unlikely as well. I have a 1 gigabit upload/download unmetered fiber internet connection. I routinely check the speed and see between 800 Mbps and 940 Mbps. If Amazon doesn't think this is a fast enough connection for lossless audio, then I doubt anyone else is going to receive lossless audio, thus making the platform lossy. 
     

    Results
     
    Good news for Bluesound! The Bluesound Node 2i successfully streamed lossless audio from Amazon Music HD from 16 bit / 44.1 kHz up through 24 bit / 192 kHz. Amazon's own apps are unable to do what the Bluesound ecosystem can do with respect to playing the highest quality lossless audio. 
     
    I used the following music to test, and discovered a couple interesting items along the way. 
     
    Neil Young's Greatest Hits, Harvest (2009 Remaster) and After The Gold Rush (2009 Remaster) were all bit perfect at 24/192 from Amazon. 
    Pearl Jam's Live On Two Legs, Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and Minnesota Orchestra's Bolero! (Reference Recordings) were bit perfect at 16/44.1 from Amazon.
     
    Jewel's album Spirit never illuminated the HDCD indicator on my Berkeley Audio Design DAC through Amazon, but the same Album lit the light through Qobuz. 
     
    The Chicks album Wide Open Spaces was an HDCD master when originally released at 16/44.1. Neither Amazon, Tidal, nor Qobuz streamed a version that illuminated the HDCD indicator on my DAC. There is a 24/96 non-HDCD version available for streaming and I wonder if the 44.1 version is derived from that or if the streaming services have a "bad" copy of the original, or if when the 96 kHz version was done, a 44.1 version was also made and delivered to the services. 
     
    I also found what may be the effects of watermarking on a couple albums I tested. The album No Name Face from Lifehouse and the album Pull My Chain from Toby Keith were originally released as HDCD masters on CD. Playing these albums from Amazon Music HD, the HDCD indicator illuminated for about 1 second, then went dark. I've talked to a few people about this behavior and the agreement seems to be that there's a watermark placed on the albums. The watermark didn't effect the first second of the track, but kicks in shortly after, destroying bit perfect playback. 
     
    Upon further investigation I found:
     
    Qobuz plays these albums perfectly and lights the HDCD light on my DAC.  Tidal plays the Toby Keith album perfect, but not the Lifehouse album.  Amazon plays neither album perfectly, however Amazon offers a second version of Pull My Chain that does stream perfectly and illuminates the HDCD indicator.   
    If the watermark is done at the label level this makes a little more sense. The versions that don't playback perfectly are all labeled SKG / Dreamworks. The Amazon version that doesn't have issues is labeled UMG / Dreamworks. Yes, I realize this is a tiny difference in metadata that may mean nothing, but it's the only difference between the albums that playback perfect the those that don't.
     
    Last, I found some MQA content streaming through Amazon Music HD. It's bit perfect as MQA was displayed on my DAC.
     

    Bottom Line
     
    The bottom line is twofold. First, it's great that Amazon Music HD can be streamed to a HiFi system losslessly in high resolution. Amazon's own applications are incapable of this, but fortunately the indispensable Bluesound Node 2i handles it with ease. If readers want Amazon Music HD, the Node 2i is a requirement in my book. Second, all of this testing indicates that streaming can be a mess for those of us who like high quality and care about the best sound possible. I think of all the conversations I've had with people who say one streaming service sounds better than another or their local copies of albums sound better than the identical versions when streamed. I completely understand. It's a mess out there.
     
     
  6. Thanks
    Middy reacted to bluesman for an article, The Value Proposition In Audio: Voice Control For Audiophiles (You Can't Buy Too Soon - You Can Only Sell Too Late)   
    THE VALUE PROPOSITION IN AUDIO:  VOICE CONTROL FOR AUDIOPHILES
    (YOU CAN’T BUY TOO SOON – YOU CAN ONLY SELL TOO LATE)
     
     

     
     
     
    I‘M AN OLD DOG – I CAN SPOT AN OLD TRICK A MILE AWAY
     
    For me to write an intelligent and useful article on the subject, I thought it was important to understand the AS community’s thoughts, attitudes, wants, needs, and turn-offs about voice control.  Many of you read (and some responded to) my General Forum post seeking answers to a 5 question poll about voice control for audiophiles.  Well……….I got what I wanted, although it took me a while to reconcile what I learned with what I (and Chris, since he asked specifically for this article) believed.  I actually had to rewrite a large portion of this to put it all in context for me, as well as for you.  
     
    About half of all AS responders said that they have no interest at all in voice control for their audio systems.  
     
    My initial response was pure shock.  But within minutes, I found the perspective from which to make sense of this.  And from that perspective, I’ll draw some conclusions that have immediate importance to the industry and longer term impact on the audiophile community.
     
    SURVEY SAYS……...
     
    TOPIC 1: LEVEL OF INTEREST
     
      I definitely want voice control for at least one of my audio systems.
      I'd only consider voice control for my audio system(s) if it does everything I now do manually.
      I'd use voice control for my audio system(s) if it controls simple basics like program & volume.
      I have no interest in voice control for my audio system(s).
     
     

     
     
     
     
    TOPIC 2: KNOWLEDGE & EXPERIENCE WITH VC
     
      I own and regularly use voice recognition / control / activation in at least one device.
      I own devices with embedded voice recognition / control / activation but rarely use the feature.
      I've tried voice recognition/control/activation in the past, but it didn't work well enough for me.
      I've never used voice recognition / control / activation.
     
     

     
     
     
     
     
    TOPIC 3: HOW CURRENT IS YOUR KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE WITH VC
     
      I use current voice actuated software in at least one device.
      I've only used older apps/devices, eg early smart home devices, Dragon Naturally Speaking, etc.
      I've never owned or regularly used any voice actuated devices or software.
     
     

     
     
     
     
     
    TOPIC 4: IF YOU’D CONSIDER VOICE CONTROL, HOW WOULD YOU PREFER TO USE IT?
     
      In a separate control device, e.g. hand held remote control
      As an app for my mobile device(s)
      As software embedded in players, control points etc
      Embedded with other front end controls in my electronics (preamp, integrated amp, DAC etc)
      Embedded in smart speakers
     
     

     
     
     
     
    TOPIC 5:  DEAL BREAKERS FOR ME
     
      It has to be a comprehensive control center, 99+% accurate, and consistently reliable.
      It has to come preinstalled in hardware and/or software.
      It has to be easily upgradeable, regardless of the form or device in which it comes to me.
      Others in my home or family have to be able to use it with little or no instruction.
     
     

     
     
     
     
    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND A PRÉCIS OF THIS ARTICLE’S ORGANIZATION
     
    For me, the easiest way to learn about and understand the current spectrum of voice control for audiophiles is to start by categorizing what’s now available, from simple to complex, before moving to what’s coming and what’s possible beyond that.  The simplest place to start is with those virtual assistants already available and in use by at least half of us for something (based on the poll I ran a few weeks ago).  Then we’ll move on to currently available audio devices with voice recognition and control built in, before advancing to the standalone voice control apps out there for adaptation to audiophile use. For a peek into the future, check out josh – there’s some serious effort in high end VC.
     
    Amazingly enough, there are well over 20 virtual / digital assistants out there today, some of which are welcome in my home and happily living there today.  As with any other stranger in our midst, security is critical for self-protection and privacy – but this is not as big a problem as some would have you believe (more later in the text).  For starters, here’s a table of the top virtual assistants in use and under development today, with a summary of what they can do right now:
     

     
     
     
    Several of these are already in widespread active use, but ongoing development is actively pushing the envelope around their utility, practicality, and potential.  The combination of voice recognition / synthesis / understanding with artificial intelligence may well be the most exciting direction for consumer products since the industrial revolution.  The above table documents the tip of the iceberg of startups joining with long standing research and development programs of the world’s leading enterprises.  Next we’ll discuss how the above systems can be acquired, adopted, or otherwise brought into our lives today, before an overview of what an audiophile can do with them and why we should all become more familiar with voice-based AI while it’s still simple to grasp and adopt.
     
    The world of virtual assistants (along with the number of them) is growing rapidly, and those provided by the major houses (Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft) already offer basic control over music playback.  BY themselves, most offer almost no direct control over audio devices other than those in which they’re embedded.  They give you access to music on their corporate servers if you subscribe to one of their services, but they offer limited management of your own files through front end controls, e.g. volume, source material, play mode.  You can stream from the usual web sources if you have an account, e.g. Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music etc.
     
     
    SOME DECENT AUDIO WITH VOICE CONTROL THAT YOU CAN USE RIGHT NOW
     
    For the impatient, here’s a summary table to point you toward goal directed devices and systems you can buy and use right now.  At present, I know of no voice control system, AI application, and/or dedicated device that will (or can be adapted to) replace all the knobs, switches and icons we now use to control our audio systems.  Voice controlled power switching is easy to achieve, and there are decent receivers on the market today that have some level of voice control built in with one of the name “digital assistants”.  But comprehensive voice control of an existing audiophile system is simply not yet available.
     
    There are a few immediately available options for the adventurous that will let you experience voice control over your audio sources.  For example, Braina is a VC/AI app and system for PC that can control the VLC media player right now and will give you program and playback control over several streaming sources with a little setup.  It’s free, and it truly defines the term “work in progress” – it’s crude, rough and inconsistent.  But it does enough well enough to let you feel how powerful VC will be when ready for prime time.  Be aware that Braina sometimes does some weird things – just laugh!
     
    The most practical voice controlled options for audio right now are in the smart device category, most of which are powered by Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri.  Google devices will play 24/96 FLACs, and their high end devices have embedded Chromecast so they can be used as DLNA zones in Jriver. If you want to have voice control over JRiver playing through a Google device as a zone, you’ll have to use Alexa. If she’s not sharing a device with the GA, you can link her from an Amazon device or a third party host using an app like Helea Smart.
     
    The entry level devices are all small, relatively low powered, and a bit below the range of SQ that can be considered good by any stretch of the imagination.  But even the better low end pieces (e.g. the latest Echo Dot) are impressive in stereo pairs with a bit of EQ applied through the Alexa app.  And the high end from Amazon, Google, and Apple contain some decent active speaker systems with impressive parts, useful DSP, and sound quality that’s good enough to keep many audiophiles happy for noncritical listening (especially to streamed mid-res files of music you want to audition before buying, or can’t buy at all).
     
    You can buy multiple Echo devices right now, set them up on your WLAN, and immediately stream standard res music through them all by telling Alexa what you want to hear and from which speaker(s).  The same applies to Google devices, except for your choice of streaming sources – there are several alternatives through the Google Assistant, including YouTubeMusic, Spotify, and a host of others. You can also do this just as easily with the Apple units but you can only play music from Apple Music or iTunes (if you still have that set up on a networked device).
     
    You can read more about all this further on.  But for the impatient, you can immediately put a voice controlled system together quickly and easily, synch many stereo pairs in many rooms without audible delay or other ill effect, and enjoy casual listening that’s not too shabby.   Here’s a quick guide to getting started with VC in several easy ways:
     

     
     
     

     
     
    Some things of which you should be aware (details later in the text):
     
    You cannot control a serious audio system today using only your voice  You can control selected functions of some equipment right now You can use development platforms to create new functions if you’re up to it You probably won’t be waiting long for voice control to advance enough to please you You can use your voice to select & play music right now with comprehensive control You’ll have to do it with currently available smart speakers and a streaming source Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant et al will select your choice if it’s available in the repository used by your choice of assistant (e.g. Amazon Music for Alexa) and control basic playback functions It’s easy and works great  With a little effort, e.g. activating a skill for Alexa, you can control programs like JRiver Media Center with your voice and play any file or source accessible to you thorugh it You cannot integrate JRMC control with other audio functions, e.g. synch playback among multiple devices with JRMC There are many decent smart speakers from which to choose, but so far none reaches the performance level of a true audiophile product (except perhaps a very few like the $3000 B&O A9) These are appliances, not audio equipment – reasonable expectations avoid disappointment Even current entry level smart speakers like the Echo Dot and the little Google thingies sound half decent.  A pair of $20 Echo Dots (3rd gen, now on sale cheap because the 4th gen just came out) will play most music well and loudly enough not to offend Even entry level smart devices from Amazon, Google, and Apple can now be set up as stereo pairs The latest speakers from Amazon, Apple, etc are surprisingly good and easy to use Technophobes and non-audiophiles in your life will love you for getting them a pair if they have any desire at all to listen to music but can’t / won’t use your system If you’re already a subscriber (e.g. Amazon Prime, Apple Music), you only have to ask for the music you want and  (if it’s available from your plan) and it’ll play  You can ask by composer, performer, genre, track or album title, etc – it’s easy No matter which smart devices you buy, the assistant within is identical for all. The $3000 B&O may sound much better than the $29 Google Nest.  But the Google Assistant within them is one and the same. There’s a lot of very good HT audio equipment with serious voice control embedded or through one (or more) of the major assistants There’s a fledgling Internet of Audio Things (IoAuT) that will probably give birth to a new generation of voice controlled audiophile equipment very soon There’s a young industry combining voice recognition and control with artificial intelligence that has the potential to replace your knobs and buttons with your voice  You can play with this today by downloading one of the development platforms and setting it up on your computer  For example, check out Braina for a peek into the gestation of trhe revolution This AI/VC software can control VLC player on your PC out of the box Yes, it’s crude and no, it’s not even close to being sufficiently accurate and consistent for routine use But……..the combo of AI and VC is exciting and promising – don’t sell it short!
     
     
    WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND
     
    ...and that’s the real message in this work.  Think of all the things that were soundly dismissed when introduced but are now taken for granted – things we can’t imagine living without.  Among the many staples of modern life are initial failures like Nintendo, Wheaties, and Dyson vacuum cleaners.  Apple was a hair’s breadth from bankruptcy in 1997.  Walt Disney’s first animation studio went bankrupt within 2 years.  Milton Hershey couldn’t give away his candy when he started his first two companies – they both failed.  Only on the third try did the Hershey Bar make it out of the starting gate.
     
    Dr Seuss’s first book was rejected by 27 publishers before finding one willing to take a chance on it.  Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime.  When Rovio started offering mobile games in 2003, they couldn’t generate enough interest to raise an eyebrow let alone an investor.  Fast forward 6 years to their introduction of Angry Birds, by which time there was enough demand to yank them off the starting block and into the winner’s circle.
     
    How could such great ideas come so close to failure?  For many, it was a technical hurdle that hadn’t yet been overcome.  Three critical breakthroughs that pushed mobile device games over the hump at the dawn of the 21st century were the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) that enabled mobile phones to connect to the internet, mobile Java (2002), and color phone displays (2003).  Before this, mobile gaming was crude and slow even on devices at the state of the art.  Until a physical product and the software that controls it reach maturity and can fulfill a serious chunk of the product’s promise, it’ll only sell to the early adapters.  For others, it’s just a matter of preconceived notions and fickle consumers.  Many products and concepts that eventually succeed start off with nothing but the lonely enthusiasm of their inventors behind them amid a loud chorus of “Why would anybody want that?” - until someone who matters gives it a try and discovers greatness within it.
     
    The best advice I got in business school was to underpromise and overdeliver.  The inability to subdue enthusiasm often results in the introduction of a new concept or product as a done deal when much of the inventor’s vision and promise has yet to be realized.  It only takes one big disappointment to sour potential buyers on a second chance.  Many of us started early and learned quickly that voice recognition software was far from user friendly at its inception.  I was an early user of Naturally Speaking (1998), adopting it only when it improved from the initial product’s requirement that you enunciated each and every word separately (a limitation with which I couldn’t live).  I used it to dictate office notes after patient visits, and it was about as accurate as my transcription service had been, and transcription inaccuracy was the reason I went to voice recognition software.  But I had to proof every page just as I did for transcribed correspondence.
     
    Even today, VR software is less accurate than I’d like.  We have voice control in our Xfinity cable box remotes that works pretty well for me.  I get about 90+% of what I ask for, but my wife gets either the wrong channel or a prompt to repeat her request at least 25% of the time.  It’s just not as good as it needs to be.  On the other hand, Alexa turns on my espresso machine and audio systems, plays music from my collection over Amazon devices, controls JRiver on my computers, sets wake-up alarms, reminds us of tasks and appointments, tells us the weather forecast and current temperature outside, and does it all with 95-98% accuracy.   
     
    So the promise of voice control is great for audiophiles, and I believe it will gain wide acceptance as it approaches 99+% accuracy and shows up in more devices and programs. Based on progress to date, I expect VC with AI to reach the level of function, reliability and ease that we all expect from our audio equipment.  I like it a lot already and look forward to the future.  Let’s get to it!
     
     
    THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM:  ACCURACY
     
    There are a few well done tests out there comparing the accuracy of both recognition and response among Alexa, the Google Assistant, and Siri.  This one from Loup Ventures is a good example and very interesting.  The results are helpful in determining how accurate and useful each can be for audiophile use right now.  Each was asked 800 questions.  Google won with 100% understanding and 93% correct answers.  Siri was 2nd (99.8% / 83%) and Alexa  was 3rd (99.9% / 79.8%).  The same study was done a year before, and the sequential results show some limits and some progress: the order was the same a year ago but the results were 86%, 79%, and 61% correct responses.  
     
    Google seems to have nailed it in the second round with a 16% improvement that put it within the confidence interval of perfection.  But Alexa could only do the right thing about 80% of the time even after a 33% improvement, and Siri only beat out Alexa by 3% after a year of development that resulted in a fairly weak 5% increase in answering correctly.
     
    At present, the Google Assistant is the smartest, with Siri & Alexa far enough behind to matter.
     
     
    FROM REX TO ALEXA – A BRIEF HISTORY OF VOICE RECOGNITION / CONTROL
     
    The first voice activated device to be historically documented is Radio Rex from 1911.
     
    Rex would (sometimes) leap out of his dog house when called by name.  He was held in place by an electromagnet whose energizing circuit was tuned to a resonance of about 500 Hz.  When the right voices said “Rex” loudly enough  (or any other sound source with enough energy in the 500 Hz range went off), the spectral content in that range would somehow interrupt the power to the magnet.  When the magnet’s power is interrupted, Rex is pushed out of his house by a spring.  I can’t find out how this works, but it suggests an early “Clapper”.  And, like the Clapper, it’s activated by sound and not specifically a voice - it reacts to any sounds within its sensitivity range. As both a pet and a device, Rex was inconsistent and unreliable. But he was the first – and his weaknesses set the bar much higher for market acceptance of subsequent voice activated devices.  This is a lesson we’re learning again!
     
    The next voice activated toys to hit the market with any success at all were Jill and Julie (late 1950s).
     

    These lovely ladies came from TI and had both speech recognition and voices of their own.  Julie (right) was about 3 feet tall and responded to words like pretend, hungry, yes and no.  Sadly, neither would put your vinyl on the turntable or dial up an FM station, but it’s not a stretch to call them the founding mothers of Alexa, Siri et al.
     
     
     
     
    FROM TOY TO TEMPTRESS
     
    The lovely Audrey was born in 1952 to her proud Bell Labs parents (whose names were Davis, Biddulph, and Balashek for those who care).  She was far from the fastest chip on the board, but she had a great personality!  Audrey was the sultry seductress who spawned generations of progressively smarter progeny, some of whom live and work among us today.  We have Audrey to thank for our friends Alexa, Bixby, Siri, Cortana, and the poor little Google Assistant who never got a name.
     
    Audrey was the first documented system that could recognize human speech.  She was a bit of an idiot savant – her only skill was the ability to recognize spoken digits with 97-99% accuracy if spoken to her by a voice on which she’d been trained.  She could have been useful in telecommunications, e.g. as a voice activated interface for long distance dialing or in a high end telephone (one of the reasons for her creation).  But she died alone because she was a high maintenance woman and a very expensive date.
     
    Audrey filled a full height 19” rack and sucked power like mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby.  She was a little slow as a child, and she never realized her potential.  Even rotary dialing was as fast as Audrey, and she was absolutely no match for the touch tone system invented when she was only a toddler.  By 1958, touch tone phones were in active development and Audrey was obsolete.  Then John Karlin (a psychologist at Bell Labs) drove the last nail into her coffin when he invented the keypad we now use for telephony and a million other things.
     
    When Audrey was 10, IBM debuted the Shoebox at the Seattle World’s Fair.  This device could recognize 16 English words and the numbers 0 to 9.  But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the next generation of voice recognition technology was born.  DARPA funded research at Carnegie Mellon that bore fruit in the form of a device called Harpy, which (who?) had could recognize the vocabulary of the average 3 year old.  Harpy proved that there was a “finite state-network of possible sentences” that was the key to better identification and accuracy.  At the same time, Bell Labs made advances that enabled software to recognize and interpret multiple voices.  They threw early AI into the mix and created the foundations of today’s voice recognition and activation software – and the race is on!
     
     
    LET’S LOOK BEHIND DOOR #1 INTO THE ASSISTANTS’ LOUNGE 
     
        
     
     
    The first route to voice control of music playback is through the “digital assistants” already living in your smart home devices.  There are only 3 teams in the major leagues right now: Amazon, Apple, and Google.  Samsung’s a comer, and they’re pursuing the market hard - Bixby has about 2 years under his belt, but he’s still a long way from the playoffs for audio.  There’s now a Samsung Bixby Marketplace from which to explore and download Bixby Capsules, which are Samsung’s equivalent to Alexa’s Skills.
     
    Microsoft has Cortana, but she’s never been much of a help around the house (maybe because MS never put much effort into her development).  And they recently announced that they’re scaling back mobile and home uses in favor of integration with Microsoft 365 products.  They’re sequentially pulling the plug on all Cortana skills and apps over the next year, although she’ll apparently continue living in MS PCs and helping us use Outlook for the forseeable future.  Continued integration with Surface buds and ‘phones is projected, although a reason for maintaining this is not obvious to me.  
     
    Cortana will no longer live in HK’s Invoke (the MS answer to the Amazon Echo, the Google Nest, and Apple’s HomePod) - as of now, HK is planning to send a $50 voucher to every owner because their smart speakers will be rendered deaf and dumb when Cortana moves out and turns smart speakers into dumb ones! Interestingly enough, MS has started offering development tools for creating Alexa skills with their Azure bot framework.  And it appears that further collaboration with Amazon is ongoing to advance Alexa – so MS may not be out of the game, but they’re changed role from team owner to trainer.
     
     
    ALEXA AND SIRI HAVE THEIR HEADS IN THE CLOUDS
     

     
    The deus is not in the machina.  In this version of Oz, the nerdy wizard is a series of algorithms and AI living in millions of lines of code in the server grid of the Amazon Web Services cloud.  Pictured above is probably one of many server farms around the world comprising AWS, which represents a huge chunk of the world’s business computing power and storage. For security, their locations are kept as far under the radar as possible.  It’s known that the first location was in northern Virginia, and hundreds of investigative reporters have scoured the media for clues to exact locations since that one opened about 15 years ago.
     
    The relevance of the last paragraph to voice control for audiophiles is strong.  Your voice and everything else heard by the microphones in your devices will go to the cloud and back, traversing an unknown number of servers and storage devices along the way – voice responsive assistants can do nothing on their own.  Alexa, Siri, et al require internet access even to turn on a light.  More complex tasks like making JRiver play a specific tune from your library can hurl a lot of data back and forth across the ether, using bandwidth and leaving tracks.
     
    When I ask Alexa to play music by Bill Evans using JRiver, I’m actually asking an AWS server or three to recognize, understand, and act on my request.  The involved communication channels resemble a neural network - my input travels to the cloud over the internet as the afferent signal (going to the “brain”),  The response triggers that are generated by a pretty sophisticated system of AI, predictive analytics, etc return as efferent signals that will be processed by my own system(s) into actions.  
     
    Everything heard by every voice-driven virtual assistant is archived in cloud servers, as are the responses.  So security is obviously a major issue, for which there are many good protective solutions that only work if you use them.  But by reading this far, you’ve probably figured out that every microphone in every device you own can be used to listen in on you, even without your knowledge or authorization.  Caution is essential, but risk is low if you do the right things. We’ll get to how this affects use of a true home hub later.  But here’s a hint: your nagging suspicion is correct that a WiFi-activated door lock or a security system on your WLAN could easily be hacked if you don’t make every effort to secure everything.
     
     
    THE FORECAST CALLS FOR CLOUDS
     
    Alexa has absolutely no idea what JRiver is or does.  She needs an assist from a piece of third party software called a “skill”, a chunk of code that we used to call middleware back when programmers were skinny and computers were fat.  Other such systems use their own versions of middleware to interact with networked devices.  Some systems are part of the IoT, which requires a “hub” connected to a WAN for integration of users’ devices and LANs with the cloud-based computers that make them do what they do.  Some operate directly within a LAN or from point to point, and others connect devices directly to the cloud via the internet.  The overall architecture of a given system 
     
    Fortunately, the community of developers of Alexa skills is huge.  There are already well over 100,000  skills, each vetted by Amazon and available through the Alexa app.  Admittedly, many of them do some pretty silly stuff, although I suspect that the lovers of what we consider silly stuff think that audio applications are wasting their bandwidth, to which I can only say is à chacun son goût.
     
    In any case, those skills also live on cloud servers.  In the course of turning what you say into what you hear (or see or feel or whatever else you’ve asked your virtual assistant to make happen for you), the data representing your voice must get to the appropriate skill software located somewhere on that long strange trip from your lips to your ears, as guided by the Wizard of Amazon.  In reality, many of the skill sources probably use the AWS cloud too, but it’s hard to know which cloud is which and it’s irrelevant for most consumer applications.  
     
    It should be obvious that there’s a lot of A-D, D-D, and D-A converting going on to let your voice activate an outlet, make your music louder or softer, change the track, etc.  And I’m sure that the methods and equipment chosen by each provider affect the speed, accuracy, and versatility of the “assistant” you choose.  I’ll offer a few brief comparisons among Alexa, Siri, and services that link the two (so you can do things like use Alexa on an Apple Watch and control Samsung devices from an iPhone – I’m doing both).  The intentional thwarting of cross-platform use by direct competitors has real world performance consequences.  You can leap those barriers with an iron will, a creative spirit, and a little patience.  The world of voice control and touchless device-human interaction is in its infancy, and these issues will be overcome.  With closer integration, performance becomes better and better and the entry barriers will fall.  As they do, the attractiveness of voice control for audio will grow and more of us will adopt it over time.
     
    Here’s an example of the effort needed to make Alexa control JRiver.  To interact with JRMC, Alexa uses a skill called House Band from a developer named Philosophical Creations (a source of several skills, only one of which is for audio AFAIK).  And here’s where the primitive nature of voice control for audio starts to appear.  You first have to tell Alexa to use the skill she’ll need to complete your task for you.  You can’t just tell her to play Kind of Blue on JRiver – you have to start by telling her to “launch House Band”.  When she asks what you want to do next, instruct her to “ask House Band to play the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis”.  The music actually plays in response to this, although for now you can only make JRMC play on the zones it recognizes – and it doesn’t recognize any Amazon devices because none is DLNA compliant.
     
    All that data transmission, activity and dependence on so many remote servers and services combine to make the early adopter curve for voice controlled audio quite steep – so interest has been weak.   This AS thread on Alexa and JRMC was started about 5 years ago by Arkonovs and got one (count ‘em – one!) reply.  Although it’s easier now than it was in Feb 2016 to use voice control, it takes enough effort and commitment to keep many from trying it.  In a true sense, the physical path from your voice to JRiver is analogous to the philosophical and emotional paths to adoption of this technology – it’s a long and winding road with a lot of bumps, and it’s still under construction.  But advances are happening rapidly, so let’s look at the major players to find the best of today’s breed.
     
    DOOR #2: THE NATIVE HABITAT OF THE BEST KNOWN DIGITAL ASSISTANTS
     
    Enter the smart speaker, an elemental concept that combines a microphone, a powered speaker, and a processor in a single device that’s listening for your commands 24/7/365.  Over the last few years, they managed to take the assistant out of the box and stick him or her into a wide variety of devices that includes audio and video equipment.  We’ll get to those itinerants after we discuss the basic boxes in which they were whelped and weaned.
     
    Each assistant from one of the major players has his or her own little home. Alexa lives in the Echo or the Show, Siri lives in iStuff, and Google Assistant lives in Google and Nest hubs.  You have to buy at least one proprietary device to bring Alexa, Siri, Bixby et al home, and you have to have an account with the parent company for your new buddy to function.  Once you’ve bought a ticket to Oz, you can expand your assistant’s reach to other devices, like your PC or mobiles. But if you don’t already have the necessary account and you buy an appliance with an assistant in it, you’ll have to set up an account before you can use the voice assist function.  That means opening an Amazon account for Alexa, an Apple ID for Siri, a Samsung account for Bixby etc. There’s no way around this, even if you buy one tiny speaker for bedside music and wakeup alarms.  If you want into the wacky world of Alexa et al, you have to join their ranks.
     
    Alexa lives in thousands of products now and is also available as an app for your phone, TV etc.  Siri has a smaller but considerable array of homes away from home, starting with every iPhone and iPad in the world running any recent OS from Apple.  Bixby lives in a host of Samsung products from phones and tablets to sound bars and other audio products, and Google Assistant inhabits Nest smart products, Android TVs, and a growing list of other stuff in addition to the ever expanding line of Google-branded products. Some devices now come with 2 assistants, so you can use each for things the other won’t do.
     
    A full review and comparison of the major platforms for audiophile use will be a serious undertaking requiring a fair amount of equipment at considerable expense.  It’s certainly a worthwhile endeavor and I’m working on a plan to bring in enough stuff to do it well - I already have Amazon and Samsung platforms, plus a few Siri-loaded devices. So work is progressing, but it won’t be valuable to audiophiles without inclusion of the best smart speakers and their embedded assistants.  For that, I’m going to need assistance in securing enough units to evaluate and compare.
     
    DOOR #3: HOME THEATER
     
    Along with Alexa, Siri, and Bixby, I have 4 Samsung Smart TVs now, all with embedded media players. With a decent sound system, this is also a fine way to enjoy music – and it’s one of the easiest and most readily available platforms today for voice controlled home audio.  You can read a primer on HT for multichannel audio in my last AS article, “Entering Multichannel at the Ground Floor”.  Just find the header “CONSIDER THE HOME THEATER RECEIVER FOR MULTICHANNEL AUDIO” and start reading my suggestions for a few value-priced receivers with fine audio performance and enough flexibility to make most of us happy for both audio and HT. More and more of these come with an assistant built in.
     
    You can now buy decent AV equipment from Denon, Yamaha, Marantz and others with VC assistants inside.  Some limit you to their own choice, e.g. Alexa.  But others, like the $3300 Marantz 8015 receiver, work with “all the major voice agents” and do pretty much everything the average audiophile could want.  As an example, the 8015 streams major services, plays ALAC, Apple Lossless, DSD, FLAC & WAV, files, has serious DSP, digital inputs (coax x2, optical x2, HDMI x 7), a full complement of line level unbalanced outs, 3 audio zones, and MC capability (11.2) well beyond what most of us would ever use for home audio.  With HEOS wireless, BT, WiFi and ethernet connectivity, such devices are an integral part of your smart home and can be controlled fairly well with voice commands.
     
    Only a few smart TVs include good voice control.  Sony Bravia Smart TVs come with Alexa inside. All LG OLED, Super UHD and 4K UHD TVs with AI ThinQ® come with the Google Assistant embedded.  Amazingly enough,  Amazon and Google get along well enough in LG products to let them control Alexa’s devices as well.  The range of commands and possibilities grows daily, so LG is definitely worth watching closely despite their lack of audiophile electronics. Their TVs are easily integrated with almost anybody’s audio through intelligent controls and connections. 
     
    Cloud integration of diverse sources, processors, delivery systems, and local networks makes seamless use of devices from multiple vendors easier and more effective than ever.  We have to remember that the same Rube Goldberg touch that strings Alexa, House Band, JRiver, and your system devices together for pure audio is still required to add voice control to TV and HT setups whether you do it yourself or buy it that way.  For example, many 2017 and newer Sony 4k HDR TVs running Android OS can be updated to add Alexa, who will then use skills to fulfill your desires and to do anything else Alexa can do with whatever devices and systems you already have.  This is where those 100k+ skills come in, as you can activate any or all of them to let Alexa control your entire home, whether she lives in your TV, your thermostat, your phone, or your car (yes, your car – but auto audio’s another article in the works).
     
     

     
    Any audiophile in the market for a good HT system should consider a voice-responsive device.  These are the easiest and most consistently accurate approach to voice controlled audio available today.  But, as with everything we love, the technology is advancing quickly enough to make obsolescence likely sooner rather than later, especially for those who pursue the state of the art.  SQ is already excellent in the better HT receivers, but voice control is still primitive and will undoubtedly be faster, more accurate, and more versatile every time you turn around for the next few years.
     
     
    NOT YET READY FOR AUDIOPHILES:  SMART HOMES AND HOME HUBS
     
    The concept of a smart home is not new.  With networked devices, you can control everything from entry locks and HVAC to lighting and curtains with your voice.  You can tell your assistant to feed the dog and warm up your espresso machine through your phone while driving home from work.  And the same systems offer varying degrees of control over your audio system.  However, I know of no existing  home hub or other smart home approach that’s capable of controlling all the functions of even the simplest legacy 2 channel stereo system.
     
    Some smart devices can be controlled entirely within your home, but most require a hub with an internet connection because of all the data streams and systems integration needed to execute a simple voice command. The hub can be integral to a single smart device on the LAN, distributed among all devices on the LAN, or embedded in a stand-alone hub device.
     
    The big guys each offer their own home hubs.  In some systems (like Amazon’s), the function of a hub is distributed among one or all devices that carry the digital assistant – no standalone device is needed.  All of the controlled devices are on your WLAN and all communicate with their cloud server(s) through your network router to the internet.  In others, like Samsung’s, you need a dedicated home hub connected to your LAN via ethernet and connected to your devices by WiFi.
     
    Interestingly, the brand new generation of Amazon smart devices includes an embedded Zigbee hub.  Zigbee is an old line (at least in the IoT world) global organization that establishes standards for wireless communication among devices on the IoT and certifies compliance of hard and soft wares for such use.  Members of the Zigbee Alliance include serious players like Apple, Google, Comcast, Lutron, Huawei, Samsung, TI, and many others.  There are about 150 current nonmember participants and about the same number of adopters.  But none of the audio industry seems to be involved, apart from big guys who include audio in their product offerings, e.g. Panasonic and Toshiba.
     
    Google hubs have been sold in both Google and Nest devices, and to tell you the truth I can’t keep track of which is which.  A Google hub is the portal through which the Google Assistant makes stuff happen on your Google-enabled devices.  And, like Alexa, that hub function is distributed across all the devices in which the Google Assistant lives – no standalone device is necessary to perform the hub functions.
     
    Similarly, Apple’s home hub function comes in multiple devices, e.g. Apple TV, iPads, and the Apple Home Pod (which is another smart speaker device similar to the Amazon Echo products).  But unlike Alexa, who demands no specific hub setup beyond using the Alexa app, Siri does require that a hub be set up on one of the above devices.  If you choose to use an iPad as the Apple home hub, you have to leave it at home, powered on and connected to your WLAN 24/7/365.  Then you can use any of the big collection of Apple HomeKit devices from multiple manufacturers in your smart home.
     
    Unfortunately, smart home hubs are not yet up to controlling audio systems directly, completely, and well.  As part of my research for this article, I now have Amazon, Samsung, Google Home, SmartLife, Smart Things, Zigbee, Z-wave, TP-Link, and Kasa hubs set up to control anything in our home that makes a sound, moves, emits energy, or does anything else but sit there.  None of these is worth the cost and effort purely for audiophile use. The biggest contribution to our audio enjoyment from home automation per se is the ability to turn things on and off.  This does not include smart speakers, which we’ll discuss again below as renderers and control points.  In these roles, there’s good reason to consider them.
     
     
    MEDIA HUBS
     
    Although I haven’t bought any, there are standalone hubs that will integrate multiple devices and platforms into voice controlled media playback in your home.  Logitech’s Harmony Hub is one such device, and it’s apparently quite fine – but it’s also expensive enough to keep me from buying one just to evaluate it for this report.  Logitech is a long time player by now, and their products have always been good enough or better when I’ve used them. Their computer peripherals are great value - I use several of their wireless keyboards and mice, and I love their Digital Crayon on my iPad.  So I suspect their hubs are pretty fine.
     
    But using a Logitech hub for voice control of your audio system is another daisy chain of independent systems and functions.  And it’s easy to confuse one of those systems for another, e.g. if you use Alexa to control the hub, is the palette of functions available to you determined by Alexa or by the Harmony Hub?  Their hubs integrate with Alexa and Google Assistant, in that you can ask either assistant to tell the hub what you want done.  But the hub can only do what the hub can do, even if Alexa or GA can do more on other devices with other skills.  
     
    The Harmony Hub can be linked to Alexa using the Harmony skill, but the hub’s dedicated remote control will not work if you set up another device to accept your vocal commands (like an iPhone, an Echo or other smart speaker).  Instead, you have to set up Harmony Express as a video service provider – and if you do that, you can only use one such remote at a time.  Does it all work?  Yes.  Does it work as well as we’d want it to?  No.  It’ll be there some day, but it’s still primitive and I do not recommend this approach for other than an educational experience and an introduction ot what will someday be great.
     
    Another sign of less than seamless integration is the simple disclaimer from Logitech that “[t]he Express Integration skill has commands which may differ from other Harmony skills and does not support the use of friendly Favorite channel names or Alexa Routines”.  In other words, you get a few from column A and a few from column B – but Logitech makes that choice for you.
     
    Like virtually all other products in this arena, everything from corporate relations to device compatibility is constantly changing because business and technology often pursue disparate paths.  Features are introduced, refined, removed, and altered frequently as the industry tries to find out what we want and what we’ll pay for it.  Like most others, the Harmony Hub website clearly describes the fluid state of interactivity with the classic disclaimer:  “Supported devices and brands are subject to change without notice”.  Yes, Virginia, you may wake up tomorrow to find that your beloved AV receiver no longer responds to your trusted assistant – this happened with the Blackberry Assistant, early versions of Google Now, and others.
     
    Then there’s Caavo, a voice controlled home hub that integrates multimedia control of “everything connected to your TV”.  Its voice controlled remote uses their proprietary system, but the box is supposed to work with Alexa and Google Assistant much as the Logitech Harmony Hub does.  This relationship is apparently still in the early courtship stage – one Verge reviewer puts it right out there: “Caavo also has integrations with Alexa and Google Assistant, although these are pretty hit or miss. I was never able to make the Alexa integration work at all, and the Google Assistant integration was so spotty I stopped trying after a while”. ‘nuf said.
     
    The Caavo gets decent reviews for general TV and HT use, but even for plain vanilla use it’s far from refined.  From the Verge review, the Caavo “... isn’t perfect, by any means [but]it’s the first remote I’ve used that even attempts to build a new foundation for how all the stuff connected to your TV should work together, and it’s a no-brainer if you’re juggling between a cable box and streaming devices connected to your TV”.  So, once again, the potential’s there and we’ll probably love the 3rd or 4th generation.  It’s only a matter of time before successful integration of what are now independent functions and products will make today’s voice control seem as primitive as Audrey (remember her?).
     
     
    SMART SPEAKERS
     
     

     
     
    The world of smart speakers / devices and voice control for audiophiles is about to explode over the next few years.  The little ones are getting better with each new version – the current Echo Dot is a better and smarter speaker than the first generation big Echo was, and the Apple HomePod is good enough for many of us to enjoy in secondary settings like offices and background settings right now.  Like humans, each generation of smart speakers is better than its parents. I’ll provide an overview of the most popular devices, systems, and “assistants” a few paragraphs further down, and I’m planning a true comparison of the top ones just as soon as they’re good enough to be taken seriously (which will not be far in the future, if I read the tea leaves right).  But first, let’s get down to brass tacks.
     
    There are smart speakers at all price points from $30 to over $2k, with decent products available from B&O (for $2250), HK, Bose, Sonos, Sony, Audio Pro, Devialet and others.  Most come with Alexa, Google Assistant, and/or Siri – but most smart speakers aren’t any smarter than the dumb ones when it comes to audio.  They can turn up your lights, lock your doors, start your car, and order dinner – but for audio you’re limited to the same palette of skills regardless of the device in which your assistant lives.  But to be honest, even if the smart speakers from B&O have the IQ of an Echo Dot, they are absolutely gorgeous (see below).  If they sound as fine as they look, I could actually see buying them.
     
    A comparison of smart speakers as audio equipment is beyond the scope of this article, both because it’s a large scale work in itself and because assembling a collection of them requires either a large budget or industry connections, neither of which I have.  I’m working on a way to audition the better ones and hope to be able to do this in the not too distant future.  The $300 Apple unit has the best reviews for SQ among the big 3 (Amazon, Google, and Apple), although it seems like there are new models with expanded quality and capabilities coming out daily.  I haven’t seen any reviews yet of the latest $300+ units.
     
    I’ve heard many of the better devices from multiple makers, although I haven’t heard truly top line pieces like the newest $3k B&O).  Of those I have heard, none will replace either of my main systems.  In fact, none could even replace my desktop studio system (iFi Nano DSD into JBL 305s) for overall balance, presentation, articulation, clarity, and general sound quality.  I could happily live with several of the better smart speakers in multi-room use, for background and casual listening – and, in fact, I do.
     
    When you throw in voice control, which I did about a year ago, it’s easier to enjoy those smart speakers in every room and overlook their sonic shortcomings.  Add the ability to get Alexa to both control JRiver and play to Echo devices via BT, and your music becomes a constant companion responsive to conversational input.  Just say “Alexa, tell HouseBand to play Kind of Blue” and Miles emerges from the speakers in your selected JRMC zone(s).  It really is a wonderful advance in my enjoyment of music at home, and I use it every day while writing, researching, reading etc.  You shoud try it!
     
     
    A FEW WORDS ABOUT SONOS & BOSE
     
    Sonos pioneered wireless multi-room audio in  2002, although it was more concept than execution when they started.  The technical limitations were huge, e.g. dial-up AOL was the most popular ISP in the US, WiFi was in its infancy, and there were no WiFi drivers in Linux.  There was no hardware and no software to do what they wanted to do.  But the concept was as simple & brilliant as their first ads for it.
     
    And they created what I believe was the first true multi-room wireless audio network on the market, shipping their first product in 2005 IIRC.  There was growing industry interest in WiFi for home media distribution when they launched Jobs introduced the Airport Extreme (on the blazingly fast 802.11g standard!) about a year before Sonos sold product #1.  But itronically, it was Apple who enabled true mobile control of Sonos by introducing the iPhone and the App Store in 2007.  The Sonos app that soon followed let us use an iPhone for control, and the modern era of multi-room wireless audio began.
     
    Equally ironic is the fact that Amazon then made voice control of Sonos systems easy and practical by giving us Alexa, for whom there is a Sonos skill similar to the HouseBand skill used to control JRMC.  You can buy Sonos products in every guise from a small single smart speaker to sophisticated amplifiers and other electronics to drive your own speakers – and you can control every basic function with your voice.  Here’s a summary of the things Alexa can make Sonos do for you.  And here’s a link to info on the many Sonos devices available today.  I’m told (but haven’t confirmed) that the Google Assistant is now also usable with both.  But as far as I know, there’s still no way to get Google Assistant to control JRMC or other SW media player – so Alexa is the clear choice for them today.
     
    Sonos and Bose are probably the best known and most popular brands of smart speakers and systems from the audio industry (OK – maybe I’m being a bit generous to them both in calling them audio products).  Most audiophiles have heard of Sonos and Bose – and few (at least few that I know) would consider either for anything but background music.  Almost all think it’s too expensive for that use.  After listening to several of them, I don’t disagree about value received (although all of the smart speakers and associated products from the audio industry cost too much in my opinion).  
     
    You do get audio components that look less like audio components when you spring for Bose, Sonos, and others of their ilk – but that’s probably not a big consideration for most audiophiles.  Even if you or your significant other is sensitive to interior décor, the pedestrian Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple smart devices are as easy to camouflage as anything I’ve seen from the audio industry.
     
    Sonos equipment sounds better to me than the equivalent Bose models for about the same price.  A Bose 500 smart speaker and a 700 sub will set you back about $1k.  Even their entry level smart speaker is $200, which is coincidentally now the price of the entry level Bose too.  I can find no actual performance spec for either one – amplifier power and performance are a mystery for both, and there are no specs at all on which to base a “paper” evaluation.  From the limited listening comparisons I’ve been able to do in friends’ homes, Sonos is more pleasing to me.  But I haven’t heard either line’s latest and best products.  To be honest, the Amazon Echo Studio and an Echo Sub ($330 list for the pair) sound as good or better to me than any other smart speaker I’ve heard at any price.
     
     
    THE BOTTOM LINE:  WHAT I USE, PLUS A BIT ABOUT VOICE CONTROL OF POWER
     
    I’m a “balanced” early adopter – I want to try everything, but I only buy into new technology when the price no longer outweighs my desire to try it.  And my wife is what I call an adopter of convenience – if something will make her life easier and I can convince her of that fact (with the latter being the bigger hurdle), she’s all in.  The key is that it has to appeal to a complete technophobe who has ten thumbs, deep anxiety about using new things, and strong historical resistance to any ideas generated by me.
     
    The need to please someone else figures strongly in the planning of many audiophiles.  My wife, like the spouses and significant others of so many of us, simply won’t go near most of our equipment because she believes it’s too hard for her to use.  Sometimes she’s even right, although she (and probably most other SOs around her) can do a lot more than she thinks she can or wants to learn. As soon as video projectors became home sized and home priced, I was ready to try one.  Of course, she claimed to prefer a big flat TV to a projected image despite never having seen a home theater of any kind.  I finally dragged her to a showroom while we were out buying something she wanted, and a single glance at the 8’ image on the wall changed her mind.  
     
    Now there’s an Amazon Echo Dot in every room of our home except the bathrooms – and there are stereo pairs in the living room and master bedroom.  She’s thrilled to be able to say “Alexa, play music by Cat Stevens” and “Alexa, make it louder”, and she’s so spoiled by it that she’ll never use hardware controls to listen to music again.   With devices in several rooms, we also discovered (accidentally) that adding a sub in one central location really improves SQ everywhere (since the lows are nondirectional). 
     
    The current crop of virtual assistants is willing to learn, but some are smarter than others when it comes to our audio systems.  We adopted the lovely Alexa when the first Echo Dots came out, and we now have stereo pairs in the living room and our bedroom plus singletons in kitchen and den.  She turns both the living room and den audio systems on and off through their power strips.  This is particularly helpful with the LR system (on a small rack on the floor, under the grand piano against the back wall).  I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to say “Alexa, turn on the stereo” instead of crawling under the piano to turn on the tube electronics – the back of my head has healed completely.  She also controls some home appliances, most importantly my espresso machine. 
     
    A smart outlet does not degrade SQ in any way in my systems to my ears.  I have power cables on the DAC / preamp and the power amp that would choke a horse, and I’ve compared the system with and without the smart outlet often enough to be certain that it’s sonically transparent to me.  I’m using Samsung receptacles because I started my home automation efforts with a Samsung Smart Hub (more about which later).  I’m not sure I’d go Samsung again, but we already had 3 Samsung “smart TVs” (which is something of a misnomer, again to be discussed later) so I figured I’d stick with one system for reliability and simplicity.  It ain’t necessarily so.
     
    As stated earlier, I’ve tried multiple platforms for voice driven home automation and audio control in the course of researching this article.  Alexa, Google Home, Kasa, TP-Link, Samsung and the rest do an equally fine job of power control.  Be aware that most smart outlets and power strips are 15A devices or less.  There are some excellent 20+A units that work fine – just be sure you buy the capacity you need or you’ll be in for a spot of bother.  I can recommend ConnectSense, whose products are well made but a bit pricey ($100 for the in-wall 20A duplex).  
     
    Aeotec offers a full line of smart products based on the Z-Wave system (another hub-based IoT platform like Kasa, TP-Link, Samsung etc).  Their 40 amp smart switch is hard wired between the branch circuit and the device being controlled, but they also offer plug-in smart outlets and a host of Z-Wave system devices.  Aeotec also offers a strong differentiating extra that I consider a sustainable competitive advantage (at least, for now)  with great appeal for audiophiles: the ability to create and host an automation hub entirely within your LAN.   This enhances security and makes a lot of sense to me.  The Aeotec Z-Stick 5+, which is the device that lets you do this, works very well with a Raspberry Pi 4, so I’m exploring design of an audio control system using this combo.
     
    SECURITY CONCERNS WITH VOICE CONTROL, THE IoT, AND WiFi IN GENERAL
     
    From the day I posted my AS survey on audiophile interest in, experience with, and concerns about voice control for our systems, I started getting emails and messages of concern over security.  This is a valid and major issue for anyone whose digital footprint extends beyond the case of the device he or she is using.  Your privacy and security are at risk whenever you’re on the internet (no matter how you connect to it), on a LAN or WLAN, or using Bluetooth or any other form of communication with potential exposure of content and/or access to your devices / network.
     
    Everything on the IoT is potentially vulnerable, as are the LANs and networked devices to which each has access.  Every device with an energy based entrance pathway is potentially vulnerable, be it sound energy, light energy, RF, or even thermal.  Smart door locks, auto systems, and home security systems are regularly hacked and defeated unless protective precautions are taken.  
     
    Yes, Alexa and Siri hear everything you hear.  They also access your email, messages, contacts, and any other information on your devices and networks to which you don’t actively deny them access.  And there have been some serious issues.  So-called smart technology has been oblivious to some serious security threats over the years. Anyone could pick up a locked iPhone 4S, launch Siri by pressing the “home” button, and gain control of the phone through voice-activated commands.  Alexa and Google Assistant have their own issues, as do WiFi, Bluetooth, and every other form of connectivity.  And if there’s a way in, someone will find and exploit it.
     
    You can protect yourself and your devices with a little effort.  The basics are easy to describe but often overlooked, starting with setup.  DO NOT JUST ACCEPT ALL DEFAULTS!  Read everything before clicking anything.  Deny your digital assistant access to anything that won’t help it do what you want it to do.  Email access is unnecessary for digital assistants unless you want to send emails using only voice control. If you have financial information on any networked device, your digital assistant does not need access unless you plan to buy things with your voice (which would be inconsistent with serious concern for security issues).   We don’t want Alexa to do anything for us but control the devices we use regularly – so she can’t, because she has no access to those apps and data sources.
     
    You can disable the microphones in smart devices, and you can delete all recordings made by them using the parent app.  There are now devices that will physically block or disconnect the microphones on smart speakers, e.g. the Paranoid Home pictured here:  
     
     
    If you give a credit card number over the phone within earshot of a smart device, it will record what you say and send it to the parent servers.  So don’t do stuff like that!  Remember that most digital assistants use your WLAN for all communication, so you also have to secure your networks and other networked devices by doing the following and more:
     
    maintain all software and firmware with current updates – these include security patches use your router’s firewall; many ISPs include good security – check to see what you have do not use any default names for networks or any other digital entity change every one of them to complex names devoid of names, location etc if possible, change the default administrator account name from “admin” etc change your LAN’s IP range from its default to a common alternative (e.g. 10.0 to 192.168) this can hide your router’s brand and model, making it harder to hack use strong account passwords and change them regularly use multi-factor authentication whenever available encrypt everything you can use strong WiFi security with complex access keys do not broadcast your SSID turn off WPS keep your WiFi router toward the center of your house and away from windows use fixed IP addresses for every device that allows it disable DHCP on your networks, leaving only as many available IP addresses on your subnet as you need for devices that won’t let youdis set a fixed IP disable remote access to your network  
    As our audio equipment becomes networked on the IoT, it joins cameras, refrigerators, dishwashers, Cadillacs, etc on a web of vulnerability.  If you take great pains to protect yourself, voice control for audio is far less risky than buying on line.  Just be careful.  Here’s some great information on securing your digital self found on the FTC’s website and here’s the FTC website on protecting your IoT devices. ‘nuf said!
     
     
    THE CUTTING EDGE
     
    I love voice control for daily listening control.  My wife and I both use it happily all day every day, although we occasionally still feel a little silly talking to a device.  I’m having great fun trying to develop a system that integrates voice control with artificial intelligence and translating its digital outputs into actions in my own audio systems.  As you might expect from my prior articles, I’m using a Raspberry Pi as a development mule and focusing on controlling a simple music player completely and accurately.  It’s not working yet, but I will prevail!
     
    I also set up my Apple Watch for voice control.  I can now manage JRiver using an app called Voice in a Can.  As you know, these digital assistants can be pretty snooty – Alexa won’t talk to Siri, and the Google Assistant doesn’t even acknowledge either of the ladies in many systems and contexts.  As you might expect, there are now apps that can open communication channels among our faithful digital staff – and Voice in a Can is one of them.  
     
    The easiest way to describe what it does is that (metaphorically speaking) it’s a simultaneous translator between Siri and Alexa.  So I can now do everything by talking to my watch that I can do by addressing Alexa in one of her residences.  Voice in a Can lets Siri tell Alexa to open the Alexa skill named House Band so it can tell JRiver to play whatever I want to hear through the zone of my choice.  FWIW, I can also set my wake-up alarm, start my espresso machine, or turn the stereo systems in the living room and library on and off by asking my watch.  Yes, this is a ridiculously complex chain of events – but it’s a start, and major advances in functionality and simplicity are just around the corner.  I really do love it!
     
    The future is bright for voice control for the audiophile.  It’s only a matter of time before the daisy chain of VC / AI / middleware / actionable output is integrated into simpler and more efficient systems.  I mentioned josh (with a lower case j) early in this piece.  This is a system aimed at the high end market for comprehensive voice control using AI, and it’s probably the tip of that iceberg.  josh seems intent on eventually doing everything you ever want to do with no input other than vocal.  MAVIS (Multimedia Audio Visual Interface System) is another advanced approach to voice control.  Here’s a web page about some of the things you can do with MAVIS right now, and audio editing is among them. You can download a MAVIS app called “Connect the Dots” from the iStore and play with it as an introduction.
     
    Be of good cheer regarding voice control for audiophiles – it’s coming and it’ll be fantastic.  Like the electric car, it has a few limitations that won’t be overcome until technical solutions are found to get around downstream barriers.  But once it matures a bit, I believe it will become integral to good audio equipment.  One reason I say this is that the switches and other hard controls now used in most electronic devices are simply not as solid and reliable as the ones we took for granted in analog equipment.  Bubble switches feel cheap, break often, and look tacky.  Tiny digital displays fail frequently and annoyingly.  Many remote controls for otherwise excellent products are flimsy, tacky, and imprecise.  Being able to converse with a DAC will be far preferable to trying to read the half of its display that still lights up.  
     
    I hope you enjoyed this and found it worthwhile to read.  Stay safe and enjoy every minute of every day!
     
     
     
  7. Thanks
    Middy reacted to JoeWhip for an article, Sound Liaison One Mic + Recording   
    Back in June 2019, I penned an article extolling the virtues of the superb One Mic Recordings released by Dutch audiophile label Sound Liaison. For those not familiar with that article, the link is here. The special nature of these recordings was made possible by the Josephson C700S microphone and the skillful use and placement of that mic by the recording engineer, Frans De Rond. In the piece, I discussed the four albums that were recorded using the one mic technique, noting that with each successive recording the sound improved as Frans continued to experiment with the placement of the mic in front of the musicians. All four of the recordings sounded superb with natural tone, spaciousness and pin point placement of the musicians in the sound field. All of the recordings featured a sensational sense of space from left to right as well as front to back depth. However, I did note an issue with using this technique with a vocalist and a drummer on the Carmen Gomes, Inc. recording Don’t You Cry. The issue was the fact that the drummer had to play a bit more reserved than with a multi miked recording so as to not drown out the vocalist. That was not an issue with the double bass or guitar as those musicians can just move up closer for their solos. That, however, is not possible with a drum kit. While the recording still sounded wonderful, it did lack a bit of dynamics. As the other three recordings did not involve a vocalist, this was not an issue. After my article appeared, Sound Liaison continued to release more one mic recordings which continued to improve with each release. Again, those recordings did not involve a vocalist. The question was how to improve the one mic recordings with a vocalist. This brings us to the latest one mic recording featuring Carmen Gomes, Up Jump the Devil, being released November 13th in high resolution, where this issue was resolved, completely.

    You will no doubt infer from the title of this article that the solution was to add some mic reenforcement to the drums and even the bass. I will let Frans describe what has been done and why he calls this a one mic plus recording.
     
    "There are several reasons at play why this is a One Mic plus recording.

    Maybe the most important is that I realized that when we had Carmen so close to the one mic she was creating an acoustic baffle that covered up certain frequencies.

    The same was true for Peter Bjørnild's double bass.

    For this recording the role of drummer Bert Kampsteeg was very important. We wanted him to be able to play as freely and dynamic as possible. By moving Carmen and Peter further away the drum sound got much more present.

    You could argue that this is a return to old fashioned multi mic recording but I don't think that is true, drums and guitar and a big part of the double bass sound is still coming from the Josephson 700s. The microphone is absolutely central to the sound stage we have created.

    I recorded Carmen and supported Peter's bass with two Josephson C700A microphones. The C700A is identical to the C700S except that it has only one figure of 8 capsule.

    But the beauty of these mic's are that spill colorization is much less of a problem. So they are perfect as spot mic's.
    We wanted the small 'sound scape' compositions to have a very dark atmosphere, (Peter said he wanted them sounding as dark as the Mississippi night) so I decided to add a spaced pair of Josephson C617 microphones up very high in the studio and let them be our main source of ambience. I think that worked very well. And also the deep drop tuned low 'A' of 27.5 Hz from the double bass got picked up very well by that pair. Such a low note is almost impossible to hear close up, somehow you only hear the upper harmonics generated, so that was an extra benefit of the ambient pair. And it made me fall even more in love with the sound of studio 2.

    Another funny thing....I keep learning things about the 700s. I have to keep forcing my self to keep experimenting with distance, closer or further away from the mic, it is absolutely crucial to get the best possible sound. I don't think I have ever captured Folker Tettero's guitar better than on this album and it was a question of moving the right leg of the table with the amp on, 2 cm. (0,787 inch) backwards and there the sound was! Unbelievable." 
     
    I have had the opportunity to discuss the recording process with several recording engineers like Frans and always learn something. My biggest takeaway is that the recording process is as much art as it is science. It is the types of microphones used, their placement, room acoustics and the like that are important rather than whether you record digitally or analog, PCM or DSD. Spectacular results can be had in many different ways. And yes, the sound of this latest recording from Sound Liaison is spectacular.
     
    The album is a blues jazz tinged affair featuring some Robert Johnson songs. Rather than having clean breaks between tracks, the spaces normally between tracks are filled with what I can best describe as atmospherics, featuring drummer Bert Kampsteeg using his brushes on the snare and the bowing and plucking of the bass along with the clanging of the guitar. As a result the songs almost blend together all having a similar vibe and tempo, with the exception of the penultimate track, Stop Breaking Down, which is much more upbeat. The specialness of the sound of this recording is evident from the first few notes which feature the drums. The metallic sound of the cymbals and high hat is strikingly real as is the natural decaying of the notes. The kick drum is rock solid. This is some of the best sounding drum sound I have ever heard on a recording. Very dynamic and not reserved. The sound of the double bass is full, rich and powerful where needed but with no hint of bloat. And the guitar.....It is clear and reverberant. Naturally, not with added reverb. Of course, the vocals are captured beautifully. Carmen is right there in front of you. This recording doesn’t take you to the recording studio. Even better, it brings the recording studio to your listening room. Very few studio recordings do this. The drums to the left, Carmen in the middle in front of the instruments and the bass just to the right of her and the guitar to the right side of the soundstage. The sound is totally three dimensional. You almost feel like you can reach out and touch everyone. The sound is totally open with natural decay and depth. It is stunning. It really is. No hyperbole. 
     
    One more word about the drums. Far too many recording engineers pan the drums across the soundstage, giving an unnatural size to the drums. Not here. The drums are focused in the sound field and sound like a drum kit does live. I wish this was the case in more jazz recordings.
     
    In addition to finding the sound of this recording to be superb, I also found the music to be really satisfying as well. That, of course, is always a matter of individual taste. I can state without question, that if you have enjoyed the other Carmen Gomes, Inc. releases by Sound Liaison, you will enjoy this release as well. Sonically, I believe this to be the best ever released by Sound Liaison. Well done, very well done.
     
     
     
     
     
    Sound Laison Album Page - LINK
     
    Total time: 45:19
    Catalog Number: SL-1043A
    Original recording format DXD 352,8 kHz - Premium
    All other formats are converted versions of the original.
    This is a One Mic + recording; 
    Main central microphone: Josephson C700S
    Support microphone Carmen: Josephson C700A
    Support microphone  Peter's bass:  Josephson C700A
    Ambience microphones spaced pair of 2 Josephson C617

    Recording, mixing and mastering by Frans de Rond.
    Recorded at MCO, Studio 2, Hilversum, The Netherlands, on the 16th and the 17th of July 2020.
    Produced by Peter Bjørnild.
    Music arranged by Peter Bjørnild with lots of help from Carmen, Folker and Bert.
    Used equipment:
    Micpre's: Merging Horus
    Microphone cables by AudioQuest
    Speakers: TAD Compact Evolution
    Poweramp: Moon 760A
    Mixing headphones: Sennheiser HD800S / AKG 702
    All power cables and power conditioners by AudioQuest.
    Cover photo and video by Milan Bjørnild
    2 Meter Sessions photo's by Michael Boersma
     
     

  8. Like
    Middy reacted to gmgraves for an article, Review | Schiit’s latest Yggdrasil Incarnation   
    Schiit’s latest Yggdrasil Incarnation
    By George Graves
     
     
    Schiit’s premier Digital to Analog Converter (DAC), the Yggdrasil (Yggy), has been in their lineup since 2017. In that time, it has undergone a number of revisions, but has not had a facelift. In fact without a serial number reference, it is simply not possible to tell which revision you have by looking at the unit. This latest model is no exception. 
     
    This latest Yggy includes several upgrades which purports to improve performance significantly over earlier incarnations of this DAC.
     
    Concurrent with these improvements is a slight price increase of US$50 over the former $2399 price, and is now $2449.
     
    The two biggest improvements to the latest Yggdrasil, are the new class “A” audio section and the new USB input circuitry. This latest USB interface, dubbed “Unison USB” by it’s designer, Mike Moffat, is based on the PIC32 µprocessor which uses precision local clocks which for the first time, provide complete electromagnetic and electrostatic isolation. This new UAC2-compliant input provides the highest performance, lowest power consumption USB of any USB input that the company has ever offered. 
     
    The only way to tell whether you have the latest Yggy with both the new Class “A” analog board and the UAC2-compliant USB input is that the presence of the new Analog 2 board is designated by a serial number which starts with the letter “B”. The new Unison USB circuit is denoted with a sticker applied to the case near the USB input jack. 
     
     
    UAC2 USB Compatibility
     
    Newer Windows 10 operating systems should automatically install the correct UAC2 drivers, but not always. The best procedure is to simply connect the Yggy to your PC and see if the computer recognizes it. This might take a few minutes. If the computer sees the DAC, you’re good to go. If not, you can download the proper driver from the Schiit website under Yggdrasil/Downloads and install the download manually. Be advised that the latest Yggdrasil does not support any Windows release below Windows 10. The Windows drivers on Schiit’s website are for pre-UAC2 Schiit DACs (such as the older Yggdrasils). Recent Distributions of Linux such as Ubuntu 18 and later should also be UAC2 compliant But be advised that Schiit does not directly support Linux.
     
    Any Mac computer running MacOS 10.10.X (Yosemite or above) should be also compliant with UAC2. Unfortunately, however, if you are using and older OS (Mavericks or lower) and cannot upgrade your Mac to a higher OS, USB on the latest  Yggdrasil cannot be used. (there are hacks available that will allow Macs made from 2008 through 2011 to be upgraded all the way to the current OS, 10.15.X, Catalina. The newest OS, Big Sur, has not been released as of this writing and therefore cannot be guaranteed. For information about Mac OS upgrade “hacks” please go to: 
     
    http://www.http://dosdude1.com/catalina/
     
    ...for more info and instructions. Otherwise these older Mac OS’s are not compatible with the new, UAC2 compliant Yggdrasil (Bad Apple for not having a solution, and bad Schiit for not having any “workaround” other than “Perhaps it’s time for a new computer...”.
     
     
    Physical Layout and Description.
     
    Since the layout and form factor of the Yggy hasn’t changed since its introduction, we are going to skip going over the physical dimensions, weight, front and rear apron layout of this unit. If you aren’t familiar with what a Schiit Yggdrasil looks like, there are plenty of descriptions to be found from a myriad of online sites and magazine articles.
     
    What I will say, is that the latest models suffer from the same shortcomings, feature-wise  as do previous iterations of this fine performing DAC. Chief among these is Schiit Co-Founder Jason Stoddard’s somewhat inexplicable personal disdain for legible, readable labels. The Yggy still has tiny icons on the front panel to indicate which input is being selected (by the large round button near the center of the front panel). To the right of the large selector bottom, and from left to right, these are a tiny rectangle to indicate a type “A” USB connector (but the actual connector on the rear of the unit is a type “B” connector), a square with a Toslink-shaped connector inside of it to designate that the optical S/PDIF input has been selected, two concentric circles to designate that the coax 75Ω S/PDIF input is selected, two concentric circles with two “ears” on the outer circle to indicate the 75Ω BNC input has been chosen, and finally, three dots forming a triangle to indicate an XLR connector for the AES/EBU interface is being used. To the extreme right of the selector button, find an incomprehensible (to this writer, anyway) icon to indicate that the Yggy’s clock regenerator has switched into the VCO mode indicating that one’s source either has excessive jitter, or has too vague a center frequency for the VCXO mode to lock-in. Schiit humorously calls this the “Buy Better Gear” indicator. When the associated LED is lit, the Yggy is not operating at it’s optimum from the chosen source. All of these cryptic icons have a white LED associated with them.
     
    To the left of the selector button, the Yggy has a series of six more white LEDs to indicate (again from left to right) 44.1 KHz, 48KHz, and then a series of multipliers indicating one (1), two (2), four (4) or eight (8) times the two primary sample rates. You can’t read those legends from more than a couple of inches away, either (and that’s with the help of a magnifying glass!) 
     
    The final flaw in the Schiit Yggdrasil, is the lack of a remote control. The remote needs controls to switch digital inputs, and change the phase polarity. It would be nice if the remote also had LEDs on it to to repeat the input selected, +/- phase and the sample rate at which the unit is operating. This writer uses a walking cane as a “remote control” wand to change inputs from across the room. I have also applied a strip of white plastic tape across the front panel, with the inputs and sample rates written on it so that they can be read from my listening chair without my resorting to a pair 10 X 50 binoculars! 
     
     
    Performance Compared to My Personal (Older) Yggdrasil
     
    Since I use an older Mac (MacBook Pro, 2008 with a 2.3 GHz Core 2 Duo Processor running El Kapitan) as a music server for Tidal and Qobuz (via Audirvana), I cannot use the latest Yggy USB in my main system without going through a Terminal (line code) hack to disable the Mac “App Nap” power saving feature. To accomplish this, open the Terminal app and, at the Unix prompt, enter:
     
    ‘defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSAppSleep Disabled – bool YES’(without the quotes, though) and hit enter.
     
    You will have to either restart the computer (a good idea anyway) or quit and restart any running applications. 
     
    Once done, the Schiit Unison USB works perfectly and, in fact, this is the first time that I have found USB audio to actually sound good! It is much better than my older Yggy, but we must take into account that the audio stage in the new DAC is also improved over my personal Yggy, and there is really no way to judge the improvement of the USB performance without also gaining the improvement of the other.
    In fact, this brings us to the point that it is extremely difficult to compare the two Yggy’s directly. We are, after all, comparing more than one difference between the two DACs. Everything must be exactly the same between the two Yggdrasils for a direct comparison, and that’s essentially impossible, especially with regard to USB.
     
    What I ended-up doing was to listen to each DAC separately with each connected in parallel through two line-level inputs of the same amplifier. I would swap the same 1.5m AudioQuest Diamond USB A-B cable coming from the laptop between the two DACs 
     
    What I found was that the newest Yggy had an overall much smoother sound with less grain, especially in the upper midrange and treble region. A bit more surprising was the bottom end, which seemed to exhibit more punch and bass which seemed to go deeper and have much less hangover than did the earlier unit. Imaging was also improved using the proprietary USB interface but seemed a wash when Toslink or coax S/PDIF was used as a source input. 
     
    One of the most natural, and realistic recordings that I have is our own Mario Martinez’ recording on his PlayClassics label “Angel Cabrera Plays Debussy”. This album is a perfectly recorded solo grand piano. I’ve always thought that this recording sounded more like an actual grand piano playing in my living room than any other that I have ever heard. But the new Yggy breaks through that wall of recording artificiality and actually, uncannily, brings already great sounding piano right into the room. All sense of listening to a recording is gone. It’s quite incredible!
     
    My own recording of a local jazz quintet playing in a restaurant (sort of a mini “Jazz at the Pawnshop”) with my single-point stereo Avantone CK-40 (modern FET “copy” of the legendary (and very valuable) Telefunken  ELA-M-270 (the CK-40 is better!)from the 1950’s has the most incredible imaging. I thought that my older Yggy was the epitome of this kind of presentation. Boy was I wrong. With the new Yggy, the image specificity is such, that every instrument is pinpointed in space exactly where it was physically located in relation to the microphone! This recording also has more delineated upper midrange detail than the older DAC as well. The trumpet is really up close and personal. I imagined that if you get too close to the speaker, the player’s spittle will spray from bell of the horn and get all over you! Very impressive.
     
     
    Conclusion
     
    Since the Schiit Yggdrasil was first introduced, Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat have worked tirelessly to improve the performance of this reasonably priced high-performance DAC. With constant filter, power supply and analog-stage improvements, the Yggdrasil has kept it’s place as the go-to DAC for those who demand first rate digital to analog conversion without having to pay a king’s ransom for the opportunity.
     
    The only Way to tell whether you have the latest Yggdrasil in by the Serial Number. The latest analog section units are so designated by a SN that starts with the letter “B”. The presence of the latest USB upgrade is indicated by the above sticker over the USB input port.
     
    The recording setup for the true stereo jazz recording referred to in the text. The microphone to the right is for the vocalist and is not used in the recording.
     

     
     
    Product Information:
    Schiit Audio Yggdrasil - $2,499
    Product Page - link
    User Manual - yggdrasil_manual_2_2.pdf
     
  9. Thanks
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Meet The Audiophile Style Community | Volume 12   
    Welcome to the twelfth installment of our Meet the Audiophile Style Community series. All previous installments can be found here, in the series index.
     
    Please send me a message, email, or telegram if you'd like to participate. The response so far has been wonderful. It ranges from hardcore audiophiles to those who are more interested in numbers and graphs, and even people in the industry are eager to participate. This series is all about getting to know everyone and sharing a bit about yourself that others will find interesting. 
     
    Thanks for participating. I look forward to publishing more of these in the coming weeks and months. 
     
    Thanks to Audiophile Style community member @kirkmc for participating in volume twelve of this series. I've been a guest on Kirk & @DougAdams podcast The Next Track several times and enjoy it very much. It's one of the only podcasts that respects the listener's time by getting straight to the point and skipping the discussion of what the dog had for dinner last night. 
     
    As always, I love reading this stuff even more than publishing it. I say to myself after reading each one of these, you guys are so much more interesting than me.
     
     
    1. General area of the world in which you live?
     
    I live a few miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK. I live in an early-19th century house next to a farm, on the edge of a village of about 100 people. My landlord farms about 200 acres, and rents holiday cottages. I'm a lapsed New Yorker, and have lived in Europe since 1984.
     
     
    2. General description of what you do or did for a living?
     
    I'm a freelance tech journalist; I've been working from home for 25 years. I write about Apple products, computer security, music, and more. I am also a podcaster, co-host of several podcasts including The Next Track.
     
     
    3. What are your hobbies?
     
    I don't particularly like the word "hobby," but my interests include learning to play the shakuhachi (a Japanese flute), photography, reading, cooking, and I'm a student of Zen Buddhism. Over the years, I've played a number of instruments (at varying skill levels), including the guitar (rock, blues, and classical), viola da gamba, and (digital) piano.
     
     
    4. When did you start this wonderful journey into music listening?
     
    Probably when I got my first AM transistor radio back in the late 1960s.
     
     
    5. What was your first “album?”
     
    I seem to recall that one of the earliest albums I owned was Abbey Road, but at the time I remember having albums by Three Dog Night,  The Guess Who, and others. But the first album that really stood out for me was the first Chicago album, Chicago Transit Authority. I bought the album for the hits, but I was particularly blown away by the range of music on the record.
     
     
    6. What does your music collection look like, number of physical records, CDs, etc... and number of “favorited” albums streamed?
     
    About 70,000 tracks in my digital library (in the Apple Music app), and another 50,000 in a second library that I rarely listen to. I long wrote reviews of classical CDs, and ripped hundreds of them, but no longer listen to most of them. I've sold all but a few hundred CDs, though I don't count the Big Classical Box Sets in that number (such as the recent Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven sets, with together include a few hundred discs). I also have hundreds of official live Grateful Dead releases, in various guises; the Dick's Picks collection, Dave's Picks, Road Trips, and many box sets the band has released.
     
     
    7. What was your first audio component / stereo?
     
    When I was about 12, I got an after school job in a Carvel in my neighborhood in New York City. Next door was a Radio Shack, and I put money aside every week on a layaway plan to get a record player and speakers. It was probably pretty crappy, but it certainly sounded great at the tame.
     
     
    8. Is there one component that you no longer have that you wish you wouldn’t have sold or that you wish you still had?
     
     Nah, they're all just vehicles for me; music is much more important to me than sound.
     
    This said, there was a time when I had a job in a Sansui warehouse in Queens, New York, for about six months in the late 1970s. I regret not buying a receiver back then. I love that vintage look with lots of knobs and dials, and, of course, VU meters. :-)
     
     
    9. Is there one current component that you wish you had in your system?
     
     Not really.
     
     
    10. How much time do you spend listening to music each week and on which systems does this listening take place (main system, car system, mobile system, office system, etc...)?
     
    I mainly listen in my home office, where I have two pairs of speakers (see below). I also listen in the bedroom, in the kitchen when cooking, and sometimes in the living room, but my main listening area is my home office. I don't listen to music every day, but some days I listen for many hours; a lot depends on the work I have to do. If I'm recording or editing podcasts, I obviously can't listen to music.
     
     
    11. What’s the first concert you ever attended, best concert you’ve ever attended, most interesting concert venue you’ve ever attended?
     
    I won't say the first concert, since it's often a security question for online accounts. :-) Some of the best concerts include Yes in the round in 1978, at Madison Square Garden; Genesis, July 1978, MSG; Pink Floyd, The Wall, at Nassau Coliseum; Dire Straits, at the Bottom Line in NYC on their first tour; Lou Reed at the Bottom Line; the Grateful Dead at Radio City Music Hall, 1980. Steven Reich and Ensemble, at the Guggenheim Museum, in the early 1980s. Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1984. Murray Perahia, playing Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata in Birmingham, UK, 2016. Andres Schiff, Bach, Goldberg Variations, Birmingham, 2016. Anner Bylsma, Bach Cello Suites, Sablé-sur-Sarthe, late 1980s. Sigiswald Kuijken, Bach, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, in a church in Tours, France, mid 1990s. And many, many others.
     
     
    12. What components are in your current audio systems and can you provide a photo?
     
    Sonos Amp, with a splitter to two pairs of speakers in my home office: Kef Q350 (facing a comfy chair; this is my relaxed listening area) and Q Acoustics 3020i (on my desk; this is how I listen when working), with a Warfedale subwoofer. A pair of Sonos Ones in the bedroom. And Apple HomePods in the kitchen and living room.
     
     
     
     
     
     
    13. Anything else you’d like to say?
     
    I love music, but unlike most people here I'm not searching for perfect sound; music is more important to me than sound. I've spent far more money on the many different types of music I enjoy than on gear. I do have fairly high standards, with the equipment that I buy, but I don't have the cash to go much further. I'm particularly interested in minimizing my systems these days, which is why I opted for a Sonos Amp, and use the Sonos Ones and HomePods.
     
  10. Thanks
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Making Memories In Santa Monica   
    Last week I ventured out of Minneapolis for the first time in 2020. It felt strange to pack my bags, to jump on a plane, and to exit LAX into sunshine and palm trees, while snow was falling at home. Even more strange was seeing my good friends for the first time in nearly a year, but it felt wonderful. I spent three days at The Audio Salon in Santa Monica helping with a photo shoot, setting up a NAS, configuring a network, and listening to my favorite music on an amazing audio system. Given the nice weather, I also enjoyed some fabulous food sitting outside at my favorite restaurants. Overall it was a great trip, but nothing is cemented more in my mind than the memories we made listening to music into the late evening hours. 

    As Real As It Gets
     
    Listening to music is often a solo activity, whether on a HiFi system or through headphones. When the opportunity for listening with friends presents itself, I highly recommend embracing it. Sharing the experience of listening to great music through a great HiFi system is one of life's luxuries that I wish more people could enjoy. It nourishes the soul, sets the mind at ease, and transports one away from the rigors of the real world, while offering a human connection with friends or loved ones. Such was the case on my first night in Santa Monica, CA. 
     
    The Audio Salon's Maier Shadi and I sat down for a listening session through an absolutely amazing audio system. In the Audio Salon's second listening room, Maier has put together and masterfully setup what I consider a memory making machine. This audio system is so realistic and unforgettable that the only thing missing is a smoke machine to simulate the real concert experience. 
     
    I sat in the center listening position with the remote and an iPad in hand, and played a couple warm up tracks. I like to warm up my ears, as strange as that sounds. Perhaps it's just me getting into the right headspace. I immediately noticed the sound of these very familiar tracks was quite different than what I've heard in my own Wilson system. I mentioned to Maier that the system sounded like a pair of tube amps was driving the XVX loudspeakers. As wonderful as that sound may be for many listeners, it wasn't in my wheelhouse and wasn't the sound I've come to know and love from my own HiFi system.
     
    Maier told me right away that the XVX's micrometer system had been used to adjust the modules in the speaker array and a resistor had been changed, tailoring the sound to a previous listener's taste. Maier had recently demonstrated the system and adjusted it to the customer's taste so well that the customer purchased the XVX. Maier offered to undo the adjustments, bringing the speakers back to the Wilson default, one item at a time, so I could hear the differences and understand the impact of each change. I eagerly took him up on the offer, as it was a unique experience unavailable to me anywhere else. 
     
    Above all, the main sonic attribute I thought needed adjusting was transient reproduction. In the initial configuration, the XVX system ever so slightly rounded the edges of transients compared to my much smaller Alexia based system at home. Given that the micrometer system adjusts the speaker modules in the time domain, I had a high degree of confidence that resetting these modules would be the key for me. I've heard similar adjustment in my own system and even seen the adjustments impact my in-room measurements. 
     
    Once the changes were made, it took roughly one minute per speaker, the sound of the system was 95% there. The final change was replacing a resistor on the rear panel of each speaker that brought the tweeter output back to its default setting from -1dB. This change also took roughly one minute per speaker, putting the ease with which these speakers can be adjusted on full display. The XVX system went from one listener's gold standard to my gold standard in less than five minutes. 
     
    With the adjustments made and the resistor changed, the sound I heard made me giggle to myself. I was in a state of disbelief and at the same time thrilled that I was fortunate enough to be at the helm of such an incredible system. Many albums and tracks were played this first night, but none were as memorable as the May 24, 1976 album from Larry Karush, streamed at 24/96 from Qobuz. 
     
    The opening track on this album is "Untitled" and features a wonderful piano performance with great tone and terrific transients with stunning attack, release, sustain, and decay. Listening through this masterfully setup system, I was in awe from the first to the last note. Hearing the delicate piano notes with such incredible detail while also being jarred by hammer strikes, is the stuff of which memories are made. I could hear and virtually see the piano sitting between the towering XVX loudspeakers as Larry Karush worked from left to right or high to low notes. 
     
    Soon after track two started, Maier said to me, "This may be THE track. It's better than the first one!" Glen Moore's double bass reproduced through the Wilson Audio Subsonic subwoofers  and the XVX, was palpable. The rich texture of his double bass was absolutely fantastic juxtaposed to Karush's marvelous piano. I still can't decide if I agree with Maier's assessment of the second track being THE track, but the cool thing is that I don't have to. I can play both of them, and enjoy every minute. In addition, using the Wilson Active XO dual subwoofer active crossover, both Maier and I had our own preferred settings. One of us likes a little more bass while the other prefers the subwoofers to disappear. This is the beauty of a configurable system.  
     
    This album influenced us for the rest of my visit to Santa Monica. Whenever we made a change to the system or when we put the new Wilson SabrinaX speakers in for a demo, we used the first two tracks to see if the magic was present. 
     
    Note 1: The SabrinaX loudspeakers are excellent. In the limited time I spent with them, I was surprised at the punch they delivered in a very large listening room. Of course the delicacy and detail was there, but the punch of such a small speaker was excellent. The SabrinaX could no doubt fill my own listening room with ease. 
     
    Note 2: Maier pulled out his ATR102 tape machine for a listening session on one of the nights. We played Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus from The Tape Project. I don't want to go too off into the weeds, other than to say the listening was smooth and sublime. I could've listened all night.  
     
     

     
     
     
     
    The second night spent listening at The Audio Salon was the stuff of legend. We listened for so long that we missed dinner. By the time we were ready to stop listening, the only thing open was a Del Taco on the way to my hotel. 
     
    After the first night full of finesse, it was time to break out several Van Halen albums and push this entire system to its limits. We started with some Sammy Hagar era Van Halen, playing 5160 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Both album are full of fantastic music that's as good today as it was upon release. 
     
    The last three tracks on Carnal Knowledge are a rollercoaster of sonic bliss. From the anthemic Right Now, to the relaxed guitar solo of 316, and finishing with Top of the World. It was a blast to queue these tracks up and sit back for a mini concert. 
     
    We listened to almost every track on 5150, with several repeats of Why Can't This Be love. My favorite track of the night off the album was Summer Nights. The guitar on this track sounded so dang real through this system and Alex Van Halen's drums were clear and present. This track took me back to 1986 when I first heard 5150 on a dubbed cassette in my brother's room. It blew my mind then and through the XVX system, it blew my mind again. 
     
    By far the most memorable time of the night and perhaps 2020, came while listening to Van Halen's 1984. I opened the decibel meter app on my iPhone and measured peaks over 100 dB and an average of over 95 dB. It was like a concert in listening room two at The Audio Salon. 
     
    Sure the standards from this album were fun. Jump and Panama were golden. The opening drums on Hot For Teacher were unforgettable. But, the track and experience that I'll never forget was track 7, I'll wait. This track has it all, but the keyboard and drums were legendary through this HiFi system. The opening keyboard sequence is mouth watering because one knows what's coming. At nearly 100 dB, when the drums kick in through the XVX and Subsonic, it's absolutely amazing. The audio is as clear as can be while simultaneously pounding one in the chest and borderline assaulting one's ears. I saw Van Halen live once, and must say the experiences weren't that dissimilar. I may have had more fun at The Audio Salon with the remote in hand, a perfect view, a perfect seat, and great friend experiencing the same performance, than at a crowded Van Halen venue. 
     
    I can't imagine that I'll top this audio experience in 2020 or anytime soon. The stars aligned, I was able to visit friends, and the music sounded legendary. This is what life is all about. Enjoying oneself with friends and family. The crazy thing is that with an incredible home audio system and one's favorite music, it can be done at anytime. Sign me up for another experience like this. What a great time I'll never forget.
     
     
     

    How the Memories Were Made
     
    Location:
    The Audio Salon
     
    Music:
    Lary Karush, May 24, 1976 - Untitled 24/96 Qobuz
    Van Halen, 1984 - I'll Wait 24/96 Qobuz
     
    Speakers:
    Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX (Pur Sang Rouge color)
     
    Subwoofers:
    Wilson Audio Subsonic (Pur Sang Rouge color)
     
    Amplification:
    Four Dan D'Agostino Momentum M400 monoblocks
     
    Preamplification:
    Dan D'Agostino Momentum HD preamplifier
     
    Crossover:
    Wilson Audio Activ XO, dual active crossover
     
    Digital:
    dCS Vivaldi Upsampler
    dCS Vivaldi DAC
    dCS Vivaldi Master Clock
    dCS Vivaldi transport
     
    Cabling:
    Transparent Opus speaker cable (XVX)
    Transparent Reference XL speaker cable (Subsonic)
    Transparent Opus balanced interconnects (analog)
    Transparent Opus AES/EBU (digital)
     
    Source:
    Roon Nucleus
    Synology NAS
     
    Power:
    512 Engineering Transformer
     
     
     

  11. Thanks
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Amazon Music HD Is Still Lossy   
    Just over one year ago Amazon launched its Amazon Music HD streaming service. Many people uninterested in the success of small businesses and good customer service cheered the new offering from the 1.7 Trillion dollar company. At the time Amazon's $14.99 per month plan was the lower than all the other lossless or above music services. Not long after Amazon launched, Qobuz matched its pricing and now offers a $14.99 /month plan and $24.99 /month family plan. Let's take a look at Amazon Music HD, one year later. 
     
    I've been an Amazon Music HD subscriber since day one and have used the service off and on since signing up. Most of this use has been on my mobile phone or desktop. There just aren't many options for listening in another way, such as integration with Lumin, Aurender, Auralic, JRiver, Roon, etc... Given that Amazon is notoriously difficult to work with, it's no surprise that we have so few options. One year on, the landscape is still Sonos, Bluesound, and Denon HEOS (I'm sure people will let me know if I missed any). 
     
    The limited number of options for playback isn't a showstopper in and of itself because many audiophiles use computers directly attached to their HiFi systems. A USB cable between the computer and one's system is all that's required and Amazon Music HD will send along its highest quality. 
     
    What is Amazon Music HD's highest quality? I started testing where I always start testing, with bit perfect playback. If a service or app can't output bit perfect audio, then I have big problems because I don't know where the losses are happening and how big the losses are. The quick and dirty truth is that I can't play bit perfect audio from Amazon Music HD on Windows 10, macOS Catalina (10.15.7), or a Sonos Port using coaxial S/PDIF digital output. 
     
    I can match the sample rate of the audio sent from Amazon Music HD, but the stream or the file is being altered somewhere before it hits my house. In other words, when Amazon says it's playing a 24 bit / 96 kHz file, I can get my DAC to say 24/96, but the stream doesn't pass bit perfect testing. 
     
    Note: Not to toot my own horn, but I've been around the bit perfect block a few times and understand what's required to obtain bit perfect playback. If there is something special about Amazon Music HD, that isn't required for Qobuz and Tidal, I'd appreciate someone pointing it out to me. These other apps played bit perfect when I ran them through the exact same tests this morning. 
     
    Furthermore, the Amazon Music HD applications for Windows and macOS will not change the same rate automatically. For example, if I set Windows 10 to output 24/96 audio and set it to give exclusive access to Amazon Music HD, the music will always be output to my DAC at 24/96. Even though Amazon says the file is 16/44.1 or 24/192 etc..., the Amazon Music HD app can't change the sample rate of the audio output. This is problematic for people who think they are streaming what Amazon calls Ultra HD, but are really listening to a CD quality stream because that's what their computer is set to play. Apps that take control of the sample rate have been around for over a decade. There's no excuse to advertise and offer content at multiple sample rates, yet require users to manually change their control panel / audio midi settings between tracks just to hear the native quality. 
     
    It's hard for me to even think about looking further into Amazon Music HD as an option for people who care about sound quality and customer service. The company has had one year to fix issues, but based on its responses to users' request for these basic features, I won't hold my breath that the service or app will improve. There really isn't a reason to look at user interface and catalog if the company can't even stream the lossless audio it advertises. 
     
    One last note. I'm sure some people have seen the newly announced partnership between Amazon and Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group to release new high resolution remasters of albums from Eagles, Marvin Gaye, Nirvana, Tom Petty, Diana Ross, Linkin Park, J. Cole, Waylon Jennings, Ramones, 2 Chainz, Lady Gaga, The Notorious B.I.G., Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, and more. While this may seem like a good thing, I'm unfortunately not optimistic. It isn't often that remasters actually sound better when created for the masses. I hope those in this partnership don't cross the audio DMZ and cause the loudness wars to flare up once again. 
     
    Last week, and again this morning, I went looking for these new remasters. I was able to see some of the albums because Amazon placed a convenient link to them on the Amazon Music HD app's main page. This link is no longer on my main page, so I went searching. What I found is a soup sandwich. For example, I looked for Nirvana remasters and found a single album labeled Remastered. I clicked into Nevermind (Remastered) and hoped to see an indication that this was the new remaster touted in all the press releases. Unfortunately the only date I can find on this album is "copyright 2011 Geffen Records." This is the same as the Deluxe remaster released in 2011 for the albums's anniversary. Think this is a one-off issue? Think again. I went through many other releases and found the same thing. There's no way to tell if an album has been newly remastered unless you find a link from Amazon, stating it's the new remaster, to the album. Even those albums have incorrect dates on them however. 
     
    And finally, these new remasters are exclusives to Amazon Music HD. Say what you want about exclusives, but I hate them. Dan Mackta, the Qobuz USA Managing Director, believes these exclusives won't last forever and we should see the new remasters come to other services in due time.
     
    As it stands today, one year after launching, Amazon Music HD isn't for anyone who cares about customer service,  audio quality or about using streaming services through integrations with numerous hardware and software vendors. If things change I'll be happy to reevaluate Amazon Music HD. For now I highly recommend Qobuz as the number one choice for streaming lossless high resolution audio. 
     
     
  12. Thanks
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Meet The Audiophile Style Community | Volume 11   
    Welcome to the eleventh installment of our Meet the Audiophile Style Community series. All previous installments can be found here, in the series index.
     
    Please send me a message, email, or telegram if you'd like to participate. The response so far has been wonderful. It ranges from hardcore audiophiles to those who are more interested in numbers and graphs, and even people in the industry are eager to participate. This series is all about getting to know everyone and sharing a bit about yourself that others will find interesting. 
     
    Thanks for participating. I look forward to publishing more of these in the coming weeks and months. 
     
    Thanks to Audiophile Style community member @ARQuint for participating in volume eleven of this series. We've had more interest in participating from members of the trade lately, including this one. I love reading this stuff even more than publishing it. As I say to myself after reading each one of these, you guys are so much more interesting than me.
     
     
    1. General area of the world in which you live? 
     
    Philadelphia, about three blocks from Betsy Ross. Ok, so she hasn't lived there for a while.
     
     
    2. General description of what you do or did for a living? 
     
    I'm a board-certified endocrinologist and split my time pretty much 50/50 between audio/music writing and medicine. Obviously, it's the latter activity that pays the bills though I'm now at an age when I'd consider winding down. Very few audio writers make a living from it; most of us are freelancers. Yes, I get a 1099 at the end of the year but the number on line 7 isn't going to pay for anyone's college education.
     
    I was in private practice for 30 years, a busy single-specialty group in the Philadelphia suburbs. My partner and I sold the practice about 10 years ago to a Philadelphia health care system, continuing on as employees, but they wrecked what we'd built over decades and it seemed like a good time to retire and do nothing but music and audio. That's what I did in 2014 and, to my surprise; I found I really missed seeing patients. So I went back to work as an endocrinologist for a Federally Qualified Health Practice with 85,000 medically underserved members, a demographic with an exceptionally high prevalence of diabetes. My job is to see the tough cases, up the game of the primary care providers when it comes to diabetes management, and keep track of the data. I may be enjoying myself as a physician more than I have at any prior time in my career
     
     
    3. What are your hobbies? 
     
    Trout fishing. I'm terrible at it, but I usually go with a good friend who knows what he's doing and we've traveled to some beautiful places. It gets me outside, and it's not a terribly high-risk situation for the fish.
     
    I have a hard time calling it a hobby because it's so important to me, but I make it to around 30 musical performances a year. Or did, before the pandemic. My wife and I have gone to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for most of the last 30 years and we missed that sorely this year.
     
    When I thought I'd retired from medicine, I joined the boards of several musical organizations. The three I'm on currently on are very different: the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (a presenting entity), The Crossing Choir (a choir devoted to new music of all stripes—two Grammy Awards for Best Choral Performance in recent years), and the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia that, at 200, is among the oldest arts organizations in the US. I've done some meaningful committee work for these groups that's helped me to understand the challenges faced by classical music organizations.
     
     
    4. When did you start this wonderful journey into music listening? 
     
    It was the realization that I had an aptitude for music that gave me anything resembling a sense of myself as a kid and I was good enough to get admitted to Oberlin as a trombone performance major. I quickly discovered that I wasn't good enough to ever land a spot in an elite orchestra and backed away from a career as a symphonic musician. After that realization, recordings and good sound became especially important to me. I came across The Absolute Sound in a friend's apartment around 1980 and started writing for the magazine in 1995, first as a music writer and then as an equipment reviewer.
     
     
    5. What was your first “album?” 
     
    At age 12 at music camp in Maine (the New England Music Camp—"By the Shores of Messalonskee"—they're still thriving) I heard Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 3 for the first time, which blew my mind. When I returned home, I bought the sheet music and played the four concertos continually (on a baritone horn, in the wrong key) and found an LP—the soloist was Albert Linder, accompanied by Hans Swarowsky and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. I still have it, of course. I guess it's been played on every turntable I've ever employed for the past 50+ years, beginning with my parent's 1950s tabletop record player.
     
     
    6. What does your music collection look like, number of physical records, CDs, etc… and number of “favorited” albums streamed? 
     
    Approximate numbers: 
     
    I have around 7000 physical discs, 2000 LPs and 5000 silver discs (CDs, SACDs, DADs, DVD-As, music-only Blu-rays.) I have around 10000 albums as digital files. 6000 are high-resolution, 24-bit PCM or DSD, so a fair amount of storage is necessary. My NAS has a 52 TB capacity (less, of course, because of RAID requirements.) There's a fair amount of content redundancy here. I've ripped most of my CDs and SACDs, and there are stereo and multichannel versions of many of the ripped SACDs.  
     
    7. What was your first audio component / stereo? 
     
    As a teenager, I convinced my parents to buy a real system to replace the mahogany box mentioned above—a Dual turntable, an AM/FM receiver, and KLH 17 loudspeakers. Spending my own money on a stereo for the first time after college, I purchased another Dual, a Kenwood integrated amplifier (my record collection was beginning to grow and I disdained a "radio") and—you guessed it—Large Advent speakers. After that, it's all a blur.
     
     
    8. Is there one component that you no longer have that you wish you wouldn’t have sold or that you wish you still had? 
     
    My Krell MD-2 CD turntable. An incredibly sexy (and overbuilt) top-loading player with a hinged Lucite cover that descended slowly after you uploaded the disc.
     
     
    9. Is there one current component that you wish you had in you system? 
     
    Really, no. My system is far from the best I've heard—among other things, the size of my room precludes that—but it's been performing at such a very musically satisfying level for some time that changes I make result in only small improvements to the listening experience (or no improvement.) One of the great things about being an equipment reviewer is that somebody else usually decides what you're going to be trying out next and usually…usually… I conclude that, good as it may be, it doesn't surpass what I own. That said, I know I'll be upgrading for the remainder of my sentient life as an audiophile. That's the nature of the beast. I just don't know what I'll be upgrading to. 
     
     
    10. How much time to you spend listening to music each week and on which systems does this listening take place (main system, car system, mobile system, office system, etc…) 
     
    I just can't listen to music in the background—that's a function of my nervous system. To the considerable annoyance of my wife, I'm always aware of what song's coming out of the ceiling at a TGI Friday. (And she's annoyed to be at a TGI Friday in the first place.) So virtually all my home listening always happens with me sitting in front of my system in a dedicated room, whether taking notes on a component or recording for a review or just for fun. It adds up to 10-14 hours per week. That doesn't sound like much to some people, but it's (hopefully) as intensely experienced as the many live performances I attend. Attended.
     
     
    11. What’s the first concert you ever attended, best concert you’ve ever attended, most interesting concert venue you’ve ever attended? 
     
    First classical: At the music camp noted above, there were faculty and student recitals on a weekly basis and there I learned the paradigm of sitting and listening, program in hand, giving oneself over to the music.
     
    First rock concert: Ten Years After at the County Center in White Plains, NY. Still probably the loudest concert I ever went to.
     
    First blues concert: Buddy Guy played at our high school. He had a very long guitar cable that allowed him to leave the stage and continue playing as he visited the restroom. That made an impression.
     
    Most remarkable venue: The Bayreuth Festspielhaus where each summer 5 to 7 of Richard Wagner's operas ("music dramas") are performed. I've been twice, in 2003 and in 2011, attending a total of a dozen performances. It is, by a long shot, the most memorable aural experience with large-scale orchestral/vocal music I've ever had, with a sense of the sound being palpable in the air around you from any seat in the house, the voices embedded in the luxuriant orchestral fabric, exactly as the composer intended. (He designed the hall.)
     
     
    12. What components are in your current audio systems and can you provide a photo? 
     
    My system is optimized for multichannel music but sounds great with stereo sources that are, of course, mostly what I listen to.
     
    Digital: Oppo BDP-103 (transport), T+A DAC 8 DSD, Baetis Reference 2 music computer running JRiver, MusiCHI SRV-01 server running MusiCHI, Ideon Master Time re-clocking platform, Synology DS1813+ plus DX 513 NAS file storage, Fidelizer EtherStream network switch.
     
    Analog: VPI Scoutmaster and JMW Memorial tonearm, Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO III cartridge
    Preamp/processor: Anthem D2v
     
    Phonostage: Audio Research PH2
     
    Power Ampifiers: Pass XA 60.8 (3), Pass Aleph 0s, David Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks
     
    Loudspeakers: Magico M2, Magico S3 Mk2 (center) Magico S1 Mk2 (surrounds), Magico S-Sub
     
    Cables: Transparent Gen 5 interconnects and speaker cables, Cardas interconnects, Furutech GT2Pro-B USB, Ideon USB, Revelation Audio Labs AES/EBU, Shunyata Anaconda AES/EBU, Transparent Premium HDMI, Apogee Wyde Eye SPDIF, Supra CAT8 Ethernet cables, Pangea AC-1 45E power cord
     
    A/C Power: 20-amp dedicated line, Transparent Ultra PowerBank
     
     
    13. Anything else you’d like to say? 
     
    Just this. I feel that my own journey has not been unlike Chris's, the others who have so far participated in this feature, and most audiophiles I know. It makes no difference if you're 30 or 60. It matters not if you listen mostly to jazz, blues, rock, or classical. It's the same if you're strictly a hobbyist or have some tangible connection to the "industry." I do this for the same reasons everyone else does: To explore intellectually interesting technical developments; for the relationships one has with creative engineers, with the people that market and sell the stuff, and with other devoted hobbyists; for the chance to connect more completely with the music I love. Let's be kind to one another—we have an awful lot in common. I'll leave it at that.
     
     
  13. Like
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, I Finally Got It!   
    As longtime Audiophile Style readers know, I'm a huge Pearl Jam fan. What many don't know is that I collect Pearl Jam vinyl releases. It's an obsession of mine that's had me searching not only the country, but the world for versions of albums I "need"in my collection. Before I discuss the album I finally got, as the title to this article indicates, let me take you through some high and low points on this fun journey. 
     
    In August 1991, the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I discovered Pearl Jam's debut album Ten. After listening to the entire album from start to finish, I knew my cherished hair metal albums from Motley Crue, Poison, and Ratt were immediately irrelevant to me. Ten changed my life and spoke to me like truly powerful music has done for people since the beginning of human history. 
     
    I quickly discovered the album tracks that didn't receive radio airplay and latched on to the song Black because it blew my mind. To this day I love the fact that the band never officially released the song as a single because of its personal nature. Sure radio stations began spinning the track well after us "cool kids" had spread the word and put it on endless mix tapes, but that's OK. Perhaps it was time to share this gem with the world. 
     
    How does this related to vinyl? Hang on, I'll link it up, as Johnnie Cochran used to say while weaving a story about O.J.'s innocence. In the liner notes for Ten there was a spot that said Ten Club P.O. Box 470, Seattle, WA 98104.  Also in the liner notes was several sentences of names followed by a large THANK YOU. One of the names on the first line was Michele Anthony (hold that thought, I'll link it up later). 
     
    Anyway, I sent a letter to the Ten Club asking to join. I had no clue what it entailed, but I wanted in. If I remember correctly, I even put my first name and my best friend's last name on the return address. I spent so much time over at his house that I wanted to make sure whatever mail was returned, made it in his mailbox and I receive dit ASAP. Postal workers won't always deliver mail if the name on an envelope isn't for the people living at the residence. 
     
    Many weeks later, I received an envelope from the Ten Club, with my first name circled and a question mark next to it, handwritten by the postal worker. As if to say, there's no Chris living at this address, but I'll let this one through. Inside the large envelope, among other things, was a piece of paper detailing how to join the Ten Club. I believe it said $10 or $15 was required and that membership was for one year. As a 15 year old, I was devastated. There was no way I could save up that much money and send it off to a fan club. In my mind I was doing them a favor by joining! Plus, my next $15 was already earmarked for the Temple of the Dog album. 
     
    I set the Ten Club letter down and went outside for a wiffle ball tournament in my friend's backyard. At the end of the day, with a baseball diamond base path worn in the lawn, I'd forgotten about the Ten Club and was back to listening to music. With this forgotten letter went a very low Ten Club membership number and a Pearl Jam vinyl single for Christmas mailed to every fan club member. I had no idea what I was missing, but I do have Hi8 videotape from the wiffle ball tournament and it's priceless. 
     
    Smash cut to October 12, 1993. The Autumn of my senior year in high school. I had nothing to do and all day to do it. That day Pearl Jam's second album Vs. was released on vinyl, one week before the compact disc was released. I went to Down in the Valley, my local record shop, just to look at the album art and get all the track names. There was no way I could afford to purchase the vinyl, I also had no way of playing it, and have enough money to purchase the CD a week later. I went home empty handed, but with a seed planted in my head. Eddie Vedder had talked about how much he liked vinyl, the smell of vinyl, and the feel of the large format. Perhaps he was on to something. 
     
    The following Monday, myself and my two best friends drove to Cheapo Records in Minneapolis at midnight to purchase the Vs. CD. It was a school night, but that matter not. We listened to the album the whole way home and postulated about stories behind each song. Before going to bed that evening/early morning, I put the orange disc in my Sony Walkman and hit repeat as I drifted off to sleep. To this day, Vs. is unequivocally my favorite Pearl Jam album.
     
    Fast forward many years, through the rest of high school, through college and into early Spring 2000. I was two years out of college, living on my own, with a decent tech job, when I heard Pearl Jam's new single titled Nothing As it Seems on the radio and it hit me. I needed to signup for the Ten Club so I could get great seats to Pearl Jam's concerts. Heck, I was free to drive wherever I wanted to see them as long as I had the vacation days left at work. I thought to myself, what took me so long to do this!
     
    With my Ten Club tickets reserved and a Case Logic case holding 224 CDs, I drove my 1999 Volkswagen Beetle with incredible Alpine stereo from Minneapolis to Chicago on October 9, 2000. I saw Peal Jam play Allstate Arena in one of my most memorable concerts. Before the final encore of the night, the band came on stage and Eddie Vedder said the following, "Alright we gonna do one more, and ah, if you sing it, as best you can sing it, I think it might end up on a record." As you can imagine, the crowd was ready to sing/scream its lungs off. The floor started shaking and my ears hurting as Eddie gave Kille Knobel the cue to turn all the arena light on, by saying her first name (pronounced like Key-Lee).  Here's a link to a VHS recording of the show. Scroll to the 2:17:15 mark for the spot about which I'm writing.
     
    What about vinyl? I know, I'll get there, but the meaning of my vinyl collection is more important than the physical albums. They all mean something to me because of my love for Pearl Jam music and my experiences over the years. 
     
    OK, cut to the spring of 2001. I was living in the Uptown area of Minneapolis when the Pearl Jam Christmas vinyl single arrive in my mailbox. Christmas in the Spring? Yes. Anyone in the Ten Club knows the band is notoriously late delivering fan club singles. Anyway, I received the Crown of Thorns vinyl single and it was game on. I had a newly installed 640 Kbps DSL internet connection from Qwest and I was well on my way to catching up on the Christmas singles I'd missed and discovering that there more Pearl Jam vinyl releases than I could imagine. 
     
    I started browsing eBay for the Christmas singles and winning auctions left and right. An obsession and no real financial responsibilities as a young adult can lead to interesting times. I soon had almost all of the Pearl Jam vinyl releases to date, including the Vs. albums available in several different countries. The South Korean release even says, Registration No. 22 To The Ministry Of Culture. Passed Censorship By K.P.P.E.C. This was the former Korean Public Performance Ethics Committee (KPPEC) that censored obscene language, body exposure, and extreme violence. However, there was one version of Vs, that I couldn't find and I absolutely needed to find it, especially because Vs. is my favorite album. This was the Columbian release in blue vinyl. I setup eBay notifications and searched everywhere, but couldn't find the Columbian version. 
     
    During the ensuing years I've collected some awesome Pearl Jam vinyl including the basketball version of Ten, the clear version of Jeremy, the four album red vinyl version of the Benaroya Hall acoustic show, the yellow and black Live At Third Man Records album, and many more. I always open each album by ripping he plastic off and enjoying the large format and unmistakable smell. Sure, some people leave them in the plastic, but if one is looking to make money down the road, there are far better investments and returns to be had than crossing one's fingers and hoping a rare Pearl Jam album skyrockets in value. 
     
    I enjoy collection these albums, but I don't own a turntable. I know this sounds crazy for an audiophile, but it's the truth. I've brought some of these albums to friends' places or HiFi ships to listen, but that has never been important to me. I have the digital versions from which most of these albums were sourced and that's what I've grown to know and love. The vinyl is a tangible artifact that brings me enjoyment even if I don't listen to the records directly. 
     
    Now for the holy grail. Earlier this fall, I was talking to people who work at my daughter's Waldorf school about how I can help the school during these difficult pandemic times. Everyone has their skillset, so I offered to help with the school's external web presence. After the conversation one of the people on the call looked up Audiophile Style, probably to make sure I wasn't making up the fact that I knew how to do what they wanted to do. She read the "About Us" page and the following sentence from the last full paragraph, "The record he has been searching for since 1993 is the ultra-rare Colombian translucent blue vinyl LP for the Vs. album (91-474649)." A day later I received an email from her with a link to someone selling the album on Discogs. 
     
    I thought it had to be a slightly different version. It couldn't be the album for which I've been looking all these years. Keep in ind that I'd given up on finding it several times since 1993 and I wasn't actively on the hunt all the time. Nonetheless, it turned out to be the real deal. It was the exact album, number 91-474649 in blue translucent vinyl! I ordered it immediately without looking at how Discogs works or how much it would cost me for shipping the the Netherlands etc... No matter the cost, as Tripper (Bill Murray) from the classic 1979 movie Meatballs said in his motivational speech to the campers, "It Just Doesn't Matter!"
     
    A couples weeks ago the blue Columbian version of Vs. arrived at my doorstep. I finally held the holy grail in my hands. Blue translucent vinyl with the orange sticker at the center, the same  color my friend's and I named Vs. Orange back in 1993. Of course this doesn't complete my collection as there are some albums I still need to pickup, but the remaining ones are fairly easy. I just need to spend the time to find them. The satisfaction of finally obtaining the blue Vs. album is really something. What a fun hobby, what a cool band, and what fantastic music. 
     
    - Chris
     
     
     
     
    P.S. I said I'd link up the Michelle Anthony reference earlier, so here it goes. First, Michelle Anthony is the Executive Vice President of Universal Music Group and someone Pearl Jam has mentioned countless times as being very helpful to the band and one of the only people at the record label who understood and fought for them. With this in mind, I was visiting friends in Los Angeles in February 2013. At dinner, a friend of mine says, "do you want to go to the Bjork concert tonight at the Hollywood Palladium, Michelle Anthony asked me to go with her and has tickets." I nearly fell off my chair. I like Bjork, but this was THE Michelle Anthony I read about in the Ten liner notes, heard Pearl Jam thank on the live album from Las Vegas for its 10th anniversary, etc... Of course I went to the show and soaked up the business conversation like a sponge. I probably said hi to Michelle as we waited for Bjork backstage, but that's was it. More interesting to me was her talking about going to a show in New York City with Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament. I was like a groupie for the night, listening for her to say anything about Pearl Jam. That's my brush with Pearl Jam, as adjacent as it could be :~)
     
     
     

  14. Thanks
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Variable Gain Volume Control   
    Hey Guys, just a quick note this morning encouraging you to watch Ayre's new video about variable gain volume control. There are so many ways to control volume and it's critical to get right in a high end system. A marginal volume control will bring a good system to its knees, no matter what other components are in the system.
     
    Cheers to Ayre and its new video series Pints with Ayre. I really like the series because it's all about offering information and educating people on how and why the company does what it does. Plus, the Ayre guys are very down to Earth and knowledgable. It's a must watch. 
     
     
     
  15. Like
    Middy reacted to JoeWhip for an article, SMc Audio McCormack DNA 1 Upgrade Experience   
    I am sure that any audiophile who knows me will confirm that if most audiophiles changed their equipment as often as I do, there would be a lot less audio manufacturers around. My audio philosophy has really not changed since I entered this hobby upon graduation from law school in the 1980’s. I have always looked for what I consider the most natural sounding components that also give the best value for the money. With loans to pay off, a mortgage and then kids, I was not in a position to spend tons of money on audio components. I would never stretch our family finances just to buy audio equipment. There is no doubt that many people would consider a set of speakers that cost $3,500.00 in the 1990’s to be extravagant. In fact, I once had a neighbor who lived in a McMansion on top of a hill across the street a bit who thought I was nuts when he saw my system and record collection. He didn’t see the need for anything more than the $500.00 rack system he bought from that long gone department store chain, Bambergers. He didn’t even seem to mind that the tweeters on his speakers were blown. Mind you, this guy had 7 cars, one for each day of the week. To each his own I guess. But by audiophile standards, what I have spent to get what I consider exceptional sound, is modest. Thankfully there are plenty of companies out there that have products that appeal to the value oriented audiophile. Sonically, I have always gravitated to a handful of designers whose sound signature corresponds to mine. They are Richard Vandersteen, Mike Moffat first of Theta Digital and now Schiit Audio as well as the subject of this piece, Steve McCormack.
     
    I first became aware of Steve McCormack with his first company, The Mod Squad, that would modify certain CD players to improve sound quality. While I never bought one or had a CD player modded by him, I liked the ones I heard. Steve was also known for his Tip Toes designed to be placed under pieces of kit to reduce vibrations and improve the subjective sound experience. Needless to say, that has turned into quite a business in audiophile land. One day, during lunch, I headed down to Chestnut Hill Audio in Center City Philadelphia to check out what was new. It was there that I heard the new DNA-1 amp that Steve brought to market with his new Company aptly named McCormack Audio. The amp was hooked up to a pair of Vandersteen 2Ci’s and I was impressed with what I heard. The sound was open, rhythmic, and had real bass impact. As a jazz fan and one who spent some time in jazz clubs, bass response is real high on my list as far as sound quality goes and the DNA-1 really excelled there for me. The proprietor of Chestnut Hill Audio, Jack Rubinson, let me come back at close of business on a Saturday, and take the amp home to listen in my system until the following Tuesday morning. At the time, my amp was the Aragon 2004. I found that the DNA-1 bettered it in all respects, so I bought it. It wasn’t exactly cheap for the times, at $1,750.00, and it took a bit of negotiating with the finance committee to get it but ultimately, it was mine. This was in 1992. I still have the receipt a copy of which I have attached.
     

     
     
     

    By way of a little background, the monicker DNA standards for Distributed Node Amplifier. Instead of a small number of large storage capacitors, the design of this amp, including the upgrades that are the subject herein, call for a larger number of smaller capacitors with one placed adjacent to each output device. This is claimed to distribute the current and establish an individual power reservoir for each of the sixteen transistors. The specs for the original amp are as follows:
     

     
     

    The DNA-1 gave me many years of enjoyment, without a lick of trouble. The only issue I had was in the early 2000’s when the fuse holder cracked and popped out of the back of the unit. By that time, McCormack Audio had been sold to Conrad Johnson who continued to manufacture the expanded line of DNA amps under the McCormack brand.  The sent me a couple of new fuse holders for free and I was back in business in a few days.
     
    However, in July of 2019, the amp developed a fault and wouldn’t drop out of protect mode. I was pretty sure that one of the rail fuses has blown, which I could fix myself. Mind you, the amp was 27 years old at the time. I had been reading up before this on Steve’s new company, SMc Audio, that was in the business, in part, of rebuilding older McCormack amps, including my DNA-1. Basically, they would take back the amp, remove all of the old parts, clean off the old boards, and replace everything else with upgraded parts, a better transformer, better caps, Cardas binding posts, Furutech power inlet, etc. Given that we were in the middle of the summer, which due to the heat in my room and frequent thunderstorms, drastically reduced the amount of time I spent listening to the system, I called SMc Audio, spoke to the tech Pat, and sent the amp in for the upgrade. Even better was the price. The Gold upgrade cost me less than the amp new 27 years prior, namely $1,700.00.
     
    As part of the rebuilding process Steve wanted to know what the rest of my system consisted of as well as the dimensions and layout of my listening room. I am not sure exactly why, but I assumed it was to make sure that the amp impedance and the like we’re a good match for the pre amp and speakers I was using. Fortunately, Steve was very familiar with my speakers, the Vandersteen 3A Signatures, as he had a pair and used to demo his products at shows with them. I have always kept the original boxes for all my equipment, so boxing the amp up was a breeze and I dropped it off at Fed Ex for the long trip to Vista, California where SMc Audio is located. It took a week to get there. Rebuilding the amp took about a week, which included a couple of days of burn in time. During the process, Pat provided me with a couple of pictures of the process, one showing the empty box with all of the innards removed and a side by side picture of the old and rebuilt amp. Copies of these pictures are below.
     
     

     

     

    While I had read reviews on line of others who had the had their amps upgraded by Steve, you really never know what you are getting until you get it. It took another week for the amp to return to Chez Whip. When it did, I unboxed it and hooked it back into the system. The first thing I noticed was how quiet the amp was. The old amp had a transformer built by Counterpoint that had a bit of a buzz that was faintly audible at the seating position, but importantly, not when music was playing. When I turned the amp on, that buzz was gone. I thought, OK, that’s good and then left the amp running for a few hours before doing any serious listening. When I returned later in the evening, I played a couple of tracks that I was familiar with and use to evaluate rooms at shows. All three are live tracks with room ambiance and deep bass. The tracks are Renewal from the Monty Alexander release Uplift, CC Rider from the Monty Alexander, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown release Overseas Special and Starbuck’s Blues from the Ray Brown release Live at Starbucks. All three are on CD. When I listened to these tracks I loved what I was hearing. The bass was deeper and fuller, tight and fast but with no bloat. The tonal balance was similar to the old amp, but the treble was clearer. Cymbals had more of the metallic sound of the real thing. Oh, and the sound of pianos. Wonderful. I also noticed a lower noise floor. I could hear deeper into the soundfield with more lower level detail, things like toe tapping and the like. I am sure the upgraded transformer helped here. The soundstage was wider as well as deeper. They instruments had more of a rounded and three dimensional sound. Every aspect of the old amp I loved was improved with this upgrade. I fully expected that I was  done with the upgrade game, at least as far as the amp was concerned. I was a happy camper. Then came Covid.
     
    Interestingly, while the sound was greatly improved, the specs noted above really didn’t change all that much. The only real significant difference was the power output which went from 150 watts into 8 ohms to 185 and likewise double into 4 ohms. The specs did not change after the installation of the gravity base system noted below.
     
    With everything shut down, I had way more time to listen to the system and, cruise the web. For no reason really, I headed over to the SMc Audio site. Truth be told, the website is rather sparse, one page really and could use some work. At the bottom, I noticed that it said coming in 2020, the gravity bass system available for all of their upgrades. So...... I sent an email and asked what this was. In a couple of hours Pat called me and briefly explained what it was, what it did and more importantly, what it would cost me. Pat explained that it was a brass plinth that they had developed for use in David  Berning tube amps that cost a fortune. Pat explained that they were shocked at what it did when sized and placed into the chassis of their amps, pre amp and CD players. Whatever they upgrade can be fitted with some form of the gravity base system. It was one of those you have to hear it type of things. He explained that it was not yet available when my upgrade was performed but that they would give me credit for what I paid already towards the total cost of the full upgrade which was $3,000.00. However, with Covid, I was not in a position to go without my amp so I politely declined and said I would revisit this later.
     
    I know that I have not provided a ton of information about what the gravity bass system totally entails, but the guys at SMc Audio have been a bit tight lipped about the gravity bass is and how it works. The best I could get out of them is that, "The Gravity Base System is a permanent modification to the chassis utilizing a custom brass base.  The modification is irreversible and we don't disclose much more about it including our method of attachment and adhesion."
     
    As months passed and and as summer approached, I was back in the same place as I was the year before, a room that was too hot for much listening and a system turned off due to daily boomers. I called Pat and asked when they could do it. He said they had the base they would use for my amp in the shop so they could do it right away. Also, because I am such a nice guy, they would throw in some new caps they really liked as well as a new rectifier, transformer and a Panzerholz fuse cap. I am not sold on the efficacy of the latter thing but since it was free, it was for me. I then went though the same process described previously. Back went the amp, the innards were stripped out. The gravity base was attached to the chassis and the electronics reinstalled along with the select upgrades. I have attached below a picture of the bottom of the amp with the base attached. A similar structure was placed inside the chassis with the electronics attached to that. Frankly, I am too lazy to open the amp up to take a picture of the new insides. Too many screws.
     
     

     
     

    When the amp returned, I was not really prepared for what I heard. The gravity base transformed the amp and took it to a whole other level. The sound was smoother, with no sense of fatigue at all. Bass was rock solid. There was a fullness to the sound across the board. More meat on the bones to use a phrase. Besides the bass, this was very obvious on a drum kit.  The bass drum thwack and the sound of the snare drum was much more lifelike. Much more like the sound of a real set of drums in your room. Instruments such as a tenor sax had a more three dimensional sound, warmer, more like the real thing. The same was true for vocals. On great recordings, it is almost like the vocalist is right in the room with you. Depth, width and clarity are all significantly improved with the gravity base system. Listening to a great recording such as Waltz for Debby at 24/192, I can now follow some of the conversations in the crowd rather clearly, much more so than before. By the way, what is wrong with the crowd, tacking during such a great musical performance?  But I digress. The addition of this upgrade also took away a slight edginess to the sound that I didn’t even know was there. Listening at high volume levels is a true joy, although my wife wouldn’t agree!
     
    So, the point of this article is that if there are any owners of any of the series of DNA amps that SMc Audio can upgrade out there, or any of the other McCormack products, please consider doing so and by all means, get the full gravity base upgrade. I have heard quite a few mega expensive amps over the years and can’t really believe that they would sound much better than this amp, in my system, in my room. This amp is that good. At $3,000.00 plus shipping, I am thrilled with the sound. I really struggled writing this piece as I didn’t want it to sound like ad copy. Nonetheless, I can without hesitation, recommend this upgrade path. It has been a true audio bargain for me.
     
     
     

     
     
  16. Thanks
    Middy reacted to JoshM for an article, Review | Crane Song Solaris & Forssell MDAC-2a   
    There’s a chasm in the audio market. On one side stand pro users. On the other stand audiophiles. Some companies straddle this line. But even then it’s common for such companies to clearly demarcate their equipment as “professional” or “hi-fi.” 
     
    Some types of equipment are more likely to see products straddle this chasm. Certain speaker and, especially, headphone models appeal to pros and enthusiasts alike. DACs, however, are not such a category. Sure, companies like RME and Mytek have had some success bridging the professional/consumer divide, but they’re the exception that proves the rule.
     
    Browse Sound on Sound, Gearslutz, Tape Op, or Mix, and it quickly becomes clear that, for better or worse, few people are talking about consumer favorites like Schiit, but lots are talking about pro-oriented companies like Forssell and Crane Song that audiophiles are mostly unfamiliar with. 
     
    As an audiophile with an eye towards the world of professional engineering, it’s that last name, Crane Song, that first caught my attention. When I picked up Audio Mastering: The Artists, Discussions from Pre-Production to Mastering, Russ Hepworth-Sawyer and Jay Hodgson’s excellent collection of interviews with mastering engineers, I noticed that Dave Hill, the mind behind Crane Song, was one of the few tech people interviewed for the book. That’s because Hill has been making groundbreaking studio hardware and plugins for decades. Few people have thought more about how digital can sound its best than Hill, who’s dedicated part of his site to educating listeners about jitter with a tutorial on how to listen for jitter, complete with anonymized sound files.  
     
    In researching Hill’s DACs, another name that kept coming up was Fred Forssell. In the ‘70 and ‘80s, Forsell built equipment for artists like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Jackson Browne. Commercially, his designs have appeared in products from Manley and AEA, among other companies. Forssell’s products produced under his own name include mic preamps, DACs, and ADCs.
     
    In a level-matched, seven-DAC shootout that included the pro version of the previously reviewed RME ADI-2, mastering engineer Matthew Gray placed the Crane Song Solaris and Forssell MADA-2 (the MDAC-2a combined with an ADC) on top. 
     
    Combined with the praise for both DACs on GearSlutz and elsewhere, I decided I wanted to hear both DACs. (Like much pro equipment, there’s a robust used market for pro DACs, which is where I picked up my review samples.)
     
    Physically, the Solaris (U.S. MSRP $1,949) and the MDAC-2a (U.S. MSRP $2,500) are unassuming compared to the likes of the aforementioned ADI-2. 
     
    Both are meant to be rack mounted, with 19-inch wide, approximately 2-inch tall faceplates. Behind the faceplate, both units are 17 inches wide. The Forssell is 11 inches deep, and the Crane Song is 9 inches deep. Both units are all-metal affairs designed to take a beating in the studio. However, each weighs less than 10 pounds. 
     
    In contrast to many consumer DACs — think the hulking Denafrips Terminator and its rows of capacitors — the internals of both the Solaris and MDAC-2 are marked by clean layouts with plenty of room. The Solaris is based around AKM’s 4490 chip, while the Forssell uses Texas Instrument’s PCM1794. However, as with all DACs, sound is about implementation more than chips. 
     
    Both Hill and Forssell stressed the role of listening in their design philosophies. 
     
    “I think it is important for people to actually listen audio designs without preconceived ideas of how such designs will sound,” Forssell told me. “Talking about the details of designs often biases the reader about how the circuit will sound (good or bad), prior to them actually listening to the circuit and then forming their own opinion about how it sounds.  At the end of the day it’s all about how it sounds, not what I did or why I did it when I was designing the circuit.”
     
    Keeping with his reputation as one of the premier experts on jitter, Hill explained that the Solaris uses “an ASRC for jitter reduction [and] this reclocking allows the use of an ultra-low jitter reference for the DAC.” “There is a lot of listening involved in doing this,” he continued. 
     
    I set up a switch that I do not know which version I am listening to and over several weeks (testing every day) I will select the different versions of hardware and software and see what I like and do not like and if there is consistency in the selection.  this is also done with different source material and needs to be level matched very carefully. Very few people get how import low jitter is, and you cannot get there by buying a commodity clock device…. Everything needs to be measured…. It take specialized gear to measure ultra-low jitter and AP or Stanford box will not get you there
     
    Both DACs support PCM data up to 24/192. No DSD, MQA, or any other off-the-beaten-path formats welcome. 
     
    Of the two units, the Solaris is the more involved device, though no one will mistake either unit for the Swiss Army knife of the RME. From left to right, the Solaris’s face features a power switch, mute button, source selection knob, small LCD screen, gain knob, headphone level knob, and ¼-inch headphone jack. Both the gain knob and the headphone knob are, in fact, stepped attenuators, making for perfect channel matching. And, while I didn’t do an in-depth comparison of the headphone amplifier with stand-alone units, my casual listening found it to be the equal of such well-regarded amps as the Schiit Magni 3+ and the various entry-level THX amps.
     
     

     
     
     
    The rear of the Solaris has four inputs (USB, AES XLR, S/PDIF RCA, and Toslink) and two outputs (fixed XLR and adjustable XLR). The USB input doesn’t require a driver on Mac, and Windows drivers are available on Crane Song’s website. The fixed XLR outputs operate at +18dBu, while the variable outputs max out at either +18dbu or +24dBu. (A 6dB pad can be activated by power cycling the Solaris while pressing the mute button, bringing up the unit’s setup menu.) 
     
    When the Solaris is powered on, all outputs are automatically muted. The Solaris’s LCD screen displays the input source, the source file’s sample rate, the mute status, the variable XLRs’ level, and the headphone output’s level. It also features a handy L/R level meter.
     
    Comparatively, the Forssell is sparse. Its front panel features only one button (an input selector), one switch (power), and five LED lights (one for the unit’s power status, one for each of the unit’s two inputs, one showing input fault, and one for the SCR lock status). On the rear, the standard MDAC-2a features AES XLR and S/PDIF RCA inputs. However, it can also be configured with additional inputs. The standard MDAC-2a has two XLR outputs, though the unit I have also includes optional RCA outputs. The XLR outputs can be adjusted by an internal trim to produce either a +18dBu “pro” or +14dBu “hi-fi” level.
     
    As might be expected from designers with Forssell and Hill’s pedigrees, both the Solaris and the MDAC-2a measure well. 
     
    How do they sound, though? In a word, superb. (Those looking for a clear-cut winner in this pro DAC matchup will have to look elsewhere.) They do, however, sound different.
     
    But before getting into a detailed head-to-head sonic comparison between the Crane Song and the Forssell, I can say a few things definitively with regard to how both DACs stack up against some notable competitors. 
     
    Neither the Solaris nor the DAC-2a has the myriad features of the RME ADI-2, but both soundly best the RME in the aural department. As I wrote in the review of the RME, the Solaris did detail, imaging, and depth better than the RME. Given that the Forssell is the sonic equal of the Solaris, the same judgment vis a vis the RME applies, even if the specifics are slightly different. 
     
    The other notable DAC that I put the Solaris and the DAC-2a up against was the Schiit Yggdrasil A2. As a multibit DAC aimed at the consumer, the Yggy is quite a bit different than its pro delta-sigma brethren. However, multibit enthusiasts skeptical of delta-sigma converters need to hear the Solaris and the DAC-2a. While neither dispensed with the Yggy as handily as they topped the RME, both were at least the equal of the Yggdrasil. The Solaris wrung more detail out of the recordings than the Yggy but lacked its slam. The Forssell was even smoother than the Yggy but didn’t have its front-to-back depth. And so on. The pros and cons of each DAC were apparent, but none was the clear all-around winner. 
     
    When it comes to comparing the Solaris and the DAC-2a against each other, the unmistakable fact is that both the Crane Song and the Forssell are world-class DACs, and I’d easily be happy with either as my main converter. Nonetheless, both excel in different areas and likely will appeal to listeners with slightly different tastes. 
     
    As with all excellent DACs, these differences are subtle — the kind only apparent on close listening. For this review, I fed both from the same USB to PDF converter, matched levels, and used a Kramer XLR input selector to compare them in real-time with the same music.*
     
    That said, consistent differences appeared. 
     
    The Forssell has relatively more mid-bass, whereas Solaris leans toward the mid-treble. The former is comparatively meatier, while the latter is somewhat leaner. The Crane Song seems to have more square-edged transients, while the Forssell has slightly rounder presentation. 
     
    As might be expected from the above combination of characteristics, the Forssell slightly edges out the Solaris on macrodynamics, while Solaris edges out the Forssell on macrodetail. Both DACs, however, deliver excellent microdynamics and microdetail, meaning that they recreate the realism of instruments and vocals with aplomb. 
     
    Compared to the sometimes-understated distinctions above, the DACs display relatively easy-to-spot differences in soundstage. The Solaris delivers more front-to-back depth than the MDAC-2a. That said, while the Forssell stages all sounds more “up front” than the Solaris, I found that individual instruments sounded more a little more three-dimensional on the MDAC-2a. The Crane Song, on the other hand, delivers a greater sense of space than the Forssell, presenting more reverb and room sound in recordings. In terms of width, the Forssell edge out the Crane Song, if only by a modest margin. 
     
    The above observations are best illustrated with references to specific tracks, because not all songs reveal these differences equally well. 
     
    Putting on “Orphan Girl” from Gilliam Welch’s 1996 classic, Revival, both the Solaris and MDAC-2a do justice to Welch’s ethereal voice and T Bone Burnett’s unfussy production. However, the Crane Song provides a greater sense of space than the Forssell. The backing vocals are pushed deeper into the soundstage on the Solaris. Likewise, the Solaris evinces more reverb on Welch’s acoustic guitar than the MDAC-2a. That same guitar, however, reveals key differences in tonality between the two DACs. Welch’s acoustic sounds somewhat thinner (like it’s mic’d higher up the neck) through the Solaris, while it has more body through the Forssell. 
     
    Turning to “This Is the Night,” from Dusk, the 1992 masterpiece from criminally underrated The The, some of the same broad differences between the Crane Song and the Forssell emerge again. The Crane Song emphasizes the individual wires of the upright piano that anchors the song. The Forssell presents a slightly boxier, more wholistic piano sound. The MDAC-2a also hits harder than the Solaris, from the piano hammer impacts to the thump of the kick drum. 
     
    Next up is “Almost Independence Day,” the transcendent 10-minute closing track to Van Morrison’s 1972 album, Saint Dominic’s Preview. Like much of Morrison’s work, it was recorded primarily live in the studio. Especially on Tim Young’s hi-res remaster, it’s a remarkably clean and dynamic recording. Like the piano on “This Is the Night,” Lee Charlton’s snare on “Independence Day” leans towards the wires on the Crane Song and the skin on the Forssell. And, once again, the Forrsell presents an ever-so-slightly more dynamic listen. 
     
    Sticking with hi-res remasters of early-‘70s classics, the title cut on Ike & Tina Turner’s Working’ Together showcases the DACs’ different front-to-back staging and reverb presentation. Tina’s voice has unmistakably more echo on Solaris and sits deeper in the mix. However, both do an excellent job of rendering the subtle percussion in the left channel and presenting the horns in the right channel with bite and tonal accuracy. Those horns also sound slightly deeper (yet flatter) on the Crane Song and slightly closer (yet more 3D) on the Forssell. 
     
    Pulling up Joe Gastwirt’s mastering of the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead, soundstage width differences become as apparent as depth differences. On the opening track, “Uncle John’s Band,” Jerry’s voice on the left and the backing vocals on the right both sound wider on the Forssell. But, keeping with the previously discussed tracks, both sets of vocals have more reverb and sit deeper in the soundstage on the Crane Song. 
     
    The width differences between the DACs is even more apparent on “Streets of Paradise” from Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1975 release, Pour Down Like Silver. Richard’s guitar on the left and John Kirkpatrick’s accordion on the right each sound like their panned about 75 percent in their respective directions on the Solaris and more like 90 percent on the Forssell. 
     
    Such left-to-right staging differences extend to individual instruments, too. Rick Wilson’s drum kit on the 24/96 remaster of Heart’s “Magic Man” sound solidly in the center on the Solaris and more spread out on the Forssell. The effect is fine, but undeniable. 
     
    Interestingly, as the above examples might illustrate, the soundstage width difference is often more apparent on sounds that are not hard-panned right or left. It’s mostly a 50/50 phenomenon. Nonetheless, some hard-panned tracks, like “Driving Along” from Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson still sound wider on the Forssell. 
     
    Finally, while it’s difficult to pick illustrate this with a particular song, the MDAC-2a is the smoother sounding DAC, with the Solaris coming across as comparatively unforgiving. 
     
    All told, my time with the Crane Song Solaris and Forssell MDAC-2a was enjoyable and eye-opening. For one, it prompted me to sell my beloved Yggdrasil. Yes, it was hard to choose between the three DACs. But ultimately I found that the Solaris met my “left-brained” moods and the MDAC-2a my “right-brained” ones better than the Yggy. It was a big realization for a one-time multibit partisan.
     
    For everyone else, the Solaris and MDAC-2a need to be added to person lists of “must hear” DACs, particularly for hi-fi audiophiles who’ve eschewed professional DACs. 
     
     
     
     
     
    *  The specific USB to SPDIF converter varied between a Matrix X-SPDIF2 and a Mutec MC-1.2. Both DACs fed a Schiit Ragnarok integrated amplifier and a Monoprice Monolith THX 887 headphone amplifier. Most speaker listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer. Headphone listening included  Focal Utopia, Sennheiser HD800S, and ZMF Verité closed.
     
     
     
     
     
    About The Author

    Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.
  17. Thanks
    Middy reacted to bluesman for an article, The Value Proposition In Computer Audio: Nuts, Bolts, and Building Blocks - Building a Home for Your Player Software Part 2   
    THE VALUE PROPOSITION IN COMPUTER AUDIO:  NUTS, BOLTS AND BUILDING BLOCKS – BUILDING A HOME FOR YOUR PLAYER SOFTWARE
     
    PART 2: OPERATING SYSTEMS FOR LITTLE BOXES
     
     
    INTRODUCTION
     
    For use as a music storage and management system, server, renderer, and streamer, there’s still no substitute for a big box.  The x86 hardware platform can easily be built to amazingly high levels of performance, reliability, and utility for astonishingly low cost by historical levels.  So there’s no better or more practical choice for most of us than a traditional MOBO-based PC for a one box audio solution to house and manage our libraries, display data and art, and drive our playback endpoints on both LAN and WAN.
     
    Yes, I know that there are many commercial streamer / players available, many of which are versatile and truly excellent at their jobs.  But this series is all about value in computer audio.  Almost all of the proprietary streamers & music management boxes are expensive and inflexible compared to a well spec’ed and built basic PC (whether Win, Mac or Linux), which is where those seeking great value in a computer-based audio system will find what they seek.  The same is true for those who already have a capable x86 computer (including laptops) that they use for multiple tasks and who want to add a computer audio management, control and playback system to what they have.  You can drop a lot of audio functionality onto an existing PC of any flavor, if it has the guts and capacity to do what you need.
     
    Of course, there’s a disclaimer to the above.  The “all purpose PC” is a compromise much like the “all season tire”, which is
     
    somewhat better than summer tires in winter somewhat better than winter tires in summer far worse than summer tires in summer far worse than winter tires in winter  
     
    So you can add audio to your home or business PC and enjoy a lot of fine music.  But you almost certainly won’t have the best SQ, the greatest flexibility, the most comprehensive functions and features, etc if you use one box for all your computing needs.  And if your big box goes down, you have neither a computer nor music.  So a de novo music machine seems far preferable to me for almost everybody who can house, power, cool, operate, and afford one.  If you come to the same conclusion, I hope this series will help you make the choice between a big box PC (which includes laptops) and a little box single board computer (SBC) for your audio front end.
     
    If you can and are willing to parse your computer audio work stream into functional bundles, a little box can carry a lot more of that load than you think with no compromise in sound quality or functionality…..and at stunningly low cost.  The concept of a single board computer is key here – it means that the entire computer (including ports, memory, audio, video, graphics etc) is built on a single circuit board.  This is not a new concept – the first commercial one dates to 1976.  And today’s motherboards carry a lot of onboard functionality that was entirely peripheral for years. Even today, when onboard AV is pretty good for general use on the better MOBOs, you have to add audio and video cards for truly high performance sound and graphics.
     
    Although there are many fabulous MOBOs out there, a single board x86 is impractical even with the best MOBOs because of the need for RAM.  There have been a few MOBOs with onboard RAM, but they garnered almost no interest or market share.  ASUS made a few with 2G and later 4G of RAM  without expansion slots 6 or 7 years ago, as I recall.  So for our purposes, there are no SBCs on the x86 platform, and the SBC descriptor is (for all practical purposes) limited to the small fry of the computer world.
     
    There are dozens of single board computers out there today (summary here), of which many have audiophile use potential.  The Raspberry Pi family is currently the most popular of the SBCs used for audio, and for good reason – they’re inexpensive, made better than the price point suggests they should be, reliable, easy to set up and use, and supported by a huge web presence of enthusiasts many of whom are knowledgeable and experienced (and, of course, many of whom are useless or worse).  The Raspberry Pi Foundation is an excellent source of help, and there’s strong support from the Linux world for each of the many distros available for the Pi.
     
    When it came out, the Pi was a very basic little device that was designed and marketed for educational use.  It was created by a man named Eben Upton (who’s been many things over the years, from Director of Studies at Cambridge University to a Broadcomm chip designer) to counter a drop in the number of students enrolling in computer science courses.  He was struck by the number of kids who wanted to learn about and work with computers, but who had no access to anything beyond a game console because of cost.  The story is fascinating – read about it here if you’re interested.
     
    Remember that this discussion is aimed at audiophiles.  So we’re not going to get into computing basics, despite how amenable SBCs are to DIY tweaking, coding and modification. As most SBCs boot and run from an SD card, it’s hard to break or brick them. Just burn a new image onto a card & start over.  So these are wonderful for learning, experimenting, and tweaking.  But first, you have to choose one and make it work as its designers intended.
     
     
    SINGLE BOARD COMPUTER BASICS
     
    Most single board computers are set up, configured, and operated the same way.  Those that run on a Linux-based OS (which is almost all of them) have a default OS that’s available from the website of the organization(s) behind it.  And there are SBC versions of many top Linux distros available from either the parent organization or an offshoot, e.g. you can download Ubuntu, Ubuntu Server, and more than a few variants like Mate for SBCs with an ARM processor directly from the Ubuntu site. 
     
    At last count (per Slant), there were 56 SBCs (including variants with distinguishing features) on the retail market.  A few are known to be great for audio, and more than a few are clearly not up to the task.  Some, like the Pi Zero W, are great within their limits but lack features many of us find essential. Some appear to have more potential than anyone has realized, although I can’t find any discussion of their use in audio.  
     
    Despite that fact that I love y’all more than I can say, I wasn’t willing to buy one of each and set them up just so I could report on whether they’re in the running.  So some of my reporting is based solely on specs and the anecdotal experiences of friends.  I don’t consider this approach to be seriously flawed, as (from extensive experience with SBCs) specs and capacities strongly suggest how well a device will perform in an audio setting if it has similar design, construction, components, etc. And I don’t discount the value of ingenuity in making little boxes do things they weren’t designed to do.  Just remember how hard it is to get a quart into or out of a pint bottle.
     
    A WORD ABOUT SUPER SBCs:  Some SBCs are actually mini-x86s or other powerhouses disguised as competitors for Pis, ‘bones etc.  I suspect that the credit card sized UP and slightly larger UP Squared would be great for audio, but they’re a lot more expensive than the Pi.  Yes, they’re essentially single board computers, but the UP is powered by Atom and the Squared version comes with a choice of Celeron, Pentium or Atom and has both M2 and mini PCIe slots.  They’re almost certainly more capable than a Pi for audio use.
     
    The Udoo Bolt comes with a dual or quad core Ryzen processor running up to 3.6 GHz and will run up to 32G of DDR4 2400 RAM..  The specs strongly suggest that this is a serious audio machine waiting to be tapped. The downside is that the lesser version costs $332 and the greater one $418 – so it’d have to be pretty darned good to justify that price.  But it should run the Linux distro of your choice and serve as a fine ROCK alternative with Roon server on it.  I’d love to get my hands on one to see what it’ll do, but there are other items higher on my list (e.g. a MiniDSP UDAC 8).
     
    There are a few other “super” SBCs out there, and I expect a steady stream of new ones for the foreseeable future.  But for me, none of the currently available ones is worth its cost for audiophile use in any capacity. I do not recommend these when a Pi 4 with 4G of RAM is only $62 list and as low as $50 when on sale (which is often).  If you want a tiny PC, I’d strongly consider a NUC or one of the sticks or minis from Azulle, Intel ComputeStick, Gigabyte, Asus etc.
     
     
    SBC ROUNDUP
     
    Pictured above are 5 of my 7 Pis (along with my original Beaglebone Black MPD music server in the black metal case on the right with the centered RJ-45, exactly as designed and described so well by Chris ‘way back in 2013). The ports and USB plugs give you an idea of just how small these devices are.  Here’s a table of the most popular ones, in ascending order of street cost (all available at the stated price as I write this).  Some of these are probably waiting for us to discover how great they are – but none offers the combination of power, price and performance that you can get in a Pi 4 with 4G of RAM.
     
     

     

     
     
     

     
     
    A POSTSCSRIPT ABOUT ARDUINO  This is a hugely popular system with its own tiny, cheap hardware – it’s the namesake of several project boards and systems you can find on the Arduino website.  But (like the BBC:micro) Arduino is not technically a microcomputer - it’s a microcontroller, which is a microprocessor-based device designed to control other devices using an embedded system that may be externally or internally stored.  Yes, it has a CPU on board, but it cannot serve as anything close to a general purpose computer without hardware and software add-ons.  In my opinion, it’s simply not worth the cost and effort to do this, as you’ll end up with a series of painful compromises and it won’t do anything really well.  Microcontrollers may have their memory, ports, etc onboard or on an external storage device.  Arduino has its own programming language and is generally used to control devices like signage, medical appliances, lights, etc.  There are a few rudimentary audio programs for them, including one that’s basically an R2R DAC – and you can program one to play back WAV files.  They’re fun to play with, but no audiophile will be using a microcontroller as a dedicated component in his or her listening system.
     
     
    THE SBC GOLD STANDARD FOR VALUE & PERFORMANCE – THE RASPBERRY PI 4
     
    Let’s start with the bottom line: for my money and ears, the latest Raspberry Pi Model 4 with 4G of RAM is the best buy in small box solutions for audiophiles.  Bone stock and running the latest Raspbian (the Foundation’s recommended OS), a Pi 4 is a very capable little computer that will run the ARM instance of JRMC very nicely.  It’s still probably not enough to run a Roon server or core, but they don’t offer that download anyway (yet) – so it’s a moot point right now. You can make some wonderful music with a Pi 4. You can also turn it into a Wifi hub at the center of its own WLAN with an Ethernet connection to the web (instructions HERE and elsewhere on the web – it works).  You can make an electronic crossover from a Pi for a multiamplified speaker setup (example HERE), recognizing that you’ll need a MC DAC with enough output channels for all the individual drivers just for 2 channel reproduction. You can even make your own NAS with a Pi and a USB HD (see HERE) 
     
     
    The Pi 4 has several useful features for audiophiles, including
     
    a 64 bit quad core CPU gigabit ethernet 4 USB ports (2xUSB2 and 2xUSB3) dual band ac WiFi Bluetooth 5 & BLE separate busses for USB and networking an upgraded GPU  
     
    It’s the first Pi to perform in the same league as lesser x86 boxes and can easily be the heart of your own LAN / WLAN multiroom music system.  Just add USB or networked file storage, networking hardware, and endpoint players for a whole house system you can control from your mobiles, PC, etc.  You can even use Alexa and her friends for control, e.g. activate the House Band skill in Alexa to control JRMC.
     
    Benchmarks confirm the Pi 4’s ability.  Magpi’s published results show the Pi 4 to be 4 times as fast as the 3b+ and 10 times as fast as the Zero or Zero W on Linpack benchmarking.  Their Speedometer 2 testing of browser speed shows the Pi 4 to be twice as fast as the 3b+.  The 4 also has about twice the memory bandwidth (R/W transfer rates to and from RAM) and 3 times the Python GPIO speed as a Pi 3b+.  These numbers show it to be equal to many respected Intel and AMD based PCs that are only a few years old – and it blows many highly touted tablets and smartphones out of the water.
     
    The 4 is a transition piece in many ways.  Like the ever growing Porsche air cooled 6 as it evolved well beyond 3 liters, the Pi 4b is being pushed hard enough to start crossing its design limits; even without overclocking, it’s now running fast enough to heat up the CPU and GPU in normal use – it really benefits from a cooling system of some kind.  A better case is essential for audiophile use, even if it’s only as a player.  
     
    I use the FLIRC fanless aluminum case, a very attractive one in which a Pi 4 never gets above 73C in 23C ambient room temps.  In ambient temps >80C, you’ll need some kind of active cooling – see the test linked below for a discussion of case cooling.  If you keep it in a cabinet or other area with limited airflow, you definitely need a good case to keep it cool. Here’s an online summary of case testing to help pick one.
     
     
    A SMORGASBORD OF Pis
     
    The Raspberrry Pi family is fantastic for audiophiles on a budget or otherwise wanting small, simple, inexpensive solutions for their needs.  At their price, you can use several to create a networked audio system of very high quality and sophistication, e.g. use a 4b with 4G of RAM for your server, another as your NAS, and a combo of 4s and ZeroWs as needed for your endpoints.  Use another 4b as an electronic crossover and multi-amplify your speakers.  The most useful models are discussed below, to help you pick those that will meet your needs.
     
    I’ve tried every Pi I own (which includes ZeroW, 3b, 3b+, and 4) in every audio role it would handle, from JRMC core to simple endpoint player.  There are now 9 Rpi boards in circulation, but you only need to consider 3 of them for audio use.  The PiZeroW is a $10 wonder that will serve you well as an endpoint / player and deliver great SQ up to 2 channel DSD with the right players.  The Pi 3b+ is even better as an endpoint and will serve your audio files just fine despite a sluggish GUI.  The 4b with 4G of RAM is an outstanding little box that will run a server like JRMC just fine and deliver great SQ even for MC DSD.  Here are more details:
     
     
    The PiZeroW
     
    a tiny $10 board complete with a 1GHz single core CPU, a Cypress CYW43438 chip for 802.11n and BT4, plus OTG microUSB2 and a separate microUSB power port A ZeroW is a simple endpoint renderer / player for WLAN use; in that role, it’s great! If you want a Roon endpoint, you’ll need to use a Squeezebox variant because Roon Bridge won’t run on the Zero’s 32 bit ARM 6 build; Installing an OS and associated apps (players, communications etc) can be a bit tricky on a ZeroW, since you need a network connection, there’s no LAN port, and the WLAN0 interface is unconfigured on installation;  The WLAN can be preconfigured by editing the config files on your computer before first boot to include a wpa_supplicant config file – if you don’t do this, you could chase your tail for hours; You can also get it to work by setting it up on a Pi with a wired network connection (3b+ & 4 both worked well for me) exactly as you want it to be on the ZeroW, then moving the SD card to the Zero;  There are some wonderful operating systems and players for the ZeroW. Remembering that the only way in for audio files is your WLAN, SQ is excellent; all those below are clearly better than the optical output from Chromecast Audio into the same DACs with Redbook FLACs through my AKG 701QJs. Highs are cleaner and better defined, bass is tighter, with cleaner articulation / resolution of multiple parts on everything from vocalists to acoustic stringed instruments to jazz combos to big bands and orchestral pieces SQ on good FLACs & 2 channel DSD is right there with the Pi4 and any of my x86 based systems; SQ through my iFi DSD DAC driven directly by my ROCK NUC may be very slightly better – blacker space, more coherent “assembly” of those well articulated individual parts, and slightly bigger bass with no more bloat; Most of these are lightweight distros built on Debian or another Linux flavor Be aware that these are basically JEOSs (Just Enough Operating Systems) that do not install with package managers, file editors, and many other command line utilities prized by Linux users; you have to know what you’re doing to color outside the lines drawn by the creators of each – and it’s not necessary just for audio You only need a 16G microSD card for any of them, but I got a pile of high speed 32s and 64s cheap on sale, so I use them for everything; Most of these systems automatically expand the files system on first boot PiCorePlayer  is an excellent choice for a ZeroW endpoint. It includes a highly configurable Squeezebox setup that works very well for me as a Roon endpoint Once you get on your WLAN, you can set everything up to your liking and control the system easily from devices on your network with a browser using the web GUI It plays 2 channel DSD flawlessly but I wouldn’t push it to MC at high rates There is a Squeezebox server in PCP if you need it. I haven’t gotten PCP on my ZeroW to show up as a JRMC zone yet; I”m still playing with this; Max2Play is a great choice for audiophiles using a ZeroW Max2Play is a Debian based operating system packaged with several very useful apps and features for audiophiles Easy installation of Max2Play on a ZeroW is enabled by using the onboard WiFi as a hotspot (name max2play, password mypasscode) so you can use a smartphone to configure it; this is the default startup mode on initial boot & it works great! Once you use your mobile to set up your LAN, you can do everything else from the web GUI or SSH There are currently 15 audio plugins available Squeezelite, BT & several others install with the system when you select the “advanced” configuration default (which I strongly suggest to start) MPD is an available plugin The Audioplayer plugin installs Squeezelite, Shairport, and GmediaRenderer The Bluetooth plugin adds a GUI for BT setup and management The HiFiBerry plugin sets up and interfaces with all HiFiBerry Pi sound cards There are DLNA and Squeezebox server plugins There’s even a Spotify Connect plugin DietPi is a light and flexible operating system with extensive configuration options The main advantage of DietPi on Pi 3b+ and 4 is the simple built-in GUI for installing all kinds of software, including Roon Bridge and multiple music players This is less useful on a Zero, which won’t run many of their packages (HERE) I ran DietPi on a few 3 endpoints and like it a lot; but I prefer PiCorePlayer on a 0; Raspbian is the default OS from the Raspberry Pi Foundation and works quite fine; use it if you have trouble getting the others up and running; it’s very easy to install, although the CPU is slow enough to take almost an hour to download and install all the available updates (which you do not need to do just to play music);  it’s plenty fast enough for audio playback It  installs with VLC so you have a good player immediately BT audio works fine for “noncritical listening” You can only drive a USB DAC from a Zero by using an OTG (“On The Go”) dongle or cable; The two identical-appearing microUSB ports are NOT identical; the one on the end is for power only, while the one next to it is the OTG port; you can only use the inner port to drive a DAC and you can only do it with an OTG adapter or cable; OTG requires that pin 4 (the “sensing pin”) of the USB cable be grounded to set the device in “host” mode; the easiest way is to buy an OTG dongle; You can make an OTG cable yourself by opening the female end of a male microUSB to female USB cable and soldering pins 4 and 5 together; BE CAREFUL and don’t accidentally connect anything but 4 and 5 to each other; Volumio is well known to the AS community and a fine system for audiophiles using the most popular ARM devices. It’s a music management system in a JEOS with an MPD back end Think of it as an MPD server and client package It’s LIGHT! Volumio loads entirely into RAM It’s up to date     supports I2S DACs, web radio and other goodies does DSD, DoP, MC, DSP on more robust Pis Zeros will give you great 2 ch DSD & DoP but can’t do the fancy stuff It’s maintained well with effortless over-the-web updates It’s easy to install & sets up its own hotspot on initial boot (like Max2Play) if the device you’re using has no LAN port It easily mounts CIFS and NFS network locations from the GUI The browser-based GUI looks good & works well from any mobile device I own The developer has downloads for Pis, Odroid, Sparky, and Asus Tinkerboards RuneAudio is another nice little MPD-based playback system embedded in a JEOS I’ve used it extensively on BBB and Pi, but I only loaded it on a Zero to make sure it works……..it does! There are other systems out there that should please audiophiles, but the above are the ones I’ve tried on a Zero.  
     
     
    The Pi 3b+ (NOT the 3b!)
    This is a worthwhile improvement over the 3b for several reasons gigabit ethernet, dual band ac wifi, and a faster 4 core processor (1.4 vs 1.2 GHz) the $5 you save by buying a non-plus model 3 (if you can find one) just isn’t worth it In addition to those I described for the Zero, there are a few other OS / player / music management packages out there that are great on Pis from 3b on up. (and on other similar ARM boards) A Pi 3b+ is up to the task of being a JRMC hub, although the graphics are a bit slow It streams over WAN with almost no issues - my son claims it dropped a few times in a year, but it’s never happened to me & I’ve streamed from this box around the world The ARM version of the software is more basic than the x86 versions, but most of us can live with it very well because it sounds great Roon Bridge runs perfectly on it. I have NOT upgraded my multiple 3b players to 4s because I don’t think the 2 ch SQ from my lone 4 is any better than it is from my 3s; when I get a good MC DAC and can try MC DSD, I expect the 4 to be better (and will upgrade the 3s if it is) If you have friends who just had to upgrade to 4s and are giving away their 3s, take them all and don’t look back!  
     
     
    OTHER MUSINGS ON A PI
     
    If you already have a media server and need endpoint players, you’ll love a Pi (or ten). A PI 4 with 4G of RAM makes a fine music server if your software package is not graphic-intensive and you don’t need heavy duty DSP, transcoding etc.  And it will do anything you want it to do as a renderer / endpoint.  If you’re really pushing it and all 4 cores are pumping iron, it can get hot enough (80C+) to trigger automatic throttling back to 1GHz from its usual 1.5GHz in the “official” case (a plain Jane thin plastic shell that’s as attractive as it is protective). Remember that the earlier Pis ran at lower speeds, so they’re inherently “throttled” compared to a 4; when the 4 throttles back, it’s still better than a 3b+; I wouldn’t stray below the 3b+ for audio, since they still cost only $35 or less and have more of what you need than the 3a or b (e.g. processor speed, 4 USB vs 1).  You have to use a DAC with USB or HDMI input.  There’s no other digital output port. The 3b+ is powerful enough to do DSD, MC, mild DSP, and some graphic-intensive retrieval and display of album art etc – but it will run hot at full tilt without a good case to help keep its cool.  I haven’t tried high res MC, but it’s remained cool, calm and collected in a good fanless aluminum case with heatsink pushing stereo DSD512 into my iFi and SMSL USB DACs. My ZeroW is a fine little player for stereo – I’ve tried VLC, Kodi, and a few MPD clients and it plays RB FLACs well on all of them.  Roon Bridge won’t run on it, so you have to use Squeezelite (e.g. PiCorePlayer); It is the original 90 pound weakling, so everything happens more slowly (except playback, of course). It can’t handle much DSP or sample rate processing, but it’s a natural as a general purpose player for mp3 and Redbook FLACs in all but the most critical listening settings.    
    If you want to build a system from scratch, you’ll love multiple Pis. A Pi4 with 4G of RAM will happily retrieve your audio files from either USB or network storage and pump them directly into your DAC and/or into your network at any currently used resolution in up to 7.1 MC. In this role, you’ll have 2 way traffic on either your ethernet port or your USB bus;  If you store your music files on a USB HD, you’ll also be driving your DAC from the USB bus.   As USB 2 is fine for music transfer, you can use USB2 for the HD and USB3 for the DAC or vice versa.  But the PI4 can only supply a maximum of 1.2A to all four USB ports at the same time. So you have to power either your DAC or your HD externally if you choose the all-USB route. The Pi 4 has great gigabit ethernet and excellent WiFi.  So I use NAS for my files and a DAC is the only USB device connected to the Pi. I have two Pis on ethernet and two on 5GHz WiFi, all running both JRMC and Roon Bridge with equally excellent SQ; yes, SQ is infinitesimally better (I think) directly from ROCK by USB; I’ve been running a full JRMC installation on a Pi 3b+ for a few years without a hitch The GUI is slower on the 3b+ than the 4, and waiting for some visual transitions can get a bit annoying.  But it’s never faltered in audio playback, even when streaming over the internet to my son’s system 7 miles away while I listened to different program material from the same device. JRMC25 for ARM processors works fine and should keep almost anybody happy on a Pi 4.  I have 26 on my PC, but it’s not out yet for Linux or ARM. Don’t forget the other cool stuff you can do with a Pi for audio and music; you can Make an active crossover Make your own WiFi hub with or without internet connection Make your own synthesizer Make a digital audio workstation Make an oscilloscope  (or this one) etc etc etc  
     
    OK – I admit that I may be a bit prejudiced in favor of the Pi over other SBCs.  But that’s only because I’ve been using it alongside its competition for a few years now and it’s simply the best I’ve found and the most reasonably priced.  It’s probably the most used SBC platform in the world for audio and audio-related use, with a ton of support, software, and hard stuff for it.  The development team continues to support and update it regularly and it’s probably not going anywhere for a long time to come.  And even at $55 for the 4G Pi 4b, it’s a true bargain compared with the others (see the table at the beginning for detail).
     
    And if you want to push it to its limits, you don’t have to go rogue to make it even better because the Raspberry Pi Foundation has already issued firmware updates to keep the CPU and GPU cooler under heavy use.  With the official firmware update, you can “overclock” the processors with a simple change in the config.txt file that will not violate the warranty, as long as you don’t push it past 2.1 GHz.  And if you do this, you get a 20+% improvement in Linpack benchmark scores over the stock 1.5 GHz Pi 4.  Keep in mind that this is not like rooting or jailbreaking a mobile device – it’s all designed and sanctioned by the Raspberry Pi Foundation and keeps your Pi within “factory” spec limits.
     
     
    BEAGLEBOARDS AND BONES
     
    Many of you are probably aware of Chris’ pioneering efforts in the SBC-based music device arena.  Although I was (and remain) amused at his statement in a 2012 post that “Linux is great but...[a]verage computer audiophiles have no chance setting up a Linux machine ;~)”, I was overjoyed to find that he’d apparently revised his opinion somewhat within the year.  The Raspberry Pi was just coming out at the time and the Beagleboards were the gold standard for inexpensive SBCs.  Both ran a light Linux variant, but the ‘bone was by far the more powerful of the two and much better suited to audiophile use.
     
    He really started the Beagleball rolling when he published How to Build a Beaglebone Black MPD Music Server on July 7, 2013.  I and many others followed his excellent instructions to the letter and ended up with a wonderful little music box built on a Beaglebone Black board powered by Debian Linux and driven by MPD.  It had ethernet, USB, and HDMI, which, in 2013, was serious kit – WiFi wasn’t a serious omission, given the cost, size and performance of the device.
     
    There were other B’boards at the time, just as there are now.  But the Black was the right combination of size, cost and capability for the time – and it’s still useful, although even the latest versions are a bit behind the Pi 4.  There’s an “enhanced” version of the Black from SanCloud that comes in 4 variants (all with WiFi) from a basic 512M at $55 to an industrial strength version with 4 G for $89 that’ll hold up to extreme use conditions.  I’ve never been able to break my ‘bones despite some really hard attempts to do so, which suggests that this one is bulletproof.  
     
    Neither the Beagleboard Green nor the xM is a good choice for audio.  The xM’s too expensive for what you get, and B’board Green doesn’t have the horsepower to pull this wagon.  There’s now a wireless variant of the Black, and that’s what I’d get if I wanted another ‘bone (which I don’t).
     
    I don’t think you can do better for audio from a ‘bone than to follow Chris’ instructions, even today.  There are many distros for the ‘bone, and I’ve tried them all.  There was even a developer version of JRMC for it for a very brief period of time, and it played great (even though the GUI was grossly challenged).  I’ve run Ubuntu for Beaglebone and it’s OK if not spectacular.  The latest OS images from BeagleBoard.org are Debian based and quite reliable – I see no reason to stray from them.  
     
    Having said that, I do like RuneAudio and Volumio on the BBB. The current download works very well, especially considering that the ‘bone is still living in the megahertz world and has only 512M of onboard RAM.  I wouldn’t go out and buy a BBB today to do this, because the PI 4 is better in every way and cheaper (even with a good case and power supply).  But if you have or inherit one, do NOT throw it out! You always need at last one more player.
     
    If you just want a fine 2 channel server / renderer, you can’t do better than a BBB with MPD plus a client, or with Rune or Volumio. Mine ran continuously for about 3 years with MPD as my main music server without interruption (except when I experimented with it) or failure (which never happened, despite some egregious attempts to get a quart out of its pint bottle). After each science project or play session, I just stuck the original card back in and it resumed its iron stance without a complaint.  It’s still powered up and makes great music as we speak.
     
     
    OTHER SBCs YOU MIGHT CONSIDER
     
    You can get fine sound from several SBCs.  Each has its own support group and infrastructure, although I haven’t found an audio community of users anywhere close to those around Raspberry Pis and BeagleBones.  And you’ll have to find an operating system that supports your audiophile needs.  
     
    The Cubieboards are (were?) robust little SBCs using chips from Allwinner.  I don’t know if you can still buy them new, but their website remains updated and active – so they’re probably out there somewhere.  If so, you might consider one if you’re adventurous. The latest version of which I’m aware is the Cubieboard 9, a 64 bit quadcore 900MHz ARM v7 with 3G of 64 bit DDR3 RAM, 16G eMMC,  dual band ac Wifi, BT 4.1 and a pair of 4k HDMI ports. Strangely, ethernet remains 10/100 only.  Cubies come loaded with Android (!), but you can also download and install either a Debian image or an Ubuntu distro developed and optimized for ARM by Linaro, an industry association of major players in the ARM market like Qualcomm, Google, Fujitsu, Comcast, Samsung, Red Hat, and TI.  
     
    I can’t find a new Cubie to try, but with Linux on board it’s probably a capable device for audiophiles if the price is right.  There’s an international support group but I can find no one who’s into audio on the Cubies. I did find a reference to it on the Volumio site, to wit “Volumio runs on most embedded devices (Raspberry Pi, UDOO, Odroid, Cubieboard, Beaglebone...)” - but the only named downloads for ARM devices other than ‘bones and Pis are for Odroids, Sparky and the Tinkerboard.
     
    Cubox is a totally different device that’s not part of the Cubie family above.  It was one of the first microcomputers and was the inspiration for the original “cube computer” movement (cube computers today are no longer tiny).  It’s another ARM device, but it’s uniquely stuffed into a 2x2x2” housing, so you don’t have to buy a case for it.  The flagship Cubox i4P is similar in specs to a Pi3b – it’s a 1GHz quad core CPU with 2G of RAM, “n” Wifi and “gigabit” ethernet (limited to 470MBPS) – and MSRP is $120.  
     
    Most importantly, it has optical S/PDIF audio out, which will be desirable to many audiophiles and is simply not embedded on most SBC boards.  If you need optical audio out, the Cubox becomes cost effective against other SBCs that will require a hat or convertor for optical output in addition to a case.  
     
    Cuboxes run Android or Linux, and there are many distros of the latter available for download HERE.  You should have no problem putting Roon Bridge or any of the great Linux players available today on your Cubox.  I can find no audiophile community of Cubox users, so support and feedback are limited.  But they’re so similar to the other ARM-based SBCs that you should have little or no trouble porting the info available about Pis into Cubox-speak.
     
     
    ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS ON ALTERNATIVE SBCs
     
    DietPi is available for Odroids and Pine boards, along with a generic “other” distro that doesn’t work on Beaglebones and has no support.  But you may have to look long and hard to find a suitable OS for some of the off brands before you can set them up for audio.
     
    You can almost always add repositories for software packages to a Linux distro or derivative, if you know how.  So you can probably load at least one or two of the players I described in an earlier chapter of this series from the command line after you install a package manager like APT.  But you won’t find much support for the lesser known and used boards and you may be out there all alone.
     
    But if you happen to have one or come across one at a great price, there’s no reason not to go with it.  Use the guidelines above for Pi Zero vs 3b+ vs 4b to decide how you might best use a given SBC.  The Rocks are solid performers with excellent specs, although I don’t think any of them has onboard WiFi.  Odroid makes some powerful little boards as well, again without WiFi and at higher cost than a Pi 4.  And the latest OrangePi boards are both price- and performance-competitive with Pi 4b but lack support (especially from OS developers).
     
     
    END NOTES
     
    Most of you have no idea what it was like to program for a vacuum tube device that had about 5K of total memory and ran so slowly you could beat it with an abacus.  I learned to code in 1965 on an IBM 1620 for which every single transaction was another straw on its already bowed back.  Efficiency in coding meant the difference between an hour of runtime and 2, and even a tiny redundancy could cost the university a lot of $ in lost computer time.  The best coders wrote programs that ran much faster and delivered clear output in more usable formats than those of the rest of the pack.  
     
    Today, we’re so spoiled by RAM, CPU speed, thread counts, HD capacity, communication speed etc that we don’t even notice how poorly written many programs are that we use every day.  Those websites that load more slowly and have to be navigated like rapids in a storm are still annoying, and they don’t have to be that way.  But coders spoiled by a world of plenty very often fail to develop that edge that makes programs fly.
     
    SBCs are limited in their capacities, abilities, and tolerances.  They’re a different animal from the x86 boxes most of us use for daily computing, and they have to be approached with a different philosophy.  Know and respect those limits, because every bit counts.  To get the most from SBCs, you have to optimize everything and cut no corners.  The speed of every internal bus affects performance.  USB ports in SBCs can only deliver a specific amount of power before they starve the connected clients.  A rise in temperature of only a few degrees can affect CPU power, and poor physical connections in cables etc can be equally devastating.  Splitting processor capacity between audio and graphics requires intelligent resource allocation to make sure SQ is maintained at the expense of the GUI and not the other way around.  A lot of this is done for us by the developers of some of the better operating systems, servers, renderers, and players – but it helps a lot to understand what’s going on and keep an eye out for anything that could slow or degrade performance.
     
    Do not scrimp on the ancillaries.  SD cards are getting faster, and they’re worth it. You don’t need huge cards for audio – 32G is plenty, and you can get fast microSDs from well known vendors for as little as $20.  If you have USB 3, use USB 3 drives and communication peripherals.  Use good power supplies and connecting cables.  Respect the radius when bending and respect the receptacle when plugging or unplugging – SBCs have their port hardware mounted directly on the board, and the joints are usually none too sturdy.  Use only as long a cable as you need.  Hold them by the connector ends when inserting and removing.  Dress cables well - a rat’s nest is an unsightly invitation to disaster of one kind or another, from crossing them up after unplugging a device to starting a fire.
     
    Everything that’s important to know and do when using a big computer box is much more so with an SBC.  They have limited capacity, limited reserve, and limited tolerance to misuse.  They’re like your teeth – you only have to take care of the ones you want to keep.
     
     
     
  18. Like
    Middy reacted to ray-dude for an article, Reality Quest: Going to Extremes with the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme (Part 5 of 5)   
    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.
     
    Ray
     
     

    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
     
    I encourage those who have experience with the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme to leave a star rating and quick review on our new Polestar platform.
     
     
  19. Thanks
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Review | Bryston BDA-3.14 DAC / Streamer / Digital Preamp   
    I have a love / hate relationship with the Bryston BDA-3.14. There is much to love about this DAC, streamer, digital preamplifier, and there is much to love about Bryston as a company and its employees. Unfortunately, there is also much to hate about the BDA-3.14. I've had the 3.14 in my system for a few months and in that time I've gone from writing this product off as a flop to my current position that it's a great component as long as it's used in a specific way and one sets expectations before jumping in head first. What follows is my honest take on the BDA-3.14 and its features. 

    Digital playback has become more complex over the years, with seemingly endless options. While I like the options and can get into the complexity as much as anyone, I realize it isn't for everyone. When I first heard about the BDA-3.14 I thought it could be a fabulous all-in-one type of digital component that's simple to understand and use. Sure it's a DAC, streamer, and preamp, but it also has Bryston's Manic Moose digital audio platform installed on a Raspberry Pi 3 inside the unit. I thought it could be one's complete digital system, just add a hard drive full of music to the USB port or point the unit at a NAS and call it a day. That's the idea anyway. The reality is a bit different.
     
    The BDA-3.14 has all the inputs one could want and a robust analog output. I used this unit connected directly to my Constellation Audio Inspiration amplifiers and really enjoyed what I heard. Some DACs have trouble driving these amps directly and require a preamp or require one to turn the volume to its maximum level for some tracks. Not so with the BDA-3.14. Even when using convolution filters for room correction, that reduce the output by several dB, the BDA-3.14 had plenty of headroom and power to spare. The BDA-3.14's 4 volt output certainly isn't more than the average DAC but it's performance in this area is very strong and better than many of its competitors. 
     
    I must also note that the BDA-3.14 is very quiet. Listening to some Reference Recordings' albums with extremely large dynamic range, I couldn't hear any noise coming from the DAC. On some components it's possible to hear what I'll call grunge on the quietest passages of these albums. The BDA-3.14 is typical of a Bryston component, designed to a very high standard using only the best engineering methods and zero voodoo. 
     
    The sound quality of the BDA-3.14 through my Constellation, Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2, Transparent system was excellent. I put every type of music through this DAC and couldn't find a fault. I even connected the BDA-3.14 to my headphone based system using the RAAL-requisite SR1a true ribbon headphones. If there is anything wrong with a component's design, it will be revealed by these headphones. Listening through these headphones is equivalent to putting one's ear less 1/4 inch away from a loudspeaker's tweeter. We've all heard the noise that emanates from loudspeakers when our ear is next to the tweeter, fortunately our listening positions are much farther away. Not so with the SR1a headphones. The BDA-3.14's performance on this headphone system was stellar. 
     
    Whether playing my new Three Blind Mice album Touch from Isao Suzuki or Bill Frisell's latest Valentine, the BDA-3.14 delivers the goods in typical Bryston fashion. The DAC and analog output stage are competitive with components featuring the most exotic and expensive designs. 
     
    I also used HQPlayer to send DSD256 (poly-sing-ext2, ASDM7EC) to the BDA-3.14's dual AK4490 DAC chips via USB with great success. If that's too in the weeds, don't worry because the unit is also a Roon endpoint (still awaiting official certification). As a Roon endpoint, Roon can control the digital volume just like the physical remote that ships with the BDA-3.14. It was really nice to have both options during the review period. 
     
    Readers should note the differences between inputs with respect to sample rate support. The USB input is most versatile, supporting PCM up through 32/384 and DSD up through DSD256. According to Bryston, "Source audio greater than 192kHz PCM or all DSD is automatically downsampled to 192kHz / 24 bit when played through internal streamer." In my testing I found this downsampling works on content played through the built-in streamer as well as Roon audio sent to the BDA-3.14 because it's routed through the internal streamer / Raspberry Pi. However, DSD audio played from Roon is converted to a multiple of the original sample rate, 24/176.4 rather than 24/192 kHz. 
     
     

     
     

    Manic Moose Interface
     
    If the BDA-3.14's feature set stopped here, with Roon, USB input, high sample rate support, great analog output, etc... it would be on the CASH List without hesitation. This is an excellent DAC. However, the BDA-3.14's raison d'être is that it features Bryston's own Manic Moose platform built into the unit on a Raspberry Pi. This is where I get off the fanboy bandwagon. I love Bryston as a company and the people with who I've interfaced over the years. All salt of the Earth, honest people, who manufacturer great components and support those components very well. But, I have a duty to the Audiophile Style community, and to all manufacturers, to be honest and give a 100% fair assessment of each component under review and must say the BDA-3.14 falls far short of of nearly any bar set by competing products in 2020. 
     
    I'll start with the user interface and functionality of the Manic Moose platform. If this product were released in 2005, it would be a little bit behind Logitech's Squeezebox interface of that same year. I completely understand that building this stuff from scratch isn't a trivial task for a HiFi company and I applaud Bryston for the effort. But, other companies such as Auralic, Lumin, and Aurender have all done it unequivocally better by a huge margin. 
     
    The interface certainly looks like it's from the early 2000's but I can get over that. It's everything else that's so underwhelming. At the bottom of the Dash hard screen are several buttons for either configuration or displaying statistics. This is like a mixture of a laboratory tool and end user area that shouldn't be necessary unless something goes wrong. I can't imagine telling a customer who just purchased a $4,195 component to pull up the Dashboard and take a look at what you just purchased. 
     
    The system tab is decent, as it provides information about the library and the version of Manic Moose. It goes off the rails on the next tab titled Disk Information. Selecting my USB flash drive on the left and clicking the Get Info button reveals the Linux command sent to the operating system and a message that no end user can decipher - "sudo /usr/sbin/smartctl -H /dev/sda 2>&1 sudo: no tty present and no askpass program specified." Clicking the Get S.M.A.R.T. button should reveal smart info about the disk, but has a nearly identical outcome to think button. 
     
    Note: I had issues mounting my USB flash drive after first inserting it into the BDA-3.14. Bryston support was able to manually mount it remotely, showing the company's great support.
     
    I don't want to methodically go through the Dashboard and cover all my dislikes. I will just say that it's a confusing Dashboard, where some of the services are beta and may not work, and many items are the opposite of intuitive. I found an outdated Manic Moose manual somewhere online and it was somewhat helpful in deciphering this Dashboard, but by no means was it a definite guide. 
     
    The Media Player section of the BDA-3.14's web interface is confusing, sparse, and strange at best. For example, searching for Canadian band Cowboy Junkies, reveals all Cowboy Junkies tracks in my library, in one long list. I'm sure someone can use such a list, but it just doesn't work for me. Searching Qobuz for Cowboy Junkies took so long it was unusable. When the results appeared, I clicked on the band's name and again waited for its albums to show up. Unfortunately it brought up the same screen listing the band name. I clicked the name one more time and was presented a gray screen for several minutes before giving up. This wasn't a one time occurrence that I could ignore. This was just how the app worked. 
     
    Browsing Qobuz favorites was another exercise in frustration. After clicking on Albums, the little browse window often turned gray and never changed. Once in a while it would display my favorited albums. Switching to Tidal and browsing my collection of albums revealed a single very long list of albums I've favorited over the years. The albums were in alphabetical order by album name. The list had 741 albums to scroll through without the ability to sort by another data point such as date added or even artist name. Clicking into an album and then using the back button resulted in a long delay while the interface populated the long list of 741 albums once again. 
     
    I couldn't find any redeeming qualities in this interface but highly recommend readers use it at a local Bryston dealer before making up their minds. Perhaps it will be OK for some and for others they can see first hand what I experienced. 
     
    Another way to use the BDA-3.14 is with a third party app such as Rigelian. I used this for a while and believe it's much better than the Bryston interface, but still sorely lacking compared to the competition. For example, there is no support for Tidal or Qobuz through Rigelian and I couldn't get volume control through the app to raise or lower the BDA-3.14's volume. These are things that apps from Aurender, Lumin, Auralic, and Roon do without breaking a sweat. 
     
    During the review period, the BDA-3.14 was sitting with the rest of my audio components along the same wall as my desk. I can look over and see the side of these components. Upon looking at the BDA-3.14, all I saw was the gap between the chassis and the faceplate, and a bright green light. This is certainly not an issue for sound quality or functionality, but seems like a cut corner in manufacturing. I have 25 audio components within my field of view as I write this review. The only one with this or a similar issue is the BDA-3.14. Certainly not a longitudinal study, but I also don't remember seeing this on anything I've had in house in the past. 
     

    Conclusion
     
    The BDA-3.14 is a CASH List component based on its audio performance. However, it comes with a host of other features that don't live up to the Bryston name. As a Roon endpoint the DAC is excellent. Buyers should beware about all of the other features based on the Manic Moose digital platform built into the onboard Raspberry Pi. If a family member asked me about the BDA-3.14, I'd likely tell them to steer clear and purchase the BDA-3 in a heartbeat. The BDA-3 is the DAC, digital preamp version without the Raspberry Pi. On the other hand, if one wants the BDA-3 sound quality with Roon, the BDA-3.14 is a good way to get this functionality. One should just zero-out expectations for the other Manic Moose features. 
     
    The competition in this area is stiff. Products from Auralic, Lumin, and Aurender have far better interfaces and usability, for less money. With respect to sound quality, the BDA-3.14 is second to none of the products from those companies. I recommend the BDA-3.14 as a Roon endpoint, but can't recommend any of the included Manic Moose features. 
     
     
     
     
    Manufacturer's Comment
     
    Chris, thanks for taking some time to review the BDA-3.14. Like you, we are really pleased with the way the BDA-3.14 sounds but wish you had enjoyed the Manic Moose (MM) user interface more. 
     
    Bryston is a company focused predominately on making equipment that performs exceptionally and lasts a very long time—and we have been doing this successfully for decades. We firmly believe that nothing else matters unless the product delivers its promise of making music sound as good and true as possible. But with components that require a complex, multifaceted user interface, the design and engineering goals are very different and often present a host of moving targets.   
     
    We are always looking for ways to improve our user experience, including how we manage search results in the local library. When we initially built the framework for MM, high-resolution streaming didn't exist. Since its initial release, we have offered over 40 firmware revisions and added services like Qobuz, Tidal, Roon, internet radio, CD ripping, metadata management, library aggregation with streaming services and so much more. We are the first to acknowledge that our digital players have outgrown what MM can support. That said, I am perplexed that you ran into some operational problems during your evaluation. Unlike many other companies in the space, we have several methods of addressing client issues including screen sharing and a service mode with which we can diagnose errors by wire. 
     
    The engineers at Bryston are deep into the creation of a brand user interface that first and foremost, is intuitive and stable. Our new UI will provide a way for us to keep customers current with new services and features that come along in the future. The goal is for everything except perhaps the BDP-1 (our oldest player, released over 10 years ago) to receive this upgrade at no cost to the consumer. I think Bryston is unusual if not unique in that we continue to offer firmware updates, new features, and bug fixes many years into the life of a product, and often well beyond the extent of our warranty. 
     
    I am happy that you recognized the superb sound quality of the BDA-3.14 and reported that those consumers utilizing the Roon user experience will find it most satisfying. I am also hopeful that those without Roon will engage with our nationwide network of dealers and all of us here at Bryston in order to explore the BDA-3.14 in greater depth. For music enthusiasts who value sound above all else, the Bryston BDA-3.14 offers outstanding performance and build quality, and once unleashed, our new user experience will provide a fun and intuitive means to access content.
     
    All the best,
    Gary
     
    Gary Dayton
    Vice President / US Sales
     
     
     
     
     
     
    Community Star Ratings and Reviews
     
    I encourage those who have experience with the Bryston BDA-3.14 to leave a star rating and quick review on our new Polestar platform.
     
     
     
    Product Information:
     
    Bryston BDA-3.14 DAC / Streamer / Digital Preamp ($4,195) Bryston BDA-3.14 Product Page Bryston BDA-3.14 Manual (2.2MB PDF) Bryston BDA-3.14 Brochure (900 KB PDF) Bryston Manic Moose Manual (5.6 MB PDF)  
     
    Where to Buy
    Bryston Dealer Locator  
     
    Associated Music:
     
    Audiophile Style 50 (Qobuz) Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist (Tidal)  
     
    Associated Equipment:
     
    Source: QNAP TVS-872XT, Aurender W20SE, CAPS 20 DAC: EMM Labs DV2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS3, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, CAPS 20.1, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 Digital Signal Processing: Accurate Sound, HQPlayer Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, JRemote, Aurender Conductor Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro Playback Software: Roon, JRiver,  Network Attached Storage (NAS): QNAP TVS-872XT Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables, Gotham GAC-4/1 ultraPro Balanced XLR Audio Cable (40') USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables Power Isolation: one 4kVA and one 5 kVA 512 Engineering Symmetrical Power Source Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables Fiber optic Cables: Single Mode OS1-9/125um (LC to LC) Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption,  ATS Acoustics Bass Traps Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 16 XG, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, UniFi FlexHD AP, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x6, Commercial Grade Fiber Optic Patch Cables, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload  
     
    Listening Room:
     
    This graph shows the frequency response of my room before (top) and after (bottom) tuning by Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The standard used for this curve is EBU 3276. This tuning can be used with Roon, JRiver, and other apps that accept convolution filters. When evaluating equipment I use my system with and without this tuning engaged. The signal processing takes place in the digital domain before the audio reaches the DAC, thus enabling me to evaluate the components under review without anything changing the signal further downstream. 
     

     
     
  20. Like
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Meet The Audiophile Style Community | Volume 9   
    Welcome to the ninth installment of our Meet the Audiophile Style Community series. All previous installments can be found here, in the series index.
     
    Please send me a message or email if you'd like to participate. The response so far has been wonderful. It ranges from hardcore audiophiles to those who are more interested in numbers and graphs, and even people in the industry are eager to participate. This series is all about getting to know everyone and sharing a bit about yourself that others will find interesting. 
     
    Thanks for participating. I look forward to publishing more of these in the coming weeks. 
     
    Thanks to Audiophile Style community member and site contributor @JoeWhip for participating in volume nine of this series. I love reading this stuff even more than publishing it. As I say to myself after reading each one of these, you guys are so much more interesting than me. I also have to thank Joe for all the music recommendations over the years and for the fantastic articles he has written for us!
     
     
     
    1. General area of the world in which you live?

    I was born and raised in the suburban Philadelphia area and have lived here my entire life. Married with two sons, one a brilliant chemist and the other a fine singer, songwriter and keyboardist now based in LA.
     
     
    2. General description of what you do or did for a living?
     
    I am a retired civil trial lawyer.
     
     
    3. What are your hobbies?
     
    Other than listening to music and attending as many musical performances as I can, my hobbies are golf, gardening and traveling. My wife and I have traveled the world and have visited all 7 continents, adding Antarctica to the list in December. We love traveling and that has all come to an abrupt halt. Can’t even golf now so have to chip and pitch in the yard. (This was written a few months ago. I believe Joe is back on the course now - CC)
     
     
    4. When did you start this wonderful journey into music listening?

    Music listening is part of my DNA. My dad had a rather successful band in the Philadelphia area for about 40 years. I guess I came out of the womb listening to music. One of my dad’s uncle was a well known tenor in the early 20th century, so music runs in that side of the family. My son John seems to have inherited that talent. It passed over me entirely.
     
     
    5. What was your first “album?”
     
    I have no recollection as to what my first album was. It was probably a Duke Ellington or Mel Torme album that I grabbed from my dad.
     
     
    6. What does your music collection look like, number of physical records, CDs, etc... and number of “favorited” albums streamed?
     
    Right now I have about 1000 CDs and roughly 500 LPs. The music I listen to is on a hard drive consisting of ripped CDs and downloads, of both PCM and DSD. Have a few terabytes of music for my primary listening.
     
     
    7. What was your first audio component / stereo?
     
    My first piece of audio equipment was one of those small box record players, a toy really, but it played albums and 45’s. I have a nice collection of all 45’s from the late 60’s through the 80)s, as my dad used to buy them to transcribe the music into a fakebook for the band. He wrote them all out in the key of C and transposed them on the fly. I wish I could do that. My first stereo that I purchased was a Lafayette receiver and Advent speakers and an Ariston turntable. I think.
     
     
    8. Is there one component that you no longer have that you wish you wouldn’t have sold or that you wish you still had?
     
    I tend to keep the stuff I buy for along time. So the short answer is no.
     
     
    9. Is there one current component that you wish you had in your system?
     
    If I could add one component, it would be a fancy blingy reel to reel tape deck. In all seriousness, I would like to add a nice streamer to supplement my laptop. I have had two in my system on loan but I was not impressed, especially for the money. I have my eye on the Sonore system as a buddy has the older one with AES and the new USB system and they both sound great. Maybe later this year.
     
     
    10. How much time do you spend listening to music each week and on which systems does this listening take place (main system, car system, mobile system, office system, etc...)?
     
    As a general rule, I usually listen in the dedicated audio space from two to four hours a day. I have done a good bit of listening on my iPad via YouTube with my headphones and occasionally in my Model 3 which has a very nice sound system. WRTI HD in Philly has very nice sound.
     
     
    11. What’s the first concert you ever attended, best concert you’ve ever attended, most interesting concert venue you’ve ever attended?
     
    The first concert I attended was probably watching my dad’s band. The first real concert was the Duke Ellington Big Band before the Duke passed away. There is nothing like the sound of a big band. Wow. I was lucky enough to see Joe Williams fronting the Count Basie Band at the Academy of Music in Philly. We sat in the peanut gallery and the sound was sublimed. The opening act? Herbie Hancock and Buster Williams. As for my favorite concert, I would have to say Stevie Wonder at the late, great Devon Music Fair in the mid 80’s. Stevie was alone on the turntable stage with the band on the floor around the stage. That concert was like a religious revival and was Stevie at his best. Three hours I think. As for concert venues, the Village Vanguard in New York is incredible, drip ping with history and great sound. The two most interesting venues, the Sydney Opera House and the Grand Opera House in Vienna. The Opera House in Vienna has sublime sound, at least where we were sitting.
     
     
    12. What components are in your current audio systems and can you provide a photo?
     
    My system consists of a Spectral DMC 5 pre amp, a McCormack DNA1 amp that was rebuilt by Steve McCormack to the gold signature package in 2019, a Schiit Yggy 2 with the Unison USB card, Vandersteen 3A Signature speakers. I use an Oyaide USB cable from their DJ line and Audioquest interconnects and speaker cables I bought in the 90’s. I have two 20 amp dedicated circuits into the room from a nearby pony panel. The amp is plugged into wall and the rest of the kit into an isolation transformer. The Macbook laptop is plugged into a separate circuit completely. Power cords are also from the 90’s. I guess they were spiffy back in the day but were gifts from friends in the business. I have tried others in the interim but didn’t hear any obvious improvement.
     
    VPI Mark III table with. Kuzma Stogi arm and a clear audio gamma s cartridge.
     
     
    13. Anything else you’d like to say?
     
    My philosophy is buy good equipment and make sure you put it in a good space that is optimized for sound. You don’t need fancy traps and the like, I use regular furniture, rugs and the like. Listening to music should be fun. Fix your room to avoid chasing your tail. Sure, there is plenty of BS in this hobby, but please buy what you like and enjoy it.
     
  21. Like
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 | One Year On   
    Wilson Audio recently announced its forthcoming model the SabrinaX. This announcement got me thinking about my own Wilson speakers, the Alexia Series 2. It's been one year since Wilson's Director of Marketing John Giolas was here to properly setup the Alexias and put me in a position to hear my favorite music again for the first time. Over the last year I've played more music than ever before and spent well over one thousand hours listening through these loudspeakers. Here's my take on the Alexia, one year on. 

    Prior to purchasing the Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2, I spent many months researching and talking to friends about speakers and the companies that manufacturer speakers. The only speakers worth considering, for me, were those from blue chip audio companies. Life is short, I choose to do business with good companies who stand behind their products and deliver world class support. Everyone reading this article understands that stuff happens. When it does, it's great to have a blue chip company in one's corner. Wilson Audio is that blue chip company.
     
    There are few things, in this wonderful hobby of ours, as enjoyable as getting new speakers dialed in and putting on one's music of choice. Hearing new details in old music is incredibly fun and the stuff of which audio memories are made. Since the Alexia Series 2 speakers were installed and dialed in, I've had some fabulous listening sessions. Sessions that not only revealed new details, but also transported me to another place and time. In addition, the Alexia speakers enable me to do my job, evaluating audio components, at a higher level than any other speaker I've heard in my system. 
     
    My previous pair of speakers were the TAD Compact Reference One. I happily used them for several years. The TADs, designed by Andrew Jones, are terrific speakers. I absolutely loved the beryllium tweeter and midrange drivers in a concentric configuration. When the time came to make a change, I was very hesitant to purchase speakers without at least beryllium tweeters. It's what I'd come to know and love, and it's what so many people consider the best material from which to make a driver. 
     
    The Alexia Series 2 loudspeakers, like all current Wilson Audio speakers, contain a silk dome tweeter. Moving from stiff beryllium (TAD) to soft silk (Wilson) was a major concern of mine. I had all the armchair engineer unfounded illusions of silk reproducing mushy music that lacked detail. Even though I'd heard this exact tweeter many times, and it sounded spectacular, I still had a little anxiety. The only way to alleviate my worries was to get the speakers in my own room and spend some serious time listening. 
     
    I've now spent serious time listening and can unequivocally say that this silk dome tweeter is fantastic. Listening to all types of music, I hear nothing but what I consider to be a human sound. The Wilson silk dome sounds real, organic, and natural whereas the beryllium assault in the TAD speakers now sounds a bit over the top and mechanical. My worries about losing details with a silk dome were also unfounded. I've played Reference Recordings' HRx albums at 24/176.4 and heard incredible detail. The delicacy of soft violin strings, on a recording with a dynamic range score of 25+, is truly something to behold through the Wilson silk dome tweeter. 
     
    I've seen photos of Dave and Daryl Wilson comparing different tweeter materials in their speakers, and I now understand why they selected the silk dome. 
     
    I'm a fan of music. All music. In fact I don't know anyone who likes music more than I do and I don't know anyone who likes more types of music than I do. I'm not boasting, rather just laying some groundwork. I need speakers that can play any of the 30,000,000 tracks available from streaming services or my 10 terabyte local collection. I want Taylor Swift to sounds like Taylor Swift just as I want Tool to sound like Tool and Tsuyoshi Yamamoto to sound like Tsuyoshi Yamamoto. Notice I didn't say I want all those artists to sound great, even though they absolutely sound great through the Alexia Series 2. I want speakers capable of delivering exactly what's on the recorded album, no matter if that album is classical, classic rock, jazz, or heavy metal. 
     
    The Alexia Series 2 has delivered spectacular sound in my listening room, no matter the genre. I've had an entire year to find music that doesn't work on these speakers, but I've come up short on that mission. I like electrostatic speakers as much as anyone, in fact I used to own MartinLogan ReQuests, but the shortcomings of them now scare me away from spending hard earned money on something that can't do it all at the highest level. There are also plenty of more traditional speakers that only work for certain types of music. Look through our Audiophile Style forum and one can read about it first hand from people around the world. The Alexia Series 2, and most other Wilson speakers except the smallest frequency limited models, can handle anything thrown at them and keep their composure.
     
    As many readers know, I'm into Japanese jazz, especially that from the Three Blind Mice label. Playing albums from the new Three Blind Mice Supreme 1500 collection, through the Alexias, has been like planting myself in a Tokyo jazz club. Sure the Alexia delivers tone, delicacy, and superb double bass, but it also delivers the most critical aspect of a live event, dynamics. I urge readers to find a copy of the Terumasa Hino Quintet's album Live! (TBM-17) and listen to all three tracks. This recording should put one in Yubin-Chokin Hall in Tokyo on June 2, 1973 and the trumpet should nearly assault your ears if played at a high level. Through the Alexia speakers, the realness and dynamics of this recording are legendary. The only thing left for Wilson to make this more realistic is to offer a smoke machine that fits into the rear port of the speaker. I can imagine there were a few cigarettes lit up in jazz clubs of the 1970s.  
     
    The speed and dynamics of the Alexia speakers make me think about Dave Wilson using Spectral amplifiers over the years and Spectral's Rick Fryer using and recommending Wilson speakers as well. This combination must be truly special. I wish I would've kept my Spectral DMA 260 stereo amp because I'm sure it would've made the Alexias sing. That said, my Constellation Audio Inspiration mono amplifiers drive the Alexias incredibly well. I've thought about upgrading the amps to Constellation's Revelation or even Performance series, but I'm honestly so happy with what I have now that I'm in no hurry to make a change. I've put the Inspiration mono amps up against serious competition and they've never disappointed. 
     
    Currently I also have integrated amps from Boulder (866), Constellation (Inspiration), and Parasound (HINT 6) in my listening room. Each of these amps has so far driven the Alexa Series 2 very well. While not the final word in amplification, these integrated units are great matches for Wilson speakers in general. In fact, I'd love to hear any of them on the new SabrinaX. 
     
    I mentioned earlier that stuff happens. Yes, master of the obvious I know. But, people often put on rose colored glasses when purchasing goods and tell themselves that stuff only happens to other people. Sadly, this isn't the case in the real world. For example, my Alexia Series 2 speakers arrived with a blown driver. The speakers measured perfectly before leaving the Wilson factory, so something happened during their journey from Utah to Minnesota. 
     
    I didn't want to be "that guy" who demands special treatment, so I contact my friend and Wilson dealer Maier Shadi of The Audio Salon in Santa Monica. Sure I could've contacted Wilson directly or even my local Wilson dealer, Audio Perfection, but Maier is who've I've dealt with for my audio purchases over the years. I called Maier in the early afternoon on a Friday, to report my issue. The next morning I had a replacement driver in my hands directly from the Wilson factory. That's the kind of service both Wilson Audio and its hand picked dealers provide. There was zero talk about what caused the blown driver and nary a finger was pointed in any direction. 
     
    Note: In real world circumstances the Wilson dealer handles all aspects of all issues, from procurement to replacement. Given my unique situation I asked if Maier could talk me through the driver replacement over the phone on that Saturday morning. He virtually held my hand through the process and we had my system up and running in no time. 
     
    In addition to stuff happening, I must also mention that Wilson builds its speakers so stuff usually doesn't happen. What I mean by that is these speakers are nearly bullet proof. I know this from experience. I frequently test many crazy configurations of digital gear in my system. On several occasions this has lead to loud buzzes, screeches, pops, booms, and white noise bursts from all four drivers in each Alexia. Every time this happens I think about a friend who has blown several TAD beryllium drivers in similar circumstances, as I jump up from my chair to hit mute on my amps. My Alexias haven't blinked in the face of several potentially disastrous sonic assaults. Another reason I'm satisfied with the Alexia and Wilson Audio. 
     
    After a solid year with the Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 loudspeakers, I couldn't be happier with my purchase. The speakers sound as spectacular as I hoped they would, the pur sang rouge color looks as amazing today as it did one year ago, and I can sleep well knowing that Wilson and its network of dealers has me covered in the event that something happens. 
     
    I honestly have no desire or itch to upgrade or switch speakers. The Alexias are so satisfying in every way, that I wonder what took me so long to finally get into the Wilson ecosystem. Now excuse me while I put on The Raconteurs' Consolers of the Lonely. If the kick drum on this album doesn't hit one in the chest and the guitar doesn't get one going, then it may be time for a pair of Wilson speakers :~)
     
     
     

     
     
     
    Current System:
     
    Source: QNAP TVS-872XT, Aurender W20SE, CAPS 20 DAC: dCS Rossini, EMM Labs DV2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS3, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, CAPS 20.1, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 Digital Signal Processing: Accurate Sound, HQPlayer Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, JRemote, Aurender Conductor Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro Playback Software: Roon, JRiver,  Network Attached Storage (NAS): QNAP TVS-872XT Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables, Gotham GAC-4/1 ultraPro Balanced XLR Audio Cable (40') USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables Power Isolation: one 4kVA and one 5 kVA 512 Engineering Symmetrical Power Source Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables Fiber optic Cables: Single Mode OS1-9/125um (LC to LC) Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption,  ATS Acoustics Bass Traps Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 16 XG, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, UniFi FlexHD AP, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x6, Commercial Grade Fiber Optic Patch Cables, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
  22. Like
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Review | Schiit Audio Jotunheim R   
    In my review of the RAAL-requisite SR1a headphones I opened with the following statement.
     
    “The RAAL-requisite SR1a headphones are unequivocally the most sensational audio product I've ever heard. Honestly, no product has ever captured my attention, caused me to listen to more music, or garnered my enthusiasm like the SR1a Earfield headphone monitors.”
     
    I still stand by every word in that review and see nothing on the horizon that could change my opinion or usurp the SR1a.  What interests me now is pairing these headphones with different amplifiers. However, due to the unique amplification requirements of the SR1a, I can’t just bring in a handful of popular headphone amplifiers and have at it.  Powering these headphones requires either 1) A 100 watt+ traditional amplifier and the RAAL-requisite ribbon interface box that converts the output of the  power amp into a signal that can drive the SR1a, or 2) An amplifier built specifically for the SR1a, in what’s considered a direct drive approach. 
     
    Since  embarking on a tremendously fun journey to find great amplifiers for these headphones I’ve brought in three “traditional” power amplifiers from high end companies Parasound, Boulder, and Constellation Audio. These are physically large and heavy beasts that range in price from several thousand to well over ten thousand dollars. The amps connect to the SR1a via their speaker output terminals. This means plenty of heat dissipation, a set of speaker cables, and the RAAL-requisite ribbon interface box. Great sound for sure, but not without significant drawbacks.
     
    On the opposite side of the SR1a amplification continuum is the Schiit Audio Jotunheim R. It’s a $799, seven pound, direct drive amp that’s less ten inches wide. The JR requires no ribbon interface box and has the power to drive the SR1a as if this was a normal headphone / amp relationship. Just plug the headphone cable into the amp and press play in one’s app of choice. 
     
    I asked Schiit Audio co-founder Jason Stoddard to join me via Skype to get into all the details of the Jotunheim R as opposed to me word-smithing the spec sheet and manual. I think readers will find this JR specific conversation very informative.
     
     
     
     

    Listening 

    Now for the fun part and the reason anyone would purchase the Jotunheim R, listening to and enjoying music. Let's begin with a track off the new Haim album titled Women in Music Pt. III. Track thirteen, called FUBT, features only Danielle Haim and her electric guitar for much of the song. It's an absolutely beautiful song full of emotion, effects, harmonies, and a lush guitar sound throughout. Right from the start of the track, I got a Stevie Ray Vaughan vibe when listening through the Jotunheim R. In no way is Danielle Haim a guitar virtuoso like SRV, but the sound of the guitar and the artifacts in the background remind of me SRV's version of Little Wing, with the tube amp buzzing underneath the guitar wizardry. The Jotunheim R presents this track in all its imperfect glory, and to me that's perfection in itself. Letting the rawness of the dirty guitar and amp sound shine through without smoothing out the bumps is essential and done very well by this direct drive design. 
     
    A few times throughout the track Danielle is joined by her sisters Alana and Este for beautiful harmonies juxtaposed with the blunt language of the track. At 1:12 into FUBT hearing the sisters chime in, singing the line "Either way I'm gonna lose" is delightful. Even better are the harmonies at 1:45 into the track when the sisters synchronize on the lines "How can I sleep when I can't dream at night? All of my needs I say I don't need." The Schiit Jotunheim R presents these vocals wonderfully and allows this vocal talent to shine through. 
     
    Finally, at 2:25 into FUBT, the Jotunheim R reproduces Danielle's guitar solo superbly. From the vinyl-like noise preceding the solo to the fuzzy, grungy, and lush sound of her Gibson SG Standard, it's all there for the ears enjoy. Listening to this part of the track reminds me a bit of Tony Peluso's solo on The Carpenters' 1972 hit Goodbye to Love. Mixing smooth vocals with a dirty guitar can be magical. When played on amazing headphones and a great amp, the sound is very memorable. 
     
    As many readers know, I'm a huge fan of music. As such, I'm going to take you from Haim to The Carpenters to Taylor Swift and even an audiophile classic and a symphony orchestra. Pick and chose to read what you'd like, or come along for the sonic satisfaction. 
     
    On July 24, 2020 Taylor Swift surprised the music world by releasing her eighth studio album titled Folklore. Listening to the entire album, one can't help but notice the duet, titled Exile, with Wisconsin native Justin Vernon, recording as Bon Iver. The track was recorded with both singers/songwriters working remotely during the current pandemic. The beautiful opening piano leads into Bon Iver's deep yet smooth vocal with subtle birds chirping in the background as if recorded at a cabin in the woods like his acclaimed album titled For Emma, Forever Ago. The track has its share of pop music production, but overall the quality is really good and it shows through the Schiit Jotunheim R amp. 
     
    At 1:20 into the track Taylor Swift enters with her vocal that is equally smooth yet nothing like Iver's baritone in the opening. The two singers are a great pair and continue throughout the track to harmonize and play off each others verses. The SR1a / Jotunheim R combination enables the listener to hear deeply into this pop song with vocals isolated in each channel, seemingly unrelated sounds as well as subtle singing in the background. It's a great track made even better through this great component combination. 
     
    In 2014 Yusuf Islam / Cat Stevens released an album titled Tell 'Em I'm Gone, produced by Rick Rubin. While not a critically acclaimed album by any means, it's one I've come to like quite a bit. Track three is a cover of Edgar Winter's Dying to Live, and it's my favorite version of this track to date. Yes, I know it isn't a heavily covered song, but I now have no interest in Winter's or Jonny Lang's versions. On Islam's version both the piano and his voice sound very authentic and unprocessed. The Schiit Jotunheim R reproduced this track, full of midrange prominence, very well. Tiny intonations in Islam's voice, fingers sliding up and down fretboards, and even some off-hand character between verses are all easily audible and enjoyable on this headphone/amp combo. 
     
    I must've listened to this entire album a dozen times through the SR1a / Jotunheim R combination. It's a relaxing album full of midrange lushness that's presented incredibly well by the Schiit Jotunheim R.
     

    Finding Limits
     
    A perfect audio component doesn't exist. Period. Finding the limits of a component can help potential purchasers decide if the limits matter and if surpassing the limits is worth the added cost. Let's dig into the limits of the Schiit Jotunheim R. 
     
    I've had an old audiophile favorite stuck in my head for a few days. I first heard this track while auditioning a pair of Innersound Eros speakers at HiFi Sound & Electronics here in Minneapolis circa 2000. The track is called Company from Patricia Barber's Modern Cool release. I have the MFSL version at 16 bit / 44.1 kHz. Above all, this track reveals the limits of the Jotunheim R's dynamics & leading edge transient response. The SR1a is the most dynamic headphone I've ever heard and has lead some to deem it a bit too dynamic. I don't believe this will be the case through the JR.
     
    Barber's track Company is full of dynamics and drums with leading edge attack and a solid bass line that lays the foundation throughout. Cutting right to the chase, at 2:45 into the track drummer Mark Walker plays a magnificent solo that can put the listener right next to his kick drum. Through the Jotunheim R, this drum solo lacks immediacy and the ultimate in dynamics. The leading edge of the transients is slightly rounded, similar to how my McIntosh MC275 amplifier sounded with the SR1a headphones. While the MC275 didn't have enough power to completely drive the SR1a, the Jotunheim R has plenty of power. It just doesn't have the brute force, punch, and the attack to push the ribbons in a way that can tear one's head off. Some listeners may jump for joy with this sonic limitation because the SR1a can be brutal in its dynamic reproduction. The overall dynamics through the Jotunheim R are somewhere in between a lush tube amp and a punchy solid state model. 
     
    When I listened to this track through the RAAL-requisite ribbon interface box and the $10,000 Audio Research VT80 SE amplifier, I was absolutely thrilled with the speed of the transients and dynamics. Given that the Jotunheim R is less money than the sales tax on the VT80 SE in many states, it's no surprise there's a sonic difference in this category. Comparing the Jotunheim R to the Schiit Vidar amps configured as monoblocks, I believe the JR comes up just a touch short in overall punch. 
     
    Readers should note that sonic differences here may be related to how Schiit handles baffle compensation versus how it's handled in the RAAL-requisite ribbon interface box. Both solutions do this compensation a little differently and should produce different results. 
     
    Switching to the Kansas City Symphony's version of Passacaglia, from the out of print Reference Recordings album Britten's Orchestra (HR-115), shows the limits of the Jotunheim R's ability to reproduce reference level detail and delicacy. The opening strings on Passacaglia are sweet sounding with a bit of texture. Through the Jotunheim R the sound just isn't as sweet. The Jotunheim R doesn't reveal as much detail and delicacy as the ARC VT80 SE, and it shouldn't. Don't get me wrong, the JR is completely capable of producing this track at a very high level that'll likely be better than many people have ever heard. 
     
    Compared to the Vidar monoblocks, I think the Jotunheim R is a bit better in this area. The JR sounds to me like it has lower noise than the Vidar amps, even though based on specs, it doesn't. Perhaps this is because the configurations between the two setups are quite different. The Vidar requires a preamp or DAC with built-in volume control. For much of this review I used the Schiit Yggdrasil (Analog 2 & Unison USB) connected directly to the Jotunheim R. 
     
    Passacaglia has a dynamic range score of 26! This is 20 "points" above most popular recordings. Given this, the quiet passages in the track require the volume to be turned up to an extremely high level. When this is done, component's tend to reveal flaws, design decisions, or just how good they are. The Schiit Jotunheim R was very quiet with its volume set to maximum level and the string section of the Kansas City Symphony delivering delicate notes. I believe it's this perception of lower noise that puts it ahead of the Vidar monoblocks with respect to detail and delicacy.
     

    Decisions
     
    When I purchased my RAAL-requisite SR1a headphones I first opted to not purchase the ribbon interface box. I thought I'd just use the Schiit Audio Jotunheim R and call it a day. About 30 minutes after I ordered the SR1a I realized that I could be waiting for quite a while until the JR was in stock and I'd have wonderful headphones without any amplification. I quickly changed my order to include the interface box. Looking back on the decision, I'm happy I now have both the interface box and the Jotunheim R. They give me flexibility and options. Two things for which I'm a big fan. 
     
    Readers just getting into the RAAL-requisite SR1a headphones may be considering one box or the other for their initial order. The variables and listener tastes are endless and impossible to cover in any review. Factors to consider in one's purchase include simplicity, space, quality of traditional amplifier if using the interface box, and knowing one's own tendency to chase the audio dragon. There is always something different and possibly better. Those who aren't satisfied with leaving well enough alone, will love the ability to swap amps with the interface box and possibly get bored with the Jotunheim R due to its untweakability. However, even in this case I think the JR is a good add-on and good tool to have in the audio toolbox. 
     
    Those who want to find the best value and get themselves well on the way to sonic bliss, should just get the Jotunheim R and be done with it. No large amps or speaker cables to deal with and no thinking about the next system change. With the JR it's one and done. A single small box and a pair of SR1a headphones. Plus, the sound quality from this simple solution is terrific and may not be surpassed by inexpensive and unwieldy loudspeaker amplifiers.
     
    Hardcore, knuckle dragging, card carrying audiophiles seeking the ultimate in sound quality without concern for price should plan on getting the interface box and a four or five figure amplifier(s). Even so, I still recommend the Jotunheim R as it can open up the world of fantastic headphone listening outside of the "audio room." When RAAL-requisite eventually releases its circumaural ribbon headphones, I will likely purchase a pair and use them with the Schiit JR (baffle compensation disabled) in my bedroom. Plus, I love the fact that I can bring the JR to any room of my house for temporary listening, while leaving the big beast amplifiers up in my listening room. Again, it's all about options and flexibility. 
     
    One last note about selecting an amp for the RAAL-requisite SR1a headphones. RAAL-requisite offers its own direct drive amp called the HSA-1b that sells for $4,500 (previous version HSA-1a was $3,900). I haven't heard this amp yet, but Audiophile Style contributor @austinpop is scheduled to receive a review sample very soon. 
     
     
    Conclusion
     
    The simplicity of a direct drive amp for the SR1a can't be understated. Size, heat, and cost savings are big factors in almost everyone's purchasing decisions. My first experience with the SR1a headphones was with large two channel amplifiers for loudspeakers. Many of these amps were easily 50+ lbs and four square feet in area. When I dropped the Jotunheim R on my desk and cleared out the traditional amps, speakers cables, and interface box, it felt like my life just got easier. Like a weight was off my back. I had no clue what I was going to do with all my newly freed up desk space. In addition, while the Jotunheim R runs medium to hot, the heat it gives off is nothing compared to a traditional class A A/B power amp. 
     
    The Schiit Jotunheim R is a very unique amplifier built for a unique headphone. At $799 it's nearly $4,000 less expensive than the only other direct drive SR1a amplifier on the market. I usually leave value judgements to the readers, but in this case it's beyond obvious. The value of the Jotunheim R is off the charts. In fact, the value of the JR is so high that I believe every RAAL-requite SR1a owner should have this amp regardless of other amps already in their listening stables. I'd even purchase this amp over the RAAL-requisite ribbon interface box if I had to select only one of the two components. 
     
    The cost of entry into exotic headphones tends to be very high. Take for example Stax SR-009S electrostatics and their required amplifiers. Spending $10,000 isn't out of the question for those seeking good performance. The Schiit Jotunheim R brings the cost of entry, into what I consider the best headphone on the planet, down to an absolutely reasonable level. Readers still sitting on the RAAL-requisite SR1a fence should no longer be there because of price. The Jotunheim R just made that irrelevant. Great performance for an amazing price. C.A.S.H. Listed. Add to cart. 
     
     
    Community Star Ratings and Reviews
     
    I encourage those who have experience with the Schiit Audio Jotunheim R to leave a star rating and quick review on our new Polestar platform.
     
     
     
     
     
    Product Information:
     
    Schiit Audio Jotunheim R ($799+) Schiit Audio Jotunheim R Product Page Schiit Audio Jotunheim R Manual (322 k PDF)  
    Where to Buy
    Schiit Audio  
     
    Associated Music:
     
    Audiophile Style 50 (Qobuz) Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist (Tidal)  
     
     
    Associated Equipment:
     
    Source: QNAP TVS-872XT Roon Core, Aurender W20SE, CAPS 20 DAC: dCS Rossini, EMM Labs DV2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS3, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, CAPS 20.1, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 Digital Signal Processing: Accurate Sound, HQPlayer Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, JRemote, Aurender Conductor Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro Playback Software: Roon, JRiver,  Network Attached Storage (NAS): QNAP TVS-872XT Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables, Gotham GAC-4/1 ultraPro Balanced XLR Audio Cable (40') USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables Power Isolation: one 4kVA and one 5 kVA 512 Engineering Symmetrical Power Source Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables Fiber optic Cables: Single Mode OS1-9/125um (LC to LC) Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption,  ATS Acoustics Bass Traps Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 16 XG, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x6, Commercial Grade Fiber Optic Patch Cables, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload  
     
    Listening Room:
     
    This graph shows the frequency response of my room before (top) and after (bottom) tuning by Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The standard used for this curve is EBU 3276. This tuning can be used with Roon, JRiver, and other apps that accept convolution filters. When evaluating equipment I use my system with and without this tuning engaged. The signal processing takes place in the digital domain before the audio reaches the DAC, thus enabling me to evaluate the components under review without anything changing the signal further downstream. 
     


     
  23. Like
    Middy reacted to DuckToller for an article, Review | Allo Revolution DAC, Part 1   
    PART I:  REVOLUTION COME, REVOLUTION GO
     
    “On account of bad weather, German revolution took place in music”
    (Kurt Tucholsky , 1890 - 1935, Die Weltbühne, 22.04.1930, Nr. 17 ) 
     
    The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests about 26 meanings encapsulated for a dozen definitions of the word  revolution, n. (rɛvəˈl(j)uːʃən).  Given the fact they do neither mention music nor computer audio,  we may want to select definition III. 6b.) instead when it comes to the  REVOLUTION DAC by Allo:
     
    "An instance of great change or alteration in affairs or in some particular thing."
     

     
     
     
    1. Allo & THE REVOLUTION

    This REVOLUTION DAC was announced in MAY 2019 on DIY Audio and since then you could observe the expectations of the audiophiles who care about DACs costing less than $500. You could see the curious calls for reviews coming in at the end of last year and the pressure for this REVOLUTION was rising.
     
    Designating an importance implicating moniker like "REVOLUTION" to a sub $300 digital to analog converter sounds like a bold move. However, it is also a sign of confidence, continuously won over the last years, when Allo moved from telecom equipment towards DIY Audio. The company now offers selected "Plug and Play" products on their website, which shows an astonishing complete set of more than 30 audio products. Allo says two years ago audio overcame telecom as a major driver for the tri-continental company, which was founded in Vancouver / Canada where the HQ still resides. Research and manufacturing happen in Bangalore / India, while development, distribution and customer service is located in Toulouse / France. Still, they are a small company by SME definition. Despite not being a boutique manufacturer they are a hands-on player in a very competitive low budget market segment of audio between DIY audio parts, accessories and ready-made audio units like streamers, amps or DACs. 
     
    You may consider a challenge with the question: Is that really high-end audio? My response: High-end  is not defined by price alone.

    The price/performance ratio of Allo products is first class. Engineering is excellent and sound quality has convinced many AS followers. If performance for the money is considered one important aspect when it comes to audio products, some of the Allo products we are discussing here on Audiophile Style can be wholeheartedly be called high-end, even if they aren't high priced boutique equipment.

    Just to dial in some reality: when I talk to my eldest child, who loves gaming much more than Music, I can hear that a 600 bucks GPU can't be considered high end in his opinion. Subsequently, when I read his messages on my screen feed by an 8 year old GPU for then 100$ and my next PC is cornered around an APU solution he wasn't impressed at all.

    However, an RPI and a suiting DAC are “too High End” for him for music processing. About the REVOLUTION DAC he told me: "too pricey although it has quite a lovely name."

    When it comes to products from Allo we may note the famous DigiONE (Signature), the KATANA, BOSS and PIANO DACs, the Sparky or the Kali ReClocker. In Spring 2019 they announced 4 new products in their development pipe: the SHANTI LPS, the NIRVANA SMPS, the USB bridge SIG and the REVOLUTION DAC, which is the centre of interest for this review.

    Again, a bold move and a lot to shoulder for a small player like Allo. Nevertheless, we've seen the arrival of the first three products during the year prior June 2020, and now the REVOLUTION is here. We should recall that this all happened despite COVID19 interrupting international logistics and supply chains since March 2020 and undeterred by the fact that companies and employees were facing lockdowns almost everywhere in the world.
     
     

     
     
     
    "You say you got a real solution
    Well, you know - We'd all love to see the plan"
    (Morgan James - Revolution 1 - orig. The Beatles)
     
    The REVOLUTION is the latest project in production, not because of lesser importance for their product range but for the need of minuscule, precise and time consuming development steps in the product's maturing process. Allo is committed to a high quality standard which indicative of the term REVOLUTION.

    The REVOLUTION is a USB only DAC based on the ESS 9038q2m SABRE32 reference chip technology that ships for 286 USD to the USA and for 290 Euro into the European Union.

    It's implemented on an Allo PCB board and benefits from the experience and the ideas of the Allo design team plus valuable input which they received during the development phase. Beside an exceptionally well measured THD+N of -114.5dB and THD performance at up to -124db on unbalanced RCA output, the DAC enables the user to manipulate the chip's THD compensation logic, meaning that you can choose between different 2nd and 3rd harmonics settings for perceived euphonic sq improvements, which in turn impacts the measurable THD/THD+N values diversely. For most DACs usually a low level chip function access and a voicing by design sounds more like the industry standard.

    Combining both - the objectively measurable performance and subjective great perception - seems to be the rationale why the unit was called REVOLUTION.

    According to the manual the Revolution offers
    7 OS filters Oversampling function (OSF) bypass choice of sync/async mode for jitter reduction 2nd/3rd harmonics selection (8-step) multi-stepped Pop control, which works only in OSF mode
    These settings can be changed manually using the mini-joystick at the front, whose functionality is mirrored on the optional remote control ($7.00) that integrates the volume control and a mute button. 
     
    The REVOLUTION converts PCM signals up to 705.6 kHz and DSD up to octuple-rate DSD (DSD512). Like most HiFi equipment the DAC is said to perform best with a proper power supply - Allo offers the SHANTI LPS ($159) and the NIRVANA SMPS ($59) as bundle choices - and was reviewed conjointly with the  NIRVANA and the optional remote control at 355 USD (shipped). 
     
     

     
     
     
    "Come so far yeah,
    So just let me know when we get there if we get there"
    (Fink - Sort of Revolution)
     
     
    2 DESIGNER'S Q&A WITH IOAN B. FROM Allo
     
    Allo in general:

    Q: Is it fair to say that your company is divided into three different entities on three different continents/countries. (HQ/Canada - Development/Distribution/France, - Development/Production/India)?
     
    A: Yes, that’s correct.
     

    Q: Has DIY Audio already replaced Telecoms as the main line of business?
     
    A: About 2 years ago, audio took over and became our main business.
     

    Something personal:

    Q: IOAN, who are you & what is your role in the Allo organization?
     
    A: I am the architect of all Allo audio designs and I work with our team in Bangalore to refine it first then to do PCB placement and to test every power rail (CRO , Spectrum analyzer and Audio Precision ). In the same time, we send a few samples to 3-4 testers for audio quality …so we test both THD+N and sound quality.
     
     
    Developers brainchild:

    Q: Could you please explain the developer's idea about the product in not more than 5 sentences?
     
    A: A competitively priced DAC that has great THD+N numbers ( jitter etc) and also sounds great….it's not the same thing.
     

    Q: There had been major changes from the product announced in 2019 and the real REVOLUTION 2020. Which changes would you describe as the ones with major impact?
     
    A: As far as changes…we constantly take readings in each power rail (and we have about 50) and we tweak components until we get a very quiet rail. (lowering noise)
     

    Q: Which are the allo.com engineering components/competences that were used for enhancing the ESS9038Q2m DAC chip's performance? (i.e. Reclocking, Caps, Op Amps, Filter)?

    A: We used a 6 layers PCB then we used LDOs on every rail. More importantly, Revolution has 2 clocks so it can apply the correct clock to the  2 major sample rates. At last Rev is using about 8 supercaps , so in fact you are “listening “ to audio delivered by one of the purest forms of electricity .
     

    Q: Did you overcome the commonly known "ESS THD Hump"? And how did you do so?
     
    A: Yes we did , it's about Op Amp feedback caps value.
     

    Q: How important is the power supply to the REVOLUTION DAC performance?
     
    A: It's always important . No matter how many filters we have (or LDOs) it seems to me that once noise reaches the PCB , it somehow changes the output. The funny thing is that I am unable to see it on THD+N numbers.
     
     

     
     
     
    THD/THD+N:

    Q: Could you provide some insight about your vision regarding THD/THD+N vs. perceived sound quality?
     
    A: Once you reach a certain level of THD+N (and I would argue for -110) no further SQ improvements can be had using THD as a guide. Further SQ improvement can be reached by tweaking the analog stage, ... clocks and more.
     
     
    Q: I'd like to ask  about the THD+N and THD values for the Revolution:
     
    A: Latest tech data taken with AP555 shows THD+N at -117 % from 0-20 Khz at 90Khz bandwidth (higher bandwidth shows ultrasonic not included in a 20Khz)I will have the new data available in about 3-4 weeks when I can use a new machine from AP India.
     
    THD (through 6th harmonic) less than  -130 !!! %, 2.2 Vrms, 20 Hz – 20 kHz, unity gain
     

    Q: And could you provide a short explanation for the non-engineer why the results per channel are showing  0dB to appr. -10dB differences in your measurement data?
     
    A: It's normal for any DAC to show a difference on harmonics depending on the channel . 
     
     
    ESS 9038q2m

    Q: In which setting the Revolution's 9038q2m chip plays in what ESS calls "DSD phase mode" aka "Native DSD", "DSD direct mode" or "DSD bypass" (AKM)?

    A: DSD playback is not affected by any settings…aka you cannot change how DSD is played
     

    Q: As ESS offers - according to its datasheet - two DSD modes for the ESS9038q2m, which one you've chosen: "DSD normal mode" or "DSD phase mode"?

    A: They are both “Native DSD” . It's not possible to choose one vs. another in the DAC register. There is no control. At page 51 you will see that in fact they seem to be both the same , on phase mode,  one complimentary data is ignored.
     

    Q: Does OSF bypass leave the PCM bit stream unaltered as well inside the revolution?
     
    A: OSF is bypassed…my understanding is that 8x oversampling is removed…
     
     
    Q: Does the OSM bypass mode, as a consequence, have effects on the volume settings?
     
    A: Yes as per manual OSF bypass will remove volume control.
     

    Q: How many filters are provided for the REVOLUTION?
     
    A: The REVOLUTION has implemented 7 User configurable filter settings.
     

    USB only:

    Q: What would be the technical reason to deploy USB only?
     
    A: It’s a very mature interface and it's convenient.
     

    Q: Can we expect an upgraded version with balanced design/output and more input variability from allo.com in the future? Something like a SIGNATURE REVOLUTION ?
     
    A: Yes but at a different price point.
     

    Q: You will finally pursue a route for USB power with an split USB/Power cable, that "will change the REVOLUTION in a pure USB DAC"?
     
    A: (It is) Not yet in stock, it will take a while, China manufacturing is very slow and uneven nowadays.
    Firmware upgrade:
     

    Q: Do you permanently refine the firmware (XMOS and Thesycon) and how does the customer receive notice about the newest (stable) firmware?
     
    A: Yes we will keep upgrading the firmware . We will add something on the web page to show the latest firmware.
     

    Q: To my understanding, the upgrading process is simultaneously as well the way of providing the change of firmware?
     
    A: It’s a firmware change
     

    Q: You provide drivers for LINUX and WINDOWS, however, no information for Apple devices is officially available (at the time of asking).
     
    A:  Mac is native DSD 256 and Linux us also native up to DSD 512 (no driver)
     

    Q: Is it correct that the device XMOS firmware is driverless supported by Apple and in accordance with Apple's USB 2.0 implementation, and that it is able to play 24/192 PCM and up to DSD256 when fed from Apple devices? 
     
    A: Yes
     

    Q: What happens for APPLE users if the device comes with Thesycon firmware ? Does the user then need to connect to either a Linux or a Windows machine to change/enable/upgrade to XMOS firmware? Pls excuse and correct any misconceptions, I am not an Apple guy ....
     
    A: Thesycon firmware is Mac compatible. No change. At this point we don’t have a document on how to flash the firmware using a MAC pc.
     

    Q:  At that point I need to ask: Are you thinking about a solution regarding a less complex process for the Firmware change?
     
    A: Firmware upgrade is not made by us but by Thysecon (Germany) . As such we have no control
     
     
    Q: What is the possibly perceived difference of the two firmwares, objectively and subjectively ?
     
    A:  None for me.

    Thank you, Ioan !!!
     
     
     

     
     
    "At every corner of the city at every stone
    where the wind blows Revolution"
    (Gianna Nannini - Revolution)
     
     
    4 REVIEW SETUP

    Due to my belief in the value of comparative reviews, I considered from the start, focusing on two ways of comparing the Allo Revolution:

    First, I'd compare the device in standard setting against two popular DACs in the audiophile community which I own and know well. Both, the Khadas Tone Board DAC (KTBD) and iFi Micro iDSD BL have had their proper review here at Audiophile Style and they offer their owners a big bang for the budget.

    About the iFi I wrote in 2017: "The BL, playing music up-sampled to DSD512, in my system and with my ears,  gives more grip and flesh to the low end, is delicately nice to the upper midst without softening, but profits from a good yet not enormous soundstage and the darkest background I have heard so far in my system. The placement and presence of instruments are very special and I tend to think the sound is clear, not bright but muscular and dynamic".

    The KTBD also got some praise, especially for its clarity. Separation and dynamics are beyond price level, however this implementation can be perceived as fatiguing (too bright) in some cases.

    Second, I want to explore more specifically the audible differences because of changes in sync/async mode, OSF bypass , filter selection and changing of 2nd/3rd order harmonics values.

    For these reasons I used two different setups:

    1) I have retired my NAS for the summertime (today we have again 100.4°F, not for the first time this year) as a first step to keep my office climate below 30 degrees C. I am using my old CAPS ZUMA build (ASUS Q87/16Gbyte/Audiophile optimized Win 10 Pro/Roon) as a ROON server and local storage machine in conjunction with Qobuz. It is connected to a Netgear 108t switch, as are the Gentoo flavored RPI 4/4Gb which is using the ROON Bridge endpoint software and the MOON ACE that serves as an pre/poweramp fed by the REVOLUTION's output signal into one of its two analogue inputs.

    All other DACs for comparison were likewise fit to the Moon's analogue stage and fed by the RPI4's USB output. The Revolution got powered by the $59 Allo NIRVANA SMPS. The Pi alternately by an iFi 5v SMPS or by the 5v output of the HDPLEX 100w LPS. I exchanged NIRVANA and HDPLEX power feed between REVOLUTION and RPi several times for comparison but couldn't notice perceptible changes. The speakers are B&W 805s, the pair of subwoofers you'll find in my profile weren't in use.

    2) The critical listening setup associates the RPi powered by iFi 5v SMPS, the Allo Revolution DAC powered by the Allo NIRVANA SMPS, the JDS Labs ATOM amp and the Focal Elegia Headphones.

    The PCM files were provided by Qobuz mostly through streaming or taken from the local SSD at the ZUMA. The Revolution was left in the default settings for DAC comparison:

    Sync mode, no OSF bypass , filter selection (3) and no changing of 2nd/3rd (1/8) order harmonics values. The device was always grounded with the Nirvana SMPS .
     
     
     

     
     
     
     
    "It looks, It feels, It moves, It sounds, It smells
    like a revolution
    Well I don't care what you heard
    This is more than just a word
    (Calvin Russell - Like a Revolution)
     
     
    5 REVOLUTION PLAYLIST

    In the weeks before I have received the REVOLUTION I have started to created an open Qobuz playlist called "REVOLUTION PLAYLIST" which you find under: https://play.qobuz.com/playlist/3459177
     
    Please feel free to attach your personal favorite songs about REVOLUTION to that playlist. I have selected a dozen of these songs for my critical listening plus some that weren't available with the streaming service. Especially more Classical and Jazz tracks would be greatly appreciated. 
     
     
     

     
     
     
    "Don't you know
    They're talkin' 'bout a revolution
    It sounds like a whisper"
    (Tracy Chapman - Talkin' Bout A Revolution)
     
     
    6 PREVIEW
     
    I decided in accordance with Chris to cut the review in 2 parts, as my neighbors started to cut, for several days, their hedge row in front of my listening room. This made it difficult to find time and space for finishing the critical listening sessions.
     
    Quick executive summary :
     
    I compared the KDTB and the iFi Micro iDSD BL to the Revolution, listening to some selected tracks from the REVOLUTION PLAYLIST starting with the native bitrates, then upsampled to 192kHz, to 384kHz,  to DSD256 and finally into DSD512. The details will consequently be found in the 2nd part of the review not only deals with the critical listening sessions.
     
    The KTBD - within its limits - doesn't need to hide against the REV/iFi when it comes to SQ vs. price correlation, while there is a distinctive SQ difference in favor of the latter ones when it comes to 1:1 comparison. The major differences apart from the listening fatigue which is undeniably underrepresented with the iFi and the REVOLUTION are soundstage (width and depth), blacker background (iFi) and delicious details (REVOLUTION). The iFi to my ears shows more maturity by  punching a bit harder with - in my perception - less clarity, where the REVOLUTION impresses with details, width of soundstage and a certain depth & articulation I began to admire by heart.

    The next part will offer inside shots of the device, a detailed analysis of the revolutionary & critical listening session with selected music from the REVOLUTION PLAYLIST. A run-through concerning the firmware change, a reflection on the Achilles' heel of USB Audio and finally you'll get a verdict with the pros & cons of that REVOLUTION device.
     
     

     
     
     
    Community Star Ratings and Reviews
     
    I encourage those who have experience with theAllo Revolution DAC to leave a star rating and quick review on our new Polestar platform.
     
     
     
     
    Product Information:
     
    Allo Revolution DAC ($259) Allo Revolution Product Page Allo Revolution User Manual (172KB PDF) Allo Revolution Test Data (1.2MB PDF)  
    Where to Buy
    Allo.com  
     
  24. Like
    Middy reacted to The Computer Audiophile for an article, Meet The Audiophile Style Community | Volume 7   
    Welcome to the seventh installment of our Meet the Audiophile Style Community series. All previous installments can be found here, in the series index.
     
    Please send me a message or email if you'd like to participate. The response so far has been wonderful. It ranges from hardcore audiophiles to those who are more interested in numbers and graphs, and as you see today, this is a global community (50% of Audiophile Style site traffic is from within the US and 50% is from other great parts of this world). This series is all about getting to know everyone and sharing a bit about yourself that others will find interesting. 
     
    Thanks for participating. I look forward to publishing more of these in the coming weeks. 
     
    Thanks to Audiophile Style community member @Nikhil for participating in volume seven of this series. I love reading this stuff even more than publishing it. As I say to myself after reading each one of these, you guys are so much more interesting than me :~)
     
     
    1. General area of the world in which you live?

    I am from Hyderabad, India, a 400 year old city that was fabled for its diamonds in the ancient world.  Today we are a city of about 11.5 million people with a presence in Information Technology and Pharmaceuticals among other things. The city has a rich cultural heritage in the arts and music.  I would like to invite Audiophile Style members to look up info on Hyderabad when they have the time.  
     
     
    2. General description of what you do or did for a living?
     
    Engineer by profession working in the Machine Tool Industry.  My company is the distributor for mostly German and American companies in India. The majority of my work is in the Automobile and Aerospace industries but we also spend a fair amount of time in the Defense, Medical, Energy and Heavy Engineering Industries.   
     
     
    3. What are your hobbies?
     
    My interests include Music and Audio where I am also a moderator on an Indian audio forum called HiFiVision.  I invite AS members to drop by to get a feel for the budding audio interest in India.  I am a regular golfer playing to a 12 handicap at the moment. I read mostly non-fiction with a current interest in Greco Roman philosophy. My wife and I share an interest in food and travel.  We also like to take in the occasional music performance whenever possible.
     
     
    4. When did you start this wonderful journey into music listening?
     
    My parents had a strong interest in music so in a sense I have been into music all my life.  Apart from Indian classical and Bollywood we always had a collection of music from around the world which has given me a very broad taste in music.  My personal journey started when I was about 12 years old with my first Sony Walkman and I had a chance to build a personal collection of music of my own.
     
     
    5. What was your first “album?”
     
    Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – must have played that cassette for about a year nonstop.
     
     
    6. What does your music collection look like, number of physical records, CDs, etc... and number of “favorited” albums streamed?
     
    My music collection is varied with a large amount of jazz music mostly from the 60s and 70s.  As Chris discovered recently, I am into Japanese Jazz and also European jazz thanks largely to the wonderful Piano Trio thread on AS curated by Musicophile.  I have an avid interest in Latino music and am building a small collection of music that suits my ear from that genre.  My music library has a quite a few pop and rock albums including recent music thanks to TIDAL.  I tend to favor singer songwriters. Mark Knopfler and Elton John are my all time favorites.
     
    I moved to a completely digital audio setup in 2013 as in no more CDs or vinyl.  I used to have about 400 CDs and about 60 vinyl records (mostly my father’s collection), all of which is now in storage.  I use JRiver to manage all my music and I have about 1,000 albums consisting of about 12,500 files on HDD storage.  I use TIDAL for streaming and my library consists of about 35 favorite albums and 10 playlists which are in a constant state of flux.
     
     
    7. What was your first audio component / stereo?
     
    My first personal audio component was a Sony Walkman.  My first stereo system was an Onkyo Integrated which I had paired with Polk Audio floorstanders back in college. Fun days.
     
     
    8. Is there one component that you no longer have that you wish you wouldn’t have sold or that you wish you still had?
     
    None.
     
     
    9. Is there one current component that you wish you had in your system?
     
    Almost too many to mention but at the top of the list would be the Gryphon Diablo 300.
     
     
    10. How much time do you spend listening to music each week and on which systems does this listening take place (main system, car system, mobile system, office system, etc...)?
     
    My listening time is after dinner when I spend time reading or browsing. I listen to music for about 3-4 hours which translates to about 15-20 hours per week.  My primary listening is on my main system at home.  My second most listened to setup is my mobile phone + headphones which I use when I travel.
     
     
    11. What’s the first concert you ever attended, best concert you’ve ever attended, most interesting concert venue you’ve ever attended?
     
    My first concert was of the (now defunct) pioneer Indian rock band Rock Machine.  The best concert I’ve attended was the Mark Knopfler Concert at the Bangalore Palace Grounds which was part of his 2005 Shangri-La Tour. I don’t really care for large concert venues and prefer small intimate spaces where we are up close with the musicians.  BLUE CHICAGO on N Clarke St. in Downtown Chicago is one my favorite venues.  Outstanding music, great vibe and up close with the band. $5 cover fee.
     
     
    12. What components are in your current audio systems and can you provide a photo?
     

    Windows 10 based Server with Fidelizer + Process Lasso JRiver Media Center for Media Management and Playback + HQPlayer Lampizator Amber DAC Job INT Integrated Amplifier Acoustic Portrait Thiyaga Pre + CPA3 Stereo Amplifier Green Mountain Audio Eos HX stand mount speakers Belden 8402 + Custom Tinned Copper based Interconnects and USB cable Belden 8411 Speaker Cable / Western Electric 12 GA Teakwood DIY Rack  
     
     
     
    13. Anything else you’d like to say?
     
    I would like to thank Audiophile Style for this outreach to its members.  The AS forum has been a great addition to my audio journey especially when I set out to move to computer based audio several years ago.   The information gathered on the forum has been extremely useful in gathering insights into what can be a very difficult area to navigate. 

    The information shared by members has been cutting edge at times and at the forefront of what is available out there.  There has been a fair amount of tumult in the past few months over which direction the forum has taken in terms of membership behavior and participation.  I would like to stand with Chris on the general principle of being cordial and respectful to fellow members.  

    During these surreal times I am very grateful for the AS community and I am very happy to be a part of it. I would like to wish everyone the very best in dealing with the challenges that we are going to face. Stay home and stay safe!
     
  25. Thanks
    Middy reacted to Sonis for an article, Review | Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC Headphones and HeadAmp GSX mk2 Balanced Headphone Amplifier   
    Many consider the Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC headphones to be the best in the world. These US made 'phones certainly vie for the title of best planar dynamic 'phones, if not the best in terms of absolute sound quality. Built like an Abrahms tank, and somewhat unusual looking, these New York State built 'phones certainly do impress in terms of their build quality. At first glance, they look a lot like a medieval torture device, perhaps a chastity belt for one’s ears, but aside from being somewhat heavy, these 'phones are really not uncomfortable at all, but more on that later. 
     
    The HeadAmp GSX mk2 headphone amp is a balanced design made for magnetic 'phones only. Made in Charlottesville Virginia, USA, and consisting of two slim (single rack height) chassis, the GSX mk2 is at least as well made as the Abyss ‘'phones which means that they are as well made as it is possible to do in a production unit, and I guarantee, nobody builds quality better than HeadAmp. We Americans do not make as much electronic stuff as we used to, but it seems that when we do, we knock it out of the park. This amp is gorgeous in the review sample’s red anodized livery but is also available in an impressive array of other colors, such as black, brushed aluminum, two shades of blue, green (!), white, gold, charcoal gray, and purple (lavender?). Whew!
     
     
     
     
     

     
     
    HeadAmp GSX mk2
     
    Usually at this point in a review of a piece of electronics hardware, I give the dimensions. Unfortunately, in this case I couldn’t really do that by measuring them because the units have been returned to their owner and I was counting on the website to give me those measurements. They aren’t anywhere on the site that I could find, and indeed, they aren’t even in the 4-page user “manual.” I have already said that the units are both a single rack component in height. So, a call to Justin Wilson, the proprietor of HeadAmp gave me the rest of the dimensions. Each of the two units (power supply and main amplifier chassis) is 14.5 inches (368.3 mm) wide by 9 inches (228.6 mm) deep by 2 inches (50.8 mm) high. The price of the HeadAmp GSX mk2 is US$2995. The optional blue or red color is an additional US$200 (don’t know if the others, apart from black and brushed aluminum colors demand a premium or not).
     
     
    Panel Layout of the GSX mk2
     
    The front panel of the amplifier section for the GSX mk2 contains outputs for magnetic headphones as well as the controls for the amp. Starting from left to right there is the on/off switch which either enables or disables the rear panel pre amplifier outputs. Although HeadAmp calls it a power switch, it’s more of a standby/operate switch as the real “power switch” is located on the front of the power supply chassis. Next we have the gain select three position miniature toggle switch. This allows the user to choose the overall gain of the amplifier for Low gain (0.9dB), Medium gain (12.5dB), and High gain (21.2dB). Next, there is an “operate” LED to indicate that the unit is on and not in standby mode. Then there’s a 4-pin female XLR for balanced headphones that use a single XLR plug for both right and left channels. The wiring for this connector is L+ (pin 1), L- (pin 2) R+ (pin3) and R-(pin 4). To the right of the 4-pin XLR are a pair of three pin XLRs of the combination XLR/1/4 inch, TRS 'phone jack type for balanced outputs that use either three-pin XLRs or “stereo” 'phone plugs. Next there is the true DACT stepped attenuator for the volume control. This used to be a US$200 option, but in 2017, HeadAmp made the stepped control standard on all units. Finally, there is an input toggle switch. It chooses the rear panel input as either the  RCA-1 input jacks, the XLR inputs, or the RCA-2 inputs. For true balanced headphone operation the XLR inputs on the rear must be used. 
     
    The back panel of the GSX mk2 amp contains all of the I/O. Again, from left to right, a pair of 3-pin XLRs for balanced input, two pairs of RCA jacks (RCA-1 and RCA-2) for unbalanced input and next there is a pair of XLR male outputs and two RCAs called loop outputs. This allows the user to pass the input signal on to another part of your system. When set to standby mode, only the RCA pair are energized. Next in line, to the right is the audio output connections, these consist of another pair of 3-pin male XLRs and another pair of RCA jacks. Finally, there is a six-pin circular male jack for the umbilical that connects the amplifier chassis to the power supply chassis. 
     
    The second chassis, the power supply, is an identically sized chassis with a power toggle switch on the front left and a female umbilical connector for the power supply cable in the center of the rear chassis. Finally, there’s an IEC connector for the AC mains cord. 
     
     
     

     
     
    Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC Headphones
     
    Starting at $4,995.00, the Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC model headphones are a very premium product. As such they need to be coupled to a really high-class state-of-the-art headphone amplifier. This is the reason why these 'phones are being paired with the GSX mk2 for this review. 
     
    These 'phones have a build quality that’s practically unheard of, in even the rarified environment of mil-spec or aerospace, much less in a consumer product. Abyss says that they make everything in-house even the screws used to manufacture these 'phones! This attention to detail is apparent even as you take the 'phones out of their packaging. The ear-cups are CNC machined from a solid billet of aluminum and the ear-pads are a thick, padded, very soft lambskin which provide an acoustically tuned space between the diaphragm and the listener’s ear for maximum sound quality. The diaphragm on the 'phones is of an exceptionally low mass and is powered by custom and very powerful neodymium magnets. The back wave of each perfectly matched pair of drivers is a proprietary foam, which even though it looks like spun plastic, is actually made of spun aluminum and designed to control resonance and help linearize the diaphragm movement. 

    The earpieces on these 'phones do not pivot. But the head frame is separated in the middle and slotted. This allows for the movement of the ear-cups either closer or further away from the listener’s head to effect a perfect fit. A single finger-screw holds the two halves of the head frame together and not only allows one to adjust the width of the two ear-cups, but also allows for the two halves of the head frame to pivot with respect to one another, allowing the listener to adjust the parallel orientation of the ear cups to fit the wearer’s head. This head frame does not touch the wearer’s head however, for below it is stretched a padded leather headband which rests on the wearer’s head. It should be noted here that these 'phones are not designed to clamp the listener’s head in the vice-like grip that many headphones need to  afford a good bass seal. They are meant to “float” against the ears, with their weight perfectly balanced and resting atop the listener’s head. While, admittedly, they look awkward (if they seem heavy, it’s because they are at just a hair under 23 ounces [646 grams]), but they are actually much more comfortably than they look and can be worn for hours without causing fatigue. The AB-1266 Phi TC 'phones have a 42Ω impedance, with a ± 0.1Ω tolerance, so they should cause no problems with any headphone amp with which they are paired. The capsule matching, right to left, is 11.1dB which is exemplary. 
     
    The Abyss AB-1266 are available in several different configurations. While the actual ‘'phones themselves are the same in each, they come with differing accessories. 
     
    The “Lite” model is US$4,995.00 and comes with a balanced 8 ft  (2.5 meter)  4-pin XLR connector and a flexible ¼ inch adaptor (all cables are built by JPS labs specifically for Abyss). This configuration comes with a velvet carrying bag (although all models come packaged in a hand made, velvet lined presentation box). 
     
    The “Deluxe” edition, at US$5,995.00 comes with two cables: a dual balanced, 8 Ft (2.5 meter) 3 pin XLR cable set (this means two distinct cables; one for each ear-cup. They do not combine into a “Y” as do most headphone cables. This model also comes with a “Y” adaptor to convert the cables to a standard 1/4” 'phone plug; The Deluxe also comes with a handcrafted leather “man purse”  with room and pockets for an iPad, a music player, and an amp (such as the iFi xCan) allowing for a complete portable music system (these 'phones are not real efficient at 98.4 dB/1volt @ 1 KHz, so I don’t fully endorse using these 'phones in a portable setup; not least because they don’t provide or seem to offer a 3.5 mm (1/8”) adaptor or plug to use with portable audio equipment). Finally, the Deluxe set comes with a heavy aluminum extended-height headphone stand, laser engraved with the ABYSS logo. 
     
    Finally, the “Complete” model (US$7,995) comes with an upgraded JPS Labs “Superconductor HP” balanced 8 FT (2.5 meter) cable, with a choice of dual 3 pin or 4 pin XLR cable sets, and a 1/4" (6.3 mm) adaptor (plus a 4 pin XLR Y-adaptor with dual 3 pin connectors). (Custom cable lengths are available at extra cost). Also included in the “Complete” ensemble is the same leather handbag that comes with the “Deluxe” configuration along with the same headphone stand.
     
     
     The Abyss AT-1260 Phi TC 'phones AND the HeadAmp GSX mk2 Amplifier Together. The Sound of Perfection!
     
    I received these 'phones and the HeadAmp GSX mk2 while I was reviewing the Stax SRM-700T amp and the Stax SR-009S electrostatic headphones, so I had a true state-of-the-art reference with which to compare them. Not only are the two systems the crème de la crème of headphone systems, they are comparable cost-wise as well. The Stax combo came to US$8,350.00 and the Abyss/Headamp system (using the base configuration of the Abyss 'phones for comparison) came to US$7,950.00. A difference of a mere $360.00. 

    If you read my review of the Stax duo, then you know that I regard it as the “holy grail” of headphone listening, something to which all of us audio Sir Galahads should aspire. And I stand by that conclusion, but I must say that the combo of the HeadAmp and the Abyss is right up there with the Stax setup! 

    There are differences in presentation, of course, but they are fairly minor. While the SR-009s have better, deeper bass, the Abyss have more “slam”. Explosive transients and bursts of acoustic energy are much more palpable with this review duo than with the Stax, but the Stax seems to exhibit slightly more high frequency air and delicacy than do the Abyss/HeadAmp. That’s not to say that the latter are in anyway deficient in this regard, but where the Stax top end is “feathery” in it’s presentation, the Abyss pairing is more solidly grounded, that is to say, that the latter have a top that’s a tad “harder”.
     
    As far as distortion is concerned,  I would expect that the Stax pairing would be audibly cleaner. But, when listening at very well matched volume levels (less than a dB) the difference in distortion between the two is pretty much too close to call! I didn’t expect that!  Which is sonically the best? Like anything else in audio it comes down to personal taste and in this case, more than many others
     
    The final answer for me was the Stax setup. The reason comes down, partially to ergonomics, but sonic character also plays a large part in my decision. I prefer the light and airy high frequency response of the Stax setup coupled with that extra soupçon of bass response to the more explosive dynamic slam of the Abyss/HeadAmp duo. In the midrange, both 'phone systems excel in their portrayal of vocals and brass.  Again the Abyss are a bit more forward in the midrange and give a “close-up and personal presentation” with the upper midrange, especially on vocals, and on the high frequency overtones, but there is much to be said for both presentations. My friend who owns the Abyss 1266 Phi TC and the HeadAmp GSX mk2 likes them better than he does the Stax. I suspect his reasoning stems from the fact that the music to which we each listen is a bit different. While he enjoys classical and jazz, he listens to a lot of rock. So the dynamic slam of the Abyss setup suits him better than the subtleties of dynamic contrasts and micro dynamics to which the Stax ‘phones and amp are capable.
     
    I can understand that, for when comparing the two headphone systems on the Jefferson Airplane album Surrealistic Pillow The driving beat behind “White Rabbit” or “Somebody to love” has a lot more impact through the Abyss/HeadAmp than through the Stax. But the difference between the “slam” of the two 'phone systems is largely lost on, for instance, Dave Brubeck’s landmark album, Take Five. The exception is the drum solo in the “Take Five” cut. On that, the percussive drive of the drums definitely favors the Abyss setup. On that cut, the Stax pairing is much more “polite”.  On classical music such as Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra or the recent John Williams/Anne-Sophie Mutter album Across The Stars on Deutsche Grammophon, the first cut, “Rey’s Theme” from one of the Star Wars films, the bass line is much more fulsome on the Stax SR-009S/SRM-700T than on the Abyss/HeadAmp. The owner of the Abyss/HeadAmp combo’s previous headphone “love” was a pair of Sennheiser HD800s which also have the characteristic of explosive dynamics or “slam”. I can see where this “slam” is really impressive (and probably addictive) on rock and other percussive music. 
     
    Ergonomically, I also find the Stax SR-009S more appealing. While the Abyss look almost military and inelegant, the Stax seem to be more refined. Once adjusted for my head, the Abyss fit well, and aren’t uncomfortable but they are fiddly. The Stax, by comparison are light and once the head strap is adjusted, one only has to pick them up and put them on. I also find the Abyss with it’s two separate and fairly stiff cables; one for the left ear-cup and one for the right, to be quite awkward.
     
     
    Conclusion
     
    Basically, Both of these systems represent state-of-the-art of headphone design (I haven’t heard the RAAL-Requisite SR1a Earfield Monitors, but from Chris’s review, they might be in a position to knock one or both of these 'phones off of their pedestal). Both sound unbelievably good and present the ying and yang of a “neutral” presentation. Anyone who takes their headphone listening seriously would be hard pressed to find major fault with either of these headphone ensembles. The choice, in the end, will be a matter of subtle differences in presentation coupled with aesthetic and ergonomic considerations. If you are in the market, I recommend that you give both of these fine systems serious consideration. 
     
     
     
     
     
    Product Information:
     
    ABYSS AB-1266 Phi TC ($4,995+) ABYSS AB-1266 Phi TC Product Page Product PDF (1.4 MB)  
     
    Product Information:
     
    HeadAmp GS-X mk2 ($2,999) HeadAmp GS-X mk2 Product Page HeadAmp GS-X mk2 User Manual (PDF)  
     
     
     
    Community Star Ratings and Reviews
     
    I encourage those who have experience with the AB-1266 Phi TC or GSX mk2 to leave a star rating and quick review on our new Polestar platform.
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
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