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  1. 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 Part 5 - Extended Listening Impressions, Learnings, and Conclusions (Link) In the first three parts of this review of the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme (linked above), I looked at the Extreme out of the box, and the remarkable performance it is capable of. In this Part 4 of my review, my focus shifts to if and how to make the Extreme better by tweaking factors outside the Extreme itself (networking, power, etc). So Can We Get the Extreme from Ridiculous Speed to Ludicrous Speed to Plaid? Emile has often said that the only attention you need to give your Extreme is good power, good network, and good mechanical isolation. Taiko recommends that the Extreme be on an electrical circuit that can draw 2kW of power (in the US, this would mean the Extreme has a dedicated 15A or preferably 20A circuit that it is not sharing with other devices), with good quality outlets (rhodium, silver, or gold connectors) with a high quality power cord. Although the Extreme itself only requires a small to modest amount of power when running (as little as 60W), it greatly benefits from copious amounts of transient current (the faster the wall can respond to current demands from the Extreme, the better Extreme can deliver and regulate power to its internal systems). It will work great on a standard 15A shared circuit (that’s how I was running it out of the box), but it just does better if there is more transient power available to it when it wants it. Lastly, Taiko also recommends not having any powerline networking polluting your electrical system with added noise. For networking, Taiko recommends a low RFI network connection (impact will vary based on your local setup and circumstances). The Extreme comes with a StarTech optical network card, and Taiko recommends that those looking for the ultimate performance explore whether an optical network connection works better than copper ethernet for them. Lastly, the Extreme is a beast, and requires a stable platform. Taiko recommends that it be on a stable shelf or platform as close to the floor as possible to minimize adverse impacts from mechanical vibrations. So if we assume that cpu/motherboard/memory, storage, internal power, clock, and OS/software have already been optimized to the Nth degree and can’t be improved on, my next step was to assess the impact of optimizations of: Power - Assuming the internal power supply can’t be easily improved upon, how much lift is to be had moving to a dedicated 30A circuit, isolation transformer, and with a premium power cord? Network - What optical network topology is optimal for streaming, and what kind of lift over stock copper ethernet? USB - How do different USB cables impact sound quality? Mechanical - How does sound improve as mechanical isolation improves? For these tests, I stepped up the tweak ladder one OCD step at a time, then pulled it all together when I moved my Extreme to its final permanent home. Power Optimizations As a reminder, my tests so far of the Extreme have been with a generic power cord plugged into a generic power strip (with all my other AV equipment and various SMPS plugged into it) which was in turn plugged into a generic outlet on a shared 15A circuit behind my media console. The performance of the Extreme with this level of (lack of) attention to power hygiene is remarkable, and a testament to the quality of the design of the Extreme power network and casing. That being said, can we make it better by providing the Extreme better cleaner power and more power? Starting at the electrical panel, I evaluated the following upgrades: A dedicated 30A circuit (10-2 Romex) connected to an upgraded high conductivity outlet, dedicated only to the Extreme. The line length from my electrical panel to this outlet is ~15', so it is in extremely close proximity to my home electrical panel. A dedicated Topaz Ultra Isolation Transformer (model 91018-31T). This is a 1.8KVA model, with ultra low capacitance. I have my isolation transformer wired for balanced power output. A variety of upgraded power cords, ranging from a Pangea AC-14SE to an Elrod Power Systems EPS-3 Signature to a Sablon Audio Prince power cord with the beast of a Bocchino IEC connector on the Extreme end. (PENDING) A Synergistic Research Orange fuse (still trying to source one..will update when I do) All other components (network, USB, mechanical) were left at their generic baseline. Playback was local content in Roon with HQPlayer (JPLAY ASIO driver) in a one box solution. Impact of Dedicated Circuit Going from a shared circuit to a dedicated 30A circuit, even with the generic power cord, the increase in speed and dynamics is absolutely stunning (wow!) but with perhaps a touch of edge or roughness. When I first put in my dedicated circuits, it was dollar for dollar one of the best system upgrades I had implemented. That being said, the impact of a dedicated circuit on the Extreme is well beyond what I expected. Backgrounds are much blacker, and the physicality and control of dynamics are kicked WAY up. Details are more vivid and tangible, and depth resolution and spatial placement even more refined and extended. Everything that I was hearing before is simply better, faster, more controlled, and more coherent. Fantastic! I have two dedicated circuits (one for my DAC and analog components, one for my digital chain) for a reason. Consolidating my entire digital chain into a single box with the Extreme alone on a dedicated circuit is an absolutely wonderful place to be. Does power at the wall matter for the Extreme? Most definitely, most emphatically yes! Impact of Isolation Transformer Next I plugged my Topaz Isolation Transformer into my dedicated circuit, and plugged the Extreme (still with generic power cord) into the output of the isolation transformer. In my NUC reference system, I’ve found that the Topaz gives significantly darker backgrounds, and especially when run balanced, brings a sense of control and stillness between the notes that engages me immediately and consistently (that classic “midnight music listening” feeling, but any time of the day). Listening to the Extreme with the Topaz, playback certainly felt smoother (aligned with what I’m used to) and that slight edge and harshness I was hearing was tempered, but that incredible speed and dynamics that I was hearing with the Extreme was significantly diminished. As much as I love that “midnight music listening” feeling, I love the speed and dynamics of the Extreme even more. While the Topaz isolation transformer was certainly cleaning up some nasties, it was slowing things down too much, and simply was not able to keep up with the Extreme. As with all things power, every home situation and neighborhood situation is different. The choice between a power conditioner or power regenerator or large battery or isolation transformer or any combination of these will heavily depend on your home electrical setup, and what is going on in the electrical grid in your neighborhood. Experiment and see what works for you, but keep in mind that the better and faster and more power you deliver to the Extreme, the happier it is (think of it as a very large monoblock amplifier, not a computer). Impact of Upgraded Power Cords Still going directly to a dedicated circuit outlet (no isolation transformer...my digital audio Topaz is now officially retired), next I auditioned a series of upgraded power cords that I had available to me. I just a couple days before this listening test had received one of the traveling demo Sablon Audio Prince power cords (well broken in and very well traveled exterior) as a loaner, so I was excited to hear what it could do in my system. Going from the generic power cord to a Pangea AC-14SE, I immediately noticed a smoother presentation, with a slight(?) apparent loss in dynamics or speed (difficult to decouple some of the changes in my listening tests). There were significantly better dynamics and speed than I had heard with the Topaz isolation transformer. Certainly a very relaxed presentation, and a step forward from the generic power cord. With the Elrod EPS-3 Signature, there was a significant increase in speed and dynamics, with even better smoothness. The refinement of presentation and elegance reminded me of what I’ve heard in the finest analog systems, but with all the holographic engagement and transparency that I’ve come to love in my digital system. This was starting to get very very interesting indeed! The Sablon Prince is an interesting beast, with the HUGE Bocchino IEC connector on the Extreme end of the chain. Although it is labeled as “King” on my cable, the Prince has the Boccino connector on the IEC end and a normal connector on the plug end. The Sablon Audio King power cord has a Bocchino on both ends of the cable, but Sablon does not provide it for demos because of the impracticality of the monster connector on a wall outlet or power conditioner. Going from the Elrod to the Sablon Prince, the increase in speed and dynamics was immediate and striking. While still buttery smooth and elegant, speed and coherence made a massive step forward. My first 10 second reaction listening to the Sablon Prince is very similar to when I first heard the 2020 Sablon USB cable in my system: things just clicked and it sounded perfectly neutral and transparent, with incredibly coherence and dynamics, invisible and just right – “Yup, we’re done testing here...let’s enjoy some music”. Going back from the Prince to my generic power cord, the added edge with the generic cord is very clear, and the dynamics are quite a bit muted vs the Prince. Comparing the Prince direct to the dedicated circuit vs the Prince with the Topaz Isolation Transformer, I’m not hearing any improvement in background levels or smoothness, but significantly diminished speed and dynamics with the isolation transformer. Whatever conditioning benefit I’m getting from the Topaz seems to not matter with the Sablon in the chain (the Prince is taking care of business), but the Sablon seems to be able to provide more of the current that the Extreme craves. If the best cable is the cable that sounds like there is nothing there, the Sablon Prince is the closest I’m hearing to that with the Extreme and the cables I currently have available to me to test. Now the only decision is whether I purchase a Prince, or take a leap for the King without having had a chance to hear it! (NOTE: The Sablon Prince power cable is a loaner unit kindly provided by Mark Coles of Sablon Audio. I have no affiliation or association with Sablon Audio or Mark other than as a very happy owner of Mark’s 2020 USB cable. I’m under no obligations or expectations associated with the loaner unit, except to give it a listen, and pass it on to the next audiophile in the queue. My thanks to Mark for making this gem of a cable available to me!) Impact of Upgraded Fuse (PLACEHOLDER SECTION) The Extreme uses a single Schurter 4A fuse. Given the positive impact that other power tweaks have had, is there an upside to using something like the Synergistic Research Orange fuse? As I am able to source a Synergistic Research Orange fuse to audition, I will update this review. Network Optimizations Again a reminder, my tests so far of the Extreme have been with a generic Cat 5 ethernet cable connected to a shared SMPS-powered generic switch in my media console, connected over a length of generic Cat 5 home ethernet to an Ubiquiti EdgeRouter 10X home router connected to an AT&T-provided optical network terminal and Pace gateway/router for my fiber internet connection. As I noted above, in this configuration there was a notable gap between content played from local storage on the Extreme and content from on my home Mac Mini file server. There was also a much bigger step down to content streamed from TIDAL. Can we make these gaps smaller or even go away by providing the Extreme with better copper networking, switching to optical networking, and/or a more direct path to my fiber internet connection? Starting at the back panel of the Extreme, I evaluated the following network upgrades: A variety of upgraded ethernet cables, from the surprisingly good Cable Matters SFTP Cat 8 cable and the even better Monoprice Cat 8 cables to the brand new Sablon Audio 2020 Panatela Reserva ethernet cable that arrived just in time for this review An Uptone Audio EtherREGEN network switch with Uptone Audio UltraCap LPS 1.2 power supply, with the Extreme on the recommended “B” side of the network isolation moat An EtherREGEN with a Planet Technology MGB-TLX SFP fiber transceiver on the SFP port on the “A” side of the EtherREGEN, connected to the StarTech PEX1000SFP2 PCIe optical network card in the Extreme (with a matching Planet Tech optical transceiver) A Sonore opticalModule fiber media converter (FMC) powered by an Uptone Audio LPS 1.2 power supply, with two Planet Technology transceivers, converting wired ethernet to optical ethernet connected to the Extreme’s StarTech optical network card A Sonore opticalModule connected all the way back to a Ubiquiti EdgeRouter 10X gateway/router (bypassing all the intermediate home ethernet wiring and switches) with a long optical fiber run to the Extreme Various power and topology optimizations for the AT&T provided Pace 5268ac router/gateway and Alcatel-Lucent G-010G-Al optical network terminal (ONT) for my optical-fiber-based Internet connection For these tests, I left the Extreme plugged directly into my dedicated 30A circuit with the Sablon Audio Prince (I can’t give that up now that I’ve heard it), but with the original generic USB and mechanical baseline setup. Playback was local content, file server content on my Mac Mini, and TIDAL content, all played through Roon with HQPlayer (JPLAY ASIO driver) in a one box solution. For the component level tests, I limited my testing to TIDAL streaming content only to force music to stream from the Internet through all the intermediate network connections and devices. When I got to an optimal configuration for streaming, I came back to compare streaming to file server content to local content with an optimized network. Impact of Ethernet Cables When I first received my Uptone Audio EtherREGEN, I was stunned by the sound quality impact network connectivity could have. As surprised as I was by the impact the EtherREGEN was having, I was shocked at how incredibly audible differences between ethernet cables were. I have no idea how and it is a difficult conversation to have even with dedicated audiophiles, but for me, with the EtherREGEN I could tell apart ethernet cables with just a couple seconds of listening. Incredible, and an experience that forced me to reconsider a lot of things that I had taken as givens. In my experiments with the EtherREGEN, with better shielding and higher bandwidth cables (Cat 8), timing detail, coherence, and sense of space were all significantly improved. If you’ve stood next to a live musician as they are playing a bass or a low string instrument, you know the whole body feeling you get from the strings and soundboard. With the EtherREGEN and better (not more expensive, but electrically better) cables, that whole body feeling was very real, and added significantly to the sense of being in the presence of the musicians. As an added benefit, on some of my best recordings, the low space resonances from the room where the recording was made all snapped into focus for me, giving me a very strong sense of the space where the recording was made. That feeling of being in the cathedral or the club or concert hall is awesome. The icing on the cake was that I was able to hear all this with the EtherREGEN and inexpensive but quality Cat 8 ethernet cables ($10-15 range). Even without any attention to network or cables, I was hearing hints of that same whole body feeling with the Extreme (first time hearing it without the EtherREGEN). Using my generic media console network switch, as I went from generic Cat 5 ethernet cable to a Cable Matters and Monoprice Cat 8 cable, I heard a very slight improvement in bass detail going from generic Cat 5 to Cable Matters and Monoprice Cat 8. However, even in this configuration, things significantly opened up and became more natural sounding with the Sablon ethernet cable. This was a surprise, given the cruft before the cable., but even in this configuration cables do have an audible impact with the Extreme (a very non-subtle and welcome impact with the Sablon 2020 cable). Bass control and sense of space definitely has moved to the positive with the Sablon. Given how small the impact was in this configuration going from generic Cat 5 to the Cat 8 cables, I was quite surprised at the impact of the Sablon ethernet cable, even with all the other ethernet cables in the chain. Could this be a hint as to how to get the most out of the Extreme with copper networking? (NOTE: The Sablon 2020 Ethernet cable is a loaner unit kindly provided by Mark Coles at Sablon Audio. I have no affiliation with Sablon Audio except as a customer, with no expectations or obligations for the loan of the cable except to give it an audition in my system.) Impact of EtherREGEN for Copper Ethernet Regeneration In this test, I introduced an Uptone Audio EtherREGEN to the chain. The EtherREGEN (see Rajiv’s comprehensive review here) is an audiophile network switch that provides both ethernet signal regeneration, and a signal isolation “moat” between it’s “A” side and a single RJ45 100mbps network port on its “B” side. For these tests, I powered the EtherREGEN with an Uptone Audio LPS 1.2 power supply set to 12V. My experience with the EtherREGEN with my reference NUC setup was outstanding. Does it add anything to the Extreme, even though the network speed going to the “B” clean side is reduced to 100 megabit ethernet? To test, I compared the Extreme connected to the “B” clean side of the EtherREGEN (with a premium ethernet cable) and the EtherREGEN connected to a generic switch from the “A” dirty side with a generic Cat 5 cable, with the Extreme connected to the generic switch directly with a premium ethernet cable. The answer is a most definite yes. All the attributes that I heard before with the EtherREGEN are back - increased speed and control (especially for bass), more subtlety and detail, awesome openness and sense of space. Repeating my ethernet cable tests, but this time with the EtherREGEN in the chain, I was able to hear how really special the Sablon 2020 ethernet cable is. Just lovely - neutral, transparent, coherent, fast, and relaxed presentation. Quite a stunning improvement over the Monoprice Cat 8 cable, which was my prefered cable with the EtherREGEN in my NUC-based chain. The music and the room around the musicians just draws you in. Like my “first 10 seconds” reaction when hearing the Sablon 2020 USB cable and Sablon Prince power cord, the Sablon 2020 ethernet cable comes across as neutral, transparent, coherent, invisible and just right – “Yup, we’re done testing here...let’s enjoy some music”. Mark is really on a roll, and I’m loving everything I’m hearing from him. So what is going on with the Sablon ethernet cable that is resulting in this striking level of impact? The Sablon cable is quite impressive, with Cat 8.1 Telegärtner connectors, robust shielding, and Mark’s favorite conductors. These connectors are distinguished by extremely high bandwidth (bandwidth seems to be emerging as a key measure for ethernet cables and audio). Mark uses his favorite conductors for the body of the cable itself, with 5 layers of shielding. Is the extreme bandwidth + shielding + conductor quality what is creating this synergy with the Extreme? Clearly, the Sablon ethernet cable is keeping up with the Extreme much better than the other Cat 8 cables I have on hand. Even for cabling, speed seems to make a big impact with the Extreme. Hearing what the EtherREGEN is able to do with the Extreme, I’m reminded again of what an outstanding value the EtherREGEN is for wired ethernet (just lovely...I had to pull myself away from the combination of Extreme + EtherREGEN + Sablon 2020 ethernet cable to continue with testing). How will moving to optical ethernet change things? Impact of Using EtherREGEN as a Fiber Media Converter Note that Emile did help to configure my optical network interface with some experimental tweaked parameters and driver configurations. The tweaks included configuring the optical network connection for Microsoft Client Network, File and Print Sharing, and IPv4 only. Also, disabling most of the advanced features in the Realtek PCIe GBE driver, and tweaking some buffer sizes to what Emile believes sounds better with “thin” sounding networks. All my listening tests with optical networking were from this baseline, and I did not experiment with optimizing any of these parameters myself (even my audio nervosa has its limits). I made no changes to the copper networking interfaces, which were already tuned from the factory. The Extreme is my first exposure to optical ethernet. I have held off doing experiments with optical ethernet as I’ve been waiting for the Extreme, knowing that the optical network interface is generally the preferred interface on the Extreme. For these tests, I picked up a pair of the Planet Technology MGB-TLX optical transceivers that Emile had recommended from his tests. I also used the Sablon 2020 ethernet cable from my generic media console switch to the EtherREGEN. The EtherREGEN does have an SFP port for an optical transceiver on the “A” “dirty” side. This allows optical in on the “A” side, and copper out of the “A” side or “B” “clean” side to the Extreme. It also allows copper into the “A” or “B” side of the EtherREGEN, and optical out to the Extreme from the “A” side (the EtherREGEN is symmetric, and can be operated in either direction). The later configurations are what I evaluated, basically using the EtherREGEN as a Fiber Media Converter (FMC), but with a moat (with the 100mbps ethernet limit from going across the moat) and without a moat (with the full 1gbps ethernet on the “A” side). For the first test, I wanted to compare wired ethernet to optical ethernet on the Extreme. For this test, I used a generic ethernet cable to connect the “A” side of the EtherREGEN to my generic media console network switch. I then I compared wired ethernet from the “B” side of the EtherREGEN to the Extreme with the Sablon 2020 ethernet cable (the optimum configuration from the previous section), to optical ethernet from “A” side of the EtherREGEN to the optical interface of the Extreme (no moat but fast ethernet for optical, vs moat but slower ethernet for wired). With the optical input to the Extreme, detail and control and dynamics all stepped up significantly. The sense of space and tangibility was improved as well. No question, even without the isolation moat of the EtherREGEN, the optical network path with the EtherREGEN is a huge step up from wired ethernet. But how much of that is due to the slower ethernet speeds when you step across the EtherREGEN moat, and how much to the optical path directly? To test that, I rewired the network to use the Sablon 2020 ethernet coming from my generic media console switch to the EtherREGEN, with optical going from the “A” side of the EtherREGEN to the Extreme. By connecting the Sablon ethernet cable to the “B” side of EtherREGEN, I would get the advantage of the moat but with slower ethernet speeds. By connecting the Sablon ethernet cable to the “A” side of the EtherREGEN, I would get fast ethernet speeds but no moat. In both cases, the final leg would be optical to the Extreme (moat but slower ethernet for optical, vs no moat but faster ethernet for optical). In these configurations, optical with the moat is better than wired, but it is still a definite step down from what I’m hearing with both optical and wired on the same side of the EtherREGEN (no moat). For me, optical ethernet is clearly the winner, but so is fast ethernet. Whatever the EtherREGEN isolation moat is bringing to table isn’t making up for what is being lost with the step down in ethernet speeds. To my ear, the EtherREGEN moat just can’t keep up with the Extreme. Once again, speed seems to really matter with the Extreme. Impact of Using a Sonore opticalModule as a Fiber Media Converter During my tests with the EtherREGEN and optical, my unit was running quite hot (presumably from the extra power draw of the optical transceiver?). While Uptone notes that the unit is designed to run hot, it did get me thinking that by not using the signature moat feature of the EtherREGEN, I was basically using the EtherREGEN as a high quality John Swenson designed audiophile fiber media converter. The other John Swenson designed FMC on the market is the Sonore opticalModule – wired ethernet in on one side, optical transceiver and optical output on the other. So how does the EtherREGEN with optical and wired ethernet on the “A” side compare with the opticalModule as a FMC? I compared them with each powered by an Uptone Audio LPS 1.2 power supply (12V for the EtherREGEN, 5V for the opticalModule), with the Sablon Audio 2020 ethernet cable going to my generic media console network switch. While differences were less obvious on initial listen, the opticalModule is clearly and consistently better sound quality to my ear. The longer I listened to each configuration, the more clear and compelling the differences became. With the opticalModule, there are definitely more dynamics and control, better and more subtle sense of detail and space, and most importantly for me, a more relaxed and engaging presentation. Reviewing my notes from when I first received my EtherREGEN and went through power supply and ethernet cable tests, the character of the differences I hear between the EtherREGEN and the opticalModule are very similar to what I experienced with the EtherREGEN as I moved from the stock EtherREGEN power supply to a Uptone Audio LPS 1.2 to a Paul Hynes SR4. As I improved power to the EtherREGEN, the EtherREGEN just opened up more and there was more goodness there. Going from the EtherREGEN to opticalModule is just more goodness in that same direction and of that same type. My suspicion is that the opticalModule may be straining the LPS 1.2 less than the EtherREGEN is straining the LPS 1.2 (in the past, I’ve found that sound quality can be adversely impacted as the LPS 1.2 is driven closer to its current limits...it’s a wonder supply for low power devices, but has its limits as pushed). With the opticalModule running cool and effortlessly and beautifully I did not chase this further, but EtherREGEN owners may be well served to seek out high quality higher current capability power supplies if they are running the optical networking with the EtherREGEN. Impact of Network Optimizations All the Way Back to My ISP Connection The Extreme definitely rewards the listener who pays careful attention to network optimization – give the Extreme the cleanest fastest network bits you can, and it just opens up more of what the Extreme is capable of. All my tests to this point have had a lot of other cruft between my fiber link to the street and the Extreme. What happens if you eliminate that cruft and take network optimization all the way back to your connection to your internet service provider? As background I have AT&T fiber optic internet service to my home (1gb up and down). I have fiber optic coming in from the street to an AT&T provided Alcatel G-010G-A optical network terminal (or ONT, basically a fancy fiber media converter that also handles video signals and voice signals). That ONT is connected by ethernet to an AT&T provided Pace 5268ac router/gateway (WiFi, VoIP, TV, Ethernet). I only have data to my home (no voice or traditional cable), so the only thing I connect to the AT&T Pace gateway/router is my Ubiquiti EdgeRouter 10X. On my EdgeRouter, I have multiple VLANs (guest, IoT, home, etc), my WiFi access points, and all my wired ethernet for my home. So what happens if I move my opticalModule to my closet and connect it directly to my EdgeRouter? The Planet Technology optical transceivers I’m using are rated to 12 miles(!). The long fiber run from my listening room to my network closet is considerably less than that. With the intermediate Cat 5 home network and generic media console switch out of the path, sound quality took a significant step up – more openness, more control and detail, just more of the network goodness I’ve been hearing each step of the way. How about getting rid of the AT&T router/gateway and connecting directly to the ONT? Alas, AT&T requires that you use their gateway and does not provide any bypass mode (yes that really sucks). Thankfully, the authentication mechanism AT&T uses for their router/gateway isn’t terribly sophisticated. Subscription is managed at the ONT (you can’t easily steal service), but if you clone the MAC address of the AT&T provided gateway to your own router, you can swap in your own router after the AT&T router/gateway has authenticated against the AT&T network. For the more adventurous amongst us, it is also possible to extract the security certs from the AT&T router/gateway and install them on your own router with a WPA supplicant. I would never endorse such a thing (ahem), but it is an opportunity to see if eliminating another block in the network chain has any impact. Hypothetically speaking, if one were to eliminate the AT&T provided gateway, yup another notable step up in sound quality, with more of the same goodness. What I’m (hypothetically) hearing is stunning, by far the most relaxed and natural and extended soundstage and dynamics I’ve ever heard. Swapping out the SMPS on the EdgeRouter for a LDPWR DXP-1A5DSC dual stage power supply at 12V, energized by a PowerAdd Pilot Pro2 battery? Wow, quite a bit better still. Swapping out the generic ethernet cable between the ONT and the EdgeRouter with the Monoprice Cat8? Yup, even better. Swapping out the SMPS on the ONT for a LDPWR DXP-1A5S single stage power supply at 12V, energized by a PowerAdd Pilot Pro2 battery? Another material step up (this one really surprised me...time to hack into the AT&T fiber concentrator down the street and finagle a power supply upgrade?). As a final bonus tweak, how about the router noise filtering dongle thingie that Mark Coles sent along with the Sablon 2020 Ethernet cable to demo? Yup, even better. Dang, this rabbit hole seems to have no end to it. I should note that the EdgeRouter is a fine gateway/router (the price/performance/feature set is pretty amazing actually) but the real bonus is that unlike the AT&T provided Pace gateway/router, it can be easily powered by a modest high quality power supply like the LDPWR’s or a LPS 1.2. Clean power to the AT&T provided ONT and the EdgeRouter 10X made a startling difference in sound quality. I was anticipating a small change for the better, but it was a heck of a lot more than that. Aside from telling me I’m going to need two Sablon 2020 ethernet cables (ONT to EdgeRouter, and EdgeRouter to opticalModule), all this is telling me that there is probably even a win to be had by getting an additional router/switch, and optically isolating my EdgeRouter 10X from the rest of my home network. In this configuration, I’d have a LPS powered ONT to LPS powered EdgeRouter 1, which is then optically connected to the Extreme and optically connected to a SMPS powered EdgeRouter 2. The EdgeRouter 2 would then be connected to my WiFi and the rest of my home network. That would give me a minimal network path from the street to the Extreme, with fiber, LPS, and pretty good galvanic isolation from the rest of my home network. For now, that’s a journey for another day, and a different corner of this particular rabbit hole waiting to be explored. So After All That, How Does Local Storage vs File Serve vs TIDAL Compare? With all the same caveats before of not knowing the masterings on TIDAL, how do all these music sources compare after all these network optimizations? Sound quality is danger close now, enough so that I can much more clearly identify TIDAL songs that are different mastering than what I have locally on my Extreme and on my Mac Mini file server. I still give the SLIGHTEST of nods for dynamics to local content, but we’re into a level of nuance that is almost disrespectful to the astonishing sound quality and musical performances I am hearing. Closing Thoughts on Network Optimizations Taking a step back, not only am I astonished at what I’m hearing with networking changes, but I’m even more astonished that I am able to hear it at all. For all my hopes that jumping to an end game digital server would put an end to the system optimizations, the Extreme is so astonishingly revealing and performant that everything you feed it (power and network) is holding it back in some way. The only other “True Reference” component I’ve experienced like this is an mScaled Chord DAVE – Both DAVE and Extremes represent (to me) an absolute reference that you can only take away from. Put the effort in to feed the Extreme better inputs (power and network), and you will be rewarded handsomely way beyond your wildest expectations. So how about focusing some care and attention to the output side of the Extreme? USB Optimizations (limited) Believe it or not, all my testing so far has been done with a generic printer-class USB cable between the Extreme and my DAC. Unfortunately, I have recently gone through a major investigation and upgrade cycle for USB with my NUC reference system, so I have limited cables and USB tweaks to be able to test with Extreme. Fortunately, these are the best I heard on my NUCs, so let’s dive in. What is there to be gained by optimizing the critical USB connection between the Extreme and your DAC? Starting at the back panel of the Extreme, I evaluated the following USB upgrades: A variety of upgraded USB cables, from my reference and favorite Sablon Audio 2020 USB cable, to the Uptone Audio USPCB and Monoprice SlimRun optical USB extension cable A maxed out SOtM tX-USBultra Special Edition powered by a Paul Hynes SR4 power supply For these tests, I left the Extreme powered and networked in my optimal configuration described in previous sections. I also limited testing to content stored locally on the Extreme. Impact of USB cables My first test was to compare the generic USB cable with my reference Sablon 2020 cable. In previous testing, I had iterated through many USB cables (including DIY shielded cables) before settling on the Phasure Lush^2 cables (with DIY layered on top of those as well). I was amazed at how different materials and shield configurations had such a profound impact with USB cables. When Sablon Audio released their 2020 update to their USB cable, it received rave reviews from many ears that I trust so I ordered one unheard. As I have mentioned earlier in this review, 10 seconds into my first listen with the Sablon, I was done experimenting with USB cables and shielding and put all that stuff away. The naturalness and transparency and relaxed presentation of the Sablon 2020 USB cable was perfect (no compromise) for me. It’s taken several weeks of listening tests with the Extreme to finally get here, but I was very eager to finally hear how the Sablon 2020 USB cable sounded with the Extreme. Dropping it in, I had that same “first 10 seconds” reaction all over again. Just a wonderfully engaging and welcoming natural presentation, incredibly detailed, but effortless and without any stress. This is the most invisible and transparent USB cable I’ve ever heard, and I’m hearing it all over again. Such a delight, and in the world of audio nervosa, such a gift to completely trust a component like this and know it is just right (I’d missed this cable more than I knew). Alas, I do not have access to other well regarded USB cables (like the Shunyata Sigma USB cable) to test, but if someone is willing to share, I’d be delighted to give them a listen and update this review. The second USB cable discovery that allowed me to end my USB experimentation came from a fellow audiophile who’s ear I not only completely trust, but whose bias toward transparency and presence aligns extremely well with my own. He suggested that I audition the Monoprice SlimRun optical USB extension cable, which turned out to be gold. The Monoprice SlimRun converts the USB signal to an optical signal, and at the other end has a female USB connector that converts it back to regular USB. It is available in lengths up to 160 feet, so it gives tremendous flexibility in where you place your music server (and creates some distance from your DAC for any RF generated by your server). The Monoprice SlimRun is not quite galvanically isolated, since there is a power line for the end connector and USB Vbus that runs the length of the cable, but there is an option to externally power the cable with a micro USB connector on the computer end of the cable. Powering the Monoprice USB SlimRun with an Uptone Audio LPS 1.2, you get all the essential benefit of galvanic isolation, but with USB data rates (no compromise), and cable lengths as long as you practically could hope for, with no apparent sound quality changes with longer lengths. The Monoprice SlimRun is a USB extender, so It does require a USB cable to connect to the DAC at the end of the extension run. I variously use the Uptone Audio USPCB (an astonishingly good value device, made incredibly practical with the Monoprice SlimRun) and the Sablon Audio 2020 USB cable. Comparing the Sablon Audio 2020 USB cable direct from Extreme to my Chord DAVE vs Sablon USB cable with the Monoprice SlimRun, the SlimRun (powered from Extreme) does add a touch of harshness to playback. Switching power on the SlimRun to a PowerAdd Pilot Pro2 battery cleaned that right up, giving the same wonderful presentation I’m used to. When I cheated and reclaimed a LPS 1.2 from my network router, things got much cleaner and got me to my end state. Comparing the Monoprice SlimRun with Sablon USB cable vs the Uptone USPCB, I give the edge to the Sablon for all the reasons I cited earlier. Simply delightful. Impact of USB Regeneration With my NUC music servers, I heard tremendous benefit with USB regenerators like the Uptone Audio ISO Regen. Prior to getting the Extreme, I found my end game USB regenerator with the SOtM tX-USBultra Special Edition. The impact this had with my low power NUCs was magical, and it scaled wonderfully with the best power supply I had available (a Paul Hynes Limited SR4 @ 12V). Placing it in the chain with the Extreme seemed to actually slow down the remarkable speed and dynamics of the Extreme. As good as the tX-USBultra SE is (and it is one of the crown jewels of audiodom), amazingly it seems like it is holding back what the Extreme can do natively. To get a meaningful USB upgrade for the Extreme, it may be necessary to jump to something like the JCAT USB Card XE or JCAT USB Card Femto, paired with some high quality power supply or perhaps the spare +5V supply in the Extreme. I look forward to auditioning these at some point in the future. Mechanical Optimizations I have become a big believer in mechanical and vibration isolation for any power supply and any piece of digital equipment (particularly DACs). With the astonishingly small signal levels that we’re impacting and hearing, even small vibrations will induce noise and reference power instabilities that are surprisingly audible. Particularly with the Chord DAVE, that remarkable sense of depth and holographic space that I treasure so much is the most susceptible to vibrations. Rob Watts, the talented and always insightful designer of the DAVE attributes this sense of depth with the DAVE to extreme fine signal level noise reduction. I’ve learned to key off that sense of depth and space to identify when things are not what they should be. The design of the Extreme reflects a significant and extremely thoughtful focus on mechanical stability and vibration isolation, particularly for key components in the power supply. When it comes to power supply stability and reference voltage stability, I’ve found that even seemingly small improvements in vibration isolation can have an outsized impact (as Emile has so succinctly explained, a voltage applied to a capacitor causes it to vibrate, and vibration applied to a capacitor causes it to generate a voltage). With that background, out of the box I intentionally gave little attention to vibration isolation with the Extreme. As I noted earlier, Emile has already gone to tremendous lengths with the case work and internal vibration isolation around key components in the power chain (I’m blown away actually...that level of attention to detail in a commercial offering is way beyond anything I’ve seen before). For my testing to this point, I’ve had my Extreme inches away from a speaker on a generic media console with no effort put into vibration isolation, with nothing but a Pottery Barn towel under the Extreme. So starting from here, I wanted to test the following: Take advantage of the flexibility of the Monoprice SlimRun USB extender to move the Extreme to the corner of the room, placed away from speakers and my DAC, directly on a wood floor Add a double stack of Taiko Audio Daiza vibration isolation platforms under the Extreme For these final tweaks, I kept the Extreme in its optimal power and network configurations, and used the Monoprice SlimRun USB Extender and Sablon 2020 USB cable to connect the Extreme to my Chord DAVE DAC from a distance. Impact of Moving Extreme to Edge of Room and Onto Daiza Vibration Control Platforms First order of business was to cajole my daughter and partner out of their rooms with even more chocolate, and impose on them to help me lower the Extreme to the floor. Once there (and toes safe), I used some furniture movers and lots of huffing and puffing in very tight quarters to get the Extreme happily in its new home: The flexibility one gets with optical fiber networking and the Monoprice SlimRun optical USB extender can not be overstated. I could have put the Extreme virtually anywhere in my listening room, or even in any room in my house (the only restriction I had was proximity to my dedicated circuit power outlet). In the end, it puts a smile on my face to see a 100 pound music server capable of such astonishing music reproduction nestled under a century old Steinway (and until post Pandemic when we have house guests again, I can get away with having it there. I placed my Extreme on a double stack of Taiko Audio Daiza vibration damping and control platforms. The platforms are beasts of precision milled 25 pound slabs of panzerholz, with an intriguing crop circle spiral pattern milled on the underside and substantial copper and panzerholz footers. (Photos used with permissions from Taiko Audio website) Getting the Extremes stacked on the Daiza’s in this tight space was (to say the least) EXTREMELY challenging. Thankfully no fingers were crushed, no disks were ruptured, and no scratches were scratched. Alas, given the pain of getting things in place (and the laughter of the folks eating chocolates and watching me suffer), my willingness and ability to test different configurations (one vs two Daizas, etc) and do proper A/B listening tests is basically zero. Post Pandemic, I’ll be delighted to host a listening session where someone (else) is changing the configuration while I do critical listening for audible changes. All that being said, this panzerholz is pretty remarkable material (this is my first in person exposure to it). Panzerholz was first developed during World War II as a modest-weight armor material for tanks and other vehicles. By taking multiple layers of laminated wood, and compressing it under tremendous heat and pressure and steam to ~½ its size, the material becomes an ultra dense cellulose laminate which is actually bulletproof(!) For audiophiles, panzerholz is compelling for its vibration dampening properties. By combining very high density with a low transmissibility and high internal damping, panzerholz is used for everything from piano soundboards to turntable bases and tone arms and cartridges to case work to vibration isolation. For the Daiza, Taiko has taken the panzerholz that they strategically use internally to the Extreme, and built a vibration control platform that complements the design of the Extreme case itself. The crop circle spiral pattern on the underside is intended to tune the natural modes of the platform, with additional damping with the foam filled foundations for the footers and in the foam filled copper and panzerholz footers. The mechanical properties of the Daiza are engineered to be a complement to the aluminum case work of the Extreme, dampening the high frequency resonances of the casework while minimizing any self resonance (dampening rather than ringing). Emile and others have also noted the compound benefit of stacking Daizas, offering better damping and vibration absorption. As I learned more about the unique material properties of panzerholz (and how it side steps a lot of the unintended challenges with other materials and vibration isolation strategies) and learned about the care that had been put into designing the Daiza as a mechanical complement to the Extreme, I took the leap and ordered a stacked pair for my Extreme, and a smaller Daiza for my Chord DAVE. When I first got the Daizas, I was struck by how they felt physically, and how evocative they were. They had a wonderful warmth of wood, but with a density and stillness that was striking (almost like holding a dense deadened metal block, but with warmth and tactile inviting feeling of wood). Placing a smaller Daiza under my Chord DAVE, the impact was very immediate and tangible: much more imaging clarity and detail (classic benefits from vibration isolation for my DAC), but also a calm and stillness that I found to be very compelling and engaging, and even comforting. This additional sense of calm was a new experience for me, and not something I had heard with other vibration isolation materials and schemes. Assessing the impact of the Daizas with the Extreme was more difficult. Given the newness of my experience with the Extreme and the enormous challenge of placing a 50 pound stack of panzerholz under a 100 pound beast of a server in a very tight space, it is very difficult for me to speak with specificity to the differences I am hearing with the Extreme on 0, 1, or 2 Daizas (for practical reasons, I jumped right to two, and I’m not touching the stack again until I hit the gym for a couple months in preparation). However, the end result of all the tweaking is a calm, ultra fast yet ultra controlled presentation that feels simultaneously effortless and incredibly powerful. I’m grasping for analogies for what I am hearing, but I am reminded of the finest dancers, who have an incredible quiet grace and control that seems both absolute and absolutely effortless. They also evoke a quiet power that can explode at any moment into spectacular movements. As I reflect on and relish what I am hearing and experiencing, the Extreme on Daizas evokes that beautiful sense of being in the presence and in the moment with that remarkable dancer. So with the Extreme all tweaked out and optimized, how does it sound? In Part 5 (LINK) I share notes from extended listening sessions, and bring it all together to close out this review. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Part 1 - Introduction and Digital Audio Optimization Foundations (Link) Part 2 - Enter the Extreme (Link) Part 3 - First Impressions and Basic Configuration Part 4 - Tweaking Up the Extreme (Link) Part 5 - Extended Listening Impressions, Learnings, and Conclusions (Link) In Part 1 I shared some of my experiences and learnings in digital audio optimization and how that foundation brought me to the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme, a true Summit-Fi digital music server from Taiko Guru Emile Bok. In Part 2, I reviewed in detail the very impressive specifications, build quality, and design details for the Extreme, and how all the pieces come together for a world class digital music server. In this Part 3 of my review of the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme, I fire the beast up for a first listen, and look at the impact of various out of the box system configurations and settings. Listening Impressions Out of the gate, I wanted to see what the Extreme could do with no special tweaks or advantages (generic USB cable, cheap ethernet cable going through a couple cheap switches to my router, plugged into a power strip and a random power outlet with all my other AV equipment, no vibration isolation, etc). I wanted to establish a baseline, then incrementally introduce system optimizations to see what impact they have. I was also keen on hearing how a “stock” Extreme with no OCD advantages compares with my reference NUC music server setup. After cajoling my daughter and partner out of their rooms with chocolate, I imposed on them to help me lift the Extreme into its initial home: From left to right: Voxativ 9.87 speakers with 4D drivers (104dB sensitivity) sitting on a Voxativ Pi bass units A stock NUC7i7DNKE in standard case with consumer RAM running Audiolinux in RAM, with Roon server on an Optane drive Paul Hynes SR4 power supply powering a SOtM tX-USBultra Special Edition USB regenerator at 12V An Uptone Audio UltraCap LPS 1.2 power supply powering an (not pictured) Uptone Audio EtherREGEN ethernet regenerator, with Cat 8 cables to the server and endpoint NUCs A battery powered (PowerAdd Pilot Pro2) NUC7i7DNKE in a fanless Akasa case with wide temperature industrial Apacer RAM running Euphony in RAM (sometimes running HQPlayer Embedded connecting to my NUC Roon server, and sometimes Stylus + HQPlayer in a one box solution), booted from an Optane drive A Monoprice USB SlimRun optical USB extender cable and Uptone Audio USPCB connecting my endpoint NUC to a SOtM tX-USBultra Special Edition, and a Sablon Audio 2020 USB cable connecting the SOtM tX-USBultra Special Edition to my Chord DAVE DAC A Chord DAVE DAC on a Taiko Audio Daiza panzerholz vibration isolation base (more on those later) A very intimidating and imposing Taiko Audio SGM Extreme (on a Pottery Barn towel) with generic power, USB, and cheap Cat 5 network connectivity to the generic switch and wall ethernet for my media console My audio equipment is powered by a pair of dedicated 30A circuits (one for DAC and Voxativ bass units, one for NUC digital chain), each with their own Topaz ultra low capacitance isolation transformers, with Pangea AC-9 and AC-14 power cords (the LPS 1.2 is always mains disconnected, so I have its SMPS charging supply plugged into the normal house power outlet) Back and forth between Voxativ Ampeggio speaker cables and Iconoclast SPTPC speaker cables directly connecting the Chord DAVE to the Voxativ 9.87’s In my bedroom closet, I have AT&T fiber to my home (TIDAL for streaming), and a Mac Mini (stock) as a file server with my music library My Roon server NUC has some local content on the Optane drive, and mounts my music library from my Mac Mini file server. I configured HQPlayer with the sinc-M filter, upsampling to PCM to 16fs (705/768kHz), mimicking what I had when I had a Chord Blu2 then a Chord Hugo mScaler. First Impressions – Straight out of the box After powering on the unit for a couple hours, I connected it to my DAC and quickly set up Roon for TIDAL (no music library, no HQPlayer, Redbook quality lossless direct to DAVE) just to do a quick test of whether things were working. Right off the bat, I was struck by the remarkable presence and clarity I was hearing, even without the benefit of 1M tap upscaling. This is by far the best I’ve ever heard DAVE without mScaler, and is in many ways superior to what I’m used to hearing even with 1M tap upscaling (for background on Chord’s Hugo mScaler upsampler, see Rajiv’s excellent review of the Chord TT2 and Hugo mScaler combo). The sense of speed and precision is unbelievable, even without the timing and transient benefits I’m accustomed to with 1M taps upsampling. There is a tangible physicality to music, particularly from voices and string instruments. Edges are just faster and much more controlled than I’m accustomed to, which is making everything feel so present and in the room. Thankfully, this isn’t some sort of false sense of detail. In the past I’ve noted that certain kinds of RF and digital noise can cause a false sense of detail at first list, but that quickly gives way to fatigue. That’s definitely not the case here. Music reproduction is so neutral and unencumbered, hyper hyper clean, and without that characteristic sense of digital haze or stress that I associate with RF or digital noise. Soundstage imaging is similarly unstressed, compelling, and comfortably present. Speed and control of the thwack on percussion is quite remarkable. Shifting to some favorite performances on shoddy recordings, Shamas-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja (from “Shahen-Shah” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) is absolutely vivid and present and (incredibly) real! Dynamics off the chart, making any noise in the recording just not matter any more. A glorious performance channeling the angels, brought to vivid tangible life...wow! Going to some test tracks that I’ve leaned into in the past when doing network optimizations, there is a visceral physical bass sensation on Diana Krall’s The Boulevard of Broken Dreams that I’ve only heard in my NUC reference system with the Uptone Audio EtherREGEN in the chain. Hearing it with no network optimizations at all is a first for me, and makes me wonder how far the Extreme can go with some TLC on the network side. Hearing how remarkable “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” sounded, I just had to revisit some old favorites. So What on Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” brought Bill Evans into the room! From what I’m hearing, I will need to spend a lot of time getting to know Bill Evans all over again. Well no time like the present...it’s Waltz for Debby time! (from the Village Vanguard sessions) Scott LaFaro’s bass is incredibly present, subtle, and confident. I’m almost teary hearing LaFaro play in this way. Back to another favorite recording, but one where I’m always on edge waiting for playback to break – Fields of Gold by Eva Cassidy (“Nightbird”). Wonderful stuff - that sense of dynamic compression or approaching clipping is WAY diminished. Stressful passages are relaxed and natural. I keep waiting for the recording to break, but it just doesn’t. Alas, what was going to be a quick 10 minute sound check quickly turned into 2 hours of kid-in-the-candy-store time. Alas2, it is a weeknight and school night, so time to call it a night. Basic Configuration With the weekend upon us, the first order of business was to get the Extreme properly configured. After brushing off some Windows command line cobwebs that I thought I would never have to revisit, I kicked off a robocopy (robocopy \\SERVERNAME\media\music d: /MIR) of my music directory on my Mac Mini media server to the local D drive. 6 hours and 4TB and 40,000 songs later, it was time to do a restore of my Roon backup. A quick redirection of audio storage in my restored Roon backup to point at the D drive on the Extreme, and I was ready to move on to HQPlayer Desktop setup. Upsampling with HQPlayer Desktop HQPlayer Desktop installation was straight forward (Taiko does offer to install and configure HQPlayer for you if requested). I installed my license and brought over my favorite settings from my NUC (sinc-M with LNS15 and 16fs target for PCM, sinc-M with DSD7 256+fs with DSD256 target for DSD), and selected the Chord ASIO driver for HQPlayer. I configured an HQPlayer audio device in Roon Server on the Extreme for “localhost” and I was cooking with gas. My final HQPlayer settings on my Extreme are below (more on the HQPlayer tweaking later). As expected, HQPlayer took an already glorious sound and brought back all that mScaled goodness I was missing. For those not familiar with HQPlayer filters, my preference is for the sinc-M filter as being closest to the million tap sinc reconstruction filter in the Hugo mScaler. The 15th order noise shaper to my ear is not quite as engaging as the proprietary WTA filter in the Hugo mScaler, but it is pretty close and very high quality. I listen almost exclusively to PCM content (I have found that Chord DACs are able to do much more magic with PCM than DSD). The vast majority of my music is PCM, but when possible, I always try to purchase music in the format it was originally recorded to, so I do have a smattering of DSD in my library. Rather than convert DSD content to PCM in Roon or HQPlayer, I have a preference for DSD content being upsampled to DSD256 in HQPlayer, and letting my Chord DAVE do the DSD to PCM conversion internally. My preferred HQPlayer DSD upsampling settings are pictured above. One thing to note: when HQPlayer Desktop starts on the Extreme, a page pops up showing that it doesn’t seem to see one of the Extreme CPUs (see above). In checking with Jussi Laako, developer of HQPlayer, apparently this is a Windows-specific restriction with multi-socket logical processors and HQPlayer. As a practical matter, this has been a non-issue for me. There is so much horsepower in the one Xeon CPU that I haven’t had an issue with any of the upsampling I’m doing (<1% CPU utilization for PCM upsampling, and <10% CPU utilization for DSD upsampling). Sound quality with HQPlayer has been outstanding. Except where indicated below, all my listening tests were done with the above HQPlayer settings. JPLAY ASIO vs Chord ASIO vs WASAPI Driver As I mentioned earlier, the Extreme comes with the standard Windows WASAPI USB driver, as well as a pre-installed and configured JPLAY ASIO driver. In addition, Emile installed the Chord ASIO driver for my Chord DAVE. So which of these drivers sound best? Each of these drivers have intrinsic capabilities and a characteristic sound. The WASAPI driver is limited to 24/192 output, so not the best match for PCM content being upscaled to 24/768 by HQPlayer, but perfectly good for standard 16/44 content. JPLAY has no limits on PCM output, but is limited to DSD128 for DSD. The Chord ASIO driver has no limits for PCM or DSD to my Chord DAC. JPLAY is interesting in that it has a settings screen with a lot of configurable parameters (the default I received with my Extreme is shown above). For my listening tests, I did not adjust any of these settings (just don’t have confidence that I understand the OS-level tunings that Emile has implemented). For my initial driver test, I exited HQPlayer to go direct Extreme to Chord DAVE (no upsampling) so I could give the WASAPI driver a fair shake vs JPLAY ASIO and Chord ASIO drivers. To eliminate network influences, I listened to local copies of music on the Extreme (FLAC or ALAC 16/44 content, with some FLAC 24/192 content). The WASAPI driver was extremely nice, especially compared to what I’m accustomed to pre Extreme (even non-upsampled, this is the best music I’ve ever heard from my system). However the WASAPI driver was consistently slower and flatter and less dynamic than the JPLAY and Chord ASIO drivers. For example, on the remarkable violin solo at the beginning of movement 4 of Reiner’s Scheherazade, there is a presence and physicality to the violin that is simply next level with the Chord and JPLAY drivers (JPLAY more so than Chord). Each start and stop of the bow is tangible, and the subtlety and intonation of the performance is incredibly vivid and real. When the rest of the orchestra joins in, the Chord ASIO driver gives remarkable detail and transparency to each of the sections and even individual players, but with the JPLAY driver, I am able to hear for the first time individual performances in the orchestra sections. That remarkable sense of standing next to Maestro Reiner with the orchestra before you is absolutely intoxicating. I thought I had heard all this remarkable recording and performance could give, but there is so much more beauty and subtlety in these performances to explore and absorb (and to be absorbed by). With recordings like Organ Prelude (“JS Bach Magnificat” by Dunedin Consort) and O thou tellest good tidings (“Handel: Messiah” by Dunedin Consort) and Fecit potentiam (“Arnesen: Magnificat” by TrondheimSolistene), the sense of the space and depth is remarkable. The cathedral is an integral part of the performance, and the sense of space and being within it is intoxicating. Switching to my favorite depth test Four Surround Voices (“The Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disk” by Chesky), the Chord and JPLAY drivers both have a significantly better sense of depth (including well behind the listener...this is true holographic surround sound), but with the JPLAY driver that sense of space was a touch more relaxed and real. While transparency is extraordinary with the WASAPI driver, the Chord and JPLAY drivers just take things to a completely different level. I’ve never heard this level of transparency and physicality, especially for complex performances. The WASAPI driver is the best I’ve ever heard (pre Extreme), but it is outclassed by the Chord ASIO and JPLAY ASIO drivers in every possible way (absolutely no contest). If I were to reflect on what I am hearing, my impression of the change is very similar to what I experienced with my NUC music servers as I introduced RAM boot, and significantly increased the size of the memory buffers for Squeezelite and the ALSA sound driver. Even the WASAPI driver on the Extreme is well beyond what I heard on my NUC, but the sound improvements have a strikingly similar character as I go from WASAPI to Chord to JPLAY. If WASAPI is a 3 (on a scale of 1-10), I would put Chord at 8 and JPLAY at 9. Both significantly better than the WASPI driver, but the JPLAY slightly outpacing the Chord to my ear (mainly in transparency). Consistently, the Chord ASIO driver opened up the dimensionality of the recording (holographic) with remarkable spatial resolution and subtlety, and the JPLAY driver taking things to simply the next level (just effortless to be in the space of the performance). Putting away the WASAPI driver for the remainder of my testing, I then switched to Chord ASIO vs JPLAY ASIO with HQPlayer running (you can select the driver from the Device drop down in the Out Device Settings section of the HQPlayer settings above). With HQPlayer, the overall level of detail and sense of space is taken up another order of magnitude. All that amazing sense of speed and coherence and detail that those of us that have been addicted to mScaled music on Chord DACs have come to love is now elevating what I’m hearing to an incredible place. Even what I was hearing with no upsampling was well beyond anything I’ve ever heard in my system, but now things are elevated even more still. The JPLAY advantage for transparency, more relaxed detail, and naturalness is amplified even more with HQPlayer in the chain, at least with PCM content. Switching to some DSD test tracks, I have a slight preference for the HQPlayer with the Chord ASIO driver as output. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect this is due to the limitation of the JPLAY ASIO driver to DSD128 output. For those that are doing similar tinkering with their Extreme, please remember that these are three drivers talking to the same device (WASAPI, JPLAY ASIO, Chord ASIO), and two applications talking to these drivers (Roon and HQPlayer). There are lots of opportunities when rapidly swapping back and forth to get into a state where you have conflicts that block being able to connect to your DAC. If you get stuck, disable audio devices in Roon, quit HQPlayer, quit Roon Server, and bring things back up. Based on what I’m hearing, I’ve settled on JPLAY in HQPlayer as my primary listening audio device in Roon for PCM content. When listening to DSD content, I switch HQPlayer to use the Chord ASIO driver. In this configuration, I play music exclusively through Roon to HQPlayer, but change the settings in HQPlayer between JPLAY (PCM content) and the Chord ASIO driver (DSD content) as needed, although I’m delighted to listen to either JPLAY or Chord ASIO drivers in HQPlayer for either PCM or DSD content (differences are small). Choice of Music Location So how about the choice of where to put your music library? As I mentioned previously, my Extreme has 8TB of local PCIe M.2 storage, so I was able to copy my entire 4TB music library from my Mac Mini media server to the Extreme. This allows me to compare the exact same source files local on the Extreme, vs via an SMB share on my home network from my Mac Mini, vs (what I hope is) the same content streaming from Tidal (unoptimized network configuration in all cases). With PCM content, HQPlayer, the JPLAY driver, and an unoptimized copper ethernet connection, I found that local content on the Extreme had consistently and notably better dynamics and speed than the exact same content over the network from my Mac Mini server. Where I could find Tidal content that I was confident was from the same mastering as my redbook content (my content was typically ripped from CD for these tests), TIDAL was consistently a significant step down in dynamics and speed vs what I was hearing locally or over my LAN. That being said, I obviously can’t control for different masterings on TIDAL vs what I have locally on my systems, but the impact was consistent across the tracks that I auditioned. A reminder that the above impressions were using a completely unoptimized network. I will revisit these tests in the context of a highly optimized network and internet connection in Part 4 of this review. One Box Extreme Solution vs Extreme as Roon Endpoint For this test, I closed HQPlayer on the Extreme and played local content using the Extreme Roon Server (one box solution), and compared Extreme as the world’s most expensive Roon endpoint, with music being played with local content from my NUC Roon Server (generic NUC running Audiolinux in memory). The network path between the NUC and the Extreme for these tests was: NUC -> Cable Matters Cat 8 ethernet cable -> EtherREGEN (LPS 1.2 powered) -> generic Cat 5 -> generic switch (SMPS powered) -> generic Cat 5 -> Extreme. Interestingly, the one box solution on the Extreme had notably better dynamics and speed than the same content being played from a NUC-based Roon server to the Extreme as a Roon endpoint (the Extreme advantage isn’t just an endpoint phenomenon). Compared to the one box Extreme solution playing content from my Mac Mini over the network to the Extreme, using the NUC as the Roon server with local content did have better dynamics and speed. Clearly, the Mac Mini in my test setup can not keep up with local content, whether directly to the Extreme, or indirectly through a NUC Roon server to the Extreme. This test was interesting though to give a qualitative sense how much music storage vs Roon server vs Roon endpoint contributes to the aggregate performance of the one box solution on the Extreme. Note: If you do try this at home, a reminder to disable the audio endpoint on your non-Extreme Roon server when you are done. As I was experimenting with this configuration, I created some instabilities where I intermittently couldn’t use the JPLAY driver on the Extreme (“Unable to connect to audio device”). It turned out that on my NUC Roon server, I still had the JPLAY driver Roon endpoint on the Extreme selected (but not being used). Apparently, that was enough to occasionally lock up the JPLAY driver on my Extreme and prevent me from connecting to the audio device via JPLAY. Disabling the endpoint on the NUC Roon server cleaned everything up. Stock Extreme vs Reference NUCs When I first started this evaluation of the Extreme, I had anticipated spending considerable time doing a detailed comparison between the Extreme and my reference NUC system. Alas, that plan only lasted a couple minutes before I realized how meaningless it would be. There is simply no comparison to be drawn. As much as I adore my NUC setup and as much joy and true wonder it has given me, there is simply no aspect of it (other than size and price) that is notable when compared to the Extreme. The Extreme, in all audio aspects, is orders of magnitude beyond what I had thought was a pretty damn good system. The Extreme is quite simply a Next Gen Tesla Roadster in a Gen 1 Prius world. So all this goodness and wonder is straight out of the box. How does the Extreme scale as you give attention to power and network and USB and other ins and outs? It turns out it scales remarkably well, which I will dive into in Part 4 (LINK) of this review. 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.
  4. Editor's Note: This week Audiophile Style is going to extremes. In fact, we are calling it Extreme Week here on AS. Three months ago when I first talked to Ray about publishing a review of the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme, I had no idea he would put an extreme amount of work into the effort and put together a treatise on his experience. When I read through it the first time, I knew we had to do something different. Thus, we have dedicated an entire week to publishing Ray's review of the SGM Extreme. One part each day, Monday through Friday. I hope the AS Community enjoys reading this review series as much as I have. - CC Reality Quest: Going to Extremes with the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme (Part 1 of 5) A back (and bank) breaking 100 pound $26,000 digital music server with 40 Xeon cores and 48GB of custom memory and 8TB of M.2 PCIe storage, unironically named “Extreme," with a reputation for being the ultimate mic-drop Summit-Fi for digital audio? Wow... So what is audiophile life like at these rarified heights? How does the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme stack up against an already OCD-tuned and optimized NUC digital music server/endpoint setup? Can one possibly justify this sort of expense and extravagance for a music server? If one were crazy enough to take this leap, are there ways to improve upon Extreme and take its performance higher still? Earlier this year, semi-rationalized irrationality got the best of me, and I decided I needed the answers to these questions. Many emails and discussions with audiophile friends and Taiko Audio guru Emile Bok later, I took the leap and ordered an Extreme. Alas, a month later the world changed, and after a brief Pandemic-induced supply chain and shipping delay, I received my Extreme and have been putting it through its paces ever since. TL;DR – It’s pretty damn awesome! (TL;DR)2 – Here is where I ended up after all the tweaking. In many ways, the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme represents the culmination of many years of community learnings about computer audio and computer audio optimization. Each aspect of the Extreme (physical, electrical, mechanical, compute, I/O, software, etc.) is taken to the (no pun intended) absolute extreme, all in the carefully designed and considered service of digitally reproducing the best sound possible. The Extreme is Emile Bok’s opus, a seminal product that is the distillation and embodiment of the state of the art in digital audio. Even for those that have not been able to hear it first hand, the Extreme offers much to appreciate, and especially for system designers and DIY types, much to learn from. To give each aspect of the Extreme the attention it deserves, this review is broken up into 5 parts: Part 1 - Introduction and Digital Audio Optimization Foundations In this part, I share my personal perspective and journey with digital music servers, and how those experiences and biases inform and color my experience of the Extreme. I also share details on equipment under test and the music I typically use when evaluating new components and systems. Those well-steeped in the practice and lore of digital music server optimization may wish to jump straight to Part 2. Part 2 - Enter the Extreme With the Extreme, the component selection, casework, power and mechanical design, system configuration, and numerous design details all reflect a deep understanding of system design and a thoughtful care for how all the pieces come together into a whole that is much greater than the sum of the parts. In Part 2, I dive into Emile’s masterwork, and break down these pieces and explore how they work together. Part 3 - First Impressions and Basic Configuration In Part 3, time to listen to some music, and see what the Extreme is able to do straight out of the box. Part 4 - Tweaking Up the Extreme In Part 4, it is time to take the Extreme from Ridiculous Speed to Ludicrous Speed to Plaid! How does careful attention to power, networking, USB, and mechanical factors impact the performance of the Extreme? It turns out, quite a lot! Part 5 - Extended Listening Impressions, Learnings, and Conclusions And finally in Part 5, time to put the A/B tests and audio nervosa tweaking twitches away, really listen to some music, and reflect on how all these technologies come together into what is truly a remarkable experience of music. Let’s dive into Extreme week! Digital Audio Optimization Foundations Digital optimizations and hygiene in digital 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 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. What matters for me is how the notes come together to something larger, a resonance that is greater than the sum of its parts. As an imperfect analogy of that “something larger” experience, consider how mixing coal + chalk + water + iron filings in ever more precise proportions using ever more esoterically sourced materials won’t result in a child that you will cherish and adore and make the center of your life. Both your child and the coal + chalk + water + iron filings are made of the exact same things. Arguing about the purity of the water or where the coal was sourced or the magnetic properties of the iron for me changes nothing. The real debate is how they come together, and how it comes alive and becomes meaningful. A few years ago, I was introduced to the Chord Mojo and then the Chord DAVE, and they have completely changed my experience of music. For the first time I've gone from “listening to music” to “participating in a performance”. That feeling of intoxication or euphoria from the performance has been driving me to optimize my analog chain, and now to go deep into the digital side of my chain. When a recorded performance truly comes alive, it draws me in the same way I am drawn to an amateur performance in a coffee shop or a subway. This sense of reality is difficult to describe, but it is only loosely correlated to what I think of as “typical” measures of distortion or tonal balance. When I am walking by a coffee shop, I can tell if there is live music being played inside (vs recorded music). Even with all the traffic noise and going through walls and glass, I can somehow tell it is real people with real instruments even from the street, and I am attracted to it and want to listen. That has nothing to do with our normal measures of tonal balance and noise floor or sound stage or imaging clarity or being in the sweet spot. The music coming from inside the coffee shop sounds like crap (by any normal audiophile measures), but it still sounds (and is) real. Somehow, our brains know how to deal with the natural distortion of real noises that are going through walls and barriers and overcome background noises, and to focus on the "real". When that “real” clicks in, for me it is a fairly abrupt transition, and my experience of music steps up to a completely new (and intoxicating) level. On the digital side, Chord DACs (and especially the Chord DAVE) are by far the best I’ve heard at creating this sense of reality. After I heard the Chord Mojo, I ordered a Chord DAVE unheard, and have since rebuilt my entire system around the magic that the DAVE is able to deliver. On the analog side, I’ve discovered that the more I got rid of, the more transparency I discovered and the more reality I was able to experience from the DAVE. I’ve replaced my beloved B&W 802d3’s (and associated amps, etc.) with high efficiency single driver Voxativ 9.87’s with 104db sensitivity Voxativ 4D drivers. My DAVE, with its lowly 2W output, can drive these speakers to ear splitting levels. More importantly, I’ve been able to eliminate amps and crossovers, having DAVE wired directly to a single ultra fast and ultra sensitive point source driver. The end result is an experience that is holographic, astonishingly quick and controlled, and extraordinarily immersive. The level of transparency and reality is intoxicating, and remarkably revealing of everything in the chain: any weakness or system stumble takes away from that sense of reality. How to preserve as much of that sense of “real” as possible? How to get more? With my analog and digital-to-analog system anchors in place, my attention shifted to the digital side. My digital audio journey has been driven by the core principle that any digital optimization must start and end with the DAC. Obviously, if one is starting with bit-perfect sources (and if you’re not, fix that), these bit-perfect bits are not affected at all by any digital optimizations (if bits were being changed, you would hear very audible pops clicks and drop outs). Any sound quality change you hear is due to something in your digital chain somehow and in some way impacting your DAC (even if you have no idea how or why). For me, the core question for digital hygiene and optimization is what can be done to the digital chain to minimize anything being injected into or induced in the DAC that impacts the core digital references in the DAC: reference clock, reference ground, and reference power. The impact may be direct, or it may be indirect through several intermediate components, over wires, or through the air. If you hear a difference with bit perfect audio streams, something is being transmitted to or induced in your DAC that is impacting the core digital references in the DAC (clock, ground, reference voltage), which in turn becomes audible when the signal gets converted to analog. As my digital chain has evolved from laptop to low power Raspberry Pi endpoints to special built devices like the Sonore microRendu to DIY NUCs with Audiolinux and Euphony to all sorts of power and USB and network and cable tweaks, I’ve stumbled into a high level strategy and hypothesis for digital optimization that has consistently pointed me in interesting (and usually better) directions: 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 Invest in a digital endpoint that moves bit perfect digital data from ethernet to a USB DAC with as little timing variability and as much timing and signal integrity as possible (aka, as close to precision real time data streaming to DAC as possible) For me, the key issue isn't so much latency, as it is reducing the variation in latency. By way of example, playback that has a latency of 1 second +- 0.00000000001 second would be preferable to a latency of 0.001 sec +- 0.0001 sec. For my current reference system, I am using an i7 NUC running AudioLinux in RAM as my Roon server, connected through an Uptone Audio EtherREGEN to a second i7 NUC running Euphony in RAM with HQPlayer as my endpoint, connected to my DAC by USB via a SOtM tX-USBultra special edition. As my system has evolved to this point (informed predominantly by the experiences of the extended community here at Audiophile Style, especially the legendary Novel thread, and the soon to be legendary DIY thread), here have been my experiences that are consistent with this “reducing variability in latency” hypothesis: By using a NUC with highly integrated Silicon on a Chip (SoC) design (vs laptop or regular computer), sound quality is better (the SoC results in better timing coherence and optimized signal paths between system components) By going with a stripped down in-memory linux OS with everything else disconnected and disabled in BIOS, sound quality is better (near real time OS) By configuring linux to give the highest real-time priority to the endpoint software (Roon Bridge or Squeezelite or HQPlayer), sound quality is better (more near real time) By configuring linux to give the highest real-time priority to the IRQ for the USB port (low level interface between the operating system and the physical USB port), sound quality is better (even more near real time) By removing the USB boot stick so the only thing on the USB bus is the DAC, sound quality is better (fewer IRQs for USB storage) By configuring the music server to bridge ethernet traffic to the NUC endpoint, sound quality is better (isolating ethernet traffic and interrupts) By increasing network buffer for Squeezelite or other end point software so that all ethernet traffic is front loaded and the current song and next song are loaded into memory within a second or so, sound quality is better (fewer ethernet interrupts during playback) By increasing the size of the memory buffer from Squeezelite or Roon or HQPlayer to the Linux ALSA driver, sound quality is better (less variability on feeding the USB driver) By having a higher powered NUC (quad core i7 vs dual core i5 Celeron), sound quality is better (able to be closer to real time since it has more horsepower) By configuring linux to dedicate a CPU core to the USB IRQ, sound quality is better (less contention with other processes) By configuring linux to dedicate a CPU core to the endpoint software, sound quality is better By using industrial-rated wide temperature RAM (presumably tighter tolerances parts, and better performance even at room temperature), sound quality is better By playing music stored on Optane storage on the PCIe bus (vs SATA or SSD), sound quality is better (more direct transfer path from storage to the CPU) By regenerating USB and/or ethernet signals, sound quality is better (signal integrity improvements) None of these seem like they are RF noise related. These are all computer/OS/software configuration tweaks. What they all seem to share is the impact of reducing variability in the latency of the signal from the endpoint to the DAC and improving signal integrity, and thus (presumably) making the life of the PHY interface of the USB chipset a lot easier. Separately, any time I have mains isolated a digital component (batteries, super caps, etc), sound quality has improved. Any time I’ve inserted a better/faster power supply (Paul Hynes SR4, Uptone Audio LPS 1.2, LDPWR 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. I'm not drawing conclusions nor pointing at a core root cause. However, I'm finding that any change I make that is consistent with improving power (stability and speed), reducing RF, improving ground, and reducing variability in the latency of the digital signal seems to have a positive impact on sound quality. Interestingly, I have also experienced the inherent tradeoff between having a higher power system that is capable of delivering lower variations in latency, but having sound quality suffer from requiring more power (and the difficulty in keeping that higher power level stable and clean). My i7 NUC consistently sounded better than my i5 NUC, but sound quality suffered as I increased CPU speed. The better and more dynamically responsive the power supply that I used with my i7 NUC, the more I could push CPU speed (and the better things sounded) before sound quality peaked and started to suffer. So as I started looking for my next (final?) digital server, a core question for me was how powerful and near real time a digital server can one build, while still being able to deliver high quality power and not requiring additional noise generating components like fans? Can functions of music server and music end point be combined on a single powerful box (with more direct high performance connection between them) while also being clean enough to not adversely impact the signal output with power-related noise? How much control could I have over where processes were running and what system priority each was getting? As I researched DIY options to push the boundaries on my NUC servers, I began to hear whispers about a digital music server that was well beyond anything else available out there, and checks all the boxes I’ve come to find as important (and a whole lot more). The more I dug in, the more I realized that through the rabbit hole was a world of digital audio optimization that was WAY beyond what I was thinking was practical or doable, and that every detail somehow and some way still seemed to matter. In Part 2, I’ll dive into the guts (real and virtual) of the Extreme, and set the stage for Part 3, where I share what I discovered in the world of Summit-Fi digital audio optimization. Equipment As Tested Digital Source – Review Setup Taiko Audio SGM Extreme with 8TB storage option ($27,000 as reviewed) HQPlayer Desktop ($235) Digital Source – Reference NUC Setup Stock Intel NUC7i7DNKE in standard case with 16GB consumer RAM and 32GB Optane stick ($800) Audiolinux ($120) and Roon Server ($120/year) NUC7i7DNKE motherboard in a fanless Akasa case with 4GB wide temperature industrial Apacer RAM and a 16GB Optane stick ($1,000) Euphony ($289) and HQPlayer Embedded ($235) PowerAdd Pilot 2 battery ($90) Stock Mac Mini file server ($500) DAC setup Chord DAVE ($13,000) – 2 channel For two channel for Chord DAVE, PCM+ mode, HF filter off, no crossfeed Chord Hugo TT2 ($5,500) – Headphone For headphones for Chord Hugo TT2, crossfeed set to 2 Direct Two Channel Setup RCA direct to Voxativ 9.87’s with Voxativ 4D drivers ($50,000) Custom Furutech RCA to female banana adapters Custom Furutech XLR to female banana adapters Voxativ Ampeggio Speaker Cables ($4,000) Iconoclast SPTPC speaker cables ($2,500) Headphone setup Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC ($5,000) Sennheiser HD800 (with SR mod) ($800 used) Cables Monoprice USB SlimRun optical USB extender cables ($150) Sablon Audio 2020 USB cable ($750) Uptone Audio USPCB ($35) Ghent Audio JSSG360 DC cables (various) USB SOtM tX-USBultra Special Edition ($1,300) Paul Hynes SR4-19 power supply ($500) Network AT&T fiber to the home, with Alcatel-Lucent G-010G-A ONT DXPWR DXP-1A5S single stage power supply ($109) PowerAdd Pilot Pro2 Battery ($90) Pace 5268ac Gateway/Router (AT&T supplied) Ubiquiti EdgeRouter 10X router/gateway ($109) DXPWR DXP-1A5DSC dual stage power supply ($159) PowerAdd Pilot Pro2 Battery ($90) Planet Technology MGB-TLX SFP transceivers ($30 each) Sonore opticalModule ($249) Uptone Audio LPS 1.2 power supply ($435) Uptone Audio EtherREGEN ($640) Uptone Audio LPS 1.2 power supply ($435) Monoprice and Cable Matters Cat 8 Cables ($10) Sablon Audio 2020 Panatela Reserva ethernet cable ($375, provide as demo) Sablon Audio router noise dongle (provided as demo) Vibration Control Daiza vibration Isolation platforms ($600) Custom precision rollerball isolators Music As Tested My Go-To demo tracks when demo’ing new pieces of equipment, and what I look for in each: Pink Noise (mono), from “The Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc” by David Chesky (Chesky, 24/192 FLAC) Yeah, its pink noise, but it tells you a lot about a set of headphones as you get oriented to your system. For 2 channel audio, I’ve found that pink noise is a great way to see if your speakers are aligned and you’re in the right spot. Great baseline reference to make sure things aren’t wonky and you’re in a good place (and it is sort of fun to think about all this technology being used to play a 24/192kHz noise file. Murakkaz Ah Ya Muddasin, from “The Splendour of Al Andalus” by Calamus (MA Recordings, DSD64) Remarkable recording in what sounds to be a majestic and spiritual centuries old cathedral in Spain. With the right equipment, you are transported to a place you’ve never been to but always want to get back to. When the full group joins in, it is profoundly challenging to reproduce the mids and highs without sounding shrill and congested. When the reproduction is effortless, it is magical (to say the least…my jaw drops every time when it’s “right”) If the sound chain is able to maintain that glorious soundstage, it is off the charts. Todd Garfinkle is a magician behind the microphone. Noche Maravillosa, from “Salterio” by Begonia Olavide (MA Recordings, 16/44.1 FLAC) Another gem of a recording and performance from Todd. The precision and clarity of the instruments (particularly the percussive ones) is intoxicating and tangible. Voglia Di Vita Uscir, from “Buenos Aires Madrigal” by La Chimera (MA Recordings, 16/44.1 FLAC) Todd also is a master at capturing performances in a more orchestral setting. These performances by La Chimera are a joy, and the sense of being there with the performers is absolutely intoxicating. Mahler: Symphony #2 'Resurrection’, 1st movement conducted by Iván Fischer (Channel Classics, DSD64) Mahler: Symphony #2 'Resurrection’, 5th movement conducted by Iván Fischer (Channel Classics, DSD64) Near perfect performance with a perfect recording. The dynamics and power of this performance are vivid and real: the orchestra virtually screams with one voice during the climaxes. This recording beautifully captures the essence of horns and low strings, which are very difficult to reproduce. The closest I’ve heard to the experience of the dynamics of a live orchestral performance. Rimsky-Korsakoff: Scheherazade, 1st movement conducted by Fritz Reiner (Analogue Productions Remaster, DSD64) The most perfect recording of the most perfect performance I’ve ever heard. Listening to this recording on a transparent system is a life changing experience: you are standing with Maestro Reiner in Chicago as his orchestra reaches for a performance for the ages. A cultural treasure, and worthy of building a world class system around. Organ Prelude, JS Bach Magnificat by Dunedin Consort (Linn, DSD64) Motet, JS Bach Magnificat by Dunedin Consort (Linn, DSD64) A breathtakingly lovely recording! The dynamics and harmonics of the organ can range from a muddy “eh” to “holy crap!” depending on the quality of the reproduction. Standing in the middle of the choir is a lovely test of imaging and voice reproduction: the more precise the soundstage the more you can pick out individuals (including depth and height…remarkable). Handel: Messiah - Chorus. O thou tellest good tidings by Dunedin Consort (Linn, DSD64) Handel: Messiah - Hallelujah by Dunedin Consort (Linn, SACD) A magnificent recording, reconstructing the original version of Handel’s Messiah, with a total of 12 singers. The normal complexity of the piece is captured in a way where you can hear each voice in the chorus, and how it comes together into a larger whole. An amazingly intimate performance when the reproduction chain can manage the complexity and dynamics and not have the soundstage become muddy and flat. Arnesen: Magnificat - Fecit potentiam by TrondheimSolistene (2l, 24/192 FLAC) This is such a lovely recording at any quality level, but goes from incredible to other worldly as the chain scales up. The orchestra, choir, and church should all have equal contribution to something far greater than the sum of its parts. When it all comes together, you can feel the three core elements feeding off each, creating a profound joy that sweeps you into euphoria. Stardust, from “Duets” by Rob Wasserman (16/44.1 lossless) Every track on this album is a gem, but this one is particular is a fantastic test of sound stage and imaging. At its best, you hear each backing voice precisely in space, but still presenting as a harmonious whole. In real life, detail and precision spatial placement isn’t hard and clinical, why should it be in reproduction? Oh, Lady Be Good, from “Plays Gershwin” by the Bassface Swing Trio (DSD64) Night and Day, from “Tribute to Cole Porter” by the Bassface Swing Trio (DSD64) These direct to disc Stockfisch recordings are extraordinary. Imaging and dynamics FTW. Recordings like these are why we obsess over the things we obsess about. I’m looking to get lost in the music, and the band appearing to be sitting right there. When tonal balance is just right, these performances just jump off the SACD. Shamas-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja, from “Shahen-Shah” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (16/44.1 lossless) The first track from what was my surprise 2012 album of the year (see this video for the surprise ending). A remarkable supremely spiritual performance by a remarkable man, captured in an “eh” recording. The question for me when I’m evaluating new equipment is what it can do to elevate a middle of the road recording that is worthy of elevation. Let Me Touch You For Awhile, from “Live” by Alison Krauss (DSD64) I adore Alison Krauss. Having equipment that can reproduce the wonderful emotion and musicality of these amazing artists is why I spend so much time looking for the right speakers/cans/etc. Their Live album is special, and you can feel the humanity and emotion in this track. Fields of Gold, from “Nightbird” by Eva Cassidy (16/44.1 FLAC) An absolutely amazing and engaging performance, with a moderate recording and mics that were over driven. The dynamics of the performance unfortunately saturate the recording, and the breaks and near breaks can be painful in some chains. A wonderful song to listen to, but also a great song to see how much of the song is wonderful to listen to. Tenderly, from “While She Sleeps” by Art Lande (Blue Coast, 24/88.2 FLAC) Cookie Marenco has a gift for capturing piano, guitar, and voice as if you’re sitting in the room with the artist. If you’ve ever sat next to a wonderfully tuned piano with an extraordinary player, you know how magical that experience can be. The best pianos sing with resonances that envelop you. The best musicians know how to coax beauty and life out of the instrument. This recording from Art Lande captures that magic. The stronger the dynamics, soundstage, and precision of the system, the more lifelike this track becomes for me. I haven’t experienced this track topping out: the better the reproduction chain, the more lifelike it becomes. One World, from “Session 1” by Sareena Overwater (Blue Coast, DSD64) One World (Instrumental), from “Session 2” by Sareena Overwater (Blue Coast, DSD64) Real magic from Cookie. These tracks are wired directly to deeply held memories for me, and the stronger the reproduction chain, the stronger the emotion that they evoke. There are better examples of piano performance and better examples of vocals, but the emotional truth and power of this performance is unmatched. 99, from “Blue Coast Special Event 43” by Meghan Andrews (Blue Coast, 16/44.1 FLAC) Cookie knows how to record guitar too, and Meghan Andrews knows how to bring a performance that is worth catching in a bottle. Vous et Moi, from “Night and Day” by Willie Nelson (SurroundedBy Entertainment, 24/96 FLAC) What if Willie Nelson was in a dispute with his label, got pissed off, and invited the best musicians he knew to the studio to record an instrumental album in full surround? Yeah, this actually happened, and it is as awesome as you think it is. The album is amazing in a musical surround setup, but a proper 2 channel system puts you right in the middle of the band. Incredible stuff. Music in My Room, from “The Folkscene Collection, Vol. 3” by Cheryl Williams (Redhouse Records, 16/44.1 FLAC) We’ve all had the experience of being in a coffee shop or small venue, when someone with a guitar and something that has to be shared commands the attention of everyone in the room, and you have a moment where the whole room is one. These CDs where engineer Peter Cutler captured intimate in-studio performances at KPFK in Los Angeles are replete with those moments, but this performance by Cheryl Williams stands out for me. With a great reproduction chain, the guitar is real and present, and the voice and singer connect at a deep emotional level. A jewel of a moment, waiting for the right equipment to be a moment again. All I Want, from “After Blue” by Tierney Sutton (BFM Jazz, 16/44.1 FLAC) Tierney Sutton has a striking clear and present vocal style, and that is on full display on her “After Blue” album of Joni Mitchell standards. I continue to be amazed how ever better DACs extract ever more nuance and subtlety of performance from top tier vocalists. It is a joy to hear the depth of craft and art of vocal performance on tracks like this. Rosa fresca, from “Il viaggio d’amore” by Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen (Carpe Diem, 16/44.1 TIDAL Lossless) “The journey of love” is a marvelous exploration of love through the ages, from multiple cultures and times. The whole album is a joyous wonder, but the opening track (“Fresh Rose”) of a traditional song from the 1500s is an invitation to join in joy and unbounded hope. The company of players is feeling it, and you do too. When you’re hearing every string pluck in the strums and the voices come together into something much larger than the sum of its parts, you’ll be glad you accepted that invitation. L’Amor, from “Bella Terra” by Arianno Savall (Alia Vox, 16/44.1 FLAC) If Rosa fresca makes you fall in love with Arianna Savall singing about love, you’ll want to seek out her “Bella Terra” album. An accomplished harpist and vocalist, Savall is at her best when she brings both together: voice and instrument are one, and evoke marvelous sound and emotional resonances in each other. Traveler, from “Little Crimes” by Melissa Menago (Chesky, Binaural 24/192 FLAC) Airplane, from “Little Crimes” by Melissa Menago (Chesky, Binaural 24/192 FLAC) A gem of a recording from Chesky: direct binaural recording, made in a church while it is raining outside. Like all Chesky binaural recordings, you are there sitting with the performers (Airplane), with special magic from the sound of the rain outside of the church (Traveler). Fantastic test of soundstage and spatial detail. Hold On, from “Sessions from the 17th Ward” by Amber Rubarth (Chesky, Binaural 24/192 FLAC) Don’t You, from “Sessions from the 17th Ward” by Amber Rubarth (Chesky, Binaural 24/192 FLAC) More Chesky magic. No rain this time, but Amber’s rich voice + violin + guitar + percussion are amazing on any system, but the sense of being there scales beautifully as the reproduction chain improves (it is magical when your system crosses some threshold of transparency…all of a sudden you are there). Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of, from “Open Your Ears” by The Persuasions (Chesky, Binaural 24/96 FLAC) One last gem from Chesky. There is a profound difference to listening to a recording of a group of people sing, and being with a group of people that are singing. This is another recording that (at least for me), when you cross some magical threshold of transparency, the people become real. Ephemera, from “Ephemera” by Carla Lother (Chesky, 16/44.1 FLAC) A stunning interpretation of an incredible poem by William Butler Yeats. The recording is exquisite, but the incredible sense of space and balance amongst the performers is very fragile. The better the chain, the more perfect the recording becomes. Karamawari, from “Gamushara” by YAMATO the drummers (TIDAL MP3) Drums are notoriously difficult to reproduce in the way you experience them in person. There is a physicality that is lost in most systems. Hearing a group of percussion masters really bring it on a system that can approximate that in person experience? Amazing. Get Lucky, from “Random Access Memories” by Daft Punk (24/88.2 FLAC) Another track that transcends pop when played back through equipment that really reproduces the full range and dynamics of the recording. The subtlety and layers on Nile Rodgers’ guitar work is incredible, and the recording is outstanding so you should be able to hear it all. I listen for whether it is washed out, and how well I hear all the (considerable) nuances in his playing. Take Five, from “Time Out” by Dave Brubeck (Analogue Productions SACD) An excellent test of dynamics at the high end. As an aside, these Analogue Productions remasters are off the charts! No Love Dying, from “Liquid Spirit” by Gregory Porter (24/192 flac) Another lovely recording and performance, that on a balanced system hits a resonance that is next level for me (just sounds “right” and get the “wow!”) When things are not in balance or boomy/shrill, I hear it loud and clear. Beethoven: Symphony #9, 4th movement by Suitner (OG Denon, 16/44.1 lossless) This was the first CD I ever bought in 1984 (first CD ever made?) I know every second of this movement and every nuance. My current 2 channel setup was the first time I had ever heard the entire movement without a break (every other system I’d ever had/auditioned had some break at some challenging passage). So What, from “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis (Japanese single layer SACD version) One of the finest recordings and performances of the 20th century. Always the last track I play during any audition. 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. 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.
  5. Part 1 - Introduction and Digital Audio Optimization Foundations (Link) Part 2 - Enter the Extreme Part 3 - First Impressions and Basic Configuration (Link) Part 4 - Tweaking Up the Extreme (Link) Part 5 - Extended Listening Impressions, Learnings, and Conclusions (Link) In Part 1 (LINK) of this series, I share my experiences with digital audio optimization, and how when the time came to move beyond my optimized DIY NUC-based two server setup, those learnings and experiences brought me to the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme. As I was researching approaches to push digital server performance to its limits, it quickly became clear that Emile Bok (owner and guru at Taiko Audio) had already done orders of magnitude more experimentation and discovery than I could ever hope to accomplish, and had already pushed a lot of the hypotheses and things on my “to explore” list to their limit, and had already optimized the big levers WAY beyond anything I was aspiring to. Here was an opportunity to learn a tremendous amount about the digital audio optimization road ahead from one of the most respected people and companies in digital audio. How can a self-respecting übergeek audiophile say no to that? Well, what I learned so impressed me that I ordered an Extreme unseen and unheard. After a Pandemic-induced delay, it finally arrived in California a month ago, and boy was it worth the wait. Enter the Extreme The Taiko Audio SGM Extreme is aptly named: an Asus WS C621E Sage motherboard with two Intel Xeon Silver 4210 CPUs (10 physical cores and 20 logical cores(!) each), 12 hand selected custom 4GB RAM modules (48GB total), dedicated Optane storage for OS and up to 24TB of optional M.2 PCIe storage for local music storage, custom power supply, custom precision machined casing for fanless operation and vibration control, generous use of panzerholz vibration absorbing material on key components, an obsessively minimized and tuned OS to dedicate as much CPU to playback as possible, all in a 100 pound beast of a precision machined and assembled package. The Extreme hit all the key attributes that I was looking for: massive number of Xeon cores to distribute and isolate workload (while only using a vanishingly small part of system capacity during music playback), dual CPU motherboard to better isolate music processes and threads from other OS processes and threads (the ultimate in network-bridged servers, if you will), a staggering amount of PCIe storage to keep all music content local and as logically “close” to the CPU as possible, clean and massively stable power, passive cooling (fanless) even with all that power, an obsessive level of attention to RF and mechanical vibration control, fast low latency memory with affinity to different CPUs (even more isolation), a highly tweakable base OS (Windows) that has been pre-tweaked to maximize audio performance, and a person and company behind it all with an obsession to build the best possible digital audio server for the best possible audio playback, and to continually evolve it going forward. Of course, the price tag was very scary, but it was within a reasonable factor of what I was already budgeting for a high-power system build. Given the opportunity to not churn through endless variations of motherboards and cards and cases and power supplies (coal and water and chalk for those that have read Part 1), I jumped at the opportunity to purchase an Extreme unseen and unheard. My sincere thanks to Emile for his patience and openness during my research process. Alas, during the six week lead time between when I ordered the unit and when I expected to receive it, the world changed and we all went into lock down. After an additional 4 week delay (some understandable supply chain challenges, and FedEx prioritizing medical supply shipments over audiophile equipment), I received my Extreme mid April, with an unexpected amount of home time to put it through its paces and enjoy the music. Out Of The Box When my Extreme arrived, my FedEx driver was (the say the least) VERY unhappy as he carried the box to my door. The string of creative expletives he let loose both coming to the door and walking back to his truck was as stark and impressive and inspired as an Ornette Coleman solo. The Extreme is a beast, weighing in at 100 pounds. Fairly intimidating, and not something you want to drop on your toes. The commotion was enough to draw my high school senior out of her room. After letting her know that my new music server had finally arrived (“It’s called ’The Extreme’ sweetie”), she quipped “That seems on brand”, dropped the mic, and went back to her room. After an appropriate time to let any FedEx-contributed CV19 nasties on the outside box fade away, it was time to slide it into my family room and unbox the beast. Inside the box is the Extreme and nothing else (BYO cables). The custom CNC machined case work is meticulous and stunning, and built like an armored vehicle designed by Dieter Rams: Overall each case takes multiple days to CNC mill, but the end result is simply spectacular. The case work is precision CNC machined aluminium (10mm thick top and bottom panels, and 15mm thick front and back panels), with a generous mix of copper and panzerholz (tank wood) materials. Taiko claims that the ~6,000 ventilation holes were designed for more than just cooling, and are also radiation waveguides (RF cleanliness is next to digital audio godliness). The cooling fins look identical, but are solid milled aluminum on the left side (for power supply cooling) and solid milled copper(!) on the right side (CPU cooling). The machining precision is stunning. Parts are perfectly flush, and (although not easily seen in the photos), the finish on the aluminium is perfectly even and quite beautiful. The fit and finish is well beyond anything I’ve seen in a small volume consumer product like this. Interesting details abound, like the use of vibration absorbing panzerholz wood for the footers (more on panzerholz later). Aside from the illuminated power switch on the front panel, all the goodies are accessible on the back: A USB 3.1 Gen 2 socket to your DAC, multiple USB 3.1 Gen 1 sockets and LAN ports for data, a StarTech PEX1000SFP2 PCIe optical Network card, a 280GB Intel Optane 900P storage drive for the operating system, a VGA(!) port, an ASUSTek Hyper M.2 x16 v2 PCIe storage card for your music library (it comes standard with 2TB, but I purchased 8TB of storage to fill a single card), the power supply, and a mysterious port for future options. Optionally, you can order the Extreme with S/PDIF or AES/EBU (single, dual, or quad wire) connectivity. You can also optionally order up to a total of 3 ASUSTek PCIe storage cards, for up to 24TB of music storage, in increments of 2TB. The Belly of the Beast The inside of the Extreme is even more stunning than the outside: The Extreme is powered by a custom linear power supply with a 400VA transformer (I couldn’t get in there to see details), custom Lundahl choke regulators, and a stunningly large 700,000µF capacitor bank with the highest audiophile grade Mundorf capacitors, and even a pair of Dueland(!) capacitors. This bank of capacitors is perhaps the most extreme part of the Extreme, a true extravagance of riches (I’ve read about Dueland capacitors but had never even seen one in person, let alone two). Emile has not spoken too much about his power supply strategy, but certainly the heart of the secret sauce of the Extreme starts and ends here with this remarkable power supply. I am still waiting (and waiting) on my custom Paul Hynes SR7 build, but my intuition is that it would be a very interesting horse race between Paul’s design approach (extreme attention to voltage regulation and output impedance), and the approach Emile is taking with the Extreme power supply (extreme focus on filtering and fast current reserves). Looking at this bank of capacitors and hearing what I’m hearing, I can’t help but think that Emile may have gotten it right. Although I’ve always found Paul’s designs to excel at speed and dynamics vs capacitor heavy designs, massive massive filtering does open the door to more brute force capacity on the power side of the supply. This is “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing” taken to the Nth degree. Will it be easier for Emile to evolve his design strategy to faster and faster supplies over time? Time will tell, but I suspect there is a lot more goodness to be found in Emile’s strategy. I can’t wait to hear how both power supply strategies evolve over the next couple years! Panzerholz again makes an appearance on the interior of the Extreme, adding vibration absorption and isolation to both the critical transformer assembly and the power supply coil. The panzerholz mounting platform for the transformer assembly is particularly impressive, and a very welcome thing to see on such a performance critical component. Everywhere you look inside the Extreme, you see this type of attention to detail on performance critical components (see the copper offsets? The intentional blend of materials to diffuse resonances?). The care and attention put into packaging and integrating the finest grade components available is stunning. The careful blending of materials to complement each other speaks to the care and thought and what must have been endless prototyping that went into the design. Shifting attention to the heart of the machine, the Extreme is built on an Asus WS C621E Sage motherboard with dual Intel Xeon Silver 4210 Scalable 10 core CPUs, each with 10 cores and support for 20 logical cores (40 logical cores total). The Extreme also comes standard with 12 sticks of custom hand selected industrial 4GB RDIMM RAM, for 48GB RAM total. This is a beast of a motherboard, stocked to the 9’s. (image and schematic credit to ASUS, extracted for convenience from their website and manual) Some interesting details to note from the technical documentation for the ASUS motherboard. Each Xeon processor has direct access to its own bank of 6 memory slots and its own PCIe x8 and x16 channels. By populating all the memory slots available on the motherboard, Taiko has built in the ability to segregate and isolate processes to different CPUs (and CPU cores), memory, and PCIe channels. They have also spread memory access across the entire bandwidth of all the available memory channels on the motherboard. The heavily tuned Windows 10 Enterprise installation of the Extreme takes advantage of this topology to deliver maximum sound quality on playback. Conceptually, this sort of dual CPU strategy appeals to me, delivering all the process isolation benefits of a dual server configuration (music server and music endpoint), but with an ultra performant and coherent CPU to CPU Ultra Path Interconnect (UPI) bus connecting the CPUs instead of ethernet. The dedicated DAC USB 3.1 Gen 2 port uses an advanced ASMedia 3142 USB controller, which acts as a PCIe bridge to USB. These ports are capable of 10Gb/sec data transfers. Although audio would never require these data rates, it speaks to the performance these USB controllers are capable of, and the general philosophy of the Extreme design to have the highest bandwidth and most powerful components possible, and to utilize as little of that bandwidth and power as possible. Given the criticality of the USB interface to digital audio, it is also interesting to note that the ASMedia 3142 has its own custom PHY layer and control layer. I wonder how much of the sound quality advantage of the Extreme comes back to this particular USB controller implementation (recognizing that the other side of the USB handshake in the DAC is almost certainly using a more generic USB chipset...at some point the DAC itself becomes the performance bottleneck in the chain). Later I’ll discuss my comparison of USB direct from the Extreme vs through a top of the line SOtM tX-USBultra special edition powered by a Paul Hynes SR4. The Extreme also uses a custom passive CPU cooling system, leveraging six 80W capable heat pipes and the incredibly large copper cooling fins on the right side of the Extreme (machined out of a solid 53 pound block of copper!). If you want to know where that 100 pound weight comes from, the copper cooling fin for the CPUs accounts for 22 pounds of it on its own. The investment in passive cooling is both extravagant and stunning. In operation, even with the crazy amount of computer power bundled into the Extreme, the unit is essentially silent, with the case running barely warm to the touch. As shipped, the Extreme has several open PCIe slots for future expansion and upgrades (for example, an audiophile-grade USB card or network card from JCAT, or additional PCIe storage). As shown in the block diagram above, by default each PCIe slot has an affinity for one or the other of the CPUs: CPU 1 - 1 (16x, blank), 2 (8x, SFP card), 6 (8x, blank), 7 (16x, Music storage card) CPU 2 - 3 (8x, OS storage card), 4 (8x, blank), 5 (16x, blank) This is another tuning opportunity to have I/O cards more directly linked to the CPUs where dependent processes are running. In the case of the Extreme, CPU 1 has direct affinity to all music I/O (network, USB, storage), with CPU 2 delegated to OS I/O. By delegating system and music processes to cores on the appropriate CPU, Emile is able to achieve an optimal balance for sound quality. The ASUSTek Hyper M.2 x16 v2 PCIe storage card supports up to 4 2TB M.2 storage drives (up to 8TB per card). Although its on-card fan is disabled (presumably to reduce system noise), the Extreme has no issues keeping things passively cool at music data rates. The machining of the interior components is as precise and clean as the external components, with a generous and thoughtful mix of aluminium, copper, and panzerholz throughout (when you consider the importance of vibration/RF/temperature control in a device like the Extreme, the elegance and brilliance of the way various materials were selected and blended for different properties really comes to the fore). Interestingly, there is an additional connector on the power supply copper panel, with +5V and +12V DC available. This is intended for future expansion (as Emile says, Extreme is a project, not a product). Along with the optional port on the back of the Extreme, I’m intrigued by what may be in works as the Extreme project evolves. It is also tangible proof of Emile’s commitment to make the Extreme as future proof as possible – as new motherboards and new connectivity standards emerge, the Extreme is designed to evolve with them (and as anyone that has tried to get the most of out USB and digital audio would attest, a new connectivity standard for digital audio would be a godsend). The Softer Side The Extreme comes pre configured with a highly tuned custom version of Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC 2019, as well as Roon and JPLAY playback software. Optionally, you can ask Taiko Audio to install HQPlayer Desktop for you. Once I tracked down a VGA to HDMI adapter (wow, was that a dusty box), I took a peek at the BIOS, but (other than being a bit overwhelming with all the server-class BIOS settings) nothing stood out as interesting. I confirmed that secure boot was off, so at some point I may try to boot up the Extreme with Euphony on a USB stick. The system is intended to be run headless (no monitor, no keyboard, no mouse), and comes with VNC Viewer for connecting to it over your network. It also comes preinstalled with TeamViewer for remote support (Emile has been quite generous in hopping on the machine to check things out and tune things up, even with the 9 hour time zone difference between California and the Netherlands). By using this particular version of Windows, Emile has been able to strip down the installation to the bare minimum components needed for a music server. By significantly reducing the number of running processes, each process has less contention on each of the 40 logical cores. In addition, Emile uses tools like Process Lasso Pro to allocate processes and threads to where they run best, and contend the least. While this is fantastic for a turnkey optimized system, be aware that if you install any additional software on the Extreme, you may be unintentionally degrading sound quality by disrupting the optimized allocation of Roon and JPLAY processes to between the dual CPUs. Caution before you start experimenting with different software packages and system configs. Similarly, the LTSC version of Windows allows Taiko Audio to validate and bundle system updates before sending them out. As a best practice, you should resist the temptation to be updating OS and software packages on the Extreme, in case there are changes that disrupt the sound quality tuning in the system. As a very late breaking example (after I had finished all the listening tests and this review), there was a recent change that had a significant adverse impact on sound quality that required a retuning of the system. Emile kindly remoted into my system to make the adjustments (and things sound fantastic!). It is a reminder of how delicate the tuning is for the Extreme, and how even at this level of performance and system capacity, the delicate nature of the remarkable magic the Extreme can deliver. That being said, in practice you plug the Extreme into your home network, turn it on, connect to and configure the Roon Core running on the system, and Bob’s your uncle. When the spirit moves you, use your favorite VNC client (I happen to use Screens on my MacBook Pro) to connect to the box for things that you can’t do within Roon (such as add a driver for your DAC, copy over your music library, etc). I’m a Roon and HQPlayer user, so it was very easy for me to drop into the Extreme environment. I had not used JPLAY before, but it is pre configured and shows up in Roon as a USB driver, so it has been very easy to use. On my machine, Emile was kind enough to also install the Chord ASIO driver for me, giving me three different ways to connect to my Chord DAVE (WASAPI driver, JPLAY driver, and Chord ASIO driver). There are differences and tradeoffs between these drivers, which I will describe later. So what about other playback software other than Roon? I have not had a Windows box in my home for over a decade, but I’ve been intrigued by software like JRiver Media Center and foobar2000. For folks looking to tailor their system with their preferred music software, these packages can be installed and run on the Extreme, but appreciate that the system has been carefully tuned to have the maximum sound quality when used with Roon. At some point, I’m looking forward to being more comfortable with my understanding of how the process allocation optimizations on the Extreme are set up, so I would have confidence to do my own experiments and listening tests with alternative music software. Until then, I’m very glad that Emile has leaned into my favorite software (Roon) as the playback software of choice for the Extreme. Based on my interactions with Emile so far, I also have complete confidence that if a better package comes along, Emile will be able to retune the system to get the most out of whatever that package turns out to be. (As an aside, it is difficult to overstate how incredibly engaged and accessible Emile is for customer support and system support. As more and more people sign on for the Extreme project, I hope he’ll be able to occasionally get some sleep and time with the family, but his commitment to share his knowledge and expertise and take care of the community is a big part of why I had such confidence signing up for this journey.) So all this looks incredible. How does it work and sound in the real world? In Part 3, I’lll jump into first listening impressions, and configuring and optimizing the out-of-the-box performance of the Extreme. 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.
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