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I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the analog preamplifier. For audiophiles like me, with all-digital systems, the allure of going preampless is strong. There are many digital-to-analog converters on the market, at all different price points, that offer remote switching of digital sources and have quite transparent volume controls. These DACs, in effect, have become the digital preamp -- perfect for those who don’t need analog switching. Bridging the gap between these full-featured DACs and the all-analog preamplifier are analog preamps with digital input sections -- essentially, a preamp with a built-in DAC. With such components, you have the choice of analog or digital inputs, which offers tremendous flexibility that can accommodate almost any system configuration. The downside is that upgrading your DAC also means replacing your analog preamp.
In audio, a clock determines the times at which digital audio samples are converted into analog. Messing up this timing condemns the music to digital hell, where jitter causes distortion and harshness in music. Thomas Hobbes said that “Hell is truth seen too late.” For audio purposes, I suggest that hell is truth seen too early or too late.
Think back to the days of hand-cranked film viewers. Because it was extremely difficult to achieve a constant playback speed, the films looked jerky, unnatural, jittery. A similar phenomenon occurs when the conversion of a digital to an analog signal is imperfectly timed.
These days, to sell their products, makers of high-end audio gear must have a hook: something that makes the consumer choose their widget over competing widgets. Maybe that hook is a famous designer, or a company history long established and revered by audiophiles, or performance and/or build quality that far exceed what might be expected for the price -- or just clever marketing. But whatever the hook, it won’t work if it’s a secret. Companies have to get the word out.
It’s got to be the best gig in the world, or the worst.
In my 15 years of reviewing I’ve dealt with companies large and small. The big guys -- Audio Research, MartinLogan, Monitor Audio -- can afford a significant level of detachment from their products. They have marketing guys, shipping guys, and manufacturing departments. Each step in the production of one of their products is insulated from the next, and by the time a component arrives in my listening room it’s been manhandled by a dozen people -- maybe more.
Earlier this year, I reviewed Ayre Acoustics’ stellar KX-5 preamplifier ($7950 USD, discontinued). It was the quietest preamplifier I’d ever reviewed, and set the stage for many good things to come, with one exception: having to give it back. Difficult as it was, I parted with the KX-5 -- only to be asked, a few months later, if I’d be interested in reviewing its successor, the KX-5 Twenty. My response was an immediate yes.
But seeing a new version of the KX-5 only 18 months after the release of the original took me a bit aback. Ayre is one of the few audio companies that avoids the economic temptation to make a few minor internal changes, add a new faceplate and a higher price tag, and call the result “all new!” Instead, they claim that they don’t release a new model or version until what they do release is a considerable improvement on its predecessor(s). This has usually involved revising circuits, upgrading parts, and sometimes redesigning all of the circuitry from the ground up. But Ayre had rarely, if ever, replaced a product -- especially one that had so well established itself -- as quickly as it did the KX-5. What gives?
Seems you can’t turn around these days without bumping into a cable company or tripping over a coil of their wire. There’s good reason cable manufacturers proliferate: the markup must be astronomical. Buy some wire, wrap it in a nice sheath, terminate with extreme prejudice, and off to market. What a gig!
A few cable companies don’t work that way. Wire isn’t always just wire, and in recent years there’s been some honest innovation in a field that, on the face of it, looks simple: no moving parts.
Beauty and brains
“I have a head for business and a bod for sin!”
Those words from Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) caught Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) hook, line, and sinker, and propelled the remainder of Working Girl, Mike Nichols’s romantic comedy-drama of 1988 -- the intoxicating sentiment stated, appropriately, in a bar. The allure of intellectual prowess coupled with emotional hedonism is great, not only because it is elusive but because it promises to satisfy so completely. It’s hard enough to find one of those qualities; to find both together is exponentially more difficult. Nonetheless, the combination has been heroically sought across many disciplines, including audio reproduction.
When a SoundStage! reviewer asks editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz if he has anything interesting he’d like reviewed, that reviewer never knows what Jeff will say. Jeff said that there was an opportunity to review La Voce S2, a digital-to-analog converter from Aqua - Acoustic Quality (AAQ). I’d never heard of Aqua - Acoustic Quality, and didn’t know if I’d enjoy or regret reviewing their new DAC. But I thought it might be an interesting adventure.
I started turning away from the whole notion of declaring something “the best” about the time I shut down my column, “The World’s Best Audio System.” Don’t get me wrong: The writings and events that made up the TWBAS series were enlightening -- I was able to learn from lots of talented industry folks, and assembled several state-of-the-art audio systems in my listening room, the Music Vault. In terms of establishing a personal audio reference, this was invaluable, and no doubt made me a better reviewer. But there’s a futility in searching for the universal “best” -- at least, in high-end audio. It’s an argument that’s never settled, by me or by anyone else.
Audiophiles looking for a music server can use a home computer, a music server made by a traditional audiophile component manufacturer, or do it themselves. Typically, the DIY approach is for the very computer savvy, and some custom-designed servers are very good indeed. They can include specially made or modified audiophile parts -- USB cards, clock modules, solid-state drives, SATA cables -- and can even be on the technological cutting edge.
But if you lack the knowledge, time, or inclination to build a custom server, there’s a fourth way: go to a company that will design and build one for you. One such company is England’s Hifidelit, whose server I used to test the software that is the subject of this review.
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