Monday, January 23, 2017

Vinshine Audio DAC-R2R Ref

Introduction

R2R DACs seem to be all the rage nowadays. However, not everyone can afford the DACs from MSB or Totaldac. Luckily we do have some more affordable options now. Soekris Engineering brought discrete resistor R2R to the masses, with an affordable full populated board - just add a suitable power transformer and you were effectively good to go. Wait a minute - can't read a circuit diagram to save your life, and scared of handling potentially lethal voltages ? Have no fear - our very own local company, Vinshine Audio has come up with a ready made product utilising a Soekris Rev 4 0.05 % board.

To an oldie audiophile like me, the fuss about R2R is quite amusing. When I started out in the hobby, all CD players utilised R2R DACs. A short while later, Philips started extolling the virtues of bitstream DACs. In fact, I secretly lusted after a Marantz CD 10 that used a bitstream DAC.  





To be continued ...

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Neutral Cable - USB Reference I (Improved)

Introduction

Italian hand-made things are beautiful - artistic, and made with passion and flair. You may not necessarily agree with their aesthetics, but they invariably make a statement !

Neutral Cable are a Rome based company that makes their cables by hand. The cable on test here is the USB Reference I (Improved) and is their flagship USB cable. The conductors used for data are made of teflon insulated 7N purity solid core silver wires. Meanwhile, the power supply conductors are shielded and spaced from the data cables to avoid interference.

The new improved version promises better separation between instruments, better dynamics and articulation of low frequencies compared to the USB Reference.

My review sample came in a nice velvet case. The 1.2m cable was sheathed in a nice bright yellow jacket and was neatly and well-made with a single USB head (Neutral Cable's website mentions that a double-head type cable can be made upon request). 






The USB Reference I is Neutral Cable's flagship USB cable and is priced at EUR 500/600 for 0.8 / 1.2 m lengths. That puts it comfortably in the territory of other highly regarded cables like the Wireworld Platinum Starlight, or the JCAT Reference USB.

Sound Quality

According to conventional audiophile wisdom, silver cables have a fast, bright and detailed tone. My own experience with silver suggests otherwise, with pure silver cables sounding detailed, very smooth and full. Some people say that silver cables have very weak low frequencies. I personally think this is a result of using very thin silver conductors to keep costs low. 

In any event, the Reference I is a highly detailed, full sounding and very musical sounding cable. It is quite smooth too, with a fluidity that is totally free from grain. How about that, from a silver cable ?

Tonally, the Reference I avoids the precision razor sharp sound of some cables that emphasise the leading edge of notes, but usually end up sounding fatiguing in the long run. Instead, the Reference I has a full bodied sound, with fleshed-out images. More importantly, it does this without sounding dark, smoothing over details, or rolling-off the top-end of the frequency spectrum. Some users may find that the transients are slightly soft-sounding and lacking in snap though - it depends on your musical diet and preferences. 

Low frequencies have a nice bloom and wetness to it, with some fullness in the midbass. Compared to my Wireworld Platinum Starlight (Series 6), it lacks some punch in the lowest registers. 

Both the midrange and high frequencies of the Reference I are balanced, with a highly detailed and controlled sound. There is a sweet and effortless presentation that makes vocals very easy to listen to. The Wireworld in comparison sounded aggressive and a bit bright.

Imaging is well-sorted out, although image sizes are slightly larger than usual, with a subtle forward projection of the soundstage.

The character of the Reference I was consistent - I tried it in two different setups and my listening notes for both were generally similar. 

Conclusion

It is really easy to like the Reference I - it's relaxed, sweet and very natural sounding. It has a wholesome sound that is highly detailed yet effortless. It's certainly not a cheap cable, but I consider the asking price to be well justified by it's performance - Recommended. 


Neutral Cable

USB Reference I - EUR 500 (0.8m) / EUR 600 (1.2m)
http://www.neutralcable.it/




Saturday, November 26, 2016

International Sound & Sight Exhibition (ISSE) 2016

Introduction

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. ISSE 2016 ran from 25th November to 27th November at Parkroyal Hotel, Kitchener Road. 

While there were some notable absentees from this year's event, we had a new contingent of exhibitors from China and Taiwan. 

Second Floor - Large Rooms

First up is X Audio's lovely Vivid Audio setups. Swee and Ryan had set up a Vivid B1d with Octave amplification. Sources were Aurender's new streamer/DAC, the A10 and a MSB DAC. 

Their second setup was anchored around the mighty Vivid Giya G1, with Acustic Arts monoblock amplifiers. The absolutely delectable Phasemation preamplifier and phono amps were also being used, while source equipment included the Aurender N10 streamer, MSB Select DAC (with mono power supplies) and AMG turntable. Cabling was a mixture of Acrolink, AET and Goebel HIgh End. Accessories included power conditioning from Torus, and a ground conditioner from Entreq.

I really liked the sound from the Giya G1. The setup had an organic and liquid quality, while delivering detail with delicacy and authority when required.



The Aurender A10 with it's lovely matching remote machined from Aluminium. The remote control is better made than a lot of components from competitors !

AMG Viella V12 with Phasemation cartridge.



Moving on to the Yamaha room, the highlight must surely have been the NS-5000. These were driven with Pass Labs electronics, and the source was an EMM Labs XDS-1 CD / SACD player. Cabling was from Straightwire. I spoke briefly to the representative on hand. My first question was probably something he had to answer a thousand times - "Why not Beryllium for the tweeter unit ?". He explained the qualities of the synthetic fiber used - Zylon - it is extremely strong and allowed Yamaha to use the same material for all of the three drivers. Beryllium is notorious for it's difficulty in manufacture and its brittleness (not to mention that Beryllium dust is poisonous).

This setup showed great promise. It had a full, smooth sound that was also very detailed at the same time. I was informed that a pair of these speakers cost S$19,600 per pair. Oh, and you get the matching speaker stands too for the price - yippee ! Remind me to follow-up on this product.




Now, it was love at first sight for me - these beautiful wireless speakers double up as mood lamps. The LSX-70 and LSX-170 are objects of art. The metal cones are not just for show - they also diffuse light and sound.



The Disklavier system below is something I sorely need. Couple an acoustic piano with software and you get beautiful music on demand. I never took any lessons and they say that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, so personally this will just have to do.


High End Research carries many of the top hifi brands in the world. This year, their setup consisted of the Wilson Alexx speakers, driven by the EMM Labs MTRX2 monoblocks, the Audio Research Reference 6 tube preamp, and the EMM Labs TX2/DA2 transport / DAC combo. 800 watts of power into 4 ohms meant that this system had almost unlimited reserves of power for stunning dynamics and scale. If there was such a thing as a "Most Improved Setup Award", it would definitely go to High End Research. The Alexx was sounding pretty good at the show, with particularly impressive image height, and a sense of effortlessness.



A close-up of the Wilson Alexx speakers.


Audioline never holds back in its exhibits, and this year was no different. The Von Schweikert Ultra 11 was easily the most intimidating speaker at ISSE, with a geometric look that would not be out of place in a science fiction movie. They seemed to soak up a lot of power too - at fairly modest levels, I saw the digital meters on the Accuphase A-200 power amps hit 50 watts during musical peaks ! The digital front end and amplification were from Accuphase, while the analog rig was from Triangle Art. When I was there, the phono stage in use was the Roger PA-1A phono preamp. While the sound was good, I left with a feeling that the room was perhaps too small for the speaker to perform at it's best.






An extremely large scale mock model of the Audio Technica AT-ART1000 cartridge.
Creative Labs had a large variety of models on display. The focus seemed to be on the X-Fi Sonic Carrier - Creative's answer to the high-end soundbar. 15.2 sound anyone ?




Mr. Chan of E-MU showing off the beautiful wooden cups used in E-MU headphones. 

A model of a new design with detachable cables. A balanced cable is also being offered.

Ebony cups.

Teak cups.


In case you were wondering, a mind boggling variety of wood cups are offered. Mr. Chan and I were counting the annual rings of a particularly beautiful model - made from a very old tree growing slowly in cool climate. He shared some interesting facts about manufacturing of the wooden cups. The dimensions would change with ambient humidity, and the thickness of the cups had to be varied according to the wood used. 

SLT Technologies had the Oppo UDP-203 on display, as well as the new DAC, the Sonica. The UDP-203 was being offered at a special pre-order price of S$ 899, and the Sonica at S$ 1,399.





AVOne conducted a number of talks. Unfortunately, I only had time for one - a presentation by Hartmut Berberich of Isotek. The very effective demonstration started with the audience experiencing the differences between stock power cords and their products. They then moved on to show the effect of inserting the Polaris mains distributor, followed by the Aquarius, Mosaic Genesis regenerator, and the Super Titan into the set-up. Anyone who has any doubts about after market power cords, or mains conditioning really should attend this.







Seventh floor exhibitors


AVOne were displaying Monitor Audio speakers.





Project Perfection had a full Auralic setup paired with the KEF Reference 1. Music was being streamed from the Auralic Altair into the Merak monoblock amplifiers. The Altair is a streamer with built-in DAC and volume control. More power to the clutter-phobes.




AVP Soundcraft displayed an armada of Nagra boxes. The Acoustic Solid turntable looked a little bit out of place amongst the Swiss battleships. The Verity speakers (the little Finn was playing when I was there) sounded their usual musical, relaxed and refined self. 






AVP's second room - Canton speakers and Simaudio electronics. 



Aural Designs had the Proac K8 paired with the Kondo Overture PM2 integrated amplifier. A dinosaur era Sonic Frontiers transport was being used together with a LH Labs DAC as a digital source. The analog front-end was the Kronos Sparta, while the phono stage was the Kondo KSL-M7. The Overture is supposed to deliver 32 watts per channel, but nobody told the amplifier nor the speakers for sure. While it seemed tuned more for certain genres of music, when this system was in it's element, it was downright scary !



Kronos Sparta turntable with counter-rotating dual platters ! Beauty in motion.


LA Audio of Taiwan were showcasing a variety of products. Products were modestly priced but sounded really good on female vocals (The evergreen audiophile favourite, Cai Qin was playing when I was there). Just goes to prove that you don't need to rob a bank to have fun as an audiophile. 


Moving over to the Music Image room, you couldn't help but notice the unusual white speakers on demo - hORNS. The ever elusive LH Labs Geek Source was on display too. LH Labs, can we please have our sets before the end of the year please ? 


Silbatone single-ended tube amplifier. The price tag is not a typo !


Nuprime - looks familiar ? Jason Lim, ex-cofounder of Nuforce bought over the rights and assets of Nuforce's high-end division.  


Sound Affairs and Audio Sound shared a room this year. I liked their setup and room. Their setup was blindingly simple for a high-end setup - a Melco N1Z audiophile NAS was feeding data to the Audionet DNA I network compatible integrated amplifier. 

The Guissani Research speakers, the Delta 4 R7 were sounding very refined and cultured. The Guissani design is interesting - a small fabric dome tweeter mated with a magnetic planar midrange and cone woofer in a sealed enclosure. Power-conditioning was courtesy of the Plixir Elite Balanced AC conditioners. William from Audio Sound graciously gave credit to the Plixir for helping achieve the wonderful sound. 


Steve of Sky Audio had the DynamiKKs! speakers on demonstration. The analog front end was from Tien Audio Studio, while the amplifier was from DA&T. Nice easy going sound. We were listening to fairly soft music but I've heard what the DynamiKKs! can do at Sky Audio's show room - the capitalised double K and exclamation mark are not for show.


Tien Audio Studio's lovely turntable - enquire with Sky Audio on the price, you may have a pleasant surprise.


Tracer Technology Co. Ltd. must have had the most daring setup in the show. Source was ahem... a Pioneer Blu-ray player. Everything was hooked up to a common household AC distributor. If I was not mistaken, their US terminated power cord was connected to the AC distributor (UK outlets) using a travel adapter. Oh, and I especially like their audiophile grade equipment rack. These guys have guts - I already like them ! Their speakers are really pretty, with a Sonus Faber like styling, with chamfered wood and leather baffles. The rear baffle has an Ostrich leather like finish. I am not sure whether the eczema like condition on the midrange dome was deliberate or not. 

Guess what ? This setup actually sounded quite nice. They excelled more when performing simpler types of music (small-scale instrumental pieces, and female vocals). I wasn't so convinced with their evenness in handling complex works, but they showed a lot of promise. I also heard that besides the beautiful sounds from the system, the attending young Taiwanese lady mesmerised some of the visitors. One visitor remarked that she had the most beautiful voicing in the show.



I am not familiar with Arte Forma Audio, but their amplifier is beautiful. The carved Chinese words (the Company's  name) on the wood panel is a nice touch. 



cda Pro.Audio had a simple setup similar to last year's system - ATC SCM40A active loudspeakers paired with a Prism DAC / preamp. Sounded great with the simpler tracks playing when I was there.


Atlas had the usual line-up of suspects - Piega speakers and Accuphase electronics.


Audio 88's room had a full Combak setup (Combak / Reimyo / Harmonix), as well as Auralic and Lumin electronics.




Nice looking and affordable cables from one of the Taiwanese exhibitors 



M&K speakers anyone ? The older audiophiles will remember M&K as one of the pioneers in the subwoofer scene.




Raindrop Audio was playing the Boenicke Audio W5SE with Heed Audio amplification and a streamer / DAC from SOtM. Simple, straightforward and very wholesome sound. Ray always does a good job in setup and this year was no different.




A big thanks to Mr. Tham of Sound and Sight Journal for organising ISSE and all the exhibitors that took part. See you next year !