A day with the Lynx Hilo

“Earflappin” Dave brought a toy by today, a Hilo from Lynx Studios. Retailing for $2,500, this is one of those kitchen-sink appliances, as it’s a DAC but also an analog-to-digital converter. And a preamp. And a headphone amp. It’s also a DSP. And did I mention that it can do digital-to-digital conversions, too? Oh, and that it supports up to 8 separate channels, and can do that over USB? Yeah, okay — it’s got a lot of goodies in there. The half-width form factor is quite tidy and the options for connectivity are robust. No drivers are needed on Mac, which is convenient, but they’re available for Windows users. Balanced and single ended connections, variable and fixed volume outputs, and digital outputs round out the features.

This is also the same converter that Channel D’s Rob Robinson uses at audio shows to show off his Pure Vinyl software. It only made sense that we used Pure Music for playback.

I didn’t get a chance to play with the headphone jack, nor use it as a preamp. The setup and tear down would have required more time than we had. Dave dropped the unit off first thing and I ran it in a bit with my system, and when he circled back by after lunch, I had it successfully working and playing music. We then spent a couple of hours listening to it, and yes, we did get the chance to compare it to my two in-house references. We spent the entirety of the time listening to the USB interface, but while we did try to use it via the AES and the S/PDIF inputs, but couldn’t get those options to work. This was, I’m sure, entirely due to user error, but interested parties may be well served by the latest firmware.

The long story short? Nice DAC! Tonally, it’s neutral, with good extension and articulation. The sound was on the warm/smooth side of things, that is, rich and full. I feel it clearly bettered the more moderately priced DACs littering my desk. Not really a fair comparison as the closest was nearly $1,500 cheaper, but hey, you work with the tools you have and not the tools you wish you had.

My favorite feature is the touch display. You can select a couple of different looks to display by default, including a pair of analog vue dials, a digital EQ float, and the everything bagel. Personally, I’m a fan of the analog look. Very Luxman. I love it.

As for the other features, I’m not sure how much use I’m going to get out of them, but they’re neat. An ADC that does 24bit/192kHz sounds like a nice way to trap your vinyl. Or your band. There’s up to 8 channels coming in!

And here’s what it looks like in action!

So, yes, I liked the DAC and I think it’s a solid recommendation in its price category. Was it the best ever? No. Was it clearly better than my $7,500 reference? No, sorry — the revolution isn’t in progress. But it was quite good, and the shortcomings, such as they are, are really only obvious in direct comparison. So, let’s do that.

By contrast with the three times more expensive Berkeley Alpha Series 2 / Alpha USB pair, the Berkeley pair played with a greater sense of ease and showed tangibly more extension at both frequency extremes. On the low-end, this was mostly perceived as a tightening of the lowest bass and a bit more presence/flesh in the mid-bass. We tested this using the “No Sanctuary” track off of the Chris Jones album, Roadhouses and Automobiles. This track has a real meaty bass line that most speakers can capture only adequately. The deep harmonics on this track are stunning and freaky — to really capture the sound coming off those bits you need a full range transducer. I use this track, not to see how deep the bass goes, but how big it plays — and with the Hilo, it plays really big. It’s just that the Berkeley pair plays it a bit bigger, with even more menace and threat. However — trade in the full range speakers for some stand mounts and this advantage will be mitigated.

When we switched in the LampizatOr Level 4, the differences between the DACs closed a bit and also traded things around. I think the Lampi had more body than the Hilo, with more shimmer and sheen on the top, but like a good tube amp, it gave up a bit in clean, articulate bass delineation. This was most obvious with the big eFicion F300s but I also have to admit that much of the difference was lost when we moved to the Magnepan 3.7s. Both were warm, but the Lynx may have been smoother.

Speaking of which, the Hilo was able to cleanly pick the crickets out of the “Roadhouses and Automobiles” track. But both the Berkeley pair and the Lampi were able to set them into the canvas more solidly, making the total picture presented more 3-D and more lifelike.

A quick aside, lest you read too much into the rather nuanced deltas in sound that I’m describing as if they were anything but. That is, it should be obvious and could probably go without saying, but let me be clear — while there were audible differences between the DACs, it’s also the case that those differences were way less significant than the differences between the speakers. The total impact of these DACs on the overall sound of the system? Relatively minor. Just wanted to throw that back in there.

Here’s the bottom line. I like the Hilo. I think the meters and monitors are cool, but honestly, it does a lot of things that I don’t need it to. However, flexibility isn’t a liability — rather, having one in-house would probably encourage me to do things most of you will probably be happy if I don’t, like record myself singing or playing music [shudder]. So, while I’m not tempted to move from my references, the Hilo more than stands up on its own. Change the rules by introducing some non-full range speakers and suddenly we’re playing a different game entirely.