I’m an audio nerd, it’s true. But I’m also a cook (professionally trained, it’s true) and a wine geek. And by ‘geek’, I mean Definition #1, someone who bites the heads off of things. Okay, maybe not, but I do love me some wine. And when I say ‘love’, I mean wildly, inappropriately, and entirely unseemly in my appreciation for what a deft hand can render from nature’s fruit. Mmmm mmmm. Sorry. Where was I? Ah yes, Red Wine Audio.
A million years ago, Vinnie was modding stuff like iPods so that they’d suck less as an audio source. I think he still tinkers in this space for fun, but at least 8 years ago, he started fiddling about with a very clever notion — what if all your audio gear “left the grid”? Shortly thereafter, he won his first Blue Moon award. And that was just the beginning. Red Wine Audio’s chief, Vinnie Rossi, now has an integrated, a headphone amp, a phono stage, a DAC, a preamp, and more is on the way. Its been fun to watch — and a nicer, more approachable guy you’ll simply not find at any audio show.
The first few times I found Vinnie rocking out in his demo rooms, it’d been in the company of high-sensitivity speakers, like those from Zu Audio, because (quite frankly) the match to his low-output designs really required it. Which made this showing, here at CES, something almost comical — this time, he showed with Harbeth.
No, don’t get me wrong — Harbeths are generally considered an “easy load” for mid-power tube amps, so it’s not that weird to see an amp manufacturer whose products averaged below 50wpc so paired. But … conventional wisdom is a little silly. Harbeths have a really low sensitivity, the M30.1, shown here, is 85dB. So, while it’ll work, Harbeth is still definitely not what you’d expect him to show with, especially if you’d remembered Vinnie’s older efforts ….
But well, that’d be precisely the point. Because Vinnie’s new efforts take that applecart, knock it over, set it on fire, and dance the wild bacchanal while it burns. His new monos, the Liliana, are Class A/B 115wpc dudes, and while they are battery-powered, the lithium-based formulation means oodles of power, instantly available, in a stunningly quiet package. Sha-zam. Low sensitivity? Ah, who cares. Bring it!
But that’s not the story here.
No, the story is the new Renaissance Editions. According to Vinnie:
“These components will be the very best we have offered since I started RWA in 2005.”
Oh, baby! The first thing you notice is the wood trim and fascia — an elegant touch. In fact, this is the nicest-looking product I’ve ever seen come out of RWA to date. Love it. And yes, there’s even a new, all-metal, remote! Score!
There’s lots on the table here. First up, everything (that is, everything other than the Liliana, which were just released last year) got the facelift. Vinnie has also retired a few older products, like the Reference 30.2 and 70.2 — and the Signature 15 that I swooned over this past year. While no replacement for the 30.2 has been officially announced, smart money says that this is a gap in the line that Vinnie plans to fill as soon as. And if you were at all curious as to what a kitchen-sink appliance from Red Wine Audio might look like … stay tuned.
The Signature 15 has moved to the Signature 16 ($1,795). Here’s what’s new:
- New Renaissance Edition Class-A tube stage, delivering the highest level of sonic purity
- New amp board (that compared to the Signature 15) breathes more life into your music
- New front-panel rotary switch controls power ON / OFF and SMART operation mode 3 analog inputs
- Solid aluminum remote volume control
- Tube-buffered output jacks to drive an active subwoofer or external amplifier
Interestingly, there are also a couple of options. The base model is actually an amp, not an integrated — adding that bit adds another $200. In addition, a head-amp/output, is also available for $500.
Also on the table, a Bellina DAC ($1,995). This stand-alone DAC looks a lot like the DAC it replaces, but includes the following features:
- New Renaissance Edition tube stage
- New front-panel rotary switch controls power ON / OFF and
- SMART operation mode
- 3 inputs: Coaxial, Optical and USB
- Red Book (NOS 16-bit) playback ships standard
- Class-A FET I/V conversion stage (no opamps used)
- USB input isolates your computer’s power bus from the internal DAC chip — an innovation called “galvanic isolation” — preventing computer noise from degrading the sound
Add $500, and you can add the Bellina Pro features, and gain “two digital-to-analog chips on a single board. One optimized for high-resolution playback. One optimized for Red Book playback.”
- Red Book conversion via our tried-and-true 16-bit, NOS Bellina design
- High-resolution conversion via premium 24/192k Wolfson DAC chip
- Toggle between the two d/a converters by simply flipping a switch
- High-res converter also plays 16-bit, so you can choose between two sonic “flavors” when listening to Red Book
- Supports 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192k via coax and optical inputs (more on USB below)
- Asynchronous mode USB-to-I2S conversion (USB 2.0 compliant)
- Integer-mode compatible
- Supports 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192k files (no driver required for Mac OS X)
Okay, so I have to admit that this has me all hot under the collar.
The setup here was a little unusual — the Signature 16 was configured, at various times throughout the week, either as an integrated (that is, driving the speakers directly) or as a preamp, feeding the Liliana monos. And yes, the little 16wpc output of the new integrated did a fine job with those inefficient Harbeths — the boogie factor definitely kicked up a notch with the big Liliana monos, but … do you need that extra power? I’m not so sure, though, that may be audio heresy ….
Oh, and yes — I have to admit that I am in love with that new Harbeth, the 30.1 ($5,990/pair). This is the first Harbeth that’s made my wallet itch. Ahem. The sound in this room was rich and lovely, with excellent dynamics and great punch — I was drawn in and did not want to leave. So, I didn’t. Well, at least not for a while. This system, for something under $15k, is not cheap, but the sound quality for this price was undeniable. Best in Show contender? Oh yes. Oh yes indeedy.
But I’m still not drinking any stinkin’ Merlot.