The System As It StandsI guess you could say that last year was about the Last Six Feet. That is, the loudspeakers, the amp, and the pre -- and everything that goes in to that. I've spent a ton of money and even more time sorting, shuffling, and generally exploring ... and I think I'm pretty happy with the end result. My current system, at least the one I default to before and after a new review component comes and goes, is the following:
- Loudspeakers: DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96. I'm thrilled with the look and sound of the big Apes and fully see myself settling in for a long-term love affair. Gorgeous, functional, furniture to be sure.
- Amplifier: BorderPatrol S10 stereo SET with dual external EXS power supplies. I've been looking at BorderPatrol gear for a good while now, too, and I can unabashedly submit that they're not just "special" -- this amp may well be the best of its kind being made today. And yes, I'm including those Far Eastern brands in that claim. Now with the 80lbs of power supply per channel, the S10 can delivery leather-wrapped iron-fisted knuckle-punches directly to the feels on demand. Holy. Sweet. Mother.
- Preamplifier: BorderPatrol Control Unit EXT with external power supply. Honestly, I almost didn't get this preamp and only reconsidered after a long "interview period" punctuated by almost obsessive A/B switching. I've not been a huge believer in the benefits of an active preamp, and the transparency of many available passive units -- or eliminating them entirely with a DAC-based volume control -- has been my default since dumping all my Joule-Electra gear along with my old Merlin VSM-MXR loudspeakers. But if any preamp has transparency, tone, and bandwidth, it's this one. Sound fields are deeper, wider and taller. Crazy. Didn't think a preamp could do that.
I’m still balancing everything on the back of my monster Silver Circle Tchaik 6 because I like what it does for power delivery. Cables for this system have been in flux, and I’ve been using MG Audio Design, WyWires Platinum, and now TelWire. All three have been excellent choices.
My analog front end has been stable as well — I’m still totally satisfied with my TW Acustic Raven AC-3 turntable! I’ve mounted the matching Raven tonearm and for a cartridge, I’m still using the Ortofon Windfeld. The front-end of that chain is a Raven phono preamp, but a Manley Labs Steelhead RC has stepped in lately.
A wrinkle that came out of nowhere is a McIntosh MR88 HD tuner. It’s my first piece with the glowing blue meters and I have to say the build quality is awesome. But the tech is pretty vintage, unfortunately, and not precisely suited to my listening space. HD Radio reception, something I’d hoped would be an easy win and a way to add variety to my all-day listening, has been completely unavailable. Spring is here (supposedly), so I may be able to experiment with running my giant FM antenna out the window, but I must say I’m not thrilled with where this project is. Basements suck. Lesson learned.
But that leaves the Next Big Thing to sort out this year — my digital front end.
A new DAC?
Long time readers of the site know that I’ve been a huge fan of the Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha DAC. I bought one of the original models, and when the DAC was updated to Series 2, I upgraded. I added an Alpha USB to the punchbowl and was rewarded with some of the very best digital audio I’ve heard. For the price, it’s still something of a high-water mark. But times have marched on. DSD may well be an audiophile fad, but I’ve heard DSD playback via a “native” decoder with the LampizatOr prototype that floated through last year and I have to say I have not heard better. Ever. Unfortunately, that Lampi had some issues and was not quite ready for primetime — issues that I’m told have been entirely addressed, for whatever that’s worth, but revisiting with the Polish tube master has not been an option so far. Love to explore that at some point, but it seems I’m going to have to wait for the stars align. Oh well.
And then there was that visit from Light Harmonic. Heh heh. Heh heh. So, while it’s probably not a surprise that a $20,000 DAC sounded quite good, I have to say that the Da Vinci the first that clearly bettered the Alpha Pair on PCM material at any resolution. And by clearly, I do mean that — it’s better in all categories and by some margin. But it’s $20,000! When Bill Leebens called saying it was time for it to leave, I think I might have wept. I still have separation pangs and heave shuddering sighs just thinking about all those transcendent moments we shared …. Anyway, with luck, its big sister the Dual DAC will come to visit at some point, so I can
re-addict reacquaint myself.
In the meantime, I’ve been very lucky and privileged to spend some time with the Auralic VEGA, a DSD-capable DAC with a startlingly good USB implementation, awesome clocking and damn-fine digital conversion. I think the Alpha Pair might have it in the down-low, but that may be the extent of the win — the VEGA does extremely well with everything, and the top-end is truly excellent. I’m loving this little DAC. Preliminary thoughts: check it out, pronto.
Something interesting happened this week on this front, though. Gary Dews of BorderPatrol brought along a prototype NOS-only DAC tucked into a vintage Western Electric wooden box. I’m not sure if he’s going to sell them, but my hope is that he takes the design and incorporates it as an option in a new version of the Control Unit preamp. It’s NOS (new old stock, not non-oversampling though it is that as well), so it only does Redbook files — perhaps oddly limited in this day and age, right? But here’s an odd fact I pointed out to myself recently — 95% of my audio files are all Redbook. They’re just lossless CD rips. Not “high res” at all. So, maybe not all that limiting after all? All I can say is that playback via this little $1,000 unit is embarrassingly good. And not as in “good for the money”, but as in, you probably don’t want to compare this to anything you have. Save yourself. Pretend I didn’t mention it. Seriously. I may stop buying high-res audio material altogether. Whatever. I’m definitely keeping this DAC.
But while the BorderPatrol “Western Electric DAC” is stunning, it doesn’t do much to allow my part-time reviewer gig any room to fiddle about with the so-called state-of-the-art. So, I’m shopping a little bit. Maybe. Dunno. This is such a tricky market segment, to be forthright — stuff is changing pretty fast (every year or so), so a major capital investment in a DAC seems unwise. Money isn’t nearly as free-flowing as I’d like, and I can’t afford to buy-try-sell-and-repeat-as-necessary. Stupid Lotto Fairy. Anyway … the DAC is only half the equation.
A Computer (Audiophile)
The other half of the equation is all source. I’ve been running a 13″ MacBook Pro as my “source” for years, spinning audio files off the laptop via USB into either a converter or directly into a DAC. Works a treat. But, like many wannabe computer ‘philes, I read a little too much, so out came the screwdrivers.
The first thing that most vets in this niche will tell you to do is upgrade to a solid-state drive. No moving parts! This tends to make the operations of the computer a bit more fluid as the delays inherent with the spin up of a conventional hard drive do tend to cause issues at exactly the point where you don’t want any issues. I’ve found that the upgrade is worthwhile for a couple of reasons, and a more natural-sounding sonic signature of the system with an SSD-enabled computer is only one (the noticeable increase in system responsiveness is the other). So, I replaced the internal drive with an SSD. Not too difficult a job, and there are plenty of Youtube vids on exactly how to do this. I also upgraded the RAM to 8 GB, which didn’t seem to have any noticeable impact, but “they told me to”, so I did. It was cheap, too.
I came up on a problem almost immediately with this setup, however: storage space. SSD tech seems to top out at 1 TB these days, but back then, 256 GB was the limit. Not a lot of space for all those new high-resolution audio files.
Back to Newegg! A week later, my orange 1 TB externally powered drive from LaCie had me sorted out. Connected via the Firewire 800 port, performance was very acceptable, and with the computer connecting to a DAC via USB, I was able to keep the internal computer data paths separate (USB out, Firewire in), which was one of those other recommendations made by the forum wizards. Apparently, USB tends to trip over itself, so using it for both your connection to the DAC and for your connection to your off-box file storage was a no-no.
This was my state of the art for several years, until I ran out of space. This meant an upgrade to a Western Digital MyBook, which carried 2 TB. And that worked great, right up until I discovered DSD, and suddenly I needed more room. A lot more. In came an external HDD chassis and a 4 TB Western Digital hard drive. And then things went to hell (sort of).
The new Western Digital drive works — there’s no question of it failing or of corruption or whatever. No, the problem is that it seems to disconnect itself. The drive is from their “Green” line of hard disks, which means that its spin rate is reduced and the drive tends to “park” itself during periods of idleness. Less power consumption sounds great, except that my playback software (Pure Music or Audirvana) tends to buffer quite a few files during playback, which means that the drive parks quite often. Often enough that iTunes shits the bed and playback halts until I reboot. Yes, reboot. It’s not pretty.
So, naturally I went and looked at another drive solution. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find Firewire support in any current offering, so I figured it was time to try out Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt sits on a faster transport path (good) and is still on a different path than the USB-to-DAC chain (also good). So, I ordered up an 8 TB drive thinking I was all set.
Except my apparently old MacBook Pro doesn’t actually have a Thunderbolt port. That little thing that fooled me is a DisplayPort, technology that was upgraded and superseded in later models of the Mac platform. I was out of luck. Which is when I went looking for that Mac Mini I had purchased for the home theater.
That Mac Mini in question really only ever had one job — media. I used it for local hi-res audio playback in my living room setup. I had it configured for NAS-based streaming for everything else, and Internet streaming for services like Spotify and Pandora. With the acquisition of the Marantz 7008 last holiday season (part of a spouse-ordered simplification program), all of that was unnecessary — the Marantz easily handled all the media streaming I wanted. Out came the Mini and onto the shelf it went. Until now.
This Mini has Firewire and Thunderbolt, so I was set. Surgery was required to swap the spinning hard drive for an SSD — happily, only a couple of extra parts were left over. Ahem. RAM was already at 8 GB, so that was fine. I hung the old drive off a USB dongle, booted, downloaded Mavericks, installed that to the SSD, patched it, ran the OS X optimizing script over at Computer Audio Design, and I was ready for consolidation. 10 hours of file copying later, the Thunderbolt drive was fully loaded. Another 30 minutes of indexing, and iTunes was ready. A visit to Audirvana later, and I was ready for playback. Ta da!
One thing I had neglected to keep up on with the latest iterations of Mac OS X was the inclusion of VNC. VNC is a virtual screen-sharing service, which meant that you can see and control the desktop of any machine you choose to connect to. Since I’d been relying on “Remote”, an app Apple made available via the iTunes Store, for all my iTunes playback, VNC was a huge upgrade. Since Remote only works with iTunes and as “everyone knows” Mac-based playback sounds much better when iTunes is asked to do next to nothing, I had to walk over to the computer to start and stop my specialty audio playback software (Amarra, Pure Music or Audirvana) any time I wanted to queue up the tunes or swap a DAC or whatever. Now, with VNC, I could ditch the monitor, keyboard and mouse from the Mini, which I did. This makes the rack a whole lot tidier, to be sure.
The moment of truth came off without a hitch. In every way, my “fresh” Mac Mini solution is better than the MacBook Pro. No hiccups. No hitches. No reboots necessary. Sonically, there may be a bit of an improvement, but it’s hard to say, but from a usability standpoint alone, this is a huge win. I just VNC in from anywhere and I have tuneage. Score!
Now, I’m kind of at the beginning of the whole computer-mod thing, and it’s quite a road to wander along. The next major upgrade to the Mac Mini platform, at least according to computer audio nerds in The Know, is a new power supply. I’m told that I should be looking for an external linear unit. Preferably more than one, and using them to variously power the different in-chassis elements (motherboard, hard drive, USB interface, &c) independently. That seems a bit extreme, but a single external linear PSU does seem to be achievable without turning the Mini into a half-disassembled Frankenstein creature with wires poking out hither and yon. Zzzzap!
Happily, there are a few outfits that “do this” for you and a few others that provide kits that allow you to DIY it, if you’re so inclined. Personally, I’m exploring some options here, including one from my friends at Mojo Audio. We’ll have to wait and see where this goes.
But fiddling about with the Mini is hardly the only option here. John Grandberg has recently written about his experiences with the Auraliti solution — he was thrilled. Perhaps because of that success, he managed to wander off a techno-cliff and is now exploring a computer-based solution from Aurender. His experiences are all positive, and that’s encouraging. So I decided to explore a bit, too.
This week, a Vortexbox solution arrived from Small Green Computer, and sometime in the near future, their Windows-based CAPS solution will follow it. To ice that cake, I’m exploring whether or not I can demo a Sonore PSU, one specifically designed to provide a multi-tap power solution for the CAPS box and will let me power the USB card separately from the computer.
And that’s the agenda.
Next week is AXPONA, and that’ll be a blast. I have an extra day planned for the trip to Chicago, so I’ll be meeting up with my good friend Brian Hunter of Audio-Head for a tasty tour of a few bourbon specialty bars he knows. Good food, good friends, good sound — adds up to a great time. Coverage should begin pretty much immediately, and hopefully won’t take more than a couple of weeks to complete. Ha!
I also have a few reviews coming out.
- Genesis Audio‘s 5.3 loudspeakers. Tuning options translates directly into an almost infinite flexibility, and a powered cabinet means stunning bass performance. After the last demo, I’m going to have to rehang some drywall! Spoiler alert: these loudspeakers are astonishingly great. Bonus: designer Gary Koh swung by a week or so ago and even let me put him in front of a camera. Silly man.
- Abyss AB-1266 headphones. There’s a lot of noise around these mega-cans on the forums, but from what I’m able to suss out, it’s either insane enthusiasm or sour grapes. They may not be your cuppa, but what they are is a SOTA design. Spoiler alert: hate the aesthetic, or the price, or the whatever, but who cares — nothing in my experience has come close.
- Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold headphone amplifier. Got this one along with the Abyss headphones, and quickly learned more than a thing or two about the joys of balanced sonics. Paired with the Abyss, I’ve found the pinnacle of head-fi, and it’s incredible.
- JH Audio Sirens Series Roxanne Custom IEM. From the squishy fitting process to the oddly shaped final product, I was really not sure what to expect with the CIEM experience. After a protracted break-in, what I got was liberation, astonishing sound and a sexy carbon “footprint”. Seriously. What’s not to like? Nothing. Nothing at all.
There’s more, too. Auralic’s DSD-capable VEGA converter. A suite of cables from Purist Audio Design, WyWires, TelWire and Double Helix. Tekton Audio, Pass Labs, iFi Audio and and and … and. Yeah. There’s a lot.