by John Grandberg
Lifestyle products. Yuck. In “serious” audio, this dreaded term is to be avoided like the plague. And rightly so if we look at much of the gear out there labeled as such. But I’ve always wondered: who came up with this term? And what exactly does it mean to fall into this category? Is it simply a matter of design and convenience getting precedence over sound quality? If that’s right, we’re looking at the “sensible” gear from brands like Peachtree Audio and the like, which mix form, function, and sound quality in a rather favorable ratio, right? Hmm. No, that’s really not it. Does it mean the gear aims towards simplifying your daily grind rather than slowing you down? If so, my old McIntosh MCD205 CD changer would certainly qualify — that thing saved me tons of trips from the chair to the player. But again, somehow I doubt that’s the intent most people have when they use the term.
The more I consider the issue, the more I discover I don’t really have a proper definition that I could get most folks to agree on. Still, I’m led to believe that Lifestyle is a term we use to write something off. We don’t have to take it seriously if it’s overly concerned with looks, or small size, or some other factor other than “traditional” audiophile virtues. In other words, fluff. Stuff that is clearly aimed at outsiders. Some brands pretty much do Lifestyle gear exclusively — think Bose and B&O. Others somehow manage to straddle both sides of the fence — like when Meridian, a brand known for their “serious” preamps, processors, and speakers, released their F80 tabletop audio system. That thing managed to become quite popular despite the Lifestyle tag, and earned near universal praise from reviewers. Pretty impressive for what could essentially be dubbed a $3,000 boombox.
So, it seems Lifestyle is not necessarily the kiss of death, especially when it comes from a well-respected brand with a history behind them. There’s plenty of crap to be found but also the occasional gem. So, allow me to introduce another one: the AURALiC Gemini 2000.
AURALiC is well known for their Vega DAC and Taurus mkII headphone amp. Tyll Hertsens at InnerFidelity uses the Vega/Taurus stack as his reference rig for headphone reviews, and I can see why – the Vega is slick and the Taurus mkII is a favorite of mine as well. The combo will cost you nearly $5,500 which isn’t the most expensive DAC/amp combo out there but neither is it cheap by any means. It also takes up a decent amount of space and requires a minimum of five cables to operate: two AC, one digital, and a pair of analog interconnects. The reward for your troubles is a reference caliber system, capable of playing just about any file format over USB and driving just about any headphone in existence and doing it with aplomb.
But what if I told you it was possible to approach that level of performance for less than half the price, while taking up a lot less real estate in the process? Interested? I sure was.
AURALiC calls their Gemini series “headphone docks”. Like it or not, they fit squarely in the Lifestyle category as far as I can tell. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Gemini starts at $1,199 for the Gemini 1000 and goes up to $1,999 for the top model — and subject of this review — the Gemini 2000. Wondering what the heck a headphone dock might be? Good question actually. It’s not really a term I’ve ever heard used before. But once you figure out the details it actually makes a lot of sense. The Gemini is a combination DAC and headphone amp, built-in to the form factor of a headphone stand, and featuring an integrated SD card reader for storing your music. Get it? Headphone dock? Makes more sense now, right?
Talk about Lifestyle … I’ll let that sink in for a minute. It is a headphone stand — but not just any stand, it’s the highly regarded Klutz Design CanCans stand. It’s got a DAC in there somewhere — and not just any DAC, a high quality device sporting DSD capability, a 32-bit ESS Sabre chip, and asynchronous USB based on the XMOS chipset. And don’t forget that headphone amp — not just any basic amp, but a fully balanced Class A design with XLR and 1/4″ outputs, analog volume control, and 2 full watts on tap into low impedance loads. Yikes — that’s a lot of stuff going on for what appears to be a stock Klutz Design unit. AURALiC’s trick is to stash everything in the copper base, using the base itself as a heatsink. There’s simply no room for traditional heat spreaders as found in the big Taurus amp. Consequently the unit gets warm to the touch with extended use but never so hot as to become problematic. Cables? Now we’re down to just two — AC power via external power brick (think laptop power supply) and a digital connection, which I’m pretty sure will be USB in most cases.
Yes, let’s face it: USB is by far the most commonly used digital input these days. Informal surveys I’ve taken of friends and forum dwellers show an overwhelming majority using USB for computer audio. Of those who stick with some form of SPDIF connection, it seems less and less use some type of disc-based transport. A slightly larger number go for USB to SPDIF converters to improve their native USB solution. But again, the vast majority go for USB direct. Obviously this can vary depending on what community we use to make the inquiry, and there are still holdouts who refuse to embrace computer audio…. but that’s clearly the direction we’re headed in.
All this to say the Gemini 2000 is a thoroughly modern device equipped with an excellent USB implementation from XMOS, capable of hi-res PCM and DSD to boot. A fallback Toslink jack is included, as well as a separate USB connection for compatible Android phones or tablets via an OTG cable. But the star of the show, the one I used 99% of the time, is that USB connection. I ran Audirvana+ on a MacBook Pro (driverless, natch) or JRiver Media Center on an HP Elitebook, having excellent results with both.
Initially, I was a bit confounded about the included SD card reader. I’m used to my Resonnesence Labs Invicta DAC accepting high capacity SDXC cards and handling all playback from the front panel — a sort of all-in-one transport/DAC solution. But the Gemini has no playback controls … just a power knob, a source button, and a power button. That’s it. Upon further investigation I discovered the card reader is simply that — a reader, not a player. The computer, via USB connection, will mount the drive and can then play tracks from it. Which I suppose might come in handy in a work situation where one is not allowed to store personal (music) files on the hard drive. Then again, if one can install USB audio drivers (required for a Windows system) but not music, that seems perhaps inconsistent. Still, the card reader doesn’t take up much space and likely adds very little to the total price, so I’m happy to see it on board.
The Gemini is strictly a closed system. By that I mean its DAC section has no RCA or XLR line-out section, nor does its headphone stage have analog inputs to feed it from any other source. This is a digital-in, headphone-out only setup. In Gemini 1000 form the sole output is a 1/4″ headphone jack. The 2000 keeps that 1/4″ jack but also adds a balanced XLR output around the back. This is the 4-pin XLR variety which is commonly used for balanced headphones, and I happen to find it easier to deal with than the dual 3-pin XLR alternative. If you don’t have any balanced headphones and don’t intend to recable anytime soon then stick with the Gemini 1000 and call it a day — the extra juice on offer from the 2000 only comes from the balanced output.
Let’s talk about the Klutz Design CanCans for a second. If you’ve only ever seen this thing in pictures then you may find it somewhat odd-looking, what with that funky teardrop shape and those wild color combinations. In person, the design is actually far more striking than I expected. I typically use headphone stands from Codia Acoustic Design made from vertical MDF (think older Magico speakers such as the Magico Mini, before they went all aluminum). So I’m generally used to a more natural wood appearance. It doesn’t help that my review unit was bright red with a gold base … pretty much the most in-your-face color scheme AURALiC offers. But you know what? After a bit of acclimation, I learned to appreciate the stand for what it is. No, it doesn’t have traditional lines, but neither do the excellent Vivid Giya speakers – and I love those things, so why not the CanCans/Gemini as well? Another thing worth mentioning is the fact that this somewhat unusual design actually works well with most headphones. Many of the more “traditional” headphone stands out there don’t pair very well with certain headphone styles. Some are too short, some put unwanted pressure on your expensive leather pads, some mess with the headband pad resulting in annoying indentations after long-term use…. you’d think a simple headphone stand would be hard to mess up, but trust me on this one – a lot of them are sub optimal to say the least. Not so with the Klutz/Gemini offering. The only brand I can imagine (maybe) having issues is Audio Technica due to their “Wing” headpad design. There may not be enough pressure there to hold itself up. I don’t have any on hand to test at the moment but every single other brand I tried worked flawlessly.
Ok, so who exactly is the target market for this thing anyway? AURALiC’s head man Xuanquian Wang tells me he happily replaced his Taurus/Vega bedroom setup with a Gemini 2000, and is pleased with the sound as well as the space savings and reduced complexity. I can totally see that. Whether in a cubicle or just a home office, today’s desk jockeys don’t typically have the luxury of accommodating largish DAC and amp combinations, not to mention the cabling situation. Gemini could be just the ticket for an upwardly mobile fellow looking for killer sound while he codes or fills out his TPS reports – or whatever the heck it is people do at a desk job (you’d be surprised). Just add headphone and music for a complete audio experience, able to compete with plenty of separate DAC/amp combos I can think up.
So, what about the sound … is it any good? AURALiC may have done a commendable job packing all their components into a small space, and the fit n finish here is certainly deserving of a premium. But still …. is it really possible for this thing to sound as good as the price suggests, or rather, demands?
In a word: YES! As impossible as it may seem, I find the Gemini 2000 to be easily competitive in the $2,000 space.
First impressions: I wired it up via USB to a MacBook Pro, loaded Audirvana+, and went to town with a bunch of my favorite tracks. The clear, flowing sound emanating from my Alpha Dogs had me quickly forgetting about any notion of a compromised Lifestyle product. I happen to have in for review a dedicated DAC/headphone amp device (which shall be unnamed due to being an obscure new company — you won’t recognize it anyway) with an MSRP of $2,200. This thing is nearly 13 pounds and roughly comparable in size to AURALiC’s own Vega stacked on their Taurus. In other words, the antithesis of a compact Lifestyle product. I was struck by how the Gemini 2000 not only kept up but actually surpassed the heftier competition in some key sonic areas. Among them were inner detail, spacial accuracy, and downright fun factor. Despite appearances to the contrary, AURALiC’s little wonder had significantly more jump factor, both in sonic drive and rated power delivery. The larger device was more polite, potentially more “HiFi” sounding, but at the end of the day would not be my choice for a keeper. And remember — this is judging purely from a sonic standpoint, not taking into account any matters of size, looks, or convenience. It’s all well and good to point to a huge chassis and make assumptions, but we really need to listen with an open mind to discover what stuff really sounds like. You know, without preconceptions.
I cued up some of my favorite material and got to work, satisfied for the moment that AURALiC had earned the right to be judged on pure merit rather than just external design. I’ve been focusing more on themes lately as opposed to individual test tracks — life is too short to hear the same songs dozens or hundreds of times a year. Instead, I use playlists consisting of a much broader range of material classified in groups. For evaluating timbre I’ve been doing a lot of cello — an SACD rip ofYo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone, one of my new favorites Into the Trees by Zoe Keating, and of course the incomparable Jacqueline Du Pre with her definitive take on Elgar: Cello Concerto in E Minor (24/96 remaster). What I heard from the Gemini 2000 was a consistent level of competence that I’ve come to expect from high-quality gear. Bows across strings sounded palpable and utterly convincing, with just the right amount of attack. Sadly, I’m frequently disappointed in this area, regardless of the prices involved.
Judging low frequencies, I often use a mix of acoustic and electronic styles to nail down the performance level of a component. The Gemini 2000 did a bang up job with Gary Karr’s “Amati” on the XCRD24 release of Super Double Bass, or for that matter the unknown (to me) bassist on Rahshaan Patterson’s cover of the song “Street Life”, a track originally performed by The Crusaders (side note — this cover version is from the 1997 film Hoodlum — a mediocre film at best but a surprisingly good soundtrack if you like hip-hop and R&B — I found it for $.99 at a thrift store). Depth and tone were satisfyingly convincing if not quite on the same level as I recall from AURALiC’s own Vega paired with their Taurus mkII. Same goes for the slam on Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack — the separate components dug deeper, as one would expect from a combo costing more than double and using much more beefy power supplies. Still, the Gemini 2000 did not at all sound lacking when used in isolation, delivering satisfying impact that seemed all but impossible from such a compact integrated device.
And did I mention it had no trouble playing anything I threw at it? Double data rate DSD? No problem. DXD? Most people have no clue what that format is, but just in case you do, Gemini will play it happily. I never had a single hiccup playing from my MacBook, or from my HP Elitebook running Windows 7 using the provided drivers. The XMOS chipset is known to be rock solid for reliability and that proved to be the case here as well. I also did Toslink up to 24/96 without an issue — didn’t bother trying higher rates as that often comes down to transport or cable quality when using an optical connection, rather than the DAC itself. I very briefly tried the alternate USB connection using an older Samsung Galaxy SIII as transport, which also worked fine from what I could tell. That’s not really my thing but I’m sure some people will find it worthwhile.
I went on and on testing various aspects, or at least that’s what I told myself I was doing — honestly I think I was mostly just enjoying the trip through my collection. I noted very little to complain about and very much to praise, including the excellent imaging and high levels of detail retrieval. The Alpha Dogs sound quite open despite being closed back headphones, and the Gemini 2000 really played up that aspect. I use an aftermarket cable from Effect Audio terminated in a 4-pin XLR plug to take full advantage of the balanced architecture of the 2000 model. Switching to the front panel 1/4″ single ended jack via the stock Alpha Dog cable revealed a somewhat compressed presentation with more strident highs and something like a thinning of the overall tonal thickness — not a particularly good thing when paired with this specific headphone. The differences in cable construction may play a small part in this but for the most part I’m chalking it up to the doubling of power output in balanced mode. The Alpha Dogs, like most planar magnetic designs, love current, and the Gemini 2000 provides it with nearly 2,000mW per channel in balanced mode. This is double what the single ended jack can provide, and makes a pretty good argument for going with the Gemini 2000 over the less expensive 1000 model if planar headphones are your weapon of choice. For more easy models with dynamic drivers it may not make as much of a difference but I can’t say for sure.
I moved on from the Alpha Dogs and ended up trying a large number of headphones with the Gemini. It handled everything I threw at it quite gracefully. Low impedance models like Grados had no issues with hiss or hum — unfortunately a common occurrence with certain powerful headphone amps, especially those with a more complex DAC/amp architecture. It had no issues pushing higher impedance models from Sennheiser and beyerdynamic, and even did a respectable job with the HiFiMAN HE-6 torture test. I’ve heard better with that notoriously difficult load, but I’ve certainly heard far worse as well, even from much larger and more imposing dedicated headphone amps. The balanced output proved slightly noisy with sensitive in-ear monitors but the single ended jack did an excellent job — I find this to often be the case with balanced designs, so nothing unusual here. I suppose the dedicated IEM user would seriously consider the Gemini 1000 and pocket the difference, while others will reap the significant benefit of the balanced out. The overall character of the 2000 remained the same across many different headphone loads – clarity, neutrality, and pinpoint imaging are the terms that kept coming back over and over. It’s impossible to separate DAC from amp in this case so I’ll simply say the end result is highly satisfying, with enough resolution and grunt to handle most any job.
Just look at the pictures – it’s somewhat hard to take the Gemini 2000 seriously given the unusual looks, the closed architecture of the system, and of course the price. Despite my pre-existing respect for the company, I had anticipated having difficulty with this review. I figured it would be a sort of concept device, merely interesting to prove it could be done, but not really useful in the real world. After playing with the device for many hours and getting a feel for its capabilities, I have to say my fears were unfounded. This is a really satisfying piece of gear, even when approached from an audio quality standpoint alone.
Is there a premium involved for the Lifestyle aspect at play? I suppose there is. It’s possible to get slightly better overall sound (not to mention more inputs and outputs) from a more traditional device such as the BMC PureDAC. But it says a lot about the Gemini 2000 that it doesn’t fall far behind even compared to the best examples at this price point. Will it be for everyone? Certainly not. Am I glad it exists for what it is? Absolutely. In that way it reminds me of Astell&Kern’s AK240 and Chord’s Hugo: all three are rather expensive and yet surprisingly popular devices which make no apologies for their specific designs. All three are things I thought I’d have difficulty being able to recommend, yet here I am doing so.
If the Gemini 2000 seems like a solution to your unique audio situation, I definitely recommend giving it a spin.