Luke Skywalker: She’s rich.
Han Solo: Rich?
Luke Skywalker: Rich, powerful. Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be ….
Han Solo: What?
Luke Skywalker: Well, more wealth than you can imagine!
Han Solo: I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.
I laugh whenever I see that scene. It’s not just that Han is a narcissist, and that Luke is fairly pathetic, but there’s something in the tone of Han’s voice which says that “unimaginable wealth” is something that, in point of fact, he’s spent quite a lot of time imagining. I laugh because I can relate.
It’s a game I play. I’ll start with the time machine and concoct various ways I can “change things” that would result in a … favorable outcome. I’ll use numbers. Look up trends, dates of certain events, and plot out the story. The end result would be how I would then spend that wealth, today. And by wealth, I’m not talking Warren Buffett money. I’m talking serious cash. Like Han said, I can imagine quite a bit.
The Game has a lot of permutations, though, aside from utter financial domination of Planet Earth. I shoot lower, ofttimes. With a Powerball win, say.
With lottery money, I’d do a ton of things. Quit the day job, almost certainly. Move to Hawaii, very probably. I’m sure I’d do something terribly philanthropic, and I have a lengthy list of wrongs that I’d love to attempt to set right. Somewhere early on, I’d help out family, pay debts, maybe even buy or start a company or two. And, of course, I’d spend a pile of cash on luxury toys.
When it comes to audio toys, I’ve now been exposed to enough to know that I could spend a lot of that Powerball winnings. A million-dollar system, for example, wouldn’t be that hard to imagine.
I would make an excellent rich person. Just sayin’.
Like many things in my life, I found TIDAL Audio pretty much by accident. I think I first ran across them first at an audio show, maybe the Capital Audiofest in 2011, but I’m not precisely sure anymore. Looking back across the scorched earth of my memory, TIDAL is just kinda “back there”, alongside notions of “build quality”, “piano finish”, “Accuton” and “expensive”.
Doug White, the owner of The Voice That Is, was a remarkable find in my own audio journey. He’s been a rep for TIDAL Audio for many years, and during the course of our acquaintance, he’s helped me understand a bit of the mechanics behind the business of high-end audio. He’s also proven, time and again, what it means to be a “good dealer”; and I tell stories about how Doug refused to sell me stuff — stuff that he knew would not only not work out well for me and my system, but more importantly, would not win him any long-term respect or business. He’s got vision, which is different, and while he is happy to take my money, the point for him is that a customer is someone he establishes a relationship with. And that’s odd these days. Good. But odd. And that’s why I think of him more as a friend and not just a co-conspirator. Though he is that, too, the rogue.
Anyway, TIDAL Audio has been around for 15 years now, founded in Leipzig by Jörn Janczak. The brand is still not terribly well-known here in the US, for reasons that elude me, but I’m told there is quite the following in Asia. According to 6moons, the company name comes from Fiona Apple’s 1996 debut album. Their early offerings are clearly linked to their modern ones by the sheer quality of the finished product, even if the inner workings have changed and evolved. Current loudspeakers use an all-black unique-to-TIDAL set of drivers sourced from Accuton. All of the loudspeakers, whether trimmed up in the standard piano black or the upgraded wood veneers, are clad in the most incredible mirror-like polyester “piano lacquer”, which can be several millimeters thick, polished until it has achieved a luster and depth that glows. Seriously. It glows. As a side note, this finish is not possible to recreate in the US (the application of large-scale polyester finishes have been banned in the US for some time, for health reasons), so it’s no wonder that I have yet to see anything like it. Quite frankly, the resulting product is unbelievable — no photographs are going to do it justice. Which is a shame. To really get a handle on it, you’re going to have to see it. Which may be difficult. Have you considered going to the Capital Audiofest?
Amazing as they are to look at, loudspeakers are only one of the products that TIDAL is currently offering. Like many high-end brands in Europe, TIDAL offers a full line of complementary electronics. Doug has been showing the line off, front to back, for some time and the synergies are obvious and exhilarating. It wasn’t until he went on vacation early this summer that I got to host a set of them here, at chez moi.
TIDAL Audio Contriva Diacera SE
These are impressive loudspeakers. It’s probably best to just start there. They’re physically dominating simply due to their size, and my pair have that level of finish that I mentioned, and is unparalleled in my experience.
On the design side, this is a 3-way/4-driver full-range loudspeaker, so there is a separation of duties and full, clean extension down to the mid-20Hz region. The speakers have recently received an update, called “G2”, which includes a new crossover, trim and some different cabinet materials. Which means that any Diacera SE you find on the second-hand market might well be priced to steal. Given that they retail for over $60k a pair, this might be very welcome news.
The “Dia” in the speaker’s name tells you that the tweeter is diamond; the “cera” refers to the ceramics used everywhere else; again, all of the drivers are fully custom, proprietary designs, made by Accuton exclusively for TIDAL. From what Doug tells me, the design process for all TIDAL speakers is thoroughly measurement-driven — a 180º deviation from the designer-chasing-sound approach I’ve found many designers to take. I’ve also been told that the speakers are an “easy” load, in that the impedance/phase response is a completely benign 4-6Ω throughout the response range. Minimum power recommended is a startlingly low 20 watts. On a whim, I thought I’d test this latter bit directly so I borrowed a 20 wpc S20 amplifier from Gary Dews at BorderPatrol. Guess what? That paralleled 300b amp run into these speakers produced some truly lovely sound and also produced my first “eureka!” pairing for my System Building Project.
Marc Mickelson of The Audio Beat has a truly excellent and detailed review of the speakers available online, so I’ll refer you to his insightful and completely on-point comments there. The primary differences between his review pair and mine seem to be related to a transparent mid-run upgrade made to the line that included the all-new all-black Accuton drivers mine carry, along with some tweaked tuning and crossover work. Mine also enjoy the upgraded finish. And yes, these are mine.
What Doug brought by, one midsummer day, was his demo set of electronics, the Preos and Impulse. Like the loudspeakers, the two pieces are distressingly difficult to photograph due to the level of finish. The fascia on both are a mirrored black, broken by a single chromed and mirrored stripe. The buttons — yes, I’m talking about the buttons — are chunky and feel like precision engineering. Pushing them is extremely satisfying. Yes, I’m weird. Binding posts are also chunky, with an “I’m expensive!” degree of solidity to them.
If you’re prone to having an inappropriate physical reaction to audio electronics, this is the stuff your Momma warned you about being left alone with. It is impossible to avoid touching them.
TIDAL Audio Preos preamplifier
Saying that the Preos is a preamplifier is a bit like saying Vivaldi was a composer. Technically, it’s true, but you kinda miss a little by leaving it there. I almost want another word for it, like when DarTZeel calls their volume knob the “pleasure control”. I’m going to leave that thought there before I get in trouble.
But speaking of pleasure controls.
I’ve already drooled on the buttons, but lets talk about the knob. That knob is a KNOB. In Plato’s Heaven of Ideals, this knob is there as the exemplar for the category [KNOB]. It’s huge. It’s round. It’s a toroid. And machined. And mirrored. And it may be the best damn knob I’ve ever seen or used. It’s almost criminal to use the remote control when you have a knob like that on your gear. In fact, I forbid you to use your remote control, heathen. Get up, and touch it. You must touch it.
Sorry. Getting a little sweaty, there. It’s a shame I don’t smoke.
Hiding behind that knob is a very sophisticated volume control system, called the Ultra Precision Level Control (UPLC). Fancy! This system starts with the knob, which connects to a motor-driven Alps pot. The pot is really only used for marking relative positions — this is then translated into the digital domain. Again, only as a marker. This system is optically decoupled from the rest of the volume system, which routes the selection to the 128 resistor-relay network, which selects the appropriate single resistor used for the actual attenuation. Slick!
I will offer that, at this point, this volume control is the most transparent I’ve heard. But let me back up a moment.
Many computer audiophiles have remarked how the preamp is the biggest barrier to sonic transparency. To that end, removing it and replacing it with a direct connection to the amp from the DAC — with it’s purely digital volume management — not only simplifies the setup (always good) but removes layers of obfuscatory crap that will universally result in higher fidelity.
I’ve found that this is less true with average DACs and better-than-average preamps, but there is a point there — most preamps do not help the signal, and most do far more than “not help”. For example, running the $20k Da Vinci DAC direct into an amplifier is almost always a sonic improvement. Detail goes up. PRAT goes up. Clarity and immersiveness go up. It’s hard to argue with the joys here — if you don’t need or have an analog source, there are a lot of advantages to using a DAC in only this way.
That said, I’ve also found that this is not always the case with every DAC. Most DACs (even the Da Vinci), when run at normal listening levels, require a rather dramatic reduction from “full output” to be something other than punishment. And the more you turn it down, the less you get of the sonic advantages inherent in the DAC-direct model. This is precisely where a great preamp, like my current references from BorderPatrol, Vitus Audio and Pass Laboratories, step in.
All three are great preamps. But the Preos betters them all. By a comfortable margin. At $28,990, that’s saying several things, I’m sure. But the point is that it is better. And it’s obviously so.
Detail retrieval, that bellwether for superior design, comes through like no other pre — everything is there.
A couple of general points. The Preos is a Class-A dual-mono design with 100,000μpF of capacitive storage, a tape loop, and a whole mess of inputs. All of which are single-ended, unfortunately — the only balanced connectors on the unit are for the outputs. I don’t get that.
Now, about that price. Included with what I consider to be best-in-class performance for a preamp is a moving coil phono section. I didn’t get the chance to try this out, but it’s inclusion means that evaluating the preamp on price may be a bit more complicated. Also, it’s worth noting that the newest version of this preamp, the Preos D, adds a three-input ladder-DAC, capable of 24bit/192kHz resolution. At almost $30k, this pretty much means that all you’ll need to add is an amplifier.
TIDAL Audio Impulse dual-mono amplifier
The Impulse, at $32,290, is a complete cosmetic match to the Preos preamplifier. At something like 140lbs, it’s a behemoth too. Supposedly fully stable down to 1Ω (take that, Martin Logan), the Impulse is good for 190wpc into 8Ω and 360watts into 4Ω. It’s a Class A/B design, and fully dual-mono in design.
Of curious and particular interest for owners of TIDAL Audio’s flagship speakers, the Impulse is available with an optional crossover module, particularly suited to those speakers and those interested in bi-amping them. The Contriva, sadly, is not one of the bi-ampable speakers in the lineup, but the much-more-expensive Agoria and Sunray, are.
Like the Preos, there’s that big on-button that’s a tad too tempting to punch. The top plate is, by default, acrylic (as shown here), but a brushed steel plate is available. The sides of the amp are heat sinks, but they’re very understated and blend in rather seamlessly with the amp’s trim and finish.
Around back, there are all those connectors. XLR and RCA, as well as some RJ45 for those looking to do an automatic single-button remote-on/off to operate the amp and pre. Binding posts are huge and chunky (beware huge and chunky spades) and the IEC connector only takes 20-amp plugs.
The “sonic signature” of the amp is big. Expansive. The Impulse presented a deep, faultless bass response with an extended and non-fatiguing treble. With it in control of the Contriva loudspeakers, the mid-range was full of bask-in-it texture, and on whole, provided an extraordinary listening experience. In fact, its character rather recalled the Pass Labs XA series. A little warm. A little rich. A little illuminated. Fulsome. And timbrally thrilling. I could make quite a salad of superlatives here, but let’s just take that as read. I love what the Impulse was doing. That’s the upside. And it’s huge.
If there was any fault I could ascribe, I might be tempted to call the sound a little smooth. I kept thinking “Luxman” while I was listening to it. By comparison with my reference magnifying glass, the Vitus Audio RS-100 stereo amplifier (also a Class A/B design), the TIDAL amplifier wasn’t quite as adept at sifting out the micro-details I knew were in certain recordings. Don’t get me wrong — they were there. They weren’t masked, or lost. They just were not as spot-lit. Crickets in my “Cricket Test” were subdued, for example, and the morning birds seemed remote. Some will find this focus on the forest, instead of the cell structure in any particular leaf, to be a refreshing change.
Pulling things apart, I’ve heard better speed — and detail — from the $50k Soulution 530 integrated, when that made it’s brief appearance here last year. That sound was also not what I expected — I was told that I’d be “enjoying” an overly clinical and dry presentation that would likely exfoliate my exposed surfaces as it “thrilled”. Yeah. That didn’t happen. The TIDAL system was certainly warmer than the Soulution, but neither were “cold” in any reasonable interpretation of that term. By contrast, the Merrill Audio Veritas amplifiers, coming as they do with the new Hypex N-Core modules, were much more representative of that new-world, detail-centered camp. What TIDAL brought to the table, over and above the Soulution integrated, was “organic life”. It wasn’t just transparent — the Soulution was that in spades. No, this was real. Voices, from Natalie Merchant on “Carnival” to Greg Brown on “Who Killed Cock Robin”, simply brought life in my house to a screeching standstill. At least, until the song was over.
Paired with the Preos, the all-Tidal system was astonishing, a stop-you-in-your-tracks presentation. I sometimes like to talk about the apparent schism in high-end audio, a division between the tone-centered (who tend to favor tubes and horns) and the detail-centered (who tend to favor PRaT, linearity and, well, detail). With the ceramic drivers (and diamond tweeter) up front, the all-TIDAL system did was what very few successfully do — eliminate the divide. No, there’s no stereotypical tube “roundness”. No, there’s no hyper-emphasis on micro-analysis. What there is is music, and the realism of this system got me much closer to what the late Harry Pearson would have gleefully called “The Absolute Sound”, that is, more real, than I’ve ever heard here at home.
I’m a nitpicker by trade, but it’s important to locate and appropriately assign nits to either molehill or mountain status.
The smoothness of the amplifier is a nit — yes, I’ve heard more transparent amps, and I’ve listed several of them here. I think the Impulse can be better in this regard, but this is most definitely a molehill. The difference between this amp, and anything I’ve referenced, was small.
The lack of balanced inputs on the Preos, on the other hand, is more of a mountain. This may be intensely relevant only to me and my needs and wants from a preamplifier, but I’m still surprised at this oversight. If your entry-level amplifier has balanced inputs, then your entry-level preamplifier ought to as well. I mean, it has the outputs, so what’s the deal? The Prisma, the next preamp model up the line from the Preos, does include balanced ins and outs, but it also sacrifices both the DAC and the phono to do it. The difference in price between these two isn’t enormous, relatively speaking (it’s an additional $5k, or 15% or so), so this might find this a better fit.
On the other hand, the Preos — and even more with the new Preos D — is a very full-function preamplifier that pretty much eliminates the need for any additional components (aside from an amplifier). So, with nothing to connect except a turntable or a transport, balanced inputs (and singled-ended ones, for that matter) might be completely superfluous. Put that way, this level of simplicity is extremely sexy. But I still wish it had balanced inputs.
Other than this — and my general wish that I was able to afford them — I have nothing but praise. Seriously. They’re amazing. And given that the full system would retail for $130k, including the speakers, I’m thinking that “amazing” is right bout what it ought to be.
Unfortunately, this can’t be my final word on the TIDAL sound, or even what these components have to offer — the electronics were only here for a couple of weeks. I usually want to wallow in the sonic experience for a couple of months to unravel things that aren’t immediately apparent, chase them down, characterize them and report back. But that really wasn’t the point here. What I was doing, here, was exploring. And I’m still a little breathless, just thinking about how wonderfully lucky I was to have all this here to enjoy.