The hunt for a legendary beast
In the mind of audiophiles lives a legendary beast, one that hunts them down and brings them nightmares mixed with sweet dreams. Or maybe it is we that hunt this marvelous fantasy, bending all our efforts to find it, secure it, and drag it back to our caves, a trophy to our skill and taste, a testament to show to friends and relatives.
The giant killer ….
If you follow closely the various audio related forums, you probably have read many testimonies describing (in detail) evidence for this mythical creature, an astonishing performer that costs a “mere fraction” of those über high-end products.
It may not be particularly beautiful, and it probably will not come packed in silk.
But what it will do, they say, is reset the very definition of “the high-end”.
Well, guess what?
‘Aune‘ is the trade-brand of China’s biggest DIY audio supplier, and up to now, they have produced some decent entry-level headphone amplifiers, along with various kits for the DIY enthusiast. They also have a dedicated forum with a gazillion members and counting — how about that for a potential market? I am not familiar with all the models that Aune has produced over the last few years, but I do not remember anything particularly fancy that managed to draw my attention.
Till now, that is. Because just looking at the printed circuit board was enough to get my saliva production to uncomfortable levels.
This is a work of art: clean, precise and just screaming quality. A fully-shielded toroidal transformer, sitting next to a series of Nichicon Muse filtering capacitors, a smaller capacitor stack just for the dedicated headphone section, and the big Altera FPGA chip placed in the middle — and that was just the first things to catch my eye.
If you’re after a DAC in 2016, you might have a checklist of features that are crucial if not obligatory for good sound. My personal checklist has “Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) receiver” written all over the place, as this appears to be the best way to implement the data receiver. Think of ‘data’ as a line of students in the local 4th of July parade; jitter is when each one marches at his own pace — the distance between them is not kept constant. By applying FIFO buffering (First In-First Out), the FPGA chip makes sure that the line of students in the parade (the data chunks coming from your streamer or PC) is organized and pacing is kept constant. How constant? Depends on the master clock that commands the operations.
Meaning you need FPGA>FIFO buffer>Low jitter clock oscillators … and the S16 packs a pair of Crystek’s CCHD 957 chips, which cost more than $20 a pop. Very impressive, especially for the S16’s MSRP!
There is more on my check list, however: I would like the DAC to have asynchronous USB receiver, and galvanic isolation, so that only the data signal reaches the delicate DAC section, without all the electrical junk coming from the streamer’s side. I would also fancy the possibility of playing DSD and DXD files natively, without downsampling them. Selectable filters are also a must, they help tune the playback closer to one’s personal taste, and system matching becomes much easier. Finally, I would like to have the cream of the crop in DAC chipsets.
But to call a piece of gear a Giant Killer, the price has to be right.
Well, we are getting there because spec-wise the Aune is a little monster, it has just about everything I could ask for, everything there is to ask actually including the latest and probably best ΔΣ chip in the market as we speak and at an unbeatable price. The chip in question is Asahi Kasei’s AKM4495SEQ which I had the chance to hear last May in Munich’s High End show, fit inside Esoteric’s Grandioso double-chassis DAC retailing f-o-u-r-t-y-f-o-u-r thousand dollars, while our Chinese wonder has an MSRP of $800 — and can be found for as much as $650. Let me do the math for you, a pair of Esoteric’s finest DAC costs as much as fifty-five S16s.
Giant Killers are not particularly beautiful
But the Aune is not so bad either. Comes in a black anodized aluminum chassis with rounded corners and weighs slightly more than 5 pounds. There’s a 3” TFT screen is on the left side of the front panel, a volume knob for the headphone section in the middle; the 6.5mm headphone jack, with selection buttons, are all on the right.
In the back you will find balanced and single end outputs, along with a complete series of digital inputs (USB, optical, coaxial and AES). The design is sober and I like it; certain products try so hard to impress by adding gold stripes, chromed buttons and thick plates, while Aune seems to have put most of the money where it counts, in quality parts. It arrived boxed in a double-carton with a complete set of instructions written in reasonable English.
Giant Killers make wonderful music
I had the Aune S16 for a period much longer than the usual, which can be translated as: “I’ve thrown at it pretty much everything there has been recorded over the last half-a-century”, with tracks and songs ranging from classic rock and electronica, all the way to baroque classical masterpieces and opera. The most interesting thing? This DAC behaved very well with everything.
Take for instance the way it handled Arianna Savall’s voice and harp in her fabulous take on the Sephardic traditional song “Buenas Noches” from Chants du Sud et du Nord (ECM FLAC 24-44.1), a sensual presentation with rich texture that created an extraordinary involving ambience. The accompanying tambourine was placed a couple of meters back, but maintained its distinctive sound both for the drumhead and the zils that provide the typical Mediterranean sound. The best part was the reproduction of some “Sss” which were no more or less than what is actually recorded from ECM at the time. For me, this was crucial, as many ΔΣ DACs tend to add some sibilance to the upper mids/lower highs, a characteristic second to none in creating listening fatigue.
After listening to quite a few other female voices such as Cesária Évora’s Collection and Niamh Dunne in Beoga Live at Stockfisch Studio, it became evident that the S16’s warmth is perfectly fitted for female singers with maybe only a slight tapering in vocal pronunciation. The wide selection of filters came to the rescue, and especially on hi-res files, I found myself switching from slow to sharp ones, thus tuning the end result to my preferences and system. For older analog recordings, the sharper ones offered a bit more detail while for those infested by too much sibilance, especially “loudness war” era ones, the slower filters mitigated the deleterious distortion.
Going through a recent “top something” list of modern Jazz groups, I stumbled upon the Canadian trio BadBadNotGood and their mesmerizing album III. “Can’t Leave the Night” is a blend of hip hop and free jazz, an instant classic for my library, and apart from the musical content, helped immensely in delineating soundstage and bass extension of the S16. Alexander Sowinski on drums and Chester Hansen on bass go in deep and hard with sub 30Hz content, and the 12’ woofers on my ATCs loved every second of the track; neighbors, despite my soundproof floor, maybe not so much …. A small hump is evident in the lower two octaves where the DAC offers a bit more loose energy than what can be found on the recording. Soundstage was a palm behind the imaginary line connecting the two speakers with good depth and clear instrument positioning.
Time for comparisons
Keeping the S16 in-house for several months gave me the opportunity to put it up against many well-known sub $3K DACs which is the target (call them giants) this killer wants to slay. So during the last few months and in no particular order the following converters made it in my place:
The Marantz HD-DAC 1, which never stood a chance against the Aune; it clearly lacked in detail retrieval, soundstage dimensions and sheer impact on the lower registers. I was expecting something more from the Marantz DAC and remained somewhat puzzled by the 90s sound. Digital has done a leap ahead in recent years but Marantz lost the pace.
The Pioneer U-05, which has the edge in bottom octave reproduction as it packs a faster and better defined slam, but loses a point in timbre, where the Aune manages to be both warmer and more engaging. Probably the best of the lot along with the Aune. Depending on the system (warmer or monitor oriented) this could be the right match for those looking for a very well made, under $1K DAC.
The Mytek 192 DSD (now replaced by the new Brooklyn DAC), probably the worst in terms of tonal balance and timbre, with its metallic and edgy sound. That said, it was among the best when it came in bottom-end extension, and definitely packs more detail than the Aune. I cherish a more natural voice timbre to ultimate bass and find hard to listen to more than 20 minutes with the Mytek 192 which has “listening fatigue” written all over it.
The Hegel HD12, which apart from being the only one not to work properly with my Linux streamer, was, for my taste, too warm — almost syrupy. I can imagine several listeners picking this one as it will never offend, even with the worst recordings, but it won’t make your great ones shine either. The Hegel HD12 and the Mytek 192 sit on the antipodes of digital playback with the Aune placed somehwere in the middle and closer to the Hegel when it comes to sweetness.
The Schiit Yggrdasil, a reasonable value for money, but with a slight harshness in the upper mids and an overall grain in the sound. The Aune appears more forgiving on certain recordings, despite the Schiit being a ladder-DAC and the Aune a ΔΣ design. The “Yggy” as many call it is well built, costs and weights three times more but did not manage to confirm the rather high expectations created by the community and certain forums.
Finally, the Geek Pulse XFi with external power supply, a total disaster when used with the single ended RCA output for both soundtstage and macrodynamics, where the much cheaper Aune demolished it in all possible ways. Things were very different through the balanced connectors where the gap was much, much narrower and on certain things, such as bottom extension, the Pulse had the Aune “by the XLRs”.
The Aune has a 6.5mm headphone jack output with a hefty 3 Watt @ 32Ω amplifier; in theory, that is quite a lot of juice. Unfortunately, there is a catch: the output impedance is 30 Ohms, which means it won’t (and it didn’t) work well with most of the Audeze and HiFiman planar magnetic headphones. I think of the headphone amplifier section as an extra, a nice to have, but one that will not replace your current headphone amplifier. If you plan on using the S16 mostly as a headphone amplifier, you should look elsewhere, unless you have Beyerdynamic or certain Sennheiser models, that may make a decent match.
About this giant killing business
The real giant in my place is the Rockna Wavedream, a DAC designed around the famous MSB modules, with a state-of-the-art FPGA receiver, and even higher-precision femto-clocks. Playing Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto (2L DXD) I witnessed my resident monster metaphorically smashing the little Aune in pieces. There was simply no reason to play more than a few lines of the score in order to realize the difference in imaging, dynamics, instrument focus, detail retrieval and depth of layers in the soundstage. The bows were no longer just bows, but distinct violins, cellos and violas; the piano was not yet another instrument placed in the middle of the orchestra, it became the leading instrument with a spotlight illuminating every stroke.
In the end, the ten-times-more-expensive Rockna performed as it should. Game over.
Or maybe not, because the S16 not only stood well, but actually put to shame, some well-known European, Japanese and American DACs, costing up to three times more. Maybe not a giant killer, as we all wish we could find, but still a fantastic value for the money.
Which is why it qualifies for a Julia Award.
- ATC SCM 100SL speakers
- ASR Emitter I HD amplifier with external Akku
- DACs : Rockna Wavedream (MSP Platinum version), Hegel HD-12, Pioneer U-05, Marantz HD-DAC1, LH Labs Geek Pulse XFi with LPS4 power supply and LH Labs Geek Out 1000, Audiobyte Black Dragon, Schiit Ygdrasil
- Headphones : Audeze LCD-X headphones, HiFiman HE-500, Sony MH1C In Ear Headphones
- Cables : Signal Projects Monitor and Hydra speaker cables, Nordost Spellbinder IC, Black Cat Triode RCA interconnect, Stereolab Superleggera Blue interconnect, Belkin Gold USB cables
- Raspberry Pi 2 streamer (linear PSU, Moode OS, Archphile OS)
- Windows 7 Pro 64 with Foobar v1.3.2
About the Author
Born and raised in Athens, Greece, I had my first experiences with music through my uncle’s reel to reel rock tapes, grandfather’s 45’s of folk music and a futile passage at the conservatorium where I was supposed to learn the guitar. The guitar never happened but music grew strong into me and during the 80’s, I could not get myself off the boombox, listening to just about everything I could lay my hands on.
By the time I was 15, I had my own radio show at a local station, rock music mostly. What a year it was for me to actually go on air with my “the other side” weekly. It was the early 90’s, so a mix of vinyl and CD would do the job.
Time flew and I found myself in Italy, studying medicine and listening to classic music. And as the musical tastes evolved, so did my hifi system. From Marantz, NAD, B&W, Rega all the way to ASR, ATC, Garrard and with a touch of DIY I loved each and every single piece of hardware.
I honestly believe that there are more ways to happiness. I enjoy using both solid state and tube gear, MM and MC carts. I must admit that I am particularly fond of the analog sound of vinyl and my music collection is heavily biased towards the black and not the silver discs.
Financial Interests: Pan is also a contributor to Enjoy The Music. And yes, he really is a practicing medical doctor.