Review: Roon, Tidal and TotalDac – Part One

Settling in for a long listening session.

Can computer streaming turn an analog house into a digital domain? 

What does it take to get a vinyl junkie who only listens to LPs to give up his fix, and go cold turkey with digital?

Please read on.

I’d been realizing more, and more that digital audio was making exponential strides, and was closing the gap on vinyl playback to my ears. This wasn’t something I’d read somewhere, or overheard two audiophiles discussing in hushed tones. I’d experienced it firsthand. But at this point in my story it wasn’t the software that was impressing, it was the hardware. The hardware was bait to the software that would set the hook (so to speak), and reel me in.

The listening session that really made it clear to me that what I was hearing was no longer “analog-like” but rather, purely analog involved the LampizatOr Golden Gate DAC ($19,250 USD) paired with Tidal electronics, and transducers in The Voice That Is room at T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach this June. Call it a revelation if you want, but that session caused a fundamental shift in the way my mind interprets digital audio.

LampizatOr Golden Gate DAC at Newport Beach earlier this year.

The same day I heard the Golden Gate I had a lucky conversation over drinks in the lobby bar at The Hotel Irvine with Rob Darling of Roon Labs. Myself, and a few misanthropes I associate with, needed a break from gear coverage. Darling sat down to join us for a beverage, and while discussing audio compression algorithms, what paths his career has led him down (Sooloos at Meridian, music recording/production – Roon), and the mixed-bag of playback software available commercially for computer audio, something happened. The more we talked, the more the thought of involving Roon, and a streaming DAC of some sort for my personal system began to germinate in the grey matter of my mind. But at that point, it was merely a glimmer, and a nebulous idea at best.

The main reason I wanted to get digital audio in the mix at my place was a going concern on my part to engage my girlfriend, and children in the music-playing process that up to this point, had pretty much been my sole domain to program, and execute. None of them had real interest in learning how to use the tube-based main rig that takes up one end of our living room, never mind taking the time to choose, cue-up, and then flip an LP on the turntable to listen to music (it’s the only source; no CD player, no tuner, nada). They were fine with me handling all these duties while they kicked back, and enjoyed listening, but getting them involved was proving futile, which bummed me out. They were happy with simply turning on our big 60″ television, and queuing up Pandora playlists. I wanted them actively involved in music-listening choices on a quality rig. Not only for themselves to enjoy, but for me to enjoy their selections, and see what direction their musical tastes were going. Rewind. In fairness to my kids, and lady, when you usually have a multi-thousand dollar review cartridge mounted on your ‘table no one seems super keen to use it for fear of messing it up. Ditto for a $25,000 ‘table sporting a $15,000 cartridge that’s on loan.

Associated equipment: consists of an Audio Note Soro Phono SE Signature, Audio Note cabling, and Audio Note AN-E SPe/HE loudspeakers. PS Audio provides AC power conditioning.

Computer audio of some flavor seemed to be the answer to getting them involved with music (remember that glimmer of an idea in my grey matter?). I needed something easy to use, with an intuitive interface that could be controlled from a smartphone or iPad that would get my family interested. I also didn’t want digital-audio playback to be of lesser quality than what I was getting off vinyl at home, and I absolutely didn’t want a lot of additional boxes involved in this endeavor. So something like the LampizatOr wouldn’t be ideal as it would require at least three other components to work in the set-up I envisioned.

Darling is a very smart, affable chap, and we made a connection on a number of topics with a lot of laughs thrown in for good measure in Newport Beach, so our conversations continued via email following T.H.E. Show, and I kept peppering him with questions regarding computer-based digital audio rigs, and in particular I asked questions about Roon hardware compatibility. Darling seemed to take pity on my ignorance, and was a great help in educating me on what I’d need to make my music-streaming idea a reality, and more specifically, at a quality level that equaled a higher-end analog front end.

During these conversations Darling asked if I’d heard of Vincent Brient’s totaldac creations (I had heard very good things in passing). He wondered would I be interested in talking with Brient about using one of his designs? (Yes!) Also, while Brient builds a number of multi-box designs, he does a one-box solution that would fit my needs. After a few friendly emails with Brient, he was onboard for the review.

totaldac d-1 integral.

But I worried… the d-1 wasn’t the LampizatOr that had pushed me towards digital. Darling assured me the totaldac was something special to hear indeed. But I kept wondering: would it satisfy? I had already purchased a MacBook Air to run the Roon Core, and an iPad Mini for Roon Remote, so this was really the last (and most critical) piece I needed. I decided to get in touch with someone who I knew was intimate with the totaldac line. I placed a phone call to Audiostream über scribe Michael Lavorgna in New Jersey to confirm the street cred of the d-1 (Lavorgna has had several totaldac models through the hallowed doors of his listening barn for review). After speaking with him, I was convinced that totaldac was the manufacturer for me. Lavorgna also happened to have a d-1 integral (R2R DAC, pre-amp, high-res streamer, and headphone amp rolled into one very slick case) on hand he’d just finished writing about – would I be interested in him shipping it up to me? (Yes!). With Brient’s blessing, Lavorgna sent me the d-1, and it was en route to me in Vancouver arriving within a matter of days.

totaldac USB cable/filter to tap into the asynchronous XMOS reclocker for ethernet-based streaming.

If you were to ask my friends, they’d say I was an unapologetic analog coelacanth. So their incredulity at hearing that I was considering packing up my turntable for an affair with computer audio was not taken lightly. I heard no end of jibes, guffaws, and moaning when I mentioned that I was planning to box up my Linn LP12, and dedicate my main system at home to the totaldac d-1 integral streaming Tidal at 16/44 (along with a growing number of 24/192, 24/96, and DSD64 albums that I’ve been downloading from sites like Acoustic Sounds, and HDTracks for my own digital library). But, I was adamant about implementing this idea, and making it a reality.

Basic set-up of a totaldac in a two-channel system.

The totaldac d-1 integral ($8,200 USD) I was sent included Brient’s 1m Ethernet cable/filter ($420 USD), a 0.25m USB cable/filter ($350 USD), and the DSD64 over DoP option ($350 USD), bringing the total cost to $9,320 USD. I was finally able to sit down with the double-boxed d-1 a few days after it landed on my doorstep (very well thought-out, and implemented packaging), open it up, and unpack it. Setting up the hardware is very straightforward:  unbox the unit, connect its external power supply,  plug it in, connect an ethernet cable from your router, run XLR or RCA cables out to your amp or pre-amp, and it’s good to go. Software set-up took all of 10 minutes including installation of Roon Core, and Tidal on the laptop, and Roon Remote on the iPad.  The manual is very plainspoken, with plenty of pictures to help the uninitiated. It’s a very simple system, and is low on the box count, which for a shared living room is a practical consideration for well being among family members. Those of us in cities where square-footage is at a high-price premium will know what I speak of.

Roon Core on a dedicated MacBook Air.

I’d like to focus for a New-York minute on the ease of setting up the totaldac in my system. Now, compared to the time it takes to properly mount, align, balance, adjust azimuth, and set tracking force for a cartridge on a turntable it’s a breeze. Compared to a CD player it’s more complicated, but for being in-between the two you get access to 25 million songs through Tidal (or the streaming service of your choice, I chose Tidal for its ability to serve bit-perfect, lossless Redbook files via the desktop application), and the ability to play not only 16/44 files, but also 24/192, and DSD. I cannot stress the Tidal integration enough from my standpoint because it literally transformed the way I listened to music overnight. My normal routine for acquiring new music when I was strictly vinyl involved scouring online sites like Discogs for the title I was interested in (if none of my local record shops had what I was jonesing for), finding the original pressing or remastering I had in mind, then paying for the LP, and shipping. The average cost for each album that I am buying online is $50 USD including shipping, so while I was getting my most sought after vinyl copies of the albums I wanted, it was expensive, and took anywhere from a week or two, to months depending if what I was after was even available. The fact I was buying anywhere from two, or three LPs a month online, on top of hitting record-store bins wasn’t being lost on my  bank account. With Tidal I pay $20 CAN a month, and all I do is look up the album (so far there has only been a handful not available out of the hundreds I’ve searched for, and added to my library), and hit play.  Since I’ve switched to Tidal for this review I estimate I’ve saved more than $750 USD in album purchases. Take that to mean whatever you want, but my bank account is grateful.

Tidal is saving me money, and at the same time bringing more music into my home than ever before. Don’t take my word for it, you can try it for a month for free. I chose HiFi over Premium so I could stream lossless 16/44 files.

Another point I’d like to touch on before I end this first installment is that Tidal has already demonstrated the ability to stream Meridan’s proprietary MQA format, and that Roon has openly expressed its desire to natively support MQA playback for subscribers. For audiophiles, I think this is an important point to touch on. Brient has no plans at the moment to dabble in MQA until software partners like Roon Labs are fully onboard, but he said via email that the addition of MQA-approved hardware would be a relatively easy thing to implement when demand is there. This aspect of future-proof compatibility for end-users should not be overlooked because like it or not (and personally I like the MQA demos I’ve heard) MQA seems like it will be coming to the music market in a big way, and being able to accommodate it seems like a no-brainer to me.

Kicking back, and listening to Christmas carols. What a difference between 16/44, and 24/192.

This forward-thinking software/hardware mindset is very important to me on a number of levels, and not only from personal standpoint, but from a professional one. Coming from a vinyl-only playback environment, I never had to think about software, or hardware compatibility. Turntables, cartridges, and records don’t require that type of thinking, so knowing that a digital box can have longevity in the always changing digital-audio market is something I take seriously because I couldn’t in good faith recommend a product if I didn’t feel there was a built-in upgrade path that offered value for money.

With some Mr. Speakers Ehterflow on deck, the d-1 headphone amp gets a workout.

That’s it for this first part of the series, check back in January for the next installment in my computer-audio journey when I’ll go through the Roon interface, its usability, and whether I’m still the only one setting the musical agenda in our home. I’ll also discuss the most critical aspect of the d-1 integral: How it stacks up to my vinyl front end, and just how good is the built-in headphone amplifier? I’ll also have interviews with Rob Darling of Roon Labs, and Vincent Brient of totaldac in upcoming installments.

Merry Christmas.

–Rafe Arnott