Big changes in a small way.
I’d been experimenting with Mac and DAC solutions for time before finally settling on Audirvana 2.6.8 on a 8Gb iMac running 10.12.4. I’ve been driving the USB input on my Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 for an improved sound over the inbuilt streamer and at the same time retain the advantage of Internet radio and easy remote control. I get on well with the Audirvana user interface but it can be slow and buggy at times driving the Mac system from the iPad, which is frustrating.
The opportunity to move my office system Cambridge Audio NP-30 on to a new home also gave me the chance to rotate systems – improve the office system by installing the Stream Magic 6 and find a new digital front-end for my main system. I still have a bundle of options open for my main system upgrade and am currently looking at Lyngdorf, NAD Master, Auralic, Devialet and Benchmark products to fit the bill. In the meantime I bought an Auralic ARIES Mini from Audio Emotion. I paid £449.00.
There’s little in the box. Even though I’d seen and heard the ARIES Mini at hi-fi shows handing this tiny package comes as a surprise – especially when you realise over a third is fresh air if you don’t opt to fit an HDD or SDD (a kit is provided). Auralic strongly recommends wireless connectivity but having heard of setup issue with the Apple Airport Extreme that I use for my wireless network I decided to go Ethernet. Installation could not be simpler. Two line out connections and power in is all that’s needed at first if like me you wish to use the on-board DAC. (There are USB, co-ax and Toslink optical connections if you opt to drive a DAC with the ARIES Mini.) The installation manual is elegant and brief (I used to design and write them so I should know!) ending on page 6 with a QR code – from here on everything is done via Auralic’s Lightning DS control software on the iPad. (I’ll look at Lighting DS in a separate blog).
Lighting DS neatly guides you through setup initially getting the ARIES Mini to talk through your existing network. Setup is really little more than pointing the device at your music library (in my case on a QNAP NAS driver with MinimStreamer) and choosing which outputs, Line or Digital, you wish to use. You can’t use both. You then need to create an Auralic account and you will receive email confirmation that you have setup and activated your ARIES Mini successfully. I use a 1.25Tb music library on a QNAP NAS drive with MinimServer; Lighting DS seemed to take only moments to index over 3,400 albums. (I could easily incorporate my whole music library on an internal SDD but at the moment a 2Tb drive is about £599 which more than doubles the cost of the ARIES – Lighting Server will present the internal drive for other devices as it acts as a UPnP renderer.)
The ARIES Mini is always powered up. It can be put into sleep mode from an iPad and can be awoken by pressing any button. Oh yes. There are three control buttons sculpted into the front of the ARIES Mini box. I’ve opted for Mute and Track Up/Down rather than the default Play/Pause and Volume Up/Down. Speaking of powering up the supplied ‘wall wart’ power supply works (obviously) but it is tiny and you can see why aftermarket PSU alternatives and Auralic’s own linear PSU (sadly half the price of the Mini itself) can be used to make sound quality improvements – something I will be looking into. So how does it sound…
I was very sad to hear this weekend of the death of my old friend and hi-fi reviewer Alvin Gold. I first met Alvin when I was running Haymarket magazine’s Technical Consultants’ Service. Jimmy Hughes, already a contributor to the magazines and a TCS stalwart, introduced Alvin. I believe he had been a customer at Grahams where Jimmy then worked. The TCS was like a nursery for magazine writers. Alvin was no sooner contributing query replies to Hi-Fi Answers than he was writing full product reviews.
Alvin was making the transition from photographer to writer/reviewer and we often shared listening tests. Early on he kindly offered to drive my wife and I from London to the Harrogate hi-fi show in Yorkshire, picking us up in the small hours from our flat in Islington and whisking us up and back at extraordinary speed matched by a surprising skill in driving his bright yellow Alphasud.
We shared a broad interest in music from the Stones to Mahler (very much Barbirolli, very not Karajan). Alvin once managed to discover the whereabouts of a London cutout record warehouse; pretending we were record-store owners to get us access. We explained our massive purchase of Nonesuch and Vox Turabout discontinued stock to our spouses on the lines: ‘We had to buy a lot of records to make them believe we were dealers!’ The Paul Jacobs Debussy Preludes reminds me every time of that trip.
Alvin had an infectious sense of humour and a ready laugh. His presence made many a press trip both endurable and enjoyable. And though I didn’t always agree with his views I never doubted his sincerity and welcomed his open and questioning approach. Sadly our careers went separate ways in the late 1980s and I lost regular contact with Alvin. He will be both missed and fondly remembered.
Auralic was one of the exhibitors I wanted to see most at Bristol. Though my interest was primarily in their Aries wireless streaming ‘bridge’ it was their integrated DAC amplifier – the Polaris wireless streaming amplifier that was being demonstrated in the Spendor room through Spendor D7s.
I was a little doubtful about the ‘wireless streaming’ heavily promoted by Auralic until I had a brief chat. The idea is not about convenience and wire free systems but about guaranteed electrical isolation between source (NAS drive for instance) and the music server/processor. I might need to rethink my hardwire approach.
The Polaris is a 12owatt integrated with a host of input possibilities (even an MM phono stage). It uses the Lightning streaming platform which I’ve dowloaded and tried with my own music library just to check out the usability – the interface is very clean and responsive as far as you can tell without a streamer attached. The Polaris proved more than capable of driving the 90db/1w/1m Spendor D7 to tremendous levels cleanly and dynamically. I enjoyed two extended listening sessions and was delighted when one visiting trade professional went behind the room screen to look for the power amp or subwoofer he though hidden there! Of course there was neither – just a very satisfying, transparent and lively system with a truly wide range of source material.
Of course I had to spoil it all by listening to the Spendor D9s in the next room. This new speaker from Spendor builds on the strengths of the D7 but is in every way a whole step forward in performance. Even though my knowledge of current high-end speakers is limited I would say the D9 gets so much fundamentally right it has moved the performance goal-posts. The systems was being driven by a Devialet 440 Expert which I think was prejudicing some listeners who talked to me about a ‘dry sound’. That’s not what I heard. In fact I’ve not heard a loudspeaker quite so free from cabinet contributions (that rather comforting ‘warmth’). Explosive dynamics; the cleanest treble, incisive yet not harsh; fast bass with extraordinary depth and slam with the right material from twin 180mm bass drivers. There’s so much intriguing and thought-provoking design going on behind the understated elegant front panel: passive wiring only, undamped cabinet, the pressure zone tweeter, the linear-flow reflex porting. I rather think I’ve found what I was looking for – though I had hoped to have solved the digital front-end riddle before falling in love with a pair of transducers of this quality.
One of the mains reasons for visiting Bristol was to see and hear the new Benchmark DAC3 DX and the AHB2 power amp. These were being demonstrated in the distributor – SCV – room. The downside was that the DAC and amp were being used to drive two pairs of Focal floorstanders in a dem on audio isolation feet for speakers.
Benchmark DAC3 and AHB2 much smaller in the flesh than expected
Our Benchmark session was soon hi-jacked into a hard-sell for bookshelf speaker isolation platforms. And the A/B speaker dem? Sorry, I thought it was two alternative ‘bads’. The questions I did ask about the DAC – did it have parallel analogue outputs – couldn’t be immediately answered by the rep who was more concerned I get my 15% show discount and that I buy the product now. Nice people but what a shame to get all these product messages confused.
I’d no expectations from the ELAC room as they are better known to me as a loudspeaker drive-unit manufacturer though the company is enjoying a 90th anniversary. I was unexpectedly drawn into a demonstration of its new Element EA101EQ-G amplifier and Discovery music server. To wind the story back at little, ELAC recently acquired Audio Alchemy, the well-regarded Californian hi-fi company and was playing this equipment at the show through the new concentric driver floor-standing speakers which both looked and sounded good. Switching from £6000 of electronics to a £625 integrated may seem a dumb move but the sound retained its fundamental clarity and drive.
Little bigger than a hard-back book, great sound, flexibility and room EQ
The EA101EQ is a flexible system amplifier for non-hi-fi people. You can label its inputs dynamically – if you want it to read ‘Dad’s TT’ for one of the inputs, no problem. It has built-in adjustable hi-pass filters for subwoofers and a very neat room EQ. Sweep tone the speaker with your iPhone, sweep tone the listening seat and EQ is done. Very quick to do and a clear improvement – in fact the EA101 and UF-5 Slim made one of the best show sounds I heard: clean, articulate with no boom or overhung bass. All for just over £1800.
ELAC’s big surprise for me was the parity of sound from its Miracord turntable – I should say ‘record player’ as it comes fitted with an arm and cartridge (an Audio Technica moving magnet).
And though this blog is largely about my journey to the digital side I have to say how impressive Rega’s vinyl system was at making high quality, musical sounds from the new P3 turntable (with I suspect an Elys cartridge) into the very handsome Brio integrated amplifier playing through what I think were RX-3 loudspeakers. Front end about £660 with cartridge, a £550 amp and under £1300 speakers – brilliant vinyl alternative with none of the vinyl paranoia that come with operating so many other turntables.
AVM I got to see but could tell much from the system paired with small box PCM speakers. Hegel too was demonstrating anything other than music every time I dropped into the room (cones under the amplifier, a lecture on circuit topography). Shame I didn’t get to hear what was said by others to be a great sound. At least they use the room on the cross rather than length ways which shows a greater understanding!
More from the show…
Apart from the Whittlebury show last year this is the first hi-fi show I’ve attended in over twenty years. Some things don’t change – the room acoustics. Attendance on Saturday was up on the Friday crowd – which is technically a trade day. I didn’t attend Sunday so cannot comment on overall numbers. Saturday was busy.
No longer having to make a living at this and with no real need to be professionally even-handed I intend to report on what I managed to hear and what was enjoyable to listen to. Upfront I should say I primary went to listen to DAC, streamers, DAC/preamps and quality floor-standing loudspeakers.
The DALI Epicon 6 was being demonstrated at quieter than ‘normal’ show levels and with choral and vocal music (two plus points) when I visited. This certainly revealed the quality of their hybrid tweeters. The Dali system delivered a delicately detailed treble with the material used I was not quite convinced by the overall integration of the sound. This brief encounter would however move the Epicons higher up any listening short list.
I had planned to hear some of the Focal range of speakers but missed tickets for their closed room dems (with Naim Audio) and didn’t manage to get back for their last hour of the day ‘open doors’ – pity.
I wandered past the ProAc room only to be drawn in by the sound of their DB3s. Not exactly the floor-standing speakers I was seeking but they were producing a lovely fully integrated sound from a Naim CD player and integrated.
Speaking of compact two-ways, KEF were demming the LS50 Wireless in one of the larger downstairs suites in closed room (queue to get in) dems. I’ve always been intrigued by the LS50s and fascinated by the wireless version. This get round the latency issues of master/slave actives but giving you two fully ‘grown-up’ speakers with equivalent processing and amplification. Massively flexible inputs, dedicated app, and with selectable position EQ, all you need is a source.
The demonstration was ambitious – in a large conference suite room full of fifty or so listeners. I was quite touched to hear Paul Simon’s Homeless still in the KEF demo – its being first used by their much-missed Sales Manager David Inman. The small cabinets and 5-inch drivers filled the room with detailed and dynamic sound; only occasionally were you aware of the smoothly falling treble and the fact an awful lot was being asked dynamically of small drivers in that large room. Very impressive full system for £2,000.
I was not anticipating walking into a Quad electrostatic dem at Bristol but that’s what was on show in the IAG Quad room in the shape of the ESL-2812. Surprising bass slam and extension were apparent nearest the room entrance and the speakers retain the signature Quad pin-point stereo, cleanliness and clarity of sound. Source and amplification was from the Quad Artera product range.
DACs, vinyl and more speakers in Part II…
I accidentally discovered while reading the setup instructions for MinimServer (my UNPN renderer of choice) that I could use its MinimStreamer package to stream all my 16-bit 44.1kHz CD rips as 24-bit WAV files to the streamers in my systems.
Had to give that a go. Simply add the instruction flac:wav24 to the stream.transcode value on the System page of the MinimServer properties. This setting pads out the 16-bit file with zeros to 24-bit length.
Pretty difficult to do a quick AB listening test with all the software restarting/hardward rebooting involved but from what I could tell the 24-bit WAVs were slightly more focused if less warm with a slightly unnerving treble quality yet immensely detailed. Hard to tell anything really as not one track would play all the way through as the server would stall, hiccup or skip.
I’ve had to give up on this promising experiment as delivering the files to the server as 24-bit WAVs it too unreliable. I guess this is because the QNAP doesn’t have the computing horsepower to run ffmpeg smoothly to keep the conversion flowing. What a pity…
Just back from the National Audio Show. I’ve not reported on a hi-fi show professionally for many years – I was far from thorough in visiting every room. Here are my highlights…my choice couldn’t have been less digital!
Chasing the Dragon vinyl recordings – direct-cut records of fantastic quality reproduced through Tron amplification and DeVore Fidelity Orangutan 0/93 two-way speakers. A lively, dynamic and thoroughly engaging sound.
Arendal 1723 monitor
I had an interesting if brief chat with the Norwegian manufacturer of the new Arendal loudspeakers. The company was demonstrating its smaller two-way monitor in one of Whittlebury’s compact hotel rooms yet producing a good sound by not being overambitious or trying to ignore the room acoustics.
The 1723 Monitor has an unusual soft-dome tweeter behind a waveguide that produced a bright, transparent yet sweet treble very much to my liking. Arendal makes all its own drive units.
Surprisingly, the speakers are sold direct to the public from Norway at a reasonable €1600 delivered. A matching mass-loaded stand is available as is an interesting sub-woofer.
Code Acoustics System-1
Code Acoustics have adopted a similar direct-to-customer distribution model and were producing some very good sounds from their three-way active system with its off-board controller with DSP crossover, preamp and six power amps.
Sound Fowndations was another room producing an exceptional sound from vinyl – Roy Orbison’s In Dreams when I visited. A good deal of this was down to the DS Audio DS-W1 light sensing cartridge that uses optical sensing of the stylus vibrations rather than an attached magnetic or coil system. Solid, stable imagery with a lovely clean treble. Sadly the same could not be said of the David Bowie Vinyl frontier three-albums dem in the Vale suite. Presenter Jeff Lloyd was sadly incapacitated but the flat, lifeless sound and hail of surface noise had three-quarters of the room leaving before the end of the first track of Ziggy Stardust. I believe the system was sorted later in the day.
Alternative colours available!
I finally got to audition the Oppo PM-3 headphones and hear why mastering engineer Bob Katz recommended them. The PM-3s have a buttery smooth sound with fantastic detail plus a controlled and extended bass.
They are also physically comfortable for over-ear phones featuring a fully padded headband and soft leatherette ear cups.
Wished I’d heard the Teddy Pardo and Audio Note systems but there’ll be another time…