I want to identify a common complaint amongst computer audiophiles: DAC anxiety. Some of us try them “all” and get nowhere, never satisfied (few DACs I’ve heard approach the “rightness” of a Rega Saturn or an older Marantz CD player). Some of us freeze in the face of the bewildering number (and types) of DACs on offer. Some of us baulk at having to learn a the attendant language that has mushroomed around the world of computer audio. The allure of ditching the shiny discs and starting afresh with a physically clutter-free music collection is often overshadowed by a steep learning curve in secure CD ripping, tagging, storage, streaming and lossless vs. lossy. (And don’t even get me started on the subject of transports and the war on jitter). We want to keep it simple. We just just want to plug the damn thing in and let it rip, anxiety-free. Like we did with our CD players. Like the good old days.
Vinnie Rossi’s Red Wine Audio wants to keep it simple too. Like the 30.2 Signature integrated, the Isabellina LFP-V edition has seen a fresh lick of paint from an improved battery system (LiFePO4) and a JJ Tesla E88CC tube in the output stage. Vinnie Rossi won’t share the specifics of the DAC chip at the core of his DAC recipe, only that it’s a 16-bit, NOS, R-2R. (Pop the lid and you’ll find the details scratched away). Rossi tells an all too familiar tale: “I have found that the newer DACs using the latest chips look more impressive on paper, but so many of them (even some really expensive ones) sound quite sterile and artificial in comparison, especially in the treble, which is largely the results of digital filters that are put in place before the D/A converter (as required with upsampling).”
Like db Audio Labs’ Eric Hider, Rossi wants us to sit down and listen (and not pre-judge). Mind you, Vinnie Rossi was kind enough to share many of the LFP-V Isabellina’s other features: the DAC board and the tube are directly powered by the LiFePO4 battery, the output stage is discrete (Class A) and that the the S/PDIF inputs (coax and optical) are isolated from the transport. The USB receiver chip’s power is also fed directly by the battery and isolated from the computer to which it is attached. The signal is then parsed via I2S (which is – yup, you guessed it – isolated…galvanically) directly onto the DAC chip. “So its not about reclocking – Its more about isolation, clean power, and clean I2S signal feed to the actual NOS dac chip.”, Rossi summarised. He must be the first DAC designer I’ve exchanged emails with who hasn’t made jitter elimination via signal re-clocking his explicit focus.
The Isabellina’s casework is identical in material and dimensions to the 30.2 Signature integrated amplifier and they look like quite the duo sat up on the bench: Team Red Wine Audio. For connectivity, you got cash saving options: ditch the USB input and your spend drops from AU$2000 to AU$1500 (inclusive of delivery). You’ve still got optical and BNC inputs to play with.
The Isabellina doesn’t sound like other NOS DACs that I’ve heard. One can hear the tube at play: it transforms the time-honoured NOS liquid midrange sound into something altogether different. The readily apparent tube warmth saw the Isabellina pitch its tent firmly in the “musical” camp. It was detailed and engaging but nowhere near the in-your-face/listen-to-me theatrics of the (also tube-charged) Eastern Electric MiniMax. Those looking for laser guided accuracy will probably prefer the MiniMax – the Isabellina instead offers a sound of lush conservatism. “Long, warm bath”, I wrote in my listening notes. It was better suited to the subtle nuances of Steely Dan’s jazz-rock Aja than the kick-ass rock n roll of The White Stripes White Blood Cells. It sat on the fence with electronic music – neither exceptional nor terrible – but was quite capable of encapsulating the urgency of CJ Bolland’s Electronic Highway, which suggested that it was alert when maintaining rhythm and pace.
I got impatient for an early-season tube roll and ditched the stock JJ Tesla in favour of an Amperex rendered a richer, fuller-bodied presentation. The improvement wasn’t enormous, but sufficiently significant to keep the Amperex in place.
Synergy between the LFP-V Isabellina and its (companion) 30.2 Signature LFP-V integrated was a mixed affair. I lived with this pairing for several months. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Tim Buckley all succumbed to the hypnosis of two bottles of vino rosso. Their voices haunted the listening space – perfect for late night listening…but you CAN have too much of a good thing. With two times the LFP-V action in the chain, the richness was overdone, too comfortable to provoke the mid-western terror of Thin White Rope. When guitars needed to sound like chainsaws, the already rich tones of the 30.2 partnered better with the fructose zing of the Eastern Electric MiniMax and the analogue-like Audio-gd NFB-2. The Isabellina was too intimate, too polite – Thin White Rope, tamed; a very subtle shortcoming for sure, but the Isabellina lacked the leading-edge thrill ride required to kick roll n roll’s ass.
Of course, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. I’ve been tinkering with another budget system recently: Eric McChanson DIY SET (you HAVE to hear this thing!) + EnABLed Fostex monitors. A truly beguiling combination, but one that still retains some upper-mid prominence. I find it exhilarating but guests find it “too much”. The Isabellina kept the harshness at bay. The ghostly whispers of The Kings Of Convenience were never more present. Yes, this DAC is an intimate experience alright.
This new, tube-charged Isabellina DAC also partnered beautifully with the steely resolve of the Redgum Sonofa’GUM 5500. The latter’s iron grip on proceedings ensured that the Isabellina could get loose (but not too loose). Tube with solid state. Makes perfect sense, right? The Isabellina set the audio hose to a finer mist. Frequency dispersion was hypnotic but soundstaging didn’t reach for the rear wall as much as the MHDT Labs Balanced Havana. The Havana was the more serious sounding unit (also better suited to brighter systems). I preferred the Isabellina’s altogether tighter bass definition and levity. A direct stand-off between the Isabellina and the TeraDak Chameleon ensued. The Red Wine Audio unit painted with brighter tonal colours and superior micro-dynamics. Daft Punk through the junior Redgum integrated exposed the tube harmonics of the Isabellina: richer, sweeter, better, stronger – it’s more lit-up from within.
For Red Wine Audio, the Isabellina’s problems aren’t internal, they’re external – price context hits hard. For all of its prosaic aesthetics and USB-only restriction, this one guy prefers the Tranquility SE’s (US$2395) liquidity if he wants to rock out. Sorry Vinnie, but Eric’s toy has the greater sense of urgency to satisfy my (personal) need for more mongrel in the reproductive chain. Jack White ain’t the same without that snap and bite. Playing kickabout with value for money quotients is fraught with risk but (deep breath) the Isabellina LFP-V edition could be a five star product if it were to shed a just few sticker-price calories. As is stands, it’s three times the price of the TeraDak Chameleon, which shapes up as the better option if bang for buck is your overriding concern. This won’t worry those who simply must have the better DAC.
Yessum, Rossi’s DAC beats the TeraDak for inner detail retrieval but it wasn’t as overtly fluid in the (“hot”) midrange of the Tranquility Signature Edition. It sat somewhere between the two. I can confirm that the off-grid action takes the background blackness further past midnight. Its enveloping nature (music-as-fog) gives it a misty-eyed, sentimental disposition. It’s a DAC with a sound that channels a golden age. Think 80s TV show “The Wonder Years”. It’s the sounds of summers long gone. It’s a night by the fire. It’s a warm blanket. It’s a reassuring hug. It’s a polite game of tennis. Music simply unfurls and envelops the listener.
…and yet, after months of listening, I remained frustrated by the Isabellina when exercising my love for indie rock and Britpop. I didn’t feel that I was getting everything that the Red Wine Audio pedigree promises. Certainly not to a level comparable with the outstanding performance of the 30.2 Signature integrated (for which Vinnie Rossi is better known). I’d already tried a direct USB feed from my MacBook Pro and found it to be nigh-on identical to the Squeezebox Touch.
Christmas came and went. I rolled the tube back to the original JJ Tesla but still heard a sound that connoted “microwave reheat”ed Oasis – as opposed to “freshly baked” Blur. Music that demanded kick, more jar, more jolt. Please Sir, can I have some more oomf? Just a little is all I crave and I’ll be on my way.
What a difference a day makes. John Kenny’s modded Hiface (MK2) was fresh through the letterbox giving me a further transport option with which to feed my gaggle of DACs. I’m not sure what the collective noun is for DACs, but let’s go with “gaggle”. The battery-fuelled Hiface is straight out of the Rossi school of battery power: LiFePO4, completely depriving the M2Tech device of USB-fired electrons. It didn’t turn the introverted, shy Balanced Havana into a party animal at the flip of the switch, but it did allow the Isabellina to draw well clear of this particular competitor. With Ayrewave (my current favourite software player) pushing a 24/96 FLAC of Talking Heads’ “Big Business/I Zimbra” into each tubed-up DAC in turn, the Red Wine Audio box pulled ahead of the MHDT device with its less veiled reproduction. Chris Frantz’ cymbal shimmer being notably cleaner and better defined with the Isabellina; its treble had more zip. Wham bam, thank YOU ma’am.
I pulled out the Eastern Electric MiniMax and the TeraDak Chameleon yet again. Both benefitted from the modded Hiface, but none became so dramatically widescreen as the Isabellina. None. Rossi owes Kenny a pint of Guinness. Instruments attained better shape and definition and that hitherto missing spark dropped in for tea and a chat. Transients sliced the air a little deeper. “I wanna grow, up to be, be a debaaaserrrrrrr” regained its snarl. Today’s lesson: transports matter. No, strike that. Transports matter MORE with the Isabellina LFP-V edition than other DACs ploughing the affordable field.
That this battery-charged, tube-hotted Isabellina plays too cosy with lesser transports makes it a fussier box, yes. However, the glass remains more full than empty. If you demand the full pour, you’ll need something on par with the John Kenny-modded Hiface. If you don’t possess such a transport, you will still hear strengths that are collectively unique to the Red Wine Audio DAC. There is much to love in tone, in harmonics, in pace and timing. To those audiophiles that enjoy a lighter musical programme, this is your DAC. Fans of jazz, acoustic, acoustic jazz, chick-with-guitar, folk, tropicalia etc. will find themselves transported to a world of long summer afternoons, sipping pina coladas by the pool. Come on in, the water’s lovely.
- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Macbook Pro
- JKenny-modded battery Hiface (MK2)
- Eric McChanson 6L6 DIY SET
- REDGUM Sonofa’GUM 5500
- Red Wine Audio 30.2 Integrated LFP-V Edition
- Trafomatic Experience Two
- Omega Super 6 XRS
- Fostex 126 EnABLed monitors
- Usher S-520
- Wharfedale Diamond 9.1
- The Pixies – Doolittle (1989)
- Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Ragged Glory (1991)
- CJ Bolland – Electronic Highway (1995)
- Thin White Rope – Moonhead (1987)
- The White Stripes – White Blood Cells (2001)
- Future Of The Left – Travels With Myself and Another (2009)
- Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense 24/96 (2009)
- Steely Dan – Aja (1977)
- The Kings Of Convenience – Riot On An Empty Street (2004)