No doubt about it: this year has been fantastic. 2014 was by far the most successful for both me as an audio journalist and the site itself since DAR’s inception four years ago. Visitor numbers marched ever upwards, especially in the final quarter of the year, nicely assuaging my fears that time away from home on the show trail is somehow detrimental to what I do.
And what I do now falls into two categories: 1) describe sound and 2) commentate on product trends. The first might sound naive with obviousness at first blush but it’s possibly the reason why I’m so hung up on comparisons when penning reviews – for me, it’s more crucial to tell the reader how X compares to Y before I tackle questions like “What do I think about this?” and “Who is it for?”. Industry commentary comes from travelling the world, seeing products and their manufacturers in a global context. Imagine how dull this site would be if I churned out review after review from the comfort of my lounge room. Imagine how dull my life would be.
I’m extremely grateful to the advertisers and readers who keep DAR running, without whom there would be no trips to Tokyo, Munich, New York, Denver or Los Angeles. Next year threatens a similar itinerary and I for one cannot wait. But before we tick over into 2015 I thought I’d take some time to share some of my favourite listening experiences, products and trends of 2014. In Part 1, we countdown from 10 to 6.
Having notched up thousands of miles on the road and in the sky throughout 2014, I’ve spent increasingly more time with my head plugged into portable rigs. Universal IEMs might not be everyone’s cup of joe – agreeability falls to fit and comfort more than any other factor – but two models stood out from the crowd this year.
Singapore’s DITA Audio is lesser known outside of Asian circles but their Answer IEMs (US$650) spill big on detail and musical insight. No stone feels unturned in their deeper search for truth. I think of them as the IEM equivalent of Sennheiser’s flagship HD800. The cost-no-object iteration brings in custom wire from Van Den Hul and is (appropriately) named The Truth Edition (US$999). The latter is so revealing that you better make sure your source and amplifier are up to scratch; a paucity of power will leave you wondering why the Truth Edition are so needle-pointed in the top end. DITA Audio voiced both versions with the US$5K Resonessence Labs INVICTA. Power users can tweak further by applying small, medium and large bored tips.
George Cardas’ first forary into IEMs couldn’t be more different. His EM5813 ‘Ear Speakers’ (pictured top) deploy a single, in-house designed, wafer-thin polyethylene naphthalate driver inside rear-vented solid brass shells (which are heavy). As is the attached cable for which the supplied shirt clip keeps it from dragging the line. I was forced to transplant the rubber tips from the aforementioned DITA Audio IEMs to get the all-important in-ear seal just so. With several hurdles to jump, the Cardas IEMs won’t be to everyone’s liking but get them setup right and you’ll be rewarded, as I was, with a sound that’s like nothing else in the universal IEM space. Compared to the DITA Audio, the EM5813 sound rolled off up top. This takes some getting used to but makes for an IEM that’s ideal for long-haul flights and tedious layovers. The fleshy meatiness of the midgrange and upper bass provides the listener with a super-rich listening experience. Staging is unexpectedly deep. Cardas in-ears are exactly what any DAP with a zingy treble require. In this respect they make for a superb match with the Sony NWZ-ZX1. In terms of high-end full-sizers I like to think of the Cardas EM5813 as closest in presentation to Audeze’s LCD-2.
9. Bye bye MacMini
2014 was the year I ventured beyond the Mac Mini + USB converter as a standard transport, a move whose seeds were planted by Antipodes Audio’s Mark Jenkins at the October 2013 Australian Audio and AV Show where I heard his music server thoroughly embarrass a first generation Astell&Kern AK120’s optical feed. By Christmas I had an Antipodes DS Reference server (reviewed here) in place down home. By mid-January I knew it wasn’t going back. With custom power board and a heavily-tweaked Linux/Vortexbox install, it knocked the Apple computer into touch. Once Jenkins could accommodate 4TB into his wider-cased DXe, a unit was sent my way. It’s more accomplished with separation, tonal depth and palpability. It too ain’t ever returning to the land of the long white cloud.
Upon hearing AURALiC’s Aries streamer (review begun here) as superior to the aforementioned MacMini setup, I knew the Apple-computer-as-transport game was up for good. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s now wiser to prioritise the digital transport – whether it be streamer or server – over the partnering DAC. The latter can only redress some of the former’s shortcomings with jitter and electrical noise. Case in point: the Antipodes DXe pushing ones and zeroes over USB into the Peachtree Audio Nova220SE’s humble ESS9023 decoder works deeper satisfaction into the listening experience than my MacBook Air going via the Chord Hugo into the same amplifier.
Talking of the Hugo (reviewed here), this was undoubtedly the year in which FPGA’s inked their mark on the audiophile world’s collective consciousness. Chord eschewed the usual off-the-shelf decoding chip in favour of dropping some seriously clever code onto an FPGA to handle D/A conversion. The sonic results were out of this world in the context of its US$2500 asking price. Keeping it portable through rechargeable battery power, three headphones outputs and full compatibility with iOS and Android over USB and Astell&Kern devices over toslink meant the Chord Hugo was a HUGE hit in the head-fi world.
Meanwhile, across the pond in the USA, Paul McGowan was busy implementing Ted Smith’s FPGA code and output stage design in the PS Audio DirectStream DAC (reviewed here and here). Whether you liked its sound or not, few full-size DACs made a bigger splash than this; here was a D/A converter that possessed some of the qualities that digital refuseniks had been holding out for. No, I’m going to say it sounds like vinyl or analogue – that’s just lazy – but Smith’s work dispensed with much of the sonic hardness often attributed to computer audio.
With the DirectStream being firmware upgradeable, and hence a moving target, comparing it to the Hugo is tricky. You can definitely tell they’re descended from similar DNA. This is especially noticeable in each unit’s ability to massage knots out of the treble’s shoulders. The PS Audio kicks harder in the low-end than the Chord and tends to show greater prowess with stage depth. And so it should at almost three times the price. Go for the Hugo if you’re after the essence of the DirectStream but need off-grid listening or portability. Oh, and also go for the Hugo if you wanna set aside some serious coin for a decent transport – you’ll need it! The Chord sounds considerably better with a USB converter interceding between it and the host PC whist such amelioration is all but unnecessary for the DirectStream.
If you demand the very best then the PS Audio is your guy. Ted Smith’s design is more immune to transport variations than any other DAC I’ve experienced to date. Furthermore, it’s also the gift that keeps on giving thanks to regular code updates from Smith himself. Expect to see some firmware update coverage from yours truly in the New Year.
7. Aqua La Scala MKII
No DAC impressed me more in 2014 – or any other year for that matter – than the Aqua La Scala MKII (review here). The quiet Italians’ strictly old-school approach of ladder R2R chips and tubular output staging had the La Scala MKII marching out of step with modern delta-sigma trends. It couldn’t do DSD either – a feature set hole that will see many prospective buyers not give it a second look. More fool them. They don’t know what they’re missing!
Lesser DACs either trade in on tonal mass to match the La Scala’s snappy dynamics or they just plain come up short on rhythmic poise. The La Scala MKII makes no such compromises. As citing context for his own 6moons review, Srajan Ebaen heavily quoted my own review before concluding that this PCM1704-engined DAC is “full-bodied and dynamically charged” – bang on. He and I both agree that the top-shelf Aqua, whilst not the most fashionable, is the best-sounding D/A converter we’ve heard to date. The La Scala’s almost sentient way with drama and textural reveal puts it at the very top of the Darko DAC Index.
6. MrSpeakers Alpha Prime
It’s no secret that I really dig closed headphone designs, predominantly because of their ability to better isolated the listener from outside interference. Such preferences rubs modern thinking the wrong way: that open-back headphones are more adept at head-staging and extend further into the uppermost frequencies. MrSpeakers’ modded Fostex driver transplanted to 3D-printed cups makes a mockery of such dogma. The original Alpha Dog is a headphone whose super-cushy pads and thick-walled cups keep the outside out and the inside in without the soundstage collapsing into a narrow space inside one’s head. Occasional DAR contributor Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenny spoke highly of them in her review and I extracted minor improvements when swapping out the stock cabling for WyWires’ Red Series wire. At $599, it’s easy to pin a ‘high value’ award to the Alpha Dog’s lapel.
Then at September’s New York Audio Show, Dan Clark confounded followers by introducing a fresh take on the Alpha Dog: the Alpha Prime, the specifics of which are yet to spill from his lips but we are told that the Fostex driver has seen a complete re-build. Clark is man who plays his cards very close to his chest. From physical inspection alone you’d be hard pressed to separate top Dog from Prime rib. A $400 price hike tells you something is up but the magic is all on the inside – and that means listening. Compared to its forerunner, the Prime’s bass goes lower and headstaging is noticeably wider. The Prime contrasts the Dog as sounding hemmed in, more dynamically polite.
With sound quality taking a marked leap forward, it’s little wonder Clark opted to ascribe a fresh moniker to his new version instead of simply elevating the Alpha Dog to MKII status. At US$999, MrSpeakers’ Alpha Prime might not necessarily meet expectations on high-end aesthetics but those who’ve been around the track more than a few times will recognise their sound as every bit as competitive with similar planars from Oppo, Hifiman and – yes – even Audeze. If you dig the sound of their LCD-XC but not their weight, take a listen to the Alpha Prime before heading off on a tangent elsewhere. Oh, and make sure you feed the Prime with an amplifier that packs plenty of sparkle. The Alpha Prime require a hint of citrus or chilli to cut through their rich, dark chocolate flavour. I’ve been getting great results with the Chord Hugo and – to a lesser extent – the Aurender Flow.
This ‘best of 2014’ countdown concludes tomorrow with numbers 5 through 1.