A fixed fight. Owners of integrated amplifiers will know the score: speaker outputs, headphone output and DAC and/or phono stage encased in a single unit takes the box count down, waves bon voyage to interconnects and commandeers only a single power socket/cable.
Locked into place for the product’s life span the integrated’s internals are (mostly) a no-go zone. Ultimate obsolescence therefore ships free of charge. Once the inevitable itch to upgrade strikes, the user is limited to external appendages: isolation shelf, deluxe power cord or USB-S/PDIF converter – one of each will suffice.
Exemplifying: neither the US$2000 Peachtree Nova 220SE’s ICEPower amplifier section nor its ESS Sabre 9023 DAC implementation is user-upgradeable. Ditto the Peachtree’s headphone output for which I’d recommend headphones of DAP-friendly impedance and sensitivity. I trick the Nova out with an IKEA Aptitlig chopping board for price-commensurate isolation, a LessLoss DFPC power cord and a Resonessence Labs Concero HD USB converter for superior DAC-direct performance. Total spend arrives a long way north of US$3000.
Uni-box restrictions are mirrored by the world of small form-factor computers e.g. Apple’s MacMini. A diminished footprint brings with it sharp upgrade limitations. Once additional RAM is fitted, little more can be done to improve the PC’s ability to multi-task. Owners of later-generation Apple laptops are even less fortunate – what you buy is what you get for the product’s lifespan.
PC gamers are accustomed to their hardware platform being more extensible. Motherboard-hosted sound and graphics chips do little more than get users up and running with office applications and web browsing. Our gamer requires better-performing graphics (and sound). A third party card dropped into a free PCIe slot on the motherboard lifts screen redraw and frame rate performance to meet a game’s demands. This kind of modularity runs to the very core of the PC world.
Hardcore gaming enthusiasts build their own units from the ground up: case, power supply, screw in a motherboard onto which clips CPU, RAM, graphics card and sound card, connect a hard drive – you’re off to the ball game. Compared to off-the-shelf solutions, you pay for what you need and none of what you don’t.
Future upgradability is baked into the design; no need to return to square when emerging software resource demands begins to outstrip existing hardware performance supply. Simply unscrew the lid, pull out the existing graphics card from the PCIe slot and insert a newer, better one. Job done.
Similarly, the first product to arrive from Vinnie Rossi’s own brand – LIO – is the build-your-own-PC of the hi-fi world. So simple is the concept it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done sooner.
LIO is a modular hi-fi system. Start with the case: off-white or black are the two colour options for its DuPont Corian sides and front, aluminium top and bottom, as well as the volume potentiometer and source selector knobs. Rossi’s PURE-DC-4EVR power supply board (discussed at length in Part 1) goes in next, after which the motherboard is fitted; it is into this motherboard that each module plugs, just like our PC gamer and his graphics card upgrade.
And lest anyone think this is 100% Rossi’s work, the man himself is quick to credit the (ongoing) development work by Bent Audio’s John Chapman.
Rossi elaborates: “John’s company, Bent Audio made the DACT / Goldpoint stepped attenuator volume controls that I used in the earlier Red Wine Audio models, followed by the Alps remote volume controls that I later used in the RWA gear. So I’ve been doing business with John for years. He is most known in the audio world for his TAP X preamplifier kits and he’s also worked with other companies doing OEM work on remote control solutions – John’s are very well-implemented and regarded as the best available.”
“A while back I asked him if he wanted to help me with the control circuitry / firmware for a modular audio component I’d been dreaming of, ultracapacitor-powered and all. He was very enthusiastic to work with me on this and has played an integral role in the design of all the LIO control circuitry (e.g. front panel, remote handset, input select, RVC and AVC options, ultracapacitor bank volume monitoring, etc.), as well as the layout and mechanical design of how the modules are laid out inside the unit itself.“
“The LIO AVC module uses Slagleformers – hand-made by Dave Slagle of Intact Audio – and since John offered them with the TAP X, all of the hard work for those was already done. John then made a LIO module that contained the Slagleformer AVCs. The other aim was to create a resistor-stepped attenuator, essentially a Goldpoint or DACT stepped attenuator implemented with signal relays instead of a rotary switch. The RVC and AVC each allow for 64 steps of volume control instead of the 24 offered by DACT and Goldpoint, so they offer smaller volume steps (1dB) that permits finer control of the volume level.”
“Unlike the TAP X’s two displays, I wanted just one on the LIO. So to do the L / R balance control, John changed the firmware to allow for this. You can see on the front panel when you use the balance control on the remote handset. It too moves in 1dB steps (up to 12dB) for precise balance control, without adding any additional circuitry. John’s implementation works by offsetting one channel against the other, step-by-step. He really is a wizard with the controls and user interface!”
Gone is the worldwide dealer network that accompanied Rossi’s previous brand, Red Wine Audio. LIO is sold factory-direct which, without dealer-distributor margins, Rossi reckons axes 40-50% from the RRP.
A base LIO configuration (US$1995) includes an output module – variable and fixed – plus external power adaptor but for LIO to be functional in any way, one or more performance modules must be added either by Rossi’s team at his Massachusetts factory or by the user at home.
The installation process requires zero soldering – sliding off the lid reveals ‘headers’ into which each module plugs (just like a PC). The module is then secured in place by turning the white nylon screw caps.
The following performance modules are currently available: MOSFET power amplifier (US$695), headphone amplifier w/ quarter inch socket (US$595), three (analogue) input selector (US$295), DSD/PCM DAC (US$695), MM/MC phono pre-amplifier (US$595), resistor volume control (US$295), autoformer volume control (US$1395) and tube buffer (US$595). Rossi promises more modules down the line depending on consumer demand.
Couch-bound vinyl tweakers might want to consider the remote controllable cartridge-loading module (US$395). Otherwise you’ll need to pop the lid and get busy with a pair of jumper switches.
With no single performance module being mandatory, the LIO can be configured as a single or multi-function device. Start with a DAC and/or phono stage and add pre-amplifier functionality down the line. Or start with pre-amplifier for which one has TWO choices of attenuation methodology – AVC or RVC – before adding the MOSFET module at a later date.
With the promise of a digital audio streaming module already hanging heavy in the air, LIO can adapt to the user and the times.
Here, the push-me-pull-you benefits of Rossi’s factory direct sales model presents: 1) no need to return the whole unit should a module fail; and 2) each additional module comes with a 30-day home trial for which two-way shipping is applied to the module and not the LIO itself.
Rossi didn’t get heavy with the module must haves. My review unit shipped as per my own preferences: MOSFET power amp, head-amp with quarter inch socketry, RVC + tube buffer and phono stage (dip switches already set for a Dynavector 10×5). The DAC and AVC were purposefully omitted at time of ordering the review unit (more on which later). Total price on this custom configuration: US$5065.
Let’s start with LIO as a tube-buffered integrated amplifier.
Rossi believes going resistor ladder with volume attenuation allows for better channel tracking than the ALPS pot used in later Red Wine Audio models – here it’s reportedly less than 1%. All resistors in the RVC are SMT from which each (audible) relay click downwards strips away a single decibel. 64 steps all up.
With the AVC and tube buffer modules each vying for the same slot on the motherboard, it’s an either/or decision. Only the RVC module can be used in conjunction with the tube buffer. Those wanting to add bottled colour to the supposedly more transparent AVC must wait on Rossi’s development schedule – it’s coming but there’s no ETA yet.
For lower output impedance into the transducer-driving stages – e.g. MOSFET loudspeaker amp, headphone amp – tubular colour arrives post-volume application. Variable (pre) output and loudspeaker outputs cannot be kept tube free until a jumper sits in for the removed tube buffer board. Those deploying LIO only as DAC or phono stage can bypass the tube buffer without internal surgery by tapping the fixed RCA outputs on the rear.
Whilst Rossi maintains that almost nothing has been decanted from his earlier Red Wine designs, he admits to borrowing a little magic from the Signature 16 for the LIO’s power amplifier module, only now there’s more power and greater low-impedance stability. The Signature 16 didn’t get along so well with 2 Ohm loads. With the LIO’s power source bumped from batteries to ultracapacitors this disagreeability is airbrushed away. The ‘why” is explained in detail in Part 1.
Even so, the MOSFET amplifier’s output power ratings look somewhat modest: 25wpc into 8 Ohms, 45wpc into 4 Ohms, 65 wpc into 2 Ohms, all RMS continuous. And you’d think that with the KEF LS50 sitting on 85db sensitivity the LIO would come up short…and you’d be wrong.
With D/A conversion outsourced to the straight-talking Resonessence INVICTA, LIO plays it plain meatier than the outgoing souped-up Peachtree Nova225SE (US$1995). With the KEF standmounts especially, the Peachtree has an inherent advantage with bullish macro-dynamic command – 220wpc into 8 Ohms – and it shows during playback. On everything else – tonality, timbre, textural detail, and finesse and, most of all, tonal density – the LIO takes it. Like going from dark grey Arial to fully-inked Arial Black but without the fallout of compromised kerning.
The LIO speaker amplifier’s clear and present betterment of the Peachtree integrated (running with INVICTA DAC) could be replicated with the high-eff Zu Audio Soul MKII and new production Rogers LS3/5a, whose 83db still proved no barrier to entry for Rossi’s MOSFET implementation. Occasional hints of metallic grey splashiness creep into the top end of the BBC monitors when helmed by the Peachtree. The LIO maintains a more composed, lower centre of gravity, transients led by a more obviously burnished top end. Bloody lovely.
When partnered with Wyred4Sound’s mAMPs (reviewed here) some time ago, the LS50 showed stupendous talent with the three S’s: slam, scale and separation, especially with electronic fare. The LIO’s performance reaches equal footing but in different ways. It paints tonal colours with more saturated, glossier ink.
Vinnie’s MOSFET loudspeaker module is more of an all-rounder, wringing a subjectively ‘best’ performance from ALL THREE loudspeakers used during this review.
Silencing LIO’s loudspeaker outputs via the front panel ‘AMP’ switch leaves only the headphone amplifier in play (muted to avoid surprises). Head to head against the INVICTA’s headphone output it went. INVICTA on double duty plays it straighter with more rigidity. Conversely, LIO’s tubed-up deep tissue massage brings high tonal lustre and elasticity to the fore. Almost contradicting itself, the single-ended quarter inch socket sounded both more powerful but less eager than the Canadian. Big and bold but at the same time reposed.
With Beyerdynamic’s T1, the INVICTA presented as noticeably cleaner but with less headroom – stout SPLs arrived between -10db and -5db whilst only 45 clicks of the RVC’s 64 were required over on the LIO, its tube buffer mirroring the loudspeaker stage’s lower centre of gravity and polished transients edges. That’s a welcome advantage when raging hard with Grinderman’s chainsaw guitar or seeking greater timbral satisfaction from the drum work that bounces around in the background of Lou Reed’s “There Is No Time”. A less obvious delta presented with Sennheiser’s warmer, more forgiving HD650.
To best the LIO’s headphone module on overall neutrality AND power we must look to the AURALiC Taurus MKII whose 5w drive into 32 Ohms trounces the Rossi module’s 0.25w. A user-installable balanced XLR socket apparently double that to 0.5w.
LIO can’t top the AURALiC on ultimate go juice but it can on honey-fied aural moisture. The internal module’s sound comes over a few degrees warmer and a tad sweeter than the AURALiC. Neither unit is more resolving or more keenly poised with transient delivery than the other. The AURALiC serves more overt slam, weight delivered from the sides, whereas the LIO’s calling card is heft, its weight delivered from below.
Whilst the signature anorexic, bone-dry production aesthetic of Steve Albini’s production work e.g. Future Of The Left’s “To Hell With Good Intentions” or Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” remains comparatively untouched by Xuanxiang Wang’s cooler-, drier-sounding silver machine, Rossi’s unit builds these less-than-stellar recordings with more robust scaffolding.
Ultimate cash drop direction here will fall to flavour preference more than any delineation of ‘best’: vanilla Taurus or vanilla w/ pistachi(li)o? That the LIO module can stand its ground in this ~$2K price territory is further evidence of its high value quotient.
A similar story plays out with phono pre-amplifier module, which Rossi describes as “minimalist”: full discrete, zero feedback, all Class A. Three Cardas RCA sockets – 1 x MM and 2 x MC – will accommodate multiple ‘tables (or arms). Fixed at 47k Ohms, the MM section brings 40db of gain to the table.
MC-ers can specify load settings from 26 to 400 Ohms by way of 16 on-board jumper-setting combinations. 60db of gain is applied – the additional 20db comes from a last minute substitution of JFETs for step-up transformers about which Rossi says, “The step-ups not only had much lower noise, but the sound had more drive to it in terms of bass weight, punch, and the top end sounded more natural. The downside: MUCH more expensive than JFETs – but it was well worth it!”
Those wondering why I went with phono board instead of the DAC module have some catching up to do. Lately, I’ve indulged a diversion into how digital playback compares to vinyl. A Pro-Ject Debut Carbon with Ortofon OM10, needle-dropped with the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter’s internal ADC, was pitted against a straight-up CD rip of the same cut. Was the vinyl rip as good as the digital? Readers were polled, computer said no.
Furthering this investigation, a Pro-Ject Xtension 10 loaner has since arrived. I’ve armed it with Dynavector 10×5 cartridge. Diverting the NuWave’s real-time S/PDIF feed via the Resonessence Labs INVICTA DAC before arriving fully decoded at LIO netted similarly satisfactory sonic results to going analogue direct from PS Audio to LIO. Here vinyl playback meets – and matches – its digital rival head on: similar dynamic kick, similar tonality and similar detail retrieval. Same same – disconnecting the analogue output of the PS Audio whilst maintaining the digital diversion won’t shortchange the listener any.
Likewise, pitting a 12” disc spin from the more deluxe Pro-Ject ‘table + PS Audio phono-pre against the digital combo of Antipodes DX server + Resonessence Labs DAC results in a dead heat. Hearing Jack Ladder and The Dreamlanders’ Playmates from either front end brings little in the way of class separation. Here, a preference for vinyl or digital will fall to other considerations: convenience vs. tangibility or slow hands vs. fast fingers.
With the Schitt Mani (US$129), iFi iPhono (US$429) and Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC still on hand, several weeks of switcheroo ensued, the results from which tumble down here in reverse order of preference:
- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon + iFi iPhono
- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon + Schiit Mani
- Pro-Ject Xtension 10 + iFi iPhono
- Pro-Ject Xtension 10 + Schiit Mani == Pro-Ject Debut Carbon + PS Audio NPC
- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon + LIO
- Antipodes DX + Resonessence INVICTA == Pro-Ject Xtension 10 + PS Audio NPC
- Pro-Ject Xtension 10 + LIO
You read that correctly: the top-flight Pro-Ject combined with the LIO comes out on top of the Antipodes DX (by far the best music server I’ve heard to date) pushing ones and zeroes into the Resonessence Labs INVICTA. Wanting third part verification of this pay off, an audiophile pal dropped around for preference corroboration.
Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon has this year seen long-overdue 180gm vinyl re-issue treatment. No word yet on whether or not Plain Recordings went back to the original master or commissioned their own but the LIO-d vinyl offered more over presence, contrasting the original CD rip as washed out, ghostly. Furthermore, the vinyl take cast lead guitars with greater urgency and pushed Grant Lee Phillips’ vocal further forward with more inner-throat growl.
With the title track from Nicolas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise stepping up for some digital vs analogue consideration, Rossi’s unit plays its trump card from the get go: density discharging killer tone. The Pro-Ject Xtension 10 w/ Dynavector 10×5 cart routed directly into the LIO’s rear brought forth the finest take on this deep, heavily textural electronica that I’ve heard to date.
It’s not just electronic music that emerges victorious from the Pro-Ject/LIO pairing. Separating the air-punch-inducing choruses on Built to Spill’s “When I’m Blind”, Doug Martsch wrestles a guitar solo to the floor over the course of several minutes. With grungy alt-rock, LIO’s phono-staging mines the tone layers found deep within electric guitars and voices. I hear the same weighty tonality on Neil Young’s Unplugged, an album dominated by acoustic strum.
This has me wondering: is LIO’s stellar phono module performance attributable to the circuit design itself or its off-grid power source? Internalising D/A conversion could provide some answers – the DSD DAC module is headed this way for Part 3. As is the AVC. I want to find out what it can do for low-level listening, especially with the Zu Soul MKII. By decoupling the tube buffer from the RVC we’ll also learn how much tone and acoustic mass is stirred in by the stock JJs.
In the meantime and in its current form, the LIO not only bundles speaker amp, head-amp and phono stage inside a single chassis, it keeps power supply to all three isolated from mains noise to wring stellar performance from each.
Extrapolating with conjecture, you’d probably need to drop close to $3K to get a punchier, more satisfying headphone listening experience. The same again would be needed to best LIO’s speaker amplifier performance. Drawing down on audio memory, the MOSFET module here aces the Red Wine Audio Signature 15 (reviewed here) and is probably closer to that heard from the Red Wine Audio Signature 57 (reviewed here). And I shudder to think what kind of cash you’d need to even draw even with the LIO’s phono module – a Leben RS30-EQ (US$2500) or a Manly Chinook (US$2250) perhaps? LIO owners already in possession of external solutions can grab the phono module and try for themselves at home. How’s that for avoiding dealer demo and full-box return postage costs?
With future proofing constitutional to the modular concept, Vinnie Rossi’s LIO is the gaming PC of the audio world. Tech breakthroughs can be introduced to the LIO ecosystem in a piecemeal fashion. When a v2 module spills, the would-be upgrader need only on-sell his v1 board and not the whole shebang. The new module then drops right into LIO’s motherboard – upgrade’s a good ‘un. This kind of can’t-believe-I-didn’t-think-of-it innovation will rightly have some competitors quaking in their boots. The others, the savvier ones, we’ll see clamouring to license their own tech for modularisation to Rossi and Chapman. Win, win and full KO.
Further information: Vinnie Rossi