We’ve all been there. You turn up to an audio show (or high street store), a few choice vinyl records under one arm, fully ready to demo that pair of loudspeakers you’ve been Jonesing for, only to spy a turntable’s isn’t situ.
Time for plan B.
You scrape your bag for a CD before holding it triumphantly aloft.
“Sorry, we’ve not used a CD player for demos since 2008,” comes the knock-back.
“What about ripping the CD to your music server then?”
“Terribly sorry but there’s no optical drive to be found on either the Aurender or our MacMini”.
“Oh – you’ve got a MacMini – excellent,” you enthuse, unspooling a USB thumb from your jangling keychain, “Let’s drop these FLAC files into iTunes! I’ve got that new AFX EP and the new Destroyer album!”
“iTunes only accepts Apple Lossless and we’re running PureMusic – I don’t know what to tell ya other than we’re really sorry,” sighs the exhibitor.
In this kind of situation it’s hard to separate the exhibitor wilfully constructing an elaborate duck and weave to avoid attendee supplied music from one who genuinely wishes to accommodate it but doesn’t know in which direction to turn in terms of digital transport.
Besides, for the amplifier, headphone or loudspeaker exhibitor of travelling interstate or internationally to demonstrate his wares, source playback provision will likely be of secondary priority.
Come show time, commitment to a high-end DAC ultimately means handing it off to courier or – for those less organised – an airline check-in host. In what condition will it emerge at the other end? When fully boxed a full width high-end DAC like the Aqua La Scala can tip the scales at 10kg+. At the airport, weight matters and once at the (hotel room) demo space, it’s one more empty box to be stored out of sight on the balcony or – as is more common – in an already box-crammed bathroom.
At the summit of the Darko DAC Index one might reasonably point to the Chord Hugo or the superior sounding Hugo TT as eminently more transportable. And you’d be right. Either could be accommodated in hand luggage, the former in a jacket pocket. But what about a digital transport with which to feed ‘em? The SD USB input on each might accommodate iOS and Android devices – fine for home use – but what does that say about the high-end credibility of the exhibitor?
Bluetooth? Furgeddaboutit. Even with aptX-equipped devices it comes up woefully short with absolute sound quality. I hear transients fraying at the edges, basslines coated in aluminium. Go listen to the Bluetooth input on the Hugo/TT for a few minutes and tell me I’m wrong.
In the digital transport bargain basement, an Apple TV or Airport Express take input over Airplay before spilling outwards over optical. The Bitperfect imperfections of the Apple TV notwithstanding there are two fundamental limitations: 1) Airplay (generally) only opens its arms to attendees arriving with iPhone or iPad and 2) some high-end converters, like the aforementioned La Scala, arrive with no toslink input in tow.
Moving up the chain, our exhibiting manufacturer might instead go with a USB-connected Chromebook or MacBook Air. Consideration of transport quality is called for here: all other things being equal, computers packing inbuilt screens will introduce more electrical noise to the DAC than those hooked up to separately powered external monitors or those that go without entirely – hello headless.
Affordable headless means invariably MacMini, often the goto choice for hardware modders (SSD and linear PSU) but it’s a transport choice not entirely free of risk. What if the thing refuses to boot or it its media player won’t auto-start or talk to the corresponding remote-control iPad app (e.g. Audirvana+) come showtime. The exhibitor must either chance it or take a keyboard, mouse and monitor along for the ride.
Such will-it-or-won’t-it anxieties tend to fall away by the time we get to bespoke music servers like the Aurender N100H. Per the MacMini scenario, what we also get in return is another box to ship or check-in at the airport.
The small footprint of both the AURALiC Aries’ physical form (especially the LE version’s SMPS) and its Linux O/S means fewer start-up woes whilst iPad and Android remote control handle configuration of music source (LAN, USB or cloud). Like the Aurender, its rear-panelled USB port will accommodate attendee-supplied hard drives and USB keys. A quick drive scan and you’re set…but again, it’s a second box to be transported and stored.
Then comes the kicker: like Apple TV or headless MacMini, configurations controlled by wifi-enabled smart devices require a LAN. And an demo room LAN means BYO switch/router. Yet another device to setup and configure and another piece of packaging to stash out of sight.
That brings us to Resonessence Labs INVICTA DAC and headphone amplifier and its Mirus cousin (that dispenses with the latter). I’ve reviewed both (here and here) and the headphone output-equipped original continues to enjoy leisure time at DAR HQ. It’s the DAC I come back to most often. Why? Because it serves up sound quality that sits on par with the Chord Hugo TT whilst also providing a bevy of features (which we’ll get to shortly). Switch back and forth between the Hugo TT and INVICTA in a demo room and you’d end up with an audience divided; half would prefer the more finely cobwebbed top end and layer separation of the Chord whilst the remainder will prefer the Resonessence Labs’ meatier, more direct delivery.
That said, neither can match the Aqua La Scala MKII on soundstage height, rhythmic propulsion and dynamic avidity but the Italian remains too large for overhead locker placement.
Factor in the functionality of the Resonessence Labs INVICTA (Mirus) and we soon see how it presents a strong case as ‘The Ultimate Demo DAC’.
1) Size and weight. Moving the INVICTA around my listening space it reminds me of a very heavy hardback book. Tape measure and scales confirm as much: 22cm wide, 28cm deep, 5cm high and 3kg. Fine for in-flight carry on, the our show exhibitor could even slip it into a backpack with minimal discomfort to the wearer. In this SQ league, only the Chord Hugo strolls past the INVICTA on proper portability.
2) The possibility of in-transit damage can’t be ignored. Taking tank-like cues from the pro audio sector, the INVICTA comes on as far less prone to dings than any of the competition. The Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC – itself grown from pro roots – comes closest to the Canadian on aesthetics and form. Contrast this with the AURALiC Vega upon which one only need admire its strikingly cool lines in order to ding the brushed aluminium casework. The Hugo TT splits the damage immunisation difference down the middle but being both larger of girth and heavier than the INVICTA, it won’t take to handheld as travel so easily. Only the original Hugo and Mytek are capable of joining the INVICTA in the departure lounge.
3) Full DSD compliance might not turn as many heads in 2015 as it once did but manufacturers leaving it off the table completely – and without an alternative point of difference – run the risk of swiftly flatlining sales figures. The INVICTA will handle up to 32bit/384kHz PCM and DSD64/128 just fine. That’s enough to separate it from Aqua’s positively old-school R-2R PCM1704 implementation and its implicit PCM-only restriction. But that’s not all: both the INVICTA’s USB and coaxial inputs now accommodate DSD via DoP. DSD over coax? Yessum. You won’t find that feature on the AURAliC Vega or Chord Hugo/TT.
4) The INVICTA offers not one but TWO headphone outputs. Howzat for laying out a headphone audition with properly grounded A/B-ing? Keeping things de jour, here Dan Clark’s newest closed Ether-C could run head-to-head against its forerunning open-back variant but on the same table, from the same DAC and amplification circuit. Or HiFiMan could more readily expose the audible whys and wherefores of the dollar-differential that sits between their entry-level and top-shelf planars – HE-400S vs. HE-1000 – using the same amp/DAC without doubling up on units required.
5) One might point to the Hugo/TT’s dual headphone outputs for a backatcha “Snap!”. Not so fast. Do the Chord units allow for separate volume attenuation of each socket? Nope…but Resonessence Labs do. Moreover, one quibble repeatedly whispered in the wake of the Hugo TT’s CES 2015 launch centred on its absence of balanced headphone output. Journey deep into the INVICTA’s settings to find the front-panelled, quarter-inch two-fer configurable as a single differential output, A and B playing L and R respectively.
6) Access to the INVICTA’s input selection and/or settings becomes hands-on via fly wheel and click buttons. Going hands off means infra-red beaming wand. Like Manhattan’s Mytek, Resonessence Labs have optioned the use of the Apple remote (supplied). To avoid double-ups, exhibitors using MacMini (or similar) will need to disable its infra-red receptor from inside OS X’s Preferences panel. Any nearby Apple TVs will need to have their front panels obscured or be unplugged altogether. Thereafter, it’s plain sailing. Lose or break the slimline Apple remote in transit and it’s easily replaced cheaply (US$29 from the Apple Store) and, more importantly, WITHOUT going back to the manufacturer; something that just isn’t possible timewise once the week ticks over into the weekend. Which brings us to the Resonessence Labs DAC’s most ingenious feature…
7) An SD card socket eliminates the need for third party streamer, server, PC or Mac. The INVICTA internalises its own transport. Load up an SD card with tunes, click it into the socket, select the corresponding input (via remote or not) and the volume is mounted instantaneously – there’s no hint of delay in making the card’s file/folder contents accessible to the user via the DAC’s front panel display. One (far from minor) niggle: gapless FLAC playback still remains M.I.A.. Almost a year has passed since the INVICTA’s last firmware update: November 2014’s 6.2.4.
8) The upshot? No server, no streamer, no Mac, no PC and no digital cabling is required to make music happen. Better still, gone is the wifi network required for remote controlling tablets and smartphones.
9) Amplifying the SD card advantage is the INVICTA’s rear-panel HDMI output that pipes OSD contents to outboard monitor where it adds colour and size. With input selection, settings and SD card content properly readable from the listening position the card content browser can sit back from leaning forward.
10) At the business end, the SD card input here bests the MacMini on SQ, even when the AudioQuest JitterBug or Schiit Wyrd to mop up (some of) the Apple computer’s USB noise spill and even when Audirvana+ is also brought in to handle library and playback duties. Even when fully loaded, the Mac doesn’t quite attain the glareless-ness of Resonessence Labs’ in-built transport facility which in turn doesn’t get close to the Antipodes Audio’s multi-thou $ DX server. I’d peg the INVICTA’s SD card feed as on par with dealing ones and zeroes over USB from the AURALiC Aries (or the long departed Antipodes DS Reference).
The showland implications of Resonessence Labs approach to combining DAC and transport under a single roof sees their flagship/s’ portability, robust build quality, SD card feed and outboard display combine to a heady proposition. USB thumb drivers require PC/Mac for drag n’ drop loading or AURALiC Vega / Aurender for direct-drive access. Going direct with SD card-hosted files sidesteps this faffing. The broader message is the potential for a new demo room standard when dealing digital audio. Attendees need only show up with flyweight media, drop it into the INVICTA’s slot before picking up the Apple wand for immediate library navigation and playback.
Got an Astell&Kern, Pono or Sony ZX-2 DAP? Extract the microSD card from its holster, slide it into a full-size SD adapting sheath for full INVICTA compliance. That’s precisely how I play it when demo-ing gear at my local hifi store. There, the Resonessence Labs device very clearly lays down the welcome mat to walk-ins from the world of portable audio.
Don’t need head-fi? With second ESS Sabre 9018 redirected to rear-output duties the INVICTA Mirus will likely sound a shade better.
The bottom line is this: show exhibitors accommodating attendee supplied music and dealers wanting customer demos to be more hands on would do well to consider either of the Resonessence Labs statement decoders. Kerfuffle-free options both.
Further information: Resonessence Labs