This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Digital sources built over the last few years have offered far more sophisticated sound than earlier ones. The same goes for D/A converters which is almost implied but also CD/Bluray decks. At the time of publication I reviewed the multi-format Marantz UD7007 and Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD for Audio magazine. I was surprised by how mature both sounded regardless of what type disc I spun or what sort of files I streamed. There are many reasons why such progress was possible. One was finding ways to deal with jitter's time distortion. The other was that manufacturers finally realized that music is not just a group of sounds that must be delivered in the most precise fashion. They finally realized how complex music signal really is, how many subtle connections between timbre, pace, resolution, selectivity, focus, micro and macro dynamics must be acknowledged to obtain truly good sound.

The interesting thing about the former factor (which is obviously just my opinion) came strictly from engineering work. Jitter was measured, recognized and addressed. Truth be told, jitter measurements only took off once audiophiles complained that their CD players sounded less perfect than expected. The latter arrived from listening sessions that helped us understand correlations between various elements of music that must be reproduced to make playback natural. Taking into account both hard data from measurement-driven engineering and soft data from subjective listening allowed manufacturers to arrive at the point today where really good-sounding digital has become possible. One has to be impressed most by the improvements in the low-price level which goes for D/A converters like Cambridge Audio's DACMagic 100, Arcam's rDAC and rLINK or the Cambridge Audio Topaz 5 CD player. Each of them costs less than any one part of my system. It's a real pleasure to find such gems amongst inexpensive machines and I'm pretty sure it was no easy task to make them sound as good as they do. Equally significant changes are happening in the high-end. The character of changes is similar to those already described but their consequences are much more complex.

Yet what connects the entry-level rLINK and today's high-end Romulus still are the choices designers must make during the R&D process. There simply is no ultimate natural, neutral or absolute sound per se. What you may achieve is a bit less or more than this natural/neutral sound. And it gets more complicated. Two decks one might describe as similar in neutrality and/or naturalness will in general still sound very different, possibly day and night so. Think Romulus and M2Tech Vaughan DAC.

This American deck might be defined as warm, rich, liquid and pleasant. These features reminded me of other very good players like the Mark Levinson N°.512 or EMM Labs XDS1 SE. These three have a similar sonic signature one might define as 'analogue' which in fact is rather a natural sound albeit not necessarily one that's perfectly neutral. You might be surprised by this contradiction between natural and neutral. You might have assumed that neutral must equal natural as similar to what we hear in real life. But audio sets its own rules. One of them is that live music differs from what can be caught by tape or hard drive. That's why neutral doesn't have to mean natural. It's more a description of choices the designer made and of listener preferences.

And the Romulus—or better, its creators—focused most of all on music's inherent beauty. That's what you get when you decide to drive a power amplifier directly with the Aesthetix. Indeed in my system I preferred the sound of Romulus driving my Soulution direct over using the ultra-minimalist but expensive Ayon Audio Polaris III preamplifier. Ditto for Dan D’Agostino's Momentum Stereo.

With or without preamplifier?
This question has been around forever but the answer remains the same. It depends. I'm not trying to avoid a clear answer. It truly does depend on two main factors in any particular system. What is the quality of the preamp stage integrated into a source; and is it capable of driving a particular power amplifier across a given length/type of cable? Usually designers of power amplifiers anticipate a separate preamplifier with proper gain, signal buffering and volume control. When one opts to forgo a preamp and connects a CD player's variable output to a power amplifier, one should base this decision purely on whether one likes the sound. Whilst intuition might tell us that 'less is more' where skipping one, two or more gain stages ought to result in better sound, in fact we usually get quite the opposite. It mostly only works when a system was conceptualized accordingly from the onset, say Ancient Audio CD player/preamps and their matching power amps.

Back to the Romulus, maybe 10 or 15 years ago a similar sound came from Wadia players. It was warm and three-dimensional with slightly softened attacks and a lush midrange. It made CDs sound really pleasant despite the problems the breed had at the time. That's why Wadia then was such a popular brand. Its popularity was well earned. But perception of sound changes with time. Today Wadia's sound would be perceived as significantly coloured. It still would be very pleasing but also be considered slightly dull, with resolution and selectivity that no longer compete with today's standards. The Romulus somewhat reminded me of the Wadia 851 albeit without the latter's issues. It delivered a warm though not warmed up sound. There's a difference. Warmed up means coloured whilst warm means rich and not cold. The 'warm' expression doesn't carry as much weight as 'warmed up'.