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Discs used for the listening sessions:
Carol Simpson, Live and Otherwise, Sinatra Society of Japan, XQAM-1032, CD; Bill Evans, You Must Believe in Spring, Warner Bros./Warner Music Japan, WPCR-13176, SHM-CD.; Pat Metheny Group, The way Up, Nonesuch, 79876-2, CD; Charlie Haden & Antonio Forcione, Heartplay, Naim Label, Naim CD098, CD; Camouflage, Relocated, Vision Music, CDVM019, CD; Porcupine Tree, The Incident, WHD Entertainment, IECP-10198, 2 x HQCD; The Beatles, 09.09.09 Sampler, Apple/EMI, 84414 2 5, 2 x CD; Johnny Hartman, Just You, Just Me…, Regent Records/Columbia Music Entertainment, COCB-53522, CD; Kazumi Watanabe, Jazz Impression, Eve records, EWSA 0163, SACD; Pliki FLAC and WAV 24/96, 24/192.

The Austrian Skylla converter offers an incredibly full, rich and vibrant sound of great resolution. On the one hand I was surprised because the already mentioned CD-3, as interesting as it was in many regards, had offered quite the opposite. But since I’d already explored the CD-5 for its Audio review, what I heard now merely confirmed what I already knew: Gerhard Hirt has achieved something which others fight for two or three times longer. He managed to merge sonic elements present only in high-end gear at the level of the Accuphase DP-700 or Ancient Audio Lektor Prime and Lektor Grand SE - to mention just the best examples that spring to mind at a moment’s notice. Think microscope with soul; or a guy at the other end of the microscope’s eyepiece.

How wonderful did the recently acquired recording of Kazumi Watanabi's Jazz Impression! sound on which this Japanese jazz guitar virtuoso—spiritual brother to Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass—performs in a very terse fashion. I encountered neither tube warmth nor hardness. Both of those can occur with signal path tubes but are nothing but distortions. I am probably used to the sound of the Sovtek 6H30s as I run them in my Lektor Prime but I’m familiar also with numerous transistor players. Even if I really have my own standard imprinted on my mind, it's been surely ameliorated by exposure to different sonic signatures over the years.

Let me repeat that it was a surprise to find such a merger of outstanding timbre and sonic vibrancy. The sonic signature was very similar to the Ancient Audio machine. There were some differences but truly minor ones. That said a lot about this DAC. Voices floated freely between the loudspeakers, be they the captivating male velvet voice of Johnny Hartman at Just You, Just Me… or the sensual female vocals of  Carole Simpson on Live (and otherwise). The balance between warmth and sensuality was correct to render the sound plausible. This isn’t a fixed category. Here one enters the areas of artistry, musical perception and how real it is what we hear. Under perfect conditions—meaning a live concert—we can evaluate the ambience of the place, appreciate the contributions of the sound engineer and how fit the performers were at the time. When you listen at home, it becomes about something else, about how exactly the recording is reproduced. The less the ‘fidelity’ factor intrudes as a concern, the more we can concentrate on the same things as during a live concert to more deeply experience the sounds and music.

I think that the Skylla and CD-5 are very close to this ideal. It is still about reproductions but they have become so plausible that we can drift into them to experience the music. That's what happened with Hartman and Carole Simpson. Those recording restored by the Sinatra Society of Japan have high historical and aesthetic value. It is about the music after all and the sound quality per se is rather mediocre except for "Fly Me To The Moon". That classic is mainly known for Sinatra's interpretation but here was recorded perfectly not just for being captured fifty years ago but perfectly, period. The Skylla easily conveyed the full, mellow sound of the piano placed a bit in the background and Simpson's sensual but somewhat ironic and guarded voice in the front. Yet listening to the next song with its far lower sound quality caused no frustration. My impression was similar to a live concert when performers or sound engineer are replaced. I know something has changed and what it was but perceive it as part of the performance, not some technical error.

I was digging into the old stuff to appreciate the mastery of the engineers involved. I was also most impressed by The Beatles sampler of remastered stereophonic recordings. When reviewing this some time ago right after receiving it, I pointed out the astonishing clarity of the sound combined with its great timbres. Now I could confirm this further as the Skylla dove deeper still into this universe than my Ancient Audio Prime. Yes, I admit this with sadness. The difference wasn't big but the sound arose from an even darker background and was richer still. This comes at a price. To the cost of the DAC you must add the cost of a good digital cable (say an Acrolink Mexcel 7N-D6300 or at least the 7N-D5100 which I used during this test) plus the price of a good transport and proper power cords for both.

But in turn you will get something absolutely amazing. My Prime did a great job as transport, ditto the CD-5 (they both use the same CD-Pro 2 LH Philips). There is an option for improving the sound quality at pretty low cost as the Skylla has an I²S input and the CD-5 such an output. I am pretty certain that soon we will see a dedicated Ayon transport with an I²S output. I remember very well all the machines with separate transports that used the I²S connection and it always was superior to serial S/PDIF. Unfortunately I didn't have a proper cable at the time of this review so my opinion is merely an extrapolation of earlier experiences with other players. One could try the Skylla for example with the North Star Design transport which is equipped with such an output.