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Sonic take 1: DIA-400|Merak. Once upstairs break-in had clearly flushed out the pipes, it was time for some contextual data mining. By good fortune I had both Hypex and ICEpower comparators. AURALiC's Merak monos are pure power amps to require a preamp. I fronted them with Wyred4Sound's mPRE in balanced output to not explode cost. Balanced source signal came from my Metrum Hex into both mPRE and DIA-400 direct. At $5.000/pr the Meraks had been ~90% of the Ncore-1200 Atsah monos at 41% the fee. Hence their award. Here now was friendly opportunity to explore Pascal and Hypex both modified. In this instance it also pitted a switch-mode against a linear supply, not that any A/B could determine their relative contributions. I suspected that on voicing the AudioSolutions Rhapsody 200 might be the most ideally matched speaker in my arsenal. Still I stuck to the Aptica for their crystalline tautly timed transparency. At this stage of the game that'd clock small offsets most keenly. Matching for beauty over truth would come later.

Though neither combo matched the top-end extension and illumination of the Crayon or Goldmund/Job, the Meraks were more informative above the upper midrange than the darker DIA-400 quite like Rethm differs from Zu on that count. This showed on Gerardo Nuñez's silvery solo Flamenco guitar on attack sharpness, wispy decays and the crispness of arpeggios and rasgueados. The AURALiC amps dealt in higher separation whilst simultaneously sounding a bit drier as though the venue's reverb times had lowered. The Danish integrated played it wetter and darker. Its colors bled across the paint-by-numbers grids. This was a more mixed than direct sound flavor. On a Turkish club CD with typical slam beats at Reggae force the Meraks exhibited the same drier damping and steeper articulation in the bass registers.

Either class D scenario had more raw bass power than the Crayon yet not the latter's lithe nearly wiry definition. Whomp versus bee stings. This difference felt related to how good DC-coupled circuits will sound faster and as though sculpted in higher relief than capacitor-coupled equivalents. Here switching output stages put a low-pass filter with caps directly at the speaker terminals. Relevant? I next moved in my very costly high-spec'd Nagra Jazz valve preamp. Its XLR outputs drove the XLR-only Meraks, its RCA outputs the DIA-400 set to direct mode limited to the single-ended IN1. On the Chinese amps the Jazz injected richer harmonic nuance and more specific spatial correlations. The earlier dryness relaxed into more fluidic textures, the sonic scenery expanded in scale and substance. Without undermining transient exactitude, edges were rounder and smoother. This was an excellent match. On the Dane set to work as power amp the Swiss preamp turned things even mellower. General articulation stepped down, microdynamic crest factor as the small twitchies and wigglies inside a melodic delivery flattened out. On those counts this combo was rather less successful, Gato's own built-in active linestage superior. I subsequently learnt that "the HT function on the DIA400 does not allow you direct access to the output stage. It simply sets a fixed volume at 0dB. It's still an active input." That explained it. Putting two preamp stages in series is rarely a good idea for ultimate sonics after all.

Sonic take 2: DIA-400|mTrio. EJ Sarmento's $2.900 mini stack combines two permanently bridged 125ASX2 ICEpower monos with a fully balanced preamp/DAC. With its activated passive operation—passive below unity gain but fully buffered for impedance matching—his mPRE becomes blood thinner and accelerant into otherwise thicker darker warmer swampier monos which deliver 255/430w into 8/4Ω. On power and price comparable with the DIA-250, the Wyred separates spread Gato's integrated functionality over three boxes. This juxtaposed two Danish solutions from B&O and Pascal. Qué pasó?

The triplets slotted themselves between the opposing poles of take 2 though sat rather closer to AURALiC than Gato. In a coincident bow to their name, the Wyred amps accelerated the DIA-400's lazier musical flow to show more wiriness and spunk whilst not going as far as the Meraks had done off the same mPRE. The Gato was more about mass and smoothness. The minis dug deeper on punch and snap. On articulation, definition and timing resolution I found EJ Sarmento's take on ICEpower to be more advanced than Gato's implementation of Pascal. This challenged Frederik Johansen's own assessment of these competing modules. He'd also called their DIA-250 the "more open and direct" performer over the DIA-400. Given my personal bias we felt it timely to include it here. Few readers will have power needs beyond it. With features identical to the DIA-400, for them sound is the only decider. And money. Qué peso?

Kirill Gerstein
Whilst awaiting the DIA-250, Montreux's Septembre Musical lured us into the Strawinski Auditorium for Charles Dutoit conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra London with Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain followed by Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto N°.2 with Kirill Gerstein capped off by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. With costly seats in row 7 of the floor's left wing marked below, we saw directly on Kirill's hands. Audiophile ambitions to reproduce a full symphony are foolish at best. If deemed successful they are downright delusional. Claims of playback realism whilst talking individual violins are equally irrational. An expert violin section as the London's impresses by performing as one. What individual instruments? Overall tonal balance is darker than most hifis. There's no air, no highly specific soundstaging. On dynamic contrast epitomized by Sacre's orchestral bass drum—by far the loudest instrument on stage followed by the massive rapidly damped gong effects, then trumpets, then piccolo flute—even the best hifi is a bloodless ghost. Instrumentation included 2 piccolos, 3 flutes, alto flute, 4 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 3 clarinets, 2 bass clarinets, 4 bassoons, 2 contrabassons, 8 French horns, piccolo D trumpet, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 3 tubas, 8 timpani, bass drum, triangle, antique cymbals and strings. No domestic listening room would ever contain that. No domestic hifi even remotely approaches its scale and grandeur. Many though can and will play far louder claiming realism again when it's plainly not.

In this live context—the antithesis of modern spot-mic recordings which capture an unnaturally close-up perspective on each performer regardless of group gestalt—the DIA-400's more wall-of-sound contextual rather than analytical reading was closest. Its density, heavier tonal balance and mellowing of nearfield leading-edge bite and separation most resembled what we heard in the above fully packed venue. If this puts earlier comments and personal bias into stark relief, that was the point. Hifi and live are two very different experiences. How much overlap they enjoy and whether that occurs on the purely sonic level or that of very subjective emotional response is not fixed. On unamplified sound in a large venue with concomitant distances, Gato's voicing was the most authentic. Whether that'd match your expectations or preferences is another matter. Either way opt out of pursuing the absolute sound fiction. There be madness to that method.

Modern studio productions go after different qualities than minimalist purist mixes. Acoustic instruments don't have the violent 'gun-shot' rise times in the bass that electric bass does. Tune your system to excel at the latter and it'll overdamp acoustic upright by design. Do acoustic bass with believable bloom and synth bass lacks slam and dryness. Swap venue seat—there's a huge difference between front row and last row balcony—and the sound changes. Swap venue. With changed size and reverb times the sound changes. Again. And again. Little in hifi is as false as the notion of an absolute sound. Free yourself of the faulty notion. Embrace the happy fact that playback is its own thing whose primary purpose is to push your buttons. Whatever those are, your hifi must match them.