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Context. My exposure to DACs has deliberately focused on the <€4.000 sector though exceptions like Meitner's M1 and the all-discrete French TotalDAC factored as well. I don't know what my reference NWO-M DAC would cost were it extricated from Esoteric's UX1 chassis and its massive 'best ever' universal drive mechanism. Chances are it'd be M1 turf or beyond. When the Hex arrived, my DAC chart had the NWO on top followed by the Eximus DP1 and Burson Conductor. Antelope Audio's Zodiac Gold with Voltikus, the Resonessence Lab Invicta and the Weiss DAC2 sat a rung lower. To me the biggest upset of the bunch has been the $1.850 Conductor. Its tone density is second only to the 40 x AKM AK4399 NWO-M with fully differential Lundahl-coupled NOS E182CC output stage yet on bass weight and impact the Aussie box actually eclipses it.

On tone-color richness and low-down authority the Conductor is the Audez'e LCD-2 of DACs. It's really quite the step up from its HA-160D predecessor. Though gilding the lily, my ultimate headfi rig at that juncture ran a 160GB AIFF-loaded iPod Classic into the Conductor via the Pure i-20 digital dock, then to Bakoon's AMP-11R in hi-gain mode and the Audez'e.

If the Burson drums out rhythms with tightly packed Q-tips and the Zodiac Gold with pointy tooth picks, the Bakoon splits the difference without sacrificing one iota of the Conductor's tone. Its handling of transients isn't as needly as the tonally far paler Antelope but crisper than the warmer softer-tipped Burson. The 11-R's treble also is more extended and pellucid and the apparent S/N ratio even lower. To put some hours on the Hex, I stuck it into this bedside stack with the iPod in endless shuffle mode to replace the Conductor. Two things happened. Leading edges got more honed—back towards tooth picks if you will—yet timbres intensified further. The at-once-ness of the two qualities often is mutually exclusive. Attack mode which slices air like samurai blades—think hard-hitting loud German techno on 103dB Avantgarde hornspeakers—tends to thin out colors by adding white and turns texturally hard. The Hex resolutely swam against this trend. It was neither lean nor hard.

Yes it was rhythmically articulate and keen like tapping glass with long finger nails. But that PRaT precision was followed by highly developed tonal hues and body. This counterpoint avoided all bleaching and prevented high transient fidelity from compromising timbres and textures. When violins and other non-blown instruments exhibit that peculiar singing quality which is otherwise hard to describe but instantly recognizable, I see it as being connected to flow and timing. This the Hex did very strongly. It also 'centered' things back from the leading edge onto the bloom portion without causing even minor fuzziness on attacks. Zing and song if you will even though the second quality very much alters how one perceives the first. There's nothing zingy about the Hex per se.

For a while now I've relied on the hopefully intuitive imagery of the textile sound of paper cones and silk domes versus the metal sound of Beryllium, ceramic, magnesium and titanium drivers to point at this core difference. It's between metallic attack mode and how textile drivers tend to emphasize sounds slightly 'behind' the leading edge. In tube terms it's the triode vs. pentode thing, the 2nd-order vs. 3rd-order harmonic emphasis. In those terms the Hex was an equal opportunity omnivore. It did both at the same time. Though writing it out consumes paragraphs and deliberation to find the right words, what I perceived in those moments after firing up the Hex for the first time was sudden, easy and crystallized: 'Aha, that's how it is'.

The instrument which combines these two opposing qualities to a similarly loaded degree is the piano. The initial hammer fall particularly when vigorously executed is all about metallic wiriness whilst immediately following is the resonance excitation of a huge cavity which can spell big tone in capital letters. Close miking and Flamenco/Cuban-style hammer playing can exaggerate the percussive elements. Far-field miking and languorous Chopin legatos shift the balance into the bloom/decay aspects. There's a lot of variability hidden in the catch-all 'piano sound' drawer with its makers from Fazioli to Bösendorfer and those endless and wildly disparate player techniques. Yet one telltale mark regardless is the clarity of the hammer falls as they get enveloped inside and thus potentially obscured by the sustain pedal. The Hex simply excelled at nailing the metallic hammer falls and the follow-up response of blooming woody resonance with all its scintillating overtones.

That was my first impression. Obviously you can only have that once. Being careful to harvest it properly thus becomes good practice. Far more often than not it's confirmed over the long haul rather than challenged or overwritten. Sometimes understanding what caused first impression takes time.

It adds weighting, filling out and value. The actual core insight about the difference—if there is one and it won't change with break-in—simply tends to be sudden and ready-made. In my DAC scheme and hierarchy, the Hex felt like a crossbreed of the Burson sound (bassy, fulsome, warm and dense yet in the Conductor generation also very resolved) and the more lit up, quick, incisive, separated and resolute Bakoon/Eximus flavor. Perhaps it was a well-adjusted mix of 2nd and 3rd-order attributes. Or akin to SimulClass triode/pentode operation, a term coined by Randall Smith of Mesa Boogie, designer of the Mesa Baron and Tigris amps I helped market for a while. Was the Hex a bit of a best-of-both-worlds scenario perhaps? Clear right off was how it was no mere Octave x 2. It dusted the smaller box by no small margin. This was higher potency juju with appreciably stronger bass, bigger dynamics and more intense magnification power. I was particularly curious how it would fare against the 176.4kHz-capable 16 times paralleled 1543 NOS DAC from CAD's Scott Berry which is seriously more expensive than the Hex. Meanwhile Cees reported how certain hopefuls already found the Hex offensively more expensive than the Octave to invoke Uncle Albert's law of relativity - and that really good things don't come free or cheap.

USB reception.
Adam Mokrzycki organizes the Warsaw Audio Show and also is senior contributor to the Polish Audio magazine. His test of 14 USB bridges netted the following ranking: Matrix 24/96 - 60; TeleVox 24/96 - 65;  Hegel HD2 - 65; Musical Fidelity V-Link II - 75; Halide Design The Bridge - 80; M2Tech HiFace Evo - 80; Stello U3 - 85; M2Tech HiFace Evo + Evo Supply - 90; JK SPDIF Mk3 - 90; Audiophilleo 1 - 95; Empirical Audio OffRamp Turbo 5 - 95; dCS U-Clock - 95; M2Tech HiFace Evo + Evo Supply + Evo Clock -– 100; Scarlatti CD/SACD transport - 100. Subsequently he reported that with the new Pure Power battery supply, the Audiophilleo became "one of the best if not the best S/PDIF converter I know."

My Audiophilleo 2 run off Bakoon's BPS-02 battery supply organizes internal power delivery differently from Audiophilleo's own battery. Even so the improvements I hear over plain USB power suggest that in Adam's scheme it still would make his top 3. It was sensible to compare my battery-fied unit to Cees' modified hiFace 1. Would external USB reception be mute now or remain performance enhancement as it is over my NWO-M's internal hiFace 2? For a fully balanced chain to give the Hex its intended context, I ran AURALiC's Taurus Pre and ModWright's KWA-100SE with Zu Event XLR cables.

Using The Secret Trio: Soundscapes (your chance at a quasi Taksim Trio reunion if rumors are true that there won't be seconds) the outcome was unexpected if most interesting. Hex direct placed greater emphasis on the 3rd-order transient mode. This became particularly noticeable on Pinarbasi's qanun plucks that exhibited more lightning-y attacks if we borrow from the talking rat of Ratatouille. But even on a whole this particular presentation simply felt more quicksilvery and so also a tad leaner. The Audiophilleo played it stronger on 2nd-order tone mode. This enriched the augmentation of timbres particularly when oud, clarinet and qanun run parallel motifs. It also mellowed the sense of speed to feel just a bit more relaxed.

Transitioning to the Resonessence Labs Concero with Tombo Trøn cable—Audiophilleo's direct connection doesn't work with the Canadian box because all its socketry is on one end—shifted just a bit deeper into these 2nd-order attributes and got a degree or two warmer still. All of this was only minor seasoning and very similar to adjusting the operating point of Nelson Pass' SIT1 monos which he explains in these exact terms. The upshot for prospective Hex owners intending to do USB seems simple. Metrum's optional USB module competes directly against $600 external boxes which in most cases will still need a quality S/PDIF cable to increase costs further. Here going offboard is a tuning feature like rolling tubes or swapping cables but on magnitude far more narrow. If at all I'd think of it as a last resort once everything else in a system has been sorted to complete satisfaction. One then simply plays with minor final adjustments. And one is fully prepared to admit that how one responds depends on mood and material to fluctuate possibly from track to track. So why even bother? Integration all in one box is far more elegant.