Amp-direct and quite unlike the Ensemble Dichrono HiDac, the Opus 21 lost almost nothing to the PRe2. The sound became just a smidgen lighter both in terms of illumination and weight, arguably moving a few inches forward in the transparency/resolution and dynamic impact department while moving a few inches backward in the 'body shop' stakes. It was clear beyond a doubt that the amp-direct route of the Opus 21 is no mere convenience or money/box-saving feature but a bona fide performance asset. You could prefer a good outboard preamp for the few pounds of --hopefully shapely -- meat it might hang on music's physical frame. Or, you might side with a marginally leaner yet more open sound and use the Opus 21 amp-direct. With an ultra-transparent wide bandwidth yet suave preamp of the PRe2's caliber, the difference will be far smaller than you might think, leading me to propose that a prospective Opus 21 owner without a present preamp not even consider one but put the money saved on an even better amp than otherwise within reach. Especially with dynamic transients, the removal of an additional outboard stage can pay off quite handsomely. Damn. I had been mightily impressed with the 21's performance already. This thumbs-up preamp discovery merely added to my mounting sense of excitement, over having 'discovered' a performer of this gravitas for the mid-level sticker price of $3,500.

I next hitched the Ensemble Dirondo Drive in 24/96 upsampler mode to the Opus 21's external input via a length of the excellent Stealth Varidig (true 75 ohm even via RCA connections) and activated this input via the remote command. The display instantly confirmed not only signal lock but also identified the incoming bitstream as 96kHz/24-bit aka DVD. Moving the Dirondo to 192kHz removed the 96/24 portion of the read-out and expectedly produced no sound - even Ensemble's own Dichrono HiDac to date cannot look to its stable mate's 192 signal. Switching down the Ensemble transport to '48' for RedBook 16/44 replaced the 96/24 portion of the Resolution player's display with the word 'LOCK'. I could now assess the relative merit -- or demerit --of including a dedicated top-loading and expensive transport into the equation. Would the dreaded shadow of higher jitter going the outboard route make an audible appearance?

What I'm about to say won't earn me friends with makers of stand-alone transports but here we go regardless: The most dynamic PRAT-endowed presentation came from the Opus 21 as a one-box solution, still routed directly into my Audiopax monos. The 48 outboard data stream was virtually identical in all other aspects except for dynamic moxy and jump factor. The 24/96 feed had a more resolved ambient field but also added sharper outlines while drying up the juicier flavor of the "lower-rez" connection. While these observations shouldn't be used to diss outboard transports in general (my Zanden DAC won't work without one, period, and responds very favorably to the Accustic Arts Drive-1, with better performance than my Cairn as transport), the Opus 21 as-is came in first in this comparison. Is that why Jeffrey Kalt omitted a digital out? Even if you had one, I doubt you'd use it to advantage.

At this point in the review proceedings, I went back to page one to affix the 'award-sighting' small blue moon above the title header. Granted, the Opus 21 doesn't ooze the sheer Swiss perfection of impeccable high-level fit'n'finish inclusive of that stunning metal remote which Ensemble's Urs Wagner includes - though the two boxes from California do arrive in a posh wooden crate. Granted, the Resolution Audio boxes are far lighter than some of the competition which could leave the weight-equals-quality brigade feel cheated or insecure at best. Granted, the Ensemble combo is arguably even more resolved especially in ultra-low jitter 96kHz output mode. Granted, the $15,000 Accustic Arts/Zanden combo goes even farther for my money as it darn better should. But then, the $15,000 Ensemble duo is less impressive both with its onboard preamp stage and overall cooler mien if you're a listener whom that strikes a little more like remaining a somewhat distanced observer and less like an emotionally invested participant.

If $3,500 can prompt that kind of response, an award is virtually mandatory. Needless to say, any such statements always need to be digested in the context of a particular meal of constituent hardware mates and a writer's well-publicized biases and preferences. That goes without saying. What isn't equally obvious in these times of greater-than-10K digital front-ends? That a lot less money can buy one no-compromise musical satisfaction in a very decor-friendly, full-featured package.

Is the Resolution Audio Opus 21 statement-level digital when we aim at the flat-out bleeding, take-no-prisoners edge without any regard for financial pain and suffering? No. But it surely is statement level digital when we become -- relatively speaking -- earth-bound again. After all, $3,500 equates to a year of tuition for folks living in the real world; or perhaps a drive-until-it-breaks used first car for a youngster still having to prove responsibility and safe driving habits. So it's exciting that despite the remaining perversion inherent in that reminder, the Opus 21 offers a very crafty balance of performance attributes which combine the superior soundstaging of low-level retrieval with a kind of really-good-tubes-in-the-preamp feel by virtue of image density and, dare I use that word again, a certain juiciness that's well defined yet slightly round and slightly soft. This could be a liability if it weren't counter-
balanced by excellent dynamics and impact when the material calls for it. That balance is very much the case, however. It's the precise reason why, in the end, that very ideal of balance -- which accounts for everything equally without picking favorites -- seems the most appropriate note whereby to paraphrase the component under review.

Let me put it to you another way. In Markus Sauer's "God Is In The Nuances" article from January 2000 which Stephæn Harrell kindly forwarded via our internal group e-mail, psychologist Jürgen Ackermann conducted some experiments involving 53 participants off the street which were listening to three selected tracks of music via three different systems hidden behind a black curtain. Each system netted two hours of testing time and the participants had to fill out 30-some questionnaire pages. In sequence of preference, the analog/tube system won, followed by the digital/tube rig, with the digital/transistor setup coming in last. The speakers remained the same, the volume levels were precisely matched and the listeners had no idea what was going on behind the curtain. Most interesting in this test are the reasons for the expressed preferences. They include emotional involvement and an experiential sense of nourishing relaxation versus reactions of boredom, mental drifting and subliminal feelings of restlessness.

If you're open-minded enough to consider the controlled observations this psychologist conducted for a thesis paper; or the statements Dr. Diamond makes in the link embedded earlier, then you can relate when I characterize the Resolution Audio Opus 21 as a strong antidote to what this type of thinking addresses as being wrong with digital. Vinyl and polycarbonate are different formats, period. Still, some digital gear comes closer to at least 'feeling' more like analog than others if arguably never 'sounding' identical. My $10,000 Zanden Audio Model 5000 DAC belongs into this category. Now add the Opus 21. It doesn't sound the same as the Japanese über-DAC but it solicits a similar non-stress response. And that's the highest compliment this listener can bestow who, due to his peculiar tastes in music, is stuck with the digitized format no matter what.

Discussing emotional response in audio reviews is strangely unpopular, as though it smacked of voodoo, New Age-ism or an ill-disguised cop-out glossing over inability to deliver hard-hitting journalistic factoids. Darn it though, emotional response not only is a fact, it's arguably the most important one when considering why we listen to music in the first place. Call it a cop-out if you please. Still, I wouldn't do this product any justice if I didn't report on this vague-yet-vital aspect. My time with the Opus 21 was truly pleasurable and thus well spent. Despite my thermionic allegiances, I must confess to now being curious about its stable mate, the matching 35wpc integrated. If I'm not mistaken, it connects via the stealthily hidden 25-pin port on the belly of the 21's drive chassis. Last but not least, the Opus player sports a stand-by function and is deliberately intended not to be powered down to avoid complete shut-down of the internal circuitry.

Wrapping up, the Opus 21 two-box player by Resolution Audio is a fine example of what happens when a digital engineer goes beyond the sheer number's wars and impressive paper specs and actually designs with his ears. (As a matter of fact, the owner's manual avoids performance specs altogether). Despite the company name Resolution Audio, it's not the detail-for-detail's-sake avenue whereby the Opus 21 approaches the music. But it doesn't disregard modern high-rez expectations either to default into outdated ideas of lush tube audio. It straddles a very effective middle ground, albeit with one foot in the camp of certain aspects of valves, especially those used in superior preamplifiers like a Klimo or Wyetech Labs. It's built to fine if certainly not overkill or posh standards but clearly doesn't skimp on the quality of connectors or features. In the end, it's a high-performance CDP plus remote-control two-input preamp plus DVD decoder. And that constitutes truly excellent value. This kind of emotionally compelling resolution deserves a loud applause. Make no mistake - even if I had $15,000 for the Ensemble separates, I'd still buy the $3,500 Opus 21. I'd love all the way from the bank and feel assured that there was a bench with my brass name plaque waiting for me in the higher musical heavens.
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