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Let’s address data loss first. When setting up a server, you must set up an automated backup system. There is no other option. Apple’s Time-Capsule is a great tool to do automatic wireless backups but pretty much any external hard disk and backup software will do the trick.

The complexity of managing a large music file collection can be substantially reduced with a program like J. River Media Center so it really comes down to the balance of two opposites and where your preference lies: convenience vs. loss of physical media. Until now, the loss of the physical media had been my personal hold up but the Minerva for the first time introduced an element to this whole equation which tilted the scale to the other side: superior sound quality. Paul Candy and I have been amongst those for whom USB DACs were not "love at first byte". Compared to CD playback over my Esoteric X03SE, most USB DACs I heard could not match its transparency and dynamics and if some equaled its tonal density, it was often at the expense of transient fidelity and by using a gentle level of blurring that added warmth but also imprecision.

The Minerva is a clear musical advance perhaps not against some of the very best USB solutions by Wavelength Audio or dCS—all of which presently are limited to 24/96, the physical limit of USB2 and as we shall see later, this is a more meaningful difference than expected—but in those cases, the Minerva is quite a bit cheaper to bring state-of-the-art digital playback to a more accessible level.

Over the past three months I have run many comparisons between formats and resolutions and tried to summarize my findings in the next few chapters to hopefully also convey what the Minerva sounds like. At this juncture I need to thank 2L and Linn Records for providing all the high-resolution material I used for those tests. A special thanks needs to go to 2L who provided some of their albums in MP3, CD, SACD, 24/96 and 24/192 formats all generated from the same DXD master for comparison purposes. Without their help, this review would have been a lot less insightful.

CD playback: X03SE vs Minerva (coax connection from X03SE)
The only format my Esoteric X03SE supports through its coax digital output is PCM 16/44 (aka Redbook) so this would be the only possible comparison involving the X03SE to assess how the Minerva’s DAC section compared. Although using the same connectors, Esoteric’s i-link and Weiss’ Firewire do not talk to each other. Hence I was unable to feed high-resolution data from the X03SE directly to the Minerva (the Esoteric P05 offered DSD-to-PCM conversion for its AES/EBU output which would have been the only way to directly compare the Minerva and Esoteric DACs on SACD but that drive is long discontinued).

For CD comparison purposes, I used the CD layer of 2L’s Divertimenti I reviewed a few weeks ago as well as a superbly engineered CD by Accustic Arts (Uncompressed World Vol I) released to showcase the playback transparency and dynamics of their new DACs and CD players. I’ll come back to this recording in our music review pages in due time as in addition to being one of the very best recorded CDs I own, there are some truly fantastic tracks on it.

On both CDs, the conclusion was identical and unambiguous. The X03SE was clearly superior especially when it came to imaging and soundstaging but also overall transparency. With both recordings, there was clearly more to hear and see with the X03-SE. Another point that was easy to identify and will return as a recurring theme, the X03-SE’s treble was more open and extended than the Minerva’s. On Divertimenti, the most striking difference was how the two DACs handled the violin pizzicato, the X03SE tight and snappy, the Minerva fuzzier.

Whether it was jitter or an imperfect implementation of the coax inputs or outputs of the respective pieces of equipment, I don’t know but this comparison was without appeal - the integrated player won easily. Now, don’t rule out the Minerva as an upgrade for an older player quite yet. A similar comparison using the almost 15-year old Accuphase DP55 revealed that the Minerva could indeed provide a significant upgrade to the DAC section of this old machine. That’s great news if you own an aging CD player and hundreds of silvery discs. Consider the Minerva your path to high resolution music playback through a server and at the same time an upgrade for CD playback using your own player as a drive. Just don’t expect to be upgrading to the level of an Esoteric X03SE in this manner. But that was only the first page of this story.

CD playback: X03SE vs. Minerva (Firewire/J. River)
Using the same material, I now compared CD playback from the X03SE to the Minerva fed via Firewire from the computer. This time the tables turned. The reserves I had about the Minerva through its coax input disappeared entirely. The stage opened up, imaging improved in precision without getting analytical and most importantly, transients gained in clarity and definition to improve timing as well. Once those major weaknesses had been eliminated, it was then very easy to fall under the spell of the Minerva’s strengths of  rich and detailed midrange, deep articulated and finely resolved bass and a sweet treble that was very kind to even the worst cases of digititis on old recordings.

Through the coax input, this gently rolled-off treble was a liability as everything else got somewhat fuzzy. Through the Firewire input and the tremendous transparency and feeling of proximity that brought, the treble sweetness became an asset, helping to make even the most challenging albums listenable. Most importantly, the presentation overall sounded less digital than over the X03SE which is already quite organic though highly resolved.

The Minerva went further, not dropping any resolution but offering a more involving midrange and more forgiving treble. Bass presentation was quite different and leaner and faster through the X03SE, a little fleshier with the Minerva at similar resolution (perhaps a hint higher with the latter). On this comparison, the Minerva made a very strong case to move all one’s CD collection to hard disk, very similar to the conclusion Srajan had reached in his comparisons in the past.

MP3 playback: Minerva (Firewire/J. River)
Except for the admittedly basic DAC in the NuForce Icon, I did not have a USB DAC to compare to the Minerva on MP3 so take the following as a first assessment but not final word. For this round I used the MP3 version of 2L’s Treble and Bass and Islandmoen's Requiem compared to their CD equivalents on hard disk. To be upfront, I loathe MP3 and the underlying notion that mediocre is good enough. Yet with the Minerva, 320kbps MP3s did sound surprisingly good and barely distinguishable from the CD they originated from. Any lower resolution brought noticeable losses in resolution and space but on material that was not overly complicated, the higher bit-rate MP3s held their own primarily thanks to the Minerva’s superb transparency and forgiving handling of treble information and energy. I won’t convert my collection to MP3s but I learnt that this format is not as universally crappy as I’d originally thought if the original material is of good quality (rarely the case with contemporary music and you might recall my previous rants against U2’s No Line on the Horizon which could have more aptly been named Flat Line on the Horizon for its lack of dynamics and embrace of excessive compression).