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On the desktop my sources are a digital-direct iPod/Astell&Kern AK100 or 320kbps Spotify+ streaming to backdrop my writing. Here the L1's tone-centric decay not attack-weighted gestalt meant that over the leaner transient/separation-tweaked Questyle I listened a few clicks higher. I also noted rather longer non-stop headphone sessions even with inherently brighter cans like Sennheiser's HD800 (those sat at ~-40dB on the dial). WAL's minor lushness went down so easy that fatigue from detail overload and 'reading all the fine print' had been banished. You saw that I've not used the 'warmth' descriptor so common for such situations. It's too often applied to 2nd-order THD dominant valve sound to miss. Though there's a connection, I'd rather call the WAL sound more richly reverberant. Thus the earlier nod at Boenicke's W5 and its sidefiring mid/woofer and the fully omni German Physiks. It's a redolent/fluid rather than crisp/dry sound.

By now I was most curious to move the L1 into the main system for a David 'n' Goliath involving my Esoteric C03. At the time it got €10'000 before a busy yen wanted €12'000. I also needed my best source, a PureMusic optimized iMac into Metrum's Hex converter running at 176.4kHz via SOtM's top two-box battery-powered USB bridge (Light Harmonic LightSpeed from computer, van den Hul AES/EBU from SOtM). The C03's adjustable gain can be set at 0/12/24dB. This behaves like a gear box in the analog domain. Low gain shifts down to increase engine revolutions. The presentation moves into the transient phase. It gets quicker, leaner and more separated. High gain shifts up. That lowers RPM. The presentation gets heavier, denser and slower. Which gain mode would most equal WAL's sonics?

But first a quick spin with my customary Nagra Jazz to confirm personal status quo before reshuffling the Artesania Audio Exoteryc rack. This reiterated how beyond truly locked core competency, one pays a lot more for small frivolities. Here the tally on color temperature and tone mass was shockingly even. On that count the valves didn't contribute anything extra. Where they did was on airiness, associated elasticity, spacious layering and a somewhat more quicksilvery temperament. This injected a whiff of the splashier 'other guys'. It thus added small textural lustre where the L1 played it more matte. Of course the Swiss flattened the Asian on connectivity including true symmetrical and two gain settings. Sonically however the gap wasn't vast. In short, the overall flavor matched. The Jazz is a valve machine with solid-state specs for dynamic range, noise floor and output impedance. This limits thermionic contributions to a mild aroma. The L1 is a transistor machine with associated specs but it's been voiced to share a good overlap with subtle valve gear.

Mixing it up against the Esoteric established that the latter's 24dB gain mode was the closest match. Where the WAL had the edge was on focus. The C03 gets softer unless it's dialed back down to 12dB which then lightens overall gravitas. Said gravitas—what one might equate with big-woofer'd Harbeths versus a small Raidho 2-way monitor—really is the dominant quality. The associated sense of calm is its surrounding flavor. It's like the unhurried confidence of a slightly fat but firm man completely at ease with himself taking up space. There's nothing hasty, nervous, jittery, jagged or small about him or this.

The cc remote had no trouble with the 60° angle which my seat's position creates with any component on the sidewall. And at 3 meters I could still decipher the display too. Back on our friendly arm wrestle with the twice-sized thrice-priced Esoteric, the latter's flexibility even includes input-specific gain trim to conduct level-matched comparisons without further adjustments. All of it makes it into an ideal reviewer's tool. Normal users meanwhile have one favorite 'right' sound. As such they don't need options. Unless they enjoy twiddling knobs. Since I related to the fixed sound of the Wow Audio Lab as my favorite, if I were a civilian user and required no extra socketry, I'd pick it over the Esoteric. This so happens to add a separate but integrated drive-anything truly splendid headphone amp into the bargain. What austerity measures?

When opposites dilute. In hifi it's common to combat salt with sugar. If your speakers are too lean, the crass rationale is to use a fat amp. There's another way of doing things. Now one builds a system with gear which deliberately magnifies the same qualities to not invoke any turnabout (a word that also means repentance). Here the rationale is not to change your cat's stripes into dots but to enhance the stripes. Create a super tiger, not a strange liger (leopard/tiger hybrid). The arrival of D.A.C.'s Maraschino monos served up validity for that approach. These DC-coupled class D amps are advertised as using far broader bandwidth and higher modulator frequencies than the competition. And they do sound very fast and unusually treble-elucidated for the breed. Mating the cherries to the L1 shifted that flavor noticeably. The combination still sounded very good but more 'ordinary' than the red minis had with the Clones AP1. Then the sound exhibited rather more of the speed, wiriness, lucidity and charge I assume Digital Amplifier Company groomed their monos for given how designer Tommy O' likes to drive them source direct. In this context I only mention it is to reassert just how effective the steering wheel of your preamp choice can be on the direction your final sound takes.