Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: Retina 5K 27" iMac (4GHz quad-core with Turbo boost, 32GB RAM, 3TB FusionDrive, OSX Yosemite. iTunes 14.4), PureMusic 3.02, Qobuz Hifi, Tidal Hifi, Fore Audio DAISy1, COS Engineering D1, Aqua Hifi Formula, AURALiC Vega
Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVT module)
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1 monos, F5, F6, F7; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; Nord Acoustics NC500 monos; LinnenberG Liszt monos
Loudspeakers: Audio Physic Codex; Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V & VI & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence
Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo; Ocellia OCC Silver
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all components, 5m cords to amp/s + sub
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: 4 x 6m with high gabled beam ceiling opening into 4 x 8m kitchen and 5 x 8m living room, hence no wall behind the listening chairs
Review component retail: €3'760

No man left behind. This motto promises that wounded or dead, an army won't abandon any of its soldiers on the ground. If we replace man with customer and military with Italian company Aqua Hifi, hifi general Cristian Anelli has always worked to the same motto. In the face of constant flux, his battle plan centres doggedly on extreme modularity. It means that the various functionalities of his D/A converters spread across individual boards. As tech progresses, any of them can be upgraded. It's no longer the customer's investment left for dead. It's built-in obsolescence. With due apologies for such bloody imagery, given today's pricing of top DACs and how quickly this sector changes, anything that's not fully modular is really inexcusable.

For customers of AQ's entry-level La Voce model, this year's launch of the S3 boards and modifications mean that existing units running on the original BurrBrown PCM 1704K dual-mono chips can be upgraded to fully discrete in-house designed R2R operation. Enter the new P608 FPGA/decoder board; the new P607 R2R ladder board [right]; the new P901 USB board recoded with new firmware; hardware mods to the main P601 board; and hardware mods to the I²S/USB board P603.

This connects the €3'760/€1'460 (new/retrofit) La Voce S3 to the very same design DNA as the above €6'780 tubed LaScala Optologic and €13'670 Formula xHD models. A custom-coded Spartan 6 FPGA data manager renders them PCM384/DSD128 compliant (768/256 for the range topper). None drive commercial silicon but instead, Anelli's very own switched discrete resistor ladders at different degrees of complexity. Given the cited very extensive changes to the S3 revision, existing La Voce units must obviously be upgraded at the Milan factory.

Cristian Anelli's bench.

Preinstalled or retrofitted, with the S3 revisions Aqua Hifi's La Voce becomes one of the more affordable dealer-supported discrete R2R machines made in Western Europe.

At the Munich HighEnd 2018 show, I ran into Cristian on the ground floor. He shared how unexpectedly large the improvements from the revised FPGA firmware code had been to the xHD upgrade of the Formula DAC. It reiterates how code writing has become a vital skill a modern digital designer must master to remain competitive. He also shared how impressed he'd been, over the years and at various shows, to hear Lamm equipment sound the same regardless of whether it used tubes, transistors or both. He subscribes to the same consistent philosophy. All Aqua models are built upon the very same sonic ideal regardless of which parts they use. They simply express different degrees of refinement based on what their price points let him spend on hardware. When asked whether tubes were still viable at the Formula xHD level, he shook his head. To perform at that resolution—absence of noise, low distortion etc.— wasn't possible with current-production tubes. Hence no Formula-level model with valves now or in the future. The same chat then veered into cultural preferences. Cristian shared how in the beginning, the tubed LaScala was their best-selling model in Russia; perhaps because there, during the days when few Western imports were available, most listeners only knew domestic valve gear. Today however, they prefer the Formula or La Voce models. Hence 'cultural conditioning' is malleable just as the tastes of individual listeners can change over time. It's all a matter of exposure and access to options and how those inform our ideas about the ideal sound.

Here we see how despite its entry-level status in the AQ catalogue, the La Voce retains its I²S input on RJ45 for those sources which don't use HDMI instead; and still offers 4.2Vrms 200Ω XLR outputs aside from the 2.1Vrms 100Ω RCA. Being an Aqua-rius, there's of course no digital filter but instead, Cristian's signature direct-from-decoder DFD scheme; and S/PDIF is executed on superior BNC not RCA. Also typical AQ are the black or silver fascia options married to a grey Nextel-painted chassis on three tall rubbery footers. Input II aka modular is at the buyer's discretion. It can be as on my loaner, AES/EBU 24/192; AT&T ST fiber 24/192; S/PDIF RCA 24/192; or Toslink 24/96.

AQ digital in upscale company.