As DAC. To do this particular deed, LIO's fixed output leashed to the analog RCA input of the D1. Swapping my red 2m KingRex dual-header USB cable between both machines isolated Vinnie's converter module. (Adding the tube stage obviously turns it into a valve-buffered DAC. What to expect from that was covered on the previous page.)

At first I figured that the fixed output would be live regardless of volume setting. That was certainly the case for anywhere between 1 - 63. As implied by 'fixed', those settings were all the same. But don't go that one click below 1. That equals full mute as indicated by '---'. It works just as though you'd pressed the remote's 'mute' command. Once sorted, the A/B was on. In OSX's sound panel as well as PureMusic's device chooser, LIO's DAC registered as XMOS USB 2.0 with up to 384kHz sample-rate support [the second XMOS in the panel was my 192kHz Eximus DP1]. Doing the swap, it quickly became apparent that the LIO DAC was a serious performer.

The difference between it and what's built into the €9'000 D1 was roughly equivalent to what separated the RVC from the AVC on my desktop. Whilst LIO was admirably adroit and extended on top—here I used a cut from Aytac Doğan's evergreen Deva album to track very finely filigreed cymbal work and rim ticks and trills which with much gear are obscured by louder foreground sounds—the Taiwanese was even more so. That gave it even deeper ambient recovery support and tone-colour gloss. Unlike Burson's house sound to which now 'vintage' Red Wine Audio gear had borne a certain resemblance, Vinnie's latest-gen DAC had more resolution and inside-out litheness, articulation and separation. I'd peg it fully on par with standalone converters I've heard in the €3'000-€4'000 range.

The signature thickness of Vinnie's former gear no longer factored. Whether this was due to the switch from batteries to ultracaps; from know-how gained since and more demanding listening skills developed; from both or something else altogether I couldn't say. With the ultra-direct AVC as onboard reference, it was simply obvious how the LIO DAC without valve buffer pursued a very similar standard of speed and instancy without injecting colourations, bandwidth or risetime limitations. Not as Technicolour saturated or texturally moist as the AURALiC Vega, this converter module sat somewhere between my Metrum Hex and April Music Eximus decks.

As low-power Mosfet amp. Without a second jumper, this meant bypassing the RVC by setting it to 63 max, then connecting the D1 to one of its analog inputs. My most logical amp comparator on hand was the Nelson Pass FirstWatt F6, another 25wpc Mosfet stereo affair. Into the 85dB Mythology 1 monitors, I had sufficient system gain with either amp to reach my desired SPL. Even so, there were little reserves and no hidden 6th gear overdrive. Also, I couldn't use the more potent 4.6V balanced outputs of my source.

LIO mostly split the difference between F6 and how my usual Pass Labs XA30.8 manhandles these speakers. The FirstWatt amp had the most treble effulgence and 'lightness of being'—what I call a spiritualized rather than earthy sound—whereas the XA30.8 was the most grounded, chunky, bass boffo and dense. LIO settled down somewhere in the middle whilst arguably a bit closer to the X. On raw grunt and drive, the 20 Mosfets per channel of the Pass were king of the load and also had the most gain to approach mayhem. Into this type (in)sensitivity and an open space of 100m²+, the smaller amps were a bit borderline, hence not 100% optimal. But LIO's resemblance to more of the $6'500 Pass than $3'500 FirstWatt made it the better of the two. Looking at its à-la-carte options, configured as just an amp means $1'995 for case and motherboard with ultracap banks; $695 for the Mosfet amp; plus a small unlisted fee for a single input (you'd not need the $295 3-input selector board). But should such a basic 1-input board without switcher be unavailable, it'd be a total of $2'985. It's a bit unlikely that folks will order LIO like that. The RVA or AVC volume controllers are far too attractive to bypass in favour of an external preamp. Adding the DAC, phono or headfi modules follows the same logic. But at about $3K, a LIO just-amp config would buy a Pass lite or FirstWatt heavy of equivalent specs. If you do the math behind the math, that really pulls. For those who don't want to reference my reviews of the X and F amps, LIO the amp is a warm player which builds its sound from the bottom up. Impact, mass, steadfastness and colour saturation are its top priorities. Amps in the Bakoon, Crayon and Goldmund vein prioritize speed, transparency and separation to occupy the opposite polarity. That the M1's ported alignment with its steep phase angles and impedance squiggles plus power-sucking inefficiency didn't cause any boominess, lack of extension or compression complimented LIO's high-current low-Ω power supply.

Personal intermission. In a preview elsewhere of The Bespoke Audio Company's Preamplifier One transformer passive, one reads that amongst its most prominent features are the 46 x 1.5dB volume taps. "Usually one deals with 21, 24 or 32 at best." That author was clearly ignorant of the Slagleformer's 63 x 1dB taps which have been available for many years. If I were asked to pick my favourite LIO feature, it would unquestionably be its AVC module. I'd get a LIO just as a purist autoformer passive preamp with balance control and remote. My second favourite feature would be the headfi module. So I'd probably splurge and add that.

As do-it-all: the end.
As a concept, the all-out modular LIO is unique. Nothing like it has come before. That pulling it off it would take li'l Vinnie & John—not Andre the corporate giant—is suggestive. Resourcefulness and true inventiveness still rise from hifi's beleaguered cottage industry. The only vaguely similar product is the Devialet integrated which differs by being a digital platform that's customizable via configurable software. Back to LIO, not only is its novel play'n'plug concept of hifi legos cool. It's super practical and fairest in spending. Buy only what you want. Don't pay for stuff you don't need. Each build option delivers a full serving of sonic goodness. The Swiss army has nothing on this very sharp American knife. Be it as transistor or valve-hybrid headphone amp or DAC, passive or valve-buffered linestage, integrated amp or all of it at once (there's still the phono option), the LIO by Vinnie Rossi gets very high marks. What's more, you save yourselves thousands of dollars in isolation rack shelves, power line conditioners and exotic power cords. In fact, most career audiophiles with separates equivalent to a loaded LIO may have tied up more in just such ancillaries than this deck demands in toto.

To quote Taoist sage Chuang-Tzu, "easy does it". This applies to box count, functionality, future-proofiness and, first and foremost, value. No matter which direction you approach it from, LIO is a remarkable heavy hitter. As such, it really does write a new chapter in the annals of hifi. It's smart, handsome, changeable and fun. And it's ultra hip in how the community aspect of crowd-sourcing is coded to its DNA. Because of its unlimited modularity, customer requests can flow into it to make the basic platform ever more varied. Rather than being set in stone, this concept is flexible, adaptive and 'open source'. When you add it all up, the conclusion to this lengthy assignment really wrote itself as predestined and inescapable. When all the moons align as they do so very very rarely, we call it a Lunar Eclipse award. That meaning should be pretty self-explanatory!

Vinnie Rossi website