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In addition to prestigious established audio companies which have extended their product catalogues to media players such as Boulder, McIntosh, Meridian and Naim, certain newer companies now put a foot in the turbulent high-end waters beginning with immediate support for non-physical media. AudioNec is one of those. I think this represents two sides of one coin. Such companies start with limited experience in high-end audio where even a relative newcomer in traditional audio like Wyred4Sound came with strong experience of prior OEM work. They can thus start with a clean design slate where established competitors feel the need to preserve their identity and legacy product focus (that is to say support CD players).

The OEM audio market has never been as open as today. Computers too present wide-open platforms except in a few specific cases. For audio newcomers there really is no technological barrier on the OEM product support side. Of course we know that technology is not the only key to success. But it certainly helps, perhaps more than we admit. That said the digital audio panorama today is quite a paradox. For a few hundred bucks an iPod loaded with uncompressed files buys access to sound quality impossible for such cost and size 10 years ago. You also get the iTunes interface with it free. Originally it would have been implausible to dare imagine that one of the slickest media player software would be distributed freely to the entire music consumer market.

When you try however to use computer audio to exceed what comes cheaply, things get more challenging. In the high-end nothing fully mature really exists yet. While it could ultimately rely on Steve Jobs’ state of mind, it'll more likely remain a job for traditional audio companies and their initiative. All along my still relatively short exposure to PC audio, I’ve had this sense of duality. I felt trapped between achieving very respectable performance for the money spent and dreaming of top performance at very stratospheric costs. While there’s no particular reason to assume that a computer’s far exploded functionality should be fundamentally cheaper than a simple mechanism designed to read a CD in real time without errors, the sum of efforts deployed to wring the highest performance from legacy technologies could by now be considered a pure waste when compared to PC audio solutions. Many of today’s high-end CD players in fact incorporate specific RAM buffers to even compete. What's so convenient and obvious with any computer interface of stacked layers, windows, sizeable monitor and mouse becomes quite the nightmare to integrate happily inside a traditional CD player or high-end server.

All things considered, computers for audio have compelling advantages. The main challenge at present remains how to best integrate them into otherwise still traditional audio systems; and specifically D/A conversion. Here we encounter jitter, master clocks, digital wiring and external processing. Everything that was nicely integral to traditional CD players suddenly becomes more complex and critical.

Last year I read an article on the current interest in high-resolution files. Its author felt that they were key to any significant improvement in audio playback quality and a definitely more efficient way than minor tweaks or component upgrades. On the face of it the argument seemed compelling but despite being a real option now, what about our existing Redbook libraries? Personally I haven’t stopped buying CDs. Just last week I acquired 25 for less than €100. The cost for CDs has never been this low if you know where to look. The sheer breadth of offerings ought to excite any music lover. In my preferred genres of classical and jazz, recording quality tends to be high and I get a lot of pleasure listening to plain old 'inferior' 16/44 material.

The difference between CD and high-rez files isn’t completely linear either. Much depends on the quality of ancillary equipment. With entry-level gear the difference tends to be very obvious. The additional data density seems to help a basic system retrieve more information. In the high-end sphere the difference tends to shrink. That doesn’t mean CD will be superior but to take full advantage of the high-density files requires fighting against inherent PC audio limitations as effectively as top-notch CD players have addressed their own challenges long ago; and by addressing all the small flaws in the remainder of the chain.

Here the French AudioNec company offers an integral solution for highest top-to-bottom accuracy, i.e. from source to speakers. This can help audiophiles take advantage of the promise of high-resolution media whilst getting best results from their existing Redbook libraries. I had opportunity to audition AudioNec products four different times over the last 18 months. My most memorable encounter undoubtedly occurred the first time in the Salon Haute Fidélité of Paris where AudioNec had partnered with Vitus Audio mono amps and Mårten Coltrane speakers [above]. This truly was one of the best demos I have ever attended over the past few years. The illusion of suspended disbelief was quite perfect.

The second time was in my home where I could experience their SDV3-S server in my own system over two days. The third time was during the last Paris audio show with a complete AudioNec system of server + active speakers; and the last time was at AudioNec’s own facility to interview company founder Francis Chaillet and listen to his own system under more controlled conditions. To my ears the AudioNec server even on fluidity had already won the duel against the top Raven AC turntable which it was directly compared to in the Vitus system. You'll admit it's quite rare to encounter a digital source that can compete on this specific quality with a high-end turntable but the AudioNec device did just that.

The 2nd and 3rd times were not as impressive but promising nonetheless. The 4th time was unique by affording me a chance to listen to their entry-level system under realistic conditions (the AudioNec demonstration room is not perfect but gives a good idea on the results anyone ought to achieve in a sufficiently dedicated space at home). Prior to my rendezvous in the Eastern suburbs of Paris I’d not been entirely convinced of the advantages of these specific active speakers. This was perhaps due to their unconventional drivers; the imposing 30x 30" dimensions of the woofers; or their obviously difficult room integration.

Now I have to admit that I was completely mistaken. These speakers are truly amazing. They are expensive of course but when compared to similarly priced conventional competitors astonishing performers. To my ears the resolution of the Janus widebander is unique, on par with the best electrostats I’ve encountered but more dynamic and fleshier of tone. The linearity of this driver from the mid bass to the treble is surprising. Resolution and dimensionality seem limitless and top shelf.

The fusion with the infraplanar woofer also seemed real state of the art. The precision of timbre gradations was really impressive. Finally I also discerned a very rare overall coherence to the AudioNec system, one of the happy few capable it seemed to me of taking full advantage of the true potential of the MSB digital-to-analog conversion. In my mind the only real limitation of this final encounter was the Hypex amplification compared to what two Vitus Audio monoblocks would have likely delivered. When one listens to a very efficient system, each small lack seems all the more obvious.

One meaningful anchor during this listening/interview visit at AudioNec was Olivier Vernet’s last outing of Robert Schuman’s B.A.C.H the organ work which Francis introduced me to. This Ligia Digit recording of the French organist was stunning relative to the palette of timbres he reproduced on the magnificent French Wisches organ which is indisputably one of Stiehrs Frères’ masterpieces and so close to the reality of each cloned instrument.

I was amazed to so easily recognize the various instruments mimicked by the organ that was restored by Breton organ manufacturer Nicolas Toussaint in the early 2000s. When I returned home I played the same CD and was quite upset by the comparable lack of resolution in my own system. The extraordinary differentiation in the tonal palette of the French organ was mainly due to the intrinsic qualities of the AudioNec system. What seemed clearly obvious during this short visit was the fact that the entirety of this system had contributed to this maximized resolution, not merely their music server. What follows is my short interview with Francis Chaillet: 

JC: Elitist solutions at a still affordable price - is that really Audionec’s motto?

FC: I rather doubt we should speak of affordable prices. Our most ambitious integral solution now sells for nearly €160.000 and we are working on a new no-compromise speaker system whose price still has to be determined. Our products undoubtedly are prohibitive for most audiophiles but dealing with products of similar pricing we believe to be quite competitive on performance.

JC: Who are your main competitors if you were to compare your products on pure performance: dCS, Boulder, MBL?
FC: Our positioning is effectively on this performance scale but I won’t name specific competitors. My purpose is not to evaluate the performance of another’s product relative to ours. I would simply say that the added value of the solutions we propose is very strong integration with the least possible compromise of the various components that traditionally constitute the audio chain. Finally our most affordable offer for a complete system consists of a server, a pair of active speakers and all the necessary cables. In designing the two main elements we sought to use components and solutions we deemed amongst the best available in the current high-end segment.

JC: What did we listen to today?
FC: That was our entry-level system. It consists of one AudioNec SDV3 server (just under €20K) and a pair of Answer active speakers (about €50K).

JC: Your top offering is based on the same architecture - one server plus a pair of three-way active speakers?
FC: It's a bit broader in that we now offer four different server models and three full-range speakers (active or passive) in standard and Signature versions. For our server menu we first propose the STV3 transport for customers who already own quality D/A converters. Then come three servers which include a very sophisticated conversion stage. The SDV3 features a DAC with 16-bit digital filtering and playback up to 24-bit/192kHz (that‘s what you heard today). The SDV3-S (Signature) offers a still superior DAC with 32-bit filtering and playback up to 24/192. At the top stands the SDV3-ORY which is definitely built without regard for price to include one of the best D/A converters on the market which processes everything to 384kHz. Parts are sorted and selected based on the best quality in their class and stringent attention was paid to the power supply, shielding and cabling at each strategic section in this very exclusive model. Components in our various servers are fully differentiated and scalable. Obviously our most ambitious server and also our Answer Signature loudspeaker accept no compromises. Even though the overall concept throughout the range of AudioNec servers is shared, the parts employed are completely different from model to model.

JC: What type of parts are used in the SDV3?
FC: You will understand that I cannot reveal all our secrets of manufacturing and assembly. We work with a limited number of high-technology partners. Our servers operate absolutely silent and exclude hard drives, fans or any other component that could generate signal degradation or electromagnetic pollution. Even if the overall design may seem trivial to an experienced user of IT solutions relative to audio, our advanced design makes a real difference to DIY servers. Of course we are talking about high-end and thus subtle differences but these differences are key to the magic of listening. For D/A conversion we work with whom we consider the best in the field today, MSB Tech. In our most uncompromising server model we rely on their ultimate MSB Diamond DAC. These converters are available separately to audiophiles also under the MSB brand. We do not implement their OEM solutions since those are exempt from MSB updates to become quite a limitation given the investment that purchase of one of our servers represents. Our technical partnership with MSB includes custom circuitry to optimize integration with our server platform. The conversion process itself is not affected by these modifications. All AudioNec electronics work exclusively in balanced mode. Our D/A converters operate two DACs per channels. Our servers integrate a DVD player that allows playback and ripping of CDs and an optional analog passive preamp which is no limitation given the high >4V output of MSB Dacs; a DAC; and a PC motherboard running OS Windows 7.

JC: The touch screen is optional?
FC: So far yes. Every user is free to chose their own monitor or the one we suggest.

JC: Can the integrated MSB converters be used with other sources?
FC: Yes. A SDV3 buyer can access our internal conversion stage with three digital inputs to take full advantage of the potential of the internal converter.

JC: What do you offer on the software side?
FC: The software part is important and we entrust the task of upsampling and resampling exclusively to the computer stage. CDs are ripped to uncompressed WAV files and upsampled directly. For best results we reduce the maximum number of tasks and services managed by our unit. We also advise our clients to work with uncompressed files. To save disc space it is allowable to convert to FLAC and save around 50% storage capacity versus WAV. Our operating system is Windows 7. The user interface is a customized version of the JRiver Media Center—ASIO plug-in is preinstalled—and complemented by our own software environment.

JC: Starting from scratch a few years ago and today offering one of the most ambitious commercial audio servers, does this imply that most skilled audiophiles could reach a very high level of performance using advanced computer techniques?
FC: Yes and no. Yes because we do not use proprietary unknown technologies. No because the refinement of our output stages, the deliberate use of specific parts, endless trials and tests determining them all clearly make a difference vs. common DIY solutions. Our own specific knowledge background is not easily accessible to a community of computer enthusiasts or DIY experts. Obviously anyone can reach a more than satisfactory solution with a simple computer over a traditional mechanical drive. But research at the highest level remains complex and expensive. The main question is how far you intend to go. I would say that a notebook correctly configured in association with a good converter can probably already compete with the performance of a CD player that now sells for between €5.000 and €7.000. Beyond this price range it becomes much more complicated however.

JC: What experience and background led you to the AudioNec project?
CF: I studied at the Louis Lumière School in France. After 8 years as a civilian contractor with the media center of the French Defense Ministry where I worked in sound and image engineering, I resigned to launch my own audiovisual communications company, then turned to the production of DVDs, videos and websites. 9 years ago I began working on DIY projects as a passionate audiophile before evolving toward a more professional approach and creating AudioNec 6 years ago. The first generation of AudioNec servers had no realization at the commercial level. I had to wait for the second generation to realize my project commercially. Today AudioNec sells our 3rd generation of servers. During this time I met Jörg Klein in Frankfurt who became our distributor for the German-speaking countries and a very important partner. We are working on a possible merger between our two companies that would give AudioNec a better international aspect. We certainly have grown into a real manufacturer of audio equipment far removed from how we started 6 years ago. Our professionalism has also helped us to form interesting partnerships with very advanced technology companies.

JC: How did you decide on marketing a full-range loudspeaker including François Deminière’s Janus ribbon widebander associated with the Infraplanar sub designed and manufactured by Claude Lacroix?
FC: Our biggest Answer speaker and the other models are all equipped with the Janus 50 driver which we build ourselves under license from François Deminière. We employ the Janus across its full bandwidth but extend the highs with a ribbon tweeter from 20KHz to 45kHz. The Janus 50 operates in dipole mode over the range from 200Hz to 20kHz. Ours is the latest evolution of this driver which was further enhanced by its designer on certain sensitive parameters. The paper membrane has been notably improved to completely resist  ambient humidity. Its horn (i.e. the exterior sides) was optimized by the French TMS company.

The bass driver is not the original Infraplanar as initially designed by Jean-Yves Soria and Claude Lacroix. This version was designed to our specific requirements and to match the Janus 50 and its various improvements. This woofer was named LS50 (no relation to JBL) and is manufactured for us by its designers. It is a 75cm square panel stretched inside a metal frame. The dipole operation of the Janus led us to design a technologically completely different Infraplanar but benefiting from the achievements of the original with dipole operation and no enclosure. Each LS Answer uses two LS50 in push/push. This array covers 20Hz to 200Hz. Its sensitivity is significantly lower than the 98dB widebander ribbon but as each driver benefits from active filtering and dedicated amplification, it's no issue. A very efficient integral DSP system allows system and room optimisation. Active filtering for the Answer loudspeaker takes best advantage of the natural sound each driver is capable of.

JC: It seems complicated getting high bass SPL from this type of transducer?
FC: The LS50 is clearly not designed to deliver extreme levels but primarily about as natural and accurate a reproduction of tone and timbre over a range of frequencies that's been traditionally rather difficult to reproduce well. A new project with our partners is a bigger flat panel that will operate in mono as a single driver with dimensions of 1.5m² . This will reach 10Hz (vs 20Hz @ -6dB in the current configuration) and is obviously intended for large listening rooms and facilities. Note that we are still working with a square panel which after several tests turned out to be the best compromise between size and sonics. For customers preferring a more traditional less sizeable subwoofer we developed on the same frame as our Janus and Fountek ribbon tweeter two cabinets including more traditional drivers. Our Response speaker is thus equipped with a 15-inch woofer and our newest Reply model works with dual 12-inchers.

JC: What kind of amplification modules are inside your active loudspeakers?
FC: Each of our active Answer loudspeakers is powered by two OEM Hypex class D modules which we reengineer. They deliver 400wpc into 8Ω. Considering this power level and given the high efficiency of our speakers, this can be used to drive the whole speaker. Nevertheless our speakers are inherently modular and integrated with active filters so the Hypex amplifiers can be assigned to just the woofer system. Then external amplification drives the Janus/ribbon array. Our Answer Signature model incorporates class A and class D amplification modules and DSP-based room correction.

When we install our speakers for a client, we always perform onsite calibration using the included measurement microphone. Then we proceed to the first setting with the Clio measurement software. Only afterwards does fine-tuning commence to incorporate adjustments the customer requests based on personal tastes and expectations. We also train our customers to use the correction system so they can perform a new calibration session whenever they change the listening room. This is a complete and fully customized approach. Despite our efforts to standardize our products for ease of use, we are always able to adapt them to the specific requirement of each customer.

JC: Coming back to your original product the audio server, could you now  and without any commercial consideration relative to AudioNec advise someone with a budget of €3.000 and €5,000 euros to invest in a regular CD player?
FC: No. I think at this budget it now is a far more relevant option to choose a computerized digital source on the condition that the user has sufficient experience with computers. The results we can achieve with computers are highly variable and implementation, experience and conceptualization remain key factors more so than with traditional hifi.

JC: The market for D/A converters is booming. Are you not afraid to operate outside with integrated and hardly scalable products?
FC: No. As an integrated solution our product is durable and rather has the advantage of being stable over time. That’s not the case with most self-configured computing solutions. We also offer very efficient after-sales service and upgrade opportunities. We prefer to guarantee our customers the greatest reliability of operation and highest level of performance rather than leaving the door open to factors outside our control and ability to monitor. Moreover evolution becomes less urgent when someone has already reached a very high level of performance. We generally decide on upgrades to our products only when there is a significant gain in terms of performance and/or functionality.

JC: One final question. In your opinion what are the main future audio developments we should look forward to?
FC: I think the most interesting developments to come will be true digital amplification and power DACs. These technologies are still very young and have remained very obscure so far but could rapidly grow with the recent evolution of digital solutions and high-resolution files.

AudioNec will exhibit at the next Munich High-End show from May 19th to 22th May in room E222 (Atrium 4, 2nd floor).

AudioNec website