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2023 Redux

Year's favorites served up different. If the best hardware reco is being in constant use at a reviewer's home, this year added the following bits 'n' bobs to my three systems.

From China's LHY Audio—a subsidiary of Jay's Audio sold worldwide through Beatechnik, an adjunct to Singapore's Vinshine Audio—my desktop added the OCK-2 clock whilst the main system's existing SW-8 LAN distributor aka network switch gained an SW-6 comrade in cascaded arms. Two switches in series plus two SOtM inline LAN isolators finally got my cloud streaming on par with playing back local files. Disliking the idea of serialized box-count offenders didn't prevent my ears from cottoning to the effect. Whom to trust, my beliefs or ears?  On said score, syncing two network switches to an external master clock did nothing I could hear. In my office meanwhile, syncing a Singxer SU-2 USB bridge and iFi Pro iDSD Signature DAC via 50Ω square-wave clock links produced a lovely uptick in ambient recovery and treble sweetness. Was this due to polishing up the USB/AES pipe not LAN? I haven't the foggiest. This was a definite try-before-buy situation. It didn't work in one application but very well in another. Still with the good folks of Vinshine & Beatechnik…

…we move to Kinki Studio whose Earth cables replaced my prior Allnic loom in the main rig. Looking like Crystal Cable yet selling for wildly less, the Kinki cables are engineered for the same sonic profile as their electronics: very wide bandwidth, high rise times, absence of time confusion, linearity, energy transmission and lucidity. With Kinki EX-B7 monos on our speakers, it made perfect sense that truly matching cables would win out. Given that Allnic's designer Mr. Kang Su specializes in tube gear, it's no surprise that his cables would pursue a related aural aesthetic of extra warmth and mass. To hear the Kinki sound at its very best, switching to the quicker more lit-up Earth loom made a real difference. But my hifi deities weren't done with me and this Singapore shop yet. When my trusty 10-year old Goldmund Job 225 subwoofer amp suddenly began losing its cool to run exceptionally hot, a failed transistor overloading its mates signalled impending end of life. After trying a few amp spares, I ordered in the matching Kinki EX-M7 stereo amp. Its input sensitivity, voltage gain, circuit specifics and sound tuning are a perfect match for the EX-B7 monos. The only adjustment my Lifesaver Audio Gradient Box smart xover must make now is to offset whatever sensitivity difference might exist between the main speakers and our 2 x 15" sound|kaos sub. It'll only be a few dB.

About the sub, personal insistence that timely bass can't be followed by late structural gain from floor coupling had me investigate a number of isolation footers. I discovered that at least in this high-energy app, wire suspension beats the usual roller balls. I reviewed Wellfloat from Japan which was super effective but at €1K+ per very costly. That led to a Boenicke SwingBase which was just as effective but far more attainable. Requiring suspension towers to stand clear of the component itself, a SwingBase simply doesn't disappear from view like a footer beneath kit. Enter the sound|kaos Vibra 68 which looks like an ordinary footer but packs a triple-wire suspension inside, can bolt to a load and doesn't require Boenicke's custom-length struts. A set of four now floats the downstairs sub, another quad the upstairs sub. Because the downstairs xover is set to a high 4th-order 100Hz to extend Ripol's dispersion advantages across 2½ octaves which cancels two room modes, I heard how the Vibra 68 is still more effective in the upper bass/lower midrange than what I'd previously used. This subtracts subtle resonance remnants from the warmth region and gives it still more clarity.

For more engineered footsies in play, Jeff Jenkins of Carbide Audio upgraded my original set to Diamond past the latter's review. Atop his concept of combined viscoelastic and roller-ball isolation so vertical and horizontal displacement, the new insert adds a 2nd ball-bearing layer. That now executes with zirconia spheres and synthetic diamond-plated ceramic races. As we've seen already with Ansuz, ever greater hardness from exotic nano skins via physical vapor deposition or magnetron sputtering reaps audible benefits in this type footer. What I didn't expect was the Diamond's efficacy beneath a solid-state DAC which already sat on the top shelf of a multi-stage isolation rack from Hifistay. By turning Jeff's footer upside down to exploit the height-adjustable base's larger surface, just two footers proved sufficient for half-sized kit. Now both upstairs Sonnet Pasithea and Lifesaver Audio Gradient Box crossover float on extra-hard super responsive roller balls to shield them from external micro vibes. The filter box is new too and duplicates what I already had downstairs. Expecting an eventual end of production for this sophisticated very niche product, my stereo 2.1 approach is all set on analog filter smarts come what may.

And come it did though in February not May – Cen.Grand's DSDAC 1.0 Deluxe that is. Previous DSD-über-alles D/A converters hadn't fully rung my belfry. In hindsight this might have been due to DSD64 stoppage. The Cen.Grand can keep doubling all the way to 1'024. This demonstrated how the soft hazier treble of base DSD really can match PCM's more lucid and extended highs once DSD resampling hits 512. From there to 1'024 seems mostly for bragging rights but to my ears there's no doubt that if PCM be our internal reference, DSD becomes fully competitive when resampled to 512 at least how Cen.Grand do it. With a ladder-on-a-chip analog volume control from Muses, this DAC can even omit a preamp for a direct-to-amp connection. After its review, I bought my sample for the big system and its Sonnet Pasithea DAC hoofed it up the stairs to displace what despite very latest firmware update was the lazier fatter less resolved Denafrips Terminator +.  But there were to be two more changes to my smaller system, first…

... a FiiO R7. This €699 magic box is a full-featured server/streamer with SD slot, Sabre DAC, Android 10, high-resolution touch screen and a lot more for the network and WiFi crowd. Think of it as a portable audio player that's been stuck to a cigar box to gain a 30-watt power supply, constant AC power, full-size line-out socketry and more and better parts. Whilst the majority of buyers will rightly see it as all-in-one desktop hub for active speakers, I use mine exclusively as digital transport to serve SD card content via USB-C to a Soundaware D300Ref reclocker. That connects via 6m AES/EBU to the Sonnet Pasithea between the speakers. The FiiO sits at arm's length right next to my chair so I can tap its display and navigate its music files manually without Bluetooth remote. It's an ideal solution for anyone WiFi allergic who wants digital-file replay in environs sans hardwired Internet or computers. Headfi drive from THX discrete opamps pushes 3 watts into 30Ω via 4.4mm and XLR4 balanced outputs. Even gnarly full-size planar headphones are well within its power envelope. My Meze 109 Pro coast on half mast at the third of five gain settings.

Also upstairs ended up Akiko's Corelli Corundum, the suffix not a conundrum but term for synthetic sapphire. Like other parallel AC conditioners from Shunyata to Chord Company, nothing plugs into this box. It simply plugs into the power line. Now the proprietary compound packed into three inner barrels, one for each leg of the utility power, does its UHF-absorbing business without impacting the wall's current delivery. Arm-chair cynics tend to be at a loss explaining the MO to ridicule such devices as snake oil. Having bought my review sample thus turns me into a happy snake milker. I can and in fact do live with that. Like the late Lloyd Walker's aptly named Velocitor, this Dutch box acts as an accelerator and energizer so exactly like why the Kinki cables work downstairs now. Extra virgin snake oil. Yum!

Finally, my at least 9-year old 27" music iMac and its old Audirvana version began to misbehave. Not having kept up with constantly updating MacOS, I was locked out of installing a more current Audirvana. Having decided to finally get a 2023 24" iMac even though my 27-incher's hardware still worked fine, I chanced upon a still sealed 2022 27-incher at a local big-box store. Once home I updated its OS to now Sonoma 14, installed extra RAM for 40GB total, moved the former iTunes library to 4TB offboard SSD and installed Audirvana Studio's most current version. No more shadowing iTunes. I'm now codec agnostic to run .flac, .aiff even .dff files without hassles. As an unrepentant fan of Apple hardware and a big 5K Retina screen as hardwired library access with built-in Qobuz Sublime, I have no use for 'audiophile' streamers. That's because my pre-Mac LAN is now spit-shined and post-Mac USB already was with a Singxer SU-6 bridge. Whilst apathy over stock computers for audio runs strong, conditioning their incoming/outgoing signal then bypassing Core Audio with optimizer software like Audirvana does exactly what €20K server/streamers do. It just manages for a fraction of their cost, has built-in integration with streaming clients, a far bigger display and no need of WiFi tablets. Here's to ten more years of using a music-dedicated iMac as high-end source.

After I'd penned the above deliberately 90 days before Year's End, other product releases or hands-on discoveries were bound to drop later. By mid December, there were three more discoveries or announcements that rang my jingle bells.

Relative to lust bumps, the CanEver ZeroUno Ultra Plus gave me a serious bout of malaria. I was itching all over. It's a DAC/pre with top Cirrus-Logic CS3318 volume/balance control, two analogue inputs then the usual bunch of digital inputs feeding a top ESS DAC. Where the differences kick in is with a direct-coupled minimalist signal path. Per channel it begins with a Swedish Lundahl input transformer, then hits an ECC88 triode paralleled/summed with a JFet from Linear Tech's LSK 170 range. Sprinkle in a few resistors. Bolt on a massive power supply of eight transformers. Omit all feedback. Bundle 24dB of voltage gain. Insert a 6H30P for the anode power supply. Cap off with 10Ω output impedance. For the final polish, add Apple's remote wand and program your display such that any volume and sample-rate changes show big and bold before the readout reverts to its usual 4 lines of data then extinguishes if that's how we set it in the menu. Relative to my status quo, this deck from the Venetian lagoon really takes analogue preamplitude to the next level. If I had a spare €15.6K buried in the yard, I'd get out my shovel.

My 2nd and 3rd entry plays the same party trick of 'where's your other half'. Qualio's new Quantum applies a virtual chainsaw to cut their maiden IQ model in half with a clean top-to-bottom sweep. Instead of a 9½" 3-way with width to spare to posture very broad of shoulder, Quantum is a 6" 2½-way whose cab just clears its drivers. That makes it half as wide as the IQ. Yet by overlapping its two dynamic drivers in the bass, they sum to a compound 8½" woofer which only gives up ~10Hz of reach whilst visually slipping into rooms off limits to the IQ even if just for décor reasons. The Quantum premiered in late October at the annual Warsaw show and I reviewed it right after. Given my far from shy enthusiasm for the IQ which plays in our main system, I'm over-the-moons excited by a narrow version which comes very close to bigger brother. At €5'990/pr in standard finishes, the Quantum duplicates the IQ's high driver cachet with the same dipole Mundorf AMT and SB Acoustic papyrus-based Satori mid/woofer. Then it adds a 6" Norex woofer also from SB's catalogue. Filter parts again reach for Janzen and Mundorf. Ace for wherever IQ is too bassy and physically broad.

My 3rd entry weighs €27K/pr and 32kg/ea. But the latter is a lot less than the 55kg of Electrocompaniet's mighty AW800M mono-bridgeable amp which I tested in March. With another chainsaw stunt the Norwegians' follow-up amp is the AW300M which goes half as wide and full-on mono. Side by side we'd be back at the AW800M; without our back being out of order. By now we're playing a fiscal league that's beyond my reach. Such mundane limitations simply didn't prevent my radar from pinging. I thought the 800M to be one of the very best amps I'd ever hosted. During my time with it I wished it came in a smaller easier-to-handle form factor. The new 300M is precisely that. Hurray. And it's still my favourite gain topology of ultra-bandwidth DC-coupled class AB so another example of the Enleum ⇒ Goldmund ⇒ Kinki ⇒ LinnenberG Axis of Excellence I've explored and listened on for many years now. Given price, it'll be appropriately superior to our kit just as the 800M had been. The only competing amp I've reviewed was Ivo LinnenberG's 100-watt class A Georg Friedrich Händel mono with switch-mode power supply. Of course the Norsemen's tagline of "If music really matters" should read "When music really matters"; if we're picky. But they make the point regardless. If, not when, I more loved gloss-black hifi and had another buried treasure in the yard, Electrocompaniet's AW300M would top my exploratory short list.

And that's my complete survey of 2023, leaving my Component of the Year for last. And yes, we already met it above but it does deserve being singled out more.

A repurposed desktop speaker 'stand' adds rake to aim the display up and doubles as convenient holder for two remotes.

€699. Am I off me meds? How can anything so affordable nab gold? For doing all it does, how could it not? "Any technology sufficiently advanced becomes magic to those unfamiliar with it." Though not verbatim, it's a belief SciFi writer and aeronautical engineer Robert A. Heinlein held. To my mind it applies to FiiO's R7. It's a full-featured wired/WiFi network streamer with onboard DAC, up to 2TB SD storage, a USB host slot, RCA/XLR fixed or variable outputs, 6.3mm, 4mm and XLR4 headfi ports, a 30-watt SMPS and a DAP-style touch screen running Android 10. Its cigar-box sized black or white casework is metal not plastic. A Bluetooth remote is optional. At max gain, its balanced headfi outputs deliver 3W/32Ω. FioO certainly aren't the only ones to stick a DAP touch screen to an AC-powered case. Astell&Kern have the ACRO CA-1000, Lotoo the Nagra-esque Mjölnir, Shanling the EM-7. Mjölnir simply goes ten times as cash heavy, the two others want up to thrice. Why would one want an R7? The most obvious application is as desktop hub ending in powered/active speakers and/or headphones. A less obvious app and the one I chose is as USB-C SD server fronting an upscale system without hardwired LAN or WiFi. Unless we run vinyl or CD, that usually means a laptop or PC/Mac whose internal/external SSD stores our files and whose screen and touchpad or keyboard/mouse become our library's sat nav. But what if we don't want a computer in our WiFi/LAN-free listening zone? What if for less cashish we can secure an audio-optimized device that's even smaller but packs seriously superior hifi hardware which for headfi needs naught else; for passive speakers just an amplifier; as server just an SD card packed with files and/or an external SSD; and doubles as headphone stand?

Even without the raft of network smarts that John Darko touched on in his own video review; even without the line-out functionality… the R7 already is more than an overtime employee when working my limited digital transport slash headfi gigs. Yet as networking kit it still affords me firmware updates and whatever new software features or navigation smarts those bolt on. I just take it briefly downstairs to go online. Should you poo-poo offline listening, did you know how much CD-quality content a €120 1TB SD card will hold? A maxed-out CD carries 700MB of data so a 1TB card can store 1'428 CDs. In actuality few CDs max out to capacity. You'll probably get closer to 2'000. Need more? Hello 2TB card or external SSD. And yes, today's listener majority no longer buys music but instead pays for cloud access with Apple, Qobuz, Tidal & Bros. For them the mere notion of whittling millions of albums down to just a few thousands spells mega grief. But the R7's WiFi antenna and Ethernet port skip right over that. Milk the cloud until it rains. The R7 does everything you'd expect of a DAP or smartphone (minus the latter's call and camera abilities) plus caters to WiFi allergics. Our sort must hardwire their web access. As renters we thus may not run a 50m+ Ethernet spur up the stairs into a second floor to actually reach the final destination at the end of a hallway. And, we actually may want to limit our computers to the ground floor. Now what?

A battery-powered DAP with USB can fill our lonely slot. It's what a Shanling M3 Ultra did in my upstairs system before an R7 kicked it to the curb. Because that runs off AC, it has no power time or portability limits. It can pack a far beefier output stage, full-size line-out sockets, a bigger display and may even power an external SSD. In my setup, a 2m USB cable connects it from right next to my seat to a Soundaware D300Ref USB bridge on the near sidewall. That reclocks the USB data then fires them out as AES/EBU down a 6m cable to a Sonnet Pasithea DAC between the speakers. It's ultra convenient, tidy, the display crisp, the GUI perfectly intuitive and customizable like any Android 10 smartphone. Even though 20+ years on this beat should have me crusty with seen-it-all cynicism, I actually look at FiiO's R7 a bit like an Amazon tribesman upon first seeing a smartphone take his picture. What sorcery is this? That it can do so much in such a small box, pack a lovely touch screen, be this nicely built and not cost more still strikes my inner reviewer as bordering on magic. We all know how Nagra or Raidho kit rocks. But it's nice to know that one can already get on the ladder to better sound with today's far more modest mini. It's priced and functions like a mid-tier smartphone but does so much more sonically. That it can also be rather more than a beginner's first all-in-one desktop hub you now appreciate from my placement at the very beginning of a first-rate system in a smaller room. FiiO have already teased the €1'499 R9 with twice the headphone watts, a new HDMI audio-return channel and likely other refinements not yet revealed. But in my use, there's zero appeal of more headfi juice, extra socketry or a later Android version. As an offline digital transport, my R7 worries nada about eventually expiring OS security support. And when my FiiO FT3 and Meze 109 Pro headphones for it both don't max out its lowest gain setting, why'd I ever pay double for still more power I'll never tap? So no, I'll happily tap out at the R7 for my big win of 2023!