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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.

And there you have, my Favorites of 2023 served up different. The obvious intent isn't a 'look at what I did' selfie gotcha but recos beyond the usual awards harvest. Publishing October 1st with a full three months to go gives you sufficient time for the December buying season should anything here speak to you. January 1st would be rather too late.

Vibra 68 under Dynaudio sub, Carbide Diamond under DAC and crossover, Akiko Corelli below DAC, Gradient Box on left top shelf, FiiO R7 in the hot seat.

And if nothing speaks to you, money saved and 'better-is-the-enemy-of-good' sniffles kept at bay, no hanky necessary. Live long and prosper with what you've already got. Cheers!

Kinki bass amp, Vibra 68 under sub, Kinki wiring, Cen.Grand DAC, new iMac with Audirvana Studio, dual LHY network switches beneath it.

PS: If you got nothing as yet which makes sound other than earbuds off a generic smartphone, I really do recommend a FiiO R7 and pair of Meze 109 Pro. For ~€1'500 delivered, you'll have yourself a complete and completely rockin' headfi system which can easily expand to active speakers à la Genelec should you want more in the future. Good sound needn't be any more complicated than this.