You are a bit dense, Part II. Sonically and with its 6922 bypassed, the AQWO followed in the footsteps of our everything-DSD1'024 DAC. In the virtual sand of Robinson Crusoe's beach, it simply didn't leave imprints quite as deep. It meant similar tonal mass so high resolution clad in fleshiness if not hung quite to the same degree. Physicality blocks light to cast shadows. Ghosts pass light unhindered to throw no shadows. The Cen.Grand emphasized some extra physicality. The Métronome shifted toward a bit more transparency. Engaging its valves caused no deep triode sightings, not even medium murmurs. Whilst not entirely homeophatic, I'd call the difference degree surprisingly minor. My ears latched onto it mostly in the transient realm. That softened somewhat to suggest the archetypal "drawing with a blunter tip" expression. I also heard a modicum of extra connective tissue. My takeaway was that like Cen.Grand, Métronome's organic tuning embeds in how a transistorized discrete circuit and its overspec'd power supplies interface. The add-on optional tube stage was no more than the leathered-up version with plusher heated seats but the very same engine and chassis. Since I favour greater leading-edge punctuality over plumptiousness, I settled on tube bypass and 'hybrid' for the filter. Between RJ45 and AES/EBU i.e. twin-slaved LHY network distributors vs. USB through the Singxer bridge, I gave the latter route a small edge. I'm obviously in no position to draw final conclusions about Métronome's network card. An inextricable part of the equation was my disparate digital signal processing. The AES/EBU stream included extra reclocking and dejittering in the SU-6 bridge. The CAT8a stream sidestepped it. Without a USB cable long enough to direct-connect iMac and DAC, I couldn't compare USB and network without our Singxer. A direct comparison could well have ended in a perfect draw. Like digital filter choices and whether to upsample or not, and if so in player software like Audirvana or on a DAC's converter chip or separate FPGA – such differences get very subtle. They're for the end user to explore then set to taste and forget about for good.
Past its truly fabulous touch screen and vault build, the AQWO 2's core appeal is a high-resolution sound with fully developed image density. In the variable balance which each listener adjusts between speed and comfort, lucidity and mass, I peg our French sitting close to center albeit a bit deeper in the density than detail half. "You're a bit dense" thus becomes the proper sonic emphasis; and again as a fine compliment not fat insult. Using this wording underlines how tonal mass is the door through which we enter to then meet resolution and all the other usual suspects. It's not just the first thing we notice. It's the quality which frames all others. In speaker terms it's the Harbeth/Spendor not Børresen/Vivid aesthetic. There's simply a qualifier. This balance isn't two-dimensional. There are levels to it. I like the image of a scale. As long as we apply equal weight to both sides, it can load up to infinity. Holding 15kg vs 15g doesn't change the balance but certainly scales up the load. On that score the DAC which our Cen.Grand replaced was Sonnet's Pasithea. That now works upstairs. Many reviews for it mean a useful benchmark. With spectacular S/NR specs, it's of very high resolution. The DSDAC 1.0 Deluxe met it then added more weight. The AQWO meets it too, just with somewhat less extra weight. This qualifier is critical. Density per se can be had with cheap Chinese valve amps of high measured distortion and very middling resolution. There are levels to balance. The AQWO 2 loads up that scale; for a price. At £6K, our Cen.Grand demands far less but for it omits the luxurious touch screen, drops the streamer module, eliminates the SA/CD drive and cancels the valve option. It's high-value Chinese vs. boutique built-in-France economics. It's still marginal distribution vs. well-established dealer presence and name recognition. The latter might nearly be paraphrased as digital Nagra. In that view the AQWO range is their Classic range physically expanded to full size, Kalista the Reference series from Lausanne. On said branding score, very few are familiar with Cen.Grand as yet. Whether and how much that matters is in the eye and wallet of the prospective buyer.
The one desirable thing which the AQWO 2 omits from my imaginary 'everything' list is volume control. Because it supports SACD/DSD, it couldn't be digital Leedh code without first converting to PCM. So it'd have to be a BurrBrown or Muses ladder-on-a-chip affair. Ferrum's Wandla embraces the latter. So does our Cen.Grand. It's how I usually control SPL to ditch a separate preamp. That's the only feature I'd personally add to a future AQWO 3. Here you could argue that the 64-bit dithered code in our Audirvana Studio player makes for a perfect stand-in already. End of coulda/woulda detour. For those who must know, my chosen controller for this review was a Life Changer Audio Gradient Box active crossover with precision remote-controlled volume. It's the small silver box beneath the 250-watt monos to the left of the subwoofer. On redundant features, many could call the AQWO 2's digital outputs that. What splurge maniac would part with €20K just to bypass a superb DAC? It's a fair point. But headfi users with existing DAC/amps could just spot a plausible scenario in which to exploit a digital feed in parallel to main system duty? Of course the XLR analog outs can easily run the main system, the parallel RCA a headfi amp sans DAC; or vice versa. Either way, the digital outputs seem there just for rare eventualities; and to accommodate as many users as possible.
In AES/EBU mode.
As to the old question—do material discs still out-sound files—my observation is that to equal physical media over a quality top-loader transport with digital files over USB needs help. Forget a generic laptop's USB port alone. My two-stage solution is to bypass Apple's core audio engine with Audirvana in extreme hog mode set to x 4 upsampling; then to reclock/dejitter the iMac's USB feed with the super-cap powered SU-6 bridge. Local files store on an external 4TB USB3 SSD drive. For cloud files I presently run two LHY network switches in series to isolate our fiber-optic modem. One switch alone still left crumbs under the table. Two switches now get very close indeed to our optimized USB. But in pricked-ear Spock mode, I still do prefer USB even if by just a subliminal sliver. With a top player like an AQWO 2 meanwhile, we need no extra shenanigans and boxes. We simply spin a disc off a single component. Done. At Métronome's execution, this plays at the peak of what a modern digital source can be. If you expect its network input to pull even, polish the pipeline between it and your router/modem. No free pass for networked audio; at least not for me when I play hard to please.
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