To get physical with SACD, I needed silvery discs, not files. Marja & Henk to the rescue. Their kind Dutch care package contained Marantz demo samplers and a dual-layer M.A. All cued up between 6-8 seconds. Clearly Denon's mechanism was no snail. All played without fuss. I simply couldn't figure out how to access the M.A.'s PCM layer. "It’s a question we already had from a few customers. For the time being, we don't offer it." To gauge the signature of AQWO's tube stage, I picked Aqua's original LaScala with its vintage BurrBrown R2R chips. Because the deeper Métronome had to sit on top but its rear footer missed, I unscrewed all three Delrin cones, then parked the remaining thin bolts in small spike shoes. That fit just so. The evergreen Wyred4Sound STP-SE 2 Stage II preamp, a pair of FirstWatt SIT1 and Cube Audio's Nenuphar speakers completed the signal path via a full Allnic Audio ZL3000 cable loom. The direct comparison between AQWO and LaScala meant AES/EBU out from the Métronome to keep the digital transport identical. Quite similar on general tonality, the French did play it sharper in the upper midrange/presence region though otherwise slightly darker and less specific. Especially noticeable on explicit close-mic'd vocals, piercing pipes and incisive flutes, the Italian was the smoother sweeter operator. It also threw the denser images in the room corners for those outer soundstage quadrants which occur directly behind and outside the speakers. The French CD player did reach into the same areas but with less intensity and mass. For it, the associated impression was that image density between the speakers was higher than it was beyond them where the Aqua managed equal solidity/lighting wall to wall. Yet the magnitude of these differences was still small enough to quickly fade from awareness outside constant A/Bs meant to focus down on them.

Display shows tube buffer engaged.

Using this A/B to peel out AQWO's converter stage, I'd rate its resolving power slightly below an Aqua Formula or Denafrips Terminator just like those two sit above a LaScala. At least for this model—remember, I've not heard others—Métronome's sonic aesthetic seemed informed by tubes even when I bypassed them for the next paragraph. This meant an attractive quarter shadow of darkness which mirrored what increasing black values does for a Photoshop'd image. Consider the next photo. At its exposure, AQWO's black chassis barely shows off its vertical ridges halfway between display and fascia ends. Whatever minor dust there might have been is obscured as well. Meanwhile the one above even shows the IR eye. By slightly stepping down its exposure, the AQWO enhanced its primary values for a subtle flavour reminiscent of tubes (lower photo). A Formula/Terminator type would render the above image.

Comparing actual bottles to just op-amps meant switching the tube buffer in and out. Just touch the logo on the screen. The valvular contributions basically limited themselves to subtly rounding over the leading edges. Take as high-octane a staccato track as "Gangaquivir" from Indialucia's second album Acatao. Miguel Czachowski's flamenco guitar duels against Ambi Subramaniam's Karnatic violin. They are surrounded by four percussionists on table, ghatam, kannakol, cajón and other beat makers plus Maciej Garbowksi's bass. Turning the valves off heightened the crackling energy of the dense rhythmic hail storm. The valves subtly mellowed that fiery perspicacity. They simply did it at rather lower magnitude than public perception expects of tubes. Unlike Peachtree's old switchable valve buffer, the effects of Métronome's were far more narrow, far less opaque. You should not feel put out if the tubes died and you faced some downtime procuring replacements. As to CD vs. their aiff rips, I'd just weeks prior heard CD dominate in my Jay's Audio CDT2 MkII review to spill extra beans about it on a darko.audio KIH feature. Now hitting AQWO's USB port through Audirvana even with 64-bit based upsampling to 352.8kHz was clearly bested by CD again. Inside Métronome's menu—press logo on touch screen for two seconds—I defeated all digital inputs except USB. Because the CD kept spinning when I switched to USB, one press was all it took to A/B.

The colour palette for CD was plainly more saturated, its bodies more developed. USB was paler, leaner, thinner, flatter, starker and drier. In terms of exposure, it felt irradiated by neon light. CDs bathed in pure sun rays. That's a valid pointer also for how the difference felt. It took the €2'850 Soundaware USB bridge to minimize the delta but very critical listeners would still have accorded physical media a slight edge. Only the Soundaware's SD card feeding the tunes had things level to perfectly on par. That was no reflection on Métronome's USB implementation. A high-quality optical transport simply has it over direct USB. And one needn't spend €12'800 to find out. The €1'650 Jay's with Philips CDM4 top loader presented the same advantage. So would a more affordable Métronome like the €8'000 T5 Signature transport; or the €4'800 complete Le Player 2.

For readers now ill at ease, perusing Art Dudley's writeup of the Kalista DreamPlay One for Stereophile would merely compound the matter. He concludes with "… although it's been a long time since I last heard Naim Audio's 555 CD player, a discontinued product that until now I considered the world's best, I'm confident in saying that the more vivid, more spatially accomplished and no less musically accomplished Kalista DreamPlay One goes it one better. Music, sound, ergonomics, appearance – the DreamPlay One is without flaw in every regard but price." At $43'000, that final word hits hard. Though approaching ¼ of said ask, the AQWO will still strike many as elusive despite its added SACD playback and DSD/I²S out. Even a mid-priced Métronome remains a luxury item. Artisanal French production with hand-populated circuit boards in the country's hi-tech aerospace sector doesn't come cheap. But arguing with the results would be cheap.

With decades worth of derisive mud thrown at digital, it was predestined that certain boutique firms would offer alternatives informed by analogue references. Whether those solutions involved tubes, zero sampling, transformer coupling or NOS R2R chips, they were a reaction to 'digititis'. All counter movements tend to start out more or less extremist, then gravitate back toward the middle over time. That's where I peg the voicing for AQWO's converter to sit. It boards the anti-digital bandwagon on its return journey about a station or two before it re-enters today's digital default. It isn't thick, dark, opaque or fuzzy by any stretch. But it does celebrate echoes of that counter aesthetic like a fine distillate. It offers clearly more resolution than early attempts at "deep triode" digital but not quite as much as personal genre references. That effect is quietly flattering. It doesn't involve the romanticized soft focus or patina. It only applies minor cosmetic touch-up nearly invisibly to achieve a more flawless complexion. In public, hardcore audiophiles demand nothing but the truth, hand on the bible of textbook measurements. Out of the audiophile eye, they prefer their women to wear makeup. The AQWO is for those who do but nonetheless frown at fake lashes caked with mascara and glossy lipstick. All they hope for is some expertly applied foundation and subtle blush as the antithesis of obvious. Voilà, today's Métronome.

Postscript: With the arrival of the Denafrips Terminator DAC, I had opportunity to test various I²S-over-HDMI scenarios. In that context, I learnt that Métronome do not use the same pin configuration which is championed by Denafrips, Jay's Audio, PS Audio, Soundaware or Wyred4Sound,i.e. the data lines on pins 1 and 3, the bit clock on pins 4 and 6 and the word clock on pins 7 and 9. If you have a DAC from these companies, their I²S inputs won't produce any sound from the AQWO's I²S output.