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First impressions
: Dispatched in a carton-encased wooden crate of surprising weight, lifting the Renaissance out of its protective wrapper revealed Burson-type thick plates rather than cheap stamped sheet metal.

The top cover sports the company logo in round perforations of receding sizes. The 17-button remote wand is a styling clam shell of solid wood halves joined by an aluminum sliver in the middle.

All this spoke of no-nonsense yeomanry with surprising dandy touches including that semi-circular volume display which tracks the position of the motorized Alps pot. Led by LEDs in the dark is the motto. A programming sequence puts you in charge of brightness. Brilliant. Or dim as it were.

Headphones smartly have their own command buttons on both fascia and wand to be conveniently defeatable. They can thus remain plugged in. With the unusually rear-mounted 6.3mm socket, this will be most convenient for many installations.
Second impression. Had I a lemon? The turn-on procedure didn't progress beyond the initial relay click and yellow power light. No blinking thereafter, no eventual turning green, no input selection, no volume control display. As it turned out, the master/slave switch on the rear panel which controls the hierarchy of multiple Fonel components linked together via the FonelLink Ethernet leads was set to 'slave'. DSB advised that being slave wasn't on. Master was.

Light show. Reaching instantly for my toughest orthodynamic headphone load and a first taste of this aptly named renaissance man machine, HifiMan's HE-6 could just max out available gain on 'wimpy' AIFF files—those properly recorded without dynamic compression—but ordinary mastering jobs still played a tad louder than I needed.

The HE-500 and LCD-2 meanwhile had truly massive headroom to burn either way. For all but one possible case the Renaissance is an anything-goes headfier. The ¼" jack is no convenience feature that panders to fashion just because. 32Ω audio is serious business. Go cans go. Sweet.

Third impression. Foul? Cracking open the massive bonnet I couldn't spot a single D/A converter, USB transceiver or ASRC chip. Had my quickie headphone test running off Pure's iPod dock via coaxial S/PDIF not confirmed that the Renaissance most definitely had a fully working DAC on board? Where was that stowaway? And how about the Sowter transformers the website referenced?

"In this new preamp model we no longer use Sowter output transformers. Those are important in professional applications for mics, guitars etc. For home applications this new circuit is better and it's now based on a symmetrical differential configuration and dual-mono architecture. We do retain Sowter transformers in our tube CD players and phono preamp.

"You suspected correctly that the unmarked tubes in the Renaissance are Russian NOS. They are 6N23P equivalents of the E88CC/6922 family. We favor the 6N23P as the best sounding of this genre. And for D/A conversion we use the CS4398 chip*."

* From the Cirrus Logic spec sheet: "The CS4398 is a complete stereo audio 24-bit/192kHz digital/analog converter system. This includes digital de-emphasis, half dB step-size non-decimating volume control, ATAPI channel mixing, selectable fast and slow roll-off digital interpolation filters followed by an oversampled multi-bit Delta-Sigma modulator, which includes mismatch shaping technology that eliminates distortion due to capacitor mismatch. Following this stage is a multi-element switched capacitor stage and low-pass filter with differential analog outputs." Specs include DSD support, an on-chip 50kHz filter, 120dB dynamic range and THD+N of -107dB.

"Sound quality is key. This alone determines our choices of circuits and solutions. Extensive listening to different parts in various circuit configurations and numerous prototypes allowed us to identify optimal solutions and components. One of these was the Cirrus Logic CS4398 chip. With automatic adjustments for optimal oversampling parameters depending on frequency and with a built-in filter, the DAC's output is the practically error-free analogue differential signal because this chip integrates its own most precise I/V conversion. Additional passive parts ensure final signal filtering and accuracy of conversion. Here it was important to defeat the digital level control on the chip and instead use a high-quality motorized Alps potentiometer to retain dynamic range. Thereafter the signal enters the differential quad-triode stage for voltage gain and low output impedance. We experimented with many alternate solutions. This included various output transformers from leading vendors. We always understood that the final sound quality depends on a large number of interactive factors. We've simply learnt with sufficient accuracy how to quantify these effects and correlate the various factors. As a result our machines have excellent sonics. That and circuit originality are our main concerns."