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Analogue corner: Two other digital machines on hand aiming for more or less ambitious 'analog-type' sound were the TotalDAC by French DIYer turned semi pro Vincent Briant who eschews all chips for a completely discrete R/2R approach; and Burson Audio's HA160D with discrete op-amp I/V conversion, discrete voltage regulators and a class A fully discrete output stage that can deliver up to 10Vrms.

Digital corner: Here I had Antelope Audio's best Zodiac Gold converter with optional triple regulated linear Voltikus power supply to upgrade the stock SMPS. This full-featured machine with remote-controlled relay-switched resistor array volume and twin headphone outputs with their own attenuator operates a proprietary 64-bit jitter management and a 32-bit/384kHz asynchronous USB receiver optimized with custom FPGA code. That makes the Gold a prime specimen of a modern 'ultra-spec' D/A converter. Nonetheless it remains priced below €4.000 to avoid the unapologetic luxury leagues of a Weiss Medea+, dCS and such. You might say that on that count I remain blissfully ignorant of what I might be missing (even if blissfully ultimately refers to only my wallet).

Comparisons: For these purposes I ran the Libretto exclusively in DAC mode. All converters ran through Esoteric's C-03 preamp whose gain-trimmable inputs made for the most convenient A/B scenario. The amplifier was ModWright's KWA-100SE, the speakers Mark+Daniel's Fantasia S, the wire harness Zu Audio Event throughout except for digital. USB was handled by Entreq, S/PDIF by Stealth.

Zodiac Gold | Libretto HD: To avoid switching output devices in PureMusic 1.8, the Hungarian machine received its reclocked PC signal from the Zodiac's S/PDIF output. The differences here were marginal but once I'd locked on to them repeatable and relatively easy to make out. The offset occurred in the domains of top-level illumination—plus how this affected transient crispness—then subjective contrast of imagery against blackground. The Gold had the more elucidated, airy and effervescent treble. This created more upper harmonic spray and slightly more sheen on attacks. On good recordings like Vollenweider's Air or Cosmopoly, the sense of studio venue with all its mastering trickery was higher. The Libretto's backdrop felt more damped or dark. This gave a slightly different flavor to how the performers overlaid against it.

By resolving less airiness and with it the 'ethereal' aspects of the sound, the battery-powered machine seemed somewhat more physical or dense. Extensive A/Bs showed how this was not due to up/down-shifted tonal centers. The effect was instead akin to using Mark+Daniel's upfiring >7kHz ambient tweeter on my Fantasia S speakers. This tweeter parallels the wideband 800-20.000Hz AMT, connects via its own jumpers and adds a 0 to -6dB attenuator for personalization.

Kicking in this so-called OmniHarmonizer acts like sugar in stale champagne. Disregarding the change in sweetness which doesn't apply, it revitalizes the fizz. This fizz factor was a fine but little thing. It didn't alter stage lighting in the sense of changing position or brightness of light cannons. It didn't suddenly illuminate previously dim areas, change the scope of what was visible or reshape any borders. At best the Libretto's lesser fizz was about adding a very mild yellow filter in front of a few light sources. (This A/B had the Libretto benefit from Antelope Audio's proprietary USB transceiver and jitter optimization. I deliberately did not run the Tabla USB receiver to accommodate instantaneous preamp source switching without having to relaunch PureMusic 1.8 each time.)

TotalDAC | Libretto HD: Because it offers two always-live paralleled coaxial outputs, both machines ran off the Zodiac Gold which simply acted as USB-to-S/PDIF converter to again offer instantaneous source switching on the Esoteric preamp whilst still enabling to switch over to the Gold for some triangulation. The fully discrete French DAC now clearly dimmed down a few of those stage lights around the sides. This focused my attention a bit more in the middle of the stage. It also clearly toned down/dulled the upper harmonic content. If we count the Libretto as doing it once, this twice-over reduction of HF energy versus the Zodiac translated as mild hooding or cloud cover when shuttling between the Gold and TotalDAC.

To my ears this also dimmed what I call projection power. Rather than sitting politely somewhere behind the speakers, music actively emotes across space toward the listening seat. A former contributor referred to that as the lap-dance perspective. Here I'd not go that far but the underlying distinction held. In practice this meant that the psychic connection to the tunes—or whatever term you might choose to connote involvement and interest—broke sooner with the TotalDAC as I reduced playback levels. Its particular voicing compared to the gutsier two machines seemed just a tad eviscerated. Without proper level matching this effect could be compensated but 'playing it straight' with precisely preset input gain, the TotalDAC trailed the Libretto and Gold on conviction, tension, energy and presence. It seemed a bit washed out or mellow. That frankly was not what I'd associate with 'analogue' though it was certainly softer as is usually the case also with the non/zero-sampling brigade of Kusunoki-style NOS DACs (47labs, Zanden, AMR's Master II setting without the treble compensation et al).

Burson HA160D | Libretto HD: On subjective magnification power of small detail—a higher pixel count—the Libretto came first. On color saturation as a function of bass weight and image density, the pocket vault from Oz had a very small lead. On ability to mind-walk the virtual venue, the Libretto's keener hall sound retrieval outshone the Burson. It made subtle reflections, performer halos and such more visible. I call that audible space and the bamboo box had more of it. I'd thus categorize it as belonging to the next rung up over the HA160D.