Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: Retina 5K 27" iMac (4GHz quad-core with Turbo boost, 32GB RAM, 3TB FusionDrive, OSX Yosemite. iTunes 12.2), PureMusic 3.02, Qobuz Hifi, Tidal Hifi, Fore Audio DAISy1, COS Engineering D1, Aqua Hifi La Scala MkII, Metrum Hex, AURALiC Vega
Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Esoteric C-03, Vinnie Rossi LIO (DHT module)
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1, F5, F6, F7; S.A.Lab Blackbird SE; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund Job 225; Gato Audio DIA-250; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; AURALiC Merak [on loan]
Loudspeakers: Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Sounddeco Sigma 2; soundkaos Wave 40; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence, Rethm Bhaava [on loan]
Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Arkana Research XLR/RCA and speaker cables [on loan]; Sablon Audio Petit Corona power cords [on loan], Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all components, 5m cords to amp/s + sub
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: 5.5 x 15 metre rectangular space with double-high vaulted ceiling and stone-over-concrete flooring
Review component retail: €6'600 [€1'000 factory retrofit]

The headline reads LaScala MkII. The product photo says Formula. What's up? Today's review is a follow-up on the Formula's feature writeup. Once his flagship DAC bowed, Italian designer Cristian Anelli instantly busied himself to apply his newly minted discretech to the previous range topper. The link gives the full back story. For today's purposes, we'll only extract that the optologic makeover of the LaScala MkII replaces its former BurrBrown 1704K multi-bit chips with a discrete R2R ladder board of slightly lower specs than the twice-priced Formula whilst retaining the original's Mosfet-coupled tube output stage. So what's up is a good hifi-class grade: an upgrade that may be retrofitted to original MkII. That cashes in on Aqua's concept of modularity which leaves no man or woman behind. Because this makeover goes deeper than a USB board swap, a return to the factory is required.

Earlier in the year, Sino reader Yu Bai wrote that "recently a famous Chinese audio reviewer compared the Aqua La Scala MkII to the Chord Dave and Prism 8XR converters. He clearly chose the Aqua as the best." Sydney-turned-Berlin contributor to these pages John Darko lists the same machine on the top spot of his personal DAC index. Yours truly has used it as one of his reference decks ever since its review. German colleagues at gave it top marks as well. In short, with this machine Aqua gained quite universal accolades for sonics, build and relative value.

Now LaScala v2016 turns its back on dwindling supplies of NOS silicon and joins the ranks of discrete ladderists like Aries Cerat, LessLoss, MSB, Rockna, S.A.Lab, TotalDAC, Wagner Audio & Bros. This contingent plays counterpoint to the cadre which converts all PCM to DSD like AK Design, Meitner, Nagra, PS Audio & Co. who clone 1-bit converters from custom-written FPGA code. The far bigger middle ground between these two camps is taken up by the Sigma Delta brigade which, these days, seems to fancy ESS Labs Sabre chips over most others though Asahi Kasei, Crystal, TI and Wolfson remain popular. Finally there is a small group with members like Metrum Acoustics and Schiit who pursue the R2R multi-bit route with on-chip solutions from either the industrial sector or self-rolled; or who do everything by FPGA like Chord.

In my Formula review, I compared the original LaScala MkII to the Formula. Today focuses first on comparing old and new LaScala MkII. This assignment is thus particularly for owners of the original who may wonder what a €1'000 retrofit buys. For starters, let's look at what changed materially; rather more than a single new PCB module. To avoid charging for face plate swaps or sticking a tacky MkIII badge on the back, Aqua wisely opted against a name change. The MkII remains a MkII. The new opto logic hides beneath the bonnet like grey matter inside a skull: out of sight but responsible for the IQ.