To get into a properly competitive frame of mind/hardware, I set up Aqua Hifi's older LaScala MkII. This would be followed by Fore Audio's DAISy1 DAC, both tube-buffered converters which I reviewed earlier for plenty of on-site triangulation material in our archives. For these purposes it's entirely immaterial that Fore Audio are out of business now; or that the most current LaScala sports Aqua's optologic decoupling and discrete R2R array. Referencing these decks still creates contrast and context. Our very best digital source is Soundaware's affordable D100 Pro SD-card transport. It eliminates our music iMac's FusionDrive, SMPS and whatever non-audio computing threads even the PureMusic or Audirvana players can't defeat. It's a small difference but dropping a playlist to 64GB card and outputting it via AES/EBU does sound slightly better than streaming USB off the Mac. That then was the main feed. It also bypassed having to reset the iMac's USB output. I only had to reseat a Van denHul AES/EBU professional cable and switch the preamp over by one input. Easy does it. Likewise for the first album spun up, Anouar Brahem's minimalist Blue Maqams on ECM. If simple fare doesn't show up sonic differences, chances are they'll be at best marginal on more complex stuff. Plus, I prefer to approach a new review subject in this fashion first, then progress to more complicated stuff. And if you enjoy Brahem, you'll probably also enjoy the Soolmaan Quartet's Letters to Handenberg, on the ace Belgian Home Records label.

HQ vs. Aqua. In this standoff, the Italian had more transistor virtues of top-end shine, bass tautness, full-bandwidth grip and front-to-back layered separation. The multikulti expressed more tubular bloom. This meant bigger images with fuzzier edging, greater stage width at the expense of ultimate depth, warmer bass and gentler treble. Combined, these qualities conjured up a subjective adjustment of reverberation times. With the LaScala MkII, the sound behaved more damped and controlled. With the HQ9038, it acted looser and more billowy. Hence its images ballooned bigger as well. In short—and in lock step with its two-stage valve concept—the HQ's recognizably tubular values dominated across the following transistor components to affect the overall system gestalt. Rather than standing on the front foot of transients, it leaned back onto the rear foot of decays.

Whatever preconceptions Sabre's signature created with very first examples now many moons back, the HQ9038 never heard of them. Its John Hancock looked very different indeed*. Where most tube lovers find the cadence of pure solid-state systems too clipped, mechanical and pedantic, the HQ's insertion altered it to something more mellow, fluidic and generous. In terms of musical tension, it loosened the belt. In terms of timing, it blurred a bit. In terms of separation and resolution—likely from a higher noise floor—it wasn't as keen. In terms of tone, the slightly longer reverb effect performed its usual enhancement of the lifted damper pedal. In terms of subjective juiciness, it turned the dial up. It wouldn't be overstating to call the sum of these actions a course correction. Whether your system would benefit obviously depends on personal taste and hardware specifics. Here it's important to highlight that this makeover wouldn't involve transformer-coupled power tubes in an amplifier. At lesser potency, it may be addressed and achieved in the rather less loaded stage of the source to leave control of reactive woofers to low-impedance high-current transistor amps.

* It also differed from 9038Pro decks by Resonessence (Veritas) and Wyred4Sound (10th Anniversary) which I reviewed earlier. Those prioritized massive detail which the HQ did not.

HQ vs. Fore. This match handed the 'transistor' baton to the challenger again. Now the qualities most brought to the fore were dynamic pressurization and intensity. Ever since reviewing the Gryphon Kalliope converter, I've thought of the DAISy1 as a baby Gryphon: same signature, just smaller letters. It too runs on ESS fuel, albeit an earlier iteration. As does the Aqua, it balances its valve contributions with more solid-state qualities. Remembering that distinctions between quality converters read bigger than they sound, here the HQ played it more pure tube, making for clear positioning and purpose. If you desire that flavour without pursuing bigger or more tubes elsewhere, it's an effective choice. And with the revised gain structure, even amp-direct mode shouldn't be compromised to eliminate a separate preamp altogether. To test the tubes-in-front, transistors-in-rear proposition another way, I next replaced our class A/B LinnenberG monos with Nord's nCore-500 class D monos. I fitted the faster, leaner more resolved Sonic Imagery 994 discrete input buffer opamps, not the faux-tube Sparkos Labs. This would mock up direct drive into poor man's Merrill Veritas or Mola Mola Kaluga amps.