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Digital Sources – A Baker’s Dozen from Munich High End 2016

Digital Sources – A Baker’s Dozen from Munich High End 2016

The Munich High End show is massive and my assignment(s) this year involved several key product categories, one of which was digital source components. Since I visited nearly 110 different manufacturers over the course of the show, a brand-by-brand report was out of the question (it would have been about the size of a phone book for a small town!). 

So, as an alternative, Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom and I hatched a plan whereby we would each report on a ‘baker’s dozen’ of key components in each category that particularly caught our eyes and/or ears.

What follows are my descriptions of thirteen noteworthy digital sources seen in Munich. Please note that my selections in no way reflect any lack of merit in the many components I’ve left off this list. Rather, the list is in a sense a concession to space and time constraints and gives some indication of the sheer richness and inventiveness of our industry.

AURALiC ALTAIR wireless streaming DAC/preamp

In the past, AURALiC has received critical acclaim for its VEGA digital audio processor (DAC) and for its ARIES and ARIES MINI wireless streaming bridges, but for Munich the firm introduced a new class of product called the ALTAIR that combines elements of all three of these illustrious predecessors.

The ALTAIR is a wireless streaming DAC/preamp that features TIDAL, Qobuz, AirPlay, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi compatibility and is based on the latest version of the firm’s Lightning DS firmware, which provides a Multi-Zone mode, memory playback features, and MQA integration, complete with a proven app for iPad controls.

The ALTAIR, which will sell for USD$1,900 or €2,000 does not replace the VEGA or ARIES, Which remain AURALiC’s flagship models, but rather is targeted toward audiophiles seeking “efficient audio” that offers extreme versatility and a taste of top-tier performance at a very cost-effective price.

Ayre QX-5 Twenty streaming DAC

Ayre’s new QX-5 Twenty is a very high performance, Roon-ready, network-capable streaming DAC, but perhaps a more accurate way to view the component would be to consider it as a versatile, multi-input digital hub. The QX-5 Twenty not only features Ethernet connectivity, but also a Streamlength asynchronous USB inputs, three forms of S/PDIF connectivity, and connections for NAS devices and thumb drives.

On the ‘push-the-performance-envelope’ sides of the equations, the QX-5 Twenty is the first component on the market to use ESS’ new ES9038PRO DAC and it also incorporates an ultra-high performance crystal oscillator developed by Morion (a firm whose crystal oscillators have found use in such applications as guidance for the International Space Station). The QX-5 Twenty will be priced at USD$8,950 or €9,980.

Brinkmann Nyquist DAC

Some of the best digital sounds at the show came from an analogue brand. Brinkmann’s first recent foray into digital audio – the modular, MQA, DXD, and DSD128 compatible, Roon-ready, and fully upgradable Nyqvist – is expected to launch in stores at the end of this year, at an expected retail price of €12,000. This is not the first DAC from Brinkmann – that honour goes to the company’s Zenith converter – but it is the first converter launched the turntable-oriented company since 1986.

CAD GC1 Ground Control

Most Hi-Fi+ readers think of CAD as a firm that makes highly desirable DACs and purpose-built computers-on-steroids-like disc transports, but Munich the firm took a new approach toward improving digital performance in the form of its GC1 and GC3 Ground Control noise reduction devices. The sonic result, says creator Scott Barry, is more dramatic than you might think, because—as always—less noise equates to more perceived resolution and more music. The GC1 will sell for £1,400 with the GC3 (which is roughly equivalent to three GC1’s) will sell for £3,300.



dCS Vivaldi series 2.0 components

Many Hi-Fi+ readers have at least passing familiarity with dCS’ spectacular four-component range of top-tier Vivaldi components, together comprising a DAC, Transport, Upsampler, and Clock. Munich, however, marked the formal launch of Vivaldi 2.0 models, where the DAC now sports improved digital filters and new mapping algorithms; the Transport now incorporates double DSD upsampling; and the Upsampler now features new network options, a new USB interface, and (very soon) a new control app. Of the four original Vivaldi components, only the Clock remains unchanged. Some might say these are exercises in gilding digital lilies, as it were, but isn’t that precisely what we have come to expect from (and appreciate about) dCS?

Hegel Mohican CD player

Just when everyone and his brother seems to have adopted wireless streaming and/or computer audio-based models for digital audio playback, the Norwegian firm Hegel steps forward to offer the Mohican CD player, which just my be the last great device of its kind (as in the title of the famous James Fenimore Cooper novel, The Last of the Mohicans).  Unlike many CD players, which have in essence adopted hyphenated names as “CD-DACs”, the Mohican CD player is optimised exclusively for 44.1/16 playback, with benefits Hegel claims are readily audible. In fact, a Hegel spokesperson told us the Mohican sounds better than any other Hegel component, regardless of price or configuration, when playing CD-resolution materials directly from discs. The projected price of the Mohican is €4,500.

innuOS Zen Mk.II and Zenith music servers

The British firm innuOS showed a masterful pair of quiet, flexible, easy-to-use, and oh-by-the-way keenly priced music servers in the form of its HDD storage-based Zen Mk.II servers and its SSD storage based Zenith servers. Both models are offered in ‘Std’ and ‘Xl” versions, priced as follows: Zen Std, 2TB HDD, £1,299; Zen XL, 4TB HDD, £1,499; Zenith Std, 1TB SSD, £1,999; and Zenith XL, 2TB SSD, £2,499.

A huge part of the draw the innuOS servers revolves around their built-in, intelligent ripping and storage features, along with a very well thought-out set of control and music playback features.  For example, the Zen and Zenith feature automatic and server-assisted ripping modes, offline CD ripping, and a distinctive ‘album quarantine mode’ that allows files with imperfect metadata to be held aside for the user to make corrections (or data field modifications) as s/he sees fit.  Moreover the servers can easily import existing libraries, can pull files from network-attached devices, and can automatically send incremental (or complete) server files backs to outboard USB drives or NAS devices. Finally, the innuOS servers integrate UPnP server functions and thus are compatible with existing Sonos, Naim Mu-So, Denon HEOS, and other systems.

Lindemann musicbook:DSD USB players and Network music players

Lindemann has expanded its ranged of ‘musicbook’-series USB players and Network music playes with impressive new DSD capabilities. Specifically, all models in the range—including the musicbook:10, musicbook:15, musicbook:20, and musicbook:25—provide native playback of DSD files at rates up to DSD256, playback for PCM files at rates up to 384kHz, and resampling of files (regardless of format) to DSD256.

The musicbook:10 (€3,280) is a straightforward USB/Bluetooth player with a built-in class A headphone amp, while the musicbook:15 (€3,780) is essentially a musicbook:10 with a CD player built in. The musicbook:20 (€4,280) is a network music players incorporating a network streaming module and TIDAL, plus support via iOS and Android control/playback apps. In turn, the musicbook:25 (€4,780) is essentially a musicbook:20 with a CD player built-in. All of these models have merit, but the musicbook:20 and musicbook:25 hold particular appeal in that they have analogue inputs and can be used as universal front-end components.


Merging Technologies NADAC network attached DAC

Last year, Merging Technologies’ NADAC was one of the most impressive digital sources reviewed in Hi-Fi+, but for Munich the NADAC showed a number of sweeping enhancements that have significantly enhanced its capabilities. Specifically, the NADA now comes with a high-powered CPU onboard whose purposes is not only to make the NADAC “Roon-ready” (which a handful of other DACs also claim), but rather to enable the NADAC to become a full-on Roon server—not just a Roon endpoint.  In turn, the NADAC also offer a new Emotion player app, which was developed by Merging Technologies in partnership with Roon. Finally, given that there are both stereo and multichannel versions of the NADAC, we can expect to so a new multichannel version of Roon in the not too distant future.

Moon by Simaudio MiND (Moon intelligent Network Device) app

The team at Moon by Simaudio is keenly aware that it is one thing to say you build network-attached, streaming-capable audio components, but quite another to build the sort of refined, thoroughly-tested, and powerful music playback control application that gives those words meaning. So, Munich 2016, Moon’s newest product is the complete MiND (Moon intelligent Network Device) app, which is a UPnP/DLAN compatible network player or streamer app that is designed to be shared among a number of Moon network-capable digital audio products, including the firm’s exciting and affordable new ACE all-in-one integrated amp. 

As you can imagine MiND, which runs remotely on iOS and Android devices, adds an extra dimension to Moon’s MiND-enabled components.

Mytek’s MQA-compatible Manhattan II and Brooklyn DACs

Many manufacturers like to talk about upcoming MQA (Master Quality Assured) compatibility, but Mytek’s Manhattan II and Brooklyn DACs are the first products apart from Meridian Audio’s own to arrive on the scene with an MQA-qualified hardware based MQA decoding solution.

The Manhattan II is essentially Mytek’s high(er)-end DAC, with support for PCM files up to 32/384, DXD, native DSD up to DSD 256, and built-in decoding for MQA files. Moreover, the Manhattan II provides analogue inputs (which can even be configured as a phono input via an optional phono card), a powerful reference-grade headphone amplifier, a high-precision femtoclock capable of reducing jitter to sub-picosecond levels, and both single-ended and balanced analogue outputs.  The Manhattan II is priced at €5,995.

In turn, the Brooklyn DAC can be thought of as a ‘Manhattan II Jr.’, offering a very similar features set to the Manhattan II, but in a more compact format and at the decidedly accessible price of €1,995.

Playback Designs Merlot DAC

For many years Playback Designs was famous for its superb universal disc player—a product that is no longer offered owning to the fact that the player’s transport, which was sourced from Esoteric/TEAC, is no longer available to third-party manufacturers. However, Playback has leveraged its considerable, er, playback know-how to create the firm’s new Merlot DAC, priced at USD$6,500 or €8,000.

The Merlot sport the expected AES/EBU, S/PDIF, and USB inputs, implemented via the firm’s Plink technology, and can handle all common high res PCM file format and DSD up to quad DSD rates. But perhaps the DAC’s most striking feature is a recording application that “allows the creation of wave or dff/dsf files from any of the digital sources connected to the Merlot. Last but no least, the Merlot includes a high quality headphone amplifier.

x-odos xo|one and xo|stream music servers

The German firm x-odos (pronounced like ‘Exodus’, but with a German accent) offer its xo|one SSD storage-based, network-attached server as a flagship product with an interesting twist: namely, the xo|one was designed from the ground up to take advantage of music download services and ‘VIRTUALVAULT’ music library software from HIGHRESAUDIO, accessing these services and this software via an x-odos designed control/playback app that runs on iPads, iPhones, and iPods. The unit handles PCM files to 24/192 and DSD files via DoP, while also providing TIDAL-compatibility.

Completing the picture, the xo|one provides built-in CD-ripping facilities, passive cooling for silent operation, and high quality connector and other hardware components sourced from Furutech, WBT, and SSC. The server also provides built-in Internet radio functions and offers SSD storage options ranging from 1 TB to 4 TB. Prices range up to €5,950 for the 4TB model.

The xo|stream server is essential a simplified, cost-reduced, and streaming-only version of the xo|one—a server built without any onboard SSD storage and without the xo|one’s built-in CD ripper. The xo|stream is priced at €2,990.


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