DAC of the Year
Chord Electronics DAVE
Some awards categories were difficult to choose, and notionally that could have applied to the fast-moving and extremely competitive DAC market. In fact, there’s really only one DAC we could give this award to this year: Chord Electronics’ DAVE. Short for Digital Audio Verite in Extremis, DAVE pushes the envelope of just what is thought possible in digital audio in the home, and in the process delivers a product that sounds so good, it makes you wonder whether we have reached the pinnacle of what’s possible. For now…
Chord’s genius in the DAVE is to be not one, but two DACs stored in firmware ready to upload to the DAVE’s vast on-board FPGA at a moment’s notice, using the same circuitry throughout. So, when you want to play a high-resolution PCM file, the DSD converter remains hidden, and when you decide to play DSD, the PCM-friendly DAC goes back to its firmware storage. Despite this, the DAVE is extremely simple to operate, whether as a standalone DAC or an excellent combined DAC/headphone amplifier. Alan Sircom said, “The DAVE is that rare beast; a device that performs equally well in all these aspects of performance, and by ‘equally well’ we mean it does an outstanding, class‑leading job.”
Reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 141
Streamer of the Year
Linn Klimax DS/3 and DSM/3
Linn Products’ goal of continous improvement coupled with a desire to never leave one of its customers stranded makes for some potential clashes of ethos. Fortunately in the third iteration of Linn’s top streamers – the standard Klimax DS and preamplifier-equipped Klimax DSM – both sides of the equation are expertly resolved. Linn’s new Katalyst DAC architecture represents a major step change in sonic performance of the Klimax platform, while it is also designed to be wholly upgradable for existing Klimax DS and DSM owners, who can also get their old Klimax DS back in a ‘Renew’ case. Both Klimax variants are also ‘Exakt’ ready should you decide to go the full ‘source is in the speaker’ active line that Linn has been developing in recent years. In short, Everybody wins!
Katalyst carefully optimises every pathway to the DAC chip itself, allowing unparalleled access to power requirements right down to a subsystem level. The easiest – and briefest – way of considering this is it is like Linn built a bespoke suit for the DAC and it wears it well in its hewn from solid billet aluminium chambered chassis.
Normally, when listening to a change in digital architecture, the difference in sound quality is comparatively small. With the Linn Klimax DS/3, that wasn’t the case. In test, Alan Sircom commented “out came ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ from Dusty Springfield’s justly famous Dusty In Memphis album [Phillips], which sounded extremely good on the DS/2. Two bars into the same track on the DS/3 and it sounded like she was singing with a band, where the DS/2 now sounded like she was singing to a backing track. It was as if a group of better and better-rehearsed musicians had turned up.” He concluded by saying, “even at the super-lofty end of high-end digital, the Klimax DS/3 stands with the best of them.”
Reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 140
Network Player of the Year
dCS Vivaldi ‘Version 2.0’
We are no strangers to the dCS Vivaldi four-box system, comprising CD/SACD transport, upsampler/streamer, clock, and DAC. We’ve been impressed by it since it first arrived in 2012. But recently, the upgradable architecture received its first main face-lift in its ‘Version 2’ firmware (and a streaming board replacement for the upsampler). With TIDAL and Roon end-point upgrades and more enhanced app control, Version 2 makes controlling the system better than ever, but the real changes are in the sound quality. Compared to the original Vivaldi, Chris Thomas felt the upgraded system, “offers greater instrumental separation, more dynamic independence, and a much more attractive picture of the music in the sense that the soundstage itself seems to have grown; in scale and three dimensional space, plus tauter bass, and a more extended and comfortable high frequency performance.”
Reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 141
Server of the Year
Innuos ZENith MkII
Innuos has made a name for itself in a surprisingly short time, with the range of ripping music servers first appearing in 2014. Originally intended for the custom install market, the Zen range of music servers quickly found their way into the homes of people wanting high performance music servers without having to compromise and build something from off-the-shelf parts. The ZENith Mk II is the top model in Innuos’ three-strong server range, and features a linear power supply (rare in computer-side products, but good for sound quality), built-in ripping capabilities, and an architecture built around the robust, much lamented, and still widely supported Squeezebox platform. In listening, Jason Kennedy was deeply impressed, stating that, “This revealed that the ZENith delivers a highly coherent, vibrant, and engaging sound that hangs together very well indeed. It delivers instrument timbre, reverb, and more importantly does so in such a fashion that it sounds like musicians playing together. This is not something that streaming systems do as a matter of course.”
Reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 139
Disc Player of the Year
Hegel Mohican CD player
Of all the product categories in audio, one might be forgiven for assuming that the good old-fashioned 16-bit, 44.1kHz CD player had all but disappeared. After all, who is going to be interested in a player that has no capacity for processing 24-bit, 192kHz or DSD128 files, has no digital inputs, and steadfastly eschews upsampling or any other concession to post-1980s digital audio technology? They’d have to be mad, right?
Well, Hegel clearly embraces audio’s mad side with its Mohican CD player. Faced with ‘end-of-life’ cancellations of key components in its existing CD players, Hegel chose not to simply walk away from the spinning disc, instead choosing to make the best CD-only player it’s possible to build at this time, using the last, best hope in CD mechanisms coupled to a digital circuit derived from Hegel’s own top-notch HD30 DAC, the Mohican might just be the last CD player the company ever makes, but it’s also by far its best.
In our test, Alan Sircom felt that “There is a depth and projection to the sound of CD through the Hegel Mohican that struggles to make it past the output stages of most players.” He added that, “The Mohican also treads that thin line between being controlled and controlling, giving music played through the CD a natural sense of order, not imposed order,” and showing, “just how much it challenges the need for high-resolution audio.”
For those still convinced there is lots more entertainment to be extracted out of the spinning silver disc, Hegel’s last of the Mohicans is the best thing that happened in 2016. Is this the start of the Compact Disc revival?
Reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 139
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