One of the most consistent messages that came out of CES 2014 was the importance of DSD support. Never mind that the actual number of albums on DSD that have any real commercial appeal could be counted on the fingers of one knee, or that the more cynical among us suspect that this is driven by the hi-fi industry looking for another format, DSD suddenly matters.
For many streamer and DAC manufacturers, this represents a technical headache that they will be currently deciding whether or not to resolve. For other companies though, this is the sort of news that might have them reaching for the champagne. Lumin is a new arrival in the field of network audio, but the A-1 (recently titled as such, when the company launched other models in the range at CES) launched last year finds itself looking like a very interesting proposition. As well as supporting PCM as WAV, FLAC, ALAC and AIFF at sampling rates up to 24/384 (which the more observant among you will note was the must have feature of CES 2013), the A-1 is also compatible with DSD 64 but not DSD 128.
The Lumin A-1 converts all incoming material to DSD. However, you have the option of turning automatic DSD conversion off so as to compare DSD to conventional PCM decoding, which can be controlled via the control app.
The hardware that Lumin uses to perform this is a mixture of the conventional and more unusual. The pair of Wolfson WM8741 DACs operating in dual mono is far from uncommon, but Lumin’s decision to partner the Wolfson DACs with an output stage built around a pair of Lundahl output transformers is rather less conventional. The A-1 is fully balanced and can output via either XLR or RCA connections, and these transformers are in the circuit for both connections. As well as analogue outputs, the A-1 is fitted with a BNC digital output and an HDMI connection, which allows for DSD to be transferred to a suitably equipped external DAC if you wish. The final connection is a screw-in umbilical connector for the external power supply that also has an on-off button.
This is in fact the only button on the entire unit. The Lumin is otherwise completely devoid of controls and is totally dependent on the partnering control app. As if this wasn’t radical enough, the app is only available for the iPad. While this is a fairly bold move, there are two beneficial effects. The first is that the A-1 is beautifully minimalist. With only the large and easy to read display breaking up the sleek casework, the overall impression is extremely positive. The build is more than up to the standard that might be expected at the price and the A-1 manages to feel special in use. The review sample was supplied in silver, but a black finish is available to special order as a added cost option. The second is that as Lumin has no alternative but to make the app a good one, the result is a clear and easy to use piece of software that is stable and impressively well thought out.
The A-1 is unusual in that there is no on board provision for internet radio. You can stream radio via the control app, but for anyone who makes regular use of the medium it might be a detractor. The other design decision that Lumin has taken is that the A-1 is only fitted for a wired connection.
Connected to a QNAP NAS drive via Netgear router, the Lumin had no difficulty handling a few terabytes of mixed formats and turning it into a cohesive library. The performance of the A-1 is equally fuss-free, but the longer you listen, the more impressive it becomes. With the DSD processing initially turned off and a simple 16/44.1 FLAC copy of Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood’s Black Pudding, the Lumin manages the balancing act of being phenomenally detailed, while managing to present this information in an impressively unforced manner. The guitar work that underpins the album is weighty, natural, and perfectly placed in relation to Lanegan’s sandpapery vocals and the Lumin seemed equally assured with any other instrumentation I threw at it.
This self-assured sound is underpinned very effectively by bass that is full, deep and detailed but never detached from the performance as a whole. The heavyweight low end that underpins the high res FLAC of Dead Can Dance’s Children of the Sun is reproduced with a potency that should give even relatively bass-light systems a useful boost. Whether some of this low energy is down to the output transformers is hard to tell as they can’t be switched out of the circuit, but there is a solidity to the way that the Lumin goes about making music that is very distinctive. There is a sense when playing fast-paced material that the A-1 doesn’t have the fleetness of foot that some rival streamers can produce, but this never spills over into sounding slow or languid.
Switching to first processing material in DSD and listening to a small clutch of recordings stored in the format suggest that there are some benefits to this additional processing. Recordings that are predominantly ‘real’ instruments and vocals tend to benefit from a sweetness being added that never adversely affects he tonal accuracy or believability of the piece as a whole. The benefits of DSD seem less pronounced with electronica and high-resolution PCM material, although you don’t have to use a one-size-fits-all approach to DSD upsampling.
The limited clutch of DSD recordings I have at my disposal also sounded extremely good, but I’ve never been able to completely shake the feeling that they’d still sound pretty good as PCM. What I will say for the Lumin is I feel plonking DSD files on a NAS drive and playing them via the A-1 is an order of magnitude simpler than trying to persuade your computer to play them and spit them out via USB. I’m told that tagging and attributing DSD files is not an entirely straightforward exercise but the material provided looked well-presented, so clearly it isn’t impossible.
Personally, I am a long way from being convinced that DSD will produce a meaningful body of music, but for me this actually strengthens the case for the Lumin rather than undermines it. The A-1 is such a strong performer with the formats that are actually to buy right now; even if you never actually bought a DSD recording, you wouldn’t feel that you weren’t seeing the full benefit of the unit. Furthermore, the DSD upsampling also works well with a variety of material. The more time you spend with the Lumin, the more it becomes clear that the strong performance with a wide variety of material, the extremely well thought out app, and the very handsome appearance combine to make the Lumin a very enticing buy and one that should work well in a variety of systems. And of course, if DSD is the next big thing, you can rest assured that the A-1 has got you covered.
Streaming Protocol: UPnP; Gapless Playback; On-device Playlist
Supported Audio File Formats: DSD LOSSLESS: DSF (DSD), DIFF (DSD),
DoP (DSD),FLAC, Apple Lossless (ALAC), WAV, AIFF, MP3, AAC (in M4A container)
Supported audio sample rates, Bit depths, Number of channels: PCM 44.1khz – 384kHz, 16 – 32bit, Stereo DSD 2.8MHz, 1bit, Stereo
Input: ETHERNET NETWORK 100BASE-T; USB FLASH DRIVE, USB HARDDISK
(FAT32, NTFS and EXT2/3 only)
Outputs: Analog Audio: XLR balanced, 4Vrms, pin 2 Hot
RCA unblanced, 2Vrms; Digital Audio: BNC SPDIF: PCM 44.1khz-192kHz, 16-24bit; DSD (DoP, DSD over PCM) 2.8MHz, 1bit; HDMI: PCM 44.1khz-192kHz, 16-24bit; DSD 2.8MHz, 1bit
Analog output stage: Wolfson WM8741 DAC chips, 1 chip per channel
Fully balanced layout with high quality components
Output connectors coupled with dual LUNDAHL LL7401 output transformers
Dimensions (WxHxD): Lumin: 35x6x34.5cm
Dual-Toroidal PSU: 10×5.5×29.5cm
Weight: 8kg (Lumin), 2kg (PSU)
Finish: Raw brushed aluminium. Black anodised brushed aluminium on application
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