Back in the Jurassic era of digital audio, when designers were experimenting with new and exciting ways to get those ones and zeros one place to another, a standard of sorts emerged; I2S. Unlike most digital communications systems – which require all manner of transcoding and handshaking between devices – the I2S interface allowed a digital audio datastream to pass from component to component without requiring the digital equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. However, size matters, and the preferred digital link became the ‘Sony/Philips Digital InterFace’ (or S/PDIF). I2S never quite fell from favour, but its use became increasingly rare.
Why is this significant? Because Rockna Electronics – a fairly seasoned and globally established creator and producer of digital audio components – is one of the main keepers of the I2S flame in domestic audio. Many products that support the interface are, in fact, Rockna-designed (or Rockna-derived). And the company’s latest Wavelight product line reflects that I2S use. The line includes a very contemporary digital/analogue processor combined with a line preamplifier within the same chassis as well as a soon to become available server unit with ample storage and ancillary circuits to facilitate streaming and storage.
Reading the technical brief about the Wavelight DAC/Preamp one remains impressed by the innovative concept where software solutions actually govern the hardware and, through the FPGA technology, every firmware update actually changes the behaviour of the hardware. A 25-bit RE2R d/a processor with a Hybrid mode is also on the cards. This approach allows a high degree of flexibility and user enabled firmware and software upgrades give this product longevity rather than obsolescence. Complex up-samling (oversampling) process is run by powerful proprietary DSP algorithms with four different filter modes available for the user to choose from (linear, minimum phase, hybrid and NOS).
The Wavelight’s analogue solid-state audio signal path is fully discrete with a hefty power supply showing off totally separate sections for digital and analogue circuits. Two large toroidal mains transformers and a humongous (for this type of a component) filtering bank of over 100,000mF capacitance on permanent stand-by speak for themselves. The Wavelight DAC/Preamplifier offers five digital (SPDIF, USB, AES/EBU, I2S, optical) and one analogue input, as well as single-ended and balanced line outputs. It can also be used as a line preamplifier with one particular feature – the volume control inside the Wavelight is fully analogue, although it is controlled digitally, thus any precious data truncation and loss can be avoided. All vital controls are physically present on the sleek front panel next to a crisp and large display window. Android and Apple iOS applications are freely available for remote use of the Wavelight DAC/Preamplifier with exact replica of all the functions on the unit itself.
In the company’s product literature, Rockna pledges its allegiance to a, “highly precise digital sound, but with an analogue charm; rich in detail, but free of digital glare” This is where I2S kicks in, as it is a very difficult task to make that claim plausible and, more importantly, audible in a system that doesn’t support I2S. Multiple sources were used and included CD, high-resolution disc formats, internet radio and, of course, a vast selection of all existing high-resolution music files (WAV, FLAC, AIFF) played back either from a dedicated advanced server setup or, occasionally, even from my high-end laptop computer. A lot of time has been spent using commercial streaming services, predominantly Tidal and Qobuz in their highest quality resolution settings.
Rockna Wavelight is meant to be on power either in its standby mode or fully ‘on’. And for a good reason. It took a good couple of days for all the circuits to be adequately conditioned and it was fascinating to monitor gradual improvement of the overall sound in a clearly perceptive manner during the initial 48 hours or so on mains power. Initially, it sounded very ‘digital’ without a shade of doubt (lean, tight, fast and clinically precise) only to complete its transformation into something very opposite. Of course, had I read the manual more comprehensively, I would have discovered that this is precisely what is to be expected during its first hours out of the box!
The overall sonic signature of the Rockna Wavelight DAC is very traditional, almost old fashioned in character and colours, but ultra-modern in terms of how its highly musical character happens to be imposed on the listener. A beguiling analogue tonal warmth and true richness of musical detail are complemented by the Wavelight’s ability to react swiftly to any dynamic and tonal changes ruthlessly dictated by the piece of music played. Speaking in digital terms, I often felt like I was listening to the most beautiful Wadia digital sound of yesteryear rejuvenated to be able to keep pace with the most capable and sonically impressive DACs of today. In other words, a high degree of musicality without any dissection of music; detail serving music, rather than the other way around. A very low level of noise serves Wavelight’s enviable dynamic capability very well indeed. From the quietest passages to the loudest moments within a wide variety of recordings, Wavelight exhibited a solid and firm grip that remained present at all times, totally undeterred by anything thrown at it. Soundstaging is also very good indeed and well developed in all three dimensions. Interestingly enough, Wavelight is quite insensitive to any particular genre of music and handles admirably complex classical music as much as small jazz combos or solo singers, etc. Overall, a very versatile performer ticking all the boxes.
I experimented with most of the digital inputs available and, just as expected, found the sonics best through the I2S input which is executed in a handy format of a HDMI port. So, for as long as the digital output of your source has the same interface, any audiophile grade HDMI cable will provide the most complete connection and no loss of streamed data. I2S sounds so much more natural and lifelike even compared to S/PDIF or AES/EBU that allow inherently more, sound affecting, permutations… and ample choice of cables from all the leading manufacturers. Don’t get me wrong – 75 and 100 Ohm coaxial digital cables of excellence will always give great results, but wherever possible, I give I2S justified primacy.
No less interesting results were achieved listening to commercial streaming services. High-resolution files sounded real, full bodied and often almost as good as best recordings on CD, and some even better than that. Many will disagree, but I still maintain that a truly good sounding 16-bit/44.1kHz Red Book recording, competently oversampled (oops, sorry, up-sampled!) and minimally filtered outperforms many more ‘advanced’ and complicated formats we have heard to date. That does not mean that, again, a good high resolution is incapable of sounding enjoyable, but I find they can lack consistency in sound quality. Last, but not least, while the built-in preamplifier section works well and sounds really good, best results will be, as always, heard from the Wavelight DAC used just as a DAC into a line input of a dedicated, full blown, line preamplifier (with output on the Wavelight set at maximum).
The Rockna Wavelight DAC/Preamplifier deserves its place in the sun. Costing just under £4,500 incl. VAT in the UK, it is reasonably priced for what it offers, and its design properties and sonic performance are both very respectable in their own right and when taken as a reflection of its cost. It is definitely one of the most ‘analogue’ sounding digital processors on the market at this time, with all the virtues of a true musical instrument and without most of the deficiencies of the overly digital sounding alternatives that are proving increasing common (and to my mind, unwelcome). As soon as the Wavelight NET server comes into play, the DAC and, in this setup also the Preamplifier, will be able to live autonomously and be self-serving while performing at their best into a power amplifier and a pair of speakers. As this will run under I2S, this will also have significant sonic benefits too. And that will most certainly give the Wavelight combination an ideal opportunity to shine through with all the potential built in them. In the meantime, however, the Rockna Wavelight DAC/Preamplifier is a most welcome newcomer in the arena of latest digital conversion solutions and a true high-end component of the kind. Happily recommended and very worth one’s consideration and a serious audition with your high-end audio retail consultant.
Input options: S/PDIF (coaxial, optical), AES/EBU, USB, I2S, Analogue stereo line input (RCA)
Outputs: single-ended stereo (RCA), balanced stereo (XLR)
Resolution: 24bit 44.1–192k PCM, DSD64 (S/PDIF, AES/EBU), 24bit 44.1–176k PCM, DSD64 (Optical), 32bit 44.1–384k PCM, DSD64-512 (USB, I2S (LVDS))
Analogue Max Input: 5.8Vrms
THD+N: R2R/HYBRID 0.005%/TBD
S/N ratio (0 dB): 117dB
Dynamic range: 117dB
Output impedance: 50Ω (single-ended), 110Ω (balanced)
Output: 2.4Vrms (single-ended), 5.8Vrms (balanced)
Digital processing: Memory-based PLL (300fS jitter)
Custom filters: NOS, linear, minimum and hybrid phase, 8x
Filter type (advanced convolution): Parks-McClellan, 2.5k taps
Mathematical precision: 60bit
Stopband attenuation: -135dB
Passband ripple: 0.00003dB
Android//iOS Remote Control App
Firmware Upgradeable via USB/App
Finish: Black or Silver Case
Dimensions (W×D×H): 430 × 300 × 55 mm
UK Distributor: Audiofreaks
Tel: +44(0)208 948 4153
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