Rupert Neve Designs Fidelice Precision Digital to Analog Converter
If you saw Dave Grohl’s documentary about the Sound City studio in LA, the hallowed ground where Rumours, Nevermind, Damn the Torpedoes and many, many great albums were made, you will have realised that the real star of the show, and the reason for Grohl’s interest was the Neve mixing desk. Rupert Neve is a British engineer who’s still designing at the tender age of 93! Neve sold the original Neve Company in 1976, but he has been very active in the recording business (and mixing desk business) since then. His current company is Rupert Neve Designs, which manufactures high-end mixing desks and recording equipment. ‘Fidelice’ is a sub-brand of Rupert Neve Designs, producing high-fidelity playback equipment. Alongside this DAC, there is currently a headphone amp and phono stage in the Fidelice line.
The Fidelice Precision DAC bucks a number of trends found in contemporary converters, it has no wi-fi capabilities, Bluetooth and Airplay are for kids as far as Rupert is concerned and when it comes to sound quality I’m with him all the way. Just listen when someone switches to BT enabled hands free on their mobile and you’ll get the picture. It has analogue inputs in both balanced and single ended form so can be a preamp for a whole system. There is no mention of Roon readiness but there are extensive notes on how to get good sound from a PC in the manual. It also features seven filter settings and the response curves for some of them are included in the manual. Volume can be controlled with the red knob on the front or switched to line level on the back, the front of this DAC is professionally executed and the back is no different, there are just a lot more connections. Many of them for headphones, three in fact: four-pin XLR balanced, Pentaconn balanced and regular quarter inch jack.
Despite its comprehensive preamplifier functionality there is no remote control, you literally have to get out of your seat and walk over to the device, however as fitbit users will know this is a good thing. Also a little odd is the absence of a power switch on the front, there is one by the mains inlet on the back and the box is fairly shallow so it’s not hard to reach. There are more switches than usual on the back, including fixed or variable output, variable input gain for analogue connections and the aforementioned filters. The RCA inputs are inverted with red/right at the top and the XLR inputs have TRS jack sockets in the middle for full pro credentials. For this is what the Fidelice is, a pro audio DAC with some audiophile features and a nice box with inlaid wood on top.
Inside it has an AKM converter chip that’s capable of reproducing PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD512 (4x), the filter set includes one called AKM ‘high quality sound’ as well as another dubbed DSD high pole. The majority of the filters relate to roll-off and group delay and you can have hours of fun trying the various options, alternatively you can connect to one of the three digital inputs and enjoy your music. Given Neve’s frankly awesome pro-audio credentials and background, it’s odd that there is no AES/EBU digital input, something that’s pretty well de rigueur on hi-fi DACs at this price.
My listening started off with an Innuos Zenith SE server connected to an Auralic Aries G1 and the USB output of that hooked up to the Fidelice, I used fixed output to begin with and noted that that output is pretty high although it is specified as a Red Book 2V RMS. Playing EST’s Live in Gothenburg [ACT] revealed wide dynamic range and clearcut leading edges, the sound is solid and taut with strong dynamics and excellent low end extension. Given that bass is a clear strength of digital audio you would think that it was the easiest bit to get right, but clearly the efforts that many engineers make to voice the critical midrange and treble have a softening/smoothing effect on the bass. That is not the case here, it’s not hard or edgy but it doesn’t hold back and the result is glorious, especially with live recordings where the bass is what gives such events their power, or, the bass isn’t carefully tailored as it often is in the studio.
I tried one of the alternative filter settings to the standard slow roll-off/standard group delay at this point, not realising that the DAC still wasn’t at optimum operating temperature and thus a little more hard edged than it could be. I opted for super-slow roll-off because the graph showed this having a more (but not very) rolled off treble, which did sound more relaxed but ultimately lacked the energy to bring music to life. So I returned to the standard setting and enjoyed the cavernous scale of Leifur James’ A Louder Silence [Late Night Tales], this contemporary piece of electronica has acres of reverb and juicy bass, which sounded very nice indeed on the Fidelice.
In an attempt to focus on the hardware and not be distracted by the music I checked out how the volume control compared with a Townshend Allegri+ passive preamp. The comparison made the passive Townshend sound very clearcut and well defined, the Fidelice volume being relatively soft and vague by contrast. Later on I did the same thing with a Moon 700i integrated by setting one of its inputs to bypass mode, this time the DAC sounded a little congested compared to the onboard volume, but the Moon is a £13k amplifier so you’d expect it to have a decent volume control.
I also contrasted the USB and coax inputs from the same source but not with same brand cables, so the fact that USB sounded quite a lot more revealing, better defined and timed more precisely could be put down to the CAD USB cable. The result with an Atlas coax cable was very musical however, a bit short on detail but very enjoyable thanks to a warmth that might appeal to some ears.
Some of the other filter settings were also tried and while the changes were subtle it was always preferable to come back to the setting that Fidelice have chosen for the default. This was also true with DSD where the DSD high pole filter seemed to make the balance more forward leaving the default option sounding more natural. I tried contrasting DSD and PCM versions of Kind of Blue but the difference in mastering outweighed any differences in sound quality, the 192 PMC having a much heavier bass and clearer cymbal work (‘So What’), but it did seem to time better which is something I’ve noted with this contrast in the past.
I really like the way the Fidelice brings out the power and vitality of a good live recording, the EST album mentioned above has an electricity about it that you don’t get with many studio albums and the Fidelice goes a long way to placing the listener in the time and the place of the original event. This is to do with the extension in the bass but also because of its even handed resolving powers, Zappa’s Roxy Performances (Zappa Records) is an ancient recording, but there’s an awful lot of the energy on the tape and this DAC brings this out to compelling effect.
I like the combination of precision and weight that this DAC brings to the music, it seems entirely neutral but there are always decisions made about which parts to use in an analogue output stage. The difference here is that those decisions were made by people with experience in the recording side of music production, not, as is usually the case, by those trying to make the most of what comes out of the studios. That doesn’t necessarily give Rupert Neve Designs an advantage though, audiophiles are not necessarily interested in the unvarnished truth, we want transparency but not to the limitations in the recording. This is why there are some very smooth and rich sounding products on the market, a lot of people want an aesthetically appealing result when they play their favourite records, but embellishing digital sound for this purpose often gets in the way of the power and energy in the music. By virtue of its designer’s pedigree the Fidelice gets us pretty close to what the artist hears in the studio, this may not be as sweet as is found with many high end converters but it’s probably closer to genuine high fidelity than most.
Type: Solid-state high-resolution PCM, and DSD-capable digital-to-analogue converter/preamplifier
Digital Inputs: One Coaxial, one Toslink, and one USB
Analogue Inputs: One stereo single-ended (via RCA jacks), one balanced (via XLR connectors)
Analogue Outputs: One stereo single-ended (via RCA jacks), one balanced (via XLR connectors). Both outputs are configurable for fixed or variable level operation
DAC Resolution/Supported Digital Formats: All PCM from 44.1KS/s to 384KS/s with word lengths up to 32-bit, DSD64 (2.8224MHz), DSD128 (5.6448MHz) and DSD 512 (22.4MHz)
Frequency Response: 5Hz–112kHz, ± 0.1dB (unbalanced RCA jacks)
Distortion (THD + Noise): <0.0003%, 10Hz–22kHz (unbalanced RCA jacks)
Output Voltage: not specified
Headphone output impedance: 0.02 Ohms (via 4-pin XLR connector), 0.01 Ohms (via 1/4inch unbalanced jack)
User Interface: front panel LEDs
Dimensions (H×W×D): 89 × 450 × 235mm
Manufacturer: Fidelice, by Rupert Neve Designs
Tel: +44 (0)7860 153950
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