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Show Report: AXPONA 2014 – Digital Audio

Show Report: AXPONA 2014 – Digital Audio

In most cases Hi-Fi+ show reports are presented in prose form with illustrations, but for this section we will take more of an image-intensive ‘Postcards from…’ approach. Thus, this is not an exhaustive report, but rather presents an annotated ‘photo album’ of sorts that we hope will convey the general scope of the digital audio products seen at the Axpona.  If you enjoy these images, by all means visit your local/regional dealers so that you can hear these products in action.

Digital Audio Components


In very many respects the high-end electronics manufacturer Aesthetix was ahead of the curve in creating its original Romulus DAC/CD transport and its DAC only Pandora. Now, however, Aestheitx offers both of these landmark products in a seriously hot-rodded Signature edition. The changes introduced in the Signature models are substantial, including (for both products): an all-new DSP board, true native DSD decoding via a Zilinx FPGA device, an all-new analogue board, upgraded Dynamicaps capacitors, upgraded Vishay Z-Foil resistors, and Harmonic Resolution Systems Nimbus couplers (that is, feet) purpose-built for these models.



Coming soon from the Spanish firm Digibit is the new Aria server, which is really much more than just a server. Depending upon how you order your Aria, the unit can be a ripper, renderer, wireless streamer, fully DSD-compatible DAC, and a server configurable with up to 2TB of SSD storage or 4TB HDD storage. A fully optioned Aria should sell for a still reasonable $7,000.

Oh, and did we mention that Aria will also soon offer an easy-install, drop-in music server upgrade kit for use in the ubiquitous Oppo BDP-105d universal/Blu0ray player?  The price of the kit: abo




One of Aurender’s sophisticated Reference Music Servers was used, in conjunction with a Bricasti Designs M1 DAC, as the primary digital source component in the very impressive Sound Labs/Atmasphere demonstration room—a room that produced some of the best sounds I heard at Axpona.



Benchmark Media Systems

Benchmark’s second-generation, 32-bit, DSD-capable high-res DAC2 has at this stage evolved into a three-member family of DACs, each with subtly different capabilities.  The flagship of the group is the DAC2 HGC ($1,995), which sports two analogue and five digital inputs, provides both balanced and single-ended outputs, features a 12V trigger, and incorporates a built-in headphone amplifier. In turn, the DAC2 D ($1,795) is a DAC2 HGC without the analogue inputs or 12V trigger. Finally, the DAC2 L ($1,795) is a DAC2 HGC without the headphone amplifier.



The German firm BMC was ably represented by US distributor Aaudio imports, where the firm’s gorgeous and impressive PureDAC DAC/preamp/headphone amplifier ($1,790) figured prominently. Unlike many products fitting this general description, the DSD-capable PureDAC is configured in such a way that its rear-panel analogue outputs and front-panel headphone outputs operate separately and independently. What is more, the appearance of this visually arresting product is so striking and refined that you might take one look at its price tag and surmise that, surely, someone has left out a significant digit somewhere along the line. But not so; the PureDAC is simply one of those rare high end products whose specifications, appearance, and self-evident build quality lead one to think it should cost more than it actually does.



Bricasti Design

Some years back Hi-Fi+ reviewed the original Bricasti Design M1 DAC and found it to be one of the finest we had ever tested at the time. But, not content to rest upon its laurels, Bricasti has put the M1 through a process of continuing improvement and refinement so that today’s M1s are even better and now feature DSD playback functionality. Company President Brian Zolner pointed out that all circuit stages in the M1, including the DAC stage and everything downstream of it, support a true, balanced output configuration (again, including ‘balanced’ sets of DACs, if you will). The M1 DAC/preamp sells for $8,995.



Calyx’s FemtoDAC/preamp ($6,850) was being used as the primary source component feeding a very high-performance Allnic-powered high-end headphone display (see ‘Allnic’ under our Headphones, etc. coverage). Also shown were the Calyx Femti Amp ($1,950), the 200 Wpc CTI integrated amplifier ($2,499), and 24/192 DAC ($1,950).


Many products claim to be ‘all-in-one’ designs, but Cyrus’ Lyric 9 ($6,499) appears to be the real deal. It serves as (and please bear with us as this going to be a long list) a CD player, a multi-input 24/192 DAC, a DAB and FM tuner, an aptX Bluetooth-enabled and iDevice compatible wireless music player, a UPnP or DLNA streamer, and as a 170 Wpc integrated amplifier. That’s an awful lot of functionality neatly fitted into one small box.




Co-exhibiting with the French loudspeaker manufacturer Cabasse, Esoteric showed key elements of its revamped product line including the Grandioso P-1 SACD/CD transport, the Grandioso P-1 SACD/CD power supply, a pair of Grandioso D-1 mono DACs, the C-02 stereo preamplifier, the G-01 master clock, and a pair of Grandioso M-1 monoblock power amplifiers. When seen all in one grouping as at Axpona, as you can imagination, Esoteric’s top-tier pieces make for an awe inspiring collection of components.


Teaming with hybrid electrostatic loudspeaker maker Janszen, exaSound was demonstrating several of its high-performance, high-res DACs, including, in particular, the e22 DAC ($3500) and the multichannel e28 DAC ($3,300 – $3,850, depending on configuration). The e22’s claim to fame is that is one of the first, if not the first DSD256-capable DAC, while the e28 is arguably the first DSD-capable DAC to support multichannel (surround sound) decoding.



Lynx Studio Technology

Lynx Studio Technology exhibited its impressive Lynx Hilo ($2,495), which combines the functions of a high-res DAC and ADC (that’s right; a device where you put analogue in and get high-res digital out), plus a discreet headphone amp that has a DAC of its own and whose outputs are independent of the units other analogue outputs.  Apart from the Hilo’s extensive I/O options, one visual/control detail I found particularly appealing was the unit’s full-colour LCD touch screen, which can be configured to show traditional VU meters, plus numerous other information readout/control panels.




M2Tech rolled out a newly updated, DSD-capable version of its Young DAC ($1,699), which supports balanced and unbalanced outputs and has a user-adjustable maximum output range of 2.5V – 10V. The DAC included AES/EBU inputs, and—of course—USB inputs that enable it to support DSD64/128 via DoP protocols.


Music Hall

Following in the footsteps of other manufacturers who have launched combination CD player DACs, Music Hall showed its new C-DAC15.3, which sells for an eminently reasonable $549.



PS Audio

Paul McGowan of PS Audio was on hand to introduce his firm’s fascinating new DirectStream DAC ($6,000), which converts and upsamples both PCM and DSD digital audio files to a 10X DSD format and then decodes them for playback. Thus, internally, the DirectStream DAC does everything in the DSD domain. When I asked McGowan how the DirectStream DAC compares to this earlier Perfect Wave DAC, he unhesitatingly replied that the new DAC sounds markedly better, which is why PS Audio will—for a $3000 fee—upgrade existing Perfect Wave DACs to turn them into DirectStream DACs.



Also getting in on the combination CD player/DAC action was the British firm Rega Research with its Saturn-R CD/DAC player ($2,995). The Saturn-R incorporates two coaxial inputs, two optical inputs, and a galvanically isolated asynchronous USB input. The Saturn-R uses a new Wolfson WM8742 DAC and can decode files with resolutions up to 24/192. For use with Windows based servers, the Saturn-R is supplied with a dedicated driver said to eliminate “signal degradation caused by generic Windows Based Drivers.”


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