Empirical Audiophile Gets Philosophical (What is Fidelity?)

Accordaning to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word empirical means, “relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory”. We associate the term empirical with measurement, but it really centers on direct experience and observation as opposed to quantification. While any decisions or judgements I make about sound quality remain subjective, I base them on unbiased observation, which has nothing to do psychoacoustics or the placebo effect (“it must sound good to cost that much”) or, by definition, a belief system. I have no problem with theories that say, as example, that an extremely wide bandwidth amp could produce better sound because the frequency extremes have no practical limit; but, at the same time, none of Audio Note’s DAC explicitly filter the analog waveform after reconstruction from a bitstream because, empirically or observationally, that sounds better even though the math suggests that you have to filter the waveform to correctly recreate the original analog signal.

I worked with cameras long before I learned about music and audiophile electronics. My background in photography cones from the West Coast F64 approach that centers on reproduction and faithfulness to the subject matter. However, that does not mean I strive to create a photograph of a tree that looks exactly like the tree does in nature. It means I try to convey the sense of the tree as I saw it when I looked through the viewfinder. In other words, I want to make you feel what I felt when I saw the tree regardless of perfectly accurate reproduction. Ansel Adams said that taking a negative felt like composing a piece of music and that printing the negative felt like performing the music. Before he worked with photography, he studied classical piano. In that same sense, when I talk about fidelity in the context of reproducing music, I don’t mean that I want recordings to sound exactly like they did in a concert hall (or in the mind of the composer for, say, electronica). I want to feel what the audience and/or performers felt when they played, say, Barber’s Opus 11, and I don’t mean the adagio alone, I mean the whole Opus 11, a generally dissonant composition punctuated by the beauty of the climax in the adagio within the context of the whole work.
I attended a performance of a string quartet at a local venue back when I used a Rega Planar 2 as my turntable. After I returned home, I took an LP of the same quartet and played it first with a Grace F9E phonograph cartridge, then with a Linn K9 cartridge. In the most literal sense of reproduction or realism, the F9E allowed the quartet to sound more like it had when I attended the performance less than an hour earlier, but I felt nothing at all like I had when I attended the performance. The Linn K9 added colorations to the sound that gave it a bright edge, sounding much less like the live performance in terms of tone and other, more objectively measurable factors. However, the K9 allowed me to feel more like I had when I heard the live performance resulting in a greater sense of satisfaction, an entirely different way of thinking of fidelity, or truth, than something I can demonstrate with, e.g., a spectral analyzer. I knew at that point that I preferred the K9’s ability to draw me into the music and not only feel something, but feel what I had at the concert hall.

I have mostly Audio Note gear because I find that it connects me to the music emotionally in a way that I don’t feel with equipment that might measure better or draw more comments about the quality of the imaging and soundstaging, dynamic range, etc. Not all of my Audio Note gear cost a lot though compared to mainstream companies like Wilson, Spectral, and dCS. In fact, my OTO SE Phono Meishu Signature costs about half of what the Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp does without a phono stage, and the Ayre sounds extraordinary. I just feel more when I play music with the OTO at the center of the system than with any other integrated amp or preamp/amp combination that I have personally auditioned. I call this site Empirical Audiophile rather than Subjective Audiophile because my conclusions come from direct observation rather than theoretical underpinnings or, yes, measurement. I see no problem with measurement. I just don’t rely on it to tell when I should and shouldn’t feel moved by the music.

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The Focal Utopia Headphones

I can say that the Utopias are everything that the Sennheiser HD800’s promised to be but weren’t, that the Utopias feel like a BMW or a Mercedes Benz, and that the Utopias sound great no matter how you evaluate them.

First of all, you may have read a few reviews of the Focal Utopia headphones that say, “[ …] they sound the very best (with the exception of the Abyss) […]”. I firmly want to debunk that myth. I owned a pair of Abyss AB-1266 Deluxes, superseded only recently by the Abyss Phi’s, using them with both a Cavalli Liquid Gold and Woo Audio WA5-LE V2 headphone amp, and I finally sold the Abyss headphones because they just didn’t sound right, by which I mean they didn’t emotionally connect me to the music. Yes, they had lots of ambience or air, but so does a piezoelectric tweeter mounted inside of a tin can. That doesn’t mean you can forget about the headphones and fall into Bach’s Mass in B-minor. With the Focal Utopias, you can (within limits), and you don’t need a high-current headphone amp.

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I tried the Utopias with a Woo WA6-SE, the Cavalli Liquid Gold, and the Woo WA5-LE V2 with several different sources, and–although I think the Liquid Gold made the best match using the Focal stock cable–it didn’t sound like a night and day difference. Unlike the Focal Elears, the Utopias sound a little hot (i.e., bright) and how you want to deal with that comes down to a matter of personal preference. I would likely get the Black Dragon Premium headphone cable from Moon Audio in Cary, NC, because it sounds just a tiny bit soft. On the other hand, if you like DSD and/or MQA files a lot, it might not bother you so much. It comes down to system and music format/encoding matching. I will say that when I first took the Utopias out of the box, I felt like I was a holding a pair of headphones built to the same engineering tolerances as a Formula One race car. They just feel good in your hand and, again unlike the Abyss, on your head.

Recognizing that the Utopias might have so much resolving power that they could show off flaws in my headphones-only system, I ordered some NOS (New Old Stock) rectifier and driver tubes to better match the Western Electrics 300B power tubes I have in my Woo WA5-LE V2. In all truth, using all non-stock tubes in the Woo headphone amplifier with the Utopias substantially improved the emotional intimacy of the listening experience and took away pretty much all of the brightness I mentioned. I wouldn’t mind replacing the stock cable from Focal with, say, the Moon Audio Black Dragon headphone cable to improve the clarity of the sound and make some subtle final adjustments to the treble, but I really had no complaints. In fact, the retubed WA5-LE V2 made the Utopias sound very close to the reference electrostatic headphone setup that I have in my reference system.

I decided to return to my reference planar dynamic headphones, the original HiFiMan HE-1000’s with the Moon Audio Premium Black Dragon headphone cable. These felt much lighter to wear than the Utopias and sounded a bit more open without seeming overly bright. I think that both the Focal Utopia headphones and the HiFiMan HE-1000’s represent the very best you can get with non-electrostatic headphone designs today. Here’s a small table comparing the better attributes of the Utopias and the HE-1000’s (note that I have left out the Abyss because, well, why bother paying more for less?):

Utopia

So what does all this mean? Does thus mean that you should get a pair on HE-1000’s instead of the Utopias? Should you go electrostatic? I can’t say for sure because (a) I didn’t have as good a headphone cable for the Utopias as I did for the HE-1000’s and (b) once you’ve gone electrostatic, there’s no going back. I can say that the Utopias are everything that the Sennheiser HD800’s promised to be but weren’t, that the Utopias feel like a BMW or a Mercedes Benz, and that the Utopias sound great no matter how you evaluate them. If you can afford a pair, I say get them. They certainly belong near the top of the list of the ten best headphones of all time.

Following are select albums used in the evaluation of the Utopias:

  • David Bowie (AKA Space Oddity) by David Bowie — 24-bit/192-kHz PCM download
  • Orphénica Lyra, 1554 by Miguel de Fuenllana — Red Book CD
  • Lemonade (Explicit) by BeyoncéMQA-encoded TIDAL HiFi stream

The Focal Elear Headphones

Everyone keeps talking about the Focal Utopia headphones and how you just have to have a pair. I regard that as very good idea IF you don’t have to go without lunch and miss a few car payments as well. I don’t regard the Utopias as overpriced just, well, expensive. Fortunately, they have a little brother (or a little sister) called the Focal Elear. As I understand it, the Utopia and Elear headphones share similar design principles; however, most notably, the Utopias use beryllium drivers and the Elears use aluminum. I have no problem with that; and, even though I briefly lusted after a pair of Utopias, I ended up making the practical choice of the Elear accompanied by Moon Audio’s very fine Silver Dragon headphone cable.

When I first got my Elear headphones, I felt a little letdown. I had heard so much hype that I had unrealistic expectations. I don’t mean that I felt underwhelmed by their sound. I mean that they sounded different from any other headphone I had heard, a sort of combination of the Sennheiser HD650’s and the HiFiMan HE-1000’s. I needed to listen with them for a while to really appreciate how they made the hard work of reproducing music in an emotionally engaging way seem easy. I am listening to the TIDAL HiFi “Chill” playlist with a Woo Audio WA6-SE and the Elear headphones as I write this. The bass seems so taught and clean, the midrange so liquid, and the treble so extended but never annoying, I hear a level of detail that rivals the best planar magnetic and electrostatic headphones out there without seeming “tizzi”, to borrow an adjective from George Cardas.

Focal Elear

Focal Elear on Woo Audio Headphone Stand

Listening to the red-book CD of Beyoncé’s Lemonade,  I remained well aware of the rhythm but also heard the vocals and closely followed the lyrics, a musically poetic experience. Next I queued up Kate Bush’s classic double LP Arial. My favorite track is “Pi”, with Bush rattling off digits like some holy incantation performed by astronomers. Although I wouldn’t say that listening to the vinyl LP[s] of Aerial through the Elear headphones sounded like I had played the album through my loudspeakers, I did connect to the music in a way that reminded more of playing it aloud than when I use most other headphones I own. Only the Fostex TH900’s might have an an edge on the Elear’s in terms of a loudspeaker-like sound because of the TH900’s prodigious but natural sounding bass.

Pretty much purely by coincidence, an early pressing of John Coltrane Live! at the Village Vanguard arrived from the Paris Jazz Corner at 5 Rue de Navarre, Paris France right in time to try with my French Focal Elear headphones. All in mono and an example of model jazz (like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue), as soon as the stylus of my Audio Note Io Gold started following the groove, I felt transported to the crowded night club and could close my eyes and imagine John Coltrane standing right in front of me. Rather than accentuating the surface noise (of which I heard little), the Elear headphones just played the tune with no comment of their own. They “channeled” Coltrane right into me in a moment of pure bliss and splendor.

Lastly, I decided to experiment a bit with internet radio, so–after fiddling with several preprogrammed stations on my Magnum Dynalab internet tuner–I landed on BBC Radio 3 during their late night show in the U.K. You may think it difficult to judge the quality of headphones using a compressed stream coming, ultimately, through a cable modem. However, Magnum Dynalab learned a lot about digital signal processing when they developed the satellite radio tuners they offered. Without going into excessive detail, they try to reconstruct a musical waveform in as pleasing a manner as possible and run it through a an all-triode vacuum tube output stage. The result sounds really lovely and rivals terrestrial FM without so much noise. I have no idea what aria the BBC played, and I really don’t like opera all that much, but the Elear headphones offered a gentle yet detailed presentation of the music that lured me in, and I felt a little bit like Linda Hunt’s character Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously listening to Kiri Te Kanawa with arms lifted in the air as if to conduct. I can personally think of no higher compliment to give the Focal Elear headphones.

The Aurender N10 Music Server & Audio Note DAC 4.1x Balanced Signature Reference: Streaming through Tubes

I had been curious about the Aurender N10 music server for a very long time. Unlike a streaming DAC, the Aurender stores your music files on its built in fixed drives. Then it “clocks out” the musical information in “bit-perfect” fashion using an SSD (Solid State Drive) to any compatible DAC that you want. By “clocking out” a “bit perfect” version of your music files, the N10 provides your DAC with the digital information to convert to an analog waveform just exactly as it’s stored on the Aurender’s internal fixed disks. Yes, it’s basically a computer with a bunch of fixed drives, an OS (Operating System), and a user interface provided over your LAN (Local Area Network) through an iPad-specific App. You copy the music files from a more conventional computer onto the N10. The original files come from downloaded music files and/or from CDs that you have ripped all the way from MP3s to Quadruple DSDs in many formats including WAV, FLAC, ALAC, and AIFF. You can back the N10 up to any number of data storage devices; however, you have to make these backups from the N10 manually. Aurender currently provides no backup software.

My interest in the N10 mostly centered on the very fine performance I get from Aurender’s smaller and less costly N100H music streamer, which has more limited fixed drive space (nominally, 2TB compared to 4TB) and its use of a USB interface alone. You see, the N10 has, in addition to a USB output, a more traditional S/PDIF output so that it can be connected to “legacy DACs”, or DACs that have no USB input, one of the limitations of my Audio Note DAC 4.1X Balanced Signature (although I seriously doubt that Peter Qvortrup, the founder of Audio Note UK, would call it a limitation). Although the main signal-processing chip used in the DAC 4.1X can theoretically accommodate a 24-bit/96kHz PCM signal, Audio Note has optimized all of their DACs for playing CD-resolution, or 16-bit/44.1kHz signals, based on subjective analysis. The Audio Note DACs use no oversampling, upsampling, or explicit filtering of analog output signal, relying on vacuum tubes, transformers, and lots of silver wire to produce the most emotionally-engaging music.

 

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Aurender N10 (also available in silver)

For me, that works; although, I remain very fond of my Simaudio MOON Neo 280D streaming DAC, which supports USB and Ethernet inputs (the latter by way of the MiND networking module) as well as RCA, COAX, and TOSLINK inputs. Plus, the Neo 280D does sound very good, particularly for less than 1/10th the cost of the Audio Note DAC 4.1x, and supports high-resolution PCM plus Quad DSD with the personally-preferred Ethernet input limited to 24/192 PCM or Single DSD because of network bandwidth limitations (i.e., speed of file transfer limitations over my LAN). So, essentially, I compared three different ways of playing digitally-encoded music:

  1. Playing CDs from a CD transport (an RCA-style S/PDIF digital output on the back of my vacuum-tube Audio Note CD 3.1X/II CD player) going through a Stealth Varidig Sextet digital cable into the DAC 4.1X
  2. Playing CD-resolution files copied onto the Aurender N10’s fixed drives going through the same Stealth Varidig Sextet digital cable into the same DAC 4.1X
  3. Playing up to 24/192 PCM or Single DSD files over my LAN into the Neo 280D via an AudioQuest Vodka CAT7 Ethernet cable among other things (not, in my case, over Wi-Fi, because it has even more speed limitations)

I found the N10 simple to setup. It did require a couple of kickstarts to get it to not stop streaming in the middle of an album; but I think that’s an anomaly. My N100H has worked flawlessly since day one. I backed up some music from the N10 to my MacBook Pro to send to the previous user. Then I used the Aurender “clone” function found in the Conductor App to mirror the contents of my N100H to the N10.

N100H.jpeg

Aurender N100H

 

That process worked flawlessly and I suddenly had control of the content of two different Aurender music streamers plus TIDAL HiFi via the same iPad using the Aurender Conductor App.

Using method 1 mentioned above (a CD transport), I had to manually load and unload CDs, but I never had to download, copy, or rip anything. Using methods 2 and 3 (the N10 and 280D), I could remote-control my music library plus play TIDAL HiFi using the Aurender Conductor App or the Simaudio MiND App, respectively. (I could not, of course, play TIDAL HiFi using method 1 because my CD transport doesn’t support steaming).

I first put Jerry Garcia’s and David Grisman’s Shady Grove into my Conductor App playlist (remembering that I’m only evaluating CD-resolution files because of the limitations of my Audio Note DAC right then), a kind of vocal and acoustic string collection of traditional folk songs in a similar spirit to The Pentangle but with higher fidelity and more masterful playing.

I have to confess that the album sounded lovely, nearly as tonally neutral  as my 1/2-track, 15 ips reel-to-reel tape of Garcia/Grisman, with almost as much detail as the reel-to-reel tape. However, the N10/DAC 4.1X combination didn’t sound quite as open with as much air or ambience as simply inserting Shady Grove into my CD transport using the same exact Stealth digital cable and Audio Note DAC4.1X.

Next, I wanted to hear how TIDAL HiFi sounded through a higher-end music streamer like the Aurender and the Audio Note DAC combined. When I got my first streaming DAC (the Simaudio MOON Neo 280D with [the] MiND), I listened to Lemonade by Beyoncé about a million times, and had purchased the physical CD. The CD played via my transport sounded the best, but streaming Lemonade at 16/44.1 via TIDAL HiFi sounded amazing for the type of service I associate with mobile phones and MP3s. Therein lay the true strength of the Aurender N10 and Audio Note DAC 4,1X Balanced Signature, I believe.

Sadly, I had to send the N10 back to Aurender not because I “settled” for my 280D, a great device itself regardless of its relative cost, but partly because I would have needed three boxes not including my Audio Note DAC: the N10 for local streaming, the DAC 4.1x to make bits into music, and the 280D specifically for its excellent TOSLINK connection that I use with Sony UltraHD SmartTV in a two-channel home-theater arrangement. Someday My Prince Will Come though, according to Miles Davis …

The Woo Audio GES and Stax SR-507s: Affordable Electrostatic Bliss

I’d been thinking about getting a Woo Audio WES and a pair of Stax SR-009s for a long time, the headphone amp and headphones to end them all. I still might wind up with that combination someday, but I already had four dynamic headphone amps, several DACs, and a lot of dynamic and planar dynamic headphones, including the Abyss AB-1266 Deluxe’s, which I eventually sold because the sound seemed just too over the top in every way, way more air or ambience than existed in nature. I started to get curious about a gentle introduction to electrostatic headphones, having tried it nearly 20 years ago with a pair of Stax Lamba Signatures and the old Stax solidstate headphone amp.

So I asked Jack at Woo Audio about his more basic GES electrostatic amp and the more entry level, by today’s standards, Stax SR-507s. He told me that he thought I would like the combination, and that it would a very non-fatiguing sound, for less than the cost of at least one pair of my planar dynamic headphones (and I don’t mean the Abyss’s).  I wound up ordering a gloss black GES, the SR-507s, a 2.5 meter Stax headphone extension cord, and some NOS (New Old Stock) vacuum tubes through eBay, specifically four carefully-matched CBS 12AX7s from 1957 and four carefully-matched GE 6S4As.

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Things arrived in piecemeal fashion, so I got a chance to hear the GES and 507s with the stock tubes from Electro Harmonix and Westinghouse. Everything sounded really great, and I started to wish I hadn’t already purchased the NOS tubes. However, I started to hear a graininess or edginess to the sound that bothered me a bit. I did not know why, but fairly soon all of the NOS tubes arrived and I put them in the GES electrostatic amp. This sounds like a cliché, but I heard a night and day difference. Music through the headphones immediately sounded lush and fluid without any loss of detail, plus I heard more impact in the bass. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, particularly from such a compact and relatively inexpensive setup, no matter what genre of music I auditioned.

I felt particularly moved by Schiff’s performance of The Goldberg Variations on ECM, which I had stored on my Aurender N100H’s fixed drive(s) as a 24/96 PCM album. I had never heard Schiff’s Goldberg Variations sound so relaxed and natural through headphones. I literally lost all sense of space and time and floated through the reverberations of Schiff’s piano. I had a similar experience listening to the semi-psychedelic dream pop interpretations and mashups of classic rock songs on the Suckerpunch soundtrack.

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I have a 24/192 PCM download of David Bowie, sometimes know as Space Oddity. It actually sounds really excellent and has remained one of my favorite Bowie albums since I heard it in graduate school. I’m particularly fond of the last track, Memory of Free Festival, with the following lyrics:

The sun machine is going down/And we’re going to have a party

I wouldn’t say it’s a psychedelic sound, but it takes me back to the 60s, something made that much more apparent by the fluid clarity of the GES and 507 combination. I could find more examples, but you get the point. You don’t have to spend $10K+ for a state of the art electrostatic system just to get a taste of the sweet, detailed sound that even an entry-level electrostatic system can offer.

The Cavalli Liquid Gold and the Woo Audio WA5-LE V2: Not a Shootout

I originally got a Cavalli Liquid Gold because I thought it looked good and everyone said it sounded great. Also, I want a headphone amplifier that could drive almost any pair of headphones out there, including the Abyss AB-1266 Deluxe and the AKG K-1000. Then a little birdie whispered in my ear that I really should have gotten a Woo WA5-LE V2 because the single ended triodes would sound so much better than solid state electronics. So I decided to discover for myself rather than read more marketing hyperbole, and, temporarily at first, got hold of a Liquid Gold and a WA5-LE V2, going so far as to find a pair of real Western Electric 300Bs, which sound so much better than pretty much any 300B out there. To further fuel my insanity, I borrowed both a balanced and a single ended pair of Stealth Sakra analog interconnects, which sound wonderful, but described on paper sound like something from Star Trek and make audiophiles look silly.

Because it has both balanced (XLR) and single ended (RCA) outputs, and was already connected to my iMac anyway, I used my Ayre QB-9 DSD, which I still regard as one of the most extraordinary USB DACs ever, and why shouldn’t it? There’s no law that says it has to cost $15K to sound excellent. The first pair of headphones I used, playing various types and resolutions music from the iMac using Audirvana Plus, were my old LCD-2.2s with Moon Audio’s Silver Dragon cable a full-sized, four-pin XLR connector, which would connect to both the Liquid Gold and to the WA5-LE V2, although, in the latter case, you didn’t get a balanced signal. In that context, I thought the Liquid Gold slightly outweighed the WA5-LE V2 because of the solidity in the bass and the overall tightness of the sound. However, the WA5-LE, particularly with the Western Electric 300Bs, had a lovely midrange blossom and its own beguiling character.

So, in an effort to take things up a notch, I rented (yes, I said rented) a pair of Abyss AB-1266 Deluxe’s with the stock cable from JPS Labs. Then I have to say I clearly preferred the WA5-LE V2 because I heard more air around the music than I did with the Liquid Gold, even though the Abyss headphones have a reputation for having lots of air of their own. Finally, I took an old pair of AKG-K701s that I had that had been modified to use Audio Note AN-SPx speaker cable, terminated with a gold-plated Furutech TRS (1/4” stereo) plug. Now I favored the Liquid Gold, because it did something that no amp had ever done before, which was to take away the AKG’s bright edge and give them real bass. They’re just a really inefficient pair of headphones that need a lot of “torque” to keep the drivers from wobbling, metaphorically speaking; but it worked. I thought that they sounded the best of all, even more so than the Abyss, in terms of overall soundstaging and just the tonal neutrality of the sound, while having more than enough air, but not so much that it sounded like you were hearing music through a tunnel.

The one pair of headphones that mated really well with the WA5-LE V2 were the HiFiMan HE-1000s (the original version, I can’t speak for the V2s) particularly with the Moon Audio Premium Black Dragon headphone cable using extra-high-quality rhodium-plated Furutech connectors. That combination has become my favorite, my reference standard, over the Abyss, until you start getting into electrostatic headphones using vacuum tube headphone amplifiers designed for electrostatics. I have often wondered how the MrSpeakers ETHER (the original claret red version, not the blue ETHER Flows) would sound with either amp, but one can only keep so many pairs of headphones around.

So, like I said, this isn’t a shootout, and I can’t tell you which of these turbocharged headphone amplifiers you should get because it largely depends on the rest of your system, including your headphones, and your own personal tastes. I can tell you that you that it would be hard to go wrong with either, so if you don’t want both (the mind reels), don’t sweat it. Consider practical things, like the size of the amp and how much heat it puts out, or impractical things, like the characteristic sound of those brightly-glowing “valves”. Here’s a short list of the albums to which I kept returning when I evaluated the amplifiers, all stored on my iMac in varying degrees of resolution:

  1. Moment to Moment by Cava Menzies and Nick Phillips
  2. There’s a Time by Doug MacLeod
  3. Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet
  4. The soundtrack to Suckerpunch by various artists
  5. Benda: Violin Sonatas (with original ornamentation) by Hans-Joachim Berg and Naoko Akutagawa

Peace out.

The Ayre Codex Redux

When Alex Brinkman at Ayre, who has been an extremely patient person, first asked me to review the Codex, it was not in the context of Codex as a combined high-resolution DAC with both USB and TOSLINK inputs plus a headphone amplifier, but pretty much as a direct comparison, USB DAC only, to my Ayre QB-9 DSD, that I use in desktop system with an iMac, Audirvana Plus, an AudioQuest Diamond USB cable, Stealth Sakra interconnects (both balanced and single ended) going into a Cavalli Liquid Gold and Woo WA5-LE V2 with Western Electric 300Bs respectively. The QB-9 DSD, though much more fun and rich in the bass than earlier versions of the QB-9. In the context of that desktop, headphones-only system, it’s still just the right thing even though the Codex is inherently darker and more three-dimensional than the QB-9 DSD. What I did fine is that Codex did much better with music servers, such as the Aurender N100H, and with ever better USB cables, my personal favorite being the entry-level Stealth ribbon USB cable.

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In fact, I’ve already told Alex that I want to buy the Codex, not to replace the QB-9 DSD, but to use in a third system I have with the Aurender N100H, the Stealth entry-level USB cable, and the Codex, feeding the all-tube Triode Audio Corporation TRV-88SE, a push-pull amplifier using four KT88’s, via Audio Note AN-Vx interconnects terminated with Eichmann Silver Bullet Plugs. The TRV-88SE, then runs through bi-wired Audio Note Lexus (copper) speaker cables into Audio Note AX-Twos with internal copper wiring replaced with silver, and attached to tall steel, dry sand filled stands with a few strips of Blu-tak. The net result is wonderful, about as analog sounding as you could get from a digital source going into a great tube integrated amp and possibly the most perfect pair of bookshelf monitors ever designed and made, kind of like Spendor Preludes but better or perhaps a pair of LS3/5a’s with bass, amplitude, and dynamic range (plus about four times bigger).

One album I’ve listed to a lot on this little system is the eponymous David Bowie often known as Space Oddity. It’s a recent release at 24/192, but the Codex doesn’t so much process it as it plays it, almost like a Koetsu Rosewood Signature carefully slipping through the grooves of an original pressing on a not-so-entry-level turntable. I picked a Koetsu specifically because it has a combination of warmth and clarity, with no loss of high-frequency detail, but mostly you can listen with it effortlessly and never feel like you’re missing a thing. In that same sense, I can listen to the N100H / Codex combination indefinitely. I’m not saying you couldn’t drop the Codex in place of the QB-9 DSD attached to an iMac, but I would be cautious, because they are mostly twin sons of different mothers, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The QB-9 DSD is tonally more neutral but less dynamic whereas the Codex sounds rich and warm to me with plenty of dynamics, but the QB-9 DSD seem to favor computers whereas, for whatever reason, the Codex seems at its best with a music server.

I wish I had some single song that would allow me to illustrate the differences between the two DACs. It’s just not that simple. They both are really excellent in very different ways and the way you get digital files to them, optimally, appears to be very different. Plus they just suit different systems. So when you go into your Ayre store, don’t evaluate the two DACs in exactly the same way. Contrast and compare. Do your homework. Oh, wait. I just looked at the Ayre product page and it appears that both the QA-9 and the QB-9 DSD are no longer in the product lineup. I hate to be the harbinger of doom, and I have heard great things about the QX-5 Twenty streaming DAC, but I think dropping those 9-series components could be a big mistake. Unfortunately, not my decision to make.