Roon, Tidal, Auralic, Lampizator, Audio Note and Acapella – part I

In search of streaming music configurations that don’t suck. Or…. Mike and Neli visit the 21st Century.

J. visited us for a few days and we played a lot of music. He is an extremely fun and generous person and we spent the weekend together comparing streaming to CD playback, and even spun a little vinyl.

The goal was to try and make streaming-quality sound be as close as possible to CD-quality sound, using vinyl as a ‘gold standard’ sanity-check to make sure that we were not veering off into some kind of analytical-sounding wasteland.

TL;DR

The sound of streaming audio ranges from sounding really confused and ‘stepped all over’ in its unoptimized default state to, in the best case during our shootout, having very high resolution and being slightly compressed. It really caters more to the Mind and its primary struggle is to communicate to the Heart [this is something the Lampizator naturally struggles with, being more neutral even than the solid-state Emm Labs XDS1 for example, but I am talking here in addition to that. We all listened long enough, and with enough focus, that I think we were able to largely ignore the slight coolness of the Lampizator to the literally dozens of changes in sound that we made].


[the initial configuration of the system before the Auralic Aries was added]

THE TOYS

Custom fan-less Roon music server with 8TB disk and small SSD.

Auralic Aries (G1?) streamer

Lampizator Golden Gate 2 – just in from factory update, new PX4 /54UG tubes

Audio Note CDT-Five transport

Audio Note M9 Phono full function preamplifier

Audio Note TT2 Deluxe turntable, AN Arm 3/II, IO One cartridge, S9 step-up transformer

Acapella La Musika integrated amplifier

Acapella Cellini High loudspeaker

Everything on HRS platforms, racks and nimbus couplers

Audio Note SOOTTO and ISIS power cords, Acapella LaMusika (standard) powercord, and Nordost Odin powercords

Audio Note SOOTTO and PALLAS interconnects, Nordost Odin interconnects.

Acapella LaMusika Reference loudspeaker cables

——————————–

All told about $500K in gear


[the final configuration with the Auralic and the Audio Note Kegon amps driving the Acapella Cellini High loudspeakers]


THE SHOOTOUT

The CDT-Five was connected to the Lampizator’s S/PDIF on RCA input, with the Auralic streamer on USB (Tyr 2 USB cable).  The Lampizator was then either driving [at Unity Gain, no attenuation] the M9 Phono preamplifer, the La Musika integrated, or, using the Lampizator volume control, the La Musika amp and Kegon amps directly. Kegons are single-ended (RCA) only, everything else (M9Phono, LaMusika) connected using transformer coupled balanced (XLR).

We played a track from each of 3 albums for which we had both the downloaded DSD files on the music server and the CDs [and often LPs, but we did not explore this much] and we went back and forth comparing the quality of the sound and experience between these two sources with respect to many [my guess is between 20 and 30] different configurations of gear and cables and Roon settings.

The three tracks chosen were Holly Cole’s latest ‘Holly’ [track 5], Radiohead’s In Rainbows [track 8], and Alison Krauss and Union Station Live [track 4].


[the Auralic Aries running into the Lampizator Golden Gate both on HRS M3X isolation bases. The paper clip there was used to reset the Auralic each time we changed anything because someone forgot to bring the Auralic’s remote control 🙂 In fact we often had to reset the Auralic twice when we made a change – then things worked just fine]


 

THE RESULTS

Going from the Audio Note ISIS power cord to the SOOTTO power cord on the power supply for the Auralic streamer made a huge improvement in warmth and harmonic content and musicality of the sound. In this configuration we also happened to have the Odin PC on the Lampizator, which was running at Unity Gain [not using the Lampizator preamp] into the Acapella integrated, which was using an Odin power cord. In my opinion this was the best sounding configuration. Almost entirely Mind but with enough Heart that it worked for me.

To my ears [not sure anyone else heard much of a difference. I mean, why should there even be any difference? but often blind I could tell many times that we had just gone from SSD to Hard Drive], each time we went back and forth between the DSD files on the hard drive vs. the same files on the SSD, the hard drive always sounded better [less harsh and jagged, less noisy, and less weird poop going on that is really hard to describe].

After spending many many hours messing with Roon, we found out how to turn off most (or all) of the Roon processing, and then, by actually turning it off, we made a huge positive difference and my ears were able to finally relax [in fact it was almost a physical sensation – my ears had been freaking out, apparently :-)] and we all agreed: Much Improved. [presumably this meant that the Lampizator was taking over as much of the Digital to Analog conversion as possible (which of course is it’s job). Depending on the architecture of your DAC and how well it handles various digital resolutions and formats, YMMV. For example, when the Roon was downsampling the Lampi could have been upsampling it back up to DSD [not uncommon] before then finally downconverting it again for their final hand-off to their internal linestage, in which case just sending the Lampi the DSD, which is what it wants in the first place, saved two conversions which just has to [and did] make the music sound closer to what it is supposed to sound like]. <Neli here … I am pretty sure that the Golden Gate 2 has separate internal paths for DSD and PCM. These two format families take two distinct approaches to the digital signal. So … from the above, I would say that Lampizator’s PCM decoding sounds superior to upsampling everything to DSD512 (8xDSD) then going from there. The USB PCM & DSD input autodetects and internally routes the signal as appropriate. >

Tidal was the worst sounding source as expected – apparently limited to 24×96 and streaming across the Internet instead from a local drive – muddy and mucked up compared to CD and downloaded DSD files – but it kept getting better as we kept making the rest of the chain better – and it frequently wasn’t so poor that it couldn’t be enjoyed.

The 20 watt Audio Note Kegon amps can drive the Acapella Cellini High to 100db [yes you two, it was that loud on a few of those songs at the end IMO] levels in our 13×18 foot room. There was some slight clipping in the midrange at times, but not nearly as much as one might expect, and it controls the speakers like a mean you know what.

There is an incompatibility between the Lampazator output and the Acapella La Musika direct inputs [i.e. using the Lampizator built-in volume control] and manifested such that the bass was mostly AWOL. No such problem running direct to the Kegons [though we are investigating some soundstaging and other anomalies – all we know is it isn’t the Kegons: it is either humans mucking up or the linestage in the Lampizator mucking up – there is just not much else in the system right now. We’ll learn more over the next week or two].

Neli and J. like to play music very loud [100+ db] – I spent much of the first evening in a different room 🙂 *I* can still hear high frequencies 🙂 The next day they let me stay and kept it under 90+ dB almost the entire day [thanks you two! :-/ ]

We ran wireless, (custom Roon core server connected to its dedicated Cisco Meraki MR18 wireless access point) with only one dropout during the 16+ hours of music [we get about 120M/s bandwidth – good bandwidth is one of the perks being here in The Valley] and line of sight (so to speak) being about 15 feet through a thin wall].

The CD playback through the [albeit rather expensive, very high-quality] redbook-only CDT-Five transport to the Lampizator was consistently more open sounding, more dynamic, slightly warmer and with less resolution. Although the sometimes spectacular resolution of the Streaming music was able to render the subtle intonations of, say, human voice amazingly well, there was still difficulty for us humans making a connection with the music.

The Lampizator has this ‘feature’, in my opinion a bug, where it saves and restores the volume setting not just after being on stand-by, which makes some sense, but after power cycles – we spent almost the entire shootout with the volume at 0 dB – Unity Gain – using the Audio Note M9 Phono or the Acapella La Musika integrated as preamplifiers [attenuators]. But there were a few times Neli had to go thru and reset all the volumes down to -40dB [which is still around 65dB on the Kegons!] when we went from using an outboard preamp with the Lampizator, like the M9 or La Musika, to driving amps directly using the Lampizator volume control.

We spent way too much time in the DSD512 mode on the Lampizator, which was about 3dB down from [quieter than] the CD input before we discovered that the USB PCM & DSD input sounded not only much better but additionally was at the same volume as the CD input [so Neli was then saved from having to jump up and adjust the volume each time we switched from CD to Streaming. I tell her being an audiophile keeps her slim and fit].


[The Lampizator Golden Gate rear panel]


NEXT STEPS

We will play a lot more with this over the next few weeks before J. takes his toys back.


[Auralic Aries G1 rear panel]


OUR TAKEAWAY

When we did finally move the AN SOOTTO PC to the Auralic, it was like night-and-day and we wanted to just hug the female vocalist she [Alison] was so real and her voice so inviting – in this sense there are configurations where the Streaming crosses over from (what can be) very Mind-appealing into being at least somewhat Heart-appealing – and this cross-over is a sound that I want to spend a lot of time in the future indulging in. Looking forward very much to playing with the Emm Labs’ DA2 and also playing with running the Auralic directly into the Audio Note Fifth Element/Fifth Force DAC [using Roon to step things down to 24×96 when needed].

Typically we also really like mixing very high-resolution and tubes – in this case running a very high-res signal into a tube-based preamp and or amp. We want to add the M9 Phono preamp back in the system to take back the volume control duties from the Lampizator and see what that sounds like next.

Should be a blast 🙂

Audio Note SOOTTO power cords

Audio Note SOOTTO power cords, power cables, mains cable, PC… whatever you want to call them.

You know when you start playing with $11K-ish power cords, things are going to start getting weird. A person is likely to have some expectations and demands going in to the process, with a few eye-rolls and ‘what has this world come to’ heart-felt commiserations by the spectators [by those that are not the 1%, and since 1%-ers sometimes feel left out and like to fit in with the 99%-ers, EVERYBODY complains about these kinds of prices].

Although we have very much enjoyed the Nordost Odin One power cords, at this same exact-ish price point, little else has impressed us. Audio Note itself has made several forays into the power cord universe, but we have withheld our unflinching approval of these efforts [unlike our absolute repeated vociferous exclamations that everyone should own their own (brown) PALLAS interconnects and SOGON interconnects – price performance is just way too high to not take advantage of, shall we say the quite unusual, *extremely* reasonable prices compared to the competition here].

But lately things have changed vis-a-vis AN power cords. We have recently had the Audio Note ISIS power cords in. For $600-700-ish [the dollar is being driven down against the world’s other currencies, and prices are changing… aka rising]. These make us giggle. They do so much, so well. Really excellent all-round performers. Yep, that is six or seven HUNDRED, not thousand. Crazy, huh? 😉

And now we have the $11K-ish SOOTTO power cords.

In this case we have two to play with. And three components. The Audio Note CDT-Five transport. The Audio Note DAC Five Signature. And the Acapella LaMusika integrated amplifier. Not quite $300K in gear, but enough so its not like couple of $11K power cords are completely unwarranted. Right? Say “right, Mike”.

So… eeny-meeny… we put the first SOOTTO on the DAC. All of these components are superstars but the DAC has called attention to itself many times for being so wonderfully un-DAC-like [sorry, digital-philes, but ‘digital sound’ is still a pejorative if our ears get to choose what THEY want to hear. Just sayin’ … :-/].

OK. Install power cord. And………. play.

Huh.

Unlike the Odin, there was no, almost 3db(!), jump in volume.

So for the first 1/2 second or so it was like, “Compared to the ISIS, that is not that much diff…er…ent…….”

Oh.

The INCREDIBLE subtleties of music and emotion and musicianship and… the INCREDIBLE depths this hobby has to offer keep surprising me.

Why does a person start crying at times like these? I don’t know.

I like to think it is because of the beauty of the music thus revealed. Or the thoughts about all the wasted hours listening to music withOUT this level of playback. Something that can at least be tied to some kind of logical reason to be reacting so emotionally to something, let’s face it, is just a rather banal case of just exchanging one power cord for another.

Silly me. One of the first thoughts I had [trying to hide my tears from Neli, long story] is that it did not matter that these speakers were quite modest in the general scheme of things these days [the Acapella Cellini High at about $60K now (dollar is sinking people)], and that this kind of performance was indeed achievable on this system with the right combination of upstream gear [we periodically worry, like several times per day (maybe it is just me, but… knowing Neli…), that our choice to get smaller speakers for a smaller room than we are used to is comprising the playback too much. It’s kind of like we got spoiled with such a large room as our main listening room in Boulder in our mountain ‘chalet’ haha :-)].

My next thoughts, something a little less ‘silly’, I think, was that “oh. THIS is music”. This is SO hard to describe and such a fleeting concept, it is hard to grasp on to it long enough to identify it in enough detail, to understand and categorize it sufficiently, in order to describe it to other people. Or just to be able to describe it to myself and kind of stick a flag in it in a “to name something is to have power over something – to start understanding something” way.

I believe we all have these kind of “Oh, THIS is music” experiences spread out during our lives. This is a special kind of “Ultimate Music Experience” we talk about here on the blog periodically.

This is about the intrinsic musicality of music. So hard to describe and this recursive definition isn’t helping much, I bet.

In my life… I was in the glee club in Junior High School [not really my choice, in my case]. Although I sing wonderfully awful, every so often there was this resonance between Music, with a capital M, and what we were doing.

Same with when I spent several years learning to play the guitar badly, every so often this focus would be rewarded in experiencing a little bit of the Music.

Same with when I experimented [too much :-)] with alcohol and other recreational pursuits.

And of course all those special, all-too-fleeting, occasions that high-end audio has produced for us over the years – like perfect 10-inch snowflakes.

These is a deep, very, very simple rhythm that we all dance to and respond to, and it is so easy to obscure it with the massive clutter of everyday life [and the clutter of what  ‘we know’ about sound and music]. To be able to uncover the inner truth of our core existence, to experience it: “this is me, a human hearing other humans making rhythmic sounds”. Such a rare and precious experience.

These kinds of experiences… they are so very rare. If we were to have them more often, they would not be as precious, nope, but perhaps our mental health would be improved. [?] At the least it seems like they would help ground us in reality [realities like less than 1% of events out there are actually negative, but negative events are 99% of what is ‘reported’ (perhaps I exaggerate. A little :-)), and this is used to manipulate us in various ways that accentuate the negatives]. Music is such a very, very clear sign that there is so much beauty inherent in this world.

Anyway THIS is why we are all audiophiles, THIS is why we all like playing with this level of gear, to make THIS kind of experience much more common than it would otherwise be in our stressed out, f’d up world.

THIS is why I like these power cords. 🙂

[Oh we tried them in several combinations. Liked it best with the two SOOTTO on the DAC and transport, and the Acapella power cord on their LaMusika amp. Yes, putting the better PC on the amp would normally be best, and it WAS more or less ‘better’ – more open and dynamic, but there was just more charm and engagement with the cords on the other two pieces of gear in this case. As you can see below, the DAC 5 Signature has moved on – now replaced by a DAC Zero :-). Next: the TT2 Deluxe turntable with the two-box Audio Note M9 RIAA phono stage, before it goes off to an official review by the esteemed Fred Crowder at Dagogo].

 

 

Little AN DAC Zero standing in for the DAC 5 Signature in the middle shelf of the HRS SXR rack.

EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers – Day 20

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers, Neli is out, and I have some free time…

Out come the CDs that I know Neli looks askance at… 🙂

Patrick O’Hearn [forget which one, but they’re all good], Jean Michel Jarre, Live in China, Klaus Schultz, Angst, Moody Blues, Threshold of a Dream (SACD)….

I think...
I think I am.
Therefore I am!
I think...

Holy cow. I always think of when I first played these albums, over and over, pre-teens to early twenties, how I LONGED for the music to sound this way. Talk about angst…

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers are going to drive the poop out of your speakers

We’ve never had bass like this here, like we have with the MTRX on the Acapella Atlas. It really kicks my butt. [3 x 10 inch woofers (one is isobaric). I think the built-in Bladeilius amps on the 6 x 9 inch woofers of the Marten Coltrane Supreme speakers we had here are of the laid back bass variety, like most solid-state amps that have a decent midrange. Edge amps are another one].

It is a supremely bold effort – to make solid-state amps that are incredibly ballsy but still sound like music.

It is like what Krell should have been. What it wanted to be when it grew up.

I tell you, these amps are the ultimate ‘Boys Toy’ 🙂 🙂

It is so hard to tell how loud it is, everything is so clear sounding, and it is so much fun to keep turning up the volume. I have to do the old trick of talking out loud to the room to see if I can hear my own voice… or not…

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers are going to dominate the sound of your system

This not a bad thing. 🙂

We are doing a few cable shootouts these days. Nordost Valhalla and Odin. Acrolink [forget which models]. NVS Sound [lots of models].

Going from $16K Odin to $4K Valhalla interconnects is instructive.

A little duller sound, a little fuzzier imaging, a little nosier background.

But that is it.

Still have most of the slam, the control of the speakers, the notes staying separate in their little envelopes, the melodies not getting all fuzzed together… the amps still were doing their thing. The intrinsic character of  the system stayed really pretty much the same [mostly, I missed the Odin’s black, black, BLACK background].

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers are going to ruin other solid-state amps for you

Those others? They are really dull-sounding and really wimpy. A bunch of girly men [I’m reading Arnold’s book. So… 🙂 ]. They, in hindsight, cannot keep separate melodies separate, the cannot reproduce all of the instruments of an orchestra at the same time, they cannot reproduce bass with all the authority of true-to-life bass [which the best tube amps can do, but not at this volume!!! Yeehaw!!!].

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers are a really bold effort to make a solid-state amp that is not just a ‘convenience’.

Sure, most solid-state amps are reliable, you turn them on. They work. They get the music from the preamp to the speaker. What’s to complain about?

It is like when (a few) cable companies started making cables that were not designed to fuzz out the sound. Most cable companies still make blurry-sounding cables so that you don’t get your ears chewed off by the horrible edginess of the upstream equipment. When they started making cables clear sounding, letting us hear the music, it was like a dream come true for people who like hearing the music.

I like hearing the music. It is really awesome. And I bet you do too.

The MTRX amps will be at CES 2015 driving Wilson Alexia speakers. Maybe the Venetian will let them crank it up once in a while. But even if they don’t it should be quite interesting. I’m really looking forward to hearing that system – and triangulating it with what we hear here. Yep. Interesting.