Prices listed are in US$.
“Welcome to the new age, to the new age. Radioactive… radioactive.”
Wait, sorry. Wrong lyrics, right sentiment. Welcome to the new age of audio, or, should I say, the golden age of audio. Thanks to advances in science and technology, across all formats and designs, there’s never been as many good-sounding and effective audio products in the history of our hobby as there are today. This universal rise in the splendidness of audio gear and accessories has produced a wonderful by-product—a blossoming in the number of Killer Audio Products!
I almost titled this new column “Giant Killers (that’ll make you feel like swindlers)”. It would have had a nice rhymey ring to it, but while Giant Killers conveys the gist of what this series is about, the term wasn’t inclusive enough. A Giant Killer implies a relatively affordable product whose performance slays that of the top-tier performance expected of its high-end brethren—it’s not just a budget component, it’s a great-sounding component regardless of price. But what if it’s too particular to really have a Giant to slay? Say, like a digital switch? Or a master clock? Or a turntable platter? Or, what if we’re just referring to a killer upgrade? To avoid confusion, we chose Killer Audio Products to encompass the whole kit and caboodle of products meant to enhance our listening pleasure, while respecting the Giant Killer spirit—and that is that each chosen killer deliver or facilitate a rare and unexpected level of sonic improvement in our system at a price that’s nowhere near high-end. To be on the safe side, of course, we highly recommend you try out any of the products recommended in this series in your own system.
On average, every column will present 5 killers, chosen by PMA Magazine contributors, trustworthy friends, and participants who have had firsthand, long-term experience with the product and will vouch for its killer status publicly. We may even publish an installment that contains only one or two killers if we believe these are so mind-bendingly fantastic people need to know about them now. Also, it is not only possible but likely that those who have contributed to this series will do so again because there will always be new killers.
Inaugurated by writers Tom Gibbs and Paul Bowes, we hope you enjoy this series. — Rob Schryer (a.k.a. Hermann Nitesweats)
Silent Angel Bonn N8 Switch ($599) with Bonn Forester F1 Linear Power Supply ($599)
In my system, the addition of two Silent Angel Bonn N8 audiophile switches with a Silent Angel Forester F1 linear power supply was a game changer. Employing a high-precision clock with technology said to reduce noise, jitter, and electrical interference, the N8 transformed my digital streaming into something once plagued with a digital edge to something that sounds organic, natural, and real.
Silent Angel has since released their Bonn N16, which combines two Bonn N8 switches and the Forester F1 linear power supply into one box. Silent Angel has also released a newer Forester F2 power supply, and the N8 Pro switch, as well as their newest flagship Bonn NX switch.
Synergistic Research Tranquility Pod (110V $749, 230V $849)
The amazing Synergistic Research Tranquility Pod, said to condition the music signal through inductive coupling with the Pod placed beneath or on top of an audio component to cancel distortion, was one of my biggest surprises of all the tweaks and upgrades I’ve tried in my system. I liked it so much I bought four of them, to use under four electronic components. With each Pod, my music gained a degree of realism that made the musicians sound more fleshed out and dimensional, until now they sound right there.
Freshly plugged in, a Tranquility Pod needs a few hours to settle in to do its full magic. In my case, the sound continued to improve over the next few days. This is not hyperbole—I was floored by how good the Pod is. I can’t think of another accessory that transformed my music as significantly as the Pods have, and that is more deserving of the title “Killer Audio Product!”.
Gustard X26 Pro DAC ($1499)
Chinese manufacturer Gustard has developed quite a reputation for producing digital audio products that punch well above their price class. The X26 Pro DAC is a perfect example of a true high-end delta-sigma design that provides a level of features, connectivity, performance, and musicality that easily positions it in the same company as DACs costing multiples of its very reasonable price point. Prior to the X26 Pro’s insertion into my system almost a year ago, my go-to DAC was its more cost-conscious sibling, the X16 ($499). That unit became my budget reference, and it garnered accolades across the internet and audio world for its outstanding performance-to-price ratio.
The fully balanced, 32-bit X26 Pro betters the X16 in every conceivable way; its tank-like build quality and impressive parts selection (including a pair of top-of-the-line ESS ES9038Pro DAC chips) provides a foundation for superb musical performance. It excels with both PCM and DSD sources, and supports native playback capabilities extending to 32-bit/768 KHz PCM and DSD512. Multiple digital filter selections are available for both PCM and DSD. The unit features dual toroidal transformers with built-in separate linear power supplies for digital and analog circuits. The X26 Pro also provides 8x PCM oversampling, and supports full MQA decoding. In addition to balanced and single-ended analog outputs, the unit sports an I2S digital output, and is one of the few DACs in its price range that allows for connection to an external 10 MHz clock. All this technology contributes to the X26 Pro’s dazzling musicality, and places it among Giant Audio Killers.
Gustard C18 Constant Temperature Master Clock ($1600)
Gustard has been dabbling with external clocks for a while, and last year introduced the C18 OXCO Constant Temperature 10MHz master clock ($1,599). “OCXO” stands for Oven Controlled Crystal Oscillator; in real world terms, the “oven” heats the clock, providing much more consistently stable signal oscillation than typically found in most internal DAC clocks. The OCXO helps provide a much greater degree of control and stability to the digital (and, eventually, musical) signal. I got my first exposure to outboard clocks at last year’s Florida Audio Expo, where master clocks from manufacturers such as dCS, Esoteric, and Sforzato were found in many of the cost-no-object rooms. Those high-end clocks can sport price tags ranging from $3,500 and upwards, to even $24,000. That gives the Gustard C18 the potential to be a tremendous value!
The C18 took its place in my audio rack alongside the X26 Pro at the same time last year. I’ve done extensive listening with the C18 both in-and-out of the chain, and its inclusion always makes a surprising and significant contribution to the overall musicality of my system. With the C18 inserted in the playback chain, I experience greater retrieval of fine details, improved pacing and flow of the music, a more defined and palpable soundstage, and a much greater sensation of realism in recorded performances. I credit much of the improvements to the enhanced technology of the stand-alone master clock, which has its own robust internal linear power supply, as well as the ultra low-noise Oven Controlled Crystal Oscillator module. A well-designed external master clock will always lower distortion and improve digital signal transmission between devices. Is an external clock that costs more than the DAC it supports worth it? Yes, absolutely, when it delivers the level of musicality the C18 does.
Topping E70 Velvet DAC ($449)
Topping produces products that provide serious audiophile bang for your buck. I started getting emails in March from my contacts at Euphony Audio (they manufacture my digital streaming equipment stack) about the E70 Velvet DAC, telling me I should definitely give it a listen. The E70 Velvet is a delta-sigma DAC design that features one of the first implementations of the new series of AKM chips. AKM has only recently begun to produce chips again following the disastrous fire a couple of years ago at its manufacturing plant. The E70 Velvet employs AKM’s new “Velvetsound” chip configuration that offers the potential for a significant improvement in the quality of DSD file playback—a welcome feature to those of us who see DSD as a superior digital medium. I currently have over 400 DSD album files on my digital server.
The “Velvetsound” configuration implements a sequence of two chips to accomplish the delta-sigma modulation and digital-to-analog conversion. That sequence includes an AKM AK4191EQ chip that performs the delta-sigma modulation, and AKM’s current top-of-the-line AKM4499EXEQ DAC chip that performs the actual conversion. What makes the big difference in AKM’s implementation is that by separating the processes between individual chips, there’s a clear path for native DSD signals to proceed from the delta-sigma modulation to the digital-to-analog conversion stages without combining native DSD signals with PCM ones. They each follow discrete paths within the chips, which is something that very few delta-sigma DAC chip manufacturers can claim to do. I can attest that the sound quality of DSD files at any volume of playback through the E70 Velvet is shockingly good, especially for a DAC that retails for $449! The definition of a killer audio product, the Topping E70 Velvet represents a price breakthrough for products that offer superlative DSD sound.