Last month, I highlighted my picks for the five best loudspeakers at High End 2015, held May 14-17 in Munich, Germany. Next month, I’ll talk about the five best-sounding systems I heard there. This month, it’s the five best electronic components:
Auralic Aries Mini digital-to-analog converter/streamer/wireless bridge
Fellow writers and showgoers Jeff Fritz and Hans Wetzel went crazy over Auralic’s new Aries Mini wireless streaming DAC -- for good reason. This little brother to Auralic’s popular Aries ($1599 USD) is one hell of a versatile, useful product, and it costs only $399.
Hans wrote at length about the Aries Mini from High End itself itself, in a posting to SoundStage! Global, as well as in an article for SoundStage! Access last month. Still, I’ll summarize the Mini here -- its feature set is so awesome, it’s worth repeating. It contains a Sabre ES9018K2M DAC chip capable of decoding DSD64/128/256 and up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM, and the analog outputs on its rear panel allow it to work as a typical DAC. The Aries Mini can also function as a wireless bridge via its USB, coaxial, and TosLink digital outputs -- very convenient for those who want central control of their digital music signals. It has a USB Type-A input for connecting an external hard drive, which makes it, basically, a music server. And it can pull music from Qobuz, Tidal, and WiMP, so it’s a streamer, too. Auralic’s Lightning DS app, available for Android and iPads, is used to control the Aries Mini via Ethernet or Wi-Fi.
There are probably more things the little Mini does, but those are what caught my attention. Suffice it to say that, for those who want a fully up-to-date digital source for a cut-rate price, the Aries Mini has, at present, no peers. What a clever, useful component.
MSB Technology Select II digital-to-analog converter
At the other end of the price spectrum is MSB Technology’s Select II DAC, a two-box digital source -- D/A circuitry in the top box, power supply underneath -- whose retail price begins at a mind-boggling $89,950, and can stretch to a beyond-belief $130,000. The higher prices depend on which options you add: subwoofer outputs, additional digital inputs, a better power supply -- or the Femto 33 Clock, which MSB says is the most accurate digital clock in all of hi-fi. As far as I know, the Select II is the most expensive DAC on the planet.
I think that any component, whether electronics or speakers, whose price approaches or exceeds $100,000 is a bit ridiculous. Can any single piece of audio gear really be worth so much? Perhaps in rare cases . . .
What impressed me about the Select II is that it’s so unlike the many high-end, high-priced DACs that are chock full of off-the-shelf parts but nothing really innovative. The folks at MSB seem to have gone all out by using in the Select II a boatload of bespoke parts -- including their own discrete DAC boards, which are huge -- in an original design that, if the company’s specs don’t lie, push the limits of DAC performance far past anything I know of. This is true state-of-the-art stuff. For instance, MSB claims for the Select II 28.5 bits of resolution (173dB of dynamic range), which not only far exceeds what’s required for 24-bit sources, but is about 6 bits better than most manufacturers’ flagship DACs. My jaw dropped when I read that, and I’m still not sure I believe it -- I’d always thought that 22-bit resolution was as much as any electronic circuit would allow. I remember thinking, “Well, if it does that, maybe they can justify the price, because that’s really pushing the envelope.” After all, serious R&D costs a lot of money, and creating something that performs that far beyond the competition might justify so high a price. The Select II DAC is also beautifully built, fully modular, completely upgradeable, and its warranty of ten years is longer than most. (Given the price, 20 or 25 years would be even nicer . . . )
I don’t see ever being able to afford the Select II, or even a DAC half its price -- the DAC I describe next is more in my league -- but I confess that I’d like the opportunity to hear if the Select II really is the best DAC in the world.
Moon by Simaudio Evolution 780D digital-to-analog converter
When Simaudio releases a new DAC, it’s something to take note of. Over the last ten years, the company has made quite a name for itself with its digital source components. In fact, I can’t think of one digital product they’ve released in that time that’s been a clunker. So when, in Munich, Simaudio debuted their new flagship DAC, the Moon Evolution 780D ($15,000), it caught my eye.
The 780D looks very like its sister Moon Evolution models, the 750D and 650D DACs, except for one big thing: it has no CD transport. This reflects the current trend toward computer-based audio and streaming. Appropriately, then, built into the 780D is Simaudio’s MiND streaming technology, as well as an abundance of digital inputs: USB, AES/EBU, five S/PDIF (three coaxial, two optical), Bluetooth, and Ethernet/Wi-Fi. The 780D also supports DSD64/128/256, whereas the 750D and 650D can’t play DSD signals at all. The 780D also supports PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz resolution -- the other two top out at 24/192. I still use the 650D, and think it sounds great -- I’d love to hear for myself if the Moon Evolution 780D sounds even better.
Hegel Music Systems H360 integrated amplifier-DAC
At High End 2015, Hans Wetzel took one look at Hegel’s new H360 integrated amplifier-DAC, turned to me, and said, “Oh, shit. I better sell my H300.” Indeed. The H360 was designed to replace the H300. What’s more, at $5700, it costs only $200 more.
The H360 contains improved amplifier circuitry and second-generation SoundEngine technology, the latter a patented feedforward system that’s claimed to improve linearity and reduce distortion. Together, say the folks at Hegel, these work to make the H360 sound significantly better than the H300. Also included is the same audiophile-tweaked Apple AirPlay circuitry used in their H160 integrated-DAC, which Hans absolutely loved and has just reviewed for SoundStage! Access. The onboard DAC is claimed to be better than the H300’s, which was already very good, and it supports PCM and DSD -- the H300 was limited to PCM.
For the Hanses of this world -- younger Apple devotees who abhor LPs, listen exclusively to digital files, embrace single-box simplicity, and don’t have the means or the desire to dump north of ten grand on an amplifier and DAC -- the H360 is music to their ears in more ways than one.
Gryphon Audio Designs Diablo 300 integrated amplifier-DAC
While at High End 2015, Hans wrote a feature for SoundStage Global, “Extreme Integrated Amps from Gryphon Audio Designs and Jeff Rowland Design Group,” in which he described the Gryphon Diablo 300 as “an unapologetic brute, an amp appropriate for a man who kills his own dinner and proceeds to cook it over a wood fire from a tree that he took down with an oversized axe. I’ve never seen anything like it in hi-fi.” I knew he meant that as a compliment -- the first time I saw the Diablo 300, what came to mind was something a Brit might say: This is a serious piece of kit. Like, really serious -- it’s huge. But where Hans saw a brute, I saw something big, bold, impressive, and even beautiful, in a massive, masculine kind of way.
The Diablo 300 replaces Gryphon’s Diablo and has a base retail price in Europe of €12,800. The Diablo 300’s class-AB design is claimed to deliver 300Wpc into 8 ohms, 600Wpc into 4 ohms, or 950Wpc into 2 ohms. That 2-ohm rating indicates that, insofar as its power-amp section goes, the 300’s muscle matches its looks: it’s no wimp. The binding posts are oversize and look super-durable -- no surprise in this overbuilt amp. Optional modular DAC and phono (moving-magnet/moving-coil) boards cost €4800 apiece.
For those willing to drop more than $10,000 on an integrated amp -- the non-Hanses of the world, I guess -- the Diablo 300 looks like a good one to spend it on. In fact, of all the integrateds I saw in Munich this year, this is the one I really want to follow up on about the possibility of reviewing it.
Next month, I’ll write about the five best-sounding systems I heard at High End 2015, and that will wrap up this three-part series on that amazing show in Munich last May. Then, in September, I’ll talk about my favorites of the products I’ve reviewed so far this year. That will be a must-read -- more great products have come through my door in the first half of this year than in any other year.
. . . Doug Schneider