It’s the time of year for saving money!
Reviewers, like small children, often have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs. For children their nemesis is usually sweets, for audio reviewers, it’s audio gear. I’m as guilty as the next guy when it comes to not getting everything I asked for from manufacturers reviewed in a timely manner. Occasionally some great gear never sees a full review due in large part to space, time, and the vagaries of life.
Here are three components that I think are especially good, but will probably never see a full review in The Absolute Sound or AvGuide.com. All three have seen extensive use in one of my systems and have become essential parts of my reviewing kit.
King Rex UD 384/32 USB DAC ($479) and S/PDIF convertor with U-Power supply ($189) – One of the few USB DACs that actually does support a 384/32 bit-stream (kind of a “so what?” from a software point of view), the UD 384 is a step up from the Musical Fidelity V-Link II in terms of fidelity and output capabilities. Not only does the UD 384 serve as a fine portable DAC, but it also makes a high-resolution USB convertor if you already have a good DAC with S/PDIF inputs.
King Rex accessory power supply, the U-Power, allows the UD 384 to run without using USB power, substituting its own 5V battery power. The U-Power will also work with any device that has provisions for a USB 5.0 volt supply, allowing many USB DACs to decouple from the computer’s supplied power.
While not quite in the league of the Emprical Audio Off-Ramp 5 with short-block, or the Human Audio Tabla USB convertor boxes, the King Rex does offer a more transparent and sonically neutral USB solution than ANY USB device that’s more than two years old, so it does offer a cost-effective upgrade path for older DACs, even USB -capable ones.
Role Audio Canoe desktop speakers ($1495/pr) are one of the only small monitors I’ve used on my desktop that don’t require some kind of elevated or angled speaker stand. The reason you don’t have to fuss with them on your desktop is simple – they were designed specifically for nearfield desktop use. And unlike most small monitor speakers, which require some adjustment to get the tweeter and midrange woofer in the right position vis-à-vis your head, the Canoes are just the right height so that the tweeter is slightly above and the midrange woofer is slightly below ear-height.
I’ve been using the Canoe speaker for the past six months with a wide variety of amplifiers and computer-based front ends and it certainly rivals my other small reference monitors, including the Aerial Acoustics 5Bs, ATC SC-7s, and ProAc Jubilee Anniversary Tablettes. Although still requiring a subwoofer to create a full-range system, the Canoes have a surprising amount of lower midrange and upper bass energy output. Even with lower-powered amplifiers, such as the NuForce DDA-100, the Canoes were dynamic yet extremely well controlled. If you’re looking for a great under $1500 US-Made desktop monitor, the Canoes are a must-audition speaker.
The April Music Eximus S-1 power amplifier ($2495) can be used as a stereo or mono amplifier. It also has both balanced and single-ended inputs. During the last year I’ve used the S-1 in all its possible configurations – mono, stereo, single-ended and balanced, and it has never failed to deliver the goods – clean, quiet, effortless power. Based around a B&O ICE power device, the S-1 sounds very similar to the Bel Canto M-1000 II power amplifiers, yet it runs quite a bit hotter. After the S-1 warms up it produces a remarkably three-dimensional and spacious soundstage that seems limited only by the source. Compared to the other ICEpower amplifiers I own, the Bel Canto M-300s, the S-1s have slightly better depth recreation and imaging precision.
Although I usually use a pair of S-1s in monoblock configuration in my desktop system, a single S-1 is more than enough for any speaker with sensitivity greater than 84 dB. The latest version of the S-1 includes a switch to float the ground. And while I never had any ground loop or hum issues with the original version, it’s nice to have a quick and safe way to eliminate the ground if necessary.
So, there you have three products which haven’t gotten as much press as I think they deserve. All three should be on your audiophile radar. Hopefully, in 2013 I won’t be quite so over-consuming when it comes to requesting products for review…consider it my New Year’s resolution.