Big Sound 2015 Wrap: My Gratitude For The Auxiliary Gear
Four months ago, before the idea of Big Sound 2015 even entered my head, I had a problem: How was I going to evaluate the new batch of top-of-the-line headphones (HiFiMAN HE-1000; Enigmacoustics Dharma; Mr. Speakers Ether; Audio Zenith PMx2) that appeared over the previous six months? Obviously, I had to get them here and measured, but I also needed to do some serious listening test of those cans against the current crop of great headphones (Sennheiser HD-800, modified; Audeze LCD-3 and LCD-X; JPS Labs Abyss AB1266; Stax SR-009 and SR-007). How the heck do you do that? Comparing ten headphones is a bit of a trick. I wanted to be able to plug them all in at the same time and be able to switch quickly between them. "Good luck with that," I said to myself.
Well, not being one to let a somewhat insane project slow me down I thought about what gear might make an ideal set-up for evaluating the cans.
- I needed a front end source that would play music from my network drive and provide a digital output.
- I needed a way to distribute that digital signal to multiple DAC and headphone amp digital inputs.
- I needed a bunch of really good headphone amplifiers to evaluate how each headphone fared with varying types of amplification.
- And, very importantly, I needed to ensure the system as a whole wasn't a cludge-ridden mish-mosh of cables and AC conditioners I had lying aroundfrankly, I didn't think I had enough anyway.
It's that last bit I'm going to talk about in this wrap-up post. I will discuss my impressions and experience hosting the participants and my personal take on the gear in two following posts this week to finish the Big Sound 2015 series.
My biggest fear in constructing this enormous headphone listening system was that its performance as a whole wouldn't hold up to world-class standards; no-name cables and raw power from the wall would be an open door to unknowns and criticism from readers and participants. Fortunately, I've got contacts in these areas, and very fortunately they trusted I'd make proper use of the gear. And so, my deepest gratitude to the following manufacturers for loaning me tens of thousands of dollars worth of the very best auxiliary equipment money (lots and lots of money) can buy.
Initially I thought the AURALiC Aries would be a good choicewhich it would havebut Bryan Stanton (PR agent for AURALiC and Aurender) said the Aries was really cool (I've asked for a review sample) but if I wanted the most high-end network music renderer (streaming file player) possible I might want to try the Aurender W20. I wouldn't need the two 6TB internal drives because I'd be streaming off the network, but the internal 240GB internal solid-state drive used to cache data for glitch-free streaming would be dandy. My experience with the W20 was superb! It acted a little funny upon first start-uplikely due to the internal battery banks, which it runs on, weren't charged upbut subsequent operation was flawless. The W20 also has a comprehensive and simple to use iPad app that we used for playback control; and which also gave access to Tidal and its huge 16/44.1 library when a particular track wasn't available on the local network. A very handy and reliable high-end source....er, streaming renderer.
The Aurender can spit out digits from a number of outputs including USB, but I had to split the signal into about ten feeds for the DAC and headphone amps with built in DACs. The most common digital input on all the gear was USB, but try as I might I couldn't find a USB distribution amplifierif someone knows of such a beast I'd like to hear about it; it would solve the PCM-DSD divide. Finding a digital distribution amp for normal digital signals was not a problem however, in fact, there were far too many to choose from. Unfortunately, they usually were pretty cheap devices that split the signal about four ways. I needed more, and better, digital feeds.
Then I stumbled upon the gear made by ATI, which is owned by the famous high-end radio tuner company DaySequerra. They've got a comprehensive product line of gear for distributing digital audio signals...too comprehensive. I got lost in all their gear. So I gave them a call and was surprised and pleased to get David Day himself on the line. He surprisingly knew of my work at InnerFidelity and was more than happy to guided me to some killer solutions.
ATI gives you the choice of XLR or BNC, 12 channel devices; I chose the XLR flavor with their DDA212-XLR. It's got some features I didn't even know was possible. For example, it can distribute digital signals in which left and right channels are separate to improve the resolution and speed possible. After figuring out how to get the device in the right mode for my needs it worked without flaw. The only problem was a few of the DACs and amps didn't have AES/EBU XLR inputs. What to do?
David Day pointed out another product they carry called the DMM100the DMM stands for digital match maker. These little units can take any format of digital input, and output that signal in all formatsit's a digital format converter. I used three of them to convert the AES/EBU signal from the DDA212-XLR to various formats for the gear without XLRs. And I used one into the second input of the DDA212 so that I could use a second digital source besides the Aurender for the system. This came in really handy when setting levels as I could use my Astell & Kern AK240 on which I store a number of test signals. A dandy little gadget indeed.
Then, of course, I needed a bunch of AES/EBU digital cables. I rang up Stephen Mejias of AudioQuest for some assistancehaving known him from his Stereophile days I figured he'd be sympathetic to my cause. He certainly was, and agreed to loan me about a dozen AES/EBU Carbon cables of various lengths.
Of course, I needed all sorts of other audio cables to connect DACs to amps as well. AudioQuest came through with a goodly number of their MacKenzie XLR interconnects. Mistakenly thinking that I might have time to do some cable comparisons I also sourced interconnects from a number of other makers. Nordost sent a healthy complement of cables from their Heimdall line; JPS Labs provided an assortment from their Superconductor V line; and Ted Paisley at CablePro shipped me a batch of their new, and relatively low cost, Vitality cables.
Then, kind of at the last minute relative to the whole project, I developed two big problems. First, the gear was pretty spread out in the room and I found I would need some extra long three meter cables for some of the combinations of gear. And second, when I found myself with some serious AC power sources on my hands, I'd need to do it service with some killer power cordswhy not, right? Both Cardas and AudioQuest came to the rescue; Cardas with a bunch of their flagship Clear cables, and AudioQuest with NRG-X2 cables.
The need for above said power cables came about when after a conversation with Bill Leebens I found myself in possession of not one, but two, huge-mongous PS Audio Perfect Wave Power Plant 10s. These 73 pound monsters were a bitch to unpack (and repack) for the project, but they did a mighty fine job of cleaning up the state-of-the-art (HA!) power in my Bozeman, Montana wall sockets. With network connection established, I could monitor incoming and outgoing AC to the gear on my lab computer. On average, incoming voltage varied between 114-117VAC with about 2% distortion; outgoing power was a rock steady 120VAC with about 0.2% distortion. Even with all the gear up and running I never used but about 1/4 of the 1200VA power available from them.
Last, but certainly not least in regards to making the physical handling of gear during the project, are the stands by Klutz Design. It may sound like a simple thing, but dealing with ten high-end headphones within the considerable array of gear is no simple task. Fortunately the folks at Klutz Design offered up a large handfull of their CanCan headphone stands. Not only are they elegant and colorful, these stands make it remarkably easy to don and doff headphones rapidly in succession. Seriously, it would have been a heck of a kurfuffle dealing with all the headphones without this bevy of headphone stands.
My Heartfelt Thanks!
To all the above manufacturers, I offer my deepest thanks. Big Sound 2015 would have simply been out of reach without your aid. My experience with this gear was superb. Sure, there's no way of knowing what each bit contributed to the sound quality of the system, but I can say none of the participants complained about the results, and I certainly felt we were getting top-notch reproduction. I'm grateful...and very sad to see it all go away.
Next post: What I learned with Big Sound 2015 and its participants.
AURALiC Vega DAC ($3499)
Simaudio MOON Neo 430 HA ($4300 w/DAC).
HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 ($2800)
Schiit Ragnarok ($1699) and Yggdrasil ($2299)
Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso ($1495 w/PCM1793; $1995 w/ESS1908)
Woo Audio WA-234 ($15,900)
Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC, Voltikus Power Supply, and 10M Rubidium Atomic Clock. ($13,045)
Apex High Fi Audio (TTVJ) Teton ($5000)
Eddie Current Black Widow ($1248)
Violectric V281 ($2299)
Bakoon HPA-21 ($2995) current output headphone amplifier.
KGSSSRE (Kevin Gilmore Solid State Special Reviewer's Edition E-Stat Amp ($Unobtanium)
Sennheiser HD 800 ($1599)
Audeze LCD-3 ($1945) and LCD-X ($1699)
JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 ($5495)
Stax SR-009 ($4450) and SR-007 ($2350)
HIFIMAN HE-1000 ($3000)
Mr. Speakers Ether ($1499)
Enigmacoustics Dharma (~$1200)
Audio Zenith PMx2 ($1398)
Headphone stands by Klutz Designs