The SOtM tX-USBexp Audiophile PCIe to USB Audio Card
The SOtM PCIe to USB 3.0 Card is compatible with Windows 7/8 and Linux. You can power the SOtM card in three ways; through the 4-pin IDE connector that uses your computer's dirty power, externally using a 9V power supply (like the one that came with your cell phone), or with a high quality linear battery-power supply like the SOtM mBPS-d2s Intelligent Battery Power Supply which I'll also be talking about in this review.
2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest Introduction
The Synergistic Research High Frequency Transducer (HFT) and Frequency Equalizer (FEQ) are two new products that were recently introduced at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver (see show report). Synergistic Research decided to make a not-so-subtle point by using a Bose Wave Radio placed on a Tranquility Base to demonstrate these new products. Ted Denny III, Lead Designer at Synergistic Research, wanted no confusion that might occur using a high end audio system. Ted felt that if his new products could transform the sound of a Bose Wave Radio, a true high end audio system would experience even greater benefits from these products.
Expensive Ethernet Cables
I hemmed and hawed. I procrastinated. I averted, diverted, rescheduled, delayed, prolonged, and put off reviewing the AudioQuest Vodka and Diamond Ethernet Cables hoping that something would change. Namely, I was hoping someone would be able to tell me why, in no uncertain terms, they do in fact make a difference in the way my music sounds coming through my hi-fi. In many ways and for many reasons I wished they made no difference at all. I wish they were just some audiophile nonsense that I could plug in, listen to, unplug, and simply shrug at their utter ineffectualness. But that's just not how these things work.
The iFi iTube active tube buffer/preamplifier is actually more than that. The iTube includes two "active correction circuits" that are meant to improve your listening experience, just like the New Old Stock (NOS) General Electric 5670 tube that's hidden inside the iTube's aluminum shell. I suppose purists have already begun the cold sweats as thoughts of tampering with bit perfection outweighs the promise of greater enjoyment. But let's leave theory behind and see what the iTube delivers, sound wise.
The LightSpeed USB cable is Light Harmonic’s latest entry to an ever growing and somewhat crowded filed of audiophile USB cables. Light Harmonic, well known for their outstanding Da Vinci DAC that I previously reviewed last January (see review), has created what they feel is a USB cable that very few other manufacturers can match in terms of bandwidth. Light Harmonic claims that the LightSpeed with its Ultra-high speed differential pair provides 20 times the bandwidth of USB 2.0 high speed. With its 10 GB per second bandwidth, it offers performance that many other high end USB cables cannot come close to. In fact, Light Harmonic has measured many high end USB cables and found that they cannot meet the USB Audio 2.0 High Speed standard of 480mbps. The LightSpeed physically splits the line with separation of the 5V power supply to reduce noise and disturbances of the digital signal.
The Synergistic Research Element cable series represents Synergistic Research’s most current thinking on the art and science of cable design. The Element C.T.S. Digital AC cord resulted from the research and development that created the more expensive Galileo series of cables. The Element series provides many of the Galileo features at a more affordable price.
The Analog Power Base is a $2,995 upgrade power supply for the MSB Technology Analog DAC. My recent review of The Analog DAC (see review) was going to include the Analog Power Base, but MSB Technologies’ recent move to a new factory delayed this evaluation. The Analog DAC comes with an outboard Desktop Power Supply that is housed in an aluminum case with two transformers. This power supply is linear with separate supplies for digital processing and the analog circuits of The Analog DAC.
It was back in February 2008 that several of us took a drive to the Synergistic Research Factory in Irvine, CA. We had the good fortune to meet Ted Denney, lead designer at Synergistic Research who provided me with my first musical experience with Active Shielding. Ted came across as a very enthusiastic designer who enjoyed sharing his ideas about the new products he was developing; many of which have since come to fruition. Ted then took us to a large room with a terrific sounding system where he demonstrated Active Shielding with his cables by enabling it and then turning it off. Everything sounded much better with the Active Shielding enabled. I also remember him demonstrating a 2 tube Active Shielding power supply called the Enigma. It was fascinating to hear the sound change when Ted powered the cables with one tube and then the other. He also demonstrated a prototype of the PowerCell AC line conditioner. Suffice to say, I was very impressed with Synergistic Research’s implementation of Active Shielding with their cables.
The topic of audiophile USB cables seems to elicit endless debate from computer audio enthusiasts. Many heated arguments have taken place at internet audio forums arguing the merits of these cables. There are those that feel that the improvements heard by using an upgraded USB cable versus a standard Belkin printer cable are purely imaginary.
iFi is an outgrowth of Abbington Music Research (AMR) "with trickle-down technology licensed from AMR and aimed primarily at the future, Computer Audio generation". We have two components under review from their Micro line—a USB DAC/Headphone amp and a USB power supply. For a combined price of $500, the iFi pair offers a lot of musical muscle for your money. The rest of the Micro line includes the iCan headphone amp ($249), and iPhono MM/MC phono preamp ($399).
My desktop setup has evolved into an iMac running Audirvana, the Audioquest Dragonfly USB DAC, AudioQuest Victoria cable, into the ADAM A3X powered speakers. I listen to this setup every day more and less and I enjoy it every time I listen to it. While it's not perfect, nothing is in hi-fi except enjoyment and as I said, this setup works in that regard for me. So why mess with enjoyment?
Cables Categorically Matter
Just try playing music through a hi-fi without cables. Nothing. Nada. Silence. Now try connecting your amplifier to speakers with twine. Again nothing. Nada. Silence. Cables matter in the most fundamental way because you have to use the right cable for the right job. But what about the notion that a choice between two of the exact same kind of cable, Ethernet cables for today's tale, can matter? That two different Ethernet cables can make your network-connected file-based music playback sound different? Preposterous? Pernicious pandering? Have I sold my soul or lost my mind? Have I peed on the sacred altar of Science?
Thanks to John Marks of Stereophile for the heads up on this tiny app-O-controversy. The Cardas Clarifier has been sold in CD-form through Ayre Acoustics as the "Irrational But Efficacious" CD ($20) and from Cardas in LP-form as the "Cardas Frequency Sweep Record" ($28) for years. Decades even. Now computer audiophiles can delight in the Cardas Clarifier App for iOS devices for just $0.99. That's right for under a buck you can purportedly degauss your gear and listen while you do it to what my ears sounds exactly like the sound my spaceship makes when it takes off.
At the last CES, numerous visitors to the Synergistic Research room were commenting on a new base for computers and components that improved their sound when they were simply placed on the base. My curiosity was aroused with these reports. Could a computer’s sound that is fed to a DAC be significantly improved by simply placing the computer on a base? Given the number of audiophile tweaks that exist, I entered this testing with quite a bit of skepticism. After all, I have tried numerous stands including those from Symposium and Back Diamond Racing with limited success when used on my laptop. Toss in some Shakti stones and fancy footers with again, limited improvement, if any. But having previously met Ted Denney of Synergistic Research, I knew that he was not in the habit of exaggerating his products capabilities.