Aqua Acoustic Quality La Voce S3 Discrete DAC review Page 2

To dig further into the company’s holistic approach to sound reproduction and market interpretation, I spoke with Cristian Anelli of Aqua Research & Development.

Q&A with Cristian Anelli

Rafe Arnott: Aqua has created a name for itself with musical DACs that rely on non-oversampling, high-resolution FPGA decoding boards and ladder-DAC technology coupled with a modular circuit-board topology design which allows for factory upgrades as new technology the company deems worthwhile become available, is this part of the key to creating a strong, dedicated consumer base?

Cristian Anelli: “The concepts of filterless, resistor-ladder DACs and modularity of the electronics are present in Aqua equipment since the beginning, they are part of its DNA. Today we can say that the belief that we put into this philosophy has been appreciated by our most demanding customers.”

RA: The Voce S3 is in a very competitive price bracket when it comes to the lower-end of upscale DACs ($5,000 range), is its modular, upgradeable design part of the driving force to hold on to current clientele? You are offering legitimate longevity to an Aqua owner’s investment with this type of service and it is one that a number of DAC companies are adopting (via either hardware or firmware upgrades) to maintain a competitive edge in a digital realm where new technologies seem to be part of the constant upgrade cycle for consumers looking for the “latest” tech in their DACs or streamers.

CA: “All aqua DACs can be upgraded as true modular construction equipment, as is the La Voce S3 Discrete. This on the one hand allows the customer to always benefit from a better performance and on the other maintains the value of the investment over time.”

RA: Aqua has a unique sound signature to their DAC designs thanks to a number of technologies employed in their circuit, power-supply architecture, chassis construction/coatings and digital/analog isolation measures. What do you think sets the company apart from so many other competitors in what is becoming, in my mind, the fastest-growing segment in the audiophile industry: The computer-audio hardware/software market?

CA: “All the research at Aqua is ultimately aimed at the sound quality, an "unique" listening experience, and for this reason my answer is that it is precisely the sound that distinguishes our equipment.”

RA: Finally, what do you think the biggest challenge facing DAC manufacturers today is?

CA: “In my opinion, today's biggest challenge is to stay focused on the concrete research rather than being distracted by the periodic marketing phenomena.”

Listening

During my time with the La Voce S3 I listened to everything from post-industrial, electronica, rap, R&B, acoustic singer-songwriter, rock, straight-up pop, classical, jazz and blues and regardless of what was playing, the S3 reproduced everything without a trace of sameness to any track or album. It allowed the individuality and uniqueness of each song, recording and mastering to come through without adding any flavouring of it’s own other than the way it seemed to enhance (in a pleasurable manner) whatever tonal and timbral color was laid down from the recorded event.

This DAC is what I’d describe as just to the left of neutral (left being warmer, right being cooler in my books). Cellos, violins, guitars, pianos, trumpets, saxophones… these all were less analytical and more emotionally provocative in their presentation, especially the wood-bodied instruments. The intellectual inference of music came through with incredibly realistic expression (the cerebral side if you will, where one is listening for certain cues of spatial decay off piano notes, or tonal accuracy to distinguish a violin form a cello for example), which pleased the thinker in me, but the S3 maintained an emotional tenor and this cemented the connection through my subjective-self to the music.

This is the sound of instruments being played by real human beings, vocals being sung that are formed by a real mouth, throat and chest cavity and throw in all the aforementioned subtle cues of every cut to be allowed to reach my ears, but never at the expense of ultimate resolution.

Joni Mitchell’s Blue album for example, while perhaps a tamer, more audiophile-ish pick for critical listening, is an album that I find usually plays “hot” in the treble region and upper registers of Mitchell’s voice with a touch of mic overload at times, but here (within the context of the S3 in my system) it came across for more sizzle-less than I’ve heard it previously both in my various systems over the years or even some mega-buck show setups.

James Taylor’s opening guitar strumming on “California” came across with a great sense of body weight and tone to the playing, and Mitchell’s voice was crystal-clear and spatially placed beautifully right down the middle of a deep-V sound stage, it also kept south of hot and never strayed into fatiguing (it also never sounded attenuated or tamped down to stop that crispness from edging in, rather, it kept those lilting highs sounding extended and airy) which made me end up listening to the entire album.

Pillow Lips, the fifth studio album by new-wave UK band Modern English, opens with one of my favourite all-time cuts on it: “I Melt With You.” This 1989 effort is a fast-paced track with real drive, dynamic swings and showed off the transient speed the S3 was capable of reproducing, as well as its ability to allow disparate instrumentation to be clearly threaded together and stay separate if you chose to follow Robbie Gray’s vocals, Michael Conroy’s bass fretting and slamming or drummer Richard Brown’s lightning stick work on the skins. The S3 also translated color and emotion from tracks like “Life’s Rich Tapestry” and the title track “Pillow Lips” beautifully allowing Gray’s voice to clearly be differentiated from both Gary McDowell’s and Conroy’s ethereal backing vocals in the slow-paced mix.

Arcade Fire is a supergroup in the sense of the sheer number of players who husband and wife team Win Butler and Régine Chassagne managed to bring together for their Canadian Phil Spectre-ish wall-of-sound that can cause slight instrumentation-congestion issues on some of the DACs I’ve heard it through over time. For their 2004 debut Funeral, cuts like “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)” and “Neighbourhood #2 (Laika)” are standouts for me and the S3 nailed the big atmospheric, live-stage moodiness that these tracks are tonally and timbrally imbued with – especially the background singers and their “woooo-woooo-woo-ah” shining through right down the middle of the sound stage on “Laika” despite the myriad layers of instrumentation trying to fight them for sonic dominance. The S3 allowed every voice, hurdy gurdy, organ, synthesizer, trombone, guitar, concertina and accordion (to name but a few of the disparate instruments employed on this album) to easily identify itself in all their tonal glory.

Conclusion With a company-wide focus of hand building DACs in its native Italy, proprietary R2R DAC being fed MOSFET, JFET and BJT for analog and digital DAC power supplies, custom FPGA design, a fully discrete analog stage (no Op-Amps used) dedicated digital and analog power supplies, Galvanic isolation of inputs and construction with RF isolation as a priority coupled with a dictum that puts the natural reproduction of music first and foremost above everything else, Aqua seems to be on a road to music reproduction that I can vibe with. The fact that this, their entry-level offering, has all of these of these features (I’ll let the listed specs below flesh out the rest) bodes well for those looking for more of the same sound quality farther up the company’s line in the La Scala MK II Optologic or Formula xHD DACs. Few DACs at this price point are capable of honestly portraying dynamics, timber, tone and pitch with accuracy while not sacrificing ultimate resolution for the warmth that comes with reproducing the sound of real humans playing music. And even fewer have a built-in upgrade plan in place for future-proofing your investment.

COMPANY INFO
AQ TECHNOLOGIES S.r.l.
Via Luciano Manara, 17 - 20122 Milano
info@aquahifi.com
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COMMENTS
Sue's picture

I'm no expert on digital filters, but you must have a filter of some kind with a sigma-delta DAC chip to turn the bitstream into linear PCM.

I'd be curios to know how Aqua converts the signal without a filter.

Rafe Arnott's picture
The Voce S3 doesn't use a Delta-Sigma chipset, it uses a discrete resistor ladder DAC (which I mention in the review).

Cheers,

–R

Sue's picture

I thought I read through your entire review but apparently not. My apologies.

Keep up the good work. You've been cranking out a lot of content lately. Obviously too much for me to read thoroughly. Sorry again.

rt66indierock's picture

You hit on two important points in this review. If you can't reproduce a wall of sound then something is amiss. And fatigue because if your system wears you out you will spend less time listening.

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