AQUA

Reference DACs & CD transport from Italy
The Art of the Digital domain

In the present age of digital audio we came to a luxury of being able to choose form vast offerings of companies putting their knowledge, passion and views in an approach of how to convey the music from digital source. 

Italian company Aqua Acoustic Quality approaches to design with the vision that translates in carrying proudly musical excellence, artistic tradition, the passion for the land, the spirit of innovation and craftsmanship of its people. Fully Italian breed. 

So basically an emotional path with the clear goal of pursue in the service of music. Sounds like a fair and noble way to drive a venture.

AQUA AUDIO have earned an enviable reputation with just 3 products, each component counted at the top of their field wining accolades such as BLUEMOON AWARDS etc. Praise for their unique creations is being sung everywhere by reviewers all over the world.

Technology Investors in R & D

The design and manufacture of audio equipment, are marked by constant and indispensable values that aqua - acoustic quality pursues with dedication.

aqua - acoustic quality was founded in Italy, proudly carries on musical excellence, artistic tradition, the spirit of innovation and craftsmanship of its people.

Through Technologies

aqua - acoustic quality equipment is not subject to the whims of market fashion since they are build to achieve true high fidelity sound reproduction.

By combining dedicated research with creative thinking, R & D Department has brought forth a range of innovation whose aim is to recreate the experience of live music in your home. Some of these:

• proprietary DFD (Direct From Decoder) digital decoding without digital filter for purest digital signal quality. Innovative treatment of the PCM digital signal: after exhaustive listening tests, a 1x sample rate has been chosen as the best. 

• Exclusive high-performance digital interface AQlink (I2S protocol), uncompromising digital connection from transport unit to DAC, employs CAT6 cable can connect both RJ45 and professional etherCON RJ45

• discrete circuit with high-speed photo couplers for Galvanic and magnetic isolation

• proprietary ISDC (Isolated Synchronous Discrete Circuit) digital decoding  and clock manager

• High-performance AQ Discrete Regulator (MOSFET, J-FET, BJT) for analog and digital DAC’s power supply

Cristian Anelli - R&D department: 
"Our main goal was and still is sound reproduction in the most neutral simple way. That's why we design our digital sources with a class A analog stage, zero upsampling, zero oversampling, no digital filter and no feedback. We consider both solid-state and tube circuits with no prejudice at all. We use the electronics parts we need and where they can be employed at their best. The La Voce uses a Jfet/Bjt analog output stage, the La Scala a hybrid ECC81/Mosfet design. Even if they are technically different, the final result shows them to carry the same genetic design imprint".
"Though we were amongst the very first to introduce a USB board with 24/192 decoding in the La Voce and La Scala converters, we still developed the state-of-the-art La Diva transport because we trust in the Redbook standard as the reference in digital reproduction. We like to build our products to last and avoid obsolescence as the common curse for expensive high-end equipment. In addition, our jitter-free digital AQlink interface (I²S protocol) provides the best possible connection between transport and DAC. Thus the modular system we use in our converters gives our customers the certainty to enjoy their music for many years and update our products with little effort and money. This way one can profit from our R&D department's innovations".

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Featured

AQ 03 DAC LAVOCE
SPECIAL PRICE: NZ$ 2,995.00 (incl. GST)
Original: NZ$ 4,995.00 (incl. GST)
Saving: NZ$ 2,000.00 (incl. GST)
CHRISTMAS SPECIAL - SHOWROOM DEMO AVAILABLE AT SPECIAL PRICE IN AS NEW CONDITION, FULL 12mth MAUFACTURES WARRANTY A Newly Refined Second-Generation La Voce S2 D/A Converter."The La Voce is really a...
• High performance proprietary DFD (Direct From Decoder) digital decoding without digital filter...
EXTENDED REVIEW: In the present age of digital audio we came to a luxury of being able to choose...
Aqua Hifi La Voce S2 DAC: La Voce's big brother, Aqua HIfi's La Scala, is justifiably well regarded...
AQ 05 DAC LASCA
NZ$ 10,995.00 (incl. GST)
With its extraordinary sound quality and stylish appearance it has remained the DAC of discerning audio enthusiasts. Improving the sonic performance of the La Scala was no small task. The first step...
Fully upgradeable asynchronous USB module with resolution up to 24 bit and 192 KHz, operates...
EXTENDED REVIEW: after I'd reset our car's GPS from American to British English for a far sexier...
AQ 06 DAC FORM
NZ$ 21,995.00 (incl. GST)
Modularity our propriety Optologic DAC The Optologoc R2R conversion sysrmAqua believes that the more musical D/A conversion system is based on the circuit usually identified as "resistor ladder".This...
• Proprietary hybrid 2-stage XMOS xCore XE216 + FPGA • Fully-floating (isolated) USB decoding and...
When a brief press release made the rounds that Aqua Hifi were about to bow their new flagship...

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CD / SACD / Blu-ray & Multi-Format Players

AQ 01 CD LADIVA
NZ$ 12,995.00 ea (incl. GST)
"Excellent musical presentation of the two devices. The converter : I hate to give back." - Jürgen Saile, HIFISTATEMENT"   Naturally relaxed, full of musicality" - Leo Yeh, MY-HIEND...
• Custom designed discrete circuit with high-speed photo-couplers for Galvanic and magnetic...
EXTENDED REVIEW: Yet 'n poem ... or rather, again a DAC? Clear! The search goes on, there are not...

DACs

AQ 03 DAC LAVOCE
SPECIAL PRICE: NZ$ 2,995.00 ea (incl. GST)
Original: NZ$ 4,995.00 (incl. GST)
Saving: NZ$ 2,000.00 (incl. GST)
CHRISTMAS SPECIAL - SHOWROOM DEMO AVAILABLE AT SPECIAL PRICE IN AS NEW CONDITION, FULL 12mth MAUFACTURES WARRANTY A Newly Refined Second-Generation La Voce S2 D/A Converter."The La Voce is really a...
• High performance proprietary DFD (Direct From Decoder) digital decoding without digital filter...
EXTENDED REVIEW: In the present age of digital audio we came to a luxury of being able to choose...
Aqua Hifi La Voce S2 DAC: La Voce's big brother, Aqua HIfi's La Scala, is justifiably well regarded...
DACs
AQ 05 DAC LASCA
NZ$ 10,995.00 ea (incl. GST)
With its extraordinary sound quality and stylish appearance it has remained the DAC of discerning audio enthusiasts. Improving the sonic performance of the La Scala was no small task. The first step...
Fully upgradeable asynchronous USB module with resolution up to 24 bit and 192 KHz, operates...
EXTENDED REVIEW: after I'd reset our car's GPS from American to British English for a far sexier...
DACs
AQ 06 DAC FORM
NZ$ 21,995.00 ea (incl. GST)
Modularity our propriety Optologic DAC The Optologoc R2R conversion sysrmAqua believes that the more musical D/A conversion system is based on the circuit usually identified as "resistor ladder".This...
• Proprietary hybrid 2-stage XMOS xCore XE216 + FPGA • Fully-floating (isolated) USB decoding and...
When a brief press release made the rounds that Aqua Hifi were about to bow their new flagship...
DACs

Reviews

Put my name down too on this growing list of outspoken admirers for the Aqua Hifi La Scala II!
Sarjan Ebaen

SUMMARY REVIEW: ....but what it may lack in fashion flash to keep up with the restless digital Joneses shopping by the numbers, it more than makes up for with richly textured highly resolved very dynamic performance. That taps into more of the artistic energy that's actually encoded in our music and waiting to communicate with us. With a very capable fixed-gain linestage built in, this digital-to-analog converter is very full-bodied and dynamically charged to ideally complement lean speed-tuned systems. The only context where its strong contributions of heft and mass could add up excessively are already very warm dense systems. Then the leaner La Voce II would be preferable. The La Scala II is very well built, comprehensively socketed, fairly priced and fully modular to account for unexpected advances down the road. Finally, it showed me enough of a lead over four strong resident competitors in this general mid 4-figures price sector to firmly demand an award. Best I've heard in my system as John Darko put it? For the money, absolutely and without the shadow of a doubt. Put my name down too on this growing list of outspoken admirers for the Aqua Hifi La Scala II! 

EXTENDED REVIEW: after I'd reset our car's GPS from American to British English for a far sexier lady announcer voice, I was told to take the next slip road right. It took me a bit to catch on. My leggy gal in the box meant on-ramp. The same is true for the digital highway. Some DACs get you there via multi-bit R2R slip roads. The majority take the main one-bit on-ramp. With DSD's resurgence, the most logical thing in today's rein of Delta-Sigma silicon would be conversion of PCM to DSD. And DACs from EMM Labs, Meitner, Nagra, Playback Design, PS Audio and Sony do exactly that. Numerous player software can also and on the fly. For those beholden to PCM and R2R conversion, the choices are dwindling supplies of new-old-stock chips; coding an FPGA like Chord in the UK do; or doing a fully discrete execution of the necessary resistor arrays as MSB and TotalDAC champion it. As I already detailed in Aqua Hifi's first review, our able team from Italy stick to NOS. Of the remaining options they consider Burr-Brown's legendary 24-bit PCM1704 available in U, J and K grades the ultimate conversion IC. Thus they prefer it to Texas Instrument's current ΔΣ PCM1795 replacement and the vintage Philips TDA1541A and Analog Devices AD1865 R2R chips. Needless to say, Aqua's flagship valve-hybrid La Scala MkII gets the 1704 in top K selection. With paralleled chips for fully balanced dual mono—4 x 1704K—that's good for 24/384 over the I²S input on RJ45 called AQlink. All other inputs of AES/EBU, coax, BNC, USB and optional AT&T glass fiber are good for 24-bit 192kHz

Analogue out over a fully discrete rigorously opamp-free output stage is on both 2.6Vrms/100Ω RCA and very stout 5.2Vrms/200Ω XLR. For best results those shouldn't be used simultaneously. XMOS-based USB 2.0 is fully upgradeable and of the asynchronous transceiver type. Due to modular build, all of the PCB modules are upgradeable should Aqua's engineers discover ways to improve things over time. Warranty is a generous 5 years. That shows confidence in their products particularly for as fast-moving a sector as digital. Acoustic Quality's commitment to purity says bafongul to upsampling. They refer to it as direct from decoder or DFD. It bypasses BB's on-chip digital filter. The stiff middle finger at op-amps continues with transformer-based passive I/V conversion. And chippy regulators. Their regs are executed fully discrete with Mosfets, Jfets and BJTs. That's for both the analog and digital power supplies. For single-stage voltage gain, the La Scala goes class A and hybrid by direct-coupling LED-biased ECC81/12AT7 triodes to high-voltage current-buffer Mosfets. Without coupling capacitors or feedback, there's wide bandwidth, low output impedance and "no overshoot or ringing". High-speed opto-couplers create galvanic and magnetic isolation between the digital stage and analog ground. The power supply gets two EI trafos for digital and analog respectively. The regulated soft-start anode supply is a "virtual battery" Mosfet design. Finish is grey Nextel for the casing with a clear-anodized fascia whose controls switch power, inputs and phase.

If you reference my equipment listing, you'll spot Metrum's Hex and AURALiC's Vega as two of my long-term digital companions. For headfi I also have the Eximus DP-1; and on my night stand Aqua's La Voce II. That's the all-transistor brother of today's flagship. I find the La Voce to be a near-perfect stand-in for the Hex. Aussie contributor John Darko had contributed to our three-part review of it and independently written up the Vega. He was thus intimately acquainted with my own references. What's more, he described their sonics exactly as I did. When he later called Aqua's La Scala MkII the very best DAC he'd yet hosted I was curious.

The Hex is my go-to DAC for the big rig preceded by SOtM's top battery-powered super-clock'd USB bridge via AES/EBU. If the La Scala was the next step up the mythical mountain, I wanted to survey my music from its higher vantage point. Luckily Aqua were game. How would twice the coin and some glowing bits improve over the La Voce S2? Before we go there, a brief detour into current digital trending.

Buzz-word compliance is its de rigueur mortis and mega pixel count. It preys on misinformed consumers who shop by the numbers. Hence by mid 2014, AMR's iFi division had gone positively purple with glee to announce 768kHz PCM and DSD octa compliance. By then DSD256 whose very first commercial files had just begun to appear was already passé. DSD512 was the new 'in' to remind us that all life is cyclical. It spirals out of control. Then it collapses and begins anew. On cyclical, in the crusades Christianity had its holy wars. Today it's the turn of Islam. In hifi the former were the THD and IMD wars. The latter's present equivalents target digital sample rates. Faced by such accelerating madness, Aqua pray for all-out peace. Their assalaamu a'laikum or pax vobiscum is refusal to participate. Opt out. Say no to DSD and anything above 24/192. How refreshing. If John Darko's assessment had it right, this decision was far from counter-productive. Quite possibly it was the crucial enabler. Obviously neither Metrum's Hex nor Aqua's La Voce had upsampled, quadrupled or DSD'd. Yet on those I was sold already from close familiarity. Time out then from the digital hamster mill which would turn us into octagenarians well before our time. Mind, I'm not singling out iFi. They were simply first to hit those particular numbers. More will undoubtedly follow. That's the whole mechanism of fashion. It's a lemming brigade.

But it's not as though fashion were bad per se. Sometimes it's simply good to return to basics and reset one's odometer. 00000. Today that means an old-style approach to D/A conversion, albeit implemented in the 21st century with modern parts and sonic references. One might exclude the glass bottles from the 'modern' appellation but then remembers that their type remains available in current production.

To set our retro scene of a slower calmer time with the proper atmosphere, let's invoke... yes, Agatha Christie. My favourite episode of David Suchet's immortal Hercule Poirot collection is Cards on the table. The Syrian Shaitana is a very wealthy mysterious Londoner. For dinner and two parties of bridge he invites a group of eight—three professional crime solvers, one crime fiction writer and four people whom he suspects have murdered in the past but gone scot free—with the express purpose of getting himself killed whilst confounding the present quad of sleuths. Before the evening gets underway, the author Ariadne Oliver and Poirot survey their odd assortment of guests with this exchange. "Hm, seems our Mr. Shaitana is a little bit - crime-minded shall we say? He has the most curious taste. One never knows what he's going to find amusing. Might be something - cruel." "You mean, peut-être, like the foxhunting?" "No, I meant something more oriental." 

For my less opulent dinner party of four—Dutch Hex, Hong Kong Vega, Korean Eximus, Italian La Scala—the intent was rather more murderous. If it came off, three would lose their lives. Like any good Poirot tale, who'd done it would be the question. But motive wouldn't factor. Audiophiles love shoot-outs that leave just one deck standing. Where our script diverges is that the film's stiletto in the heart was plain from the start. Our 'how' would reveal itself only in stages.

But first, cards on the table for the Milanese La Scala MkII from designer Cristian Anelli. Only then do we get to grind cerebellum gears over the various score cards of our game and whether the intended audiophile crime of passion (murder by plain superiority) even took place. After all, based on price our spread is tight. In this sector it usually means no decisive best but an array of small differences. At best there's a minor loser but no take-all winner. Yet John Darko's conclusion sowed promise: "There’s no doubt that this is the finest-sounding DAC to date to grace my life/system/website with its presence. Prior to that it was the $4'995 Resonessence Labs Invicta Mirus... Whilst the La Scala MKII is a decoder capable of stunning performance... [there are no] daft PR proclamations that things aren’t as good as they used to be...or that your current DAC sounds ‘broken’." Murder without fanfare perhaps? One obvious distinction for the La Scala MkII are its small triodes. Unlike the norm when this rarer option gets chosen, their bulbs don't couple through capacitors. Aqua use Mosfets. This creates voltage gain in the tube domain, current buffering in solid state. This is similar to what Octave does for their tube preamps. Transistor outputs do lower impedance and increase current to better drive long interconnects. The elimination of coupling caps benefits speed and clarity. A popular rationale for such solutions? 

They exploit each device's strong suits whilst avoiding its weaknesses. Hybrid detractors call 'em neither fish nor fowl. They prefer a purist either/or. Here four LEDs per tube act as a constant current source to stabilize its bias current. Two three-legged Mosfets per 12AT7 and a trim pot each cluster in tight proximity for short signal-path circuitry. 

For rollers let's also mention each tube's alternate designators including their military 4-digit names. The 12AX7 is also called ECC83, 7025, ECC803, E83CC or 6681. The 12AT7 used in Aqua's circuit is also an ECC81, 6201, 6679 or CV4024. A 12AY7 can go by 6072, a 12AV7 by 5965 and the lowest-gain 12AU7 by ECC82, 5963, 5814 or 6189. Most modern systems suffer from excess gain which explains why this DAC doesn't run with 12AX7. What if you meant to knock down the La Scala's voltage gain a peg or two more, perhaps because you had a high-gain amp like the 35dB Job 225, unusually efficient speakers and in general rather little useful range on your volume control before things got to loud? Without bias adjustments, could a 12AU7/ECC82 be substituted without compromising sound whilst plate resistance drops from 10.9KΩ to 7.7KΩ? "The ECC81 was originally designed for professional high-frequency purposes. Compared to triodes intended for just AF use (audio frequencies), this tube has fast response without roll-off. ECC81 are very linear to exploit low-distortion no-feedback circuits with high input Ω. But everyone knows their output current limits. The Mosfet follower increases current drive so the valve works properly. Tube and Mosfet make a perfect match to deliver nuance with accuracy. And yes, a 12AU7/ECC82 is a drop-in option requiring no circuit adjustments. With a pair of ECC82, one drops the output voltage on RCA to about 1.75V and 3.5V on XLR. "Given the broad choices for ECC81/82 types, rollers could have their little plates full if chasing flavour swings. For many tube fanciers, the inherent freedom to alter a circuit's sound to taste—within limits of course—is one of the attractions. Those keener on turn-key simplicity will stick with the tested and matched specimens Aqua provide. Those are estimated to be good for about 10'000 hours and obviously what the La Scala MkII was voiced around.

Price can vary from $10-$150/ea. Popular NOS brands include Amperex, Brimar, GE, Mullard, Philips, RCA, Telefunken and Tungsram. Current production includes electro-harmonix, Genalex Gold, JJ, Psvane and Shuguang. The Euro suppliers EAT, Emission Labs and KR Audio either don't make small-signal tubes at all or just an ECC803S as does Euro Audio Team

By the time my loaner arrived, two more reviews had hit. René van Es' for The Ear netted 5 stars. Jürgen Saile's for HifiStatement combined it with the matching La Diva transport. René* assigned different soundstaging qualities to the RCA and XLR outputs. Much depends on your preamp or integrated and how its matching inputs handle the signal. A single-ended preamp for example might use XLR summing op-amps to be the inferior connection; or involve transformers with narrower bandwidth than the direct RCA path. Here assigning firm cause to audible differences can easily mean errors of judgment. Jürgen's review reminded me that of course, only one half of each double triode is used for the RCA outputs. Because the unswitched XLR are live simultaneously, this doesn't 'save' the other half for eventual channel switching and thrifty doubling of life expectancy. Stock bulbs are Russian Genalex. Just then a reader referred me to this Toronto site and owner Alfred Kayser who had supplied me with KR Audio review tubes when I still lived in the US. [Gianmaria Testa's Alta Latitudini and Trumpet Legacy by the Fabrizio Rosso & Flavio Boltro Quintet, recommended by Stefano Jelo.]
______________________________________________________________________________________________________

* René van Es: "I just read your review of the Aqua La Scala DAC with great interest and was pleasantly surprised that you mentioned my name and refer to the review on The Ear. We both agree, just like Mr. Darko, this is a very fine sounding DAC. However, I did get confused when you mentioned that I heard a difference between the XLR and RCA outputs. So I looked up my review and noticed a true mistake. The word output should have been input. The difference I heard was between the AES/EBU XLR digital input versus the coaxial RCA input. We changed that now in the original article. Apologies for this typo. I caused confusion as I have seen thanks to your comment."

"My friend has a pair of his Brimar 12AX7 running for already 14'000 hours still testing strong. His tubes have been in my amp and preamp for a few thousand hours and perform beautifully. He travels the globe in search of all varieties of tubes. Bar none he is the most knowledgeably guy on tubes I've ever met. He has thousands in stock. Yes, thousands!" To be sure I'd leave no performance under the table, I had to acquire at least one pair of über NOS bulbs to match the top NOS silicon of this deck. If I got just one best-case pair, what would Alfred recommend? Since I wasn't shy on overall system gain, were there sonic advantages to be had by going after 12AU7 instead? Albert had just one answer. "Hands down, the tube to go with is our NOS British-made Mullard 6201 gold pin. It is an absolute reference 12AT7 tube with a dead-black background and superbly musical. 

"We have clients using this exact tube in their Neumann microphones for both commercials and singing applications where an absolute black background is critical. In addition and with equal success clients are using them in reference amplifiers and preamps.The only other tube in the world that can rival the Mullard 6201 is the Telefunken ECC801S. Given that the Mullard is less than half the price, it is a total bargain. I also find the Telefunken to be a little more on the cold side. The Mullard will give that DAC a lifelike presence and depth that those crappy Soviet or Chinese tubes could never even imagine." I promptly ordered two pairs for €300 total + $20 for shipping. One of them could go into my Nagra Jazz afterwards, with the other for backup. 

Shooting the breeze with the same reader who'd just ordered a second Metrum Hex for his cottage system, I learnt that "one of my clients is a very wealthy gent. He owns an Audio Note DAC 5.x purchased last year. So it's a new model for $50'000 Canadian which has all the options in terms of parts. He was over to my home a couple of weeks ago for wine and cheese. He heard my Hex and was very very upset. It sounded as good to his ears as his Audio Note. So he borrowed it and returned it yesterday. He now has his Audio Note for sale. What is almost as good to my ears? The $850 Resonessence Concero. I have the HD model and run my DSD files through it. It's stunning." This is a reminder. Traffic on the digital highway today is bumper to bumper. Cunningly picked 'mid-level' stuff can be unreasonably close to flagship-priced fare. If you don't compare, you'll be none the wiser. Then ignorance is bliss. If you do compare as we like to, it keeps one honest and less apt to gush over the high-priced spread unless it's really deserved. Time for a wink under the hood. As we already know, the La Scala is laid out fully modular to protect against built-in obsolescence which particularly in this fast-moving sector is a relevant selling proposition. 

Aqua's hand of cards. The La Scala MkII contains four main, three stacked boards plus two EI transformers shielded inside a U-shaped metal partition along the left cheek. Short ribbon cables with multi-pin plugs connect the various modules to promise easy user replacements in the future.

Those who feel that much of high-end audio is excessively focused on empty luxury calories and insufficient material substance will recognize that Aqua Hifi practice a different religion. This deck is stuffed with goodies like a Thanksgiving turkey.

When I mentioned to Stefano Jelo that I'd acquired a pair of premium Mullard 12AT7, he replied that "I like Mullard. And it is interesting to try a different set on the La Scala MkII if that is your intention. But, to speak frankly, I am not fanatic about tubes nor about solid state. We don't split the high-end world into tube fans and solid-state fans like a lot of people do. That's an old vision. Tubes are nothing but electronic components like capacitors, transformers etc. With the La Scala MkII DAC, we tried to build a bridge between the two worlds." My feeling precisely. Tubes are merely parts. And, parts do come at a variety of quality levels though it's not a given that the most exotic costliest part wins. Obviously a maker of mainstream gear isn't expected to outfit his gear with dear NOS glass of dubious availability. Even new cars come with standard, not specialty tyres. But for a paltry $150 considering, it sure would be entertaining to learn whether what an expert had called one of the best 12AT7 ever made could indeed make a substantial sonic improvement. After all, Aqua use their valves for good sonic reason, not just for show. Or couldn't it be recommended in good conscience because it would contribute nothing but bragging rights or, cough, sonic alienation?

Stefano's concern went a bit deeper of course. "You know, reviewers have a lot of responsibility in treating as thorny an issue as this long-standing conflict between tubes vs solid state. I think readers and music lovers should know that some in the high-end industry can have a different vision. And that is why we are happy for our DAC o be dissected by you with your expertise in the matter and your different way to communicate it. Also, you had our La Voce DAC under review, one more reason to already have a larger vision of the way we design our decks. My worry, as you see, does not lie in replacing the tubes but in the related message. I am sure our DAC, with the significant changes of the MkII version, has a precise and mature identity if you let me say so. But here I shall stop lest I take the risk to become romantic at best or boring at worst." Before we go Poirot, I had to determine the tube matter and which way the La Scala II should play its hand. The inspection system would be anchored by the also Italian Albedo Audio Aptica floorstanders driven by a Nelson Pass FirstWatt F6 fronted by my Esoteric C-03 preamp. If the 6201 Mullards were my lethal stiletto, I'd unapologetically press their advantage against the competition. 

As it turned out, sonic alienation was the verdict. With the Mullards at work, the sonic bandwidth narrowed to more midrange centric. The two octaves below middle C lost pluck and spunk. Gnarly bass lines working this range missed some impact and incisiveness. The two top octaves as the usual home of cymbal and triangle finesse fogged over and foreshortened decays. On a heavily reverberant recording like Sœur Marie Keyrouz's Psalms for the 3rd Millennium which sports church-recorded orchestra, chorus and solo vocals in a farfield perspective, the Mullards' thickness seemingly increased the venue's RT60 figure. This undermined separation and individuated distinctiveness for a bit of a Mists of Avalon effect. Vigorous Flamenco guitar arpeggios and chordal tremolos lost flash and brio to move away from on-string details. Like certain cat litter, I had clumps, not fine granules.

Sonic alienation in this context means a strong personal suspicion. Aqua Hifi's very specific circuit tuning with their chosen and matched stock tubes got compromised when the Mullards mulled over the situation. Being very familiar with Aqua's La Voce II in my headfi nightstand system, I'm 100% sure that if the Mullards came stock, the circuit would have been revoiced to compensate. Without said compensation, the Mullards really did alienate what I thought was the design's original intention. In fact, the behaviour of the 6201 reminded me directly of Dan Wright's Oppo 105 makeover which I felt was softer, less articulate and detailed than is ideal or desirable for a modern high-end source. First informal comments on his own ModWright Elyse converter again with tubes suggest a more toned liposuctioned sound that does high color and density but applies greater needle-point transparency than his modded Oppo.

My first go-around with the La Scala II, its hood still removed to make for quick tube swaps and have me observe the slow start of the tubes' current-source LEDs, also settled something else. The stock valves required no extra enhancement from exotic NOS infusions. That's because this deck already combined the timing and rhythmic focus of the Metrum Hex with the more intense colour temperatures and lushness of the AURALiC Vega. It then added dynamic shove and urgency which exceeded both my references. The novelty for me weren't never-before-heard qualities. The novelty was that my prior either/or choice—between hexy impulsiveness and vega-ish Technicolour, between speed and curves—had combined into one and then some. With the La Scala II, I got both plus. In that sense it was an audio equivalent of the Buddhist Middle Path high up the mythical mountain. Those so inclined or whose systems need more body can easily fatten up the sound by rolling two small tubes. My system and ears didn't need or want that to prefer the stock bottles. If such an opinion seems quasi heretical—anti posh Mullard that is—I have another one to add to the mix. Performing PureMusic A/Bs between native 44.1kHz streaming and 4 x upsampling to 176.4kHz with 64-bit DSP in 'NOS mode', the latter sounded rounder and smoother without undermining exactitude. As Norbert Lindemann of German Lindemann Audio agrees, performing upsampling with free computer power rather than lower on-chip math is always superior. Whilst the La Scala II is a 'zero-sampling' deck, applying some upshifting to the signal before it ever hits the BB1704K chips can make for a small free bonus. And it's quickly defeated should you disagree or not hear any difference. With that settled, I'd continue my comparisons with Aqua's stock glass, bolt the lid back on and use PureMusic's power-of-two math to this converter's max as set by its 192kHz ceiling.

A challenging voice I recently discovered belongs to Amina Alaoui on the ECM album Arco Iris. In typical Manfred Eicher style, this is a quality production with good recorded ambiance. The instrumentation accompanying the Portuguese singer follows the Al-Andalus model with violin, oud, flamenco guitar, mandolin and percussion. The dynamic range of the vocalist is greater than those of the instruments. Set the volume relative to the instruments and Amina will surprise you with unexpected peaks pressing her points as many traditional Fadistas do. Of all my converters, this jumpiness or minor shock value was greatest with the La Scala II. One might speculate on the power supply as the enabler of this small dynamic turbo boost. For tone mass assessments, I often like to watch from way off-axis and behind my work desk. That sits 4 meters past the left speaker as shown below. In that position, soundstaging per se collapses completely. With it most stereophonic effects disappear. Removing those from consideration, sonic density and substance become the primary differentiators. Here the La Scala behaved clearly weightier and with more gravitas than the Hex and Eximus. The Mullard option—insert numerous other tube rolling choices—would prioritize that quality even further. It'd move the Aqua into territory none of the others could breach. But again, the La Scala already dominated that aspect with the stock glass.

Where the La Scala was met head-on and by the Vega was on colour intensity. That justly popular Asian machine plays it lusher and richer than many. Yet it doesn't go soft and a bit limpid like everything-DSD converters can. If you can imagine a fiddler scratching away on his violin to invoke plenty of horse hairs and glinty metallic action yet simultaneously remain cognizant of the instrument's tone-wood body—scratchiness enriched and earthier than pure steel—that's the general quality at which both Vega and La Scala II excelled. The Eximus particularly in the treble was brighter and drier. This made such fiddly aspects wirier, needlier and spicier. The Hex was tonally leaner and less buxom. This also applied to the La Voce II from Aqua.

Now we get to the most distinctive quality of the La Scala II. I call it energy transmission. It's actually a confluence of qualities or some form of interdisciplinary team work. For it to come off, sound must have gravitas, speed and dynamic contrast in equal measure. Speed relates to impulsiveness. That's most powerfully heard on percussion, then strings. The crack of a stick on a rim, the teasing tickle of wire brushes on cymbals, the mini explosions of triangle flares, the pluck of a long highly tensioned string... all of it is about suddenness and how close to gun-shot or slammed-door shock it comes. It creates rhythmic crackle, pop, snap and pow. It taps into the musical tension. It puts our senses on alert rather than to sleep. Alas, a sound that merely focuses on these beginnings is very peppery but usually also lean, whitish, prickly and nervous. It's too worked up and hyper. A sound which instead pursues mass over all else can get dark, ponderous, portly, lazy, thick and poorly articulated. That invokes the German word Gemütlichkeit. Think afternoon milk coffee with heavy cake topped by whipped cream. One wants elements of both camps without ending up with an either/or conflict. The third vital ingredient for energy transmission is microdynamic contrast. That's because in music very little happens at a steady state. Everything constantly moves in the amplitude domain. Wind instruments and vocals manipulate this with air speed and air pressure. Whilst vibrato can involve pitch changes, it is fundamentally about rapidly flickering amplitude. Beneath vibrato, a performer will additionally ebb and flow a melodic line or single note. 

Such twitchy dynamic ripples atop slightly bigger waves of inflection are essential to musical liveliness. They often fall victim to radio-ready dynamic compression which makes everything more or less equally loud. That's not optimized energy transmission. That's just primitive loudness as a constant assault of all the same. The more music becomes compositionally simple, the more our attention is freed to delve into this domain of dynamic shifts if they're recorded. Now poor dynamic contrast on the playback end equals quick boredom. There just aren't enough intertwining musical lines to make up for structural plainness. An excellent test thus is very simple music. It eliminates the usual distractions of bombast and complexity overload that can be busyness for its own sake. The more exciting, compelling and wondrous very simple music can become—the more subtle richness we discover hidden in it—the more we surrender to released musical energy. Without it, sound may be pretty per se but still will lack an essential more primal dimension. Getting access to the finessed richness of simple music is a more advanced feat than cranking up a Hans ZImmer soundtrack to, yawn, unleash hell.

Relative to improving upon Agatha Christie's murder mystery, my dinner party of four did indeed end up getting three offed. The La Scala II was superior to my references by enough of a margin to not just justify the higher €4'890 sticker. It also rendered this fiscal offset surprisingly minor given how this component category routinely forces one to spend a lot more for any meaningful headway. To keep it real, enhancements on raw gravitas can also be pursued very effectively with, yes, power cords. See my recent review of the Sablon Audio Petit Corona. It's possible to inject that quality into an existing system without otherwise pawning off components. Whether it'll undermine speed and transparency is another matter. This reminds me. Like their Nespresso coffee-capsule technology which is so wildly successful here in Europe even with restaurants, Nestlé just down the hill from us have now launched their Special.T campaign in earnest. It too is based on hermetically sealed capsule technology and a matching brewing/dispenser machine.

Is Nestlé's system superior to brewing tea the old-fashioned way? Not if you know the exact quantity, brewing time and water temperature for each tea species or mix; and if you use filtered water. What Nestlé's technology does for 48 cents to the cup is remove all variables. It guarantees perfectly consistent results each and every time. The water gets first filtered to remove any taste changes due to poor water quality. Then brew time and water temperature are automatically set the moment when the machine recognizes what type capsule you've inserted. You'll never suffer another cup of Oolong Fujian blue tea that's been steeped just a tad too long to get bitter. But of course, if you know your stuff and pay proper attention, no clever Swiss machine is needed.

In our context, the designer has balanced and set the musical equivalents of water purity, temperature, quantity and time to perfection. Could you tweak your current DAC for a similar balance? Possibly. You'd have to know what you were doing and how to go about it. That's very doubtful. At this level, high-end hifi is mostly about endless trial and error. Things interconnect. Pulling here often pushes something else over there out of whack. Making clear advances without compromising gains already attained can be elusive. Letting a designer make the important choices is often better. Now your task is down to identifying a designer whose sonic ethos matches your own. With the stock tubes, Cristian Anelli has achieved a very crafty balance point indeed!

To recapitulate: in my setup, a high-quality transistor preamp set to zero voltage gain plus a high-quality pair of Accuton-driver two-ways had calibrated things for speed and transparency over succulence and lushness. Pushing this voicing farther into the same direction would telegraph immediately. Gains in the other direction would register not only on their own accord but relative also to whether they'd take away or undermine anything of the quick lucid leaner core voicing. In this context, the La Scala's success came from adding robust materialism without noticeably slowing down the reflexes—that alone was a mean trick—then charging the proceedings with more dynamic life. I heard no reductions in soundstage depth. That's audible space. Hearing recorded venue relies on fine tiny signals. Those are embedded in the primary music signal or surround it. Gains in body can quickly obscure some of the most spidery layers. With them, parts of the depth domain shut down. Yet with the La Scala II, I lost no audible space. Its gains in heaviness, body and substance weren't paid for in space coin.

Before my early Mullard experiment appears stillborn by playing directly into this mechanism, I ought to mention its special attraction for mobile devices like digitally tapped iPods. It's what I listen to on my nightstand headfi system. From there I can undock the iPod and transfer it to my desktop system; or into the system in the workout room; or into the car and from there to a friend. It's a cost-effective way to get the most from a single component. But compared to the big system, it routinely lacks proper substance. It's flatter and paler. In such a Twiggy circumstance, one doesn't want lipo suction. One wants lipo injection. Here tube rolling with a fatter midrange-centred vintage valve can make a decisive difference. Transistor-based circuits lack such means.

Hence the invisible glow bottles really are a feature consideration. They are quite likely also the element which helps produce that inter-note connective tissue which many tubes do so well. It's what prevents dryness in the face of good PRaT and speed. It's a bit of textural viscosity or lubricant. In short, the La Scala II exploits valve virtues in a very controlled modern way. These 12AT7 aren't tasked with any reactive load. They loaf whilst the Mosfets handle current and low Z-out. It's a very happy incident of hybridization. That this more complex circuit has specific advantages over the half-priced La Voce II was proven by my having that on hand as well. The La Scala II builds on the same taut timing with greater body and a bigger dynamic envelope.

I frankly didn't expect to encounter what I ended up thinking were meaningful advances over the La Voce. Too often in this sector, snazzy numbers tell one story, listening another. Quality DACs crowding a particular price field tend to be more similar than not. With a fine system of high if not extreme resolution—a recent visit to Nagra to hear their big Verity Audio towers with their HD DAC and a prototype 200-watt pure class A Mosfet amp reminded me of what extreme is—the La Scala advantage was plain. In fact it was of a flavour similar to but stronger than my Nagra Jazz preamp. With it I'd not need the Jazz. I could easily handle volume with, say Vinnie Rossi's latest Lio configured as a passive preamp. Think Dave Slagle's excellent autoformer attenuators seamlessly relay-switched in dual mono. This points at the La Scala as a quasi DAC/pre, simply with fixed outputs. Many DACs are advertised as competent amp-direct solutions. In actual practice they often don't match the sound of a superior preamp. With the La Scala II, you could run a rather long interconnect to a passive preamp which itself connects to the amp/s via very short cables. Clearly this circuit requires no active preamp assistance to produce the kind of advanced sound one expects of one. What that tells me is that Cristian Anelli paid at least as much attention to his analog output stage as he did to the digital section; and that in an age when some DACs like the Rockna WaveDream or my Metrum Hex no longer have any traditional output stages at all.

To cross-check for true sonic and cosmetic retro, I moved in Joachim Gerhard's Suesskind Puls in their Oak boxes with Fender grill cloths, whizzer-fitted paper-cone widebanders and bFly box-frame stands. Compared to the Aptica, this BBC-type box—inset baffles floating on rubber decouplers with tons of exposed bolt heads fore and aft like Harbeth—lacks bandwidth at either extreme. But it celebrates rich autumn colours and textural chunkiness as two qualities which elude so many modern speakers with hard diaphragms. This was my test bed to cultivate potential excess. I already knew that the Albedo speakers were ideally suited to the La Scala treatment. I wasn't too sure about the Puls. 

And true to its concept, gearing shifted up, revolutions lowered. This was a far less aspirated far less sporty sound. This now was about plush comfort, softer shocks and generous midrange portions. In this form, it suggested an old man's sound more than just a different sonic aesthetic. To move it back into everyman's land meant an amp swap for something like the Job 225 or Crayon Audio CFA-1.2. The very best match actually turned out to be the 15wpc Bakoon AMP-12 with its passive attenuator. That eliminated the Esoteric C-03 preamp altogether—it also took away remote control over volume—and acted like a grease cutter and accelerator to make this deliberately vintage speaker more similar to the very modern Albedo. Obviously that was a questionable motive but for the purposes of painting the picture on the La Scala II, it did the job.

As always, the concert of playback depends on all of your system members working together in what you consider to be perfect harmony. Describing sound is one thing. Weighting its various measures so that readers will correlate realistic amounts is quite another. Those who have followed my work for long enough will have read the reviews I did on all of the equipment mentioned. It creates more useful data point to triangulate and relate to this question of "how much". And that and not name dropping is the whole purpose of such A/B exercises after all.

Here are a few more data points. If you have followed my headfi adventures, you will know that I fancy the big Audeze planars of LCD-2 and LCD-XC over most others. Hence my usual night-time system sports one of them with the La Voce II wired into the Bakoon AMP-12. A Pro-Ject dock dispenses iPod digits to the DAC's coax input. This mix of two very spirited components and one very sumptuous transducer makes for great personal harmony. Expectedly, inserting the La Scala into this scene begged for some minor recalibration. With the heavy XC, the sound, whilst exceptionally saturated on tone and color intensity, missed some champagne bubbliness on top. It was too earthy. In this context, that equally eliminated the even darker Oppo planar and Dan Clark's Mad Dog and Alpha Dog Fostex rebuilds. Despite a bit too mush lushness or cushioning, the La Scala had fantastic slam even in this constellation. One track that showed this off was "Wind" by Øystein Sevåg where a drum set is used in far more than just a supporting role to deliver very hard bass-drum accents as counterpoint to the otherwise dreamy 'melody'. Those bass transients cracked very violently which on the large-diaphragm sealed Audeze became a show-boat workout.

The ideal headphone for the above configuration however turned out to be Fang Bian's HifiMan flagship, the HE-560. This lighter single-sided planar magnetic design reopened the skylights of the treble for more light, transparency and fleetness. 'twas a truly splendid very high-level match. The Sennheiser HD800 and HifiMan HE-6 worked very well too but I ultimately preferred to counteract their inherent brightness by going full hog and Mullards. That equalized their shiny top end with the wonderful midrange wealth and powerful low end of the Italian DAC. The next photo's perspective wrongly suggests that the La Scala is wider and perhaps taller than the La Voce. It's not. But it does correctly show greater depth to house the larger boards.

Final words. This Italian deck won't do native DSD or DXD at 352.8kHz though it will surely process such data converted to 176.4kHz PCM. But what it may lack in fashion flash to keep up with the restless digital Joneses shopping by the numbers, it more than makes up for with richly textured highly resolved very dynamic performance. That taps into more of the artistic energy that's actually encoded in our music and waiting to communicate with us. With a very capable fixed-gain linestage built in, this digital-to-analog converter is very full-bodied and dynamically charged to ideally complement lean speed-tuned systems. The only context where its strong contributions of heft and mass could add up excessively are already very warm dense systems. Then the leaner La Voce II would be preferable. The La Scala II is very well built, comprehensively socketed, fairly priced and fully modular to account for unexpected advances down the road. Finally, it showed me enough of a lead over four strong resident competitors in this general mid 4-figures price sector to firmly demand an award. Best I've heard in my system as John Darko put it? For the money, absolutely and without the shadow of a doubt. Put my name down too on this growing list of outspoken admirers for the Aqua Hifi La Scala II! 
..........Sarjan Ebaen

"La Voce" is entirely designed and hand assembled in Italy, with passion.
Matej Isak.

SUMMARY REVIEW: What its most important about Aqua Acoustics La Voce is its ability to portrait music with correct timbre and colour. La Voce offers potent and passionate approach to enjoy in exploring your digital collection. In the age where harshness is more then often recognised as true resolution La Voce offers unique and favourable approach to spot on reproduction of music. If your urges of digital conversion points at natural imprint look no further. You'll be hard pressed to find a DAC performing with such pace and correctness. And with the choice of swapping chips the universe of fine tuning and refinement to your needs is further more elaborated. 

Like all Italian devices I had pleasure to review in past few years Aqua Acoustics is no exception of bringing a unique passionate DNA incorporated into their DAC. Lifelike emotional curve of enjoyment shines within this black box.

EXTENDED REVIEW: In the present age of digital audio we came to a luxury of being able to choose form vast offerings of companies putting their knowledge, passion and views in an approach of how to convey the music from digital source. 

Italian company Aqua Acoustic Quality approaches to design with the vision that translates in carrying proudly musical excellence, artistic tradition, the passion for the land, the spirit of innovation and craftsmanship of its people. Fully Italian breed. 

So basically an emotional path with the clear goal of pursue in the service of music. Sounds like a fair and noble way to drive a venture.

First encounter of emotional bonding

From the first note played through the Aqua Acoustic Quality La Voce it was clear how this device radiate with a distinctive energy. Its the given approach they took that translates to the sound of outcome. Musical!

Insights into Aqua Acoustic Quality La Voce

Let me give you the company specs regarding La Voce to fully understand dedication and vision of the company. Here is their official introduction: 

Unit comes with one conversion circuit of your choice, or you may purchase more as you wish:
- Burr Brown pcm1704
- Philips TDA1541A
- Analog Devices AD1865

The dacs are easily interchangeable. These are the finest innovations ever produced in the field of high fidelity converters.

Innovative treatment of the PCM digital signal:

After exhaustive listening tests, a 1x sample rate has been chosen as the best. The digital signal (I2S format) taken from digital receiver transfers directly to DAC integrated circuits (i.e., Burr Brown pcm1704 or other depending on your choice). Digital decoding is done by our exclusive circuit DFD (direct from decoder) without any digital alteration (upsampling, oversampling, digital filters, etc..).

All aspects of the power supply circuit have been selected for the best quality and consistent result.

The section of the circuit board which stabilizes the analogue stage utilizes a power mosfet, for which power is generated by j-fet and bipolar transistors.

The power supply for the analogue section of the integrated DAC integrated circuits is also generated by discrete semiconductors. The digital section is powered by high performance regulator circuits.

The diodes used are ultra-fast. The whole circuit board has been designed to minimize ripple and to separate the various electronic devices in order to eliminate interference.

The digital receiver employs three separate power lines (VA - VD - VL) to drastically reduce jitter as much as is technologically possible. Moreover, the analogue and digital power supplies are completely separated.

The quality of components, reliability and durability, as well as sonic.

DAC options:
- cod. D704 - Burr Brown PCM1704 (2 dac) - R2R 24bit / 192 kHz - DFD MODE
- cod. D741 - Philips TDA1541A - R2R 16 bit / 96 kHz - DFD MODE (R1, S1 grade selection on request)
- cod. D165 - Analog Devices AD1865 - R2R 18 bit / 192 kHz - DFD MODE

The big difference between our DAC "La Voce" and other devices on the market lies in the possibility of your being able to choose the particular DAC converter for your personal demands. Moreover, the DAC IC converters are easily interchangeable-snap in, snap out-to give the true audiophile the option to experiment with and experience the sublte differences in sound quality. This option takes into serious consideration the future technological evolution of high fidelity sound production, and will enable the owner to simply plug in the next generation of DAC converters as we assemble them.

The intense design work and cure to detail is full gratified at every listening.

La Voce A class J-FET digital to analog converterOverviewFeatures• Digital decoding is done by our exclusive circuit DFD (direct from decoder) without any digital alteration (upsampling, oversampling, digital filters, etc..)

• galvanic isolated digital input signal will accept up to 24 bit 192 kHz
• passive current / voltage conversion (I / V) 
• pure A class jfet stage gain with no feedback and with a gain selection dip-switch for best match with the chosen DAC
• fully discrete analog stage 
• discrete MOSFET - Jfet separate power supply regulators are used in the analogue circuit
• the components with extraordinary attributes of quality, reliability and durability, as well as sonic (105° long life capacitors, metal film resistors and foil film low noise 1% and 0.1%, film output capacitors, etc.). Every single component has been chosen and selected after extensive listening tests.
• digital phase can be inverted with a jumper on the pcb
• Philips TDA1541A and Analog Devices AD1865 are DIP sockets mounted.

• Digital inputs:
coaxial S / PDIF (RCA or BNC) 75 ohms
- I2S PCM RJ45 digital input
- optical Toslink
- AES / EBU balanced 110 ohms 
-AT&T (optional)
• USB input:
24 bit / 192 kHz Bit perfect ASIO - WASAPI High resolution asynchronous High-Speed USB port. A Xcore microcontroller is interfaced directly in I2S protocol conversion board bypassing the digital receiver
• aluminum anti-resonant cabinet with Nextel

The sound of difference

La Voce is offering three different DAC to choose from. Analogue Devices AD1865, Burr Brown PCM 1704 and Philips TDA1541A.

They are also user swapable and Aqua offers them as plug in modules. This gives you an easy choice in 'tuning' your digital front end to a desired direction that suits both your taste and synergy of a system. 

As I entered the review, pace from the strike of the first note played energy and float of the music was enriched with the right dynamic of a natural tonal palette. Many times when I talk about natural darkness of tone people get confused or even scared. They think there is something wrong when I described a device with such character. What comes wrong are people's understanding, perception and approach to the sound of the equipment. Basic sound imprint of natural totality is dark in its core. Not a sky opener with bursting dynamics that have nothing to do with reality we live in. Most modern DAC's fail in a primal task of sound reproduction. Its first and foremost role of a converter to conway the music as it is. No additional fireworks or show offs. I do understand such artificial approach of some companies, but it have nothing to do with the reality. It deals more with the studio approach of equalising and tampering with the sound. If one is in the search of following the current trend of altered reality is fine. For an audiophile striving for the puristic musical imprint La Voce opens the door to the things as they are in a highly established way. 

Interaction

La Voce locked greatly with my Apple computers. When operating with digital files I prefer the solid state drives. They do offer more precise and refined way of dealing with digital audio formats. We've come to a level of sophistication of digital audio replay where every little nuance matters like anything. I always repeat about people feeling how complex and hard is to set a turntable cartridge properly. Try to established a clear and trouble free computer based source. And before doing so research the matter. You're get baffled with the choices and ways of going 'wrong'. 

La Voce exclusive circuict DFD (direct from decoder) that works without any digital alteration (upsampling, oversampling, digital filters, etc..) clears the path of already burden task of digital conversion. Digital might looks easy and simple in its dealings w with zeros and ones, yet each processing of data further reduce the final outcome of converted sound. The purist way to look at things digital is as less processing as possible. Understanding this much more people are starting to reach out to devices with less processing and purer sound outcome. 

CD is not obsolete

Aqua Acoustic Quality La Voce comes with a strong array of digital inputs. I2S started to appear lately on more and more devices. With I2S La Voce offers unique option and reduction of jitter to a lower specs. With prompt observation of industry I can concur that CD is not dead at all as some people or industry is trying to present. There are vast offerings of greatly mastered CD's that can still give a strong run to the high resolution digital audio files. If the transfer from master tapes was done at best and skillfully mastered you'll have hard time to distinguished between redbook and high resolution files of the same song. And as we sadly witness many of high resolution files are only up sampled. This 'froud' comes still from some of the leading vendors... With such dealings one surely wonder about good and great intentions of music industry with the pushing trends of high res files. 

La Voce offers a great option to explore your CD collection or a great investment if you're in the constant search of great sounding redbook album and building of your library along with a stand out Jitter reduced playback. Not closed path at all if you ask me. 

Music

Dire Straits track Private Investigation converted on the fly from ISO SACD copy of legendary Love over Gold album hold no reserves in emotions of Mark voice, guitar mojo playing and excellent following of the band. Whole presentation of La voce is focused in the middle and pushed a bit back. With this album it felt like La Voce puts a listener into a third row for the given distance. Nice feeling and a great way to enjoy the music. No complaints. 

Further on with 24bit 96khz version of Jobim-Getz Girl from Ipanema album Astrid and Antonio vocals were smooth with recognised tube warmness and even more familiar bloated bass. Not a perfect record, but I know it so well and its one of my desert island album choices. So in most cases I can instantly distil the nature of the given component. 

Conclusion

What its most important about Aqua Acoustics La Voce is its ability to portrait music with correct timbre and colour. La Voce offers potent and passionate approach to enjoy in exploring your digital collection. In the age where harshness is more then often recognised as true resolution La Voce offers unique and favourable approach to spot on reproduction of music. If your urges of digital conversion points at natural imprint look no further. You'll be hard pressed to find a DAC performing with such pace and correctness. And with the choice of swapping chips the universe of fine tuning and refinement to your needs is further more elaborated. 

Like all Italian devices I had pleasure to review in past few years Aqua Acoustics is no exception of bringing a unique passionate DNA incorporated into their DAC. Lifelike emotional curve of enjoyment shines within this black box.

"La Voce" is entirely designed and hand assembled in Italy, with passion.

5 YEARS WARRANTY

……..Matej Isak. Mono and Stereo ultra high end audio magazine.

It’ll suit anyone with a music collection that spans a vast array of contemporary fare for which production values and dynamic range compression could most charitably be described as mixed.
John H. Darko
as evidenced by the Darko DAC Index, a better textured, more dramatic sound awaits those prepared to forego the DirectStream’s touchscreen, remote control and digital-preamplification. With international exchange rates moving in the USA’s favour of late, ~US$6000 now gets you this reviewer’s favourite DAC to date: Aqua Hifi’s La Scala MKII 
With an approach to DAC design that’s decidedly old school this lesser-known Italian company flicks its chin at modern trends. The (less costly) delta-sigma silicon found in the vast majority of rivals is nowhere to be seen.

Te Aqua La Voce S2’s detail diggin’ dog doesn’t circle your feet, yapping “Ya gotta see this. And this. And this. And this.” It connotes quiet confidence with a simple but potent message: “Behold, I have such sights to show you”.

 
It’ll suit anyone with a music collection that spans a vast array of contemporary fare for which production values and dynamic range compression could most charitably be described as mixed. Ironic that such profound gratification from modern day music should come from a DAC design avenue that points to the past.
Not all audiophiles subsist on a diet of nicely recorded, thoughtfully mastered material. I’d wager most don’t. Most likely that most audiophiles choose music irrespective of the mastering engineer’s prowess with dynamic range compression. The Loudness War might be an ongoing pain in the proverbial but to allow one’s playback hardware to dictate the material that gets fired through it – that’s the sound of the tail the wagging the dog.

For the modern music fan, s/he who has a tendency toward alt. rock, indie, electronica, avant garde et al, the ‘music first’ mandate can sometimes be a real challenge, especially when upgrades slowly expose the inadequacies of the source material.

Exhibit A: Oasis’ Definitely Maybe is one of the better known crimes perpetrated against dynamic range in 1990s. Listen to the whole thing in one sitting can feel like a marathon run for the ear. Frankly, it’s exhausting, especially when the playback chain starts with something as seemingly transparent as the Chord Hugo.

Exhibit B: The Future of the Left (nee McLusky) make smart-ass proto-punk for the modern era. They’re one of this writer’s favourite bands OF ALL TIME and yet in the hands of the AURALiC Vega, aurally it’s like going toe-to-toe with Mike Tyson. Punch drunk is how I feel after “Lapsed Catholics” has wrapped Travels With Myself And Another. 

And lest anyone think this is only an issue affecting contemporary choices…

Exhibit C: a ruthlessly revealing DAC like Resonessence Labs’ INVICTA can sometimes make Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited sound like a four-year old emptying a box of spanners down a metal staircase. Repeatedly. For forty-five minutes.

However, as evidenced by the Darko DAC Index, a better textured, more dramatic sound awaits those prepared to forego the DirectStream’s touchscreen, remote control and digital-preamplification. With international exchange rates moving in the USA’s favour of late, ~US$6000 now gets you this reviewer’s favourite DAC to date: Aqua Hifi’s La Scala MKII 

With an approach to DAC design that’s decidedly old school this lesser-known Italian company flicks its chin at modern trends. The (less costly) delta-sigma silicon found in the vast majority of rivals is nowhere to be seen. Ditto FPGA + in-house code à la PS Audio or Chord Electronics. DSD? What’s that again?

At the heart of Aqua Hifi’s two D/A converters beats the long discontinued multi-bit R-2R PCM1704 conversion chip from (TI’s) Burr Brown: 4 x the top-drawer ‘K’ version show up in the La Scala MKII (€4890) in ‘true differential’, dual mono config (as per the chip’s inherent limitation). In the La Voce S2 (€2180), 2 x PCM1704-K run dual mono minus the ‘true differential’ bit. Balanced signalling and output arrives post-decoder via an optional board (fitted but untested here).

From this Burr Brown chip we get PCM compatibility up to 24bit/192kHz but the La Voce S2’s modular design accommodates digital board swapping for when owners want to try a different flavour. Options for the (also R-2R) Analog Devices AD1865 and Philips TDA1541A are for those untroubled by a CD/Redbook ceiling on sample- and bit-rate compatibility.

Pop the lid on the La Voce S2 and you can’t miss the twin toroidal transformers that ensure independent power supply to the analogue and digital sections. Conspicuous via their absence are op-amps. As per bigger bro, I/V conversion and output staging in the La Voce S2 remain resolutely discrete (but no tubes or optocouplers).

The signal still comes right off the conversion chip though. In Aqua Hifi speak, that’s ‘Direct From Decoder’ (DFD). For everyone else its translates to an absence of digital filter / oversampling. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a NOS DAC.

Aqua R&D uomo Cristian Anelli fills in the blanks: “One of the main factors in La Scala and La Voce’s different sonic approach is the elimination of digital filtering. Since 2005 we started to research a different solution from the upsampling / oversampling ones – the absolute standard in that [noughties] digital era.”

“We realised that the ‘heart of the sound’ would be found not only in eliminating the digital filtering but also in the quality of PCM signal transmission (I2S, etc).”

Digital inputs out back number four: AES/EBU, BNC, i2S and XMOS USB. Notable by its absence (on my review unit) was the consumer standard toslink. Apple TVers and gamers should fret not – it can be optioned, along with coaxial S/PDIF, at order time.

“The so called ‘jitter problem’ is important to the final sound quality, but not the only issue that affects the digital playback,” continues Anelli. “That is the reason why we developed a whole new circuit that would later be identified as DFD (Direct from Decoder). DFD circuitry is purely made out of logic gates and La Scala MKII DAC’s DFD circuitry is more sophisticated than the La Voce’s.”

Aqua recommended 200-300 hours burn-in. A Curious USB cable was hooked into the behind of my review unit. At the other end, a Mac Mini running both Roon and Audirvana+. Downstream, Vinnie Rossi’s LIO played the role of pre- and headphone-amplifier into Adam Tensor Delta loudspeakers and HiFiMAN HE-1000 ‘phones.

Looking back, I could’ve written this review after the first album played through the La Voce S2: The House Of Love’s razor-thin-sounding debut from 1989. It sounded less offensive than I’d remembered. So too did that which followed: The Fatima Mansion’s Valhalla Avenue, an album whose final third is so caustic-sounding that a wince is never far away. The legacy of 1980s production values (or is it in-studio A/D converters?) loom large. Again, via the La Voce S2, it sounded far from terrible. And a little bit terrible is the way I remembered its sound. WTF.

Time for some Roon Radio. Starting with the most of obscure of The Fatima Mansions’ B-sides, “Gary Numan’s Porsche”, one gnarly indie rock track rear-ended the next: McLusky (“Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues”), Nick Cave (“Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”), The Hold Steady (“Little Hoodrat Friend”), The Vaccines (“Post Break-Up Sex”), Low (“Sunflower”), Tame Impala (“Be Above It”), Throwing Music (“Serene Swing”).

No single tune in this Roon-generated playlist grated as much I thought it might. Or that it once did. Or some combination of the two. Some even sounded pleasant. WTF x 2.

I clocked up the hours over the course of two weeks, occasionally clicking the LIO’s input over from a Chord Hugo TT fed by an Aurender N100H for a quick progress report. With 200 hours on its odometer, I returned to the La Voce S2 for further assessment.

Despite seeing ones and zeroes from the inferior transport, listening to the La Voce S2 brought on a little rear-view reflection: not since owning a Marantz CD63 MKII back in the mid-90s do I recall such continuous easeful listening with ALL source material (and not just the nicer sounding stuff). A kindness-to-all delivery is the most noticeable way in which this Aqua DAC sets itself apart from the competition; a difference that’s more pronounced than that of Vega vs. INVICTA.

And yet the Aqua unit proved to be as adept as its rivals with detail excavation – yes, even the sub-US$3K-category-leading Chord Hugo – but it didn’t lean as heavily on the Chord’s high pixel-count M.O., which proved a real boon for indie rock n roll’s diminished spit n polish. When relayed via DACs that prioritise down-to-the-bone exposure – Mytek Stereo192-DSD, AURALiC Vega, Resonessence Labs INVICTA – even minutiae get a full undressing. There is no choice but to wake up and smell the coffee.

Fans of Steve Albini-produced albums will know this all too well. One of my top picks from his enormous body of production work is The Auteurs’ After Murder Park. Next to the Italian contender, the afore-listed delta-sigma units play it thinner/reedier, making it more difficult to listen past the drier, leaner sound of Albini’s signature sound that’s so pivotal to this album’s live sense of unease.

Player separation is fine if it doesn’t threaten the listener’s sense of the whole. In this respect, the La Voce S2 trumps its rivals, better delivering The Auteurs as a complete band. The Hugo TT’s take separates players via a slight thinning of acoustic mass and a further teasing out of atomic-level detail. In this respect, the TT more readily exposes the band’s four constituent members but in turn demands the listener’s ear/brain play a subconscious game of reassembly. In other words, the La Voce S2 is for those who want to eat cake without being explicitly reminded of flour, butter and sugar.

Spying the scene from a different angle, the La Voce S2 contrasts its rivals as sounding more scientific. They play Heston Blumenthal to the Italian’s Jamie Oliver.

Could it be then that the Mytek, INVICTA, Vega and Hugo/TT satisfy detail FOMO (fear of missing out) more than they properly nourish the listener? Of course not – but some will undoubtedly hear it that way.

If you find Sabre-rattlers all much of a muchness, the Aqua unit could well be a better fit for your tastes, especially if your music tastes closely align with that of your average Pitchfork or Uncut reader: The Hold Steady, Autechre, David Bowie. With the latter’s catalogue yet to see a remastering job that didn’t leave it sounding nervy and overly etched in the treble, this old-school R-2R-equipped unit is just the ticket for savouring the ‘Berlin trilogy’ in a single sitting.

And no – not all PCM1704-loaded DACs sound alike. Sporting a quartet of the very same Burr Browns, a Reference 5.32 from wallet-friendly goto Audio-gd just couldn’t keep up with the Aqua’s ability to draw players in the depth dimension. I thought it sounded good in its own right but somewhat flat and lifeless when A/B-d against the La Voce S2.

If vinyl lovers find themselves drawn to PS Audio’s DirectStream because of DSD’s seemingly kinder handling of transients, those same boys from the black stuff might find comparative levels of aural satisfaction with the Italian – and for le$$. The pleasure derived here is of a slightly different nature: the Aqua sounds cooler and more considered. On rhythmic poise and composure during complex passages I’d call it a dead heat.

That said, this Milanese-manufactured unit isn’t for those who demand a kitchen sink feature set. The absence of bells and whistles no doubt helps keeps pricing sane but Aqua’s approach is one of sharp focus on a shallower depth of field. If you need headphone output and/or portability, the Chord Hugo remains the go to device at the La Voce S2’s price point. If you’ve only need for the DAC portion then the Italian is one deadly serious contender.

One word to nail this Aqua’s essence? Rectitude. The La Voce S2 keeps treble incision on a short leash, there’s just the right amount of upper-mid crisp-crunch and an elegant sufficiency of low end import. A DAC for those who want that Goldilocks moment each and every time they hit play. A DAC for those who can’t handle the truth? Perhaps. But try listening to the brickwalled grinding dirge of Future Of The Left’s catalogue at full tilt on your existing DAC as see how far you get. In the La Voce S2’s hands, it’s hours and not minutes. Brutal honesty is rarely the best policy.

The Aqua La Voce S2’s detail diggin’ dog doesn’t circle your feet, yapping “Ya gotta see this. And this. And this. And this.” It connotes quiet confidence with a simple but potent message: “Behold, I have such sights to show you”.

It’ll suit anyone with a music collection that spans a vast array of contemporary fare for which production values and dynamic range compression could most charitably be described as mixed. Ironic that such profound gratification from modern day music should come from a DAC design avenue that points to the past.

DAR-KO award? You betcha.

..............John H. Darko

I have put it on the top of my wish list....It not only brings music, it is music, and that is the biggest compliment I can give the makers of this extremely fine product.
René van Es

REVIEW SUMMARY: I could listen for hours and hours with this DAC to every kind of music you can think of. Lounge music, country, pop, jazz, baroque or any other classical music. Only occasionally did I long for a little extra speed from this great piece of electronics. A bit more drive on some CDs is all I desire. A minor wish because La Scala has presented itself as one of the most beautiful and capable digital to analogue converters I’ve had in my home system. I know it’s expensive and that DACs are available for less than one tenth of the retail price, but for me it is worth the money because of the excellent way all music is handled. Details never show up as if under a magnifying glass but they are no doubt there. On RCA or BNC the sound stage is a bit small but very deep. On XLR the stage is wide but not as deep. But I lose interest in these details as soon as I start listening to music. In the long term it all comes down to music not the technology, the Aqua La Scala has stolen my heart in so many ways that I hate to see it go. Whatever comes next to convert my files into analogue will have to face the impression La Scala leaves. I have put it on the top of my wish list and as soon as my own DAC fails beyond repair I will call the Italians to get a La Scala shipped to my place. It not only brings music, it is music, and that is the biggest compliment I can give the makers of this extremely fine product.

EXTENDED REVIEW: As soon as anyone removes the grey Nextel coated cover of the Aqua (Acoustic Quality) La Scala Mk II DAC he or she will see that they mean serious business in Italy. Where a lot of converters today consist of one or two boards with highly integrated SMD components, Aqua has chosen to use seven upgradable printed circuits boards to hold mostly discrete components.  I’m not even counting the PCBs behind the front panel controls and back panel connectors. No wonder this DAC carries a firm price tag, the question is does the performance live up to this electronic promise.

The aluminium faceplate is not the oblong standard but has a distinctive shape and even a slot that provides cooling for the two double triodes inside the box. On the left a pair of rotary knobs switch the unit on/off and let you choose one of the five inputs. A phase switch is added for those who are sensitive to such things. On the back are XLR balanced and RCA single ended outputs alongside five digital inputs including an I2S for the propriety AQlink between transport and DAC. A balanced 110 Ohm AES/EBU input, S/PDIF over RCA and BNC and of course USB type B complete the roster but an AT&T optical connection is optional. All inputs accept at least 24 bit/192 kHz rates and the AQlink will handle 384 kHz sample rates. A small LED indicates the presence of a digital stream.

I squared S

Inside the box Aqua uses asynchronous coupling for USB and PPL for S/PDIF to eliminate jitter. The AQlink over I2S will bring the best performance says Aqua, but you need the La Diva or another compatible transport. The incoming digital signal is not oversampled, hurray for that, Aqua does not follow the standard path but prefers sound quality it seems. The next step is a high performance proprietary DFD (Direct From Decoder) digital decoding without the use of digital filters. The DAC chips are Burr Brown PCM 1704K types, four of them used in a differential dual mono configuration, followed by current to voltage transformers. The digital part of the DAC is separated from the analogue ground by high speed opto couplers.

A pair of long life ECC81 tubes is used in the analogue stage, followed by MOSFETs to lower the output impedance and reduce distortion without the need for feedback. The tubes are biased with LEDs for ultimate stability, these form a visible row behind the front panel slot. A soft start circuit elongates tube life. On the RCA outlets one half of each tube carries the signal, while on the XLR outputs both halves of the triodes are used, to produce a high output voltage of (measured) 3.5 Volt to 7 Volt. You have to make sure your amplifier can handle such high output levels. Four trimmers inside La Scala were precisely adjusted and showed less than 0.1 Volt difference between pins 2 and 3 on the XLRs. Aqua is proud to say that not a single op-amp is used in the output stage.

Boba FET?

The power section, separated into a digital and an analogue supply is also of very high quality. The two transformers pull between 25 and 30 Watts continuous power from the mains to feed Aqua’s discrete regulator circuits (with MOSFET, J-FET and BJT) for the analogue and digital stages. A virtual battery circuit provides the anode current. Ultra-fast diodes are used along with other high quality parts like long life capacitors and low noise metal foil resistors. Most connections are made with flat cable, elsewhere audiophile cable is used. All in all La Scala shows that the Aqua company was more concerned about designing a high quality DAC than making savings or compromises.

To get the best out of the DAC it was put into my system alongside an Esoteric D-07 converter and G-03X wordclock. The main digital source is a NAD M50/M52 network streamer, connected with an Apogee Wide-Eye XLR or Stereovox VX2 RCA/BNC to the DAC. Although USB is very popular, I prefer to use almost any DAC over XLR or S/PDIF. USB might be nice to connect a small desktop DAC and play your music while you are at work, in my main system a network player with a NAS or a dedicated music server mostly does a better job. Would you really like a laptop next to a high quality DAC like La Scala and be bothered every week with software updates and the like? I prefer to use my spare time enjoying music. Since my preamp and power amp are fully balanced I connect a pair of Van den Hul D102 Mk3 cables to the Aqua’s XLR outputs. The power amp feeds a pair of PMC fact.12 loudspeakers in a, for acoustics sake, modestly tuned room. Mains power is cleaned for all electronics for better performance and a lower noise floor, except for the power amplifier. Most cabling comes from Crystal Cable, Supra and Yter. A stable Quadraspire rack accommodates all equipment.

XLR vs RCA

The DAC needed about two weeks of continuous power to reach peak performance, during this time I often compared the sound quality against my own DAC and found that La Scala became its equal. Not that the Aqua and Esoteric sound the same, they differ, but both are satisfactory to say the least. After the warm-up time it soon became clear that La Scala has two faces, a pinpoint soundstage between the loudspeakers when the RCA (coax S/PDIF) input is in use and a broad soundstage on XLR (AES/EBU balanced). A track from a Dali Loudspeakers demo disc called Down In The Hole by John Campbell shows that on RCA the depth is much larger, but the smaller stage has the disadvantage that details on the left side seem to disappear in the rest of the instruments. While on XLR these details are easily heard and standalone, however the stage is less deep. It is like a piece of clay, pull on the sides and it flattens, push the sides in and its form goes in the opposite direction. Differences don’t stop with just the soundstage, on RCA the sound is crisper and has some more attack, deep bass tones or a bass drum lose a bit on impact, voices become a little clearer in my view. On XLR a softer presentation is produced, bass has this nice ‘boom’ that only slowly fades, it’s closer to the sound of a live bass drum. The softening of the voices also adds that little extra in emotional transfer. I realise that this could be due to the cables used and/or be part of the NAD M50 performance as well. No matter what causes the difference, in the long term I prefer a balanced digital connection to La Scala for the most rewarding and often outstanding results.

Never too late

Holly Cole is one of my all time favourites and I put on One Trick Pony from her album Romantically Helpless, it really shines. A big bass guitar to start, fingers snapping, light percussion and Holly enters the listening room. Her voice clear as could be and full of articulation. The band makes the music lively and guitars flash on either side of the speakers. A few tracks later we have Come Fly With Me, this time the band forms a background for Holly, with firm bass tones and almost a wall of sound. La Scala does an excellent job separating the band members and especially keeping Holly as the star performer. Secret Love from Claire Martin on a Linn high res recording puts down a piano that makes you feel like you are in a jazz club somewhere in London. La Scala creates a very intimate concert, close to the stage but never in your face.  Even when the music speeds up and brass instruments take over I find no need to turn the volume down. Split from Patricia Barber is the first time that I want to add speed to this DAC, the track Early Autumn should have more impact than I get. Especially the piano, which can rock your chair and have you dancing around the room on some other converters, not on this one, maybe it is just a little too polite. Where Ms Barber’s slower work shines the up tempo tracks from this 1989 album have not got the X-factor. On the other hand play Two For The Road and you soon forget and forgive what you played before. A consideration for the listener, do you like a motorway ride or take a country road. Given the way Two For The Road sounds I am willing to forgive La Scala just about everything, I cannot get enough of this album because of the excellent result on the slower tracks. Bass clear and plucked, piano one of the very best I have had at home, voice engaging, percussion tender and detailed. The lady might sing It Is Too Late Now, well believe me it isn’t too late to get one of these great DACs.

Family sound

Antonin Dvorak once composed a String Quintet in E Flat Opus 97, it was recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic String Quintet for an SACD on the Pentatone label. I ripped the CD layer to a FLAC file and I enjoy this dynamic and well recorded piece of music as often as I can. It has that nice bite, the clear tones of a violin, just on the edge like a violin should be and deep cello tones. Ripped the same way is Legende from Giovanni Angeleri, music composed by Pablo de Sarasate. The first track starts very loud but soon the volume is lowered, making room for the solo violin, but also for a tambourine that has to be there throughout the track. Now I know a lot of DACs that mess up this music and leave the tambourine out of the picture. Not La Scala, its performance is soft like a babies skin, tender as its caring mother, strong as daddy has to be. It’s informative and yet very musical. Playing very loud is no problem, tones barely heard on the recording stand out beautifully. If you do not own this SACD you might call your local store or order it from a website. Beware, your system has to handle the high volumes and the converter must be able to handle tiny digital signals. Oh and in case you want to find the tambourine, it is in the back on the right channel. To end the listening session I lined up Francois Chaplin plays Chopin Nocturnes. This 24 bit/88.2 kHz file shows once again how well La Scala handles piano, the best ever for my system. The right size with lower registers under the fingers of the left hand filling the room impressively, the higher notes pinpointed where they ought to be. The sound is majestic to say the least and when I play the same piece on my beloved Esoteric DAC later on it sounded disappointing. Not that the D-07 plus wordclock are suddenly bad products, not at all, but the Aqua La Scala is the superior one.

It is music

I could listen for hours and hours with this DAC to every kind of music you can think of. Lounge music, country, pop, jazz, baroque or any other classical music. Only occasionally did I long for a little extra speed from this great piece of electronics. A bit more drive on some CDs is all I desire. A minor wish because La Scala has presented itself as one of the most beautiful and capable digital to analogue converters I’ve had in my home system. I know it’s expensive and that DACs are available for less than one tenth of the retail price, but for me it is worth the money because of the excellent way all music is handled. Details never show up as if under a magnifying glass but they are no doubt there. On RCA or BNC the sound stage is a bit small but very deep. On XLR the stage is wide but not as deep. But I lose interest in these details as soon as I start listening to music. In the long term it all comes down to music not the technology, the Aqua La Scala has stolen my heart in so many ways that I hate to see it go. Whatever comes next to convert my files into analogue will have to face the impression La Scala leaves. I have put it on the top of my wish list and as soon as my own DAC fails beyond repair I will call the Italians to get a La Scala shipped to my place. It not only brings music, it is music, and that is the biggest compliment I can give the makers of this extremely fine product.
........René van Es

Outstanding musical presentation of the two devices. The converter I give extremely reluctant to back.
JÜRGEN SAILE

ENGLISH TRANSLATION iREVIEW of AQUA ACOUSTIC La SCALA & La DIVA
REVIEW SUMMARY: The musicians all play to the point exactly with a gigantic momentum, and it also comes across! I know thereof both LP and CD, but the DAC can here convey something else, namely the fascination that can make such a live concert. 

EXTENDED REVIEW: Yet 'n poem ... or rather, again a DAC? Clear! The search goes on, there are not tons of D / A converters that are totally uninspired, lifeless and sterile make music? Signore Anelli has firmly resolved to change that!
 
The Milan-based company Aqua now has nothing to do with the Municipal Waterworks, but this is a pun on the abbreviation of Acoustic Quality. The German distribution has also given us for the test next to the big DAC the matching CD drive. The exterior with the rounded forms is already very appealing, a pleasing shape is now quite something that the scene does well. And what you would expect anyway even with a product of Bella Italia. But how does it look now from inside?
Connection options are available in abundance.  Interestingly, provides the drive and an optical output AT & T, for which there is no counterpart in the DAC.  This is only available as an option
Connection options are available in abundance. Interestingly, provides the drive and an optical output AT & T, for which there is no counterpart in the DAC. This is only available as an option 
 
A look inside the converter immediately shows well that the Italians seriously and refuse to compromise, or want to save money at any point. First of all, a plurality of sinkers striking seven in number. This has a very obvious reason, if there are improvements in any area, the corresponding board can be easily changed, a completely new device is not required. La Scala can therefore always be kept in the fast-paced digital time-to-date. In addition, it is immediately obvious that the seven boards are all equipped with discrete components. No op amps far and wide! All this makes a very clean and sophisticated impression.
 
My first view always applies the power supply if I here to look for the transformer according to the motto: Yes where isser then? Then the mentally already minuses. Aqua can here but slotted it puts the power already separated for digital and analogue sections from. Two relatively large average core transformers are used for this purpose. The rectification is made complicated and consists of discrete components.
 
s DA converter chip my favourite, the best BurrBrown 1704 R2R Ladder DAC is used here in the highest selection stage "K". two of these chips are used and not connected in parallel this time per channel, but in a differential circuit. In addition, Aqua bypasses the built-in chip digital filter: DFD, Direct From decoder means then to New Germany. With this chip but already aged a sampling rate of 24/192 is implemented. You have to stop and think, the chip will have long no longer being built, the company (and there are quite a few), which continue to use this chip still need to stock up on appropriate stocks. That has to have some reason. Actually, the battle against the one-bit converter is lost, but even the chips of the first hour as TDA 1541 or 1543 are still used with great success. Or again, companies such as MSB, and TotalDAC build the converter according to the R2R principle discreetly with individual precision resistors on!
 
Another specialty is found here in the current / voltage converter, we remember, while a DAC chip provides power, but hardly voltage. There are exceptions, of course, as in the discrete converter of TotalDAC. Anyway normally the delivered current in voltage must be converted, usually by means of an op-amp or passively via resistors. Aqua has found another solution, although the conversion is also passive and is taken over by a transformer. This of course has the additional advantage that arises in this way, a separation of digital to analog area.
 
In the output stage werkeln two double Type ECC81 / 12AT7 in combination with a MosFet. The ECC81 was originally designed for VHF applications, but provides the NF region also good results. Everything naturally without negative feedback. For the RCA output only one half of the twin triode is needed, of course, with the balanced XLR output both halves are used. Aqua is for these tubes in this circuit lifetime of 10,000 hours. I can live with that! Another feature is found on the front panel, namely a switch for the absolute phase. Ideally, the speaker diaphragm moves in a positive forward momentum. When but was sloppy in the recording, it can also be reversed once. This manifests itself in a less dynamic playback. This makes naturally in closed housings most noticeable, but is clearly audible even with my open baffle which setting is better.
 
As a side note: The DAC provides the RCA outputs 2.6 volts, which is significantly more than usual. This may result in that the volume control is constantly in the lower control range in conjunction with a high-efficiency speakers. The converter is designed for a total of four different sources that can be selected with a switch on the front panel. Firstly, for a computer as a source via USB, on the other hand for the in-house CD drive La Diva via I2S. The I2S protocol is compared to the S / PDIF connection offer a significant improvement in data transmission. In contrast to S / PDIF Here, the audio data and the clock are transmitted through different lines, and thus does not then have to be subsequently filtered out from the data stream clock. However, the connections are again not standardised, so that in this case, only the in-house drive can be operated. S / PDIF and AES / EBU connections are of course also available.
 
The drive is named La Diva; hm, the Divine? Or rather bitchy? We'll see if it makes any purely external ever the same great impression as the transducer. The drive is designed as a top loading, the actual drive unit is mounted on a sub-chassis, to minimise vibration from the outside. Kind I also find the toggle switch to operate the drive functions, these are a little reminiscent Audio Research. However, Audio Research has also used in its new CD player, the usual pushbuttons. Small curiosity on the edge: If the "next" button is pressed with a CD inserted, nothing happens. Only once you have pressed the "start", individual tracks can be skipped. With the remote control does not exist this problem naturally.
 
Interestingly, also a component is used, the production has already been set: the Philips CD-Pro2 drive. Thus, it is getting tight with CD drives in the top quality range. TEAC, Accuphase and CEC build their drives themselves, but are not willing to sell them to other manufacturers. StreamUnlimited in Austria would me there still occur as a supplier. Aqua will have well stocked with plenty of spares, but production remains naturally still limited.
 
Now the one or the other reader will wonder, a CD drive in the 21st century? How antiquated that are you? Does this still a? As have predominantly American authors good preparation and written death of CD formally brought. Strangely enough, the media proves to be much tougher than assumed, which a glance at the Munich record shops are the namesakes yes earlier. Speaking of records, is one the whole theatre is not familiar? Now there are not only incorrigible nostalgics who simply want to keep a physical medium in your hand, but obviously a lot of listeners, which play a computer sounds too sterile. Or better "digital"? Our friends from the Polish magazine High Fidelity think that any system can be independent of the price, optimise with an appropriate CD drive. A very interesting article on this topic will be published in a future issue of Hifi Statement.
 
Let's leave just once a technical limitation of Redbook format and all the theoretical stuff off and just listen to us at what they have to offer the two devices. In a first step, I first connected the transformer to my Ayon CDT drive. Of the four different connection options, the La Scala has to offer, I have chosen the AES / EBU connection. Unfortunately I do not have a digital recording from the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, which would somehow offered here.
 
Therefore, I have chosen an old screamer from the jazz scene, namely "Take Five" from the CD Time Out with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Here in a K2 HD recording from Sony, the normal CD is not that great. After I had not heard this music feels like 30 years old, it now makes even fun again. Brubeck's music was known for the odd meters, here a 5/4 time, hence the name "Take Five". Brubeck has hitherto usual 4/4 time ( "Time") is turned off, thus comes the name of the LP: Time Out .
 
Already after the first few bars you get a feeling where the journey could go long: listening to music is fun with the converter! The percussion is very powerful over, just as the little wooden play of Brubeck, while the almost fragile sound of Paul Desmond's saxophone remains wonderful. The musicians move a little more to the fore, they have made wide as it were in their own homes. La Scala boasts an excellent resolution, very good you can do this on this CD with drummer Joe Morello hear: he plays - as was customary in jazz - just a standard drum set, not this huge bloated shooting as are now common. Therefore Morello can produce the variety of sounds alone by his technique. And he has a lot to offer what La Scala also presents us with very detailed; you can look at the finger him formally. Half then came around the corner and said approvingly: sounds great!
 
Next - and just in time for the World Cup - is the German-born Brazilian Astrud to train. She was in the 60s, a representative of the bossa nova and the time quite known. If now the older readers among us "Blame it on the Bossa Nova, lalala ..." think they are totally wrong here, Gilberto can really sing. But it could perhaps be an excuse for leaving the Brazilians in the World Cup. Specially selected I had the title "berimbau" from the CD Look to the Rainbow . In the berimbau is a percussive, one-stringed percussion instrument from Brazil. The string (usually from an old car tire) is thereby stretched on a bow and struck with a wooden stick. This creates a distinctive, slightly rasping sound. The instrument is very clear to hear in the intro, on La Scala, it is also well displayed plastic, which is often only diffuse to hear because of the virtually non-existent instrument body. Wunderbar the voice of Gilberto is then played back, a bit reminiscent of cool jazz. Gilberto moves only within an octave range. Finally, in the background there is the further the Gil Evans Orchestra. Here you can now hear very clearly that the recording was not made ​​at the same time in the same place, but individual tracks were zusammengefixt later. How indeed is nowadays already common practice. The Wind Ensemble have however taken very authentic and are well represented that way. Evans had indeed through the use of - done a very typical dark orchestral sound unusual instruments like French horn, oboe and tuba, where his orchestra could be detected immediately - for the Jazz. This may be the Italo-course very structured and play with a lot of sounds. Great!
 
Still a classic, Friday Night in San Francisco with the guitarist Al di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia. Nothing else! The concert was well under the motto: Who finishes first, must go home. Otherwise you can otherwise the high-speed play not explain. Anyway, we hear the first track "Mediterranean Sundance" Al di Meola in the left channel and Paco de Lucia at right. What La Scala shows super clear is this: Meola plays on an Ovation guitar with steel strings and a plectrum, de Lucia course on a flamenco guitar my fingers. The much larger Ovation makes considerably more pressure and sounds harder by the stop with the plectrum, flamenco guitar is a little quieter, but offers much more timbres. Due to the excellent technique of de Lucia, a brilliant fireworks will of course also burned. Another strength of the transducer can be with this recording also hear the English call the Prat, Pace, Rhythm and Timing. The musicians all play to the point exactly with a gigantic momentum, and it also comes across! I know thereof both LP and CD, but the DAC can here convey something else, namely the fascination that can make such a live concert. Often you can hear on this recording just any Geschwurbel where one wonders at the end what the whole thing is. However, the rest of the system must, of course, can also keep up.
 
A note in the margin: La Scala has besides the RCA outputs also balanced outputs, which I, however, could not use because my tube preamp has no balanced inputs. In the next step, I then the in-house drive La Diva with the transducer connected; in order to have a level playing field, at first also on the AES / EBU connection. Compared to previously playback has slightly less pressure, but acts for delicate, elegant. Still, I think that La Diva explores not quite the dynamic capabilities of the converter. The musicians are further taken a step forward. Overall I would say: a matter of taste. In "Take Five", the transducer may actually make more pressure, the same applies to "Mediterranean Sundance", on the other hand, the voice of Gilberto is still supple and light-footed. The three-dimensional image of the musician works better with the Ayon, for La Diva can depict the dimensions of the concert hall better. As I said, a matter of taste. And whining at the highest level. To explore this further, I have a Baroque recording with Trevor Pinnock picked out: Arcangelo Corelli Concerto Grosso # 1 .
 
In this type of music the Leichfüßigkeit and elegance of Aqua Combi comes much better to wear, the music is exciting and transparent and that. In a recording for Deutsche Grammophon, which has a number of weaknesses and this not only in the high frequencies The music gets to the two aqua-equipment much more substance, otherwise it can quickly namely once slide under the heading "elevator music". In big orchestral works, such as a Beethoven symphony I could imagine, however, a little more volume to me. Basically, I want to say that of course I hernehme not only the three or four titles shown for the evaluation, but a variety of CDs, some of them come for certain tests before ever again. What the music itself, of course, does not do particularly well. In addition, I also like to take once wafers, which are received perfectly not 100 percent, just to hear what is not offered with the test components of substance.
 
Next step: If now the AES / EBU connection replaced by the I2S cable, teams up again some, or in other words, this is clearly the better connection. What one hears however only in direct comparison with the AES / EBU cable. The instruments sound even more freely and airy, the room seems a bit bigger. However comes with shots that have a somewhat aggressive treble range, this is also very clear so over; however, since the I2S connection can not help it. The AES / EBU connection is more forgiving here. If I had to choose between the two devices, I would first pick up the converter. This impressed crucially the sound of the combination and is likely to make in each chain a good figure.
 
STATEMENT: 
Outstanding musical presentation of the two devices. The converter I give extremely reluctant to back.
This formula was pliant, supple, fleet-footed and lissome. It's why it all fell into place at low volumes. Easy, relaxed, filigreed and intensely detailed were the key notes of this flavour.
Srajan Ebaen

You're not expected to eat it all. You survey it, then focus on what attracts you at that moment. Or, you allow it all to simply be there in its massively multi-paralleled simultaneity without reaching for anything. Again, think easeful, translucent, natural and superbly enunciated. The overriding note of other premium converters had been dynamic intensity and/or tonal saturation. It's from them that this presentation differed the most.

When a brief press release made the rounds that Aqua Hifi were about to bow their new flagship DAC during an April 9th 2016 dealer event in Belgium, it revealed nothing but the Formula name. Putting on my pointiest hat, I wondered. Had Aqua's established preference for R2R conversion finally clashed with native DSD demand? Did they mint a dual-engine machine that would auto-switch depending on signal format? Whilst some might call that pandering to fashion, others would call it smart business. Next a teaser photo emerged. It showed sample-rate indicators up to 384kHz but no DSD. Clearly Stefano Jelo & Cristian Anelli hadn't succumbed to DirectStream. Brava. 

That begged a question. What was optologic? Opto couplers aren't uncommon. They can isolate circuit stages and remove a ground connection. Toslink or glass fibre cables conduct electrical signal converted to light to accomplish something similar. Light-dependent resistors show up in attenuators from Tortuga Audio and Constellation Audio. Light-based tech also plays centre stage in Siltech's Saga electronics where "an incredibly powerful light source drives a photo-electric cell to generate DC for the amplifier output stage, galvanically isolating and fully decoupling the current gain stage from the AC supply". Light factors in infrared remotes and with optical drives from CD to DVD to BluRay.

On the face of it, none exactly explained an optological DAC. Aqua aqa Acoustic Quality weren't known for taking marketing liberties. Instead, our Italians had gained renown for fairly priced very well-done converters using mature no-nonsense tech with solid execution. The previous LaScala MkII flagship with tube outputs remains one of my reference machines. It went without saying. Had it just been summarily dethroned, the new formula had to be a winner. Prior to the full reveal, its ingredients simply remained mysterious. 

A week later, Cristian Anelli sent a prelim Italian tech PDF. He calling it a work in progress. This was confirmed by the text suddenly interrupting. Of what was there, Google translator made the following: "Galvanic and magnetic isolation are implemented between the FPGA and the four branches of the R2R ladder converter. This not only creates complete isolation of all digital circuitry including the clock from the analogue section for a pure clean ground plane. It also plays a vital role in the differential management of the R2R ladders, achieving perfect symmetry between the counter-phase halves. The result is high tonal contrast and naturalness not heard from digital machines. The Formula DAC uses no digital filter or any other compensation, relying instead on maniacal attention to each sub circuit. The analog and digital power supplies are executed purely discrete and with BJT, Mosfet, Jfet and ultra-fast diodes. Passive parts were selected not just for sonics but top quality, longevity and reliability. Except for six extreme-quality electrolytics, all other caps are Tantalum, solid-polymer OS-CON or double-metalized MJP. The signal path itself is direct-coupled and free of all capacitors. The dual output stages—one single-ended, one transformer-coupled balanced—use discrete BJT and JFet with metal-film resistors. All parts are characterised by very low RF noise..."

The astute reader took note of the 'super' symmetrical circuit. She probably suspected that the FPGA meant glue logic for non-audio R2R chips à la Metrum Acoustics. Actually, "there are no DAC chips, only R2R ladders executed with discrete precision resistors which are separated from the field-programmable gate array via optocouplers". With that, Aqua Hifi join the small band of merry R2R diskretniks like Aries Cerat, LampizatOr, LessLoss, MSB, Rockna Audio, S.A.Lab, TotalDAC and Wagner Audio who build their own ladder-type converters one resistor at a time. Unlike the former range topper LaScala MkII, the Formula has no tubes. That reiterates how Cristian Anelli isn't married to any given tech. He uses what works best for a given application. The breakdown of this formula was beginning to look most interesting. "Over our prototype R2R network without galvanic isolation, the 'optologic circuit' improved its performance. This became a one-step solution with dual benefits: perfect symmetry for the R2R network; and a true analog ground." 

For connectivity, the Formula's six toggle-selected inputs correspond to AES/EBU on I, BNC on II, coax on III, modular (AT&T ST fibre, I²S, AES/EBU, coax or BNC) on IV, USB on V and AQlink/I²S on VI. The 9 pin D-SUB for the RS232 interface serves home automation, PC remote and such. "Our main micro controller is an advanced ARM STM32." Now we get Optologic DAC. Given the unexpected twin benefits of optocouplers between digital input stage / housekeeping FPGA and where conversion to analog happens in balanced resistor ladder pairs, optical isolation was the next logical thing. To give credit where due, Cristian added that "it is a pleasure let you know that I designed the DAC's discrete FPGA conversion and STM32 micro controller in collaboration with engineer Gianfranco Meneghetti. He has more than 25 years of experience in the electronic industry working for various companies like ST Microelectronics, Ascom Safnat, Samsung Electronics Italia, Jabil Circuit and Teradyne. Gianfranco is great." A day after the Munich show, "I'm in the tunnel of the Optologic DAC upgrade project for the La Scala MkII." Cristian wouldn't rest on his laurels but shine more light—isolation by optocoupler—on his earlier models? "La Scala will have the same proprietary discrete R2R ladder architecture as Formula." How would Formula differentiate itself against La Scala MkIII? "The FPGA and logic parts will be the same but Formula gets costlier R2R resistors and a more sophisticated power supply for its DAC section. The LaScala will retain its hybrid tube/Mosfet circuit with the ECC81."

Here it's fair to be reminded. Unlike most DAC fabricators, Aqua are a more complete digital provider. They continue to support disc spinning with their dedicated La Diva transport. It's one of the potential I²S-over-CAT5 senders for their DACs' AQlink inputs. Below we see a short assembly line of transports at left; and at right Cristian's prototype white circuit boards of the Formula during a bug exorcism prior to the Munich HighEnd 2016 show.

Removing 12 hex bolts with additional plastic contacts to protect the cover's Nextel paint revealed unbelievably well-built innards executed with multi-stacked modules for non-obsolescence. Below we see the central housekeeping DSP board to the left, then three of the four discrete resistor ladder boards, with the vertical single-ended outboard module at the far right.

Personal beliefs. In my experience with well-done R2R converters of Aqua Hifi LaScala MkII, Metrum Hex/Pavane and Schiit Yggdrasil calibre as well as a few TotalDAC machines, they can share a very special quality. The kicker is that this needn't be apparent. If 'special' and 'hidden' would seem mutually exclusive, here's my pet theory behind it. Time-domain fidelity in upstream hardware gets obscured if the final transformers of electrical into mechanical energy—the loudspeakers—are "time confused". Be it steep crossovers or multi-driver integration issues, if the final link in the signal chain misbehaves in time, any gains (or really, avoidance of errors) made in that domain by preceding equipment won't translate fully or at all. A superior converter will still demonstrate its pedigree on any number of other fine hifi qualities. It just won't shine on the one which the speaker destroyed. I don't think it coincidence then that Holger Adler of Voxativ ended up with TotalDAC discrete R2R converters for their reference and trade show systems. Whatever potential weaknesses single-driver widebanders might suffer, filter-induced phase shift and multi-driver integration problems aren't amongst them. Following this train of thought, I picked the Zu Druid V widebander driven by the very simple FirstWatt SIT1 single-stage single-ended transistor monos for my first sessions. You may disagree with my belief but at least now you know what to disagree about.

To eliminate accusations of favouritism, my other chief DAC, Fore Audio's DAISy1, is a valve-hybrid Sabre-based ΔΣ affair. On matters of hifi, I really don't believe in the monotheistic absolute sound. Like a hindu, I happily worship at the altar of numerous deities. Like headfi vs. speaker fi, I can enjoy oversampling 5-bit converters and zero-sampling multi-bit competitors for their different flavours and perspectives. Where the Aqua Hifi decks are special and blossom that specialty into a load like the Druid V is with their quality of ease. Far from a weasel word like musicality, it can still seem far less concrete than soundstage scale or treble brilliance. That's because like physical tension in the body, you only notice it when your muscles relax; never before. This then is an observation about process not detail. It's not about things—tonal weightiness, separation, bass power, transient quickness—but how those things are perceived. If you don't know where to look, you won't see it. Once you do; and if your speakers are translucent to that quality; it's easy to recognise that flavour. Going back to a ΔΣ deck then shows you how that doesn't have it. It might have other qualities you prefer; or where it does more. It simply won't have the same temporal ease. Now it becomes a matter of how much you desire that quality; and how it rates relative to the many other possible virtues you find important, too. This acknowledges an essential. Like time coherence in loudspeakers, "easy digital" isn't the only or even primary criterion to matter. It's simply that if/when everything else that matters is perfectly handled or well enough, it could become the decisive difference because, somehow, listening to such a DAC has your ears and brain relax and more at ease.

This ease still differs from soft or insufficient drive. Some systems are tuned for adrenaline, excitement, spunk and jump factor. Others emphasise mellifluousness and chill factor. In visual terms, it's edge of seat versus deeply reclined in a plush lounger. For an unsympathetic listener, the first sound could be too intense and trying, the second too lazy, noncommittal and boring. In recent reviews of the Vinnie Rossi LIO DHT and S.A.Lab White Knight, I'd encountered components which played down energetic tension and muscle tone, then played up spacious fluffiness. Call it forward propulsion versus circular float. Today's ease isn't synonymous with float/flow. Ease of perception can coexist with a rhythmically charged propulsive system like the very PRaT-capable punchy Druid V. Here we hit upon limitations of established hifi language which fails to deal with these 'intangible' but very real aspects. Now using unfamiliar words or concepts risks sounding esoteric or obtuse. To avoid that reaction, it's far easier to throw out quick 'musical flow' or 'continuousness' verbiage, then hope that readers will associate the intended meaning. Fat chance.

For today's purposes, I merely repeat that this ease of perception related to properly done R2R conversion —as though your ear/brain were a muscle that's usually contracted and suddenly relaxes—doesn't disable musical tension or weaken pace and rhythm. Those are still things. Perception is the process which notices them. An easier process has a distinct feel or mode about it. One can learn to recognise and appreciate it; or perhaps is naturally sensitive to the absence of subliminal effort to refuse listening to anything else. Again, that's not me. I don't refuse to listen to premium Delta-Sigma DACs; nor do I consider them poor by any stretch. Heck, I own three of them. They just don't do this thing. Hearing a top R2R like the Formula is like slipping into a well-worn perfectly upkept shoe. It's supremely comfortable. This segues neatly into the Taoist proverb of Chuang Tzu - that "when the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten". 

Further on which, Cristian informed me that my loaner had the beta DSD firmware upgrade for DoP's 64/128DSD protocol. "For DSD, we can obtain the audio signal with a simple low-pass filter applied to DSD; or convert it to PCM followed by a DAC. We evaluated both options. From the design point of view, the low-pass is less demanding but in the end, we preferred conversion to PCM which takes advantage of the qualities of the R2R DAC; maintains our philosophy of no analog filtering at the audio output; and produced the best sonic results." In this, Cristian Anelli joins Bel Canto's John Stronczer who likewise prefers processing DSD as PCM. When a first comparison against our LaScala MkII didn't show an unequivocal lead on all fronts, I checked with Cristian on break-in and how many hours my loaner had. "Your unit has 4-6 hours on it. I think it needs 200." Given its parts density, that likely explained it. Shutting the main system down for 10 days of break-in simply was out of the question. So off into the guest room the virgin machine went for 24/7 2V coax signal from a Soundaware Esther M1 Pro. That was set to endless album repeat on an Android Belkin dock for never-ending charge. Without the connected integrated fired up, there was no noise pollution whilst the Formula stewed in its own juices. A week later, it was in proper fighting spirits back in the main system. Definitely don't judge it prematurely!

Core impressions. The first and most persistent one was extreme ease coupled to exquisite litheness. If their supple combination had a physical embodiment, it would have to be the winged messenger of the gods. The Greeks knew him as Hermes, the Romans called him Mercury. Walking into sound stages was spectacularly effortless. So was sensing their various moods or atmospheres. It felt not unlike gazing out the bay windows behind our speakers—at the greenery of the rolling coastal hills, the Atlantic ocean with Claire and Achill island in the distance—throughout our typical Irish weather which traverses four seasons in a day and turns on a dime. Except for a few cars and boats on the pier, grazing animals and seasonal wild flowers, the contents of this scenery never change. However, its mood changes; extremely and rapidly. Similarly to this general scenery outside, the space occupied by the virtual performers inside is more or less invariable. It's always behind the speakers bracketed by the side walls. Just like clouds, rain, wind, sun and fog affect the perception of our exterior landscape, the depth perception and exact lateral spread of the interior aural scenery change with recording. But essentially, we all know the standard dimensions of our private music stage. Our setup and layout determine it. With the Formula, the moods of this aural landscape—the feel, atmosphere and virtual weather conditions of the venues hosting the various performances—were unusually varied from recording to recording. Added to such tacit personality profiles of recorded space was their apparentness at low volumes. It took no array of powerful flood lights aka high playback SPL to sense it. Easy. Obvious. As such, a most natural entirely non-mechanical perception process.

In proper hifi terms, this spoke to very high contrast ratio, magnified resolution and top transparency. Because those values were very dialled up, their usual counterparts of weightiness and density were dialled down. That's back at the winged messenger's litheness and speed. It wasn't the thunder god Thor of the marauding vikings. It wasn't the expansionist Roman bringer of war, the god Mars. To invoke those macho characters would require emphasis on dynamics, transient bluster, welly and assorted violence. Not here. This formula was pliant, supple, fleet-footed and lissome. It's why it all fell into place at low volumes. Easy, relaxed, filigreed and intensely detailed were the key notes of this flavour. Pushy, forward, tense, massive, agitated, energetic and heavy were not. Whilst detail was in fact massive, it didn't launch itself forward like rubbernecking onlookers do at an accident scene. It was simply laid out like a lavish buffet.

You're not expected to eat it all. You survey it, then focus on what attracts you at that moment. Or, you allow it all to simply be there in its massively multi-paralleled simultaneity without reaching for anything. Again, think easeful, translucent, natural and superbly enunciated. The overriding note of other premium converters had been dynamic intensity and/or tonal saturation. It's from them that this presentation differed the most.

Like a secret guide, I was led to fare like the Take Bachexploits between pianists Güher & Süher Pekinel with the Jacques Loussier trio; to the Kirkelig Kulturversted's30 Years Fidelity compilation (Kari Bremnes' label); to Øystein Sevåg's Caravan CD and many more quality records of sophisticated music making... as though such unforced naturalness on part of the D/A converter didn't want to waste itself on coarser less intelligent more heavily processed stuff.

Such talk always risks the suggestion that anything else was less catered to. Any veteran listener simply trusts their instinct. Whatever selections a new component initially appears to be making on our behalf is just a reflection on its core virtues. Some gear first prompts us to get loud and gritty. Others has us pull out small-scale Jazz; or operatic arias; or low bass extravaganzas.

Unless any initial trend persists to indicate an imbalance or skewing which really does favours certain music styles or genres over others, all it really represents is our own nearly subconscious response to how it excels. Inspecting my collection of after-the-fact evidence for the first long session, a forensic hifi analyst would have profiled this report: lower than usual volume happiness due to visibility, intelligibility and articulation being exceptionally high; dominance of good productions without undue studio trickery to show off densely populated very capacious sound stages with a very dominant sense of venue; mostly acoustic not electrified fare; plenty of articulate percussive action, piano, strings, choral and acapella. Whilst the difference frisson of a new component was still most keen, the type music I gravitated towards in the first serious audition told its very own story, about what insertion of this deck brought to the table. With that mapped, how would it differ from or improve upon its LaScala MkII stablemate which combines BB1704K chips with a hybrid tube output stage?

to be continued………Srajan Ebaen

AQUA DAC for John Dako is the DAC I reach for when a ‘best’ first (digital) responder is called for.
John H Dako

Your own Personal Jesus? In the DAC world for yours truly, it’s Aqua Hifi’s La Scala MKII converter. The Burr-Brown PCM 1704 infused Italian sits proudly at the top of the Darko DAC Index, quite literally in a league of its own. The La Scala MKII is the DAC I reach for when a ‘best’ first (digital) responder is called for.

‘Best’ is a troublesome gift. One must accept its subjectively sighted foundations whilst being simultaneously mindful that no assessor can assess everything. Not food, not music and not D/A converters. The La Scala MKII is flagged as the ‘best D/A converter’ by these ears and this brain in the context of their collectively finite experiences. There might be a better D/A converter out there – it’s just that I’ve not heard it.

Returning our commentary to formal review territory and with proper professional posturing in tow, ‘best’ translates to ‘reference’.

Since being reviewed in March 2014, the Aqua statement piece – whose €4890 sticker presently converts to ~US$5500 – has successfully defended its RRP-segmented championship title against challenges from the Chord Hugo TT (US$4750) and the PS Audio DirectStream (US$6000).

In foregoing the nice-to-haves of headphone staging, a touchscreen, a digital pre-amplifier, a remote control and even DSD compatibility, Aqua DAC designer Cristian Anelli has poured his entire R&D/build budget into sound quality and sound quality alone. No bells, no whistles, just great-sounding D/A conversion.

The La Scala marries rock solid tonal density to enormous soundstaging for a presentation that connotes a strong but graceful handling of everything from the largesse of macro-dynamic shifts to the minutiae of textural finesse. Hanging up the reviewer cap again, it sounds Lovely with capital L.

And you’d think that’d be the end of it. But no. There’s more…

Ahead of introducing Aqua Hifi’s product line, which also features the more affordable but similarly non-oversampling La Voce S2 converter, to the US market by way of the T.H.E Newport Show 2015, Well Pleased AV’s Mark Sossa underscored these Italians’ un-stereotypical immunity to fashion:

“Aqua does not succumb to the whims of the latest market trends but instead carefully develops its products to withstand the test of time, designing and manufacturing audio equipment marked by the indispensable values of signal purity and acoustic fidelity pursued with the utmost dedication,” asserted Sossa via his press release.

When I caught up with Sossa again four months later at RMAF 2015, his enthusiasm for the La Scala MKII had been fuel injected by a change to another strand of Aqua’s adherence to well-established audio tech: tubes. The Aqua pairs 2 x ECC81 (12AT7) with MOSFETs for a negative feedback-free, Class A output stage. A reminder that a D/A converter’s audible performance resides with far more than just its DAC chip.

Moreover, tubes allow end users to tinker, to introduce alternative flavours via a process known as “rolling” – the audio world equivalent of changing a light bulb.

Sossa had done just that. He’d rolled the stock tubes – either JJ or Genalex according to Aqua’s sales manager Stefano Jelo – for a pair of NOS Telefunken.

And boy was Sossa excited about what he’d heard. So much so that he wanted yours truly to hear it for himself. And by Christmas I had the Telefunkens ready to roll.

The schedule intrusion of CES 2016 meant I’d have to wait until February to plug the NOS tubes into their Aqua sockets for the first time and then again wait out CanJam SoCal until I could be be confident that burn-in doubts had fully dissolved. That was late March. Listening proper then took place, on and off, A and B, throughout April.

These NOS (new old stock) tubes applied to this NOS (non-oversampling, filterless) decoder brought small but noticeable upticks in tonal colour saturation, soundstage depth and, most palpable of all, an even greater sense of ease – a defining characteristic (for this commentator) of digital done well.

The best was now even better.

Even with a recent price hike to €84 for a matched pair from Germany’s Tube Amp Doctor, the Telefunken ECC81 easily earn their status as an essential upgrade for any La Scala MKII owner. If you’ve the cash, don’t think twice – it’s alright.

But wait, there’s more…

March also brought limited and literal first word of a new flagship DAC from the radar-dodging Italians. That word was Formula. Retail pricing of €12,500 would more double down on its predecessor’s €4890. An April 9th launch event in Brussels came and went but little additional info spilled outwards to those not in attendance.

Only a single photo of the Formula graced (and still graces) the manufacturer’s website. At time of writing, supporting text and specifications sheet remain conspicuously absent.
Then came news that Aqua would show the Formula at Munich High-End 2016 and sales manager Stefano Jelo would be in attendance to handle any Q&A. The only proviso: no photos of the man himself. Jelo prefers the hardware to make its own introductions and then continue to speak for itself.

On the floor of the M.O.C. in May, Jelo’s Jean Reno-esque facial features and super snappy suit-up seemingly flew in the face of the man’s ‘no photo’ policy.

One might reason Jelo’s project: the tongue-twisting isolation feet maker ARIAMATERIA who also happened to showing in Munich. Whatever the reason, Jelo’s privacy is his own.

The ARIAMATERIA isolation feet are designed to be porous. Italian crushed stone ‘grit’, either brown porphyry or black basalt from the northern Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige, is bound with resin and packed into cylindrical shapes of varying thickness before being top-and-tailed with 1mm thick neoprene pads to protect the supported equipment from scratches. All but the range starting AM10 feature an “monocomponent polymer” shock absorber.

That’s a proof-of-life diversion on Jelo’s other project. Back to Aqua. Back to the new flagship DAC. Back to basics – where tubes have gone bye-bye and where in-house built resistor ladders supplant the Burr Brown chips of the La Scala. Formula remains filterless with two R2R boards used per channel, one for each half of the waveform – four in total.

The Formula’s resistor ladder ‘branches’ deliver twice the sample-rate support of the outgoing (and long discontinued) PCM1704 chips whose dwindling supply points to one reason why these Milanese have gone with a bespoke multibit solution. The front panel sports eight LEDs indicating incoming PCM sample rates from 44.1kHz to 382kHz. They also make explicit Aqua’s ongoing red carding of DSD.

‘Round back, connectivity: AES/EBU XLR, S/PDIF RCA, S/PDIF BNC, AQlink (I2S) and USB. The protruding socket in the centre is modular for which the end user can specify AT&T ST Fiber, Toslink or a second AQlink(I2S), AES/EBU XLR, S/PDIF RCA or S/PDIF BNC.

Not only is one input modular. Potentially, so too are many of the Formula’s internal boards: the XMOS USB board, the I2S board, the FPGA board, the DAC boards and the analogue output boards (single-ended and balanced).

The following seven minute video was shot on the second morning of the Munich show. In the outdoor area caffeinated black stuff was being poured ahead of lunchtime’s bratwurst n’ beer takeover. Stefano Jelo walks us through the internals of the Formula. Note the twin potted C-core transformers, one each for analogue and digital sections, and the more sophisticated power supply board.

Only at interview’s end do we hear of another of Formula’s key features: Aqua’s OPTOLOGIC.

Just as a Toslink cable isolates its end points from electrical noise by carrying digital signals transferred to and from light, a similar opto-coupling method is used to join the FPGA board to the four R2R branches and then the R2R branches to the analogue output stage.

According to the manufacturer-supplied .pdf and translated from Italian to English using a combination of websites:

“The [dual function] OPTOLOGIC technique not only completely isolates all the digital processing circuitry (including clock ) from the analogue section in order to create a potential for a clean analog ground. The differential management of the conversion using R2R ladder branches allows for perfect symmetry between positive and negative. This gives the listener a heightened sense of tonal contrasts and naturalness.”

The same .pdf surrenders a little more info on the Formula’s output stage:

“The two analogue boards, one for the buffered single-ended output, the other for the balanced output, are made from fast, discrete components (BJT and JFET) and metal film resistors. No capacitor is present in the signal path. The balanced output is realised with transformers.”

At the end, a plot twist: Aqua intend to make their in-house resistor ladder tech available as a modular upgrade to the La Scala. That makes this story doubly interesting: a new product whose incoming tech will be trickled down to its predecessor, obviating the need for a completely new unit for existing La Scala owners.

Stefano Jelo says he intends to dispatch a Formula review unit down under to DAR HQ sometime in the next few weeks. I’ll be investigating what the big money can bring when one’s DAC spend extends beyond US$10K. Specifically, just how much better the Formula than the Telefunkened-up La Scala MKII? Questions that will be answered in due course.

the La Voce S2 from Italy pursues the Audio Note, AMR, Metrum, Zanden & Co. type sound for a lot less than most. With Italian not offshore manufacture, that's twice interesting.
Srajan Ebaen

REVIEW SUMMARY: Whilst the La Voce strikes me as somewhat less unique than its maker would seem to claim, that not only takes nothing away, it justly reinforces that its design decisions and concomitant performance flavour are quite rare. 

Where at least to my mind it gets really interesting is with that most mundane aspect of it all: price, and being very well put together, the La Voce S2 from Italy pursues the Audio Note, AMR, Metrum, Zanden & Co. type sound for a lot less than most. With Italian not offshore manufacture, that's twice interesting. Add to that unique circuit modularity and hot-swappable converter boards for in-situ voicing. 

It really is a wonderful overall package that has me wonder. What type of posh challengers might the tube/Mosfet hybrid hotrodded version for twice the coin take on? As is, the La Voce is a perfect stand-in for the well-liked Dutch Metrum Hex. If I wasn't already behexed, this Aquarius—six planets not moons at that—would go the Aqua route. Being my virginal encounter with this company, I thought it a terrific first blind date with a very happy ending!

EXTENDED REVIEW: Three-letter abbreviations are like secret hand shakes. What to some means global positioning satellite becomes geopathic stress to others. Either deciphers GPS correctly. And both are connected. CIA can mean central intelligence agency. Or a certified internal auditor. The former should use the latter. NOS can mean a national organisation study. But there's also the Neurofeedback Organisation Switzerland. How about tube nutters and collectors of vintage vertical power Jfets? To them NOS becomes new-old stock. And homo digitalos reads it as non-oversampling. The latter two meanings can overlap again.

Take the four chip options which Italian Aqua Hifi offer for their La Voce DAC S2. All of them are R2R resistor ladders. Burr Brown's PCM1704/1704-K has long been discontinued. That makes it NOS. Even so it remains a top choice for designers who dislike current Sigma-Delta converters for Redbook playback. The Philips TDA1541A is an even older-but-goodie R2R chip of the early 16-bit era. That's NOS again and here available in R1 and S1 selection grades. Finally there's the Analog Devices AD1865. That's an 18-bit chip also of the R2R persuasion and also out of production.

Whichever you choose—BB is the default—all are used two up (dual mono) and in DFD mode. That's Aquarian for direct from decoder. It means bypassing all on-chip digital filters. No upsampling. NOS again. Squared if you will. Their AQlink implements the I²S protocol on RJ45 to link to their La Diva disc transport via CAT6 cable. I/V conversion is passive. This says 'hell no' to the otherwise ubiquitous op amp at this juncture. Regulation is by Mosfet, JFet and BJT. No integrated chips again. And that's true for both analog and digital circuits. The output stage then casts another evil eye at opamps. None here either. Discrete is the word. So is being modular. Hence the multi-board upgradeable platform. Word. With the 1704/1704-K chips, the standard BNC, USB and I²S ports are good for 24/192. Who cares about 32-bit/384kHz? Should you do, Aqua's defiance will strike you as backward. For those whose high-resolution libraries max out at a native 24/192, it's a non-issue and a gutsy stiff finger at silly popularity contests.

That BNC and I²S rather than coax and Toslink are the standard here reiterates the same level-headed attitude. Ditto the 0/180° phase switch on the front. Aqua Hifi focus on engineering, not fashion. But they aren't snobs about it. Input options can add 24/192 AES/EBU, coax, AT&T fiber and 24/96 Toslink. 2.1V RCA outputs are standard. 4.2V balanced are optional. Output impedance is 100/200Ω respectively. Trim is silver or black for the fascia, Nextel gray for the casing. Size is 450x310x100mm WxDxH. Weight is an unassuming 7kg. Finally the similarly spec'd bigger brother La Scala MkII DAC adds two ECC81 triodes which are cleverly direct-coupled to Mosfets with LED bias to create single-stage hybrid voltage gain. For that deck our toroidal iron goes EI core and the power supply has to get more complex to support those valves and their heaters.

And that's all she said on the subject of Aqua's current catalogue (have since upgrade to Optologic La Scala and added statement Formula DACs). It's a 3-up affair purely concerned with digital: one top-loading CD transport—yes, those are still made and that they do one here tells us yet more—two DACs with USB but no DSD or DXD. C'est ça. To get back at acronyms, Aqua is short not for the age of hippies and free love but Acoustic Quality. This somehow reminds me of German firm Aqvox. Back to our Italians headquartered in Europe's fashion capitol of Milan. They pride themselves on investment in long-term R&D. For concrete results they cite their DFD mode which they call proprietary*; discrete high-speed opto-coupling for galvanic/magnetic isolation of digital inputs; a proprietary isolated synchronous discrete circuit for digital decoding and clock management; and their discrete regulator technology.

In very early 2014 a quick Google search on the subject showed it. Aqua converters had been around in a few incarnations already. Refinements and revisions had been ongoing. Yet on the other side—reviews, ads, forum chatter, general buzz—things were rather less active. The website had just three distributors in Holland, Russia and Taiwan. This underlined engineering over sales & marketing muscle. Having been contacted for a review now not sooner; and not for the tubed La Scala but more affordable La Voce model all were suggestive. Aqua had been patiently biding their time to perfect their platform before pursuing a global audience in earnest. That at least was my remote read from the armchair. To see how close I was, company contact Stefano Jelo had to chime in.

It was Cristian Anelli of their R&D department who replied on behalf of the company. "Aqua Acoustic Quality was born three years ago. Our main goal was and still is sound reproduction in the most neutral simple way. That's why we design our digital sources with a class A analog stage, zero upsampling, zero oversampling, no digital filter and no feedback. We consider both solid-state and tube circuits with no prejudice at all. We use the electronics parts we need and where they can be employed at their best. The La Voce uses a Jfet/Bjt analog output stage, the La Scala a hybrid ECC81/Mosfet design. Even if they are technically different, the final result shows them to carry the same genetic design imprint.

Though we were amongst the very first to introduce a USB board with 24/192 decoding in the La Voce and La Scala converters, we still developed the state-of-the-art La Diva transport because we trust in the Redbook standard as the reference in digital reproduction. We like to build our products to last and avoid obsolescence as the common curse for expensive high-end equipment. In addition, our jitter-free digital AQlink interface (I²S protocol) provides the best possible connection between transport and DAC. Thus the modular system we use in our converters gives our customers the certainty to enjoy their music for many years and update our products with little effort and money. This way one can profit from our R&D department's innovations.

"Plans for 2014: first of all we are going to release a La Diva DAC to match the dedicated CD transport. Secondly we are working on a top-line front-loading integrated CD player. About La Voce S2, its revolutionary main goal was to offer the possibility to choose among different D/A conversion modules with the best chips available. An easy snap-in/snap-out action is all that's required and you simply do that at home. In time the first project underwent several evolutions. Anyone can upgrade the previous version with the new modules and electronics boards.

The S2 version is new for several reasons. Its analog stage was redesigned, the final layout changed as have the PCB materials, electronic parts and power supply. Now it has modular interchangeable digital inputs (AES/EBU, BNC, coax, ST fiber AT&T, Toslink) and a new converter module (code name D104K with 2 x Burr Brown PCM1704-K pure R2R ladders). The design definitely differs from the standards led by a currently frenzied market which pursues things mostly for marketing reasons. For example we do not use large harmful electrolytic capacitors but long-life capacitors with low ESR. We choose our electronic components with military and professional standards."

I now asked Cristian how he would describe the sonic flavours of the four available S2 converter modules; and how the La Voce transistor and La Scala tube hybrid platforms in general compared sonically.

Cristian Anelli: "Compared to all others DACs on the market*, one of the main criteria for our converters' different sonic approach is the elimination of digital filtering. In 2005 we started to research a different solution from the ubiquitous up/ oversampling which so dominates the digital era. 
We realised that the heart of the sound was not just the elimination of digital filtering but the quality of the PCM signal transmission. Surely the so-called jitter issue is relevant to final sound quality but it is far from the only aspect which affects digital playback. That's why we developed an entirely new circuit which only later became identified as DFD or direct from decoder. This circuitry is purely made from logic gates. 
The La Scala MKII's DFD circuitry is more sophisticated than the La Voce's. Galvanic and magnetic separation are achieved with high-speed opto-couplers (Optologic) which you can find beneath the BB PCM1704-K board. This allows ground potentials to be completely separated for the digital and analog stages. In addition it provides for an accurate cleaned-up PCM signal spike. Common to both models is a realistic but relaxed sound with the highest precision in the time domain to generate an outstanding soundstage with lots of ambience. For conversion we purposely rely on pure multi-bit R2R ladder ICs exclusively. About the sonic differences of the converter modules for the La Voce:

Conclusion at a glance. 

To make sense of the Voce's core quality requires a brief detour into time/phase-coherent speakers. As an absolutist design dogma it's practiced by only the very few. Think Vandersteen, pre Mason-era Thiel Audio and Green Mountain Audio for three quick brands. There are more but it's a small list. From this shortage we can extrapolate that this design ethos resonates not with the shopping majority. Otherwise 1st-order would dominate. It doesn't. It's just a blip. (As with anything else, there are good and bad 1st-order designs. Membership doesn't guarantee quality.)

To some listeners though anything but a 1st-order speaker sounds subtly off: nervous, choppy, vaguely irritating, not quite right even if it can prove vexingly elusive to clearly pinpoint a hard reason. Here we are not talking about theoretical merits and demerits of engineering choices. This is about individual psychoacoustics and brain chemistry. Some seem aurally prewired for a special sensitivity to such time coherence. Others have trained themselves to notice it and no longer un-notice it to get satisfaction from anything else. Like religion this can't be argued. You either believe or you don't. Is you is or is you ain't? Enter non-oversampling filter-less D/A converters. They too are in the grave minority. They too suffer very rational attacks from the engineering chairs about why they're a bad idea. And like our endangered but resilient species of 1st-order time-aligned loudspeakers, they're going nowhere soon but seem here to stay. Which by implication means that if you're not prewired or trained to key into this NOS thing, it'll pass you right by as well. You could feel most befuddled indeed by what all the fuss is about. There's nothing anyone can do about that.Désolé.

Owning both the Hex and a maximally upsampling AURALiC Vega, I can relate. On colour intensity, retina-display sheen and subtle sweetness the Vega beats the Hex even to my ears. Yet the former is on my desktop streaming 320kbps Spotify+ for constant new music discoveries; or converts AIFF files from my iPod. The latter plays in the main system. Having laboured over describing it already many times, here are the fruits of those labours. The 'zero-sampling' thing is first and foremost about flow and rhythmic ease. If you follow hifi measurements, you're familiar with frequency response, phase-vs-frequency, distortion and waterfall plots. None of those apply. The only conventional measurement that would seem to have any bearing at all on our case today is the impulse response. Track how convoluted poor impulse response charts accompany highly enthusiastic speaker reviews. We're back to where we started. Most listeners seem inured to the charms of the time domain which an impulse response plot tracks for speakers. (With digital there also are the pre/post ringing plots.)

To grossly exaggerate for effect, proper timing is the difference between a swing band and a marching band. If that image communicates, you've nailed down the essence pat. Now tone it down to be appropriate. Think of better terms to describe the effect. You'll probably arrive at things like fluid/rigid, gushing/controlled, loose/taut and various derivatives thereof. That's it; subtle but real. The second effect I hear from both NOS DACs and time-tweaked speakers has to do with soundstage sorting. It strips out a subtle blur. Vagueness becomes certainty, ambiguous image scaling shrinks and locks down to proper size, the depth domain opens up fully and audible space as an acoustic other than your own descends fully. Such better timing can also reduce or eliminate 'warmth' or 'mass' which in this context actually stem from small imprecisions and ghosting. Again, that's it. Nothing drastic but still noticeable.

I've heard vintage-chip NOS DACs that were soft on top. AMR's master mode 2 corrects for it. Zanden Audio's original implementation I reviewed and owned did not. The La Voce seem to incorporate its own 'correction' or doesn't suffer this artefact in the first place. Otherwise I have nothing to report on for the frequency response, tonal balance or any of the other usual suspects of hifi discourse. Nothing stood out as less or more than appropriate other than this very familiar rightness. It's simply not appropriate to turn rightness into righteousness. Live and let live.

Wrap. 

Whilst the La Voce strikes me as somewhat less unique than its maker would seem to claim, that not only takes nothing away, it justly reinforces that its design decisions and concomitant performance flavour are quite rare. 

Where at least to my mind it gets really interesting is with that most mundane aspect of it all: price, and being very well put together, the La Voce S2 from Italy pursues the Audio Note, AMR, Metrum, Zanden & Co. type sound for a lot less than most. With Italian not offshore manufacture, that's twice interesting. Add to that unique circuit modularity and hot-swappable converter boards for in-situ voicing. 

It really is a wonderful overall package that has me wonder. What type of posh challengers might the tube/Mosfet hybrid hotrodded version for twice the coin take on? As is, the La Voce is a perfect stand-in for the well-liked Dutch Metrum Hex. If I wasn't already behexed, this Aquarius—six planets not moons at that—would go the Aqua route. Being my virginal encounter with this company, I thought it a terrific first blind date with a very happy ending!

…..Srajan Ebaen

The La Voce......is simply the best DAC so far for me.
Mike Cox

REVIEW SUMMARY: I could ramble on about many of the albums in my collection and how the La Voce sounds but I would only repeat myself after a while. The La Voce with Philips TDA1541A in my system is simply the best DAC so far for me. In the past I have used a Meridian CD203, Perpetual Technologies P1/P3A and I still have a home made DAC where I use transformers to interface from the DAC chip to the outside world, only my home made DAC comes close to equaling the La Voce. Listen to the La Voce if you can and benefit from the choice of DAC chips to tailor the sound to match your system.

EXTENDE REVIEW: It was 1 year ago when I wrote my first review for TNT Audio on the La Voce DAC from Aqua Acoustic. Since then Aqua have been busy developing a range of products and now they have upgraded the La Voce. The unique selling point for the La Voce is (I believe it is still unique!) you can choose from 3 different DAC chips, the Burr Brown PCM 1704, Philips TDA1541A and the Analogue Devices AD1865, with a new Wolfson module due out shortly. The DAC chips are on plug in modules that are easy to swap so you can purchase them all and swap as the mood takes you. The TDA1541A is fitted in a socket so if you have access to the R, S1 or S2 series DAC chips these can easily be fitted.

When I originally reviewed the La Voce it was equipped with USB as well as SPDIF coaxial and TOSLink optical inputs. The new version has an updated USB interface that supports asynchronous USB at up to 24bit 192Khz (96Khz only for TDA1541A). Also supported is an I2S input as well as the original SPDIF and TosLink inputs. The team at Aqua - acoustic quality are very enthusiastic over the I2S interface and now produce a CD transport supporting I2S, claiming it to be the best for quality, I will come to this later.

Irrespective of the DAC chip you use there is no up/over sampling, whatever data you feed the La Voce that is what is then passed to the DAC chip for conversion. Aqua have picked 1X sampling because to them it sounds the best, they then concentrated on getting the best possible sound for the money. The analogue section uses a discrete regulated supply, no cheap off the shelf regulators here. The board layout has been optimised to minimise interference between the analogue and digital sections, keeping noise and supply ripple to the minimum. The output stage after the DAC chip is a discrete design using high quality coupling capacitors on the output.

The first version of the La Voce was supplied as a kit and you can still purchase it in this form for 750 Euros (price increase due soon). There is a tutorial available on Youtube explaining how to assemble the kit.

This new version was supplied as a finished product in a nicely design case with a thick aluminium front finished in black (anodised I think) with white silk screened lettering. The rest of the case sports a grey nextel like finished aluminium chassis. At the price point the fit and finish of the La Voce is excellent though perhaps not class leading. Personally I prefer the effort and expense to be put into the internals and skip the machined from solid case work that is becoming more popular these days.

Choosing the DAC chip

In my system at home I have the La Voce fitted with the Philips TDA154A. Before making the choice I was able to audition the Burr Brown and Analogue Devices modules at the Aqua demonstration facility in Milan.

I was able to use all my regular test tracks either on CD or streamed via USB from the Mac-book Pro. Even with music I am familiar with it was hard to know how the DAC would sound in my home system, the facilities at Aqua are very different. It was possible to hear the differences and to decide which DAC had the best characteristics for me. The Burr Brown DAC was exciting, with really good grip over rhythm and timing. On track like Eagles Hotel California from Hell Freezes over or something from Steely Dan on their album "Two Against Nature" the sound was just infectious and exciting. With tracks from female vocalists like Mary Black, Eva Cassidy or Diana Krall it was a different story. The Philips DAC had such a wonderfully natural tone to the voice it was hard to move on and evaluate the other DACs. The Analogue Devices DAC seemed to sit somewhere in between the Burr Brown and Philips DACs, never reaching the same levels as the others in rhythm/timing or tone. In the end I decided to stick with the Philips DAC, the same as with the original review a year ago.

USB Interface

The original La Voce that I had purchased as a kit was supplied with a standard USB interface that whilst it worked I was never happy with the sound. The new version of the USB interface is a different story and for me produces the best sound quality, I prefer it to using SPDIF from my ancient Meridian CD200 transport (probably passed it's best). Using my Mac-book Pro the USB interface is easy to setup, no drivers are required and it is a simple matter of selecting the sound device in the system preferences.

It did not take long before the Aqua team realised there was a problem! Out came the frequency meter and a quick check showed that whatever the source file sampling rate the DAC was always being fed data at 192Khz. The Mac-book was up sampling the data to match the full capability of the DAC, this is not desirable and rather goes against the design goal of no up-sampling. The solution was to install an application called Pure Music from company called Channel D. This application is marketed a music server for the MAC platform and works with Itunes, the interface to select the music is Itunes but the music is actually played by Pure Music. The output data rate is automatically switched depending on the source so no undesirable up-sampling and you get an on-screen confirmation when the data rate switches.

As you would expect the La Voce via USB will also work with a Windows PC, mine was running Windows 7 though older versions back to XP are supported. To use Windows you must install a driver that is available to download from the Aqua Acoustic website. The installation process is a little tricky (nothing is simple with Windows!) but after Aqua Acoustic supplied a new Beta version it installed and worked well. I tried the PC for completeness to ensure it did actually work, my listening tests were conducted mostly via a MAC or from the CD transport.

I2S interface

While visiting Aqua Acoustic I was able to audition the La Voce using their new CD transport and the I2S interface. With the SPDIF interface also connected it was very easy to switch between the two communication channels. The benefit is reduced jitter though there is no interconnection standard, on the La Voce an RJ45 (ethernet) connector is used. Using my regular CD tracks and switching between the interfaces the sound quality was better via I2S, there was less haze between the listener and the artists, the acoustic soundstage was more defined and believable. When I upgrade my CD transport (not far away) I will ensure it does have an I2S interface.

Listening at Home

Back in my familiar surroundings and with the equipment and listening room I know well the La Voce was soon up and running, it is always exciting plugging in a new piece of equipment. It all worked, no damage from the flight back from Milan so I left it to warm up for a few hours quietly playing a random selection of tracks. When used in the same way as the previous version of La Voce via the TOSLink optical fibre interface fed from my Apple Airport Express wirelessly connected to the Mac-book the sound quality was just as good. The La Voce with TDA1541A really brings out the texture and tone of my favourite female vocalists, artists such as Mary Black, Eva Cassidy and Christine McVie. If we take the classic 1977 track Songbird, written and performed by Christine McVie on the Rumours album, the La Voce beautifully displays the acoustics of the venue, the gentle guitar backing to Christine on piano and her vocals are rendered with superb tone.

As already explained the new La Voce has a much better USB interface, this is now my preferred method of connection from the MAC. With the Pure Music server application I know exactly what data rate is being sent to the DAC and I can now exploit the small number of Hi Res files I have acquired. Starting with regular tracks ripped from CD, with the Tallis Scholars performance for the South Bank show of the Allegri Miserere. The La Voce via USB renders the acoustic background of the venue with detail like no other DAC I have heard. The singers voices have beautiful tonal structure and are placed in space like heavenly angels. This is the most wonderful recording and with the La Voce you are transported to place and time of the recording, your very own time machine!

If we now sample some Hi Res recordings, my first test was the Paul McCartney and Wings Album "Band on the Run", a download from HDTracks. This I find very disappointing, I have never really liked Paul McCartney except when with the Beatles and in particular John Lennon, the hi res version of Band on the run really does not show the supposed benefits of 24bit 96Khz encoding. I don't think this is a function of the DAC but more the intrinsic quality of the recording. The next high definition recording is from Sam Cook, Portrait of a Legend, again from HDTracks and the particular track being Summertime. The clarity and detail is just amazing for such an old recording, I am still not convinced the premium for the high definition recordings is worth paying. A well recorded album at regular CD quality can sound just as good if not better than a middling album in high definition. So far I do not have any modern high definition recordings, this is next on my list of things to do.

The next standard definition track to play was Stimela from the 1994 recording by Hugh Masekela, again the sound stage is clearly laid out in front of you with width, depth and clarity. Vocals are important to me and the way Hugh Masekela comes across is thrilling, just like being at the performance. I have spoken a lot about the sound stage and tonal qualities of this DAC but we should not forget other areas of the performance, the electric bass on Stimela is fast and tight, excellent rhythm and timing characteristics usually found attributable to Naim brand audio.

Conclusions

I could ramble on about many of the albums in my collection and how the La Voce sounds but I would only repeat myself after a while. The La Voce with Philips TDA1541A in my system is simply the best DAC so far for me. In the past I have used a Meridian CD203, Perpetual Technologies P1/P3A and I still have a home made DAC where I use transformers to interface from the DAC chip to the outside world, only my home made DAC comes close to equaling the La Voce. Listen to the La Voce if you can and benefit from the choice of DAC chips to tailor the sound to match your system.

Awards

STEREO TIMES MOST WANTED COMPONENTS 2015 AWARD

Aqua Hifi La Voce S2 DAC: La Voce's big brother, Aqua HIfi's La Scala, is justifiably well regarded as a master of musicality at a non uber-DAC price point. Little brother La Voce wears the family jewels loud and proud for half the price.

Years ago, a more expensive Audio Note NOS DAC set a high bar for performance in my system; a bar that wasn't approached again until La Voce arrived.  

This R2R NOS DAC is the genuine article; incredibly natural sounding with all genres, easily winning a place in my system up against various and sundry more 'modern' Sabre and delta/sigma based brethren.  Yep; retro everything is a trend among millennials, and Aqua Hifi's La Voce S2 made it one at my house too.  Some things were done a certain way for a long time for good reason. 
.........David Abramson