Sunday, September 24, 2017

Denafrips Pontus R2R DAC

Introduction

You just can't stop the onslaught of discrete R2R DACs. The Denafrips Pontus is a R2R DAC with separate resistor networks for both PCM and DSD. Really solid build, a lot of nice ideas and a price tag that will not break the bank - S$2,200. 

Denafrips is a China manufacturer with a line-up of 4 DAC models, ranging from the very budget friendly base model, Ares (retailing for the very auspicious sum of S$ 888) to the top of the range model, Terminator (no Arnold jokes please ! This retails for S$ 5,860). At the time of writing, the exchange rate was about S$ 1.35 for US$ 1.

The model on review here is second from the bottom.

Description

Pontus was a sea god in Greek mythology. This Pontus is a rather petite landlubber. Measuring just 320 x 330 x 80 mm, the Pontus weighs 8.5 kg. It is very well equipped with a total of 7 digital inputs (coaxial RCA, coaxial BNC, twin AES / EBU inputs, Toslink, I2S (my sample uses HDMI, but RJ45 can be specified), and USB.

The output stage is fully balanced, and both XLR and RCA outputs are provided. 

The front panel buttons from left to right are for the power switch, inputs, phase (called Reserval (sic)), oversampling, mute and the digital filter mode. A plethora of pin-prick indicators show the active input, sampling rate and DSD mode. In my bat-cave, the wording was so small that I couldn't really see anything.

Denafrips may want to have a re-think on its ergonomics and the quality of it's user manual. I found it very odd that the Reserval (spell-check guys !) light indicated normal phase, while the OS/NOS light indicated that no over-sampling was selected. The manual simply explains that the mode button toggles between slow / sharp filters and advises that, "You are fine with either selection should you hear no difference."

Otherwise, the Pontus is all good. The build quality is outstanding, especially considering its price tag. I liked the cut-outs at the rear of the top panel. They look artistic and bring some variety to the otherwise monotonous box. Practically, the cut-outs were probably necessary to avoid blocking the push tabs of the XLR sockets.

Looking at the pictures on Denafrips web-site, parts quality is outstanding, with a Furutech AC inlet and other premium parts from manufacturers like Nichicon, Neutrik, etc. 







The Pontus uses double toroidal transformers for its power supply and dual mono FPGA decoders. The R2R ladder network uses 0.01 % precision resistors and is capable of 24 bit resolution. DSD is decoded natively by a separate resistor network. 

Looking at the comparison chart on Denafrips website, Pontus is separated from its elder siblings by a number of features. The Terminator sports a far larger power transformer, while both the Terminator and Venus get higher precision R2R resistors (0.005 % tolerance), Femto clocks and a 26 bit resolution R2R ladder network.   

All inputs are capable of DSD64, while DSD 128 and 256 are only available via USB and I2S. PCM sampling rates up to 352.8 kHz and 24 bit resolution can be decoded.

I tested most of the inputs including the I2S and USB inputs on both PCM and DSD 64 - no issues were encountered. The I2S output from my Singxer SU-1 did require a bit of leg work to get the settings right though. No surprises there, since there is no real industry standard for I2S pin outs. I did not use the I2S input much. I only had a stock HDMI cable on hand, and this probably curtailed performance.

I spent most of my time listening through the AES input with a Viard Audio Silver HD Digital cable. This had the best balance amongst the cables at my disposal. To ensure a fair comparison to my Totaldac D1-six, I set up the Pontus the same way, using the balanced outputs of the Pontus, converted to single ended using my Totaldac XLR to RCA transformer based adapters. 

Sound Quality

I will go right out and say this - the Pontus offers outstanding sound quality for the money. I would be hard pressed to suggest another unit with competitive performance at the price bracket. 

The Pontus would best be described as sounding very cohesive. It has a very composed sonic presentation with a good even balance. Resolution is very good, with commendable retrieval of micro-detail.

Tonally, I would put it as sitting somewhere to the subtly warm side of neutral. In comparison, the Vinshine DAC or the Holo Audio Spring DAC (Level 3) have a warmer balance.

Bass notes are reproduced in a tight, clean and rhythmic fashion. There is no bloat, fullness, or overhang here, and some may find the low frequencies to be somewhat dry and lightweight. This tended to give the Pontus a reduced sense of scale and dynamic restraint.

Initially, I found the midrange to be overly laidback. Out went the excellent Blackcat Tron coaxial cable, and in went the Viard Audio Silver HD Digital AES cable. The Viard has a very neutral tone and a drier balance than the Tron. While the midrange remained on the laidback side, it was nicely detailed and expressive. 

High frequencies are great with the Pontus, with good extension, refinement and nice reproduction of acoustic space in recordings.  

Soundstaging and imaging are also a strong point, with very precise placement of instruments both laterally, and depth wise. Sonic images were always kept tightly in focus, without any wavering even when things got busy.

Suggestions though that the Pontus is the one DAC to rule them all are misplaced (why do all audiophiles get all excited by these possible David vs Goliath stories ?). You can get much higher performance than the Pontus, but by spending at least three or four times more money. My Totaldac D1-Six has superior dynamics, more powerful bass, and a dimensionality to the sound that makes the Pontus seem flat in comparison. However, I could buy a Pontus for each of my three bedrooms, my two toilets, kitchen, dining room and still have a fair amount left over.

Conclusion

Great performance at the asking price. Probably not the best choice for bass heads, but otherwise, the Pontus has very little flaws. Makes you wonder how good Denafrips top model is ? It's never been better for audiophiles on a tight budget - Highly Recommended.

A big thank you goes to Alvin Chee of Vinshine Audio for arranging this review. Vinshine Audio is the global dealer for Denafrips.

Denafrips Pontus DAC
Price - S$ 2,200

Denafrips
http://www.denafrips.com

Vinshine Audio
http://www.vinshineaudio.com


Friday, September 22, 2017

Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC-6700 and 7N-PC9700 Mexcel Power Cords

Introduction

Acrolink's new Mexcel range of power cords landed in Singapore last month. Is it time to break the piggy bank ? Readers may want to take a moment to read my previous review of the Mexcel 9500 and 7500 power cords here

For the unfamiliar, the Mexcel series is the flagship range of cables for Acrolink. Mexcel cables are particularly popular in Asia where they enjoy considerable popularity amongst audiophiles that demand the highest levels of performance. 

Description

The Mexcel power cord range was originally made up of three models, the PC6100, 7100 and 9100. The second generation introduced a fourth member, the PC5100 as an entry level model. At the moment, only the two power cords on review here have been released in the fourth generation lineup of Mexcel power cables.

Mexcel power cords have a mind of their own. They do not take kindly to manipulation or threatening instructions. Their girth and stiffness are not the worst in class, but a little bit of effort and gentle persuasion are required to route them into your desired position.  

I liked the new colour scheme introduced for the PC6700, a very nice hue of green that reminds me of Emerald. A nice change from the boring white jacket used in the PC6500 and 6100. The PC9700 on the other hands looks just like it's predecessor, the PC9500.

Both cables are of similar diameter (16mm) and stiffness. My imagination suggested that the 6700 was a touch more flexible, but I doubt anybody would notice any practical difference.

The neutral and live conductors of the 6700 are made up of 50 strands of 0.37mm diameter 7N DUCC copper, while the earth conductor is made up of 50 strands of 0.37mm diameter 4.5N soft copper. The 9700 on the other hand uses finer strands of 0.32 mm diameter 7N DUCC copper. Strand count is the same at 50 strands per conductor. 

DUCC (Dia Ultra Crystallized Copper) is a proprietary annealing technology used by Mitsubishi Electric, Acrolink's parent company. It is described as stress-free (do you give the conductors a single malt before annealing ?) and results in an ideal orientation of the wire's copper crystals.

Both cables are armoured (shielded) to the hilt, with full braid shielding. The 6700 adds a mylar foil shield to that, while the 9700 uses semi-conductive carbon tape. A electromagnetic wave absorber thread and a silk thread run through the centre of both cables. The filler material in between the conductors and the outer jacket consist of a compound designed to reduced vibration and electrical noise. The 6700 uses a combination of polyolefin, tungsten and amorphous powder, while the 9700 adds carbon into the mix. 

In my listening experience, Mexcel power cords have astonishingly low noise-floor - all that magic powder certainly works !






Sound Quality


PC-6700

I will admit that I was not really a fan of the Mexcel 6000 series based on my brief ownership of the PC-6100. Nothing really wrong with that cable, but I did not find it to be as outstanding as it's illustrious siblings. I willingly retract that statement for the 6700. At half the price of the 9700, it delivers exceedingly high performance for the price. It's nice to think that this power cord is not unattainable for the typical audiophile.

The 6700 is a quiet, precise cable that plays it close to the path of neutrality. It is not dead-centre neutral, and could be said to have a soft expressive tone.

Timing is spot-on and no issues should be encountered keeping up with faster types of music. Bass is punchy and tight. It avoids the fuller mid-bass of the Acrolink 6N-4030 II and 7N-4030 III, which is likely to be a contributing factor to it's timing supremacy.

Midrange is presented in a natural fashion, with a subtly laidback character. Despite a total absence of cable-added grain, the 6700 is very expressive, with various levels of shading and nuances that escape lesser cables. 

High frequencies have always been an Acrolink strength. It is no different here, with very extended and refined highs. In this respect, I have always considered Mexcel cables to a class leader.

Soundstaging is also excellent, with precision placement of instruments and voices in the mix. This comes with both excellent width, depth, and dimensionality - each voice and instrument subtly expands in its individual acoustic space. 

PC-9700

Leapfrogging to the top dog gets you the 6700 on steroids, with significant improvement in a number of areas.

The most noticeable improvement is the driving force in bass lines. The 9700 goes deeper, and with more intensity and articulation.

This intensity is applied in more gentle strokes to the rest of the frequency spectrum, although for the midrange, it is enough to result in a subtly more forward staging of vocalists. You also get an improvement in quietness, expressiveness, retrieval of micro-detail, and more dimensionality. 

Comparisons with the 9500 prove interesting. The 9500 has more raw energy and exuberance, while the 9700 reflects a more matured and cultured approach. It was as if the 9500 spent some time on self-reflection and decided to channel its excessive energy into cultured and genteel activities. If you felt that the 9500 was a little bit too much in terms of tonal intensity and drive, the 9700 would be a lot more palatable. 

Assuming that the 9700 does not push your system over the edge, it is certainly the better cable. Audiophiles love power, drama and refinement, especially when it comes all in one package. I've heard cables that cost even more than the 9700, but none have captivated me me to this degree. Consider me sold on the 9700 !

If you currently own the 9500 and love it's energy levels and intensity, consider your wallet safe. If you were not convinced by the 9500 and preferred the gentler approach of the 7500, consider an audition of the 9700 to be mandatory.

Conclusion

Acrolink has outdone itself once again. It is impressive that they continue to raise the bar of performance and I look forward to seeing the rest of the fourth generation line-up. The 6700 proved to be a surprise. I did not try the rather short-lived 6500, so I can only speculate on the improvements made. In any event, I love both cables on review here - Highly Recommended. The 6700 in addition gets my stamp of approval for Best Buy.

I would like to thank X-Audio, the local dealer for Acrolink for arranging for this review.

Acrolink 7N-PC6700 Anniversario Power Cord
Price : S$ 2,500 - 1.5 m

Acrolink 7N-PC9700 Mexcel Power Cord
Price : S$ 4,500 - 1.5 m

X Audio Pte Ltd
Bukit Timah Plaza. 
1 Jalan Anak Bukit, #01-01S
Singapore 588996
6466 2642 

Acrolink 7N-PC4030 Anniversario

Introduction

Here is a special edition of the ever popular Acrolink 7N-4030 power cable. This has been one of my favourite cables over the years. You may want to have a look at my earlier posts on the 6N-4030 and the 7N-4030II.


Description

The Anniversario is available both in factory terminated version (the Anniversario CB) and off-the-reel. A smaller gauge version is also available in the form of the 7N-PC4020 Anniversario.

The Anniversario continues to use 7N DUCC copper conductors. However,  this model uses larger diameter copper strands but with less strand count compared to the it's predecessor (50 strands of 0.37 mm diameter copper vs. 100 strands of 0.26 mm diameter). The outer copper foil shield gets a drain wire which permits you to ground the shield if desired. 

The black jacket of the 7N-4030II had a rubbery feel to it, and the very fragile wording reminded me of some of my NOS vacuum tubes - a touch and that was the end of the print ! I much prefer the new jacket that looks better and should be trouble free. According to Acrolink's website, the Anniversario uses a UV resistant urethane jacket.  




I purchased my Anniversario off-the-reel and terminated it with Oyaide P/C 004 plugs, which use Platinum and Palladium plate over Beryllium Copper alloy blades. I consider these plugs to be extremely resolving and very neutral. I left my handiwork to burn-in over a couple of weeks before doing any serious listening.

Sound Quality

Owners of the 6N-4030 would be in for a rude shock while 7N-4030II owners would probably consider the Anniversario to be an evolution rather than revolution. Tonally, the Anniversario is close to neutral, stripping the excess fat of the 6N-4030. Those hoping for the mid-bass bloom and the extended decay of the previous generation models will be disappointed. This is a lean mean fighting machine - think of those sinewy lightning fast mixed martial arts exponents and you get the idea.

In no way though is the Anniversario hard sounding or harsh. Midrange remains grain-free and slightly laidback, while both low and high frequencies are well controlled and extended. However, the bass quality of the Anniversario is quite different, with a drier, tauter character. Thankfully, extension and articulation still remains top-notch. I found the midrange to have a subtly softer quality with more expressiveness (very much like a lesser form of the Mexcel 6700 power cord). Similarly, high frequencies have less "push" compared to the previous model, with less of a leading edge, and shorter decays. 

The eagle-eyed may have noticed from Acrolink's website that the Anniversario and the Mexcel 6700 use similar conductors. The differentiating qualities between the two are added precision and a lower noise floor in favour of the Mexcel. The Anniversario places instruments and voices around the soundstage in a slightly more diffuse manner. 

The Mexcel remains by far the better cable, but with a much higher price tag. I appreciate that Acrolink has offered a really nice alternative to audiophiles who may not have the ability to afford the Mexcel range, or the desire to spend that much money on cabling. 

Conclusion

We have another winner here (the only loser being your wallet) ! The Anniversario gets an easy recommendation and in view of it's modest price - a Best Buy


I would like to thank X-Audio, the local dealer for Acrolink for arranging for this review.

Acrolink 7N-PC4030 Anniversario Power Cord
Price : S$ 600 - 1.5 m (Factory terminated)
Price : S$ 175 / m (off-the-reel)
X Audio Pte Ltd
Bukit Timah Plaza. 
1 Jalan Anak Bukit, #01-01S
Singapore 588996
6466 2642 


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Black Cat Cable Indigo XLR interconnects

PURE ART

INDIGO XLR Interconnects

  • Zolt├ín Matrix Conductor
  • InterPole Matrix shield
  • Low Density Microporous ePTFE Insulator
  • Nylon Multifilament Jacket
  • OYAIDE “FOCUS 1” XLRs
Handcrafted by Chris Sommovigo in his Yoshihama workshop in Yugawara, JAPAN
http://www.blackcatcable.com


Indigo RCA Cables:

1.0mpr : $11,499.95 (+ $2,000 per additional 1/2m pair)

Indigo XLR Cables:

1.0mpr : $12,499.95 (+2,000 per additional 1/2m pair)

Indigo Speaker Cables: 

1.5mpr / Standard : $11,499.95 (+ $2,000 per additional 1/2m pair)
1.5mpr / Shotgun : $17,499.95 (+ $2,000 per additional 1/2m pair)
1.5mpr / Shotgun BiWire : $17,499.95 (+ $2,000 per additional 1/2m pair)

Nothing like some tantalizing pictures to get your heart pumping and blood flowing right ? Here are some really nice pictures from Chris Sommovigo of Black Cat Cable.