Saturday, 8 September 2018

Exploring The Homes of British HiFi - Part 1 on Audio Note

August 2018 marked the month where yours truly went for a solo trip to fulfill 3 different missions. One of the mission is actually to explore and experience a couple of British brands in their own designer's den. The first stop on 29th August 2018 was in Brighton which coincides with my visit to my alma mater. Brighton is where one audiophile can pay a visit and experience Audio Note. Although I didn't manage to visit the manufacturing or the headquarter itself, I managed to get a couple of hours to visit the Audio Note Lounge, located at No. 25, Montefiore Road, Brighton, East Sussex, BN3 1 RD. Dale Linzey (owner/distributor) carries mainly Audio Note and my favourite brand for a long time, Musical Fidelity. He also carries the Roon Nucleus if you are into streaming.

My jaw literally dropped when I first stepped into the shop as this is actually the first time I see with my own eyes, a huuuuuugggeee record collection. All these whiles it was just on the internet. That alone gave me goosebumps. I am sure Dale was skeptical of the purpose of my visit all the way from Malaysia but after explaining that I am not on any official duty as a reviewer but its more of a social visit, things got relaxed a lot. And I did mention to him that my listening experience to Audio Note during the KLIAV show in the past few years, left me a big question mark  on why people are so hyped up about Audio Note. I was far from impressed with the performance so I decided to really listen to them where it all started.

Since I only had only a couple of hours, we decided to use Roon as our source for the day. Various tracks were played, mostly based on my preferred tracks like Dave Brubeck's Take Five, Jennifer Wearnes etc. What I experience on that day was completely the opposite to what I heard in KLIAV show. Audio Note set up was lively, accurate and fast. Bass was well delivered and had a certain level slam that I am amazed of. The vocals through this set up was sweet and luscious with no sign of sounding too high of a pitch. I could do with a little bit more of mids to have an overall balance experience but that was negligible. 

We also chatted about our experiences with various Musical Fidelity equipment. Truth be told, I was feeling rather dissapointed that the legendary MF brand was sold to Project recently, loosing its British grounds for the future products. 20 years I have been with this brand ranging from A1, XA1, XA50, XDAC, XACT, XRay, XCAN, V1 to V3 of X Series, KW550 Superchargers, M1 DAC, ViNL, PWR, CDT, M6 DAC and M6i amp. I must say I am currently quite lost with regards to the future of MF quality. But after talking to Dale whom is an MF enthusiast as well, I am well convinced now that I shall stick Musical Fidelity at the moment.

Back to Audio Note, I came out of the venue with a totally 180 degree turn on my perspective of Audio Note. Given the right room and was set up properly, It can sound B-E-A- utiful.

Thanks Dale for accommodating my request. Your CDs are on the way.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

DA&T QZ DAC Opens It Wide

With hifi companies and designers mushrooming all over the world, consumers are spoilt with choices. While most companies maintain their offerings in the traditional design, some companies tend to go a different route. DA&T, a hifi company from Taiwan decided to go for a modern, minimalist and mini design. However it is not light given the size of their components. During the KLIAV show 2018 recently, the Sky Audio/Doc TT room was featuring an integrated amplifier from this company to drive their set up show case. They also had this QZ DAC unit on static display. Given a quite impressive performance from its amplification brother during the show, I was curious on how their digital side of things would sound like. Having to hear this, Doc TT offered me the unit for review on the last day itself.

The Specifications

The QZ is a fully specced DAC digital pre amp but with some odd options. At the point of summarizing this, there are still some question burning in me to get an answer for them. But the manual is in Taiwanese and the website of minimal information.

It is also a headphone amp which the socket is located at the front fascia.

The Inputs

There are total of 8 inputs.
  1. 1 x USB
  2. 2 x optical
  3. 3 coaxial (1 of them is for DDS which I am not sure what is that)
  4. 1 x RCA analogue
  5. 1 x Bluetooth wireless
The Outputs

There are total of 3 outputs.

  1. 1 pair x RCA stereo
  2. 1 pair x 2.5 mm XLR (Not sure why this size)
  3. 1 x coaxial (to further connect into anothr DAC?)
I was also informed that the DAC chip used for QZ is an ESS Sabre chip similar the one that was used in Oppo SDAC.

It can handle up to 32/384 sampling of raw files and also DSD 256. 

It is a very sturdily built design, weighing up to nearly 4 kg for a small unit like this. Buttons on the side is to change the inputs and also volume control. It feels quite luxurious I might say for a simple design like this. You can feel it that the company did not try to cut corners and produce a shoddy physical design.

But here comes another puzzling issue. Remote control is currently optional. So how do you change inputs and control volume. Well, by using theese 3 side buttons.

The middle button is for you to select the inputs by pressing the button repeatedly and checking the LED indicator atthe front fascia that corresponds to one of the 8 inputs. How do you know which input you are at? By remembering the sequence of the inputs in the rear from left to right. When the LED is at position 1, its USB. Position 2, its RCA in. So on and so on until input 8. Good luck!

The other 2 buttons is to control the volume.

To put the unit on standby, press the middle button for more than 3 seconds.

The Tracks

I will try to show in 4 different videos how the QZ reacts with different quality level of digital source. I have the following 4 tracks:

  1. Turn Me On by Norah Jones on SACD, connected from an ARCAM CDS50 to the QZ via coaxial
  2. Temptation by Diana Krall in AAC 24/96 streamed from the ARCAM via coaxial as well
  3. Somewhere Somebody by Jennifer Wearnes in DSD ripped directly from a vinyl. Connected from SONY HAPZ1 ES via USB
  4. Knockin On Heavan's Door by Guns N Roses in MP3 128 kbps. Connected from SONY via USB as well.

The Session

Turn Me On by Norah Jones on SACD

My emotion ran high on this one. Norah's vocal was exceptionally seductive and there was this sense of huge ambience in the overall presentation. The hissing of frlom the drums was equally clear and spreaded out nicely. The QZ really brings up the mood of this song. A nice balance between the deep lower octave and sweet luscious mids and highs. 

Temptation by Diana Krall 

On this track, the first thing I noticed is that the I lost the zing sense in the intro. Bass was heavy but a bit dry and less musical. Again, vocal seems to benefit most from the QZ. Another trait that is very evident with the QZ is that it opens up the soundstage to sound wider and more dispersed across the listening area. I lost the grip and authority on this track though. Its just not impactful enough as usual.

Someway Somebody by Jennifer Wearnes

Similar to the track above, beautiful luscious presentation of the female vocals was presented here with quite strong on bass as well. But the dryness was still there. Mids and highs were very fluid and just flow beautifully. The low frequency however somehow a bit emotionless. Hard slamming but dry. The soundstaging maintained to be huge and widely spreaded out.  

Knockin On Heavans Door by Guns N Roses

Just to see how the QZ fairs with a low quality input like this one I have. Love the track but this low quality digital files. However, going through the QZ, I gained quite a bit. It brought up this low quality digital file to a level that is listenable. It gave the track some juice and life that it came out quite different than what I expected. Quite lively and rocking. That raw feeling of how rock should feel. Huge sound stage again, hard hitting and nicely spread sound from the drums. Axl's vocals was surprisingly presented witin the tolerance limit of a high pitch presentation. I did not cover my ears at all. But in all seriousness, not too bad in making a crap sourcce sounds quite rocking.

The Conclusion

This was quite a tricky review. While the QZ gave a different presentation than playing these sources directly frlom SONY or ARCAM, its quite difficult to pinpoint what would be the overall character the QZ can offer. If I would to pen it down in a few sentences:
  • The QZ is suitable for someoone who are seeking for a more open presentation from their digital set up. Bigger sound stage with airiness that creates quite an energetic ambience.
  • Also for those who like slamming and hard bass but does not mind of it being less emotional.
  • Important to know that it will reveal the quality of source you are playing. Its quite revealing in another way.
Do contact DocTT or Sky Audio if you are interested to know more.