One of SoundStage! Ultra’s readers, Brad Potthoff, had the best line on Devialet. He said, in a letter from August 2014, that the Devialet integrated-DACs are “utterly disruptive.” To the high-end marketplace, that is. He was responding to what I’d written about the Devialet 120 in “Devialet, SAM, and the Changing of the High-End Guard.” In that article I said: “My advice: Don’t go near one of these things without being prepared to buy it. It’ll ruin you for anything else.” Later I reviewed the Devialet 400, and further solidified my assessment: “If you’re like me, once you hear the Devialet 400, there will be no going back. I’m as surprised as you that I’m saying this, but the Devialet 400s produced the best sound I’ve ever heard.” As Brad said, utterly disruptive.
Devialet’s products have actually been more disruptive than I could have imagined -- to my own system, not to mention my audiophile worldview. I don’t think you’ve heard the true bass capabilities of Magico’s Q7 until you’ve heard that megaspeaker powered by a Devialet 400. It’s world beating -- so much detail, force, agility. It’s as overwhelmingly devastating as Ronda Rousey’s armbar. Nothing else even comes close to that combo.
Where does that leave me? If I were a normal consumer, I’d just buy a Devialet -- it would cost a lot less than what I’d have to invest in the sorts of separate components that typically inhabit my Music Vault listening room. But I’m a reviewer. With a Devialet anchoring my system, how do I review a DAC? Or a preamp? What do I say to the manufacturer of the latest überspeaker that I want for review when they ask what will be powering their masterpiece? (Yeah, snobbery is alive and well in this industry.) These are problems, and I’ve wrestled with them for months.
Then the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show happened, and I was given hope. I heard something unexpected in the room of Soulution, the Swiss manufacturer of some very expensive solid-state electronics. They were driving Magico’s S5s with their 711 stereo power amplifier ($65,000). The bass sounded eerily familiar. No, it wasn’t what I’d heard from the pairing of the Devialet 400 and Magico Q7 -- the S5 can’t do what the Q7 can, not even close. But, there was a certain quality -- a drive, a depth, a power and speed -- that I’d not heard from the S5 before. Then, in February of this year, in a review of the Soulution 711 stereo amplifier published on The Abso!ute Sound’s website, Jonathan Valin stated, “But in all my life I’ve never heard Fender bass lines, kickdrums, and toms reproduced by an amplifier with as much lifelike speed, color, power, authority, and effortless ease as they are through the 711.” Wait -- didn’t I write that about the Devialet 400? Pretty close. What gives?
A hunch: The bass qualities displayed by the Devialets are, to a large degree, attributable to its basically nonexistent output impedance. The Soulution amplifiers are similar in that regard, with a damping factor so high that Soulution’s president, Cyril Hammer, told me they didn’t dare publish the real number for fear no one would believe them. Knowing that anything less than Devialet-like bass would make me feel deprived, I now had hope, even if the price gap between Devialet and Soulution is huge. Nonetheless, sitting in my garage for review . . .
For years now, I’ve seldom used the switching functions of an analog preamplifier. The best one I’ve heard, Ayre Acoustics’ KX-R Twenty, I basically used as a volume control -- and a fine one, too. For some time now, I’ve used my DAC to do all switching among source components, because all of my sources are digital. So perhaps it finally makes sense to explore the possibility of using a DAC with a good volume control as my “preamp.” Is this why the Exogal Comet and the Auralic Vega are so hot right now? I think so.
Speaking of disruption, the music-streaming service Tidal ($20/month) has been as disruptive to my listening habits as the Devialets threaten to be to my reference system. I now listen to Tidal more than to the music stored on my hard drives. The world of newly discovered music that has opened up for me has renewed my thirst for long listening sessions, and not just in the Music Vault -- I listen to Tidal everywhere: in the car, while running, even in the shower.
Given Tidal’s early success, and the need to set up some way of getting its streams into your system, is it any wonder that the Auralic Aries is such a hot product? Is the term media bridge this year’s music server? At $1599, isn’t the Aries too cheap to seriously consider as part of a state-of-the-art system?
Not if you have any sense. Chris Connaker, the original Computer Audiophile, has said that the Auralic Aries is “definitely my network audio device of choice.” Of course, Tidal has already been incorporated into many music servers, such as Aurender’s models, which are longtime favorites here at SoundStage! Ultra. The good options are growing.
It’s a lot to think about. Here in 2015, convention is out the window. No analog preamp. Not owning your music. A sub-$10,000 product setting the standard for sound. Where will it all end? I really don’t know. In fact, like most of us, I’m still trying to figure it out. I hope to have some clarity about my own system by the time Munich’s High End wraps up in May.
Maybe utterly disruptive is just the new normal.
. . . Jeff Fritz