Quite frankly, I found the sources I listened to a bit disappointing. Nothing wrong with their performance or value, but the Shanling M5, QPR2, and Fiio X7II all seem to prioritize clarity first, with varying degrees of (light) warmth in the midrange, but mostly clear-sounding upper midranges, and variations of brightness in their treble. While none sounded bright or harsh by any means, there was a general trend of favoring a more clean sound, rather than timbre and naturalness. Of those daps, iBasso’s DX200 impressed me most. While it was still tuned with a predominantly neutral signature, it had the most coherent signature to my ears, with a signature that simply worked very well together. There was a harmonious tone throughout the mids and treble, and what it did good, it did very well. Despite the sound having good body, the stage was very clean, and its separation good. A solid offering in its price range, providing a neutral but musical signature with good performance.
And as an avid AK fan, my main interest went out to the new A&K Ultima SS – a beautiful player to behold, while being fast and responsive. The AK380 has long held the perfect balance between timbre and performance, combined with a beautiful large stage. The new Ultima improves in performance, with greater resolution and transparency, as well as a more powerful bass. In addition, the midrange has a good deal more body and forwardness, creating an overall fuller sound, similar to my own RW modified unit. In addition, there is a good deal of depth in its stage, and both its separation and imaging seemed precise. However, the Ultima SS also seemed to follow the trend of clarity over timbre, while there seemed to be a trace of incoherency in the upper mids. The Ultima offers top tier performance one might expect, but I wasn’t convinced the improved performance outweighed the naturalness and tone of my own. Possibly, their Copper version will provide an alternative tuning.
I pondered briefly over this general trend, and the only right conclusion seemed that apparently both manufacturers and consumers seemed to prefer this type of tuning. A logic that seemed to be countered by the success of Chord’s Mojo, which was tuned with a warmer and thicker sound. Of course, it might just have been my limited sample, and I am spoiled with my own daps. I was however positively surprised by two dac/amp systems. The first being a newly developed amp, the Kuos RealAmp. The RealAmp will be offered as a ‘lite’ version which was recently launched on indiegogo for $249, and the full version which will cost around $999. The full version I tested was still in prototype phase, but pictures projecting its upcoming look revealed it will likely turn out to be a beauty. Most importantly, its tone was very pleasing, what I would describe as ‘beautifully neutral’. Relatively neutral, but lightly warm and smooth, as well a musical touch in its upper mids. A coherent signature that was just very easy to listen to, and seemed to provide a versatile signature that I could see more people liking than disliking. While its stage wasn’t particularly wide, it added a nice amount of depth, even to monitors that seemed to lack depth in the first place. So while the stage leaned towards intimate, it nevertheless had a three-dimensional feel due to its depth and layering ability.
But the greatest surprise of the show for me, was the Chord Hugo 2. The original Hugo was widely praised, although some people felt its signature was slightly too neutral, and somewhat void of warmth. For some people it could feel a bit sterile, for instance when compared to the warmer Mojo. While Chord kept the excellent technical performance in terms of its three-dimensional stage, resolution, and transparency, they added just a touch of warmth to its signature. Mind you, the Hugo 2 isn’t warm enough to be predominantly classified as such; but the tuning adds an essential smoothness and musicality to the sound. Based on the brief session its signature seemed comparable to Kuos RealAmp, although they differed in stage and performance. But again, what I would describe as ‘beautifully neutral’: a relatively neutral tone and clean sound, yet with an overall smooth and musical signature. The quality ran throughout its presentation, from its resolved mid-bass, to the coherent midrange, and up to its refined treble presentation – a worthy alternative to my warmer Sony and AK. I went to the show dreading I would spend my savings on the new AK, but left thinking they might be redirected to the Hugo 2.
While cables are still trying to find their ground in the Western market, two cable manufactures showed up in London. Effect Audio had most of their lineup on display. Regardless of pricing, all their cables are eye candy, with shimmering wires resulting from their special means of insulation. Their Ares II is an affordable copper cable, that doesn’t quite sound like a traditional copper. It has a slightly brighter and leaner sound, as well as good top-end extension. As a result, it creates a nice clean sound, and is an excellent cable to either pair with warmer iems, or those looking for a slight boost in transparency and separation. The Ares II+ is their warmer and smoother offering, with a more traditional copper sound that suits brighter iems. Their recently released Lionheart cable is a blend of gold-plated and silver-plated copper wires, tuned for timbre over performance. Where silver alloy cables usually have a dip in their upper bass, the Lionheart has a richer and more linear bass that provides that unique OFC tone, although it doesn’t necessarily sound as clean as traditional upgrade cable. Instead, it combines a smooth and organic sound with a modest touch of clarity. Leonidas is one of their most popular models, offering one of my favorite bass responses for a cable. The quantity of the bass is not necessarily enhanced, but it’s a very punchy, hard-hitting bass, due to the clarity of the impact of its bass. Due to a dip in the upper bass, its stage is very clean, and the sound is transparent. It leans towards a reference signature, with excellent separation and a high level of detail, but with a special bass as ‘fun’ element. In addition, they brought a prototype of their new Mars II, again a very beautiful cable to behold. It seemed to combine transparent vocals with a slightly warm and musical sound, but it was difficult for me to compare as it was terminated to a 4.4 plug, and I’m not yet as familiar with that output as I’d like to be.
Labkable was also there with their lineup, including the Samurai III, a relatively neutral and musical sound with good transparency. It shares some resemblance with Leonidas such as a relatively neutral signature and clean stage, but trades the punchy bass for a slightly warmer sound. Pandora offers a more reference sound by means of a brighter tone, yet high resolution and transparency, as well as a punchy mid-bass. But nothing compared to their flagship Titan models, which offered one of the highest resolution I have heard in a cable. As a result of its excellent top-end extension, it provides a remarkably clean sound, with excellent definition. As a result of its clean stage and stable black background, the separation was excellent as well. Titan comes in two models, a pure silver 10-braid, with a brighter but leaner sound that paired well with the Sony WM1Z, or a gold-plated copper and silver hybrid 10-braid, with a more forward mid-bass and warmer tone that paired better with my AK. Unfortunately, with a price tag of over 2K, more expensive than most people can afford, including myself.
Sources used for testing:
A&K RW AK380cu
Iems used for testing:
64 Audio A18