HiFi Rose, DAC streamers, Harbeths, etc.

I've started a # of threads in the past few weeks related to selecting an integrated amp and outboard DAC or streamer for my Harbeth-based multichannel system.

Since those discussions were scattered all over the place, I'm posting this "summary" thread to explain my final decisions.

I investigated a large # of amp options, ranging from ARC to Levinson, Hegel, bel Canto, Pass Labs, MF's Nu-Vista line, PrimaLuna, and others.  Along the way, I learned a lot from the great advice & suggestions posted by other Audiogon members.

When the smoke cleared, I finally decided on an Ayre EX-8 Integrated, for several reasons:

i) Ayre's reputation for build quality and sound quality.  The Series 8 components are still based on Charlie Hansen's original designs and are manufactured entirely in the U.S. with strict quality control.  A 5-year transferable warranty is icing.  And everything I've read from trusted sources heap high praise on every component of the EX-8, even the headphone amp and optional DAC.  It's not cheap at $11,000, but it definitely seems to at least match the sonics of similarly priced offerings from ARC, Hegel, or Levinson. (Yes, I know that comparing this box to, say, an ARC VSi75 is apples/oranges, but I think you know what I mean.)

ii) The EX-8 is said to be an excellent match for my Harbeth speakers. And that was emphatically confirmed by the Stereophile reviewers I spoke with, as well as by Harbeth support people and Ayre's CTO (the engineer who actually implemented Hansen's original design).

iii) Being an older guy, I dreaded having to handle a 60-100lb chunk of metal.  That wouldn't have been a dealbreaker without more, but one of Hansen's most brilliant realizations was that a "diamond" output-stage topology allows a very fine-sounding 100+wpc Class A/AB integrated amp to be packed into a 24lb, 4.5" high box (almost all the weight is the transformer). That's pretty hard to beat without resorting to Class D.

iv) From a functionality / connectivity standpoint, nobody beats Ayre (although Hegel's H590 comes close).  The EX-8 was the only candidate that accommodates a subwoofer, integration into a multichannel or home-theater system, multiple analog legacy sources, Logitech Harmony remote programming, and headphones, all without kludges. It even has a Word Clock output. The only thing missing was a proprietary Android control app.  But the remote looks pretty good & maybe mConnect can fill any gap.

I haven't yet pulled the trigger, but expect to do so as soon as I settle on the rest of my configuration, including new cables.  So unless some new surprise pops up, it looks like this melodrama is concluding.

Now on to the DAC/streamer...



Sadly, I have no way to demo equipment before playing it, both because of my location, thousands of miles from any stereo shop, and because of my personal physical constraints. However, I did recently have a HiFi Rose RS250A DAC/streamer inhouse for a few weeks. 

I've heard so many contradictory statements about HFR gear.  Some very knowledgable people rave about its sonic quality; others consider it laughable.  HFR boasts about its build quality, and most reviews praise HFR gear's solid construction.  But I've read multiple accounts of infant failures and, in fact, the 250 I had inhouse was itself defective.  Many have criticized the HFR software as being buggy, but I found it to be quite solid, easy to use, and feature-rich. (I configured the component to automatically download software updates, & maybe that made a difference.)  So the bottom line on all these issues is not clear.

As far as the user interface and connectivity goes, however, the only streamers I found to be in the same class were the much lower-priced Eversols DMP DAC/streamers.

The Eversolos duplicate about 80% of the HFR's superb iPad/phone-like graphical touchscreen interface. But that missing 20% includes features that I was especially fond of, like the ability to stream 4K video from sources like YouTube to an HDMI-attached TV or monitor.  So Eversolo didn't make the cut.

As for sonics, the 250A had more detail and a more holographic presentation than any of my current DACs.  But that's a low threshold.  I'm only now starting to move from physical media to streaming content, so my DACs are old & mid-fi -- think Oppo BDP-105.

So the choice came down to either the HFR $2700 RS250A, which includes a DAC, or HFR's top-of-the-line $5200 RS130, which is a streaming transport, no DAC.

When you factor in the cost of an outboard DAC and cabling, the price difference could easily exceed $5000.  But what that buys you with the RS130 is likely a much better-sounding streamer.  In addition to a better power supply & noise rejection, the RS130 has a unique higher-frequency, temperature-compensating clock, as well as the ability to sync to an external clock.  The 250A's streaming circuitry is very quite, but overall much more vanilla.  And most likely more susceptible to jitter.

So what to do?  Since the Ayre's built-in DAC has garnered such high praise -- and is a mere $1300 option -- I finally decided to go with the RS250A and Ayre DAC.

I've never had much confidence in the internal modules of any integrated component, upgradable or not.  But in this case, given that I expect the Ayre DAC to be far superior to the 250A DAC, a conservative solution would be to live with the EX-8 / 250A combo for a while, using the HFR solely as a streamer. 

That would let me compare the two DACs to my existing DACs (as well as to my analog legacy sources), if only to gain a point of reference.  At that point, if I still love the HFR UI but am disappointed with both DACs' sound quality, I could still upgrade to the RS130 and a higher-end outboard DAC, maybe an Aurender.  

But for now, this seems like the most intelligent way to go -- and at a mere $14,000 (less cables).

I can't wait to write the check.