REVIEW: AQUA LA VOCE S3 DAC - CLIMBING THE LADDER
Digital to analogue converters, or DACs, usually follow one of two paths. Some brands will buy in well-respected components designed and built by highly regarded brands such as ESS or Burr-Brown which I am sure are familiar names to most. However, there are a few companies who prefer a more controlled approach. One such company is the Milan-based Acoustic Quality, Aqua to their friends. We have been living with the latest iteration of their La Voce DAC.
LA VOCE S3
Digital to Analogue Converter
The Aqua La Voce DAC we have here comes fitted with the company's own Voce S3 chip with Discrete R2R Ladder DAC architecture.
In the looks department, the Aqua La Voce is everything that you would expect from an audiophile product designed in the Italian fashion capital. It is stylish yet understated, smart not stuffy, sophisticated yet fun. The uncluttered aluminium face efficiently features what is necessary - power, input selection and digital-phase inversion.
The build quality also marks it out as an audiophile product rather than merely just another hi-fi component.
Even though the La Voce is the entry-level model in a stable that includes the La Scala and Formula xHD DACs, it is not left wanting. The Aqua La Voce boasts top-line features including modular construction, separate low noise power transformers for the analogue and digital sections, as well as the rejection of op-amps in the analogue signal path. Finishing of the externals is an anti-resonant aluminium cabinet that is powder coated in Nextel, a composite that uses ceramics and aluminium.
Looking back over the previous iterations of the La Voce, it appears that you had a choice of Burr-Brown PCM1704, Analog Devices AD1865 and Philips TDA1541A DAC chips. However, the La Voce now has an in-house designed multi-bit DAC constructed from discrete components that also underpins the firm’s more exclusive La Scala (£5,990) and Formula xHD (£11,990) converters.
The Aqua S3 DAC uses an R-2R ladder, a method used in earlier-produced DACs as it is an inexpensive method and relatively easy to manufacture. Unfortunately, using the R-2R ladder method of decoding back then resulted in some level of non-linearity – that's distortion, in other words. However, after speaking to Christian at Aqua, the company has spent plenty of time and money in R&D refining this method utilising ultra-precision resistors so that the quality exceeds many customer's expectations. The reasoning for using the R-2R ladder FPGA-based DAC, says Aqua, is that it produces a more immediate and open character.
Additionally, the La Voce features a proprietary DFD (Direct From Decoder) that performs the necessary decoding without a digital filter. The benefit here is that there is no processing of the input signal, with the original digital samples being translated to reproduce the resulting sound.
La Voce, like its siblings, is equipped with the company's proprietary AQlink (Jitter free digital interface (I2S protocol)). The remaining digital inputs are modular, but the model I had was kitted out with an XLR for AES/EBU, S/PDIF (BNC, rather than phono) and ‘bit-perfect’ USB for Class 2 PC audio.
Analogue outputs are unbalanced phono with the option to add balanced XLR.
The La Voce is compatible with DSD64 and DSD128; additionally is supports PCM all the way to 384kHz/24-bit. Finally, all inputs support DoP or DSD over PCM.
Aqua La Voce review
You might recall that the La Voce arrived with the Fidelizer NimitraS streamer and that was the source for the most part. Additionally, listening tests were also carried out using the Oppo UDP-205.
I connected the output from the La Voce to my Musical Fidelity M6si amplifier, as well as testing it with the McIntosh MA5300 review amp. These had turns at feeding a range of speakers including the Brigadiers Mu.2, and Ophidian Mojo.
I do love the simplicity of the controls. Nice, chunky dials and a good, sturdy switch. One dial moves the DAC from off to on, while the other is in charge of input selection duties. The switch, over on the right, is the phase inverter. A handy thing if you have any recordings that require such correction.
Kicking off my session with A Perfect Circle's 'Weak and the Powerless' (Tidal via Roon) and the tight rhythmical track has me locked in. The song barrels along punctuated with low-end stabs until it reaches the middle eight signified by an acoustic guitar strum. That crisp acoustic guitar has much more detail and bite than my current, admittedly much cheaper, DAC (replaced since this review). Also, the overall timing seemed more direct with a cleaner edginess to the starts and stops within the track.
Tyco's 'Montanna' (FLAC CD rip via NAS drive) starts with wonderfully positive-sounding guitar arpeggios enveloped in lush reverb. The guitar is joined by picked bass before the sharp hiss of snare and cymbal starts the track properly. A light synth layer comes in, and the La Voce displays the airiness of the composition superbly. More importantly, it doesn't sound digital; instead, there's the warmth that one expects from analogue. The handclaps add a further dimension without detracting from the foundation instrumentation.
'Go!' by Public Service Broadcasting (WAV CD rip via NAS) again shows the relaxed composure of the Aqua DAC; instruments and samples are placed with plenty of space to breathe. The sharper timing mentioned before could well be also due to keener placement and thus uncluttering the presentation to the listener.
'Driving/Discombobulate/Zoosters Breakout' from Hans Zimmer's Live in Prague extravaganza (Tidal via Roon) gives the La Voce an opportunity to display its handling of scale. The intro piano has plenty of weight. As the piece builds with reed and then organ joining in, the whole ensemble kicks into gear. The bass guitar brings in even more heft, but the La Voce has everything under control. At 2:49 the orchestral stabs again has the Aqua DAC showing its timing ability without any slurs or smearing. The La Voce S3 retains its composure throughout this extremely varied track.
Aqua La Voce review conclusion
The Aqua La Voce has a different character to other DACs I have experienced. The La Voce presents an incredibly engaging performance from the moment of plugging it into my system. I shouldn't have been so surprised as this is one of the main traits of the classic ladder system. However, it was more its timing, its rhythm that held my interest and that's a trait not to be overlooked; for what is music without rhythm?
The La Voce proved very capable and musical. If you are looking for a break from the norm, then I heartily recommend you audition the Aqua.
Finally, there's the La Voce's 'Joker'; namely its modular design. That particular super-power means that La Voce will be able to adapt to any technological developments as well as the latest trends in music delivery. Moreover, as Aqua offers an upgrade from the previous iteration, I can see the company supporting the La Voce for a good few years.
For more information visit Aqua - Acoustic Quality.
StereoNET UK's Editor and Bass playing gadget junkie. He's captained the good ship GadgetyNews for over a decade, making low jargon high tech a very handy thing. His passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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