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March 2011
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere!
The DIY HiFi Supply.com Fusion
3
A tremendous integrated with a 192kHz/24-bit onboard DAC.
Review By Scott Faller

 

  As most of you know who follow my writings, I was an early adopter of server based and streaming music. Going all the way back to 2005 I started riding the bitstream and haven't looked back since. Over the years I've played with a variety of computer interface devices from the Bolder modified Squeezebox to USB to S/PDIF converters to numerous USB DACs. Some of the devices were Non-Oversampling, some Upsampled. In my reference system, I eventually settled on the very fine sounding MHDT Labs Havana USB DAC which is a Non-OverSampling (NOS) device.

To my ears and in my system, most of the upsampling units I've listened to sound unnatural. As a result, I've pretty well turned off my interest in looking at new, high resolution DACs because didn't want to subject myself to a device that simply upsampled to a higher resolution. That and until recently there was sufficient HiRez material available for the average (avid) listener, at least in my opinion. I was holding out to play with a true high resolution device, one that outputs music in its native resolution. In other words, if I select a tune that is recorded in 44.1kHz/16-bit, the device plays it in 44.1/16. It doesn't try to upsample it to 96kHz or some other higher resolution.

DIY HiFi Supply.com Fusion3The other thing I was waiting for was a device that breaks the 96kHz/24-bit resolution barrier over USB. In the past few years the bleeding edge digital designers like Gordon Rankin have been getting closer and closer to the place where I thought I might get interested in digital again.

Enter Brian Cherry at DIY HiFi Supply.com. Most everyone has heard of DIY HiFi Supply.com. Brian has been providing DIY kits (some fully assembled) for over ten years now. I've played with a few over that period of time and they sound pretty darned good. In fact, I just ordered his DIY turntable kit. Sometime later this year I'll have it all pieced together. Of course, the parts I provide outside of the kit will be exotic and completely over the top, it should make for a cool spring and summer project. Look for the article later this year.

Over the past year or so, Brian and Thorsten Loesch have collaborated to provide a piece that appears pretty darned interesting. Out of the blue I get an email from Brian asking if I'd be interested in giving a listen to his latest creation, the Fusion3. The Fusion3 is just as the name implies, it is the fusion of three different product offerings from Brian, the Cleo tubed 192/24 DAC, his Ultimate Volume Control, his Universal Stereo Tubed Output Stage, and finally a pair of his Fusion Power Multiplier Modules all in a nice looking case.

If you know my systems, an integrated probably isn't the best piece on the planet for me to write about. After looking at my stable of traditional speakers and mulling it over for a few days, I decided to take the piece on. The reason I hesitated was for a 50 watt integrated, I needed reasonably efficient pair of speakers to mate to the Fusion3, say 90+db sensitive. Well, I've got the very nice sounding (and very affordable) Aperion Audio 6T floor standers. While many may look down their nose at a $1700 pair of ‘internet direct' speakers and think they can't be all that and a bag of chips, they actually are, but we'll get into that bit later. Next I've got their little brothers, the Aperion 632LRs. These are (essentially) the same speaker except monitor sized. Between the two speakers, I know them quite well as the 6Ts reside in my Home Theater rig as the front LR speakers and the 632s have been pulling duty in my Home Office for almost two years. I'm completely familiar with the sound of these speakers.

Finally, when you consider the cost of the Fusion3 at about $1700, the average audiophile is likely to mate it to a pair of speakers that is equal to or less than the cost of the amp so these speakers fit quite well as a pairing to the Fusion3. Oh, the other thing is that it has me listening to the Fusion in at least two different sized rooms so this article should give a pretty fair assessment of how it will perform in a variety of settings. I'll be using the Aperion floorstanders in my main listening room which is 15x38 and the Aperion monitors in my office which is 9 x 11 feet.

 

The System
Not wanting to get into the design of the Fusion3 just yet, you need to know that it comes loaded with all kinds of premium parts not the least of which are Teflon capacitors. If you remember all the way back to 2004, you'll remember my write up on the VenHaus Teflon V-Caps. As I mentioned way back then, these things (Teflon Caps) take hundreds of hours to fully run in. And I do mean hundreds…as in more than 400. Mine weren't fully cooked until closer to 600 hours (I still have my listening notes).

Rather than tearing down my main listening room right away, I decided that I'd replace my little modified JoLida 102b that resides in my Home Office with the Fusion3 while she runs in for a few weeks. That system is fully digital as that is where my server is housed. She was an easy plug ‘n play. Pop out the JoLida and the MHDT Paradisea (with a USB to S/PDIF converter) and plug in the Fusion3. While she's in there she'll be driving a pair of Aperion 632LRs, a great sounding monitor. Plus, this gives me a chance to play around with the MusiLand Monitor software driver.

As I let the Fusion3 cook for a while in the office system, I looked at this integrated I decide that I need a starting reference point in my large listening room. The initial system I used as a comparison is my heavily modified Korato KVP 20 preamp driving the AKSA 55 Mosfet amplifier with the Nirvana mods. My digital source is my NOS Havana USB tubed DAC. This is a system I've set up before when I initially wrote about the Aperion 6Ts. So after getting everything set up and a bit of fiddling with speaker placement I sat down and reacquaint myself with the sound of the Aperion's in the main listening room. Just as I remember, the Aperion 6Ts are a fine sounding speaker on their own. If I had to equate their sound to something similar, I would say they sound pretty darned close to the Dynaudio Focus 220s. Hopefully that gives you some frame of reference for the sound of the Aperion 6Ts. These have an exacting sound with really good bass. They can be a bit clinical at times but not overly so. It really depends on the source material and the electronics upstream.

The Aperions sit at 91dB/W/m sensitive at a nominal 6 ohm load. These should be a nice mate to the Fusion3 which puts out a reasonable 50 watts per channel at 8 ohms. Sure, I won't be able to shake the foundations, but I'll easily get mid-90s of sound pressure level on music peaks. That's plenty. The 6Ts will show the Fusion3 a maximum 25 Ohm load at 50 Hz and minimum 4.2 Ohm load at 150 Hz to the Fusion. The specifications state clearly that the minimum load for the Fusion3 should be no lower than 4 Ohms. After listening and to the Aperion/Korato/AKSA combination for a couple of weeks while the Fusion3 ran in, I decided to give the Fusion3 its turn in the driver's seat. Well, I have to say I'm pretty damned impressed. I've always thought the AKSA/Korato sounded fairly nice but the Fusion3 takes music to a whole new level.

 

The Design
Let us first talk about the design of the Fusion3 before we get into anything else. As I mentioned previously, the Fusion3 uses Brian's a pair of his Fusion Power Multiplier Modules, his Ultimate Volume Control, his Universal Tubed Output Stage (UTS) and then integrates the Cleo 192/24 DAC. I'm not going to go into a huge amount of detail about each of the modules as you can visit the DIY HiFi Supply website and read in depth about each of the pieces. I really just want to give a general overview of what you'll find when you look under the hood.

Starting with the main power supply, Brian uses a Dibao toroidal transformer which is sourced from China. Downstream from it, voltage regulation is provided by a traditional cased bridge rectifier and a pair of beefy Rubycon 10,000uF capacitors for power supply filtering and storage. The DAC, UTS and Volume control have their own fully regulated power supplies built on each of their respective PCBs where the chip amp relies on the regulation and filtering of the main power supply.

The Ultimate Volume Control is a series of PCBs that carries its own power supply regulation. On one side of the PCB is the volume control, in the center is the actual transformer for the volume control and on the right is electronics supporting the relay based source selector switches. The basic design premise of the volume control is as what others consider a TVC or Transformer based The DIY HiFi volume control is built around the Dallas Semiconductor DS-1666 digitally controlled analogue potentiometer (DCAP). The volume knob is a rotary encoder that varies signals in (essentially) half dB steps from -52dB to 0dB. In essence it is just a 128 Step Attenuator on a chip, using a resistor ladder and FET Switches instead of a resistor ladder and mechanical switches.

The Fusion amp modules are quite similar to the 47 Labs Gaincard modules in that they utilize a power OpAmp for amplification. Of course Brian has his own twist on the design around and utilization of that power OpAmp. As you look at the pics, you'll see Brian is utilizing his fine sounding Copper Obbligato capacitors on the PCB. These chips don't generate much heat so Brian has opted to use the side casing as the heat sink for the chip.

As I mentioned, the DAC is a highly modified MusiLand Monitor 01 DAC. What Brian and Thorsten have done is take the stock MusiLand DAC and performed some serious mods to the power supply and also modified the output circuit and replaced the transformers. As you can see from the left side of picture, the stock power supply waveform looks pretty ragged. After these key modifications, the waveform is significantly cleaned up. As many will tell you, if you don't get the power supply right, the whole piece will sound bad. The next thing that Brian has done to the DAC is replace the stock word clock with his UltraClock module. If you look closely, you can see the board hovering over the MusiLand DAC board. Again with digital, if you don't control the jitter, it's going to sound bad.

The last module that Brian has added is his Universal Stereo Tube Output Stage. This little gem uses a single 6922 which utilizes each half of this dual triode to provide voltage gain for the chip amp. Those familiar with tube design know in doing the design with a single half of a tube, you are going to be reversing the polarity of the output single. Such is the case with the Fusion3. The output signal is reversed so you simply need to reverse your speaker leads either at the back of the amp or at the speaker. Either is fine. If you hook it up and don't get quality bass, you probably forgot to reverse the leads. Also as you can also see, Brian is utilizing his Teflon and Tinfoil Obbligato coupling caps in the Tube Output Stage. I'm definitely a Teflon cap fan.

As far as inputs, there are four plus the USB. All of the inputs are standard gold plated RCA connectors. As you can see from the picture, the binding posts are standard, heavy, gold plated posts that accept banana connectors.

Finally, as I look at the internal wiring, I notice that any of the shielded signal wire that was connected also had the shielding drained to ground. The rest of the larger capacitors on the boards are Nichicon.

Overall, a very nice build. The inside of the unit is clean, orderly and well laid out.

 

The Software
The Fusion3 comes with its own software that interfaces with ASIO. The MusiLand Monitor software is used to provide the asynchronous feed that allows USB to stream 192/24 music. The software is an easy install. Just click the executable file and it (pretty much) installs itself. Once it's on your hard drive, open (in my case) Foobar or J-River and assign the ASIO: MusiLand Monitor as your Output Device. After a quick check to make sure communications are established by playing pink noise, you are off to the races.

The MusiLand software is pretty intuitive. On the Mixer tab, you have four (essentially) VU meters; Analog, Digital, WDM, and ASIO and below them is the active Sampling Rate (SR) display for the music you happening to be listening to at the time. Without going into any real detail on these (see the operations manual), the two that are the most important and the Analog and ASIO. Essentially you set these to 100% and forget about them. Oh, be sure to mute your system sounds. You sure don't want email notifications at 95dB nor do you want your system expending precious processor time and memory on extraneous windows tasks while streaming tunes.

The next is the Advanced tab. Here, the MusiLand software has something extremely useful and in my opinion should be a part of every software front end, a graphic equalizer. Now, this one is only five bands and covers the bass region but for all audiophiles, this is the most important musical region that needs correction for our rooms. Remember, no room is perfect. Each and every room is going to experience nodes and nulls (boost and suck out). This provides you the opportunity to ‘tune' your speakers to your room in 1dB steps up to +/-5dB. The active EQ bands are 60, 80, 100, 129 and 140 Hz. As I see it, anything beyond that is screwing it the music. Sure, some music needs a hardcore remix but the MusiLand software isn't trying to achieve that, they are only giving you the opportunity to notch the bass region so you get a flatter frequency response in room. Also keep in mind, many, many audiophiles don't have dedicated rooms. There systems reside in their living rooms. This allows you to place your speakers (nearly) against the wall and notch out the majority of that 8db back wall gain. Plus this keeps your significant other happy as they don't have to walk around speakers and cables that are pulled out into a room. Just keep in mind life's two simple rules 1) A happy wife means a happy life. 2) When in doubt see rule number one. For you eternal bachelors, I say pull your speakers way the heck out into the room, jack up the bass and enjoy your freedom.

The other features on the Advanced tab allow adjustment of the ASIO buffer which when set to 160 provides enough memory player buffering so that your stream doesn't get interrupted by background processes. There is also a sample rate controller on the Advanced tab. This one just set to Auto and forget about it, the software takes care of recognizing the incoming resolution and then sends it to the DAC.

 

All Bits Aren't Created Equal
I suppose the easiest place to start is here. Give a read to Thorsten Loesch's white paper on why all Hi-Rez may not actually be high resolution. If you don't feel like reading the entire paper (which is only 7 pages), let me try to trim it down to a few paragraphs for you.There are a couple of major items you take away from the paper T offers up, first is be extremely careful on what information manufacturers offer up when defining Hi-Rez, especially anything labeled 192kHz/24-bit. The first thing you should check is the type of chip being used in the DAC. Download the data sheet from the manufacturer's website and read it for yourself. Don't trust the manufacturer's claims or reviews to get it (completely) correct. This goes for my stuff too. I'm no expert on digital design so I'm just as vulnerable as the next (unassuming) writer. Basically you need to understand that there are two classes of DAC chips available out there; Class 1.0 and Class 2.0.

A Class 1.0 USB Audio chip will (generally) be limited to 48kHz/16-bit. Apparently there are very few Class 1.0s that can do 96/24 but the list is (apparently) short. Since I'm not a digital designer, I can't tell you which chips function at 96/24. I would suggest one of the Forums as an information source. Some of the guys that participate are extremely knowledgeable of such things. That said, those Class 1.0 chips are incapable of 192/24. One key item that goes with this chipset, most of those are "Plug and Play" USB DACs meaning there is no separate driver or program provided with the DAC. You just plug it into Windows or a MAC and she is up and running.

A Class 2.0 USB Audio chip is required to play true 192/24 high resolution audio file. That said, you need to keep your eyes open for a couple of things when you are shopping for a true 192/24 Hi-Rez DAC. As of this writing, the only way to get true 24/192 is by going "Asynchronous" If your DAC doesn't have a custom driver to force Windows or MAC into Asynchronous mode you are highly likely to be listening to 48/16 (or at best 96/24) which is then upsampled to a resolution of 192/24. Reflecting my personal experience on this, none of the "Hi-Rez" DACs I've had here came with their own Async driver. Maybe that explains why I've had such a negative impression of "upsampling" DACs regardless of resolution.

The final hook to all of this is that if you are using a Windows based machine, you MUST bypass the Windows software Kernel to stream Hi-Rez audio. Inherently Windows Kernel screws with your audio file by re-sampling/dithering the music before it reaches your DAC. The last thing you want is Bill Gates & Co. messing with your music. If you are running a Windows machine, you need to install ASIO so you can bypass the Windows Kernel and driver. That way you get an unmolested feed for your DAC. This isn't just audiophile playback. This reaches into the pro-audio realm as well, right into the recording studios. So, since Windows (nor Mac) doesn't have a decent driver, the manufacturer of your potential new DAC MUST provide their own driver to play true 192/24 music. If they don't, warning flags should be going up, bells should start ringing and you should run away as fast as possible as this means (at least at the time of this writing), your aren't getting a bit perfect stream of 192/24. Chances are you are getting some lower rez facsimile thereof that has (or is) being upsampled.

 

Synchronous/Asynchronous/Software Induced Jitter
Let me preface this section. I am so far out of my pay grade trying to explain this, it's not funny. After doing some mild (and I do mean mild) research, this is what I've taken away. So don't pummel me if I've got this wrong. A synchronous USB stream uses two clocks to synchronize the data packets that stream to your DAC. The master clock is located in your computer and the slave clock is in your DAC. When these packets are sent there are large, quick voltage swings (relatively speaking of course) and both clocks need to track each other perfectly. In theory they do but in practical terms they often don't. The byproduct of the clock timing errors is what we audiophiles know as jitter.

Besides clock errors there is a computer processor induced phenomenon called Software Jitter. Great... something else to worry about in our audio stream. Basically this form of jitter is caused from using computer programs in the background while streaming your music. The processor, depending on how hard it is being hit, sucks more or less current from the power supply in the computer. These current fluctuations manifest themselves (somehow) as ‘jitter' when you stream music robbing your master clock of the current it needs to fully process the data packets it is managing that flow to your DAC. Hence, you end up with minor timing errors or another layer of jitter.

So how do you correct all of these jitter issues associated with the internal processing on a Windows (or Mac) based machine? You (essentially) reverse the process. You put the master clock in the DAC and then build in a nice sized memory buffer so you are never relying on the computer to ‘keep up' with the ever changing packets. They are stored and reclocked to the S/PDIF output onboard the DAC. That and you eliminate the use of the 5 Volt power that rides across the USB cable. You build in your own dedicated and heavily regulated power supply on board the DAC. Of course, none of this happens without the use of a program that bypasses Windows kernel and forces the computers onboard clock to take the ‘open' mode where it is simply feeding a packet stream that keeps the DAC's onboard buffer continuously filled. No more are you relying on the computer's internal data clock for timing.

Hence the term Asynchronous.  

1)     of, used in, or being digital communication (as between computers) in which there is no timing requirement for transmission and in which the start of each character is individually signaled by the transmitting device

 

I strongly suggest you read Thorsten's paper on this issue as it will shed more light on the subject. Here is the link to the DIY HiFi Supply website and the paper.

 

The Sound (Finally)
Listening to 16/44.1
Let's get right to it shall we? Playing my usual fare of 16/44 reference source material I'm finding that the Fusion3 has a tremendous sense of focus. Starting with my test track for stage width, Pink Floyd's Signs of Life from Momentary Lapse of Reason, the sounds of the water lapping on the shore emanate from about 6' outside the plane of the Aperions. That is as good of width in soundstage as I've heard from any DAC I've had through the house. One thing though, the sound of the water is definitely more focused. On the other DACs I've played with, the sonic picture painted was always more Impressionistic where the picture painted is now more Pre-Raphaelite (talk about an obscure reference).

Moving onto my test track for micro detail I use Gravity from Alison Krauss & Union Station on Lonely Runs Both Ways. As I listen to Alison's vocals, when she ends her phasing you can (on a detailed system) clearly here her push out the last consonant of the words. In this case I'm listening to the end of the second line of the second verse... turned out questions in the end-huh. Here the Fusion3 performs tremendously pulling as much if not slightly more detail out of this lyric as I've heard previously. While I'm still listening to Union Station, I can easily use both Jerry Douglas and Dan Tyminski's as a gauge for proper tone of a guitar. I can say with great surety that the Fusion3 is spot on. There is zero coloration. And to top that off, the 6922 tube gain stage in the preamp section of the Fusion3 adds the perfect balance of clarity, extension and proper harmonics.

Now, when it comes to the frequency extremes the Fusion3 has great command of those too. I have several tracks I use to test the speed and control of deep bass. Each one I tried the Fusion3 handled quite well. On the deepest of bass tracks it performed very admirably. Granted the bass I was getting wasn't Krell-ish but it was damned good and easily outperformed the Koroto/AKSA combo I started with. I heard no appreciable colorations or overtones that caused the bass to sound bloated in the least.

On the top side is where the Fusion3 really shined. There is something about the implementation of the Burr Brown DAC the way it handles treble that sets this piece apart from the completion I've listened to in recent years. Granted in this case we're talking 44.1/16 but when I play tracks like Ella Fitzgerald's Good Morning Heartache the light and airy extension of the triangle being struck is as clean and accurate as I've experienced. I guess the ultimate bottom line on 44.1/16 playback is, me likey…a lot. For an oversampling DAC playing 44.1/16, the Fusion3 is quite, quite good (and that is an understatement).

 

Listening to Hi-Rez
As I sit here listening to the Beaux Arts Trio (piano, cello, violin) play Dvorak's Op. 65 (48/24 DVD rip), passion and tonal accuracy pours out of the speakers. The Fusion3 coupled to the Aperion 6Ts playing this hi-rez source give an accurate sense of scale and more importantly room ambiance. The virtual stage expands well beyond the planes of the speakers in all directions opening up to reveal (what could be) a moderate sized recital room where you are part of the audience listening to this performance. Literally just close your eyes and you are there. It's quite remarkable…and I'm not easily impressed, especially by solid state gear.

Next up I thought I'd try some vocals of the female persuasion. Stacey Kent's Breakfast on the Morning Tram is a great little release (DVD rip). This particular offering comes in 48/24. Even though the bit depth on this release is limited to 48kHz, the recording is wonderfully smooth and detailed. There is something about the way 24 bit files are handled by the Fusion3 that is just ‘right'. If you aren't familiar with Stacey Kent, she projects a tiny voice with wonderful intonation and vibrato. Her arrangements really compliment her vocal stylings. On this 48kHz recording you get very nice placement of the individual performers. Everybody is properly sized without any exaggeration of the performers or the stage. The Fusion3 is remarkably clean and completely absent of congestion in the vocal range. The highs are extremely clean. The track Breakfast on the Morning Tram has the drummer playing the song with brushes and I can't help but notice how light and airy the brushes sound on the drum heads and cymbals.

Moving up to a true 192kHz/24-bit recording things go from extremely good to WOW. I'm lucky, a good friend of mine, Jon Ver Halen of Lowther America got permission for me to receive the 192/24 masters of several recordings from View Point Records. First up is Kat Edmonson (Master Tape rip), another female vocalist with that tiny voice styling. This particular album was mixed by none other than industry legend Al Schmitt the 19-time Grammy winning producer and engineer (think Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Chris Botti, Michael Buble, and Diana Krall). These recordings are done on tape and then converted to 24/192 and my-oh-my are they tasty.

As I listen, the amount of micro detail that comes through is really impressive. With this detail come several things. First is pinpoint placement. When you get your hands on a quality recording such as this one, the images of the performers are rock solid and perfectly proportioned. Next is depth of stage. One thing I've noticed is as detail goes up, depth and width of stage increases also. Everything is simply far more natural sounding. As an example on Angel Eyes, the sound of the brushes on the drum kit and cymbals are soft and delicate as they are when you hear them in an acoustic setting. The same can be said about the leading edge of notes, especially percussion instruments. On later cuts, the quick crack of the snare drum sounds far more ‘live' when you are listening to 192/24. I honestly believe it's due to the increased detail provided by this format. The only other time I've experienced as ‘live' sounding recorded music is with a good vinyl rig. You just can't get this experience from 44.1/16.

Next up is some Jimmy Cobb from his Jazz in the Key of Blue release (SACD rip). If you aren't familiar with Jimmy Cobb (drummer, think Miles), he is always assembling some of the best names in jazz to play on a given release. This particular album has Jimmy on bass, Roy Hardgrove on trumpet/flugelhorn, Russel Malone on guitar and finally John Webber on bass.

This particular release of reinterpretation of standards has a very distinctive ‘feel' to the album. It's slow and beautifully melodic. This High Resolution version is absolutely breathtaking. This 192/24 format gives us the dynamic headroom to accurately portray what real music sounds like. One particular phrase of Roy Hardgrove's on With You I'm Born Again he snaps out a series of notes that are translated by the Fusion3 as if he is standing right in front of you. I've never heard these Aperions react like this to a source before. It is hauntingly real not to mention stunningly beautiful rendition of this song.

 

The Sounds Of 16 Bit Versus 24 Bit
Let me first say that I don't have a huge 24 bit collection of music but on the same hand it's not too bad either. I've got about 200gig (about 1700 songs) of Hi-Rez music on my server. It's a fair mix of rock, jazz and classical with the majority leaning towards classical and jazz. As I've mentioned earlier, I've ripped a few from DVD-Audio and also converted a few of my HDCDs from 16bit to 24 bit. The sampling rates vary wildly from 48kHz to 88.2kHz to 96kHz. As I run through a few selections of music that (hopefully) should be familiar to you, I'll o my best to describe the differences in the presentation of the higher bitrate.

First up is Chris Isaak's Speak of the Devil. This particular cut is from an HDCD at a 20/44,100 bit rate. Anybody that has tried to listen to this on a reasonably resolute system knows just how awful it sounds. What are ruined on this recording are Chris' vocals. When he breaks into the chorus and sings "pleeeease" there's this nasty digitized sound that screeches from the speakers on the 16 bit version of the song. On the 24 (20) bit version of the song the digititus when he sings "Pleeease" is far less pronounced.

Next up is Jamie Cullum's High and Dry from the Twentysomething release. This one is ripped from a DVDA at an 24/88200 sampling rate The first thing leaps out at you when you compare the two bit rates is the fact of how much more relaxed the 24 bit recording sounds. The soundstage takes a huge leap backwards. By huge, I'm talking four to six feet. Then you find that the focus becomes razor sharp compared to the 16 bit version. Just to give you an idea, the drummer for the track plays a very simple rhythm. He is playing the hi-hat and then doing double hits on three successively larger floor toms. On the 16 bit recording you get some minor semblance that the drums were recorded on a simple stereo pair of overhead mics. You hear a very minor center to left pan on the floor toms with the hi-hat being a hard right pan. In that mix, the final tom hits end up being hard left and coming obviously from the left speaker. All of this is almost in a flat plane even with the rear of the speakers. When you compare the 24 bit recording, everything about the depth and positioning within the soundstage changes. The hi-hat is now clearly focused about one foot inside of the left speaker cabinet and about three feet behind the speaker. The tom hits now begin about one foot right of center and finish about two feet inside the left speaker plus the toms appear to be about eight feet behind the speaker. Huge difference.

On Eric Clapton and BB King's release Riding With The King, 3 O'Clock in the Morning (88.2/24) shows even more differences. Besides the similarities I mentioned before, on the Redbook version the bass seems to be much more pronounced. Besides being bigger and fuzzier (those are technical terms BTW) the bass fills out more than half the soundstage. It's almost as if there are two or three bass stacks that are lined up across the back of the stage. In addition the forwardness of Eric and BB's guitars and vocals on the 16 bit versions absolutely ruin the illusion of this being a Live studio recording. The 24 bit version is considerably more relaxed and expansive sounding. In the decay of both guitars you can actually hear the reverberance of the recording studio. On the 16 bit version that hollowness is lost.

The last up is YoYo Ma and Emmanual Ax's performance of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19 – IV Allegro mosso-Moderato-Vivace (48/24). This one is considerably tougher to distinguish the differences... but there are differences, they just aren't as pronounced. The biggest differences I'm hearing are the low level details. On the 24 bit version the instruments have a fuller presentation and are more harmonically correct. In addition, the instruments have a tighter focus presenting a smaller but more realistic image.

Ok, while I'm at it, I may as well throw in some Nine Inch Nails for good measure. Yes, unlike most self respecting writers, I regularly listen to NIN and Dream Theater and Wolfmother and Pantera and… Anyway, I ripped The Downward Spiral (Halo 08, yes I have them all). As weird as the track is, Eraser serves as a great track to show off just how large a soundstage can be. The girl moaning on the opening of the rack has her vocals being heavily manipulated (phasing) which tosses the vocals four to six feet outside of the plane of the speakers on the 16 bit recording. On the 24 bit recording the vocals go out another two to three feet, solid. Again, the speakers further disappear, everything becomes easier to listen too including the heavily distorted guitars.

Ultimately, 24 bit files simply sound better than their 16 bit counterparts. If I can use a visual analogy, think of 16 bit files as VCR tapes on an old tubed 32" TV, where 24 bit files are like a Blu-ray disc on a 63" Samsung Plasma. The differences are huge.

 

The Good, The Bad and The Unexplained
This one other commonality between the 16 and 24 bit recordings. Along with the soundstage on the 16 bit recordings being up front and ‘in yer face' so to speak, the compression level seems to be considerably higher. It's almost as if the 16 bit recording is not only louder but the low level detail has been ramped up and has been gated. This is more than a bit mystifying to me when you consider it sounds this way on HDCDs. I can clearly hear this on a DVD-Audio as it is the same recording with a completely different mix for (typically) five channel and the digitized music is on the flip side of the Redbook issue. An HDCD contains four extra bits of depth (20bits) over the Redbook standard (16bits). The HDCD is the exact same mix and recording and the Rebook. So why the (seeming) compression on the Redbook version? This is one I have no explanation for but it exists and you'll hear it if and when you get into higher resolution audio and start doing your own comparisons.

 

Availability of Hi-Rez Material
HDCD
There is no doubt after reading all of this you are wondering to yourself, where the heck is all the HiRez material so we can take advantage of this emerging technology? Well, let's start with the simplest and easiest first. Back in the 90's studios started using a higher definition technology called HDCD. Like all technologies, the studio has to license it to use the HDCD tag on the outer cover of the CDs. Doing a quick (and inaccurate) count of the old HDCD.net webpage found at Archive.org gives me about 3000 titles that were recorded in HDCD. HDCD is actually has 20 bit word length at 48k depth rather than a true 192/24 file. When you convert these with DB Poweramp (more later on that) it shows up as a 24bit file, it's not, it's 20 bit. All that said, a 20 bit file sounds considerably better than its 16 bit counterpart. It is far more natural sounding and musical.

Now, just because you don't see the HDCD tag on your CD cover doesn't necessarily mean that the disc wasn't recorded at 20 bit resolution. Many of those remasters available say "20 Bit Remaster" on the cover, and they are just that. Your 16 bit player simply tosses those extra four bits of detail to the wind. Only if you have a player that decodes those extra four bits of info can you get that extra detail.

DVD-A and Dual Disc
As most of us remember, DVD-A and Dual Disc were pretty short lived. They came and went in the early 2000s. Though DVD-A could do word lengths of 24bit at depths of 192kHz, the majority took advantage of the 5.1 surround format which limited it to 96/24. That is perfectly Ok. Again when you use a program like DVD-Audio Explorer (free) you can rip the two channel audio from any DVD-Audio or Dual Disc. As I understand, recent versions of Nero do the same thing and that may be helpful as there are quite a number of concert DVDs that are quite good.

As for the total count of DVD-Audio and Dual Discs that were produced, your guess is as good as mine. Let me refer you to the website DVD4Music.com where they have an entire category of DVD-Audio. At 16 titles per page and 66 pages, that works out to just over a thousand additional Hi-Rez Sources.

 

SACD
SACDs are quite a bit trickier. As some are aware, CDs and DVDs are a PCM stream that can be decoded by a traditional DAC. SACDs are a DSD stream and a standard DAC can't decode it. Well, it just so happens that recently a new product has hit the market that takes the DSD stream from your HDMI output of a universal player or SACD player and de-embeds it into a recordable format WAV format on your PC or MAC. Now, this is a huge PITA. Why? Because you have to record this stream in real time. Then, once it is on your hard drive you need to take a WAV editing program, chop it up into tracks and then add all the META tags (artist, album, track number, song, etc.). After that, you then can convert it to a FLAC file if you wish to save some drive space. The good news is SACD isn't quite dead yet. There are still a number of labels that are producing SACDs on a regular basis. Most of these are Classical and Jazz artists you've never heard of but that's ok, it's still source material. That said, SACD had a fairly nice run and there are quite a number of ‘mainstream' titles released in SACD format. Me, I didn't get rid of my old SACDs. In fact, in the past year I've been adding to the collection. YourMusic.com has a modest collection of Rock SACDs and I've picked up most of them for like $7 each. Just guessing (and it is a pure guess), I'd bet that there are well over 5000 SACD titles available out there. That means you have a really nice selection of music to choose from.

Oh, one last thing, we don't want to forget that BluRay is coming online fast and furious. There we have the opportunity to rip the music tracks off in 192/24 also. Google this term "HDMI de-embedder", the Atlona product should be one of the first hits that pop up. It's about $250. I'd grab one quick before Sony figures out what we are going to use them for and sues the life out of Atlona.

 

Online Sources
Well here we have the usual suspects like HDtracks. I'm not going to try to list all of them as there are too many little independent labels that offer Hi-Rez downloads of their stable. I'll just catch the highlights. David Chesky and HDTracks offers downloads of 192/24 material. They probably have 1500 titles to choose from in a variety of genres. The Chesky Records website (proper) understands that Hi-Rez is on its way into the mainstream and is now offering several titles under his umbrella that are either 96/24 or 192/24.

ClassicRecords.com offers a nice variety of what they term DAD 24/96 and their true HiRez HDAD 24/192. Right now they have about 90 offerings but as this format (192/24) picks up steam, I've no doubt Mike Hobson is going to start offering more with each new release.

HighDefTapeTransfers.com offers a nice selection of classical releases in both 96/24 and 192/24 format. Just guessing, they have north of one hundred offerings. I have some of these and they are quite good.

There are scads of others like B&W speakers, Linn, Reference Recordings, Unipheye, Soundkeeper and others that have plenty of titles to offer. No doubt as 192/24 gains ground, more and more labels will offer them for download.

 

Picking Nits
My extended time with the Fusion3 gave me lots of time to become really familiar with this unit. I've racked my brain trying to come up with something I could pick at but honest to goodness, I can't find anything. Granted, the visuals of the unit are relatively Spartan but I don't see that as a drawback. I can't fault the sound at all. She doesn't put off excessive heat, doesn't make loud humming noises or pop when you turn it on and off. The price? This thing is a bargain at twice the price. She's a ‘keeper' by any standard.

So...

In the end I have to say I am wholly impressed with the sound and performance of the Fusion3. Sure, if I were looking for an integrated I might want to have a few extra watts at my disposal but honestly, this didn't deter from my being simply awestruck with the sound. Besides, there are plenty of great speakers that are 90+dB/W/m sensitive that you can mate with the Fusion3. Personally, I'd love to hear a pair of Audio Note AN-J or Es behind the Fusion3. I'd bet that would make one heck of a nice pairing.

With the couple of Aperion speaker combinations I put together, I've never heard either of the Aperions perform better with any piece of gear before. I honestly didn't think they were up to the task when I first accepted the Fusion3 for review. Boy was I wrong. After fiddling a bit with placement, these reasonably priced speakers absolutely came alive behind the Fusion3. They were big, bold and natural which is a huge testament to Brian and his ability to build such a fine sounding integrated. The Fusion is as clean and transparent of sounding amp/DAC combination as I've experienced, including my Welborne 300B DRDs.

Although the Fusion3 uses a power opamp, it doesn't sound solid state(ish) in the least. I'm not a big fan of solid state gear but this is one piece I could easily live with if I were looking to downsize and simplify my system. The Fusion3 has plenty of current drive to handle reasonable speaker loads down to 4 ohms. She has plenty of balls to handle the lower registers topped off with loads of finesse to accurately reproduce the delicate highs.

As a DAC to play my 44.1/16 files, I have to say that the Fusion3 has really impressed me. With the 8x oversampling that takes place within the BB 1793 DAC chip I don't hear the harshness that I have with other up and over samplers. I can only attribute the clean sound to less noise shaping unlike some "Hi-Rez" DAC chips that use up to 128x oversampling. When it comes to the level of detail on the 192/24 recordings, it is simply astonishing for digital. As you listen, it's almost as if you aren't listening to a recording. Simply put, the sound I'm getting from the Fusion3 is as good as some of my 45rpm recordings on my vinyl rig. Personally, I'm sold on the format. In turn, I've asked Brian Cherry of DIY HiFiSupply.com to send me the stand alone Cleo 192/24 tubed DAC to play with in my reference system. I can't wait to get it run in and start listening to the Hi-Rez material I've been collecting. I can only imagine how well it's going to perform in my SET/open baffle rig.

At $1695 plus shipping, this truly is a screamin' deal. You won't find a better sounding integrated anywhere near this price, if at all. To top it off you get a great sounding, high resolution DAC. Bottom line... I can't recommend this piece highly enough if you happen to be in the market for an integrated. It really is something quite special. I will miss it.

 

My Ratings
Please keep in mind this rating system is used to compare the Fusion3 against absolute perfection, or a money no object DAC/integrated. If you see what you think may be a low(ish) score, it's because there are cartridge designs that are even more refined but consequently cost considerably more. To top that off, if I assign 5's across the board, I've just painted myself into a corner leaving no room for that ‘ultimate' DAC/integrated. You won't see me handing out many 5's. In turn, I feel I need to leave room in the ratings system to accommodate those units.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear  
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Stereo integrated tube amplifier with DAC
Inputs: Four stereo RCA an one USB
DAC: Asynchronous up to 192kHz with Tube Output (one 6922)
Wattage: 50 WPC at 8ohms (80WPC at 4 ohms, 25WPC at 16ohms)
Speaker Loading: MINIMUM 4 ohm load
Voltage: 120/240 volt 50/60Hz (specify when ordering)
Weight: 22 lbs.
Chassis: 70 x 300 x 320mm
Price: $1695 + shipping

 

Company Information
DIY Hifi Supply Ltd. 
Workshop 1, 8F, Wah Lai Industrial Center, 
10-14 Kwei Tei Road
Shatin (Fotan), NT
Hong Kong

Voice: (852) 3152-3576 
Fax : (852) 3428-5915
Website: www.DIYHiFiSupply.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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