• Three strikes and you're in? If the topic were Sino brand Soundaware and my review triptych of them, you'd be in if just one writeup described a piece which teased all of your hot buttons. As a companion review to their D300Ref and MR1/P1, we'll spare ourselves the leafy-green niceties and head straight for the red meat. Soundaware headline the A300 as a "PCM & DSD integrated network streaming music player". To that we add the optional class A/B headamp with up to 30V on its 4-pin XLR. Either way, there's a linear power supply with Noratel toroidal transformer, 40'000μF of Nichicon filter caps and "high-capacity ultra-low ESR filter materials". Further on noise reduction, the analog gain block and the clock for the custom-coded FPGAits firmware controls Bluetooth APTX, AirPlay and digital volume, locks to two femto clocks for the 44.1/48kHz sample-rate families and outputs I2S/DSDare shielded by a copper/nickel/zinc alloy plate whilst the transformer and PCB get 5mm electroplating. An XMOS chip handles USB data whilst an integral SD card reader processes up to 265GB cards formatted in FAT32, EXFAT or NTFS just like the twin 500mA USB ports. Those can read up to 2TB of single-partition USB storage (no limits for HDD/SSD). Such sources make for an off-line server for locally hosted music which is then navigated with the basic built-in display. Other music sources will be networked via RJ45 and could come from sundry external drives. A 24/96 Toslink and 24/192 coaxial input handle further digital sources like CD/DVD players. To act as reclocker, USB bridge or digital transport, three digital 24/192 outputs offer 5V AES/EBU, 0.5V coax and Toslink whilst the internal CS4398 mono DACs output variable signal on 2.6V/5.2V RCA/XLR analog. Incoming file support is for ISO/DSF DSD128, .wav., .flac, .ape, .alac, .aiff, .aac and .mp3. Outgoing data density is up to 32/192 PCM and DSD64 via DoP. All of it fits into a 43x20x8.8cm WxDxH chassis that weighs 7kg. Finish options are black or silver.

    For specifications on XLR, there's a published THD+N of 0.0006%, dynamic range of 118dB and residual noise of -135dB. For bulging headphone muscle, there's 1.5wpc into 32Ω, 1.75wpc into 200Ω and still 0.8wpc into 300Ω. For vegetables with the meat, there's a 16GB SD card, a power cord and a branded remote control. Now we're fully plated up. Served.

    Under the cover, 3/4th are taken up by a black motherboard, 1/4th is the linear power supply behind a metal partition.

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    Between the metal-clad modules we spot the dual-mono Cirrus Logic converter chips. More processor chips for sundry functions live on a double-decker board adjacent to the femto clocks and custom-coded FPGA. Other parts include these voltage regulator IC. the Molex SD car slot, assorted caps with a parting shot at the remaining capacitors and relays. The A300's full width but half depth makes it easier on the desktop where it cansacrilege but eminently practicaldouble as monitor stand. With rubber bumpers on the footer of my HP Z34c screen to not scratch its surface, I did exactly that. Proper Windows protocol for my work station meant installing a USB Audio 2.0 driver. Afterwards I could set the A300 as default playback device in the Win7 Sound window and stream wired Qobuz, Tidal and Spotify to bypass WiFi. 

    Having already taken pix of various A300 screen modes, here are a few to get familiar with Soundaware's UI. For volume, the hard chassis controls exploit dual coding for the back/lower and next/louder cluster buttons. A short press hops tracks, a long press momentarily brings up the volume readout to adjust 0-100 in individual full steps. This can also be done via remote.

    Menu options include display brightness and black-out modes, playing from SD/NFS/USB media, source select, network settings, slow/fast DAC filters, shuffle/repeat and more which the manual details out. The display is very legible, the interface basic but intuitive thus easy to manoeuvre. In USB Audio or Hifi Bluetooth modes, it goes static to just show the USB or Bluetooth symbol. When playing from SD/USB media, it shows album artist, album and track names, track number, file format and sample/bit rates as well as play mode. 

    Because the A300 has no fast scroll, one clicks through folder trees one item at a time. Users of loaded SD cards might drag multiple album folders by the same artist into a shared master folder. With hundreds of entries, this does speed things up but presupposes that one still owns music. Now the full-colour GUI of Spotify & Co. becomes your PC/tablet/phone access portal and you'll black out the A300's display altogether. This also wipes out a justifiable complaint of lack of cover art for USB/SD local media without smartphone remote. As it had with the D300Ref, Bluetooth pairing was straightforward without password secret code. My 1962 brain just can't tolerate such strong 2.4GHz Bluetooth microwave radiation. The vast majority of course seem impervious. They'll happily mount the A300's WiFi antenna and listen to music over the air. It works without a hitch and should be a great socializer when visitors come over. They can instantly share their favourite tunes off their smartphones. 

    What I'd already said about the sonic progression from Soundaware's portable M1 to MR1 in the flagship DAP's review replayed itself for my A280/A300 face-off. Unlike its brighter display, the older machine was a bit warmer, softer and settled. It behaved quite as though it processed mild tube emulator code for a tick of 2nd-order triode enhancement. This year's machine played it snappier, more incisive in general and just a tick heavier in the bass. Interestingly, particularly the more lit-up informative treble impression held when I changed hardware to include a COS D1 DAC and compare A280/A300 in pure digital transport mode. If you thought that the digital domain was impervious to improvements because bits are bits, you'd have been surprised. It suggested that Soundaware's focus had shifted to more subjective resolution via higher transient speed and sparkle and away from the slightly more romantic voicing of the precursors. Percussive elements peeled out more to increase sharpness. By the same token, the calmer rounder presentation of the older unit had moved into the foreground a more cohesive rather than maximally teased-out picture.

    As it always does, it gave the soundstaging/imaging edge to the A300. Higher separation equals higher localization specificity. That's the core quality which 'seeing type' listeners rely upon. It's immaterial that live music doesn't feature it to that degree. Stereo playback is a different experience. Unlike video, it eliminates real visuals. Intensified playback soundstaging now fills in data which our ear/brain uses to virtually scan the sonic imagery. That gives back to us blind replay listeners a sense of sight. If you're the type who attends a live concert eyes closed, you probably place a lesser value on this. You probably focus more on tone density, colour saturation and togetherness. You don't (want to) hear a symphonic string section as 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 celli and 8 double basses. You hear them as one enormous breathing organism that expands and contracts. If that's you, the A280 would feel closer. If you prioritize separation, the A300. Encapsulated in this difference was a sense of subjective distance. Just like being inside a crowd has you see less than standing apart, greater seeing can increase a sense of distance. Feeling more immersed equals closer or more intimate. Thus the A300 threw the subjectively greater depth. As a pure digital transport, it overshadowed the A280 particularly in treble illumination and micro detail.

    Still in the above scenario, to explore direct drive versus preamp intercession, I used COS Engineering D1's analog inputs off the Soundaware's matching XLR outputs; and the D1's coaxial input off the Soundaware's S/PDIF output. Despite the non-critical nature of my listening in this space where appropriate SPL imply plenty of signal cut, analog volume control with a formal preamp sounded plainly fuller and juicier. I'd expect that to equalize above ~60-70 on the A300's FPGA-driven digital attenuator. I operated it in its low 30s There it got demonstrably lossy. Given the Job 225's stout voltage gain, anything higher simply was well beyond the pale. Comparing DACs meanwhilethat of Soundaware in the analog-out scenario, the COS in the digital-out versionthe sonic offset was marginal. To accurately gauge the A300's conversion mettle, it'd have to move into the big system. In the nearfield of this setup's lower levels and smaller-scale more intimate type music appropriate for it, the A300's DAC was so close to the far costlier Taiwanese that attempting any blow-by-blow comparisons would have split hairs. And there's no relevance in that. 

    CD, SD & USB. If you're hazy on the first two, they're short for compact disc and secure digital, two forms of physical media. Why did quaint CD enter this picture? Because a proper transport like Jay's Audio 1'650 CDT2 MkII sending down analog square waves representing 1s and 0s to a DAC of your choice via AES/EBU remains the standard to which USB must aspire. Recent experiments with the Jay's and Métronome's 12'800 first-ever SACD player/transport proved that 'aspire' is the operative word. Spin down a computer hard-drive with a software player like Audirvana or PureMusic. It reads an entire album into random access flash memory. Forward this now buffered no longer whirring data from your Mac/PC to the same DAC via USB. Compare to CD. USB will be handily beaten. To minimize this offset requires servers of 6'000 LampizatOr SuperKomputer or 13'000 Lumin X calibre. If that seems unnecessarily exclusive, you could match CD performance with basic memory cards. True, it requires to actually own your music, not stream it off the cloud. That arcane fact just disqualified SD card as a music delivery medium for 95%+ of the public. Oops.
    But... if you're the exception to own locally stored files and want to hear them at their best, drag'n'drop them to SD card, then hear them through a dedicated transport like the A300. Whilst any PC with a USB slot reads an SD card through a little adaptor, it doesn't eliminate the computer's noise, redundant threads and their constant loading on its OS from the equation. Playing SD from the A300 nixes all that. Even though Soundaware's GUI for SD play is a far cry from the slickness of Roon or even iTunes because you must scan through a library's folder list just as you would with a digital audio player, that's a small price to pay if sound quality is your religion. That price is certainly a lot lower than one of those tricked-out computers which masquerade as audiophile servers. Those invariably rely on network integration. That exposes your sound to the deleterious effects of consumer-grade routers and network switches. Those effects must then be suppressed with Ethernet-to-fibre converters to create optical isolation. If you don't connect the A300's RJ45 port, all of that misery is MIA. Just pop in an SD card, use the infrared remote to navigate its contents, black out the display to go full-on tweak and voilà: top-quality physical media sound to which USB must aspire because it won't easily reach it.

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    The above shows my hifi-sleuth evidence. At left, Métronome's AQWO. It shook hands with the A300 via a Chris Sommovigo Tombo Tr?n S/PDIF cable. HifiMan's very inefficient Susvara planars sang like the fat lady on 70 out of a 100 with headroom to spare. The iMac connected through PureMusic 3.0.9c via a red KingRex double-header USB leash. The Métronome spun silver discs, the Apple their aiff rips. Only when the same aiff file played off the A300's SD card was the sound quality on par with CD. Against USB, the 'CD is dead' standard was the obviously more dense, full, saturated and layered even with Audirvana's 64-bit upsampler for aiff assist. That was no slight on Soundaware's USB implementation. The same outcome had factored for Aqua's flagship Formula DAC and others of its calibre. USB off a PC/Mac simply comes in a distant second to physical CD spun on a superior transport. To compensate for USB's shortcomings, SD is the cheap and convenient solution. If you opt for micro cards inside their adaptor blank, they'll swap straight to a portable player or smartphone. 50 will get you 128GB. That's close to the storage capacity of a classic iPod. If you want to hear the A300 at its very best, that's the way to go. It's exactly how I use its companion D300Ref. That's the pure transport version without headphone amp but with a super-capacitor power supply à la Vinnie Rossi, Gryphon and Nagra. For me, SD is shorthand for superior digits. Using the D300Ref as a very fancy USB bridgeUSB in, AES/EBU outis how our iMac/Audirvana now competes directly against the 6000-12'000 server brigade without requiring a WiFi tablet or any networking. Because the A300 too has Toslink, coax and AES/EBU digital outs, it will do the same job within perhaps 85% of the D300Ref whilst adding a full-blown DAC and optional balanced headphone amp.

    For a well-known DAC reference at a similar price, enter AURALiC's original 3'300 Vega, a favourite of its time with reviewers everywhere. It received A300 SD-sourced digits via Allnic's Z3000 AES/EBU leash. Both DACs hit the Wyred4Sound preamp balanced. As a head amp, Kinki Studio's 690 Vision THR-1 stood in for the competition at large. Solitary headphone referees were HifiMan's challenging Susvara. If a headfi socket excels on those, it'll drive anything. First, the big system of LinnenberG Liszt monos driving Audio Physic Codex 4-ways. Having forgotten to restore the A300 to fixed gain after a prior headphone round, I just then thought nothing yet of having to trim the Vega's gain quite substantially to match. In this constellation, the difference between converters was plainly about tint and texturing. The Vega was golden, the A300 silverish. The Vega was more fruity, moist and present/forward; the A300 more dry, separated out and distant/deep. If one called the Vega more lush, the A300 would have been the teetotaler. Once I recognized my error and set the A300 to fixed gain which now equalled the Vega's, this difference, poof, evaporated. With matched tint and textures, now the A300 simply exhibited a bit more treble detail and decay action. This was a second reminder for how beyond a certain threshold, digital-domain attenuation already dries out before it gets flatter and chalkier, then outright lossy. At 2'340 without headamp but including all the rest (SD, WiFi, Bluetooth, DLNA streaming), the A300 was clearly the costlier older Vega's equal whilst throwing higher resolution into the deal.

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    How about the optional 510 balanced headamp? This A/B connected the Kinki via single-ended Crystal cable since it's a pure single-ended circuit. Each time I listened to it, I switched the A300 to fixed gain to avoid penalizing its colleague with inferior signal. Users operating Soundaware's volume a lot could wish that a longer press started moving things along. Alas, each press equals just one solitary step. To rush from 50 to 80 means 30 very twitchy clicks (no challenge for career text messengers). This juxtaposition revolved around the sonics of op-amps vs discrete lateral Exicon Mosfets, feedback vs none or certainly less. The Kinki was clearly more fluffy, soft, aerated, buoyant, expansive and minorly warm. The A300 was tighter, crisper, more damped, cooler and about focus and precision sorting rather than billowy elasticity. This teeter-totter had virtual direct-heated triodes on one end, pentodes on the other. Because the A300 stayed well clear of how our Nord Acoustics nCore-500 based class D power amps push that particular aesthetic to its extreme, I suspect most listeners would have split right down the middle . On total gain, I thought the A300 had higher reserves but I couldn't max out either.

    A for ace. That's what one EU manufacturer recently called "unfair advantage". It was accompanied by "I'm very disappointed". He referred to my ongoing thumbs-up coverage of quality Chinese gear with its innate edge on manufacturing cost. He prefers that I gave it a wide berth. Clearly the A300 plays the same card. With its slicked-up cosmetics over the precursor, added features and the option to include a very potent balanced headphone amp all for less than 3'000, such a sell price wouldn't be possible with EU origins. At present, this also means non-existing EU distribution and low resale value where established competitors hit hard with those add-ons which nobody calls unfair. If you're squarely focused on the most hardware for your euro or pound, today's A300 definitely merits your attention. If you want name recognition, dealer representation plus high resale value, you'll want to sit it out for a few years. By then pricing will have climbed to pay for such non-hardware niceties.

    To reiterate, the A300 is a DAC, SD card transport, USB bridge and network streamer. It's WiFi/Bluetooth compatible, supports native DSD and is a fully balanced circuit with defeatable digital volume by FPGA. It's ruggedly built, minimalist handsome and sonically competitive. At present, the GUI remains basic but intuitive. Firmware is easily upgraded with a simple protocol. On that count, I'll petition for a fast-scan function of volume up/down via long press; 24/192 support for alac/aiff; and album art from SD cards without a network connection and tablet remote running a 3rd-party app like Bubble UPNP or 8player. Major personal kudos for the inclusion of a card reader which outside Soundaware we previously only saw with Resonessence. SD cards are a cost-effective solution for top-quality playback of locally hosted files without WiFi radiation, network access, computers or USB improver boxes. When fitted with the headamp circuit, the A300 makes for a reference-grade nightstand system that'll drive HifiMan Susvara planars to perfection, no extra components required. The same goes for an advanced desktop system where the A300 will drive active speakers. Despite Ken Kessler's gloomy predictions for our industry, when it comes to the bewildering amount of choices we as hifi punters enjoy today, we're surely living in a Golden Age of hifi hardware.




    A300 Review by Srajan-6moons

    2019-01-09
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