Product: Glass FX Tube DAC DSD WiFi, and F159 Phono Tube Pre-amplifier
Manufacturer: Black Ice Audio (formerly Jolida) - Maryland (USA)
Prices: The prices shown below are for USA sales by selected dealers. Overseas sales are direct with Black Ice Audio and will be subject to shipping charges and local taxes. (Currency conversion)
Reviewer: Richard Varey - TNT New Zealand
Reviewed: July, 2019
This is part 3 of my investigation of the Black Ice Audio range of tube-based components. Next into my system was the Glass FX Tube DAC DSD WiFi (US$ 800). This fairly small but substantial box (203 x 178 x 76 mm, 3.4 Kg) amplifies the analogue signal exclusively via 12AX7 high gain dual triode vacuum tubes. It plays PCM up to 32-Bit/384 kHz and DSD64/DSD128, using an asynchronous Burr Brown Chip AD1896 and PCM 1795 DAC Chip. It also incorporates an R Style transformer, which, essentially, does not have any wire winding but is an iron core, ceramic unit. The design consideration is lower noise and a lower noise threshold, as well as consistent manufacture, and I'm told they are very reliable. This DAC delivers a dynamic range of 126 dB from the ultra linear Class AB circuit using 12AX7 tubes. There's a headphone output. The case is metal with a glass top, and the tubes are exposed on the right side, partly to dissipate heat. A feature I really like is the input switching, which is neat, both colloquially and practically. It's simple to switch between USB, CD (coax), Toslink, and Wi-Fi inputs. I'm less enamoured with the rubber feet, which are too small and have made ring marks on my shelf. It needs bigger isolating feet. And I would change the small knob for a larger Aluminium type that feels right.
Right now I'm feeling like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. You see I'm listening to high-resolution music files played from external hard drives attached to my Windows 10 PC with JRiver Media Center 25 through the Black Ice Audio valve DAC and FX10 integrated valve amplifier. And it all makes my recorded music sound lovely. Oh yes, I'm grinning over this superb combo. The Owner's Manual states that the designers aimed for sonic purity and musical accuracy, high value (performance to price ratio), and reliability exceeding that of a solid state unit. I've used a succession of external DACs, including Cambridge DACMagic, Lite DAC-AH Modified, Styleaudio CARAT Peridot, and SoTM. Finally, this is the one that presents my music with most realism and musicality.
I then turned my attention to my record library, and connected the newly arrived Black Ice Audio F159 Phonograph Tube Pre-amplifier (US$ 1,499) into my system. This is the new Foz Phono Stage. It's the 159th iteration of Jim Fosgate's design, resulting in innovative handling of tiny signals, big gain, and equalisation. Foz tells me it's a simple, no compromise circuit. It also corrects for cartridge axial tilt up to seven degrees, and eliminates cartridge crosstalk.
I've done it again! In the course of reviewing audio products, I occasionally find truly outstanding enhancements to my listening pleasure. This preamp is such a product. My records never sounded so interesting, alive, and not like listening to a record playing. I just want to play more. And I'm reminded just how good records can sound.
It's a substantial unit (432 x 305 x 89 mm, 8.1 Kg), with a heli-arc welded steel chassis and circuit layout optimised for sonic purity. The valves are 6DJ8 and 6922 dual triodes, the latter being visible through a glass-fronted window. It has two gain settings (40 dB at 'low', 60 dB at 'high', switchable, both at 1 kHz, with 47 KΩ input). The azimuth and crosstalk adjustment can be switched in and out. Cartridge loading is set with a potentiometer and a three-way toggle switch. It can be adjusted on-the-fly whilst playing a record and assessing the resulting sound quality by ear. The noise floor, even in the high gain operation, is -70 dB on a 10 Ω input. Frequency response with RIAA equalisation is 250 Hz-20 kHz, with distortion of 0.05% at 1 kHz 1 V RMS output.
This unit is unusual in my experience in that it accommodates and serves both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges on a single input. Most phono preamps drive either moving coil or moving magnet, or are dual units with two separate inputs or switching between different circuits. Loading is either fixed or switchable between predetermined settings (some allow swapping in and out of discrete resistors). The F159 is better, as it allows adjustment of the cartridge loading across a wide range of resistance (10 Ω to 47 kΩ). This loading damps the cartridge to avoid detrimental effects from the electro-acoustic transducer, and influences the pre-amplifier's noise and frequency response. Optimal setting of the loading mitigates against glare, thin midrange, and bloated bass, to deliver smooth extended highs, rich midrange, and tight bass. This degree of adjustability is a very significant feature of this unit, as it provides for matching to and tailoring response from many cartridges. By experimenting through the range of loading, I was able to experience dull, lifeless, blurred, coarse, through to vivid, exciting, refined, crisp and clear sound image.
The guys at Black Ice Audio told me to run-in the unit for 300 hours. It already sounds fabulously engaging after 30 hours, so I'm in for a treat over the next few weeks, it seems. My first impression is standout detail resolution and dynamics - drama, weight/solidity, and delicacy with layers of parts and textures. When reading reviews, I've wondered what "holographic soundstage" meant. I now know how a holographic sonic image sounds. The soundscape is dimensional and nuanced. Records I've heard many times over 50+ years sound refreshed - exciting, engaging. There are clear, often subtle, layers of previously unnoticed detail coming at me from every disc. The music is sounding not merely loud but big and full bodied with nuance. Records have always been a physical mediator between myself and distant and exotic people, places, and events. Listening to favourite recordings reproduced with the F159 feels like they are much closer than ever before.
This unit has built-in azimuth correction and crosstalk reduction that I previously auditioned (the XT-R stand-alone unit). You even get Jim Fosgate's signature visible on the circuit board!
The design aim was extended highs, tight bass, and a rich mid-range. That's exactly what I hear - substantially better detail resolution, bass weight, image solidity and depth - producing a delightful sonic experience. I was able to compare this with several other phono stages, all solid state, and I prefer the valve sound.
Recently I've been able to audition the new Nash from M2Tech, The Vinyl from QHW Audio, and the supraFono from Etalon Acoustics, along with the Lounge Audio LCR Mk III and Copla. The F159 Foz phono stage is different. It has tubes. It's also the one that best produces a big solid dynamic stereo image. Of the several Black Ice Audio products I've now had the great pleasure of auditioning, this is the big star. I've never really been totally satisfied with my record playing, and was convinced I would need to move to a herculean machine with mega-price tag. I now realise that the phono stage is the key. What I now hear is just superbly engaging and rich across the whole image. At last, my record playing doesn't feel like a weak link in my music listening system. I stopped noting the records I was playing for this review, and just enjoyed the music! The F159 is now my go-to phono stage.
In the final part of my current auditioning project, a multi-function tube pre-amplifier with some unusual features is put through its paces.
© 2019 Richard Varey - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com