[ Home | Staff & Contacts | DIY & Tweaks | Listening tests | HiFi Playground | Music & Books ]

Aqua La Voce - DAC kit

[La Voce - DAC]

Old Technology with a Big Voice

[Italian version]

Product name: La Voce
Manufacturer: Aqua - Acoustic Quality - Italy
Cost: From €280 depending on DAC option (YMMV)

Reviewer: Mike Cox - TNT UK
Reviewed: March, 2011

My audio journey with the La Voce started before I joined the TNT Audio team, I purchased the DAC then wrote about it as my example review to join TNT Audio. I have since revised and expanded this review to include more thoughts on the sound quality so please excuse the different style compared with regular reviews.

Digital audio has been part of my audio replay system since the early days in the 1980s. There have been various “upgrades" over the years following the tradition of transport and DAC. A year or so back I moved the source to a PC and now an Apple MAC, I like the ability to browse all my music from the comfort of my chair. For a while I have felt that the DAC could be improved on so started looking at options. There is a lot of marketing speak from the various suppliers trying to differentiate their particular DAC from the rest, a necessity as under the hood they mostly use the same small number of DAC chip sets. One of the few exceptions is DCS with their ring DAC technology, but at a price available to only a select few.

In December 2010 I came across Aqua - Acoustic Quality (AAQ) and their new DAC kit. What makes this different and interesting is the user can choose which DAC technology to use from a selection of 3 with, I believe, more to follow. At the moment the choices are the TDA1541 reviewed here, the Analog Devices AD1965 and the Burr Brown PCM1704. As an introduction you can also get the DAC with the TDA1543. When I ordered my kit there was was no option for a case but this is now just becoming available, the complete package assembled with the TDA1543 is available at 560 euros. What also marks this DAC as different is the output stage, there are no op-amps here, just a class A FET stage with no global feedback and adjustable gain set by DIP switches. The power supplies are separate for the digital and analog sections with careful layout to ensure minimal noise. With the optional input board you get USB, two SPDIF (transformer coupled) and TOSLink inputs switchable from the front when mounted in the supplied case. This DAC is also different in that after extensive listening the team at Aqua - Acoustic Quality believe no up-sampling gives the best sound quality.

My kit arrived very promptly despite being caught in the Christmas rush and was very well packed. It came in a sturdy wooden box that I then turned into a mounting frame so I could get it going quickly, patience is not a virtue that I possess. This DAC is actually not really in kit form as the boards come ready assembled so it took very little time to set up, just connect up the transformers and solder up the input/output connections. The quality of the boards is very good with excellent component quality, there are no boutique brands except for the output caps which are Audyn MKP, quality where it really counts. I picked the TDA1541 DAC option as there is large volume of information out there on the internet about this chip with some claiming it to be the best DAC chip of all time. What the audio Illuminati do say is the layout and choice of output stage is critical and it does look like AAQ have worked hard in this area.

I started listening to the DAC as soon a power was applied, burning in for 24-48 hours is advisable as the sound settles down and becomes more relaxed. The first real listening was done using the TOSLink input fed from the optical output of an Apple Airport Express. I have also used my Wadia 170i dock with an IPod classic and the same set of audio files. The optical output helps to keep any digital noise generated by the computer away from the sensitive audio circuits. The USB input also works well though I believe limited to 16bit 44.1Khz when connect to my MAC Book Pro. It may go against the preferred wisdom but I did the majority of my listening via the optical input, there was very little to difference between the inputs sound wise using regular 16 bit 44.1khz source files.

[DAC in use]
La Voce in use!

Listening session

When assessing changes to my audio system I always use the same small number of tracks and the first is usually Hotel California from the Hell Freezes Over album. This is a fabulous “acoustic” version of the 1970s classic, the drums and guitars are clear with little colouration and what I call good atmosphere, the ambiance of the recording with the decay of the drums is present. The sound-stage is set out beyond the left and right of the speakers and back into the distance, significantly better than my reference.

Another great track is Songbird from Eva Cassidy, although I do like the original from Christine McVie it shows it's age a little. The Eva Cassidy version of Songbird is very good though it can sound a little hard and digital. The “La Voce” does a really good job sounding more relaxed with better atmosphere. Moving on to some classical music and the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor performed by Fernando Germani, this comes across with great power and texture on those really low pipes. More than with any other DAC in my setup it sounded like sitting in the same venue as the organ, the ambiance of the performance really come across. Next to be played was a Trevor Pinnock recording of the Bach harpsichord concertos, a tough challenge for any DAC as the harpsichord  can sound really harsh and distorted if the DAC is not up to standard. The La Voce handled this recording really well with good detail without sounding harsh and again the ambiance of the performance was well portrayed, the sound stage spread beyond and behind the speakers. A new recording in my collection is Vertigo by Jesse Cook and this really shows of the ability of the La Voce to deliver a sound with good PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing), you could replace the pace with passion as the guitar comes across as though Jesse Cooke is loving his instrument!

In conclusion, the La Voce (The Voice, when translated) really hits the spot at the price, and for me betters the more expensive Perpetual Technologies P1/P3A combination I have been using. There is something just right about the sound, it has all the usual attributes of rhythm, timing as well as atmosphere, I think the words from Aqua Acoustic are very fitting. "La Voce" is entirely designed and hand assembled in Italy, with passion. If you are after a new DAC and want something a little different then talk to the team at Aqua Acoustic, I am completely hooked.

What does need improving is the documentation as there is none. I had to exhange emails to find out how to wire up the input selector switch and was pointed to the web site for pictures of the remaining wiring. This did not cause me any problems, but at this price they should supply some documentation with detail of all the wiring and an explanation of what the switches\links do. This is the first product from this manufacturer and I look forward to listening to more.

Follow up: read our review of the La Voce mkII, now with asynchronous USB interface.

[La Voce DAC with AD]
La Voce with Analog Devices AD1965

[DAC package as received]
Kit package as received

Review System

Apple Mac Book Pro with audio files ripped in loss-less format and output via an Airport Express
The Missing Link Cryo reference phono
Passive pre-amp with stepped attenuator
Net Audio NA200 power amp
Amphion Krypton Mk1 speakers - mine are second hand and cost nothing like the price showing on the Amphion website for the mk3 version
Virtual Dynamics David series speaker cables.
Reference DAC - Perpetual Technologies P1/P3a

© Copyright 2011 Mike Cox - mike@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com

[ Home | Staff & Contacts | DIY & Tweaks | Listening tests | HiFi Playground | Music & Books ]