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This high-precision clock uses a clock management called DSS™ synchronization. It allows the system to handle a variety of sampling rates and data formats. DSS™ synchronizes the audio system to a reference master clock and unifies all data to a singular sampling rate. The S.T.A.R.S. Evolution module is designed to work with a single frequency and all audio output sampling frequencies will be derived from a 48kHz multiple.

The analogue output stage has been significantly upgraded since its previous iterations in the original Capitole and Prestige models. Audioaéro claims to have reached a significant reduction in distortion and an improvement of the volume control. Audioaéro runs the sub miniature joint army/navy Philips 6021W dual triode and solders it directly to the printed board for a perfect contact. These valves are submitted to a specific cryogenic treatment to improve sonics and extend life expectancy. The preamplification stage has very low output impedance to connect directly to any power amplifier via the variable output. The output level can be set directly from the front panel (three fixed values of 2, 3 and 4V respectively and one variable). The variable output inserts a Wolfson buffer just behind the two valves.

As might be clear by now, the assessment of overall performance was a bit complex. This wasn't a simple top-class CD/SACD player. It took me a lot of time to complete what became a quite exhaustive personal assessment of this 3-in-1 device whose core functions had to be adjudged separately - CD/SACD playback, D/A conversion and line-stage use. La Source could be made of three external independent parts: a high-precision drive unit, a sophisticated D/A converter and a fine preamplifier. That was already the case with the older and far more affordable Capitole series but it still remains rare because it suffers so few compromises in each function whilst having been seriously enhanced over its predecessors. This ‘thrice-paralleled’ functionality could in some ways begin to justify the price tag if La Source performed on each count on par with separate equivalents.

Let’s arbitrarily begin with the preamplification stage. La Source is certainly not an afterthought or fashion feature. It works amazingly well. With many digital sources the variable output is often considered valuable to replace a preamp. Here I easily recognized how my usual Wyred4Sound STP-SE preamp was definitely a mid-level product. First, La Source sounded better when used directly over the variable outputs rather than fixed into the external preamp regardless of which fixed output voltage was chosen. Another French journalist who reviewed Audioaéro’s flagship two years earlier came to the same conclusion using an ATC SC2 preamp. This conveys an idea of the variable output’s true potential.

I must add that La Source performs extremely well when used with an analogue source. Connecting my TotalDac in that way, the result was far better than over the Wyred4Sound. The sound of the French had more air, more fluidity, larger bandwidth and richer harmonics. The preamplifier of La Source offers more transparency and a more laid-back perspective. I personally view it as a highly commendable preamp which of course won’t justify the price tag in just that usage alone. The two outputs—XLR and RCA—and three analogue inputs would seem sufficient considering how the quality built-in DAC handles all manner of digital sources already. In my opinion La Source has the capabilities of rare and very neutral tube preamps which deliver enhanced transparency, a wide soundstage and a lively sound without any excess coloration. It’s important to highlight these capabilities as a preamp since at first glance this might not appear as one of its most salient functions. Taking into account the quality of modern DACs, their volume control implementations often leave things to be desired. Here La Source becomes a quite universal solution and an interesting proposal for those who want a top-notch integrated device which combines a preamp and SOTA DAC, then throws an ultimate mechanical transport into the deal.

The latter in some ways maintains Esoteric’s company signature. Compared to my Jadis drive it sounds slightly different. This is mostly a matter of taste. The Jadis JD2 delivers a more laid-back colorful performance while the Esoteric counters with higher dynamics and more precise soundstaging. I could also use ‘mellifluous’ or ‘non-mechanical’ to characterize the Jadis whereas the Japanese drive sounds more ‘digital’. On SACD, the Jadis was no match. It only reads CDs. In the beginning my new Audioaéro loaner had a tendency to sound a bit dry. This player needs an important break-in period. After 100 hours the Esoteric transport won’t morph into a Philips Pro but will deliver its exceptional vividness with a more neutral tonal balance and slightly superior fluidity.

Even though it wasn’t completely fair, I tried to compare both drives with the same DAC, first the built-in Audioaéro converter, then my Vincent Brient TotalDac. I also compared the Esoteric transport to my Squeezebox Touch upgraded with ultimate soft mods from the German Soundcheck audiophile specialist and my iMac using iTunes with the Fidelia player. In terms of soundstaging and detail the Esoteric mechanism clearly went beyond all the others. It had a more holographic image. Considering precision and neutrality as main criteria, I would put La Source first, iMac with Fidelia second, Jadis JD2 third and the cheap Squeezebox Touch last. In terms of sensuality and listening involvement, I would rate the Jadis first, La Source second, iMac/Fidelia third and always last the very inexpensive Squeezebox Touch. Listening involvement is a very personal matter of course. According to your own preferences, the ranking might vary but I think it would be difficult to establish a large preference for any computer source considering the quality of mechanical contenders at hand.

I also compared Audioaéro’s DAC to my TotalDac (which received a second opinion from our Editor). At this level of performance, differences are quite subtle and it took me a lot of time to precisely lock into the personality of each competitor. I compared the TotalDac on S/PDIF up to 24/96 since it doesn’t support higher rates. Compared to its single coaxial input, the diversity of digital inputs on La Source made me sample synchronous USB and AES-EBU in a second round. My Audioaéro loaner was still fitted with the original USB transceiver which in the latest 2011 revision has become a 24/192 asynchronous affair. Surprisingly USB gave rather good results with subjectively low of jitter. I think this was mainly due to the fact that the digital signal is directly reclocked with DSP before hitting D/A conversion. The most recent asynchronous USB input will confer yet more universality to La Source to handle all popular hi-resolution files.