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|Firestone Audio hailing from Taiwan is a completely new firm to North American punters. They offer a rather cute line of mini components for very little cash. They would be ideal for a PC or laptop or even as a portable system for the cottage. I received four items including the Big Joe amp, the Spitfire S/PDIF Dac, the obscenely named Fubar USB Dac and the Battery Cute headphone amp. Also included were two sets of interconnects, a USB cable plus an Allen key.
All four matching pieces were attractive in both appearance and on price. The innards appeared well laid out and assembled. There were no loose solder balls or screws floating about. Fit and finish were surprisingly good. All feature a cleverly designed wall wart that won't obstruct adjacent outlets. Each piece measures 11cm (L) x 8cm (W) x 5cm (H) and weighs approximately 300 to 550g.
|The Big Joe is a 16-watt single-input integrated whose volume is controlled via a nicely machined knob on the chassis front. There is one set of RCA inputs on the rear along with two sets of speaker connections that only accept banana-terminated cables. Also on the rear are small toggles for power on/off and gain adjustment. The Big Joe can be operated as a power amp via an internal switch to mate with the Tube Head Preamp (yes, it's got a vacuum tube), which then handles input and volume functions. Cool.
The Battery Cute features volume and headphone output on the front panel, a pair of RCA inputs, power on/off toggle and gain adjustment on the rear. Although not mentioned in the manual, the Battery Cute is permanently stuck in charge mode regardless of the power switch position and should hence not remain plugged in for more than 24 hours. The Cute requires 8 hours to fully charge. US distributor Jack Ker indicated that updated documentation was forthcoming.
The Spitfire DAC features the usual status indicators on the front while the rear accommodates a pair of RCA outputs and Toslink and S/PDIF inputs. The innards consist of a Burr-Brown PCM1793 24-bit/192kHz DAC, a CirrusLogic CS8414 96kHz receiver and a Burr-Brown OPA2604 opamp in the output stage. The Spitfire clearly trounced the Dac in our $70 no-name DVD player but was nowhere near as good as the Minimax. Consider the Spitfire a decent, inexpensive upgrade that's ideal for budget CD/DVD players and suitably equipped portables.
The Fubar was more or less identical to the Spitfire but replaces the latter's Toslink and S/PDIF connections with a USB port, which I hear may be a superior digital connection. Check out Empirical Audio and Wavelength Audio for further insight. Empirical's Steve Nugent is one of the trailblazers currently exploring computer-based audio as is Wavelength Audio's J. Gordon Rankin. Both sites have plenty of interesting info. Do check 'em out. The Fubar contains a Burr-Brown PCM2702 16-bit 44.1/48kHz DAC and BB OPA2604 opamp in the output stage.
I put together a killer portable system featuring my IBM ThinkPad, the Firestone gang, the Zu Tones and even my REL Q108 MkII sub. Since the Big Joe could only handle bananas, I picked up a set of five-way binding post adaptors from Radio Shack to connect the REL's high level input to the super-wee amp. It really sounded rather good considering the price. The Tones were perhaps a little overkill. However, I didn't have any more affordable decent-sounding speakers on hand. Something like Paradigm Atoms or Titans might suffice. If you wanted a small -- in this case tiny -- system for an office, dorm or cottage, this would fit the bill nicely. It won't blow away your big rig. However, it will kill any Best Buy/Circuit City all-in-one mini system.
Thankfully, my ThinkPad detected the Fubar when I connected it. All I had to do was tell Mr. IBM to direct signals to the DAC instead of the analog output. As per recommendations on Wavelength's and Empirical's websites, I downloaded and installed ASIO4ALL to replace the allegedly inferior sounding Windows K-Mixer. I'm not sure I heard a difference and there does seem to be a difference of opinion on its effectiveness, not to mention that apparently some versions of this software sound better than others. Oy Gevalt. I thought computers were supposed to make life easier?
The Fubar's sonics were hardly fucked up beyond all recognition as its name suggested. It transformed my IBM laptop when playing back CDs, stored tracks or even Internet radio. This little dynamo gave me valuable insights into the growing market for harddrive-based systems. Playing back EAC-ripped tracks via the bargain-priced Fubar was almost as satisfying as spinning discs on the Minimax or the Cairn Fog v2.0. In fact, in terms of low-level noise and rhythmic drive, the laptop setup was superior. It just missed out on frequency extension and image and tonal density.
Together and individually, these components performed as well as they looked. I rather enjoyed listening to Internet radio via my IBM laptop with the Fubar handling the number crunching to give the IBM's crappy sound card a much-needed break. The Big Joe handled both my GMA Callistos and Zu Tone speakers with ease up to a certain point. Sure, as compared to my Stingray and AMP-1, playback was a little thin and two-dimensional. But we're talking about a $200 amp with a tiny power supply. Tweakers can rejoice. The opamps are easily swappable. I bet a more robust power supply would help, too. The headphone unit was easily superior to the output of my eldest son's portable player. It fact, his eyes opened right up and his jaw dropped when he heard his fave Green Day disc through the Cute and a pair of Grado SR-60s. Dad is not so crazy after all. While the Battery Cute was good, it lost out to the lush and wonderful headphone output of my Minimax CD player. Of course, the Minimax is considerably more expensive and features an exceptional headphone stage compared to most CD players.
These diminutive fellas were indeed cute in every sense of the word and terrific value. I was certainly impressed enough with the Fubar to consider taking a closer look at computer-based music systems, albeit cautiously as there are still many unanswered questions and interface issues to overcome before I swallow the red pill. Now, the notion of firing up a computer, tweaking program settings and navigating music via keyboard or mouse does not at all appeal to me. I work with computers every day in my real job. The last thing I want when I come home is to deal with the less welcoming aspects of Windows XP. Maybe I should buy a Mac. With the growing trend of convergence, keep in mind how that entails connecting everything to the outside world. Wouldn't it be wonderful to boot up your system only to discover that some hacker's virus ate your entire music library?
I'm also not keen on Big Brother or some soulless multinational looking over my shoulder to monitor my viewing and listening habits. Where I suspect this technology will eventually take us is to a future where you and I won't really own music or films at all. We'll rent them via a monthly subscription service that will allow users to listen and watch just about anything for a fee. But you won't be able to download or copy it. Don't believe me?
Take a good look at the new generation of processor chips and software on the horizon. In fact, it's already here in the form of online games. You can play but you can't download. Once the bandwidth situation gets sorted out, your next generation of iPod style devices will be indistinguishable from satellite radio receivers. Guess why? Many people now store their digital photos online instead of on their computers. That means they don't have control of them any more. I don't know about you but that bugs the hunter/gatherer and control freak in me. I'm beginning to increasingly identify with Gene Hackman's paranoid character in Tony Scott's film Enemy of the State: living anonymously, dipping below the radar of mainstream society and living off the grid in a giant Faraday cage. Hmmmm. I bet if I stuck my system into one o' those, I could pretty much eliminate RFI and EMI issues. I wouldn't need Jerry's Noise Disruptors neither.
I shall end by poaching a handful of physical music delivery discs that you can actually own and which are currently receiving plenty of air time around here without Sony or Big Evil Multinational Inc peeking through my window:
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