Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC; Resolution Audio Opus 21; Accustic Arts Drive I
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe2 GenII
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88
Speakers: Avantgarde Acoustic DUO
Cables: HMS Grand Finale; Crystal Cable Reference complete wire set of interconnects, speaker cables and power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner; 2 x Stealth Audio Cables Indra analogue & Varidig S/PDIF cables [on review]
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature; Walker Audio Velocitor for source components
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $7,980 [transport], $6,999 [DAC/pre]

For technical features and a visual tour of today's contenders, please view the two prior introductions to the Ensemble Dirondo Drive and the Ensemble Dichrono HiDac. Then cut to the action: A few weeks ago, Kiuchi-San of Combak/ Harmonix/ Reimyo sent me an e-mail. He wanted to know what I considered a "dream features set" for a modern D/A converter if I could design one "on paper, all reason thrown to the wind". Without thinking twice, I used Urs Wagner's Dichrono HiDac as my poster child: Analog non-digitized input; multiple switchable digital inputs; selectable fixed/variable outputs with full remote-controlled preamp and phase inversion functionality; internal gain adjustments to adapt output voltage to different system requirements; an option for DC/AC-coupling; defeatable upsampling. Plainly put, the Dichrono's feature set makes it one of the most comprehensive DACs I've yet encountered. It's what I think other manufacturers should consider to remain on the ball. The only things I'd do different in that regard? I'd go with chip-based analog-domain attenuation accompanied by a numerical display to allow for precise and repeatable volume settings. And, I'd add tubes to a paralleled output stage like a Shanling or Cayin, offering dedicated sand and glass outputs. Hey, this was SE talking about a dream converter/preamp, all reason thrown to the winds. Hai!

The top-loading Ensemble transport incorporates a very unusual BitZoom Technology which can add selectable upsampling to 24/96 or 24/192. This scheme interpolates timing information into the digital domain to become, like amplitude, a parameter that's controllable via DSP wizardry. The Dirondo/Dichrono combo can be run at 16/44 or 24/96, with said upsampling performed either in the transport or the DAC.

Having lived with this digital duo long enough to have a very concrete opinion, I'm of two minds when it comes to discussing its performance. Build quality is superlative, end of story. Features are complete and extremely thoughtful as already discussed. Everything about these products (packaging, accompanying materials; accessories like the included high-quality power cords, the digital cable, the custom sampler CD, the trick tri-layer Carbon fiber disc puck; the logo echoes in the ventilation slots and the drawer handle; the compliant footers which make aftermarket cones and pucks redundant)... everything spells out the kind of high class you envision from a Saville Row custom tailor. He pours you a glass of Port while he takes your measurements. "The name's Bond - James Bond." While unabashedly expensive and thus exclusive, a prospective Ensemble customer does get very commensurate returns for the kind of expectations these bespoke leagues -- should -- engender.

It's quite counter-climatic and trite to state that tastes and opinions about Wilson speakers diverge. Yet nobody could dispute how Wilson accounts for every conceivable detail when it comes to the uncompromised package deal of options, fit'n'finish, documentation and service. A similar dedication inspires our Swiss products. It leaves naysayers at a loss for words. Alas, where audible values go, opinions about their standing will and do diverge as well. This begins with yours truly but doesn't end there as we shall discover.

You see, I wanted to be as smitten by the sonics as I was with everything else, personal trade show meetings and subsequent phone calls with Urs Wagner included. Alas, while I greatly respect and admire the audible aspects he offers with his new statement digital components, I'm not in love. This held true vis-à-vis the equivalently priced combo of Accustic Arts Drive-1 and Zanden DAC where I would have simply written it off as a matter of flavor. Surprisingly yet crushingly responsible for certain comments to follow, this also held true against the comparably 'cheap' $3,500 Resolution Audio Opus 21. And that reshuffled the map. Plainly put, for $15,000, I'd have to be thunderstruck to feel my poetic Jones rising. Now that a one-box player had accomplished this Viagra lifting for 1/4th the sticker shock and in direct comparison with the Ensemble separates, you'll - er, grasp the size of my shriveled dilemma. Words don't flow readily. Complete inspiration is lacking. Respect can be an awkward bed fellow. Literally. Honest reviewing is a bitch at times. Pointy hat, crooked nose, foul smell - the whole works.

Comparing the $4,800 Accustic Arts Drive-1 to the $8,000 Ensemble Dirondo into my Zanden, I found out that the Dirondo offered an extremely marginal advantage of image lock - if even that. It definitely wasn't anything substantial enough that I could underwrite the difference in price as a justifiable step up. Remember, the Zanden DAC is very archaic in one regard. It cannot lock to anything other than bare-boned 16-bit/44.1kHz data. Thus obliterating the Dirondo's BitZoom advantage, I was looking at the identical Philips PRO2 drive mechanism (albeit mounted differently). Closing my mind to external differences of appearances between Swiss and German disc spinners, I had to conclude that if the Ensemble transport offered better performance in this particular employ, I was too deaf to hear it.

This conclusion changed when I used its own stable mate, performing the upsampling in the transport to presumably drive down output jitter even further. Alas, with the appreciable increase of detail in the recorded ambient field now came a slight sharpening of outlines and a distinct drying up of the musical gestalt. In combination, this was less organic and slightly more 'etched' and held true also while feeding the Opus 21's digital input which can lock to 24/96 bit streams. My observation about the 96kHz bit stream generated by the Dirondo Drive was identical regardless of whether it fed the Opus 21 or Dichrono. Switching between 'low-rez' and 'hi-rez' streams had me invariably prefer the former though I'm certain that the latter would measure even better on the bench. With the Opus 21, dynamic jump factor was slightly better when I ran it solo. Otherwise, the Dirondo's 16/44 feed was virtually identical. This made a weak argument for an outboard transport in that particular match up or a favorable endorsement for how Resolution Audio implemented their integrated drive/DAC interface.

This alone wouldn't have bothered me too much had not the Opus 21 used solo against both Ensemble pieces countered with a clearly juicier, emotionally far more compelling and freely gushing presentation. It wasn't the same as the $15,000 Accustic Arts/Zanden combo but -- in how it mimicked certain thermionic aspects of image density and slight textural wetness -- cut from a very similar cloth. By comparison, the $15,000 Swiss package continued to err on the dry, somewhat reserved and analytical side. With resolution galore, it also exhibited a small yet pervasive lack of body which I've become, perhaps wrongly, used to in my reference setup only to then encounter again in the Resolution player without tubes.

Off went a hasty e-mail to Jules Coleman. He'd heard the one-box Dirondo player vis-à-vis the $14,000 Reimyo and the Opus 21. Was my perspective off? Not afraid to tell me when I'm full of shit (it happens), Jules offered no bitter yet healing medicine. He too had preferred the Opus 21 to the Ensemble, by quite a margin and for the same reasons. Just to be sure and triangulate, I now sent Jules the pre-publication copy of the Opus 21 review. "You've nailed its sound" was his terse reply. This confirmed how despite different systems, rooms and tastes, we both adjudged the Opus 21's sonic signature very similarly. Hence our reactions to the Swiss sound were -- now rather predictably -- bound to arise in lockstep as well. For Jules, this had specific implications. He's looking to purchase a reference player. He wants to be tickled and seduced and was rooting for the Dirondo player.

For reference, these are the type of behind-the-scenes exchanges which 6moons writers are encouraged to perform when faced with similar scenarios. Once component costs escalate, one is bound to become more and more critical. The lamentable reality of reviewing naturally is such that the published word cuts more cruelly than the sword. If you feel like being emphatically critical, better be extra certain that your observations aren't capricious or arbitrary or the result of poor system synergy. With all of this said, let me explain that listening to the Ensemble duo prior to performing any comparisons didn't elicit any unfavorable reactions per se. The process of serious inquiry commenced when I returned to my reference Zanden setup. It produced an instant "aha" response, about a particular quality I shall call 'digital non-stress' that had re-entered the picture. I now began to reflect on how much music I had actually listened to for pleasure while the Ensemble setup ruled the roost. Not too much it turned out. I'm usually a pretty voracious listener. This should have been a giveaway. What drove this point home even further was my unexpected encounter with the Opus 21 while comparing its amp-direct solution to the HiDac's.

Simply put, the slightly lean, analytical, dry and somewhat reserved while highly resolved mien of the Ensemble was compounded rather severely when I eliminated my reference solid-state preamp from the chain. In a follow up phone conversation with Urs Wagner, I indicated as much. He replied that this functionality was intended as a stepping stone toward a stand-alone preamplifier if one wished to engage the considerable expense required to do significantly better. Point well taken. Had not the Opus 21 shown how this could be done better for half the expense (or a quarter since it's a one-box CDP/preamp) and by offering the numerical readout I consider de rigeur these days, I would have sided with Urs' transitional solution. I no longer could.

Was the motor-driven Carbon pot with its wiper the culprit? It's not a resistor-ladder Goldpoint, DACT or ELNA type after all. But then, neither is the Opus 21's. However, the latest-generation BurrBrown attenuator chips are fully competitive with the best of the traditional analog breed. I could speculate until the cows begin to fly. The fact remains, I don't know why the amp-direct variable-gain functionality of the Ensemble Dichrono HiDac seemed notably thin-sounding while the Opus 21's was anything but. Could it have been the latter's passive I/V conversion? Who knows. For a final check on the variability scenario inherent in system contexts and listener tastes, I turned to an UltraAudio! review of the Dirondo one-box player which was summarized in the following sentences: "I felt the Dirondo excited more respect than love, though it did so much so well that many audiophiles will probably disagree. What I missed most was the emotional involvement I got from the $14,000 Reimyo CDP-777..."

Though a somewhat unfair comparison in that the Dirondo one-box player costs $5,000 less than the Reimyo, it is curious that the $15,000 equivalently priced Ensemble solution elicited exactly the same response from me. This doesn't account for having to assume that it's superior to its one-box stable mate. I made one last phone call to a friend who is familiar with the Ensemble separates, the Meitner DAC, the dCS stack and my Zanden DAC. Based on his results (I've listened to his reference system), I would have to believe that I'd react similarly to the Meitner and pre reclocker dCS - I wouldn't feel the luv with any of them either since they apparently all belong to a very similar school of sonic thought. That says as much about my personal biases as it does about the Ensemble - many experienced listeners regard the Meitner sound as the ne plus ultra of current digital expertise which, by implication, puts the Ensemble pieces into rather exalted company.

I have to assume that the same listeners would gravitate then to the slightly more cerebral and texturally less inviting but supremely resolved sound of the Swiss flavor over the Zanden/Resolution variants I favor. In fact, my colleagues at Positive Feedback were so enthralled by the Ensemble separates that they concluded their review by confessing how they aspired to personal ownership. As aficionados of tube rolling believe, it's all about flavors - or, as our own Marja & Henk refer to it, the sonic spice rack.

I completely side with Dan Davis' assessment above. These Swiss components are built like a dream and "do so much so well". It's this very fact coupled to what I assume would be a function of very subtle tweaking to take the present sound fully into the 'communicative camp' that had me hesitate to deliver the exhaustive blow-by-blow descriptions of sonics I usually attempt. I certainly don't expect any manufacturer to revisit a finalized production design based on my personal and subjective findings. However, two other listeners (whom I've listened with side-by-side in their respective reference systems) have similar feelings to mine. This does suggests that in this particular instance, it might be a worthwhile exercise. Then again, Larry Cox at Positive Feedback might kill me if Urs so much as touched a hair on his babies. As I said earlier, reviewing can be hard at times. One attempts to be respectful, truthful and cognizant of subjective perception issues all at the same time. Hopefully this review accomplished at least that.

In the end, today's Ensemble separates are the equivalent of a very finely tuned upscale motorcar. Nobody will fail to recognize their quality or stature. The only aspect open to discussion is whether you agree with how they're tuned and handle the road. And the only way to find that out is by taking a test drive. I can pretty much guarantee that you'll be shocked as to the details of the scenery if your present digital solutions operate at a significantly lower resolving power. You might then likely come away from your encounter with a comment to the effect of "I never knew what I've been missing all this time".

As readers of my show reports will know, twice I have singled out the Ensemble room with all-Ensemble setups as amongst my favorite solid-state displays, from a bare handful of contenders at the CES. Having twice used the very same source components as discussed today, this could suggest a few things. One, that the Dirondo/Dichrono duo truly sings in an all-Ensemble context. Two, that it might prefer Ensemble's own cable over what I used. Three, that something in my personal system was voiced such as to unequivocally embrace the Zanden/Resolution-type sound while being less head-over-heels with the Dirondo/Dichrono; at least without first requiring a minor revoicing of the system per se to welcome these two Swiss components into the fold without undue handicap. Readers are thus advised to consider not only the variabilities of personal taste which make up this entire affair of subjective audio reviewing but also, to keep in mind the synergistic interface which components make -- or do not -- in any fixed system context.

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