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|Unquestionably, the Stylos System Had is a very high-class converter. It outperformed my customary Zanden rig in dynamics, top-to-bottom articulation, micro detail and bass. Due to the peculiarity of not locking to the Zanden Audio Model 2000p transport however, my comparison was limited to the Ancient Audio Lektor Prime + Had duo versus the Zanden team. Both Polish and Japanese spinners rely on the same top-loading Philips CDMPRO2 transport. I remain mystified why one shook hands with the Slovenian converter and not the other. Still, it was meaningful that I preferred the less than half-priced granite slab duo using the same BNC-to-BNC Stealth Sextet digital interconnect for the above qualities. Though using dissimilar black granite strains, the Ancient Audio and Stylos System machines look as though conceived together. Except for the latter's stilts. In the context of conventionally styled components with standard footers, the Had's stork legs look peculiar. They also create placement issues in standard racks. If the piece fits at all, it'll nearly touch the next shelf up to look lopsided. I'd like to see optional 1" shortie variants of the same beautifully turned footers.
The Had did make for a super inert amp stand though. In fact, it was so abused when piggybacking Almarro's overachieving A318B integrated whose footprint was the right size. And so we leave the only two areas of outright peculiarity about the Had: its choice of footers; and its (or the Zanden transport's) refusal to cooperate.
|Before we go sonics, a rehash of the obvious. I love tubes for what they do when they do it|
|well. I really dislike them when they sputter, flame out, go noisy or otherwise kinky. If -- and that's usually a pretty big if to my sensibilities -- transistor devices can do the job as well never mind better, I'd much rather have transistors. Enter the Had. It does want to remain powered up continuously to sound its best. Yet it barely gets warm to the touch, probably using less energy than a 20-watt light bulb in the process. It will still do its job without any parts replacement long after my valve gear has reached into my wallet multiple times to have its bottles replaced, never mind caused crusty curses for wicked down times.
Considering the Lektor Prime/Had combo's strong points, you could conclude that this was one of the rare personal instances where no electron glow equaled to not just as good but better. You'd be right except for two performance qualities we'll get to momentarily. In general, the Had improved on the Zanden's trademark textural softness by driving up articulation, robustness and bass substantiation.
To do a complete assessment, I anxiously awaited the arrival of WLM's top-line Grand Viola Signature MkII loudspeaker. Their SuperPAC treble system goes rather beyond the coaxially placed horn-loaded units in my WLM Diva Monitors. The Divas and the Zu Definitions -- both of which use the identical tweeter and waveguide -- were more than up to the task of teasing out the Had advances mentioned already. When it came to treble sophistication, decay lengths and the kind of subtle dimensional cues that make for ultimate soundstaging magic, I needed transducers world class in those regards. While the folks in Slovenia could probably have done without the short delay while I was getting my speaker shuffle sorted, I rather enjoyed my carefree time with their machine while I waited and played music.
Another planned but aborted comparison came at the hands of AMR's CD-77. It suddenly went mute on its outputs. Booting up fine as well as cueing up and reading CDs, it no longer made sound. True, it can't ever act as transport because it omits a digital output by design. Still, I was keen on comparing its analog outputs to those of the Slovanian converter. That wasn't to be. [I've since learned the cause of failure. One of the regulators for the Philips TDA1541A which AMR had used originally was by ST Microelectronics (SGS Thomson). Despite running them within manufacturer's specifications, these devices demonstrated an unacceptably high failure rate in application and were subsequently replaced by On-Semi parts. My review loaner being from the very first batch, it naturally was equipped with the original ST Microelectronics part which was then rejected when full formal production commenced. Mystery and problem solved.]
With the big WLMs in place, I configured my system for active tri-amp duty to run through different amplifier options on its 800Hz-on-up SuperPAC treble system. From 80 - 800Hz, my Melody Valve Hifi I2A3 integrated with JJ 2A3-40s provided power and below it, two AudioSector Patek SEs bridged to 100-watt mono handled 2 x 12" sealed box bass, all gain adjustments controlled from WLM's System Control V, all cabling my usual Crystal Cable Ultra. For treble duty, I ran either the Yamamoto A-08S, the Almarro A318B or the FirstWatt F3 Power JFET amp.
|Comparators became my Zanden Model analog outputs. My first CD of choice was [BMG 74321 25787-2], the best album by||2000p/5000s combo and the Lektor Prime's personal favorite Dulce Ponte's Lagrimas/Tears the most gifted of all living fadistas.|
This record in particular demands a difficult tightrope walk. There's tremendous energy on vocal peaks which should translate uncut. Yet it shouldn't pierce to avoid the equivalent of a papillary squint reaction. It's a personal call on what's worse, diluting the emotional charge to play it safe or risk mild stridency in places to go for it. Of course there's complete consensus over what's ideal - ultimate directness without wincing.
The Zanden plays it just a bit safe, indicating a somewhat soft top which in turn remains completely unruffled no matter what, all the while exuding a recognizable ravishment that's stunningly elegant and very finely textured. Arguably somewhat romanticized, perhaps guilty of fine-tipped golden-fingered editorializing, it's a very seductive treble nonetheless, impossible to fault for pure pleasure. The Lektor Prime is more silvery, more extended, somewhat more focused and thus dimensionally more locked but also a bit more matter of fact in the waft 'n' wane department which rides on decay trails. It's a bel canto quality whereby the on-the-breath aspects of music are heightened. In my experience, it's a domain ruled to this day by the Zanden without co-regent.
The Had, in this context, was the most forward to occasionally cross the line and turn momentarily glassy when Dulce leaned emphatically into her top register. Because of its powerful showing everywhere else, I played a lot of musical chairs between the two feeds of Lektor Prime as one-box player and Lektor Prime as spinner for the Had. Perhaps because of the Polish machine's 6H30-powered outputs, its treble performance was marginally 'buffered' to side-step the occasional hardness and bite the Slovenian could betray during the most challenging of passages, predominantly on less than perfect recordings of which -- I happily admit since my music-buying choices are exclusively dictated by the music, not the mastering -- I own many. Truth and consequence for the Had? I'm not a recording engineer so for pleasure, I side with the most universal listenability. Still, I cannot fault designers or audiophiles who sign on the dotted line of unvarnished data truth. In the end and purely on the subject of HF quality and personal taste, the Zanden remains unchallenged. However, its softer mien extends to dynamics and articulation as well. Those are areas where opinion on what's preferable will diverge far more vehemently than its treble which numerous bona fide vinyl experts have called decidedly non-digital and on par with analogue. Include me in the group of divergers.
My ideal scenario would be the Zanden's top end coupled to the dynamics, heft, stronger articulation and more developed bass of the two other machines (and, while we're at dreams, with zero tubes as the Had does to savor non-variable zero maintenance performance). On balance and without weighting, by considering the various audiophile attribute on perfectly equal footing, the Had eclipses the twice-the-price Zanden DAC. When weighting treble refinement, both the Zanden and the Ancient Audio beat the Had and in that sequence.
Spending weeks listening to the Had to get used to its presentation without comparing, then reverting back to the Lektor Prime to get reacquainted, there was one other area in which the Prime differed - tone color. The Had is texturally drier, the Prime more burnished. With the Polish player as with the Zanden, there is a sense of inside-out glow to the music which the Slovenian lacks. It's convenient to point at the valves for this quality since that conforms to preconceptions. For reasons covered earlier, I'd have honestly preferred not to prefer the tubed machines for this quality. But it was undeniable. Their renderings had the richer tonal palette to create more color pressure and temperature.
About what to expect from modern digital, I've been patterned by Abbingdon Music Research, Ancient Audio, Audio Aero, Esoteric, Resolution Audio and Zanden. The Stylos Sys Had belongs into the same exalted league and my comments about its uncut treble during lesser albums are tempered by the fact that they relied on the arrival of the Grand Violas. Importantly, during my weeks of non-comparative listening with my usual speakers, there was nothing about the Had to betray its output devices one way or the other. Nor was there any desire to switch to something else. Its presentation was self-authenticating. Other presentations remain subtly different. That's where personal preferences enter. What matters is that sonic flavors taken on their own merit not parlay as imbalances. If they don't, they stand solidly on their own two feet. With the Stylos System Had, that anchor was solid. In the end, it comes down to crass coin in my view:
That's because for a mere €1000 over its sticker, there's the Ancient Audio Lektor Prime. That's a full-blown CD player, no second shelf, power cord or digital interconnect required. It also sports variable outputs which max out at a colossal +/-7 volts. Then it adds one analog input to act as miniature preamp if desired. Finally, it mirrors the Had's cosmetics and build quality. For what your money buys, the granite challenger sits on tall spindly legs to face stiff competition from Poland and one that rather exceeds its own value proposition. That takes nothing away from the Had. After all, nobody yet has accused Yamada-San of value consciousness either. These are the luxury leagues and Team Had pushes its membership fees less hard than the Japanese master. For listeners with dedicated transports that require an outboard converter to make sound, DACs are absolutely essential. For them, the Had from Stylos Systems is a top-class transistor option that's built for the ages and cosmetically, truly unique. Who would have anticipated to find anything like it built in Slovenia? Kudos to team Had for following their statement dream without compromising. That's the very definition of perfectionist high-end audio after all. As is superior resolution, to say it as it is. Based on the company's mission statement, to say it as it is means, mission accomplished.
|Quality of packing: Compact wooden crate, dense foam lining, virtually indestructible
Reusability of packing: Can be reused multiple times, requires screw driver to open
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Child's play but requires some muscle - this is a very heavy component for its size
Condition of component received: Flawless
Completeness of delivery: included screw-on footers, generic power cord - no owner's manual
Quality of owner's manual: n/a
Website comments: Informative background information, good product photography, lacks performance specs, pricing info and as of now, English review links
Warranty: 2 years
Global distribution: Still limited, company operates out of Slovenia
Human interactions: Professional and courteous, timely responses to questions, good English skills despite being non-native English speakers
Other: The review component is clearly designed and built as a heirloom piece which never should require service shy of catastrophic AC line incidents. Don't attempt to open it. The tolerance of the bolt/hole alignment is very tight and putting the two granite clam shell halves back together could be unnecessarily challenging.
Pricing: Expensive but in line with luxury ultra performance ambition, competitive in most aspects with components double or more its price
Application conditions: None that are apparent but this converter did fail to lock to an S/PDIF signal output from Zanden Audio's Model 2000p transport. Couldn't determine cause. Locked without issue to Ancient Audio Lektor Prime which uses the same Philips CDMPRO2 transport the Zanden does. Locked without issue to any other in-house CD player with digital output.
Final comments & suggestions: Unusual 13cm footer height limits placement to a component rack's top shelf unless sufficient clearance exists in lower shelves which still makes for odd appearance. Solution: to offer optional short footers of conventional 1" height to give owner more placement options and standardize appearance.