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With plenty of goose down. To my ears added warmth and fluffiness from further preamp glass were definitely undesirable. Hence the 6SN7-based ModWright and 12AU7-fitted Concert Fidelity linestages were out. To still add remote volume over DAC-direct mode could have either run my Esoteric C-03 or Bent Audio Tap X passive. Given the remainder of the system—ModWright KWA-100SE amp and AudioSolutions Rhapsody 200 speakers—the passive with autoformer volume control [left] was the most copasetic.
Reading between the lines you'll already suspect that the TAD-1 didn't begin to rewrite my ambivalence about glowing bottles at the source. Compared to the very quick yet properly embodied Metrum Hex converter which had just vacated the rack, the inevitable shift introduced by any new component hit both the plus and minus columns of the ledger. To my ears the latter simply weighed in more heavily and quite literally so. Stage lighting dimmed in general but particularly so at the rear. Effervescent top-end sparkle, cymbal shimmer and leading-edge glitter on Angelo Debarre's Manouche guitar toned down.
Midband mass toned up. The upper bass plumped up too. Performer outlines softened and the impression of sharp separation and high image specificity within individuated space bubbles mellowed. In a recent amp review I'd written of "a very physical energetic youthful sound, not a mellower lazier more aged slower version". I'd penned the first half of that description for said amp. The second half now applied to the British valve converter. It had Keith Jarrett trade up to a Bösendorfer on his down-tempo home-recorded Jasmine duets with Charlie Haden on ECM.

This meant more deeply saturated colors, more wood and less metal. Still on piano, this was confirmed with E.S.T.'s Live in Hamburg where rapid alternating fingers on the same key were less glassy and jagged chord accents less wiry and more rotund. Used to and fond of the 6SN7 in top Psvane form, Ten Audio's use reached deeper into the euphonic drawer than ModWright. Remembering in this context one of Kondo lover and UK importer Kevin Scott's favorite hifi terms as succulent and one of his most critical as monochromatic seemed very apt. The TAD-1 deliberately plays to that aesthetic. It is succulent and most definitely not monochromatic. Here dynamic expressiveness with typical speakers will come foremost from mass rather than speed - in wideband speakers terms more Zu, less Rethm.

Audiophilleo 2 USB bridge with split KingRex uArt cable, power leg in Bakoon's BPS-02 endless battery supply

With a softer focus on the elements of pace, rhythm and timing, what subjective listening hones in first are textures, timbres, a denser musical weave and a fatter lazier gestalt that isn't hurried. It takes up more time. Needless to say that's not about fixed metronomic time or slowed-down RPM—which would shift musical keys—but subjective time. Think evening rather than morning. The bio rhythm is slower, the activity of the day just a memory and your desire is for indulgence, relaxation and repose rather than edge of seat. When young, we're impressed by dazzling displays of manual dexterity and speed. As we grow older, we're impressed more by less where silences and pauses are given their due. Now slower lyrical cuts on a mixed album become more attractive. The TAD-1 sounds like it was designed/voiced by such a mature older man and for this type of audience.

Quad-core iMac with OS on SSD, library on 2TB HDD, Audirvana 2.4 in integer/direct mode and memory play

It goes without saying that one may play all types of music. Such descriptions are nothing but a sketch of a component's core quality or feel in human personality terms easily related to. With gear of this caliber one expects no overt deviations from neutrality. It's not a loudspeaker whose basic category suffers far higher distortion and nonlinearities than all others. The usual fascination with frequency response aberrations thus has little to report. Even so personality remains. Here the mere presence of six tubes and their old-fashioned power supply shows great deliberation to create this personality. To fully manifest requires proper warm-up for each session, at least 30 minutes but one hour seemed even better to fully firm up and flesh out. Trying 176.4kHz+ tracks with a proper 24/192 USB bridge elicits nothing. Your software player sees the USB receiver to continue streaming at high rates. It won't stop nor will it automatically downsample. The DAC simply won't process the signal but kick in again once streaming reverts to 24/96 or lower.

Conclusion. Competition in this sector has become a whole lot fiercer with Oppo's new BDP-105 universal player and the first comprehensive after-market modifications for it. ModWright's 5-tube mod with outboard power supply and twin 6SN7 in the main unit sells for a comparatively paltry $2.295. That's for the complete player which offers 24/192 async USB and coaxial digital inputs and of course plays CD, DVD audio and video, SACD and BluRay. Here the British machine becomes hopelessly outfeatured and devalued but that would be true for most. It's corporate giant with entrenched global infrastructure versus tiny startup cottage industry maker. It's a different page in the hifi playbook. Different rules, different buyers.

In the well-to-do specialist sector, the TAD-1 is tailor-made for valve lovers who decided that line-level glow suits them better than speaker-level glow because it already delivers the full sonic goods whilst sticking to transistor amps. If you don't mind walking to the rack each time you change volume, this converter's analog volume can replace a preamp. It's not a fashionably dubious deck with basic valve buffer tacked to the outputs. It's a ground-up and bona fide six-valve preamp circuit with proper 4V+ output which simply integrates D/A conversion in the same case. That's why the lack of motorized pot with even a basic wand is curious. Laying out 10 grand American in 2013 begs for a rethink on said feature so it also interfaces like an upscale preamp. €7.650 (figures based on the mid January 2013 exchange rate for British pounds) for a converter becomes a serious choice when a 24-bit/96kHz ceiling could leave in the cold more than one prospective buyer otherwise in love with the sound. That would reflect on a product genesis which began as one man's quest to please himself. Going commercial only occurred after the fact. Sonically the Ten Audio TAD-1 is for those who consider digital too pale, needly and pixilated; who find it not substantial and robust enough; who wish for more lyricism and less frontal attack; who think fascination with hyper resolution barks up the wrong tree; and who above all crave textural succulence and a palette of autumnal rich colors.

Postscript: When Sabih called to organize return shipping, he mentioned in passing that Ten Audio had 17 orders for their TAD-1 already. Gregor's design choices clearly resonate to demonstrate how firm sonic vision executed properly to communicate strongly always finds recognition and an appreciative audience.
Ten Audio responds:
We would like to thank you for taking the time to review our product. As a small company just starting out, we were thrilled to be included. Our engineer Gregor has made the adjustments you suggested, creating an alternative called TAD-1S which features more connectivity options including USB and is 192kHz sample-rate enabled. The RRP price has been reset to the originally intended £4.950 for both products.
Jacqueline Read and Gregor Szymczyk, Ten Audio Ltd

Ten Audio Ltd. website