It felt like just a few years ago that Xuanqian Wang had contacted me to review AURALiC's maiden product. Being a top member in the world circumnavigator club—the air miles this brand ambassador collects to attend hifi shows 'round the globe shows are weighty—Xuanqian had managed to establish AURALiC in seemingly record time. At $3'495, their Vega DAC had become a benchmark. With today's D1 at $9'000, COS Engineering aim a lot higher right out of the gate. Behind a very recognizable Joseph d'Appolito design consultant, speaker house Usher has already shown how such a positioning out of Taiwan can work. With COS meanwhile, no famous Western designer lends his name to create instant cred. They would have to rely solely on their own wits and putting in the time. Perhaps they'd take a cue from Xuanqian 'I'm not married' Wang about consistent personal promotion in all the major markets. After all, build it and they'll come is a very weak recipe for success in today's overcrowded market for upscale fi. That's particularly apt when the best-selling market for pricey hifi is Asia but not for Asian-made goods. The nouveau-riche in Russia too clamour for costly luxury goods but those must arguably be Western or US made. In short, COS Engineering have their work cut out. Posh looks are a very legitimate draw. But as Gato Audio from Denmark demonstrate, that needn't be bundled with high prices. That's relevant when in 2014's DAC sector, top performance decks from the likes of Aqua Hifi, AURALiC, Lindemann, Metrum and Resonessence can be had for $5'000 or less. Having reviewed all of those, I felt relatively well informed on what a twice/thrice-priced contender would have to offer beyond trick optics to justify its sticker. Would Maggie have been better off with Stephæn after all?

Remote wand belly up to show off its shape. The USB 1.0/2.0 toggle is a life saver for reviewers with Windows computers not fond of installing new drivers for each DAC coming through. Coffee cup by Nestlé.

To be sure, Aqua and Metrum don't do any volume control. AURALiC and Resonessence stick to Sabre's on-chip digital option. Of these five, only Norbert Lindemann's musicbook:15 does analog volume with matching analog inputs. Then it adds very good headfi plus CD spinning but only wants €3'200* for being made in Germany. Though looking different from the COS, it's the top looker of my bunch: no fasteners on the front, sides or top; a very useful display; plenty of menu adjustments; an engraved logo on the top. Its big volume wheel also mounts flush but horizontal à la Bakoon AMP-12R. With the D1 scheduled for delivery one day after I wrote this, I was frankly a bit worried for it. Having reviewed the $7500 Meitner and €20'000 Nagra, I'm not one of those who perceives big improvements beyond the digital decks in my comfort zone. If the D1 acted accordingly, the main diff would really be paid-for optical favours. Nothing wrong there. Bang & Olufsen naysayers would say that the Danes have built an entire empire on sex appeal. Combining performance with top looks to bridge lifestyle and audiophilia is, at least in my book, the new frontier in our sector. Where would the D1 fall on that axis?

* Another deck which offers analog volume and one analog input on RCA plus very good looks is Simon Lee's April Music Eximus DP1 for $2'995 from South Korea. It does however lack remote control over its volume which many, myself included, consider vital for true preamp replacement. For another upscale hifi brand from Taiwan, think Arte Forma Audio who make both solid-state and tube electronics.

Once unpeeled from its tight-fitting foam caps and slipped out of its grey cloth bag, the D1's fit'n'finish peaked beyond anything I'd seen in a very long while. My wife referred to the hewn-from-solid appearance and matte finish as icy. As always, emotional reactions are in the eye of the beholder. Where Wow Audio's far louder metal work had invited the obvious comparisons to Jeff Rowland, COS Engineering's ultra-fine sand-blasted finish spoke to far quieter far older money which no longer fancies the distinction of flash. Whilst not sharp enough to really cut yourself on, the edges and fitting tolerance were a few - um, cuts above normal. Just as I was going to write them up a ticket for functionality limited to the remote—which, if the batteries die, can leave one in a lurch—I learnt that pressing on the volume knob duly awakens this silvery vault from standby. Subsequent short presses toggle sequentially through the inputs, a longer one reverts to standby. No ticket then for pushing minimalism too far. Only a really fat one for excessive speeding on the extreme finish autobahn.

Insert: volume maxed out; main: USB selected.

With one of just two hex bolts resisting removal due to a stripped head, I couldn't pull the top cover back to free it from its invisible latches. My immediate show would be limited to admiring the half circle of 25 tiny white LEDs come to life, then reduce to seven evenly spaced dots to signify the selectable inputs, with the first one blinking as set by default. Memorize how 1-7 are assigned on the back: 1 for USB, 2+3 for optical, 4+5 for coax, 6 for RCA, 7 for XLR. Once the desired input is set, a relay will click. When that dot blinks, you're a go. Increasing or decreasing volume alights all the LEDs in a smile upon which, in brighter dots as a longer or shorter stretch, level confirms visually. Very simple, very classy. The FMJ remote wand follows suit with just six rectangular controls for standby, mute, ± source and ± volume. A single good-sized slotted bolt affixes the battery-chamber lid on the back for easy removal. Subtly faceted and sloping up to be thicker in the hand than on the top, its form factor is another nod at subdued high style. Even the four pointy footers are impeccably turned. Someone at COS has/is quite the metalurge. To study inner values, I petitioned Maggie Chern for some high-resolution photos from their end. First impressions? Born fully mature, from very rich parents with excellent taste. Definite COS for envy!