Regardless of the type of music I listened to, the A10 performed wonderfully.

A10 Review - SoundStage! Hi-Fi

Listening

Because Tidal supports MQA and I have a Tidal subscription, I was able to stream MQA-encoded tracks as well as the regular “Red Book” CD tracks. With “Red Book” alone, I’ve found Tidal to be a tremendous value, and MQA ups the ante. I’ve heard plenty of people complain about the $19.99/month cost of a Tidal subscription (as opposed to $9.99/month for a standard subscription, with resolution topping out at 320kbps MP3s), but I’d easily spend at least that much each month on CDs or downloads.

While Internet Radio was compressed, it was great to be able to stream broadcasts without having to use a separate app, as I’d previously had to do. In fact, my only complaint about Internet Radio is that few of my favorite local stations are represented, something I hope will soon be rectified.

This second A10 was a previously used unit, which meant that no break-in should have been necessary. Nonetheless, for the first 30 minutes or so of operation, it sounded a bit thin and cool. Once it had fully warmed up, the sound was more fully fleshed out and warmer in tone, but just to be sure, before doing any serious listening I burned in the A10 with the “Full Glide Tone” from Cardas and Ayre Acoustics’ Irrational, But Efficacious! System Enhancement Disc, Version 1.2. Because I use an integrated amplifier with no preamp bypass, I was unable to evaluate the A10’s preamp stage; my comments about its musicality focus solely on its DAC function.

The A10 had a Goldilocks sound -- which I mean in the best possible way. Neither too relaxed nor too polite nor too in-your-face, the sound was completely natural and transparent, letting me focus on the music rather than the components. Soundstages were focused and broad, but not in a hyperreal fashion; this was especially noticeable with well-recorded live events.

Regardless of the type of music I listened to, the A10 performed wonderfully. Unlike some other components I’ve reviewed, it didn’t seem to favor one genre over another. Wall-of-sound hard rock sounded just as good as the quietest jazz piano trio or full orchestra.

Speaking of wall-of-sound rock, I came across the Black Crowes’ Amorica (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, American), and realized that I hadn’t heard it in years. This album announces itself with “Gone,” a furious, ass-kicking kiss-off, its first 1:48 minutes characterized by the dueling rhythm- and lead-guitar riffs of Rich Robinson and Marc Ford, overlaid with Chris Robinson’s lead vocal and Steve Gorman’s rock-steady drumming. When Johnny Colt’s bass kicks in at 1:49, this already forceful track is kicked up to the nth degree. To my mind, the hardest things for components to reproduce, regardless of genre, are rhythmically dense tracks, which can become almost thick and congealed, with subtle details lost in the hash. While Amorica is suitably crunchy and rhythmic, there was no harshness or flab -- more than any other hard rock I listened to, it underscored how well the A10 could handle this type of music.

With acoustic music, the A10 sounded fluid and dynamic, with natural ebb and flow, and substantial momentum and heft when called for. Pianist Keith Jarrett has long been a favorite artist of mine -- I have all of his live solo and trio recordings. At the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings (16/44.1 AIFF, ECM), a six-CD set by his Standards Trio, is one of his best, and has been in almost constant rotation in my system for the last 15 years. Musically and sonically, it’s one of my prized recordings, and the playing and improvising of Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Jack DeJohnette are joys to hear. Although virtually all of the tunes are jazz standards, these three virtuosos’ ability to improvise dramatically alters each familiar tune without turning it into a sonic mess. The A10 opened a window on their telepathic communication, revealing the deft, subtle adjustments they make on the fly. Track 1 on disc 1, Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” begins as a typical Keith Jarrett take on this beautiful song, but about 11 minutes in, the trio segues to and locks in on a jaunty, upbeat groove for the track’s remaining seven minutes. The A10 conveyed this transition as well as has any DAC in recent memory.

While MQA’s implementation and digital rights management have been controversial, the demos I’ve heard at retailers and audio shows have been impressive. But while MQA-encoded albums have been available from Tidal since the beginning of the year, until the A10 arrived, I hadn’t had a chance to hear any through my own system. The nice thing about Tidal is that, with most MQA titles, the original, usually remastered version is also available for streaming. In such instances -- e.g., the Led Zeppelin catalog -- the 24/48 MQA tracks had a more tactile quality than the 16/44.1 “Red Book” tracks. In the MQA version of “Good Times, Bad Times,” from Led Zeppelin (16/44.1 FLAC, Atlantic/Tidal), John Bonham’s hi-hat had a crisper edge and John Paul Jones’s bass lines were more fluid, in ways comparable to the 24/96 version of this recording from HDtracks. The Aurender was capable of displaying these differences easily.

Sometime in 1989, a friend gave me a cassette bootleg of the Grateful Dead’s 5/8/77 concert in Barton Hall, at Cornell University. I still have that tape -- the show was so good that I wore it out with constant playing. In the years since I’ve been able to stream the entire show from hosting sites on the Web, but still yearned for a high-quality soundboard mix. Late in the review period, the concert was at last officially released. Though it’s available as a 24/192 download, I opted to stream the 24/192 MQA version from Tidal. Whoa! Hearing this show at last in high-quality sound was a thrill I’ll remember for a long time. It left me completely satisfied, despite my not having sprung for the downloaded version. Long after the last note had faded to silence, I was still smiling.

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