• Taz

My End-Game Desktop Audio System!

I think I've finally reached my end-game for a desktop audio system...until the inevitable next upgrade! Many, many years ago (somewhere around 2008) I had a modest desktop audio system system that was headphones-based. Back then it comprised the following components:

  • Windows-based computer

  • Music in iTunes

  • S/PDIF Toslink connection to a Beresford TC-7510 DAC

  • Little Dot MkIII valve headphone amplifier

  • Sennheiser HD-595 over-ear headphones

The DAC was highly rated for its day and the sound quality was better than I had ever experienced before.


And then the inevitable quest for better and better sound quality led me into upgrading everything several times over over the last 13-14 years. I also wanted to add speaker playback capability for the times when I didn't want to listen with headphones.


Fast forward to August 2021 and I'm finally content with the sound. It's at the point where deficiencies in the recording and mastering of songs are glaringly laid bare, and that's actually a bad thing as some songs now sound awful!


As of August 2021, my desktop system comprises:

  • iMac running Audirvana Studio

  • Gustard A18 MQA DAC

  • Ruark Audio MR1 Mk2 active speakers

  • BK Electronics XLS-200 FF subwoofer

  • Burson Soloist 3X Performance headphone amplifier

  • Audeze LCD-X (2021) planar magnetic headphones

  • Moon Audio Black Dragon headphone cable

My music consists of local FLAC files and TIDAL HiFi streaming. The Gustard A18 DAC is connected via balanced XLR cables to the Burson Soloist 3XP headphone amplifier. The headphone cable is 4-pin balanced XLR.


The speakers are on Nordell Audio foam isolation pads which are configured to tilt to the speakers slightly upwards. The speakers are toed-in towards my listening position.


Audirvana Studio

In terms of music playback software, I can wholeheartedly recommend Audirvana Studio. I've used the older Audirvana 3.5 and Amarra Luxe for the last few years, but Audirvana Studio produces a noticeable improvement in sound quality over those two music playback apps.

Here's a couple of screenshots showing a TIDAL Masters track being decoded (I have MQA passthrough enabled so the DAC acts as a full MQA Decoder):

Audirvana Studio has a large number of configurable options available, with the ability to apply EQ (signal processing), upsampling (via SoX or R8Brain), and volume levelling. I tend to use it with as little alteration to audio stream as possible, unless I'm listening via headphones when I occasionally apply some EQ correction to the Harman curve.

It can analyse a song to see if it is really HD (Hi-Res).

One of the best functions is the ability to use EQ plug-ins. I wanted to EQ some of my headphones to Oratory1990's EQ curves and purchased the Voxengo PrimeEQ plugin, which works great with Audirvana Studio.

The integration with TIDAL is acceptable, but not great. This is an area where Audirvana Studio can be improved. For example, My Daily Discovery and the Mixes & Radio features are missing. For those, I need to revert to the TIDAL desktop app. However, TIDAL still works well in Audirvana Studio if you mostly stick to playlists.

A fantastic feature of Audirvana Studio is the Radios and Podcasts that are available to stream. In particular, the high quality (FLAC) radio broadcasts.

There are several ways to narrow down radio stations. For example, local radios.

Here I've selected radio stations in Dubai, UAE.

Whilst here I've selected podcasts in the Russian language.

Finally, here I've selected podcasts in London, United Kingdom.

Audirvana Studio is on a subscription-based pricing model. The sound quality is outstanding from it. Whilst not as flexible as Roon, it serves my purposes very well.


More information on Audirvana Studio can be found here:


https://audirvana.com/studio/


Gustard A18 MQA DAC

I managed to get the Gustard A18 DAC before stock ran out at the beginning of 2021 due, to some extent, to the fire in the AKM factory that produces the AK4499 DAC chipset used in the A18.

It's an outstanding DAC with plenty of input and output options. And it comes a remote control.

Whilst the Gustard A18 is no longer available, more information about it can be found here:


https://shenzhenaudio.com/products/gustard-dac-a18-ak4499-balanced-dac-lme49860-6-decoder-with-remote-control


Ruark Audio MR1 Mk2 Active Speakers

These little gems are sold as Bluetooth speakers which is doing them some injustice. I don't use the Bluetooth inputs on these at all. The sound quality produced by these speakers is very good. Ruark Audio is a family-owned British HiFi company manufacturing some very aesthetically-pleasing audio products. More information on Ruark Audio can be found here:


https://www.ruarkaudio.com


They are very diminutive speakers so are ideal for a desk. The sound quality improved a little by placing them on foam isolation pads.

I've connected the DAC to them via a twin-RCA to a stereo 3.5mm cable. They provide a subwoofer output.


BK Electronics XLS-200 FF Subwoofer

This subwoofer sits hidden away under my desk. It's manufactured by the British company, BK Electronics, that specialises in subwoofers. It has numerous tuning options that needed to be tweaked over a period of several weeks so that the bass notes blended in perfectly and augmented the Ruark MR1 Mk2 speakers.

I'm a firm believer that a subwoofer isn't there to pump out wall-shaking levels of bass, but is there to just support the main speakers on the lower end of the frequency curve.


More information on BK Electronics can be found here:


http://www.bkelec.com


The original XLS-200 FF subwoofer, which I have, has been superceded by the Mk2 version which is not much different in specification:


https://www.bkelec.com/HiFi/Sub_Woofers/XLS200.htm


Burson Soloist 3X Performance Headphone Amplifier

This headphone amplifier replaced my previous Arcam rHead, which itself was an excellent headphone amplifier. It's manufactured by an Australian company, Burson Audio.

The Soloist 3XP takes things to another level and can also act as a preamplifier.

It is capable of producing very high output levels of Class A output and is a discrete design. It does run very, very hot! Luckily there is a power switch on the front panel to turn it off when I'm not using it. The downside to this is that it does take a while after powering on to reach its peak sound quality.


It provides a degree of future-proofing by allowing the user the ability to do 'op-amp rolling' whereby the stock Burson V6 Vivid op-amps can be replaced. I imagine that's a bit like 'tube-rolling' in the world of tube/valve amplifiers.


Note: The display on the Soloist 3XP is not damaged in the above pictures. It's just the way the way the pictures came out due to the refresh cycle in the display!


More information on the Burson Soloist 3X Performance can be found here:


https://www.bursonaudio.com/product/soloist-3x-performance/


Audeze LCD-X (2021) Planar Magnetic Headphones

These are my first pair of planar magnetic headphones. I've got a growing collection of headphones and have been extremely happy with my dynamic-driver Beyerdynamic T1 Gen2 over-ears which feature Beyerdynamic's Tesla driver technology, but was curious about planar magnetics. Hence, I bought these Audeze LCD-X headphones.

I bought these from the Audeze range as they are relatively easy to drive so I can use them with my portable DAP (a Cayin N6ii with R01 R2R module) as well. In fact, on paper, they;re one of the easiest to drive planar magnetic headphones available. However, they really shine when used with a quality headphone amplifier.

I had been listening to them for a few weeks with my Arcam rHead headphone amplifier and the sound was really good. Paired with the Burson Soloist 3XP headphone amplifier, the sonic performance is elevated to a new level. Instruments are better defined, timbre is improved and the sound is more airy and effortless.

I contacted Audeze Support to get the manufacturing date and frequency response graph of my specific pair of LCD-Xs. Audeze Support was superb! Here's the FR curve for my headphones.

By all accounts, that's a pretty good frequency response chart!

I've used a few cables with them so far: the stock 1/4-inch single-ended cable, a 4.4mm Pentaconn terminated cable for use with my DAP and a balanced 8-core OFC copper cable terminated in a 4-pin XLR connector.

My end-game cable is the Moon Audio Black Dragon balanced 4-pin XLR cable which is covered in the next section.