Time for some first impressions. Or actually, I feel it's still way too early even for first
impressions, but because I will be feeling that way for the coming months, I might as well get it out of the way now.
As said before, I'm using the Reference One in a very basic setup. Fed by a Pioneer hi-rez player (RCA -> BNC) and with RCA output to my Corda Opera amplifier.
Where to start? I could talk about definition, separation, instrument colour, acoustic cues, etc, but that all feels rather irrelevant, the Reference One seems to do these things as if they didn't pose a challenge for a DAC. They are so well done that they don't strike you as distinguishable properties anymore. Transparency indeed.
It's interesting that it always only strikes me in hindsight that I apparently was straining to hear certain things with previous equipment. It might be a very important aspect of good upgrades that they provide a more relaxing listening experience, that simply allows your mind to connect to the music more directly. Transparency again.
There is one aspect of the Reference One that really stands out for me. First of all, and what appears to be it's real "party-piece" is spaciousness. It happened to me quite a few times already that I put on a new cd, wearing the K500 headphones, and, for just a second, have to do a doubletake to check if I haven't accidentally switched on the large floorstanding speakers. It might go a little too far to say that, analogous to Peete's observation of his speakers disappearing, the Reference One makes my headphones disappear, but it comes close sometimes, remarkably close. An effect that's even very present with mono recordings.
Another thing is naturalness. Although I don't seem to suffer from the same sensitivity to digititis that Curra has, I'm hearing for the first time the full complexity of something like the sound of a grand piano or a violin. Voices have a richness and body that I hadn't even hoped could be realised by the redbook-format. But more than this is the simple fact that music through the Reference One speaks to me much more strongly and hits me that much harder emotionally.
It is usual with upgrades to talk about how your new purchase lets you hear certain things in your recordings that you hadn't heard before. That's not the case here, because I actually often have a hard time recognizing recordings that I thought were very familiar to me. They sound that different and new.
Usually that's a good thing, sometimes it is not. Sometimes you don't want to hear what's actually on the recording. One of my favourite opera recordings, Karajan's Turandot (DG) is revealed in all its early digital awfulness. And I shouldn't even speak of what horrors I encountered with some albums of extreme metal. Oh dear...
Usually what a reviewer says at this point is that the unit is 'unforgiving of bad recordings', but that wouldn't be the right way to put it. There seems to be a distinct dividing line among recordings, between "The Bad" and "The Ugly". I have plenty of bad recordings, take a good example like Mravinsky's 1952 recording of Shostakovich' Symphony #7 (BMG/Melodiya), not a good recording to begin with and to make matters worse it also has been 'cleaned' with the universally dreaded NoNoise process. But it doesn't sound 'bad' in the strict sense, actually it sounds much better and far more enjoyable than I've ever heard it. The same goes for another rather extreme example, Enrico Caruso's earliest recordings from 1902 (Naxos Historical). Yes, the surface noise of the shellacs is presented in just as much detail (if not more) as Caruso's voice, but once you listen through that you can discover a dimensionality in the recording that wasn't there before.
I feel like I've embarked on an unexpected voyage of discovery. And I have thousands of cd's to go.
That's it for now. Did you really expect it to be anything less than gushing?