My thoughts on the sonics of the AK120 vs. the RWAK120-S (long, feel free to skip the preamble or the whole thing for that matter).
Ok, after discussing the pros and cons of various aspects of the Red Wine Audio mods to the AK120 (ad nauseam), I’m finally ready to say a few words about the sonics from my perspective. I've had the unit since last Thursday and have been playing it pretty much non-stop.
Disclaimer 1: I’m relatively new to portable audio. For 25 years, I’ve been pursuing digital audio in my home system which is based around a highly modified Wadia 270se transport, a dCS Purcell Upsampler and Delius DAC, TacT 2.0s room correction, a Placette dual mono active preamp, Innersound Monoblock Amps feeding modified Martin Logan CLS IIz speakers. This is my personal reference. Most of my serious listening is done at home, either through the speakers, or from the headphone outlet of the Placette dual mono preamp to Sennheiser HD600 phones with Cardas single-ended cable, of course with room correction bypassed.
About 6 months ago, I decided I to get my CD collection digitized, and at that time after a good bit of research, I decided on a sound server. After hearing how good the sound was from the digital files on the sound server, I liked the idea of being able to take my music collection with me on the go. More research and I ended up with the AK120. For better or worse, and after discussion with Vinnie and Ray Samuels, I decided to go ahead and pursue Vinnie’s S-mod. To my knowledge, this is one of the first units he did.
On with the discussion:
Equipment: RWAK120-S, Senn HD600 with Cardas single ended termination, Ray Samuels RS-71a amp.
Source Material Utilized:
(1) 16/44.1 Steely Dan Katy Lied: a. Doctor Wu, b. Chained Lightning, c. Any World
(2) 16/44.1 Diana Krall Only Trust Your Heart: Only Trust Your Heart
(3) DSD Troy Bunnell Troy Bunnell Give Me One Good Reason to Stay
(4) 16/44.1 Hilary Hahn – Hilary Hahn/Barber & Meyer Violin Concertos Barber Violin Concerto
Disclaimer 2: I don’t still own an AK120 for a direct comparison. This is important. I very well might be biased! I’ve spent hard earned money on the upgrade and amp, so I may be primed to hear improvement regardless of what I’m actually hearing. I’m a big believer in blind A-B testing. I confirmed for myself that 32GB and 64GB microSD cards sound the same by listening blind to some of these tracks off of the different cards on the AK120. Blind testing is the gold standard and I haven’t been able to do it. If someone wants to send me his or her stock AK120 for a few days, I will be glad to do blind testing. However, I am NOT going to buy a second unit for this purpose. Having said that, I did listen to these very tracks over and over for about a solid month on the AK120. My comparative comments will have to rely on my memory.
Ok, here we go:
(1) The Steely Dan Tracks: I’ve been using three tracks on the album Katy Lied to test audio equipment for nearly 30 years. Yes I am old. I had several vinyl pressings and Japanese remastered CD’s of this album. I will draw your attention to a few elements on each track which you might want to listen to yourself. Doctor Wu - I believe this is an extremely difficult track for even a decent system to get right. The sounds I listen for are the chimes/tubular bells on the right at 0.16, Jeff Porcaro’s high hat cymbals and drum through the early parts of the track, and most importantly, Phil Woods incredible sax solo starting at 1:31. This was dropped into the mix, and it is difficult to balance the sax with the smooth vocals. Being one of my favorite tracks of all times, I listened to this dozens of times on the AK120 and now have listened dozens of times on the RWAK120-S. It sounds quite good on both, but frankly, the RWAK120-S sounds notably and audibly better to me. There is greater clarity and definition to the chimes; the image is wider and deeper with greater separation of instrumentation. But there is a real difference in the sax solo. On the stock AK120, the solo felt a bit like a studio take dubbed into the mix. With the S mod, the vocals and sax blend into a very realistic mix…you can feel the musicians playing together. My opinion is clear sonic superiority of the RWAK120-S here over the AK120. Next, listen to Chained Lightening, one of the best Steely Dan tracks of all time, but not my favorite. On this track, I listen for ambience and the snare drums. The more resolved a system, the greater the ambience and the greater the differentiation in vocals. There are a group of background singers. Through the AK120, there was not the degree of ambience or the clarity or separation of the background singers behind Fagen that I’m hearing through the modded unit. Did it sound good before? Yes. Is it better now? Yes. Finally, an incredible track that I can never get enough of is Any World. I have used this track to assess dynamics of my system every single time I have changed a component. There is great dynamic contrast in this song, and I believe the dynamic range of the modded unit takes advantage of this. There are also some very subtle instrumentations that were much easier for me to hear on the modded unit. I don’t care if you like Steely Dan or not, you can learn a lot about your home stereo, your portable setup, and your headphones by listening to these 3 tracks through various systems. For me, they are my guiding light.
(2) Let’s move on to the Diana Krall track. I like the way this was recorded. Right out of the gate you can hear some very telling subtleties such as the clarity of the piano, the pluck of the bass strings. Then you actually can hear Diana’s vocal chords resonate in this track! On less resolved systems I can hear a touch of unwanted silibance and can’t hear the subtle brush drumsticks and delicate cymbals. The S modded AK120 was hands down superior to the AK120. I think the track really points to the brilliance of Diana Krall and the ability of the RWAK120-S to bring it out.
(3) Here is one that I think is interesting for discussion. I’m including it because it’s relatively new and fresh, there aren’t tons of reviews and discussion floating around that bias people and it’s also available for free download. You can download it here: http://audiogate.bluecoastrecords.com/audiogate-free-downloads or if that doesn’t work, I’ll put a copy in my dropbox folder here: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/4991182/Troy%20Bunnell%20-%20Troy%20Bunnell%20-%2002%20-%20One%20Good%20Reason%20-%202-3.8MHz-DSF.dsf?dl=1 If you haven’t already downloaded this track, you should. It’s a DSD track. The clarity of the acoustic guitar, and the rasp and raw emotion in Troy Bunnell’s voice is stellar and very helpful in evaluating a setup. I downloaded this track shortly after I got the AK120 and listened to it a ton. I find the clarity and realism even better on the RWAK120-S. You can hear very interesting detail particularly in his fingernails moving across the guitar strings. Listen to the last second of the track. Remarkably recorded. Also listen to the echo in his voice when he announces tracks, a detail I hear with greater clarity in the modded unit.
(4) I’ll close with one of my favorite classical tracks. Hilary Hahn is from Baltimore where I live and I’ve followed her since she was child prodigy playing with the Baltimore Symphony. The first movt of the Barber Violin Concerto is one the most dynamic and complex pieces of music I have ever heard. The balance between the solo violin and orchestra, the sound stage, the prominent use of clarinet and oboe which are very hard to resolve reed wind instruments, and the rapidly fluctuating dynamics make this piece of music a real challenge. You can hear a resonance in the tympani that is quite striking. Frankly, the modded AK120 unravels this piece of music in a way that, in my opinion, is strikingly better than the stock unit.
As you can tell from the review, I love the mod. I can hear some of you saying, “…. he’s biased…. he paid for it…. he lost the ultra portability, etc.” Maybe, who knows. All I can say is I’ve had lots of pieces of audio equipment modified through the years. Some have been worth it, others not. But this is truly a stellar and noteworthy improvement.
I’m mostly focusing on sonics here, but I do notice the battery seems to be draining a touch faster. I’m listening to a lot of DSD so that may be playing a role. I plan to discuss it with Vinnie.
By the way, I have no affiliation with Vinnie, RWA, RSA, or anybody else.
If I can answer any questions, I’d be glad to.
Edited by harryb - 8/19/13 at 6:46pm