- Feb 21, 2007
Ever spend good money on a new CD player, USB DAC, music streamer, etc, only to find it doesn't make much of an improvement in your system? I know I have, and it isn't fun. Often times the attempted upgrade feels more like a side grade, a minor change that probably isn't worth the effort or cost. I've spoken to dozens or even hundreds of folks over the years who have experienced this same situation.
This may be one reason why the market has really embraced the various and relatively affordable tweaks out there. I'm not talking green pens and magic rocks, but actual hardware accessories designed to improve the sound of your existing gear. These tend to sell in the $100-400 range (give or take) which, if they actually work, might make them a better value than replacing your entire DAC/streamer/etc. Or at least a worthy alternative.
I've achieved excellent results from adding gizmos like the BMC PureUSB1 or Wyred 4 Sound Recovery to various configurations throughout my home - often matching (and sometimes even exceeding) the benefits obtained by swapping in a more expensive DAC or player. Consequently, these tend to be the things I recommend when friends or readers ping me about potential upgrades. Favorites, aside from the previously mentioned BMC and W4S units, include the Matrix Audio X-SPDIF II, the Iso Regen, and several of the iFi gadgets - the iPurifier 3, iSilencer3.0 and DCPurifier 2 all come to mind.
There are various principles at play in these units. Some clean up a noisy USB signal, others reduce overall jitter, and some filter incoming power. Certain units even do more than one thing at a time. My experience is that these devices have the potential to improve many/most systems - not every device will work in every configuration, but that's where the lower cost of entry comes in handy compared to spending more on a whole new component. The approach focuses on extracting the full potential of your current gear, which seems like a good thing regardless of your source costing $500 or $5,000.
I'm writing all this because I've stumbled upon another device which, while costing more than most others in this category, seems to be proportionally more effective at improving my system. It's called the Titans Audio Lab Helen ($1,499), and it has surpassed my expectations by a substantial amount.
The Titans Audio Lab Helen is essentially another take on the reclocking/signal enhancing themes we've encountered elsewhere over the years - and that's not at all a bad thing. The theory centers around reducing jitter, enhancing clock accuracy, and improving overall signal integrity. This is accomplished via powerful FPGA processing and a proprietary custom PLL circuit with femtosecond-level accuracy and a unique synchronized design. The company discusses their technology here while going into more details here, complete with measurements. Of particular note is the fact that the Helen removes jitter well below 100Hz which other devices supposedly don't touch - this is claimed to be a critical region in which jitter is more detrimental compared to higher frequencies. That means adding the Helen to your chain will theoretically bring an improvement to most any setup.... I've put that to the test and will discuss it shortly.
I actually picked up the Helen as something of a review tool. I'm sure readers can see the utility in a device with tons of inputs and outputs, which possibly boosts performance or at the very least doesn't cause any degradation to the sound. Feed it with a signal in any one of 4 major formats - AES, Toslink, coaxial, or I2S (HDMI), and the Titan will spit out a cleaner version of that same signal in AES, Toslink, coax, I2S, or BNC. Note that all 5 of those outputs remain active at the same time, meaning I can feed as many as 5 DACs at once for comparison purposes.
Astute readers may have noticed a lack of USB in my list of inputs above. That's right - Helen is not a USB to SPDIF converter, despite the overwhelming popularity of those units these days. In contrast, finding conceptually similar non-USB jitter reduction devices almost requires a time machine: vintage gems like the Genesis Digital Lens and units from Camelot, Audio Alchemy, and Monarchy Audio come to mind. The only somewhat recent entry I can think of is the Empirical Audio Syncro-Mesh, itself being approximately 7 years old at this point. I'm probably forgetting a few models but you get the idea - this category isn't as packed as it used to be, so I was intrigued to hear how things may have improved with a state-of-the-art modern unit.
Titans Audio seems to indicate their device is not just meant to be a bandage for poor quality sources, but rather that it can improve things even when using a quality transport and a high-end DAC. To test their theory I went straight to some rather nice gear:
Oppo UDP-205 player (as transport, coaxial out)
Meitner MA-1 DAC
Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amp
Audeze LCD-3 headphones
Cabledyne Silver Reference coaxial digital cables
Cabledyne Silver Reference RCA interconnects
Audio Art power1 ePlus AC cables
Audio Art HPX-1SE headphone cable
Without the Helen in the chain, this is a fine system. It has abundant detail without being overdone, pleasing tonal accuracy, and authoritative impact. Inserting Helen in the signal chain keeps all those things intact but adds a significantly more well defined soundstage, more explosive dynamics, a touch more microdetail, and a general sense of ease which makes the presentation flow smoothly. It's like Titans Audio read my mind to discover what I felt were the shortcomings of the system, then enhanced it accordingly. Once I heard the improvement, I didn't want to go back.
The upgrade seems very clearly worthwhile in the context of a system costing this much. It actually reminds me of the results I hear using my best disc-based transport - the Simaudio Moon Orbiter. It's an older but still excellent player using a heavily modified Pioneer Elite transport, and in my experience it rivals the best spinners I've tried from Esoteric and CEC. The Orbiter sold for over $7k new and my intent was for it to remain in the system indefinitely as the last disc-based player I'll ever need.
I investigated further by adding the Orbiter into this same system, using a separate Cabledyne AES cable from player to DAC. Running the Oppo/Meitner duo with Helen in the chain gives me a similar but slightly more noticeable upgrade compared to what I get from the Orbiter/MA-1 combo. The soundstage improvement is specifically more obvious - the Helen opens things up for a more spacious, 3D presentation. That's pretty significant in my book considering the differences in MSRP between the two disc spinners, compared to the price of the Helen. I'll still keep the Orbiter around but at this point it seems a bit superfluous.
Next I went in a totally different direction, swapping in an ancient LG Blu-Ray player which I'm sure sold for under $100 when new. You know the type - captive power cable, unbelievably light weight, and minimal connectivity... I'm talking just Ethernet, HDMI, and a Toslink jack, and that's it. Certainly the design has no regard for digital audio output quality - the power supply, the disc drawer itself, the clocking solution, and pretty much everything else about the player is decidedly low budget. Take it as a worst case scenario as far as high-quality audio transports go. The rest of the system was as follows:
Wyred 4 Sound 10th Anniversary Limited Edition DAC
Niimbus Audio US4+ headphone amp
Focal Utopia with Moon Audio Silver Dragon balanced headphone cable
Cabledyne Silver Reference XLR interconnects
Audio Art power1 ePlus AC cables
Signal Cable Optical Cables
Paired with the Wyred 4 Sound 10th Anniversary Limited Edition DAC, the little LG spinner makes a pretty terrible transport. This was proven by the fact that I had to turn up jitter reduction in the DAC's menu almost full blast just to get a stable/consistent signal lock. The resulting sound, through the supremely resolving Niimbus/Utopia combo, was a mixed bag. In terms of frequency response, things were great - the DAC still managed surprising dynamics, a punchy low end response, and reasonably engaging mids as well. The upper registers were smooth but a little glazed over compared to what I know this rig is capable of. The main drawback was a sense of flatness, where everything sort of jumbled together in a mush of sound. No depth, no layering, just a blob of congealed instruments. Good enough to enjoy? Sure... but a far cry from ideal. I consider this DAC world class and I know it is capable of much more.
Splicing in the Helen via Toslink cable on the incoming and outgoing ports fixed this right up. In fact I was able to turn the DAC's jitter reduction all the way down with no loss of signal lock. The resulting sound was even more explosive, with a far more delicate, silky top end, and superior midrange projection. The key shortcomings were handily eliminated - layering and depth returned, making the whole presentation sound spacious and lifelike. What started as a good system that was short changed by a decidedly low-end transport ended up being very well balanced, despite the very pedestrian roots of the Blu-Ray player.
Would it make more sense to spend the money on a better transport in the first place, instead of using Helen? Possibly. I'd judge that based on ergonomics/user experience just as much as sonic results. If adding a higher-end file-based player substantially expands user enjoyment, and also sounds great, then that would be the way to go. However if the user prefers working with discs anyway then Helen will do as good or better than almost any optical-media-based transport out there.
I went on and on testing out different transport and DAC combinations to see how far I could take things with the Helen in the chain. Transports included the Nativ Vita music server, the Cayin iDAP-6, an Aurender N100C, and various portables with digital outputs from Fiio, Cayin, iBasso, and more. DACs included the previously mentioned Meitner and Wyred 4 Sound units, plus an RME ADI-2 DAC, a Resonessence labs Mirus Pro Signature, the Massdrop Airist R-2R DAC, and the iFi Pro iDSD. Amplification was split between the previously mentioned Pass and Niimbus units, as well as the beastly Cayin HA-300 tube amp. In short, I covered all the bases for transport and DAC quality, whilst monitoring through some of the highest performance amps in existence.
The takeaway seems to be that in almost every case, the Helen is desirable in the chain. It primarily tends to bring out more space, improved layering, more "room feel" if that makes sense, while also impacting things like detail retrieval, dynamics, and tonal weight, though to a lesser extent. In some cases I also noted a significant improvement in treble clarity and realism - things that had sounded a bit etched, overly "digital", or just off in some way, snapped into focus with a new sense of clarity and realism. But this is all a generalization, and it really does come down to individual DAC/transport combinations to determine the final effect.
Interestingly, I felt that while it did make low-end transports far more tolerable, I ended up getting more benefit when using gear that was already quite good. This is tough to quantify but it might have to do with going that last little bit from "really good" to "exceptional", where something like the old Samsung Blu-Ray player went from "poor" to "surprisingly good". Also the better transports such as my Nativ Vita are good enough to allow the Helen to run in "Precision" mode, while lesser transports use "Normal". You can read their site for the technical differences but Precision mode does seem to unlock even more of the magic - regardless of what the cause is.
I also learned that it really doesn't matter what sort of jitter-reduction methods a DAC manufacturer claims to have implemented - some DACs respond better to the Helen than others, and it isn't always intuitive based on transport quality either. My "old" Anedio D2 (~7 years is an eternity in the DAC realm) has heroic jitter reduction measures built in - I've discussed it extensively with the designer and know how thorough he was in the process. It tends to show minimal changes whether feeding it via USB from a basic laptop, or running an expensive audiophile-caliber disc player or music server. Yet I hear a distinct improvement when connected to the Helen. This tells me there was some stone left unturned with regards to jitter reduction - perhaps it relates to the frequencies involved, as jitter in different regions impacts the sound in different ways. I won't claim to understand it completely but I sure do enjoy the improvement it brings.
Odds and Ends
One obvious quirk of the Helen is that it takes a bit of time to lock on to an incoming signal. Normal mode takes a couple seconds, while Precision mode takes approximately 12 seconds. That's a long time to wait. If you shuffle play a bunch of tracks, with some being 16-bit/44.1KHz, some 24/96, some 24/192, etc, it will surely be an issue. Each time the sample rate stops or changes, the signal interrupts, and Helen needs to re-acquire a lock. Or at least that's how it plays out with most transports. If you stick with one album at a time, straight through, then it won't be an issue with most devices (I've had a few which interrupt the stream between tracks but most supply a steady stream of zeros to maintain signal lock). I like to jump around quite a bit through my library, which contains all sorts of resolutions/sample rates. This was going to be a problem.
A discussion with the Titans Audio North American distributor (he hasn't updated his site to show the Helen at this moment, but it should be there soon) yielded excellent advise - combine the Helen with a USB to SPDIF converter, as those tend to supply a constant signal regardless of what their connected computer/music server is doing. I tried multiple converters and confirmed this to be true in all the models I have on hand, making the signal lock delay irrelevant. Something quality like an Audiobyte Hydra Z can run in Precision mode for maximum SQ, even when using a relatively basic computer front end.
In the true spirit of tweaking and leaving no stone left unturned, I tried swapping out the included switch mode power supply for a linear model. Titans Audio recommends anything between 9v-15v, with 1A being minimum but 2A recommended. I went ahead and used my Wyred 4 Sound PS-1 with the High Current amp module which easily satisfies the 2A suggestion. The PS-1 allowed me to switch between 9v, 12v, and 15v, to see if it matters either way. Not only did I not hear a difference when switching voltages... I didn't hear a difference compared to using the stock switch mode power supply either. I switched over to the excellent Keces P8 PSU and got the same result - no appreciable difference whatsoever. As satisfying as it feels to have a beefy linear supply in the mix, I just couldn't hear any difference, even with extremely careful listening using reference tracks.
Titans Audio Lab says their switch mode PSU is actually rather expensive, and is commonly used in dedicated phase noise testing equipment. They do not recommend bothering with "upgrades" and after my experimentation I tend to agree with them.
Last bit of info - Titans uses their own proprietary pinout for I2S over HDMI. It does not appear compatible with PS Audio, Wyred 4 Sound, or any of the other main brands using HDMI for I2S. This is a bit frustrating as it has the highest DSD playback capabilities and can often sound superior to the other options. Note that Helen does feature a proprietary 4-wire SMA I2S output which I'm told will be compatible with the DAC they have in the works. Titans seems to have a low opinion of I2S over HDMI, saying it loses out on various benefits of their dedicated solution. That's great, but I would love to have seen them use the common PS Audio HDMI configuration anyway so more folks could take advantage of that. But this is certainly not a problem unique to the Helen - having a transport and DAC from different brands work together using I2S via HDMI seems to be more the exception than the rule.
Regardless of these minor design quirks, the Titans Audio Lab Helen remains a phenomenal way to upgrade almost any system. I threw it in a $1200 setup, followed by a $20k system, and it improved both of them significantly. Considering the performance plus the superb build quality and fetching aesthetic, I highly recommend the Titans Audio Labs Helen for anyone looking to improve their system in a tangible way.