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Review: Titans Audio Lab Helen jitter reducer/signal enhancer

Discussion in 'Dedicated Source Components' started by project86, Dec 8, 2018.
  1. project86 Contributor
    DSCF9460.jpg

    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.

    [​IMG]

    Design

    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.

    [​IMG]

    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.

    [​IMG]

    Listening

    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.

    [​IMG]

    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.

    [​IMG]

    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.

    [​IMG]

    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.

    [​IMG]

    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.

    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2018
  2. project86 Contributor
    Minor update - someone asked me about DSD capabilities, and how it works playing assorted PCM/DSD content with Helen in the chain.

    I can confirm Helen will handle DSD64 and DSD128 via DoP using AES or coaxial input/outputs. Toslink supposedly only goes to DSD64 but I haven't confirmed that myself. You'll need a DAC capable of accepting DoP over SPDIF - many of them won't, unless they are relatively recent models (maybe 2 years or less?). And even then, you're more likely to get compatibility from a Chinese brand than a North American product. Or at least that's been my experience - Cayin iDAC-6 and Yulong DA9 are a couple of Chinese models that happily accept DSD over SPDIF, while DACs from Benchmark, Resonessence Labs, Wyred 4 Sound, etc generally do not. I'm sure there are exceptions to that generalization though... I think the Mytek Brooklyn+ does at least DSD64 over DoP on the AES and coax inputs.

    Anyway, bottom line, you aren't giving up DSD capabilities when using this thing. Not that I play a ton of DSD anyway, but it's not something to worry about.
     
  3. project86 Contributor
    Another update (and Happy New Year to anyone reading this today!) - Titans Audio Lab will be hitting 2019 hard with multiple products in the works. So far I've heard mention of a DAC, USB to SPDIF converter, an extremely ambitious master clock device (metal work by the Swiss firm who builds for Nagra, if that helps paint a picture for you), and a headphone amplifier as well. Each of these is claimed to be something unique/special and never a "me too" product for the sake of filling out the equipment roster.

    I'll add more info when I get it, and eventually hope to audition some of the new gear when it becomes available. Meanwhile I purchased the Helen review unit as I can't imagine living without it.
     
  4. Thenewguy007
    Did you get to compare it to the Empirical Audio Syncro-Mesh or any other jitter reducer?
     
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2019
  5. project86 Contributor
    I had not yet finished at the time of the original write-up, so I did not go into any details. But now I'm pretty much done.

    Compared the Helen to a few classic devices in this category - the Monarchy Audio DIP, a Genesis Digital Lens, and a Perpetual Technologies P-1A with their Monolithic power supply (I think that's what they called it). These all seemed to perform best with obnoxiously bright 90s CD releases, which benefited from the slight "smoothing" that these all imparted on the system. Not rolling off highs, but just making them less metallic and edgy. It was welcome and could really be seen as an upgrade under the right circumstances. Anything other than that was hit or miss in terms of whether or not I prefer the device in the loop.... maybe they were more universally useful with vintage DACs but I can't say for sure.

    There really was no contest though. Helen was significantly better no matter the music or equipment being used. These older devices have their charm but technology has moved on, and Helen is about as close to a "night and day" upgrade as you'll get in this category.

    I finally got my hands on a Syncro-Mesh to compare directly to Helen. Unfortunately it was not in my own system, but at the home of a friend of a friend. Still, I brought Helen over and we swapped back and forth using some excellent gear (Levinson amplification, Salk SoundScape 12 speakers, various DACs from EMM Labs, Weiss, MSB, Zanden, and Berkeley). I believe the Syncro-Mesh was purchased mid-2018 so should probably be the latest version, and it had the OTL upgrade plus the matching Dynamo PSU - putting it very close to the Helen in terms of price.

    My takeaway was that the Syncro-Mesh was good at improving low and mid-range transports, but didn't make a noticeable impact on high-end devices. It was also more effective with the older DACs from Zanden and MSB which likely have inferior built-jitter rejection. With the newer DACs, it was much harder to notice a difference. We also heard a trend where the Empirical device gave a bit of a warmer, pleasing coloration across the board (assuming we noticed any change at all). This was fun but ultimately not something I want in my system.

    Meanwhile the Helen improved resolution, dynamics, and soundstage while making treble sound more natural (but not darker in the least), pretty much across the board. Not saying it makes all transports sound the same but they certainly matter less than with the Synro-Mesh. As much as the owner of this system liked euphonic coloration brought by the Empirical device, I think he is tempted to switch at this point.

    Obviously this is not definitive, just one experience using one (very nice) system and a specific Syncro-Mesh configuration. So take that for what it is worth.


    EDIT - forgot to mention, I brought over my Unique Melody Platform Pure 6 for testing as well. It's an older combo system using custom IEMs driven by a matching portable active DAC/amp box with fully active crossover (sort of like the original JH-3A was supposed to be). It is really susceptible to transport quality so I like to use it for this sort of thing.

    Again, the Syncro-Mesh was deliciously euphonic - thick, rich, a bit slow and veiled but really quiet fun to use. But the Helen was cleaner, significantly more expansive and open sounding, with more believable treble by a good margin. The Platform Pure 6 has flaws that can't be fixed regardless of transport quality, but the Helen brings it up to the highest level I've yet heard.
     
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2019
    Thenewguy007 likes this.
  6. Thenewguy007
    Definitely tempting. I was looking into Cybershaft platinum clock as a expensive tweak upgrade, but now I'm seriously considering this.

    Any idea if the inputs have galvanic isolation or if the i2s connections would work with any other device outside their own? No PS Audio compatibility, but what about the other companies that use i2S, like Audio-GD, HoloSpring, Denafrips etc...?

    Also is the official purchase page, the listing on audiogon, because I don't see it anywhere else to purchase?
     
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2019
  7. project86 Contributor
    Yeah I hear good things about the Cybershaft stuff, no personal experience though. I kinda dig the "hand crafted" nature of their product, with Kenji's one-man-show mentality and selecting of time-tested/proven crystal units for guaranteed results.

    Speaking of clocks - the next Titans Audio Lab product will be called Horea and supposedly beats Esoteric and dCS units for a lot less cash. Not sure about any further details like pricing, connectivity, clock outputs, etc. I don't currently run any gear that can take advantage of an external word clock, so I probably won't try it out, but will be interested to see how it ends up performing.

    Back to the Helen, I'm not sure about galvanic isolation. I didn't open up the device as it was just a review loaner, but now that I've purchased it for myself I can have a look when I get a chance. I also shot them an email to inquire about it. I don't always find galvanic isolation to be beneficial (depending on the design) but it's certainly something worth knowing. Will update when I confirm one way or the other.

    For HDMI I2S connection, I wouldn't count on it working with anything else at this point. When Helen first arrived I browsed as many pin diagrams as I could find online, and none of them seemed to match the Titans implementation. There's always a chance that I missed one (or more) so folks can double check if they have a particular interest... I only have PS Audio and Wyred4Sound DACs on hand so my personal knowledge kind of stops there.

    Here's the Helen pin diagram from the manual though.

    [​IMG]

    I said it before and will say again - this is my chief complaint about the Helen. Sort of a missed opportunity not to use one of the several semi-established I2S configurations. The company seems to really prefer their proprietary four-wire SMA solution - which is fine - but why bother including HDMI if it only works with their own future products.... and those also feature the four-wire SMA option as well? I see almost zero point in having a unique HDMI option in this case.

    Anyway, the North American distributor is http://highlanderme.com/ and you'll have to shoot him an email as the site isn't updated with Titans Audio gear yet. The guy is nice and very helpful though, a total audio nut who has owned/tried tons of gear so he knows what he is talking about.
     
  8. project86 Contributor
    Three quick updates to mention.

    1) Titans got back to me and confirmed the device has galvanic isolation for the entire signal path (isolation transformers). There was also mention of the power source being "isolated by 1500 volts of DC", which I take to mean the design is not so dependent on quality of power coming out of your wall. This could also partially explain the great result they achieve despite skipping a linear power supply.

    2) A friend mentioned the HDMI I2S output looks like it matches with his Gustard U16 DDC. I'm not much of a Gustard fan (after numerous bad experiences) and haven't paid a ton of attention to the U16, but that might be something to investigate. Maybe I was too hasty in my initial search where I thought I determined the Helen didn't match anything.

    3) The Horea Master Clock should be available next month. I hope to get further details on it as the launch approaches. Master Clock devices have never been widely used but I'd say there is more of a market for them recently. So it could be interesting depending on price and output capabilities.
     
  9. Thenewguy007
    So plugging, say a, PS Direcstream to the Helen via i2s & then to the Gustard DDC via i2s will work then?
     
  10. project86 Contributor
    I've confirmed that the Helen I2S is very different than PS Audio standard (also used by Wyred4Sound). So no way to use Helen with DACs from either of those brands. I'm not sure about the Gustard, you'd have to look into that more and confirm based on the pinout pic I posted above.

    If it did end up working with Gustard's format, the sequence would be Transport -> USB out to Gustard DDC -> I2S out from gustard to Helen -> (whichever output style you prefer) -> your DAC of choice. So not sure what we really accomplish in that case.... only benefit is to make the chain USB compatible since Helen doesn't have a USB input. It would be better if it just went straight to the DAC via I2S... maybe Gustard has a compatible DAC? Again, I'm not a fan nor am I up to date on Gustard gear, so I can't really say.
     

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