ARIES CERAT KASSANDRA 2 SIGNATURE LIMITED EDITION DAC REIVEW


It has been awhile since my last serious consideration of a digital component. With Vitus Masterpiece MP-D201, my preference leaned toward digital at the last digital shoot out at my audio system. I thought it was an obvious choice due to its 'character or color “closer in similarity to my preferred analogue sources.”

Mr. Matej Isak (the founder and Chief Editor) of Mono & Stereo told me about his great experience with Digital to Analogue Converter (hereinafter referred to as DAC) by Aries Cerat (the brand) and that it may spark another level of appreciation for the digital media.


Soon Mr. Stavros Danos, the founder and chief designer of Aries Cerat communicated with me and inquired if I would be interested in reviewing their top model and uber heavy weight tube based DAC - the Kassandra 2 Signature Limited Edition (hereinafter referred to as the Kassandra 2 SLE) [retail at €82,000-00].


I gave him a serious ‘nod’ and he volunteered to visit me to demo his creation to the Malaysian audio market and community (photos of the event are available at Mono & Stereo and Analogue Fellowship FaceBook).

"Ground of war"


I’ve had the pleasure to experience and enjoy some top digital components from CH Precision, Esoteric, EmmLabs, Audio Note, MSB, Linn, Vitus Audio, etc. I have owned some of them and listened to the others in the close friends' audio systems. To cut the story short, I’ve used the digital audio for music that were not available on the analogue format and/or mostly for casual listening.


I forewarned Stavros that my preference and interest was strictly for analogue sources for quite some time, for obvious personal reasons. He understood the "ground of war" and it was not favorable to him or to his creation. He told me with certain confidence that the Kassandra 2 SLE was designed competitively and voiced comparably to the analogue source. He believed that my analogue audiophile friends and I would be thrilled to discover what is possible with his DAC. I’ve expected no less from a person with some military background and finance. 

The "Artillery" arrived


Two full and heavy crates arrived at my office. I’ve yet to see a bigger and carry a heavier two chassis DAC then Aries Cerat Kassandra 2 Signature Limited Edition. A definite 'two persons' job was needed to get it into my audio den.


Stavros asked me to open up the 'hoods' of both power supply unit and DAC unit. Firstly, I opened up the hood of the power supply to install the tubes. I confessed that I was 'taken aback (positively)' by the sheer size and numbers of those huge capacitors, and the quality parts and workmanship therein. I would never have imagined such elaborate power supply for any audio component and let alone a power supply for a DAC!


Secondly, I did the same for the DAC unit. I saw a ladder DAC comprised of forty eight (48) chips set (that was twenty four chips per channel) with a top quality parts and layout. I’ve started to wonder… Am I looking at a DAC or some control system for a nuclear warhead (not that I have seen one...joke).


After all the necessary tubes were in place, Stavros advised me to bias the tubes at the DAC unit (all instructions were available in detail with images in the included manual). It was suggested that the user can fine tune the bias level of the tubes in the DAC unit in order to obtain the desired 'color' of sound presentation and performance. I was happy and satisfied with the recommended bias level and the entailed sound performance (and so did Stavros, within my audio system).

It is noteworthy that the Kassandra 2 SLE's output was at the high region and it has to be matched with a preamplifier that offers fine attenuated steps volume control. I love listening to the music at my preferred listening level (no more and no less). I’ve matched the DAC with my reference pre mplifiers at hand; the FM Acoustics 268C, Vitus Masterpiece MP-L201, Jadis JP500 HT LE and the Audio Note M10 Signature. So far, I was able to enjoy the Kassandra 2 SLE with any of the above mentioned preamps at my preferred listening level with my all of my music choices.  

Kassandra 2 SLE uses build in "Reclocking" feature for most of its digital inputs (1 Optical input and 2 Coaxial inputs), except for the USB input that implements double re-clocking by default. Stavros believes, how most of the audiences preferred the "re-clocking" feature engaged for the red book digital format (44.1KHz), but beg to disagree and let my music at dedicated format dictates.

The "Targeted Audiences"


We’ve invited some audiophile friends over for fist listening, before the audio press and public demonstrations. Initially, I’ve used the Aurender W20 as the digital transport, but later on Stavros decided to use his personal laptop computer where he has stored some great demo tracks. Finally we’ve switched to the Vitus Masterpiece MP-T201 CD Transport (which will be featured in its own review in the near future) and paired it with the Kassandra 2 SLE .


The following is the general consensus of the audiences, without the emphasis of any particular digital transport… 

I dare say that we were struck by a massive, enveloping and weighted soundstage. The whole musical presentation came alive and energetic. That was not a forward presentation, but an enveloping soundstage that stretched beyond the front wall, side walls and ceiling. It was massive. The weighted part was the 'strong sense' of the whereabouts of the performers within that soundstage. I believed that 'sense' was brought about by the presentation of well delineated, high density and palpability of each image of the recorded performers therein.


In addition, the Kassandra 2 SLE dynamic and PRaT were the most impressive, that we have heard from any digital media in my audio system. Firstly, the dynamic was clearly and cleanly differentiated. It allowed the listener to hear and experience the different strength of each hit of different tone from different musical instrument. I did not believe that the Kassandra 2 SLE would have exaggerated any dynamic of a recording unless it was the character of other connected ancillary component(s). 


Secondly, the Pace, Rhythm and Tempo (PRaT) were very well segregated, compartmented, and separated. That was possible due to its ability to extract the 'timing of each note' (or Tempo) from the native recording. Finally, the bass was clean, 'within the boundaries', defined, nimble, well articulated and directional. Kassandra 2 SLE was able to deliver the lower to low registries of the bandwidth in a manner that allowed the above to shine unhindered. I thought to myself that the Kassandra 2 SLE, being tube based performed better in the lower to low registries of the bandwidth (to my ears) than those solid state power supply DACs that came into my audio system... That was certainly new to me. 

There were few people among the audiences that exclaimed how they would be able to live with the Kassandra 2 SLE without their heavily invested analogue source(s). That was the statement of the day (and still is) for the Aries Cerat Kassandra 2 Signature Limited Edition. 

After all the hypes and six (6) months later...


The above was supposedly the initial impression of the Kassandra 2 SLE and to be published much earlier at Mono & Stereo. I decided to listen a little longer which turned to half a year (sorry).

There was reason (for me) to omit the official initial impression and move on to the in depth review. Many of those who have heard the Kassandra 2 SLE still talk about it and how great it sounded in my audio system. I just wanted the whole talk to rest a bit before embarking into an unbiased (I surely try) review. 


For prolonged time I’ve listened to the Kassandra 2 SLE and compared with my in-house reference, the Vitus MP-D201 that have served me pretty well. In addition, I was more comfortable with  tube based DAC being properly run in before any final words of its performance were written. I was also curious how much more performance could be squeezed from the DAC. 

Digitally Touched?!


Obviously, there are a few camps of beliefs among the audiophiles. Among these camps, there are those who believe, that one format is either more superior, accurate or musical compared to the other. I am one of those in the belief or biased towards analogue format, as being more fulfilling and satisfying, but also one who’ll not disassociate from the digital format for the obvious reason. Some of my favorite tunes are only available in digital format. Thus, I have invested quite considerably into the digital format, since it is no more a question of choice but of necessity due to my love for the music.

Emotionally engaged?


I found out quite some time ago that the digital format render or play back the human voice differently compared to the analogue format. For people like me who are used to the analogue format's vocal characteristics of a particular artist will find it difficult to accept the alternate digital format's characteristics. 


Analogue characteristics are ’more rounded', ' ofhigher density' (with an attraction by itself that pull all the elements into the voice), palpable, weighted, more layered and more textured comparatively. 

In other words, there are more "details" associated with the voice of artist, thus substantiated and/or realized (artificially) with his or her presence. I do believe, that the analogue characteristics are more natural, sweeter, and easier to the ear (my biases...of course). 

Some may argue, that this is not the question of accuracy, but more in the domain of personal preferences. I am not concluding that such "details" are not in the digital recording, but many DACs that I have had the pleasure to audition failed to present them. Maybe it is the same with analogue players of the past or in their infancy that fails to reproduce such "details" embedded in the vinyl record. It was not until recent times, that top analogue sources brought the surprising and with the level of retrieved (additional) "details".


Kassandra 2 SLE maybe for me operates in similar case or fate. It may be the new reference that managed to break apart from the other general DACs. I was most impressed with the MP3 playback with the Re-Clock feature activated, with Japanese Anime female vocalist, Ms. Sowelu and her song "To You" (from Angel Heart Anime Soundtrack). That playback of the song was able to reach out, caressed and touched my soul in a unique way that I have yet to encounter with any other DACs that came my way. I am so used to play that track to review a digital component of the most mundane of performance and never for detail retrieval ability. My question was, what can you expect from a compressed file? That brought me to realize that even in a compressed file such as MP3, of a song that I have listened to umpteen times over the years, there was so much more embedded details in that voice. The Kassandra 2 SLE was able to retrieve those layers of emotion that the artist has poured into the lyrics that meant something to her, which was able to impact me even though I do not understand the Japanese language. 


Alternatively and to a technical point, I was able to follow her 'life' poured into that song, which was all embedded in the low mid to the higher registries in the bandwidth to allow the formation of a defined, delineated, dense, localized and palpable vocal easily being felt and touched. Please don't get me wrong, I am not saying that the Kassandra 2 SLE can fill in the missing details from the compressed MP3 file, but it can retrieve that much more details, to make the musical presentation emotionally more engaging. That is impressive in my audio book. 

Next, I’ve listened to my usual red book download reference album; Rob Wasserman's "Duet" (MCA Records) where I played my favorite track 'Ballad of Runaway Horses' sung by Jennifer Warnes. I was treated with same characteristic as above but at a much higher dosage, since the Kassandra 2 SLE had more digits to work on. 

With Kassandra 2 SLE, the listener could almost measure the size of her mouth and this for sure enthused quite some. In term of the artist's emotional transfer from that track, it was almost real to a "touch" (figuratively). I felt Jennifer's voice caressing my soul almost to a quantifiable manner. I dare say it was nearly as great as my reference analogue sources with top of the line turntables, tone arms, MC cartridges and phono stages that totaled up cost more than that Kassandra 2 SLE with any digital transport I own.

Kassandra 2 SLE has that retrieval ability to truly bring out or emphasize the vocal with all her essence and emotion from the accompanying musicians and music. In other words, it is able to present the lead artist taking the lead in the presentation as it was originally planned. Here, I was impressed with Maeve O'Boyle sang 'Pray it never happen to you' (Linn Records). It was a simple song sang with and accompanied with guitar. Kassandra 2 SLE's grip on the vocal was constant throughout without the guitar, ever taking over the presentation. 

By now, you’ve probably figured out, that I am favorably impressed with the Kassandra 2 SLE's ability to retrieve details  in a way, that other DACs that I have the joy to experience would only hint at. You could easily be impressed with its ability to present musical instruments with far more realism than most, as the case was with the human voice.


With red book (download) album - Doug MacLeod's 'Come to Find' (Audioquest Music) and especially wtih the track "Mystery Woman" I’ve found obvious nuances in the transient of energy from his voice. Yes, the Kassandra 2 SLE was able to bring the listener up close and intimately share personal experience with the artist. 




Equally impressive was the presentation of the musical instruments. The guitar was presented with a believably, right size, weight, texture, and density. Even the tones emanating from each string were presented with certain bloom and flair. 

They were never clouded by exaggeration of any particular "untimely" frequencies response. Thus each tone was given its time to decay properly before the next tone. 

I was able to hear and feel the touch, the plug and hit of the artist on the strings and body of his guitar. That was eerily great and even more so for digital to reach that level of "proximity to realism".

"Proximity to Realism"


After about six (6) months listening to the Kassandra 2 SLE, I’ve thought I’ve already knew that DAC's performance in my audio system. 

I’ve played back my favorite red book resolution track from (Ms) Kit Chan (a famous Singapore Diva) {New Century Workshop}, that I also use as a reference with my analogue sources’, for reviews and comparison (you can read them at Mono & Stereo), and I found myself emotionally affected with even some tears coming down. 


As if my digital audio system had disappeared. I did not hear 'digital characteristics' in the presentation but just her singing and emotions that she poured in. Technically or in audiophile terminology, I would say that there was freedom of expression in the audible frequencies bandwidths. 


To further highlight above description, redbook resolution track by The Yuri Honing Trio, "Walking On The Moon" from the album Musik wie von einem anderen Stern (Manger Products) comes handy.

Here, the saxophone was given that transient impact that included the 'sudden explosive nature’, with accompanied transfer of energy from the mid to high frequencies that would gobskack any listener (by surprise, even). The drum and bass were 'kicking ass' (an expression) at the mid low to low frequencies that shook the concrete foundation and ceiling of my audio den. 

I was not playing that loud (around 88 dB peak) with the track to achieve that clean wave of low frequencies. Next, I’ve played another track from the same album, "Jazz Variants" by The O-zone Percussion Group to check how the DAC hold up against a presentation of a much bigger group of musicians and with lots of dynamism and attacks.


I was not disappointed, because I’ve received similar details, quality and characteristics in the presentation for the musicians here as in smaller group. The listener got to enjoy the space and play, by each musician in the presentation. 

The Kassandra 2 SLE was able to afford great spacing among the musicians thus presenting a grand soundstage and soundscape for the presentation. 

Another particular highlights was the energy, dynamic and out pouring of waves after waves of low frequencies in the presentation, being fuller compared to the other DACs that came my way. 

In addition, the Kassandra 2 SLE has given me the impression that it was always in control and has a tight grip over the the entire spectrum of the musical presentation. As if intended by the conductor or recording engineer. This is something particular, that I’ve discovered from the track, "Trittico" of the album HDCD Sampler (RR 53 CD Reference Recordings).

The Damage...


Nowadays, audio components have the price tag like most luxurious items, even approximating a sport car, yacht and so on. I would not debate on the question of whether the Kassandra 2 SLE worth it's asking price. I have to admit that many would not get the opportunity to find out either. 


I have a number of visiting audiophiles that came into my audio den and agreed with me how the Kassandra 2 SLE was so special, that it was comparable in performance with the top analogue sources in my audio system. 

I could assure you, that it was not an easy statement to write and surely not one to digest especially to an "analogue first audiophile". 

It brings me a great pleasure (with a humbled heart) to announc that the Kassandra 2 SLE DAC as the Ultimate Digital Component of Analogue Fellowship for 2016-2017. 

Finally, where is my cheque book? I am KEEPING KASSANDRA 2 SLE DAC!

Dato’ Danon Han

PRICE


€82,000

TECHNICAL 


*DSD playback(DoP)
* 24 R2R converters per channel, complimentary current output
(using the top grade AD1865N-K , 12 converters per bank, 24 per channel,48 in total)
* Eight discrete ultra-low-noise regulators
(for the 4 converter banks)
*Extensive local decoupling,using tuned LC filters, 76 in number
*Overengineered power supplies,power input filters
*5 torroidal transformers,over 3Farad total system capacitance,wideband local decoupling
*Pseudo-battery system, for isolating all analog stages from the power grid.
* Transformer I/V conversion
(custom wideband transformers,balanced current to SE voltage conversion)
* Internal Super-Clock
(bypassable on the fly.Separate torroidal transformer,triple regulated supply)
*Transformer loaded super tube output stage
(using the E280F tube. 5:1 step down transformer,double choke filtered supply)
*xenon gas rectifiers for the tube PSUs
*Super-capacitors used in tube analog stage. 100 times less ESR/ESL than any film or electrolytic capacitor.

- 30Vpp output @ 0db
- Balanced output(optional)
- USB input up to 24/384KHz
- DSD playback(DoP)
- Jitter attenuation down to femptosec level
- Output impendance ~40ohms (balanced output)

Dimensions: 2 chassis  540mmW X 530mmD X 165mmH each
Weight:   120kg total

CONTACT


Aries Cerat LTD
52 Vasileos Pavlou A’, 
3052 Limassol
Cyprus 

or 

P.O. Box 55589
3781 Limassol
Cyprus

Fax: +357 25565916
Mobile: +357 99307099