Aries Cerat Kassandra 2 Signature Limited Edition DAC

It has been awhile since my last serious consideration of a digital component. It was the Vitus Masterpiece MP-D201 that my preference leaned toward 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 Issak (the founder and Chief Editor) of Mono & Stereo suggested to me that he has chanced upon a great Digital to Analogue Converter (hereinafter referred to as DAC) by Aries Cerat (the brand) that may spark another level of appreciation for the digital media. Soon, I received a communique from Mr. Stavros Danos, the founder and chief designer of Aries Cerat. He inquired if I be interested in receiving a review sample of their top model and 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 ‘yes’ and he volunteered to visit me to demo his creation to the Malaysia audio market and community (photos of the event are available at Mono & Stereo and Analogue Fellowship FaceBook)”Ground of war”.

There have been some top digital components that I have the pleasure to experience and enjoy from CH Precision, Esoteric, EmmLabs, Audio Note, MSB, Linn, Vitus Audio, etc. I have owned some of them but the rest were experiences from close friends’ audio systems. To cut the story short, I 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 has been on the analogue sources for sometime already and for obvious personal reasons. He understood the “ground of war” and that it was not favorable to him and to his creation. He told me with certain confidence that the Kassandra 2 SLE was designed competitively and voiced comparable with the analogue source. He believed that my analogue audiophile friends and I would be thrilled to discover what is possible with his DAC. I expected no less from a person with some military background and finance.The “Artillery” arrived.
Two full and heavy crates arrived at my office. So far, I have yet to see a bigger and carry a heavier DAC than the two chassis, Aries Cerat Kassandra 2 Signature Limited Edition. A definite ‘two persons’ job there to get it into my audio den. Stavros asked me to open up the ‘hoods’ of both the power supply unit and the 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 set per channel) in a top quality parts layout. There, I was wondering am I looking at a DAC or some control system to a nuclear warhead (not that I have seen one…joke).

After all the necessary tubes in placed, Stavros advised me to bias the tubes at the DAC unit (all instructions were available in detail and pictures at the included manual). It was suggested that the user could finely tuned the bias level of the tubes in the DAC unit 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, for my audio system).

It is noteworthy that the Kassandra 2 SLE’s output was at the high region therefore one has to match it with a pre amplifier with fine attenuated steps volume control. I love to listen to my music at my preferred listening level (no more and no less). There, I matched the DAC with my reference pre amplifiers 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 pre amplifier at my preferred listening level for all my musics.
In addition, the Kassandra 2 SLE has a build in “Reclocking” feature for most of its digital inputs (1 Optical input and 2 Coaxial inputs), except for the USB input that enjoyed doubled re-clocking by default. Whether to engage that feature depend very much to one’s choice. But, Stavros believed most of the audiences preferred the “re-clocking” feature engaged for the red book digital format (44.1KHz). I could not say that I agree but I preferred my selection of music decides.The “Targeted Audiences”.

Stavros and I have invited some audiophile friends over for an initial introduction before the audio press and public demonstrations. Initially, I used the Aurender W20 as the digital transport. Later, Stavros decided to use his personal lap top computer where he has stored some great demo tracks. Finally, I used the Vitus Masterpiece CD Transport, MP-T201 with the Kassandra 2 SLE (which will be featured in its own review in the near future).

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 dynamic and PRaT from the Kassandra 2 SLE was 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. It was able to deliver the lower to low registries of the bandwidth in a manner that allow the above to shine unhindered. I thought to myself that the Kassandra 2 SLE, being tube based et all, 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 new to me.

There were among the audiences that exclaimed that they 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 while longer which turned out to be about six months later…(sorry) There was reason (for me) to omit the official initial impression and move on to an in depth review. Many whom have heard the Kassandra 2 SLE still talk about it and how great it sounded at my audio system. I just wanted the whole talk to rest a bit before embarking into an unbiased (I try) review.

I have been listening 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 am more comfortable to have the tube based DAC to properly run in before any word of its performance be written and recorded. I am also curious as to how much more in performance could be squeezed from it. Digitally Touched?! Obviously, there are a few camps of beliefs among the audiophile in any where. Among these camps, there are those whom believe one format being more superior or accurate or musical over the other. I am one of those in the belief or bias that the analogue format is more fulfilling and satisfying, but also one whom will not disassociate from the digital format for the obvious reason that some of my favorite tunes are only available digitally. 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 my music.Emotionally engaged?I found out quite some time ago that the digital format render or play back the human voice differently compare 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. I found that the analogue characteristics to be ‘more rounded’, ‘higher 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” into that voice of that artist thus substantiated and/or realized (artificially) his or her presence {I likened to feel that the analogue characteristics to be more natural, sweeter, and easier to the ear (my biases…of course). Some may argued that that may not be a question of accuracy but more so to 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 old or in their infancy too have failed to playback such “details” embedded in the vinyl record, until fairly recently with top analogue sources that many were surprised with the retrieved (additional) “details”.

Here, I found the Kassandra 2 SLE maybe 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, of a 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 language (which was in Japanese). 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 that could easily be 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 that it is able to retrieve that much more details from it to make the musical presentation emotionally more engaging, and that is impressive in my audio book.

Next, I played my usual red book download of the album; Rob Wasserman’s “Duet” (MCA Records) where I played my favorite track ‘Ballad of Runaway Horses’ sung by Jennifer Warnes. I was given the same characteristic treatment as above but at a much higher dosage, since the Kassandra 2 SLE has more digits to work on. Some may likened the experience that through that Kassandra 2 SLE, the listener could almost measure the size of her mouth. 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 in my keep.

I wish to add that the 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 a guitar played. It was the Kassandra 2 SLE’s grip on the vocal as a constant throughout without the guitar played ever taking over the presentation.
I think you would have guessed it by now that I am favorably impressed with the Kassandra 2 SLE’s ability to retrieve details 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. I played the downloaded red book album of Doug MacLeod’s ‘Come to Find’ (Audioquest Music) and hit the track “Mystery Woman”. Here, I found there was obvious nuances in the transient of energy from his voice of the lead artist. Yes, the Kassandra 2 SLE was able to bring the listener to an up close and personal experience with the artist. What was 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 emanated 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. Therefore, 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 thought I already knew that DAC’s performance in my audio system. I played back my favorite red book resolution track from (Ms) Kit Chan (a famous Singapore Diva) {New Century Workshop} that I also used for my analogue sources’ reviews and comparison (read them at Mono & Stereo), and I found myself emotionally affected and even tearing. It was 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 the above, I played the redbook resolution track by The Yuri Honing Trio, “Walking On The Moon” from the album Musik wie von einem anderen Stern (Manger Products). Here, the saxophone was given that transient that included the ‘sudden explosive’ kind, with accompanied transfer of energy from the mid to high frequencies that would hit 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 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 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 presented a grand soundstage and soundscape for the presentation. Another note here was that the energy, dynamic and out pouring of wave after waves of low frequencies in the presentation were fuller compare 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 director or recording engineer, as I 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 audiophile that came into my audio den that have agreed with me that the Kassandra 2 SLE was so special that it was comparable in performance with the top analogue sources in my audio system. I could assured you that it was not an easy statement to write and surely not one to digest especially to an “analogue first audiophile”. Therefore, it brought me great pleasure (and with a humbled heart) to announced that the Kassandra 2 SLE DAC as the Ultimate Digital Component of Analogue Fellowship 2016-2017.
Finally, where is my cheque book? I am KEEPING KASSANDRA 2 SLE DAC!