The name of this French DAC/PRE derives from the word étalon, meaning standard, or measuring device. Dominic Marsh gets to grips with the 7530 unit and spills some blood for his art.

I wasn’t expecting to be given this component to review and wasn’t quite sure exactly what was inside a mystery wooden crate that was given to me a while back, for reasons I cannot explain here.  It took me a healthy twenty minutes to remove a good fistful of screws that secures the lid and when the lid was pulled back all I could see was a large area of stainless steel that forms the majority of the Solo’s casework.  Grabbing it by opposing corners, I gently lifted it out of the foam inserts that hold it in place during transit, whereupon it turned turtle and promptly stabbed me in the right thigh with one of the longest and sharpest spikes I had ever seen underneath any component. The Etalon Solo gave Dominic a very warm welcome I must say. There was nothing else in the crate save a universal remote control handset. Solo a1

After a few gentle dabs with a tissue to mop the blood off my trousers, I then had to go to the computer to type the word “Etalon” into the search engine and see what it came up with. Every website returned in the search was in French and given that I only speak two languages (English and Gibberish) it took a while to decipher what I was dealing with from this stainless steel cased beast with a taste for blood Group AB.

Having established that it was a DAC and pre-amplifier I then took it to the listening room and there was a very long pause before even contemplating introducing the Etalon into my rack, as long sharp stainless steel spikes and racks, be they glass, wood or whatever material are not a marriage made in heaven. Yes I probably could have unscrewed the spikes, but it is my policy to evaluate equipment as I find it and I assumed the spikes are an integral part of the Etalon’s design… which they are Etalon tell me.  Looking underneath I found some large headed screws which were less lethal than the spikes it’s true, but those round headed screws resting on toughened glass would have meant the unit would have moved around the shelf like a sluggish air hockey puck and would still have scratched my rack. It was fortunate then that Dan Worth had given me a couple of thick heavy solid Oak plinths a while back, so one of those slipped under the Etalon Solo gave my rack the protection it needed, although quite how I would deal with 3 conical pits in the plinth afterwards remains a mystery.  Do racks have a blood group too I wonder?  (A joke, people.).  I took this up with Etalon who were adamant that the spikes are an essential design element, but I made them aware that if I got impaled by a spike then their consumers may also be similarly injured, plus they like me would be none too happy about having their prized rack scored severely by the aforesaid sharp pointed spikes.  Several emails later I got them to agree that consumers need a choice between spikes or feet, or in the absence of feet, some spike shoes at least to protect racks from damage. If they are true to their word, then a printed copy of the manual and feet/spike shoes should be included in the crate with every new unit shipped.

CONSTRUCTION 

It would be wise to point out that the Etalon Solo DAC comes in two variants, one with a built in pre-amplifier (supplied for this review) and one version without the pre-amplifier section.

As hitherto mentioned, the casework is made from a non-magnetic metal – stainless steel to be precise. The front panel is made from a slab of real wood which the Etalon website describes as a “Walnut stained dregs of wine brilliant” which I perceive to be a solid piece of Walnut stained to a gloriously deep rich red colour and beautifully varnished too I might add. Inset into that is a stainless steel panel which occupies around two thirds of the front panel and a central LED display which shows a number for the input selected, plus an incremented LED readout of volume setting. I have just described the entire fascia to you as there are no switches, buttons, knobs, sliders, or anything else for that matter to press, fiddle, or twiddle with. All functions are activated via the remote control including power up/down, so a lonely single red LED in the display panel greets you when you switch it on. If the remote decides to play hide and seek behind the sofa cushions as they are wont to do, junior of the house tests to see if the remote will float in the WC, or if Fido decides to bury the remote handset somewhere in the garden, then dear reader the Etalon becomes rather ornamental until a replacement handset is obtained.  I think I have managed to persuade Etalon to include the programming code into the manual so people don’t have to play Sherlock Holmes hunting down the code like I had to a few years ago with a very similar remote controlled device that had no external controls.Solo rear panel

Around the back of the unit we find a very simple uncluttered rear panel, with an IEC mains input socket, an ON/OFF mains switch and fuse holder, 3 x RCA SPDIF digital inputs numbered 1, 2 and 3, a LAN connector to RJ standard and 2 x HDMI sockets, one of which is an I2S connection. We then come to the RCA analogue outputs which are labelled LEFT and RIGHT as you might expect, but a pair for each channel labelled plus and minus which rather confused me and there was no instruction manual to consult about the matter either. The word “balanced” is mentioned on the Etalon website and I have never known a balanced output being fed via two RCA sockets, 3 pin XLR connections being the norm and accepted industry standard. I emailed Etalon (There have been lots of emails with Etalon) about this and Laszlo Sallay informed me that it isn’t a balanced connection as such, but a phase inversion connection using the two pairs of RCA sockets. This too baffled me as the average person wouldn’t know when the sound they are hearing is inverted phase or not, so his explanation does not make sense I’m afraid. Etalon consider XLR connections to be inferior, although I wouldn’t say that RCA connectors are the last word in connector integrity either. If it is indeed a true balanced output Etalon, then fit some XLR connectors and take away any ambiguity on the subject.

Internally, there is a pair of toroidal mains transformers, one for each channel. There is a set of PCB’s mounted in a mirror image layout, with a central board used for input and output connections. There are some sizeable heatsinks mounted on two of the boards which are required for cooling as the pre-amplifier circuits run in pure Class A mode. Even in standby mode the case gets very warm to the touch.

Price for the DAC is 6,960 Euros for the standard version and 7,530 Euros for the pre-amplifier version as tested here.

SOUND 

In the absence of an instruction manual, I connected to the left and right “+” RCA output terminals to a power amplifier’s inputs and a digital co-axial interconnect from the SPDIF out from my CD player into Input 1 on the Etalon, then powered it up. With a “1” in the front panel display and the volume level set at “35” I could hear sound but not enough volume level. A few stabs on the remote control’s volume up button increased the volume, but only slightly, so I held the button down hoping for more rapid progress. Yes indeed the LED display showed the setting numbers increasing, but no actual volume increase. Took my finger off the remote’s button and suddenly up popped the volume. Most disconcerting the first time it was encountered, but soon got used to it. Even so, at maximum volume setting it wasn’t driving the power amplifier to decent listening levels, so obviously an impedance and level mismatch there and the solution was to connect the Etalon direct to an integrated amplifier’s line inputs treating the Etalon as a DAC only, setting the output level to “50”  and ignoring the pre-amp stage altogether during the evaluation. Etalon say the power amplifier isn’t keeping up with the Solo in terms of quality, but I’m not so sure about that statement either.

Having it now configured ready for a listening session, the Solo was busy with a serious of clicks coming presumably from an internal relay during the warm up period. While clicking away the sound was being briefly muted and it was rather distracting to say the least. Within a few minutes though the clicking ceased and from then on it behaved itself impeccably. Solo internals

First impression of the sound was that it was “big” – not in volume terms of course, but just larger than life in the frequency extremes. I was rather impressed at how much detail it was bringing out in the music that I was playing at the time and the bass too was both weighty and insightful, having real gravitas and power to it. As we all know too well, first impressions are not a good way to make any  judgments and it does take time to really get a handle on what any component’s real strengths and weaknesses are.  And so it was with the Etalon Solo.

While the precision and clarity of the treble registers was impressive at first hearing, I began to notice that there is a downside to high definition sound quality. The Solo was managing to find errors and defects in the recordings that I wasn’t aware existed before. A couple of instances of microphone overloading in live recordings, a join in the recording stream pretty much like a magnetic tape splicing of old, guitar string and fret squeals that used to endear themselves in the recording now would set my teeth on edge. If nothing else, it shows that those noises are well embedded in the recording and it takes something exceptional to uncover them. Some audiophiles may jump for joy at being given a passport to that level of high fidelity, but it annoyed the heck out of me because that’s where most of my listening attention was being diverted to, not chilling and enjoying the music as a whole entity – warts or no warts. I cannot recall any problems down in the bass registers, so we can regard that as more than acceptable.

Top and bottom end covered, I will now expand on the mid-range registers as I perceived them.  It took a while mind, but I detected some fogging in the midrange. The best way to describe it to you is for you to imagine a summer’s day where the sun is visible behind very high altitude cloud, unbroken from horizon to horizon, yet still hot, deep shadows are being cast and you can still get burned from the power of the sun’s rays, even though it is being masked by that high altitude cloud. It seemed to sit above the music, not actually in it and it manifested itself by male vocals having what appeared to be the last vestiges of a head cold, even though the infection itself has since passed on, with the voice just having a tiny hint of rasp to it.  Female vocals were similarly affected. It was very subtle and ordinarily I wouldn’t even be mentioning it, but with the price tag the Etalon Solo has, I could not pass by on this comment. To confirm my findings, I connected up two other DACs to the system which did not demonstrate this trait.

Of course, I had to play my favorite “torture tracks” in the shape of Porcupine Tree’s “Deadwing” CD.  The better the system is, the worse this CD sounds I reckon and the Etalon just about trumped any other component I have installed into my system. It is a raw hard edged recording and with the Etalon it really was stripped out to the bare bones with nowhere to hide away from it. Some smoothing out is always beneficial with this CD to make it just about bearable without wincing and this playing of it was like sucking a Lime for the 90 minutes or so it plays for. Total faithfulness to the recording with high resolution playback can have it’s drawbacks it seems.

Where the Etalon Solo did excel was imaging and sound staging. Just for once, there wasn’t a clear demarcation of a defined sweet spot;  you could sit or stand way off beam and you could still get depth of imaging and instrument placement which was virtually walk around. Great height too and extended well out beyond the speaker boundaries.

I didn’t have the time or indeed the correct length of cables to put the Solo through all its’ paces with a LAN or HDMI connection. I would imagine that sound quality would be very similar to that found with the RCA co-axial input that I used during this review, although Etalon state the best sound comes from the LAN connection.

CONCLUSION 

All in all then, some fine points and some not so fine points in this review. Our first encounter wasn’t exactly on the best of terms and the flesh wound has healed nicely thank you. I have made a strong case to Etalon to make some changes like including feet and/or spike shoes so people and racks suffer no harm from those lethally sharp spikes, then also including the remote control programming code and for a hard printed copy of the instruction manual to be included in the shipping crate with each new unit, rather than being downloadable from the website.

Whether the Solo is balanced or not balanced needs to be determined and appropriate connections fitted if it is balanced, failing that explain to consumers why there are two pairs of RCA analogue outputs marked plus and minus. While having a cheap universal remote control included at this price level grates somewhat, having a specially made Etalon badged remote control would do nothing more or better than the one that is included in the box to be truthful.  I am not playing God here, I am only expressing what the average consumer needs to know about this product before considering a purchase.

In terms of sound quality, my findings over the mid range and detail resolution issues was mentioned in the review because being priced at close on seven thousand Euros (in the configuration I was using it) I felt entitled to be that critical. Sometimes it might not be best to have super high-fidelity resolution playback and I met at first hand what that means and it quickly became fatiguing, although some consumers may be in seventh heaven with hearing that amount of inner detail from recordings.

Build quality: 7.8/10

Sound quality: 8.0/10

Value for money: 7.2/10

Overall: 7.6/10 

Dominic Marsh

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