Rupert Neve Fidelice Precision DAC (£4,747) and Precision Headphone Amp (£1,149), yes, many readers will recognise Neve as being a legend in the pro-audio world, but now he has put his name to a DAC and a HEadphone Amplifier. Janine Elliot looks at both units in this doubleheader review.

I have spent the most part of my life in recording studios, and much of that listening to various forms of Neve mixing desks at the BBC, whether the GP desks or my favourite Neve 66 (an analogue desk with digital routing of channels that had clout and passion and that worked so well whilst being very easy to use).  Similarly, Air Studios in London have three specially made, and now aged, analogue Neve consoles worthy of mention. The legendary Beatles producer and founder of Air Studios, George Martin (1926-2016) was heavily involved with Rupert Neve in the design process of what was then a radical new desk; With toroidal wound transformers, it was clear that sound quality was the key aim here – as it always should be. Rupert Neve has always had that desire to produce the very best in audio and, turning  94 in July 2020, he is still working hard on both studio and home products.

Rupert was born 31 July 1926, the same year as George Martin, in Newton Abbot, England. Growing up mostly in Argentina before WWII, his experience with broadcast equipment design spans some 80 years. Starting it all from his home and then moving to a purpose-built factory near Cambridge, Neve Electronics created professional audio consoles and systems with Class-A designs and using high quality components. The history of Neve is very complex. Setting up the company in 1961 (and then leaving it in the mid 70’s) Neve was sold to the German company Siemens in 1985 and then linked with AMS (Advanced Music Systems) becoming AMS Neve. Siemens moved the Neve factory to the AMS Burnley site. Setting up ARN Consultants, Rupert’s links to Focusrite, Amek, SE Electronics and others show his interest in getting involved in all areas of analogue broadcasting consoles and ancillary equipment. The massive Amek 9098 was probably his best work to my mind. More importantly for this review, Rupert Neve Designs was set up in the United States, where he has moved to with his wife Evelyn in 1994 and where they became U.S. citizens in 2002. This great British master craftsman now has his masterpieces built in the picturesque Texas Hill Country. This company continues the work of one of the most respected names in the business, with many famous musicians and broadcasters having their utterances played through his creations. The new Fidelice range contains three models; a DAC/Preamp, Headphone amp and Phono-stage, with the name “Fidelice” a Latin word meaning “Loyal”.

FIDELICE PRECISION DAC CONSTRUCTION

The Precision DAC at £4,747 is built around Class-A high voltage topologies, as I would expect from Neve mixing desks from the past, offering excellent bandwidth and with balanced ins and outs and utilising the excellent 32bit Ashai Kasei AKM4497 DAC. The RNDAC also utilises custom audio transformers based around those found in the mixing desks. In terms of appearance my first thoughts were the original Commodore Pet computer with its trapezoid shape and aluminium frame, but this unit and its matching phono-stage and headphone amp look highly professional. My only criticism in the build is the after-thought rubber feet. I would expect far better options for the price.

The top and sides are thick aluminium with a triangular mahogany wooden feature to the right – this is a feature of all the Fidelice range. You can tell this is built by a manufacturer of mixing desks by virtue of its well-thought-out design, catering for just about every possible need. The front panel of this DAC is so well laid out; separate buttons for inputs, balanced and unbalanced headphone sockets, and separate LEDs to indicate the various PCM and DSD computations. The Alps analogue volume control has a positive feel to it and is in a contrasting red colour to match other products Neve has been building over the years – such as his studio equipment. The main off/on switch is round the back above the mains socket and perhaps a little small for large-fingered beings, but still easily accessible.

At the front is a “Line Out” button in order for you to output to your amp – the headphone output works whether or not this is depressed. Next to this is a lo/hi gain switch for headphone sensitivity ranges so that all types of headphone design are catered for. Indeed, 1000mW for 16-ohm headphones is more than enough for most needs. To the right are the three headphone outputs; TRS unbalanced, XLR balanced and 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced. To the right are source buttons for the digital and analogue inputs.

The rear is equally well set out. As well as balanced and unbalanced outputs there are balanced and unbalanced inputs allowing you to use this DAC as a full preamplifier for playing analogue sources such as reel to reel or phono (with a phono-stage). There is a fixed/variable toggle switch to allow you to use this as a preamp for your power amplifier or to connect to your integrated missing out the volume control. There is also a +4/-10dB toggle switch to adjust the balanced input to match the nominal output level. Digital inputs include coax and optical plus USB. The former two operate to 192kHz with USB up to 384kHz PCM and all the way to DSD512 (22.4 MHz/octa) DSD native and DoP playback. There is also a five-position dip switch for digital filter options and mode selection, allowing the user to have control over the digital filter sets and modes internal to the AKM4497 DAC. For example, in the up position the filtering is inactive, and with switch one down gives “super slow roll off” for PCM playback. Switches 1-3 affect PCM, 5 affects DSD and 4 is the AKM “High quality” sound mode for both PCM and DSD. Most of my testing was done with no filtration, as I found that preferable. There is also a micro USB port to be connected to PCs for firmware update. Finally, I have to say that the instruction booklet is one of the best I have ever seen, including help on firmware updates as well as connecting via USB to your Windows or Mac PC.

On switch-on the RNDAC does a fancy light display going through all the LEDs before settling down ready for play. The volume control is an analogue affair which feels very positive. My only criticism is that there are no numbers or lines around the dial to assist with finding your “ideal” resting place for the potentiometer. Most of my listening was at around 10 o’clock.

PRECISION HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER CONSTRUCTION

This new amp comes in at £1149, the same price as the matching new Neve Precision phono pre-amplifier. The Fidelice Precision Headphone Amp (RNHP) is in many respects visually identical to the original RNHP that I glowingly reported on in 2017, albeit with the new trapezoid shape and double the price. The added price takes into consideration component changes and improvements including capacitors and adjusting gain level, gold connections and the new body, which looks significantly better than the original. That original headphone amplifier was so good that I couldn’t put it down – I will find out if that increased cost brings in increased sound quality. As in the RNDAC there is a wooden panel at the top with the Neve signature imprinted into the wood.

By now you should understand Rupert’s love of all things analogue, Class-A and toroidal transformers, with audio tranformers on every input and output of the 5088 mixing desk and a true floating ground and high-quality capacitors and inductors. Music to my own ears. The new 24V Precision Headphone Amp is based on the headphone output circuit found in one of his smaller mixers, the 5060 ‘Centrepiece Desktop Mixer’. Headphone monitoring in the studio is often a necessity and Rupert Neve can see the importance of a reliable and accurate monitoring source.

Again, this is a very robust and industrial looking machine though without the industrial name of the DAC. As in the RNDAC the feet are thin rubber coins which I feel could have been better chosen. As in the original RNHP, the new Neve headphone amp has three inputs, selected by three green illuminating buttons on the front. There is a stereo RCA phono input, a stereo 3.5mm input (calibrated to work with mobile devices such as phones, tablets and laptops), and thirdly a calibrated +4dBu line input with two combo jacks accepting either XLR or TRS inputs for balanced professional devices.

As in the RNDAC, the RNHP has been designed with a near zero Ohm output impedance (.08Ω at 1kHz) to minimize changes in the sound due to reactive load impedance; something which is noticeably greater on headphones than loudspeakers. For example, if a headphone has a low frequency bump at around 50Hz it will accentuate the bass further if output impedance is higher, changing the sound and possibly adding distortion. With 230mW RMS at 16 Ω (typical Load: 1.933 VAC RMS @1kHz) my 43Ω Audio Technica and 300Ω Sennheiser were adequately catered for, though it is not overtly generous. I never felt the need for more power, so most headphones will work well.

Power supply is from an external wallwart switch-mode power supply, this from a man famed for class-A designs and toroidal power supplies. But, switch mode supplies can be very efficient and quiet and he intentionally chose them for this design (as he does for the Fidelice phono-stage). They also operate with whatever input voltage and frequency you have in your country meaning that “one unit fits all”. My only criticism is when affixing the UK’s 3-pin 13A plug the rectangle unit fits sideways meaning you cannot connect it on a multiway mains adaptor without hiding other sockets or the off/on switch on a two-way wall socket.

THE MUSIC

For the review I mostly used my laptop. I am pleased to say that installation of the driver was a lot simpler than I have found with many reviews in the past, largely done quickly with the help of the instruction book. I also used digital output from my aged Fiio X5 DAP and analogue from my reel to reel. Listening to the headphone amplifier was done via the line out of the RNDAC, so I could compare the internal headphone amp with the Precision Headphone Amplifier.

First to be played was for me a familiar recording of Tartini’s Violin Concerto in E minor D56, courtesy of Mike Valentine’s ‘Vivaldi in Venice’. My initial response was “wow”; there was excellent special detail not only left and right, the DAC and preamplifier giving a very clean and precise performance. The whole worked so well with a fast and noise-free rendition.

Next for the DAC it was time to turn to a completely digital classical album ‘Pieces in a Modern Style’. This is the sixth album by electronic instrumentalist William Orbit.  An album featuring synthesised versions of well-known and beautiful classical music, it was released in 2000. Track two is John Cage’s “In a Landscape”, a piece he wrote before he got possessed by Indian Philosophy, Zen Buddhism, mushrooms and I Ching, and is much easier to listen to than his most famous piece 4’33”, which is incorrectly assumed to be four and a half minutes of silence. That piece is really about the unanticipated sounds that are around us, not that the RNDAC produced any. “In a Landscape” had an excellent hold on the very lowest notes whilst still sensitive to the string samples behind. The strummed guitar then brought in a new landscape of sounds including delicate brushing of fingers on the fingerboard. Listening on cans using my aged Sennheiser HD650 that bass detail wasn’t so apparent though on bass heavy Meze Classic 99’s there was no shortage. Listening to this album was a great pleasure on the RNDAC, with its excellent detail and no discernible digital distortion.

Next to be fed into the USB input on the DAC was Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” from the album ‘Wish You Were Here’. The distorted guitar could be heard in all its glory -warts and all; this was a razor-sharp performance only slightly overzealous in accuracy over musicality. The Saint-Saëns Third Symphony amazes me every time I listen; who else would add a pipe organ and piano to increase the textures and timbres. In terms of structure it is actually written as two movements though appears on albums as four distinct sections. The Neve gave a compelling and full performance giving plenty of space for the organ and piano in the “third” movement. The performance was not cluttered or claustrophobic for this 44.1/16bit performance. The amplifier gave a beautiful sheen to the music, particularly the strings. Only the brass was a little brash.

Turning to London Grammar ‘If you Wait’ this was a clear performance with every instrument and note precisely positioned in their own space and time. Bass was again excellently catered for in the first track. I couldn’t fault the performance.

Turning to analogue input of the DAC, i found this was a particularly quiet preamplifier. I have to admit my preference for TVC passive preamplifiers, having tried and spent a fortune on active systems over my lifetime. The analogue stage on this essentially DAC box was not an afterthought. It is really is worthy of a place in any HiFi system. I listened to tracks from the excellent Hemiolia Records portfolio and I found them very hard to fault. Vocals were particularly human in The Daniele Mencarelli Duo “Treni a Vapore”, and the Jimi Hendrix number “May this be Love” from the Davide Pannosso Trio gave a very clear top end from the ride cymbals and fortitude from the fretless bass. I just felt the mid frequencies were not quite so compelling; in Aria de Opereta from Mirabassi/Taufic the clarinet just was a little too prominent though very clear and with excellent control. If I had to find any fault in this excellent machine it was the mid frequencies not being quite as musical as I wished for though bass and top ends were extended, and excellent.

For specific headphone amplifier testing I utilised my DAP feeding into the RNDAC with output into the Precision Headphone Amplifier (RNHP), so that I could compare the headphone stage on the DAC with the standalone machine. The headphone amplifier has the same red coloured button as in the DAC, and it is nice to see they have position markings around the edge.

My first music was Mike Rutherford’s ‘Small Creep’s Day’. This is not an easy album to listen to in terms of the sound engineering, sounding highly digital and nasal in places, but both the headphone facilities performed it well. If anything, the RNHP was the better sounding, adding more analogue warmth and control. The Sennheiser HD650’s were accurate and more rounded.

Turning to Miles Davis Quintet ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ – this is basically a rehearsal of the musicians including Herbie Hancock on keyboard. This is a hissy recording, and contains talk back from the sound engineer, but both amplifiers gave a compelling performance and excellently controlled dynamics. Again, the RNHP was the better of the two, but both are particularly good. Indeed, the headphone amp on the Precision Digital to Analogue Converter is by no means an afterthought and is better equipped than the Precision Headphone Amplifier. Indeed, the RNDAC actually gave a better performance of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor (Complete Mozart, Philips) than the headphone amplifier did, being more musical, particularly in the mid frequencies.

‘A Life Within a Day’ from Squacket is a great album for Prog Rock lovers, featuring Chris Squire from Yes and Steve Hackett from Genesis. There are lots of synths, guitars and drums, ideal for a review. I found the RNHP had better control of the busy music and with a better extended bass. Track 2 starts with acoustic guitar with lots of reverb and delay before the heavy rocks starts up again. This was equally good on both amps; plenty of musicality and all frequencies admirably covered with aplomb.

Turning to guitars on Steve Howe and Martin Taylor’s ‘Masterpiece Guitars’, it was clearer on the RNHP, though very hard to tell the two amps apart. If anything, the DAC offered a better stereo spread and speed. ‘The Queen Symphony’ (Tolga Kashif) has plenty of violins and brass in this rendition of some of the best Queen tracks assembled into a 3 movement work. The RNHP performed slightly clearer; this work has multilayers of idioms throughout which can sound congested if you are not careful. Finally, again to London Grammar ‘If You Wait’ gave a chance for the RNHP to show off its slightly better lower end, but both are such excellent headphone amplifiers; both had excellent speed and control, a highly addictive analogue feel, and if I had to prefer one it would be the bass from the RNHP. However, if you were to buy the DAC then you wouldn’t need to buy the headphone amplifier.

CONCLUSION

Both the DAC and headphone amp continue the long line of excellence from this craftsman of fine studio equipment. The DAC was exceptional in all areas and is definitely worth an audition (All frequencies had precision and musicality and it was hard to find fault in such a masterpiece). The headphone amplifier continued to meet my expectations, and as in the original RNHP this product was very hard to put down and well worth the increase in price. As for the headphone amp in the RNDAC, that was so good that you wouldn’t ever need to buy both products if you wanted to listen exclusively on cans.

AT A GLANCE

Precision DAC

Build Quality: Excellent construction and components. Disappointing feet.

Sound Quality: excellent speed and transparency. Particularly good bass and top frequencies.

Value for Money: £4,749 is not cheap but it ticks all the boxes and some.

Pros:

Excellent Precision and timing.

Transparency

Excellent choice of inputs and outputs, including balanced

Cons:                                                    

Some might find the looks not fitting with their decor. I love them.

Price: £4,747

AT A GLANCE

Precision Headphone Amplifier

Build Quality: Excellent construction and components.

Sound Quality: excellent speed and transparency

Value for Money: £1149 is excellent for this class A quality.

Pros:

Choice of three inputs.

Transparency

Excellent bass end control

Cons:

Pity there are no balanced outputs, bearing in mind there is balanced input, but that would add to the price.

Price: £1,149

 

 

 

 

 

Janine Elliot

 

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