QUAD Artera Play + review: QUAD Artera+ is an improved version feature and sound-wise compared to the older Artera. Artera+ is much more than just a DAC, it has multiple analog/dig inputs, is a CD player, Bluetooth receiver and is a Pre-Amp via its balanced and unbalanced outputs. A very well crafted product apart from the power and usb sockets on the back that wiggled a bit around. See Quad product page for more info. For this review, the Artera+ DAC was compared to other DACs, using its unbalanced RCA outputs: - Schiit Bifrost Multibit Rev.B (bought 550€ April 2019) - Schiit Modi3 DS AK4490 (bought 90€ April 2019) - Quad Artera + DS ESS Sabre ES9018 (bought 1400€ Jan 2020), using different filters. o Smooth o Wide o Narrow o Fast The Artera+ allows user to set a different volume level for each of his inputs, which is remembered even after power down. Artera+ only had ~8h playback time when this review was performed, so the unit might not have been fully burned-in. Schiit Modi3/Bifrost DACs were fully burned in. Calibration: The output of all DACs tested was volume-matched within 0.1dB, which resulted at an Artera+ at 100% (windows) and 80 (Artera+ max internal volume), while the Bifrost was at 52% (windows), which makes me think that the Artera+ does not reach the 2Vrms output on its SE outputs (unbalanced outs). This leads to sub-optimal performances for the Bifrost, but that’s how the whole evaluation was done. Only afterwards did I discover extra volume control in Artera+ menus (can extend max volume above 80 and also has some extra steps like +/-3/6dB. Well, next time Listening impressions: All “serious” listening impressions were performed via the USB input. Sadly, only half a day was spent for this evaluation, so I did only put the observations I was certain of to avoid giving wrong information. Materials of 44.1kHz-24bits/16bits were used for the most part. 88.2/96kHz/192-24bits were also briefly tested. While playing a 44.1kHz file, I noticed that the DAC sounded better if I matched its sample rate to the source, ie DAC configured as 44.1kHz sounded better than 192kHz, improving mids recess and micro-dynamics. This difference was pretty clear to my ears. The DAC was not adapting in real time to the different source sample rate even when letting application take exclusive control in windows options and setting to highest sample rates supported. Most probably, either the Artera+ should be configured to a multiple of the original source clock, or sample rates at 176kHz and above have no filter applied. In the case of the Bifrost, keeping its sample rate to 96k/24bit was best in my case. Artera+ Filter comparison: Below is the description on those filters, from Quad documentation: ___________________________ Filter Characteristics: Smooth: The ‘Smooth’ filter is a digital filter which implements sampling theory and is designed for near perfect technical response in the frequency domain. It’s quite useful for simpler acoustic recordings as it sounds more natural. The filter has a slightly lower bandwidth but superior rejection of out of spectrum noise and thus ha a very clear, smooth open sound. Wide: The ‘Wide’ filter has a gentle rate of attenuation, minimum ‘time-domain ringing’, minimal out of spectrum noise and thus is quite useful for high sample rate (96kHz and above) files. It has a very ‘clean’ sound, even if it doesn’t have the transient impact of ‘Fast’. Narrow: The ‘Narrow’ filter typifies industrial standard characteristics (-6dB at Fs with significant time-domain ringing) and is included here for comparison purposes). This filter has a high jitter tolerance. Fast: The ‘Fast’ filter exhibits no ringing – the transient nature of the music is preserved. This type of filter has a purity and ‘naturalness’ to the sound quality. __________________________ RAW filter notes during listening session, ordered by degree of audibility: - FAST: Sounds a bit lifeless compared to SMOOTH. Mids are recessed, but has more sparkle in the treble. Micro Dynamics are impressive in the treble (but treble glare gets worse). Actually treble sounds overly-defined, as in exaggerated. Very extended on top end, to the point of sounding bright (but not harsh). Sounstage is flat, but imaging /positioning very accurate. - WIDE: has a more Delicate presentation, as top end is less extended, quite too rolled off for my taste. Worst treble texture of all filters. Has more meat/bite in the mids than FAST. Has less weight and confidence; Bass has less slam. - SMOOTH: has less “life’ than wide, but top end is also better and less rolled off. Mids and especially high have better micro dynamics than WIDE. Soundstage a bit less deep than WIDE. - NARROW: mids sound laid back, acoustic guitars have less texture/body, sound anemic. The high treble is better defined than WIDE/SMOOTH. Soundstage sounds a bit flat compared to SMOOTH/WIDE, but imaging is great. Filter summary: In terms of top end roll off / extension / sparkle: Most extended - FAST > NARROW >> SMOOTH > WIDE – Most rolled off Soundstage follows a similar trend, and becomes almost flat (lack of depth) with FAST filter: Worst Sound Stage depth - FAST < NARROW < SMOOTH = WIDE - Best Sound Stage depth. Unfortunately, treble sounds a bit plasticky when using WIDE/SMOOTH, and treble glare is getting worse in the other direction, especially on FAST/NARROW. So in that sense, Smooth is a good compromise: Most natural treble texture - WIDE < SMOOTH << NARROW < FAST - Worst treble texture In the end, the default filter chosen by Quad, Smooth, is a good tradeoff. If one would have to use the Artera+ for a chirurgical analysis of the treble region, I advise to use FAST. FAST does not flow as naturally as the others, might be due to its overly-defined treble compared to the rest of the spectrum. For the next part DAC benchmark part, the evaluation is done using the default “Smooth” filter: DACs comparison: Artera+ has a more light, fresh, plastic treble than Bifrost MB. At first is sounds more defined because it is more extended, but actually we can hear that Bifrost has more mid/low treble details micro-dynamics. It is only on the high treble that Artera+ surpasses the Bifrost. Example is the cymbals and brushes of the drum kit, where the Artera+ is a bit splashy and textures are smeared. Bifrost gives less smeared textures: all impacts on the cymbals are distinct and start/stop faster. (FAST filter does better the SMOOTH here, but still worse than Bifrost) BASS – Overall, Bifrost has more articulate/slam in the BASS compared to Artera+. But Artera+ digs a bit deeper. Pretty close as far as Bass is concerned. In the end, it is about system synergy and feature need. Artera+ further highlights the micro dynamics in the last octave, while the Bifrost focus more on the mid-range, see illustration below: https://imgur.com/QgTizQB The Bifrost still holds the crown for best overall micro dynamics. This difference of character in the spectrum is interesting, and deserves to be further described: - The Artera+ sound fresher, more extended and defined high frequencies, but lacking meat/texture in mids/low treble. In other words, the Low to High treble transition is a bit abrupt in terms of micro dynamics. This also leads to a soundstage (imaging) that is more precise/focused on the Artera+ (spatial cues in very high frequencies), but less deep. - The Bifrost has a warmer signature overall, can sound more raspy on trumpets due to its important mids micro-dynamics/texture (mids are a bit smoothed-over on Artera+ in comparison). Top end sounds less extended, but in exchange treble has a consistent texture thorough the spectrum. If time allows, this benchmark will be performed again in few months once the Artera+ is fully burned in (and if my colleague is kind enough to bring it back), and measurements via audio precision APX555 may also be performed. Artera+’s embedded “discrete” headphone amplifier was tested through its front jack. A 5 minutes comparison was performed, and only against the 100$ JDS Atom Lab. The Artera+ jack output sounded better than the JDS, with a brighter presentation and better transparency. The JDS Atom sounded veiled and with a rolled off top end in comparison. Bass and mids also sounded cleaner. So the headphone out on the Artera+ is not an afterthought, which is great. Conclusion: A great audio hub that can become the center of your HiFi system. If you are looking for a euphonic / fat sound, the Artera+ is the opposite of that. Still very enjoyable to listen, my only gripe is the small lack of low treble texture and hint of treble glare (over exaggerated high treble details). Again, that is a subjective review of a new product without burn-in, so things may change for the better. Pay attention to system matching as the Artera+ leans a bit towards the bright side.