Fidelice by Rupert Neve - Precision Digital-to-Analog Converter - DAC/Amp Review

Review written by Ian Dunmore (@Torq)

Introduction

The “Fidelice - by Rupert Neve Designs” is a new line of high-end audio electronics for the music lover, from the much revered professional/studio work of British designer and engineer “Rupert Neve”.

Those familiar with Neve’s work are no doubt aware of the vintage hand-wired analog mixing consoles upon which his name was made. Indeed, they’re focal point of, and inspiration for, Dave Grohl’s documentary “Sound City” (well worth watching) - which covers the history of the small, but legendary, “Sound City Studios”, where more than 100 gold and platinum albums were recorded, and that featured two of Neve’s special consoles - the “8028” and “8078”.

The “Fidelice” line launches with the “Precision Digital to Analog Converter” (RNDAC), “Precision Headphone Amplifier” (RNHP) and the “Precision Phono Pre-Amplifier” (7566). And it is the “Precision Digital to Analog Converter”, which retails for $4,995, that is the subject of this review:

This particular unit was on kind loan from headphones.com, and was returned to them ahead of the publication my review.

The gear chain/equipment used in this review can be found here, and the music I use in my reviews and evaluations is listed here.

Features & Functionality

The RNDAC is unusual among modern DAC/amps, in that it allows all of its functionality to be utilized individually and directly. You can use it as a DAC/amp or all-in-one directly driving headphones. You can run just the DAC and drive an external amplifier. Want to feed the unit an analog signal, say to run a turntable, and keep an all-analog signal chain all the way out to the headphones or pre-outs? Yes, you can do that too. There are options for fixed or variable outputs, allowing operation with both active speakers and power amplifiers. And you can connect the unit up such that ALL of these options are available at once and are selected by toggle switches.

Overall feature highlights are as follows:

  • 2x Analog Inputs (RCA and XLR/TRS combo)
  • 3x Digital Inputs (USB and S/PDIF COAX/TOSLINK)
  • 1/4" (6.35mm) TRS - Single-Ended Headphone Output
  • 4-pin XLR & 4.4mm “Pentaconn” - Balanced Heapdhone Outputs
  • Up to 1000mW headphone power output at 16Ω
  • Selectable Gain (High and Low)
  • AKM 4497 DAC chipset
  • PCM support up to 24/384 kHz
  • DSD support up to DSD512
  • Switchable Fixed/Variable RCA & XLR analog outputs
  • Input level attenuator (for consumer/professional signal levels)
  • Selectable Digital Filter Options
  • User-updatable firmware

Note: The line-outputs are not switched with the headphone jacks; instead that’s handled by a front-panel toggle. This is due to the headphone outputs being run in parallel and their being no switched-jacks for XLR.

You have 5 inputs available; 2 analog and 3 digital, selected and indicated via push-buttons on the front-panel. On the analog side the unit has both consumer and studio-level selectable single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR + TRS combo) inputs.

Outputs are in the form of RCA and XLR (transformer coupled, balanced) connections, with selectable fixed/variable output level.

There is a fully-baked headphone amplifier built-into the unit. This is no “afterthought” component; it out-specifies and out-performs, the dedicated, standalone, “Precision Headphone Amplifier” … itself an $1,195 piece. There are even three different options for your headphone output, including the standard 1/4” (6.35mm) TRS single-ended jack, and both 4-pin XLR and 4.4mm “Pentaconn” balanced connections. High and low gain settings allow for easy matching with headphones of different sensitivities. And the same power output is available from all of these connections, which is more than sufficient to drive all but the most demanding cans.

Build

Casework/chassis is made of suitably thick aluminum (the top plate is quite a bit thicker internally than at the edges), and has a nice heft to it, without it actually being as heavy as you might expect when you actually pick it up.

The Switchgear is an interesting mix of classic toggle-switches, which have a very solid and highly satisfying “thunk” to their operation, and lighted momentary tactile buttons - which … don’t. The attractively-contrasting, red, volume knob is extremely smooth and well damped. This definitely feels the part, and is much more in keeping with the operation of the toggle switches. It’s not quite the Leica-like smoothness of, say, an ALPS RK50 pot, but it’s as good as the Phonitor X, or any other similar unit, and quite satisfying in use.

But … the side panels are not exactly the same color as the top and bottom panels (which are a shade darker), nor are they the same thickness, and combined with the panel gaps are pretty much unmissable and somewhat breaks up the visual flow of the unit.

Overall, for $4,995, I’m less impressed here than I want to be. The functional aspects of the build are very solid, and I’m not concerned about longevity or reliability, but the exterior fit-and-finish loses it a few points at this level. Though it is worth noting that this is a very early production unit (serial number 00003), and subsequent units may be a bit more tightly regulated in this regard.

Aesthetics

This is a distinctive design. It’s clean, functional and neat. Perhaps more Stanley Kubrik’s “2001” in style than anything else. Which is to say a 1970s imagination of what electronics might look like in 2001. If that was the goal, I think it succeeds admirably; I could certainly see it making an appearance at MOMA in the future.

Which is not to say I like its industrial design.

Nor do I specifically dislike it - but it’s definitely in the “not really me” category and so far hasn’t grown on me further.

My wife simply thinks it looks dated, and asked if the next thing I was adding to my office was some avocado and gold shag-carpet. She much prefers the black/silver stack of Chord and Woo gear, which are a bit more “20,000 leagues” meets “steampunk” in their aesthetic, that comprises my primary headphone rig.

This is a large unit (a full, standard, 17.5” wide component), and while oddly the angled side panels reduce its actual volume they somehow make it look larger than it really is. The light silver/grey finish means it is going to be highly visible if placed in a living room unless it’s buried in a rack, and the inset wooden panel definitely increase the unit’s visual distinctiveness. And as such it’s very noticeable; which is great if you love the look and rather less desirable if not - and results in this being either something you’re really going to want to place prominently, or hide away as best you can.

Sound & Performance

My first listening session with the RNDAC was a rather pronounced “Wow!” experience. Very high apparent detail, speed, dynamics, impact and an amazingly open, airy and spacious sound greeted me. Given my normal rig, this doesn’t happen often. Historically, I’ve had mixed experiences when components deliver such an impressive initial salvo - ranging from continued awe, through a gentle tempering to something more reasonable and, occasionally, it being the harbinger of future grating issues.

Well, I’m happy to say there are no grating issues here.

While my initial enthusiasm and euphoria abated some over a more protracted listening period, I still regard the Precision Digital to Analog Converter as an excellent, engaging, thoroughly enjoyable listen! I’d have no issue listening to this unit day-in, day-out - either for pleasure or in a studio setting. And it’s fair to say that, beyond the comparative listening sessions, I was quite delighted to listen to it every moment I was able during my time with it.

In More Detail …

My listening notes and commentary here are based on using the unit as a combined DAC/amp, feeding it via USB, from either Audirvana or Roon, with a mix of Redbook PCM, high-resolution PCM and native DSD content, and using the internal DAC/amp pairing, driving a variety of headphones via the balanced output.

Upon first listening, with the unit in it’s default configuration (all DIP switches in the “up” position) the very first thing that struck me was the expansive stage and open, airy, sound, followed almost immediately by an impressively dynamic delivery of staccato electronic percussion, and then the swelling, sonorous, deep bass tones that fleshed out what was already a “sit up and take notice” start to the proceedings.

Not much else got done that evening, and I was content to simply sit and listen as the music flowed forth … no skipping tracks … no fiddling with the volume … just simply letting the music take me with it. And then “evening” all-too-rapidly became “Why is it getting light outside?”

After a suitable break, and some sleep, I went back to the RNDAC for some more considered, specific and focused listening. That began with exploring the digital filter settings, controlled via DIP switches on the back of the unit:

As is generally the case with me and AKM 449X based DACs, I would up settling on the “Sharp Roll-Off, Standard Group Delay” setting (switches 1, 2, 4 & 5 up, switch 3 down). The audible effect of which, here, was a reduction in how spacious and open the sound was, but a better reproduction of instrumental timbre and transients (most notable with pizzicato pieces).

I can see why the Fidelice/Rupert Neve team chose the default they did, as changing the setting did tamper the RNDAC’s “Wow” effect to some degree. But for longer term, critical, listening, it was at odds with the more accurate reproduction of reality for me - especially when playing my own recordings. That’s a preference thing, of course, and the listener can obviously set this the way they see fit - the options exist for a reason!

But back to the music …

Playing George Michael’s “Father Figure” (“Atomic Blonde” soundtrack), resulted in another example of the RNDACs engaging nature. The initial slowly changing tones, and starkly overlaid percussion simultaneously highlight both the spacious and open sound, and the tight, fast, precision delivery of the RNDAC. Ten seconds later the background theme comes in, clearly layered behind and distinct from what’s already playing, and then ten seconds after that the upper-bass line kicks in … rich and sonorous, fleshing out the tonal content and adding well controlled body to the proceedings. From there we layer in finger snaps, and then vocals … all distinct in space but still fully coherent.

It was trivial to pick apart the mix and isolate any specific element - each was distinct and easily resolved without detracting from the overall composition. Perhaps that’s the point here; a device that can effortlessly present the musical whole, while still allowing fine-grained isolation and focus … which would be fitting for production work - which is, of course, where all this began.

I digress …

Timbral rendering here is resolutely lifelike. When playing my own piano recordings, this is one of the better reproductions I’ve heard. I think it’s more realistic and accurate with the filter settings where I have them than at default. Which is one of the reasons I have that set where it is. But the discordancy and “edge” apparent in notes played with extreme “aggression” is vividly rendered with the RNDAC, while still retaining the sweet, pure, tone with more measured play.

The Precision DAC has neutral, and natural, tone; linear and pure. At the same time there’s a hint of lushness to the sound which, while not shifting the tonal response, rounds out what otherwise might tend toward a more clinical delivery. No, the RNDAC doesn’t sound clinical, but if not for that lushness, or lucidity, especially around the mid-range, it might lean that way vs. other units it might face off against.

Transitions between the major spectral domains are seamless and smooth. From infra-sonics, through the bass regions, mid-range, treble, presence and air/sparkle/brilliance bands, everything is clean, composed and coherent. A place for everything; everything in its place.

Bass-heavy music, be it the pure, deeply-resonant, heavy pipes in major church organs or rapid-fire artificial electronica, exhibits excellent control and articulation, regardless of what headphones I paired the unit with. Subtle melodies played in the very lowest octave are clear and present. And whether deliberately ponderous, or agile and driving, this never upset the balance, pace, detail or delineation elsewhere in the mix.

From the mids on up, there’s a delicious lushness or lucidity combined with an openess that I typically only find with tube amplifiers. And I don’t hear it when running the RNDAC’s DAC output into an external amplifier, nor when simply piping an external source into the Precision DAC’s analog inputs. It is perhaps the best illustration of the synergy this unit exhibits when employed as a whole.

Higher frequency components are extremely smooth, with no tendency towards over-sharpening or brittleness. Nothing I could throw at it would prompt it into sibilance, grain or harshness. But at no time did I feel it was covering anything up, either. It is one of a vanishingly small list of gear through which I can listen to marginal material without issues and not find I’m being subjected to sins of omissions with well recorded/produced music.

Pizzicato pieces, most often illustrated for me with plucked-strings, demonstrate the RNDAC’s excellent transient performance. It is vivid with natural instruments, and striking with electronic instruments (the intro to “The Rat”, from Infected Mushroom’s “Army of Mushrooms” is a case in point). Start. Stop. No drama. No overhang. But without dampening the source’s natural decay.

And, as previously mentioned, the Precision DAC exhibits an unusually expansive and vivid stage, with an extremely open and airy sound. Again, this is generally more the preserve of tube amplifiers in my experience. It was something that paired particularly well with Focal’s headphone line-up, where those cans are generally rather more intimate in their presentation. My go to air/sense-of-space recording “Mining for Gold” (Cowboy Dummies, “The Trinity Session”) delivers an entirely palpable experience … portraying the depth, emptiness and ambiance of the venue; you can almost hear the air here.

This not-so-little box of tricks, simply put, just sucks you in and holds you captive.

If it has any weaknesses versus similarly leveled competition, it would be in extreme micro-dynamic resolution. There’s more texture and depth to some more complex vocals (think Leonard Cohen, John Lee Hooker, Kate Bush) with, say, the Chord Hugo TT 2 or DAVE or even the RME ADI-2 DAC fs (used as a DAC into a proper amplifier) than I found with the RNDAC. Though, even here, the difference is small enough to need back-to-back comparison to detect.

Overall the Fidelice Precision Digital to Analog Converter delivers a thoroughly engrossing performance.

DAC vs. Amp vs. All-in-One

The RNDAC is, for me, at its best when used as an all-in-one, DAC/amp, combination. There is a definite synergy between the DAC and amplifier when used this way, which doesn’t fully translate to the individual functions when they’re used in isolation. I find it more engaging and emotive, and a more addictive, euphoric, experience, when simply plugging it into a source, connecting my headphones, and sitting back to listen.

DAC/amp and/or all-in-one components are often mismatched between their DAC and amplifier capabilities. I don’t feel that’s the case here; the DAC isn’t holding back the amplifier, and the amplifier isn’t stunting the performance of the DAC.

Overall, I would expect to use this unit primarily in its DAC/amp mode, and would only tap the DAC’s output into another amplifier for operational or convenience reasons (e.g. to run an additional tube amp for a different presentation). Similarly, I’d be using the analog inputs to run an external source, most likely a turntable, in addition to the DAC, rather than purely as a dedicated amplifier.

Balanced vs. Single-Ended - Headphone Output

The differences here are not big. You won’t gain extra power by using the balanced output, due to the topology of the RNDAC’s headphone output. You can use either and get excellent results, but if you have balanced headphones, then you will get better separation, stage/imaging and a small bump in detail/resolution vs. the single-ended output. And that’s the way I would choose to run this unit.

The single-ended output is no slouch either. And it’s just as powerful as the balanced connection. The differences are essentially the same as you find between single-ended and balanced drive with any competent headphone amplifier, and derive from the separation of return lines and reduction in crosstalk that this yields, rather than any actual qualitative difference in the amplifier or its outputs and how they are serviced.

There was no audible difference between 4-pin XLR or the 4.4mm “Pentaconn” connections (I run a modular headphone cable system that allows me to use any of my headphones with any amplifier connection with no other changes, so the comparison is apples-to-apples).

Balanced vs. Single-Ended - Analog/Pre-Amp Output)

In general use, feeding external amplifiers, I found I had a very slight preference for the single-ended (RCA) output from the RNDAC. The XLR outputs were something I perceived as being a hint warmer but also not quite as spacious and somehow losing that last percentage point of resolution and micro-dynamic subtlety. I doubt this would even be audible without a suitable way to directly compare both outputs in a level-matched fashion (which most won’t have).

If you’re using long runs of cable (common in professional applications), are in a very electrically noisy environment, or are having issues with mains hum or ground loops, then the balanced outputs will be the way to go.

USB vs. S/PDIF TOSLINK & COAX

On the digital side of the house, I would simply drive this unit via USB if possible. The S/PDIF inputs don’t sound different, at least not from my reference source, but they won’t give you the full gamut of format and bit-rate support that you get with USB.

Comparisons

The DAC comparisons here were done both by feeding the RNDAC’s fixed-level analog output to known-quantity external amplifiers, as well as feeding the DACs being compared through the RNDACs analog inputs/headphone output. The amplifier section comparisons were done by feeding the RNDAC with known-quantity external DACs.

vs. RME ADI-2 DAC fs:

On the DAC side of things … there is very little in it. In raw technical terms, the RME unit is generally equal or better, though from an audible perspective things shift the other way. When listening, the extreme bottom end isn’t quite as well controlled here as it is on the RNDAC, stage projection is smaller and closer, and the top-end is not as open/airy or spacious sounding. But the RME is slightly ahead in terms of low-level micro-dynamic resolution and micro detail.

The amplifier/headphone output on the RME simply doesn’t match the RNDAC. It might better it on paper, but there’s a little mid-range dynamic compression with the RME that is simply not present when listening via the RNDAC.

As an all-in-one, the RNDAC has a peculiar and beguiling synergy between it’s DAC and amp that is not replicated when using either stage independently. The RNDAC is more flexible from an I/O perspective, and offers an analog headphone and pre-amp path the RME does not; you’d need at least two additional devices (or switch to the Pro version of the RME unit) to get to functional parity with the RNDAC here. The headphone output on the RNDAC is much more convincing, and a lot more enjoyable, than the native output on the RME - especially in balanced drive.

vs. SPL Phonitor X:

The DAC module for the Phonitor X just doesn’t measure up to that in the RNDAC. It’s competent, but lackluster, and I would only consider it for basic monitor use. In contrast the RNDAC offers better resolution and both micro and macro-dynamics, vastly better stage rendering, improved bass articulation and delineation, and a less closed-in/more airy/open delivery and is a vastly more engaging listen.

The Phonitor X has comparable amplifier capability to the RNDAC with its all-analog input/output possibilities and matches the RNDAC in terms of ability to operate in both studio and home environments, with inputs that have huge headroom for pairing with very hot-outputs from studio/professional gear. Sound wise, they’re more similar than not overall, with the RNDAC being a tad more open sounding and with a slight top-end tilt and leaner delivery which results in a slightly faster-sounding result, vs. the Phonitor X which exhibits slightly greater tonal density and a less airy sound (though employing the Matrix functions here will shift that in favor of the Phonitor X), but with better macro-dynamics and more drive authority - especially with big musical swings into the most challenging loads.

As an all-in-one, the DAC module really lets the Phonitor X down, and the RNDAC is a clearly more enjoyable and resolving listen as a result.

vs. Chord Hugo TT 2:

DAC-wise the Hugo TT 2 is convincingly better across the board. Clarity, precision, detail, micro and macro-dynamics, tonality, timbre and in particular spatiality and imaging all favor the Chord unit. This was the case either listening directly via the Hugo TT 2 or feeding it into the RNDAC’s amplifier and listening via it. I was a bit surprised by this, as the best implementations of the AKM 4497 I’ve heard (“Katalyst” equipped Linn DS units) I would generally rank above the Hugo TT 2, though they’re more expensive than either Hugo TT 2 or RNDAC to boot.

The RNDAC can, of course, act as an amplifier for other, analog, sources, which the Hugo TT 2 cannot do at all. So if you need that functionality, the choice here is pretty clear!

I was planning on comparing to the Chord DAVE as well, but since the DAVE comfortably bests the Hugo TT 2, I elected to skip that comparison.

Operational Quirks & Cautions

I’ve only noted three quirks with the RNDAC so far, and two are worthy of note if not necessarily actual “issues”:

Headphone Output Transients at Power On/Off

If you have headphones connected when you power the unit on, or off, you’ll hear a moderately loud “pop” from them. This is disappointing in a $4,995 component, particularly in a world where muting relays and silent-shutdown can be found on readily available amps at the $100 price-point.

While the manual doesn’t specifically call out disconnecting the headphones when power-cycling, and the “pop” isn’t so loud that I would think it poses much risk to one’s hearing or one’s cans, “not posing much risk” is not the same as “there being no risk”, and as such I’d make sure to disconnect my cans from the unit before turning it on or off.

DSD & DoP Support Limited to DSD128 on macOS

The RNDAC is capable of DSD support up to DSD512, but the full DSD512 rate is only available if you’re feeding the unit from a Windows-based PC, via USB and requires using the supplied driver.

On macOS and/or via DoP (DSD over PCM) the unit only supports DSD128.

DSD128 is what the unit advertises as its highest supported DSD bit-rate to player software on macOS. If you want to play DSD256 or higher content from macOS here you’ll either need to have your player on-the-fly down-sample it to DSD128 or convert it to PCM (closest PCM settings for DSD256 would be 24-bit/352.8 kHz).

I have other DACs that are happy accept DSD256 over DoP from macOS without issue, so I’m assuming this is deliberate behavior on the part of the RNDAC, and is likely handled at the USB interface, as the converter itself is clearly not the limitation.

USB/Wake from Sleep

I mention this one only to save potential troubleshooting for others in the event they run across it …

Twice so far, if the DAC was powered on or off while my computer was in sleep mode (or in the process of waking from sleep) then the USB input would cease to operate. Simply disconnecting and reconnecting the USB cable did not resolve this. It was necessary to disconnect the cable, power-cycle the DAC, reboot the host computer and then reconnect the USB cable.

In general use this isn’t an issue, and it does not occur every time. And if you wake/power-up your computer before turning on the DAC it doesn’t occur at all.

I’ve seen this with other DACs from time to time and it’s not clear if it’s the USB receiver module on the DAC (all the other DACs that have had this issue used XMOS USB controllers; I don’t know what’s inside the RNDAC), an issue with macOS, or an interaction between the two.

Summary

The Fidelice (by Rupert Neve) Precision DAC is the best sounding, most enjoyable, all-in-one unit I’ve heard at its price-point that also includes a true analog-input-to-analog-output path. It’s not without issues, but those have more to do with non-sonic characteristics than its musical performance.

The RNDAC is, in subjective terms, an extremely enjoyable listen. It is detailed, nuanced, clean, dynamic, resolving and powerful. Music is delivered in an unfailingly engaging manner. Despite comparatively modest power ratings, the headphone amplifier has excellent authority even with more demanding cans and remains composed and enjoyable at high replay levels.

Objectively it is a very flexible and connectivity-rich unit that, unusually for a modern DAC/amp (or all-in-one) has proper analog inputs that are kept in the analog domain from end-to-end (no ADC -> DAC conversion in the chain). And the inputs have lots of headroom and will properly tolerate professional/studio level inputs that would cause massive input-stage clipping on typical consumer/audiophile units.

My initial reaction to the RNDAC was, perhaps, a little more enthusiastic than where I find myself after several days of dedicated, and comparative, listening. This is principally a question of value rather than anything else. Different aesthetics (obviously a personal call), better casework fit/finish and not having to deal with power on/off transients would help here to some degree. But, ultimately, I can get comparable (subjective) or better (objective) performance, with more features and power, elsewhere, for usefully less money, and all I am really giving up to do so is the “Rupert Neve” badge.

It’s a lovely listen. I think anyone that’s interested in such things, around this level, should definitely try and get their ears on it, as the value proposition/branding and aesthetics here may work better for others than they do for me.

- Ian Dunmore (@Torq)

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