Aqua La Voce S3: The art of digital

Food, art, cars, music … regardless of the subject, the Italians have a way of turning even the everyday into something special. That’s true of audio equipment, too – and the Aqua La Voce is a good example

Milan-based Aqua (an acronym for Acoustic Quality) is a small firm with a big (and growing) reputation for its range of digital audio components. The line-up includes a CD transport and no less than three D/A converters.

Under scrutiny here is the La Voce S3, with the S3 moniker confirming that this is the third version of Aqua’s entry-level DAC. Not that there is anything entry-level about the La Voce: it looks the high-end part inside and out, and promises sonic quality levels to match.

The S3 version marks the La Voce’s graduation from a sign magnitude R2R ladder DAC design to a pure resistor-based R2R network, coupled to a Field Programmable Gate Array decoder. More about this later.

AT FACE VALUE

True to its stylish Italian origins, the La Voce looks attractive and distinctive, while retaining an elegance born of simplicity and oversightly ergonomics. The faceplate eschews the usual rectangular shape for a subtly curved approach that instantly sets it apart from the norm.

The switchgear also keeps things simple: two rotary controllers for power on/off and input selection respectively are joined by a toggle selector for phase inversion. That’s it.

A glance at the rear panel of the DAC provides a better idea of the La Voce’s capabilities. The four digital inputs include the expected coaxial S/PDIF (on BNC), AES/EBU via XLR and an asynchronous USB socket. The fourth is Aqua’s interpretation of I2S via a RJ45 port.

The I2S protocol is considered the most direct, and most accurate, zero-jitter form of digital data transfer, but its implementation is generally proprietary – i.e. while the La Voce will accept digital data via I2S from Aqua’s own La Diva digital transport, it won’t do so with PS Audio’s I2S, as implemented on its DirectStream Memory Player.

On the output front, the La Voce offers both balanced XLR and single-ended RCA stereo output sets. The all-metal casework is supported on a trio of rubber ‘feet’ that are designed to decouple the DAC from mechanical interference.

UNDER THE COVERS

As mentioned, this latest, S3 version of the La Voce employs a true R2R resistor ladder network with a proprietary FPGA-based digital decoder without digital filtering, whereas its immediate predecessor, the S2, used a sign magnitude R2R ladder incorporating a pair of Burr-Brown DAC chips.

The internal execution of the La Voce is meticulous, featuring a fully discrete output stage, and separate, low-noise power transformers with discrete regulation for the analogue and digital sections respectively.

Quality parts are employed throughout, including 105 degree long-life capacitors, low-noise, ultra-precise metal-foil resistors, metallised film pulse capacitors, and ultra-high speed diodes.

The La Voce is capable of decoding PCM digital data at resolutions of up to 384 kHz/24-bit, as well as DSD 64 and DSD 128 files, via USB and I2S. The coaxial and AES/EBU inputs are limited to 192 kHz/24-bit. The DAC does not perform any upsampling.

SETTING UP

The La Voce was a well-used unit requiring no running in, and set-up was quick and simple. As I wanted to compare it to my reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC, I primarily used the USB input for the evaluation.

The La Voce connected via USB to a headless Mac Mini running the Roon music management system – which instantly recognised the Aqua as an endpoint. The DAC passed on the decoded, analogue signal to the pre-amp via its balanced XLR outputs.

The rest of the system comprised an Electrocompaniet 4.7 pre-amp, PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks, and Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers, while my trusty Esoteric UX-03SE acted as a disc transport, using the La Voce’s coaxial digital input.

SOUNDS LIKE …

From the word go, it was apparent that the La Voce delivers its sonic wares with a melodic, musically truthful intent and a confident coherence that allowed it to deliver its sonic wares with convincing, musical realism.

The sound was sleek and ear-friendly, boosted by a creaminess that infused the music with substance and texture.

The La Voce’s performance was marked by an easy accessibility and a seemingly relaxed delivery – but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of pace or definition, of which there was plenty.

If anything, the Italian was able to extract a rich and exiting harvest of musical information that brought both the bold sonic vistas and the fine slivers of detail to the fore.

Perhaps the Aqua’s real secret is the way it contextualised the musical information, both temporally and spatially, resulting in a performance that was always alluring and arresting. Nor did the La Voce have to resort to hyperbole: instead, a quintessential truthfulness ensured both credibility and enjoyment.

The DAC’s staging was seamless and wide open, with a believable dimensionality that faithfully positioned the performers in a well-defined, three-dimensional sonic space. Both height and depth were clearly represented, but never at the expense of the music’s cohesion.

One could accuse the La Voce of having a slightly warm and rounded tonal signature, and it’s true that it never sounded coldly clinical. But while it did capture the richness of the music, the warmth and benevolence of the delivery never got in the way of its clarity of expression.

Bob James’ eloquent and expressive piano work is the highlight of Espresso, his latest set: the recording captures the timbre and presence of the instrument to great effect, while also making the most of the veteran jazz ace’s elegant, liquid style.

On ‘Mojito Ride’, the sound was transparent, with the piano the unequivocal centre of attraction. But the La Voce never lost sight of the ensemble’s other members: Michael Palazollo’s mesmerising bass closely tracks the piano’s rapid tempo changes, while the ever charismatic Billy Kilson’s intricate percussion remains fleet-footed and punchy throughout.

Elvis Costello’s Look Now is a lyrical tour de force, linking memorable lyrics to powerful, persuasive melodies. His vocals are deep-etched with a lifetime’s experience of performing, and he sound all the more authentic and empathetic as a result.

The mix is satisfyingly lucid, but the La Voce provided further, deeper insight, extracting a wholesomeness that underscored the presence and realism of the music. Again, the ease of the DAC’s delivery made for an inviting, enlightening and ultimately enjoyable listening experience.

That insight turned the deceptively simple arrangement of ‘Tomorrow Night’, from Jennifer Warnes’ Another Time, Another Place into a compelling listening experience.

The conversational stand-up bass, the passionately executed Hammond organ riffs and the on-point percussion sounded persuasively real, with Warnes’ richly defined vocals soaring effortlessly above them. Pure heaven!

Yes, the result was both arresting and deeply moving. And that’s another thing about the La Voce: it manages to extract the emotive content of a performance with greater ease and believability than most digital converters.

The Italian DACs treatment of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by Ivo Pogorelich and the London Symphony Orchestra, proved that it isn’t at all intimidated by large-scale works.

It coped with the performance’s dynamic swings, the percussive intensity of the piano, and the full gamut of the LSO with ease, never losing its composure and convincingly conveying the majesty of the music.

That said, the Aqua was also well up to the task of closely examining the quiet, delicate passages. And it always put the music first.

Can the La Voce rock? You bet! Prog rock masters Muse sound invigorated and energetic on ‘The Dark Side’ from their just released Simulation Theory, with vast synth-shaped sonic vistas and insistent drumming providing a suitably stirring, markedly electronic backdrop for Matt Bellamy’s ever-melancholy, falsetto vocals.

The La Voce really got stuck into the almost mesmerising intensity of the music. It opened up the seemingly impenetrable arrangement, and easily kept up with the driving tempo.

The sound was vivid and spacious, convincingly expressing the scale of the sound, while keenly exploring the multi-layered synths.

THE BOTTOM LINE

I enjoyed my time with the Aqua La Voce immensely. It’s an inherently appealing and convincingly musical player that pays close attention to the emotive and melodic components of the performance, and comes across musically truthful as a result.

For some, the DAC’s deceptive approachability and warmth-tinged tonality may seem too laid back, even if that’s only an illusion: the La Voce lacks nothing in pace and precision terms.

Certainly, in back-to-back comparisons, the PS Audio DirectStream running Red Cloud sounded more succinct, and more pristine, but lacked some of the Aqua’s engagement. In purely analytical terms, the DirectStream is the better DAC, but the La Voce’s palpable musicality proved to be addictive.

Add admirable build quality, and built in upgradeability, and the Aqua La Voce becomes a compelling alternative to more recognised – and more expensive –high-end DACs.

By Deon Schoeman

VITAL STATS
Digital-to-analogue conversion: Pure R2R ladder with proprietary FPGA
Digital filter/upsampling: None
Digital inputs:
– I2S via RJ45
– Coaxial SPDIF
– AES/EBU via XLR
– Asynchronous USB
Analogue outputs: Single-ended RCA, balanced XLR
Supported sample rates:
– I2S and USB: 384 kHz PCM, DSD64 and DSD128
– S/PDIF coaxial and AES/EBU: 192 kHz/24-bit
Dimensions (WxDxH): 450 x 310 x 100mm
Weight: 7 kg
PRICE
R56 800
SUPPLIED BY
Air Music

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Bridge II
Esoteric UX-03 SE universal transport
Electrocompaniet 4.7 pre-amp
PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers
PS Audio P5 power regenerator
Mac Mini, Intel Core i5 2,5 GHz, MacOS High Sierra
Synology 213+ NAS
TelluriumQ and Nordost cabling and interconnects

SOFTWARE
Bob James Trio – Espresso (Evosound 44/16 FLAC)
Elvis Costello – Look Now (Concord 96/24 FLAC)
Jennifer Warnes – Another Time, Another Place (BMG 44/16 FLAC)
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1 – Ivo Pogorelich/Claudio Abbado/LSO (DG CD)
Muse – Simulation Theory (Warner 44/16 FLAC)