Aesthetix Saturn Romulus DAC/CD player
In a CD player?
Century-old technology embedded in a modern digital design?
I realize that Aesthetix's Saturn Romulus is not the first disc player or D/A processor with tubes, nor will it be the lastbut does combining these technologies even make sense? Are audiophiles working at cross purposes to themselves, looking for modern perfection but preferring a little old-school sweetening here and there?
To date, I've stuck with purely solid-state DACs and disc players, but I was curious enough to jump at a chance to audition the Aesthetix Romulus DAC/CD player and get my ears on this oddest of technological hybrids.
The Saturn Romulus is named after one of the mythical founders of Rome (Star Trek fans will recall Romulus as the namesake planet of the Romulans), and is essentially the same product as Aesthetix's tubed Pandora DAC, with the addition of a CD disc drive and a $1000 hike in price, to $7000. For another $1000, either product can be upgraded with an optional volume control based on Aesthetix's Calypso preamplifier, rendering a preamp unnecessary in an all-digital system.
I've had in for review another CD player/DAC in the Romulus/Pandora price range, the Resolution Audio Cantata ($6000, reviewed in the November 2012 issue), and here's the weird part: after setting up everything, the soft-spoken, well-mannered designers of both products asked to hear metal/rock band Tool at prodigious levels. Any other price range, and we're mostly listening to normal audiophile fare. But something about the $6000$7000 range and they start going all Maynard on me. It turns out that Romulus designer Jim White's wife is a retired race-car driver who was pretty good at keeping the other cars in her rear-view. Audiophiles living on the edge!
Under the hood
The DAC sections of both the Pandora and the Romulus sport a full complement of digital inputs that decode every resolution up to 24-bit/192kHz, and include: Gordon Rankin's asynchronous design for USB inputs, a Motorola DSP56362 in the filter section, and a Burr-Brown PCM 1792A DAC chip. The analog section has four tubes: my unit included a Russian Electro Harmonix 6922EH and a Slovakian Teslovac E83CCS in each channel. The analog circuit is a zero-feedback design; there are both balanced and unbalanced outputs.
The Romulus arrived carefully packed in a large, heavy, 2'-square carton. The unit itself weighs a hefty 40 lbs and is 18" squareit pretty much takes up every spot of depth in my cabinet. Its cleverly removable pop-off topno tools neededgrants easy access to the tubes.
With the top off, and peering in from the front, you'll see the plug-in digital input cards at back left, and the beautifully laid out analog output stage on the right. Both the Pandora and Romulus feature Rel-Cap polypropylene coupling capacitors and Roederstein metal-film resistors. Jim White clearly takes time to lay out everything with precision, and the build quality is as good as I've ever seen.
At the front of the chassis, taking up almost half the interior and encased in shiny metal for extra shielding, is the hefty power supply. Also at the front, housed in its own Faraday cage to isolate it from the rest of the DAC, is a "Red Book" disc drive made by TEAC.
I normally don't go on about the innards of products I review, but under its hood, the Romulus is a thing of beauty. White has been at this awhilehe designed for Theta Digital back in the 1990sand his experience shows.
You can order the Romulus with a silver or a black faceplate, but the surrounding case is always black, with two large open areas on top protected by metal screens. The exterior design is solid and clean, without gratuitous slabs of metal or flash, and resembles the other preamp products in Aesthetix's Saturn line.
One detail that stands out is the triangular shape of the company's logo, and of every button on the front panel. Starting from the left are the Standby button and indicator light, then the Input selector button and display on/off button. The display, in the middle of the front panel, runs through self-check messages whenever you power up the Romulus. That done, it provides track and timing information for CDs, or input and sample-rate information when running as a DAC. There are also indicators for setting CD functions like repeat and indicating Phase setting and digital lock. A nice touch is that the display senses the room's light level and adjusts itself accordingly.
Perhaps the coolest feature of the display is that it also functions as a touch volume control, assuming you've paid the extra $1000 for the volume option. The plastic display panel itself rocks slightly left and right; tap it on the left and the volume goes down; press it on the right and the volume goes up. Ingenious, though a bit tricky to figure out if you don't read the manual. Alas, my Romulus was delivered sans volume upgrade (though the display still rocks back and forth).
The CD drawer is a ½"-high slot in the middle of the front panel, below the display. One difference between the Romulus and the Pandora is that the DAC-only Pandora has a button for each input instead of a CD drawer, while the Romulus has a single button that cycles through the inputs.
To the right of the display is a Mute button with indicator LED, and to the right of that are the standard CD-transport buttons. The front panel ran only slightly warm, with the hotter components toward the rear. Still, the Romulus never got more than moderately hot around the tubes.
I was a little surprised that such a beautifully engineered product comes with a generic plastic remote control silk-screened with the Aesthetix logo and button functions. That aside, it has a button for everything, including direct selection of inputs and some extra preamp controls. I found that everything I needed was actually on the front panel of the Romulus, and so didn't use the remote much. So perhaps this really was the perfect place for Aesthetix to save a few bucksand if you drop this remote, it won't dent your furniture or break your toe.
Around back, starting at the left, are the analog outputs, both balanced and un-, and in the middle are the AC power connector and power switch. Below those are RS-232 and trigger jacks for home-automation applications. On the right are three removable plates for the various input configurations. Mine had the first plate blank, with the USB plate next and, on the third plate, the TosLink, coax, and AES/EBU jacks. The blank plate can be replaced with another USB input.
On the USB plate is a pushbutton that switches between Class 1 and Class 2. Class 1 allows operation up to 24/96 for all operating systems without requiring any special drivers. Class 2 is USB High Speed mode for higher data rates up to 24/192, if you're using either the Windows drivers supplied by Aesthetix via their website, or a Mac with OS 10.6.4 or higher. I was in the latter camp, so I left the switch in Class 2 position.
Getting Our Ears On
After running the Romulus in the system for about a month, it was time to get down to serious listening. First things first: Whenever comparing DACs, carefully match their output levels. I often wonder, when reading a review or comment in which the sound of one DAC is described as "far and away" more striking than that of another, if the better DAC was simply a tad louder. The Romulus, though close to my system standard level set by the Benchmark DAC1 USB, was still 1dB loudernoticeable when I made close comparisons in which even such a small difference in loudness could obscure relevant details.