Blue Smoke's Black Box II

I loved the TAD Compact Reference CR1 speakers when I reviewed them in January 2012. And I am also a fan of the Parasound Halo JC1 monoblock amplifier. But when I walked into the Blue Smoke room at AXPONA and saw the latter driving the former, I was a little taken aback. This is not a combination I would have thought worked well together, both speakers and amplifiers tending toward the lean and clean side of things. But only a fool would allow his expectations to affect what he heard and the sound in the room was superb: clean, yes, but not lean; a rich, extended low end but without bass boom; and a wealth of detail with the feeling of anything being spotlit. The MSB Diamond DAC 4 with Femto Clock, the Argento cables, and the Bag End Electronic Bass Traps must have had something to do with the great sound, of course, but the source, Blue Smoke's new Black Box II (to be priced around $8000 when available) must have been the key.

The Black Box II is basically a media server based on an embedded Windows 8 PC, but with the W8 audio architecture opened up so that any PC player—JRMC, Foobar, Songbird, etc.—can play files without the OS overhead interfering with the purity of the data streamed to the separate audio board, this powered with a linear supply to keep the noisefloor as low as possible. Even the optical drive is kept separate. The Black Box II was feeding audio data to the MSB DAC via the latter's proprietary iS link. This was one of my best sounds at AXPONA, even Red Book audio sounding clean, open, and detailed.