After months of waiting, I’m very happy to finally get my hand on the revolutionary Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo (CLAS) device.
Everyone knows that the CLAS is the first of its kind, as it is the only portable device that gives access to the Ipod’s digital data, bypassing the Ipod’s internal D/A conversion. This concept was first seen on the Wadia i170 Transport, later also on the Onkyo ND-S1 which I also happen to use, but neither docks work on batteries, nor do theycome with their own digital to analog conversion circuitry. Last year, HRT also released the iStreamer device which also had the ability to extract digital data from the Ipod, but the iStreamer also requires AC power for operational. Now, I’ve recently learned of the existence of another portable Ipod dock-amp like the CLAS, this time from Japanese manufacturer Fostex. While I can’t be sure who ultimately have the right to claim to be the first, I think it’s quite agreeable to say that both devices are the “firsts” of their kind.
While I’m still waiting for the Fostex HP-1 to arrive from Fostex Japan, Ken @ ALO Audio have sent me the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo, along with the signature ALO USB dock and mini-to-mini cable. Paired with the ALO Rx Mk2 which belongs to my friend Peter, I am very excited to be able to experience the Solo first hand.
WHAT DOES IT DO?
To do a quick recap, the typical digital audio signal chain goes like this:
This is the typical direct set up. On this set up, the Ipod is doing all of the task of producing the signal for the headphones, starting from providing the digital music file, encoding the music file, feeding it to the digital to analog converter, passing on to the internal amplifier, and finally out to the HD800 headphones. As you can see, the Ipod is responsible for doing all that hard work, which gives us a less stellar result out on the headphone side.
You’ve got the typical portable amp set up, where a portable amplifier, such as the ALO Rx Mk2 takes the amplifying job out of the Ipod’s internal amp. As a result, you get a more potent amplification circuit capable of delivering higher power output at a finer resolution level. And yet, on this set up, the critical Digital to Analog (DAC) conversion is still handled by the Ipod’s internal DAC. The typical Imods doesn’t alleviate this problem too, as it still takes the signal after it has been processed from the Ipod’s internal DAC.
On this set up, you have the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo taking over the critical Digital to Analog conversion process, as it is able to extract the digital data out of the Ipod’s storage media, and perform the Digital to Analog conversion inside the CLAS. The result is a superior source signal, which then can be passed to a superior amplification circuit such as the ALO Rx Mk2, before finally getting to the headphones. Indeed, this is by far the best method, as it provides the optimum sonic quality at each part of the chain.
GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE CLAS
The CLAS accepts the digital data from the Ipod through the USB socket on the back panel. Transmission method is through Asynchronous USB, in which a low jitter clock inside the CLAS serves as the master clock for the data transmission. The data is then passed on to a Wolfson D/A chip (the actual chip model is not revealed by Cypher Labs). Despite the USB port, it is important to note that the CLAS does not have the necessary services to act as a USB DAC. Data resolutions are limited to 16/48, which is the resolution that typical Ipod devices will accept.
As a general rule of thumb, the CLAS is compatible with all of the recent Ipod/Iphone/Ipad models, which includes the Ipod Classics, all versions of the Touch, Nano, and Iphones, and the Ipad.
My shipment from ALO consists of the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo device in its own packaging. Included with the CLAS packaging is a generic Cypher Labs USB Dock cable, three Cypher Labs rubber bands, and a 5Volts charger for the CLAS. The CLAS device retails for $579, while a CLAS and ALO Rx Mk2 package is available for $998 from the ALO Store. The CLAS device was still sealed inside its plastic packaging, which implies a brand new unit with no burn in time. Additionally, ALO also shipped me a pair of ALO reference USB Dock cable, as well as an ALO mini to mini interconnect, terminated in Neutrik L-angles, which sells for $198.
The improvements are obvious. Compared to the same system without the CLAS (Ipod Classic > ALO SXC LOD > ALO Rx Mk2 > HD800), I’m getting a bigger soundstage and a more distinct separation that fills up almost the entire cups of the HD800’s headstage. One of the issues that I’ve always had with Ipods in general is how the mids always sound congested when compared to the higher quality sources. Not anymore with the CLAS. The mids are now open with no congestion. Going back to the Ipod’s internal DAC gives me a more muffled sound, and though I can still hear the instrument separation pretty well, the whole band was taking place on a smaller soundstage that seems to only fill half of the HD800’s large sphere. Of course, we wouldn’t expect anything less but a much improved soundstage projection out of the CLAS.
COMPARED TO THE HIFIMAN HM-602/HM-601
Afterwards, I went on to proceed the comparison to the Hifiman HM-602, which was my current favorite DAP. The amplifier and headphone remains the same, and likewise the music files. The primary difference between the two sources is that the CLAS takes on a more lively and dynamic sound, where the Hifiman is more mellow, warmer, and more midrange oriented. The CLAS is better on soundstage width, blacker background, and instrument separation, while the Hifiman gives a deeper soundstage depth and also a better sense of ambiance. I think the difference character between the two DACs (Wolfson vs Philips TDA1543) makes the Hifiman more suitable for Acoustics, Vocals and Jazz. While the CLAS would be more suitable for mainstream Rock, anything fast-paced with a lot of strong beats.
THE CLAS AS A DIGITAL TRANSPORT
The low jitter, bit perfect Asynchronous data transfer of the CLAS makes it a good candidate for an excellent digital transport. I tested the CLAS as a digital source feeding S/PDIF signal to the Grace m902, and while the resolution was not as good as compared to my CEC TL51XZ belt driven CD player, the CLAS did offer far better level of convenience as I had hundreds of CDs available on the Ipod’s storage system.
The portable HiFi industry have grown tremendously, and there are a lot of choices when it comes to choosing an audiophile player these days. While most of these audiophile players come with a strong audio performance, none of them is able to match the overall package that you get with the Ipod and Iphone platform. For some player, like the QLS QA-350 that I reviewed a while ago, the UI is so primitive that I’d rather use a plain Ipod Shuffle rather than having to deal with that kind of UI.
I think the real selling point with the CLAS lies in its compatibility with the Ipod platform. To this day, there are no other players that can compete with the superb user interface, storage size, and popularity of the Ipods. The success of the Iphone also makes the CLAS an even more appealing solution as you can have a smart phone and an audiophile player in one package — something that can’t be done on the other systems. Combined with the additional solutions offered through the App Store and the Itunes, none of the other player comes even close in offering the full-scale solution that a user get with an Ipod.
I’d like to congratulate Cypher Labs for pulling off one of the most revolutionary solutions to high end portable music listening.
System used for review:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800
Amplifiers: ALO Rx Mk2, Grace m902
Source: Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo, Hifiman HM-601, Hifiman HM-602
Transports: Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo, Ipod Classic 120GB, CEC TL51XZ
Interconnects: ALO AlgoRhythm Interconnects