Lynx Studio Technology HILO – Way More Than You Bargained For

Disclaimer: Lynx Studio Technology‘s Japanese distributor, HookUp (yes, HookUp), hooked me up with the loaner for this review. Many thanks to HookUp and to Lynx for answering myriad questions, and for getting this whole thing to work out. HILO’s MSRP 2.495,00$ USD. You can find out all about it here.

Update: I have made a few corrections to the hardware section.

Before I get to gushing, let me complain. HookUp hooked me up with the LT-TB version of HILO, which connects to a computer via Thunderbolt. And, it is the first audio device for which I had to install drivers on my fully updated iMac (OSX 10.10 Yosemite).

And the manual included in the box didn’t mention driver installation. In fact, the manual was for the LT-USB module. A few emails later and HILO was running like a champ. In fact, so excited was I by its myriad functions that I opened a new section of ohm image: audio data, wherein I post RMAA, square wave, and other audio metrics of popular devices that run through my office.

HILO’s ADC section is brilliant. Its DAC is brilliant. Its pre-amp is easy to use and powerful. And, HILO’s headphone amp, while not quite as brilliant, and limited to single-ended output, is one of the best I’ve used at any price.

Hardware

But, HILO is a professional part. That means it’s tough. I’ve had my iMac sitting atop it for two weeks. There have been earthquakes. There have been countless hookings and unhookings of outboard sources, and analogue inputs, not to mention powered speakers. HILO’s centre-reinforced chassis took every one like a champ. Its analogue ins and outs are robust and lockable. They are battened down with bolts. Its feet don’t wobble.

It’s part ADC, but it lacks mic pre-amps and 6,3mm TR/S inputs; and like many rack-mount units, its ins and outs are arrayed across its back, and kind of hard to get to. (Coincidentally, you can mount it on a rack. The kit costs about 110$.) You can attenuate its analogue inputs by -24, -22, -20, -18, -6, -4, and -2 dB before stopping at 0dB. (Output gain can also can be raised by 12dB.) The jump from -18 to -6 is stark. Settings for -10 or -12 would be most welcome, especially when digitizing LPs, MDs, or other sources whose outputs are unstable at voltage levels necessary for -18 to pick up, and/or too high for -6dB. But I reckon that most HILO customers aren’t digitizing their John Denver collection anyway, so -10 and -12 are sort of moot attenuation settings.

Great news for audiophiles and professionals hauling HILO to and from their favorite hideouts is that HILO’s power is isolated, and, even in ground-hum prone venues like this bit of heaven, free loops and hums. Of course, if you want to be absolutely free of all that, HILO can be powered by battery, or even a car cigarette lighter.

For those of you looking at Thunderbolt 2, at USB-C, at whatever the next computer interface will be, and worrying. Stop. Not only is HILO compatible with all of today’s computer inputs, plus a bevy of industry standards such as AES and SPDIF, when Tor’s Hammer of Destruction comes out, Lynx will make a card for it.

Finally, HILO’s pre-amp is well-implemented, though it’s a bit less intuitive than its main output. XLR Line-out settings are voltage regulated at line-levels, but can’t be dimmed via the attenuator knob. If you want to regulate voltage settings from 0 to full VRMS, you need to hook up your amp or powered speakers via HILO’s TRS monitor output. And HILO’s TRS monitor outputs are good, just not as good as its XLR components. Probably, they are hooked up to the same DAC as the headphone amp.

Interface

Any input, digital or analogue, can be re-routed to nearly any output, so while your computer is coding a John Denver LP into 24/192, HILO can concurrently route the signal to an outboard power amp, headphone amp, or via its ADC, an external DAC. The thing is that HILO’s options are myriad; the time it takes to learn each one is immense.

Which is probably why Lynx opted for a programmable resistive touch screen. Its touch targets are large enough for fingers, mid-thirties male fingers, but twiddle far better with a pen, or a guitar-picking finger nail. Sometimes, I have to enter the same command twice. Multiple functionality is parsed into single-function screens, meaning that in order to adjust line inputs from a monitoring screen, you first have to page out to the main menu, then page into the monitoring section. Lynx Mixer, a piece of free software, puts most of that functionality into a single PC or Mac application, simplifying commonly-used functionality.

The biggest benefit of HILO’s programmable touch screen is that navigation, language, monitoring visualizations, etc., are upgradeable through firmware patches. If you want the Lynx GUI in Chinese, it’s just a couple of button presses away. Other options are español, Deutsch, Français, and English.

You can sum to mono, isolate either stereo channel, and mute at the press of a button. There is a lot more that HILO can do. A lot. And to be honest, even after two weeks I’ve got questions.

Which brings me to my major point: if you want a simple DAC to power your favorite amp, HILO is overkill. Its performance is impeachable, but it’s got options out the wazzoo, many of which a simple audiophile will never need.

The performance

HILO is one of the highest performing outboard DACs you can get south of 5.000$. Its ADC, too, is top notch, though if you don’t mind slotting into PCI-E, I’m sure you could find something in its price range that barely edges out its crosstalk performance.
Even straight XLR IN-OUT routing to software benchmarks in my dirty-powered house prove that both its ADC and DAC work wonders in both 16 and 24 bit.

DSD is decoded over PCM V1,1. Otherwise, its spec are typical of 24-bit 192kHz DACs.

Lynx Studio boast the following:

“Crucial for mastering and critical listening, Hilo offers world class, verifiable specifications. Every unit Lynx ships will meet or exceed these published specs:”

And those published spec are the following:

LINE IN A/D PERFORMANCE
THD+N -114dB @1kHz, -1dBFS, 20kHz filter
Dynamic Range 121 dB, A-weighted, -60dBFS signal method
Frequency Resp. ± 0.01 dB, 20 – 20kHz
Crosstalk -140 dB maximum @ 1kHz, -1dBFS signal

LINE OUT D/A PERFORMANCE
THD+N -109dB @1kHz, -1dBFS, 20kHz filter
Dynamic Range 121 dB, A- weighted, -60dBFS signal method
Frequency Resp. ± 0.02 dB, 20 – 20kHz
Crosstalk -135 dB maximum @ 1kHz, -1dBFS signal

Not owning an audio analyser, I can’t tell you whether or not the above is realistic. I can tell you that HILO’s DAC will outperform almost any commercially available headphone or power amp.

Its dynamic range, noise, crosstalk, and THD measure (in closed IN-OUT benchmarks) near the limits of commercially available measuring equipment is able to record. It is necessary to say that the theoretical limits of even 44kHz 24-bit audio go well beyond what’s possible through any commercially viable DAC.

For those that are interested, I have published the results of HILO running through XLR IN-OUT RMAA tests. They are here.

In other words, no matter how good your HiFi, HILO will surpass its capabilities.

More about its headphone amp after the jump:

Lynx Studio Technology HILO – Way More Than You Bargained For
4.5 (90.67%) 15 votes

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

20 Comments

  • Reply June 27, 2015

    Khareme Lambie

    How does this sexy beast compare to the Oppo HA-1?

    • Reply June 28, 2015

      ohm image

      I’ve not heard the HA-1 at length, nor had the time to compare. The HILO has now gone back to the distributor. But after I finished, I purchased one.

      Remember: HILO isn’t just a DAC with an integrated headphone amp. It is a world-class ADC as well, which is functionality that the HA-1, as good as it _may be_ simply can’t touch.

      HA-1 is a consumer DAC meant for audiophiles. HILO is a professional DAC/ADC and headphone amp for professionals. That it simply rocks for nearly everything audiophile is sort of beside the point.

      If I get an HA-1 in for review, I’ll update this one with impressions, but I can’t see any way in which the two should be directly compared as it really is the comparison of a radio flyer to a transforming dune buggy.

      • Reply June 28, 2015

        Khareme Lambie

        Thanks for your response. I understand there is no comparison between the two in functionality but I was curious on how they compare as solely a DAC and headphone amp. I will watch for an update.

  • Reply July 16, 2015

    qwak

    Hi Nathan, very nice review. Could you compare HILO used as DAC to Linnenberg VIVACE(sound and “musicality” comparison)? Thank you.

    • Reply July 23, 2015

      ohm image

      I will get back to you on this. Please give me another month or two months. I’m sorry for the delay.

    • Reply September 3, 2015

      ohm image

      Today I will publish a review of the Linnenberg Maestro with commentary re: HILO and Vivace.

      • Reply September 3, 2015

        qwak

        Great, I’m looking forward to read Maestro review and also your thoughts on Hilo/Vivace comparison.

  • Reply October 10, 2015

    Ab

    I use hugo as a dac

    what amp you will recommend me to buy :this amp or Cavallior any other blanace amp,I use hd 800 ,lcd 3 and T1 ? my budget is 10 k $

    • Reply October 10, 2015

      dalethorn

      This Hilo amp review says its DAC is brilliant, but the amp is not as brilliant. It seems confusing to use Hugo as a DAC over the brilliant DAC here, in order to use the less brilliant amp here.

      Put differently, in most reviews I’ve seen of combo DAC/amps, the amp is almost always rated worse than the DAC. Maybe Nathan has some ideas on how to look for an amp that doesn’t include a DAC, or where the amp is every bit as good as the DAC.

      • Reply October 12, 2015

        Ab

        so the dac here is better than hugo’s dac

        • Reply October 12, 2015

          dalethorn

          That’s not what I said. I said “the amp is not as brilliant”.

          • Reply October 13, 2015

            Ab

            Agreed. Mike recommend moon 430 amp . will you review this fantastic amp ?.

          • Reply December 8, 2015

            ohm image

            And it certainly is. But I reckon that few people will be bothered by it. It outputs stably enough to satisfy most people. But you’re right: most combo units have less than stellar headphone amps. Telos HD is different. But it’s 10.000$ USD.

            • Reply December 8, 2015

              dalethorn

              Mojo seems to break the mold.

              • Reply December 9, 2015

                ohm image

                As a headphone amp, it is better, for sure. As a DAC, it may edge past HILO. Of course, HILO is also a world-class ADC, and maybe the best out there that’s not built for professional mixing.

        • Reply November 2, 2015

          ohm image

          Hilo’s DAC is incredible. As is its ADC. But its amp, as I said, is only up to 16-bit spec. That said, let’s be realistic: do you listen to average volume levels of over 98dB? if you do (and you still can hear), you have some options, but not for long. When your hearing goes out (and it will in short order), you won’t be able to discern a difference. Even if you do, likely it will be with basic test tones and not music.

          Hilo’s amp is powerful and up to all rigorous listening environments, just nothing over 99dB. Which means: even if you listen to 32/384kHz, you need to listen to ear-damaging volume levels to even suss the difference.

          Remember, after reviewing HILO, I ordered one for myself. It is incredible.

    • Reply November 2, 2015

      ohm image

      By the way, the LinnenberG Maestro amp is truly incredible: low noise, great drive for ALL headphones, and power.

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