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.
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.
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.
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: