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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Personal Audio Review!
Hi-FiMAN HM-802
High-Res Portable Player:
"A Cut Above The Competition"

Hi-FiMAN HM-802
©Everything Audio Network

Price: starts at $699
Likes: high-end sonics, balanced output
Dislikes: no included digital output cable
Wow Factor: lots of buttons, lots of sound
More info: Hi-FiMAN HM-802

by John Gatski
  It’s a wonderful time to be a high-resolution music listener these days. We have all manner of DACS, streamers, players for the audiophile setups, as well as the portable market. Hi-FiMAN manufactures the high-end side of portable player/headphone amps, and several models have received critical acclaim from end users over the past three years.
  One of my favorite Hi-FiMAN hi-res players is the Wolfson-DAC chip (WM8740)-based HM-802. The HM-802, priced at $699, is an SD-card storage player (128 GB max.) that features up to 24-bit/192 sample rate PCM (including FLAC), and 2.8 MHz/5.6 MHz DSD playback. It also decodes the convenience audio formats, such as MP3, AAC, etc., ALAC, and AIFF, etc.
**The player sports a non-touch screen LCD and mechanical controls, as well as buttons to activate its various functions for playback and operational features.

  The HM-802 player features a user-replaceable battery as well as upgradeable HP amp modules. The standard module features 105 dB S/N; an optional upgraded, balanced headphone amp module adds 5 dB in performance gain.
  Compared to the ultra-compact Astell and Kern portables, such as the popular AK-100, the HM-802 is a big hold for the hand, but its size allows for the larger replaceable battery and changeable HP amp modules, as well as several mechanical controls and connections. Battery life is listed at 11 hours of play. On my demo player, I always got at least eight hours at 24/192 or DSD quality.

HM-802 utilizes SDXC up to 128GB for audio storage

  The front-panel controls include a jog wheel/push button select for the menu items, play controls, and menu back. The in-case, integrated, knurled volume control is a throwback to Walkman-era devices, though the headphone jack is thoroughly modern with the ability to drive balanced headphones when selecting that option with the normal/balanced switch and using an 1/8th-inch HP adapter cable for the balanced ‘phones.
  There also is a multi-pin connector that hosts the AC adapter, which is the only way to charge the HiFiMAN, and the SPDIF digital input/analog output adapter. An optional dock allows full digital I/O, but I could not find out much about it from the HiFiMAN web site. I would buy such a dock since I often use portables as source players for separate DACs in my home system.
  The menu is easy to navigate via the jog wheel, and within each window, it is easy to enable the functions by pushing the “enter” button. However, it must be noted that all these functions are done with mechanical button pushes. In contrast, the Astell & Kern AK-100 portable operates with fewer buttons — since it uses a touch screen. However, I got used to the HM-802’s jog wheel-turning/button-pushing activity, and it always worked.
  Two really cool things the HiFiMAN offers are its user-replaceable battery, which means you can use it for a long time, and the upgradeable HP amp module. The balanced HP amp version ($979) nets about 5 dB better performance in S/N and dynamic range — 105 dB to 110 dB. My unit had the standard module. Thus, I don’t know if the upgraded circuit provides discernible audio improvements using balanced headphones. Good portables, like the original AK-100 we tested, measure in the 105 dB range. Not true 24-bit, but pretty darn good for a battery-powered self-contained hi-res player. A 110 dB S/N performance would be exemplary indeed. Nonetheless, the standard HP module HM-802 ain't no slouch.

As a hi-res music fanatic, I was quite impressed with the HiFIMAN HM-802’s audio playback performance. Its analog out via headphone, or line out, is sufficiently high-end to impress even the most finicky listener.

  Like the Astell and Kern players and many standalone DACs, the HiFiMAN has a welcome on-screen sample rate display. And as important, it also shows word-length (bit) of the music being played. The bit indicator also is handy for digital input connection info — if you connect it to an outboard device.

  The HM-802 contains the aforementioned front panel jog wheel, menu button, back button, and play/pause, track forward button, and track backward button. The volume control is located at the near-top right of the unit. Other controls include a HD/Classic switch, which provides a treble roll-off in the Classic mode and is flat in its treble response in the HD mode. The unit also contains a Low Gain/High Gain switch. A balanced/normal switch engages the balanced circuitry when using a mini-jack-to-balanced adapter to connect balanced headphones.
  On the left side is the headphone mini-jack 1/8th-inch connector. The bottom-mounted, multi-pin connector provides conduits for the analog-out/digital-in connector cable that is included. The included cable has L/R unbalanced analog RCA outputs and SPDIF RCA inputs. The digital input is nice for connecting outboard players, such as CD players, or a universal player. However, you need am optional connection “base” to get digital output, which was not in my HM-802 kit.
  The HM-802 can only be charged by the included charger, which also connects to the bottom multi-pin connector. The portable cannot be charged by the USB cable, which only allows you to move audio files to and from the unit.
**Operationally, you access the HM-802 menu windows by turning the jog wheel and then pushing the enter button. The menu items are: Now Playing, Favorite, SD Card, Artist, Album, Genre, All Songs and Settings. The settings menu includes Repeat, Shuffle, Backlight, Playback Resume, Sleep, Brightness, Cue support, Language selection, SPDIF-In activate/deactivate, Media Database update and Reset settings.
  The battery is easy to remove when it comes to time to replace it. The HP amp module is user replaceable as well, located under the battery. The unit comes with a paper manual, the charging dock, and the digital in/analog out dock.

The audition
  Although the HM-802 is kind of old school in its appearance and multiple-switch approach to operation, its performance is outstanding. I loaded numerous hi-res tracks from HD Tracks and numerous tracks of my own recordings of jazz guitar, acoustic guitar and DSD piano, the latter recorded by Tom Jung of DMP and Sound 80 fame.
  Through my AKG K702, Shure SRH1840 and Oppo PM-1/PM-2 planar magnetic headphones I found the HiFiMAN’s audio performance deliciously listenable. The Wolfson DAC/ HP amp combo relays a detailed, wide, open soundstage, yet is smooth as butter with that desirable analog tape-like transient response.
  On a 24/192 dub of Bob Dylan “What’s A Sweetheart Like You” track from the Infidels SACD, the multiple layers of electric and acoustic guitar tracks are clearly heard, similar to my high-end standalone DAC/HP combos. Yet there was no hint of harshness.
  On a 24-bit download of the Commodores “Sail On,” the detailed, multitrack mix of acoustic and electric guitars, pedal steel guitar, horns and percussion impressed me with its depth in revealing all these distinct audio layers. The HM-802 is truly high-end in its audio delivery.

  Through my AKG K702s, Shure SRH-1840 and Oppo PM-1/PM-2 planar magnetic headphones I found the HiFiMAN’s audio performance deliciously listenable. The Wolfson DAC/ HP amp combo relays a detailed, wide, open soundstage, yet is smooth as butter with that desirable analog tape-like transient response.

  The HM-802’s smooth factor was particularly noticeable on the Jason Mraz track “I Won’t Give Up” (from the Love is a Four Letter Word album). This nice-sounding, 24/96 pop hit starts out soft and acoustic, but gets really loud in the chorus, as the level peaks at digital 0. On lesser DACs, the loud parts can be a bit hard sounding, but on a good DAC the peaks are softer, easier to listen to. The HiFiMAN handled the tracks without that hardness in the loud parts of the song. Much easier on the ears. The AK-100 playback has a little more edge on that track.
  The HM-802’s playback is equally at home on jazz, classical and acoustic as well. On a direct-to-DXD (24/352) recording that I made of a Taylor dreadnaught guitar, sample rate converted to 192 kHz sample rate and transferred to the HM-802, the intricate, flat-picked harmonics and the wide sense of space of the mic placement clearly came through the AKG K702 and HM-802 combo. It sounded ultra-clean and detailed through the Shure SRH1840 as well.

The HM-802/Oppo PM-2 Planar HPs make a great sonic combo

  And a 24/88 Mahler Symphony No. 6 performance also revealed the ample dynamic range, and low-level detail, low noise floor of the HiFiMAN DAC/HP amp. And there was plenty of gain in the high-gain setting to drive the low impedance AKGs — even during the symphony’s more quiet parts.
  The HM-802 also worked with other headphones including the Shure SRH1840s, and the smooth lush, tone-inducing Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic headphone. I also used the player a lot with the Sony MDR-7510, a budget, pro headphone that is fairly neutral in its presentation. I was quite pleased with that combo.
  Compared to the original Astell & Kern AK-100 that used a Wolfson DAC, the HM-802 is slightly richer, smoother sounding and a bit wider in its soundstage, but there are times the punchiness of the A&K’s audio playback comes in handy. I do prefer the simplicity of the A&K’s touch screen operation for track operation, versus the multiple button/jog wheel approach of the HM-802. But at the end of the day, the HiFiMAN’s functions are easy to master and it offers a gorgeous sound signature.
  My only real negative is the lack of digital output from the included connector cable. You need the optional docking “base” and another cable to get the full digital SPDIF output capability.

The verdict
  As a hi-res music fanatic, with access to numerous high-end DACS, headphone amps and other various playback methods, I was quite impressed with the HiFIMAN HM-802’s audio playback performance. Its analog out via headphone, or line out, is sufficiently high-end to impress even the most finicky listener. At $699, it is a good buy. The great sound, replaceable battery and excellent battery life put me firmly in its camp. If it had a standard digital output and USB cable charging, its operation capability would be perfect in my book.
  Overall, the HM-802 gets an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award and an audition recommendation from me to those who want hi-res music playback in a small form factor.
   John Gatski is publisher/owner of the Everything Audio NetworkArticles on this site are the copyright of the Everything Audio Network©Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Audiophile Review!
Essence HDACC 24/192 ADC/DAC
Stereo Preamp/Headphone Amp:
Bargain Price Converter/Preamp
Includes Multiple I/O WITH HDMI

Price: $699
Likes: HDMI, 3x digital I/O, A/D
Dislikes: lacks bit status display
Wow Factor: do-it-all A/D-/D/A
More info: Essence HDACC

by John Gatski
   I love cool little gadgets that are accomplished multi-taskers. Back in the 1990s, digital recording and mastering engineer Bob Katz came up with a box called the FCN-1, a digital I/O that served professional audio engineers by converting from one output format to another and removing and/or ignoring copy code restrictions when making digital dubs for pro use. The Essence HDACC reminds me of that quite-useful FCN-1 with its multiple in/outs, including HDMI. Plus it is quite a good DAC and headphone amp as well.

   Priced at a bargain price of $699, the Essence HDACC is a 24-bit/192 DAC with built-in headphone amp, fixed-level 24/192 A/D, a built-in sample rate converter, SPDIF/TOSLink digital I/O, HDMI digital input for stereo playback (one of the few DACS that even have HDMI), balanced and unbalanced analog output, and analog input for playback through the preamp or feeding the A/D. To further showcase its multiple input dexterity, the Essence HDACC also has USB 2.0 input for computer playback — up to 24/192.
  The HDACC does not natively play DSD from HDMI or USB sources. However, if your Blu-ray player converts DSD-to-PCM (many do), that audio can be transmitted through the HDM to the HDACC. The DAC then outputs the PCM through the DAC. Oppo players, for example, convert the DSD bitstream from a SACD, convert it to 24/88.2 and is output through the HDMI. My Marantz UD-7007 does the same. The DSD-to-PCM loses a little bit of its natural smoothness and transients versus the native DSD bitstream decoding, but it is hi-res enough. Better than 16/48.
  The Essence HDACC features an ESS Sabre DAC, Cirrus A/D chip, adjustable impedance HP impedance-matching circuit, as well as a dynamic range control, embedded in the DSP. The DAC is not that big, about 1/2 rack wide, but the feature set and connections do not feel cramped. A headphone jack and a dual-function volume control/menu operation knob and an OLED display inhabit the front panel, no other controls needed.

I/O galore including HDMI

  The rear panel includes the aforementioned SPDIF coax I/O, TOSLink I/O, HDMI 1.3 I/O, analog RCA I/O, balanced XLR analog output and a USB 2.0 Type-B connector input. The units runs on a 5V 300mA outboard power supply. The power switch is located on the top left front.
  Spec-wise, the factory numbers show a 109 dB S/N ratio (107 dB a-weighted); the other numbers, such as frequency response, crosstalk, distortion are good as well, though the frequency response is only listed to 20 kHz — even though it is wider for frequencies above 44.1 kHz.

All this and A/D too
  Although the HDACC is a first-rate DAC with lots of atypical DAC features, such as the HDMI conduit, the inclusion of an onboard A/D converter intrigued me. Consumer A/D-D/A combos are quite rare — more typical in pro and musician configurations. They are mostly used in USB-interface boxes for recording to the computer. The HDACC configuration gives you the versatility to use the A/D to dub LPs, or other media you own, or use it as a computer interface via the optical port. Though the A/D level is fixed and operates natively at 24/192, you can use the sample rate converter to set an alternative frequency: 44.1 kHz to 176 kHz. Because of the good quality converters and its price, I can see pros and consumers using this feature — not to mention all the I/O options.
  Although there is just the one control, the HDACC is simple to operate. Just push the volume button, select the menu you want and push the button to make your selections for input, sample rate, headphone impedance, etc. The display includes sample rate, volume level, selected input; no digital bit status, however, my only negative in the entire review.
  As enamored as I am of the multiple I/O and onboard A/D, I don’t want to lose sight of the rare DAC HDMI input feature. The HDACC is one of the few out there that even have HDMI. Essence President Bob Rapoport said the HDMI input opens up the separate DAC users to Blu-ray audio, which includes hi-res concerts and pre-recorded music discs from labels such as AIX.
  The Essence HDACC quickly became a favorite all-in-one, do-it-all, bang-for-the buck digital converter/HP amp. Its got that rare DAC HDMI input, and I found numerous uses for the HDACC with my laptop as a standalone DAC and A/D.

  The HDACC offers the HDMI “handshake protocol” that allows Blu-ray audio players to transmit their full fidelity audio out the digital conduit. The two-channel audio is broken out via Essence HDMI de-embedder. Thus, you can play the separate two-channel soundtracks from Blu-ray concerts in full res, or even listen to the L/R channels of DTS Master HD, Dolby TrueHD or linear PCM multichannel soundtracks. Often, BD concerts or prerecorded 5.1 lossless soundtracks put the discrete stereo in the L/R channels.
  The Essence DAC not only allows you to listen to the Blu-ray player HDMI output, but the HDACC elaborate routing options allow you to feed the HDMI input audio to another DAC at the same time, through the SPDIF or TOSLink, or both outputs at the same time. Feed two DACS if you want.

The audition
  I put the HDACC through several months of testing and found it so useful I was hesitant to give it back. First, I used it as BD/universal player DAC. First up, I hooked it to my Oppo BDP-95 via a WireWorld Starlight HDMI cable and played my Blu-ray copy of The WhoLive At The Isle of Wight 1970 concert film. The 16-bit/48 kHz sample rate discrete stereo soundtrack sounded pretty good. But when I selected the DTS Master HD 5.1, I got to hear the 24/96 L-R channels, essential the stereo mix in higher resolution; it was awesome, smoother and more open. It did the same with my Woodstock blu-ray.
  Another Blu-ray sampled through the HDACC was the Celine Dion - New Day Concert. The Dolby TrueHD multichannel is phenomenal, but through the HDACC, I was damn impressed with the 24/96 LPCM stereo presentation. The ESS Sabre DAC-equipped HDACC has that signature smoothness of the ESS chip with abundant detail and good width and depth in the stereo presentation. My Benchmark DAC2-D $1,799 and Mytek Digital Stereo 192-DSD, $1,500 had a bit more dimension and sparkle with this recording (thanks to the HDACC’s ability to connect to them via the SPDIF outputs to set up a comparison), but not as much as the price difference might make you think. The HDACC’s sonic character was quite good through both the headphone amp and the line out, especially the XLR analog outputs.
  The HDACC headphone amp could drive the AKG-K702 and Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic headphones with no problems when using the low impedance HP settings available in the HDACC.
  I played numerous HD Tracks and my own hi-res recordings of jazz and acoustic guitar from the Macbook Pro using Audirvana. I was quite content with the HDACC as my computer DAC during its trial with Everything Audio Network. I used it for multiple audio tasks for my Mac audio workstation, editing and processing hi-res stereo tracks. The unit fit perfectly next to the Macbook Pro, tethered to it via the USB cable.
  The HDACC also was an ideal mate for my Dell Venue 8 and the highly capable, hi-res Android software player, USB Audio Player Pro. With that setup, I used the Shure SRH1840 reference headphones. I played dozens of 24-bit tracks through the duo, without any problems or glitches. The HDACC lacks 352.8 kHz and 384 kHz sample rate decoding, but the USB Audio Player Pro program detects a DAC’s maximum sample rate and down samples to that rate. Thus, my 2L DXD (24/352) classical tracks and my own home-brew 24/384 guitar recordings were played back at 24/192, but they still sounded quite good through the Essence.

And recording, too...
  To test the HDACC’s A/D converter, I hooked up my Mackie 1402 mixer using two Audix SCX-25 microphones to record a Martin acoustic guitar. The mixer's tape outputs were connected to the analog inputs of the HDACC. Since the HDACC does not have USB output, I connected the TOSLink output of the HDACC to the TOSLink input of the Macbook Pro. I selected the digital input in the Audio settings, and commenced recording with Bias Peak recording/editing program, a now defunct software package that is still better than 99 percent of the two-track software editors on the market today.
 Although the HDACC is a first-rate DAC with lots of a atypical DAC features, such as the HDMI conduit, the inclusion of an onboard A/D converter intrigued me. Consumer A/D-D/A combos are quite rare.

  Since the A/D has a fixed level, I controlled the level with the analog mixer control and Peak’s digital input control. The DAC playback revealed a detailed, open smooth stereo guitar recording. Not quite as much detail as my $1,800 Benchmark ADC-1, but the Essence HDACC’s A/D capability is as good as numerous pro interfaces I have used — some much more money.

Dub your records
  For all you vinyl fans, the HDACC’s A/D features makes an ideal conduit for dubbing your records. I connected my Clear Audio turntable/Rogue Audio Model 99 Magnum’s phono preamp output to the HDACC’s RCA inputs and dubbed a copy of my Wes MontgomeryFull House audiophile LP using the Macbook Pro and freeware Audacity record/edit two track program, set at 24/192. I then played the recording back through the HDACC. The iconic jazz guitar live album from the early ‘60s was now preserved and able to be played back as many times as I desire without any record wear.
  As you can tell from this review, I really love the HDACC and its versatility. I used it as a multiple digital output router while A/B’ing two other DACs. I fed the HDMI output of the Oppo BDP-95 to the HDACC’s HDMI input, then connected the TOSLink output to one DAC and the SPDIF to the other DAC. With both DAC’s analog outputs level matched, I hooked their outputs to my Coda preamp, which was linked to a Bryston BHA-1 headphone amp. With the fast, source-switching Coda and its remote, I could A/B the DACs receiving the same signal from the HDACC. Pretty slick.
The HDACC configuration gives you the versatility to use the A/D to dub LPs, or other media you own, or use it as a computer interface via the optical port. Or connect to another outboard device via the TOSLink or SPDIF RCA.

  I also used the HDACC A/D to run a back-up recorder in the workstation. As I recorded the main audio (24/96) into the computer via the HDACC A/D through the Mac’s optical input, I routed the HDACC’s SPDIF RCA output to my TASCAM DR-100 Mark II’s portable digital recorder’s digital coax input. With the digital-sync, I was recording music onto the Mac and, thanks to the HDACC, I made a simultaneous backup recording on the TASCAM portable. Fantastic. Plus, the HDACC D/A was also my live-monitor DAC.
  With all you get for $699 retail, no one can really complain about the Essence HDACC. It would be nice to have a level meter meter and adjustable gain for the A/D — and a USB output; a bit status indicator perhaps? But this box is so well priced and capable, I really can’t get too upset over these omissions.

The verdict
  The Essence HDACC quickly became a favorite all-in-one, do-it-all, bang-for-the-buck digital converter/HP amp. Its got that rare DAC HDMI input, and I found numerous uses for the HDACC with my laptop as a standalone DAC and A/D, and as a digital distribution device. And it only costs $699 retail. This box really shines. From hi-res listening to archiving vinyl, to computer recording my guitars in hi-res, and listening to tunes on the go. I could not be more pleased. For $699, you could justify HDACC just for its HDMI input rarity; it is one the few DACs that utilizes HDMI input for audio use with Blu-ray players and computers that are equipped with the popular interface.
  No, it will not best the top-tier DACs in ultimate audio quality, but the sonic character is ESS chip smooth — with nice detail and the feature set is so deep that nothing touches it at 2X-3X the price. Of course, it gets the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award. And I plan to have one permanently in my arsenal of digital converters.

   John Gatski is publisher/owner of the Everything Audio NetworkArticles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio NetworkAny unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Home Recording Review!
PreSonus Sceptre S8 Studio
Active Coaxial Loudspeaker

Price: $1,500 per pair
Likes: accuracy, easy setup
Dislikes: needs a bit more power
Wow Factor: coaxial design hits the mark
More info: Presonus S8

by John Gatski
  Well-designed, coaxial-driver speakers exhibit clean, phase coherent sonic projection which enhances accuracy. Based on my extensive use of the PreSonus Sceptre S8 speakers the company has done a great job synergizing the coaxial drivers and onboard DSP, digital amplification. In fact, the sound is well above the normal DSP/powered speaker I normally audition for studio use.

  The Sceptre series comes in two models: the S6 and the S8 tested here. Both models feature a horn-loaded, compression tweeter mounted in the center of the woofer: a 6-inch bass driver for the S6 and an 8-inch for the S8. For this review, I will focus on the S8, which is priced at $1,500 per pair.
  Both models are based on CoActualTM Speaker Coherence Alignment and TQTM Temporal Equalization Technology from Fulcrum Acoustic. Complementing the coaxial drivers is a 32-bit, floating-point DSP engine that optimizes the drivers’ performance and 180W of digital amplification (90 watts for each driver).
  The Sceptre series was designed by Dave Gunness, vice president of R and D at Fulcrum Acoustics, and the company’s lead product designer. PreSonus also added just enough features/adjustments to make it fit into most placement scenarios. Although I have seen DSP-based speakers that are overly featured and complex, the Sceptre S8 is rather straight forward and easy to set up.

Tuning the  S8 to the room is easy with onboard DSP

  The Sceptre features two balanced analog input choices: XLR and 1⁄4-inch TRS; an Input-level control with 10 dB of gain above unity; a high-frequency driver adjustment (linear, +1 dB, -1.5 dB, -4 dB) above 2 kHz; high-pass filter switch (linear, 60 Hz, 80 Hz, 100 Hz) with -24 dB/octave slope; and acoustic space switch (linear, -1.5 dB, -3 dB, -6 dB) to compensate for bass boost when the speaker is placed near a wall.
  The speakers are fairly compact at 11.4-inches wide (290 mm) x 11.8-inches front to back (300 mm) and 15.75-inches tall (400 mm). Weight for the S8 is just over 24 pounds. Though the cabinet is not as solid feeling as an audiophile speaker, or some of the other high-end powered studio speakers I have used, the Scepter sonic character is not compromised by the cabinet construction. The adequately braced cabinet keeps the mid bass and midrange frequencies audibly clean.
  Spec-wise, the S8 is factory rated from 46 Hz to 20 kHz, plus or minus 3 dB (With an RTA, I measured 48 Hz with the speaker free standing in the middle of the room). Peak SPL is listed at 116 dB. Crossover frequency is centered at 2.4 kHz. The bass extension of the 8-inch driver is enhanced by the slot port mounted on the front of the cabinet. Front ports, in my opinion, have fewer side effects than rear ports, and allow closer-to-wall placement.

  I was impressed with the PreSonus Scepter S8. The phase-coherent, coaxial design, coupled with a good Class-D amp and DSP-processing/digital crossover, this speaker conveys an audiophile accuracy and good bass extension to reasonably loud levels.

  The Sceptre is designed to be used in pro audio/home recording setups, and with the onboard controls, you can place them almost anywhere in a small-to-medium room. Placement options include console/mixer meter bridge, computer workstation desk, as well as stands. You can set the S8s up in a 2.0 — or a 5.1 arrangement on stands, away from boundaries in a listening room.
  I used the S8s in all the above scenarios (except 5.1), and, additionally, as a powered audiophile monitor in my hi-end audiophile room, where they demonstrated a high-end, sonic character normally not heard in a budget-priced powered loudspeakers.

The setup
  I first set up the Sceptre as near-field monitors next to my Oram 16T analog console/Macbook Pro workstation desk setup. I placed the speakers on each side of the console using Raxxcess speaker stands, which put them right at ear height. I angled the speakers in slightly for maximum frontal dispersion.
  I connected a set of the console’s XLR monitor outputs to the S8’s inputs, and did a six-hour break-in, playing hi-res music from the Macbook Pro/Benchmark DAC2-D connected to the console's inputs. I used Wireworld Gold Eclipse7 balanced XLR cables ($700 per pair) for the entire system, and I plugged all components into an Essential Sound Products Essence II power strip.

The audition
  The first audible attribute I noticed on casual play of 24/192 music, was how accurate the Sceptres are. The speakers have an audiophile-class midrange and top-end with a focused, tight bottom end in the 50-Hz to 100 Hz range. Most powered pro speakers that sound this good are well above the $1,000 per speaker. I am impressed.
  My favorite recording tasks are acoustic and jazz guitar. During playback of a new Taylor 810 dreadnaught recording, recorded with two Audix SCA-25A microphones via the the Oram’s mic pre-to-direct-output into a TASCAM DA-3000 recorder in 24/192, the playback through the S8’s was quite revealing.
  The guitar’s stereo width and depth via the pick attack was fantastic. The ultra nuance of room reverb and string “pluck” harmonics came through loud and clear with no aberrations. The S8‘s high frequency range showcased the Audix mics’ slight presence boost without sounding shrill and edgy. The S8 amp’s were just as impressive. I am normally not a Class-D powered speaker kind of guy, but as long as you keep the level in the low 90 dBs on peaks, the smooth factor sticks around. Only when I played really loud pop music, did I notice the Sceptre amp character start to harden.

The S8's back panel

  On a Yamaha U1 upright piano recording using a pair of Audio-Technica AT-4041B and a True P2 microphone preamp and the DA-3000 as the recorder. Again, the Sceptre’s playback sonic scenario was faithful to the instrument. No etched treble bump in the high register keys, good imaging and clean bass, and like my hi-fi passive speaker/amp combo playback, much of the room reverb/reflections could clearly be heard. These monitors are that good.
  In the open room listening scenario, with speakers about eight feet from my listening position, the S8s never labored to produce ample sound level in this medium -size listening room. The S8’s coaxial design and crossover slope also contributes to excellent vocal reproduction — with minimal sibilance and well-balanced tone for male or female voice.
  I even hooked the PreSonus S8 pair into my high-end audiophile system. The audio came from a Pass Labs XP-10 MOSFET line preamplifier and lots of hi-resolution music playback through a Macbook Pro, equipped with Audirvana software player, linked to an Oppo HA-1 audiophile DAC. I played a range of music from 24/96 all the way to 24/384 and double speed DSD.

  The S8 relaysed the cymbals in generous portions, even compared to my expensive reference system. And unlike many powered pro speakers that use metal-dome high-end drivers, there is no exaggerated edginess to the S8’s top-end.

  As with my home recording monitoring sessions, The S8s filled the room with accurate, detailed sound and good bass. That port does a good job of enhancing low bass performance in the 50-Hz range — without loading the mid-bass. Best of all, the small treble sounds, room reverb tails, acoustic guitar harmonics, etc., could clearly be heard through the S8s. No, it does not project the ultimate space of my MartinLogan electrostatics, but then again, the Sceptres are not $10,000. For $1,500, I could hear plenty from these speakers.
  One of my subjective listening benchmarks for a speaker, is the degree of dimensionality presented when playing the Tom Jung-recorded Warren Bernhard — So Real SACD, produced in 2000. On the title cut, the cymbal sound is one of the most accurate capture of that instrument I have ever heard; there is an enveloping presentation of the recording’s drum cymbal when listening from a properly designed speaker.
  I can say with confidence, that the S8 relayed the cymbals in generous portions, even compared to my expensive reference system. And unlike many powered pro speakers that use metal-dome high-end drivers, there is no exaggerated edginess to the S8’s top-end.
  Although I did not have extra S8’s for multichannel listening, I would recommend them for 5.1, 7.1, 9.1 or 11.1 monitor duties when mixing multi-channel music or movie soundtracks. You just need a sub or two for lower-octave bass. And the speaker’s compact size makes them that much easier to place.

The verdict
  As I have said many times, I am, normally, not a powered monitor fan, I like choosing my own amps and speakers, but there are advantages to electronic crossovers and amps incorporated into one package, if done correctly. However, the powered speakers I have raved about usually are on the pricier side of the equation.
  But I was impressed with the PreSonus Scepter S8. The phase-coherent, coaxial design, coupled with a good class D amp and DSP-processing/digital crossover, this speaker conveys an audiophile accuracy and good bass extension to reasonably loud levels.

Front port slot keeps the bass extended and tight

  The only niggle in the review is that I heard a bit of raggedness at the upper power limit of the amp when playing 95 dB+ levels. Of course, I am comparing the S8s to my reference speakers with multi-thousand dollar Class A or A/B audiophile amps. At reasonable levels though, the 90-watt digital amps are pretty darn clean.
  For recording studio tracking, mixing, editing, even mastering, the PreSonus Scepter S8 is an recommended powered speaker. Its quality also should carry over to 5.1-channel audio monitoring as well. A grand per speaker is more than a $300 class powered speaker that pervades the market these days, but the price tag is not unreasonable for a powered speaker this good. Consequently, we have awarded it our Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

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