Rockna Audio Wavelight Pre/DAC by Terry London
The vast majority of DACs in today’s market are single-bit Sigma-Delta designs. A much smaller segment of this market uses a multi-bit R2R ladder, NOS 16-bit DAC chips, in their approach to bringing forth music from a digital format. Finally, the tiniest percentage of the market is based on multi-bit R2R discrete resistor arrays, not NOS (new old stock) integrated DAC chips. Highly respected companies such as MSB, S.A. Lab, and Denafrips use this digital topography. The subject of this review, the Rockna Audio Wavelight Pre/DAC, which retails for $4750, goes a step beyond by blending the latest Xilinx 7-series FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) technology with their own custom discrete resistor array 25-bit R2R ladder DAC. As I have stated in my other DAC reviews, neither approach is necessarily superior to the other. Single-bit Sigma-Delta designs are known for their speed/dynamics and ultra-transparency/micro-details. The multi-bit R2R ladder designs are known for their beautiful timbres, full-bodied imaging, and smooth, almost analog presentation. Which do you like better; great solid-state or tube-based gear? It comes down to personal taste and matching the equipment in your system to get the best of all possible sonic worlds.
Rockna Audio, which is located in Romania, has been in business for nineteen years. Their reference DAC, the Wavedream (which starts at $11,000 and has four different levels that increase in cost), is considered one of the “elite” DACs on the market today. However, to the best of my knowledge, no American professional reviews have been done on the Wavedream DAC or its newer, less expensive sibling, the Wavelight Pre/DAC. I was motivated to reach out to the Canadian/U.S. importer of Rockna Audio, Robert Neill, president of Worldwide Wholesales when I received numerous emails from readers who are fans of R2R DACs. They were very interested in knowing how much of the performance of the reference level Wavedream DAC had been brought down to Wavelight Pre/DAC. Rockna Audio’s in-genius resident designer, Nicolae Jitaru, is exceptionally well known and respected in the digital designing arena. He has consulted and provided assistance to many of the highest regarded marquee manufacturers of digital gear on the present worldwide market.
The Rockna Audio Pre/DAC sent to me was clad in a robust and extremely well-built black aluminum chassis. It weighs 16 pounds while its dimensions are 17″ W, 12″ D, and 2″ H. The front has a centered white dot-matrix array display that shows all relevant information and can be dimmed or shut off after the volume/filter setting/input-output has been setup. Three silver buttons on the right side of the faceplate control volume level, menu, and on/off positions. On the back of the Wavelight Pre/DAC are the numerous inputs (S/PDIF, AES/EBU, USB, OPTICAL, and 12S), outputs (RCA-XLR), and the IEC input. By going to Rockna Audio’s website, you can easily download the remote-control app for your iPhone/iPad. The Wavelight Pre/DAC contains four custom digital filters: NOS (no oversampling), linear, minimum, and hybrid phase. Based on my past experience, I assumed that my favorite filter would be the NOS filter because the Wavelight Pre/DAC was an R2R NOS DAC design. However, after much experimentation, in my two systems, the minimum filter offered the most balanced performance of color, space, and flow at a much higher level than the other filters on all music genres, for my personal taste. Rockna Audio rightly calls the Wavelight a Pre/DAC because it contains a fully analog, not digital volume control. Compared to my solid-state reference Coda 07x solid-state preamplifier, Linear Tube Audio’s tube-based reference preamplifier, and Aric Audio’s new reference tube-based Motherlode II preamplifier (in for review), the volume control of the Wavelight were tremendously close to these excellent and expensive line stages in its performance. I could easily live with the Rockna Audio Wavelight Pre/DAC driving my system as a source and preamplifier and save thousands to use in other pieces of gear for my system. The highest level of performance from the Wavelight Pre/DAC was obtained by driving it with a balanced XLR cable, using the minimum filter setting, and using its balanced XLR outputs. As stated above, it performed superlatively with my preamps but lost nothing when it drove my system through its own volume control.
I am fortunate to live in a totally open design post and beam home. My large system resides in a heavily wooded space that is 30′ wide, 30′ deep and has a 30′ high ceiling. The speakers, NSMT Model 100s, are 10′ off the front wall and 8′ off the side walls. The Model 100 speakers are the first box enclosure speakers that create the illusion of a soundstage. As a listener, you experience a wrap-around holographic immersion in the venue where the music was recorded. The only other speaker I have ever experienced this wonderful spatiality was from the German-made MBL Radialstrahler E 101 MK II speaker. This combination of the Model 100 speaker’s spatial/soundstaging abilities and a giant damped acoustic space with walls far enough away eliminates early boundary reflections. Therefore, nothing reaches your ears except the first order sound waves from the speakers and brings forth soundstaging “magic.” About three months ago, I put into this system an AC power conditioner from Puritan Audio Laboratories PSM 156 Studio Master, (which also happens to be Clement’s new reference AC conditioner – reviewed here). The Puritan opened up the soundstage and the “air” around individual instruments to even a higher and more delightful degree. Then my dear friend, Mike Kay, owner of the wonderful Audio Archon Salon, calls me up and with great passion, tells me that I absolutely must try the Puritan Audio Laboratories Ground Master Earth Line Interference Eliminator device (cost $250) because of what it had done in his reference system. This entailed purchasing the Ground Master, an eight-foot copper-clad grounding rod, and fifty feet of six-gauge copper wire for around $350. It was a relatively easy task to drive the grounding rod into the ground in my back yard, thread the copper wire into the first level listening room and attach it to the Ground Master, and finally wire it to the ground terminal on the PSM 156 Studio Master. This turned out to be “audio alchemy!” Now, the illusion of sitting immersed in the studio or on live recordings where you could easily/clearly hear the venue’s subtle reflections not only produced three-dimensional imaging, but the hall’s original ambiance became so “real” that I shook my head in disbelief. I shared the above information because when I inserted the Rockna Audio Wavelight Pre/DAC into the system, it rose to the occasion by creating three highly sought spatial factors: 1) proper layering of the players on the soundstage with pinpoint and precise location of their position in the band. 2) Resolved/detailed imaging without any etching, but still providing the “body” of the image with density and fullness. 3) Air/space around each instrument that added to the experience that the player was a three-dimensional figure playing in that acoustic space.
As I have stated numerous times in my different reviews, the most critical factor for me to relax, enjoy and connect with the music is how a piece of equipment renders the timbres/tonality/colors of instruments and voices. If in the tonality, there is a sense of “dryness” or a “paling” of the richness of color/timbres, it robs the music of the natural sweetness of acoustic instruments, be they strings, brass horns, or reed-based. One of the most exquisitely beautiful sounds in the history of jazz is the alto-saxophone playing of Paul Desmond. Recently, Mosaic Records came out with a seven CD box set of previously unissued recordings of Paul and his band, The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings. The recordings themselves are first-rate regarding clarity, macro-dynamics, and capturing the voluptuous tone of Mr. Desmond. The Rockna Audio Wavelight Pre/DAC was able to get the essence of Desmond’s unique gorgeous timbres/colors of his playing, which he often referred to as the “sound of a dry martini.” This solid-state R2R ladder adds a touch of what most audiophiles would call “tube magic,” liquidity, including a density of color that captures live music’s delicacy and beauty.
I wanted to evaluate how the Rockna Audio Wavelight Pre/DAC would deal with macro-dynamics and the overall PRAT of up-tempo music with massive crescendos and powerful percussion. I selected the 1961 Prestige recording of the Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis-Johnny Griffin Quintet’s Live at Minton’s Playhouse In New York City, which was recorded by the legendary sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder. This band rips with high tempo bebop and is propelled by the thunderous drumming of the great Ben Riley. The Wavelight Pre/DAC delivered the macro-dynamics with clarity and excellent transient speed. Riley’s drum kit hits were clean from his cymbals to his bass drum and had a dynamic impact and a hard-hitting quality that drums provide in real life.
With the information that I shared in the review regarding the performance of the Rockna Wavelight Pre/DAC: its reference level spatial qualities, a full, rich tonality with a hint of tube warmth, and excellent transient speed and macro-dynamics, the conclusion is that it is one of the best DACs at its price point compared to other top-notch DACs on the market. Then put in the equation that you could run your system without a preamplifier because the Wavelight Pre/DAC’s analog volume control is competitive with the performance of highly regarded line stages. Its build quality is first-rate. Finally, because it uses FPGA technology, as Rockna Audio comes out with different generations/improvements, it allows you to download the latest new and improved performance Nicolae Jitaru will have developed in the future. If you are looking for a DAC in this price range, I highly recommend putting the Wavelight Pre/DAC on your audition list.
S/PDIF24bit 44.1-192k PCM, DSD64
AES/EBU24bit 44.1-192k PCM, DSD64
USB32bit 44.1-384k PCM, DSD64-512
OPTICAL24bit 44.1-176k PCM, DSD64
I2S (LVDS)32bit 44.1-384k PCM, DSD64-512
S/N ratio (0 dB):117 dB
Dynamic range:117 dB
Output impedance:50 ohms
Max. out (SE/XLR):2.4/5.8 Vrms
THD+N (RCA):-113 dB
THD+N (XLR):-119 dB
Selectable Gain (RCA):0/6/9.5 dB
Selectable Gain (XLR):8/14/17.5 dB
Robert Neill, president of Worldwide Wholesales
Address:str. Plopului nr. 5
720145 Suceava, Romania
Terry’s Associated Equipment
Mhdt Lab Orchid & Balanced Pagoda
Bricasti Design M3
Pass Labs DAC-1
Jay’s Audio MK-II transport
Coda 07x preamplifier
Aric Audio ML II preamplifier
Linear Tube Audio reference preamplifier
Coda NO. 16 amplifier
Threshold 550e amplifier
Triode Lab SET 2A3 amplifier
Pass Labs XA-25 amplifier
NSMT Loudspeaker Model 100
Tekton Design Ulfberth & Perfect Set
Role Audio Starship S.E.
Full loom Black Cat Cables Coppertone & Digit 110 AES/EBU-3202 XLR interconnects- 3232 speaker wire
Krolo Design rack & footers
Puritan Audio Laboratories PSM 156 Studio Master & Ground Master
Audio Archon power cords
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