The bass was remarkably rich, full, and weighty, yet still maintained a sense of speed and precision. The Romulus’ big bottom end served as the anchor for the rest of the presentation, beautifully conveying everything from the dense textures of orchestral doublebasses to the purring of a Fender Precision. Again, the Romulus didn’t sound like a tubed unit in its bottom-end impact, dynamic agility, and articulation. The midbass had a meaty quality that did wonders for an orchestra’s power range and some bass-guitar playing. On the title track from Donald Fagan’s Morph the Cat in 96kHz/24-bit the Romulus had tremendous low-end grip and power that conveyed the track’s visceral physicality. The Romulus is the antithesis of thin, threadbare, lean, or bleached.
The more I listened to the Romulus the more I enjoyed it musically, and the more I admired its sonic achievement. That statement may sound like a tautology, but some products can sound stunning sonically but fail to connect musically. The classic example is the super-high-resolution, dead-quiet, lightning-fast component that lays bare every last detail in a recording yet fails to engage the heart. It’s like a musician who shows off his astounding technical chops but has nothing to say. In digital products, this often results from a kind of mechanical quality that doesn’t really convince your brain that you’re hearing musical instruments rather than a collection of sounds. Such a product may hit many of the audiophile buttons, but there’s something not quite right—the presentation is built on an artificial foundation. The Romulus’ great appeal is that it avoids this pitfall completely. It sounds extremely “organic” and natural, without a hint of synthetic patina, particularly in the treble.
I’m glad that the review sample had the variable-output option installed, because driving a power amplifier directly revealed just how great this player is. The dynamic expression widened, the bass was fuller and went deeper, and transparency increased. It was comforting to know that no matter what the playback level (i.e., the amount of attenuation in the Romulus) I wasn’t losing resolution.
Fronting a world-class reference system of Constellation Centaur monoblocks driving Magico Q7 loudspeakers via MIT’s Oracle MA-X interconnect and MA-X SHD loudspeaker cables, the Romulus acquitted itself nicely under this ultra-high-resolution “microscope.” In fact, this system’s resolving power only emphasized what a terrific-sounding player the Romulus is; a lesser player’s flaws would have been that much more evident. Moreover, I compared the Romulus directly to what is unquestionably the state of the art in digital playback, the dCS Vivaldi. Of course, the Romulus was not the Vivaldi’s equal, but let’s just say that my opinion of the Romulus went up another few notches after this comparison when I reflected on the fact that the Vivaldi DAC and transport cost nearly ten times more than the Romulus.
Driving the Romulus through its USB port with a MacBook Pro running iTunes and Pure Music revealed the USB implementation to be excellent, although I preferred the sound of CDs played in the Romulus’ transport compared to rips of those CDs. The bass was fuller and better controlled, the midrange and treble smoother, and the soundstage more expansive. Remember, however, that the USB cable and the computer setup are significant variables when using a computer source.
The Romulus is another home run for Aesthetix, combining innovative circuit design, premium-quality parts and construction, and first-rate sound. This player was never anything less than musically communicative and immensely enjoyable, even in the context of a cost-no-object system. The Romulus is a flat-out bargain at its price, and invites comparison with much more expensive players. In fact, I’d call the Romulus a giant-killer, offering one of the highest price-to-performance ratios in digital playback today.
SPECS & PRICING
Inputs: USB, AES /EBU, SPDIF coaxial, TosLink
Outputs: Balanced on XLR jacks, unbalanced on RCA jacks
USB input: Up to 192kHz/24-bit
Tube complement: 12AX7 (x1), 6DJ8 (x1)
Dimensions: 17.875" x 4.25" x 18.125"
Weight: 30 lbs. (net)
Price: $8000 with variable output ($7000 fixed-level)
AESTHETIX AUDIO CORPORATION
5220 Gabbert Road
Moorpark, CA 93021
Loudspeakers: Magico Q7
Preamplifier: Constellation Audio Virgo 2, Absolare Passion
Power Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Centaur monoblocks, Absolare Passion 845
Analog Source: Basis Inspiration turntable with Basis Vector 4 tonearm, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge; Simaudio Moon 810LP phonostage
Digital source: dCS Vivaldi Transport, MacBook Pro running iTunes and Pure Music
AC Conditioning and Cords: Shunyata Triton and Talos, Audience aR6TS conditioners; Echole Obsession Signature and Omnia, Shunyata Zitron Anaconda and Audience Au24 AC cords
Cables: Echole Omnia interconnects; MIT MA-X SHD loudspeaker cables; MIT MAX2 interconnects; AudioQuest Wild AES /EBU, AudioQuest Diamond USB
Equipment Racks: Stillpoints ESS , Critical Mass Systems amplifier stands
Acoustics: ASC 16" Full-Round Tube Traps, 10" Tower Traps
Accessories: Stillpoints Ultra 2 and Ultra 5; Audio Desk Vinyl Cleaner; Mobile Fidelity record brush, cleaning fluid, stylus cleaner