The Baetis Audio Revolution II Media Computer is a remarkably versatile piece of gear that will play pretty much any digital file you throw at it, and play it well. It’s designed and built to the highest audiophile standards and appears to be as future-proof as any digital AV component can be. That the Revolution II achieves this level of performance is impressive. That it does so for $3000 is astounding.
Computer audio is the new frontier of the high end, and Baetis Audio is found in Livingston, Montana, a town of 7000 on the banks of the Yellowstone River and a prime destination for fly fishermen. Not too long ago, this was the actual American frontier. The founder and front man for Baetis is John Mingo. His fewer-than-ten coworkers, in addition to his wife, Suzanne, and his business partner, Darren Cunningham, include a talented local machinist and the “gunsmith by trade” who designed the company’s proprietary BNC connection. Mingo will tell you frankly that he has little in the way of qualifications to be producing a leading-edge audio component. Though an audiophile for decades, the man has no background in either electrical engineering or computer science. John Mingo is a Ph.D. economist who labored for decades in the Washington, D.C., environs as an expert on the Federal Reserve and, above all, an empiricist. That is, he believes that knowledge comes from experience, from trying things out. “You start with a theory, then you look at the data,” Mingo told me in one of a series of phone conversations. “In the case of computer audio, there are instances where the ‘wisdom’ is widely perceived as being correct and yet, empirically, it doesn’t work out that way.”
In the thoroughly dysfunctional computer-audio community, an uneasy admixture of DIY types, established companies trying to stay relevant, start-ups with a good idea or two and lots of ambition, and consumers (audiophile and otherwise), conventional wisdom reigns. In two design areas in particular there are truths that are not be questioned. One is that the USB interface is the best interface for computer-audio applications. The other is that a fan in a music server is anathema because an unacceptable noise level is unavoidable. Not so fast, says empiricist John Mingo.
Mingo, of course, had to learn about building complex AV devices somewhere and acknowledges three mentors. The first is Chris Connaker, the founder of the influential Computer Audiophile Web site; the other two are Adam and Ben Lye, the principals of Assassin HTPC, a company that builds computers for home-theater applications. Mingo ran Assassin’s audiophile division and helped develop an audio computer that was “the best I had heard.” But the Lye’s business model wasn’t in line with Mingo’s thinking about a heavy investment in time and money to achieve refinements of the design, so he broke off and started Baetis in late 2011. The first product was introduced the following year.
The Revolution II is a compact component (9.5" W x 4.25" H x 10" D) that manifests an obvious audiophile sensibility. The quality of key parts—the Intel Core i3 third-generation Ivy Bridge CPU, the H77 motherboard, the 128GB internal solid-state drive that holds the Windows operating system, the installed DDR3 RAM— is very high, often chosen after exhaustive comparative listening. Numerous smaller touches inside the case are notable as well—for example, the use of an “EMI-reduction material” to protect the unit’s inputs and outputs.
What’s not in the box is also telling. The power supply is external, to minimize EMI (it ain’t no wall-wart, believe me), and there’s an option for a LiFePO4 battery-based PSU employing Neutrik PowerCON connectors. All data storage is also external. Baetis provides a compact 2TB Western Digital hard drive to get you started, but there are a total of eight USB inputs, half of them USB3.0, to allow considerable expansion of a music/video library plus, of course, the potential for NAS. You get no DAC for your investment. Baetis recognizes that the inside of a computer enclosure is no place for one to live, and understands that audiophiles will have their own ideas when it comes to what their ideal DAC or processor should be. In addition to those eight USB ports, the Revolution II’s connectivity includes two Ethernet inputs, two HDMI outputs, antennae connections for Wi-Fi (the antennae are included), a DVI video port, a TosLink SPDIF output, and the Baetis proprietary SPDIF output, about which there is much to say.
The standard attitude regarding digital output from a computer is that USB is the best option sonically. But the reasoning for that conclusion, according to John Mingo, is pretty circuitous. “It’s hard to find a laptop that actually has a SPDIF output. You literally have no choice other than a piece-of-crap TosLink or USB output.