Baetis Audio Revolution II Media Computer

Empiricism Wins The Day

Equipment report
Music servers and computer audio
Baetis Audio Revolution II
Baetis Audio Revolution II Media Computer

With Macs, there never was a choice—it’s USB and FireWire. For most computers, USB is the best output. But not for the best-designed computers.” What’s wrong with USB? Even the latest USB outputs, those with galvanic isolation and anti-jitter circuitry, are far more complex and prone to EMI than the Baetis solution, which is to take a dedicated SPDIF signal directly off the motherboard. That signal follows an “ultra-short path” (USP)—under three inches—from the motherboard to a proprietary BNC output. (Some audiophiles, no doubt, will be put off by Mingo’s choice of a BNC connector. Originally designed for military applications, it was picked for its physical and electrical stability. No worry: If your DAC or AV controller doesn’t sport a BNC input—as do the Berkeley DACs Baetis favors as a reference— you can employ BNC-to-RCA adapters as necessary without losing sleep. Quite a bit of precision soldering with a Japanese silver solder is required to create the USP, but the result is less EMI which, potentially, translates into better sound. Mingo’s inevitable mantra: “We believe in USP, not USB.”

Mingo’s other practice is to employ fans in his products. Video processing in particular—and that includes the playback of a rising category in music software, the music-only Blu-ray Disc—generates a lot of heat which can impact the performance of electronic devices, especially their longevity. But conventional wisdom again rears its ugly head. “All the do-it-yourself designs specify it must be fanless. If you’ve ever tried to use the fan that comes with any Intel CPU, you will understand why it should be fanless. Those fans have a market value of six or seven dollars and are so noisy they make it impossible to listen to music if you are any closer than 20 feet away from the computer.” Mingo acquired a professional-grade digital SPL meter and started measuring everything he could. “The first thing we discovered is that the fanless computers weren’t completely quiet. If you’re getting rid of heat inside the computer by moving it out to the fins or the surface, that is moving air. Without a fan, you could measure sound on the digital SPL meter that was above that of the audio system in the absence of the computer. And that was just playing ripped CDs. What if you play a Blu-ray?” So, in the Revolution II’s chassis, Baetis has strategically placed a pair of 80 mm precision-milled Noctua fans. The base noise level in Mingo’s Montana listening room—the nearest asphalt highway is three miles distant—is 33.1dB, with the lower limit of human hearing somewhere below 20dB. [The threshold of hearing is designated 0dBSPL, a pressure of 0.0002 dynes/cm2, humorously described as “the weight of a gnat’s eyelash.”—RH] Mingo measures an additional 0.1 to 0.3dB one meter from the computer when the fans are operating. If I actually put my ear in contact with the Revolution II while it’s running, I think I can hear the fans. Maybe.

In terms of music management software, every Revolution II comes loaded with JRiver Media Center 19. Other programs have their advantages—Wax (TAS 238) is much easier to use and MusiCHI (TAS 224) is a classical tagger’s dream—but JRiver is surely the standard by which all others are judged. It handles over 50 audio and video codecs, including the au courant DSD-sourced formats. JRiver’s sophistication and robust versatility is also its problem. The learning curve can be steep, especially if you’re a relative newcomer to computer audio. And no one picks up the phone at JRiver if you have a question; “help” comes from on-line forums where you may or may not get a timely answer and the level of discourse can be pretty geeky. John Mingo and others at his company are enthusiastically available for e-mail and telephone support as you encounter issues. Turn the Revolution II on for the first time and you’ll see a Baetis Remote Support icon on the screen. John Mingo’s preferred form of assistance is to take control of your mouse and teach you how to more effectively use his product. Baetis is also prepared to help with Windows-related issues. In the course of the review process, I suddenly found that the computer wasn’t recognizing any of the several attached hard drives that were connected. Mingo knew what the problem was from my panicked description and had it fixed in ten minutes. Lest you think this is special treatment for a reviewer, a full year of telephone support is included in the purchase price with customers averaging about 20 hours of one-on-one assistance each, some much more. Mingo emphasizes that this kind of support will always come with a Baetis computer and plans to establish a “call center” when his customer base is large enough.

The Revolution II was auditioned with a range of musical genres and audio codecs, both stereo and multichannel sources, and a little video. D-to-A conversion was always accomplished via my Anthem D2v processor; cabling was an obvious variable, as different digital interconnects—USB, coaxial (SPDIF), and HDMI—were required for different applications. An effort was made to employ wires of roughly equivalent quality and expense when making comparisons. The Revolution II was plugged into an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS, not to be confused with USB, USP, or the people who deliver your packages) as the user’s manual sternly advises that the unit’s warranty is void if an owner doesn’t provide both surge protection and voltage variation control. I used a CyberPower CP850PFCLCD, $135 at Best Buy.

I spent many pleasurable hours comparing the Revolution II operating via USB, HDMI, and the Baetis special SPDIF implementation to my usual options for playing digital files—a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion P6000 Series desktop computer, the 3beez Wax Box, and, mostly for multichannel, an Oppo 93 fed digital files from an external hard drive. The cables employed to get data from the Baetis, Wax Box, HP, and Oppo to the Anthem included my trusty Halide Bridge for USB; for HDMI, an AudioQuest Chocolate cable ($100) or an I-forget-how-ridiculously-expensive Transparent Audio model; for SPDIF, a $200 Straight Wire Info-Link or Teresonic Clarison BNC digital cable ($400), each with a Radio Shack BNC-to-RCA adapter installed at the Anthem end. After a period of time, I found it useful to focus on the three options involving the Baetis, especially John Mingo’s cosmic matchup of USB vs. his proprietary SPDIF interface.

Time marches on and I am forced to admit that I’ve been captivated by Joni Mitchell’s Blue for 40 years. With the 192/24 HDtracks version of the album, the Baetis SPDIF option provided insights into Mitchell’s artistry I’d never had before. I developed a new appreciation of how the syncopated lilt to Joni’s singing on “All I Want,” “My Old Man,” and “Little Green” plays so perfectly off the guitar and piano accompaniments, the vocal inflections providing the rhythmic impulse for these songs as much as the instruments. Additionally, all these years I’d considered Mitchell’s piano playing on “My Old Man” to be charmingly rudimentary when, in fact, there’s enormous tonal subtlety and dynamic nuance that serve to amplify the emotional power of the song. With SPDIF, guitars in this close-miked recording are as present as ever but less bordering-on-astringent than usual; Joni’s voice is more richly characterized.

René Pape, the “Black Diamond Bass,” has a voice as distinctive as Mitchell’s. Richard Wagner’s operas are Pape’s specialty and a 2011 Deutsche Grammophon CD entitled simply Wagner finds him in top form with selections from Die Walküre, Die Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Tannhäuser. DG’s recorded sound is nothing special but, progressing from USB through HDMI to SPDIF output from the Revolution II, the orchestra becomes less strident and two-dimensional and Pape’s huge voice becomes nearly as commanding and texturally appealing as it is in person.