The first movement Allegretto of Bernard Haitink’s 2010 live recording of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is my go-to track for evaluating orchestral detail, dynamic nuance, timbral truthfulness, and large-ensemble spatiality. (It’s also a terrific performance that I can listen to over and over again without fatigue.) With this recording, as with the three others I’ll describe, there was an incremental improvement heard progressing from the physical disc (when that was evaluated) to HDMI to SPDIF to AES. For example, some smearing of xylophone passages and on trumpet triple-tonguing heard with SACD playback disappeared entirely when playing DSF files. With both coaxial and balanced SPDIF, subtle dynamic gradations in the opening flute solo were easier to discern. The brass peroration at about the five-minute mark had considerably more puffed-up majesty with the SPDIF options. There’s a whimsical violin/string bass duet towards the end of the movement wherein AES revealed most clearly the two instruments’ size and internal volume contrasts. With AES, the spatial disposition of the RCO’s players was more specific. Probably the most telling indication of how successful I found the Reference via AES to be was how little I missed multichannel—the typical classical recordings where the presence of a center channel assures continuity of the front soundstage, and the surrounds provide hall ambience. The Baetis Reference achieved an awful lot of that with “only” stereo.
Mari Kodama’s performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata is available on a robustly recorded PentaTone SACD. Playing the ripped DSF files via HDMI—more so SPDIF and especially AES—the rippling passagework seemed less mechanical and the headlong rush of the finale’s coda became viscerally thrilling. A powerful performance moved closer to the realm of incendiary with the sonic improvement.
Among the most astounding releases I’ve heard in any genre over the past year is Viper’s Drag on the Impulse! Records label. (A 44.1/24 download is available from HDtracks.) This is a collaborative project involving the New Orleans piano virtuoso Henry Butler, trumpeter/arranger Steven Bernstein, and nine other top-notch jazz musicians who meld the joyous abandon of early Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet with modern funk and progressive jazz elements. The title track is clearly carefully arranged yet floridly improvisational in its execution. It’s exhilarating—there’s a lot going on at any moment, and the recording is exceptionally immediate. A series of kickdrum thuds that begin the title track convincingly represents a hard mallet striking a stretched drumhead. With AES, you can hear that the hits aren’t identical—because there’s a human ankle and foot responsible for each one, not a machine.
Lastly, I’ll cite the gratification provided by the 96/24 HDtracks download of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the latest album from the English Indie rock band Florence and the Machine. On “Ship to Wreck” Florence Welch’s scorching vocal rides atop a dense texture of guitars and keyboard, supported by solidly impactful bass and drums—it’s an old-style rocker that demands frequent replays. The meticulously crafted studio mix can be more fully savored with AES, and the bass foundation of the recording is best with that interface.
And how was playback via USB? It would be very tidy for this review if, given John Mingo’s strong feelings on the matter, it was mediocre compared to the other options offered by the Reference but…it really wasn’t. Using my five-year-old Halide USB-to-SPDIF Bridge to connect the Reference to the Anthem, the sound was pretty good—better than a spinning disc read by an Oppo 103. I could live with this. On the other hand, there is no question that the SPDIF options are manifestly superior, especially AES. How much better? This is obviously subjective—the often difficult requirement of parsing the extraordinary from the very, very good in high-end audio. I’ll say 30 percent better. It’s the degree of superiority that induces some to commit to über-amplifiers and speaker systems in the mid five-figures. We’re in that territory.
A word on pricing: The cost of the Reference is, by a wide margin, the highest ever for a Baetis product. (Previously, the most expensive was the XR2 at $4995.) To be sure, the Reference is more costly to build, and items such as the UPS are included—not to mention those hours of customer support that are also part of the purchase price. But the large jump in Baetis’ prices is mostly accounted for by a profound change in its business model: from selling directly to consumers to having a small, select dealer network. The largest portion of those increased prices represents dealer profit, and the degree of the markup is not dissimilar from other high-end products. By the time you are reading this, Baetis will have introduced a new server called the Prodigy, which sells for $2895 and is only available for purchase directly from the company. It will employ a less expensive version of the daughterboard so central to the elevated performance of the other three models.
The story of the discovery of Baetis’ motherboard-daughterboard synergy offers good reason to respect the R&D processes that both newer and established companies undertake to explore fresh viewpoints. The challenge for Baetis and its retailers is to get high-end customers to view the media server as an audio component that has been designed and built with the same care as the best speakers, turntables, and electronics. Audiophiles need to understand that an inexpensive laptop or a machine cobbled together with parts from the computer store will not necessarily perform as well as commercial designs from Baetis, Aurender, 3beez, Meridian, and others in this relatively new product class.
In a real sense, the Baetis Reference is the product I’ve been waiting for since that profoundly disappointing moment in 1983 when I first placed a compact disc in the drawer of a newly purchased Sony CDP-101—and decidedly did not hear “perfect sound forever.” Over the past three decades, digital’s deficiencies have been steadily mitigated, and I’m now ready to say that the technology’s potential has been fully realized. I can’t imagine enjoying music at home to the fullest extent possible without the Baetis Reference and will be returning the warranty card that came with the review sample along with a check. If you’ve embraced the digital future and have the means and the motivation, you must make a point of experiencing what this remarkable machine can do.
SPECS & PRICING
Inputs/Outputs: One proprietary BNC SPDIF, one proprietary AES/EBU, two HDMI, eight USB ports (six 3.0 and two 2.0)
Connectivity: Two Ethernet, DVI video, two antennae
Dimensions: 17 1/8" x 5" x 12"
Price: $13,995 (black or silver)
428 Canyon Creek Road
Livingston, MT 59047