Ergonomics and Installation
The primary design intent behind the LIO is its ability to be configured in a variety of ways to permit an impressive—and perhaps unprecedented—degree of customization and integration. Vinnie Rossi can assemble the LIO into so many different combinations of components that any prospective owner should examine his own wants and needs carefully to come up with a customized set of modules that will best serve him. (Of course, you can always change your mind.)
My review unit consisted of the following modules: the autoformer volume control, DAC, headphone amplifier, power amplifier, analog inputs, and analog outputs. The LIO comes in a black anodized or silver chassis with black or silver knobs. I chose black on black. The total cost of the LIO under review was $6770.
I had to make some either/or choices in my LIO configuration because (as mentioned) some modules are mutually exclusive. For instance, if I had wanted to have the tube linestage, it would have required substituting the stepped volume control for the autoformer. If I had wanted the phono board and its companion variable impedance board, I would have had to remove an installed board to accommodate those.
One-box solutions such as the LIO or more traditional integrated amplifiers are best suited for installations where space is at a premium and there’s a relatively short distance from your primary input selector to your speakers. Desktop and nearfield setups are both ideal for the LIO, and that was how a majority of my critical listening was done. Even with my lowest-sensitivity monitor, the Aerial Acoustics 5B (84dB), I was able to achieve satisfying volume levels from the LIO amplifier section for nearfield listening.
The finite space limitations of any sized box, save for one piloted by Dr. Who, can be almost magically surmounted due to the LIO’s flexibility—in the future I plan to try out the LIO as a dedicated phono preamplifier. To accomplish this I’ll turn off the power amplifier module and install the phonostage module. I’ll then have a phono preamp that has its own dedicated headphone output, as well as both fixed and variable line-level outputs. Try doing this kind of functional about-face with any conventionally configured component. By contrast, a LIO owner could easily have a small collection of different modules on hand to swap out, depending on current requirements.
Setup was as easy as it gets. I attached a USB cable to the LIO’s DAC, a pair of RCA cables from LIO’s variable outputs to my subwoofer, a pair of speaker cables to my speakers, an AC cord, and I was done. Later I added an external DAC via one of the analog inputs, as well as an Astell&Kern AK240 portable player.
Considering all of the component’s functions, the LIO’s front panel is remarkably minimalist. On the left side are two pushbuttons, one for power and the other for activating the power amplifier module. To the right of these is a knob that controls the input selection. The center of the LIO has an LED display flanked on the right by a row of LEDs that register volume level, load (for phono cartridges), frequency (from digital sources through the DAC), voltage (the in-use ultracapacitor charge level), and dark (to turn off the display). The volume control knob is to the right of the row of LEDS, followed by the headphone output connection.
The LIO comes with a wand-shaped remote that features chromed end-caps and a solid-feeling metal body. It duplicates all the functions on the front panel and even adds a couple more, including a polarity-reversal switch and a DAC filter switch. (The LIO uses the same codes as Vinnie Rossi’s Red Wine Audio products’ remotes, so if you happen to have one of those remotes, you can also use it with LIO.)
I do have a few small ergonomic quibbles. The principal one is the single-ended headphone output connection. I’ve seen this connector-type before, and I will probably see it again because it is a highly regarded quality part. But it is a bother to use because, unlike most single-ended headphone connections, it requires that you push in the red catch above the insertion point to release the headphone. I’m still working on a way to do this successfully with only one hand. It feels like I’m up against the audiophile equivalent of a childproof bottle. Two-handed headphone disconnection gets old quickly, especially if you use and change cans as often as I do.
Also, the LIO headphone’s native output is best suited for less efficient, medium- and high-impedance ’phones. With headphones such as the AKG K-7xx, Audeze LCD-2, and HiFiMan HE-560, the background was silent. But with models that had sensitivities greater than 96dB, I could hear some background hiss from the LIO’s headphone amplifier. If you intend to use more sensitive ’phones, Vinnie Rossi offers a pair of jumpers that knock down the gain by 12dB. (To install the jumpers you do have to remove the LIO’s top-plate.)
Depending on your tolerance for occasional clicks, the LIO’s changeover from one ultracapacitor bank to the other may or may not be bothersome. Approximately every 20 to 30 minutes the LIO will click when it switches banks. The click isn’t too loud, but you will notice it.
My final ergonomic quibble is that when you turn on the power amplifier module, it takes about ten seconds for it to become active, during which time the LIO will not be available for use. Of course you can just leave the power amplifier module on all the time, but that will drain your ultracapacitor banks more quickly and cause the LIO to recharge more often, even while idling.