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Tidal Audio Contros Digital Music Controller and Intra Stereo Power Amplifier

Tidal Audio Contros

For many audiophiles, the route taken to a “reference” component is circuitous, and the final destination can seem almost arbitrary. That’s because, despite what some manufacturers (and most ad copywriters) would have you believe, there’s never just one speaker, DAC, or interconnect that will assure audio bliss. Apart from issues of perceived sound quality, there are plenty of additional factors in play, such as aesthetics, cost, and the other components with which the gear will need to function synergistically or, even more simply, which elite brands the dealer you trust has chosen to carry. If it’s Focal and not Rockport or Magico, that could be why you ended up, quite happily, with a Sopra No 3s rather than Atria IIs or A5s. This is especially true with electronics for which, among the top competitors, sonic differences can be less apparent than for, say, loudspeakers or phono cartridges. For me personally, the issue may have been proximity, specifically proximity to Doug White.

White is the owner of The Voice That Is, a boutique audio dealer about a half an hour outside of Philadelphia. TVTI carries a number of premium brands, but White may be most closely associated with Tidal Audio. As the manufacturer’s “brand ambassador” for the United States, he’s been the face of the company at American audio shows for some time. I first met Doug late one evening in the hotel bar at an AXPONA show and discovered that he lived and worked close to me in Pennsylvania. A few years later, I was reviewing a loudspeaker that clearly wasn’t performing at its best because it required more power than I could provide with my usual amplifiers. I called White and asked if I could borrow something more suitable, and he brought over the then-new Intra. I was highly impressed and ended up purchasing Tidal’s Ferios monoblocks (reviewed along with the Prisma preamplifier by Robert Harley in Issue 306) and then, a year later, the Contros digital controller and streamer. When RH asked if I’d formally write up the Contros and the Intra stereo amplifier, I was happy to oblige.

Jörn Janczak founded Tidal Audio in 1999 at the tender age of 24, after spending six months as the production manager for a German high-end loudspeaker manufacturer. (“I liked the job; I didn’t like the circumstances.”) From the beginning, his goal was to build both no-compromise speakers and electronics, an ambitious undertaking for a small company. While Janczak is skilled in all aspects of loudspeaker design and manufacture, he develops Tidal’s electronic products in tandem with Lothar Braün, a highly accomplished amplifier specialist. “I design it, and he does the magic inside,” Janczak told me when I encountered him at High End Munich 2023.

The Contros digital music controller is a generous-sized component, measuring roughly 17″ x 5″ x 17″ and weighing in at 36 pounds. Externally, the first impression is one of elegant simplicity. The two knobs in front—a source selector that’s also the on/off switch and a substantial volume control—are made of stainless steel and emerge from a glossy black acrylic faceplate. The polished metal surfaces are continued on the sides and as two lateral strips on the top of the component. Around back are three digital inputs—coaxial SPDIF, optical TosLink, and AES/EBU, as well as the proprietary Tidal Link connection and a pair of USB inputs for attaching storage devices. There are three outputs per channel, two balanced (XLR) and one single-ended (RCA). There’s a LAN port (labeled “NET”) to connect to the network for music streaming, along with two RJ45 jacks that can connect to Tidal amplifiers to turn them on when the Contros is powered up. You’ll also find, of course, an IEC power receptacle, but Tidal doesn’t provide power cords with any of its products, allowing the user to make a choice based on his budget and belief system.

Tidal Audio Intra

But this rather chaste exterior hides from view some extremely advanced audio technology, charged with just a few basic functions—choosing the source, adjusting the level of a digital music datastream, and delivering it with fidelity to the power amplifier(s). “We think the music signal cannot be improved,” Janczak said, “it can only be changed. The Golden Rule for us is to make the topology and signal paths as short as possible. In the case of our electronics in particular, we need deeply complicated topologies around the actual signal path to guarantee this simple goal.” Tidal makes its own circuit boards in-house, and there’s very little use of internal cabling. Local power is extensively employed—there are 22 low-noise local power supplies scattered around the Contros. The discrete Class A output amplifier is transformerless with no phase inversion of the musical signal.

There’s no better example of a highly complex innovation operating out of sight than the Contros’ UPLC (Ultra Precision Level Control), a technology found in other Tidal products, including the Presencio and Prisma, the company’s phono- stage-bearing preamplifiers. A preamp’s volume control is the potential Achilles heel of that device. Tidal uses a pricy ALPS potentiometer to control, digitally, a series of relays, each in a hermetically sealed environment to protect it from exposure to dust and humidity. Note that the potentiometer is used here only to transmit to the relay-resistor array the desired volume selected by the remote control or front-panel volume knob. Specifically, the potentiometer’s output is digitized, with that digital code controlling the lossless digital volume control inside the R2R ladder-DAC itself. It’s a very sophisticated approach that is different from the common relay-and-resistor volume controls found in other products. It took Tidal a decade to perfect this methodology, and it’s completely invisible—inaudible—to the user. There’s none of the discernible clicking heard with some other highly regarded volume controls.

Digital-to-analog conversion is performed by a discrete 32-bit non-oversampling DAC. Non-oversampling? Tidal has implemented the second generation of its proprietary application called ASRT2 (for Analog Signal Remediation Technology). Janczak agrees with most that a 44.1kHz sampling rate is “a pretty rough way to emulate the original soundwave.” But rather than arbitrarily upsample to some multiple of the native rate, Tidal developed software that, it feels, is significantly better at “rebuilding” the 44.1kHz datastream via a smoother, more sophisticated form of data interpolation. Reclocking of an incoming digital datastream is accomplished by an ultra-low-noise oscillator; supported formats include DSD, DSF, and DFF via DoP, as well as FLAC, ALAC, WAVE, AIFF, MQA, MP3, and AAC. For streaming, the user must download one of several free network players—Lumin is the most highly recommended—to an iOS device. There’s native support for Tidal (the streaming service), Qobuz, Apple Airplay, Spotify, and TuneIn Internet radio.

The overall appearance and dimensions of the Intra are very similar to those of the Contros, and the weight is just 27 pounds, making one and all aware that this is most certainly a Class D amplifier—three words that, even now, put this product out of the running for certain audiophiles. That’s unfortunate, as Tidal has undertaken a years-long assessment of switching amplifiers. As many audio enthusiasts are aware, Tidal has established a partnership with Bugatti Automobiles and is committed to producing a line of loudspeakers bearing the Bugatti badge. The first Tidal-for-Bugatti model to become available, the Royale, can be had in exactly the colors of the Chiron parked in your driveway. Beginning at $348,000 per pair, these are amplified speakers, powered by Tidal-designed Class D amps. The Intra stereo amplifier, with a fully discrete Class A front end and Class D output stage represents “trickle-down” from the Bugatti project [see sidebar].

The Intra’s design is based on two separate stereo modules that allow the amplifier to be used in several ways. On the rear panel are four XLR inputs and four pairs of stereo binding posts; small toggle switches let the user change the Intra from stereo mode to dual-mono operation. At its highest sonic potential, the Intra functions as a stereo amplifier, using one channel per module per speaker. The main power supply for each module is responsible for one channel—340Wpc into 8 ohms, 670Wpc into four ohms. (I was confident that the amplifier I’d borrowed from Doug White for a week or two would have no problems driving just about anything, and I was right.) The array of possible connections also facilitates bi-amping by connecting two channels per speaker, and the Intra can also drive four loudspeakers for a multichannel application. Finally, a listener can bridge the Intra’s two stereo amplifiers to deliver a colossal amount of power to a subwoofer—1180Wpc into an 8-ohm load, 1830Wpc into 4 ohms.

The Tidal components were auditioned with two external digital sources, a Sony X1100ES universal disc player (used as a transport) and a Baetis Reference 3 music computer, plus the Contros’s own internal streaming unit. Loudspeakers were Magico M2s, sometimes complemented with a Magico S-Sub. Analog wires included Siltech 880i balanced interconnects from Contros to Intra and 880L speaker cables from the Intra to the Magicos. For digital cabling, I used an Apogee Wyde Eye SPDIF to connect up the Sony and a Wireworld Platinum Starlight AES/EBU from Baetis to Contros. For power cords, I used robust Pangea models with both components. My room hasn’t changed by as much as a cubic inch since the last review—it’s a 225-square-foot space with a 10-to-12-foot ceiling, and always will be.

Most of my critical listening was done with the Contros and Intra pair, with the brief substitution of several other components, as noted below.

With the best symphonic recordings (and there’s none better than Decca’s La fille mal gardeé, from 1962), string textures were richly characterized and initial percussion transients—triangle, woodblock, timpani—were crisply present. Electric bass and kick drum on well-recorded pop/rock (say, “Storm Warning” from Bonnie Raitt’s 1994 album, Longing in Their Hearts) had satisfying punch, with or without subwoofer augmentation. Synthesizer bass on the title track from Jennifer Warnes’ The Hunter manifested good bottom-octave extension. Joe Farrell’s breathy flute sonority on a favorite Chick Corea cut (“Friends” off the 1978 album of the same name) registered as a column of air produced by someone blowing into a small-bore metal tube. Corea’s electric piano on that selection was obviously a Rhodes, not a Wurlitzer. With all genres, background noise was minimal and there was plenty of dynamic headroom.

I have limited enthusiasm for head-to-head comparisons with “competing” gear at this end of the quality spectrum—how likely is it that a consumer is deciding among precisely the products a reviewer has on hand to contrast?—but allow that the exercise can provide context. I substituted the Theoretica Applied Physics BACCH-SP adio for the Contros, bypassing the crosstalk-cancellation filter. The main attraction of the BACCH-SP for most is the effect of XTC on spatiality, but the adio is a full-function preamp with an excellent DAC. With my enduring favorite orchestral test track, the first movement Allegretto of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 (Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw) the sound was enjoyable, though I noted a slight roughness in the upper strings and a flattening of the recorded perspective that I didn’t hear with the Tidal combination. I would have been quick to blame those sonic qualities on the Intra’s Class D topology if I’d heard the Theoretica as the system’s preamp before the Contros. I also found that Tidal electronics could match the ability of modern state-of-the-art tube gear in terms of harmonic complexity—I was trying out the superb Ångstrom Stella SIA integrated—but with greater ease, quiet, and invisibility. Wonderful as it was, the Italian amp deviates from complete neutrality, which leads to an observation regarding all Tidal Audio products.

I’d not read RH’s 2020 write-up of the Tidal Prisma and Ferios before writing a good portion of this review, including the subtitle “Transparency Defined.” I was at first mortified to see that Robert’s subheader—what magazine editors sometimes refer to as the “deck”—was “Transparency Incarnate.” Should I come up with something a little more…original? Ultimately, I stuck with it, concluding that I’d independently identified a defining characteristic of Tidal electronics. My previous understanding of “transparency” was that, although it could stand on its own as a useful descriptor, it derived from other aspects of recorded sound, including, but not limited to, low levels of noise and measurable distortion, speed, and a lack of colorations across the frequency spectrum. When it came to these parameters, the Tidal gear was sometimes the equal of other products, sometimes not. And yet, the comparators would consistently fall short of the German brand in terms of their effectiveness at communicating musical meaning. “Transparency” is an independent variable when it comes to perceived sound quality, and no one does it better than Tidal.

Surprisingly, I learned this from comparisons of the Contros/Intra combination to the Contros/Ferios, rather than by the substitution of another electronics brand. With the 109-pounds-per-side, $85,000-per-pair monoblocks sitting inches away from the 27-pound, $28,000 stereo amplifier, fairly immediate comparisons were possible and the Contros/Ferios dyad did manifest better dynamics, more extended bass, and superior tonal richness and dimensionality. Given the price differential, they’d better. But the two products were, to me, equals in terms of transparency—both offered a crystal-clear view of the original event, when the recording made it possible to do so.

The Contros digital controller and Intra stereo amplifier—the Contros, in particular—are undeniably expensive. I get that, and so does Jörn Janczak: The website notes that Tidal has developed a constituency with “both the discrimination and financial means necessary [emphasis mine] to satisfy their exacting standards of sound reproduction.” A focus for Janczak has been to educate well-off individuals who may not have paid any attention to the audiophile pursuit that his products exist and can emotionally reward an investment in much the same way as a bespoke Panama hat, a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera, or a Bugatti can. Although I’d never go so far to suggest that anything in Tidal’s line is a bargain, the two items considered here do offer good value, at least by high-end standards. If you don’t need analog, the Contros subsumes the key functionality of three other Tidal products (the Prisma preamp, Camira DAC, and Arkas streamer) that together cost much more. The $28,000 Intra delivers 75% of the overall performance—and 100% of the transparency—of far costlier single-channel amplifiers available from this manufacturer, and in a package that’s considerably smaller than Tidal’s monoblock offerings.

In a real sense Tidal Audio found me, rather than the other way around, and I’ve not looked back. The Contros controller and Ferios amplifiers haven’t disappointed with any loudspeaker I’ve used with them, and I doubt the Intra would either. Try to hear this brand of electronics (and speakers) at an audio show if possible—Doug White makes it to many of them. But if you do, lock your doors and windows when you get home. Once you’ve made the acquaintance of Tidal components, they may come looking for you

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