Aqua Acoustic Quality La Voce S3 Discrete DAC review

Sub·lim·i·nal – /səbˈlimənl/

Adjective (of a stimulus or mental process) below the threshold of sensation or consciousness; perceived by or affecting someone's mind without their being aware of it.

This is the definition of subliminal courtesy of Google’s online dictionary and is an apt descriptor for how the Aqua Acoustic Quality La Voce S3 Discrete DAC ($4,750 USD MSRP) ingratiated its way into my mind as I spent extended listening sessions with it over the past couple months. I found myself coming back to the Voce S3 again and again because of its ability to present the recorded event in such a casual and unassuming manner: Without pretence, sleight-of-hand, fireworks or balloon animals.

Some things just ease up on you over time and before you know it you’re turning to them without even being consciously aware of it, hence my dictionary introduction. The La Voce S3 Discrete has a laid-back presentation that always relaxes me while translating all those ones and zeros via the proprietary FPGA-based digital decoding (with no digital filtering) and the discrete R2R ladder DAC that its svelte alloy casework conceals.

As I stated in my preview HERE, owners of existing Voce DACs can upgrade their units to S3 specification with the following hardware/firmware modifications. Which, according to Aqua, is about "protect[ing] the investment… The update for the La Voce units of existing owners consists of the following hardware/firmware modifications:"

  • FPGA / decoding board cod. P608, high-resolution up to 384kHz PCM and DSD128
  • R2R Ladder resistors board cod. P607
  • USB board cod. P901 with new firmware
  • hardware modification of main board P601
  • hardware modification of I2S / USB board P603

Having not spent any time with the previous version, I’ll reiterate that the new S3 is not one of those DACs that demands your attention. It reels you in on the sly to hear how it presents the myriad nuances, details, timbral and tonal colorations of the songs you play through it.

Much like a painting can be about how big a canvas is used to create impact, or how bright splashes of paint can arrest the eye and slow it to noticing the details or message that make good art become truly great after first glance, so too, some DACs wow initially with an aural intensity that can deny your ears the hidden truths of what the artist intended to communicate. I tend to find these types of DACs to become fatiguing over time. I’m someone who appreciates big, bold sound – especially if it can be portrayed over the long-term without tiring the listener out, but that’s a job which requires curating a holistic approach to the system, integrating a DAC to get the best out of it can be a tricky proposition – but there’s a talent of communication too, through subtle cues.

This is the approach the S3 takes: it doesn’t oversaturate your aural sense, but rather invites you to take in the bigger, cohesive picture through subtlety and it’s ability to portray either simple solo acoustic guitar tracks or complex symphonic passages with clarity and bounce.

Inputs include USB, SPDIF, XLR and I2S, outputs are both Balanced and Unbalanced. For general listening sessions and critical review sessions I tried both outputs into my McIntosh C2600 and preferred the Balanced output in my system (Associated Equipment listed at end of review), as with all things involving personal sonic taste, YMMV.

The Voce S3 handles WAVE, AIFF, FLAC, etc. and DSD files (USB specs are: Asynchronous USB module with resolution from 44.1kHz to 384kHz PCM up to 24 bits, DSD64 and DSD128), but the company has taken a stand to not support MQA, for two main reasons according to Aqua. The first being that their engineers performed extended evaluations of various material that had been MQA-encoded and found “The results that emerged were not positive, especially with regard to the timbre and naturalness of the sound.” The company also said that since MQA is not a lossless codec, that current, freely-available codecs such as FLAC were preferred.

The second is that, according to Aqua, when it comes to the validity of MQA’s technique “their fundamental approach compromises Aqua’s philosophy: the search for natural, dynamic sound, with the least amount of artifacts. This is why Aqua does not use digital filters for PCM playback on its devices. Adopting MQA in which the original sound samples are compressed and submitted to heavy DSP operations, would mean compromising this approach which we are convinced is the right one. Our accomplishments and market reputation speak for themselves.”

“It is widely known that to obtain MQA certification, a disclosure of the "applicant" technology to third parties (MQA-Meridian) is necessary. This is difficult to accept for Aqua because we use proprietary technology based on programmable logic and not commercial DAC integrated circuits. Even more serious is the fact that the type of digital filtering "imposed" in MQA results in similar if not identical performance on all "MQA" devices. This implies a "standardization" of products and their sound characteristics.”

So, if full MQA hardware decoding is a must in a DAC for you, then the S3 will fall short on that sole front. Considering that the codec is nothing if not controversial or divisive among audiophiles, it really depends what side of the fence on MQA your apple falls. I played MQA Studio files through my Aurender N10 Music Server into the S3 without issue.

Via Luciano Manara, 17 - 20122 Milano

Sue's picture

I'm no expert on digital filters, but you must have a filter of some kind with a sigma-delta DAC chip to turn the bitstream into linear PCM.

I'd be curios to know how Aqua converts the signal without a filter.

Rafe Arnott's picture
The Voce S3 doesn't use a Delta-Sigma chipset, it uses a discrete resistor ladder DAC (which I mention in the review).



Sue's picture

I thought I read through your entire review but apparently not. My apologies.

Keep up the good work. You've been cranking out a lot of content lately. Obviously too much for me to read thoroughly. Sorry again.

rt66indierock's picture

You hit on two important points in this review. If you can't reproduce a wall of sound then something is amiss. And fatigue because if your system wears you out you will spend less time listening.