Further Disclosure to Visitors: MusicServerTips.com is operated from Austria, Europe and therefore I may live in a timezone different to yours. Note that products I talk about may have different availability in your country of residence to which I have no influence (since I’m not selling those). I do my best to keep information as universal as possible. Click here to learn more.
I still love my Gustard X20u and it’s my personal reference that I wouldn’t want to give away, even after so many years. However, things changed when I discovered the “analog” universe and got a turntable. At that point, I suddenly needed an analog phono preamp and volume control. All of this couldn’t be covered by my Gustard DAC which had served me well for preamp and DAC duties. I then started to experiment with analog to digital conversion. My thinking was that I could just unify everything into a digital signal and continue using my Gustard DAC. Good ADCs (Analog to Digital Converters) don’t come cheap though. And who would want to use a low-budget sound card when you’ve spent tons on money on your analog setup? Nobody likes to see a good quality analog signal going to waste.
Another cool aspect of having an ADC is that you can digitize some of your valuable vinyl. For instance, I own a handful of Blue Note Mono first pressings. I converted them to DSD so I can listen to them more frequently without having to wear out those expensive records.
I was thrilled to see RME, a studio equipment manufacturer come out with a fantastic all-in-one product that covers digital to analog conversion at a quality level on par with my Gustard, a top-notch ADC and ultra-high quality headphone outputs to boot. The RME unit is super-small, too and easily snugs into your hifi rack.
When I first saw the pricing of nearly 1800 Euros, I had to take a deep breath. Yes, it’s not cheap. But if you heavily depend on preamp, DAC, ADC and headphone outputs, you get tons of value out of the RME ADI2. It also comes with warranty and firmware updates. If you need to pay less and don’t need ADC, get the cheaper unit at below 1000 Euros which gives you most of the features.
RME ADI2 Pro – What Makes it Great?
The RME ADI2 Pro FS R Black Edition is packed with technology. At it’s core, an AKM4493 (not the very latest chip but top of the range) handles digital to analog conversion. It comes with an FPGA, Femtosend clock generator and tons of pro features that you may not need in a home hifi setup. I’m not going to bore you with the complete feature list :)
It has 4 digital inputs that are important for home users: Toslink (optical), Coax, USB, AES/EBU
A pair of XLR inputs is for your analog signal sources. For instance, you would connect the outputs of your phono preamp (you still need one – this functionality isn’t covered by the RME) to them. Alternatively, you can use a 6.3mm jack, too. I know, most sources aren’t fully balanced but don’t worry – you can go pseudo-symmetrical with an RCA/XLR adapter from Amazon and still use all of the goodness of the RME.
You can use it’s analog input for other purposes, too. For example, to connect a tapedeck or FM tuners. Or hook up a microphone to record audio. I used the analog input to digitize some old tapes that I wanted to preserve. But I mainly listen to vinyl or just digitize it.
Audiophiles don’t need to wrinkle their nose, the digitized version of the signal is sonically indistinguishable fromm its analog source. I did many A/B comparisons but neither me or my friends could detect any difference whatsoever. Zero. This is good news if you worry about losing something from your precious vinyl. I can assure you, your worries are completely unfounded.
Need more inputs? You can turn your RME into a full featured preamp by getting a cheap external XLR/RCA switch from Amazon. This allows you to keeep multiple analog sources connected at the same time. Similar products exist for digital sources should you require more than RME supports out of the box.
The RME comes with a nice multi-color display showing you sample rates, selected inputs and many other valuable info.
Here’s what it looks like in my system (please excuse the crappy resolution):
Balanced Headphone Amplifier
A very strong asset of the RME is its powerful headphone amp which can drive low to high impedance headphones with ease. I’ve heard good reports about people driving their Audeze LCD2 or Sennheiser HD800 and using the RME as their “endgame” amp. I personally mostly listen to STAX but I do own an AKG K712 that I thoroughly enjoyed through the RME.
If you want to adapt the frequency target curve of your headphones or optimize room acoustics, the RME offers a 5-band EQ (separate for each channel).
The RME comes with a nice remote control to adjust volume (balance), select inputs and/or to mute outputs. If you prefer, you can enable loudness, dim the display or go crazy with EQ.
Most important is the preamplifier functionality and the RME delivers. I have my RME connected using XLR to my Hypex mono blocks. Needless to mention that I’m running a fully balanced setup this way(!). All it takes is a USB digital source and you’re done. A comparable “audiophile” manufacturer would require you to get a mortgage. You can also fine-tune the RME and adapt it to specific gain levels and sensitivies should your power amp require this.
One of the strongest suits is the RME’s sound quality. Its transparent, crisp and ultra-high resolving. Maybe its subjectively leaner than the Gustard by my ears may play tricks on me. I fully guarantee that it’s every bit as good as the Gustard or even better. Unbelievable to get this kind of quality out of such a tiny box.
Some audiophiles have attempted to replace the stock wall brick switchmode power supply. Although this is possible, I highly doubt you’re going to gain much if anything at all. That’s because internally the RME unit does DC filtering already using high quality parts. I briefly tried an “audiophile” aftermarket adapter and thought it sounded identical. If you’re curious, give it a try but make sure the manufacturer has a solid return policy. Better spend your money in good music.
I highly recommend the RME and it’s my personal reference now alongside the Gustard X20u which I still hook up from time to time.
You can get yours on Amazon here for about 1700 Euros. (advertisement link)
As noted, if you don’t need ADC, get the (much) cheaper version which is just as good and costs less than 1000 Euros. (advertisement link)