For me, what makes a HiFi system sound convincing is primarily weight and color. I have to believe the performers are present and they’re not all White Walkers from Game of Thrones. They have to have a gravitational pull and elements of life and texture. When the artists and instruments have curvature and form, that’s a great indicator of a higher performance system. Unfortunately, having more of one usually takes away from the other. The more solid a sound is, the less “golden” it’ll sound. As with everything in HiFi, it’s a subjective balancing act.
I started by spending time listening to a few playlists directly from the Innuos server without any USB conditioning. It was clear what was missing but I couldn’t gauge the magnitude. Then I connected the Phoenix and the aural gains were very obvious. The first thing I noticed was tonality. It was like the music got hooked up an IV bag of blood. Secondly, there was a much more three-dimensional presentation. Not just in width, depth, and layering but in the shapes of the performance.
For example, Damien Rice & Lisa Hannigan’s 9 Crimes gives you chills as her voice first fades in. It comes in from black and there’s an immediate sense of guilt and dread. The same goes for Bank’s You Should Know Where I’m Coming From. Goosebumps from start to finish. There’s also a delicacy yet strength in how strings and percussions play out in Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album. Playing these same tracks without the Phoenix – and the engagement is nonexistent. It’s relatively flat and anemic – and doesn’t make your hair stand.
Making Things Right
The Innuos Pheonix is one of those components where you don’t really need much A/Bing to hear the differences. When I remove the Phoenix, the music flattens out, the texture is smoothed over, edges are blended, and there’s a hint of confusion even when the recording isn’t busy or complex. Also, pieces of the recording aren’t social distancing at all. It sounds more like clumps placed in random parts of the soundstage. And positioned unnaturally close together. In essence, everything is painted with a broad brush without attention to depth, focus, or detail. For lack of a better word, it sounds “generic.”
Once the Innuos Phoenix is plugged in, the first thing you’ll hear is the tonal variations. You start to realize that the track you just heard (without the Phoenix) actually has a full palette of colors (as opposed to just one). Instead of sounding more superficial, it provides an enormous amount of depth and precision. It also warms up the tone organically for both voices and instruments. It just makes for a more convincing and emotional listening experience.
For whatever reason, bass quality improves tremendously with the Phoenix. I know all this stuff is digital but the bass was far more prominent with the Phoenix. My guess is that this is due to the high-quality Sean Jacobs power supplies. I actually thought my subwoofer was off when I was testing the direct to DAC connection. It was on. But with the Phoenix in between, it not only rumbles and slams, but it also does so with a gradation of detail and strength. Simply put, piano notes have more weight, kicks have more punch, and there’s just more music going on. Without the reclocker, the bottom felt empty, restricted, and tamed.
The Phoenix presents a more wholesome and fuller sound. This is especially great for vocal-centric recordings. Lana Del Rey, Adele, Anna Clendening…they all sound grounded, focused, and never “floaty.” The vocals are confident and anchored dead center. There’s just an undeniable humanistic essence that was left hidden prior to the Phoenix.
As mentioned, timbre is also vastly improved when using the Innuos Phoenix. Consequently, there’s a varied amount of “flow” and density that comes with that. For example, in Us the Duo’s No Matter Where You Are, the overlapping male and female vocals never conflict with each other. The couple has their own identity and heft to their voices – and it harmonizes more coherently.
This doesn’t just apply to the main artist but the audience as well. In Alicia Key’s VH1 Storytellers, the Phoenix enables you to gauge the size and differentiate precisely which cheers are from male or female participants. Without the Phoenix and suddenly the participants get cut by 80% and they all sound like the same person.
In HiFi, the descriptor “transparency” gets thrown around a lot. Many times it translates to hyper resolution without any soul. I feel the Phoenix does transparency the right way. For example, without the Phoenix, the water at the beginning of Gary Girouard’s Water sounds more like it’s coming from an icy glacier than a water stream in a forest. You miss out on the rocks, trees, and twigs. The Phoenix makes these subtle tonal and textural cues more apparent. It’s transparent yet still tonally accurate.
I just hear each piece of the music more clearly. Not just from a resolution standpoint, but in weight and character. Removing the Phoenix and the music becomes more “undefined.” The Phoenix solidifies the atmosphere but keeps the music alive. It just digs deeper and carves out more texture. I just feel more engaged with the rhythm and dynamics of the music.
If I were to step back and summarize, these would be my thoughts. It just sounds like the music takes up space in your room rather than being projected in front of you. Luckily the Innuos Phoenix provides an incredible digital foundation to build upon. You could focus on getting the right speakers, amplifiers, and cables without having to worry too much about problems from the source. I can’t really find any faults with the Innuos Phoenix reclocker. It does what it was designed to do incredibly well. And it might be more important than the server itself.
Comparison with the SOtM tX-USBultra
So obviously I have to compare this with my current reference, the SOtM tX-USBultra. To make things a little fairer, I used a Paul Hynes SR4 9V to power the SOtM. I tried using a battery pack but you lose an enormous amount of size, drive, and dynamics. Although it does have a clock input, I didn’t use one for this comparison. Although having a master clock did improve the realism in resolution and timing – it often takes away soul. But I may revisit this another time.
So off the bat, both of these options are far better than no USB conditioner/reclocker. To the point where I think if your library is mostly digital, you’d want to invest in one. It’s worth the money. Now as far as sound, they both do different things well.
First, the SR4 and SOtM tX combination sounds amazing. The Paul Hynes power supply is clearly able to maximize the capabilities of this USB conditioner. As far as noise, the background is lacquer black. Imaging is solid and even the most complex nuances were layered with the right amount of footing. There’s just this incredible control over the extrusions and speed of the sound. For what it’s worth, the combination of the SR4 and tX still has a smaller footprint over the Phoenix but requires a DC cable. This comparison just reaffirms the importance of having a cleaner USB signal.
Having used both battery and the Paul Hynes SR4 on the SOtM tX-USBultra, I realized that its tone is more grey and neutral relative to the Phoenix. That’s probably the biggest difference between the two. The Phoenix has more “blood and tissue” and I found it to be more tonally true. Both handle timbre well.
The Phoenix also has more grit and texture while the tX-USBultra is fuller and smoother. While listening to a few tracks by Kieza, I felt the Phoenix had more realistic decay where certain harmonies lingered for the right amount of time. This actually brought me closer to when I saw her performing live. But the tX sounded more molded and solid. And thus gave more of the impression of a physical presence. Silhouettes are seemed tighter and more “rounded off” with the tX-USBultra.
Another difference is depth. The Innuos has more of it. The SOtM stays more in front and sounds more “glued together.” Whereas the Innuos plucks out the elements better. It handles the fabric of the music with more delicacy and nuance. It’s also the more open sounding of the two. The SOtM is more “collected” and laid back. Lastly, the Innuos has more impactful, deeper, and refined bass. The SOtM has more aggregated mass that is punchy but not as granular.
If you prefer a liquid, more solid, and more neutral sound, the SOtM tX-USBultra is probably the better pick. If you prefer something richer, more open, and warmer, go with the Phoenix. Although I appreciate the qualities of both, I prefer the more natural tone of the Phoenix.