I’ve spent a good deal of time now – since just after the Hong Kong AV show, to be precise – with this lovely little DAC from the mind of Clones Audio’s “Funjoe”- the nom-de-plume of Clones’ lone designer. As I’m told, this is the first production unit, and hereby this is the first review of the model – the “scoop” as they they say – and I’m quite honored to be given such a privilege.

The ASHER is named after Funjoe’s son, and represents the next step up in his assault on reference-level performance for a reasonable price. At $17,500.00 HKD (or about $2,260.00 USD), the Asher delivers a set of functions, features, and capabilities usually reserved for gear that commands greater fortunes than we mere mortals can afford.

The rundown reads like a wishlist from a digital wet dream:

 

Sampling rates:

  • AES/EBU, COAX, OPT up to 192kHz
  • USB/I2S: PCM 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8, 384kHz; DSD64, DSD128, DSD256

Features:

  • ESS Reference audio (ES9018) 32 bit DAC• Automatic oversampling for precise output filtering
  • VFD display for input, sample rate, volume control, and configuration
  • Remote control with features such as control and phase inversion
  • Defeatable – 32 bit volume control
  • 1x Coax input
  • 1X BNC input
  • 1x Toslink input
  • 1x AES/EBU input
  • 1x I2S input
  • Proprietary drivers for 32/64 bit Windows XP, Vista, 7 and Mac OSX
  • Factory selectable mains 115/230VAC
  • Galvanic isolation module for USB section to eliminate computer noise from the audio signal
  • Ultra-Low Phase Noise Femto Master Clock Module
  • Power supply has separate torroidal transformers for Analog and Digital section
  • Latest Ultra-Low noise discrete regulator modules for digital part
  • 322mm(W) X 260mm(D) X 90mm (H)
  • Weight: 6kg
  • 2 YEAR WARRANTY

If you thought that this feature set reads like a $25,000.00 DAC from just a few years ago, you couldn’t be faulted. That it is 1/10th of the price tells you a lot about the rapidly evolving nature of digital audio in the 21st Century – and also a lot about the nature of Funjoe’s philosophy and ethos – More performance, more technology, more build quality, more functionality is Less Money.

More is Less.

 


 

Although it has SIX digital inputs, my digital system has been winnowed down to USB alone, and so my evaluation is based entirely on performance over the USB input path.

I tend to work at my laptop while listening to music over the main system, which at this moment consists of Klimo TINE monoblocs, a Klimo Merlino Gold Plus preamplifier, the Asher DAC, a Schiit WYRD, and a little doo-dad called an Air-Enabler. This allows the user to employ Apple’s AirPlay functions to stream from an iDevice or a computer over their WiFi connection to the little AirEnabler (AE) box itself. There’s a USB output on the AE box, and so I run from it into the WYRD to “descrewify” it, and then from the WYRD to the Asher.

I would stream Tidal Hi-Res to the system through this setup, and this is how I worked on breaking in the Asher before subjecting it to more demanding tests. This setup also frees my laptop for me to work on while listening to music … win:win

But this did not hardly exempt it from the gauntlet of high-resolution and CD resolution files that would flow directly from my laptop via Amarra to the Asher once the break-in period elapsed. This took about two weeks of fairly consistent play before I was satisfied that the unit was warmed up and broken in, and during that time (and ever since) the unit has not been powered down except for two instances where we had a power outage in the neighborhood. When it comes to digital gear especially, I try to keep it powered up 24/7/365.

The streams are fine for passive listening, and to that end the Asher never called attention to itself. If streaming is the only way you listen to digital, then the Asher is quite a bit of overkill. This thing is built to quite high-performance specs, intending to extract every last morsel of musical information from the digital dimension.

That said, I was quite surprised by its ability to render harmonics, spatial cues, and midrange blossom from the Tidal stream – something that I hadn’t experienced via my various headphone setups when streaming whole albums. Whether it was Beck’s “Morning Phase”, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “A Day In New York”, Food’s “Last Supper”, Pharoah Sanders “Thembi”, or Punch Bros. “Phosphorescent” – there was a handsome portion of essential musical vitality that the Asher managed to deliver – to the degree that it was sometimes distracting (in the best of all possible ways).

But it wasn’t until I attached my laptop directly to the setup and fed the Asher signals from higher up the food chain that it really began to reveal its high-performance breeding.

Some of the best high resolution recordings available are those from Todd Garfinkle’s MA Recordings label. His recording techniques are impeccable, and he only records on location in beautiful acoustic spaces live to 2-track … no studio, no mixing board, no suite of electronic effects. His microphones are custom made and output line level to the high resolution recorder, which – these days – is a highly modified Korg MR200S, which he uses to record in DSD (which he later converts to hi-res PCM via Korg’s “Audiogate” software). I never get tired of listening to the Nuevo Tango music from Sera Una Noche, nor the more Spanish Classical styles from Tonos y Tonadas, or Buenos Aires Madrigal. Add to that the deeply involving and luscious “Resonance” album featuring viola da gamba played by Nima Ben David, the heartwrenchingly dynamic vocalise of SIlvia Pérez Cruz and the haunting melodic percussion of the “hang” drum, played by Ravid Goldshmidt on the album “Llama” … there’s a lot of amazing stuff on Todd’s label, and I have most of it!

Some of my favorite jazz performances were recorded by Chesky Records – all the Clark Terry stuff, the Paquito d’Rivera albums, the Brazilian sounds of Ana Caram and Badi Assad, the McCoy Tyner “NY Reunion” … so many others, such good music! It’s not all available in high resolution, but there are a few titles that really grab me. Among them are the guitar-jazz selections from Bucky Pizzarelli and also the Hot Club of San Francisco. Both “Swing Live” and “Live from Studio A” really tickle my jazz-guitar bone, but it’s the “Three For All” album that has me swooning right now. It’s Bucky Pizzarelli playing alongside his son, John, and guitarist Ed Laub – tight, musical, beautiful playing.

What follows about the Asher in this regard is simply this: with all of these lovingly crafted, carefully recorded high resolution albums several things are very apparent about the Asher’s performance over the various other high resolution DACs that I have, have had, or have borrowed over the past couple of years: Asher’s ability to convey the whole musical picture is top notch, perhaps among the best I’ve heard.

That isn’t to say that it lacks in the usual totemized compartments of audiophile bullet-points – imaging, soundstaging, PRAT, coherence, microdynamics, inner detail, midrange bloom … etc. If one were to examine each of these with a speculum and get really creepy about it, one would find that Asher isn’t giving up much if any ground to the big-names (and big prices) of more celebrated gear. But for those who are musically inclined and don’t buy music to show off “inner detail” and “microdynamics” (or whatever), the thing that Asher does that so many other DACs seem to miss is that it really seems to deliver the whole musical picture intact. It’s hard to sit and listen with a reviewer’s hat on, sucking on the bones for “mouthfeel” and “implied aroma” – I keep forgetting to be critical as I just drift away in beautifully rendered music.

I do have one nit to pick, however, and that is with the remote control. I was first using the Asher with it’s volume in variable mode so that I could use the remote to control volume during the break-in phase and found that the volume control wants to be pressed for every little 0.5dB increment up or down. Pushing the volume button down for longer doesn’t move the volume at all, this way or that. That’s a little annoying. For me the only functions I care for on a remote are: volume up, volume down – everything else is secondary and minor for me. I soon just changed the volume output to “fixed” – ran the Asher into my preamp – and used the remote for the preamp to control volume.

NOTE: I’m told by Funjoe that the latest firmware update has taken care of the volume control issue. Huzzah!

That is my only complaint. The Clones Asher otherwise deserves very high praise in all the areas that truly count, and it should be considered as a David in a world full of Goliaths … and those giants stand no chance. Asher is yet another overachieving, high-value, high-performance product from the gifted mind of “Funjoe” – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED