The lone output (as discussed) is USB. This has a rear-mounted power-off button if using a self-powered USB DAC (so the potentially noisy 5V power line inside the cable is quietened, although in reality this is pretty noise-free through the Link anyway… but it’s nice to be thorough here). This supports files to DSD and MQA standards, alongside the usual suspects of PCM, Apple Lossless, FLAC, WAV, and the Compressed Twins (AAC and MP3). The DAC needs to support MQA hardware unfolding, because the Stack treats all of these sources in the same ‘get out of the way’ style.
And that’s the Stack’s big – make that huge – strength. It gets out of the way better than most. It helps push other parts of the chain that might get in the way out of the way (in particular, USB inputs). That makes it an extremely neutral performer. And what you then discover is just how few ‘extremely neutral performers’ exist in streaming-land, or at least how few exist at anything close to real-world prices.
The first thing you notice about this is it’s fast. Transients happen quickly here, a bit like a really well set-up CD player compared with first-generation streaming. Play something with a lot of fast beats (‘Fuzzy Monkey’ by Morton Granau, streamed from Tidal) and it arrives with almost supernatural speed. This also highlights just how little the Stack takes from the performance because those big bass notes hit home with driver-busting force.
The quality of stereo separation and image size are often criticism of streaming devices for good reason. Bit not here. A large-scale orchestral image [Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Solti et al, Decca] is not constrained by the Link at all. It might be constrained by the upstream source or by the DAC, but ‘gets out of the way’, remember?
The other big CD-lover’s observation about streamed audio is it loses the ‘magic’ or musicality in a performance. Yet again, the Stack has nothing to say on the matter, in a wholly positive way. It lets the server provide music without any grace of favour, save for cleaning up that music to the best of its abilities and presenting it – ship-shape – for the DAC. That is enough to make that DAC sound one or two notches better than you might expect, and there’s a particular symmetry of giant-killingness about using the Link with AudioQuest’s new DragonFly Cobalt.
The two combine together well; the clean-up of the signal made by the Link is presented to the clean and crisp sounding Cobalt, making for a digital front-end that takes on a lot of the opposition and wins. I’m a big fan of the built-in DACs of the Hegel H390 and find they effectively remove the need to add on a DAC. Some very good DACs have fallen by the wayside at the hands of the H390s on-board converter to the point where you really need to be looking at DACs that are the wrong side of five grand to compete. The Link/Cobalt combination is one of the rare exceptions. Feeding the Link into the H390 raised the game of the 390’s DAC too, but there was something so alluring about the Link/Cobalt combination it kind of shatters your perspective of how much you need to spend to best it in open combat. I’d happily put this little duo up against a good £2,000-£3,000 DAC and/or streamer combination. It might not win every such battle, but it would take some surprising scalps.