How does it all sound? Well, I’m still in the midst of very early days and I was given to understand that while the Stereo 50 amplifier/DAC/phono stage had received considerable run-in time, the speakers—I believe—had not.
Taking the Stereo 50 in isolation, I would say that it sounds very much like what it is; namely, an iFi Micro iDSD headphone amp/DAC that has just received a massive infusion of pure, clean, but harmonically rich valve power. Thus, the rich, vibrant, clear, but not detail-obsessed, AMR-influenced sound for which all iFi components are known is still present and accounted for in the RETRO Stereo 50—only more so. How so? Well, the addition of valve power not only brings—in a headphone context—a terrific amount of musical muscle to the party, but also brings a sonic quality that is at once relaxed and yet vibrant and full of beautifully saturated tonal colours. If you’ve ever wondered what an iFi Micro iDSD would sound like if it had effectively unlimited power for driving headphones, plus the ineffable harmonic rightness of valves, then the Stereo 50 is your answer.
Two more beautiful things about the Stereo are its wonderfully precise, switch-defeatable tone controls, and its remote. One point I should mention, at least for Windows-based music server owners like myself, is that the Retro rig does require a new-generation iFi device driver, version 2.23. If you try to run the Retro with the earlier v2.20 driver, you’ll get nowhere fast (as I learned the hard way).
How about the LS3.5s? For me, the jury is still out on the speakers. I had been advised that they liked to be placed fairly closed to the wall (although there is a practical limit, as the speakers do feature a rear-firing port, meaning some clearance is of course necessary). Thus, I initially installed the system in my office rather than in my adjacent main listening room, since the office more readily allows near-wall placement and is probably the sort of relatively small space for which the RETRO system is ideal (my listening room, though not huge by any stretch of the imagination, is considerably larger than my office).
On first listen, the speakers sounded wonderfully open, focused, and coherent. I then followed iFi’s recommendations and applied both the lowest level of XBass compensation and the lowest level of 3D Holographic Sound enhancement iFi Retro(iFi recommends using this setting when the LS3.5 monitors are positioned relatively close together, as was the case in my office). Once configured in this way, the system instantly began to throw remarkably wide, deep, spacious soundstages. The only catch, really, was that while the LS3.5’s bass output was taut and crisp, it was far from ample—so far from ample, in fact, that I think many would have simply called the speaker ‘bass shy’. In these early days, I’m not overly worried about this, as the LS 3.5’s low end may very well loosen up and breathe as run-in hours accumulate. Nevertheless, it’s a performance parameter I intend—pardon the pun—to monitor closely.
Where does this leave us in terms of first impressions? Well, the Stereo 50 is an unqualified success and for this reason I expect there will be a lot of market pressure for iFi to ‘un-bundle’ the Stereo 50 from the rest of the system and sell it separately. If they did so, I suspect they would sell a ton of the things, as the Stereo 50 takes everything audiophiles have loved about the Micro iDSD headphone amp/DAC and the Micro iPhono phonostage, and applied valve ‘turbocharging’ to telling effect. Who wouldn’t like that?
The LS3.5's will have to receive further run-in time before a useful judgement call can be offered. Out of the box, the speaker has many attractive qualities but falls short of being a slam-dunk winner owing to—in my room at least—a certain paucity of mid and upper-bass output. Time will tell, though.
If you get a chance, do try to give this system a listen. It’s full of promise plus a touch of out-and-out sonic enchantment.