In an era when polar opposites compete as absolutes, it can be a challenge to acknowledge the different and equally valid ways in which audiophiles approach musical truth. But the reality is that our perceptions of how reproduced music should sound are determined, to a large extent, by how we approach the live experience. For live acoustic performances, some of us prefer a direct, up-close sound, where highs are most vibrant, the spatial nature of sounds is most distinct, swells in volume can sometimes seem assaultive, and detail is most easily perceived. Others would rather sit farther back or in the top balcony, where highs mellow out while lower octaves remain strong, and the resonance of the performing acoustic adds warmth and glow to the musical experience. The collective skill of the architects and acousticians who designed our favorite halls, as well as the background noise created by air circulation equipment, also play a large part in the formulation of our sonic expectations.
Amplified music, regardless of genre, can be an entirely different ballpark—hey, concerts often take place in stadiums and arenas where distance from speakers and stage, as well as the quality of amplification, are crucial to our expectations. Do the speakers distort or the woofers predominate when everyone starts playing at once? Is the sound system maximally colorful, or does it have a high noise floor that lends a gray patina to everything? What microphones are they using? Are the sound engineer’s ears intact, or have they been irreparably damaged from years of working with loud bands? Anyone who regularly attends live concerts has experienced what happens when the sound engineer sits under the balcony or at the very back of the performance space and calculates tonal balance (and volume!) on something very different than what those up front hear.
As someone who spent 10 years living in East Oakland, where my next-door neighbors on both sides spent hours ogling cars with the biggest bumper-shaking woofers in the hood, I know that some people consider heavily inflated, out-of-control bass the norm. To them, the mightiest audiophile speakers would seem ridiculously inadequate and far too tame.
All these thoughts came into play as I approached Métronome Technologie’s unquestionably musical new AQWO SACD/CD-playing system, which combines their c|AQWO digital-to-analog converter ($26,000) and t|AQWO upsampling/resampling SACD/CD transport ($24,000). This is equipment in a price range attainable only, or mostly, by those who can afford to sit in any seat in the house. The c|AQWO is in the same price range as my two reference DACs, the dCS Rossini digital-to-analog converter ($24,000) and the (recently upgraded) EMM Labs DV2 integrated digital-to-analog converter ($30,000). Ditto the t|AQWO: Its US price is very close to that of my reference dCS Rossini upsampling CD/SACD transport ($23,500), which even uses the same Denon/Marantz CD/SACD mechanism. Typically, I pair both Rossini units with the Rossini Clock ($7500), which increases the price of the dCS system. Similarly, for file playback, I pair the EMM Labs DV2 with both the dCS Network Bridge ($4750) and the Rossini Clock, which increases that system’s price. And then there’s the price of all the cabling that powers and connects those units, which amounts to enough live-performance series subscriptions to last multiple lifetimes.
Speaking of price: While the c|AQWO lacks a volume control and must be paired with either a line-level preamp or an integrated amplifier—I used the Audio Research Reference 6 preamp ($15,000)—the Rossini and DV2 DACs include excellent volume controls and can be used without a preamp. To level the playing field when comparing the three DACs, after setting the Rossini and DV2’s volume controls to 0dB and effectively removing them from the signal path, I used the Ref 6 to control volume.
Even as my head was spinning from trying to calculate the ultimate cost of each setup, I realized that, while switching between three DACs and two transports, consistency of methodology and setup was essential for a fair review. Equally important was ensuring that, as I moved cables back and forth, I took care to move the right set. Only once did I blithely connect the Rossini to my reference D’Agostino Progression monoblocks while the volume was turned all the way up. Happily, I reacted quickly enough to be able to laugh at my mistake and continue with this review.
The Métronome story
Métronome Technologie was founded in 1987 by Dominique Giner, a woodcrafter and hi-fi lover who registered the company in 1992. The name derives from Giner’s first bookshelf loudspeaker, the 15.75″-high MT1, which was shaped like a metronome.
The company’s first “official” products were CD players, which Giner developed in partner-ship with French company Jadis. Métronome remained small until 2002, when the eye-catching looks of their first “Kalista by Métronome” CD transport brought them global notoriety. In 2013, Giner sold the company to Jean Marie Clauzel, who retained the company’s engineering team after Giner retired as product designer two years later.
“Because I was trained by him, I feel quite confident designing the new products,” Clauzel told me at the start of a Skype conversation that included Wynn Wong of North American distributor Wynn Audio. “I’m not an electrical engineer, but I love music, and have people with me in the design office. Before Métronome, I was mostly in agriculture—I’m an agronomist. It was quite a challenge to move into electronics, but it has enabled me to [be reborn]. It’s also a change to have clever people around me, because me alone, I’m not like the big people in the industry, like Dan D’Agostino and many others. I’m not able to do things by myself. It’s really teamwork.”
Since Clauzel came on board, every Métronome product has been “renewed.” First came the Kalista line, which was augmented with streaming and network products. Métronome’s AQWO, Classica, and Digital Sharing lines followed suit.
After trying in vain to figure out what the letters “AQWO” might stand for, I asked Clauzel. “I imagined the name AQWO when I was designing this new range of products,” he replied by email. “I definitely wanted to stop using names composed entirely of letters and figures (CD-something…). The idea came when I was thinking about what’s most important: listening to music. I liked the ancient Greek verb ἀκούω (akoúô), which sounded good in all languages. I just needed to write it differently, and ακουω became AQWO.”
When an online translation engine translated ἀκούω as “I hear,” I asked Clauzel if the definition was correct. “Absolutely,” he said. “But in these ancient languages, the verb has a larger meaning, as in the sense of listening, understanding, and being able to analyze what you hear.”
I also queried Clauzel about his favorite music: After all, if a product cannot play its designer’s favorite tracks in a manner he deems acceptable, it is not a success. “I’m stuck in the ’70s. I listen to a lot of progressive rock, which a lot of people consider second-class music. One of my favorite bands is Queen, but I also listen to Genesis and Pink Floyd. I like music that people sometimes made when they were not in the real world.” Asked for favorite tracks and albums, he mentioned Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Genesis’s Foxtrot and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and “everything by Queen.” He’s also a big fan of French singers “who are not well known in the West,” including Jacques Higelin, Étienne Daho, and -M-.
Whys and wherefores
Because it’s virtually impossible to discern the sound of a new component unless it’s the only thing you change in a familiar reference setup, Stereophile customarily evaluates only one product per review. But in the Métronomes’ case, the t|AQWO transport and c|AQWO DAC rightfully belong in the same review because the transport only outputs DSD and the highest resolutions of PCM via HDMI I2S (sometimes called IIS), and the c|AQWO has an I2S (footnote 1) over HDMI input. The t|AQWO also has AES/EBU, S/PDIF (RCA), and TosLink outputs, but they are limited to 24/192 PCM and do not carry DSD. If you want to play the hi-rez layer of an SACD, upsample/resample an SACD (DSD64) up to DSD 256 or PCM 24/384, or upsample/resample a Red Book CD (16/44.1 PCM) to either 24/384 PCM or DSD128, you must use the transport’s HDMI output.
Neither of my reference DACs—the dCS Rossini or the EMM Labs DV2—has an HDMI port. Nor do DACs from CH Precision, T+A, MSB, Esoteric, and, in very different price categories, Mytek and Benchmark. Some of these companies manufacture transports that can connect to their DACs via proprietary links, but Clauzel prefers a non-proprietary solution.
The AQWO components, then, can be thought of as a CD player/DAC combo that happens to be in two boxes instead of just one (or four including the power supplies). I—and Editor Jim Austin—believe that pairing the t|AQWO and c|AQWO in a single review makes sense.
Footnote 1: My sincere thanks to Nordost for the loan of a Valhalla 2 HDMI cable.
Footnote 2: dCS DACs and some Aurender servers use dual AES for high-resolution data transmission.