Preface: Settling for the perfect reference studio or mastering quality A2D and D2A converter system can be a process that takes many years of trial and error. This unsettling process of elimination can potentially cost thousands and, almost always, leaves you with a niggling feeling of wanting more. However, it is today that we would like to present to you a feature packed system that we believe to be one of the finest converter platforms on the market today by US, California, based Lynx Studio Technologies.

Named after the idyllic Hawaiian district, ‘Hilo’ is a converter that embodies the luxury island life and sonic aesthetic. In fact the moment that Hilo arrived through our doors we were so impressed with its performance that we purchased our own unit to use as our front-end gold standard converter system. There is no bigger compliment. The Hilo is incredible.LynxUnboxing, Build Quality, and User Interface: First thing to note is that the Hilo system is available in two colour variants; either with a black face, or silver face. The system that we are running with today is known as the silver face. It is important to highlight this fact as, although both systems perform identically, the black faceplate is of a different finish and therefore we are unable to comment on its finish. Now if we take a step back, the silver faceplate is aesthetically strong with a smooth multifaceted micro-speckled paint finish and features black screen-printed graphic overlays. The solid premium finish of the Hilo is certainly subtle and well engineered with no noticeable aesthetic shortcomings and feels great in the hands. I most definitely believe that the Hilo looks very Hi-Fi’esque as a standalone unit, but we shouldn’t forget the performance of the Hilo places it well between both audiophile and production markets. I would imagine that this is one of the reasons for producing two faceplate variants.

When the package arrives at your door, you will notice that the Hilo sits suspended inside using two cardboard struts and a translucent membrane acting as a physical buffer; a more environmentally friendly option. During shipping the Hilo appears to be adequately protected, although a more traditional polystyrene form would have added a higher degree of protection. Once the package is opened you will discover that there is a bound initial instruction manual, an unremarkable updated manual to go along with firmware version five, and finally a region specific kettle lead; all standard inclusions for a product of this type.

Before every Hilo is shipped Lynx have taken great care in making sure that every unit meets strict guidelines. Sat proud at the top of the box is the unique factory checklist that is assigned to your units serial number; a very pleasing addition. However, what you need to make sure you have before you even get to read this sheet is the correct system to run Hilo via USB. For this purpose you will need an Intel Mac running OS X 10.6.4, and a 1.6GHz Windows machine with 1GB of RAM operating at XP (SP3) and above. If you are using a PC you will have to install (ASIO) drivers that are available on the Lynx website but, if you are using a Mac, you will not have to install any software or driver, Hilo will operate as a Core Audio device.

With physical dimensions of 8 ½”, by 9 ½”, by 3 ¼”, Hilo can be rack mounted with a half width spare two unit space if the underbelly feet are removed. Thankfully if you require additional inputs or outputs you are able to sit two Hilo’s side by side in this configuration. On the rear of the Hilo you will notice that there is a L-Slot expansion card slot. Firstly this future proofs the Hilo, and second of all this allows the user to swap cards depending on the type of digital connection they wish to use to their computer systems. Preinstalled within the Hilo is an LT-USB card which allows the Hilo to be connected to a computer via a USB 2.0 connection. However, Mac users may wish to change this to the LT-TB as it has increased bandwidth allowing for two Hilo’s to be tethered together via a single connection, thus making full use of a two unit rack space (if rack mounting is desired).

Returning to the front of the unit you will notice a single standard ¼” headphone output, a blue backlit standby button, and finally the surprisingly brilliant 4 ½” 480px x 272px ‘resistive’ colour touch screen. Whilst both the pixel density and touch screen input specifications may not sound as lavish as they could be, this is the first converter system to use an (almost) entire touch input user interface to actually compliment the user experience. With the exclusive use of this touch screen, navigation through the settings is intuitive and lightning fast, but, for when finesse is required to alter micro settings such as volume control or input/output gains, you will want to use the digital potentiometer type scrubber wheel that is to the right of the screen. This scrubber type wheel is both steady, smooth and gives measured tactile feedback in the form of clicks when navigating clockwise, anti-clockwise, or indeed when pushed in to make a selection. Where we have already touched upon the screen resolution, I feel that the screen appearance is at a happy medium. If the screen was at a higher resolution it has the potential to unnecessarily attract the users eyes to the unit instead of complimenting the user experience when required. Simply put, the screen looks great at its current resolution and allows text and metering to be clearly defined anywhere up to one-meters distance from the unit.

Software Features: Built within the simple menu system are a number of great additions that can easily be accessed once you have spent a couple of hours with Hilo. Possibly one of the most prominent software features of the Hilo system is the main VU meters and visual routing matrix page where you can adjust levels of any input or output and then route them almost anywhere you like. With three options to choose from on the main ‘Meters’ screen ‘Digital VU’ (an fast acting horizontal LED bar VU in 1dB increments from 0 dBFs to -38 dBFs with two second peak hold), traditional bouncing pin style ‘Analogue VU’ (fast acting and user configurable), and ‘All IO’ window which displays a typical mixing desk style vertical VU meter for each and every input and output. Personally I have found the ‘Analogue’ VU meter to be a touch too much in terms of how it performs, it just seems a bridge too far for the display refresh rate. Noting this the ‘Digital VU’ is very well presented, articulate, clear, and great to work with without any ghosting or conflict. Likewise, the ‘All IO’ screen works well for when you wish to monitor the inputs and outputs during any given task. When you are in any of these screens you have easy access to the volume control via the scrubber wheel. To navigate to the relevant monitor or headphone outputs all you have to do is depress the wheel and you can then modify either output. In awkward moments where you need to quickly reduce the volume it is intuitive for the user to reach out and turn their hand fast. Luckily Lynx have kept this same analogous feel as a traditional pot, and therefore, with many other features in tandem, have made a digital device feel as if it has an analogue heart.

Within the settings windows you have access to a plethora of additional features that are certainly handy. This list includes various settings and playback formats, screen display, digital in and out status’, a test tone that can be allocated to any output channel, sample rate (for when operating outside the USB audio environment), analogue output trim settings, an assignable input and output matrix, and finally a box to enable DSD playback. Access to all of these menus is intuitive, and well presented, allowing for a flawless user experience. However, whilst many of the trim/gain settings can be configured within the user interface, if the user wishes to extend the gain to +24dBu then requires removal of the bottom panel to manually adjust the jumpers. The final feature that is especially useful is the ability to sum the signal to mono and just hear the left or right channel, something that can be its weight in gold to mastering engineers.

Hardware Features: Previously we discussed the main features that are located on the faceplate, and now it is time to turn to the rear to have access to the inputs and outputs (I/O), amongst other factors, that make this machine one of the best A2D and D2A converter systems to date.

Judged on application, weight, and size, perhaps one of the strangest features of the Hilo converter system is the inclusion of a 9-18v battery input on this typically desktop based product. Whether this will be used practically is not clear, but I cannot argue its inclusion. Other Hilo features include a word clock in and out with the output operating on a high resolution crystal oscillator under Lynx’s proprietary technology that reduces jitter by 3000:1 (a massive 300x the professional standard), S/PDIF Coaxial input and output, ADAT input and output (4 channels up to 192kHz or 8 channels at 48kHz), AES input and output, USB via the LT-USB L-Slot card, two analogue line inputs (female XLR), two analogue line outputs (male XLR), and finally a completely separate left and right monitor output. Not forgetting the separate headphone outputs, Hilo has a total of sixteen possible inputs and sixteen possible outputs, an amazing amount if you consider that most comparable systems will have little or no A2D conversion inputs.

In the above paragraph we deliberately left out one of the main features of Hilo; the headphone amplifier. On top of all the other hardware additions, the inclusion of a built in reference headphone amplifier is mind blowing. Hilo produces a significant amount of gain that, during our tests, has proven that it can effortlessly drive headphones up to 600 Ω with precision. Whilst it is not uncommon to see built in headphone amps incorporated into the design of these systems, where Hilo comes into a world of its own is via an ultra low noise floor, concise neutral balance across the frequency spectrum, articulate handling of dynamics, and clear presentation of instruments across the stereo width.

In terms of playback, or output, Hilo uses a dedicated Spartan 6 DAC chip architecture. Made by Xilinx, the Spartan 6 is a premium integrated chipset that has become highly regarded within the audio world for its amazing sonic capabilities and, due to the cost and complexity involved, it is typically used in more discerning systems. In conjunction with a completely discreet power supply, which is physically isolated below the main PCB, the noise floor appears to be non-existent to the trained ear. We could continue listing the many physical attributes that come to make the Hilo such a brilliant unit, but the primary reason for why we have mentioned this is to, in fact, highlight the no-holes-barred approach that Lynx have taken in its creation. Of course the sum of premium, or financially large, components cannot make for a generous product that will perform well, unless they are used effectively, but where we aim to bridge the gap if within our next section of this review; sound quality.

Sound Quality and Performance: As soon as you power up this groundbreaking system, you cannot help but be impressed with the realism and depth of field that is presented before your ears. However, for the Hilo to become full of life it is advisable to warm it up for thirty minutes before use. Performing this duty appears to add a subtle fine polish over transients and extends the depth of the lower frequencies.

Moving away from this initial observation, describing Hilo (as a whole) is a somewhat tricky affair without appearing blunt. On the D2A and A2D side it is undoubtedly neutral with no desire to add anything to the original ‘pure’ signal, almost acting like a ghost. Indeed, any system can be profiled as ‘neutral’, but the difference here is in the execution and bridges the gap between a definition for what may be described as ‘neutral’ and ‘natural’. For example, listening to a lossless live performance track with the Hilo is a surreal multifaceted experience. Quickly you forget that you are listening to a recording as Hilo rips away the veil that ever so often flattens playback and glides you down into a space with three dimensions. The astonishing depth, from front to back, of the stereo field is symbiotic to the panning, and when these qualities pair with both an excellent blackest black to whitest white dynamic range and indistinguishable natural frequency response, you have reached the deeply involving Hilo.

Specifically identifying the low end, the Hilo delivers an unmistakeable full-bodied punch that cuts through any low-attack sustained bass frequencies with no evidence of harshness or modulation. Actually the way the Hilo clearly defines these rhythmic and supporting elements at the same time has a habit of leaving the listeners jaw firmly on the floor. Moving up to the mid-range frequencies they are pleasantly defined and present a fluid motion that merges well with the bass and treble frequencies to create a crystal clear platform where even each individual instrument within a cluttered musical stage can be defined. Continuing to the treble frequencies, the sound is also clear with a particularly agreeable smoothness and clarity that is often difficult for digital circuits to translate well without appearing harsh. There is an element of shine that appears at the very top end, and I can report that the Hilo exhibits no harshness to the ear on both the inputs and outputs. On the whole, due to the fact that the Hilo has this natural sonic signature, all of our critical mixing and mastering processes have translated well across a wide variety of systems and we consider Hilo to be the perfect mastering interface.

Previously we mentioned that Hilo has a superb in-built headphone amplifier that is extremely powerful and, if separated from the system, would be worth its weight in gold. For some reason I have found its performance to be ever so slightly different to the findings above. Whilst the soundstage is largely the same, my interpretation of the bass is that it retains all of the articulation noted above, although the depth of the bass is somewhat reduced, yet still balanced. This has not been an issue at all, more of an observation that doesn’t affect our current standing.

Conclusion: ‘Hilo’ is an exceptional A2D and D2A converter system that has the added benefit of an audiophile quality headphone amplifier built in. The novel use of a touch screen surprisingly compliments the system well and is both intuitive and perfectly detailed. This is a system that is packed full of features and performs out of this world, I have no idea how Lynx has managed to produce this unit for the current retail price, and I do not believe that I have ever encountered a DAC that comes close. Due to these facts, we (The Pro Audio Web Blog) have purchased a Hilo to use as our ‘gold standard’ front-end converter. We could not make a finer compliment than to award the Lynx Studio Technologies ‘Hilo’ with a full five stars, our outstanding award, and the editors choice award. Never have we ever before issued a single product with all of these accolades.

Blog Link: The Pro Audio Web Blog