Original article posted @ theabsolutesound.com
Written by Andrew Quint
Building media computers since 2011, Baetis Audio has been run by two classic polymaths. The social entrepreneur Michael Simmons has defined that kind of person as “someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a top one-percent skill set.” Baetis founder John Mingo is a Ph.D. economist who served as a Senior Advisor to the Federal Reserve Board and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. He’s also a fly-fishing authority, which is why he lives in Livingston, Montana, minutes away from some of the world’s most famous trout streams. Baetis, by the way, is the genus of mayfly that trout like to dine on.
Joe Makkerh, based in Montreal, has been associated with Baetis Audio since 2014, developing the company’s highly regarded customer support program (see sidebar). Born in the UK and educated at Cambridge, Makkerh had a number of previous careers before becoming Baetis’ CEO in late 2017 upon John Mingo’s retirement. He was a research scientist in several biology and medical fields and, for five years, administered McGill University’s graduate neurosciences program. All along, Makkerh has been a devoted videophile with a strong interest in media computers.
Michael Simmons cites studies suggesting that polymaths are often more innovative and impactful than specialists in many areas of human endeavor. Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs—all polymaths. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a company led successively by these two men, neither of who had formal EE training, is manufacturing some of the most advanced audiophile servers available.
Baetis has established three product levels, the Prodigy (beginning at $2500 for the LE model), Revolution, and Reference (which tops out at $13,000 for the Reference 3B without any extras.) The original Revolution was the company’s very first server, and I wrote it up enthusiastically in Issue 240, nearly seven years ago. This latest iteration, the Revolution X3, is once again in a mid-sized chassis measuring 13¼” (W) x 4½” (H) x 12″ (D). Black and silver finishes are available. The power button has been moved around to the left side, between the lateral extension of the front faceplate and the first heatsink fin, below a USB 3 Type C port to which one can connect a drive or recharge a mobile device. Functionally, all that’s found on the front side of the Revolution is a rather flimsy disc transport—a laptop drive, which, as Joe Makkerh explained, is all that could fit in the X3’s chassis (plus the availability of more substantial slot-loading drives is rapidly diminishing). This transport will rip 4k Blu-ray Discs, something a slot-loading drive can’t do. In any event, anyone with a large number of silver discs to rip will surely be using an external optical drive, quite possibly an automatic system such as the Acronova Nimbie. Baetis offers a robust external drive.
Around back is a Neutrik power inlet. The detachable cable connects to an Adapter Technology Company 12V/16A power supply, a 7″ x 1½” x 3″ brick of reassuring heft. Makkerh estimates that ten percent of Revolution owners opt for a more substantial linear power supply, such as the HDPLEX supplied with Baetis’ Reference models. To the right of the DC power inlet are AES/EBU and SPDIF ports, the latter with either a BNC or RCA connector, according to the purchaser’s preference. Next to those outputs is a slot for an optional “audiophile USB” interface that avoids the computer’s noisy PCIe bus. Baetis offers two alternatives sourced from SOtM, with and without a clock card ($1150 and $500 respectively); the review sample came equipped with the former. With both, an iFi low-noise power supply is provided. Besides the galvanically shielded SOtM add-on, there are eight other USB ports, all connected to the Revolution’s motherboard. If you don’t spring for an SOtM USB card, Joe M. strongly advises that you get “some kind of USB regenerator” to go between Revolution and DAC to more effectively employ a standard USB port. If your DAC accepts AES/EBU, you could, of course, depend entirely on that—as below, the sound quality of that interface approaches that of the SOtM option. But you do need USB if you’re going to be listening to DSD without conversion to a PCM codec. Rounding out the rear-panel connectivity is a DVI video port, 2.0 HDMI, and a Gigabit Ethernet connection.
Inside, the heart of the matter is an AMD Ryzen APU—a CPU that features integrated graphics on a single chip. The Windows 10 Pro operating system, stripped down to remove as much “bloatware” as possible without compromising the function of the music organization and playback software, lives on a 250GB solid-state drive, and the Baetis is equipped with 16GB of DDR4 3200MHz RAM. Standard is the same proprietary daughterboard for SPDIF and AES/EBU that’s employed in the Reference models—though with Revelation Audio Labs CuPID copper cabling rather than the cryo-silver wire used with the priciest Baetis machines.
Makkerh, like Mingo before him, feels strongly that a disk drive with moving parts doesn’t belong inside the computer and a 4TB external USB storage drive is included in the price of the X3. The server is fanless, which saves space and facilitates the use of larger motherboards and the same audio chip implemented in the latest Reference models. There are other à la carte options for a purchaser to consider—a JCAT “audiophile-grade” Ethernet port, additional RAM and external storage, alternative DC cables, etc.—and each computer is built to order. Baetis continues to maintain a hybrid business model: There are a small number of dealers who sell only the Reference models, a larger number of “demonstrators,” plus robust direct-sales activity out of Montreal. The pricing is the same no matter which purchasing channel the consumer uses.
All these details concerning low-noise USB interfaces, RAM, cabling, power supplies, and all the rest don’t count for anything if the computer hasn’t been set up optimally and the owner isn’t confident operating the machine. Audiophiles who buy a Baetis media computer get something that doesn’t come with any other server, and that’s… Joe Makkerh. The Baetis CEO insists on speaking with potential purchasers about their systems and music collections to assure that the best decisions are made regarding the machine they buy and the way it’s configured. If, for example, a special driver is required for the Revolution to function with the user’s DAC, Makkerh downloads and installs it before the computer is shipped to the purchaser. If the customer wants Roon or Audirvana software in addition to the standard JRiver, Makkerh takes care of it. Then, when the computer has arrived at the customer’s home, the owner schedules a session lasting a couple of hours, more if necessary, to meet virtually with Joe, who gains remote access to the purchaser’s computer. (The icon for the application allowing this is displayed prominently on the desktop when the computer is turned on for the first time.) Makkerh assures that everything is working as it should and shows the user how to operate his server. With the system optimized ahead of time, most new owners learn quickly, thanks to Makkerh’s gifts as a patient and methodical teacher. Theoretically, new customers are entitled to a set number of hours of instruction, after which they are charged $50/hour, but in practice Makkerh takes as long as necessary for people to be comfortable with whatever software they are using—and to assist if a problem arises down the line. This level of personal service is unusual in any setting.
The Revolution X3 was evaluated in a straightforward setup. The Baetis sent data via USB, AES/EBU, or coaxial SPDIF to a T+A DAC 8 DSD that connected directly to David Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks driving Magico M2 loudspeakers. Digital interconnects from Baetis to T+A were Revelation Audio Labs Reference Cryo-Silver models (USB and AES/EBU—this is the same manufacturer that provides critical internal wiring for Baetis servers) and Apogee Wyde Eye (coaxial/SPDIF). Analog cables were Transparent Audio Generation 5 Ultra.
On the question of the X3’s sound quality, it seems a stretch to speak of a media computer—a device without a digital-to-analog converter or much in the way of actual audio circuitry—as having “good bass” or “impactful dynamics” or “abundant low-level detail.” It’s perhaps more sensible to note that a server doesn’t attenuate bass, constrain dynamics, or obscure detail. The computer must get out of the way to allow the recording and the rest of one’s system to deliver a satisfying listening experience, and this the Revolution X3 does very well. The best indicator for me is listening closely to über-familiar recordings and judging whether or not the fundamental character of those recordings is faithfully represented. So, the luxuriant back-of-the-hall acoustic of Erich Kunzel’s Cincinnati Pops Telarcs, the brilliantly lit forwardness of vintage Mercurys (such as the Dorati Firebird), or the in-your-room immediacy of the late Dave Wilson’s violin and piano recordings were realized with complete faithfulness to the essence of three very different sonic ideals.
Of course, as with everything else in high-end audio, a particular server can be better or worse at the above, and I had on hand, for comparison, another Baetis—the Reference 2, which has been my everyday digital-file source-component for the past several years. I did a lot of level-matched comparisons between the X3 and the Ref 2 and, honestly, the differences weren’t enormous. Via AES/EBU, the Reference, with its i7 7700K four-core processor, cryo-silver internal cabling, and 400W HDPLEX external power supply, offered a more spacious and detailed presentation. Using the SOtM USB interfaces installed on both, string textures were a bit more complex and there was better spatial specificity with the Reference. These differences with USB largely disappeared when the source material was PCM rather than DSF files. Perhaps the contrasts would have been greater between the Revolution X3 and the latest Reference servers, the Reference 3B and Reference X3 models. Can’t say.
I can say that the difference between the SOtM USB port and a standard USB port, taken directly off the motherboard, was not subtle. On a movement from a Beethoven string quartet (Op. 18, No. 3 in D major, Andante con moto, played by the Hagen Quartet), the ensemble sound was noticeably coarser, with the first violin sounding less sweet in his solo passages, on the standard USB port. There was definitely a sense of noise riding along with the musical signal. Inserting an Ideon Audio Renaissance USB regenerator (the price for the current Blackstar edition is $450) restored at least 75% of what was lost by not connecting to the SOtM port. I concluded, as well, that SOtM USB was only very slightly ahead of AES/EBU, with subtle differences in dynamic life and openness tilting in the direction of USB. Honestly, if playing DSD files natively isn’t of critical importance and assuming your DAC will accommodate the AES/EBU connection, I’d recommend against purchasing the USB upgrade and just use all those regular USB ports to attach peripheral devices and for file transfer.
For listeners devoted to multichannel music, the performance of the Revolution X3 via HDMI was stunning. With an Anthem D2v serving as the pre/pro driving five channels of Pass Labs amplification (three XA 60.8s and an Aleph 0s for the surrounds) and six Magicos (two M2s, an S3 Mk2 for the center speaker, two S1 Mk2s for surrounds, plus a powered S-Sub), the noise floor was exceptionally low, allowing for the subtlest textural detail and spatial cues to register fully. This was evident both with surround recordings aiming to render a specific venue—Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw with Bernard Haitink’s 2010 performance of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 on the RCO Live label, my go-to example—as well as with creatively engineered 5.1 mixes of non-classical material—Roxy Music’s Avalon is an especially successful multichannel treatment of a stereo original.
There is still a sizable group of audiophiles with listening careers that date back to the analog era. For years following the introduction of the compact disc, it was valid for these music-lovers to continue to favor LPs on the basis of sound quality. But with the steady advance of digital recording methodology and silver disc playback, the also-ran status of digital media vanished. The progression to file playback has arguably improved the digital audio experience further—this in addition to the convenience and satisfaction of effectively managing a large music collection curated over many years. Sometimes begrudgingly, most analog types accepted the silver disc but for a not-inconsequential number, “computer audio” has been a bridge too far. The Baetis Revolution X3 is a well-made, customizable, reasonably priced, and superb-sounding component that, thanks to an unmatched level of customer support, makes this burgeoning part of our hobby accessible to even the most technophobic. Whether you are taking the computer-audio plunge for the first time or want to hear the substantial improvement that derives from retiring that laptop as your digital file source, Baetis Audio’s products deserve the strongest consideration. It was true when its servers shipped from Montana and it’s true now that they come from Montreal.
Specs & Pricing
Inputs/outputs: One proprietary BNC or RCA SPDIF, one proprietary AES/EBU, one HDMI, eight USB ports
Connectivity: One Ethernet, DVI video
Dimensions: 13¼” x 4½” x 12″
Weight: 17 lbs.
Price: $6200 (black or silver) plus $1150 for SOtM interface with clock card, as reviewed. Other add-ons available. (Included: Neutrik DC power cord with Adapter Technology Company 12V/16A power supply, 4 TB USB 3.1 external hard drive for media storage.)
Montreal QC H3G1E2