North Star Fluxio digital processor

06.11.2012..

Company

I think these are the simplest lines to write. Is there anybody who reads ReMusic and does not know North Star? I do not think so. Eng. Giuseppe Rampino’s company is based in San Giuliano Terme, near Pisa, and nowadays is one of the most beautiful reality in the Italian audio. Since 1999 and up to the present, it has made a series of successful products which are also appreciated abroad, included the East, mostly the East! North Star is distributed in several countries and this fact demonstrates that the Italian excellence, when it exists, is appreciated and sells everywhere: Australia, Benelux, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germania, Greece, Hong-Kong/China, Israel, Japan, Korea, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Swiss, Taiwan, U.S.A., United Kingdom, Vietnam. A curiosity: Eng. Rampino told me that the Taiwan distributor always makes sure that inside the North Star products there are no components made in… Taiwan!

What about Italy? The brand is distributed by one of the most active hi-fi importers/dealers: the likeable and prepared Sergio Pozzi who runs Audio Graffiti in Pandino, near Cremona. You must visit his showroom if you want to see and listen to the most prestigious brands in the world and if you want some steers on how assembling a hi-fi system properly.

 

DAC Model 3, match Model 192 DAC and CD Transport, Monoblock power amp, Linestage preamp, Phonostage phono preamp, Extremo DAC, USB-to-I2S Interface, Sapphire integrated CD player, Sapphire SACD player, USB DAC 32, Essensio, Essensio Plus, and now Fluxio. Will it match up whit its predecessors?

If you look at it, if you admire its manufacture, with lots of aluminium, a double display with beautiful blue numbers and that classic front panel with an elegant making in Jeff Rowland-style, you would dare to say: yes it will! But the listening test is the most important thing and, do not forget, the ultimate aim of these objects. After the technical part, indispensable for a DAC, I will say to you if I like it or not.

 

Technical specifications

Here the main features of our Fluxio:

  • two toroidal transformers
  • I2S, S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs
  • Hi-Speed USB input up to 480 Mbit/s with asynchronous interface
  • 32 bit/192 kHz upsampler through two Texas Instruments PCM1795 chips in mono balanced configuration and two high dynamic Cirrus CS8421
  • fully balanced DC coupled analogue stages
  • analogue digital filter with op amps with passive components.

Lastly, a small aluminium remote control that decreases/increases the volume and selects the inputs. The volume control is very interesting and you cannot find it in any other device. It can be regulated in two different ways, in an analogue stage where the maximum power, both headphones and line, can be set on 1, 2 or 4 volts, and in a second stage in digital domain.

As the device has a very good low noise preamplifier stage, it can be directly connected to a power amp or to amplified loudspeakers.

The flexible headphone amplifier can drive any headphone regardless of its impedance.

The DAC stage reaches the 126 dB of dynamics. The analogue stage is completely balanced, from the DAC to the output connectors, and includes the low noise Texas OPA1611 components and the expensive LME49870 components, available only on high-end devices.

Through the setup menu, it is possible to regulate every function. The output can be regulated to constant volume at zero dB bypassing the volume control, the change of the headphone impedance and the change of the digital filter.

The Fluxio is very flexible in the digital inputs. There are two coaxial inputs, two optical inputs, a balanced input and an I2S input.

The advantage of using the Fluxio is to connect conveniently the North Star transport through the I2S output and, at the same time, to connect the USB input to a PC, both Windows and Mac. The S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs are coupled to impulse transformers and the CS8416 receiver blocks the signal nullifying the jitter. The USB interface can receive signals at 192 kHz at 32 bits and the bit perfect transmission is realized by custom-made drivers. The asynchronous transmission redirects the data in a FIFO – First In First Out – memory card and retrieves the same data for the output, with the highest precision at low jitter.

To avoid any interference between the USB mass and the DAC, the signals are coupled magnetically through an Analog Device Adum 1400 op amp.

The upsampling stage allows the oversampling of the signal coming from the digital inputs at 192 kHz through the employ of the Cirrus CS8421 together with a reference clock. The upsampling technique lowers the level of the analogue filter and minimizes the phase rotation.

 

Listening test

Yes, I like it. The sound is fluid, without the digital roughness that once made the listening not very enjoyable if compared with the vinyl. A sound that is precise but quite soft. The detail is not an end to itself, it makes the reproduction more realistic. In this sense, we must say that the digital is making great successes. A step backwards. Firstly, I have tested the Fluxio connected through a 75 ohm coaxial cable to the digital output of an integrated player. Then I have connected it to the USB port of a PC.

The first thing to notice is that the line output can be set on 1, on 2 or on 4 volts.

Using it as a preamplifier, as well as a converter, you can select the output tension, so to better interface it with the power amp, and this is something. You can also choose to set it up without activating the volume control and, in this case - by the way my favourite set-up – you have to connect it to a preamplifier. The preamp is always the preamp and it is difficult for an audiophile to accept the idea that one gear can do two things very well. For fairness, I have to say that the Fluxio, without any doubt, can replace a preamp of medium level. It is transparent, noiseless. It has a great reconstruction of the space and, furthermore, can also replace a headphone amplifier: its output can be active or off, and being handled by a high current amplifier, it can drive any headphone independently from its impedance, and through the set-up menus you can regulate it on 1, 1.5, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 Vrms. You have to take into account this option if you want to improve your listening or use several headphones.

 

A clarification: if the Fluxio is connected to a power amp, when you use the headphone the amp has to be in standby or off mode.

 

A second clarification: the flexibility of the Fluxio is very high and you can handle everything through the volume knob, led by the clear indications on the display. It can be complicate at the beginning, but after a while, you can understand and familiarize with menus and submenus.

After all, we are dealing with a preamp, a headphone amplifier and most of all with a DAC, all well settable and all of great level!

I think that it is physiological that the aluminium knob, very cute, is a bit wobble. You have to consider in fact all its functions. If you regulate the volume manually, from 99,5 dB to 0 dB, the knob has to make nine rotations: but you can get an ultrafine attenuation of the volume.

 

If you connect the Fluxio to a PC, you can notice the quality and the quantity of the inputs. There is an I2S input to connect the DAC to a North Star transport and at the same time the USB input to a PC. Very useful. Then there are two coaxial inputs, two optical inputs and a balanced input. It is therefore obvious that the USB interface can receive signals at 192 kHz and 32 bits. On the web you can find several studio master files with very high resolution. And what about the sound of the Fluxio? Like before, it is clear. A sound that is fluid, soft, harmonically rich, without any digital roughness, not very digital. A headway, IMHO, if compared with the first North Star DAC, the Model 3 of ten years ago that, if I am not mistaken, was too precise and quite cold at the listening. The evolution of species is also in this case an inexorable “flux”.

 

Trying to understand the differences between the set-ups allowed by the Fluxio – by the way a fitting name – I have listened several times to La canzone di Marinella from the album Mi innamoravo di tutto, by Fabrizio De Andrè. In this version, arranged by Massimiliano Pani - with Massimiliano Moriconi on double bass, Alfredo Golino on drums, Danilo Rea on piano - Fabrizio De Andrè duets with Mina. The song starts with the piano and then the incomparable voice of Mina comes. Typical of a genius, said De Andrè himself. Here the North Star gives back all the vocal and tonal nuances of this great singer. After a minute, bass and drums enter. The first, fine and full bodied. Rightly, not too protagonist the second. Then, the touching attack of De Andrè’s voice, so rich and sculptured, to pass to Mina again, now accompanied by little percussions – tube chimes? – in the background. The voices alternate and there is also an unison in an unexpected duet. For the joy of the music lover.

For the joy of the “hard and pure” audiophile, at two minutes and twenty-nine seconds, there is an impulsive noise, a sort of click. At three and something, there is a sort of blown tube. Passed the fourth minute there is another percussion, like a carillon, and at the end of the track the vibration made by the double bass strings is remarkable.

You would better avoiding judging an equipment or a system by the noises or the instruments that it can reproduce.

If they are present, that means transparency. The fine ensemble, the tonal accuracy, the image and most of all the emotion it gives us, is what we have to look for in a system. The most part of the budget DACs, I am sorry to say that, gives this track back with the same detail but without the same natural musicality.

Sometimes you look for exotic percussions, particular sounds and instruments, strange voices or ”audiophile” records to test the systems. Just try to find a track among your old records and you will get involved and capable of detecting the sound features of sources, amps and speakers. Also Italian. This “Italian” is related to both records and equipment for music.

 

Conclusions

In brief, the Fluxio North Star is intended for the average enthusiast, already expert, open to novelties, like streaming music, not fossilised on stiff convictions like the one that requires the preamp separated at all costs. It is for who loves the headphones, nice and well made objects and of reliable companies but does not want to spend a lot of money. And for who can appreciate a device with good performances.

 

 

Official technical specifications:

Digital input frequency: 32kHz to 192kHz, up to 32bit

Dynamic range: 126dB (24bit input)

S/N ratio: 112dB

Inputs: 4 S/PDIF (2 RCA coax, 2 TOSLINK),1 XLR

AES/EBU, 1 USB2.0, 1 I2S RJ45

Output unbalanced: 1 pair per channel (RCA)

Output balanced: 1 pair per channel (XLR)

Headphone output: 1 6,35mm (¼”) TRS connector

Main voltage/Consumption/Standby: 230/115V-100V 50/60Hz / 25VA /<1VA

Dimensions: 17in(W)x2.7in(H)x7.5in(D)

43.5cm(W)x7cm(H)x17cm(D)

Weight: 11,5lbs. (5kg)


Official Italian dealer: to Audio Graffiti website

Official current price in Italy: 2,190.00 EUR

Associated equipment: to Ulisse Pisoni's system

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by Ulisse Pisoni
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