Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bladelius Embla: All-in-one wonder

The Bladelius Embla has clean lines and an uncluttered front panel.

The Bladelius Embla is marketed as a 'completely silent playback system' much like the Bryston BDP-1, but the difference is that this is a one-box solution that features a built-in DAC and ADC (Analogue-Digital Converter), a normal CD player, a bit-perfect ripper, USB inputs and a preamp as well.

Indeed with the Bladelius Embla, you will save on a few pairs of interconnects and unlike other all-in-one systems, this is aimed at the high-end and is priced accordingly (RM37,000 in Malaysia).

The Swedish-made Bladelius Embla is a large boxy component with simple and clean lines that exemplify the best of Scandinavian design.

Inside, it is far from simple. Just take a look at the number of inputs and outputs on the rear panel. Digital inputs - one AES/EBU, one RCA, one toslink, two USB, one RJ45 and one Bluetooth. Analogue inputs - one pair balanced and two pairs single-ended. Digital outputs - one AES/EBU, one RCA and one Toslink: Analogue outputs: One pair balanced and two pairs single-ended. All these are placed neatly in a row at the bottom of the rear panel.

Essentially what the Embla does is play a CD like a normal CD player and you have the option to rip it into its built-in flash memory and play the ripped file. The ripped file can also be copied to a thumb drive or external hard disk.

A laptop can be connected via one USB input to play music while a thumb drive or external hard disk can be used to play hi-res files from the other USB input.

There is an ethernet input which can be used to connect to a wi-fi router (for an iPad to control the Embla) and to which a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) can be fitted and hi-res files can be streamed from it.

A few days after I picked up the Embla (Full Version) from Eugene Ngoh of Audiomatic in Amcorp Mall, Petaling Jaya, I had to return it because Bladelius had just launched its iPad app (downloadable from Apple store at US$199) and Eugene wanted to download the latest OS (software version 01.07.02 and DAC software version v1.61) which supports the iPad app. The latest OS also supports Mandarin.


The touch screen of the Embla looks very cool.


The Embla has a touch screen which was very sensitive (its sensitivity can be adjusted) while the remote control looked good and was well-made since it was probably carved from a block of aluminium, but its buttons were too tiny.


The buttons on the remote control are too tiny.

The Embla has so many functions that I took quite some time to check them out.

The preamp section


The differences between the Embla Basic and the Embla Full Version are that the latter has a touch screen, a second DAC card which has two more filters, analogue inputs and an ADC feature.

I must say the Bladelius Embla’s preamp section is first-class and easily eclipsed the preamp section of the resident Benchmark DAC1 Pre, which - of course - is much cheaper.

I believe the Embla’s preamp section can take on standalone preamps costing up to RM20,000.

Since I was also  reviewing an FM Acoustics FM122 Mk II Phono Linearizer, I spent many hours spinning vinyl on my much-modded Rega Planar 3 with RB250 tonearm and Benz Micro Glider MC cartridge using the preamp section of the Embla.

I was rewarded with a quite organic, full-bodied and smooth sound with excellent soundstaging and tonal colours.

The volume, which is in the analogue domain, can be controlled by the touch screen, the remote control or the iPad.


Playing a CD

There is no tray that slides out; instead there is a narrow slot into which you push the CD - gently. Since it is narrow and has no soft lining, you have to be careful when you push in the CD and take out it out.

Someone had commented that his CD was scratched by the slot, but I pushed a CD in and ejected it several times and noticed no scratch at all. You just have to be careful and gentle.



The CD slot is rather narrow, so you have
to push the CD in gently and carefully.

The Embla also plays data disks. I slipped in a Reference Recording HRx disc containing WAV files and the Embla played it.

You can set the Embla to rip the CD before playing or play the CD without ripping it. I ripped two CDs - Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits and Patricia Barber Cafe Blue SACD/CD and the time taken varied - the former took 15 minutes and the latter took only five minutes.

After ripping, the number of corrected errors is shown.

Surprisingly, the Fleetwood Mac CD had fewer ‘corrected errors’ - only 690 - compared with the Patricia Barber hybrid SACD/CD which had 94,080.

Used as a CD player, the Embla sounded detailed, rich and smooth.

However, since the Embla sounded so much better when playing low-res and hi-res files from a thumb drive or external hard disk through the USB input, I did not use it as a CD player that often.


Playing from internal flash memory

As expected, the sound was smoother playing the bit-perfect files from internal memory compared with playing directly from the CD. This was not unexpected as in my experience, ripped CD 16/44.1 files streamed from a laptop via USB to an external DAC have always sounded better and smoother than the original CD.

This, I believe, is due to the errors when the laser reads the pits on the CD and the error-correction circuit has to extrapolate on the fly.

The Embla’s internal memory is flash-based and is expandable from 32GB to 2TB. 


Streaming from a laptop

When you use a laptop to stream music to the Embla, you have to use the USB input located in the middle of the row of inputs.


I used J River as the music player and the sampling frequency shown on the touch screen was 48KHz. Bladelius has confirmed that 48KHz is the standard sampling rate for this particular USB input.


The sound quality was okay, but since it could not stream at higher sampling rates, I decided to try the other USB input.


Using a thumb drive or external hard disk


The second USB input is located just below the power cord connection. First I plugged in a USB-powered 500GB Western Digital external hard disk. Nothing happened, so I telephoned Eugene Ngoh who told me that I had to use an external hard disk with its own power supply.


Then I plugged in a 4GB thumb drive. Again nothing happened, so I telephoned Eugene again and he told me that the thumb drive had to be in FAT32 format. I googled around and found out that some thumb drives are in the exFAT or the so-called FAT64 format which is not currently compatible with all USB inputs.


I looked around my drawer and found an old Kingston 2GB thumb drive which had some hi-res music files stored in it. I plugged it into the Embla - and it worked. 


To stream music this way, you have to turn on the ‘external buffer’ otherwise the sound quality will be adversely affected. With the buffer on, the sound becomes ‘relaxed’, very detailed, smooth and spacious.



The Buffalo 1TB external hard disk which
was plugged into the Embla's USB input.

This mode extracted the best from the Embla - the music sounded fabulous with great clarity and a huge soundstage. I felt it sounded even better than playing from its internal memory.


I spent most of the time listening to the Embla in this mode.


Later, I hooked up a Buffalo 1TB external hard disk with its own power supply and just played all the hi-res files in it - from Linn 24/88.2 Studio Master FLAC files to HDTT 24/192 classical music WAV files.


I had three Reference Recordings HRx 176.4 files and these caused some loud hissing sound and I tried to figure out what was wrong. I deleted those files and downloaded the same titles again from the Internet and again the hissing sound was there.


So I telephoned Koo, Eugene’s business partner, who handed to me an original Reference Recordings’ HRx data disk (Thinking About Bix by Dick Hyman) containing WAV files.


I slipped it into the CD compartment and the 176.4 HRx WAV files played without any hissing sound.  Then I copied the files into the laptop and transferred them to the external hard disk and the HRx WAV files were streamed to the USB input and they played without any hissing sound.


So the hissing sound from the downloaded-from-Internet HRx tracks was probably caused by corrupted files.


The Embla plays PCM, WAV, HRx, FLAC, MP3 and OGG with tag information and files are supported up to 32bit 192 kHz via this particular USB input.


Using the filters


The Embla has two separate balanced DAC configurations (2 DACs/channel) to provide two different sonic signatures. 


It also has three filters - Filter A has its DAC (Burr-Brown) and filter based on the reference CD player Bladelius Gondul while Filter B uses a different DAC (Wolfson) and Filter C is tuned for an analogue sound (the filter is set to minimum phase type without pre ringing). Resampling is automatically chosen when set at Filter C.


There is also a feature which sets resampling at 44.1, 48, 96 and 192KHz. Resampling can also be turned off.


When using Filter A, the sound - which supposedly has pre-ringing artifacts - is the most exciting and dynamic of the three filters. The dynamics of the leading edges of music were retained and to my ears, this was the best-sounding mode, especially when playing rock songs.


With Filter B, the sound was a bit purer but the leading edges were rounded off and overall the sound lacked some sizzle.

The Filter and Resampling modes.

Filter C was something I used when I didn’t have time to spare to fool around with the resampling feature since the resampling rate was automatically selected for best performance.

I felt that MP3 and ripped CD files sounded best when resampled to 96KHz (with Filter A) while hi-res files such as 24/88.2, 24/96, 24/176.4 and 24/192 sounded best with Filter A and the resampling turned off. I still believe that hi-res files should be played in their native sampling frequencies.

iPad app


To get the iPad app going, you need to connect a wi-fi router to the ethernet input. If the wi-fi router is connected to the Internet, then album art will be shown on the touch screen and the iPad.


If a CD is ripped while the Embla is connected to the Internet, album art will be stored in the internal memory along with the music files.

Album art is shown on both the
Embla's touch screen and the iPad.


Availability of album art depends on the album played - not all album covers will be displayed.


When using the iPad (or even the remote control), it is best not to flood the Embla with too many commands too quickly as the player can get confused.


Since the remote control has such tiny buttons, I found the iPad app to be very useful and after a while I felt a bit lost without it. However, there were some functions that could be controlled only by the remote control or touch screen.


Using the ADC


Since the turntable was hooked up to the Embla, I decided to test the ADC function. The sampling frequency can be set to 96 or 192 and I found the 192 setting to sound better.


With digital out, it is possible to connect the Embla to a recorder so that vinyl can be ripped and stored as digital files.


However, I felt that digitising vinyl playback removed some of the spatial information from the music. Somehow, listening to vinyl through the ADC even with 192KHz sampling was not the same as listening to vinyl directly. Something went missing in the digitising process and I think it affects soundstaging and spaciousness. There seemed to be less space around and between the instruments and singers after digitising.  


Other functions

The Embla is also supposed to be able to play files from a NAS connected via ethernet, but I did not try that. According to Bladelius, the ethernet input also accepts up to 32/192.


It is also supposed to be able to play songs via Bluetooth, but I tried to play some MP3 songs from my Nokia handphone without success as the handphone could not locate any Bluetooth device. Apparently the Bluetooth function will only be available with a software update some time in the future.


Finally...


Michael Bladelius, the owner and designer of the company, has come up with an all-in-one high-end component that performs very well. To me the only thing missing is a headphone jack.

To his credit, the Embla is a great-sounding component that covers (almost) all the bases and it certainly deserves all the accolades that it has received.


As a CD player, it sounds very smooth, detailed and rich, but when a thumb drive or hard disk with hi-res files is plugged into the USB input, its performance is elevated to another level and it would not be a misfit among the Weiss, Berkeley and dCS.


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