Life with a GaN 1
Well, I've been living with a GaN 1+NODE as my primary Hi-Fi system for about a month now. Since some of you may be considering our Beta Test opportunity, I figure I would share my experiences so far to help you decide if this product is right for you.
First a little about my listening priorities...
I'm a consumer of digital audio first and foremost. Most of my critical listening is done with lossless and/or high-res digital audio files from my computer to minimize variables beyond my control. Increasingly, I listen to files streamed from high resolution music services. In most cases, I find them to sound indistinguishable from their downloaded counterparts. When I do hear a difference it is usually because I ran across a "remastered" version of the file I'm used to hearing from my computer. I also listen to music from a turntable, but it is a secondary source for critical listening. I'm a supporter of analog, but I find it easier to push gear to its limits using digital files.
THE GOOD STUFF
Streaming high-res audio through the NODE+GaN 1 combo. sounds really, really, really good. It's hard to describe the sound until you've experienced it, but there's a notable absence of background noise and the vocals and instruments all appear in their respective spaces/sizes with all the little details intact. The subtle breathing and mouth sounds of a vocalist, the sound of fingers on guitar strings, foot tapping, random audience noise, studio gear limitations and flubs. I hear it all like when I'm wearing a pair of highly revealing headphones. But I'm not wearing headphones. I'm sitting in my living room (nothing particularly special about it) listening to a pair of <$1,000/pair bookshelf speakers! I'm driving the speakers hard, but they're not breaking up and I'm literally getting goosebumps on some of my favorite tracks. I can feel a vocalist's emotion almost as much as I can hear their voice - clearly. I get a similar feeling when I'm sitting in a small live music setting and sitting close to the musicians but I rarely get it when I'm listening to reproduced music through a Hi-Fi system. I'm experiencing it on this setup and its NOT the speakers and its NOT the NODE. While they are both highly regarded products in their own right, I've used them both in several other systems and it has NOT sounded quite like this before. The GaN 1 is the ONLY thing that's different here...
A few weeks after exhausting my library of demo tracks and personal favorites, I hooked up a turntable to the NODE. (My turntable has a switchable built-in phono preamp so I can connect to the NODE's line in.) I don't know what I was expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I wasn't hearing. It sounded crisp and clear without any background noise or humming. This is great. I'm not hearing anything that makes me believe this input was an after thought or compromised because its a dual input (analog or optical digital audio) or because it uses an ADC inside the NODE. I have ZERO ISSUES recommending that people hook up their turntable to the NODE and enjoy their vinyl on this system this way! It sounds great! I even programmed my turntable as a preset, so when I want to spin vinyl, I just touch the first dot on top of the NODE and lower the tonearm and I'm listening. Easy.
Finally, and as silly as it might sound, the on/off trigger feature is great. I touch the top of the NODE to start playing my music or do the same with the BluOS app on my iPhone and the GaN 1 clicks on and a second or two later...I'm listening. Hit pause and 15 minutes later the GaN 1 shuts off. My phone is all I need to access my music and to control this system. This is super-easy and convenient.
THE OTHER STUFF
Like I usually do when streaming, I appreciate a larger screen to see playlists and album art. Using my iPhone is very convenient as it's usually in my pocket all day, but I plan to start using a tablet to see if I enjoy that experience more. Fortunately the BluOS app can be loaded on pretty much anything, so I can even buy a 10" Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet for $150 and use that as a "remote control." Thats not much more than a decent learning remote control these days and should be much better!
I might consider adding a phono preamp to boost my turntable output a bit. (My turntable's built-in phono preamp has no gain adjustment.) Albums are mastered at much lower levels than today's digital files so when I want to crank up the volume on my vinyl I can sometimes max out the NODE's volume and still be left wanting more. Some of my older CD files (ripped to my computer years ago) have a similar issue. They were mastered at levels significantly lower than today's norms so even when the NODE is set to maximum output, I sometimes could use more. Fortunately most of the earlier recordings have been remastered at some point in the last 20 years, so that helps with the gain/level issue. If my primary listening was vinyl or digital files mastered before say 1990-2000, I would definitely use a phono preamp with gain settings (or higher max ouput than my turntable's built-in preamp) and re-mastered digital files. Or perhaps some other way to affect gain in the digital domain like Roon, Foobar, etc.
Note: I'm currently listening to 4 Ohm, 84dB sensitive speakers that are known to be difficult-to-drive, amp-draining devices!
When I move the NODE volume slider around quickly I do hear some noise. I assume this is an artifact of the DSP chips doing their job and re-adjusting everything to the new ones and zeros. Once I stop changing volume, it's gone. Not really a concern, but I have a note into our engineers to enlighten me on this! It's a full digital path I'm hearing now so I expect to hear some of the inner digital workings that are not heard in more traditional designs that use DACs, buffers, etc.
I plan to connect a TV at some point to see how that sounds through the system, but one of the other guys here has been using his NODE+GaN 1 connected to his TV and he swears that it has never sounded as intelligible as it does now. Can't wait to check that out here, too!
I really like the size and look of the GaN 1. It fits on my bookshelf perfectly and integrates in my living room better than the previous system did size-wise - but I do miss those wood cabinets!
NOTES ON INTEGRATING A SUBWOOFER IN A NODE+GaN 1 SETUP
The short version
Using a powered subwoofer in a NODE+GaN 1 setup works as expected and is recommended if you plan to use a subwoofer.
The longer version
The NODE provides a mono subwoofer output via RCA connector on its rear panel. There is a "Subwoofer" ON/OFF toggle button inside the BluOS App (Settings>Audio>Subwoofer). This toggle is actually an ON/OFF switch for the crossover feature only; the subwoofer output on the NODE is active regardless of the setting in the App. When the subwoofer switch is ON, you can select the filter setting in 10Hz increments from 40-200Hz. We understand this to be a 12dB/octave (2nd order) filter.
Setup notes for GaN 1 users
* The subwoofer crossover feature in the BluOS App affects only the ANALOG outputs of the NODE (Left, Right and Subwoofer). GaN 1 users won't use the left and right ANALOG outputs since they connect to the NODE's digital Coax Out.
* The main left and right speakers connected to the GaN 1 receive a full-range signal regardless of the subwoofer setting in the BluOS App. The NODE does NOT apply any crossover filter settings to its digital outputs.
* The subwoofer crossover feature in the BluOS App can be used to blend a subwoofer with your main speakers. The NODE subwoofer output serves as a low-pass filter with settings from 40-200Hz. * If you prefer to use a crossover built into the subwoofer, simply set the "Subwoofer" option in the BluOS App to OFF. A full-range signal will still be sent to the Subwoofer output and the crossover features of the subwoofer can be used instead. This might be useful if you prefer a different crossover point than the NODE offers or slope other than 12dB per Octave. Many subwoofers may provide more options than those provided by the NODE. We encourage people to try setting up their subwoofer both ways and settling on the one that yields the best overall sound quality. Setting the subwoofer crossover, slope and output level is critically important to ensure smooth integration of a subwoofer and a pair of speakers.
As a general note on adding a subwoofer to a stereo system, we typically do NOT recommend limiting the bass being sent to the main speakers. In our experience, using a high-pass filter on the mains* often does more harm than good in achieving a blend between the main speakers and the subwoofer. Since this is our preferred setup, we are pleased that the NODE does NOT high-pass filter the digital left/right outputs. We suggest people use their stereo speakers as designed and enhance that experience by augmenting the lowest octave(s) of sound as needed. Most bookshelf speakers will need considerable help with the bottom 2 octaves (20-80Hz) and most floor standers will need some help with the bottom octave (20-40Hz). If you have access to a microphone and measurement software, you can accurately integrate a subwoofer with a pair of speakers pretty quickly compared to using trial and error which will likely end up taking much longer and result in frustration. Precise subwoofer placement and settings are absolutely critical to achieving the best overall results and using measurement equipment here can take a lot of the guesswork out of it.
*It can work well with soundtracks which are specifically mixed for a subwoofer, but it is typically much less pleasing overall when listening to music. Ask anyone who has listened to stereo music through a properly setup and calibrated "home theater."