Trends Audio is a Hong Kong based high end audio company that is interested in making music lovers and Hi-Fi aficionados in our neck of the woods aware of their product line. They make mini size components which have been positively reviewed across the web. Some of their products feature cutting edge technologies and some even bask in retro coolness. Readers can see my review of the PA-10 tube Preamp & Headphone amplifier combo here (LINK); which I enjoyed immensely. The subject of this review is a complete Trends Audio desktop or tabletop “mini system”.
This system is comprised of the PA-10, the TA-10 “Class T” integrated/power amp, the UD 10.1 USB DAC, and the PW-10 PSU power supply that supplies current to all three components, except the USB DAC when connected to a PC or laptop. The cost for the entire combination is Approximately $599, depending on currency rates. Yes, a tubed headphone pre, an integrated power amp, USB DAC, and power supply for under six hundred bucks. I was eager to take a listen, to say the least.
In my review of the PA-10, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong and mainland China last year and was surprised to find out the level of enthusiasm that exists for high end audio. I would say it even qualifies as a passion. I visited some Hi-Fi shops in Hong Kong and was shocked at the variety and sheer number of exotic components, speakers, and accessories for sale. Another thing I noted is that living quarters, and hotel rooms for that matter, are much smaller than what American and even Europeans are used to. Space, obviously, is at a premium.
Several years ago I had heard that the legendary Rogers LS3/5a BBC mini monitors had a cult following in Hong Kong and China. I realized why. Apart from being lovely sounding speakers, they were the perfect size for a smaller listening space. I owned a pair of Rogers that I traded in years ago. The buyer told me he promptly sold them on eBay to a Chinese buyer. Trends Audio is continuing the tradition in seeking to produce high quality, well engineered components that are easy to set up and require little space.
Set Up and Listening:
When I unpacked everything and inspected before installing, I was pleased with the overall build quality and attention to detail. This was not hastily created equipment. The speaker binding posts on the TA-10 were solid, as well as all the input and output jacks on all the units. The case work was wonderful too. The master power supply for all three components is built like a tank.
I have a rather large dining table, and allocated the far end is my make shift mini stereo set up area. I do the cooking in the household and always enjoy music while doing so. For me the location was a no brainer. I needed a pair of speakers as well. Out of the garage came my beloved Spendor S3/5′s. They are my go-to mini monitors for evaluating small scale systems. I first hooked up the system with the TA-10 used as an integrated amplifier. It has a volume control, a pair of RCA inputs, and high quality clear plastic “euro style” speaker binding posts that accept spades or bananas. I hooked up the Spendors with some QED speaker cable, and using the supplied Y cable I hooked up my iPod Nano as a source. Holy Cow, it sounded wonderful and not just “for the money”. There was real sound staging, midrange clarity and jump factor.
In the next phase, and at Trends request, I used the PA-10 as a preamp. This is easy to do. All that is required is to open up the chassis of the TA-10 and remove the jumpers to correspond to the volume control. I then connected the Nano to the PA-10, ran a one meter Transparent Music Link Interconnect to the TA-10 and off we went. Wow again! The sound took on an even more likeable character. Was it the bright blue glowing tube in the PA-10 that was adding a bit of body? I’m not sure, but I was certainly enjoying it.
Next up was the part I was anticipating the most, using my laptop as source, and plugging it into the Trends USB 10.1 DAC. It would be my first experience with USB audio, and the first time I would use a computer as direct source, as opposed to a control hub for a network driven music server. I have that kind of set up in my bedroom, with a Logitech Squeezebox as my interface, connected to a Channel Islands out board DAC. I spent a bit of time on the Internet to research whether I would need to download drivers, tackle any special changes in the audio set up of the laptop, etc. Thankfully, it was stress free, plug and play. My mini laptop runs Windows XP Home Edition and has iTunes installed. I ripped several discs in to the Apple proprietary lossless format. I then imported them into the laptop iTunes library. I plugged one end of the USB cable into the DAC, the other into laptop and hit play. Again, Wow, there was music!
I noticed the sound was a bit darker than when I was using the iPod as a source. It should be noted that many experts say there are several issues with Windows in the way that it processes audio, and the amount of jitter it introduces in the equation. There are several very expensive USB based Digital Audio Converters on the market that use “asynchronous” technology that claim to eliminate many of the problems with using a PC or MAC as direct source. It must also be said that a MAC seems to be more audio friendly, if one is to believe what is written in many of the computer audio internet forums.
I should note also that the DAC offers coax and optical inputs as well. (Are you kidding me, for this price?) This means, you can plug in a CD player, DVD player or a music server. The DAC sells for approximately $140. I also used the set up with an old Sharp portable minidisc player. Minidisc is a format that sadly has gone by the wayside, but one that I was quite fond of back in the day as my gym companion for several years. I still had some CD to minidisc transfers in my closet. Through the Trends set up it actually sounded even better than the Nano. But the Nano was no slouch. As a matter of fact, I remember sitting at the dining table listening to some Norah Jones I had on the Nano, and thinking to my self how wonderful her voice sounded coming thought the Trends driving the Spendors. Not digital, not mechanical, but musical in every way.
I had so much fun with the Trends combo, it almost seems to good to be true. A 15 watt amp, a tubed preamp and headphone amp, a USB DAC, and an external power supply for less than a pair of decent speaker cables? Well, this maybe the first time in a while my skepticism was unfounded. I used the word, fun, because I enjoyed the focused, distortion free, musical presentation with no downside. The Trends combo uses very little power, will fit almost anywhere, and will have budget audiophiles doing dances. Let me be clear that I don’t think the Trends combo is just good enough to stick in the corner of the room, or in some dingy basement. It would work absolutely fine as a main system in a confined space with correctly matched speakers. You would not have to look hard for appropriate speakers either. My Spenders are low in sensitivity and offer an 8 ohm load. It was a breeze for the Trends amp to drive them.
I am also sure the Trends combo would even reach higher levels of performance with a few tweaks, such as a good power cord, perhaps an Ayre Myrtle Block or two, and a good solid platform to house the system. But even without such perfectionist obsessions,the Trends combo delivers. If hifi is supposed to be about fun, musical enjoyment, this system is off the charts. It also delivers what high end audio does not always bring with it, namely, value, and practicality. I wish this system was around when I was in college. I was living in a small apartment, had to make do with a cheap plastic all in one system. To say this set up beats the living hell out of that landfill fodder is the understatement of the decade. This may have been the most enjoyable review I have done, and it gives me pleasure to recommend a product that is affordable to all, saves space, electricity, and best of all, sounds great. That it allows for sources as varied as a turntable, CD player, music server, iPod, or computer makes this deal even more of a no brainer. It should be noted that any of these components can be purchased separately.