“Could you be the one?”
Discovering the Lumin X1 network player
To listen to the Lumin X-1 is to embrace a revelatory experience. One to be savoured and enjoyed over the long term as you revel in the rediscovery of favourite albums and explore new music. Having heard a lot of very good components in my time I can say with absolute certainty, the Lumin X-1 is the best of them. It’s the complete package in terms of physical finish, operation and most importantly of all, sound quality. We invite you to read about our experiences with this player, or even better, visit and enjoy the sound of the X1 for yourself.
Understanding Network Players
Change is inevitable and it will always be your choice as to whether you embrace it or passively watch from the sidelines.
From the outset the pursuit of better sound in home music systems has always been about change in technologies and formats. Some have worked, some have been consigned to history. When change for the better does turn up, how do you recognise it?
Some of the best words of wisdom about audio are ‘if it sounds better, it is better’ from a certain Glaswegian enthusiast. He taught us about the primacy of the source component ie the sound that comes out of a system is only as good as that which you feed into the system.
And, for most intents and purposes, this has held true. Of course nothing is ever that simple and understanding how and why components work within systems has occupied the better part of the last 40 years for me – even longer for some of our clients.
Navigating the path between individually great sounding components and their place within systems been front of mind with our recent exposure to the Lumin range of network players and transports, crystallising my thinking on what constitutes great sound and how to get it in your own living room.
While a system can be made of many parts, it’s the source that will always do the heavy lifting when it comes to determining the quality of sound you actually hear. This principle applies to both analogue and digital. With turntables you can see the mechanical principles at play so it’s not too hard to understand. With the new generation of network and streaming products, you’ll again find that if you take an interest, the principles of what makes them work better are laid out; if anything with more depth and exactitude than with analogue. But do you really need to know the ‘why?’ when we should be able to just listen and say – ‘yes that sounds much better to me’?
Now – almost all of you will have had the opposite experience at some time – hearing something in a show room or at home and having thoughts like ‘is that all?’. Or simply ‘I can’t hear a difference’. This is not unusual and there are plenty of times where I have felt exactly the same way.
As we gradually improve the systems we enjoy at home, the baseline for what we regard as better sound also trends upwards. So to find something that is both obviously and significantly better is a wonderful thing.
The Lumin Network Players have done this for us – and the same for a quickly growing number of our clientele. So just how good is Lumin and what makes their players sound better? Let’s have a look at few recent quotes…
Alan Sircom writes – ‘To say I’m impressed by the LUMIN X1 is something of an understatement. I am blown away by its performance. It has a sense of absolute confidence in it’s own performance that is typically the domain of the best in analogue. It puts it in direct competition with products that cost several times as much and take up a lot of shelf space in the process.’
At the other end of the range, one of our client’s writes of his experience with the Lumin U1 Mini –
‘It’s working brilliantly and I’m so glad you suggested trying streaming…I think one of its main points is delivery of the full value of source files… Now I’m getting full sampling value, which makes for sharper detail, improved subtlety of tonal effects (differences between instruments as well as between groups playing the same work are more marked), and a more deftly shaped sound stage. Precision and detail are startlingly improved and naturalness is paramount.’
Added to what we are hearing ourselves, there is a remarkable consistency with all the Lumin reviews so it’s clear that we are on to something very, very special. Over the last few months we’ve introduced you to the Lumin models and built up the range we carry here. Now it’s time to to dive into the realms of the real high end revisit the flagship model – the X1.
When we initially heard the ‘X1’ in January, we were struggling with rural broadband (or more accurately the lack of it), and with the experience gained in setting up the D2, T2 and U1 Mini, we now better understand how to make the most of the X1. This proved to be surprisingly straightforward – a better modem allowing direct connection, accessing our music collection also via ethernet, and building a much simpler system with the X1 connected directly to various power amp/speaker combinations.
With many brands as you step through the model range the differences can seem incremental. With Lumin there is no such equivocation. Between the 3 ‘network player’ models X1, D2, T2 (‘network player’ denoting they stream and have DACs plus preamp stages built in), each has a clearly defined character yet the performance gains take all the best aspects, then build and branch out to produce something new and much better.
So when looking at the Lumin X-1 we can give you have three points of comparison; our previous best digital system, the other Lumin models and last but not least our very best analogue turntable based solution.
Both the Lumin T2 and U1 mini have proved to be significantly better than our previous digital reference in the first instance – the T2 being the best for new systems, as it has a high performance DAC section and can connect directly to power amplifiers. The U1 Mini is more appropriate for anyone with a DAC they are already happy with and we’ve found that simply inserting this into our best Nuprime DAC based system greatly improved the sound of both streaming and replay of stored files. We’ve revelled in the improved resolution and all round musicality of all the Lumin components.
But the X-1 is simply next level compared to these. There would be a problem if this weren’t the case as the X1 is NZ$26,000. We’ll put this in context shortly.
Like many of our clients we have accumulated a library of both downloads and ripped CD files. And as steaming services have improved in both quality and variety it’s become worthwhile to use these for both exploration and actual listening. The more music you listen to, the more sense it makes to do this at a higher level of quality.
So our expectations have risen. Does the X1 meet them? Let’s first look at how highly the D2 (NZ$4350) and T3 (NZ$9000) rate with the reviewers –
‘More than any other digital source component I’ve had in my system, the Lumin T2 got out of the way and delivered the music…What was especially impressive was how it reconciled what might seem aural opposites: clarity and warmth, delicacy and strength, speed and colour…Given the rapid changes occurring in digital audio playback, it’s risky to characterise any digital source as a potential endgame purchase. But that’s how I feel about the Lumin T2. I think it will be a long, long time before anyone buying a T2 experiences upgrade fever.‘ Gordon Brockhouse – SoundStage! Network
‘I really did not expect such a bass from the file player! Not only so low, strong and dynamic, but still pretty and energetic... completely unlike classical “file-based” sound. This is a big step forward compared to the T1 version, which I have been using for several years…it is a real sensation.’ Wojciech Pacuła – High Fidelity
The D2 looks good, is sensibly priced and – thanks to a super-slick app – is a delight to use too…The D2 powers the bass and drums along with real punch, while also rendering the instrumental and vocal lines with a wide-open sense of timbre and texture… In common with some of the higher end network players, it goes further than just delivering a recording, instead getting the listener into the heart of the music… If you want the impression of real live musicians plonked in the room in front of you, the D2 delivers. Andrew Everard- Hi-Fi News and Record Review
Yet to say the X1 is better than the T2 would be an understatement.
Every track played through the X-1 is a revelation with an immediate lift in clarity combined with a resonant and rich tone. This is so much better than what is often described as accuracy. The X1 is organic in the best sense of sounding as close as I’ve heard to real life. Actually that’s another understatement. Listening to the X1 takes you a whole lot further – you get to hear the best performance without all the distractions and variability of live venues. In Dunedin that can mean not having to wait till 11.00 in a freezing venue, so you can start to see the attraction…
But aside from that the X1 deftly balances the warmth of analogue and the resolution made possible by the best implementation of digital. While the X1 is dealing exclusively with digital source material, it’s always worth remembering that the actual output is completely analogue.
So this is why it’s more than valid to make the comparison with a very good record playing system. It’s time to start rethinking assumptions. We’ve invested much in record playing systems over the years and haven’t been afraid to explore new approaches as they crossed our path – hence moving from Linn to Well Tempered, many different cartridge and phono stage combinations, analogue preamplifiers and interconnecting cables. If you also consider the hours of setup and fine tuning, you’ll understand that while there’s a real magic to vinyl replay when it all falls together it’s also wildly variable. So we juggle all the permutations to get to something that ‘sounds right’. And it’s not that hard to assemble an record playing system that costs as much if not more than the Lumin X-1.
Here’s the kicker – I’m finding that for many recordings, the Lumin delivers more presence and realism, combined with previously unheard detail and a lack of obvious colouration than the best record playing system I can assemble. When the digital version is a 24 bit download this can be downright scary. In short, it ‘sounds right’ in the best analogue sense.
Add to this the effective plug and play nature of the Lumin X1 with the ability to connect directly to power amplifiers, and you can see where we are heading.This isn’t to say the performance of Lumin is completely independent of the system it is in.
If you follow all the reviews you’ll read that there are connection options for both optical and electrical ethernet inputs, balanced* and RCA outputs and even aftermarket umbilical cables for the separate power supply. While we haven’t been able to try all of these, we have found is that a really good AC cable, in our case the KLEI QPurity AC cable, makes a remarkable further improvement even though the power supply is separate from the X1. Every quality that so impressed at the outset is turned up to another level. While it may seem paradoxical at first, when you have a component that’s demonstrating such high levels of transparency and resolution it follows that any improvement you make around it within your own system will be that much more obvious. It’s counterpoint to the ‘law of diminishing returns’.
To be clear, the X1 doesn’t need to be matched a costly system in order to work it’s magic but should you choose to make improvements, the value of these will be much greater because of the X1.
We’ve also seen a comment attributed to Lumin that a brand new player has about 40% of it’s potential performance straight out of the box and takes a good number of hours to get to it’s fully warmed-up and run-in peak – this certainly tallies with our own experience. It’s not that the X-1 doesn’t sound great from the outset – but several weeks down the track there is a whole lot more going on; the soundstage is far more extended and defined plus both bass and treble extend dramatically.
As with all Lumin models the X-1 includes the Leedh Processing volume control – take the time to read about this as it’s one of the real stand out features that makes Lumin genuinely better. It doesn’t matter what type of amplifier you use, integrated, preamp or just power amp, the appropriate use of the volume control will appreciably improve what you hear.
This also factors into why the NuPrime power amplifiers work so well with the Lumin players – the very high input impedance of both the new AMG series and Evolution Ones is ideal in terms of electrical matching, enabling every last little bit of detail to come through. We’ve found that while you can directly connect and control components power amplifiers with many models of DAC, the inclusion of a quality preamp provides more drive and depth to the sound.
If you look inside the X1 you’ll see that it’s divided in half with the analogue and digital sections being physically separated. And within the analogue section you can see not only the separation between channels but the fully symmetrical and balanced nature of the design, right down to the use of dual Swedish made LUNDAHL LL7401 balanced output transformers.
The upshot of this is that the X1 surpasses all but the very finest (and inevitably costly) seperate preamplifiers, allowing you to build a simpler and better sounding system for less.
In fact with the X-1 you can fine tune the output level to best match the higher sensitivity of the bridged AMG STAs and also set maximum volume levels which prevents any unintended and very loud surprises.
While the X-1 is considerably more costly than any of our NuPrime components is doesn’t seem inappropriate to evaluate it with them and in turn the entry level Sonus faber speakers. As always, the game is to try and get the best overall sound for the most reasonable total cost.
What this shows is that you don’t need to go crazy with the rest of the system to really enjoy the X-1 (and in fact any of the Lumin models). In a system with a single NuPrime AMG STA and the new Sonus faber Lumina III floor standing speakers we could easily hear the X1 showing a clean pair of heels to any digital source we’ve heard in any setting. While this says a lot about the transparency and value of the NuPrime/Sonus faber combination, it also hammers home the importance of the source.
The X1 does take this concept several steps further. While every single track we listened to was improved there was a really wide variation in how great this impression was between albums. Notably on those we haven’t played for some time. Even with casual background listening this is really obvious – in many cases it sounded like a substantially different album with whole passages being thrown into relief. I’d be sitting reading in front of the fire, big black cat on my lap, then have to put my book down thinking that I was hearing a completely new song I’d somehow missed on the album.
The experience of being in an ideal listening position is almost narcotic by comparison. Not only are more layers peeled back but the precision and palpability of the sound-staging.
The difference between MP3, CD level quality (16 bit) and 24 bit downloads is definitely magnified and it’s tempting just to play the higher bit-rate material. Yet some of the MP-3s we’ve played have been quite astonishing – I’ve been listening but not actually taking notice of the display information on recordings and quite often have been fooled. I think what’s happening is that although there is less data, the abilities of the X-1 somehow take even the most humble MP3 to levels above that of other DACs or streamers even with higher bit-rate material.
I don’t think there’s any correlation between cost poured into music production, fame or age in terms of what sounds good – my favourite little local indie bands seem to be able to pull off some great sounds and having heard them live, the X-1 literally puts them in our living room.
One of the selling points of the X1 is it’s seamless replay of MQA (Master Quality Assured) encoded material via Tidal. I’m happy that what I’m hearing here is better. What is blindingly obvious is the same tracks stored on our network on SSD do sound vastly better when comparing like with like. By comparing streamed recordings as close as we can get in terms of bit-rate, the stored version shows considerably better sound staging, resolution and all round engagement. Yet this doesn’t diminish the performance of streaming services such as Tidal via the X1. I found this mode of performance to be unequivocally better than our previous best experiences of playback by any means and device.
It’s easy to get lost in trying to analyse what the Lumin X-1 does well, and for most of my supposed critical listening I’ve really just been sitting in a bit of a stunned state of awe. This raises some tricky questions. While the X-1 is a reasonably costly component we’ve certainly had experience with more expensive digital sources and other components such as amps and speakers that are in the same ballpark. As the line goes ‘it’s a tough job but someones got to do it‘ and this does mean that we do have the benchmarks with which to judge components. But we do make a conscious effort to listen to and in systems that reflect real world expectations of as broad a range of music lovers as possible.
In many reviews there seems to be a need to find some perceived weakness in a component but with this I really can’t. The X-1 does everything Lumin promise, and what I’m hearing is consistent with all the other write-ups. Is the X-1 worth NZ$25,000? I’d have to say yes because I struggle to see how we could get a better sound in a system with a lower cost source model. As an example if we had a system with a T2 but used the extra $14,000 on more costly and better electronics, cabling and speakers, the end result might look more impressive but we’d never come up with the same resolution and emotion that the X-1 injects into the system.
As we’ve alluded, the qualities of the X-1 are such that a relatively affordable power amplifier and pair of speakers will perform well above their expected level so it wouldn’t be hard to have a new X-1 based system for around NZ$30,000. Many of our clients have already reached this cost level albeit with more components and time. Of course in the context of better systems, the X-1 will reveal even more but I do want you to consider the initial premise of this review – the quality of the source is always critical to the end sound quality of a system.
Could the X-1 be better? Given we’ve found a power cable can make a worthwhile improvement the answer would have to be yes. But we could also argue that this just unleashes the inherent performance of the X1 and should probably be considered part of the system. You’ll also see that Lumin have produced a series of players since 2012 – the original A1, the S1 and and X1, so it is inevitable that there will be ways to improve upon it. But this will not be without cost as the X1 is around twice the price of the A1.
Herein lies the problem for the majority of listeners – other imperatives like rent and food on the table mean that the X1 simply doesn’t get a look in. Even if we seize the means of production it’s unlikely there will be a Lumin in every home, as much as I wish this were so. But what the X1 does is point the way forward and you can hear the results in Lumin’s own range (the T2 and D2) and competitors such as the the Nuprime Stream 9. We invite you to enjoy a visit us and hear the X1 for yourself.
The experience of hearing something new and better is just as valid at any level when it comes to listening to music in your own home. The experience you and I, and anyone else who hears the X1, will be replicated time and time again with new components that are appropriate for the environment and system they end up in. It literally is all about the music.
And that’s why the headline of this review is a song title.