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You may be forgiven for having not yet heard of Firestone Audio though its quirkily designed little boxes appear to be gaining something of a cult following.
   Made in Taiwan, there’s a plethora of components in Firestone’s range, encompassing phono preamplifiers, various solid-state and valve headphone amplifers including a battery powered model, digital-to-analogue converters and even a dinky little 8W stereo power amp dubbed Big Joe. One of its headphone amps is called Cute Beyond. Did I mention that these miniature boxes looked cute? Funny, that; Firestone calls them the Cute Series. Methinks somebody has a sense of humour...

HANDS-ON FUN
Forum discussions in America, where ‘the Cuties’ have been available for a while, indicate that enthusiasts with good hi-fi systems are using these Firestone components as desktop systems in offices/studies and as second systems in kitchens/bedrooms.
   ‘Hands-on’ hi-fi hobbyists have embraced the range due to the fact that Firestone (and its distributors) positively encourages tweakery and experimentation. This Spitfire 24-bit DAC model, for example, employs a Burr-Brown OPA2604 low-pass filter op-amp that is interchangeable. ‘Change the op-amp and tune the sound to your own taste’, is the given message. Hence the vibrant discussions on message boards, knowledgable enthusiasts comparing notes on the sound of alternative silicon. Clearly for some, listening to chips beats listening to music of an evening!
   Not all Cute components are identically sized, but most of them are the size of this Spitfire: just 8x5x11cm (whd). It has
S/PDIF electrical (RCA phono) and optical (Toslink) inputs, but no USB, accepting LPCM up to 24-bit/96kHz. Power is supplied to the unit via a ‘wall wart’ supply encapsulated in the mains plug.

DVD UPGRADE
As with any standalone DAC like this, its purpose largely is to upgrade the sound of tired or inadequate source players that have digital outputs. Consequently I spun up a variety of discs on a Pioneer DV-868AVi universal player that is now a little long in the tooth, comparing the Pioneer’s (two-channel) analogue output with the sound of the Spitfire.
   DVD players generally have a rotten reputation as ‘good CD players’ among audiophiles, somewhat undeservedly in my book. Indeed, listening to the sound of the DV-868AVi confirmed that its on-board D-to-A conversion and analogue output is far from shabby, delivering a polished and open sound with good image dimensionality. Danny Thompson’s acoustic bass on John Martyn’s Solid Air [Island, CID 9226] demonstrated fine weight and ‘slap’, with Martyn’s plaintive vocal on the classic cut ‘May You Never’ being easy to locate in the image alongside his resonant guitar.
   Switching to D/A conversion via the Spitfire was a revelation in terms of bass weight and solidity. The sound actually lost some of the air and space of the ‘raw’ Pioneer player, however Martyn’s vocal took on an altogether richer and more organic tone with a tremendously enhanced level of intelligibility. While I can imagine it being a little ‘foward’ for some tastes, the enhanced detail and clarity was undeniable.

VERDICT
What a pity our English pounds don’t buy two US dollars any more! Firestone Audio’s Spitfire DAC consequently isn’t quite the bargain it might have been a year ago, and given its current price it would benefit from having a USB input. As it is, it’s a little expensive for such a minimalist feature set. Nevertheless its audio quality is first class, sounding bold, explicit and highly enjoyable.

 

Originally published in the June 2009 issue