New From Channel Islands…

Channels Islands Audio, headed by industry veteran Dusty Vawter, has been making cutting edge products since 1997.

The company is known to many as early purveyors of Class D amplifiers, upgradeable DACs, headphone amps, add on outboard power supplies, and passive linestages. The CIAudio VDA-2 DAC is a staff favorite. CIAudio provides quality products at sane prices, and they are built in the U.S.A. to boot.  The company sells direct and through hand chosen catalogers and retailers.

In for review is one of CIAudio’s newest products, the $699 Transient MkII USB to S/PDIF converter and DAC. Essentially it takes the USB audio from your Mac or Windows PC, and converts it to 75 Ohm BNC (supplied with an RCA adaptor), S/PDIF for use with legacy DACs without a suitable USB input. But that is not the end of the story. The Transient MkII is an interesting take on USB to S/PDIF interfaces. It also features two I2S outputs for connection to compatible gear, like those made by Wyred4Sound and PS Audio. A pair of RCA analog outputs completes the picture  so it can be used as a stand alone USB DAC with no conversion.  Topping that off is a built in volume control, with volume level attenuated via arrow shaped buttons on the front panel.

The Transient MkII uses an XMOS based USB solution, high precision clocks, and a Wolfson chip. Channel Islands says highest quality parts are used throughout: Nichicon Muse & 2% tolerance polypropylene power supply capacitors, Takman resistors and WIMA polypropylene capacitors for signal circuits, and Canare BNC connector. The shielded anti-resonant chassis is 1/8 thick T6061 aluminum with 3/16” thick front panel, and all hardware is non-magnetic stainless steel.”

The appearance and build quality of the Transient MkII is first rate. When examined closely it inspires confidence. Installation is a snap. Source components in the review system are connected via a DH Labs USB cable to a Windows 7 laptop running Jriver Media Center 19, and a Logitech Squeezebox with the Enhanced Digital Output applet installed. The DAC is hub powered, via the host device.

All that is required for use with a Windows computer is to download and install the driver from the  By the way, Vawter suggests selecting the“CIAudio ASIO” output in the Jriver options menu. MAC users, it must be noted, require no drivers.  Also of note is that Dusty Vawter mentioned that no up-sampling is performed by the Transient MkII, so one can experiment with doing so in the software domain.

The Transient MkII immediately shows itself  to be a superb USB to S/PDIF converter into a Bryston BDA-1 DAC, via a DH Labs BNC cable.  The BDA-1 does not have a high fidelity, “asynchronous” USB input, so the Transient MkII is a shoe in solution when using a computer. Compared to other converters used in house, the Transient MkII is as neutral, engaging, and transparent as we have heard.

The 2011 debut album from U.K. singer songwriter Ben Howard, Every Kingdom, is wonderfully recorded and is filled with great folky tunes. The Transient Mkii as a converter is impressively dimensional and dynamic on this record. An even handed tonality rules the day. Howard’s voice and guitar playing are rendered with great focus and clarity. Especially notable is the deep soundstage.

Using the Transient MKII as a stand alone DAC, via it’s analog outputs is equally rewarding, and maybe even more so.  Compared to the Bryston BDA-1, the Transient MkII offers up a view one or two rows back, yet just as resolving.  The CIAudio draws you into the music, in the best possible way, in the similar manner that really good analog does.  Perhaps the best way to describe the Transient MKII’s sonic personality is that is in no rush, and lets the music flow gracefully.

During the evaluation as a stand alone DAC, a wide variety of music is streamed, across  many genres. The Transient MKII never trips up, or seems to favor one type of recording over another. From classic 60’s rock like Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks right on up to brand new high resolution jazz recordings from Terence Blanchard, Joe Lovano, and Joshua Redman, the Transient MkII is never stumbles.  There is excellent grip on the bass, and nicely fleshed out midrange.

Using the Transient MkII with the Squeezebox Touch via USB brought the diminutive streamer to a new level of performance in my experience. This may be because it allows one to by pass the S/PDIF outputs completely, with the clocking being handled by the DAC. Calling up the Eagles studio discography in 192 Khz reveals new layers of transparency and precision.  Bernie Grundman’s mastering is first rate, and classic tracks like “Take It Easy” and “Desperado” take on new life.

The Transient MKII’s built in volume control proves to be well engineered. Using it directly connected to a  power amp yields very good results.  Connected to the Audio Research VS55 or or Burson Timekeeper, a preamp is not missed. The only caveat here is there is no volume level indicator, so careful attention to level is recommended.  When using with a preamp or integrated amp, line level is set at max. The Transient MkII successfully locks onto every sample rate from 44.1 to 192 Khz. The sample rate indicator lights on the front are most welcomed by those with digital music collections in various resolutions, and it is a feature rarely seen at this price point.


Time spent with the Channel Islands Audio Transient MKII USB converter and DAC is time spent enjoying music. As a converter, it is beyond reproach. As a stand alone DAC, it easily dazzles and defies expectations, and especially so considering its affordability. The fact that is is made in California is a nice bonus, and it is compatible with virtually any platform.

The Transient MkII also has a secret weapon up its sleeve. It is upgradeable with the CIAudio’s own $329 VDC-5 MKII High Current Power Supply, as it enhances its performance by taking it off hub power. Prior experiences with C.I.A’s power supplies in our system with various components like the Squeezebox Touch are very positive. To be clear, during the review period, hub power was used exclusively.

As a nice bonus, the Transient MKII is a risk free purchase, with Channel Islands Audio offering generous in home trials. Dusty Vawter welcomes customer inquiries, and is great about providing advice based on your system’s parameters.  The Transient MKII, and the other Channel Islands Audio products we have spent time with have proved themselves to be exceptionally high value, and sonically first rate.  Good engineering, solid build, and great prices rule the day. The Transient MKII is highly recommended for those with legacy DACs, or for those looking to jump into computer audio with a stand alone DAC.

The CI Audio Transient MK II

MSRP:  $699


Sources: HP Windows 7 laptop w/ Jriver 19, Squeezebox Touch

Amplifiers: Audio Research VS55, Burson Timekeeper, McIntosh MA6600

DAC: Bryston BDA-1

Speakers: Thiel CS2.4, Harbeth Compact 7ES3

Cables: Transparent, DH Labs, Kimber, Furutech:

Channel Islands D500 MKII Monoblocks

Early class D amplifiers resemble the first efforts at CD players; a great idea that wasn’t fully realized on the first iteration or two. If you’ve been around long enough to remember just how bad those first CD players sounded, you’ll probably agree that the first class D amplifiers offered up the same aural aesthetic, sounding two dimensional, somewhat shrill on the top end and fatiguing after a short period of time.

In the last year or so, class D has improved dramatically and recent efforts by Devialet (a variation on the class D concept), Audio Research and Bel Canto reveal that these amplifiers can hold their own with their more current hungry brothers.

Add Channel Islands to that list, matter of fact, put them right at the top. The latest D-500 MKII monoblocks you see here are incredibly capable. Unlike other designs the CI amplifiers utilize a custom, full-bridge module that is not available to the DIY community along with some of their own circuitry. CI owner Dusty Vawter told me that they only use the UcD modulator and Class D output section of the module. The rest is customized in house. “You need to do some serious R&D to get great sound, you can’t just stick an ICE module in a box.”

Channel Islands has built some massive power supplies to go along with these amplifiers. While small on the outside, they weigh almost 30 pounds each. Popping the top reveals large capacitor banks and heavy wiring – these amps are built to rock. However a little bit of patience is required; the D500 MKIIs sound pretty stiff out of the box, but once powered up and played for about 2-3 days, the congestion clears to a bold, dynamic sound. Vawter mentioned that the modules have some power constantly applied when in standby mode, so they only take about 10 minutes to sound their best once the initial run in has been completed. Considering that these amplifiers only draw about 13 watts of power each, I suggest leaving them on all the time.

Speaker Compatibility

Past experience with Class D amplifiers reveals they are often sensitive to speaker matching, just like a vacuum tube amplifier- some combinations can be fantastic, while others can be awful, so an audition is definitely required. We made it a point to audition the D-500 MKIIs with a wide range of speakers: The Verity Rienzis, MartinLogan Aerius and ElectroMotion, the Magnepan 1.6, 1.7 and 3.7s the new Dali P5, Harbeth P3ESRs, B&Ws 805 and 802 Diamond and of course, my reference GamuT S9s.

This comprises a fairly wide range of loads, some easy to drive, others not as much. The D-500 MKIIs turned in an excellent performance in with everything on the list except for the B&W Diamonds. Wanting to verify whether this was anomalous behavior with my speakers or something else in my reference system, installing the D500 MKIIs in another system featuring 800 Diamonds exhibited the same rolloff in the HF region, compared to all the other amplifiers at my disposal. I would suggest the owners of B&W’s Diamond series to get a thorough demo first and CI agrees – they offer a 30 day money back guarantee – less a 10% restock fee and return shipping. A small price to pay to assure system synergy.

It’s also worth mentioning that the D-500 MKIIs worked well with a wider range of speakers than any other Class D amplifier I’ve yet sampled. And they are an exceptional match with the Magnepans, which are typically power hungry. If you are considering a pair of Maggies, the CI monoblocks would be at the top of my list.

Preamplifier Compatibility

The D500 MKIIs are neutral tonally, neither adding warmth to the sound, nor forward sounding in a way that could be construed as a thin presentation. However, system synergy and compatibility is always an issue – in the view of this writer perhaps one of the most important, yet most often disregarded elements of system setup.

Marvelous results were achieved with all four of the preamplifiers on hand. (Croft 25, McIntosh C500, Burmester 011 and the Audio Research REF 5) All but the Croft were balanced preamplifiers and connected thusly. While the arguments continue to go back and forth about the value of balanced versus single ended design, I preferred the D500 MKII’s in balanced mode more – the presentation appeared a bit quieter overall. However, if you have a single ended (RCA) preamplifier, don’t shy away from these amps, you will not be disappointed.

Preferring the combination of a tube preamplifier with a solid state power amplifier to cheat the equation, if you will – getting the grip and slam of solid state with the added warmth of tubes thrown in for good measure worked well here. Neutrality is a two edged sword; some want to hear everything on a record “warts and all,” while others want hyper detail, with yet others liking a certain amount of tonal richness to the sound (that can either be described as warm, romantic or even distorted).

Biases exposed, a little bit of tonal warmth still gets my vote, as long as it doesn’t affect the pace of the music – a tough order, but it can be done. The perfect combination ended up being with the McIntosh C500 control center, a two box preamplifier that incorporates an excellent MM and MC phono stage built in, with enough inputs for everything you can imagine. Vawter encouraged me to take this direction, “We have a lot of customers that really enjoy our amps with a tube preamp.” The C500 used as a reference component at TONEAudio is hot rodded ever so slightly with a full compliment of EAT 12AX7 tubes that retains the tonal balance of this preamplifier while offering more dynamic range and a lower noise floor.

Because the D500 MK IIs possess very high gain, (32db or they can be supplied as a higher gain model featuring 38db of gain), most preamplifiers should present no problem and these amplifiers should lend themselves well to a passive preamplifier as well. When using the CI amplifiers with the ARC REF 5, the level never went past 15 on the fluorescent display to achieve maximum volume, which is very low. Even vintage preamplifiers with minimal output will have no problem driving the D500 MKIIs to maximum output.

Further Listening

The neutrality that these amplifiers exhibit makes them a great building block because they will not add to the character of other components in your system, making it easier to lock in speakers (undoubtedly the toughest component to interface with your room) and amplifier while tuning to taste, if necessary, elsewhere. Think of your amplifier and speakers as the rhythm section in a band – that essential foundation, that everything else builds upon.

Trixie Whitley’s lead vocal just leapt out of the GamuT’s on the first track, “Love Lives” from Black Dub’s self titled album, with Daniel Lanois’ backing vocals floating from left to right across the soundstage, somewhat diminished in the distance. An abrupt switch to a few trippier selections from Jean-Michel Jarre further confirmed the three-dimensionality delivered by the D500 MKIIs. Equinoxe never sounded better, and Zoolook offered up stirring bass lines.

Following this quest for bass a little further, Ursula 1000s disc, Mystics proved that the D500 MKIIs could not only deliver a large soundfield, but they could deliver deep bass with power and control. Pushing the G9’s to rave music was effortless and even at deafening volume (It felt like being back at the MICS festival in Monaco, minus the dancing girls) these amplifiers kept a lock on the pace, offering up wall shaking beats with no shrinkage of soundstage in either dimension. And of course, all the Yello tracks rattled the room.

This grand soundfield increased as I switched to vinyl – after a few of my favorite LP’s I forgot that I was listening to the tiny boxes on top of the $60,000 pair of Bumester 911 power amplifiers. Again, Vawter encouraged me to compare the D500 MKIIs to the best amplifiers I could get my hands on and they proved formidable. When listening through the GamuT S9s there was still one hurdle between the Burmester, ARC and Pass Labs amplifiers at my disposal in terms of removing the last bit of grain, or palpability, but I can’t remember ever hearing a pair of $5,000 amplifiers sounding anywhere near this good. It was only when I returned to the big bucks amps that I noticed a difference.

Making the power hungry Magnepan 1.7’s part of the equation was equally splendid. One of the biggest dilemmas with the Magnepan speakers is that while they are highly revealing for an inexpensive speaker, they require a lot of power to really light up the listening room. The D500 MKIIs took control of the Magnepans as well as some of the world’s best amplifiers have- I can’t think of an amplifier I would suggest more highly for someone looking to build a high performance system around the 1.7’s (or the 3.7’s for that matter) at a reasonable cost.

The absence of a sound

The Channel Islands D500 MKII amplifiers sounded great and made no missteps while in our care. We will be adding them to our reference fleet of amplifiers, so you will be hearing more about them in the months to come. I feel compelled to give these amplifiers one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2011 as well – they represent tremendous performance and build quality. A well thought out product in every way.

The Channel Islands D500 MKII monoblocks


Preamplifier McIntosh C500

Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP w/SME V and Koetsu Usushi Blue

Phono Stage ARC REF Phono 2

Speakers Gamut S9

Power Running Springs Maxim and Dmitri power line conditioners