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a short diary of some part of my life.

Posts tagged Red Wine Audio

Finally…

I was not planning to write anything about me reaching audio nirvana… I am so happy that from now on, I don’t have to deal with what gear I want to buy or try, what music I want to listen to analyze the sound quality.

After a long and exhausting search, I am now able to breath easily. My brain does not have to think much other than which artist’s album I want to play, which track I want to play, and what music I want to add to my collections. This is something that I was not able to do in the last year or so. A lot of dollars have been poured as well. Audio is a very expensive hobby. But what hobby is cheap? You just need to get what you need (not want) and be happy with them. But that never works because the real problems are how much or how far you are willing to go until you are happy and how you can dismiss ‘I want the latest and the greatest’ bugs.

Higher Price Tag ≠ Better


Keep reading…

Dishonesties

Audio isn’t exactly as expensive as I thought before. I knew I was going to splurge ten-thousands of dollars into it. But what I didn’t expect is dishonesties in audiophile industry. The dishonesties include hypes, lies, and very huge margins (for mediocre performing products). This is where people lose their hard-earned money. There are very few honest personalities but they are also share their own issues. Late delivery, no email replied, and minor/major imperfections are some of the issues. Their products are superb if you are willing to give them a chance to remedy the issues. I guess you just have to patient. I have learnt the hard way and I am now well prepared if I were to purchase a new Hi-Fi product.

Sound Signature

Now, let’s talk about manufacturer’s sound signature. Most of them have their own sound signature. They can’t get away from it. Audio-gd for example, no matter how many times Kingwa wrote that their gear are wire with gain, I still find them to be dark, slow, mellow, and smooth. PS Audio products tend to be bassy, engaging, and warm. Bryston products tend to be a bit dry, a bit thin, but very neutral. They are all different in their own ways. I personally don’t mind sound signature but I prefer it at a much lesser degree and a more enjoyable way. There is no King of the Hills in term of sound signature. This is where you need to make a stance on what kind of sound signature you prefer for your ears. Only you who can make the decision. No one else could.

Superior or Different?

Then, there is sound quality, which one really is better than the others. Most high-end manufacturers’ products are often touted to perform better than their cheaper counterparts. This is not exactly true. In my opinion, there are only two major differentiations, superior and different. Being superior means a product simply sounds better than the others. Being different means a product simply sounds different (sound signature differences) but no better. This is where technical specs (+ measurements) and manufacturers’ reputation can be very useful. Ears and brain can often be misleading. A few words or so from a superb review can turn our opinion upsidedown. I think this is a real issue that plagues most audiophiles. To make it worse, most of them do not have experience with high-end gear (IMO, a high end gear is a high performance gear). They often simply throw opinion that they get from various reviews. In my opinion, superior gear should be transparent to the music. It doesn’t excel with only one genre, it excels in almost every genre. The gear shouldn’t be designed to be genre specific. That way, I can enjoy my musics however I want.

This single requirement basically throws out Red Wine Audio, Mhdt, Audio-gd, any lush sounding tube gear…

I bet some of you want to know what gear I end up keeping. Sharing is caring so here we go…
I feel that good sound must be produced from the front end. So, let’s start with the front end, the DAC…

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)

I wasn’t aware of the prowess of PS Audio before I tried the PWD (PerfectWave DAC). Luckily, I also encountered W4S (Wyred 4 Sound) with their DAC-2. IMO, they are extremely similar. I actually think the DAC-2 is a poor man’s PWD. There are also a few other high-end brands that I have tried after I auditioned PS Audio’s best DAC, such as: Weiss DAC202, Berkeley Alpha DAC, Lavry DA11. They are all very similar. They play various genre with ease. All of them sound superb. But which one really is the best. To make this simple, here are the breakdowns:

  • PWD Vs. DAC-2
    as I said above, they are extremely similar. PWD tends to be a bit warmer at times or DAC-2 tends to be a bit more engaging  and a bit more detailed at times but still retains an enjoyable degree of warmness, just like PWD. That’s it! I don’t know which one is more realistic. They are equally enjoyable.
  • Berkeley Alpha DAC Vs. Weiss DAC202
    they are extremely similar too, maybe the Alpha is a bit warmer and the sound position is centered. I bet no one could differentiate them. One advantage of the Alpha over the DAC202 is the ability to play HDCD.
  • PWD/DAC-2 Vs. Alpha/DAC202
    the Alpha/DAC202’s detail retrieval is just nuts. It is a noticeable difference but we are talking 5-10% improvements. At times, Alpha/DAC202 is not as engaging as the PWD/DAC-2. I think this is the DAC that you should choose if you like a very revealing source. This advantage can be overturned when I2S over HDMI (PWT – PerfectWave Transport) is used on the PWD/DAC-2, PWD/DAC-2 is just as good if not better in detail retrieval. Other than detail retrieval, with I2S over HDMI, PWD/DAC-2 excels over Alpha/DAC202 in almost every area.
  • Lavry DA11 Vs. Alpha & DAC202
    I got this curiosity about Lavry DA11. Two weeks passed and I found them to be very similar. Yes, a $1480 Lavry DA11 performs just as good as a $5000 Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC. The DA11 can stand on its own. You won’t be able to differentiate them, my friends and I can’t! It was a very surprising finding considering I didn’t have any interest in the DA11.

You would think: oh, the PWD or the DAC-2 is a clear winner. Keep in mind, we are talking about minor improvements. No DAC absolutely stood out, they were more variations on a theme than substantial differences. Oh and, if you purchase a PWT to be paired with PWD/DAC-2, it brings the price of the combo to Alpha/DAC202’s territory. So, which one I ended up keeping? You will have to read the following paragraphs below.

Pre-Ampllifier

Not needed. Read speaker amplifier section below.

Speaker Amplifier

Choosing a speaker amp is not as hard as choosing a DAC. The differences between various speaker amps more apparent that the differences between various DACs. Nevertheless, I still had to purchase and borrow a few amps. I’m more willing to splash much more dollars into a speaker amp than a DAC. A good speaker amp will likely outlast me. A DAC on the other hand, will likely become obsolete in just a couple of years. So, I consider this as a one-time-purchase (inferior speaker amps will be sold or returned). This has to be right. I had the following amps for comparison: Wyred 4 Sound STI-500, ModWright KWA 100, and Krell FBI. W4S DAC-2 was used as the source. FYI, STI-500 and FBI are integrated amps, so in the following comparison, the highly acclaimed Wyred 4 Sound STP-SE is used in between the DAC and the KWA 100.

  • STI-500 Vs. KWA 100
    STI-500 produces a slightly warmer sound. It does almost everything right though. The bass is a bit boomy if compared with the KWA 100. The level of detail retrieval is more or less the same. KWA 100 sounds somewhat more engaging at low volume. PRAT is where KWA 100 excels over STI-500.
  • STI-500 Vs. FBI
    STI-500 seems to be a refined version of the FBI. The Krell sounds raw. It has brute force that can sound somewhat unrefined. The bass on the FBI is pretty good, it’s definately bassy but it doesn’t go as deep as the STI-500. STI-500 presents equal level of detail retrieval. PRAT is a little better on the STI-500. It sings with almost any music, while with the FBI, it only excels in a few genres.

I think I can pick a clear winner, it’s the KWA 100. Keep in mind that it is almost twice the price of the STI-500. Recently, ModWright increased the price of their products. I also used the excellent STP-SE which cost $2K. The combo is going to set you back around $5.5K. Not to mention, additional interconnects and power cable. Wait a second, if you notice that the PWD and the DAC-2 have 32-bit digital volume control feature. You actually don’t have to use a preamp in between the DAC and the power amp. $2K is saved. That’s why these excellent DACs present very high value. They can act as a preamp and it is a super transparent one. If you introduce a preamp in between, you make the signal path a lot longer. I for one believe that the shorter the better. You can easily differentiate the sound with or without STP-SE, the overall sound quality do suffer a bit. This is with the excellent STP-SE. Imagine if you are using a lesser preamp. I couldn’t believe the amount of grunge a pre-amp adds.

Speakers

For speakers, I use a pair of Selah Audio’s top-of-the-line two-way monitors and a single Selah Audio powered subwoofer. I use monitors because I like simplicity. I dislike big-honking speakers. A couple of months ago, I brought my speakers to a local high-end audio store. The owner was pleasantly surprised. My little but heavy speakers trounce some of his floorstanders and all of his monitors. They sound bigger than they look! This was something that I didn’t expect. In the future, when I am in my 50s (I’m in my mid 20s BTW), I’ll give Rick Craig (Selah Audio owner & designer) a call. I’m going to go all out. Selah Audio is the best speakers manufacturer that I have come across.

My Choices

I think I have put too much energy and money into this one hobby. This has got to stop. Here are my choices:

  • DAC: Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2
    why: it is an excellent performer at the price point or any price point. As I said previously, no DAC absolutely stood out. Even if I remove any reference to the price, it is still one of the most honest sounding pieces I own (along with the PWD). This thing is just loaded with settings, features, inputs, outputs ,and just raw performance. You know when you pull this brick out of the box that it is all business right off the bat. No bling. No pretty touchscreens, you pay straight up for what really counts and get it in spades.
  • Amplifier: STI-500
    why: KWA 100 is clearly a better amp. But when paired with DAC-2, the major differences diminish to minor differences. EJ has clearly put a lot of thoughts into making the DAC-2. The pair is just magical.

The Wyred 4 Sound pair allows me to save some money to fund my next and final two purchases. They are one of PS Audio power conditioner and additional room treatments that actually looks good! I could have gone all PS Audio PerfectWave series, but the thing is when similar performance can be achieved in lower price point and not sacrificing one bit of the sound quality, I’m willing to do it. Besides, Wyred 4 Sound is a veteran in the business. They know what they are doing. Yes, DAC-2 is a poor man’s PWD. It has the prowess of the PWD in cheaper suit. It is also upgradable. Consider these as well:

  • I have no problem spending $10K on speakers that will be a good buy 10 years from now but I think that spending more than $5K on something with an 18 month leadership is very questionable.
  • DACs are great at improving sound from a lower quality source, but output is limited by your amp and of course the speakers. You will get bigger improvements when you upgrade amp speakers, probably in that order in my opinion. Speaker changes make bigger differences provided you have a decent amp. Then I’d consider a DAC to smooth out any remaining problems from your old source/DAC.

I won’t be buying anymore audio products (except the final two purchases mentioned above), even for my curiosity sake. It’s set and done! I will be adding more music though. Having experience the troubles associated with audiophile gear, I do not want to go thru the same path again. I’m very happy that I don’t have to deal with those hassles again. But I guess without having gone thru that path, I would not have known this and that. Although I lost a lot of money and valuable time, I do appreciate good people in the industry. Good guys from Wyred 4 Sound, PS Audio, HeadAmp, and a few more deserve more recognitions than they have now. They are not only producing superb products but also providing great services to the community. All the pain and happiness have taught me a lot of things, not just audio, but life in general.

Suggestions

Given there are too many choices in the market, I have a few suggestions for you:

  • Ask yourself, do you want to be an audiophile or audiophool? I’m dead serious.
  • Set your budget. You DO NOT need to spend crazy money to get great sound and I’ve seen a lot of people selling their gear because they need to finance something important. This is something that you will not want to experience. It proves that you don’t save enough and you have spent more than you originally intended. DO NOT put aside any $$ for ‘audiophile’/fancy cables. The general consensus of high-end audio must be expensive is WRONG. High-end audio is affordable (High End is specifically SQ related not price dependent).
  • Take every single review as grain of salt, including mine. Personally, I tend to give more weight to users comments, especially when users comments reach a critical mass. I also give more weight to negative comments than positive comments.
  • Buy from ‘real’ reputable companies. There is less chance they would screw you up. Both the design of the product and customer service are usually top notch. You will also get higher resale value.
  • Ask yourself these questions for the gear you have auditioned: Do they have their own sound signature? Are they transparent enough? Do they produce enjoyable music?
  • Avoid buying used gear when possible! I know many people recommend this way to save tons of money but the thing is when you buy used gear, you don’t know how the item that you are about to buy or have bought performs. There are many reason why people sell their gear. One of the reasons is damaged gear. I have personally seen many ‘surprises’ when buying used gear.
  • Do not attempt to modify the thing yourself and do not ask somebody (who is supposed to be a ‘reputable’ modder) to mod it for you. If you are not satisfied with the equipments you own, sell them and upgrade. If you want a better sound, sell them and upgrade.

I will post a few photos of my listening room when everything is in its right places. Right now, it’s too messy. I also need to sell off equipments that I no longer need, to recoup my initial investments.
So, I guess, this is it. Enjoy what you have and most importantly, the music!
Happy Listening!

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This all started when I found Audio-gd, an audio manufacturer led by He Qinghua or well known as Kingwa. He makes superb audio gear based on designs that can only be found in some of the most exotic audio electronics on the planet. Oh, don’t worry about the price, they are very reasonable for what you get in the unit. The designer/owner himself is a very honest person which is a huge plus in my book; there are very few honest personalities in audiophile world. I’d have a hard time finding similar products that can compete well in Audio-gd price brackets or even well above it. I have had a few Audio-gd products, my newest toy from them is the new Audio-gd Reference 5 DSP.

Reference 5 idea was suggested by an audio forum member who owns a complete Audio-gd system. He suggested Kingwa that Audio-gd needed a DAC to be paired with their smallest balanced headphone amp/preamp, the ROC. The chassis was readily available. I never thought it could be done at the time as the chassis is quite small for a fully balanced PCM1704U-K-based DAC. Not only did he manage to design one but I think he brought up a few interesting ideas about the design which will be covered below.

Design

PCM1704
The RE5 uses four Burr-Brown PCM1704U-K ~ R-2R/multi-bit chip, two chips per channel. It’s a fully differential/balanced DAC. The PCM1704U-K is considered to be the best sounding DAC chip. It is also the last of its kind.

DSP-1
There are two kinds of Reference 5 ~ RE5. The DSP version uses Audio-gd DSP-1 and the DF version uses the DF1704 digital filter. DSP-1 is a powerful proprietary programmable digital filter processor developed by Audio-gd. Burr Brown DF1704 is a typical digital filter used in many PCM1704-based DACs. For HDCD lovers, unfortunately, none of RE5 digital filter options can decode HDCD, you would have to choose one of their DACs that is designed specifically for PMD100. DSP-1 uses Altera Cyclone on its’ heart, it has comparable processing speed to an Intel Pentium II processor. If you want to play with DSP-1 settings (switchable via DIP switches on the DSP-1 board), here is the diagram: http://currawong.net/head-fi/DSP_settings.html

DAC Reference 5 has built in DSP-1 processor, which is a Two-channel Digital Interpolation Filter and data in-phase processor for digital audio. This Device offers advanced features for high-performance digital signal processing (DSP) applications up to 250-MHz. Data and Master-clock in-phase processing are without jitters. So DAC Reference 5 can offer a clear and focused soundstage, apart from accurate and neutral reproduction of the recorded disc/music. Theoretically when using the DSP1, data will be running parallel, achieving near zero jitter state, no matter the level of CD transport attached, be it hypermarket grade or hi-end level, you will still be getting the best and similar sound quality! Practically, through some experiment, although we could perceive the sound quality difference between differently priced and level of CD transports (as an audiophile, you just can’t just follow pure theory, but you must also venture the practical side too), but final result shows that using entry level CD transport or hypermarket grade DVD player, the improvement of sound quality is huge compared to typical digital processor chip like PMD-100, DF1704 etc.

ACSS & Overbuilt Power Supply and Filtration
All the processing/filtering after the DAC is done in the current mode ~ ACSS (Audio-gd Current Signal Sytem) which is a lot less harmful to the sound than voltage mode. Each PCM1704U-K has its’ own ACSS module. It has zero feedback analog stage, discrete output stage ~ there is no op-amp/IC, no coupling capacitor on the signal path, and all DC coupled. The power supply is monstrous, it has nine groups of parallel voltage regulators to purify dirty power and provide clean power to the digital board and analog stages. There are two beefy R-Core power transformers, each of them serves different purpose, one for the digital board and the other one for the analog stage. R-Core transformers are arguably better than torodial transformers. The transformers, ACSS modules, and IEC socket are carefully shielded with copper sheets to avoid interference. Each and every section of the DAC is heavily regulated. Those are not marketing hypes, they are just good designs.

The ACSS is a non-feedback technology made with discrete amplifiers. Most people know the global feedback design can offer better specs in test measurements, and non-feedback can’t do well in test measurements but can offer better sound for the human’s ears. Here is a conflict of the classic circuits. But the ACSS opens a new field, it can offer a least coloration sound which is more neutral with very low distortion and high linearity. So it can retain the dynamics, detail and neutral sound but not sound bright or harsh.Audio signals are usually transmitted as voltage fluctuations, such as what eventually powers headphones and speakers. Instead of this, Audio-gd gear sends the signals, including digital (a first as far as I know) as a current signal (electricity has voltage and current). The advantage is that the effects of components on the signal, including cables, are reduced considerably this way, and you end up with a cleaner signal. Also, in Audio-gd gear, after the signal is amplified, it’s changed back to a voltage signal. However, if you connect two Audio-gd components together using ACSS, the circuits changing voltage to current and back are bypassed, so both act as if they are one unit, improving things further.

Modular Circuits
Since the entire analog and digital circuitries are modular, users may easily replace modules in the DAC if there is any future upgrades. The DSP-1 is socketed onto the digital board and the digital board is lifted above the main PC board by three aluminum standoffs. There are two ACSS modules ‘hidden’ underneath the digital board. Recently, Audio-gd ran out of PCM2706 USB receiver, Kingwa posted an offer on Audio-gd website to exchange the USB input for another Coax or Optical input. To have another Coax or optical input, the digital board needs to be changed.

Inputs & Outputs (stock config):

  • 3 digital inputs: Toslink-Optical, Coax-RCA, USB.
  • 2 sets of analog outputs: RCA and XLR.
  • 1 set of ACSS outputs if one wants to utilize Audio-gd’s ACSS technology. That is another compelling reason to get one of their preamps, power amps or integrated amps.

I don’t use the built-in USB input, so I won’t bother writing anything about it here. For those who cares about the built-in USB input, it uses Tenor TE7022 24bit/96kHz USB receiver. The same Tenor chip can be found in Stello U2, NuForce HDP, NuForce uDAC-2, and Teralink X2. Instead of having a USB input, my new RE5 has two Toslink inputs and two coaxial BNC inputs. I figured it would be better to have no USB input as the technology is still maturing. There are various USB-SPDIF converters out there, new ones come out every a couple of months.

Build Quality

There isn’t anything special about its’ exterior, it has an old school fairly rugged lightly brushed aluminum case with solid aluminum feet. Unfortunately, the fit and finish of the chassis is still well below my expectations. There are scratches, gaps and excess materials all over the chassis. I own a Wyred 4 Sound DAC, comparing them side by side is like comparing a Lexux Vs. a cheap Chevy. W4S DAC’s fit and finish and overall build quality are top-notch, much better than the RE5; my main beef is sub-par parts selection that do not contribute directly to the sound quality, such as: cheap CMC RCA jacks (that can easily worn out after several usages) and flimsy ACSS connectors (I may replace the ACSS connectors with mini XLR). In all honesty, they make little or no effect to the sound quality. I would rather have a well designed innards than a beautiful chassis that may cost up to half the price of the unit and skimp on the quality of the components inside. Besides, I sit at least six to ten feet away, it looks simple and fairly beautiful. Overall, the build quality of the innards is very good. It definately looks handmade.

The first thing that I noticed when I opened the RE5 was, it is massively populated and well laid out. There is practically little to no space spared. It screams great care that Kingwa has given in designing this DAC. Aside from RE5’s engineering prowess, I find many high quality components used inside the RE5, such as: Dale resistors, Hitachi transistors, Toshiba transistors, WIMA film capacitors, Solen capacitors, Sanyo OS-CON caps, WBT silver solders, Canare BNC, and Neutrik XLR. The input naming on the RE5 is simple and user-friendly. There is a switch knob on the face plate for switching between Coax, Toslink, and USB. It really is a very simple case. The chassis looks similar to a TEAC unit ~ it also has rounded corners instead of boxy looking cases like older Audio-gd gear. This chassis is also used for Audio-gd balanced headphone amp/pre amp, the Phoenix and the ROC.

Setup

All electronics are plugged onto a PS Audio Quintet power center. Quintet is the first passive power conditioner that I found to work as advertised, it cleans power and it protects any electronics plugged onto it. I’m feeding the RE5 with Squeezebox Touch and Halide Design Bridge plugged onto my Apple MacBook Air with Audirvana+). I use the RE5 XLR outputs to feed Wyred 4 Sound STI-500 (a state-of-the-art ‘wire with gain’ integrated amplifier). The speakers are Selah Audio RC3R on Sanus speaker stands. Several speakers isolation devices and room treatments are used to get the most out of the speakers. I have various analog interconnects, digital interconnects, speaker cables, and power cables but ultimately settled with Blue Jeans Cable. I have used the RE5 for several weeks to familiarize myself with the sound signature.

Now, about the Sound Quality…
It’s definitely an upgrade over my old DAC-19Mk3 ~ which beats PS Audio lower end model, Benchmark DAC, and RWA DAC in musicality. Everything seems to sound clearer and more dynamic. I can hear more passages in the music, the bass goes deeper and better tonal balance. It produces a very smooth sound signature. The sound placement is right where I want it to be which is on the center of a stage. To keep this simpler, all the good things and improvements over those DACs mentioned above are easily distinguishable. Two months ago, I went to a jazz concert in Seattle. FYI, the theatre is renowned for its excellent sound system, it’s not like your typical concert venues which mostly offer mediocre sound systems. I still remember the superb experience listening to her musics live, how good the vocal was, listening to the same music at the jazz concert with the RE5 is pretty close. I have no trouble identifying instruments that are being played, instruments sound very real, and silky smooth vocal seems to evolve around me. I’m a big fan of movie trailer musics, musics created by Two Steps From Hell, Alan Silvestri, Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, and Steve Jablonsky are often hard to find, a few of them are only available on iTunes. Listening to a few Steve Jablonsky’s music blow my mind, it’s so surreal! The best thing about the RE5 is that it does not get in the way of the music, it simply disappears. This is what Hi-Fi is all about.

The thing about high-end DACs is that they offer very little performance for the money. This isn’t the case with RE5 or any top of the line Audio-gd DACs. While some may not like the sound due to its very slightly colored sound signature (sometimes, it can be too smooth), I think it’s really the sound signature of this particular DAC chips. I could be wrong but hearing PCM1704 on several occasions, almost all of them sound very similar. People might say, well, the PWD is better. PWD is only better at several key areas. No DAC stands out from the rest. If you like neutral but musical sound, you might like the PWD. But for the ultimate clean musical sound, you’ll like W4S DAC-2. Now, let’s bring DAC-2 on the table. The RE5 sounds good but DAC-2 betters it in some areas, such as: soundstage, speed, details, precision. Speed and cleanliness in complex passages are the major differences here. RE5 can be somewhat slow and not as clean as the DAC-2. That does not mean the RE5 is not a good DAC. It is, it’s just it offers different presentation.

To make this simpler, here are the pros and cons:

Pros:

  1. Musical
  2. Vocal
  3. Smooth, easy on the ears.
  4. Natural, organic-sound.
  5. Expansive soundstage, some people might like this.
  6. Clean bass, again, some people might like this.

Cons:

  1. Soundstage is not as precise as some of the best DACs.
  2. Not the fastest sounding DAC.
  3. Some like the smoothness, but some say it’s a dark-sounding DAC, it is.

In all fairness, without all those newer best performing DACs, this could be the end game. This could be the only DAC that you really need. After all, the goal is to enjoy music, not analyzing them. Other words, buy what you enjoy the most, not the latest DAC that you can get. Usually, DACs based on older DAC chips tend to sound better because designers have mastered making DACs around them.

~~~

The RE5 is a great sounding DAC quite possibly one of the most natural sounding DACs that I have tried. I find it a lot easier to find flaws from my previous DACs ~ the only way to compare which DAC is better than the other is compare them side by side and spend some time with them. With this DAC, I often feel very excited playing musics that I have forgotten in my hard drives ~ I find myself searching for good music again. I don’t have any genre preference, as long as the music is good and it is well recorded, I’m willing to listen to it. DACs from well-known brands are often claimed to be great bargains for the money. Some even compare them by their prices, I’ve never seen a direct correlation between cost and quality in electronics. In my opinion, most of them offer very little for the money, in fact, they are often very overpriced. I would say, the RE5 is the ‘real’ bargain for money, a genuine high performance DAC for the $$. This is definitely one of the DACs that I’m going to keep for a long time. It’s time to take a rest and enjoy the music. Happy Listening!