Steven Stone’s Super Budget Components: Fosi, Sound Artist, Rod Rain Audio

Steven Stone’s Super Budget Components: Fosi, Sound Artist, Rod Rain Audio


Prices listed in US$.

Since this is my first article for PMA Magazine, I’d like to introduce myself… I’m an old guy who’s been writing about music and audio since 1980. I’m also one of a few writers who have contributed to both Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. You can peruse my TAS reviews online here.

During the past several years I’ve seen a plethora of new companies and audio products coming out of China. Many are not well known in the U.S. and Canada because they cater primarily to their domestic market. But some, like Topping, Gustard, SMSL, Matrix, and xDuuo, are internationally available via retailers like Apos Audio and China FI. In my experience, the best Chinese products compete directly with other countries’ pricier offerings in terms of features, design, and sonics, but have substantially lower price tags. Unfortunately, some of the best values pass unnoticed by most Western audiophiles and music lovers because they don’t get advertised and rarely get reviewed in this part of the world. This series—Steven Stone’s Super Budget Components—will be an attempt to remedy that a bit.

Fosi ZA3 Balanced Stereo Amplifier

$129.99 with 32-volt power supply, $149 with high power 48-volt supply

Yes, that price wasn’t a typo. Fosi ZA3’s base price is really under $130! And it’s not some wimpy little toy. The ZA3 can drive real-world loudspeakers to satisfying SPLs. And if you want to go hog wild (recommended), you can get a larger 48-volt power supply and even buy a second ZA3 so you can use two in mono mode! Other features that make the ZA3 special are its ability to accept balanced XLR inputs, its dedicated subwoofer output which delivers a full range signal, its swappable op-amp circuit, and its front panel toggle switches for balanced/single ended inputs and stereo/mono outputs.

Somewhere in the back of the room I heard someone say, “But aren’t class-D amps crap? Best used for subwoofer and car stereos?” Twenty years ago, I would have agreed, but now? Nope, just nope… Texas Instruments is one of several companies, along with B&O, Hypex, Pascal, and others, who’s been working on perfecting class-D amplifier circuits. They have gotten to the sonic point where I prefer the sound of many modern class-D power amplifiers to older Class-A or Class-A/B ones. Class-D is also far more energy efficient and has fewer issues with hum and steady-state noise.

I hooked up a pair of Fosi ZA3 in mono mode to my Spatial X-2 loudspeakers, which usually get far pricier amplification. The ZA3s had no problems driving the X-2s to satisfying levels, even on punishing music. Soundstaging and spatial effects were all preserved on my own live concert recordings. Colour me most impressed with the ZA3’s sonic prowess.

If you are enamoured with the warmth imbued by tube power amplifiers, you may feel the ZA3’s sound is too clean and lacking in the kind of lower midrange and midbass lushness you crave. But if you need a relatively neutral medium-output power amplifier, the ZA3 will be up to the task.

SoundArtist LS3/5A Speakers

$550 – $650

Few loudspeakers generate polarizing opinions like the LS3/5A as to whether it is good or bad. I’m on the positive side, but I use it for what it was intended to be used for—as a nearfield monitor. Individuals who try to employ an LS3/5A in a room of any size are often disappointed by its performance.

I’ve owned two versions of the LS3/5A. My first pair was from SoundArtist, ordered directly from China via Ali Express. They cost me $539/pair, including shipping. I purchased my second pair, the Falcon Acoustics Gold Badge model, about a year later from Mobile Fidelity for just under $3000. Comparing the two versions visually, it was immediately obvious which was more expensive. The Falcon’s cabinet featured a much nicer wood veneer and better-quality speaker terminations. But after a couple of months of going back and forth listening to both models, I sold the Falcons, and I still own the SoundArtists.

The SoundArtist LS3/5A was superior in the sonic area that I value most in a high-fidelity component—the midrange. Admittedly, the Falcon had more extended bass and additional top-end air, but its midrange sounded more “hi-fi” compared to the SoundArtist’s more relaxed and, to my ears, more natural presentation.

I’ve used a number of solid-state class-A/B and class-D power amplifiers with the SoundArtist LS3/5A loudspeakers. As long as the amplifiers put out at least 70 watts into 8 ohms, they had more than enough heft to drive the SoundArtists to satisfying levels. The pair of Fosi ZA3 amplifiers mentioned earlier work nicely, and the combined cost of the SoundArtists and a pair of Fosi ZA3s leaves room to build an entire system for around $1100, cabling not included, with the addition of the next component…

Rod Rain Audio DA68 DAC/Pre/Headphone Amplifier

$225 – $250

I wonder if Rod Rain translates into something less nonsensical in Chinese, but what’s in a name? What matters is what’s inside, and if you look at the parts and the interior layout of the Rod Rain DA68, you could easily mistake it for a premium DAC/PRE/Headphone amplifier costing 3 times its price. Two versions are available: for the small uptick in price, I got the OPA1612 op amp in the analog output section version. You can, and I probably will, replace the stock op amps with Burson or Sparkos replacements to further enhance the DA68’s performance, but as-is, the unit sounds near reference-grade. In a matched A/B comparison using their balanced analogue outputs, I compared the Gustard X-16, which costs more than twice as much, with the Rod Rain DA68. I could not discern a difference when they received identical FLAC, AIFF, and WAV music files with carefully matched output levels using Roon’s Grouping feature.

Compatibility can be an issue with a DAC. Will it recognize all the file formats in my library, and will third-party playback apps recognize it? So far, the DA68 has passed most compatibility tests. No MQA, but Roon can do the first unfold already and I have very few MQA files in my libraries. DSD was also a non-starter. In Roon, I adjusted settings to transcode 5.6 DSD into PCM 352.8/24. Playback apps Audirvana, iTunes, and Roon had no issues interfacing with the DA68.

There is a single-ended ¼” headphone connection on the DA68’s front panel. Connect a pair of headphones and the outputs on the rear panel mute, as they should. I was impressed by the DA68’s ability to drive my pair of Beyerdynamic DT990 600-ohm cans. Easier to drive headphones, such as the Sennheiser HD600, reached satisfying levels with the volume control at 52 out of a max level of 100.

Ergonomics are often sacrificed on inexpensive DACs. But the DA68 has a display, and the display is large enough so you can see the digital sample rate from over ten feet away. It also displays the digital filter employed (you have three to choose from), input source, and volume level. Rod Rain also supplies a remote, which works well, even from nine feet away. You can even change filters from the remote. For me, the ergonomics on the Rod Rain DA68 definitely passed muster. If you require a DAC/PRE/Headphone amplifier, the Rod Rain DA68 will do pretty much everything the higher-priced DACs can do (without MQA or DSD) but with an entry-level price. Yes, you have to order directly from China, and then wait for it to arrive, but I assure you, it was worth the wait.

More from this series:

2024 PMA Magazine. All rights reserved.

Dear readers,

As you might know, PMA is an independent consumer audio and music magazine that prides itself on doing things differently. For the past three years, we’ve dedicated ourselves to bringing you an authentic listening experience. Our commitment? Absolute authenticity. We steer clear of commercial influences, ensuring that what you hear from us is genuine, unfiltered, and true to our values.

However, independence comes with its challenges. To continue our journey of honest journalism and to maintain the quality of content you love, we find ourselves turning to you, our community, for support. Your contributions, no matter how small, will help us sustain our operations and continue to deliver the content you trust and enjoy. It’s your support that empowers us to remain independent and keep our ears to the ground, listening and sharing stories that matter, without any external pressures or biases.

Thank you so much for being a part of our journey.

The PMA Team

If you wish to donate, you can do so here.

Search for a Topic

and receive our flipbook magazines early


Email field is required to subscribe.