MoCM – Lotoo PAW Gold Touch
I would like to thank Lotoo for providing me with the PAW Gold Touch for this series. No incentive was given for a favorable review.
Lotoo PAW Gold Touch
- 3.77″ IPS GFF Retina LCD
- Lotoo OS
- DAC: AKM4497EQ
- Amp: OPA1622 / LME49600
- XRC: AKM4137EQ
- 4.4mm Balanced Output
- Power Output: 500mW at 32Ohm load
- 10+ Hrs Battery Life
- Memory: SD Card up to 2TB, Supports UHS II
- USB DAC (Fully Asynchronous)
- Bluetooth 4.1 with LDAC
- Size: 68.6 x 119 x 21mm (W x H x D)
- Weight: 311g
- Price: US$3,199
So far in this series we have had three IEMs with three different sources, which although each pairing made sense, can potentially make it a little confusing to compare just the IEMs. Time therefore to introduce some standardization with a single source: the Lotoo PAW Gold Touch (LPGT).
Although it might seem like an unexpected turn of events to include a review dedicated to a single source, it is actually something I had been hoping to do from the very start. In fact, Lotoo was one of the very first manufacturers I contacted with my idea for this series in order to ask them if they would be interested in having the LPGT featured. The importance of a high-quality source can, in my opinion, be underestimated in this hobby. I have seen people spend a fortune on IEMs, only to save by going for a modest source. While I agree that the IEMs have the most noticeable impact, I also find that a high-end source is capable of scaling even lower-end IEMs to impressive levels. So, when looking for “masterful” sound quality for classical music, I could not ignore the source and the LPGT was top of my list.
Based on my experience with the Lotoo PAW6000 and knowing Lotoo have a talent for specific aspects such as background blackness, I suspected the LPGT would perform especially well for classical music. I expected the LPGT would be able to render nuances exceptionally well, something that I feel is critical for classical music. A high level of transparency, detail retrieval and a neutral character were among other aspects that drew my attention to the LPGT. I was therefore incredibly pleased when Lotoo decided to send over the LPGT for me to include here.
My aim for this article is to revisit the previous articles and compare the sources used there with the LPGT and then to use all three IEMs, the DITA Audio Dream XLS, the FiR Audio M4 with the DITA Olso cable and the Vision Ears VE5 with the Effect Audio Lionheart cable with the LPGT to provide a more standardized comparison.
Immediately when I started listening to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante (Idagio, Qobuz) it became clear that the LPGT scales the Dream XLS beautifully well and has a number of (in my opinion) critical improvements over the PAW6000. The first thing that jumps up is the increased dimensions of the stage in all directions with a much airier presentation and indeed an even blacker background. I could hardly imagine that last one, but the background blackness of the LPGT is phenomenal and the imaging is greatly improved. The LPGT seems to give notes a natural agility, not requiring the note articulation I find in the PAW6000, and there is a great level of control that gives the Dream XLS more speed and precision. The presentation feels almost surgically precise and no detail is left hidden thanks to the tremendous transparency.
Still very much in line with the Dream XLS’s presentation, I find that emotions are rendered tangibly and instruments harmonize beautifully, dragging you along with the conversation between the violin and the viola. Instruments, especially violins, feel lighter and airier, while more natural at the same time. With Paganini’s Violin Concerto #4 (Idagio, Qobuz) I find that there is a liveliness to the violin that I would call “fruity” (for whatever odd reason I feel compelled to use that term here). It feels lighter, brighter and yet the level of texture, smoothness and tone is incredible. It is not harsh or fatiguing, but rather more like the LPGT is able to convey a microscopic attention to detail.
Timbre is more accurate across the range, but there is a more nuanced and refined feel to it all. As a result, the emotions rendered by the Dream XLS feel slightly more subtle, strengthening the enticing character of the Dream XLS. Even more than before I feel like the Dream XLS invite you to close your eyes and let yourself be transported to another world by the music. There might be a hint less drama to the presentation of Beethoven’s 5th (Idagio, Qobuz) but I still find myself being swept along with the music as the third movement transitions into the fourth.
When I switched to the M4, I was very surprised by what I heard. With the PAW6000 the M4 were a bit too bright for my taste, the Shanling M8 helped tone that down and based on that I was expecting the M4 to possibly become a touch too bright for me again with the LPGT. Surprisingly that was not the case. The treble of the M4 was more extended, but at the same time it felt smoother than I have heard it. There was an almost ethereal quality to the treble that moved it closer to what IEMs like the Final A8000 have. I would call it ‘bright’, but that would perhaps imply peakiness or sharpness of some kind and there is none. In the recording of Beethoven’s 3rd (Idagio, Qobuz) there is a point in the first movement at around 8 minutes that gets very bright (which could be down to the quality of the recording) and reveals any hint of sharpness, but there is none with the LPGT. It is like the LPGT telling you the recording is not of great quality, but sparing you torture by eardrum by providing that information gently.
The ability of the LPGT to convey microscopic detail is also put on the display with the already highly detailed M4 when listening to the chaotic ‘Dies irae’ of Mozart’s Requiem (Linn Records). It astonished me just how easy it was for me to pick out individual elements even though at no point did I feel coherency was put under pressure. Sure, the M4 separate more than the Dream XLS, but each element continues to work in perfect harmony with every other. This is a strength of the M4 and the LPGT compliments it perfectly. Something underlined with the complexity of Brahms’ Symphony #4 (Idagio, Qobuz), when once again listening with the M4 is a real treat and all the elements come trickling down like rain. With the M4 I also find that the presentation becomes a little lighter and softer while retaining accurate timbre. The bass extends further and is more detailed, yet at the same time retains that outstanding level of control I find so impressive with the M4. When listening to the third movement of Brahms’ fourth, I again (like with the Dream XLS) find an increased perception of speed and precision, giving even more energy to the piece.
I initially paired the VE5 with the Violectric V380, which I will admit was something of an indulgence because it is not very common or even that logical to pair IEMs (portable) with a desktop DAC/amp. The LPGT is a more logical pairing and I think pairs equally well. One immediate advantage is that the LPGT is super clean even on high gain and as such there is not even the slightest hint of hiss with the VE5. Although the noise level of the V380 was not distracting as such, I find the LPGT’s perfect silence and black background to be a great bonus.
As with the Dream XLS and M4, the LPGT displays that surgical precision with the VE5 and thanks to the VE5’s own focused presentation I think this pairing is exceptional in conveying even the slightest nuances. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (Idagio, Qobuz) is once again a joy to listen to and is presented with astonishing clarity. I feel that in this case too, the LPGT compliments the VE5 and this convinces me that the LPGT is a truly neutral source. It seems to elevate the performance of IEMs (even those aside from the ones used here) while getting out of the way itself. In other words, no colour is added to the sound by the LPGT.
This is also the case for vocal performance. With Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas (Idagio, Qobuz) the LPGT elevates the already incredible vocal performance to a higher level without changing anything particular. Vocals feel even clearer, denser and more accurate, but there is no ‘hint of warmth’ or anything like that. Vocals flow and drag you along as Dido sings her final lament and the choir comes in to sing ‘With Drooping Wings’. If there is a change, it is that it feels even more delicate and fragile then it did with the V380, with a more ethereal character to the female vocals. It is so good I don’t want those two final movements to end.
That delicate character is just as strong in Grieg’s Peer Gynt Incidental Music Op. 23 (Idagio, Qobuz), where ‘Morning Mood’ is presented with such emotion and yet it does not feel like that emotion is pushed forward or laid on too thick. It is delicate like early morning sunshine and presented with astonishing clarity. However, don’t underestimate the dynamics of the VE5. When Peer Gynt is hunted by the trolls it is still incredibly powerful and one thing that hit me was how realistic vocals sounded here, truly as if performed on a stage rather than in a studio.
Overall, I feel that the LPGT is a truly high-end neutral source that can elevate the performance of IEMs without introducing any changes so that you get the purest and best performance possible from whatever IEMs you pair it with. The incredibly black background and level of transparency reveals everything with surgical precision. Notes are fast, with very accurate timbre and tangible realism, all set in a large spacious and airy stage that does not harm intimacy when the IEMs present the music as such. In my opinion the LPGT is exactly what I would want from a source for classical music, save perhaps for the downside that it can’t stream natively. In every other way the LPGT is absolutely masterful.
Oh yes, Beethoven’s 7th symphony had to feature in this series at some point. It is the trio of Beethoven’s 3rd, 5th and 7th that has me so enamored with Beethoven and the last has all the qualities I love. Beethoven was “ripe for the madhouse” when he wrote it according to Carl Maria von Weber, or “probably drunk” according to Friedrich Wieck, and that third movement was “like a lot of yaks jumping about” according to Thomas Beecham. Needless to say, I love the symphony and especially the third movement. It is also one of Beethoven’s most popular symphonies and especially the second movement is often used in movies. By the way, Wagner called it the “apotheosis of the dance” and I think that characterizes the symphony best. It is dynamic, fast and flowing, with that wonderfully sombre second movement that many saw as a funeral march for fallen soldiers and had to be encored at the premiere. And how about that finale? Beethoven marked it as “fff – fortississimo” or louder than ‘as loud as possible’. Ludwig the rock star in full force. The whole symphony is absolutely brilliant.
I generally gravitate towards the performance conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, but for variety’s sake I searched around for another excellent recording and found the one conducted by Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a wonderful recording you can find on both Idagio and Qobuz. However, word of warning here because, very unfortunately, Qobuz cuts the first, third and fourth movement short by several seconds. The first movement even by around 15 seconds, completely missing the crucial crescendo at the end of that movement.
Immediately in the first movement the LPGT/Dream XLS pairing gives you that wonderful fluidity of notes that I have described before, yet now it is even stronger because the LPGT has that smoother treble. Smooth, but with better extension to provide more air and detail. At the same time, it is still lively and punchy. Instruments sound more accurate and realistic, a bit fuller than with the M4, and contrasting vividly against the pitch-black background of the LPGT. There is great texture to the bass instruments and a nice punch. The M4 seem to give a bit more weight here to the tympani by comparison and I think the Dream XLS balance everything more organically, where the M4 have the more energetic balance. As a result, the LPGT/Dream XLS pairing flows along more strongly with the emotions of the first movement, giving it an almost heroic feel.
The second movement changes pace and darkens the mood into something of a funeral march. Here I find that the background blackness and high transparency of the LPGT really comes into its own because there is no need to turn up the volume to follow every nuance of the whisper quiet instruments, allowing for a strongly emotional build up, something I feel the Dream XLS do very well. With the VE5 you now get a perfectly quiet background too, compared to the very low noise of the V380, and the VE5 excel at conveying the emotion of the second movement with even more nuances coming through with astonishing clarity. It is not as dark and gloomy as with the Dream XLS and yet it is easily as powerful in the build-up of the emotions. I think the VE5 actually do it more strongly, which I feel is down to the fairly simple nature of this movement, if you compare to the layered and complex movements that follow.
The third and fourth movement are indeed a lot more energetic and complex, and by comparison the VE5 feel more focused and precise, while the Dream XLS feel faster and more exuberant. It is fast and notes seem to jump around in the third movement (the “jumping yaks”). The LPGT/Dream XLS pairing is super exciting and precise. The whirlwind start of the fourth movement showing how (in my opinion) the LPGT is capable of pushing the engaging nature of the Dream XLS to new heights compared to the PAW6000. It is so dynamic, yet so refined at the same time. I can’t remember ever having felt this movement so fast and so precise, and yet it is full on emotional. I feel that in this respect the LPGT shows off its neutral character and gets out of the way to let the Dream XLS perform at their peak. It is astonishingly good and allows the Dream XLS to do what the Dream XLS do best, leave you exhausted at the end of one of Beethoven’s superb finales.
For the LPGT and the M4 I wanted to find a piece of music that was sufficiently grand, full of energy and, because it is my habit to give more of the background right about here in the review, has a fantastic story to accompany it. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique has all those elements and then some. The music is as bonkers as the story behind it. Symphonie Fantastique is an ‘epic for huge orchestra’, and with “huge” we are talking of an orchestra with nearly 100 instruments. What story could possibly demand such an immense orchestra? If I tell you that Berlioz was French, you might guess the answer already: A woman of course.
“Now,” I hear you say, “here come the French stereotype jokes.” But honestly, if all the stories are to be believed, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was almost a caricature of a stereotype Frenchman. It all started at the tender age of 12 years old, when Berlioz read a book called ‘Estelle et Nemorin’, a pastoral romance that was all about the lead character, the beautiful Estelle. Not much later he met an 18-year-old girl named Estelle and Berlioz was immediately smitten. She of course just laughed at the poor boy and he was heartbroken. It characterized the person he would be his entire life. I think the term “drama queen” would be applicable here. At the age of 16 Berlioz claims to be suffering from “the disease of isolation”, which is another way of describing himself throwing emotional tantrums and exhausting himself in the process. If you think I am exaggerating, let’s have a look at Symphonie Fantastique.
The Symphonie Fantastique was written to describe various situations in the life of an artist and that artist’s relationship with the object of his affection, his beloved, who does not return that love. The artist in question is of course Berlioz himself, as the piece is autobiographical with all the theatricals that a hopeless romantic under the influence of opium can add to it. The object of his affection was Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress he saw perform in Paris where she had leading roles in various plays by Shakespeare, including of course Juliet in Romeo & Juliet. Much like with Estelle, Berlioz was immediately smitten with her and did everything to try and attract her attention. What better way to do that than with an autobiographical epic for huge orchestra about his feelings for her? That might lead you to expect something grand and uplifting or flattering, but that would be ignoring the opium in the equation and so it is in fact a self-portrait that describes his delusions, hallucinations and despair. Hardly flattering, but then again, he was French. (Okay, enough with the French jokes already!)
The premiere of Symphonie Fantastique was in Paris in 1830 and Berlioz had selected the same hall where he had previously heard Beethoven’s 3rd symphony, a work that greatly inspired him as a composer. Sadly, missing from the audience was Harriet Smithson, and to make matters worse was that its reception was mixed at best. Berlioz spent another two years refining Symphonie Fantastique and when the new version was performed in 1832 the clever romantic had used intermediaries to get tickets for the best seats in the house to Harriet. It was there, at the end of the performance, that she finally realized it had all been about her.
There is some debate about why she ended up marrying Berlioz. Some might say she was swayed by the epic for huge orchestra. Others might suggest her financial difficulties were a factor, as Shakespeare was longer popular and she didn’t speak French, greatly limiting her options in Paris. I think perhaps Berlioz swallowing a lethal dose of opium in front of her to demand she marry him might have put some pressure on her, as he only took the antidote after she accepted. Whatever the case, it ended predictably. They married in 1833 and by 1841 Berlioz was travelling the world with a mistress in tow, who, after the death of Harriet, would become Berlioz’s second wife.
So, what about Symphony Fantastique itself? It is a wonderfully complex and dynamic piece, perfectly suited to the LPGT and M4 pairing.
Movement 1, Reveries, Passions. This movement introduces the “idée fixe”, a melody that represents the artist’s beloved, where the rest of the orchestra represents his emotions. At times there is laughter, expressed by cheerful violin, and at times there is menace expressed through instruments such as the bass strings, horns and tympani. The dynamics here are outstanding with the LPGT/M4. There is lightness in the violins that I feel is more refined than when I paired the M4 with the Shanling M8. The bass also extends deeper, is tighter and resolves more detail, giving the menacing bass instruments a really precise punch. There is a lovely tonality to the woodwinds, which are conveyed with great nuance and every subtle detail towards the end can be picked up.
Movement 2, A Ball. This is an unmistakable Waltz where the LPGT/M4 immediately sweep you along with it. There is a wonderful tonality to the harps that are only present in this movement and their presence is easily discerned alongside the full force of the orchestra. During the Waltz you are supposed to feel how the artist’s beloved remains outside of his reach at all times and there is indeed a sense of being swept along, yet left to observe at the same time. The VE5 by comparison provide a more intimate feel, less distant and elements are not quite as well separated, while the Dream XLS drag you along much more strongly, providing more the feeling of being a participant.
Movement 3, Scene in the Fields. Here Berlioz’s emotions are dynamic and fluctuating between being calm and erupting into a storm as he moves from happiness to brooding on his loneliness and the thought of his beloved betraying him with another man. Remember here, she was the object of his affection, but that was unrequited and so the whole concept of betrayal was always only in his own mind. Interesting here is the start where an English horn and an oboe are in dialogue with one another, but the oboe is placed off-stage. The LPGT/M4 give a real sense of space between the instruments thanks to the huge stage with superb depth. The change towards the end shows superb texture, detail and placement of the tympani representing the storm in the artist’s mind. It is dark and very powerful with a great sense of the physical size of the instrument.
Movement 4, March to the Scaffold. Here the extraordinarily good tympani get put on full display from the start with a quartet of them. It is a dark movement as the artist has tried and failed to poison himself with opium and instead has horrible visions of murdering his beloved and being led to the guillotine. The LPGT/M4 is dark here and very physical, giving a real sense of the change in the situation. Moreover, it changes again as there is triumph from the crowd with bright and powerful brass instruments rising above the tympani. The physicality of the tympani is very impressive here and you can sense there is a difference in how the instrument is being played. A cloth is used, to give it more of a powerful ‘thud’. In this movement the “idée fixe” is once again represented, but cut short as his head is chopped off and comes rolling down from the guillotine.
Movement 5, “Dream of a witches’ Sabbath”. Here the artists beloved has been transformed into a witch that seems to mock him. The “idée fixe” is now a grotesque and vulgar dance where the beloved has come to delight at his demise with all sorts of ghosts and monsters at his funeral. I find here that the dynamic character of the LPGT/M4 really comes into its own, as the pace changes constantly and darkness and light come and go again and again. There is power, there is lightness, there is timbre and there is texture. It displays the outstandingly well-rounded character of this pairing very well. The Dream XLS with their blacker background keep a darker atmosphere and the lighter sections are perhaps a touch less haunting, though still maintain an unsettling character. Bass impact here is a bit less tight and physical, but very textured. The VE5 in turn do not quite get the menacing darkness as strongly as the M4, but the dynamics here are still very impressive. Perhaps with greater clarity and tonal accuracy, but lacking the “drag you along” emotion in favor of that characteristic focused and precise presentation. You can’t fault it and it oozes emotion from every instrument, it is just more restrained as a whole.
Elin Manahan Thomas
Song of Songs (Idagio, Qobuz)
IEMs: Vision Ears VE5 (Effect Audio Lionheart)
Composer & Conductor: Patrick Hawes
Performers: Conventus (choir), English Chamber Orchestra (orchestra), Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Roger Sayer (organ)
I wanted to finish this review off with a vocal piece for the VE5 to shine with and one of my favourite sopranos is Elin Manahan Thomas. Born in Wales, she is considered one of the most notable sopranos today. She has the voice, she has the looks and if I was a Frenchman huffing too much opium, I might have to write an epic for huge orchestra for her. She is a Baroque specialist and so I felt it made perfect sense to go with a modern composer and include ‘Song of Songs’ here.
Song of Songs is composed by Patrick Hawes and is based on a collection of love poetry from the Old Testament. Since actual love has no place in Christianity, it is generally considered as an expression of love towards God or the relationship between the soul and Christ. Since I am no theologist, I will leave that discussion to others and just immerse myself in the divine music that Hawes composed on it. Hawes was faithful to the original texts, but took some poetic license to develop the narrative structure.
With Song of Songs, I find that the pendulum swings most strongly in favor of the LPGT/VE5. Not just in the sense of the LPGT/VE5 being the most impressive performers, but rather that the difference in presentation has the biggest impact. The VE5 have pretty much the perfect presentation, with that focused character, which is combined with outstanding clarity and astonishing vocal performance to convey the emotion of this music. The LPGT/M4 have a much bigger stage that pulls the vocals further back and it feels like being sung at a much larger venue. Vocals are very good, but there is no sense of intimacy there and the emotions are not nearly as tangible. The LPGT/Dream XLS have emotions, but those feel like coming from the presentation as a whole rather than the individual voices, especially the emotion in Thomas’ voice is not conveyed with the same clarity and tangibility. The VE5 sweep you along with incredible power. It is again like the LPGT finds a way of pushing performance to new heights without imposing its own character on the VE5. As the focused character and vocals are especially strong with the VE5, those characteristics are elevated to astonishing levels and I once again can’t stop listening. Maybe I need to reconsider writing that epic for huge orchestra.
What can I say? The Lotoo PAW Gold Touch was the first in this series I had no experience with and so there was an element of guesswork here, yet the LPGT has lived up to every bit of my expectation and then some. With a neutral character that allows IEMs to perform their best without putting its own mark on the sound, the LPGT adds an incredibly black background and outstanding transparency for notes to come alive. The result is a more accurate tonality, where every nuance is conveyed with outstanding clarity. Improved treble extension and stage dimensions provide an airy presentation that does not harm intimacy if that is how the IEMs are tuned. Always the IEMs dictate the resulting sound and always does the LPGT provide the performance to elevate that sound to masterful levels. I for one am very, very happy I had the opportunity to add such an incredible source to this series.