• Weiss Engineering Minerva DAC Review

    High-End audio writers have always been masters of subjectivity. Avoiding direct comparisons and an unwillingness to brand one product the "clear" victor over another are par for the audiophile course. This style of writing can leave readers feeling a little cheated and wondering what the writer really thinks. While this may seem frustrating it is a good thing much of the time. Declaring a component the clear cut winner may unjustly prejudice a readers opinion and lead him down a delusional purchasing path while unfairly harming the manufacturers of the "losing" products. I try to steer clear of absolute terms like best, worst, never, nobody, always, everybody. A major reason is I rarely hear something so good or so bad that an absolute statement is appropriate. I can recall the best complete audio system I've ever heard. A pair of Wilson Audio Maxx 2 speakers with all Audio Research components. That decision was a no-brainer. Now it's time to crown another Best. The Best DAC I've ever heard in a computer based audio system. The Weiss Engineering Minerva is definitely THE Best.




    People in the pro audio world have likely dreamed of using Weiss components since the late '80s. Weiss equipment is recognized around the world as some of the best money can buy. In 2001 Weiss Engineering entered the world of High-End audio with the critically acclaimed Medea DAC and Jason CD Transport. These two components are certainly good but they don't fill the needs of the computer audiophile. The Medea DAC could definitely be part of a great sounding computer based system, but it lacks the desired inputs many music servers require. This is where the Minerva comes in with a bang. In addition to the traditional DAC inputsAES/EBU, coax, and Toslink the Minerva offers Firewire (IEEE 1394) inputs.

    Weiss prefers FireWire over USB for several reasons. Similar to USB FireWire offers the asynchronous operating mode. Unlike USB, FireWire also offers isochronous mode that allows devices a dedicated amount of bandwidth. This insures the audio stream will keep flowing without interference from collisions or glitches. As most Computer Audiophile readers knowUSB DACs work great as long as there are no other devices on the USB bus that interfere with the DAC i.e. the keyboard and trackpad on MacBook Pro models. USB also puts more load on the CPU. Fortunately for many computers this load is negligible when audio is streaming to an external DAC. FireWire does seem like the way to guarantee a smooth audio stream to the DAC, but it is not without its detractors. Some in the industry preferUSB 1.1 because it allows a 24/96 audio stream without the need to install additional device drivers. Traditionally FireWire also has more jitter thanUSB interfaces. To handle this Weiss uses the Jitter Elimination Technologies (JET) PLL in the Minerva. This features state of the art jitter rejection and extremely low intrinsic jitter levels. Much more information about all of this is available in the very detailed Minerva manual.

    The Minerva DAC comes with software and device drivers for Mac OS X and Windows based PCs. I conducted this full review using my MacBook Pro running OS X Leopard 10.5.3 connected via FireWire. The software installation is very simple. It is one of those next-next-finish installs that completes in under a minute. Once the installation is complete and the Minerva is connected, the Weiss FireWire IO app can be used to fine tune the performance of the DAC with the music server. This fine tuning is very simple because there is only a couple options to chose from. I'm pretty sure most Computer Audiophile readers can handle selecting the sampling rate at which their music will be played. In the case of the Reference Recordings HRx albums this is 176.4 kHz. The only other selection to make when connected via FireWire is the Isochronous Buffering machine type. The choices are Slow, Normal, and DAW for Digital Audio Workstation. According to Daniel Weiss, President & Founder of Weiss Engineering, these settings vary the kernel buffer size on a Mac. "On faster, more powerful machines, the user can choose a smaller kernel mode buffer size. "Slow" sets a larger buffer size, resulting in more stable streaming performance on slower machines. The larger the buffer, the higher the resulting latency." Said Weiss. Throughout my review I continually heard the best performance with the DAW setting. Since there are three choices it only takes one or two songs to decide which setting works best in a given system.

    Mac users are likely familiar with the Audio Midi Setup application already, so I will only touch on it here. When the Minerva is connected the sampling rate can either be selected through the Weiss FireWire IO application or through Audio Midi Setup. The settings mirror each other so a change to one is a change to the other. Either way this selection is very simple. If you can turn your preamp knob to Phono, you can select 44.1, 88.2, 96, 176.4 or 192 etc...

    As I mentioned previously I conducted this review using one of the FireWire interfaces on the Minerva. I also spent a small amount of time listening to th Toslink interface connected to my MacBook Pro optical port. In the limited time I had this connection running I noticed nothing wrong with the sound. If you don't have a FireWire port on your computer I strongly suggest using this S/PDIF interface until you can add a FireWire card or upgrade to a computer with an available FireWire port. Shortly after Daniel Weiss shipped the Minerva from Switzerland I began my hunt for a quality FireWire cable. I quickly ruled out the cheap-o five dollar cables and the expensive $1000 FireWire cable that I found. I settled on the Monster Digital® Firelink™ 6 pin to 6 pin cable. As an audiophile this was a gut wrenching purchase. Clicking "add to cart" for a Monster Cable product just didn't feel right. I guess I found one area in the audiophile world the entrepreneurial high-end cable vendors haven't cornered ... yet.

    In order to really put the Minerva through its paces I had to have music in many different resolutions. Of course the 16/44.1 selections were covered and the new HRx 24/176.4 albums had recently arrived. So, I finally started to rip my DVD-Audio discs and quickly had a little 24/88.2, 24/96, and 24/192 music to go along with the other resolutions. I was finally ready to hear what the Minerva was all about.

    In general I usually don't like to ask myself questions. As Adam Carolla would say this is a blow-hard move. But, I'll make an exception for this review. Was the Weiss Minerva really the best DAC and was it everything I had built it up to be? Yes and yes. Over the last few weeks I have been hinting in the forums and in other articles that the Minerva is really something special. I'm sure some of the forum regulars wondered if I would ever finish this review! Truth be told, I hated to complete the review because this meant the Minerva had to be sent on its way. Talk about a sad day in Computer Audiophile history. Anyway, I've had quite a few DACs here in my listening room and I've listened to many others at High-End shops and shows. I have yet to hear a DAC, connected to a computer based audio system, as good as the Minerva. The DLIII and the DAC1 PRE don't hold a candle to this thing. At a US retail price of $4950 the Minerva better be a superior product. Fortunately it is superior and the difference between the Minerva and its competition thus far is astounding.

    By far and away the best music I've ever heard from a computer based audio system is the new Reference Recordings HRx material played through the Weiss Minerva. Played back at full 24 bit / 176.4 kHz resolution via FireWire there is no current competition. Listening to the Crown Imperial by the Dallas Wind Symphony is truly an awesome experience. The Minerva pulls every ounce of music from this recording and reproduces it with stunning detail. After spending far too much time listening to the HRx albums I had to move on to the other resolutions in my repertoire. All the 24/88.2 through 24/192 music sounded great as well. A favorite of mine is Stone Temple Pilots first album Core. Ripped at 24/96 from a DVD-Audio disc this album has new life! Equally important as the high resolution albums is the standard 16/44.1 material. Since the vast majority of our music is still in this resolution, the Best DAC must perform just as well with music that sounds far from perfect. As expected, the stunning detail reproduced during the HRx listening sessions was reproduced when playing back some harsh recordings. The compression Red Hot Chili Peppers'Californication was still very harsh and terrible sounding through the Minerva. This is a good thing in my opinion. I don't like those "Hi-Fi" sounding components that make everything sound good. The day Californication is remastered I will jump for joy. I really love the content on that one, but the sound quality limits my time with the recording to a minimum. The new Walter Becker album Circus Money has been spinning nonstop around Computer Audiophile (spinning as in hard drive spinning). I've become pretty familiar with the sound of the album through the DAC1 and the DLIII . When I played the album back through the Minerva I instantly notice a tighter and fuller sound that was absent in the other two DACs. Compared to the Minerva the DAC1 rounded the edges of the drums and greatbass-lines on Circus Money. DAC1 owners, myself included, please take this in the spirit in which it's intended. I suggest you don't listen to the Minerva unless you plan on purchasing the DAC. Once you try this DAC you'll never go back. Think about it this way. Any HDTV in your home usually looks fabulous. But, when you compare your model sitting directly next to the latestBravia XBR in your local dealer, your HD picture just doesn't cut it anymore.

    Another 16/44.1 recording I spent some time with is Chris Isaak's Baja Sessions. I love the sound of his voice and acoustic guitar on this whole album. Two songs in particular that I frequently listen to are his cover of Roy Orbison's Only The Lonely, and I Wonder. Listening to Only The Lonely through the Minerva made me question all previous systems I've owned. Shortly after the guitar intro there is a little "touch" of a cymbal before the vocal begins. This cymbal has been very present in my other systems. With the Minerva the sound is a little more what I call appropriate. The sound fits in with everything else instead of standing out from everything else. Note to Daniel Weiss: Thanks for invalidating all previous audio components I've owned. Listening to I Wonder was really a treat with the Minerva. Chris Isaak's glossy voice and clear guitar sounded like we were both in the same coffee shop. Those of you who are familiar with my musical tastes and reviews know I have to crank up a little Pearl Jam to make sure every component is really up to snuff. This time I put in Pearl Jam's album Yield. The very first track, brain Of J, sealed the deal for me. Shortly after an expedited "1234 - 1234" the guitar started and then the drums completely filled my listening room. Jack Irons was the drummer on thisrecording and the sound of his drums is really a reason in itself to pick up this album. The rest of Yield went off without a hitch through the Minerva.

    A common topic in many audiophile conversations these days is the so-called future proofing of an audio system. Many people are concerned about purchasing a DAC or music server that may not be compatible with all the current and forthcoming high resolution music. The Minerva from Weiss Engineering removes any doubts about compatibility with virtually all current high resolution content. Nobody can be sure of the future formats music will come in, but I am willing to bet nothing will edge over 24/192 any time soon. If this is true the Minerva is more than a wise investment for your audio system. It is a component designed to last with high build quality and high resolution.


    After all of this listening it was "officially official" the Minerva was and is the best DAC I've heard in a computer based system. The musicality of my McIntosh tubes and Avalon Acoustics speakers in combination with the Minerva DAC was really an audio treat that everyone should experience.

     

     




    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    If you're interested in reading the driver release notes from the install I've made them available here.



    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Weiss engineering Minerva FireWire DAC Review
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    Comments 71 Comments
    1. ggking7's Avatar
      ggking7 -
      How much does it cost? Where can it be purchased? Are those RCA outputs?
    1. znorter's Avatar
      znorter -
      Hi Chris and congrats!<br />
      I was so sure about the conclusions I read now from you, 'cause I fall in love years ago when I listened to a Medea dac plus a very cheap dvd player (around 100 euro/159 usd) during a hifi show...<br />
      Weiss products are pro devices for the people that works with audio like Nagra and Sonosax (if they will made a PC devices for us, I think it will be something up, over the stars <br />
      <br />
      I am waiting for the "Vesta" that is the same product you have without the dac for 2500 euro and this review has powered me to the sky dreaming mode...<br />
      <br />
      Ciao.<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      Luca<br />
      <br />
      P.S. Can you say something more about the firewire cables? Do you have found "differences" from 5 to 500 bucks digital interconnects? (Some people says that a mouse or a keyboard remains the same with all cables you add ;-)
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Vincent - Thanks for reminding me to answer this one! After your suggestion I certainly did listen to all of my headphones with the Minerva in my system. I have HD600s, ue11 Pros, and the RS-1s. All three sound different, but equally as nice. The RS-1s do sound absolutely wonderful with high resolution music like the RR HRx 24/176.4 material. There is really something to be said about the detail you can hear with these cans, a good headphone amp, and a DAC like the Minerva. I am a huge fan of rock music and I absolutely love the sound of rock through the RS-1s. Listening to the 24/96 version of Stone Temple Pilots' album Core through the Grados really took it to a different level. The RS-1s just have that sound to them and with the high resolution material that sound is even better. Seriously. If only the RS-1s felt better on my ears after long listening sessions! Note to self: This is justification for the new GS-1s which are much more comfortable :-)
    1. jxo's Avatar
      jxo -
      This is sooo tempting. I travel to Zurich regularly and should stop by Daniel's facilities.<br />
      Is the Minerva's buffering settings better tailored to Macs than PCs? Any other aspects of the Minerva that would affect the Mac vs. PC laptop choice?<br />
      <br />
      Is performance affected by the length of the firewire cable? I may try a 20 ft. length in my listening room.<br />
      <br />
      Chris: how much were your conclusions affected by the quality of the new HRx tracks? With just the standard rez stuff, how would the tone of your review changed? Is the improvement on 16/44.1 material very substantial? I can't help but think that your overall impression was colored by these amazing new RR releases.<br />
      <br />
      I hadn't thought about DVD-A at all. What are your ripping tips if they will be played back via iTunes?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi ggking7 - The Minerva is $4950 US retail. There are a number of retailers around and a distributor in most countries. If you give me your location I can get you in touch with the nearest place to listen to the DAC.<br />
      <br />
      Yes, those are RCA outputs on the back. I use the FireWire inputs and the RCA analog outputs for my review.<br />
      <br />
      It should also be noted that the Minerva outputs AES/EBU to drive any other DAC. It can also be used as a standalone device without connection to a computer if someone is actually interested in the "old school" method of listening to High-End audio :-)
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Jim - The Minerva does not care is you use a Mac or PC. It only cares about receiving a good audio stream from a computer. Mac and PC users will be equally thrilled by this one.<br />
      <br />
      FireWire cables do have a length limitation that I can't remember off the top of my head. Someone please jump in with the answer here.<br />
      <br />
      My conclusions were not swayed by the HRx material. In fact I made sure to discuss standard 16/44.1 music in the review and even mentioned that 16/44.1 performance was equally as important. To be considered the Best DAC the Minerva had to perform with 16/44.1 or else I would never have rated it so high. Very good line of questions though Jim. I was equally concerned and had to demonstrate to myself the quality of standard resolution albums before I raved anymore about this DAC. Fortunately the Minerva is just as good with low resolution as it is with high resolution. If it is in the recording, it is coming out through the Minerva.<br />
      <br />
      More on the DVD-A ripping at a later date. There are a couple threads around here where the discussion has already begun. I am a little hesitant to open this topic up too much because I have a feeling the record labels wil be all over us for whatever reason. You know how they are.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey hey Luca - I haven't been able to test different FireWire cables yet. so I will withhold my comments on this one. more to come later though :-)
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Actually allot of pro developers use Firewire because they use block mode and someone released chips and drivers to make things easy to develop. While without drivers Firewire has ISO Adaptive mode there is little support for the ASYNC mode in Firewire. From what I know Thomas said Microsoft does not support it and I am not sure if Apple does.<br />
      <br />
      A Firewire dac would not require a driver for ISO Adaptive mode. Unless they wanted some sort of control console of some sort. Most of that is also built into USB as you can specify I think 18 options that the OS supports natively (i.e. no driver required).<br />
      <br />
      Paul Miller did some studies of Firewire and did find the jitter on ISO Adaptive stuff was really high. It would be the best bet then to add the PLL/VCXO to recover from that high jitter. I take it they are not using Block mode as that would be ASYNC and would not really require extensive recovery?<br />
      <br />
      Also again USB 1.1 is not limited to 24/96... the spec is open ended and Windows and MAC OSX both support up too 24/210 in the 1.1 specification. Though of course that would require the full 12mbps bandwidth.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. PNCD's Avatar
      PNCD -
      I have been using the Minerva in a Windows Vista implementation. The driver console options are slightly different and I am still unclear about the impact (if any) of Vista audio configurations. Interestingly, two Minerva devices show up in the audio output selector for the player applications. ASIO4ALL must be removed, in my experience.<br />
      The sound is superb with standard CD and Linn HiRes files. I run an EMM CDSD SE and DCC2 preDAC. I can use the DCC2 as either an external DAC to the Minerva or as a preamp after the Minerva DAC. I prefer the DCC2 DAC for more "air" to the sound. The Minerva's highs are sharp-edged and complex classical music becomes congested, in my opinion. The Minerva is very good and better than any other USB solution I have tried. It is a keeper in my system until the Linn DS technology settles down so that I can untether from the computer.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey PNCD - It's interesting you note the sharp edged highs. I had a similar experience but only with certain recordings. I listened for a very extended period of time and narrowed the issue down to the actual recordings, not the Minerva. When listening to the HRx recordings there was absolutely no sharp edge to the highs and these are full range high resolution recordings.<br />
      <br />
      Do you have experience with the HRx albums on a Windows PC that you can share with us?
    1. PNCD's Avatar
      PNCD -
      Chris<br />
      I have the HiRes Linn files at 24/88.1 and 24/96 and I have SACD discs via the EMM kit.<br />
      In general, I find the high frequency range difficult with digital. Higher sampling rates create a smoother high frequency (if not simply re-sampled), which is one reason I like SACD. In my experience, EMM does the high frequencies of digital very well, as in the best I have heard. The Minerva is excellent and better than all the USB and S/PDIF computer audio interfaces I have tried (4). <br />
      BTW, all my files are dbPowerAmp FLAC, least compressed. My preferences may be different with different sources based on my experiences with other audio formats.<br />
      Peter
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Peter - Thanks for the followup!
    1. VincentH's Avatar
      VincentH -
      Thanks Chris, this was what I was hoping for... now there's nothing stopping me :-) The Minerva is firmly set somewhere in my audio future. Although I'll have to wait a bit before I can afford it. Thanks again for all the great feedback and speed of response, this site and it's community really is a great help and an interesting place to learn.<br />
      <br />
      I can sympathise with you on the comfort level of the RS1s, although for me the sound justifies just about anything. Just to illustrate, my original (flat) Grado earpads wore out completely, but since they are no longer available here and I find that the new donut shape earpads completely destroy the sound of the RS1s, I now listen to my RS1s -without- earpads. I guess that makes me hardcore Grado ;-)<br />
      <br />
      PS If you really like the Grado sound and you consider moving from RS-1 to GS-1000, <a href="http://6moons.com/audioreviews/grado/gs1000.html">this GS1000 review which compares it to the RS-1</a> is something to consider - especially this bit: <br />
      <br />
      <cite>"I can definitely see how someone loving the Prestige or Reference Series may not quite understand the radical departure the GS-1000 represents. For those traditional Grado diehards, I urge to audition the GS-1000 to appreciate the new qualities which John Grado has brought to the table. From there, you can decide whether the GS-1000 is truly an upgrade from the RS-1 or a lateral move."</cite>.<br />
      <br />
      Greets, VincentH<br />
    1. znorter's Avatar
      znorter -
      You wrote:<br />
      ......Just to illustrate, my original (flat) Grado earpads wore out completely, but since they are no longer available here and I find that the new donut shape earpads completely destroy the sound of the RS1s, I now listen to my RS1s -without- earpads....<br />
      <br />
      I think here you can get all for your Grado...<br />
      <br />
      http://goodcans.com/HeadphoneStore/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=8<br />
      <br />
      In the headphone forums this about bowl or nor bowl is an "old" question that also Mr. Grado (son) has contribuited to explain: there are 2 way of listening with the RS1...<br />
      <br />
      ;-)<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      L.<br />
      <br />
      P.S. I am thinking, thanks to this thread, about the sacd (Emm Labs.) and the highs from the computer/dac sys:<br />
      you are talking about one of the best digital machine "old school" and this firewire dac+pc.<br />
      Maybe (maybe) what is "superior" is the dac of the Emm; the transport (pc vs policarbonate) maybe (maybe) does not make still the difference.<br />
      I am so curious to try (it means to read...sob...) a very alternative to the Emm like the Naim CDX (hard disc + good dac).<br />
      I repeat myself saying that that you find in the high range probably is the Weiss typical sound: when compared to the best of ALL (Prism Sound!) digital world and...whole world ;-) this you have noted is what engeneers said often...<br />
    1. kana813's Avatar
      kana813 -
      Chris- Here's some hirez files to try on the Minerva. ;-) Dan<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      "I thought some folks here might find this of interest.<br />
      In an effort to see if I could hear a difference in the "engines" of four different editing/mastering apps I have, I created four files.<br />
      <br />
      The original recording (an outtake from a recent session) was created by some software/hardware I'm beta testing. To my ears, it is the best sounding "recorder" I've heard to date. The original files are mono (separate left and right files), 24-bit, 96k in AIF format. (The tools do 192k too but for this project, I chose 96k.)<br />
      <br />
      The original recording is unedited. This is the output of the recorder, from the moment I pressed the red button until I pressed "stop".<br />
      The peak level of the original was around -12.3 dBFS. (I leave lots of headroom when recording.)<br />
      <br />
      I imported the original into each of the four programs. No edits were performed. Then, within each program, I did a gain adjustment of +12 dB and saved the result.<br />
      <br />
      I'll say more later in this thread.<br />
      For now, anyone that wants to download and listen can do at: <br />
      Here are the links:<br />
      http://www.soundkeeperrecordings.com/zdaw1.aif<br />
      http://www.soundkeeperrecordings.com/zdaw2.aif<br />
      http://www.soundkeeperrecordings.com/zdaw3.aif<br />
      http://www.soundkeeperrecordings.com/zdaw4.aif<br />
      <br />
      If you right-click on the links, you should have an option to download<br />
      the files to your hard drive.<br />
      (This link is temporary. I will be removing it from the site at some point in the future.)<br />
      <br />
      Listen to the files, hopefully with a system that will not change the sample rate or word length - so you know you're listening to the files and not to any artifacts introduced by the playback.<br />
      <br />
      Do you hear any differences? If so, please describe them as best you can.<br />
      <br />
      Invariably, some are going to "measure" the files. I already know what you're going to tell me about one of them. It is a bug I discovered while doing this test and I've already spoken with the developer about it. It should not be audible so I wouldn't worry about it at this time. I will create another test as soon as the developer fixes the issue and sends me the new version of the software (which I am also beta testing - in fact, I beta all of these).<br />
      <br />
      The purpose here is just for fun. (Measurers, please keep this in mind.)<br />
      There isn't any "right" and "wrong" in this test, only what you (do or don't) hear.<br />
      <br />
      And hopefully, you'll enjoy the music along the way.<br />
      <br />
      Have fun!<br />
      <br />
      Best regards,<br />
      Barry<br />
      www.soundkeeperrecordings.com<br />
      www.barrydiamentaudio.com"<br />
      <br />
      Posted on:<br />
      <br />
      http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/The-Crooked-Path/?yguid=332166746<br />
      <br />
    1. skates's Avatar
      skates -
      Hi Chris:<br />
      <br />
      I reside in Eastern Pennsylvania. Is there anyone around my vicinity to demo the Minerva?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      There is such a limited number of distributors right now. Check out this page for the list. You may get one of them to ship you a floor unit or something to checkout for an extended weekend or something.<br />
      <br />
      http://www.weiss-highend.ch/distributors_northamerica.html
    1. weiss2496's Avatar
      weiss2496 -
      Mike Slaminski, our US distributor is currently out of country, he'll be back by 6th of July. <br />
      Mike became only recently our distributor and is working on a dealer network. <br />
      Daniel<br />
      www.weiss.ch
    1. Lizard_King's Avatar
      Lizard_King -
      Nice Review. What is the cost of this unit?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Liz thanks. The cost in the US is $4950.