Gold Note DS-10 D/A processor

I felt like I'd just been offered a choice of 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream topped with up to 57 varieties of Heinz ketchup, 57 condiments, and 47 brands of coddled cream. My head began to spin, my stomach churned, and my mouth grew very dry as I read that Gold Note's DS-10 ($2995) was a "chameleon DAC" with 192 setup options that enable it to "completely blend in with different music genres, giving the listener the opportunity to adapt the behavior of the unit to the music playing, to one's stereo system and, most of all, to the listener's taste."

My brain was rattled by memories of Michael Green Designs Chameleon tunable speakers and the frightening number of hours I had devoted to trying to get them to sound "right." I flashed back to the afternoon in my East Oakland living room when I was so convinced that everything was perfect that I had invited my friend Danaan over for a visit. That's when I indulged in one of my friend's joints—something I never do when reviewing equipment because it affects my hearing.

"Something's wrong with the tuning," cried the delusional one (me). Much to Danaan's chagrin—he was a practitioner of vibrational medicine, and my vibes had just shot into critical diagnosis zone—I grabbed the tuning control and began to alter speaker settings far too much. After the fiasco ended rather abruptly—how could anyone possibly groove to music as this wide-eyed mad person was radically altering tonal balance, soundstage width, and bass while babbling hysterically?—my friend gave up and left. Hours later, after I had returned to a "normal-for-me" level of audiophilia nervosa, I took one listen to the mess I'd made and vowed that I would rather sell those speakers than engage in one more round of tuning.

Here I was again, but this time it was a compact, multifunction D/A processor that threatened to metamorphose my delight into delirium. I resolved arbitrarily to set the DAC's three presets, each with multiple choices of equalization curve, de-emphasis curve, and power setting, all on 1, all in the middle, and all at max, respectively. I then took a brief listen, scribbled in my notes "the higher the three settings go in tandem, the warmer and fatter the sound," and decided that was as far as I would go. Dismiss me, fire me, shoot me if you must, but I swore I'd rather embrace death than spend endless days and nights playing with 192 setup options.

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When desperation had subsided, and the DS-10 had experienced the 200 hours of break-in that, I was assured, guaranteed I would hear it at its best, I discovered that the little baby sounded so good with its "presets off, all parameters at 0" setting that I had no desire to change filters, curves, or output voltage. Instead, I began to wonder if Editor Jim Austin had tasked me with reviewing a DAC that might set new benchmarks for performance at the price.

From OEM to OMG
The history of Italy's Gold Note dates back 30 years, to its beginnings as an OEM supplier for large and small audio brands worldwide. I didn't press for names, because I expected them to be secret. (When I toured the ATI factory of OEM supplier/amp designer Morris Kessler in southern California more than a decade ago, as I stared bug-eyed at the major brands on its production lines, I was counseled, "You didn't see that.")

In 2008, after the worldwide economic crisis took its toll, the company chose a new direction. That's when the Gold Note (originally "Golde Note") and the now-discontinued Black Note brands emerged.

The company now has 50 unique products including analog, digital, and loudspeakers, designed by a team that includes electrical engineer Flavio Lenzi and distributed in 42 countries.

Gold Note offers three streaming DACs: the DS-10, based on AKM Japan's AK4493 DAC chip, which was released in August 2019; the almost-twice-as-expensive DS-1000 ($5599), which was released five years ago and uses the Burr-Brown PCM1792 DAC; and the DS-10 Plus ($3495), available later this year, which adds to the DS-10 a 3.5mm minijack analog input, internal Bluetooth antenna, and "better" internal power supply. Barring the simultaneous arrival of all 10 plagues, the DS-1000 will cede to the DS-1000 EVO in 2021.

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While the DS-10 can accept, through its USB-B input, up to PCM 32/384 and DSD512, the AK4493's limits dictate that the DS-10 downsample rates higher than 24/192 and DSD64. During the review period, DSD remained DSD only through the USB input; otherwise, it was converted to PCM. By the time you read this, new firmware may keep DSD native through other inputs. Perhaps it goes without saying, but your UPnP server must support DSD streaming if you want to stream DSD files.

The DS-10's front panel includes a standby/on button with a teeny LED indicator, a ¼" headphone jack, a large, dimmable-and-defeatable display with volume numbers easily read from 12 feet away, and a volume knob that is also used to select items in the setup menu. Both of those things can also be achieved with the unit's lightweight, plastic remote control.

The volume-control potentiometer, made by ALPS in Japan, is optical-encoded and, according to company head and mechanical engineer Maurizio Aterini, "guarantees highest resolution and strict tolerance." It has a logarithmic run, with approximately 1dB steps at the beginning and smaller steps in the middle "where the ear is most sensitive."

Eyes are sensitive, too, so, to avoid glazing them over, I'll skip an exhaustive review of the DS-10's 200-plus options in favor of a discussion of several unique features. The headphone amplifier, which is automatically activated when headphones are plugged into the front-panel headphone jack, can be set for high or low sensitivity, the low-sensitivity setting corresponding to 5W of power. I selected the latter to use with Audeze LCD-X headphones when I evaluated the headphone amp.

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For many DACs with a digital volume control, a simple and effective way to "bypass" it is to turn it up all the way. Not so with the DS-10, which uses a potentiometer to control volume in the analog realm. When I turned the volume all the way up, to 100, I heard distortion. To take the volume control out of the picture, the best approach is to set the DS-10's "enable function" to "DAC" (fixed output) rather than "PRE" (preamplifier-adjustable output). The "DAC" setting was always used when I was listening with the MBL N11 preamp in the system.

When I briefly discussed the DAC's 192 setup options with Lenzi, he sent me charts that listed the choices for low-pass filters, deemphasis, and output voltage. These charts are not included in the otherwise well-conceived 24-page manual, nor can I find them on the Gold Note website; it would be a good idea to make this useful information available to all customers.

In addition to the seven digital inputs on the rear panel, the DS-10 can receive a signal via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth 5.0. Detachable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi antennae come with the unit. Since I stuck with wired connections, I never attached these. Gold Note claims "Bluetooth High Definition 5.0," but my limited time with the unit compelled me to skip this function. I hope Bluetooth High Definition 5.0 sounds better than the Bluetooth I've quickly abandoned during previous component auditions.

As an alternative to the DS-10's internal power supply, Gold Note provides an external supply, the PSU-10 EVO ($1295), which attaches via a supplied eight-pin DIN connector cable. The PSU-10 EVO is activated by a small toggle switch on its rear panel. When it's attached and on, the teeny LED on the DS-10's front panel changes from blue to green.

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Dubbed "EVO" because it is an evolution of the standard PSU-10 external power supply available for Gold Note's phono stage, the company calls the four-transformer PSU-10 EVO a "hybrid" because it merges elements of dual choke, inductive, and cascade designs. Aterini says that one transformer cascades into the other until power reaches the final transformer, which "works like a sort of active super filter to cleanse and amplify energy. The goal is more detail, more depth, more power, greater smoothness, and even elegance."

The very first PSU-10 EVO off the production line arrived here just days before this review was due. I missed my deadline so I could let it break in for a full 100 hours before evaluation.

Strategy and setup
Even though I passed on Bluetooth and an exhaustive evaluation of those 192 preset combinations, I hardly made reviewing the DS-10 easy for myself. First, I evaluated its USB, S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and coaxial digital inputs; then came Ethernet. I used Roon software, played through the Roon Nucleus+ music server/streamer and operated by the Roon app on my iPad Pro. Music was sourced from files on solid-state USB sticks and streamed from Tidal and Qobuz. The Nucleus+ and the HDPlex 200 linear power supply that powered it sat atop Ansuz Darkz T2S resonance support feet with optional Titanium balls; everything else sang on Nordost Titanium Sort Kones. Most components benefited from the extra silence bestowed by Nordost QKore passive ground units.

For comparisons, I planned to use the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ ($2195) and dCS Rossini DAC/Clock ($31,499 total plus three additional cables). While the Brooklyn DAC+ contains a headphone amp, which I compared to the DS-10's, it does not accept Ethernet—for that, you need the Brooklyn Bridge streaming DAC ($2995), which I do not have here. Hence all comparisons between these two units were performed using the USB input on the two DACs. I also connected them to the MBL N11 preamp ($14,600) and attempted to answer the questions: (a) Does this preamp noticeably improve the sound of the DS-10, and (b) does its addition make more or less difference to the sound of the DS-10 than it does to the far more expensive dCS Rossini DAC/Clock combo? I also compared the DS-10/PSU-10 EVO to the Rossini DAC/Clock, both with and without the N11 preamp in the chain.

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I had to do a lot of equipment and cable shifting to make the review possible. I put the PSU-10 EVO two shelves below the DS-10. I figured this was at least as good as adhering to Gold Note's counsel to place the PSU-10 EVO at a distance from the DS-10, ideally to the left of the unit. The PSU-10 EVO's umbilical power connector was long enough, but not so long that it kept crossing the 5833 other cables that ran between everything and its teleported-through-time great-grandmother.

At review's end, thanks to all the lifting, tugging, and shifting, I'd lost 1.5lb. There must be an easier way to lose weight.

Three little oopsies
Once the DS-10 arrived in Port Townsend, direct from Italy, I spent nine days breaking it in. After connecting everything, I opened mconnect Control, the generic app recommended for controlling the DS-10, on my iPad Pro—I'd used this same app before, with the Bel Canto Black ACI 600 integrated amplifier I reviewed in April 2018—and refreshed my memory with the instructions in the DS-10 manual.

COMPANY INFO
Gold Note Italy
US distributor: Gold Note USA via Rutherford Audio Inc.
G108, 14 Inverness Dr. East
Englewood, CO 80112
(888) 279-6755
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Anton's picture
Bogolu Haranath's picture

Recognizing the fact that JVS is the greatest reviewer ever, Stereophile is already paying JVS twice as much as any other reviewer for the Stereophile magazine :-) .......

Jim Austin's picture

... that Stereophile reviewers are very competitive and crave adulation--so now you've made the rest of them angry, and now they're all gunning for JVS!

(Kidding.)

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

rt66indierock's picture

I am looking forward to meeting you and a couple of the reviewers I haven't met yet and seeing this competitiveness.

I'm laying low until it is safe to get around New York City stay safe.

Jim Austin's picture

is one of the safest places to be right now.

Yeah, we Stereophile reviewers have been known to get into fistfights over tubes-vs-solid-state or analog-vs-digital. ;-)

In all seriousness--while we're not really competitive, we are very serious. Not much cynicism around these parts, a fact I'm very happy about.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

rt66indierock's picture

Jim, I'm not taking a taxi, using a car service, the subway, an airplane because I don't feel safe right now. I have two modes of travel where I feel safe. Walking in uncrowded areas and my own car.

As for your "fistfights" audio equipment is either properly designed or it isn't. And music is either recorded well or it isn't. Whether a poorer quality recording reaches you emotionally is place for a serious discussion.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Stereophile reviewers get into 'first-fights', only when the products of the year award winners are selected ........ Just kidding ..... Just kidding :-) ......

Jim Austin's picture

I've still got bruises from 2019.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

on that score.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Did MF do it? :-) ......

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It always feels good when the first comment is positive, and doesn't rip you to shreds.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The headphone output of Weiss DAC502, which JVS has for follow-up review, should work better with the Audeze LCD-X :-) ......

Anton's picture

Anyway, Golden Note seems to be rising as a company that really 'gets it.'

Mike Fremer recently had a positive impression of their mid-range cartridge, as well!

They are running the gamut from A to D....analog to digital.

Also, thanks for doing the review on your system, giving it the best change to really "explain itself," sonically.

Glotz's picture

Every review you do is excellent, Jason.

The bar is so high in this magazine, how do any of you 2nd guess yourselves??

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I sweat a lot. I also learn from my mistakes. I'm afraid I stumbled a bit in an upcoming review. But I just "got" the opening for my current review while riding my fixed up racing bike back from downtown Port Townsend. Had to stop to allow two young deer to cross the road. Life is good. And now for the most important thing I do: the afternoon dog walk.

Glotz's picture

Enjoy every minute and may the fruit of your labor be sweet!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Weight lifting 100 lb audio components can produce lot of sweat :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The DS-10 headphone output impedance of 10 Ohms is somewhat high, for the low impedance headphones like the Audeze LCD-X ....... That headphone output would work better for headphones with impedance of 100 Ohms or more :-) .......

SteveG's picture

The AK4493 does not limit output to 192k. AKM says this: “The AK4493EQ accepts up to 768kHz PCM data and 22.4MHz DSD data“

dial's picture

One day you could review the 3D LAB. NANO DAC (there's even a Signature version for those who can hear from 1 to 100 000 Hz, priced similar to the Gold Note).
Your listening sessions are always very seriously done, nice to read.

Ortofan's picture

... the difference between "coddled cream" and clotted cream?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

A good proofreader.

rt66indierock's picture

I'd love to play around with one and measure it myself. See how it measures up to the king of the hill the Okto dac8 stereo DAC. And of course hear how it plays my reference albums and recordings.

And of course I like MQA firmware issues.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Stereophile is gonna be reviewing the Okto dac8 Stereo in a future issue ......

What built-in digital filter(s) do you normally use with your dac8 Stereo? ...... Just curious :-) .......

Anton's picture

That might be a killer!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

It is not worthy of placing on the 'Monza' equipment rack ...... It costs less than $2k ...... Just kidding :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

JVS could compare it with the Brooklyn DAC+, which costs $2,085 :-) ......

rt66indierock's picture

I generally use linear filters, sometimes intermediate and occasionally a minimum phase.

And I don't own a dac8 Stereo, I was able to borrow one, measure it and play my reference albums and recordings. It should be interesting to see if a Stereophile review matches what I measured and heard.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Gold Note DS-10 uses minimum phase filter ....... See, Fig.1 and Fig.2 in measurements ....... Seems like that is the only filter available in DS-10 :-) .......

rt66indierock's picture

I'd like to measure a Gold Note DS-10 and listen to my reference albums and recordings. Maybe do a shoot out with say a Pacific Microsonics Model One.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Do you make your own recordings? ...... If so, at what resolution do you make your recordings? ..... Can you tell us some details about your recording technique? :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Also, what resolution(s) your reference albums are? :-) .....

cpdk's picture

31+57+57+47=192!

low2midhifi's picture

It might be a trivial observation, but what I like about this Gold Note DAC is its beefy 3-prong power cord jack.

I own a much less expensive DAC with a similar 3-prong power cord jack, and another with the flimsier one-pin 6V outlet jack. Just as higher quality 3-prong power cord connectors have worked their way down to lower-priced (sub $1000) DACs, so have one-pin 6V to 15V outlet jacks managed to show up in products costing over $1000.00, sometimes much more than $1,000.00.

I have found that one-pin 9V DAC power cord connectors to be more susceptible to the vagueries of the electrical systems in my housing situation (multi-story, multi-unit) than a solid 3-prong connector.

We all want a DAC for the playback options and higher sound quality that they offer. From my experience, a high-quality 3-prong power cord connector is a better assurance that high sound quality does not suffer the electrical offs-and-ons and clicking noises that one-pin cnnectors seem to be at greater risk of producing.

From my purchase history, just as assessing the music reproduction capabilies of a DAC is critical, so is looking at the power cord interface. The Streophile staff tests many more products than I can. I'd be interested to hear their opinion on this matter.

Ortofan's picture

... "beefy 3-prong power cord jack" is vital for a device that draws all of 30W.

Archimago's picture

Could be 30 super duper fat watts that need thick wires :-)

Kal Rubinson's picture

I cannot think of any logical reason to compare the connector for a 120VAC cable to the connector for a 6-5VDC cable. It is as silly as comparing the AC wall outlet with the lamp socket in the fixture.

low2midhifi's picture

Stereophile editors and writers: Perhaps my inquiry was uninspired and ignorant. Instead of using your expertise to illuminate the readers of this publication, you chose again to use your platform to insult and denigrate your readers.

This is the third time (this time it's on the forum) that I have to call out the negative and unhelpful (aka trolling) replies with which Stereophile writers use their platform to insult their readers.

This "national publication," according to Wikipedia, has a circulation that is 1/2 that of the town newspaper of the community where I grew up. Put that in perspective the next time you take the low road with a commenter on this site. I'll mention for good measure the troubling reliance of this publication on decades-old product reviews to keep its pages filled.

I have asked you webmaster to deactivate my account. You may elect to have my remarks expunged.

Audio industry leaders lament the declining membership in this hobby. Perhaps the attitude that experts take towards those who have lesser knowledge is a reason why people lose interest in this pursuit.

I hope you are proud of your remarks. You just lost a reader of this publication for good. I was a subscriber to the print edition, in addition to my engagement on the digital version.

Kal Rubinson's picture

I had been waiting for a response but I did not anticipate this one. What I expected was a come-back about the universal value of better quality connection devices and materials.

We are all equals here. Please reconsider your departure.

dc_bruce's picture

Whew! Strike me dead for the stereotype, but as I was reading of your tribulations, I couldn't help but think of another wonderful Italian product-- an Alfa Romeo.
Kudos to you for working through all this and "telling us how it sounds" and, as part of that effort, telling us how 2 other DACs sound playing the same content through your system.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Much appreciated.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Hi JVS, what digital filter(s) you commonly used with Mytek Brooklyn DAC+? ....... Did you use the MQA filter in the Brooklyn DAC+? ....... Did you like the sound of that MQA filter? :-) .......

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I always use MQA's filter with MQA, because it is the filter designed for it. Do I sit in judgment over that filter, and reject it for particular DACs? No. As for the other PCM filters, I didn't put my focus there. The DAC Plus is not often in my system, so I used whatever filter I had grown to like when I spent a lot of time with the Brooklyn DAC Plus on a previous occasion.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Archimago would get a heart attack if he uses that MQA filter in the Brooklyn DAC+ :-) .......

Archimago's picture

No heart attack, or panic attack for that matter, BH...

If it's MQA, by all means use recommended proper filter. Better just skip MQA to avoid paying any taxes on a bad product IMO ;-).

Knights11's picture

Hi jason. thank you for such an insightful review. Did you use the Audioquest Niagara 5000 with the PSU-10 EVO? Or when you were reviewing the impact of the PSU-10 EVO did you use this without the 5000? I ask because I currently have a DS-10 and also a Niagara 3000, and I was wondering what impact (if any) the PSU-10 EVO would have. Thanks!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

To answer your question in reverse order, the Niagara is a power conditioner, and the PSU-10 EVO is a power supply. The Niagara can be used with or without the PSU-10 EVO, since it cleans the power going to any power supply in any component. The PSU-10 EVO, by distinction, replaces the DAC's internal power supply and greatly improves upon it.

I use the Niagara 5000 with everything in my system, including the DACs I review, unless a manufacturer absolutely opposes same. (I ask them, of course.). Because I have Nordost cabling, all front end devices are plugged into a Nordost QB8, which has a star ground and a resistor on its Earth Ground outlet which is intended for the preamp (or, in this case, DAC/preamp). The QB8 is, in turn, plugged into bank 3 of the Niagara - banks 3-6 are identical, but bank 3 is the most conveniently located in my set-up.

My amps are plugged into bank 2 of the Niagara 5000's high current outlets. Bank 2 bypasses a switch, and does not limit current. I've never used the 3000, and can offer absolutely no advice on set-up. I also don't know how it does with extremely powerful high current monoblocks such as mine.

Hope that clarifies.

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