Gramophone Dreams #28: PS Audio & HiFiMan

Every time I review a digital-to-analog converter, my memory drifts to the spring of 1983, when the first Compact Discs arrived at Tower Records in New York City. They appeared in the opera section. Sitting next to big, thick boxed sets of opera LPs, these new discs looked truly compact. A few months later, boxed sets of popular opera LPs, in almost untouched condition, began selling in the Tower Annex for $1/disc.

I was shocked. I could not believe people were actually trading these luxurious, linen-covered, rag-papered, thick-librettoed boxes for chintzy, verkakte plastic "jewel cases." I saw no alternative: I began collecting opera LPs.

As the jewel-cased pestilence morphed into a pandemic, I acquiesced, and out of pure curiosity bought a portable Sony Discman CD player. My little Discman played music with a slightly wet muzzle, but it was mostly okay. It encouraged me to buy more CDs—and more $1 LPs.

1987: I remember when Theta Digital's DS Pro digital-to-analog converter arrived at Manhattan high-end dealer Sound by Singer. It generated lots of reviews, conversations, and sales. Overnight, DACs became a new audio-component category. Like specialty cables and separate phono stages before them, DACs looked to be around for a while. What a great idea, I thought—they're making separates out of digital. Around the same time, Arcam introduced their Delta Black Box DAC, which used a TDA1541A chip, and PS Audio introduced its Digital Link DAC, which used an 18-bit Burr-Brown PCM-61P chip.

My scattered auditions of early CD players by Philips-Magnavox and Sony suggested that the chief problem with the new format was that engineers, manufacturers, and audiophiles had zero idea how digital was supposed to sound. Digital vanquished LP surface noise, and its proponents saw that as a complete victory. They didn't notice all the important aspects of the music that had disappeared along with the noise. Compared to 1980s analog, image density, spatial mapping, natural timbres, the sensation of hearing music performed by flesh-and-blood musicians—all went missing from this new music-storage format. If any digital engineers noticed these losses, they kept their mouths shut.

Thirty years later, those missing traits are mostly back. Digital sounds a lot better. But, apparently, manufacturers, audiophiles, and reviewers are still confused about what digital should sound like—because today's expensive DACs sound more different from each other than do today's expensive phono cartridges.

This is why my current reviewing explorations include learning, brand by brand, the basic sonic character (aka "house sound") of the various audiophile converters. I hope to discover not only how each brand plays music but also why they all sound as different as they do.

As a part of these explorations, I decided to do a Follow-Up review on PS Audio's current statement DAC, the PerfectWave DirectStream. Then I had a better idea: How about comparing that latest fancy-pants model to PS Audio's very first DAC ever, the Digital Link of 1989?

When I told PS Audio founder Paul McGowan about my plan, he said, "You're in luck, Herb. I think we still have one of those buried on a shelf somewhere."

That good luck gave me the perfect opportunity to investigate how today's digital compares to yesterday's, and to speculate on how much digital has evolved.

PS Audio Digital Link
In 1989, when PS Audio's Digital Link appeared with a price of $1000 (footnote 1), the sound of every model of CD player fell into one of two categories: soft, warm, and boring, or hard, cold, and annoying. The Digital Link exhibits none of those traits. I'm listening with it now and thinking, Wow, this thing must have rocked the 1980s. It's extremely musical. It has jump-and-boogie factor. I don't remember early digital ever sounding this alive or exciting. I can't remember any '80s CD player sounding so meaty and vibrant.


The Digital Link is an undistinguished-looking little box about the size of a Mac mini, with a heavy wall wart and a thick power cord with a Cinch connector on the end. Today, just as audiophiles did for the first time ever in 1987, I ran a 75-ohm coaxial cable out the back of my CD player and into the Link.

With every CD, the Digital Link exhibited a blunt directness accompanied by a truncated decay. This revealed itself as a punchiness that emphasized the three octaves between 500Hz and 4kHz. Consequently, the Link's lowest and highest octaves sounded less solid and less focused than these middle ones. This weighty boldness gave the Link a distinct sound that had a nice way of grabbing and holding my attention. From page one of my notes: "aggressive musicality."

Still, the Digital Link's blunt dynamics bugged me at first, as did its lack of breathable, refined air or a properly sorted soundstage. On many CDs, the stereo effect was "hole-in-the-middle" distorted. Even Chesky Records' binaural recordings lacked the spatial integration and continuity they have with almost any modern DAC.

Overall, though, the Link's sonic character enhanced vocal intelligibility and made musical rhythms stand out. Music through the Link was surprisingly engaging—more so than through many contemporary DACs.


I've been obsessed by "Buddy & Maria Elena talking in apartment," from Buddy Holly's Down the Line: Rarities (CD, Decca B0011675-02). Holly made this recording himself just weeks before his death (he died on February 3, 1959), at his Fifth Avenue apartment in New York, using a single microphone and an Ampex tape recorder, both of which seem to have been sitting on a coffee table in front of him. You first hear room sound mixed with heavy street noise coming in through a window, then Maria Elena talking on a telephone in the kitchen, behind the mike.

The Link made Maria Elena's words seem less subtly spoken and slightly brash, but more easily understood. When Holly crumples a sheet of paper, it sounded like real paper being crumpled. Even today, the extensive processing of digital sound rarely conveys a sense of music being made by the fingers and vocal cords of warm-blooded humans. To my surprise, PS Audio's Digital Link emphasized warm-blooded realism over resolution. That alone made it a remarkable DAC.

PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream
My only previous experience with PS Audio's current flagship DAC, the PerfectWave DirectStream ($5999), had been at audio shows. For no reason I can remember, I'd thought the DirectStream made audio systems sound slightly thick and soft. I was 100% wrong.


In my own system, the PerfectWave DirectStream presented music in a brilliant, titillating, effervescent manner. The more I listened, the more I noticed how its focus was neither sharp nor dull. The more I thought about that, the more I realized that "neither sharp nor dull" might be the DirectStream's most conspicuous sonic trait.

As I listened more, I realized that PS Audio's top DAC wasn't trafficking in obvious subtractive or additive distortions. Compared to every other DAC whose sound I know, its texture and tonality were unique. I wondered: Maybe this is how digital should sound?

Music streamed through the DirectStream felt enjoyably direct, fresh, and relatively unimpeded. Whatever the field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) were doing, they did it in a subtle, music-friendly fashion. They seemed to control the temper of the music's flow and give everything a slightly polished tone. But mostly, they stayed out of the music's way. Clearly, Paul McGowan and principal designer Ted Smith listened to this DAC and tweaked it until its sound flowed like real music—until they liked it.


The title track of jazz guitarist Grant Green's 1965 album Idle Moments (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Blue Note/Tidal) told me a lot about this DAC. The complete harmonic spectrum of Bobby Hutcherson's vibraphone seemed delicately exposed—not attenuated, as it seems through many processors. Likewise, individual notes from Bob Cranshaw's double bass and Duke Pearson's piano were pleasures to hear. The entire album was delivered with extraordinary levels of finesse and sensuality. The only one of my reference DACs that could match the PerfectWave DirectStream's understated sensuality was HoloAudio's Spring "Kitsuné Tuned Edition" Level 3.

When I compared the DirectStream to Chord's Qutest, designed by Rob Watt, I found it interesting how both DACs played with a similar, bright-spirited naturalness that I hadn't heard from other converters. Not surprisingly, both are chipless, engineered from scratch on a foundation of FPGAs.

Footnote 1: Robert Harley reviewed the PS Audio Digital Link II ($499) in the October 1992 issue. PS Audio, 4826 Sterling Drive, Boulder, CO 80301. Tel: (720) 406-8946. Web:

eriks's picture

Hey Herb,

Did you notice how much modern DACs have closed the distance between Redbook and Hi Resolution?

Over the past 15 years I've noticed that older dacs NEED hi resolution files to sound good, but modern players almost make high resolution files unnecessary.



ok's picture

..and straight to the point!!

Herb Reichert's picture

you are right Eriks - I have noticed my "need" for high resolution files is close to zero now