Gramophone Dreams #60: Denafrips Terminator Plus, Denafrips Gaia, HoloAudio Spring 3 Page 2

When I played Music for the Qin Zither for Vlad and Li, Li exclaimed, "I can see the qin! Look! It's right there!" as she pointed to a place between the speakers. Li was responding to one of the Terminator Plus's most dominant traits: its high acuity-factor.

Hoping to impress Vlad with the Terminator Plus's ability to express the qin's full harmonic spectrum, I played Xia Fuxi performing "A Fisherman's Song" from Chinese Traditional and Folk Music: Guqin Vol.3 (16/44.1 FLAC, China Record Corporation/ Qobuz), a demonstration-quality guqin recording. The sound was so ridiculously tangible, so touchable and flat-out beautiful, that Vladimir and I looked at each other and started laughing. As the qin music continued, the three of us kept smiling, looking at each other, and nodding, acknowledging our shared pleasures. As they were leaving, Vlad said, "That DAC sounds liquid and solid." Li rolled her eyes and smiled. I bowed goodnight.

A couple of days later, I was scrolling through Instagram before I got out of bed when I saw an announcement of a performance by Russia-born, Dubai-based mezzo-soprano Yana Mann performing art-song poems composed by Brooklyn-based Colombian composer-pianist Julián De La Chica at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall. Before I even brushed my teeth or made coffee, I had fallen in love. I had become tranced out listening to Mann's first studio album, released in May 2021: De La Chica: 11 Poemas De Bar Op.12: No.8 El Amor (16/44.1 FLAC, Irrever ence Group Music/Tidal). My art-song love journeys began decades ago, with Elly Ameling singing Schubert lieder, but that day, I was excited to witness how a woman (the beautiful Yana Mann) singing ethereally in a steady, darkly introspective tone, shadowed by Julián De La Chica's pensive, minimalist piano accompaniment, could produce one of the finest, most beautiful expressions of 21st century art. Yana recorded her vocals in Dubai, but everything about these songs is Brooklyn. The sound was so gentle and unencumbered that I listened first in NOS then again in OS, wondering which I would prefer and how easily I could tell the difference.

With the Terminator Plus in OS (using the Sharp filter): The recording seemed drier, punchier, and more ethereal (in a good way) but flatter soundspace-wise and less emotionally engaging. In OS using the Slow filter, the soundstage expanded in every direction. Image focus was extraordinary, and the pleasure-factor was much improved. In Slow-filtered OS, tempo and pacing were more accessible than in NOS, making the leading edges of pianist Alexander Melnikov's keyboard excitations (Debussy: Préludes du 2e Livre, 16/44.1 FLAC, Harmonia Mundi/Tidal) sound almost revelatory.

Sharp-filtered OS exposed the negative effects of compression and overproduction, making pop recordings sound brittle and edge-sharpened. When the recording was of a simple solo instrument or a minimally processed vocal recorded in a natural environment, like the abovementioned Yana Mann and guqin albums, I always preferred NOS. But for big movie soundtracks and dense symphonic music, I usually switched to OS in Slow filter mode.

In terms of build quality, resolution, image density, soundscape dimensionality, and the pure, unadulterated beauty of its sound, the Denafrips Terminator Plus is equal to or better than any DAC I've ever used. Bravo Mr. Zhao!

Denafrips Gaia DDC
The biggest sonic upgrade my digital streaming has undergone was caused by something I took out of my system—my computer—rather than something I added. Nevertheless, on the urging of manufacturers, I have tried adding "fix-it" things like the Singxer SU-1 DDC Audio Bridge (which I used with the HoloAudio Spring 1) and the iFi iGalvanic 3.0 isolator (which I used with the Spring 1 and iFi iDSD DACs), and the Itona 7055-C USB 3.0 SuperSpeed Isolator (which I used for a while with the HoloAudio May DAC). All these products cleaned up the sound in small but easy-to-recognize ways. Unfortunately, something about those fix-its being in the system made my teeth itch, so I took them out.

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Therefore, I was reluctant to audition yet another digital add-on, especially one that costs $1822.89 like the Denafrips Gaia DDC. I only tried the Gaia DDC—"DDC" stands for "digital-to-digital converter"—because Alvin Chee, that good Denafrips man in Singapore, assured me that the Gaia would take the Terminator Plus's resolution to the next level.

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The Gaia takes in digital signals through its USB, S/PDIF (including optical TosLink and RCA electrical), or AES3 inputs—I sent data from the Nucleus+ to the Gaia by USB—buffers them, and reclocks them with the same OCXO clock used in the Terminator Plus. Indeed, both these features—FIFO buffering and OCXO-oscillator reclocking—are already performed inside the Terminator Plus. (It can also be used as a format converter.) I connected the Word Clock connections to the Terminator Plus using two short runs of 75 ohm BNC cable and ran the Gaia's output to the Terminator Plus input with a Kimber S/PDIF cable. The point of all this is to reduce jitter.

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The Gaia's positive effect on the density and clarity of sound suggests it did, but the effect was smaller and less music-enhancing than I expected. Was reaching that "next level" worth the extra cost? For me, no. With the Gaia inserted (USB in, coax out) between the Roon Nucleus+ and the Terminator Plus, "clean and resolved" became a tiny bit more "grainless and sanitary." That's all.

HoloAudio Spring 3
My initiation to the world of top-tier DACs came with my discovery of the HoloAudio Spring DAC (footnote 4) at CanMania at the 2017 Capital Audiofest. In my festival report, I described what it was about the Spring DAC that grabbed my attention. "The quality and texture of the reproduction were unusual. ... The music felt different than any I could remember. Surprisingly un-mechanical and clear, but not industrial clear." In my 2018 review of the Kitsuné Tuned Edition (Level 3) Spring DAC, I said, "There was something unusually sensuous and nondigital going on." HoloAudio's Spring was also my introduction to nonoversampling R-2R processors.

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That original Spring anchored my reference system from March 2018 until spring 2020, at which time I began my review of its newer, more expensive stablemate, the two-chassis HoloAudio May, which improved on all the Spring's virtues and anchored my reference system from May 2020 until June 2021; when, while composing a follow-up report, I fell under the spell of the beguiling, three-times-as-expensive dCS Bartók DAC.

Like the Spring 1 and May DACs, the Spring 3 is a nonoversampling DAC. According to the Kitsuné website, "HoloAudio is the world's first to support DSD natively on a resistor-ladder DAC; and so far, the only one. This is not DSD converted to PCM before digital-to-analog conversion but directly by the discrete components of our (separate) DSD-to-analog converter."

Looking inside its thick, copper-and-aluminum chassis, what I see seems too good to be true at this price point: O-core transformers, silver wire, fancy capacitors, fancy power fuse, power supply isolation, fiberoptical USB isolation, and ground isolation.

HoloAudio/Kitsuné offers the Spring 3 at three price and performance levels: Level one costs $2198 and uses the standard round-wire O-core power transformer and the standard USB module. It does not include a remote. Level two costs $2498, includes HoloAudio's matching solid-aluminum remote, and features HoloAudio-branded capacitors in the power supply. The Spring 3 I'm reviewing, the Level 3, is called "KTE" (for "Kitsuné tuned edition") and costs $3098. It sports a flat-wire-wound O-core power transformer. All copper wiring is replaced with high-purity 1.5mm OCC silver wire. The DAC modules are hand-selected based on measured performance. The Spring 3 uses the same "enhanced" USB module found only in the Level 2 and KTE versions of the May DAC.

All three levels may be ordered with an optional ($500 factory installed) fully balanced, discrete-device preamp module with a relay-activated volume control.

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It pleases me greatly that the Spring 3 is a purist, plug'n'play device. Its setup menu only asks the customer to choose between inputs, output phase, and whether to engage HoloAudio's unique Phase Locked Loop (PLL) circuit. No reconstruction filters. No oversampling. I connected the Spring 3 to my Roon Nucleus+ server with an AudioQuest Cinnamon USB cable and to Linear Tube Audio's Z10e integrated via Black Cat Coppertone interconnects.

According to Tim Connor at Kitsuné, HoloAudio's Jeff Zhu designed the Spring 3 as a trickle down from the May DAC. The chief differences: The May is completely dual-mono with separate R-2R boards for each channel and a separate, heavy chassis for its more-substantial, hot-running, dual-mono power supply.

Listening: The HoloAudio Spring 3 sounds very little like the Spring DAC I reviewed in 2018. It sounds quite a lot like the May DAC. However, to my ears, the Spring 3 sounds like something more than an almost-as-good, "trickle-down" May. It's the May's wild child. It brings something uniquely its own to the HoloAudio experience, something lively and bright and rosy-cheeked alluring.

The Spring 3's overt solidity and spot-on pitch and timbre recovery made all my guqin experiences feel brilliant and natural, most especially Liu Shui's composition "Flowing Water" performed by Wu Wen'Guang on Ancient Classics of Qin Han and Wei Dynasties 770 BC–580 AD (16/44.1 FLAC, China Record Corporation/Qobuz). Reproduced by the Spring, the sound was not only vigorous and timbre-correct; it was larger, more expansive, and more intense energy-wise than it was through the dCS Bartók or the Terminator Plus.

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The Spring 3 had a way of making my little sealed-box LS3/5a's sound like medium-sized horn speakers. The reverberant complexities showcased in Ancient Classics of Qin Han and Wei Dynasties seemed neither diminished nor enhanced, but they were easier to hear. Dynamic nuances were highlighted. Sharp, high-power plucked tones never glared, flared, pierced, or smeared. Mixed arrays of Chinese instruments on The Uyghur Muqam (16/44.1 FLAC, Wind/Tidal) were presented in a way that preserved the full harmonic fingerprint of each instrument's character. Listening with the Spring 3 made this trance-inducing music feel animistic, poetic, and settling. Like prayer.

Speaking of trance-inducing: After watching Brinsley Forde perform (as Blue) in Babylon, Franco Rosso's classic 1980 film about the confluence of poverty, oppressive racism, Reggae, and Rastafarianism in 1970s London, I had no choice but to listen over and over to the stunningly recorded "Dubterior Motives" on Sly & Robbie vs Roots Radics: The Dub Battle featuring Brinsley Forde on vocals (16/44.1 FLAC Controlled Substance Sound Labs/Tidal). Indeed, with the Spring 3, the little Falcons kicked up a very hornlike, dub-sized rumpus, giving steel drums and spring reverb a satisfying, physical presence in my room. My other DACs do not produce this level of Jamaican "sound system" expansiveness through my backpack-sized Falcons. I blame the Spring 3's powerful PLL circuit.

In terms of build quality, engineering intelligence, and the ebullient character of its solid, stirringly vital sound, the HoloAudio Spring 3 is equal to or better than any DAC I've used. Bravo Jeff Zhu.

When the digital smoke clears, the dCS Bartók is still King of the Rack. It remains my primary digital reference because it makes digital sound engaging and exceptionally undigital and because so many readers know and admire its sound. I regard it as a widely recognized audiophile benchmark, but its price makes my hands tremble.

Since the Bartók first arrived, I have been able to explore the sonic wonders of the slightly lower-priced Mola Mola Tambaqui, the moderately priced Denafrips Terminator Plus, the lower priced HoloAudio May, and the seemingly underpriced Spring 3. Each of these top-tier DACs presents music differently. I can't in good conscience say any one of them is sonically inferior, less masterfully engineered, or less satisfying to use than the others. My Epicurean search for the most intense, most saturated tones, the most touchable textures, the most corporal images, and the most clearly described musical forms leads me to prefer the sound character of the R-2R DACs mentioned above.


Footnote 4: HoloAudio/KitsuneHiFi, 19410 Highway 99, Suite A #366 Lynnwood, WA 98036. Web: kitsunehifi.com

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
cognoscente's picture

what I can add is that in my memory according to my ears the HoloAudio Spring 3 level 3 sounds at least equal, or even a little better than the 4x more costing Nagra Classic dac. And indeed, I think "if the music file is already good to excellent, then why want to upsample?"

windansea's picture

A well written and enlightening review, and personally useful since I was considering a Denafrips, but will now also consider the HoloAudio.

However, wouldn't this review be even better if Herb had plugged all three DACs into his preamp and done a little ABX back and forth to tell us if the differences were significant or not? With DAC comparisons I think it would be pretty easy to feed the identical stream into the 3 DACs and switch with the preamp. (yes I know there might be a gain matching issue)

Herb Reichert's picture

have at least two DACs plugged into my Roon Nucleus+ and HoloAudio Serene preamp

I can always quickly at will switch DACs via Roon on my iPad

Nevertheless, quick ABX is of zero interest to me, Differences are significant only if I notice

them every time I listen – all the time I listen.

h

windansea's picture

but one of these days, how about an experiment of double-blind ABX, with extended listening intervals, just to verify that the differences between DACs are observable?

I can understand why any reviewer would shy away from this. Lots of downside, not much upside. Nobody enjoys scrutiny. Accountability is such a drag.

But if Stereophile wants to connect to the skeptical audio enthusiasts in the younger generation-- yes I mean the nCore crowd on ASR-- then a bit of ABX credentialing would go a long ways to bridging the chasm between the subjectivist and objectivist camps.

Always enjoying Herb's articles. Traces of the Art Dudley spirit lives on. LISTENER forever!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Here we go again. We have to prove that we can still hear. We have to man-up to the young nCore crowd on ASR, whoever they may be. We have to do battle with MQA skeptics. We have to do whatever can possibly be done to convince people rather than sitting back, taking in the music, seeing how the source / component interaction affects us and makes us feel, and sharing that with readers.

I don't buy it. I draw the line at focusing so much on convincing naysayers that I can't see the forest for the trees. My goal is to share my experience as best I can. I'm with Herb when he writes, as eloquently as ever, "Nevertheless, quick ABX is of zero interest to me, Differences are significant only if I notice them every time I listen – all the time I listen."

windansea's picture

Pretty sure I didn't say anything impolite.

Glotz's picture

2 years ago! This preamp for a little over $3000 seems to be a true gem in the market. Design, build, just everything seems to be at the absolute apex of a music and audio lovers with smart money to put down. I may replace my Benchmark HPA4 for it! Now to hear it... lol.

Absolutely excellent column this month, and your AQ Thunderbird review and the Kondo audiophile was very well stated and just great writing period. Really dug this month's column.

I will also place the Spring dac at the top of my DAC list moving forward.

JHL's picture

...it's only audible through ABX, can't it be inferred that it's always inaudible in normal use?

Jonti's picture

In terms of recent(ish) DACs at a similar(ish) price, Herb, has the Border Patrol DAC stood the test of time?

Herb Reichert's picture

have a Border Patrol DAC in-house. So I can't rightly make comparisons.

But I do mention it at CanJam NYC in my GD62 Dan Clark Stealth review.

check that out when it comes out

herb

michelesurdi's picture

embarassing padding

Jonti's picture

I'm looking forward to that (and GD61 in the interim, of course).

SeanS's picture

Herb, look forward to your column every issue. Great work!

The first commenter reminded me of a point that always crosses my mind whilst reading about your journey through NOS DACs. In the reviews of DACs where they are running in NOS mode, I am really most curious about the distinction between higher bit rate vs Red Book. The best scenario would be comparisons of versions of the same master track, but at different bit rates. If you could make a point of something along this line I’d appreciate it, because your insight would be so valuable to me.

The reason I say this is, of course, because at higher bit rates the Nyquist aliased images should be rendered inaudible without oversampling. Dig where I’m coming from?

Thanks,
Sean

hb72's picture

very nice review in so many ways (will check the music too!) - how would the Chord Qutest fair in this group of quality DACs? esp against the Holo Spring? more funky, more lyrical, or rather less of it? any vague comment?

thanks in advance and greetings from the other side of the big pond
HB72

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