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

The week before Christmas, I invited my artist friend Joe to visit my studio to see my 2021 paintings. To spice the invitation, I told Joe that while he was looking he could audition the newest flagship DAC from Denafrips, the Terminator Plus.

Joe is an all-in Denafrips guy (footnote 1) who currently uses an Ares II in his bedroom system and a Terminator in his big studio system, to which he listens while he works, typically for 10 hours per day. He paints his car, dog, and horse pictures while listening through a pair of dusty, paint-spattered Klipsch La Scala horns sitting on cement blocks. He told me he was curious whether the T-Plus was worth the extra money.

After listening to only three tracks, Joe declared that he preferred his Terminator, the one without the Plus, which he bought after reading my review in GD40, to the new "curvy-faced" model. He thought the Terminator Plus was "a little on the Stoic side of neutral," that it "emphasized detail and high-focus clarity over sensuality and emotional engagement."

"What, are you kidding me!?" I squealed. "That's not what I just heard." Joe was right: The Plus is super-clear and detailed, but to my ears it is also super-sensuous and blatantly hypnotic. Which is what I told him. Joe responded, in a low voice, "Herb, you're more of a resolution guy than I am."

"No, I'm not," I muttered defensively. "I am an Epicurean, same as you."

Joe was right, though, about the high-focus detail part: During my several months of Terminator Plus auditions, it presented an extraordinarily clear view of copious, precisely focused, beautifully lit recorded information. It presented images and soundfields that were big, wide, color-saturated, natural in contrast—and mesmerizing like 70mm movie film.

That vibrant, big-screen, analog character is uncommon in digital playback. As I told Joe, that superdetailed wide-screen vibrancy is the chief reason I like the Plus more than the original Terminator.

The Terminator Plus
"Denafrips's original Terminator DAC was released in 2017. Then, in 2019, Denafrips introduced a significantly upgraded DSP module," Alvin Chee, Denafrips's Singapore-based global sales agent, told me. "The Terminator reviewed by you in 2020 was an interim variant between the Terminator and the Terminator II/Plus (footnote 2). It was the same as the upgraded 2019 version, except it had better-sounding EVOX film capacitors in the power supply section. "The Terminator Plus was released in late 2020. It is a completely ground-up redesign of the DAC you reviewed. Under its hood, there are three completely segregated modules: the Digital Module, the OCXO Clock Module, and the R-2R ladder networks. The Power Supply Box is encapsulated beneath the main boards with Mu Metal shielding in between. These new digital/analog/clock modules are physically isolated from each other, connected by high-speed optocouplers to reduce the noise from one end's flow to another by means of light.

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"The Oven Controlled Crystal Oscillators are truly the reason why the Terminator Plus sounds so much better. The OCXOs are specially designed by Denafrips for high-end audio applications. The two OCXOs operating at a constant temperature (HOT!), where they generate very low phase noise and accurate 45.1548MHz, 49.152MHz clock frequencies. All digital inputs are FIFO buffered and reclocked by the OCXOs.

"One of the signature aspects of Denafrips products is the capacitor farm. Besides the use of dozens of high-quality electrolyte and film caps, the power supply of Terminator Plus is spotted with black rectangular shape 'supercapacitors' in both the digital and analog circuitry.

"The Terminator Plus comes with our premium offering of a curvy anodized aluminum front panel, precision, hand-picked, premium OCXO, and a hand-picked R-2R board."

The Terminator Plus is designed by Denafrips's chief engineer, Mr. Zhao, and manufactured and assembled in Guangzhou, China, at Denafrips's own facility. All Denafrips products are sold direct by global sales agent Alvin Chee at Vinshine Audio in Singapore. Prices listed on the Vinshine website are in Singapore dollars: One Singapore dollar is about 0.74 US dollars. As of this writing, the Terminator Plus, which features a 26-bit, discrete-resistor, R-2R DAC for PCM decoding and hardware DSD decoding with 32-step FIR filters, costs approximately US$6428.

More listening: A few days after the Joe visit, I invited my down-the-hall neighbor Vladimir to come by with his Chinese wife, Li. I wanted them to hear directly some of the Chinese zither music they'd been hearing through my door. I asked Vlad to bring Li, hoping she would critique my Roon "guqin" playlist and tell me more about growing up in China listening to music.

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In case you are not familiar with the ancient Chinese instrument known variously as the sè, qín, or guqin: It is a plucked, seven-string device that sits on a seated player's lap or on a small, table-like stand. It covers about four octaves. Its lowest pitch is approximately two octaves below middle C. The earliest surviving examples are from the time of Confucius.

According to historian Ann L. Silverberg, "The qin is associated with the elite class of scholar-officials of imperial China. ... Men of rank and privilege learned to play the qin primarily as a means of self-cultivation.... The qin was traditionally used for the solitary, private edification of the player, and thus there are many depictions of qin players playing in remote locations in the countryside, often in the mountains." (footnote 3)

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Wikipedia says that a recording of "Flowing Water" by Liu Shui, performed on a guqin by Guan Pinghu, was included on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts. According to NASA: "The reason to select a work played on this specific instrument is because the tonal structure of the instrument, its musical scale, is derived from fundamental physical laws related to vibration and overtones, representing the intellectual capacity of human beings on this subject."

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My first exposure to guqin harmonics came in 2003, in the form of a gift that has become one of my prized possessions: an exquisitely packaged, UNESCO-sponsored, four-CD box set entitled Musical Treasures from the East (Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity) (16/44.1 FLAC, WindMusic/Tidal). The music on these discs was recorded by master recordist Kavichandran Alexander of Water Lily Acoustics fame. The Blumlein-miked verity of these Kavi recordings would dazzle even through my iPhone with white earbuds; streamed with the Roon Nucleus+ via the Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC, in nonoversampling mode, with Linear Tube Audio's Z10e integrated amplifier powering my Falcon Gold Badge loudspeakers, the album titled Guqin conveyed a sparkling, overtly sensuous, dramatically 3D rendition of all the broad-spectrum harmonics generated by Chen Gong-Hang playing "Qiulai," his 1282-year-old guqin. (Typically, guqin have poems, seals, and a given name inscribed on their soundboard by the maker.)

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My most recent exposure to guqin music occurred at the start of this review when an audiophile friend named Xun turned me on to Music for the Qin Zither performed by Lin Youren (16/44.1 FLAC, Nimbus/Tidal). To aid my meditations, Xun suggested I listen using a mild, aged agarwood incense instead of my normal, much stronger sandalwood incense (Nag Champa), which, he opined, is better-suited for sitar music. Xun sent me a sample of the handmade incense he uses. He said it was made of agarwood from the Hoi An region in Vietnam and aged more than 8 years "to give a more subtle and complex aroma." A note in the package said, "In Japan, they use the word 'listen' for appreciating the fragrance of incense."


Footnote 1: Denafrips, Web: denafrips.com. Global sales agent: Alvin Chee, Vinshine Audio, 33 Ubi Ave. 3, Singapore 408868. Email: sales@vinshineaudio.com Web: vinshineaudio.com

Footnote 2: The Terminator II is a less-expensive, trickle-down variant of the Terminator Plus.

Footnote 3: See Li Zehou, The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition, trans. Maija Bell Samei (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2010), p.47.

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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