Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital D/A headphone amplifier

I first met Pro-Ject Audio Systems' founder and president, Heinz Lichtenegger, in 2016, at the US launch of the Austrian company's The Classic turntable. His passion for all things hi-fi was so intense I thought his head might explode. Gleeful in his mission to bring high-end audio to the people at less than typical high-end prices, Lichtenegger and Pro-Ject can fairly claim bragging rights for their entry-level Debut Carbon (DC) ($460 and up), one of the world's best-selling turntables.

On Pro-Ject's mammoth website, Lichtenegger bares his soul. "Our aim is to get as many people as possible into the wonderful hobby that is HiFi audio and to deliver a real stereo experience for the lowest cost possible," that site states, below a photo of Lichtenegger taken in a moment of relative calm. "We want to give the customers back the right to choose what they need, without overblowing our products with unnecessary features."

I began perusing the site, where I found a lurid display of audio porn to feed my addiction. I already own Pro-Ject's Align it Cartridge Alignment Tool and Vinyl Cleaner VC-S record cleaner—compared to VPI's HW-16.5, the latter does a better job of protecting the record label and avoiding contamination of the just-cleaned side, and its vacuum tube is made of aluminum rather than plastic—and now I was dazzled by dozens of components across several product categories, including four lines of digital source components. From Pro-Ject's S2 line comes their Pre Box S2 Digital, a combination D/A processor and headphone amp that sells for a lean, mean $399.

Design
Manufactured in Slovakia and measuring 4.1" square by 1.4" high, the Pre Box S2 Digital embodies a number of firsts for Pro-Ject and its S2 line: its first dual-mono DAC using ESS Technology's flagship Sabre Pro ES9038 dual chip, capable of resolution up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM and DSD512; the first implementation of Pro-Ject's Optimum Transient Digital Filter; a new digital clock claimed to control jitter down to 100 femtoseconds (100 x 10–15 second); and its first component to support full hardware unfolding of MQA, via USB only.

The Pre Box S2 Digital also has eight filters for decoding PCM signals. According to the manual, these are: Optimal Transient (which Pro-Ject names as their preferred filter), Fast Rolloff (Linear Phase), Slow Rolloff (Linear Phase), Minimum Phase Fast, Minimum Phase Slow, Linear Apodizing, Hybrid, and Brickwall. (None of these filters are available during MQA playback.) Other goodies packed inside the Pre Box's case, which is not much bigger than a tin of sardines, include Lelon organic polymer capacitors, Vishay thin-film Mini-MELF resistors, and a gold-plated, four-layer PCB.

Finished in powdered silver or black, the Pre Box S2 Digital's little aluminum case feels reasonably solid. On its front panel are a ¼" (6.3mm) headphone jack and four buttons: two labeled Input, for cycling forward and back through the coax, USB, and optical inputs; Filter, to scroll through the eight filters; and Menu. At far right is a largish volume knob; press it to mute. At the center, a ½" by ¾" color screen displays the volume level, from silent (–80dB) to maximum (0dB), as well as icons for coax, USB, and optical, a green headphone icon, the bit rate and sampling frequency, and, when an MQA stream is detected, the MQA icon accompanied by a well-saturated blue dot.

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On the rear panel are left- and right-channel analog output jacks (RCA), the USB (Type B) port, coaxial (RCA), and optical (TosLink) digital inputs, and a USB Micro B jack for the 5V wall-wart power supply. (The power supply is required when the USB digital input is not in use—otherwise, the Pro-Ject gets its 5V from the computer to which it's connected.) The Pre Box S2 sits on four rounded rubber feet. All in all, it's sturdy and well built.

Setup
I asked Buzz Goddard, Pro-Ject's stateside rep, about the Pre Box S2 Digital's Distortion Compensate/Disabled option and its Optimum Transient filter. He replied via e-mail:

"Tragically, so many people evaluate units like this based solely on measurements. The Distortion Compensate is to allow the measurement geeks to get the numbers that [get them excited], and the Disabled mode is for us more chill folk. Similarly, the Optimum Transient filter setting is focused on transients/edges of the waveform. Since the conversion from digital to analog involves filters, all of which have compromises, the option to invoke different filters allows the listener to explore these realms. Note that the differences are going to be at the upper limits of ideal human hearing."

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You might expect a minimal manual for such a small metal box, and sure enough, the Pre Box S2's five-page manual is scant on important information. It explains that selecting Distortion Compensate/Disable in the menu will "enable/disable ESS on-chip distortion compensation feature," but doesn't explain how that or any of the filters affects the sound. After downloading the Windows driver from Pro-Ject's website (I didn't use the enclosed CD-ROM), installing it on my laptop PC was painless. The manual does include a good overview of the included plastic remote-control handset (add $75 for aluminum), which was greatly appreciated. And as far as setting up Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) unfolding—perhaps this tiny DAC-preamp-headphone amp's main selling point—the manual gives no guidance whatsoever. You're left to stumble around in Tidal, hoping to figure out how to actually hear unfolded MQA through the Pre Box S2.

Assuming that most folks will use Tidal to stream MQA, here's the drill: On the Tidal home page, point your cursor to the head-and-torso profile icon in the upper-left corner. Open Settings, then Streaming. Under Streaming Audio Quality, below Normal, High, and HiFi, choose Master ("the best audio experience"). Then, below Sound, choose Sound Output, then More Settings, which will open your final window in the Tidal MQA maze. If you've gotten this far and have correctly configured your computer's own Settings after installing the driver (not required for Macs), at the top of a new window will appear: Speakers (Pre Box S2 Digital). Use the sliders to choose Use Exclusive Mode and Passthrough MQA. Bingo! Now, when you play a Master album in Tidal, "MQA" should appear on the Pre Box S2's display, and "Master" in the lower-right corner of the Tidal page, next to the volume indicator.

COMPANY INFO
Pro-Ject Audio Systems, Audio Tuning Vertriebs GmbH
US: Sumiko Audio
6655 Wedgwood Road N. Suite 115
Maple Grove, MN 55311-2814
(510) 843-4500
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Lorenzo-Italia's picture

Ladies and Gents
With 399$ You get “almost state of the art...”
If you really need more than “almost”, maybe “full” state of the art just multiply almost by a factor of 100!

Is this the way you manage your everyday life ? Think before you buy
Best
Lorenzo from Italy

allhifi's picture

Lorenzo (from Italy): What exactly are you saying ?

Your comment is difficult to decipher/decode ! lol

It's been my long-standing experience to note that 'Digital' source's
(when competently engineered) ALWAYS sound excellent. Unlike 'Analog' gear, very short signal paths and very near-by, 'controlled' circuit power supply 'draw'appears to reward handsomely. Consider 'Chord' Electronics for example.

In any case, the Pro-Next Pre Box S2 appears a thoroughly engineered product. I suspect it will offer up superior SQ. At the very least, it can be used as an evaluation tool with the very desirable option of the multitude of Digital Filter choices.

Presently, I'm using a couple mid-level Network Player's/Streamer's and as far as Internet Radio is concerned, my two separate SBC's (Rasp. Pi, Odroid C2) running Rune Audio/MPD/Linux via USB cable to DAC sounds considerably better than the 'commercial' Player's ;even using the modest Schiit Modi-2 Uber DAC.

later this week, I'll have one to evaluate (PB S2), and shall report back.

Seeing as Pro-ject's Pre Box S2 has garnered favorable reviews, it's surely a fine DAC. It certainly has earned its retail price by offering the latest premium DAC chip (32/768 KHz), careful USB implementation, Display Window, Filter Choice -gotta love that feature/option, MQA capability, premium parts/circuit board along with a pair of spdif Inputs along with USB.

Shall report back,

peter jasz

YankeePhile70's picture

I just bought this little beauty and I can attest to its CLASS A rating! After having owned Audioquest, Grace, and Chord dacs, this one is a keeper. Voices in particular offer outstanding clarity. None of the typical, "venetian blind" affect one gets, where voices don't lock to the center of the soundstage. Subtle shifts in soundstage perception are very audible. The highs are clean and liquid, without sibilance, typical for dacs in this price range. Dynamics are ELECTRIFYING! THIS DAC IS A REAL WINNER!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Another DAC/headphone amp to consider is Chord Mojo ($570) ......... Stereophile Class-A listed ........ Mojo is self powered with built-in battery :-) ........

er1c's picture

I have jumped back and forth between them as well. I too did not hear much difference scanning through the filters at first but now, 6 months in, with great NOS tubes in my Rogue Sphinx 2, I can clearly hear differences between a few. My preference, a significant preference, is the Linear Apodizing filter. With this filter mids on my LS50s are richer and have more weight. Close second (in a mood, a preference) is Hybrid, which on this gear gives some edge to the transients and I hear more energy in high frequency sounds. I did buy it for MQA on Tidal, for which I can offer no strong opinion at this time, just share that it is case by case, sometimes exciting but other times my experience is that I feel something in the music like the way you might get a feeling from food that's too processed, a sense that something is added that's subtly uncomfortable. S2 also doubles as DAC for my Cambridge CD transport, a very enjoyable detailed sound from my CD collection, though I plan this year to move up the food chain with a more sophisticated DAC. Film at eleven. Nice review thanks.

ken mac's picture

for your comments.

rt66indierock's picture

This review is an example of why you measure first and listen second. I measured it, Audio Science Review and John Atkinson measured it. We all came to the same conclusion that it measures well. Amir and I both found second harmonics which would have been worth discussing.

But if Tom Petty sounded louder in the MQA version you didn’t volume match. This renders many of your sound comments invalid. Finally, MQA like any format seems to be normally distributed with the majority either no difference or a different sort of different (thanks Kal).

ken mac's picture

you measure and listen independently. There are many many instances where gear measures poorly and sounds great and vice versa. A story as old as the hills. MQA sounded louder and I adjusted volume. And MQA sounded better on every available track. Your comments are invalid. Cheers.

rt66indierock's picture

I appreciate you documenting your lack of understanding of volume matching. Fortunately, someone I’m frequently at odds with can help, your new editor Jim Austin.

Ken you measure first to simply verify the component is quiet enough to take full advantage of the 96 dB on a 16/44.1 file. If it doesn’t, I box it up and return it as unacceptable.

As for every MQA track sounding better, those of us who tuned live systems with The Nightfly find the MQA version to be worse.

As for your comments about measurements and sound I think you are misinterpreting what Daniel von Recklinghausen meant so I’m going to write an article about it.

ken mac's picture

Which began with J. Gordon Holt, continued through the first JA and is now upheld by the current JA is to listen first, then measure. Sorry if our methods don't agree with your's. Plenty of mags/sites/forums where your views are in vogue...hey, you can even submit your article...Nightfly as barometer? No wonder.

allhifi's picture

Ken Mac is right; your comments (vol.level matching) are naively invalid.

AND, as Ken correctly points out again, listen, measure -comment. Only with considerable experience can one come to the realization that impressive "specifications" and SQ are not particularly related -again as Ken Mac has stated).

pj

Graham Luke's picture

...model worthy of consideration is the excellent Gilmore Lite Mark 2 by Headamp. The Gilmore does not have a built in DAC but pairs incredibly well with a Dragonfly Red. The beauty is that you can mix and match DACs and upgrade in the future.

RaimondAudio's picture

There are many other very good cheap DAC's like: Topping DX7s, Topping DX3PRO, Topping D50, Aune X1s, Khadas Tone,SMSL SU-8V2 etc. Over 1.000$ we have Okto DAC, RME ADI-2, Gustard X26, Yulong DA10, SMSL D1, etc.

dc_bruce's picture

"Class A," they said.

If these classifications have any meaning, then this little box is just as good as, say, the Chord Quetest or the Schitt Yggdrasil. Admittedly, the test scores are nice; but the aural comparisons in the review are with other similarly priced budget DACs, like the Dragonfly. And, it was not even a clear winner, subjectively, over the Dragonfly.

For that matter, after Mr. Atkinson's glowing, enthusiastic review of the Quetest, I was surprised it was not in the "A+" category. Would that be because the much more expensive Chord DAVE is in that same group?

Having never had the opportunity to compare a slew of DACs against each other, I can't say whether meaningful (i.e. audible) differences between DACs exist. But it seems to me that if Stereophile is going to be in the business of ranking them-- Class A+, Class A, Class B, etc. -- then some kind of explanation is in order . . . and more than the vague generalities that precede the rankings.

Or, maybe I should just risk a few hundred $$$ and find out for myself.
So, is it just going to be about the numbers from now on?

allhifi's picture

dc_Bruce: For someone as yourself who doubts any "meaningful" distinctions exist between DAC's has no place here (experience/interest) to cast opinion.

Why in the world would you be interested in Stereophile's rating grade when you yourself don't even own a DAC and quake in your shoes at the thought of shelling out/"risking" a few hundred dollars.

Stick to your 'Gun's' and Sears stereo.

pj

helomech's picture

based on JA's measurements. I had been wanting to try a more modern architecture but figured I'd wet my feet before shelling out 3X as much for a Benchmark or Mytek. After spending a few days with the Pre Box S2, it's hard to imagine much can be gained with those pricier units. While it may not be a giant slayer, it's quite an upgrade over my old Topping PCM DAC. The Pre Box also outperforms my Line Magnetic 502 CA when compared to the latter's SS mode. That DAC had an MSRP of $1800 just a few years ago.

allhifi's picture

Great to hear you are enjoying the S2 -it wouldn't surprise me at all. I also have no doubt it easily outperforms the other DAC's noted.

It would be informative to hear from owner's (or qualified listener's) experiences between the S2 and the Mytek 'Liberty', 'Brooklyn +, Benchmark 2/3 or even the Chord 'Qutest'.

pj

allhifi's picture

helomech: It's unlikely you/we have "specs" for 'cabling' (or are looking at the right ones -lol) but you be'd really surprised at the SQ distinctions noted if you exchange/experiment with the 5V Walmart power cord/USB-Micro cable -providing the 5V DC power to S2.

AND, without exception, give your DAC it's own space/ shelf/ space -as opposed to perched upon something else.

Finally, if possible feed your 'Digital' gear AC-Regen power or at the least Balanced/Symmetrical AC power; gains in SQ/performance are considerable.

Enjoy,

pj

helomech's picture

had this to say about the Pre Box S2:
https://www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=158442.0

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