Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital D/A headphone amplifier Page 2

When I used the Pre Box S2 as a headphone amp with my Asus laptop PC, I listened through AKG Acoustics K612 Pro Reference Studio ($250) or Master & Dynamic MH40 ($299) headphones. "The S2 can support any headphones," Goddard told me, "but may not have quite enough drive for some super-high-impedance cans." A Mytek USB cable connected the Pro-Ject to my laptop when I listened to Tidal or played files from an external hard drive. When I used the Pre Box S2 in my larger system as a DAC, a single run of Triode Wire Labs Spirit II interconnect joined my Tascam CD-200iL CD player's digital output to the Pro-Ject's coaxial digital input. A pair of Triode Wire Labs Spirit II single-ended interconnects connected the Pro-Ject to the analog input jacks of the Parasound Halo Hint 6 integrated amplifier or Shindo Laboratory Haut-Brion power amp.

The Pre Box S2 Digital sat lightly on four DiversiTech rubber and cork anti-vibration pads placed atop the CD player.

Pre Box S2 Digital as headphone amp
I don't often listen through headphones, but the S2 had me pulling out my decent cans, Master & Dynamic MH40s.

First, I experimented with the Pre Box S2's eight filters, playing Miles Davis's epic Filles de Kilimanjaro (16-bit/44.1kHz stream, Columbia/Tidal). I heard very little difference among the filters. Perhaps Slow Rolloff made Herbie Hancock's Fender Rhodes electric piano sound slightly creamier. Brickwall may have made Tony Williams's already shocking snare-drum rolls and pumping hi-hat eighth-notes a few degrees crisper, but I couldn't be sure. Singer Nancy Wilson's 1960 chartbuster, Something Wonderful (16/44.1 stream, Capitol/Tidal), had me reveling in her sassy, urbane delivery, but neither the Pre Box S2's Minimum Phase Fast nor Linear Apodizing filters altered or improved Wilson's elated flow in any significant way.


Throughout my listening to PCM files, the Pre Box S2 delivered extremely clean, crisp, well-sorted, enjoyable sound. On Something Wonderful, arranger Billy May's swinging big band was well proportioned, every note from the drums and double bass supremely punchy and extended, with excellent timing, realistic tone, and good spatial depth. Wilson's voice was joyously dead-center in the center-fill zone of my skull, her every syllable beautifully precise, every fleshy tone and subtle inflection seemingly flawless. It felt as if Wilson were singing directly to me, with my head replacing her vocal mike. I heard only a clean, non–gussied-up, fairly faithful representation of the files I played through it.

Phoenix's United (16/44.1, Parlophone/Tidal) sounded big, deep, and nicely spacious via the Master & Dynamic–Pro-Ject combo, the French quartet's energetic power-pop delivered with excellent bass depth and weight—drums were as dead-on thick as one of Dr. Dre's Snoop Dog productions—and with a pleasingly saturated midrange and treble. As emotional and melodic as their songs are topical, Phoenix may now be the finest power-pop band in the English-speaking world.

Then I clicked on Tom Petty's "Running Down a Dream" (24/96, Tidal MQA Master). The MQA icon lit up, as did the blue light. The music became louder, deeper, broader, more enveloping, even more dynamic. The soundstage seemed to grow and surround my head in a way that Tidal's non–MQA Master tracks hadn't.

MQA was a revelation through the Pre Box S2 Digital. Skipping around among Tom Petty, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, and some classical from 2L Sampler 2007: The Nordic Sound (24/96 2L/Tidal MQA), I heard major differences compared to PCM versions for most if not all recordings.

For instance, in non-MQA Tidal the 2000 Rudy Van Gelder Edition of Hank Mobley's No Room for Squares sounds as it does on CD (Blue Note ST-84149): clipped treble, small of stature, truncated transients, and shallow bass. The MQA version reveals a broader, richer frequency range, more air around instruments, greater depth, and generally better tone. These improvements held true for most of my comparisons of MQA and non-MQA files from Tidal. I particularly enjoyed hearing Wayne Shorter's music in MQA—then wondered why there are no MQA titles from the Miles Davis and Pink Floyd catalogs.

Pre Box S2 Digital vs AudioQuest DragonFly Red
While the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital provided a very clean signal as a headphone amp, I was curious how its sound, particularly with MQA, would compare with that of AudioQuest's popular DragonFly Red USB DAC and headphone amplifier ($199.95). Sticking with No Room for Squares' opening track, "Three Way Split," a supercharged, swinging example of Mobley's magic, the Pro-Ject with its Optimal Transient filter laid out the tune in toe-tapping, head-bobbing fashion. Doing my best to match volume levels after the switch, the AQ offered a louder, easier-to-feel bass line; drums had slightly more air, dynamics, and tonal richness; and the soundstage enveloping my head seemed bigger and more spacious. These differences were small but noticeable.

The recent Super Deluxe Edition of the Beatles' The Beatles (Apple), aka "The White Album," remastered and remixed by Giles Martin, is quite a revelation on its own, and the MQA version in Tidal floored me. Through the Pro-Ject and Master & Dynamics, "Sexy Sadie" sounded superb. Vocal harmonies were cleaner and clearer than ever before, the flanged "wow-wow-wows" spooky and dreamlike; the clanging, off-kilter piano was bigger and deeper, and Ringo's drums chugged harder. Hats off to MQA and Pro-Ject. The same track through the DragonFly Red was more luxurious in overall tonality, and images within the soundstage sounded meatier and fuller. The immediacy and palpability of voices and instruments also improved. A touch of upper-frequency air and clarity may have been lost, but the greater fullness was satisfying.


Pre Box S2 Digital DAC with Tascam CD-200iL CD player
In 2014, after reading John Marks's review of Tascam's inexpensive CD-200 CD player (recently discontinued), I bought one pronto. The CD-200iL version I got greatly improved on Tascam's CD-401 CD player, ca 1995, a sample of which I'd picked up at auction—in fact, I was surprised at how good the CD-200iL sounded: vibrant and spacious.

I compared the Tascam's internal DAC to that of the Pro-Ject by playing tracks first through the Tascam, then the same tracks using the CD player as a transport to the Pro-Ject with its Optimal Transient filter. And though I could find no information online about its DAC, the CD-200iL bettered the Pre Box S2 Digital, if only slightly. But as we know, in audio, small differences can add up to big results.

Clarinetist Ben Goldberg's Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues (CD, Bag Production BA G003) was one of my favorite jazz CDs of 2013. Blowing hard and swinging harder, Goldberg draws you in and nails you to your seat, and the sound on this CD is meaty and natural. Some indie-label jazz CDs can suffer from poor sound, but Subatomic is a joy. Through the Pre Box S2, Devin Hoff's double-bass notes were stronger and a mite deeper, and the general sound was similar, if a bit tipped-up and a tad thinner overall. The criss-crossing horn lines weren't as well defined as through the Tascam, and the soundstage was more confused.

Switching to a collection of works by Tchaikovsky performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Alwyn, originally recorded for Decca in 1958 (CD, Decca/Polygram Special Markets CSCD 6038), the Pro-Ject revealed the soaring crescendo in Capriccio Italien as a series of leading-edge notes, and made the sweeping orchestral motion somehow tinnier. The strings had a shiny quality that didn't come across through the Tascam. The differences were subtle but repeatable.

At $399, Pro-Ject's Pre Box S2 Digital ticks off so many boxes of user friendliness that it's a steal. The Pre Box S2's PCM and MQA options sound fantastic. I can think of no other mini-machine that does so much so well, with so wide an array of musical sounds and styles. Its DAC was competitive with that of my Tascam CD player; as a headphone amp, it's a small way into big listening—it sounded good with a variety of headphones. If you're a traveling man or a La-Z-Boy disc jockey, Pro-Ject's Pre Box S2 Digital demands an investigation.

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

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
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

What filter(s) are you using for listening? :-) .......

Kblade's picture

The fact that this reviewer only used the Optimal Transient response filter. Shows me he had no clue of what he was doing. It is the worst filter on the project. This filter pushes the midrange way to forward causing it to sound very dry with no air no sparkle. Awful review! ONE HELL OF A DAC FIVE STARS!

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).


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.


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'.


Kblade's picture

What is a qualified listener. Do you have to have dog years or do you have to write for a magazine. What a dumb comment

allhifi's picture

Yoh, Chooch: For 'normal' (i.e. no-moronic) folk it's rather self explanatory.

Perhaps you should spend more time listening to your Candle (brand) radio as opposed to imposing your 5th grade education/mentality here. Good luck -not really.


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.



Bogolu Haranath's picture

helomech, what filter(s) are you using for listening? :-) ........

helomech's picture

had this to say about the Pre Box S2:

miketk's picture

radiant, sensuous, feminine missing?

I have just purchased a Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital to sit between my desktop PC and main hifi system - Prima Luna Dialogue Premium HP and Monitor Audio Gold 200 (ribbon) speakers.

Forget all about the headphone amp part. This is one of the best DACs I have heard so far for resolving voices and instruments and placing them in a huge sound stage. I think the secret may be to connect it to a valve amplifier. This adds that hint of natural warmth to the mesmerising detail retrieval.

(PS I also have a Cambridge Audio DACMagicPlus, Chord Mojo and and Audiolab M-DAC+)

In the UK the PBS2D has been described as 'Budget Esoterica' in the top quality HiFi News mag (August 2017). Just forget the headphone amp section. It is not as good as the dual mono ES 9038 DAC section.

The DAC section is another tiny piece of John Westlake magic and I think it may become a hifi classic.

As one example, The Opera Band Amici Forever album has never sounded better than through the PBS2D in my system. The separation of the five powerful operatic voices (two female, three male) and deep resonant bass is exceptional. To me this is radiant and sensual and feminine.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

What filter(s) are you using for listening? :-) .......

helomech's picture

I keep returning to the Slow Rolloff filter.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Thanks for your reply :-) ........

bknielsen's picture

I don't think the pre-emphasis flag is properly handled on the COAX input of this DAC. Anyone with the same experience? Maybe Stereophile could check, and should I be right make a warning for folks with an old CD collection.

I discovered this playing the Dire Straits Alchemy album, with my old Sony CD player used as a transport. It sounds harsh/bright.

jimtavegia's picture

I just bought the Project S2 Dac to use with one of my old Sony DVP NS 755 DVD/SACD players and every filter bettered the Sony, which should come as no surprise given a 2003 player. It still sounds very good with SACDs, but my newer Yamaha players does better it.

It is amazing what $299 buys in digital these days and I bought the unit without the headphone amp. I can't imagine that there is any new 2020 CD player that could beat this in sound quality, given all the filter options there are.

I can only guess who happy Chord DAC owners are and will enjoy their purchases for many years. It is good to know that for all of us there is a way to improve our digital experiences.

I enjoyed the increased clarity of JA1's recordings of the Portland State Chamber Choir on CD with a greater sense of space. I also pushed the envelope with a HD tracks download of Eric Whitacre at Kings College in 2496. I feel that a real test of clarity of a DAC is how well it can keep sorted all the mass voices and can you make out the lyrics, which is also a part of the cohesiveness of the members.

This may be the best $299 I will spend this year on audio. Thanks to Stereophile for reviewing very affordable gear.

jimtavegia's picture

filter 2 is the Linear Phase fast Rolloff, and 5 is the Apodizing Hybrid filter. I did not buy the one with the headphone amp function, so I am wondering if the naming of the filters is different for some reason. Should be the same I would think. Great sounding little DAC. I have not gotten into DSD downloads as of yet.

jimtavegia's picture

Now two of my players, one a Sony DVP NS 755 (2003) has one and is now part of a headphone station, and the other is on my Yamaha S1800 player from 2007 in a main system. I bought a Silver S2+ so I can easily know which is which. A true bargain.

dclark2171's picture

Back when I had to send in my Rogue RP-5 in for repair (later traded in for my current BHK Pre), I used the Pre Box s2 as a pre amp (digital inputs only). I must say....if I did not need analog inputs ...I could be quite happy as a pre. Dead quiet. Great Soundstage

neurotopia's picture

Hi Ken (and everyone else). I noticed in your review the Pre-Box S2 is specced with Sabre Pro ES9038 chips. But the unit I got is specced with dual ESS9038Q2M chips (on the packaging) and online I've only seen reference to one model, all of which are also specced with the ESS9038Q2M. Are these the same chip (and I'm just an idiot) or was there a hardware change?

-edited for grammar.

nidaje's picture

KM introduced a fault in his presentation of the Pro-Ject S2 Pre Digital on page 1, section ”Design”, paragraph 1, line 2-4:
(it's first dual-mono DAC using ESS Technology's flagship Sabre Pro ES9038 dual chip,...)

KM got it right though in Sidebar 1: Specifications:
D/A-converter: two 32-bit ESS9038Q2M.

The fact is:
The Pro-Ject S2 Pre Digital is not housing the ES9038Pro Dac to be verified at:
Technische Daten: D/A-Wandler 2 x ESS9038Q2M 32-bit.

None of the Pro-ject dac's are housing the ES9038Pro. Depending on model they use:
ES9038Q2M (one or Dual-Mono 32-bit), Cirrus Logic 4344 (Delta-Sigma type), PCM 5102A, AK 4490 32-bit, 2 x TI PCM-1792.

The fact is:
The Complete ESS Sabre Pro Series of Dac's include:
ES9038PRO Flagship SABRE 32-bit 8-Channel Audio Dac with 140 dB DNR (64-Pin).
ES9028PRO SABRE 32-bit 8-Channel Audio Dac with up to 133 dB DNR (64-Pin).
ES9026PRO SABRE 32-bit 8-Channel Audio Dac with up to 128 dB DNR (48-Pin).

ESS produce other 8-Channel Dac's but none designated PRO.

The ES9038Q2M is a member of the SABRE 2-Channel Audiophile Dac's:
ES9038Q2M 32-Bit Stereo Mobile Audio Dac with 129 dB DNR.
It is a smaller 30-QFN package (30 pin), has ultra-low power consumption though very respectable data.

As the Pro-Ject founder Heinz Lichtenegger says in his interview with Hi-FiNews Nov. 2019 on The Pro-Ject CD Box RS2 T and Pre Box RS2 Digital review: (You realise very fast that the highest costs are in the cabinet and the mechanical parts, not the electronics – the only way to reach a sensible price is to reduce the size of the box, also improving it's feel and rigidity.)

A real SOTA Pro-Ject Dac based on the ES9038PRO or anything comparable with or without a valve section is hardly their aim. The money are in the segment below.

helomech's picture

Replacing the oem wall-wart with a Topping
P50 power supply makes for a substantial improvement with the S2. Compares favorably to the Chord Qutest in this configuration.

Also, the oem wall-wart is one that induces noise in adjacent components. It was causing a nasty buzz in my phono preamp.