PS Audio NuWave DSD D/A processor Page 2

Most audio reviewers praise long-term listening as the gold standard for auditioning an audio component. I agree, but there's no better time to notice a difference in the sound than just after you've made a change in a familiar system. When I plugged in the NuWave DSD, hooked it up to my early-2015 MacBook Pro, and began playing music via the playback application Roon, the most striking and immediate changes were rhythmic. Drums thwacked. A woodblock sounded like a woodblock, not a recording of one. When I put on one of my favorite classical CDs, Clifford Curzon's 1962 recording of Brahms's Piano Concerto 1, with George Szell and the London Symphony Orchestra (CD, Decca 289 466 376-2), the clicking of fingers on keys grabbed my attention as never before, and I wasn't even paying close attention.

With Lucinda Williams's excellent West (Lost Highway 9858348, 16/44.1 via Tidal), the grunt and, especially, the gravel in her voice really came across. "Wrap My Head Around That," a repetitive Delta-blues rap that Robert Forster called "a song of unremitting spite and pain," evoked a grim, countrified "Mars Eats Guitars" or a twangy, down-tempo "Burning Down the House." (Weird comparisons, I know.) Not that this was an especially challenging test, but the NuWave DSD convincingly sold Williams's spiteful laugh at the end.

So far I've emphasized the NuWave's rhythmic qualities, but there was more to this DAC than percussion. In the Gryphon Trio's recording of Beethoven's Piano Trio 1 in E-flat, Op.1 No.1 (9 CDs, Analekta 295108), I heard a spacious acoustic and strings with a pleasant, meaty buzz, nicely complementing an appropriately percussive piano. I heard something similar with Marc-André Hamelin's Live at Wigmore Hall (CD, Hyperion CDA66765), one of my 2012 Records to Die For: a great sense of the acoustic space, and a solid, impactful piano with nice transients on the leading edges. (I played both of these recordings from actual CDs using my Ayre Acoustics CX-7eMP CD player as transport, connected, via the Ayre's AES/EBU digital output to the NuWave's S/PDIF input, by a Canare transformer and a Stereovox HDVX coaxial cable. It worked flawlessly.) Generally, with good recordings, the density and placement of images—from side to side and from front to back—were very good.

My best friend's girl
Toward the end of the listening period, JA loaned me his DirectStream DAC—he'd bought the review sample—to compare with the NuWave DSD. First impressions revealed a smaller change than I'd expected, but over the course of an evening the DirectStream grew on me—and grew. Listening to the first movement of Per NØrgård's Symphony 1, with Sakari Oramo conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Dacapo 6.220574, 16/44.1 via Tidal), the DirectStream added enough bass weight and authority to be meaningful. I heard more separation of instruments in space, on a wider, deeper soundstage—and was there also a bit more air?

The most important improvement with the DirectStream was that the music just seemed more relaxed. With this sense of relaxation—better spatial presentation may also have played a role—the music became more believable. Listening to "Light Blue," the first track on Thelonious Monk's At the Five Spot (probably Milestone 0888072470439, 16/44.1 via Tidal), I was struck by the feeling that I was attending a live performance. I don't mean that I listened closely, analyzed the sound, and decided that it sounded "live." Rather, I was transported. The tonal balance wasn't quite natural—this 1958 recording is good, but not that good—but there I was at the Five Spot, near a wall or around a corner from the stage. That's what $5999 can buy.

Downsides? The NuWave DSD is intended for use in a home system; there's no headphone jack, no volume control. Be careful with the top plate—it looks as if it would scratch.

Spirits in a material world
I've been out of the digital game for a while, listening to terrestrial radio (WKCR, the excellent Columbia University station) and my collection of LPs. I haven't missed digital sound. But recent developments—Tidal, MQA, the paucity and rising prices of good used vinyl, and maybe my lifelong tendency to reject whatever's currently cool—have me listening more to digital. With a DAC like PS Audio's NuWave DSD, whose sound possesses many of the virtues of my old-school analog rig—texture, vividness, corporeality, rhythmic assurance, surface noise (kidding!)—listening to more digital wouldn't be much of a sacrifice. In fact, in the last few weeks I've had a blast with computer audio. Maybe it's time for a reboot.

Nearly 10 years have passed since I wrote my first review for Stereophile. Every review I write still teaches me something new about audio, and about reviewing. When I started out, I thought that, owing to my scientific training, I was better prepared than your average poet to write reliable, objective reviews. Yes, I was arrogant, and wrong: much more important, I've found, is experience.

Will I—will we—ever be able to discover exactly what sonic characteristics are responsible for certain subjective impressions: why the NuWave DSD makes music seem more rhythmic, or what aspect of the sound of the DirectStream yields the sense of relaxation that seemed to transport me to the Five Spot ca 1958? We'll see. I'll not give up easily on the notion that sound science, in both senses of the phrase, can be used to deliver peak emotional experiences—what a cool idea that is!

But, I've learned, there's a basic problem: When you focus analytically on the sound—when you try to make listening more objective—you close yourself off to the music's subjective character, its emotional message. That's more or less the difference between a formal wine tasting—in which you take a small sip, swish it around your mouth, then spit it out—and sharing a good bottle over dinner with someone you love. (Does the brain have a wine channel?) The former can be done in a way that's more or less objective, but what you learn from it is of limited importance. The latter is irredeemably subjective, and it's the only thing that matters.

PS Audio
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO 80301