PS Audio UltraLink D/A processor Thomas J. Norton, March 1993

Thomas J. Norton, March 1993 (Vol.16 No.3)

I teamed up the PS Audio Ultralink with the Pioneer PD-65 discussed by Sam Tellig in the January issue. The latter was used as a transport only. A Kimber KCAG digital interconnect linked the PD-65 and the Ultralink (footnote 1). This combination was not arrived at through any exhaustive process, but did turn out to be an attractive match. The price of the Pioneer/Kimber/PS Audio playback system was roughly the same as that of the Proceed PCD 3, which was, by a small margin, the most expensive player I reviewed this month.

I did note one problem with this pairing of the Pioneer PD-65 with the Ultralink: a "tick" reproduced along with the music, occurring perhaps once or twice per hour of listening. I have not yet tracked down the reason for this. The Pioneer proved a less adept tracker than any of the other players, judged by playing back the tracking and error-correction bands on the Pierre Verany test disc; it mistracked several bands before any of the others, but still easily met the CD standard.

It should also be mentioned that our sample of the Ultralink is a fairly early version. Later models have some minor upgrades, which we have not yet evaluated.

Compared with the Pioneer transport/PS Audio Ultralink D/A processor "reference," the MSB Silver: $2795 very nearly came out on top. I say very nearly because, as I sampled different recordings, the reference came out ahead in some face-offs, the MSB in others. The latter scored when it came to bottom-end extension and weight, and in its continuing lively, immediate presentation. The reference was a bit sweeter in the upper midrange/lower treble, and more open and transparent in general. The reference came out on top more often, but rarely by more than a narrow margin.

I was recently made aware of a two-CD album called la fabuleuse histoire de Mister Swing (WEA Music 2292-42338-2), featuring French singer Michel Jonasz (footnote 5). I first heard a selection from this recording, "Le Temps Passé," played back on this system but using the above-mentioned Proceed PDT 3 transport and Levinson No.30 processor. It had a remarkable see-through quality, with a slight bite to the vocalist's voice and a striking overall clarity. It was also exceptional on the Pioneer/PS Audio "reference." The MSB reproduced this selection with even more presence than the Pioneer/PS Audio—a very solid, almost reach-out-and-touch-me sound. But the MSB had just a bit too much warmth; the reference ultimately won by virtue of its greater transparency and more "look-into" soundstaging. The MSB did continue to impress here, however, with its more extended and defined deep bass. While I preferred the reference overall on this recording, my vote could have gone either way. I didn't like having to make a choice.

Finally, I compared the Marantz CD-11 Mk.II ($2500) with the Pioneer transport/PS Audio Ultralink combination. The latter was easily the more lucid. Mister Swing had a more visceral, layered, see-into quality with the transport/processor; the CD-11 simply homogenized and "prettied up" the sound too much. Mokave, which depends for its impact on the ability to separate inner details, simply worked better on the Pioneer/PS Audio.

A recently released compilation of music used in the TV series "Northern Exposure" (MCA MCAD-10685) (footnote 6) can only be described as the oddest compilation album I've acquired in years. The recording quality ranges from enjoyable to execrable, the music from sublime to hokey. Several cuts, however, were useful in this comparison. One in particular, "Don Quichotte," from an obscure rock group called Magazine 60, was most revealing. Overdubbed, multimiked, and apparently processed through a meatgrinder, it nevertheless opened up through the Pioneer/PS Audio reference. Inner threads were clearly revealed. The layering of the mix was laid bare—and was not unpleasant. Supported by a tight bassline, it had a drive and forward motion which were irresistible. On the Marantz it certainly didn't sound bad—it would take a curmudgeon to say that—but it was simply too smooth, too lacking in that subtle yet important quality of aliveness. Through the reference, this selection came across as enjoyable and involving, even as a selection which might be useful in assessing the inner clarity of other components. Through the Marantz, it was never less than interesting, but never much more, either.

Matched against the Pioneer transport/PS Audio Ultralink D/A processor, the Proceed PCD 3 ($2995) was less open on top, with less see-through transparency and a subtle, dry grain in the treble which was not at all obvious except in the comparison. The Pioneer/PS Audio was less open in the mid- and upper bass, with a fuller quality in this region compared to the tighter, crisper sound of the Proceed. Male vocals on the Pioneer/PS Audio were liquid and grainless, with just enough clarity in the brightness region to give them a natural definition and reveal the subtle character and vocal inflections without becoming hard or etched. I noted some excess warmth in the upper bass, which bothered me initially but was easily ignored after a few minutes. The Proceed had none of this excess warmth. It was better balanced at the bottom, but the vocal quality was less fluid, less "there."

This same difference was heard on Mister Swing, where the bass line, though it remained slightly warmer, was also richer and deeper on the Pioneer/PS Audio, and the latter revealed more inner detail and dimensionality. Both players had good ultimate LF extension, the differences between them being a close call. Ultimately I felt that the Pioneer/PS Audio dug a little deeper at the very bottom, while the Proceed was a bit leaner and more open in the mid- and upper bass. The latter quality helps to open up the sound in most cases, as it did here. But the natural openness of the Pioneer/Proceed's top end was compelling.

The Pioneer transport/PS Audio Ultralink D/A processor opens up the price gap by another $200 or so, the additional cost being the price of the digital interconnect. And it opens up the sonic gap as well. The Pioneer/PS Audio outshines the Kinergetics KCD-40 Platinum ($2295) in a number of ways. The most obvious is in overall openness and clarity—that "blacker" background. This, in turn, clarifies the overall soundstage; individual images have more "pop" to them, standing free of the surrounding sonic fabric.

Vocalists were just a shade smaller and more appropriately sized. While Kenny Rankin's Because of You (Chesky JD63) certainly sounded fine on the Kinergetics, with warm, palpable vocals and solid instrumental accompaniment, it was that much "more" on the Pioneer/PS Audio. Kenny Rankin's voice was better balanced on "Someone to Watch Over Me," though still somewhat warm in the midbass and more appropriately sized—read smaller—with the reedy sound of the accompanying saxophone more apparent. The depth and layering on Book of Roses was also more apparent on the Pioneer/PS Audio. Six seconds into "The Grand Ball of the Duljas," a dog bark is heard. I noticed it for the first time on the Pioneer/PS Audio. While it is quite apparent on the KCD-40 now that I know where to listen for it, its spatial perspective is quite different on the two players. On the Kinergetics it has, arguably, the better presence with slightly more body. On the Pioneer/PS Audio, it's a bit smaller and set back further into the soundstage.—Thomas J. Norton

Pothes's picture

Would you recommend this dac over msb analog and Hugo TT or it is old to to step up and take over these two ?

Will you review mola mola dac

Thanks Robert .

John Atkinson's picture
Pothes wrote:
Would you recommend this dac over msb analog and Hugo TT or it is old to to step up and take over these two?

The PS Audio truncates data with bit depths greater than 16 so is not competitive with modern DACs.

Pothes wrote:
Will you review mola mola dac?

No plans to do so at present.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile