PS Audio UltraLink Two digital processor Page 2

Overall, the UltraLink Two's design, parts, and execution are a significant upgrade over the UltraLink. Replacing the Yamaha YM36323 input receiver with the UltraAnalog AES21 and swapping the NPC 5803 for the PMD100 are by themselves major advances. The unit's build quality is excellent for a $2295 processor, although I thought PS Audio should have provided analog-domain attenuation to meet the HDCD license rather than the easier-to-implement digital-domain attenuation in the HDCD decoder/filter.

If you compare the UltraLink with the UltraLink Two, note that the left- and right-channel output jacks have been reversed. If the two units are stacked, it's easy to get the channels reversed by assuming that the jacks above one another are the same. I should also mention that I thought the Two sounded better from the single-ended jacks; I did most of my auditioning with unbalanced interconnects.

The UltraLink Two sounded vastly better than the UltraLink in every respect. It didn't take lots of back-and-forth comparisons; the differences were immediately obvious. Listening to the original UltraLink again highlighted how much digital playback has improved over the past four years. Specifically, the UltraLink Two was less forward in the mids and had a more relaxed character. The original UltraLink's main liability was a forwardness to the sound that could become imposing. By contrast, the Two's perspective was more laid-back, gentle, and refined. If the UltraLink put me in Row C, the UltraLink Two was a ticket to Row M. The UltraLink Two's perspective was now more in line with what I hear from the best processors, with an immediacy but without pushiness.

The UltraLink Two also excelled in the faithful reproduction of instrumental timbre. Where the UltraLink could get a little hard and grainy in the mids, the Two was softer, sweeter, and much more liquid. The Two's treble was much cleaner, with greater finesse and inner detail, and less of the white-noise–like character overlaying the top end.

Soundstage transparency was also greatly improved, as was image focus and sense of bloom around image outlines. The Two had a wonderfully transparent and spacious presentation, in contrast to the UltraLink's somewhat flatter rendering. It's ironic for me to say this now, but one of the UltraLink's great strengths at its price was its transparency and soundstaging. At the time, you just couldn't find the UltraLink's level of transparency and image focus for $2000. The Two has taken a giant leap forward in these areas, throwing a deep and layered presentation within a transparent soundstage. Moreover, where the UltraLink tended to present soundstage depth in discrete layers, the Two presents depth more along a continuum. The back of the hall was much farther away with the Two, and I heard more sense of air around the soundstage's outer edges.

The Two's bass was also improved, with more dynamic contrast, greater articulation, and slightly deeper extension. Bass power, extension, and dynamics were never the UltraLink's strong suits, and neither are they the Two's. The siblings share a family resemblance of a somewhat lightweight character and lack of visceral slam. Nonetheless, the Two had a tighter and better-controlled bottom end, with a little more kick at the extreme bottom end.

As may be expected, the UltraLink Two fell between the Classࡕ DAC 1 and the Audio Alchemy DAC in performance. Although the DDE v3/DTI v2 pair sounded terrific for $1000, the UltraLink Two was the more musical processor. The Two had more refinement, resolution, detail, and transparency. I also heard greater image palpability through the UltraLink Two, with more air around instrumental images.

A phrase from my listening notes sums up how the UltraLink Two compared to the Classé DAC 1: "No match for Classé." The DAC 1 was much more detailed than the UltraLink Two, resolving low-level musical information that just wasn't there through the PS Audio. The Classé's bass was also deeper and tighter, and had much more dynamic impact.

I won't dwell on this comparison; you get the idea. Although the DAC 1 is roughly one-and-a-half times the UltraLink Two's price, you should also audition the Classé and consider this superb Canadian processor if your budget can stretch that far.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed music through the UltraLink Two during the single-presentation listening. The Two had a smooth rendering of instrumental timbre that was remarkably free from grain and stridency. This was the UltraLink Two's best quality, and one that was important musically. Without the grain and etch overlaying instrumental textures, the presentation produced a sense of ease and involvement. Listen, for example, to the soprano sax and oboe on Oregon's new Beyond Words CD (Chesky JD130). Through the UltraLink Two, these instruments were rendered with a natural, "unsynthetic" quality. The Two's treble was also impressive, sounding clean, pure, and free from hash.

I was also impressed by the UltraLink Two's soundstage size, layering, and transparency. The Two threw a spacious and well-defined soundstage, but didn't quite have the sense of space between instrumental images I hear from the best processors.

My main criticisms of the UltraLink Two were its tendency to obscure low-level musical detail, a slight congealing during complex passages, and lack of ultimate bass extension and impact. These criticisms were no doubt heightened by the presence of the Classé DAC 1 in my system, which I auditioned simultaneously with the UltraLink Two this past month. The DAC 1 happens to excel in resolution and dynamics, throwing into sharper relief the UltraLink Two's minor shortcomings.

The new PS Audio UltraLink Two is a worthy successor to the UltraLink. The Two builds on the UltraLink's strengths, taking the performance of this moderately priced unit to a much higher level. There's really no comparison—the Two's sound was cleaner in the mids and treble, more transparent and open, less forward, and had a greater sense of ease and musicality.

If you own an original UltraLink, continue to enjoy it; I spent many wonderful hours with it. Don't let the existence of the UltraLink Two in any way diminish your enjoyment of music through the UltraLink.

Like the UltraLink, the Two had some leanness in the midbass, and wasn't the last word in dynamics or bass impact. The Two didn't have the visceral slam or dynamic contrast I hear in many other processors. The UltraLink Two excelled in liquidity, treble smoothness, and transparency, rather than bass extension, pace and timing, or rhythmic power. As always, you should audition the UltraLink Two carefully before buying.

Although I thought the UltraLink Two sounded terrific for the price, the unit is less of a sure-bet recommendation than was the UltraLink. The competition is more fierce now, with many processors offering great sound at this popular price level. Other units worth investigating are the Theta DS Pro Basic III ($2695), Muse Model Two ($1700), and the $2195 tubed Sonic Frontiers SFD-1 Mk.II. If your budget can stretch, the Classé DAC 1 is an absolute killer, and well worth the $1200 price difference.

All things considered, I can highly recommend the UltraLink Two. As with its predecessor, the Two may well set the standard of performance in moderately priced digital processors.

PS Audio
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO 80301
(720) 406-8946