Recommended Components Fall 2021 Edition Digital Processors

Digital Processors

Editor's Note: The sound of any particular CD transport/digital processor combination will be dependent on the datalink used-see "Bits is Bits?" by Christopher Dunn and Malcolm Omar Hawksford, Stereophile, March 1996, Vol.19 No.3 (WWW). Unless mentioned, processors are limited to 32/44.1/48kHz sample rates. To be included in Class A+, a digital processor must be capable of handling DSD or 24/96 LPCM data.

A+

Benchmark Media Systems DAC3 HGC: $2199 ★
Benchmark's DAC3 HGC—the last three letters designate this as the audiophile version, with a headphone amp and two analog inputs—supports files up to 24/192 and DSD64, the latter as DoP (via USB). Bearing in mind the manufacturer's suggestion that there should be no audible difference between their DAC1 and DAC3, JCA wrote, "In fact, I found the sounds of the two DACs quite different. The DAC1 was brighter; … the DAC3 was all about depths, in several respects … I heard deeper into the music." The concise conclusion to JA's Measurements sidebar: "All I can say is 'Wow!'" In a Follow-Up, JCA wrote of using the Benchmark processor with the same company's AHB2 power amp—a combination of high source output voltage and modest amplifier gain that he describes as "optimal for minimizing noise and distortion"—and reported hearing "richer and more interesting" reproduction of very subtle details. (Vol.40 No.11, Vol.41 No.10 WWW)

Bricasti M1SE: $10,000 ★
With first-class fit'n'finish, the dual-mono M1 DAC offers five digital inputs (USB, S/PDIF, AES3, BNC, optical—an Ethernet module is available), a volume control, measures a rack-friendly 17" W by 2" H by 12" D, and weighs 12lb. "The best digital playback I have heard," concluded JM of the original version, who also wrote that "the fact that Bricasti's M1 can play DSD and DXD files is less important than the fact that its playback of plain old 'Red Book' 16-bit/44.1kHz audio is so compelling that I, for one, don't feel shortchanged when a good recording is not 'high-resolution.'" JA also praised the M1's state-of-the-art measured behavior as well as its sound quality. SM auditioned the current Special Edition (SE) version, with the MDx upgrade. (The factory-installed MDx upgrade from earlier M1s costs $1000.) The SE adds point-to-point wiring, capacitor upgrades, and a variety of new software features. It also includes Stillpoints feet, which, with their vibration-absorbing abilities, are said to provide "a more transparent sonic presentation." The MDx upgrade to the digital circuit includes improved clocking, a later-generation Analog Devices DSP chip, a choice of 15 upsampled reconstruction filters—Minimum Phase filter 2 was SM's favorite—and allows the USB input to operate at higher sample rates. SM noted that he "heard some subtle but important differences from what I had experienced prior to the upgrade," including an increased sense of "details of timbre and soundstage exactitude but without any increased brittleness or etching. Bass seemed firmer, and the clarity of musical transients improved." (Vol.34 No.8, Vol.35 Nos.2, 3, & 9, Vol.36 No.7, Vol.37 No.12, original version; Vol.44 No.7 WWW)

Chord Electronics DAVE: $10,900 ★
The DAVE—an acronym for Digital to Analog Veritas in Extremis—derives from the work of Chord designer Rob Watts, whose Watts Transient Aligned (WTA) filter is claimed to eliminate the timing uncertainty associated with conventional DACs of comparatively limited processing power. And the DAVE's processing power is prodigious: As JA explains, "Watts ended up with a 17th-order noise shaper (!) with 350dB dynamic range (!!) in the audioband, equivalent to 50 bits resolution (!!!)." In his system, the DAVE, which is compatible with PCM up to 32 bits/768kHz and DSD up to DSD512, sounded so good that it tore editor JA away from editing: "Darned if I didn't have to go sit in the listening chair, so compelling was the sound produced by the DAVE." In particular, he praised the DAVE's "superb re-creation of soundstage depth, its sense of musical drive, and the clarity with which it presented recorded detail." Reporting from his test bench, JA wrote: "Even if I hadn't auditioned Chord's DAVE, I would have been impressed by this DAC. Its measured performance is beyond reproach." (Vol.40 No.6 Vol.43 No.3 WWW)

Chord Hugo M Scaler: $4795
The Chord Hugo M Scaler is a digital processor but not a digital-to-analog processor, its purpose being the upsampling—referred to in the UK as upscaling—of incoming data. When connected to a Chord DAC via BNC connectors, the M Scaler can upsample up to 705.6kHz or 768kHz, but with non-Chord DACs the upper limits become 176.4kHz and 192kHz. (In all cases, incoming DSD data is converted to PCM, with a 6dB reduction in level.) JA used the M Scaler with Chord's DAVE D/A processor, and with his own PS Audio and Mark Levinson DACs. In all cases, but especially with the DAVE, upsampling via the M Scaler offered such improvements as "more image depth, an increased sense of drive, and even more clarity." That said, owing to the fact that the M Scaler is "relatively expensive," JA recommends auditioning it with your DAC of choice "before getting out the credit card." (Vol.43 No.3 WWW)

dCS Bartók with headphone amp: $18,500
w/o headphone amp: $16,000
The "perfectly" named dCS Bartók—judged so by JCA for its modernist, single-box sensibility—brings an unprecedented level of thrift to the company's offerings: It is both the company's most affordable D/A processor and the one that offers the highest level of per-chassis functionality, owing to its inclusion of a headphone amplifier (which can be omitted for a $2750 savings) and an onboard version of the dCS Network Bridge streamer, the latter allowing playback from streaming services, network storage devices, and USB-connected flash drives. At the heart of the Bartók is the manufacturer's patented Ring DAC technology, here supporting native sampling rates up to 24-bit, 384kHz and up to DSD128. According to JCA, the Bartók "consistently and unambiguously revealed the character of the recordings it played, with clarity, pinpoint imaging [and] excellent image depth, fully saturated tonal colors, and no noticeable emphasis on any part of the frequency spectrum." Although neither writer saw the other's work until press time, Jim's conclusion—"the state of the art"—was echoed by JA in his test-bench report: "In this crusty old engineer's view, 'dCS' means 'Digital Done Right!' In a Follow-Up, HR experimented with the choice of reconstruction filters offered by the Bartók. He settled on the minimum-phase Filter 3, mainly because he liked its bite and contrast structure, striking a nice balance between hard and soft and keeping the music taut and lively. "Its vibrant effect on familiar recordings was nothing short of spectacular," he wrote. HR also auditioned the Bartók's headphone output. Using the low-sensitivity HiFiMan Susvara headphones, he found the sound "squeaky-glass clean and direct," with voices "crisply rendered." With Focal Stellias, the Bartók "made an attractive, lucid, and musically rousing partnering; one I could live with forever." HR summed up his time with the dCS by writing that he was not surprised at how easily and musically it handled every headphone he tried. (Vol.42 No.10, Vol.44 No.6 WWW)

dCS Rossini DAC 2.0: $26,000 ★
Were you to discard or disable the disc transport in your dCS Rossini Player, you would essentially have a Rossini D/A processor—which, like the Rossini Player, upsamples to PCM 352.8kHz or 384kHz and supports both DoP and native DSD up to DSD128. That said, if you wish to use the Rossini DAC to enjoy SACDs, you'll need a separate dCS transport, such as the dCS Vivaldi ($41,999). In the January 2017 Stereophile, JVS described using the Rossini DAC in place of his dCS Puccini player: "The Rossini seemed to dive into the center of the music and bring it home in ways the Puccini could not." In the May 2018 Stereophile, Jason reported on using a Rossini DAC that had been upgraded with full MQA compatibility: "The improved sound the Rossini drew from [my] MQA tracks was easily audible, and took recorded sound to another level, viscerally and emotionally." In the June 2019 issue, JVS reported on dCS's Rossini software v2.0, which applies to both this product and the Rossini Player. (Vol.40 No.1, Vol.41 No.5, Vol.42 No.5, Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

EMM Labs DV2: $30,000
EMM Labs' newest product is the first D/A processor to make use of the company's new VControl, a high-resolution volume-control system. Of its seven digital inputs, the DV2's USB Type B input is its most versatile, enabling PCM conversion up to DXD, DSD up to DSD128, and full MQA unfolding. Also provided are two coaxial (RCA) S/PDIF inputs, two optical (TosLink) S/PDIF inputs, one AES/EBU (XLR) input, and one proprietary EMM Optilink for SACD and CD playback. In his listening tests, JVS tried using the DV2 in a variety of configurations; he noted that by the time he'd done so, "it had become clear that the DV2 is one of the finest-sounding DACs with volume control that I've ever heard in my reference system." Indeed, Jason praised the DV2 for delivering, compared to other processors he's enjoyed in that setting, "the smoothest, most naturally warm, most consistently engaging and non-fatiguing reproduction of music." Writing from his test bench, JA noted that the DV2 offers resolution that's "close to the state of the art." Check the EMM Labs website to see if your version needs the no-cost volume-control update. (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

HoloAudio May KTE (Level 3): $4998 as reviewed
This well-constructed, hot-running, R-2R ladder DAC-based, two-box processor costs $3798-$4998 depending on options. It offers seven digital inputs—two coaxial, one optical, an AES/EBU, a USB, and two I2S over HDMI—and balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) analog outputs. The input stage uses op-amps, the output stage discrete transistors biased into class-A. It can be operated as a NOS (Non-OverSampling) DAC or in three different oversampling (OS) modes. (The DSD mode reduces the output level by 6dB.) When HR auditioned the top-of-the-line Level 3 version of the May in NOS mode, the very first album he played "sounded more fundamentally right than any digital reproduction I have experienced in my little bunker," he wrote. "Better than any DAC I know, the May recovers the natural pressure behind musical flow." He found that PCM oversampling added a harsh glare and muddled image specificity, and while the sound was clear with CD data and DSD oversampling, with a nice flow and fine musical textures, the bass was softer and soundstages less precisely drawn. "The May's true-to-life demeanor made recorded music seem infinite and beautiful," he concluded. JA was equally impressed by the transparency and neutrality of the May, though he found that the excellent soundstage depth and sense of musical "drive" in NOS mode had to be set against this mode's tendency to make pianos sound too "clangy." Piano in OS DSD mode remained clean and closer to the true sound of the instrument, he decided. In addition, densely scored climaxes "clogged up" a little in NOS mode while remaining clean in DSD mode. On the test bench, the May offered superb measured performance, including 22-bit resolution, greater even than that offered by the overperforming Weiss DAC502! (Vol.43 Nos.8 & 9 WWW)

Okto dac8 Stereo: €1289 (€1378 with Streaming Option) $$$
Almost identical to the multichannel dac8 PRO in appearance, the dac8 Stereo features a ¼" headphone jack, two pairs of balanced-output XLR jacks, and a plethora of inputs: one AES/EBU (XLR); four S/PDIF (two coaxial RCA, two TosLink optical); USB Type B; two USB Type A; and Ethernet (RJ45). The ESS Sabre DAC chips offer a choice of seven reconstruction filters for PCM data and two ultrasonic low-pass filters for DSD data. Despite its affordable price, the dac8 Stereo was one of the highest-resolution D/A processors JA had experienced—21 bits, rivaled only by the HoloAudio May, the MBL N31, and the Weiss DAC502. The USB input offers lower jitter than the S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs, he found, and so is preferred. The dac8 Stereo "opened a transparent window into recorded soundstages, unaccompanied by any feeling of fatigue or undue tonal emphasis," JA wrote, adding that he continued to be impressed throughout his auditioning by the Okto processor's combination of upper-bass weight and leading-edge definition. "Not only does the Okto dac8 Stereo offer superb sound quality and state-of-the-art measured performance; its price is a fraction of what you'd pay for competing products," he concluded. Listed price includes a Raspberry Pi 4-based streaming module (€89 when bought separately) and an Apple remote control (€25 when bought separately). (Vol.44 No.2 WWW)

PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DAC: $5999 ★
Instead of an off-the-shelf chipset, PS Audio's first DSD processor uses original code written into a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), the result being a system that converts all incoming data to double-rate DSD. In addition to asynchronous USB, the digital inputs include RCA, TosLink, and HDMI, and single-ended and true balanced analog outputs are provided. The DirectStream is built on a cast-alloy chassis with a glossy MDF top and a touchscreen from which all user controls can be worked. Firmware is user-updatable, as AD discovered while reviewing the DirectStream. He noted the DAC's "excellent pacing, flow, correctness of pitch relationships, and the like, as well as a consistently smooth and slightly laid-back sound." With some files, AD found the DirectStream just a little too laid-back—a condition mitigated in part by an early firmware update—but found its musicality beyond reproach. JA observed that the DirectStream "measures superbly well" in many ways, but was troubled by its poor linearity at low frequencies and its "ultimate lack of resolution" with hi-rez files. In a Follow-Up, RD tried the DirectStream DAC with PS Audio's PerfectWave Memory Player transport ($3995) and observed, "listening to familiar recordings … I heard more musical detail from them than I previously had." Subsequent to that audition, RD received and installed in the DirectStream DAC a new firmware upgrade, bringing his unit to v.1.2.1; he liked it. Following the firmware update to v.1.2.1, JA retested and found evidence of a lower noisefloor, increased low-level linearity, and a dramatic reduction in low-frequency distortion. Said JA: "Kudos to PS Audio for designing a product so that its performance can so easily be upgraded by its customers." There have followed three additional, successive firmware upgrades; in 2017, the most recent of these, named Huron, impressed JCA as "a clear improvement over [its immediate predecessor], which was already very good." (Vol.37 No.9, Vol.38 Nos.2, 3, 5, 11; Vol.39 No.11, Vol.40 No.10, Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

T+A DAC 8 DSD: $4450 ★
THE DAC 8 DSD Was previously deleted in error, so, despite the fact that we haven't reviewed it in a while, we're keeping it on the list. The German-built T+A Elektroakustik DAC 8 DSD incorporates two distinct sets of D/A converters: DSD signals are treated to 1-bit conversion and are never converted to PCM, while PCM signals are treated to four DACs per channel in a double-differentiation configuration that, according to JI, is claimed to "perfectly cancel out converter errors and nonlinearities while increasing dynamic range by 6dB." Also on tap are four user-selectable digital filter options, independently adjustable volume for line and headphone outputs, and separate, user-selectable analog filters for DSD and PCM, the former intended to protect the rest of the user's system from ultrasonic noise. JI praised the DAC 8 DSD for "approach[ing] the performance of cost-no-object designs" and "represent[ing] good relative value." JA gave the DAC 8 DSD a clean bill of health, with particular regard to its "superb rejection of word-clock jitter via its PCM inputs," while noting that "its measured behavior and sound quality [are] so dependent on which of its four digital filters is in use." (Vol.39 No.10 WWW)

Weiss DAC502: $10,795
The earlier Weiss D/A processors reviewed in Stereophile offered astonishing resolution coupled with sound quality "to die for." The Roon Ready DAC502 more than equals its predecessors in both aspects of performance and adds an Ethernet port, balanced and single-ended headphone outputs, a volume control, a choice of maximum output levels, and several DSP functions including parametric equalization, room correction, binaural-to-loudspeaker processing, vinyl emulation, loudness normalization, and de-essing. The DAC502's low frequencies "combined clarity with an excellent sense of what the late Art Dudley used to call 'force'," wrote JA, adding that he had never heard the layering of recorded soundstages so clearly delineated as with the DAC502. "The Weiss DAC502 retrieves more information from the digits than any other DAC I have auditioned, with the possible exceptions of the Chord DAVE and dCS Vivaldi," he concluded. JVS was equally impressed: "Would I recommend the Weiss DAC502? In a heartbeat. It doesn't merely sound clear, alive, full, and supremely musical; it also offers a headphone jack and a host of DSP options that can address issues in many rooms, speakers, and equipment configurations; … if I were willing to forgo MQA playback (whose sound I love), I would be more than content to live with the DAC502 for many years to come." If you don't need the balanced headphone output, the smaller DAC501 ($8750) offers the same performance and feature set as the DAC502. (Vol.43 Nos.8 & 10 WWW)

A

Accuphase DG-68 Digital Voicing Equalizer: $24,000
The fifth iteration of a unique Japanese product that made its debut in 1997, the DG-68 offers high-resolution, DSP-based multiband equalization and versatile room acoustic correction abilities (a microphone is included), coupled with a 35-band spectrum analyzer and, according to JA's measurements, state-of-the-art digital/analog conversion. Offers both analog and digital inputs and outputs. Using the analog inputs and outputs and experimenting with the DG-68's settings to optimize the sound of his reference system in his room, JVS found that with VC/EQ active, "guitar strums sounded more realistic, bass was fuller, … Tonality was superb, and the slightest change in dynamics or emphasis was easy to hear and savor." He concluded that Accuphase's Digital Voicing Equalizer enriched his experience of reproduced music far more than he could have imagined. "It is transformational and performs flawlessly, to oft-astounding effect. For those who can afford it, its rich musical dividends may prove essential." JA sez it deserves an A+ rating as a D/A converter. (Vol.44 No.8 WWW)

Chord Electronics Qutest: $1695
JA, who regards Chord Electronics' upmarket DAVE ($12,488) as "one of the best-sounding DACs I've had in my system," jumped at the chance to review Chord's far less expensive Qutest, which draws from the same well: It's based on the company's proprietary 10-element Pulse Array Design processor, designed by Rob Watts and implemented in a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chip. Via its USB port, the compact (6.3" wide by 1.6" high by 2.85" deep) Qutest handles DSD256 (as DoP) and PCM up to 768kHz, but lacks MQA decoding. In his listening observations, JA praised the Qutest for "the excellent sense of motion" it lent to a favored piano-concerto recording, from which he also heard "stably and clearly positioned" stereo images, if not quite the soundstage depth he'd hoped for. JA the measurer uncovered, among other things, the fact that the Chord Qutest "offers almost 21 bits' worth of resolution, which is close to the state of the art." JA the reviewer concluded: "strongly recommended." In a Follow-Up, HR described his own experiences with the Chord Qutest, in which he noted that this DAC "might be doing something unusually right in the time domain." His conclusion: "a must-audition for every serious audiophile." (Vol.42 Nos.1 & 3 WWW)

exaSound s88: $6500
KR was impressed by this network-connected 8-channel D/A processor, writing that "the s88 sounded just right from the first notes, and that impression endured as I immersed myself in a wide range of music over several weeks. … [I]n fact, it exceeds the performance of any DAC that I have used. I would describe its sound as transparent rather than detailed, dynamically responsive rather than lively, and honest in how it presents voices." On the test bench, the s88 offered a resolution of 21 bits, which is among the highest the magazine has found. The default reconstruction filter is a minimum-phase type and harmonic distortion, intermodulation distortion, and noise levels were all extremely low. KR concluded: "For some who are already committed to multichannel, the s88, with its superb DAC, convenient streaming and that oh-so-welcome volume control, may be the realization of their dreams. It is of mine." (Vol.44 No.4 WWW)

GeerFab Audio D.BOB: $999
"This unique device is a solution to a problem that previously couldn't be solved," wrote KR. The GeerFab D.BOB digital breakout box takes a universal player's HDMI output and with SACDs, extracts two-channel DSD data from the HDMI audio stream, and outputs DoP (DSD-over-PCM) via RCA and TosLink S/PDIF connectors. GeerFab assures users that this implementation is both legal and compatible with HDMI 1.4b and HDCP 1.4. JA's measurements confirmed that the D.BOB's output was bit-perfect—ie, the bits it outputs via S/PDIF are the same as those sent to it via HDMI. (Vol.43 No.5 WWW)

Gold Note DS-10: $2995
This modest-sized, MQA-capable, Roon Ready, Italian D/A processor includes a volume control, AES/EBU, S/PDIF, Ethernet, USB, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi inputs, and a headphone output. DSP presets allow the DS-10's functionality to be adjusted by an almost infinite amount. The sample reviewed was powered by the optional PSU-10 EVO supply ($1299), and while JVS didn't feel the DS-10 retrieved as much detail as his more expensive reference DACs, he felt its presentation delved deep into the music on his favorite files. The DS-10 "conveyed the smile, warmth, and love behind the notes in ways other DACs miss," he wrote. JVS summed up his time with the Gold Note by saying "This little baby sounded so good—so musical—with its optional, identically dimensioned PS-10 EVO power supply that I'd urge anyone who can shell out $4300 to try them together." (Vol.43 No.8 WWW)

Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital: $499 $$$
This combination D/A processor and headphone amp measures just 4.1" square and 1.4" high and uses dual ESS Sabre Pro ES9038 chips to offer up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM and DSD up to DSD512, plus eight user-selectable PCM reconstruction filters and full unfolding of MQA files. In using the Pre Box S2 Digital to compare MQA files to their non-MQA versions, KM wrote that "the soundstage seemed to grow and surround my head," describing the Pro-Ject DAC's MQA performance as "a revelation." Ken praised the DAC's user-friendliness and concluded, "I can think of no other mini-machine that does so much so well." Writing from his test bench, JA observed very low noise—"extraordinarily good, considering that the Pre Box S2 Digital is powered by a tiny wall-wart supply. Someone at Pro-Ject knows how to optimize a printed-circuit-board layout!" In a Follow-Up report, HR wrote that the Pre Box S2 Digital "preferred sensitive, easy-to-drive headphones" such as his own AudioQuest NightHawks, judging that combination "lively, smooth, and very musical." (Vol.42 Nos.4 & 5 WWW)

Schiit Audio Yggdrasil: $2449 ★
Is high-end audio ready for a company whose all-out statement DAC costs only $2499? Ready or not, Schiit Audio's Yggdrasil is here, offering what Schiit describes as a true "21 bits of resolution" and proprietary digital filtering, implemented on an Analog Devices processor, that retains rather than destroys "all the original samples." Also featured is a hefty regulated power-supply section built around twin transformers: one for the digital supplies, the other for analog. Input signals of resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz are accepted. According to HR, in contrast with the "grainlessness" of the Mytek Brooklyn DAC, "the Schiit's sound was slightly textured, and dynamic contrasts were less evident." That said, Herb also observed that "the Yggdrasil exposed melodic lines … and human voices—also better than any DAC I've heard costing less than five grand." JA's measurements comprised a mixed report, with praise for the Schiit's "superbly well designed" analog circuitry set against his impression of "digital circuitry [that] is not fully optimized." In 2018, Schiit introduced their Analog 2 upgrade—two new output cards and a firmware update for the DSP board—available to owners of older Yggdrasils for $550. HR wrote in a Follow-Up that the upgrade, which must be performed by Schiit or by an authorized service center, allowed his Yggdrasil to sound "quieter, more refined, more transparent, more silky, more tactile." (Vol.40 No.2, Vol.41 No.9 WWW)

Verity Montsalvat DAC/PRE: $25,000
This Canadian assault on the state of the digital/analog conversion art strikes a perfect balance between the retrieval of detail and the overemphasis of that detail, decided JA. It has three digital inputs—AES3, coaxial S/PDIF, and USB 2.0, this conforming to the Roon-recognized ALSA standard—balanced and single-ended analog outputs, but a single upsampled reconstruction filter, a conventional linear-phase type. As the Verity's name suggests, it can be operated in DAC mode, with a fixed output, or PRE mode, with a high-precision volume control. Although the much-traveled review sample had some reliability issues, when these had been resolved the DAC/PRE did well in the test lab, offering very low distortion and noise and >20 bits resolution. "Both the Verity's sound quality and its performance on the test bench are up there with the best I have experienced," concluded JA. An Apple remote control is supplied; optional isolation base costs $5000. (Vol.44 No.8 WWW)

B

DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4: $4250
The Anti-Mode X4 is a full-featured two-channel line-level preamplifier plus DAC with multiple inputs—single-ended and balanced analog inputs, plus USB, S/PDIF, and TosLink digital—multiple outputs, and, as KR describes it, "a head-spinning array of digital-signal-processing (DSP) tools." It also comes with a calibrated microphone and stand, for use with its many DSP functions—including room/speaker EQ for full-range speakers and for subwoofers; subwoofer level control; bass and treble tilt controls; infrasonic filtering; and a L-R balance control. A promised EQ function for four subwoofer channels has yet to materialize—but even so, KR found the Anti-Mode X4 in its present state to be useful, effective, and altogether "great just as it is." (Vol.42 No.5 WWW)

Denafrips Ares II: $790 $$$
This affordable D/A processor retained all of the pricier Denafrips Terminator's features, and in OS Slow mode, "a majority portion of the flagship's engaging character," HR wrote, "but the sounds it projected seemed smaller and denser and tighter," while "the sound in OS-Fast was kind of forward, rough, and ringy, with sharpish, sometimes glaring highs." In NOS mode, the Ares II "was relaxed and musical but exhibited a slight diffusion and grainy flatness," he found. HR summed up his time with the Ares II by writing that it "recovered more ambient/reverberant information and generated larger, more precisely mapped soundstages than any DAC I've encountered under $1698. … I see the Denafrips Ares II as a working person's superDAC." JA's measurements found that the OS filter modes overloaded with full-scale high-frequency signals, and that there was a peculiar modulation of the ladder DAC's linearity error with signal level. Otherwise this inexpensive DAC offers often-superb measured performance, he concluded. (Vol.43 Nos.9 & 11 WWW)

iFi Audio Pro iDSD: $2749
Built around four Burr-Brown DSD DAC chips operated in what iFi calls an "interleaved" array, the Pro iDSD offers up to DSD1024 and 32-bit/768kHz PCM—and more controls and performance options than can be fully described in a review of reasonable length, let alone a little blurb like this. Suffice it to say the iFi contains a three-output, selectable-gain headphone amplifier, has built-in support for streaming from Qobuz and Tidal, performs full unfolding of MQA files, has balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs, offers defeatable upsampling with a variety of user-selectable filters, and, among its many other output options, contains a user-selectable tubed output circuit. HR said of its performance on an especially beloved Sun Ra recording, "the Pro iDSD's DAC did a sterling job of sorting out the countless spatial layerings of this track," and added the iFi to his "short list of DACs that recover an enjoyable illusion of dense bodies playing music." Measuring the iFi proved to be a mammoth task—"With so many output options and operating modes, it's easy to become confused about the iFi Pro iDSD's performance," JA noted—but in the end, despite a couple of puzzling idiosyncrasies, he found "much to admire in its measured performance." (Vol.42 No.1 WWW)

Prism Sound Callia: $1549 ★ $$$
The first domestic product from UK-based pro-audio specialists Prism Sound, the Callia D/A converter/headphone amplifier is based on a dual-mono pair of Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chips and accepts DSD data up to DSD128 and PCM to 384kHz, though the former is converted to PCM and the latter is downsampled to 192kHz. Its front panel is graced with two separate volume controls: one for the Callia's line outputs, the other for its front-mounted ¼" headphone jack, further enhanced with a three-position DIP for optimizing the output for low-, medium-, and high-impedance 'phones. When JA used the Callia to drive his Audeze LCD-X headphones, he described the sound as "richer than I expected," while in his Big Rig—without a preamplifier, and with the Callia's own volume control doing the honors—the sound was "drier," with less soundstage depth than JA gets from his PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DAC but no loss of power from drums and electric bass. JA praised the "excellent-sounding" Callia, but described the Mytek Brooklyn's sound as "slightly better"—and noted that the then-less expensive Mytek adds MQA compatibility. Apart from some surprising jitter-related (as opposed to power-supply-related) sidebands, the Callia performed respectably on JA's test bench. Significant price reduction as of July 2018. (Vol.41 No.4 WWW)

C

BorderPatrol Digital to Analogue Converter SE: $1075-$1950 ★
In BorderPatrol's Digital to Analogue Converter SE the processor of choice is the same Philips TDA1543 16-bit chip found in playback gear from the 1980s and '90s, implemented without a digital reconstruction filter, energized by analog power supply with twin mains transformers and a tube rectifier. It has two inputs—USB and S/PDIF—and is built with a copper chassis, upgraded signal and power-supply capacitors; non-SE versions with a single input, more modest caps, and no rectifier tube are also available. HR wrote that the DAC SE "delivers refined, human-sounding musical pleasures—at a very reasonable price." Writing from his testing lab, JA noted a severe channel imbalance with data sampled at rates higher than 96kHz, channel-specific anomalies in linearity error, a higher-than-expected noisefloor, and disappointing performance in its rejection of word-clock jitter. In a Follow-Up that proved controversial, JI described comparing the Border Patrol DAC SE with his Benchmark DAC2 HGC, concluding that the BorderPatrol "purred like a sweet, sultry voice … even as it lied to me." (Vol.41 Nos.9 & 11 WWW)

Deletions
dCS Network Bridge, discontinued. Bluesound Node 2i, Denafrips Terminator, replaced by newer version not yet reviewed.

COMMENTS
MatthewT's picture

Not much for me here, being a vintage gear fan first. Please bring back the entry-level column, there is a lot of gear at that price-point worth getting reviewed.

Anton's picture

Budgetwise, I think I would be most like a "Double A" audiophile.

Same with me and wine.

I do admit to seeing some of the top end prices for either wine or Hi Fi and thinking that there are people who have checkbooks that are 'better' than their palates/ears.

Like JA1 described in the past...there are already parts of my own hobby that are beyond my budgetary event horizon.

_

If we did have audiophile classes, from minor leagues to major league, I wonder what the price points for each step would be.

MatthewT's picture

Lets me play every now and then in the Majors. Nothing depreciates faster than audio gear. I have to admit being somewhat happy at seeing a dartZeel break while listening to it, while my beloved Sansui keeps making music.

Anton's picture

I like showing gear in the reviews to my wife and asking her to guess the price.

When I saw the OMA turntable in the latest issue, I guessed 15,000 dollars. When she saw it, she guessed 12,000 dollars, and we've been playing this game for 25 years!

Next, I asked her if I were able to purchase it for 90% off retail, would she let me. She said, "Only I promised to flip it immediately."

Then, she threw me a bone and said, "You could buy it and keep it for the 12,000 dollars that I guessed."

I'd need a 97.5% discount to have a chance at it. And even that would be wildly extravagant. I'm happy with life, this is just for scale.

tonykaz's picture

Above the PS Audio level is the world of Status & Ego. !

Which has me wondering if Stereophile is a Status & Ego type publication ? Is this a Robb Report mag that belongs on the coffee tables of private Jet Airports ? ( I've never seen it there )

Does an Anodized Red $200,000 Amplifier belong on the Front Cover of a magazine like ours ? None of us will ever have any chance to experience Velvet Rope Gear so why are we bothering with it? It being better is probably one person's opinion ( and that person probably doesn't have to buy it or own it ).

Reviews of these $100,000 +++++ pieces are man-speaking to us how our gear is deficient and unworthy, we are reading Hubris & gas lighting.

There is a World of $1,000 bottles of Wine, $25,000 Rolex Watches, Super pricy First Class Seats on UAL Flights and Political Leaders that are wealthy from insider trading. We shouldn't be reading about those things here.

Ours is like the world of our modest Canadian, revealing a new form of music discovery and writing one of Stereophile's most insightful pieces of literature about it. ( nice writing Mr. Robert S.)( is that the door bell? )

Tony in Venice Florida

rschryer's picture

Thanks, Tony

tonykaz's picture

Annnnndddd :

Thank You to the Editor that gave you the Word Budget and turned you loose.

Stereophile keeps raising the Bar !!!

Tony in Venice Florida

Anton's picture

Where on Maslow's Pryamid is a half million dollar record player?

I'm curious to see....misguided 'esteem?'

I prefer to use Swanson's Pyramid....

https://external-preview.redd.it/5cDe4MZ9E0ZfvcS10kmAUd2ynTkp6b3wfU-fYsxyNfg.png?width=960&crop=smart&auto=webp&s=be478d54ccedc0bd3a8ea8428e368fe10ed78c60

(Second from bottom left.)

tonykaz's picture

A most expensive record player would service the Ego needs of someone needing to establish themselves as the very Top of Analog Audio's Caste System.

The widely recognised Top Level Analog Format has been Tape.

I grew up in a Performing Arts household, my mother was an Operatic Performer and one of my older brothers was a Horn Player for our local Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

So, from my point of view, no Analog Audio System has ever come close to performing like a Live Audio Performance from a listening distance position.

Super pricy Audio Gear is about Status & Ego !!! ( I hear that Bob Carver still laughs at this stuff )

Tony in Venice Florida

tonykaz's picture

Yes, Brilliant Observation! ,

of which, of-course, I completely agree .

Proving the old maxim: when two people agree on something - only one is doing the thinking.

Now that I'm living in the Deep South, Swansons Pyramid is where I'm slowly migrating to. Hmm.

Y'all have a Grate Day

Tony in Venice Florida

ravello's picture

The introduction to recommended loudspeakers states that "Candidates for inclusion in this class [i.e. Class A, limited LF extension] must still reach down to at least 40Hz, below the lowest notes of the four-string double-bass and bass guitar." The Falcon LS3/5a, for example, most certainly does not reach down to 40 Hz, unless you define "reach" to include a -10 or -15 or even lower dB point, which cannot be construed as useful bass etension. This is probably true for several other speakers listed in this category. So what is happening? What is the thinking behind this inconcistency?

smileday's picture

Perhaps about -7 dB at 40Hz in this room. Fig. 6, https://www.stereophile.com/content/bbc-ls35a-loudspeaker-harbeth-measurements

It might be -3 dB at 40Hz in a broadcast van, the intended usage at the design stage.

tonykaz's picture

...performance level for all Great Transducers?

It was the very loudspeaker that brought me and my English partner into the Audio Business. ( back in the early 1980s ) -- ( my business partner and I begged Raymond Cooke for this design to import to USA - he said NO! )

Isn't it still a "Reference" for comparison ? , doesn't any new design have to match or exceed it's super high levels of performance?

This little device and a well matched sub builds an outstanding Desert Island System.

But, it's still outstanding without the Sub.

It may not be Full Range but it well earned a Lifetime Class A+ transducer system rating. ( four Decades + )

Tony in Venice Florida

Ortofan's picture

... like antique furniture, but the KEF LS50 Meta is a much more highly evolved successor.

tonykaz's picture

I'm sure that I agree with you.

I seem to have a deeeeeeeep seated feeling that the LS3/5a is the grandfather of High End music Gear.

Even during the 1980s, my little shop : Esoteric Audio in Farmington Frills, Mi. stocked most of the small mini-monitors including the LS3/5a, Linn Kann, ProAc Tablette, Spica TC50, Quad ESL63 and the whole range of other hopefuls. Performance wise, the ProAc Tablettes were the musical leaders, the Quads were the Sales leaders, the Spica was the Reviewer Favourite . We had them all on permanant comparison using a VPI player, Koetsu Rosewood, Electrocompaniet Electronics and MIT Music Hose cable interfaces. It was an exciting adventure for any and all customers to take part in the ongoing comparisons. People bought scads of 'all' of those small speakers types.

With great or outstanding supporting gear, the LS3/5a can Scale up to amazing levels of music reproduction.

Tony in Venice Florida

ravello's picture

@ smileday: With due respect, the link you posted is not to the current Falcon "Gold Badge" reviewed in 2021, which I was talking about, and which is about 12 dB down at 40 Hz (ref. 1 KHz) in JA's listening room on the evidence of Fig. 6 and Fig. 8 (red trace). This, as I was saying, cannot and should not be construed as useful bass extension at 40 Hz, so listing this speaker as "Class A, limited LF extension" is misleading (to say the least) in light of Stereophile's own stated criteria for inclusion in this category. Perhaps Editor Mr. Austin would like to take the stand on this. Furthermore, most of us don't listen to music in a broadcast van. Mind you, I am not saying that these are not truly great speakers. Indeed, I used to own the Harbeth P3ESR, which I found as nearly flawless as I suspect is possible in a loudspeaker, except for bass extension and volume (SPL) capability -- admittedly an inevitable design constraint given the size of the midbass driver, the size of the cabinet, and the benign impedance. This is why I eventually replaced them with a pair of the Harbeth C7 (40th Anniversary), which turned out to be game-over speakers in my small, 12 sqm study. Perfectly solid bass to 40 Hz and possibly below.

TowerOfPower's picture

It's surprising to not see a single Soundsmith cartridge on this list. Would like to know why.

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