Recommended Components Fall 2022 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.


Bel Canto e1X: $6800
See John Atkinson's review elsewhere in this issue. (Vol.45 No.10)

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: $14,000 ★
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)

dCS Bartók with headphone amp: $19,950
w/o headphone amp: $17,950
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 Apex: $32,800
See Jason Victor Serinus's review elsewhere in this issue. (Vol.45 No.10)

Denafrips Terminator Plus: $6428
The Terminator Plus is a ground-up redesign of the Terminator D/A processor HR reviewed in Vol.43 No.9, with Oven Controlled Crystal Oscillators, a mu-metal–shielded power supply, and a 26-bit, discrete-resistor, R-2R DAC for PCM decoding and hardware DSD decoding with 32-step FIR filters. HR wrote that the Terminator's most dominant trait was its high acuity factor. He found, though, that Sharp-filtered oversampler made pop recordings sound brittle and edge-sharpened. "When the recording was of a simple solo instrument or a minimally processed vocal recorded in a natural environment, ... I always preferred NOS. But for big movie soundtracks and dense symphonic music, I usually switched to OS in Slow filter mode." Using the Slow filter in OS mode, HR wrote, "the soundstage expanded in every direction. Image focus was extraordinary, and the pleasure-factor was much improved, ... tempo and pacing were more accessible than in NOS." (Vol.45 No.5 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. One of JVS's reference DACs. (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

exaSound s88: $7599
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)

HoloAudio May KTE (Level 3): $5598 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)

Mola Mola Tambaqui: $13,500
This Bruno Putzeys–designed, Roon Ready D/A processor uses a proprietary digital filter/DAC stage and can be controlled with a smartphone app or an Apple Remote. No MQA capability, but the Tambaqui decodes DSD natively. Digital inputs include USB, TosLink and coaxial S/PDIF, AES3, Ethernet, and I2S over HDMI. Analog outputs are balanced on XLR and headphone on ¼" and four-pin XLR jacks, both with a volume control and a choice of maximum output level. HR loved what he heard, writing that "the Mola Mola's most conspicuous sonic trait was a bright, evenly illumined clarity" ; he added that "Mola Mola's Tambaqui did not whisper—it declared loudly: 'See! The truth is more beautiful than you thought it would be!'" In his follow-up review, KM agreed with HR: "The Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC is easily the finest digital-to-analog converter I've heard in my reference system, provoking fresh epiphanies with well-known music. Its beautiful remote control and its ability to function as a preamp adds more value to this expensive machine." JA found that the Tambaqui offered almost 22 bits of resolution, one of the highest he had encountered, and declared that his testing revealed state-of-the-digital-art measured performance. (Vol.44 No.12, Vol.45 Nos.1 & 6 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, the Mola Mola Tambaqui, 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)

Weiss DAC502: $10,695
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)


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. The DG-68 has 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." JVS subsequently repeated his auditioning using the DG-68's digital inputs and outputs. He found that the sound was "more substantial in the best ways possible without, to these ears, any loss in transparency, color, [or] depth. . . . The DG-68's digital in/ out operation enhanced my listening experience in every imaginable way short of transporting me to the actual recording venue." (Vol.44 Nos.8 & 12 WWW)

Gold Note DS-10: $3699
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)

HiFi Rose RS250 streaming D/A preamplifier: $2495
The Roon-Ready RS250 offers every feature a downsizing audiophile would need other than a power amplifier and loudspeakers: network, FM radio, digital, and line-level analog audio inputs; video, digital, and analog outputs, including a headphone jack; and a four-color touchscreen that, as well as controlling the RS250, displays streamed videos. The RS250 can also be controlled with the RoseConnect Premium app for iOS and Android. Optional accessories include an internal SSD for music-data storage and a CD drive. Of several filters on offer, JA preferred the apodizing "Corrected minimum phase Fast Roll-off" filter, which he felt offered maximum transparency to recorded detail. Upsampling, he found, slightly softened the highs. The only measured shortfall was higher-than-usual jitter from the internal DAC, which might have been associated with a slight lack of low-frequency clarity. Overall, however, "the sound quality of the HiFi Rose RS250 suggests that nothing had been compromised in packing so many features into its small chassis," JA concluded. (Vol.44 No.12 WWW)

HoloAudio Spring 3: $3098
The original nonoversampling (NOS) Spring, which HR and AD reviewed in Vol.41 Nos.5 & 7, was HR's reference DAC for two years. The Spring 3 is available in thee versions; the sample reviewed was the top-of-the-line KTE Level 3, which sports a flat-wire-wound O-core power transformer, high-purity 1.5mm OCC silver wiring, R-2R DAC modules hand-selected based on measured performance, and the "enhanced" USB module found only in the Level 2 and KTE versions of HoloAudio's May. HR found that the Spring 3 sounded more like the May than the original Spring but noted that it brought "something uniquely its own to the HoloAudio experience, something lively and bright and rosy-cheeked alluring." One might almost say "springlike." He summed his time with the Spring 3 by writing that in terms of build quality, engineering intelligence, and the ebullient character of its solid, stirringly vital sound, the HoloAudio Spring 3 is equal to or better than any DAC he'd used. (Vol.45 No.5 WWW)

Ideon Audio Ayazi mk2: $3900
Ideon Audio 3R Master Time Black Star Clock: $3900
Reviewed as a system, this pairing from Greece offers coaxial S/PDIF and asynchronous USB inputs and one pair of single-ended outputs. The Ayazi processor uses the well-regarded ESS DAC chips. Without the Master Time Black Star Clock, AH found that the Ayazi reproduced music with less resolution and timbral accuracy and created a spatially smaller, less lifelike sound. "Music sounded duller and less compelling," he wrote. With the external clock, nothing was exaggerated or missing, including deep bass and the high highs, and nothing sounded strident or splashy. This sense of order was heightened by profoundly silent backgrounds and remarkable resolution. "With a combined price of $7800, it is by no means inexpensive," AH concluded, "but it provides good value for the refined musical spectacle it creates." JA noted that the Ayazi did well on the test bench, but he didn't find any difference in its measured performance when fed USB data via the 3R Master Time Black Star Clock. Still, based on AH's subjective evaluation, the A+ rating is only when used with the 3R Master Time Black Star Clock; without the clock, this is a class B DAC. (Vol.45 No.8 WWW)

iFi Audio ZEN DAC Signature V2: $599 with ZEN CAN
Packaged with the iFi ZEN CAN Signature headphone amplifier—see Headphones & Headphone Accessories —the MQA-capable ZEN DAC Signature V2 offers a single USB 3.0 input and both single-ended and balanced outputs, the latter on a 4.4mm Pentaconn connector. (The package includes a balanced 4.4mm-to-4.4mm Pentaconn cable.) Both outputs can be operated in fixed- or variable-level modes. JMu found that in fixed mode the ZEN DAC's maximum output level was a little too high with the ZEN CAN driving her usual headphones—she used iFi's iEMatch balanced attenuating cable ($49). (Peculiarly, with the ZEN DAC's fixed level set to its lowest, JCA didn't find the attenuator cable necessary with the ZEN CAN and the same headphones.) Using the DAC in her main system, and using its volume control, JMu said its sonics exceeded her expectations: "Detail was maintained, and the sound was robust, full, and clear. Backgrounds remained quiet." JA found that the ZEN DAC Signature v2 had 19 bits' worth of resolution and very low levels of harmonic distortion. Excellent performance for the price. (Vol.45 Nos.1 & 3 WWW)

Jadis JS1 MkV: $20,900
A two-chassis processor with fully balanced circuitry, the Jadis uses tubes for its balanced and single-ended outputs. "Despite its majestic weight, size, and price, the JS1 offers few concessions to modernity or convenience: no volume control, no network connection, no selectable filters, no MQA, no wireless anything," AH wrote. It does have a USB input that accepts and converts PCM data up to 24/384, as well as DSD. AH "strongly" preferred the sound with USB data, which was corroborated by JA's measurements. The Jadis had an expansive, easy-to-listen-to, celebratory personality, AH wrote: "It allowed the music to flow with not a trace of the edginess, glassiness, and grayness that plagues some digital components." He felt that the RS1 MkV excelled in two areas: It created a vast, shimmering soundstage, and it portrayed instruments and voices with more tonal richness and more vivid colors than he imagined a digital component could. Summing up, AH wrote, "I can confidently say that the Jadis JS1 offers something that, if not unique, is at least highly distinctive: a digital source that uses tubes to offer a rich, colorful, tactile, propulsive sound, state-of-the-art soundstaging, complete freedom from digital artifacts, and an ability to breathe life into just about any recording." JA summed up the Jadis JS1 MkV's measured performance as "dominated by the behavior of the tubed analog stage. To the presumably clean output of the AKM4497EQ DAC chip, it adds low-order harmonic distortion and a random noisefloor that increases in level at low frequencies. In other words: tube sound." (Vol.45 No.1 WWW)

Lumin P1: $10,000
The elegant-looking, Roon Ready P1 offers a complete set of digital inputs—AES3, S/PDIF (coaxial and TosLink), USB, Ethernet (electrical and optical), with full MQA decoding—as well as balanced and unbalanced analog inputs, one HDMI 2.0 input, and three ARC-enabled HDMI 2.0 outputs with 4K video passthrough. There are balanced and single-ended analog outputs and S/PDIF (BNC) and USB digital outputs, and the digital volume control is based on Leedh processing, which minimizes the number of additional bits introduced in mathematical operations in order to reduce or eliminate truncation-related loss of information. JA auditioned the P1 with Lumin's L1 network-attached UPnP server ($1400 for the 5TB version; a 2TB version is also available), using both Roon and Lumin's app. He was surprised to find that bass guitar had a better sense of drive when played from the L1 with the Lumin app than when he used Roon to play the file from the Roon Nucleus's internal storage. JA concluded that the P1 was a superb-sounding D/A processor and "its transparent-sounding analog inputs and full video functionality are a welcome bonus." On the test bench, the P1 offered high resolution and low noise and distortion. The analog inputs had a low input impedance, which might be a problem with source components having tubed output stages. (Vol.45 No.4 WWW)

Meitner MA3 Integrated: $10,500
Trickled down from EMM's DV2, the MA3 uses the same fully discrete, one-bit DAC circuit, with an internal conversion rate of DSD1024. The digital-domain volume control is said to preserve resolution at low settings and, unlike the DV2, the Roon Ready, MQA-capable MA3 can stream music from a network-attached storage device (NAS) or from streaming services via its Ethernet and USB ports. Using either Roon or the free MConnect app, JVS noted that "the MA3's soundstage was impressively wide, its bass was quite strong, and its colors were true." His conclusion? "The MA3 doesn't just take you from Point A to Point B; it makes every journey a joy. Anyone in the market for a versatile one-piece, Roon Ready, MQA-capable streaming DAC with volume control that is capable of high-resolution PCM and DSD playback will be all the richer for taking it for a spin." In the test lab, the MA3 offered somewhat different measured behavior depending on whether it was decoding impulse-like data or continuous waveform data, this typical of Ed Meitner's DAC designs for 30 years. But with both kinds of data, the MA3's measurements were excellent, with high resolution and low noise and distortion. (Vol.45 No.6 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)

Sonnet Audio Morpheus: $3149
As well as the usual S/PDIF and AES3 inputs, this 24-bit, non-oversampling D/A processor offers a choice of USB or I2S input ports. Both balanced and single-ended outputs are offered, and, usefully, the Morpheus features a volume control. It doesn't decode DSD data. AH found that the USB input didn't sound as vivid as the AES3 input, but the I2S input was his favorite. Compared with AES3, "instruments became less homogenized, each sounding more distinct and colorful, and everything in the soundfield grew more precise, solid, and well-organized," he wrote. JA found that the S/PDIF and AES3 inputs had relatively high levels of jitter, though he was impressed by the 20-bit resolution offered by the Morpheus's R-2R ladder-DAC topology. AH summed up his time with the Morpheus, writing that "this thoughtfully designed Dutch DAC . . . resolved massive amounts of information while reproducing my favorite music in a natural, embodied manner that never sounded strident. It made listening to even early or poor recordings musically meaningful and fun." The optional MQA card adds $199, though AH couldn't get this to work with I2S data, just AES3. (Vol.44 No.11 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)


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: $850 $$$
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)


WiiM Mini: $99 $$$
This tiny, unbelievably affordable, Wi-Fi–capable network bridge also has an analog input and output with A/D and D/A converters and a volume control. The analog input is limited to 16/48 but via Wi-Fi, the Mini will accept hi-rez data up to 24/192 and output those data from its TosLink S/PDIF port. It will also decode hi-rez data to analog, though the sample rate is limited to 96kHz. WiiM's Home app allows hi-rez audio to be streamed from Qobuz, and the Mini can also receive normal-resolution data sent via Wi-Fi using AirPlay 2 and Roon. Multiple Minis can be operated simultaneously for multiroom use—a built-in microphone allows each Mini's latency to be calibrated to ensure that they are synchronized. JA commented that the Mini's analog input and output are serviceable, but it was its ability to output hi-rez audio data from its TosLink output that got this bargain-priced product a recommendation. While preparing the review in April 2022, JA occasionally had problems with word-length truncation when streaming 24-bit data from Qobuz or from files on his iPhone when he changed the maximum TosLink sample rate with the Home app. These problems could be resolved with a reboot, and a firmware update dated July 1, 2022, solved it completely. Rating is for DAC performance; Class A as a network bridge. (Vol.45 No.8 WWW)

PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream, discontinued. Benchmark Media DAC3 HGC, Chord Qutest, Schiit Yggdrasil OG, BorderPatrol Digital to Analogue Converter SE, not auditioned in a long time. Denafrips Gaia, Chord Hugo M Scaler reclassified as Signal Processor.

Auditor's picture

The text under the J. Sikora Initial is the same as under the J. Sikora Reference, which is obviously a mistake.

John Atkinson's picture
Auditor wrote:
The text under the J. Sikora Initial is the same as under the J. Sikora Reference, which is obviously a mistake.

Fixed. Thank you.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

lesmarshall's picture

I was very surprised to read that the Benchmark DAC 3 is no longer a Recommended Component . In the earlier 2022 edition of Recommend Components , it was an A+ component . Your stated reason for the deletion was because it was not auditioned in a long while . Well why not audition it then ? Also, why is an audition necessary ? It measured as one of the best DACs ever . Why would its measurements change simply because you have not auditioned it recently ? I understand its your policy , but it seems rather unfair to Benchmark that you no longer recommend it for that reason . I believe a much fairer policy would be that a highly rated component should only fall off the recommended list if it is auditioned periodically and you determine that its current level of recommendation is no longer justified based on the factors that you use to include a component of the recommended list .

JRT's picture

Les, toward some light hearted amusement, consider a reductio ad absurdum.

The quoted material below was excerpted from the first version (published 01 May 1963) of Stereophile's recommended components, just the A,B,C rated amplifiers and preamplifiers:


Preamplifier-Control Units
A: Marantz 7, McIntosh C-20
B, C: Dynaco PAS-2

Power Amplifiers
A: Marantz 8B, McIntosh MC-60 (footnote 5), Marantz 9A (footnote 5)
B, C: Dynaco Stereo 70

Footnote 5: mono amplifier.

Reductio ad Absurdum... Should the old gear listed above continue as currently recommended gear, or is it best left in its original context in the circa 1963 article? ...and why or why not? ...and is it a much too different set of cases for comparison? ...why? Would that old gear be good fodder for a listing of recommended vintage gear, and is that good subject matter for the current Stereophile readership? These are mostly rhetorical questions, but not all.

JRT's picture

Would you also include the essentially similar PAS-3, and then also the PAS-3X with updated tone controls, and then maybe also Frank van Alstine's improved Super PAS Three, etc.? The original short-list can grow large.

xtcfan80's picture

lesmarshall...a few years ago I believe it was the late Art Dudley who explained why gear drops off the RC list. Do a search and read it, explained in classic Art Dudley fashion. Cliffs Notes Version: GET OVER IT! A piece dropping off the list does not invalidate any past purchasing decision, only the ego of the complainer...

Soundguy123's picture

“I was very surprised to read that the Benchmark DAC 3 is no longer a Recommended Component . In the earlier 2022 edition of Recommend Components , it was an A+ component.”

I agree with you Les. Benchmark products are indeed remarkable! They belong on any A+ list. Benchmark LA4 Preamplifier and AHB2 Power amplifier are currently on Stereophile’s recommended list. So Benchmark is probably recommended in more categories than anyone else!

georgehifi's picture

It would be nice if the "title" of the piece recommended was clickable, so one could easily then read the full review of all these thousands of "recommended components" instead of searching like a ???

Just a thought??

Cheers George

liquidsun's picture

I must say I'm surprised to see Perlistens into Restricted Extreme LF category as I thought they were full range speakers.

Kal Rubinson's picture

For most, they will be full range but, as you can see from JA's Fig. 4, the FR is rolling off smoothly below 100HZ such that it will easily mate with a complementary subwoofer. I believe that was Perlisten's intent. That said, unless you are assessing the sound of low, low organ pedal tones, explosions or thunder, the bass from the s7t is clean, powerful and musically satisfying.

Robin Landseadel's picture

There's a lot of Dance Pop/Techno music that gives the lowest octave a workout. Managed to blow out the small bass driver from a Paradigm bookshelf speaker with a Sarah McLaughlan track---"I Love You" from the album "Surfacing"---a quiet ballad with a synth bottom without overtones, so there's pure, deep bass. Another good example would be the work of Bill Laswell, a producer/bass player.

Kal Rubinson's picture

OK but how is this relevant? On the one hand, I am not surprised that one can blow out the small bass driver in a bookshelf speaker. On the other, I doubt if it would do that to the Perlisten.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Blowing out the driver of a Paradigm Atom might not be meaningful save that I blew it out with a track that is low in level and undynamic. More to the point, it sounds like the speakers in question could use a sub. Of course, you pointed out that the speakers in question are designed to integrate well with subs. My Infinity 250 speakers, small floor-standing speakers, also requires a sub for deep bass.

What is meaningful is that there is more to the bottom octave than organ pedals and explosions. Lots of modern productions take advantage of digital recording/playback's ability to record/reproduce the lowest octaves of sound.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yes, there is a lot more to the bottom end than I cared to mention but the distinction between the small Paradigm Atom and the s7t is that the former needs a sub (or a LP filter) merely to survive wide-band signals while the latter does not.

Did you read my comments about the Garage Door test? I doubt that either your Paradigm or your Infinity could compete with the Perlisten, with or without a sub.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Doubtless. My point was more about program material and really deep bass. In any case, my Infinity Primus 250s are aided by my Sonance Son of Sub. As the system is in a small room, it's probably as much bass as the room can take.

Anton's picture

I like to hit this issue and pretend all my Hi Fi gear is gone and I have to start over with my budget and this list.

Glotz's picture

Droooooool.. and I'm done FOREVER.

Soulution, MBL... heaven.

KEFLS50W's picture

It will be interesting to see if Stereophile catches up to the focus on active, integrated designs. The relevance of separates seems to be waning in comparison to these sexy and modern designs (many of which are good value to boot) from KEF, B&W, Q Acoustic, ATC, Dali, and others. LS50WII for example gives me access to high quality, high current class a/b amplification I would not have been able to afford with separates. On another note, why are REL subs not listed - they would floor the competition listed in terms of sonics and build quality. Sorry but SVS is a home theater product and KEF KC62 is for kids.

Apollo's picture

Focusing on the Class A Solid-state Two-channel Amplifiers for sake of my question, I am struggling with the broad price range, from about $1K at the low end of the range, to about $100K at the high end of the range.

At its simplest, my question is: why spend $100K for an amp, when one can get a similarly rated amp, and therefore a similarly good amp, for $1K?

I am asking without sarcasm, criticism, or prejudice. I want the best SQ. And I would rather spend the $ difference on something else.

What I find fascinating, is that more and more reviews across publications/websites conclude with the statement to the effect: "unless you want to spend more money, this piece of gear is perfect and all one needs".

So how can the $100K audio OEMs survive when similarly rated gears can be had for 100x less? What am I missing? Why spend $100K for an amp, when one can get a similarly rated amp for $1K?

xtcfan80's picture

"I am struggling" ...and maybe hifi isn't for you if you don't understand why some Class A gear costs 1K and some 100K...Be Happy and Listen!!!

Audiolad's picture

It's interesting that this product is becoming disruptive to the streaming industry. Besides saving the buyer money, their engineering staff literally are adding updates and upgrades every month, and they schedule them in advance. $99

claud's picture

I'm looking to audition the Revel 226be and 228be and comparable Dali floor standing speakers for the front pair of a 5.1 system. Since the First Watt J2 amp was mentioned here, how might it sound driving the tweets and mids of these speakers vs. say a some of the best 300B SET amps? I suspect that the 300B SETs would badly trounce this otherwise respectable Class A amp. But has anyone actually tried this? Also, would the J2's warm up take longer than the 300B SETs to sound its best? Please share thoughts, experiences.

BillK's picture

You mention "VPI HW-40 Anniversary Edition, discontinued" but you also dropped the VPI Avenger Reference since Spring 2022 but don't mention why.