Since its low-key introduction some months back, the dCS Bartok network streamer/DAC/pre-amp has been in high demand globally. We managed to grab a brief, first listen to the much-vaunted newcomer
The dCS Bartók comes with a prodigious pedigree. It also packs a lot of features and functionality into a single, minimalist box executed to palpably high standards.
It combines comprehensive network streaming capability with a Rossini-standard pre-amp/DAC, and there’s the added-cost option of a high-end headphone amplifier. I
If that sounds like an enticing prospect, you’re not alone: strong global demand has ensured it’s in short supply just about everywhere – including South Africa.
I therefore grabbed the opportunity to spend a brief few days with the newcomer with both hands (and ears). With limited time in the company of a brand new machine, the result isn’t a full review, but rather an initial impression – hopefully there’ll be a future opportunity to delve into its talents more thoroughly.
AT FACE VALUE
As I’ve come to expect of dCS gear, the Bartók shows off a clean, no-nonsense presentation that’s informed by function, and underpinned by the reassuring solidity of an all-aluminium construction.
It certainly looks and feels the high-end, indestructible part, and close up, it’s finished to a very high standard, but don’t expect anything too glitzy or glamorous.
The front fascia features a small-ish but clearly legible high-res screen on the left, a row of tiny soft-touch buttons and, in the case of the test unit, a pair of headphone outputs – XLR for balanced connection and a 6,35 mm jackplug for conventional, unbalanced cans.
There’s also a rotary volume controller on the far right, confirming that the Bartok can operate independently of a pre-amp, and can be hooked up directly to a power amp, if you are comfortable with only having digital inputs (and network connectivity) at your disposal.
The rear panel offers both XLR and RCA stereo outputs. On the input side, there is a choice of SPDIF over coaxial RCA, BNC or Toslink optical. Two AES/EBU inputs are provided, which can be used in tandem in conjunction with dCS digital sources for optimum performance (including accepting DSD-encrypted data), but they also operate individually in conventional mode.
In addition, both Type A and Type B USB inputs, are provided: the former is meant for the connection of flash or external USB drives, while the latter allows hooking up the Bartók to a computer.
A pair of Ethernet sockets, an RS232 port and an EC kettle plug-type power receptacle with master on/off switch complete the picture rear panel picture.
UNDER THE COVERS
I don’t want to go into too much detail here (most of the tech stuff is available on-line here .
However, highlights include the proprietary Ring DAC technology also used in the top-end Vivaldi system, together with the Rossini’s DSP platform. It features a single field-programmable gate array (FPGA) for streamlined processing and flexibility, as well as firmware-driven upgradeability.
The Bartók’s multistage oversampling design provides for DXD upsampling as standard, but also caters for upsampling to DSD, and a selection of DSP filters to allow customisation based on personal preference or music choice.
The network streaming function, I assume, has been taken over from the impressive dCS Network Bridge (see review here ), which runs up to 384 kHz/24-bit as well as DSD128, and supports all major lossless codecs, as well as native DSD, and DSD over DoP.
The Bartók allows streaming from NAS devices linked to the same network, while it also supports streaming services such as Tidal and Spotify Connect, as well content from iDevices via Apple Airplay. MQA decoding and rendering is supported via the network interface, too.
The aluminium casework isn’t just attractive, but is fitted with substantial internal damping to address vibration and magnetic interference. The power supply is a multi-stage design with dual mains transformers, allowing separate supplies to the DAC and headphone amp.
Talking of which, the custom-designed headphone amp has been designed to cope with both high and low-impedance headphones with equal aplomb, and accommodates both single-ended and balanced connections. Four-stage adjustable gain is offered on both connections.
Because the Bartók became available for review at short notice, and was only available for a week, this should be treated as an impression, rather than a full-scale review. It stands to reason that there also wasn’t enough time to fully explore the Bartok’s extensive feature set.
Instead, I decided to concentrate much of my listening around its network connectivity and DAC capabilities, using a Roon-based setup, with the Bartók acting as a lossless endpoint.
I was able to access and play music across a range of formats, both from my Tidal selection, and actual music files stored on a Synology NAS.
I also used the Bartók in conjunction with my ageing but still impressive Esoteric UX-3 SE universal player, the latter acting as a transport and hooked up to the dCS via coaxial RCA.
A more comprehensive review will hopefully follow later, and will afford an opportunity to evaluate the Bartok’s USB stage, its selection of SPDIF and DSD-focused digital filters, as well as exploring its capabilities as a headphone amp in greater detail.
Also worth noting is that dCS has now introduced its own music management and control interface, dubbed Mosaic. It extends the music service offering to include Qobuz and Deezer, as well as an array of Internet radio stations and podcasts.
Mosaic also provides cross-platform control via an iOS or Android app with a much more user-friendly interface, making both content and device settings and controls more intuitive. The processing aspect of Mosaic is already contained in the existing dCS streaming products, and is firmware-activated.
SOUNDS LIKE …
The dCS Bartók was evaluated in conjunction with an Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp, PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks, and Vivid V1.5 loudspeakers, as well as a pair of Sennheiser HD800 headphones running in single-ended mode.
The unit’s overriding sonic character was airy and expansive, painting a large, generously rendered sound picture, and creating a strong sense of walk-in dimensionality.
I was also impressed by the Bartók’s exceptional transparency, which freed the music from the electronics, and created a vibrant, full-bodied and engrossing sound image.
There was an overriding sense of musical accuracy and credibility, with the streamer/DAC able to capture and project the finest slivers of detail and the subtlest nuances.
But this ability to resolve the music only served to underscore the integrity and believability of the overall performance: the Bartók does not extract detail to analyse it in isolation, but rather to ensure the listener is given access to the full musical picture.
The dCS was able to capture the coherence and temporal essence of the performance, creating a sound that was lifelike and realistic without having to resort to hyperbole.
Listening to the energetic, boisterous vocals of Camille Thurman on ‘I Just Found Out About Love’ off her riveting Waiting For The Sunset set, the Bartók captured the distinctive ambience of the recording, and accurately placed drums, guitar, sax and vocals on the spacious stage.
Thurman was given all the space and scope to show off here dynamic, even acrobatic vocal skills (and equally gripping sax work), but the dCS also paid attention to the less apparent nuances of her delivery, creating a compelling sense of realism.
so Steve Williams’ drumwork is an unexpected highlight of this recording, not least because the lucid production allows it to come to the fore so emphatically, and the Bartók made the most of it, bringing the drum kit and its eloquent master right into the listening environment.
I enjoyed the way the dCS allowed the music’s natural ebb and flow to dictate the pace of the delivery: there was a real sense of ease and grace to the Bartók’s approach that added to the accessibility and enjoyment of the music.
The Punch Brothers’ banjo-driven, roots-inspired music is multi-faceted and absorbing, but also poses unexpectedly stern dynamic challenges. ‘Jumbo’ (from All Ashore) is a case in point, but the Bartók easily expressed the momentum, intricate fingerwork and timbral splendour of the music, providing the listener with both close-up insight and musical thrills.
The headphone amp seemed to have both the urge and the clarity to deliver the musical goods to the same levels of accuracy and engagement, and certainly had no problems coping with the Sennheiser’s challenging load.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There’s a lot more to the dCS Bartók than covered here, and hopefully there’ll be a second, more extended opportunity to put it through its paces more thoroughly. That would also open the door to an appraisal of the dCS Mosaic interface and control system.
However, from my limited time with the new streamer/DAC, it’s clear that the Bartók retains the essential accuracy and musicality that has made the brand a favourite among music fans and audio enthusiasts, while adding all the versatility that network streaming suggests.
I’d also suggest that it sounds more expansive, more expressive and ultimately more musical than the dCS Network Bridge, which is already an impressive practitioner of the streaming art, albeit minus its own DAC.
As is the case with all the dCS gear in SA, the asking price isn’t exactly cheap, but given overall standards of construction and performance, as well as the future-proof nature of the design, the value proposition remains a strong one.
Platform: dCS Ring DAC
Connectivity: 2x Gigabyte Ethernet, Apple AirPlay
Digital inputs: USB Type A, USB Type B, 2x AES/EBU (combinable), SPDIF RCA, SPDIF BNC, Toslink optical
Clocking: Auto reclocking (internal), 2x word clock BNC inputs, 1x word clock output
Analogue outputs: 1x stereo balanced XLR, 1x stereo RCA single-ended
Headphone outputs: 1x XLR 1x 6,35 mm three-pole jack
Headphone amp output: 1,4 watts RMS (at 33 ohms), 0,15 watts (at 300 ohms)
Headphone output levels: 0, -10, -20, 020 dB, selectable
File format compatibility:
FLAC, AIFF, WAV up to 384 kHz/24-bit PCM
ALAC up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM
AAC, MP3, WMA, OGG up to 48 kHz/24-bit PCM
DFF, DSF and DoP up to DSD64 and DSD128
Apple AirPlay up to 48 kHz
Control: Dedicated dCS Bartók app, or Mosaic interface
Dimensions (WxDxH): 444 x 430 x 115 mm
Weight: 16,7 kg
R199 900 (R179 900 without headphone facilities)
Camille Thurman – Waiting For The Sunset (Chesky)
Punch Brothers – All Ashore (Nonesuch)
If you recognise the RME brand, you’re probably an audio professional. The German company specialises in digital audio solutions, primarily targeting the pro audio industry.
However, there is a fringe of home audio enthusiasts that has discovered and started using RME’s products. Recognising that there may be some opportunities in this crossover market, the company is producing some pro-standard products specifically for home use.
The ADI-2 DAC is a case in point. It’s based on the ADI-2 Pro, with the major difference being that the Pro includes analogue-to-digital conversion. However, the DAC retains the Pro model’s superior build quality, and its fully balanced, symmetrical circuit topology.
The DAC moniker itself is somewhat of an understatement. Yes, the ADI-2 is a DAC, but it’s also a highly competent and powerful headphone amp – good enough for highly critical studio monitoring purposes.
In true pro audio fashion, the device also offers a level of customisation that’s streets ahead of any conventional hi-fi component.
That customisation may by definition be too complex and unintuitive for some, but highly attractive to others. It all depends on your requirements, and to what extent absolute accuracy is a priority.
Superbly built and presented, the ADI-2 DAC is a compact, half-width component that will easily find a home on a desk, as opposed to an equipment rack. The look is functional rather than conventionally pretty, but not unattractive – another typical pro attribute.
The front panel layout is deceptively simple with a soft-touch power button, a generous IPS high-res colour display, a large turn-and-click rotary controller flanked by four function buttons, and a pair of smaller rotary controllers on the far right.
The colour screen can be switched off for users who find it distracting, but it provides a host of useful information, including peak level readings, a 30-band spectrum analyser, volume and system status information, and more.
The control interface uses a series of menus and submenus navigated by the switchgear provided. It’s reasonably logical once you understand the underlying operating protocol, albeit more complex and less intuitive than your typical hi-fi component.
There is a compact remote control with basic functionality, plus four programmable keys, which will be useful to those intending to use the RME in a hi-fi setup.
Of particular note are the two headphone outputs – a standard 6,35 mm headphone socket, and a 3,5 mm minijack socket specifically designed for in-ear monitor use. Each gets its own, bespoke amplifier, but the latter has different gain setting to compensate for the typically higher sensitivity of IEMs, with a lower noise floor to match.
The output stages are extremely robust, and offer exceptionally low THD values, as well as the ability to drive high-impedance headphones effortlessly. Add a 120 dB signal-to-noise ratio, and headphone (and IEM) fans will be in audio heaven.
The rear panel provides further insights into the DI-2 DAC’s capabilities. In addition to the expected USB 2.0 Type B socket for hooking up a computer, both coaxial digital and Toslink optical digital inputs are provided. Surprisingly, given its pro origins, there’s no AES/EBU XLR input – possibly to save costs.
There are also two line output sets – one balanced XLR, one line-level RCA – to allow the REM to be incorporated into a conventional hi-fi system, as opposed to being used for headphones only. Those line outputs are muted when headphones are plugged in, however.
Both the RCA and XLR line output levels are adjustable in four steps to allow for more accurate system matching when the RME is hooked up to a home audio system.
As mentioned, one of the key attractions of the ADI-2 DAC is its configurability. Specifically, there’s a five-band parametric equaliser with preset memories. For less precise, rapid tone control, bass and treble can be adjusted up to ±6 dB.
For low-level listening, there’s an advanced, adjustable loudness control. Also, the AKM AK4490 DAC chipset offers six of different oversampling filters. The chipset operates at sampling rates up to 768 kHz at depths of up 32 bits, while an internal clock delivers top-class accuracy and jitter suppression.
Once set up, all the parameter settings can be stored – and the ADI-2 has nine memories, allowing rapid swapping between different adjustment sets. That’s particularly useful if the ADI-2 DAC is being used for different applications: different headphones, for instance, or when linked to an audio system, etc.
For a complete run-down of the ADI-2 DAC’s almost overwhelming feature set and options, you can visit the RME website . The very comprehensive manual is also available for download from the site.
Sonically, the ADI-2 DAC places the emphasis squarely on neutrality and accuracy – and that’s not surprising, given its pro audio heritage. That said, the digital filters and parametric equalisation, as well as the tone control allow the sound of the DAC to be tailored to suit room conditions, system limitations, and personal preference.
The whole concept of the ADI-2 DAC revolves around accuracy, linearity, ultra-low noise superior signal-to-noise ratios. Using my Sennheiser HD800 headphones, with the source signal provided via a MacBook Pro running Roon via USB, the sound was open, airy and spacious.
Yes, adjectives like precise and revealing do come to mind, together with an effortlessness, despite the Sennheiser’s high impedance. Sonically, the RME tells it like it is, warts and all, so that it rewards a good source signal, and ruthlessly reveals flawed ones.
Compared to my PS Audio DirectStream hi-fi DAC, the RME sounded leaner and cleaner, with a comparably open soundstage and excellent dimensionality. It resolved a higher degree of fine detail, but lacked some of the PS Audio DAC’s emotive appeal, sounding somewhat stark and unforgiving.
At just short of R30,000, the RME ADI-2 DAC is expensive. But it is a serious piece of kit, with a features set miles ahead of conventional, hi-fi orientated DAC/headphone amp combos, and a level of performance that underscores its pro audio pedigree.
It’s not for everyone, but if uncompromising accuracy and extensive configurability, as well as versatility and superb execution are top of the priority list, the RME Audio ADI-2 DAC fits the bill perfectly.
DAC chip: AKM AK4490
Digital conversion: PCM: Up to 786 kHz/32-bit. DSD: 2,8 / 5,6 / 11,2 MHz
Frequency response: 0 Hz – 88 kHz (@192 kHz, -1,0 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 120 dB
Output level: 1,5 watts/channel (headphones), 40 mW/channel (IEM)
Digital inputs: Coaxial RCA, Toslink optical, asynchronous USB 2.0
Analogue outputs: Balanced XLR, single-ended RCA,
6,35 mm stereo headphone jack, 3,5 mm IEM minijack
Dimensions (WxDxH): 215 x 150 x 52 mm
Weight: 1,0 kg
Wild and Marr
REVIEW UNIT SUPPLIED BY
Primare has been revamping its entire range of specialist audio components, and the i15 Prisma is the Scandivian firm’s all-new integrated amplifier. But don’t be fooled by the amp’s compact dimensions …
The Swedes know all about stylishly minimalist design. Theirs is a pared-down approach that frowns on frippery, and focuses on the essentials only.
It also demands that those essentials are perfectly, meticulously executed, and exude an honesty of purpose that vindicates the apparent simplicity of the design. It’s a classic case of form remaining consistently cognisant of function.
Primare is a brand that epitomises the Swedish design ethos perfectly. Immaculately understated, its components exude a timeless aesthetic that is distinctive, with a hewn, crafted solidity to match.
The i15 Prisma is part of Primare’s all-new range, and introduces a more compact form factor for ‘entry-level’ models. At 350 mm wide, it’s scaled down about 25 percent compared to the typical DIN-sized components we’ve become accustomed to. But smaller by no means suggests inferior in this case.
AT FACE VALUE
Size apart, the i15 Prisma remains true to Primare’s design ethos. If you’re familiar with the marque’s products, you’ll recognise the solid, all-metal casework, and the prominent, round-cornered fascia, with its central OLED display, and the small, round soft-touch buttons.
The look is, as already mentioned, minimalist in the best Scandinavian tradition. The i15 rests on a trio of chrome-trimmed isolating feet, and since this is the Prisma model, you’ll also notice a pair of antenna protruding from the rear.
Those antenna look after Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and join a fairly crowded rear panel – one drawback of the smaller form factor. If you’re a committed analogue source fan, you might also be disappointed by the presence of just one pair of RCA analogue inputs.
There is also a dual-purpose 3,5 mm minijack input that can operate as both an analogue and a digital input, but yes, if you have a long list of a analogue gear to hook up, the i15 Prisma is not for you.
That aside, this is an immensely versatile little amp (and by little, I’m referring to the unit’s physical dimensions, not its sonic signature). It offers four digital inputs, plus the dual purpose minijack already mentioned.
The presence of a Wi-Fi antenna and Ethernet port also confirms the Primare amp’s ability to be linked to a network, which provides Internet connectivity for access to Internet radio and streaming services, as well as to the content of any NAS devices on the network.
The i15 offers fuss-free Bluetooth connectivity, as well as Apple AirPlay playback. It also comes with integrated Chromecast, which allows access to an extensive catalogue of music streaming services, Tidal and Qobuz among them, via the Google Home app.
Chromecast means the i15 will be able to communicate and share content with other Chromecast-integrated devices, opening the door to multiroom applications. There’s even voice control via Google Assistant.
Finally, the i15 is compatible with Spotify Connect, further extending its list of potential sources.
UNDER THE COVERS
The i15 might be compact, but it packs 60 watts of power per channel, thanks to a pair of Hypex UCD 102 power amp modules. These Class D devices differ from Primare’s own UFPD 2 amplifier modules, but offer keener costing thanks to greater economies of scale.
Power is delivered by a fast switch-mode power supply offering stable voltage despite demand swings, while capacitors add a buffer that allows the i15 to cope with sudden transient bursts.
On-board digital to analogue conversion is provided by the AKM AK4490EQ chipset, offering 32-bit processing and supporting sampling rates of up to 768 kHz and DSD at 11,2 MHz, albeit via the USB Type B input only. Coaxial and Toslink inputs don’t reach beyond 192 kHz/24-bit PCM signals.
Most of the popular lossy and lossless music file formats are supported, including WAV, LPCM, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, MP3, MP4 (AAC), WMA and OGG. DSD128 is supported by the USB Type B input as well as via WiFi, Ethernet, and storage devices connected via the USB Type A input.
The i15 was used to power a pair of KEF LS50 bookshelf speakers, with much of the listening done using the amp’s streaming capabilities to access Tidal high-res files, as well as music stored on a Synology NAS.
The Primare was linked to our network via Ethernet to ensure a stable connection for high-res files. However, it worked perfectly well using a WiFi connection instead. Bluetooth pairing was easily and seamlessly achieved, too.
The evaluation unit arrived brand new, and was allowed to settle in for the first 100 hours or so before the review was embarked on in earnest.
While the i15 is supplied with a conventional and well executed remote control handset, I found the Prisma app offered an intuitive and informative gateway to the i5’s features and capabilities.
As already alluded to, don’t be fooled by the compact footprint of the i15 – it doesn’t sound anything like that at all. Instead, it has a big, and generous, and visceral delivery– more like one of those big and beefy, defiantly analogue amplifiers we all used to like so much 20 years ago (and still do).
It’s clear that the 60 watts per channel that Primare rates this most junior member of its amplifier line-up at is conservative, even taking the efficiency of the partnering KEF LS50s into account. Indeed, as a quick aside, the Primare/KEF combo is a marriage made in sonic heaven.
There’s a richness of tone and texture to the Primare’s performance that endows the music with presence and body. Acoustic guitars are presented with a fullness of timbre and a clarity of character that is goose bump-inducing, pianos display just the right balance of percussive intent and lyrical flow, and vocals sound, well, authentic and downright real.
In that sense, the Primare goes about its business with distinctly un-electronic approach: this is an amplifier that focuses on making the music come alive in all its emotive, charismatic, all-embracing glory.
Part of the i15’s magic is its ability to make the most of what it’s being offered – to musically contextualise the analogue and digital information it is being presented with.
Yes, there is loads of detail, and a wide-open soundstage provides full and unencumbered access to the music. But it’s the sense of authenticity – the joy of being able to savour the performance as a whole, rather than seeking out and isolating specific elements – that makes the i15 so compelling.
On ‘The Nearness Of You’, from the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio’s Midnight Sugar, that sense of immediacy and ‘being there’ was perfectly illustrated. The piano sounded splendidly vital, thanks to the recording’s ability to grasp the instrument’s bright and cheerful approach, while also capturing the dynamics and percussive impact.
The stand-up bass may be in a supportive role here, but it was presented with verve and clarity, allowing the listener to closely follow and enjoy the dialogue between piano and bass. The lower registers were delivered with surprising power and intensity, yet never threatened to overpower the piano’s sparkle.
The lucidity of the recording also allowed the articulate percussion to come into its own, so that the subtlest brush of the snare and every cymbal’s shimmer were done full justice, with the kick drum’s steady, solid thump providing the rhythmic backbone.
The remastered, SACD version of Roger Waters’ classic, if somewhat self-indulgent Amused To Death remains not only musically immersive, but also a stern test of system staging and imaging. It’s a challenge the i15 passed without breaking a sweat.
The amp managed to make the most of the music’s sonic panoramas, enveloping the listener in a 360-degree soundscape that often creates an almost surround sound-like impression.
It’s also a busy recording, with loads of effects and spurious voices, and yet the Primare was never intimidated, always remaining in control and presenting the various elements with composure and clarity.
‘Late Home Tonight’ showed off the amp’s ability to find just the right balance between the sleek acoustic guitars, the sweeping synths and the soaring strings spread wide and deep across the soundstage, and Waters’ centrally focussed vocals.
It also easily coped with the various effects and the eventual, climactic explosion at the end of the track – the latter delivered with enough intensity to get you jumping right out of your seat.
The Trondheimsolistene’s superbly recorded rendition of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D Major really propels the listener into the very soul and intent of the music. The Primare convincingly captured the tempo and the pathos, the sheer power and the technical splendour of the performance.
I enjoyed the way the music was afforded the freedom to fill the room with sound, making the most of the LS50 speakers’ generous sweet spot and superb transparency to unshackle itself from the electronic bonds.
The amplifier’s timing was exquisite, allowing the agile, eloquent strings to shine and sparkle, while it wasn’t in the least intimidated by the recording’s often challenging dynamic swings. It’s focus on the music remained unwavering and convincing.
At the same time, the Primare created a sense of space and immediacy that allowed the ensemble and soloist Marianne Thorsen to come to sonic life, and to weave a vivid, emphatic and ultimately engaging music picture.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Primare components have a tradition of over-delivering on their sonic promises, and that’s certainly the case here.
Any concerns that the use of the generic Hypex amplifier modules, or the reduction of the amplifier’s footprint, would impact negatively on the i15’s performance are quickly and emphatically dispelled: this is a gutsy, lively and compelling amplifier.
The Prisma functionality is a major boon, adding a comprehensive and well-integrated package of streaming and network playback capabilities, together with Chromecast-aligned features, to the Primare party. Control and ease of use via the Prisma app is admirable, too.
The smaller form factor makes for a less obtrusive shelf presence that will please some, and is certainly more easily integrated into lounges and living rooms, while still exuding a sense of Swedish style.
Most of all, the i15 always compels, regardless of genre, delivering its musical wares with an expressive enthusiasm and truthfulness that makes it a joy to listen to.
Power output: 2x 60 watts (8 ohms), 2x 100 watts (4 ohms)
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 20 kHz (-0,5 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >80 dB
Analogue inputs: 1x stereo RCA set, 1x 3,5 mm minijack
Analogue outputs: 1x stereo RCA set
Digital inputs: 1x coaxial RCA, 3x Toslink optical, 1x 3,5mm jackplug,
USB Type B, USB Type A
Digital outputs: 1x Toslink optical
Connectivity: 802.11 Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay, Chromecast
Dimensions (WxDxH)|: 350 x 329 x 73 mm
Weight: 6,4 kg
KEF LS50 speakers
Electrocompaniet P2D integrated amplifier
Lumin D1/L1 network streamer/NAS
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite SACD player
Bryston BDA-3 DAC
TelluriumQ Blue cabling
Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio – Midnight Sugar
Roger Waters – Amused To Death
Mozart – Concerto in D Major KV218 – Marianne Thorsen/Trondheimsolistene
Food, art, cars, music … regardless of the subject, the Italians have a way of turning even the everyday into something special. That’s true of audio equipment, too – and the Aqua La Voce is a good example
Milan-based Aqua (an acronym for Acoustic Quality) is a small firm with a big (and growing) reputation for its range of digital audio components. The line-up includes a CD transport and no less than three D/A converters.
Under scrutiny here is the La Voce S3, with the S3 moniker confirming that this is the third version of Aqua’s entry-level DAC. Not that there is anything entry-level about the La Voce: it looks the high-end part inside and out, and promises sonic quality levels to match.
The S3 version marks the La Voce’s graduation from a sign magnitude R2R ladder DAC design to a pure resistor-based R2R network, coupled to a Field Programmable Gate Array decoder. More about this later.
AT FACE VALUE
True to its stylish Italian origins, the La Voce looks attractive and distinctive, while retaining an elegance born of simplicity and oversightly ergonomics. The faceplate eschews the usual rectangular shape for a subtly curved approach that instantly sets it apart from the norm.
The switchgear also keeps things simple: two rotary controllers for power on/off and input selection respectively are joined by a toggle selector for phase inversion. That’s it.
A glance at the rear panel of the DAC provides a better idea of the La Voce’s capabilities. The four digital inputs include the expected coaxial S/PDIF (on BNC), AES/EBU via XLR and an asynchronous USB socket. The fourth is Aqua’s interpretation of I2S via a RJ45 port.
The I2S protocol is considered the most direct, and most accurate, zero-jitter form of digital data transfer, but its implementation is generally proprietary – i.e. while the La Voce will accept digital data via I2S from Aqua’s own La Diva digital transport, it won’t do so with PS Audio’s I2S, as implemented on its DirectStream Memory Player.
On the output front, the La Voce offers both balanced XLR and single-ended RCA stereo output sets. The all-metal casework is supported on a trio of rubber ‘feet’ that are designed to decouple the DAC from mechanical interference.
UNDER THE COVERS
As mentioned, this latest, S3 version of the La Voce employs a true R2R resistor ladder network with a proprietary FPGA-based digital decoder without digital filtering, whereas its immediate predecessor, the S2, used a sign magnitude R2R ladder incorporating a pair of Burr-Brown DAC chips.
The internal execution of the La Voce is meticulous, featuring a fully discrete output stage, and separate, low-noise power transformers with discrete regulation for the analogue and digital sections respectively.
Quality parts are employed throughout, including 105 degree long-life capacitors, low-noise, ultra-precise metal-foil resistors, metallised film pulse capacitors, and ultra-high speed diodes.
The La Voce is capable of decoding PCM digital data at resolutions of up to 384 kHz/24-bit, as well as DSD 64 and DSD 128 files, via USB and I2S. The coaxial and AES/EBU inputs are limited to 192 kHz/24-bit. The DAC does not perform any upsampling.
The La Voce was a well-used unit requiring no running in, and set-up was quick and simple. As I wanted to compare it to my reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC, I primarily used the USB input for the evaluation.
The La Voce connected via USB to a headless Mac Mini running the Roon music management system – which instantly recognised the Aqua as an endpoint. The DAC passed on the decoded, analogue signal to the pre-amp via its balanced XLR outputs.
The rest of the system comprised an Electrocompaniet 4.7 pre-amp, PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks, and Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers, while my trusty Esoteric UX-03SE acted as a disc transport, using the La Voce’s coaxial digital input.
SOUNDS LIKE …
From the word go, it was apparent that the La Voce delivers its sonic wares with a melodic, musically truthful intent and a confident coherence that allowed it to deliver its sonic wares with convincing, musical realism.
The sound was sleek and ear-friendly, boosted by a creaminess that infused the music with substance and texture.
The La Voce’s performance was marked by an easy accessibility and a seemingly relaxed delivery – but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of pace or definition, of which there was plenty.
If anything, the Italian was able to extract a rich and exiting harvest of musical information that brought both the bold sonic vistas and the fine slivers of detail to the fore.
Perhaps the Aqua’s real secret is the way it contextualised the musical information, both temporally and spatially, resulting in a performance that was always alluring and arresting. Nor did the La Voce have to resort to hyperbole: instead, a quintessential truthfulness ensured both credibility and enjoyment.
The DAC’s staging was seamless and wide open, with a believable dimensionality that faithfully positioned the performers in a well-defined, three-dimensional sonic space. Both height and depth were clearly represented, but never at the expense of the music’s cohesion.
One could accuse the La Voce of having a slightly warm and rounded tonal signature, and it’s true that it never sounded coldly clinical. But while it did capture the richness of the music, the warmth and benevolence of the delivery never got in the way of its clarity of expression.
Bob James’ eloquent and expressive piano work is the highlight of Espresso, his latest set: the recording captures the timbre and presence of the instrument to great effect, while also making the most of the veteran jazz ace’s elegant, liquid style.
On ‘Mojito Ride’, the sound was transparent, with the piano the unequivocal centre of attraction. But the La Voce never lost sight of the ensemble’s other members: Michael Palazollo’s mesmerising bass closely tracks the piano’s rapid tempo changes, while the ever charismatic Billy Kilson’s intricate percussion remains fleet-footed and punchy throughout.
Elvis Costello’s Look Now is a lyrical tour de force, linking memorable lyrics to powerful, persuasive melodies. His vocals are deep-etched with a lifetime’s experience of performing, and he sound all the more authentic and empathetic as a result.
The mix is satisfyingly lucid, but the La Voce provided further, deeper insight, extracting a wholesomeness that underscored the presence and realism of the music. Again, the ease of the DAC’s delivery made for an inviting, enlightening and ultimately enjoyable listening experience.
That insight turned the deceptively simple arrangement of ‘Tomorrow Night’, from Jennifer Warnes’ Another Time, Another Place into a compelling listening experience.
The conversational stand-up bass, the passionately executed Hammond organ riffs and the on-point percussion sounded persuasively real, with Warnes’ richly defined vocals soaring effortlessly above them. Pure heaven!
Yes, the result was both arresting and deeply moving. And that’s another thing about the La Voce: it manages to extract the emotive content of a performance with greater ease and believability than most digital converters.
The Italian DACs treatment of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by Ivo Pogorelich and the London Symphony Orchestra, proved that it isn’t at all intimidated by large-scale works.
It coped with the performance’s dynamic swings, the percussive intensity of the piano, and the full gamut of the LSO with ease, never losing its composure and convincingly conveying the majesty of the music.
That said, the Aqua was also well up to the task of closely examining the quiet, delicate passages. And it always put the music first.
Can the La Voce rock? You bet! Prog rock masters Muse sound invigorated and energetic on ‘The Dark Side’ from their just released Simulation Theory, with vast synth-shaped sonic vistas and insistent drumming providing a suitably stirring, markedly electronic backdrop for Matt Bellamy’s ever-melancholy, falsetto vocals.
The La Voce really got stuck into the almost mesmerising intensity of the music. It opened up the seemingly impenetrable arrangement, and easily kept up with the driving tempo.
The sound was vivid and spacious, convincingly expressing the scale of the sound, while keenly exploring the multi-layered synths.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I enjoyed my time with the Aqua La Voce immensely. It’s an inherently appealing and convincingly musical player that pays close attention to the emotive and melodic components of the performance, and comes across musically truthful as a result.
For some, the DAC’s deceptive approachability and warmth-tinged tonality may seem too laid back, even if that’s only an illusion: the La Voce lacks nothing in pace and precision terms.
Certainly, in back-to-back comparisons, the PS Audio DirectStream running Red Cloud sounded more succinct, and more pristine, but lacked some of the Aqua’s engagement. In purely analytical terms, the DirectStream is the better DAC, but the La Voce’s palpable musicality proved to be addictive.
Add admirable build quality, and built in upgradeability, and the Aqua La Voce becomes a compelling alternative to more recognised – and more expensive –high-end DACs.
Digital-to-analogue conversion: Pure R2R ladder with proprietary FPGA
Digital filter/upsampling: None
– I2S via RJ45
– Coaxial SPDIF
– AES/EBU via XLR
– Asynchronous USB
Analogue outputs: Single-ended RCA, balanced XLR
Supported sample rates:
– I2S and USB: 384 kHz PCM, DSD64 and DSD128
– S/PDIF coaxial and AES/EBU: 192 kHz/24-bit
Dimensions (WxDxH): 450 x 310 x 100mm
Weight: 7 kg
PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Bridge II
Esoteric UX-03 SE universal transport
Electrocompaniet 4.7 pre-amp
PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers
PS Audio P5 power regenerator
Mac Mini, Intel Core i5 2,5 GHz, MacOS High Sierra
Synology 213+ NAS
TelluriumQ and Nordost cabling and interconnects
Bob James Trio – Espresso (Evosound 44/16 FLAC)
Elvis Costello – Look Now (Concord 96/24 FLAC)
Jennifer Warnes – Another Time, Another Place (BMG 44/16 FLAC)
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1 – Ivo Pogorelich/Claudio Abbado/LSO (DG CD)
Muse – Simulation Theory (Warner 44/16 FLAC)
Fewer boxes, more functionality: that seems to be the mantra of modern hi-fi. Take Marantz’s new ND8006: it’s a network player, a CD spinner, a D/A converter and a pre-amp, too. But how successfully does it juggle all those roles?
The audio industry’s quest to reduce the number of components that make up an audio system has not only resulted in the ubiquitous integrated amplifier, but various variations on the one-box-does-all theme.
For instance, a growing number of integrated amplifiers now incorporate a D/A converter with digital inputs, obviating the need for a standalone DAC. Taking it a few steps further, Naim’s Uniti components combine the functions of an integrated amp, disc player, streamer and DAC in a single, elegant box.
The Marantz ND8006 is a network player first and foremost, but adds the convenience of a CD player. To that, it adds the further benefits of an ESS Sabre-based DAC, and the ability to accept music streams via Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay. Plus, it can fulfil pre-amp duties, too.
AT FACE VALUE
Despite all that apparent complexity, it’s an elegantly handsome machine with a deceptively simply control layout that suggests ease of use. The all-metal casing features the recessed fascia and curved ‘cheeks’ that have become a Marantz hallmark.
The centrally mounted transport tray is accompanied by a large, easily legible display, while two round, multidirectional controllers on either side look after key transport and menu navigation functions.
Of note is the full-sized headphone jack, complete with adjustable level control, and a USB Type A input for flash drivers and external drives.
The rear panel provides a more obvious indication of what facilities the ND8006 offers. Firstly, there are both fixed and variable line-level outputs, confirming that the Marantz’s pre-amp capability.
The array of digital inputs spans coax, optical and USB, the latter offering both Type A for flash drives and asynchronous Type B for linking up a Windows PC or Mac. You’ll also note the Ethernet port for wired connectivity, and a pair of fold-up antennae for both 802.11 Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth and AirPlay.
The ND8006 also caters for custom installations, offering RS232, flasher and remote in/out jacks.
UNDER THE COVERS
Providing the D/A conversion capability is an ESS 9016 Sabre32 Ultra DAC, offering PCM conversions up to 384k Hz/32-bit and DSD256 compatibility (USB only). It operates in conjunction with a dual-crystal clock for reduced jitter and enhanced accuracy.
Features such as a thoroughly shielded, beefy toroidal power supply, and Marantz’s HDAM-SA2 op amps confirm a commitment to sound quality, as does the separate headphone amplifier.
From a streaming perspective, the ND8006 is uses the HEOS ecosystem to offer integrated access to services such as Spotify (now also in SA) and Tidal, as well as a full catalogue of Internet radio stations and podcasts via TuneIn.
It’s also UPnP compliant, allowing it to recognise NAS devices and the music libraries stored on them. A free HEOS app for Android and iOS makes accessing the comprehensive functions of the Marantz a simple and intuitive affair, but there’s also a conventional remote, which works with other Marantz components, such as the PM8006 integrated amp.
Let’s not forget that the ND8006 also incorporates a disc transport. While it’s sadly not SACD-compatible, it will read CDs and all CD-based recordable and re-recordable media.
SOUNDS LIKE …
The ND8006 sounded open and inviting, with a real talent for making the most of the source material it had access to, while getting out of the way of the music itself. It didn’t inject any obvious character of its own, preferring instead to ensure a clean and unencumbered pathway from source to listener.
DSD material sounded downright marvellous, regardless of whether it was being played directly from SACD, or streamed from our NAS. There was real depth and lustre to the sound, linked to a sense of transparency and accessibility.
‘Unca’s Flight’ off the Opus DSD Showcase 3 compilation, was delivered with agility and coherence, so that the close interplay between guitars and strings never became overwhelming, but invited the listener into the very heart of the performance.
The soundstage was always wide open and inviting, creating ample air and space for each instrument to come to its full right, but without losing the intimacy of the performance, nor the close interplay between the artists.
The Marantz wasn’t in the least phased by the cinematic splendour and sheer scale of the Minnesota Orchestra’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. It’s a taxing recording with huge dynamic swings, and presented in high-res in 176/24 WAV format, but the ND8006 always remained in effortless control, rendering the music with both power and finesse.
The player also achieved exceptional levels of transparency in partnership with both the amplifiers I tested it with, making the listening experience simultaneously exciting and engrossing, and placing the focus firmly on the music.
Macy Gray’s almost visceral performance of ‘Annabel’ (from Stripped), was presented with such impetus and conviction that singer’s presence became almost tactile. The reverb-rich electric guitar and almost percussive bass provided a suitably evocative accompaniment, while the subtle brushed snare kept perfect pace. The result was thrilling to say the least.
As mentioned, the ND8006 can access a variety of streaming services, including Deezer, Tidal and Spotify, as well as TuneIn’s vast catalogue of Internet radio stations and podcasts.
The second collaboration between Ben Harper and Charlie Musslewhite, No Mercy In This Land (Tidal 44/16 FLAC) sounded powerfully persuasive, with the fuzz-edged guitar and melancholy harmonica on ‘When I Go’ a particular highlight. The delivery was emphatic and vivid, endowing the music with an almost three-dimensional presence and intensity.
Led Zeppelin’s recently remastered (and masterful) live set, How The West Was Won (Tidal 48/24 FLAC) was equally compelling: the Marantz served up Robert Plant’s piercing vocals and Jimmy Page’s expressive guitar on the classic ‘Stairway To Heaven’ with a dazzling clarity, while John Bonham’s inimitable drumwork was presented with thundering intensity.
Even compromised sources sounded pretty good: Radio Paradise delivered via Bluetooth or AirPlay from my ageing iPhone 5S had plenty musical presence and dimension, with good tonal range and a decent stereo focus. Yes, it lacked the finesse and outright upper-treble clarity of Tidal or music-serve-based material, but it was by no means lacking in entertainment value.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Marantz ND8006 is an exceptionally versatile piece of kit that offers intuitive streaming access from a wide variety of sources, together with the added convenience of CD playback, a high-res DAC, and pre-amp functionality.
The sonic approach is neutral and lucid without resorting to clinical aloofness, while focusing on offering listeners unencumbered and enjoyable access to the music instead.
The HEOS app ensures that access to the player’s extensive features set is an intuitive affair, while the pre-amp capability makes the ND8006 an ideal partner for active loudspeakers such as the KEF LS50 Wireless, to create a minimalist but full-featured set-up.
The result? A lot of functionality and musicality for the money. Indeed, the Marantz ND8006 is not a jack of all trades, but also manages to master them all convincingly.
A lot of features, functions and sonic talent crammed into a single, handsome enclosure.
Not everyone needs a do-it-all.
Digital conversion: ESS Sabre 9016
Digital filter: 192 kHz/32-bit
Frequency response: 2 Hz – 50 kHz (-3 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 110 dB
File formats: DSD64, M4A, WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, AAC
– 1x stereo RCA (fixed level), 1x stereo RCA (variable level),
– 1x 6,35mm headphone jack
– 1x SPDIF coax, 1x Toslink optical,
– 1x USB Type A (front), 1x asynchronous USB Type B (rear)
Digital outputs: 1x SPDIF coax, 1x Toslink optical
– Ethernet, 802.11 Wi-Fi, Apple AirPlay,
– A2DP Bluetooth 3.0 + EDR
– Up to 384 kHz/32-bit PCM and DSD256 via USB Class 2.0
– Up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM for all digital inputs
Dimensions (WxDxH): 440 x 369 x 106 mm
Weight: 8,0 kg
Marantz PM8006 integrated amplifier
Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amplifier
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD deck
KEF LS50 loudspeakers
KEF R500 loudspeakers
Synology DS214se NAS
Various – Opus DSD Showcase Vol 3 (Opus SACD)
Macy Grey – Stripped (Chesky 192/24 FLAC)
Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances – Stern/Minnesota Orchestra (Reference Recordings 176/24 WAV)
Ben Harper/Charlie Musslewhite – No Mercy In This Land (Anti 44/16 FLAC via Tidal)
Led Zeppelin – How The West Was Won – Remastered (Atlantic/Rhino 96/24 FLAC via Tidal)
One slimline box, multiple functions – that’s PS Audio’s value-added Stellar Gain Cell DAC. But can this keenly priced multitasker live up to the expectations created by more senior members of the PS Audio product line-up, including the DirectStream and DS Junior DACs?
The rise of the do-it-all integrated amp, complete with built-in DAC, network connectivity and even Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/AirPlay capability, has been threatening the very existence of more conventional, separate pre-amp/power amp combo’s in the high-end audio arena.
After all, why deal with the clutter of two or three components if they can be replaced by one box with multiple capabilities? And besides, you end up with shorter signal paths, and no need for expensive interconnects.
Whether that single box can match the fidelity and performance of individual, dedicated components remains a moot point. When you cram so much circuitry into a single chassis, concerns about interference, signal integrity and the like become inevitable.
Despite its nomenclature, the PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC is a one-box device fulfilling multiple roles. It combines the functions of a pre-amp, DAC and headphone amp in a slim, elegant enclosure.
Stellar is the name of PS Audio’s most accessible product range. In addition to the Gain Cell DAC, the line-up also includes the S300 stereo power amp, and the M700 monoblock. By usual high-end standards, the Stellar gear is attractively and accessibly priced, making value-for-money a further, vital attraction.
AT FACE VALUE
Available in either black or silver, the Stellar Gain Cell DAC looks the slimline, understated part. The aesthetics border on plain, but that’s a good thing. It looks attractive in a functional kind of way, while the all-metal construction adds a reassuring robustness to the package.
The fascia is adorned with little more than the obligatory blue-illuminating PS Audio power button, a rotary volume control, a clear OLED display and a 6,35 mm headphone socket. Look closer, and you’ll see input selector and set-up menu buttons, as well as an IR receiver sensor for the included remote handset.
The rear panel provides a better indication of the DAC’s extended functionality. In its role as a fully-fledged analogue pre-amp, with a balanced circuit configuration from input to output, the Stellar offers one XLR balanced and three single-ended RCA stereo inputs, as well as a choice of XLR or RCA stereo output sets.
The partnering on-board DAC hosts a full suite of digital inputs, including Toslink optical, RCA coaxial, and asynchronous USB Type B. The HDMI-style socket is actually an I2S input, which allows native DSD transfer from compatible disc players, such as PS Audio’s own Digital Memory Player, without DoP (DSD over PCM) conversion.
The DAC is both PCM and DSD compliant, but conversion rates and bit depths depend on the digital input.
Thus, optical is limited to PCM only at up to 96 kHz/24-bit, and coaxial to PCM at up to
192 kHz/24-bit. USB offers PCM up to 384 kHz/24-bit, and DSD64 and DSD128 via DoP, while I2S will do PCM up to 384 kHz/24-bit, and DSD64 and DSD128 natively.
UNDER THE COVERS
Two particular technologies are worth noting. The Stellar DAC’s pure-analogue pre-amp stage uses PS Audio’s Gain Cell technology for volume control. Simply put, Gain Cell varies volume by adjusting the actual pre-amplifier’s gain setting, rather than introducing separate attenuation in the signal path which could degrade signal quality and integrity.
Digital conversion is achieved via PS Audio’s proprietary Digital Lens, which consists of a simplified Field-Programmable Gate Array. Termed a Complex Programmable Logic Device (CPLD), it optimises the incoming digital signal through reclocking, wave shaping and jitter reduction.
The optimised digital data is then converted to analogue using a ESS Sabre 9010 32-bit Hyperstream DAC chip, followed by an analogue passive filter.
Talking of filters, the Stellar offers three selectable digital filter settings: slow roll-off, linear phase; fast roll-off, minimum phase; and fast roll-off, linear phase. These allow users to tailor the sound to suit personal preference, or the material being played back.
PS Audio considers the first filter setting the default, and it certainly sounds the most approachable, but to my ears, filter 2 sounded slightly more natural and open, while the third filter seemed to reveal more high-frequency detail, but also introduced a faint glare to the upper trebles.
Underlining the Stellar’s high sonic aspirations is the fully balanced Class A output stage and the presence of a large analogue transformer with seven regulators, high-speed switching diodes and 15 000 μFarad of storage capacitance.
The Stellar Gain Cell DAC arrived together with a Stellar S300 stereo power amp (review pending), and I ran the duo in tandem for much of the evaluation period. However, I also partnered the Stellar DAC with our Parasound Halo A21 power amp for the sake of comparison.
It’s important to note that the Stellar gear needs a lot of run-in time – the amp more so than the DAC – so budget at least 100 hours of playing time for the DAC, and double that for the amp.
Set-up was simple, with the pre/DAC’s balanced outputs used to link it to the power amp, and our Esoteric EX-03SE universal deck roped in as the transport. I didn’t have an I2S-compatible player on hand, so coaxial SPDIF was the digital input of choice.
Linking the USB input to a headless Mac Mini allowed music files to be sourced from my NAS-based digital music library, using Audirvana 3.2.5 as the playback platform. For a purely analogue signal path, an Avid Diva II SP/SME 309/Ortofon Cadenza Black aced as source via a Sutherland 20/20 phono stage.
The set-up menu allows access to an extensive list of functions and adjustments. Every input can be renamed, balance and max volume can be adjusted, and phase inverted. A home theatre pass-through function can be activated, and the display brightness and duration adjusted.
The Stellar can also be set to DAC-only mode, which bypasses the pre-amp circuitry completely, and allows the device to operate as a standalone DAC only.
SOUNDS LIKE …
As a pre-amp, the Stellar does a sterling job of presenting its musical wares with precision and honesty. This is not a pre-amp that will spin golden tones from sonic straw, but it won’t ruthlessly punish average recordings either.
Instead, it seeks to make the most of what it’s presented with, enthusiastically rewarding quality source signals, and benignly tolerating less than ideal material. It certainly doesn’t mess with the inherent substance or character of the music, neither adding a glow to cooler tones, nor sharpening softer hues.
What it does do is provide a wide-open view of the music, affording the listener ample insight, and revealing nuances and details that less observant pre-amps might have glossed over. It also does so with a sense of contextual validity, so that you never lose sight of the music’s emotive content, regardless of the recording’s technical highlights or shortfalls.
In essence, what the Stellar serves up always sounds more like music than hi-fi – and that in itself is a remarkable achievement.
I liked its ability to reveal the full sonic picture without resorting to drama or overkill – it generally made the music sound, well, just right. Staging, scale and dynamics were truthfully represented, reflecting the character and scope of the original recording.
The pre-amp’s tonal range was certainly broad enough to accommodate anything from chilly to chilli, but the Stellar steered clear of imposing an own, specific sonic signature on the music, preferring simply to reproduce what was already there – as any decent pre-amp should.
Those characteristics appeared to remain in place when I briefly used the Stellar as a headphone amp. It was quite happy to drive the rather challenging Sennheiser HD800s, but shone brighter with lower-impedance designs such as the HiFi Man 400S and the B&W P8.
If anything, the headphones highlighted the truthfulness of the Stellar, as well as its ability to create a seamless, generous and well-balanced sound picture. Add real agility and momentum to that picture, and headphone fans should be in their element.
The Stellar’s musically satisfying performance remained consistent, regardless of source, and irrespective of digital or analogue input signal, while also easily reflecting the differences in signal quality and character.
The Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Revisited sounded particularly haunting, with the pre-amp capturing the full impact of Margo Timmins’ tender vocals soaring above the rich but thoughtful arrangements, all encapsulated by the venue’s reverberant acoustics.
The Stellar wasn’t in the least intimidated by the density of the recording, and especially the richness of the lower registers, maintaining both clarity and composure, while also affording the music air and sonic space.
Swapping to digital material, Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau’s eponymous collaboration made for riveting listening.
The opening track, ‘The Old Shade Tree’ might sound deceptively simple, with a sparse arrangement that augments Thile’s banjo and Mehldau’s piano with a smattering of vocals, but its intimacy and natural tone presented the Stellar with a not insignificant challenge.
The recording captures the close, intuitive interaction between the two artists with such intensity that the listening experience becomes a gripping and evocative one. To the DAC’s credit, it delivered its wares with a lucid assurance that drew me right into the heart of the music.
The banjo had just the right edge and attack to sound viscerally real, while the piano provided a smooth, melodic counterpoint. The result was an intriguing juxtaposition of sound and texture, with the almost strident vocals adding to the fascination.
The Stellar did a great job of representing tonal breadth, delivering the piano’s lower registers with power and authority, while preserving the agility and zing of the banjo. It also tracked the music’s considerable dynamic shifts with precision, further benefiting the authenticity of the listening experience.
How good is the DAC section? Well that depends on your personal benchmark. Sonically, it’s adept and wholesome, painting the music with confident strokes, and using its bountiful harvest of detail to create a full, panoramic music picture.
It’s generous in the staging department, too, but compared to the (much more expensive) DirectStream DAC, the sound picture isn’t as holographic, and the imaging not quite as finely focussed.
The DirectStream delivers its wares with greater urge and foundation, too – but given how much affordable the Stellar is (and the fact that you get a full-fledged pre-amp as part of the deal), the value proposition is impressive to say the least.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC proves that high-end can be had for less than you think. Combining pre-amp and DAC (plus that headphone amp) makes practical sense, while ensuring exceptional versatility.
But it’s this pre/DAC’s engaging musicality, together with real bang for the buck, that sets it apart. Indeed, it may just be the keenest weapon in PS Audio’s already impressive product arsenal. Now, how about a dedicated, no-frills, fully balanced Stellar pre-amp?
Digital conversion: CPLD (Complex Programmable Logic Device), ESS Sabre, 32-bit
Formats: PCM, DSD, input-dependent
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz (+0, -0,25 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >110 dB (1 kHz, max output)
Digital inputs: 1x I2S, 2x coaxial RCA, 1x Toslink optical, 1x asynchronous USB
Analogue inputs: 1x stereo XLR, 3x stereo RCA
Outputs: 1x stereo XLR, 1x stereo RCA, 1x 6,7 mm headphone socket
Dimensions (WxDxH): 432 x 305 x 76 mm
Weight: 6,12 kg
Price: R22 100
Analogue meets digital in this innovative pre-amp/DAC with headphone facilities, too. Sonically, the Stellar always exceeds expectations, with finesse and believability its stand-out traits.
PL Computers. 082 578 5708
Esoteric Audio EX-03SE universal player
PS Audio DirectStream DAC
Avid Diva II SP/SME 309/Ortofon Cadenza Black
Sutherland 20/20 phono stage
Naim Uniti2 one-box system
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers
PS Audio P5 power regenerator
TelluriumQ Black interlinks and speaker cables
Synology DS213+ NAS
Mac Mini/Intel Core i5, 2,5 GHz, 10 GB RAM, 500 Gb HDD
Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau – Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau (Nonesuch)
Javier Limon – Mujeres De Aqua (Universal)
Billy Gibbons – Perfectamundo (Concord)
Mozart – Requiem – Dunedin Consort (Linn Records 192/24 FLAC)
Boston – Boston (Sony/BMG DSD64)
Fry Street Quartet – Beethoven String Quartets (Own Label SACD)
Cowboy Junkies – Trinity Revisited (Diverse Records LP)