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Review: PS Audio Directstream DSD DAC

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There’s a lot that probably could be said about PS Audio‘s new DAC, the DirectStream. Which is probably why a lot has. Ha!

What any of that matters, at this point anyway, will depend entirely on who you are. On why you’re reading this. So, let’s assume that you’re a potential buyer. Someone with a serious interest in high-end audio. Someone looking to invest in a serious component. Something that’s gonna make a real impact in your system. You’ve already got the speakers you love, an amp that drives the piss out them, and a preamp that doesn’t muck all that up too much. You’ve got a great little analog front end and you’re looking to upgrade “that other thing”. You know. The digital end.

If this fits you, you’ve probably already got a DAC. Chances are, if you bought one even a couple of years ago, it’s already out of date. Chances are, you’re vastly annoyed at that. This is a very easy segment to over- and under-buy in, and it’s almost tediously difficult to predict which direction this frog will hop. Is high-res going to be a thing? Is DSD? Has USB arrived, or is USB3x going to change everything again? What about I²S (and what is that, anyway)? Have you looked at streaming — no? It’s these kinds of considerations — and the fact that this is only the representative sampling that I pulled out of my hat before my second cup of coffee — that lead me to reiterate ad nauseam that “computer audio” isn’t the simple thing it may well one day be. But … it is what it is. And it’s come a long way.

So, say you’ve got that DAC and you’re looking for the Next Best Thing. Lucky for you, there’s a lot to look at. Perhaps not-so-lucky-for-you, things are also moving. Sit tight too long and things get … stale.

Which brings me back to the DirectStream from PS Audio. And why you’re here.

I’m going to guess that, at this point, you’ll want to know two things. One, that the DirectStream costs $5,999. And two, that it sounds amazing. That might even cover it. If so, great — hope the rest of your day is as straightforwardly satisfying. Ciao!

But … you’re probably still reading. Maybe there’s a curiosity there, or some weird inability to look away. Maybe someone has tied you to a chair and glued your eyelids open. Something. For those of you, still watching past your needs or better judgement, I can offer up a bit more.

But not much.

It’s understood

Here’s the thing. PS Audio, as a company, is hardly new. They’ve been around a long time and if you’re interested in the company history, there’s a rather complete Wikipedia page that I can recommend. I’m not going to re-cover any of that here.

Here’s the other thing. The DirectStream DAC is also not exactly new. As I’ve mentioned, it’s been out for almost a year now. Though there are some interesting caveats to mention, the discussion about its peculiarities and why the particular approach it takes to digital conversion is interesting, is ground that has been rather thoroughly trodden. I’m not going to re-cover any of that here, either.

Just to recap, there’s a bit of reading you can and probably should (and probably either have or will) take a look at. For example, the DirectStream has been reviewed. Just a bit:

  1. Audiophilia, where it received a Star Component award (May 2014).
  2. 6Moons, where it won a Blue Moon award (June 2014).
  3. Audiostream, where it received a Greatest Bits award (June 2014).
  4. Stereo Times, where it received a rave (July 2014).
  5. Positive Feedback, where it received a rave (August 2014).
  6. The Absolute Sound, where it received a rave (August 2014).
  7. Stereophile, where it received a rave (August 2014), and also received their highest endorsement, an A+ listing on their Recommended Components listing.
  8. Digital Audio Review, where it received a DAR-Knocked Out award (August 2014).
  9. Home Theater Review, where it received a rave (November 2014).
  10. Computer Audiophile, where it received a cautious endorsement (December 2014).

I’m sure I’m missing quite a few, but the point that should be stunningly obvious at this point is that the DAC has been well received. You could say that it is beloved. Well, aside from the review on CA. But even with that outlier, I’m not sure what else there is to say about a single product at this point. The details have been laid bare. The judgments have been rendered. Perhaps we should leave well enough alone.

Interesting Developments

Yeah. About that.

As you’ll know from reading all ten of the reviews I’ve linked to above, the DirectStream is a little bit different from other DACs. The main difference that I’m concerned with, is this: it’s programmable.

Why is that interesting? Because, you silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids you can change the entire character of the DAC with something as simple as rebooting it. Ta da!

Fine, yes, there are a couple of extra steps in there, including finding an SD card (and not a SDHC card, you need an old SD card, one with a max capacity of 2G), downloading the patch from PS Audio, copying it to the SD card, slipping the card upside down into the slot on the back of the DAC and powering it up — and then leaving it the hell alone while it reboots — but none of that is particularly tricky. Aside from finding the right kind of SD card, that is, but Amazon has those for sale, so Bob’s your Uncle.

The only reason I bother I recall this to your mind is because the DAC has been radically updated not once but twice since September of 2014 (and therefore after about 8 of those 10 reviews, above). Insert ominous music, here. The latest update, called Pike’s Peak, was released back in February. And yes, it made a big difference. Actually, both did.

Step One

I’ll be honest. My admiration for this DAC started rather late.

My first thought, after a long draft of DirectStream audio brewed right there in my listening room, was that this was “digital for folks who love analog.” Lemme unpack that. Truth is, a whole lot of hay has been made over the sound of “digital audio” and how it’s the end of the world. You read through most of the articles above, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts that you’ll see references to “the digital nasties” or “edginess” or some other analogy that equates to “not analog” — and a further comment on how the DirectStream does none of that terrible, awful, no good, very bad stuff.

Because, in all fairness, it doesn’t. The sound my system was making was very liquid, and I mean that in the usual audiophile kind of way, where the music just flows and does so without grit or grain. There was body to the music, a sensuousness, that was very attractive. Perhaps it’s unusual, but I happen to have several terabytes of DSD music files (So, about 8 of them … Ha! That’s a joke. Because DSD files are big … okay, never mind), and I’ll submit that with this material, and all my other usual PCM-based stuff, I thought that the DAC was pretty damn good. Long hours into many listening sessions later, I noticed how easy it was to listen to my system with this DAC in the chain. Non-fatiguing? You bet.

I compared the DirectStream to a couple of DACs very early on, and again, much later as I became familiar with the sound. The first was an AURALiC Vega DAC, one of my personal references, and pretty much faultless in its presentation. The other was a Redbook-only DAC from BorderPatrol that features no upsampling and no oversampling. Playing apples-to-apples with files, I noticed that these DACs had more in common with each other than with the DirectStream — but the thing that stood out was that both of them seemed to have more bite.

Attack, or transient response, or rounding — whatever you want to call it, the DirectStream seemed to be indulging in it. If I were being forthright, this is very much my complaint with the Playback Designs MP-5 player I tested out several years ago. Interestingly, that player/DAC also used a similar approach to conversion — that is, it relied on FPGA arrays and not a traditional “chip”. My, admittedly distant, recollection of my time with the MPS-5 was marked with a sense that there out to be more there there, as if something critically life-like had been sanded away, even as the sound maintained a truly mesmerizing … liquidity. Hmm.

Step Two

Anyway, shortly after this time with the DirectStream, as I was staring down the barrel of the late-September/early-November show tour with that faint coppery taste of unease lingering in my mouth (like when I start chewing a bit too vigorously and end up with a little “taste of cheek” — yum), I got an email from Director of Marketing Bill Leebens, referring to an update for the DirectStream. He said that the newest firmware update, Version 1.2.1, was supposed to be revelatory (my word, “revelatory” — Bill called it “major”, citing “lower distortion, lower noise, better bass”, but my brain translated because he was using too many words).

Guess what? I was right. It was! This was a whole new DAC. Lemme put aside the WTF moment for now, and offer that the bass seemingly extended deeper, which is always a good thing, and was tighter and presented better texture. Detail retrieval took a step past “better than average” to “hey, that’s interesting”. In all, a good DAC just became really effing good.

Yes, my then-reference Alpha Series 2 DAC from Berkeley Audio Designs showed off an even more extended, more solid, more impactful bass response. Not surprising, as this is one of the things this DAC is rightfully famous for. Mid-range was more of a wash, and up top, I found the DirectStream less fatiguing. More: the DirectStream plays everything — all file types, at all resolutions, something that the Alpha cannot do, and something the folks at Berkeley have no real plans to support.

Compared to my now-reference AURALiC Vega, the DirectStream had a more organic, a “fuller” presentation. While the DirectStream v1.2.1 was dramatically improved in its frequency mastery, the Vega still clearly over-topped it in both detail, transient response and treble extension. Again, speaking about direct comparisons, the Vega sounded more lean. Said another way, the DirectStream sounded more full. I tend to think of the Vega as “neutral”, so my take was that the DirectStream was slightly euphonic; its sonic “center of gravity” was just lower than the Vega’s. Which was better? I’d offer that this is a particularly hairy onion — I can imagine some audio systems would react really well to either but not both. Playing with stereotypes, I’d say that if you have tubes, you should start with the Vega. Got solid-state, go with the DirectStream. Happiness could be had either way.

But I want to interject a moment of clarity here.

What the hell just happened? Hello …. I loaded a patch. A “bug fix”. Like one of those innumerable Microsoft Wednesday patches for Windows that I and millions of others suffered through until we all discovered that Apple didn’t suck anymore. A download, a reboot … and … wait, get your hand out of my — whoa, did someone just pop a new CPU in my computer?

Because that’s what it seemed like. But no one had whacked me over the head so they could whip out their extra-special powered screwdrivers to perform open-heart surgery on the DAC, all while I lay slack-jawed and drooling into the Berber. And certainly not while they pounding a six-pack, hooting Journey songs and whipping a bra around in the air. Uh …. No, most definitely not that. Nope. Nuh uh. La la la!

This was like swapping out perfectly good vacuum tubes for some mint-condition NOS tubes. Without the sob story about a colony of nuns isolated in a mountain retreat for the last 50 years as an explanation for why they’re now being sold for a gazillion dollars. Each. In boullion.

Just a software patch. And it revolutionized the sound of the DAC ….

That, sir, is totally kick ass. 

It’s also kinda crazy. Like the rest of this section. Insert images of hookers, fire engines and mass destruction here. Seriously — this kind of thing could change everything. Where will the insanity end?!?

Side Step

After my inadvertent and unfortunate medication interaction wore off, I was able to take stock. Yes, this upgrade was remarkable — as you can see in the changes in the measurements Stereophile‘s John Atkinson took post-update in their follow-up last month. Same layout, same parts, same freakin’ machine, yet completely different measured performance. Better measured performance. Pardon me while I choke back the rising tide of hysteria with a stiff shot of Angel’s Envy, the Bourbon of Choice here at chez moi.

My point is that most DAC- (or amp, or speaker) makers will revision their gear periodically. That is, they’ll make some tweak and relaunch it, maybe with a new name or revision. Sometimes, that tweak will actually be better, but often enough, it’s simply because they can no longer source some of the components, and that supply issue required a non-obvious alteration that couldn’t simply be explained away with a mutter-into-the-sleeve about their “development process being a road of continuous, subtle, improvements.” When we’re lucky, and the manufacturer is still engaged enough with the product to still be tinkering, such opportunities do include a set of new bits and bobs that will alter the performance. One could argue, also, that each such iteration is an evolution — that each hardware platform its own unique species that, through a process of natural selection, evolves toward something bigger, badder, and altogether more competitive than the generation that preceded it. At least, that’s the hope — and that we’re not just being taken for a ride on the marketing department’s Magic Mystery bus.

But with the DirectStream, that gets put on it’s ear. Because the clever consumer that purchases a DirectStream has a very good chance that the DAC will stick around much longer. New features, better performance, higher levels of competitiveness — all that’s within the grasp of the unit they already have. No forklift upgrade required.

On the one hand, this is a huge win for the audiophile consumer. At $6k, the DirectStream is a significant investment of capital. But if that useful life (where ‘useful’, here, I mean more as “remains on the cutting edge” instead of “being able to be used”) is three or more times longer than a less flexible system, the heft of that price tag has a slightly different character to it.

Say it with me now: “future proof”.

Look, I’m not saying that PS Audio won’t revision the DirectStream. Hardly. I suspect that they’ll do that very thing, and make significant architectural changes that will dramatically improve the sound quality. But just because Apple releases a new MacBook Air every year means that last year’s Air goes into the bin. I had a Mac Pro that I got in 2003. Damn thing still works, but at some point Apple stopped making software for PowerPC chips and that Pro got left behind. That’s kind of what we’re looking at here, with the DirectStream — a computer that will absolutely be eclipsed at some point, but in the meantime, you’re good to go for several — if not many — spins of the development wheel.

Which brings me to Pikes Peak.

Step Three

I got another note from Bill in February. Apparently, PS Audio had just announced a brand new update to the DirectStream. Gone were the anonymous numbers — this one they were calling Pikes Peak. Even I, dull as a spoon, caught the not-so-subtle implication there. This one was gonna be big.

There was a few days of mad scramble, searching the piles of debris left over from RMAF and CES, to ferret out that SD card, but I eventually laid my hands on it and got ’round to the update.

As big a difference that 1.2.1 was to 1.1.9, Pikes Peak was all that plus a bit more besides.

Compared to the AURALiC, the DirectStream had been coming up short both in overall resolution and specifically around transient response. Again, I felt that the DS was habitually shaving just a hair or three off that leading edge, leaving what ought to be percussive sounds a bit dull and kinda boring. That was before 1.2.1. With 1.2.1, the rounding was still there, but the overall presentation had taken several strides forward, but still trailed the Vega. With Pike’s Peak, the DS took its first steps ahead of the Vega, presenting a blacker background, and better detail retrieval. Rounding is no longer obvious — I have to hunt for it, which for all intents and purposes, makes this no longer an issue for me.

Tonally, the Piked DS is meaty, but a slight exaggeration that had been present in the upper bass region is now gone — I didn’t know it till I missed it — and the bass extension and texture is now in the same ball park with the very best DACs I’ve heard. Insert my eyebrows directly up into what’s left of my hairline, here.

The non-oversampling/non-upsampling DAC from BorderPatrol is another interesting comparison as it does pretty much everything exactly the opposite of the massively upsampling and wildly oversampling Piked DS. And yes, the BorderPatrol DAC does have a different character. To my ear, this DAC’s “defining character”, if you’ll forgive the over-simplification, is a sound that is deliciously forward, wildly open and lively, and it was this signature that caused me such issues with the roundness in the pre-Pike DS. By contrast to this little Redbook-only marvel, the Piked DS sounds more massive and a bit more polished. Bass is bigger and hits harder. Backgrounds are darker and the music presents with more detail and longer decays. And then there’s the whole it-can-play-anything thing.

The last comparison I was able to make was to the much more expensive Bricasti M1 DAC. Another simpler-is-better approach, the M1 eschews all of the upsampling and source-rate conversion that goes with it, and features a non-transformer-based output stage. The sound of the DAC is absolutely reference-class, and as another Class A+ representative of Stereophile Recommended Components list, the M1 is a no-joke solution. And at that price, it had better be. But the fact that I had to reach out for a $10k solution to clearly better the Piked DS is a clear statement of achievement on the part of the PS Audio solution. And while it chased the M1 in extension, ease and attack, the degree of that gap may well be entirely lost in most systems. To me, this comparison was very like a Tesla taking on a Ferrari. Sure, the Ferrari might win, but holy s***balls, what a race! Ha!

Conclusion

Well, well. Quite simply, I’m flabbergasted. Another “operating system” update an another whole new DAC. Yikes.

I do wonder whether its possible to keep jumping so far forward with every revision. If, perhaps, there isn’t some natural limit PS Audio is going to hit, or even if they’ve already hit it with Version 1.2.3/Pikes Peak. If I were a betting man, I’d say that PS Audio has a bit more they can eke out of the platform. Perhaps a lot more.

And that’s exactly where and why things are so very interesting with this product.

Future proofing a purchase is a bit of a fool’s errand. As with my ancient Mac Pro, there’s a point at which it’s simply no longer profitable to keep supporting sold product. Apple moved on. I used that thing for six years before sidelining it. Still, instead of dumping it, I repurposed it for the kids. As I said, it’s still working. I held on as long as I could, but 12 years later I did purchase a replacement. But think about that. Apple would be thrilled to know that my Mac Pro lasted that long. And really annoyed at the same time.

This is what I have in my head when I look at the PS Audio DirectStream DAC. From the consumer’s point of view, this thing is all that and a bag of chips. Customers investing in one will be customers for a long time. And pretty much intolerable for much of that time. What with all the gloating. That’s got to be a win, right?

All that said, this is not a trivial adventure for most of us. $6,000 is heavy coin, and while I think the performance warrants a recommendation, that doesn’t do anything to make the DAC more approachable. If PS Audio were, say, to take this platform (and it’s performance!) and somehow streamline it into a package half that price, I think the world might end.

Final aside: I did not get a chance to explore the DirectStream with an I²S connection or converter. Reading Ted Brady’s review over on Computer Audiophile, this is apparently the bees knees and precisely where his cautiousness flips to rave, but that’ll have to wait for another crack at the piñata.

Here’s the bottom line for all of you that just skipped all the way to the end: all those other know-it-alls were right after all. Well, mostly.

But the DirectStream DAC is the hottest thing to come of PS Audio since forever. This unconventional design, even as it does all manner of violence to the heart of the purist with all of his “do nothing to the signal” whining, is on par with some of the very best “traditional” designs on the market, and with its potential for endless upgradability, the DirectStream is revolutionary.

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7 Comments on Review: PS Audio Directstream DSD DAC

  1. I am still going back and forth with the Berkeley Audio DAC or the PS Audio Directstream. Any more comments on these? Thank you in advance!!

  2. It might be added that used Directstream’s, either originals or upgraded from Mk1/2, have been appearing on the used market in the mid to upper $3000’s for some months now.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // April 12, 2015 at 3:33 PM //

      Taste is a fickle thing. Those that moved on may have done so pre-Pike’s Peak, and if so, have missed out. But even with that upgrade, there’s a tonal richness there that many will prefer to eschew in favor of speedy brilliance. There’s no wrong answer, but IMO, it comes to rest more on an issue of taste and synergy.

  3. Scott- are recent offerings from Lampizator, APL, EMM Labs, Playback Designs and the like going to surpass the DirectStream by a significant margin? Also, please opine on Meridian’s MQA when you get a chance. Wondering if mastering the back catalog of analog tapes using this technology is going to shake things up all over again.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // April 12, 2015 at 3:41 PM //

      I’ll be honest — I don’t think so, no. At a certain point, there’s really very little to be gained by spending more. To really hear the difference requires chasing the new bottleneck in your system — better speakers, better amp, better pre, better power, better room, better source, better cables, better rack. Repeat as necessary. But assuming everything else is staying the same, what you’re trading for is more preference than quality.

      If, as I’ve suggested, that’s where it all comes down to rest, with taste and synergy, then the DS may well be as good as you need to get for a great many people and a great many systems. You might prefer a different tonal density, or more speed/detail. Your system may respond to either approach better or worse. That’s the journey. But whether any of those brands has a solution that is objectively better than the DS is moot.

      I’ll offer what I’ve already offered: the DS is an excellent solution and worthy of an audition. Make of that what you will.

      As for the MQA, I have no opinion yet. Still waiting to see this gain traction.

  4. Gavin Hadley // April 12, 2015 at 9:28 AM //

    Not unexpected to see the Tesla get the hole shot with it’s electric motors. Those bad boys are known for their torque. And not unexpected to see the Ferrari win the race regardless of its big old bad carbon footprint. Give me the Italian job any day. Now regarding DACs and the like, you need to get your hands on a Lumin A1 Scot. I’ve owned mine for a few months and it’s the berries old man..

    • Part-Time Audiophile // April 12, 2015 at 3:30 PM //

      I think a Tesla, at $130k with all the fancy upgrades, is still almost 1/3rd the price of Ferrari. Yes, the Ferrari is a badass. No one is doubting that. But for a car like this — an electric American car with no fancy pedigree — to cast this much shade is not only shocking, it’s hilarious. Yes, the Ferrari is a faster, ballsier car. But that Tesla is most certainly not embarrassed by that comparison. And while neither are precisely affordable, if I was hunting performance and a bit less limited by budget, I know where I’d be spending my money. Hint: it’s not the Ferrari.

      Which is why this analogy with the DirectStream is so apt.

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