A few years ago, my friend Mark Chaffin invited me over to hear the latest PS Audio firmware update to his DirectStream (“DS”) DAC. Mark is an ace pilot who has a very calm demeanor but he was pretty excited about his new PS Audio component. The DirectStream is one of these new FPGA (field programmable gate array) devices that uses a software-based programmable converter chip that can be updated periodically via SD card containing new software. Basically PS Audio has invented a media player that never goes out of date from a technical standpoint. Keeping up with each year’s latest Sabre or AKM chips is a thing of the past. Buy the DS now, stay current for the foreseeable future. Pretty neat. The DS sounded really, really good in Mark’s superb listening room and home theater. Then, every six months or so, Mark would reach out and invite me over again to hear the latest and greatest update. Things sounded better each time.
Earlier in 2017, PS Audio released the Huron update which was a bigger improvement than what came before. Much more clarity and definition. Now we were hearing what these FPGA chips could really do! Before I knew it, I found a DirectStream in my listening room. It really kicked my digital playback up a notch. I started to re-explore my vast collection of 5,000 CDs, SACDs, and DVD-Audio discs. Each disc sounded better than I remembered. In hindsight, I would say the DS was near reference level…but I wondered how much better could PS Audio designer Ted Smith, he of the most colourful Hawaiian shirt awards, do to wring more performance out of his audio circuit. At the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Ted mentioned he was getting close on the next update. Then, the ever enthusiastic Paul McGowan started to let slip that a release was imminent. This past Friday, December 8, the “Redcloud” DS update was released at 2pm ET.
Hmm, I got nervous. How would a firmware update work? Would I screw it up and turn the DAC into a door stop?
Nah, it was easy-peasy. PS Audio has refined the update procedures quite well. They send out a blank SD card (8GB or less recommended) and you simply go to the PS Audio website and look for the latest DS software. You download the folder which contains six or so files onto your desktop then drag the files over to the SD card. You eject the SD card and turn it over (gold pins facing up) and insert into a powered down DS. Turn on the power and the DS recognizes the SD card files and begins updating the firmware. The little illuminated PS logo begins to flash during the update and after a few minutes you see the standard “Initialization” routine on the blue front panel display. Very easy to do. I was pleasantly surprised how smooth it went.
What came next shocked me.
I started with a CD I had been playing with the DS in Huron form. Jacintha sings some standard bossa nova songs on The Girl from Bossa Nova album from Groove Note, a session expertly produced by Joe Harley and the soundstage and resolution are fantastic. With Redcloud, this CD became much more clear and it was especially noticeable in the bass, the soundstage width and depth, and her voice. What a glorious natural vocals. It feels like Red Cloud has lifted several veils to use an overworked reviewer analogy.
Intrigued I moved on to the Blood, Sweat and Tears Mobile Fidelity SACD which I use as a bit of a reference recording. The horns on “Spinning Wheel” were nice and brassy with the proper amount of presence and edge. Such openness! The flutes in the middle of the song were more natural. This was the best I had heard this excellent recording with a top flight mastering by the guys at MFSL. The cymbals on a couple of tracks were nice and shimmery. The raspy voice of the lead singer was way more present here than under Huron. The end of the song which breaks into studio banter (“that wasn’t too good”) sounded like a real conversation in the studio.
I threw in my demo compilation CD from Phil O’Hanlon. The clarity of Leonard Cohen’s vocals on “Nevermind” were magnificent capturing all the chestiness you find on world-class vocal reproduction. Here I heard more of the instrument separation side to side and front to back that I had been hearing. The distance of the Arabic singer had more distance from Cohen’s voice. The next track was Yello’s Electrified II and let me tell you the bass was glorious. I did not realize it before but the bass in Huron seems slightly loose by comparison. Now the bass was tight and deep. We moved onto to Philip’s needledrop of the Bob Ludwig LP pressing of Zeppelin II. Ballsy drumming from Bonham and crunch guitars from Page. Spectacular! This DAC rocks hard.
My pal Mark and I downloaded the software at roughly the same time and began a furious back and forth on texts on what we were hearing and we pretty much agreed on everything. Better bass, better vocals, better soundstage, better guitars, etc. This was not just a Huron level step up; this was a step change. In my humble opinion, the sound I am hearing is matching the level of the very best from MSB, dCS, and Esoteric. Redcloud is now squarely in reference-category for digital. That makes the DS converter a huge value for the dollar. PS Audio has also updated the Bridge network streaming card but I have not yet connected it to my router. I will follow-up on this aspect.
One member of the PS Audio forum summed it up well by saying he felt he was “hearing more into the recorded space.” Bingo. The resolution from lower noise allows us to hear the entire effect of “the hall” provided that it is on the recording of course. This is a characteristic of the very best digital playback gear. I can now hear deep into the reverberation of Joe Henderson’s sax on Ask Me Now from the McCoy Tyner New York Reunion SACD, a session I was involved in. I got so immersed with this, I continued to listen to finish out the Tyner disc, so clear and alive was the sound.
I wondered how acoustic guitars would sound. Out came Beck’s Sea Change on the MFSL gold CD. Wow. The guitars were literally in the room. Beck’s somber vocals were effortless. Talk about presence.
What was going here? How did designer Ted Smith achieve such results?
Ted commented on the PS Audio Community Forum that he had worked to lower some background noise, or a much whiter background noise as Ted describes it. Low level distortions and noises were removed. There were a few clicks and pops on Huron that occurred when transitioning between formats. These are now gone. THD is down “at all signal levels less than -10 dBFS. Ted says he is not out of ideas yet for improvement.
So Christmas indeed arrived early this year. It may have come from a wizard in a Hawaiian shirt but the beard does make Ted look a little like Santa. Well done Paul, Ted and the rest of the team at PS Audio. If any of the Part-Time Audiophile readers need reference level digital playback, you really must audition the entirely new DirectStream DAC with Redcloud. This is one cloud that you will find in the audio heavens.