I’ve been on a hot streak lately with getting components to review that have sounded excellent despite the current difficulties in hearing something beforehand. For a reviewer, it’s one of the many great things about hi-fi shows. So when our fearless PTA leader Scot Hull put out the word amongst the troops for who wanted to take a shot and review an affordably-priced DAC from the Chinese electronics firm Denafrips (website), I thought sure! Why not? And then something strange happened during my time with the most excellent Denafrips Pontus II DAC. I started listening to a lot of music in digital form, not because I had to turn in a review on the DAC, no. I WANTED to listen to digital. Whuuut?
To my way of thinking, DACs are the most stealthy of source components. There are no knobs to turn, no stylus to clean or arm to drop on a record, and a dearth of switches or buttons to press. Certainly no choice of regular bias or chrome tape–remember those? You might get a selection of anti-aliasing filters if you’re lucky. There is not much romance in Ye Olde DACs. They sit there quietly waiting to be asked out to dinner.
Furthermore, it seems to me that sonic differences in various DACs can be quite subtle. This is not meant to be a blanket statement. Of course some DACs sound very different from others, but usually not as immediately apparent as changing an analog component like a cartridge or speakers. Possibly even more subtle than, say, the difference between a solid-state power amp and one using vacuum tubes. But live with a few DACs for long enough, and those subtle differences become much more extensive, magnified to the extent that my ear might LOVE one and HATE another. Bear in mind this comes from someone that doesn’t like the taste of an espresso drink as much if the beans were roasted more than a few weeks ago…YMMV.
0, 0, 0, It’s Magic
The whole notion of converting an electrical voltage into zeros and ones and back again to make music seems at first to be a strange concept–at least to me. But that’s exactly what is happening as I type on my computer. It also happens in an electron microscope. Or on a digital display in your car dashboard (unless it’s like my car with old school analog gauges–at least it has a CD player!)
Early digital certainly had its problems, but I feel like the technology has matured. Lots of brilliant minds have come up with innovative ways to get the bitstream to music lover’s ears, producing not only an accurate sound but a musical one. Is digital now REALLY that good? I think most audiophiles would say yes, it is. Even for a hard-core analog fan like me? After listening for some months to the Denafrips Pontus II DAC in my system, I’d have to say, oh yeah, digital can sound damn good.
Denafrips is a relatively new player to the American hi-fi scene. A few years back, their top-of-the-line Terminator DAC was their first product to make serious waves. Lower-priced DACs and other electronics followed. The Denafrips Pontus II DAC is the next step above the entry-level Ares II, followed by the Venus, Terminator and Terminator Plus. Maybe Ahhnold returned from the future to lay some wisdom on the Denafrips engineers? All the Denafrips DAC designs rely on R-2R topology for decoding the bitstream to a usable analog voltage, but the Terminator Plus is the only DAC that shapeshifts into molten metal.
Unlike some other Chinese hi-fi companies such as Line Magnetic, Opera Audio’s Consonance, Xindak, or Yaqin that use tubes and vintage tech to produce new versions of time-honored, mostly American designs of yesteryear, Denafrips is going hard in the other direction and has doubled down on cutting edge thinking for digital to analog circuitry topology. The Denafrips Pontus II can be had for a measly $2298 Singapore dollars (approx. US$1750 at time of review publication). My ears told me it has an almost crazy level of sonic goodness at that price. How crazy, you ask? Tres cray.
When I first unpacked the Denafrips Pontus II DAC, I immediately noticed how heavy it is. At almost 19 pounds, in a case that measures 13” by 13” by 3” tall (with another inch added for the height of the three conical feet), the Pontus is an impressive looking silver-toned box. (Black is also available.) With seven switches and 16 indicator lights on the front panel, it has a look (and feel) of a far more expensive DAC.
The case’s metalwork has attractive curves and angles that are far more pleasing to the eye than a square box shape. The rear panel sports a wide variety of connectivity, including two SPDIF inputs (RCA and 75-ohm coax), two 110-ohm balanced digital inputs on XLR, optical, USB, and I2S via HDMI. Outputs are balanced XLR with a 4.4V level and unbalanced RCA with a 2.2V output. Wow. That’s a helluva lotta options. The IEC power socket is in the clear and centrally located to use that baby elephant trunk sized power cord you got yourself for the holidays, so it’s a breeze to use.
But what about all those buttons and indicator lights on the Denafrips Pontus II? I’m glad you asked.
As is my usual impulsive nature, I plugged the thing in to warm up for a few days, then commenced to get my jams on. It wasn’t until a week or two later in my downstairs lavatory library that I cracked open the manual to see if there were any hidden secrets to learn. Bingo! No wonder there are so many buttons and lights. They all do something.
In addition to the usual lights indicating sample rate, there are buttons to reverse the absolute phase and engage a non-oversampling mode (NOS). I liked not having any reconstruction filter options. I say let somebody else decide the shape of the anti-aliasing filter–I have a hard enough time deciding what to play! However, I did have a bit of fun trying out the NOS versus oversampling option. I felt it was splitting hairs, but the NOS mode seemed a hair more forward and present in some textural manner, Regardless, both ways sounded great. I don’t consider one or the other to be superior simply nice to have an option should the desire for neurotic tweakiness emerge, not that I would ever be like that. Heh.
The same could be said for the absolute phase reversal. I couldn’t hear it change the sound. In my experience, absolute phase audibility has more to do with some speaker systems having drivers or a style of bass loading that is less symmetrical. Your woofers may like pushing out with a positive voltage a little more than going in, but I feel like most systems today don’t care.
Denafrips seems quite proud of all the cutting edge DAC tech they’ve packed into the Pontus. I would be, too! Consider this from the Denafrips Pontus manual:
ADAPTIVE FIFO BUFFER RECLOCKING
The DENAFRIPS approach to address the jitters issue by FIFO BUFFER RECLOCKING. The adaptive FIFO buffer store the source digital audio data in the memory. These data are read from the memory using the low phase noise, precision FEMTO Clock, located right in the DAC.
This technology is close to the perfection, especially so with the local FEMTO Clock. The jitter is so small that it can be neglected.
PROPRIETARY, STATE-OF-THE-ART USB INTERFACE
The PONTUS is equipped with the proprietary USB Audio Solution, powered by STM32F446 Advanced AMR Based MCU. DENAFRIPS redesigned and optimized circuitry, allow the DAC to be used as high-end DAC with computers / streamers. It supports 24bit/1536kHz PCM data stream, and native decoding of DSD up to DSD1024. It comes with licensed THESYCON USB Driver for Windows Platform.
PROPRIETARY SPDIF DIGITAL AUDIO RECEIVER
The SPDIF Coaxial, Optical, AES/EBU input support up to 24bit/192kHz digital audio format. The PONTUS abandon the use of Digital Audio Receiver chip. The digital data is decoded by the on-board FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array), signal path is shortened and eliminated the undesirable coloration.
PROPRIETARY R-2R AND DSD DECODING ARCHITECTURE
The PONTUS is equipped with 24Bit R-2R DAC to decode PCM data stream and 32 steps FIR analogue filters hardware decoder to decode DSD data stream. These designs guaranteed the PCM format can be perfectly decoded, at the same time, the DSD format can be perfectly decoded as well. It is rare in the currently market that a R-2R DAC can hardware decode both the PCM and DSD formats.
There is also a picture of the internal architecture with the following description:
DIGITAL SIGNAL PROCESSING – All digital input data are stored in the on-board FPGA high-speed RAM.
FEMTO CLOCK – These data are read from the memory using the low phase noise, accurate FEMTO Clock, located right in the DAC. The processed data are sent to the final stage Discrete R-2R, for DA conversion.
R-2R LADDER NETWORK – The data bits are converted to analogue signal by the true balanced R-2R ladder network arrays. The linearity of the conversion is guaranteed by the high-precision thin film resistors, with low thermal effect temperature coefficient of the low 10/15ppm.
Alrighty then. Can I set the FEMTO Clock to snooze? Nevermind.
Maybe This Section Is The Real In Use
I used the SPDIF input for most of my listening time with the Denafrips Pontus, but I also tried the USB and optical connections to be thorough. When making listening comparisons in my mastering studio, the AES/EBU XLR was the connection of choice. Maybe I don’t want to believe a DAC made in 2020 would exhibit sonic differences using various input protocols. That’s what I heard–no detectable changes in sound when using various inputs.
The Denafips Pontus II faired better in my studio stress test than any previous DACs I’ve tested. In a level-matched, head to head comparison to my Prism Sound DA-2, the Pontus II sounded incredibly similar. The Pontus II was slightly more relaxed sounding in the upper midrange than the Prism, my neutrality benchmark. Overall spectral tonality, dynamics, imaging, and low-level information retrieval were as good as the Prism, and that’s saying a LOT.
I preferred the sound in my home system and the studio when using balanced analog outputs, but the unbalanced RCAs certainly sounded just dandy.
Enter The Dragon
As I alluded to in the intro, I found the Denafrips Pontus II to be quite an enjoyable listen. Over many months while reviewing many different speakers and electronics, the Pontus never failed to deliver a big, smooth, detailed rightness with its presentation of my fav jams. Again, I find DAC sonic differences to be quite subtle, but once my ear/brain squishware starts computing those tiny differences, I prefer the sound of some DACs more than others.
My system during the Denafrips Pontus review period consisted of: Rega P10 with Charisma Audio Signature One cartridge, Vertere MG-1 with Mystic cart, VAC Master Preamplifier and phono stage, McIntosh MC1502, Pass Labs XA-60.8, and Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200II power amps, Innuos Zen Mini streamer and BorderPatrol SE-I DAC, Acora Acoustics SRC-2, Audiovector R 6 Arreté, Marten Oscar Trio and Qln Prestige Five loudspeakers. Cabling and power strip was my reference Cardas Clear Light with some additional power cords and filtering by Furutech. Rancilio Silvia espresso machine with the Rocky grinder using Counter Culture Big Trouble beans with oat milk by Oatly, boxer briefs by Hanes, generic Viag–oh wait, that’s enough review context.
For me, the Pontus II lacked nothing in its ability to transform all those ones and zeros into a deeply satisfying emotional experience. Was it as satisfying as a well-recorded slice of vinyl goodness played on a great analog setup? Not quite. Yet, I seldom felt like I was putting up with second best when surfing the warm Qobuz seas or playing CDs ripped into my Innuos Zen Mini.
It’s harder to characterize the sound of a DAC when it’s more faithful to the source. The Denafrips Pontus II was in that category. I listened and compared with all the focus I could muster, trying to come up with some detailed verbiage, but in the end its editorializing seems to be extremely minimal. Music played through the Pontus is about as accurate as I’d ever want from a DAC.
Are there DACs that exhibit more detail or musical color to the sound? Definitely. For example, I found more texture and plain old fun to the sound of my beloved BorderPatrol SE-I. Some listeners may prefer that additional excitement and/or texture that some DACs possess. I can sit on the fence about this, but usually I’ll take the cleanliness-without-sounding-dry with a hint of smoother-than-reality that I hear from the Denafrips Pontus II. This type of presentation doesn’t always do the trick of making truly shitty sounding sources sound more palatable. Still, the Pontus II had an engagingly clear and clean (but not boring) vibe that I found lovely to listen to. I also liked the wider variety of the ins and outs of the Pontus. And it looks cool.
The Denafrips Pontus II is yet another component that sits in my imaginary truth/listenability matrix’s sweet spot. Not some crazy, uber amount of detail nor the yummy, sugary coating exhibited by some DACs that might or might not have vacuum tubes somewhere in the circuit. The Pontus II played bright, super clean recordings like Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly without any fatiguing harshness or edge. It also played the darker, warmer stuff like Los Lobos’ Kiko or Brittany Howard’s Jaime with as much clarity and detail as I’d ever want.
Can I Get Some To Go Boxes?
To sum it all up, I loved the sound, looks, and features of the Denafrips Pontus II DAC. The price is certainly right.
When I had any questions, Mr. Alvin Chee of the Singapore based importer Vinshine Audio was a great and fast communicator, so I’m going to assume if owners develop any problems or repair needs in the future, Vinshine will assist and stand behind the 36-month warranty.
If you’re an audiophile for whom playing digital is your main reason for getting up in the morning, I can understand using one of the commonly exalted DACs that usually carry a hefty price tag. That distasteful maxim of bigger bucks equals smaller improvements seems to be a universal constant but that’s just how it is, my friends. I’ll also declare that the Denafrips Pontus II has as high a level of performance as most folks will ever need, myself included. What you think you want is another story. It sounded so good I’m curious about how much better the higher level Denafrips DACs are. Maybe I’ll find out someday, but for now, I’m all in on the Pontus.