Thursday 29 May 2014

The PS Audio DirectStream DAC - Part II.

This component changed more dramatically, and more rapidly over the break-in period than any other component that has passed my way.  Admittedly, I was also breaking in its power cord and its balanced interconnects at the same time, but I have broken in many of those cables before and not noticed such a huge and rapid improvement.  Not that this means anything in and of itself, but knowing that the DirectStream has a transformer in its analog output stage, my left brain can’t help but speculate whether this might have been responsible in some large way.

When you listen to enough high end audio equipment, my first concern with a new product is usually to figure out where it fits in as regards the detail/fatigue dichotomy.  It has been my own experience that the more detailed a system the more likely it is to be fatiguing.  This applies to all aspects of the audio reproduction chain, from electronics to loudspeakers.  DACs are not excluded.  Only the very best of the very best seem able to beak this mould and allow a fatigue-free, detailed and dynamic listening experience.  By far the most dramatic example of this in my experience are the astonishing sounds produced by German manufacturer MBL.  Dan d’Agostino’s new Momentum amplifiers also fall into this category.  As does Light Harmonic’s Da Vinci Dual DAC.  But all of these items come at eye-watering prices.

The DirectStream’s sound is non-fatiguing in an almost tube-like way.  It is smooth and relaxing.  Surely, you tell yourself, it must be sacrificing detail to deliver this.  But no.  With recording after recording, the DirectStream presents layers and layers of detail in such a way as to produce a sound which is very easy to listen to, and with a low fatigue factor, even with CD sources.  As someone with very little tolerance for the fatiguing nature associated with CD, I find this to be a most appealing characteristic.

Another noticeable attribute of the DirectStream is its command of bass.  The DirectStream’s bass is deep and tight, tight, tight!  I can follow bass lines, and the texture and precise intonation of bass drum strokes all the way through complex pieces and performances.  Bass drum thwacks have a physical impact which you can feel in your chest.  Which is not to say that the bass is in any way prominent.  [Bass done right should sound bass light most of the time.  If the first thing you think of when you hear a system for the first time is “wow, listen to that bass!” then the chances are that its bass is bloated and overblown.]

DirectStream is also an imaging champ.  This is another performance parameter which is very high on my personal desirability list.  There are two thresholds which a system can cross when it comes to imaging.  The first is the basic one of throwing a deep and wide soundstage.  Many components can do this, and these days it is almost inexcusable to fail in this category.  The second one is harder to cross, and involves being able to locate the performer in a three-dimensional space not only with great precision, but with great stability.  In systems that fail to cross this second boundary, when you close your eyes and concentrate on individual performers, it can be maddeningly difficult to visualize that performer consistently in the audio space.  This level of performance places great burdens on all elements of an audio system.  In particular, this is the area in which cables - still the greatest bugaboo of the high-end - can make an absolutely critical contribution.  DirectStream is able to cross that second threshold, and, given appropriately recorded source material, and with the right ancillary supporting cast, throws a seriously stable, clearly delineated sonic image.

I said in yesterday’s post that I would place some special emphasis on CD quality playback as a result of Paul McGowan’s claims that the DirectStream especially enhances CD playback.  And so I shall, with the aid of some specific examples.  But as a general observation it is clear that the DirectStream presents CD-based program material with a smoothness, clarity, richness of tone, and dynamic excitement, that will surprise you, and with a bass performance that will stun you (if you are fortunate enough to have equipment capable of exploiting it, and have taken sufficient care in the set up of your listening room).  The best-recorded CDs can sound remarkably close to high-resolution downloads.  This is what Paul McGowan was talking about.

I’ll start with an “audiophile approved” recording which many of you will know:  Acoustic Live by Nils Lofgren.  It is a deeply satisfying album on both sonic and musical levels, and is only available digitally (to my knowledge) in Red Book format.  On the DirectStream Lofgren’s vocals emanate with admirable clarity, presence, and purity of tone from a Nils-Lofgren-sized space bang in the middle, and about two feet behind the line between my speakers.  The vocal affects an unusually emphasized lisp which, being familiar with his voice through a couple of his LPs that I own, I believe is being unnaturally emphasized by the microphones during the recording.  The DirectStream presents the vocal cleanly enough that I feel comfortable making those kind of assessments.  Lofgren’s aggressively picked acoustic guitar solos remain stably imaged even as the dynamics of the recording push towards the limits.  On “Black Books”, a pair of tom-toms play gently about 4 feet behind the voice and a foot or so to the right.  As Lofgren’s guitar solo picks up in complexity, volume and dynamic attack, and the atmospheric keyboard ambient gradually ramps up, it is easy to remain focused on the tom-toms.  This is a first class performance by the DirectStream.

Reference Recordings continue to make some of the finest quality CD recordings available.  Although most of them are now available as high-resolution PCM downloads, I still have a number of CDs that I bought over the years and have since ripped to disk.  One of those is Bruckner’s 9th Symphony by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewsky.  Bruckner’s symphonies are scored in a Wagnerian style, calling for plenty of deep, sonorous, highly resonant bass and baritone brass instruments, together with lush strings.  These recordings also capture a wonderful sound stage, which on the best systems can be the size of a concert hall.  Unfortunately, I have not yet got my listening room to the point where I can achieve that (and I’m not sure I ever will), but I do get something that approaches 20ft wide and 30ft deep if you can place yourself in the sweet spot.  The DirectStream reproduces the sonorities of the orchestra quite wonderfully.  It allows me to visualize the complex sound stage convincingly, and handles the most complex passages with aplomb.  Only during the very densest orchestral climaxes is this clarity compromised.  By comparison, on the Reference Recordings 24-bit 88.2kHz download of “Stravinsky” by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue, even with the volume raised to scary levels there is no onset of congestion during the loudest climaxes, and the DirectStream’s poise, balance, and control are impeccable.  When the powerful bass drums are struck during the Dance of King Kashchei you can easily discern the pitch of the drum and follow its bloom, decay and reverberation.  Not to mention feel it.

Another “Audiophile Classic” is Rebecca Pigeon’s “Spanish Harlem”.  I have a 16/44.1 version on Chesky’s “The Ultimate Demonstration Disk”, plus a 24/96 version on the downloaded album “Retrospective”.  The song begins with an upright bass line.  On the 24/96 version there is both air and weight to the bass, and an element of phrasing to the simple bass line.  All of these things are audibly diminished on the 16/44.1 version.  When the piano enters, it sounds like it has been placed at one end of a long cardboard tube with the microphone at the other end.  Strangely, this tonal defect is less immediately evident on the 16/44.1 version than on the 24/96 version.  Pigeon’s vocal has what sounds like an electronic reverb applied on the 24/96 version, and this sounds less somehow artificial on the 16/44.1 version.  The track progresses with the introduction of a pair of maracas about 30ft away towards the right, together with violins and guitar.  These are altogether more distinct on the 24/96 version, but start to coalesce slightly on the 16/44.1 version.  These differences are not nearly so stark using my Classé CP800.  What are we hearing here?  Is it the deficiencies in the playback of the DirectStream on 16/44.1 source material?  Or are we more clearly resolving the limitations of this CD’s performance?  It is surely the latter.  If the DirectStream was having trouble resolving 16/44.1 then how could it possibly do a better job with 24/96, unless the two signal formats were being digitally processed in an incompatible manner (which, from all I have been told, is not the case).

U2’s album “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”, released in 2004 was roundly (and justifiably) panned by audiophiles for its massively compressed “loudness wars” sound.  According to the web site, it has a DR (Dynamic Range) rating of 5 which is pretty bad (The Rebecca Pigeon 24/96 album, by contrast has a DR rating of 12, which is still only modest).  What will the DirectStream make of this?  The answer is that it sounds like a very bad MP3.  It is truly terrible, and quite frankly I could not listen to more than three tracks before I had to find something else.  The DirectStream cannot make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear.

How about an album that very few of you will have heard of?  Released in 1996, “Decksanddrumsandrockandroll” is an album of electronica by the British band Propellerheads.  I bought it exclusively for one track “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” because I am a sucker for James Bond music.  OHMS is a terrific blast.  It can only be listened to at one volume setting - way too loud.  The deep, powerful, agile, and impactful synthesized bass line is tailor made to showcase the tightness of the DirectStream’s Stygian end.  I don’t know about foot tapping - it had me leaping about the room!  With the curtains closed, of course.  With electronic music, there is no such thing as any kind of sonic reference, so you can’t really say anything about how “natural” or “accurate” the sound might be.  All you can go on is how you respond to it.  Going back to the Classé CP800 this track becomes surprisingly pedestrian.

In terms of pure unadulterated macro dynamic detail, the ultimate test is the famous Telarc recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture featuring real brass cannons captured with as little compression as technology permitted.  I have both the CD layer plus the DSD layer which was (with apologies to Shakespeare) “from its mother’s SACD untimely ripp’d”.  The DSD version plays back the cannon blasts with stunning impact.  Each of the 16 brass cannons has its own distinct sound, which come across very clearly.  One of them (the second-to-last one, if you’re following this) even sounds as though it has blown itself apart when it fired.  Listen for yourself!  How does the CD layer compare on the DirectStream?  There is no doubt that the cannons appear to be wrapped in cotton wool by comparison.  There is a loss of immediacy.  Also, it is slightly harder to listen through the cannon blasts and follow the underlying music, which includes a recording of the actual cathedral bells of St. Basil’s in Moscow (which is what Tchaikovsky specifically called for in his score!).  But if you had never heard the DSD version, you would undoubtedly have been seriously impressed by the CD version.

So, summarizing this part of the review, the Red Book (16/44.1) performance of the DirectStream is quite impeccable.  It is a massive step up in quality from my Classé CP800, and from every other DAC which has passed through my system, with the possible exception of the Light Harmonic Da Vinci, to which I will return before I finish.  The bottom line is that CD played on the DirectStream sounds better than hi-res played on some lesser (and cheaper) DACs which have passed through my system in recent months.  And not just in sound, but in character.  As I type this I am listening to the third movement of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink (part of an awesome symphony cycle).  It is hard to believe this is plain old Red Book.

Click here, and I will conclude by focusing on the performance of the DirectStream on hi-res source material, including DSD.