First a little background:
I am a lifelong audiophile and a retired Aerospace EE. I usually don't find time to engage in audio blogs/forums/discussion groups, but felt compelled to do so this time. I still have a great vinyl rig, but over the last ten years or so have become hooked on the convenience of the digital format. Like most of us I have been pursuing a more analog and life-like sound from my digital source. To that end I have been purchasing the latest DACs based on the Sabre chip. Recently they introduced the new 9038 DAC chip and I found myself ready purchase one. But wait, shouldn't I do a little investigation before spending my hard earned cash ?
What I learned:
I learned that R2R ladder DACs were making a big comeback. In my career I had worked with DACs, they were all R2R back then, mostly 8 bits. The Delta-Sigma DACs, like the 9038, came on strong when digital audio was introduced. They were cheaper than the R2R DACs and didn't require the high precision resistors needed for a 16 bit and higher R2R DAC. What I found out is that the .01% (and higher) precision resistors were no longer a problem for going to 20 bits and higher. Maybe Delta-Sigma was cheaper, but was it losing something when producing the audio signal ? All the reports of the more analog and lifelike presentation from newest batch of R2R DACs intrigued me. There was the Schiit Yggdrasil, Holo Audio Spring, Metrum Audio DACs, etc. No matter what I read the name Denafrips kept coming up as the value leader in R2R DACs, a real giant killer in the world of R2R audio DACs. There entry level Ares DAC was highly rated and super affordable at ~$700US.
Enter Denafrips & Alvin of Vinshine Audio
I contacted Alvin and my Ares DAC was delivered about a week later. I play audio files from laptop via JRiver s/w and the USB intfc. I loaded the Amanero USB driver onto my laptop and was ready to play. Oh, I almost forgot below is a list of eqpt. in my main audio system:
- one-off DC coupled vacuum tube preamp (designed by yours truly:)
- Atmasphere S-30 stereo OTL amplifier
- Emerald Physics EPX-Pro speakers with custom ribbon super-tweeter added on top
I hit play and was immediately struck with the ease of presentation, clarity, and overall sense of a good analog playback :) Like good 180 gram vinyl with no surface noise, and a bit better dynamics and sound stage/layering, WOW ! After an hours warmup there was even a bit more improvement. Being an engineer at heart I tend to trust numbers & specs, but through the years have realized that they don't always tell the whole story, especially in audio. To that end I have developed a couple of simple tests that tell me if I have a real improvement :
1) seat time:
If I sit for long listening sessions without fidgeting and getting up every few minutes to adjust the speaker toe-in or subwoofer level etc., then something is right, the ear-brain interface is happy and enjoying the music, not worrying about something that seems a bit off. With the Ares I just sat there with a smile on my face, wondering why it took so long for me to try this :)
2) new music tracks:
OK, we all have our favorite songs we play on our system, a sort of comfort food that makes us happy, come on admit it ! It makes all that money we spent on our system seem worth it. We also have tracks that we don't really care for when played on our system, a little too harsh, maybe a bit lacking in bass or whatever. When I try a major change in my system I first go to the comfort food tracks, like the doctors oath of "do no harm" they should sound fine or hopefully better, ahhh ! Next up I try tracks that have never been favorites, to see what I think now. With the Ares I listened to about 10 tracks that I previously had passed up. With most of them I could now listen with no irritation, and although most still weren't my cup of tea I could now appreciate the artistry. For a few tracks by Emmy Lou Harris', I heard her voice as it should be for the first time, I instantly added some of her songs to my favorite list, new comfort food, oh joy !
Conclusion of Denafrips part #1:
After a couple of days with Mr. Ares I could contain my enthusiasm no more, I just had to tell my audiophile buddies ! My good friend John was excited, I offered to let him borrow Mr. Ares for an audition and he agreed. What had I done ? Could I live without Mr. Ares in my system for a few weeks ? Certainly not ! I went out on the 'net and found a used one in the US that I could get in a few days, bought it immediately, whew. So . . . after a few weeks with the Ares I decided to move up the Denafrips line and ordered a Pontus DAC (~$1700US). Oh, back to my friend John, he put Mr. Ares in his system and after a brief listen said with his previous DAC it was like listening to a 4th generation copy of a song, whereas with the Ares it was like listening to the master ! Back to the Pontus, he arrived a few days ago, much more substantial looking than the Ares, and oh so handsome in silver . Alvin says as good as the Ares is, the Pontus is a major improvement. Alvin was right, Mr. Pontus is definitely a big step up the DAC chain. Upon hearing that I had stepped up to the Pontus my friend John ordered his. I am going to let the Pontus break-in for a few more days before I write up a report on the large silver beauty . . . . stay tuned . . .
danasam @ audiogon