My experiences with the Denafrips Iris re-clocker.
There’s no shortage of tweaks these days to improve a digital front end. I’ve tried many of them and most do work to some extent. But once the thrill of the “upgrade” wears off it becomes just another tweak, another little box or dongle in an over-complex chain. Even fellow audiophiles may look at such chains with a quiet disdain, pitying your OCD...and still, to you the sensitive listener, there remains something frustratingly “digital” about your sound. It seems the more digital crud you remove from your system, the more you become aware that there is still more crud lurking, waiting to be exposed and banished by the next tweak.
For those with very deep pockets, there is already the promise of an end to sleepless nights, a game changing solution in the form of the Taiko Audio Extreme music server. The price should not be asked. Other manufacturers are scrambling to launch competitors at a lower price points, but even these are well out of reach for most people. And DIY is not appealing once you see what’s inside the Taiko box. What’s a normal person to do?
At heart, the Extreme is a very, very powerful computer with a very, very good power supply and numerous extreme low noise customisations.
So why not take a more normal computer (aka streamer) and just isolate your sensitive DAC from the computer noise, at the same time re-clocking the signal with a very good clock?
This is essentially what a digital to digital converter (DDC / “re-clocker”) does. It also converts between outputs in order that you can better match the best output of the streamer to the best input of the DAC.
It’s nothing new, I have been using converters since 2012 or so when “async USB” was promising to end all imperfections in anything prior to the DAC itself. None of these units ever did anything amazing for me other than just “convert”. In recent years I had given them up completely in favour of the Allo “audiophile Pi” offering.
But lately, as I came across reports of impressive results with a few select, more sophisticated models (Audiobyte Hydra, Mutec), I decided to take a punt on the Denafrips Iris. This is the base model in a new range of 3 converters from the Chinese brand Denafrips, who lately are gaining a lot of customers via their R2R DACs. Perhaps these guys were onto something?
The Iris was initially deployed between my Allo RPi and Aqua DAC. Ethernet to Allo, USB to Iris, SPDIF to DAC. The improvement over Allo to DAC direct (SPDIF via the Allo Digione Sig + battery+supercap) was immediately obvious. More full bodied, no harshness and no loss of detail. It’s as if the tonality of my system went from being too bright to just right, even though I hadn’t previously been aware of any such brightness.
My next task was to try to send i2s (LVCMOS /RJ45) to my DAC. This is the DAC’s best input but almost no affordable streamer supports the format. Even with the Denafrips I had to rewire an Ethernet cable in order to get the pin outs to match up. After a couple of tries, I got music. And wow, suddenly everything was that little bit more real.
I then decided to try other sources. I assembled an iPad mini (Camera connection kit), 2012 MacBookPro, and 2019 iMac (i9). Previously I’d found the MacBookPro to be lagging behind the Allo. Would the DDC level the playing field?
I found that all sources had a new lack of harshness, perhaps due to the optocouplers inside the Denafrips DDC. But apart from that, there seemed to be a bigger difference between the sources than I remembered. The iPad was flat and boring. The MacBookPro just about acceptable. But the iMac was shockingly good, narrowly but comfortably beating the pimped Allo (by now powered by Sean Jacobs DC3+) on almost everything...notably more dynamics, fullness and bass texture. Adding HQPlayer upsampling to the Mac’s arsenal only increased the margin.
Realising that I was listening only to the base model of the 3 DDCs, I pre-ordered the next model up without hesitation, just for good measure (full disclosure: I’ll be moving on the Iris in January, except for that I have no affiliations or interests). It made sense as my particular DAC is doing almost zero processing at all prior to the actual D/A conversion (especially on the preferred i2s input).
All of this has made me reassess my whole approach to digital audio. The DAC is no longer king of the stack, the computer is at least an equal partner. And thanks to the DDC magic binding them together, the computer does not automatically have to be an “audiophile” one. Neither is there such a need for servers and endpoints / renderers and all the requisite faff. It’s as if we’re back to 2012 but all the promises have (sort of) come good.
Just by keeping hardware and software reasonably “current”, I can look forward to automatically better sound as time goes by. Maybe in 10 years’ time, RPis will have reached today’s iMac, and iMacs will have reached today’s Taiko Audio Extreme. Well, we can dream.
Credit: Heckyman @ pinkfishmedia