DENAFRIPS Pontus II R-2R DAC impressions / review, compared to a Topping D90 (MQA version):
Conditions and other gear: at the time of finalizing these impressions and review, Pontus II has been powered on continuously for 11 days, (D90 even longer). Both DACs were running TIDAL exclusive mode over USB, XLR out into a Topping A90 amplifier, powering one of the two headphones at a given time, a Drop/Dan Clark Aeon Open X and a Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro. As I was running these over Windows 10, I had the Thesycon v5.0.0 USB driver installed and in use for the Pontus II; this is necessary for exclusive mode to work properly, but the driver is very un-intrusive which I was worried about at first, it does not have an end-user impact on the use of / interaction with standard Windows 10 sound functionality if you don't want it to.
Comparing these two DACs:
-> Pontus II has smoother delivery (less harshness)
-> Pontus II has deeper, more textured, and more dynamic bass. Comparatively, bass on the D90 has a tendency to fall flat
-> Pontus II has deeper and wider soundstage
-> Pontus II has much less fatiguing delivery (less of an edgy/peaky sound)
-> The Pontus II almost never makes me wince, the D90 does this far more, and I find myself turning it down to spare my ears
-> When switching back and forth on these, in general the D90, even though it is maybe retrieving more perceived treble detail (or at least throwing it more forward), sounds more flat and empty compared to Pontus II, like there is no life to the music
-> The Pontus II gives music so much rhythm, feeling, and energy, I find myself getting absorbed in the music far more, nodding my head and just loving it
-> Overall, the Pontus II is just a far more enjoyable listening experience, I am extremely impressed!
I know it comes off as harsh, but there really is nothing I prefer in terms of sound on the D90 up against the Pontus II. It has the upper hand in terms of price of course, and a broader feature set (bluetooth with LDAC, pre-amp with volume adjustment, etc.), but nothing in the most important category to me: sound.
Here are a few more specific examples of sound differences:
Something very noticeable when switching between these DACs, on a certain track I was testing with, there is a purposefully harsh, grating treble passage. The D90 makes this a painful experience, raking your eardrums over the awfulness. The Pontus II doesn't lie about the harshness, it's not as though you can't tell, but it glides over it a bit for you, presenting it smoother, it's awesome.
Another example is bass. You'll listen to a track with some consistent, rhythmic, dynamic bass. When you listen to this on the D90 after hearing Pontus II, so much of the energy and flow in the music just evaporates! I am honestly amazed that two DACs could sound so different. This same sort of phenomenon is also noticeable on some tracks with vocals, they sound more alive and expressive on Pontus II. Tracks I had considered quite boring in the past came alive on Pontus II!
I've never heard a significant, consistently identifiable difference between various chip-based (Delta-Sigma) DACs, I've had a Schiit Modi3, a JDS Labs El DAC II, and the Topping D90 MQA. The difference between these and the Pontus II is not minor, it is obvious on every single track, and to my ears it is a huge upgrade. This is a very expensive DAC, and the most expensive single piece of audio equipment I've bought thus far, but I do not regret the purchase for a second! And don't think my opinion is skewed just because I spent a lot on it, I have bought some expensive audio equipment recently that I have been very disappointed with, but not this!
If you have the money to spend, I think this is a fantastic upgrade over the more common chip-based DACs, I don't think you'll be disappointed, I think you'll be amazed!
A note on delivery: Pontus II arrived in some of the safest looking packaging I've ever seen. Within a thick cardboard box, it was encapsulated in a thick foam case, including hard plastic pieces for corner protection on top and bottom. The box was also marked 'fragile' so it would be handled with care.
A note on files: the sound differences and characteristics I'm describing were independent of file format (standard FLAC vs MQA). I tested with a variety of music in both formats, the differences were consistent across the board.
Credit: Alexander P. @ USA
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