PS Audio DirectStream DAC

Device Type: Digital to Analog Converter/Digital Preamplifier
Input: 2x I2S, Coax S/PDIF, AES/EBU, Toslink, USB, Network Bridge slot
Output: balanced XLR, single-ended RCA
Dimensions (W x H x D): 14” x 17” x 4” (36cm x 43cm x 10cm)
Weight: 31 lbs (19 kg)
Availability: Online and through Authorized Dealers
Price: $5995.00
Website: www.psaudio.com

A Direct Stream
There was a lot of information surrounding the launch of PS Audio's DirectStream DAC. The company released a series of videos on YouTube (see videos) explaining some of the technology behind their new DAC, featuring the DAC's designer Ted Smith. There was also a white paper (see paper) that went into some detail regarding how the DirectStream handles DSD which is, according to them, unusual. Essentially what we're looking at and listening to is an FPGA-based D to A design as opposed to a chip-based solution that leaves DSD in its native 1-bit format. But that's not all.

"Put DSD into DirectStream, you get DSD. Put PCM into DirectStream, you get—DSD" so says the company and that DSD solution is 1-bit, not multi-bit and everything is upsampled to 10x DSD to boot. From the manual, "All sample rates supported are synchronously upsampled to 10x the standard DSD sample rate and then back down to double rate DSD (2 * 64 * 44.1kHz). There’s no need for other clocks to interpret the inputs, no matter what their sample rate, because of the instrument’s single clock architecture." The DirectStream uses a single master clock from Crystek Corporation which they claim helps reduce jitter. I actually recommend checking out the manual if you are interested in additional technical aspects of the DirectStream's's design (see the manual).

The DirectStream DAC will accept I2S, Coax, XLR Balanced (AES/EBU), Toslink, USB, and the PS Audio Network Bridge module. The USB, Coax, AES, and I2S inputs can handle up to double rate DSD and 24/192 PCM while the Toslink input is limited to 24/192, no DSD. Outputs include single-ended RCAs and balanced XLRs. You can also opt to add PS Audio's Network Bridge module which effectively transforms the DirectStream DAC into a network player.

The front panel sports a nice color touch panel display that shows the incoming file's bit and sample rates, the active input, volume level, and phase. Those last three can be controlled via the touch screen or through the included remote. There is also a two step level control to better match your pre/amp which can be set on the touch screen's setup menu or via remote. You can also dim the display and change the name of the inputs which is a nice family-friendly feature.

The rounded-cornered case is wrapped in a nice matte combination of aluminum and steel with a very shiny "hand painted, hand polished piano black high density material" top panel. All around I'd say the DirectStream DAC exudes understated quality. I used the DirectStream DAC with my Macbook Pro so no drivers were required. Windows users need to download and install the PS Audio drivers to take advantage of anything over 24/96 and DSD. I used Audirvana Plus and Pure Music 2 with the DirectStream via XLRs to my usual Pass INT-30A/DeVore The Nines setup.

How Direct Can A DAC Be?
Purity. That's the word that came to mind when I first played the DirectStream and that's the word that remained attached to it for the duration of this review period. There was an amazing sense of purity to the DirectStream's way with music as if everything and anything extraneous had been stripped away. This quality was evident regardless of the sample rate or format, and applied equally to PCM and DSD. There was a very pronounced sense of clean, clear, and pure sound reproduction.

Taking a more detailed view into its sound, I'd also say that the DirectStream DAC sounds very controlled throughout the frequency spectrum including fit 'n full bass response that is at once controlled and hefty. If there was an area that I found the DirectStream DAC to diverge from other DACs I enjoy its with timbral complexity and midrange richness. A DAC like the comparably priced Luxman DA-06 (see review) puts more meat on music's bones and I would not object to someone saying it sounds more analog as compared to the DirectStream DAC. Compared to the less expensive Auralic Vega (see review) I found that the Vega also sounded more colorful and more lit up up top. I also would not argue if someone were to suggest that the DirectStream DAC was more neutral in a positive way taking personal preference into account.

I never felt the DirectStream DAC to be edgy or unnaturally bright even though the amount of resolution it extracts from your music sources is remarkable. There is an important difference between resolution and detail, the latter sometimes a product of exaggerated upper frequencies which ultimately leads to listening fatigue. This was certainly not the case here even with CD-quality sources. I also spent a lot of time listening to music sourced from the Qobuz Hi-Fi lossless streaming service and it was all pure pleasure. What about DSD? While I would not say the DirectStream's way with DSD is revelatory, it is very musical and involving. That near 3D quality I've come to associate with DSD was clearly present as was DSD's rich, smooth character.

photo credit: PS Audio

I do not have any way to test the DirectStream's I2S input, but I did take its other digital inputs for a test spin including Coax using the Resonessence Labs Concero HD as a USB - S/PDIF converter. Here PCM and DSD sounded very much like what was coming out of my MacBook Pro via USB. Clean, clear and resolute. Using the Moon MiND's AES/EBU output connected to the DirectStream also proved sonically rewarding. The MiND appears to offer even more resolution as compared to my MacBook Pro and this pairing made for a very rich and revealing combo. The MiND does not support DSD but PCM recordings of all stripes from CD-quality on up sounded just lovely. I felt there was ever so slightly more overall weight to the presentation with this pairing as compared to USB from the MacBook.

PS Audio claims the DirectStream DAC's volume control is transparent with no loss of resolution, "100% bit-perfect volume", and my own listening confirmed this claim. Even at low listening levels, music retained its character with no sense of the sound washing out. For those people looking for a direct-to-amp DAC/Digital Preamp, consider the DirectStream a solid contender.

I will also mention that I greatly preferred the DirectStream DAC when paired with the AudioQuest Diamond USB cable. I initially used the Light Harmonic Lightspeed USB cable and found the overall performance to be a tad flat. This perceived flatness was not a factor with the Diamond USB cable and I would recommend this particular pairing for DirectStream buyers.

I also received a firmware update (rev. 1.1.5) late in the review process that adds the ability to play back 352kHz files and gave it an afternoon's worth of listening time and I'd say it sounded as if there was a 'presence' control that someone turned up. The presentation was now bigger, wider, and also sounded as if it took a step or two forward in my room. To my ears these are all steps in the right direction allowing you to better hear into the recording for a more engaging experience. I was curious about what this firmware update actually adressed and got this response from PS Audio, "Less jitter but primarily we opened the input sampling filter from 40kHz to 80kHz and that made the biggest change."

A Clear Stream
I enjoyed my time with PS Audio DirectStream DAC and found its sound highly resolving, pure, and...direct. If you're looking for a DAC and digital preamp that is both well-built and sonically transparent, the DirectStream DAC should be on your short list.



Associated Equipment

Also on hand and in use during the DirectStream DAC review: Auralic Vega

COMMENTS
ErikM's picture

Nice write up Michael.. I'm curious about how many hours of use or burn in did you have on the unit?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Non stop.
ErikM's picture

Thanks Michael.. A lot of us that have the DS feel that it really gets done burning in around 500 hours.. hopefully you can put a few more hours on it..

DH's picture

Is that a misprint? It doesn't sound right, and doesn't seem to fit the rest of the review.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Should have been fit 'n full. I've fixed this in the text. Thanks!
DH's picture

Michael-
At computeraudiophile, they are characterizing your review as lukewarm, "faint praise", "negative" and "he didn't sound like he wanted to hold on to it".

I read the opposite - an extremely positive review and a "Greatest Bits" award. You simply seemed to be pointing out that the DAC was very neutral, and might not be everyone's cup of tea.

Reaction?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I see some people didn't like the review ;-)

I'm not so sure how meaningful it is to say I liked something (or not). Isn't the more important aspect of a review how a given component sounds? But characterizing the review as being "negative" is misreading what I wrote or reading into what I didn't write, imo.

I read the opposite - an extremely positive review and a "Greatest Bits" award. You simply seemed to be pointing out that the DAC was very neutral, and might not be everyone's cup of tea.
I think this sums up the review nicely.
CG's picture

There's about twice as many comments, ahh, elsewhere regarding this review than here. What does that say?

To me, a great reviewer describes what she or he hears. Then, the reader is left to decide if that description seems to meet the reader's sensibilities, at least enough to check out the product personally.

I've found some interesting products based on a reviewer saying that a product wasn't very appealing because it did this instead of that. I just happened to prefer this and had less use for that.

bobflood's picture

the MSB Analog DAC. They would be in the same price range if one took the basic version of the MSB.

Thanks

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...but from memory, the Analog DAC seems more akin to the Luxman in that it has a richer more analog-like (sorry but it's the easiest way to put it) midrange as compared to the DirectStream. I also recall being very impressed with the 3D quality of the presentation with the Analog DAC, a quality which did not stand out as much with the DirectStream.
further's picture

I have both the Luxman DA-06 and the DirectStream. I too find the DA-06 very rich, especially for vocals where a very intimate presentation is possible. I dwell on higher resolution files with it over 16/44 resolution. The DirectStream just continues to grow on me. I am guessing I have maybe 400 hours on it now. It has more pop and immediacy across the spectrum and vocals are not as weighty but have more texture, but still quite smooth and not grainy. I believe spatial location is better with the DS. To dial in, I have swapped some power cord positions and even slightly moved some acoustic traps. I also played with a couple USB cords. You can considerably change the presentation on this dac by varying all these configurations, more so than I believe you can with the Luxman. I listen to far more 16/44 with the DS than with the Luxman. My listening with it is more balanced across all the various resolutions I have, including single and double DSD.

Lastly, I have been playing with the Phase button on the remote of the DS and find almost universally I prefer the Out setting. I get better imaging, depth, and texture. That is not the case with phase adjustment for me with the Luxman. I have 4-way active speakers and, consequently too many cables and interfaces. Maybe something is reversing phase, but I do prefer Out with the DS.

Michael, I much appreciate your reviews and look forward to them.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
And thank you for the kind words.
newby11's picture

You didn't mention how it sounded connected to your network via ethernet. I consider the "killer app" for a modern DAC to be a Ethernet-connected DAC/Pre that can play world-class Redbook, hirez PCM, and DSD. Am I right that I'd need the Network Bridge option to get the missing Ethernet connection?

Going back to the previous question re comparison to the MSB Analog DAC: Can the MSB also have the volume control + Ethernet capability added? Any experience on how the 2 DACs sounded when used as DAC/Pre straight into the amp? Thanks.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...installed.

The Analog DAC does offer a volume control option ($995) which the review unit had. There is also a "MSD Network" option which allows you to connect to one of the MSB transports via Ethernet.

I talk about the MSB's performance as a preamp in my follow-up.

grunter's picture

Thanks for the review. How do you put it against Meitner ma-1? It seems to me that they have a similar approach to d/a conversion. I've listen to ma-1 in my hifi system and I've liked it very much. Has got the directstream a similar sound?
Thanks.

Federico.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...since the Meitner was here but I'd say it is a more accomplished DAC. I would not say the DirectStream sounds similar in a meaningful way as it does not present as rich, full, and musical a sound picture.
grunter's picture

Thank you Michael.