PS Audio DirectStream Junior
Input: I²S/Coax/XLR Balanced/USB (up to 24/352.8/DSD128), TOSLINK (up to 24/96kHz), Ethernet (up to 24/192kHz/DSD128)
Output: unbalanced RCA, balanced XLR
Dimensions: 14” x 17” x 2.75” [36cm x 43cm x 6.98cm]
Weight: 27 lbs [12.25 kg]
Availability: Direct and through authorized dealers
If you're looking for senior, that would be the PS Audio DirectStream (see review). Junior came into being with lots of senior's genes, of greatest import the FPGA-based digital processing engine developed by Ted Smith. The company then went about saving costs in less critical areas and Junior was born. The question on most people's minds may very well be—how far did Junior fall from the tree?
The DirectStream and Junior convert all incoming PCM and DSD data, from all inputs, to pure 1-bit DSD with a sampling rate of 10x DSD (28.224 MHz), which is then converted to a true single-bit double-rate DSD core engine. This processing is performed in the aforementioned Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) using 66-bit fixed-point FIR filters. Why bother? According to the company:
- DSD is simple to convert to analog: just low pass filter it.
- DSD is inherently linear: it’s hard to build a PCM DAC that always takes the same sized step in the output for any possible unit increment of the representative PCM voltage value. The best PCM technology for linearity is arguably a resistor ladder, then all steps are at least positive for a positive change in the input, but making resistors that are accurate to one part in 2^16 is hard and to one part in 2^20, very hard. DSD doesn’t need anywhere near this level of component matching to achieve its excellent results.
- DSD soft clips when overdriven, more like magnetic tape: signals which exceed the nominal full scale value only get slightly compressed, if at all. With PCM, you either have fl at tops which induce extra energy at the squared off edges or, worse, you can have wrap around, which is very audible.
- All bits in a DSD stream have the same weight: a single bit error anywhere is barely measurable, let alone audible. Some bits in PCM carry a lot of weight and would make a very loud pop if changed. PCM needs more error recovery to keep to a given signal to noise ratio (S/N) with a slightly corrupted digital signal.
- Ironically, most sanely priced PCM players actually use DAC chips that utilize a sigma-delta modulator (DSD) to get a DSD-like signal anyway. Similarly, many (most) A/Ds are sigma-delta based. The typical PCM path is analog -> DSD -> PCM -> disc -> PCM -> DSD -> analog. The DSD path can skip the conversions to PCM. Those conversions can’t be perfect, and artifacts of the steep anti-aliasing filter or the reconstruction filter aren’t considered benign by many.
- DirectStream Junior handles the PCM conversion from AES/EBU, S/PDIF, TOSLINK, I2S and USB without recovering a clock by simply watching for the edges and making decisions about what they mean in context. The result is that any jitter present on the input is lost entirely in the FPGA
The DirectStream Junior is more-than-a-DAC as it includes the company's PerfectWave Network Bridge II, an $899 value when sold separately. Just to reiterate, the DSJ's price tag includes the Bridge II, so when comparing the DSJ to just-a-DAC, keep this in mind as this feature eliminates the need for a separate server/streamer. To control network-based playback, you currentlyneed to use a UPnP control app. I went with PlugPlayer on my iPad mini but I would have greatly preferred using Roon, and the really good news is Roon Ready for the Bridge II is in the works (yea!). I had Junior connect to my Synology 412+ NAS and was off to the races in no time flat.
All of the ins and outs live around back along with the main power switch, leaving the front panel nice and clean and simple. There's a blue subtly back-lit PS Audio logo on the far left, and on the right, the monochrome display, control button, and control/volume knob to its right. Beyond the obvious, the controls allow you to change the unit's "Friendly Name" to one of your choosing, view Network Settings, Invert Polarity (or not), set output attenuation, channel balance, display brightness and behavior, and view firmware version (updates are handled via USB stick). The unit also comes with a remote that mimics all of the functions of the front panel controls which came in handy as I switched through different inputs from the red Eames LCW.
The DirectStream Junior is a handsome and sturdy lad, with its black or silver matte aluminum and steel chassis topped with a sheet of black glass. Junior took up residence in my main system on my Box Furniture rack, attached to my Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp via Auditorium 23 XLRs, while the DeVore gibbon X brought music into the room. As we'll soon discuss, I used Junior's USB input fed by the Sonore microRendu, it's AES input fed from the review sample Baetis server (see review), and the Ethernet input connected to my network.
"Are you Junior?"
I always hated being asked that question, worse yet if someone actually called me "Junior", because I wasn't. I'm the third Michael in line and my middle name differs from my fathers and grandfathers. So my father was Junior (but no one called him that). The truth of the matter is, I always felt Junior to be kinda off-putting as if being a Junior meant you were defined to a certain extent by Senior.
The PS Audio DirectStream Junior (DSJ) may make you think about Senior until you actually listen to it at which point your music will tell you all you need to know. Wet. Even though I listened to the DSJ for more than a month, the word "wet" arrived early on in my mind and never went away. This is a good thing in my experience as digital replay can, and often does, sound unnaturally dry; as if our precious tunes travel through a tiny desert somewhere inside our DAC.
Instead of sounding dull, crisp, and flat, the DSJ offers up a musical image that is rich, fluid, and full. There's a nice dimensional quality without a hint of digital flatness that plagues, well, lots of digital reproduction. There's also no sense of the overly-etched or hyper-detailed presentation that my reference Auralic Vega can lean toward. I'm not saying the Vega is overly-etched or hyper-detailed as I've enjoyed it for years, but compared to the DSJ, it does sound a tad forced; as if it's trying too hard.
But all of these words are really nothing new. We've been talking about "wet" and "dry" and "relaxed" versus "strident" for years. What is new, in my experience, is there's no real need for a qualifier with the DSJ, and a few other DACs that have come through here: Wet typically comes with less refined but that's not the case here. Relaxed can be code for diffuse and dark, but that's not the case here, either. While I've heard equally less-digital-sounding DACs like the NOS DACs from Metrum Acoustics, and even more less-digital-sounding DACs like the totaldacs and dCS Rossini, Junior does an excellent job of distancing itself from the bulk of digital-sounding pack of DACs.
As I mentioned, I mated the DSJ with the Sonore microRendu via USB, the Baetis Revolution III server via AES, and I also played directly from the DSJ's Ethernet input using PlugPlayer. In terms of sound quality, I did not find a great difference between these input options. This could be due to the DSJ's design, the quality of the source, or all of the above (I'm leaning toward all of the above). That being said, the majority of my listening time was spent using the microRendu and Roon to control playback because every other control app I've used, including PlugPlayer, feels like crawling through quicksand compared to Roon/Tidal HiFi.
I've been on a huge music-discovery roll of late, listening to lots of old and new music that's new to me. While I did run through some of my review chestnuts, i.e test tracks, from Tom Waits, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Jordi Savall, John Coltrane, Eric Whitacre, Jimi Hendrix and more, it didn't take a helluva lot of time to suss out the fact that the DSJ made listening to music fun. This accounts, in part, for my musical sojourning during its stay.
Early Einstürzende Neubauten, early Count Basie, Fern Girl & Ice Man, Raime's latest (yum), Marissa Nadler's latest, Margo Price, James Blakes' latest, Joshua Abrams, Glenn Branca, OK I did listen to Beyoncé's Lemonade a couple times (OK more than a couple), Car Seat Headrest, Maja S.K. Ratkje's latest, and on and on. A few nights I even dug back into the music I used to listen to while playing along with my guitar and played along with my guitar (Fender Japanese Strat/Fender 1966 Blackface Princeton Reverb Amp/Analogman Ibanez Tube Screamer/Frantone Peachfuzz Fuzztone).
Comparisons. I wish I could compare Junior to Senior but I can't because I've not heard the new DirectStream DAC. One of the things, one of the good things, about FPGA-based DACs is they can upgraded via firmware, potentially making them sound better in addition to the ability to add new features. Such is the case, or so I've heard and read, about the firmware updates that have occurred since I reviewed the DirectStream DAC; it now sounds better.
So, back in went the Auralic Vega, my reference, for a closer listen and I already knew what I was going to hear before I hit play. The Vega sounds brash, more in-your-face, more lit up, and a bit flatter as compared to the DSJ. These qualities of the Vega are not overtly obnoxious and I've been enjoying its sound for years, but when compared side-by-side to the PS Audio DAC, the Vega takes a few steps in the direction of digital. That's not a direction I like to go. I also took the DSJ's volume control for a spin and for those looking for a direct-to-amp setup, I found no downside to using Junior as volume controller.
All Growed Up
I hope it's obvious: I enjoyed my time with the DirectStream Junior. A lot. Once PS Audio turns on Roon Ready, the DSJ's networking capabilities will grow in appeal many-times-fold, at least for me. If your taste in DACs runs toward smooth, natural, and musically engaging, you may very well find, as I did, that Junior has got the grown up goods.
Also in-use during the DSJ review: Auralic Vega