PS Audio DirectStream Junior

Device Type: Digital to Analog Converter/Network Player
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
Price: $3,999.00
Website: www.psaudio.com

Junior
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
Junior employs a passive analog filter, there's no active filtering, and high speed symmetrical video amps are used in the output stage which make for "a very clean DSD switch." There is a single master clock in-use, something the company claims reduces errors and noise that can be introduced by multiple clock designs. There's lots more packed into Junior and the Product Manual tells all about it, for those interested in the fuller story.

photo credit: PS Audio

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

Associated Equipment

COMMENTS
mikey8811's picture

Hi

How does the Directstream Jr compare to the Cary DAC 200ts also oneof your Favourite Bits items?

Thanks

mikey8811's picture

Oops you've retired the Cary so I guess you prefer the Directstream Jr. I was intrigued by the descriptor "wet" as that would have been something I associate with a tubed unit like the Cary.

agb's picture

With respect to: "but when compared side-by-side to the PS Audio DAC, the Vega takes a few steps in the direction of digital."

I'm not sure there is a "direction" preferable for either analog or digital, or what the words might mean to any ear, or is to be interpreted as.

Analog is not a place to go or get to; it is not preferable and it is not "better." If it were better, than we'd see the entire recording industry and recording chain go there to get to it. Analog is not THE standard.

Digital is not a standard either to go or get to, or away from. It were something to get away from on the basis that it is "worse," most of us would be getting away from it.

The standard is the line or mic feed from the same musicians/studio and microphone fed by y-connectors to the monitor and two recorders: one analog, the other digital. The bypass of either provides for the contrast between the two recordings, and the recording closer to the bypass is the standard. To the best of my knowledge in cases where such tests were conducted, the digital recordings won hands down - being closer to the live sound via mic feed.

Therefore I respectfully propose we rethink our positions rationally in the context of a hundred and then-some year old technology being supplanted by a hundred and then some year newer technology that is measurably, scientifically, and in the right system audibly, superior to what came before.

This, in the same sense, using the same technology more or less, we see in digital imaging, 720i to 1080p to 4K, 5K and 8K...parallel technologies operating in unison to make the immersion experience possible. The probably question has been left behind in the rear-view mirror.

The possible is here now, the impossible is around the corner, and that, will be the possible of the tomorrow.

The place we will go to and eventually get there.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...that you can respectfully propose whatever you like. Here at AudioStream, we review things that exist. We do not review theories or ideas. Since sound waves are not digital, analog is the ideal. At least that's the way I see and hear it.
agb's picture

I proposed in the eighties the slogan "Digital Sucks." It did. It no longer does, otherwise we'd all abandon it instead of moving ahead to adopt it. I was crucified for my views, which is what happens when one proposes respectfully anything unconventional.

We optimize our systems to whatever source we use. Most of us long in the tooth have long ago optimized our systems for analog - as have I. Yes, I have a high end analog system too. And a large LP collection, much of HP's list, I wish someone would buy. Others have optimized theirs to digital.

I happen to know a number of high end reviewers who have done both. One in particular has the very same analog system as an analog guru working for your sister publication. He said his high end digital system wiped the floor with his analog system. I trust his ears, and his system, because he has no skin in the game, in contrast to the analog guru who has.

The high end journals exist because they sell advertising space. The reviewers exist because they get equipment at accommodation and get paid for writing. Much of the high end industry, specifically the sector selling the most expensive products, advertise analog products from which they make a living. The pages of the journals are filled with these ads.

A number in the letters to the editor have argued that these products, besides being unnecessary for good sound, are obscenely overpriced. Watching the escalating prices over decades (and having heard many of these), I tend to agree with their assessment - even in the face of ridicule and respectful propositions that a $10,000 cartridge and a $150,000 turntable is priced reasonably. This tactic works rather well when the proposer compares the $200,000 analog front end to a $500 digital front end.

Poorly assembled and poorly optimized digital systems suck. The same can be said for analog, although analog so lacks transparency and dynamic range, that it is far more forgiving to the ear. Both have their own, individual, audible distortions. Arguably analog has an order of magnitude more of it and an order of magnitude more noise. That, is just plain science. If one enjoys listening "through" the grinding surface noises, ticks and pops, swishing sounds, muddy bass from structure and air born feedback, and one can argue he hears these noises live, he's abetter man than I. Personally, respectfully, I'd rather not have to listen "through" any noises I don't hear in live music.

And these words are coming from a former subjectivist reviewer. Meaning, probably as opinionated as you.

I say, being a strong believe in freedom, whatever spins your wheels, analog or digital, go for it.

My first choice is sushi with warmed saki and a good nap afterward.

I assure you, lastly, that sushi, saki, a good nap, and a good digital system I enjoy daily, exist too. We all should enjoy the music for the thrills it has given us repeatedly through the years, regardless of our choice for transmission of it...though not quite the thrills I get @ http://tinyurl.com/o3rj6o2.

The subject of that article is both an audiophile and a music lover. And besides hanging out with him and our wives in the summers I listen to live music, orchestra and opera and jazz daily - for months at a time. My open window fronts the most beautiful opera house in Europe from which, in addition to concerts I attend, we get daily recitals. And just a couple of blocks away is the Franz Liszt Conservatory my concert pianist sister attended for years in her youth, which was before my youth, and which I visit daily. The most important part of this discussion is the nature of one's familiarity with live sound v the reproduction of it. I respectfully propose the last too. :)

Michael Lavorgna's picture
But thanks for that, um, story.
"The high end journals exist because they sell advertising space. The reviewers exist because they get equipment at accommodation and get paid for writing."
You missed the most important part of this equation: the reader. Accommodation price is, in my experience, a really silly argument since anyone and everyone can buy used and demo gear which works out to be about the same. And I existed before I got paid to write for AS ;-)

From your description of listening to records, your vinyl rig must not be set up properly and/or your records must be in very poor shape ;-)

I'm not into the part of our hobby that says things like "wiped the floor" and other such overly competitive nonsense. I'm talking about listening to and enjoying music. Simple, humble, universal, without the need for egos that leave no room for thoughts other than their own.

Sounds like you have a lovely view.

mikey8811's picture

Hi Michael

Your views please on the differences in sound between the Cary and the Directstream Jr? Why did you prefer the latter?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...I feel the DirectStream Junior is more fleshed out, more natural sounding, and more engaging over time. It's also worth noting that since the digital processing in the DSJ can be updated via firmware, there's the possibility for free future upgrades that may add functionality or sound quality improvements.
mikey8811's picture

By fleshed out, do you mean the DS Jr is fuller sounding than the tubed Cary or that there is more definition and detail in the body while the latter is full and "warmer" in the traditional tube sense and hence more euphonic and less natural sounding?

Sorry for adding more words to your already precise definition but just wanted to pin it down.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...words about sound become like snakes; hard to get a hand on without them wriggling away or biting you ;-)

Both of these DACs can be purchased direct with a 30-day return policy so my advise, if you are not sure which you'd like more, is to listen to both in your home.

mikey8811's picture

Not in Asia...

That's why reviews tend to be important to us.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
This may help with a recommendation.
mikey8811's picture

My system is:

Auralic Aries -> Mark Levinson 36 DAC -> Cary SLP 05 pre -> Pass Labs X350.8 -> Vienna Acoustics The Kiss speakers

I read your review of the Cary with much interest as you were using a Pass Labs 0.8 series integrated albeit an XA one. Also, I was attracted to the Cary because of the possible synergies with the preamp. I see you have moved on to the Ayre AX 5 Twenty now. My impression of Ayre (non Twenty) vs Pass was it was leaner, was more refined, had more microdynamics but had less bass slam. It was also slightly rolled off at the top - FWIW so you can gauge my tastes.

I generally prefer a warm, full, sound with harmonic richness and tonal density. Music preferences are jazz and I am sensitive to brightness in the highs, especially on less pristine recordings of brass instruments. Am willing to sacrifice some treble roll off.

Thanks again

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I think you'll be happy with the Cary, all things considered ;-)

Cheers.

mikey8811's picture

a bunch ...

nickv's picture

Hi Michael, Big fan of your reviews... Just curious if you have a follow up planned now that the bridge II is roon ready. Would love to hear your opinion on sound quality vs. the micro rendu/ sonic transporter set up. Thanks man!

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I sent the DSJ back right after the review so there's no follow up planned.

Cheers.

TJ's picture

the DSJ is limited by noise to 16 bit resolution? Note the bench test in the current issue of HFNRR which measured an A-weighted S/N of 93 dB at its outputs, consistent with the high noise floor seen in their test data. Even if the DSJ can process signals internally at 20+ bits, that resolution is lost in the noise at the outputs.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
These measurements do not change what I heard and reported on.
TJ's picture

Perhaps the DSJ is quieter than your integrated amp. Ayre doesn’t publish the SN of the AX-5 Twenty, but JA measured the AX-5 at 14-15 bits (86dB) A-weighted.

Bill Leebens's picture

This question is above my pay grade, so I went to Ted Smith with it. Ted responded:

"There's a difference between resolution and S/N ratios. The resolution limit is the level where changes on the input don't affect the output: for the DS (or DS Jr) the signal to noise may be around 17-18 bits (-102dB to -108dB) but, for example, in Stereophile's measurements (March issue 2015 (Vol.38 No.3))) figure 4 shows the results of a signal at -120dB If the resolution were only -108dB then figure 4 should look flat or at least not look anything like the way it does.

"Clearly the resolution is better than -120dB. It's a pity that people aren't more careful using the words "resolution" vs. noise floor vs. S/N ratio - as an example adding dither increases resolution at the same time as it decreases the signal to noise ratio.

"There are also differences in quality depending on the character of the noise. White noise is easily filtered out by the ear/brain. Noise correlated with the signal can affect the perception of the character of the sound. The figures in the Stereophile show a fairly white noise floor."

Capiche?

Bill Leebens, Director of Marketing, PS Audio

Michael Lavorgna's picture
..but I think Ted agrees with me ;-)
TJ's picture

“It's a pity that people aren't more careful using the words resolution vs. noise floor vs. S/N ratio.” Gosh Ted, don’t know what to say… these are the definitions I'm using: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signal-to-noise_ratio

Somehow this thread has turned into a defense of the DSJ, whereas my question was broader and never intended as an attack. So let me try again: how quiet do electronic components need to be to allow listeners to hear the difference between 16 bit and 24 bit recordings? (there, no careless terms.) Vendor neutral.

John Atkinson has said what he thinks: “The 16-bit CD has a noise floor at -96dB and change, hence cannot resolve information lower than -96dB. By analogy, an amplifier with a maximum signal/noise ratio of 96dB would, if its noise floor were random, have 16-bit resolution.” (Stereophile bench test, Benchmark AHB2). Likewise for John Saiu of Benchmark, Bob Stuart at Meridian, and others who say “how quiet? very quiet”.

It would be helpful for us audio consumers out here to understand what circuit designers think who build best-in-class DAC and amp products which happen to have SN at the outputs that measure worse than 96dB (oops, I did it again… peace to all). Perhaps they see this question differently?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
It is a response to your questions about the DSJ. Make no mistake -- you made this conversation about this DAC. If you don't believe me, just read your original comment ;-)
TJ's picture

My bad, poorly worded... the HFNRR review got me thinking, and if I had given it further thought, I would have added "or any other DAC with a similar SN measured at the outputs." My reworded question is more carefully stated.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...that if I have a question that I'd like to get answered from someone who doesn't owe me an answer, it's best to just ask the question and leave all the baggage at home.
TJ's picture

.

TJ's picture

Thank you Michael for posting Bob Stuart's technical summary which is so interesting and helpful. I found answers there to the questions that I asked above. I'd also like to thank you for reaching out to PS Audio in response to my original question, and Ted for his quick reply.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I'm very happy to hear that you found Bob Stuart's article helpful. I did too.

Cheers.

Bill Leebens's picture

NT

BuckChaser's picture

Old post so not sure if anyone is still listening - Michael Lavorgna would love to get your insight if possible. I currently have the PS Audio DirectStream Jr (DS Jr) and the Wadia di322 at home now for a trial. I was looking to upgrade from my Benchmark DAC2 HGC (BMD2) as in my system it was not as musical as the Wadia CD Player it replaced when I converted to all digital media. I completely agree with your comments on the sound of the DS Jr and I like it a lot more than the BMD2 so decision was easy until I added the Wadia to the mix just a few days ago. To me the Wadia was just as smooth and musical as the DS Jr but it seems to highlight/amplify more of the nuances in the music – so overall seemed a bit more musical to me. This might be just trickery that plays to my particular hearing defect (I am a little impaired at higher frequencies) so would like to know what you think if you have any experience with the Wadia di322 or even the di321.

For reference: the rest of my system is Lenovo x201 laptop running JR River MC -> USB Cable -> DAC -> Kimber Silver Cables -> Music Reference RM-9 MKII Tube Amp -> OCOS Cables -> Vanderstein CE2 Speakers.

plonk's picture

I also was considering upgrading my pristine Benchmark DAC2 HGC to the PS Audio DS Jr. The Benchmark is just a little too harsh for me. I previoulsy had a PS Digital Link III DAC, and loved it. Let me know if you have any feedback. Thanks, Plonk

BuckChaser's picture

Try searching (The hunt for an excellent sounding DAC continues - help please) and ou should find my detailed comments /comparison on the BM DAC2 vs the PS DS Jr with the Wadia di322 thrown in for good measure. Good luck.