PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC/Preamp

Device Type: Preamplifier/Digital to Analog Converter
See Full Specifications
Availability: Direct Online
Price: $1,699.00

Imagine your uncle Bob comes over unannounced and before he rings the bell, your doorbell rings. That's not right. That's not natural. Thankfully, the Stellar Gain Cell DAC/Preamp comes with your choice of three filters which, among other things, offer differences in ringing; Filter 1 is a Slow Roll-Off Linear Phase filter which offers the least amount of ringing. Filter 2 provides better high-frequency response but its Fast Roll-off Minimum Phase filter lets in some post-ringing. Filter 3 is Bob's your uncle.

As you learned from the specs, the Stellar DAC can handle pretty much anything you want to throw at it file format-wise and I used its USB input, fed from my microRendu, for this review. Stellar's USB input can manage PCM resolutions up to a where-the-hell-can-I-buy 384KHz and DSD128 (ditto). Beyond being a DAC, Stellar is also an analog "Gain Cell" [footnote 1] preamplifier offering digital and analog inputs (and a headamp to boot). Stellar is a chip-=based DAC, ESS Sabre32 bit Hyperstream architecture, so if you want that PS Audio FPGA DAC magic, you'll have to move up the line.

Beyond filter choices, PS Audio has thrown in some other useful features including the ability to flip flop Phase and adjust channel Balance. The included remote allows for moving the volume (or should we say "gain") up or down, filter selection, phase, and input selection. As a matte black box, I find the Stellar Gain Cell DAC/Preamp understated and in no way trying too hard to be more than it is. I appreciate this approach. The front panel is adorned with a blue-lit PS Audio logo, a matching blue-lit display, and a nicely-scaled volume knob. Overall, I'd say Stellar is a looker especially considering its price.

Speaking of price, there's nothing about the Stellar Gain Cell DAC/Preamp that says under $2k. This holds for the music it makes which is really great news. Based on my experience, albeit time-worn, I get the impression that PS Audio likes to make music sound highly listenable through its products. You know, the way we want it to sound.

The Stellar Gain Cell DAC/Preamp commits no digital crimes against music. It is smooth, well-balanced, and eminently listenable. This holds regardless of source material, the way digital is supposed to be, so I walked and wandered through every nook and cranny of my musical Jones during Stellar's 2-month+ stay.

The preamplifier, as advertised, is very good sounding and there's no reason not to mate Stellar with your amp-O-choice. Again, I'm not talking about "considering its price", I'm talking about very good sounding. The same holds for that headamp which made my AudioQuest NightOwls sing (not screech). Overall, music is presented as nicely round without any glare or etch which can be a thing when shopping in this price aisle. Compared to my Mytek Brooklyn, which is the old model not the DAC+, The Stellar sounded more fluid, more relaxed.

That's not to say that music sounds dull or lifeless because it doesn't. Music sounds comfortable in its own skin. Some DACs tend to stretch that skin into less than natural sounding music-deformities. Not so with Stellar.

Of course, the Stellar doesn't do everything my totald does, but I've only heard one or two DACs that do, regardless of price. Since this comparison would be silly, I'll simply say that if you want more performance from a DAC, you're going to have to pay more than Stellar's asking price. That should come as good news to people shopping in this price aisle.

I've been on a contemporary classical kick of late, which has me finally ripping through my upripped contemporary classical CDs. With mostly acoustic music that some might call spare, think Morton Feldman, your DAC has to give you a good helping of tone, texture, and time. Otherwise you may feel as if a manic organ grinder monkey on meth has taken over your hi-fi. Thankfully, the Stellar Gain Cel DAC offers up a healthy helping of each. Again, if I think about what the totaldac does I know there's more in my music that Stellar leaves off the table. But, and this a big but, PS Audio has imbued its $1700 DAC/preamp with a musical soul, so less is more, since there's no digitalness biting at one's ears.

PS Audio has gone and done it—the Stellar Gain Cell DAC/Preamp offers more performance than the sum of its part and price might suggest. This translates into a DAC/preamplifier that serves all of your music well, which should keep you listening for as long as time allows.

1. From PS Audio: The idea behind the Variable gain cell is simple. Instead of adding additional circuitry to the signal path to vary loudness, the preamplifier’s actual amplifier stage varies its gain in response to the user’s front panel volume control. This method requires zero additional circuitry in the signal path, offers more than 80dB of attenuation, and if designed properly performs to the equal of most high-end preamplifiers.

Also in-use during the Stellar Gain Cell review: Mytek Brooklyn

Associated Equipment

Andy88488's picture

I've been looking for digital music equipment that will fit with my existing high quality analog system. So if I don't need a pre-amp, will this thing still work with my stereo?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...and you can set it to "DAC Mode" which bypasses the internal analog volume control. You could also opt for a DAC-only, minus the preamp. For my recommendations, check out the "Favorite Bits" DAC page under the "Recommended" menu.


Stephen Dupont's picture

are not listed under the recommended menu.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I didn't realize our new menu structure was going to be put in place so soon.

I'll post something next week describing the changes, which include a new category, "Reviewer's Choice", which takes the place of the old "Favorite Bits".

toxicnewt's picture

To your ears (Michael) are the differences between this and the PS Adio DS jr incremental or major? I'm asking because my upgrade path is resource limited and I'm trying to decide between the adding the DS jr and keeping my very old Classe Six/DR-8 combo or replacing the entire preamp/amp set up with the Stellar DAC/M700 combo.

whell's picture

...but not in my budget....yet. I've been looking for something that can, down the road, replace my current DAC. I really want to ditch my preamp too and go with a DAC/Preamp?with remote combo. This might just be the ticket.

I'm probably about a year away, though, from something like this being in the budget. Some DAC's offer an upgrade path for future formats / features. Do you know if that's part of the deal with the PS Audio Stellar?

circlark's picture

They certainly upgrade their more expensive offerings frequently, but I don't know if they will upgrade these. But I wanted to point out that PS Audio has a pretty generous Trade-in program where they'll take your current dac and lower the price of a new one. Check it out on their website. (Products - Trade Ups)

Bill Leebens's picture

...cannot upgrade its OS with free downloads as can our DirectStream and DSJ DACs, which are based upon custom FPGAs---field-programmable gate arrays. The Stellar GCD is chip-based, but still reflects our 35 years of experience in digital audio (blatant pitch!).

Bill Leebens
Director of Marketing, PS Audio