The DirectStream DAC is one of the most analogue-like digital audio products I’ve yet heard. By this I mean that its sound reminds me of a very high-quality analogue reel-to-reel tape deck, but of course without any tape hiss at all. In practical terms this means that when playing well-recorded material, the DAC can and does present plenty of inner detail and dynamic nuance, while also serving up remarkably three-dimensional soundstages, yet it does so without ever sounding as if it is working hard. On the contrary, the DAC consistently conveys a sense of relaxed and unstrained smoothness coupled with full-bodied dynamics that—exactly as PS Audio promised—refuse to veer into raw-edged overload. Perhaps a good word to describe the DirectStream DAC’s sound, then, would be ‘graciousness’, in the fullest and most deeply resonant senses of that word.
Put on truly well recorded material, such as the Nidaros Cathedral Girl’s Choir & TrondhiemSolistene performance of Kim André Arnesen’s ‘Magnificat’ [2L music Blu-ray/hybrid SACD] and listen to the way the PS Audio delineates, yet refrains from clinically dissecting, the elements of the music. The DAC effortlessly captures the high, pure, multi-layered and achingly beautiful voices of the girl’s choir. Similarly, it beautifully renders the tonality of the accompanying strings; reproduces the deep, powerful, yet very taut voice of the pipe organ; and above all captures the remarkable depth, width, and reverberant qualities of the Nidaros Cathedral itself. In short, the DirectStream DAC serves up glorious musical realism, in a disarmingly casual and almost self-effacing way.
Given the DirectStream DAC’s internal architecture, you might think it would give ‘preferential treatment’ to DSD material and indeed it does sound quite masterful when playing DSD files. But the real magic of this DAC may centre on its handling of PCM material—material the DAC gives greater smoothness, fluidity, dimensionality, and elegance than it might otherwise have had. I don’t mean to suggest by this that traditional PCM playback methods cannot or do not sound perfectly good in their own right, because they certainly can and do. But if PCM playback has an identifiable ‘failure mode’ it might be that PCM files can at times sound a bit flat and 2-dimensional, while exhibiting subtly edgy and/or mechanical qualities that tend to hold the listener at arm’s length from the music. While I would not tell you that the DirectStream DAC makes these problems disappear with a wave of its magic DSD-processing wand, I will tell you that it makes these sorts of playback problems better—and sometimes eliminates them almost completely.
To see what I mean by those comments, try putting on the Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow CD [Sensibility] and listen closely to the upper register of Joy Williams’ voice. My past experience has been that, on this generally well-recorded album, the top of Williams’ range can—at full song—exhibit faint but audible traces of strain and momentary patches of a subtly grating, rough-textured quality (it doesn’t happen often, but it’s annoying and musically disturbing when it does). Through the PS Audio DAC, however, the performance envelope of the album seems almost to stretch out, allowing room for Williams’ voice to soar up high and at elevated levels, but without being marred by audible stress, strain, or bursts of break-up. This is precisely the sort of sonic forward progress you can expect to hear over and over again with the DirectStream DAC.
Because the DAC is very quiet and does a great job of retrieving low-level details—especially small, evanescent spatial cues—it can take ordinarily flat-sounding recordings and suddenly give them a heightened sense of body, shape, and depth. This quality of three-dimensionality, along with the DAC’s delightful (albeit improbable) marriage of high resolution and unforced graciousness, is what really defines the sound of the DirectStream DAC for me.
Having praised the DAC for its resolution, smoothness, three-dimensionality, and grace, you might draw the inference that it is highly forgiving of imperfect recordings, but in my experience that really wasn’t the case. The DirectStream DAC will improve what it can about mediocre recordings, but it nevertheless exposes them for exactly what they are. What is more, because the DAC tends to clean up whatever it can in so-so recordings, those sonic problems that can’t be ameliorated tend to stand out in even sharper relief. While the DirectStream DAC can make good, very good, and great recordings sound better than ever, it cannot and does not compensate for poor or mediocre recordings. In the end, the sonic truth will out.
PS Audio’s DirectStream DAC turns the established order of things in the PCM-centric digital audio world upside down and it sounds all the better for it. I have greatly enjoyed my time with the DirectStream DAC, in no small part because it has demonstrated the sonic benefits of a fundamentally different—and perhaps fundamentally superior—method of playing both PCM and DSD digital audio files. For this reason alone I would encourage readers considering DACs in this price range to give the DirectStream DAC a very careful listen. If your reactions are anything like mine, you may find yourself won over by the fresh musical insights this DAC makes possible, even on recordings you once thought you knew well.