• PS Audio Digital Link III Product Review

    I've been a fan of PS Audio ever since PSA released the the P300 Power Plant. I'll admit I wasn't all that familiar with the PS Audio products before the P300. My local PS Audio dealer kept telling me about the P300 and how much everyone of his customers loved it. My dealer tried to get me to take one home for the weekend. After explaining that none of his customers had ever brought one back after a weekend audition I had to decline to offer. I didn't have the cash at the time and the last thing I needed was a component that would leave my system sounding subpar upon its removal. So, the P300 put PS Audio on my personal map.

    This year has been dubbed the Year of the Music Server by more than a few sources and there has been a minor flood of music server related products to the market. There are countless DACs available right now from $50 to however much you want to spend. If you're a regular reader of the PS Audio newsletter or you saw the Computer Audiophile coverage of CES, you are well aware that PS Audio is ahead of the game when it comes to this new audiophile revolution. In fact Paul McGowan and his wife were recently at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA. We can only guess what goodies might come from that little trip. After reading more and more about PS Audio's plans for future products and the prudent direction the company is taking in terms of computer based audio I knew I had to get in touch with them and get some PSA components in here for review.



    Digital Link Digital To Analog Converter


    It's well known that PS Audio manufacturers some great products. But, the one I've really had my eye on for quite some time is the Digital Link III digital audio converter (DAC). The DLIII is a great looking product. It matches the styling and build quality of other Trio Series products, like the GCHA headphone amp, perfectly. I was pleasantly surprised at how much DAC you get for less than a thousand bucks. The DLIII is very substantial and dwarfs the size of my Benchmark DAC1 PRE. Yet the DLIII is still half the size of a standard DAC or transport. It fits nicely in a rack with all your gear or on your desk right under the GCHA headphone amp. Sitting next to my aluminum MacBook Pro on my desk and in my rack this unit's brushed metal front plate looked fabulous. The subtle blue lights on the front are nice accents as well. Alright enough about the build quality and solid looks. Let's get on with the show!


    At the start of many listening sessions I like to warm up my ears a little bit. I scrolled through my iTunes AIFF uncompressed library and settled on a little Zero 7. The track Destiny (Live) has soft vocals from Sia and Sophie Barker. This is a great track to either ease into a listening session or to really let rip. Give it a shot yourself. You can download the low quality version from iTunes for a buck to see if you like it. A few scrolls of the mouse wheel later I stopped at The White Stripes album Elephant. Is there a better tune to get rockin' than Seven Nation Army? I think not. Even though I was technically still in my ear warmup stage I couldn't help but notice something that flowed through the rest of the review. Music played through the DLIII really sounds like live music whereas music through my Benchmark DAC1 PRE sounds more like recorded music. Don't get me wrong, they are both very good pieces of equipment that will make any reader happy. If choosing between these two units based on sound (if you must chose one) it will come down to personal preference more than a black & white one is better than the other decision. Taking price and features into consideration may make the choice easier. The DLIII is less than a grand and the DAC1 PRE is currently going quite a bit more albeit with a much different feature set.


    I continued listening to Elephant from The White Stripes while changing some settings in Audio Midi Setup on my MacBook Pro with OS X Leopard. I played around with the USB and Toslink connections a little. Then I started changing the upsampling settings. The DLIII upsamples to either 24 Bit / 96 KHz or 24 Bit / 192 KHz. This upsampling helps reduce jitter by completely re-clocking the signal using PS Audio's own clock. PSA could have included an upsample bypass but that would have raised the price and negatively impacted the sound. Lower cost and better sound is never a bad thing in my book. At first I was skeptical of the upsampling feature, but it didn't take long before I was hooked. Later listening sessions would confirm my first impressions, not my skepticism. The upsampling implementation on the DLIII was done right. The longer I listened the more I enjoyed the 24/192 sound. While the sound of the 24/96 upsampling was very "live", 24/192 had that extra bit of air and space around the performers and their instruments. I am not one of those guys who thinks the higher number must be better. In fact I am probably more leery of all things version 2.0 and HD. You can trust me on the 24/192 performance of the DLIII.


    Here is a snippet from the manual:


    "Select the sample rate you wish. There are two choices available on the front panel: 96kHz and 192kHz. What comes out of your transport or CD player is 44.1kHz. The DLIII will upsample this to a higher, and better sounding sample rate. Choose which sample rate you wish by simply listening and deciding which sounds best on your system. You can change the sample on the ?y (as the music is playing)."



    Further Listening


    Chris Cornell's Euphoria Morning album sounded really great through the DLIII. Then I got to track number 9, Sweet Euphoria. The DLIII sounded so good and so live. Chris Cornell's ultra glossy voice in this song came through like he was performing in a local coffee shop. Listening to his voice mixed with his acoustic guitar was such an enjoyable experience I had to listen to the same song one more time. Notice I didn't say I had to listen to the DAC play this song one more time. This was all about the music and the components getting out of the way. I wasn't even thinking about the DLIII or anything else going on in the world for the whole 3:09 x 2.


    In the mood for something a little heavier I clicked over to Rage Against The Machine's Evil Empire. These guys are such incredible musicians I am just in awe every time I spin one of their albums on my hard drive. Turning up Bulls On Parade to ear splitting levels the DLIII produced the bass lines with excellent accuracy, yet live sound. So often live sound is associated with a lack of accuracy and detail when listening to "popular" music. Trust me with the DLIII these two are not mutually exclusive. Set at 24/192 year Of Tha Boomerang really rocked through the DLIII. The wide mix of sounds on this song were reproduced so well it was clear the DLIII was not a one trick pony. From the screechy highs to the wonderful separation of instruments when the band got rolling, the DLIII continued to perform stellar.


    As I said earlier the DLIII can reproduce pretty much anything thrown its way with excellent accuracy. I said "pretty much" because I'm not going to pretend someone somewhere can't find a flaw with this DAC. I'm sure there are flaws like every other component every produced. It's just that I'm unable to hear any shortcomings with the DLIII after spending some serious time with the DAC. Listening to Jewel's Goodbye Alice In Wonderland was yet another enjoyable experience. Jewel has one of the best voices in popular music and has shown off her voce on a few really good sounding albums. Two of the last three songs on Alice are great examples of her talent. Her song writing and style has been compared to Bob Dylan by the man himself. He once accused Jewel of stealing his style during a backstage meeting between the two artists. I believe it was all in jest though. The song Stephenville, TX has pretty good lyrics and the smoothness of Jewels voice seduces the listener into the story. Don't confuse the smoothness of her voice with a flaw in the DLIII. Sure some components smooth everything out and make everything sound "HiFi." Not the PS Audio Digital Link III. Jewel comes through just as she is supposed to on the DLIII. The closing song 1000 Miles Away sounds so transparent. Jewels voice isn't as smooth on this track. In away it sounds like she is singing to herself in a small room and just happens to have a mic and a recorder with her. Kudos to the DLIII in reproducing this song just as it was recorded. However an artist wants a song to sound is exactly how I want to hear it. If you're like me in this respect you'll surely want to get a DLIII into your system.



    Wrap Up


    During my time with the DLIII I really put it through its paces. I tried the optical as well as USB input. I spent a considerable amount of time with the upsampling set at 24/96 and 24/192. Believe me every combination of the aforementioned connections and bit/sample rates was great. In the end my favorite is the USB input with the upsampling set to 24/192. One of the beauties of this DAC is the ability to adjust these settings to your liking without negatively effecting the sound. Each setting offers something a little different. If you're a big fan of Toslink or you are stuck with only a Toslink output from your computer or transport, this DAC is just for you. PS Audio will soon release its Digital Lens reclocking device that will improve the sound of virtually any source, especially Toslink. The combination of DLIII and the future Digital Lens should sound fantastic. Plus if the styling and build quality is anything like the DLIII the forthcoming Digital Lens will stack perfectly on top of the other Trio Series components for a very rich look. Don't wait, pick up a DLIII now and have it fully burned in by the time the Digital Lens is available!


    More information available from PS Audio.

     





     





     





     





     

    Link to the DLIII review follow-up.
    Comments 47 Comments
    1. musicalsound's Avatar
      musicalsound -
      But does it support native 24 bit / 96KHz input via USB?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      The DLIII does not support native 24/96 via USB. The options are pretty limited right now for this capability. I wouldn't base a purchasing decision too much on this though. Unless a lot of your listening is done with 24/96 music.
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      When you are upsampling it is always best to use multiples of the root Fs or incoming sampling rate. So for 44.1 your best bet is 88.2, 176.4 and for 48 then 96, 192.<br />
      <br />
      Using them at odd frequencies will tend to add artificial atributes to the sound.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      I agree Gordon. Too bad 24/96 & 24/192 are the "buzz words" or "marketing words" many people like to use and hear. Thus products that don't blatantly specify these two rates must be inferior. If it's higher it must be better (very unfortunate). ONLY KIDDING OF COURSE. With many recordings done at 24/88.2 it would be nice to purchase them at 24/88.2 and play them back at 24/88.2.<br />
      <br />
      It is pretty nice to see Reference Recordings releasing 24/176.4 albums, but playing them back with the full benefit is going to be a challenge on most systems. I really don't want to buy a $3000 Mac Pro and an $800 Lynx PCIe card just so I can playback these releases. The other possibility of course is to use a FireWire converter to S/PDIF, but that may negate the benefit of the high quality recordings.<br />
      <br />
      How do your DACs work when they receive 44.1, 48, 96 etc... Any upsampling or does the music go out the same as it came in?
    1. davip's Avatar
      davip -
      Hm, don't know about this Chris. Junk my comment for not having listened to this product first, but what is it exactly we think is added to an audio signal by upsampling? Sure, if you get the multiples wrong it will be unpleasant artifacts that are added, just as a 576 line PAL DVD signal will look lousy when scaled to a 768 pixel display, but even when the upsampling / scaling is exact, nothing real is added. If you hear more 'space' around performers then it's no more than a pleasant distortion, just as the Burwen Bobcat is just a glorified tone control. Not having a defeat option on this unit seems questionable to say the least. When everyone is after getting 'bit-perfect' sound via the PC / server route, we are surely just kidding ourselves with after-the-fact sampling rate multipliers...<br />
      <br />
      cheers,<br />
      Dave
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Dave - Thanks a lot for the comment. I was 100% in your camp on the whole upsampling thing until I listened to it more and then followed up my listening by talking to others in the industry about it. Some of the best know digital companies like Meridian use upsampling. Some manufacturers have included an upsample bypass just to appease "purists" even though it was totally unnecessary and the sound wasn't as good.<br />
      <br />
      I think we have to be careful not to consider this just a rate multiplier. I am certain that if bypassing the upsampling features sounded better and more transparent these manufacturers would be all over it. On some manufacturer's DAC implementations upsampling may sound better. On many others sending the audio straight through without upsampling sounds better. Whatever produces the best sound for specific manufacturers is likely what they will offer.<br />
      <br />
      Again, I used to question upsampling constantly. Now I am a firm believer that it can improve sound when done right.<br />
      <br />
    1. wappinghigh's Avatar
      wappinghigh -
      Thanks for the review Chris. I wonder if you could add some more comments about the "practical" workings of the DAC III. For example I believe this DAC will autosense input. ie if you had usb input via computer and toslink say via another source, the DAC will lock onto correct input> Is this correct Chris? This would be really cool for those of us who say have two digital sources (mine are MAC mini and Sonos). Also is there an auto power on/shutdown and signal sensing.? Finally can you set it up to run straight into a power amp? All These features are great for DAC use in multi room audio. Also I believe the Cullen mod sets the output at a specified (unchangeable setting). Do you have any more info on how it will link into the digital lens. It must have a pretty ordinary clock..otherwise why would you need this? Thanks AB
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey AB - Thanks for the followup questions.<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      The Autoscan feature works just like it says in the manual (see below). This may not be how you ideally would like it to work for your situation. Upon power-up the DLIII will go to the first input it senses a signal on.<br />
      <br />
      <i>Autoscan is the default mode for the input selector. This means that when you power the DLIII up, it <br />
      will automatically step to the ?rst input with a digital signal and lock onto that input. You can tell when <br />
      it is locked because the front panel locked light will be illuminated. <br />
      <br />
      If you wish to overide the autoscan feature, simply manually select the input you want and this will <br />
      disable Autoscan. To re-enable, scroll to the last input and press the input select twice. This will <br />
      enable the Autoscan feature. </i><br />
      <br />
      There is no auto power on/off depending on the presence of a signal. The DAC has an on/off switch on the back. The blue lights are always on when the power is on. PSA recommends leaving the unit on.<br />
      <br />
      This DAC cannot go directly into a power by design. You could attempt it and try using a volume control from another component like iTunes or something, but I don't recommend this at all. Others have tried this and have not been happy with the results.<br />
      <br />
      It is likely the digital lens will connect via SPDIF to the DAC input. The clock on the DLIII is good, but there is always room for improvement. The lens should be able to handle and "clean-up" some pretty rough input signals. I kind of look at it as separating the separates. Instead of just splitting the DAC and transport, now you can split the DAC from the reclocker adn add more functionality. Should be pretty cool.
    1. bbarr's Avatar
      bbarr -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Thanks for the review of the DLIII. I am seriously thinking of buying one for my Squeezebox 3. Do you think it would be a worthwhile addition, or is it overkill?<br />
      <br />
      I am not clear about two of the inputs. Is there any advantage of one over the other (coax vs. optical?) Is one better for the SB3? Also, for the SB3, is 24/96 or 24/192 upsampling better? Or is it 'simply' a matter of personal taste?<br />
      <br />
      As a new viewer, I am enjoying Computer Audiophile. Thanks for your patience with my questions.<br />
      <br />
      Regards,<br />
      Bob
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Bob - Thanks for the kind words about the site. feel free to ask any question you want. If you're thinking it the chances are high someone else is too.<br />
      <br />
      If you aren't using an external DAC on your Squeezebox right now I think you better get one. Just my opinion based on experience and the word on the "audiophile street." <br />
      <br />
      The coax v. optical question is not black and white and I do think they are too close to call on the DLIII. Other components are certainly different, so please don't take this as a generalization. <br />
      <br />
      I hate to say t but for the SB3 you'll have to listen for yourself :-( to determine what you think sounds best. Coax v. optical and 24/96 v. 24/192. I know it sounds like an easy way out of providing a thorough answer but it's the truth.<br />
      <br />
      Let me know if this only raises more questions.
    1. pch's Avatar
      pch -
      Dear Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Do you know the Sonos ZP-80?<br />
      I am looking for some kind of improvement for the sound of my ZP-80.<br />
      I now have it connected to my Classe SSP-30 surroundsound processor, but still I find the sound of cd's better (BTW: all my cd's are ripped in Ripstation Micro as FLAC's!). I've heard the digital output of the ZP-80 isn't that good and connecting a external DAC won't improve the soundquality: it has something to do with to high levels of jitter out of the digital out. So I guess I need a "reclocker"? Does this PS Audio DIgital Link lll does have such a reclocker?<br />
      Or do I have to wait a couple of months: I heard PS Audio comes with one en a few months, isn't it?<br />
      <br />
      Paul.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Paul - I am familiar with all the Sonos products, but I don't use any of them. I think I have just the solution for you. Empirical Audio has a reclocker called the Pacecar and EA also offers a Sonos modification to reduce jitter to inaudible levels. Check out this link http://www.empiricalaudio.com/frPace-Car.html#Sonos%20Application<br />
      <br />
      The PS Audio does reclock the signal to a certain extent, but nothing like a dedicated reclocker designed specifically for this purpose. The PS Audio Digital Lens is coming out, but I haven't heard a solid date on when it will be released. If you can wait this (PSA Digital Lens) may be a more reasonably priced option.
    1. pch's Avatar
      pch -
      Hi Chris,<br />
      <br />
      I'm from Holland and therefor the Pacecar solution is a littlebit difficult to do.<br />
      Overhere I can buy PS Audio at stores, the Digital Link lll is available and I hear you say that does some reclocking.<br />
      Interesting, because it also at once is a very good DAC, isn't it? The Pacecar option is expensive and you still need a DAC, right? With the new PS Audio Lens (and yes: I do have the time and I can wait for it) I still need a DAC, right?<br />
      How much better can the new PS Audio Lens reclock the worse digital audio out of the ZP-80 than the standard PS Audio Digital Link lll, that;s the big question, isn't it?<br />
      You say: the PSA Digital Lens may be a more reasonably priced option: do you already know the price or a kind of price? I'm just curious...<br />
      <br />
      Paul.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Paul - Perfecting timing! The new PS Audio newsletter just came out and Paul McGowan does talk a little about the new Digital Lens and Perfect Wave Transport. Here is the link so you can read the latest info straight from PSA http://www.psaudio.com/newsletters/5-08.asp . <br />
      <br />
      With the pacecar you would still need a DAC and the same is true about the forthcoming Digital Lens. The new Digital Lens will improve nicely on the DLIII's ability to reclock and remove jitter even though the DLIII is already a fabulous product. Essentially PSA is making a great product better for those who include the Digital Lens.<br />
      <br />
      I don't have solid info on the price of the Digital Lens, but I am positive it will be a very good value like the other PSA products.
    1. pch's Avatar
      pch -
      Hi Chris, thanks for the link! Very interesting to read. So the Lens does not use a sampling rate converter, the Digital Link lll does? And it lasts still some time till the Digital Lens is available on the market.<br />
      What confuses me if he was talking of a touchscreen only for the transport or for the lens aswell? Because otherwise the Lens will be expensive I guess....<br />
      Stil: a Digital Lens is best for me I guess, I already have a very good DAC in my Classe SSP-30 processor.<br />
      <br />
      Paul.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Paul - As far as I know the Lens does not upsample at all. Only the PWT Transport will have a touchscreen similar to the little screen it had at CES only better.<br />
      <br />
      The Lens and your Classe processor should be a great combination!
    1. pch's Avatar
      pch -
      Exactly my thoughts!<br />
      <br />
      Paul.
    1. cubbie5150's Avatar
      cubbie5150 -
      New user here, and I just wanted to thank you for this review. I think I am leaning towards Apple TV for my streaming solution (as opposed to Squeezebox/Sonos), so am on the hunt for a quality DAC. The DL III is certainly on the list. I have much more research to do to confirm sound quality w/ ATV will be on par w/ other such transports, but reviews like this save me time!!!
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey cubbie5150 - Welcome to Computer Audiophile. Thanks for sharing your opinion and what you are planning to do with the AppleTV. Once you get your system setup we would love to hear from you about the setup and the sound of course.
    1. cubbie5150's Avatar
      cubbie5150 -
      Thanks for the welcome Chris. If I ever do get this setup properly, I'll leave impressions here as well.. I'm trying to work through the potential for jitter issues w/ the ATV. I had heard the Digital Link III will re-clock output, thus resolving any jitter issues from the ATV (which only has a S/PIDF [TOSLINK] for digital output which reputedly isn't great in terms of jitter)...that's why I'm trying to read as much as possible about this PS Audio Product.