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)."
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.
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.