Audio Alchemy DDP-1 DAC / Preamp & PS-5 Power Supply Review
Ask yourself a few questions: Would you rather have the photographs produced by Ansel Adams using an iPhone or the photographs produced by your great aunt Betty using the new Phase One XF 100MP, 100 megapixel camera system? Would you rather have a remaster of your favorite album done by the late Doug Sax using subpar equipment or the same remaster done by an armchair engineer using the best equipment money can buy? All parts and materials being equal, would you rather purchase an analog audio component designed by John Curl or an electrical engineer who has read "all" the books? If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably answer these questions with, "Ansel Adams, Doug Sax, and John Curl." This review has nothing to do with photography, remasters, or John Curl, but the questions above illustrate a point that’s relevant to the review (all reviews to be frank). The point? The most important part of product creation is the people creating the product. In many hobbies people look at the specifications of parts and bills of materials as the indicators of product quality and performance. Unfortunately this can lead down some unsatisfying and expensive roads. Specifically, selecting a digital to analog converter because it contains a specific DAC chip, a specific brand or type of power supply with great measurements on paper, or it supports the highest sample rates known to man, can lead to a quick product flip on Audiogon because the whole was equal to or less than the sum of the parts. A far better way to begin the component selection process is to research the companies or designers of the products in a specific category. Put your trust in people not parts, smarts not specifications, and intellectual property not possessions. I selected the products that are the subject of this review because all the audio stars aligned. I did my homework on the designers, then the company, then the product. Based on my research, everything looked good. I trusted that those involved could use the same physical components available to everybody else, but make the product as a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. If I was right, I’d be able to introduce many in the Computer Audiophile community to a great product, and so much more.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
Audio Alchemy, ever heard of it? Until fairly recently I hadn’t. But, I’d certainly heard of the company’s chief engineer and owner, Peter Madnick. In fact I’d talked to Peter many times at audio shows and even visited his manufacturing facility in Newbury Park, California (Audio Alchemy products are designed and assembled in this location). Peter is a consulting engineer whose work usually receives accolades under different brand names. Most people are very familiar with the brands he and his team have done work for, but have no idea who designed and manufactured the products. Peter has lead product design and/or manufacturing for brands including Pangea, Fender, Counterpoint, Threshold, Motorola, Constellation Audio, Faroudja, Runco, Monster Cable, Belkin and THX, to name a few. Talking with Peter, I am always interested to hear about his countless other projects that are fascinating but aren’t touted publicly, but that’s a story for another day.
As a company Audio Alchemy had a very successful previous life "back in the day" but had never appeared on my radar as a younger audiophile. I wish I would have noticed the company and its products because, as a digital based listener, I could have used the reasonably priced DACs and jitter filters Audio Alchemy produced long before most people saw the need for such individual products. Today Audio Alchemy is back with its ethos of superior technology and value. I would say that Peter got the band back together to produce products like the DDP-1 Digital Decoding Preamp / DAC and matching PS-5 power supply, the DMP-1 media server and DPA-1 mono and stereo amps (all sounded wonderful paired with TAD, ELAC, and Wilson loudspeakers at CES 2016 and previous shows), but in reality this team has been together since the original Audio Alchemy days working on countless creations for other companies.
The DDP-1 is a very versatile product that most computer audiophiles would consider a DAC with a volume control rather than its official description of a digital decoding preamp. The DDP-1 earns its official description because it features a full analog preamp section. This means its volume control is all analog and it has analog inputs that remain in the analog domain from input to output. The DDP-1 also features extremely advanced digital signal processing. One result of this DSP is the eight user selectable digital filter / resolution enhancement options. Speaking of digital, the DDP-1 has seven digital inputs including a very capable asynchronous USB input based on the XMOS platform that supports PCM files through 24/192 and DSD64 (update for DSD128 coming soon). I was so impressed by the quality of the USB input that I used it throughout the review, without the need to use an external USB to AES converter. The discrete FET driver and analog output stages paired really well with the DIRECT input of my Constellation Audio Inspiration Series monoblocks. Given that the DDP-1 contains such a high quality analog volume control, there is no need to use a separate preamp like there is with some DACs containing less than perfect digital attenuators. Thus, increasing the value of the DDP-1.
I could go into the details of the dual AKM DAC chips, the phase-locked loop etc… but I’d rather stress the fact that this DAC is a powerhouse combination of components and intellectual property. Peter Madnick and his team have managed to squeeze more performance out of the selected parts that make up this unit, than the spec sheets state is possible. Talking to Peter this year at CES I was pleasantly surprised by all of the out of the box design decisions and the details that only a team with terrific engineering chops and experience to match would employ in a DAC. While Peter was willing to tell me much about the design, the conversation had to remain off the record. If you think you know audio component design and look at the Audio Alchemy products and make judgements based on what’s visible to the naked eye, you’d be foolish. Even if those judgements lead you to believe it’s an ingenious design, you don’t know the half of it.
With respect to future proofing the DDP-1, Audio Alchemy placed an additional USB port on the unit for updating the firmware and adding features. This should come in very handy for implementing MQA. According to Peter, "We use the same DSP as MQA development platform, so we expect to be able to do it in an upcoming software release. We are a licensee."
Along with the DDP-1, I asked Audio Alchemy to send me the PS-5 power supply upgrade. With an eye on the present DAC review and an eye toward the future (Audio Alchemy RoonReady music server), I really like that the PS-5 features two output ports. One can power the DAC and when I receive the music server the PS-5’s other output will deliver power to that unit. The reason for the power supply upgrade, other than the obvious, is because putting such an advance PSU into the DDP-1 was impossible due to size constraints, and keeping the PS-5 a separate unit makes the DDP-1 a more affordable component. The power supply is well designed both internally and externally. It contains two separate power supplies (one for digital and one for analog) and handles the AC to DC conversion inside the unit rather than sending AC into the sensitive areas of the DDP-1. The external design of the PS-5 was crafted specifically for pairing it with other Audio Alchemy units such as the DDP-1. Its curvature on the front left side of the chassis fits with the DDP-1 like a glove and make the two components appear somewhat like a single full-width component. I’m a big fan of upgraded power supplies and a fan of manufacturers leaving this an an option rather than a mandatory purchase. I highly recommend purchasing the PS-5 with he DDP-1, but for those who want to save a little money right now, the PS-5 can always be added later.
One last note on the build quality of the DDP-1 and the PS-5. Photographs don’t do these products justice. The machined aluminum chassis of both components is way beyond what one expects to see in a component at this price level. The components give off that high quality feel when lifting the or adjusting the settings via the front knobs. Placed next to other products in this category, the Audio Alchemy component make other component seem like kids toys.
The Sound of Success
Never in a million years would I have imagined that the group I came to know through MTV as an eight year old, singing songs such as Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man, and Legs (while spinning furry guitars in the parking lot of a laundromat in the video ()), would supply the music I’d use during a high end DAC review. While I’m not using ZZ Top’s 1983 album Eliminator, I am using the 24 bit / 192 kHz version of Tres Hombres (link). There are more than a handful of tracks on this album on that I’ve come to love in the last couple weeks while listening through the Audio Alchemy DDP-1 / PS-5 combination. Right from the first track, Waitin’ For The Bus, the quality of the DDP-1’s reproduction is evident at low volume levels (around 30 on the front panel). Nine seconds into this track bassist Dusty Hill lays down a killer bass groove that is the foundation for the track and more evident than the catchy guitar riff of which many readers are fond. Dusty’s bass is crystal clear despite the lead guitar, drums, and harmonica that can be heard off and on through the track. In other words, the bass is not lost amongst the other instruments. I feel as if I was trying to learn the bass I could listen to this track through the DDP-1 and have no trouble focussing on each note. Moving on to track number two of ZZ Top’s sleazy, booze and bogie magnum opus that is Tres Hombres, the bass is still grounding the track, but it’s the organic natural sound of the guitar strumming in the right channel that’s so authentic sounding. This realistic sound is the antithesis of the appropriately dirty and gritty sounding electric guitar solo that fills the middle of the soundstage during the middle of the track. The DDP-1 reproduces the grungy ZZ Top sound so well it can make one mistakenly think the DAC is electrically noisy. The next twist in my ZZ Top HiFi journey came when listening to the ballad Hot, Blue, and Righteous. I was pleasantly surprised to hear how good Billy Gibbons’ lead vocals sounded on this track. There is an airy smoothness with a touch of gravel to his vocals that’s simply seductive, perhaps because of the juxtaposition with the heavy bar band sound of the other album tracks. Listening to the album, probably a dozen times this week alone, I heard nothing but the analog tape origins of Tres Hombres. I say this in the best way possible. It’s an analog recording that comes through sounding very analog when played with the DDP-1 / PS-5 combination.
Browsing the Roon iOS application while listening to ZZ Top I noticed Rod Stewart listed in the "Similar To" section below the ZZ Top albums. Having recently seen Rod Stewart on a Carpool Karaoke bit from the Late Late Show with James Corden (), I was excited to circle back to his music in much higher quality that YouTube. Thus, I tapped on Rod’s photo in Roon to view my collection of his albums. I’m a bit surprised I am using Rod Stewart, in addition to ZZ Top, as source material in a HiFi review, but I want to know what my favorite music sounds like through any given component, even more so than I want to know how good traditional audiophile recordings sound. I selected the 24 bit / 96 kHz version of the album Every Picture Tells A Story (link) to begin my journey back to 1971. The opening guitar on the title track, and its sound throughout the song, is again very organic through the DDP-1. It’s easy to identify Ronnie Wood’s 12-string acoustic guitar, even for those of us without solid knowledge of Ronnie Wood or guitars. This faithful sounding reproduction is also heard in the cover of Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow Is A Long Time. Dick Powell’s veridical sounding violin comes a goes throughout the track with a beautiful tone, giving the listener just enough of it to want more and more. In addition to physical instruments, what would a review talking about sound quality and Rod Stewart be without mentioning the reproduction of Rod’s unique voice? At the end of track three, That’s All Right, Rod and Ronnie play their version of Amazing Grace in a somewhat hidden track. Through he DDP-1 Rod’s indelible voice is nearly naked and certainly vulnerable sounding. He is a bit breathy compared to his normal intonation but the rasp and fine-to-medium grit sandpaper feel to his voice is laid bare for all to hear. This is by no means a Rebecca Pidgeon style of sterile sounding and ultra clean vocal reproduction, rather it’s Rod Stewart sounding how we all know him and that sound coming through very faithfully.
The Audio Alchemy DDP-1 / PS-5 combination is also very capable of conveying the emotional impact of a recording. In order to do this a DAC must have finesse and the ability to reproduce delicacy and texture without brute-forcing it’s way right over the fine details. The DDP-1’s noteworthy ability to reproduce music organically is not lost when it comes to conveying this emotion. The album Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes features a track titled Lost On The River #20 (link). Listening to this track through the DDP-1, I was instantly hooked from the opening note. Right from the start of the track the backing vocalists are heard singing an incredibly eerie series of "oooooh oooooh oooh" sequences. This sets the tone and sucks the listener into the track, taking him on the journey with the artists. Rhiannon Giddens’ lead vocal is absolutely beautiful as she manages to own this track as if she wrote, performed and produced the entire thing. The listener gets a sense that it’s her track, despite it being written by Bob Dylan in 1967. Rhiannon manages to not become a mouthpiece or only a pretty voice, like other artists who can sing a standard but leave the listener empty without hearing anything of substance. The chorus in this track is sure to hook the listener, but it’s the fine detail audible within Rhiannon’s vocal performance and her ability to keep vocal control when she isn’t belting out the chorus, that gives the track character. This character and slight variations in her tone and tiny inflections are intimately audible through the DDP-1 / PS-5 combination. An indication of this DAC’s neutrality can be heard throughout the track as well. Marcus Mumford, of Mumford and Sons, plays acoustic guitar from start to finish in a very repetitive pattern. This guitar sounds a bit compressed and unnatural to me as opposed to the more authentic sounding mandolin of Rebecca Lovell about one minute and thirty seconds into the track. It isn’t the DDP-1 adding compression to the guitar sound rather the DAC is simply reproducing what is likely on the T-Bone Burnett produced recording. Listening to Lost On The River #20 several over times, it became even more evident that the eerie backing vocal is what makes this track and takes it from a great vocal performance by Rhiannon to an incredibly compelling and emotional track as a whole. Playing it through the Audio Alchemy DDP-1 / PS-5 combination simply enables the track to come out and pull the listener in.
Readers more inclined to listen to, or who prefer to appreciate components based on how they perform with, more audiophile type recordings should also be very pleased with the DDP-1. I listened to plenty high dynamic range, orchestral, vocal, and pristine recordings throughout my time with this DAC. The Reference Recordings’ version of Britten’s Orchestra by Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony at 24 bit / 176.4 kHz is a great example of how well the DDP-1 / PS-5 combination performs. Reproduction of bombastic low frequencies and the delicate high frequency instruments, with everything in between was very good. The end of track one, Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, is filled with tiny plucks of the strings, large horns, violins feverishly cruising along, huge percussive bass, and transients containing all of these at once, yet the "track" doesn’t sound muddy. The DDP-1 holds its own, solidly reproducing this most reference of recordings with finesse. Perhaps one noticeable difference between the DDP-1 and reference level DACs is a slight reduction in the amount of air surrounding the instruments at times. This can be heard as vivid and rich, yet ever so slightly dark presentation. That said, the eight user selectable filter / resolution enhancement options can change this presentation by quite a bit. If a user wants better transients he can use the minimum phase filter and if he wants to eliminate phase shift at the cost of pre/post ringing he can select a linear phase filter. In my experience using different filters for different types of music or sample rates can really increase the flexibility of a DAC and increase one’s enjoyment from a single piece of equipment.
Audio Alchemy as a company is back for some people and here for the first time for many of us. The company’s highly sought after engineering talents are on display in full force, this time under its own badge, with its DDP-1 Digital Decoding Preamp / DAC and matching PS-5 power supply. The DDP-1 and PS-5 combination is the perfect alignment of high quality components and astute engineering. The DDP-1 and PS-5 prove that given an equal playing field of parts, only brilliant engineers can produce a product that rises above the fray. In this crowded marketplace of DACs based on specs only and engineers following the application notes provided by chip makers, it’s great to see exceptional engineers with extensive experience build products that push the boundaries of what’s possible for a reasonable price. The Audio Alchemy DDP-1 and PS-5 sonically reproduced a great musical experience in my listening room. Recreating the delicacy of female vocals, the dirt of southern rock guitar, and delivering the emotion of my favorite heartfelt music, the DDP-1 and PS-5 ascended to the top of their respective product categories. From old school gritty blues rock to acoustic guitar to a full blown symphony, this Audio Alchemy combination supplied stellar sound in spades.
- Products - Audio Alchemy DDP-1 and PS-5
- Price - $1,995 (DDP-1) and $595 (PS-5)
- Product Pages - DDP-1 Link, PS-5 Link
- User Manuals - DDP-1 PDF Link, PS-5 PDF Link
- Dealers & Distributors - Link
Where To Buy:
Computer Audiophile Sponsor: The Audio Salon
- Source: SOtM sMS-1000SQ Windows Edition, MacBook Pro
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
- Products - Audio Alchemy DDP-1 and PS-5