Although the Mystique was broken in already, I let it play in the background over several days to help it recover from its inevitable travel blahs. Then I sat down to listen seriously. I began by queuing up an album that’s been occupying lots of my listening time lately, Nordic Noir [96/24 FLAC, Decca/London Records/Presto Classical], a collection of minimalist pieces from Nordic countries, with violinist Mari Samuelsen and her brother Håkon Samuelsen playing solo violin and cello, respectively, and the Trondheim Soloists playing the orchestral part. The music on this collection tends to be of fairly low energy, at least until you reach Arvo Pärt’s “Darf Ich” (“May I”), where Mari’s violin could peel paint off the wall. I heard very solid, full-bodied sound, harmonically accurate and complete, with plenty of detail but devoid of etch or peakiness. Even on the aforementioned track the violin still sounded like a violin. Overall, the music’s structure was easy to make out, and dynamics were realistic and wide-range. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard more from this recording.
If the Mystique sounded that good on a relatively new favorite, how would it sound on the oldest fave in my collection, “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” from La Folia 1490-1701 [44.1/16 AIFF, Alia Vox] performed by Jordi Savall and his band of early music specialists? It sounded quite natural and unstrained, with deep, punchy bass from the drum, and very detailed sound from the other instruments. The busy percussionist’s output was audible throughout the piece, whereas with some DACs, those instruments sort of mush into a background noise. There’s one section where the castanets go wild in a clattering cacophony, and the Mystique slightly compressed the energy there. However, microdynamics were clear and continuous; some DACs make them sound like discrete steps rather than a continuously varying-level output. I’ve heard somewhat more widespread soundstaging in this piece through other gear. Although the Mystique’s performance was very good, the instruments didn’t spread across the soundstage quite as precisely as with some DACs, but this was barely noticeable and hardly a shortcoming.
Let’s move on to “The Lads of Wamphray March” from Lincolnshire Posy [176.4/24 FLAC, Reference Recordings] performed by the Dallas Wind Ensemble led by Jerry Junkin. In the unlikely event you’re wondering, Wamphray was a parish located in the former county of Dumfriesshire, Scotland, according to werelate.org. As on most Reference Recordings releases, bass went deep with lots of impact, detail abounded, and instrumental tone sounded accurate. At least that’s how it sounded through the Mystique. I fancied I could tell that the band was having fun playing this piece.
Finally, some solo vocal music: Shelby Lynne’s “Just a Little Lovin’” from the album of the same name [Analogue Productions]. These 96/24 AIFF files were converted from the Analogue Productions DSD64 version by using the dBPoweramp program. Although my subwoofers were temporarily disconnected due to an amplifier review going on concurrently, I still heard fairly deep bass with tons of detail, and Lynne’s skilled vocal inflections as she interpreted this popular song. Instruments were detailed and realistic, too. I didn’t miss the DSD version at all.
My $5995 PS Audio DirectStream DAC could hardly be more different from the Mystique. It can play files up to DSD128 and DXD (384/24), and eschews a standard DAC chip in favor of a field-programmable gate array coded by digital guru Ted Smith that converts everything to 20X DSD then back down to 2X DSD; it sends the signal to the 24dB-per-octave decoding filter, which drives the output cables directly—there’s no output stage. There’s an elaborate touchscreen color display, numerous inputs, and both XLR and RCA output connections. One of the DirectStream’s most attractive features is that it continues to improve over time via software updates. PS Audio frequently releases free upgrades for the operating software, which users can load into the DAC via an SD card reader in the back. Unlike some upgrades, these have all been quite obvious improvements, not just minor changes.
The string tone on Nordic Noir was just beautiful through the PS Audio DAC. Instruments had plenty of bloom and air around them. Mari Samuelsen’s violin—even when it shrieked as if in pain during the “Darf Ich” piece—never sounded ugly or like anything other than a violin. Dynamic levels ranged from very soft to quite loud, and the PS Audio DAC tracked them accurately.
On playback of “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” the PS Audio didn’t reveal all the differences between the opening strikes on the cascabels; they sounded less distinct, more alike than on the Mystique, but the bass extended just as deeply and with as much detail. The overall sound was perhaps just a tad darker, but instruments were fully developed harmonically, and dynamics had that coiled-spring explosiveness that gives this piece its rhythmic power. Soundstaging was excellent, with instruments spread out between the speakers.
“The Lads of Wamphray March” was reproduced with infectious enthusiasm. Here again, instruments were fully fleshed out harmonically and soundstaging widely expanded. I had to take a quick glance to confirm the subwoofers were still disconnected; the amount of bass punch and depth made me temporarily forget their absence.
I played “Just a Little Lovin’” twice—once in the original DSD version and again in the converted AIFF 96/24 version. To my surprise, the bass on the DSD version was a bit deeper and punchier, so the conversion was not perfect. But for comparison purposes, I used the AIFF version. Bass was still relatively punchy, and Lynne’s voice was quite palpable, with an upfront presence. There was a lot of air around her voice, as though she were present in front of me. Soundstaging was wide open. Percussion instruments’ leading-edge transients seemed just a little less sharp than through the Mystique, though I’m not sure which DAC’s rendering was more accurate.
Both DACs were among the best I’ve heard. They each sounded different, but it would be hard to say which was better. That wasn’t just my opinion—the usual audiophile buddies visiting my listening room were equally divided: Some preferred the Mystique, some liked the PS Audio. That’s something new. Previously, preferences when comparing other DACs have been universally in favor of the PS Audio. The PS Audio DAC’s soundstage was more fully fleshed-out, but the Mystique was brighter and a smidgen more open.
So far I’ve dealt with sonic differences between the two DACs, but there are also ergonomic contrasts that affect the ownership experience. The PS Audio’s color touchscreen provides lots of useful playback information and allows you to operate the DAC via its screen; its remote control can be used to access most features, including using the built-in volume control to drive one (but only one) power amp directly, so you may not need a linestage. As mentioned above, I also appreciate PS Audio’s meaningful operating system upgrades which have steadily improved the DAC’s sound—for free. The PS Audio has a wider assortment of inputs, including two I2S inputs that let you use HDMI cables to connect other PS Audio digital devices, including an SACD transport, a phono preamp with a digital output (so you can make digital recordings of your records), and a forthcoming server/streamer that sounds very interesting. Also available is a Bridge II expansion card, which plugs into a slot in the rear of the DAC and turns it into a full-fledged digital music playback system, with a network input. It can even perform the first MQA unfolding step, though not full MQA decoding.
So which was better? I’m calling it a tie—it’s a matter of personal preference.
Earlier I posed a question: Do technical advances automatically equal sonic improvements? I assert that the answer is no, not automatically; it all depends how those technical advances are implemented. Just specifying the latest DAC chip doesn’t mean a new DAC will sound better than an older one. Reviewing the Mystique v3 was a revealing experience. The Mystique showed me it’s possible for a very basic DAC that only plays medium-resolution PCM files to sound remarkably good. Forget MQA, forget DXD, forget DSD—what matters is whether it sounds good—and the Mystique sounded better than almost every other DAC I’ve heard in my system. Isn’t that what really matters? It is to me, but it might not to audiophiles for whom equipment features matter more than music. In addition to its excellent sound, the Mystique v3 is simple to operate—no complex controls, filter settings, up/down/sideways sampling, color schemes, or other choices to confuse you. Very highly recommended.
Specs & Pricing
Inputs: USB, SPDIF on coax and TosLink
Outputs: One RCA and one XLR
DAC and filtering: Analog Devices’ AD1862 R-2R ladder DAC chips, no adjustable filters
Dimensions: 17.5" x 3.25" x 12"
Weight: 23 lbs.
3501 Vail Avenue SE, Unit C
Albuquerque, NM 87106
Loudspeakers: Affirm Audio Lumination; Syzygy SLF870 wireless subwoofers (2)
Amplifiers: Berning ZH-230 stereo amplifier, Audio Research VT80SE stereo amplifier
Preamplifier: Audio Research LS28 line stage
Digital sources: Dell Latitude E6330 laptop computer with an Intel i5 processor, 16GB of RAM, and 256GB SSD running 64-bit Windows 10 Professional and Roon music server software; SOtM sMS-200 network music player with mBPS-d2s power supply; QNAP TS-251 NAS; all servers and digital players connected to a PS Audio DirectStream DAC
Interconnects: Crystal Cable Piccolo, Clarity Cables Organic, Audience Au24SX, Purist Audio Design Venustas, Wireworld Cable Gold Eclipse 7, CablePro Freedom, Crimson RM Music Link, Van den Hul The Mountain
Speaker cables: Crimson RM Music Link
Power cords: Purist Audio Design Venustas, Blue Marble Audio Blue Lightning, Clarity Cables Vortex, Audience powerChord, Au24 SE LP powerChord
Digital cable: Audience Au24 SE USB
Power conditioners and distribution: Audience aR6-T