The color touchscreen on the front of the DirectStream DAC allows you to control most of its functions, duplicating the remote control; however, the remote control operates other items PS Audio manufactures, like the PerfectWave Transport, so it has a lot of buttons unrelated to the DAC. If, like me, you’re suffering from remote control overload, it’s quite convenient to be able to control all your PS Audio gear with a single remote.
Starting at the left end of the rear panel, there’s the IEC input for AC power and the on/off switch. To the right, towards the bottom of the panel, is the horizontal slot for the PerfectWave Bridge expansion card and an opening for an SD memory card. About halfway across, the rear panel is divided into two sections: input and output. The bottom section is the output section, where the XLR and RCA output jacks are located. In the top section, you’ll find the input jacks.
Setting Up and Using the DirectStream DAC
Although the DirectStream DAC can drive an amplifier directly, PS Audio recommends you not use both output jacks simultaneously. Because I use a subwoofer with my main speakers, I plugged the DAC’s output into my Audio Research SP20 preamp, which will drive my main speakers and subwoofer. Digital sources plugged into the DirectStream DAC included my HP laptop computer running Windows 7 and J. River Media Center 19, an Auraliti PK100 PCM and DSD File Player with its optional linear power supply, and a Meridian 500 CD transport. Hold on, a transport? Isn’t that kind of Stone Age? Well, I still use a transport to play CDs inappropriate to rip, like those borrowed from my local library or from visitors. I also had the use of a PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter (reviewed by Anthony Cordesman in Issue 241), which when connected to the DirectStream DAC via the I2S connection, passes raw DSD formatted music converted from an LP. Music files used by both J. River and the Auraliti were stored on a NetGear ReadyNAS network-attached storage drive connected by an Ethernet cable through my home router to either server. The HP laptop was connected to the DirectStream DAC by Wireworld Platinum Starlight USB and AudioQuest Diamond USB cables (not at the same time), the Auraliti server used a Wireworld Gold Starlight 6 SPDIF cable, while the Meridian transport used a Wireworld Gold Starlight 5 AES/EBU cable. PS Audio includes a heavy-duty power cord, but a better cord should produce better sound, so I used an Audience Power Chord e cord. Clarity Cables Organic balanced interconnects connected the DirectStream DAC to my preamp. The manual recommended plugging the DirectStream DAC into one of PS Audio’s Power Plant power centers, but lacking one of those, I plugged it into an Audience aR6-T power conditioner.
It was easy to install the driver software necessary for the DirectStream DAC to work with Windows. However, as with any driver installation, a few basic computer skills are required: extracting files from a ZIP file and running the SETUP.EXE file.
Once the driver was installed, I had to adjust the settings on my music server program J. River, so it would use the new driver. That too, was simple—if you’re comfortable with J. River. My Auraliti server, being a Linux computer, didn’t require a driver for USB, and no drivers are required for SPDIF connections.
PS Audio suggested breaking in the DirectStream DAC for two weeks. That’s a good starting point, but actually, the DAC continued to break in for two months, running almost 24/7. I noticed that the highs, which were initially a little edgy, became smoother and sweeter, the bass more extended, and the overall sound more spacious. If you audition a DirectStream DAC, be sure it’s well broken-in.
PS Audio claims the DirectStream DAC “uncovers all the missing information hiding in your digital audio media for all these years.” That’s a pretty tall claim; is it for real, or just hype? I’ll let my listening buddy Carl answer that. When he entered the listening room where the DirectStream DAC was playing, he stopped, listened intently, and said, “That’s a lot of detail!” And that was before I introduced him to the DAC. Carl is pretty familiar with my system and room, so the fact that he noticed the increased detail before I even pointed out the DAC is a genuine testament to the validity of PS Audio’s claim.
I had wondered if the additional information the DirectStream DAC claims to retrieve from a digital recording would be easy to hear, or would be subtle low-level information that I’d have to strain to discern. Well, the answer was: both. The first thing I noticed about the DirectStream DAC’s sonic characteristics was its ability to capture a sense of space. Even recordings that had seemed a bit flat had some air around them, and those with already well-defined soundstages had those soundstages more precisely defined, with more information about the recording venue.
The DirectStream DAC also captured more mechanical detail, more information about the physical process of playing back music. That includes a variety of things, for example, the noises a guitar makes when it’s playing music. And I could hear more clearly how a vocalist articulated words and phrases. In addition to the physical details, the DirecStream DAC captured a ton of harmonic detail that made instruments and voices seem more realistic, instead of cardboard imitations of instruments. If the recording contained lots of harmonic details, I could hear those reproduced in accurate proportions. Indeed, after the DAC was broken in, I’d describe its sound as sweet and relaxed, so there’s no need to worry that you’ll hear unpleasant threadbare sound. But wait, there’s more: The DirectStream DAC also captured lots of information about dynamic contrasts—both macrodynamic and microdynamic. Finally, if the recording permitted, the DirectStream DAC put all the musical information into context, so it was easy to hear how the all those parameters— detail, harmonics, dynamics, and space—related to each other to portray a coherent musical event. It didn’t just tell you how a violin sounded; it also told you how it sounded relative to the rest of the orchestra. The DAC was able to organize the information it retrieved to make its presentation more like a musical performance.
Does this sound like more insane reviewer ravings? I can certainly see how it might, so let me cite a few musical examples that led me to these conclusions. I made an effort to listen to old favorite recordings ripped from CDs, as well as newer high-resolution releases. I queued up Chris Jones’ “God Moves on the Water” from his CD Roadhouses and Automobiles [Stockfish] ripped to an AIFF file. The first thing I noticed was the subterranean bass this track is noted for, presented with lots of detail and power. Then I observed that I heard more extraneous guitar sounds. Guitar harmonics were abundant. Jones’ gravelly voice seemed unusually well fleshed-out harmonically. A visiting audiophile (not Carl) remarked that this track sounded like a high-resolution recording—not a bad start for a listening session.