September 29, 2014 - PS Audio's DirectStream DAC, reviewed in Issue 245, has been updated with a firmware upgrade. Instead of using a standard DAC chip, the DirectStream DAC uses a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), programmed by designer Ted Smith, to perform all DAC functions. That makes it easier to implement firmware changes to the DAC's functions, and several have been made already. But version 1.2.1 is touted as a major upgrade to the sound of the DAC, to the extent that PS Audio CEO Paul McGowan is describing it as a "new DAC." So of course, I had to see how it stacks up against the original DAC. Actually, I had already installed one upgrade to the DAC, with version number 1.1.5, and that made a distinct improvement. So I compared the new firmware upgrade to version 1.1.5.
Firmware upgrades for the DirectStream DAC are recorded on SD cards like those used for camera memory. You can download the upgrade files from the PS Audio website and copy them onto the SD card. Then you turn off the DirectStream DAC, insert the SD card in a slot in the rear of the DAC (contacts facing up), and turn the power back on. The front button with the PS Audio logo will blink while the upgrade is being installed. When the blinking stops, the upgrade has been performed, and the DAC will go through its normal initialization process. You can remove the SD card and enjoy the hopefully improved sound.
So does the upgrade deserve all the fuss PS Audio is making about it? In a word, yes. Playing the DSD version of Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin' album, the first thing I noticed was deeper bass, with more impact. Also, there was more air around Lynne's voice, with better focus and detail, and a wider soundstage. I thought leading edge transients were a bit sharper, also. None of these changes made an enormous difference, but the upgrade is definitely a must-do, especially since it's free. Well, almost; you have to buy an SD card, and once you buy one, you can reuse it for the next upgrade. If your camera uses SD card, use one of those.
Does the upgrade deserve to be described as a new DAC? Well, it is a new DAC--the inner circuitry has been changed, and to my ear, noticeably improved. I've paid lots of money for hardware upgrades to components that made no more improvements than PS Audio's DirectStream DAC upgrade--and it's free. Or if you prefer, PS Audio will send it to you on an SD card for $19.95.