PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC

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When my publisher informed me he had made arrangements with PS Audio to do a review of their latest DAC and that I would have the good fortune to do the review, I was interested. My Audiophilia colleague, Karl Sigman, is very high on their products and having heard them at his lovely abode I was looking forward to the arrival of their latest offering.

The Stellar series is comprised of the DAC and a choice of two amplifiers: the S300 stereo amplifier and a pair of S700 Mono-blocks.

As it turns out, the DAC is not only a DAC but a full function preamplifier making it the center piece of a system with remote control operation. It’s quite a package.

Comparing the DAC of the PS Audio Stellar with my reference DEQX HDP 4 processor proved to be challenging. For those of you who are unaware of what the DEQX can do, suffice it to say it offers the ability to greatly modify and alter the sound through its speaker and room correction capabilities. It also allows you to let the signal go through without any modification — that is the way I use it.

My MSB Data CD IV transport has a variety of digital outs and this allowed me to remotely switch between the two DACs. After about 100 hours of burn-in I was ready for some serious listening. 

At my initial listening the two boxes sounded remarkably similar and I could see where I was going to have a difficult time differentiating between the two. Sometimes it just takes a little longer for the salient characteristics to emerge. Both could handle 192kHz/24 bit PCM source material via coax connectors and both offer USB, TOSLINK and ‘I’ squared S connectivity.

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The Stellar’s USB, being of recent vintage, can accept PCM up to 384Khz/24bit and DSD 128 DoP. Many ‘experts’ will tell you that the bigger the numbers the better. Others have stated that anything above 96 kHz/24 bit is pouring money down the drain.

After many hours of listening it became clear that the Stellar DAC had a slight edge in detail, clarity and transparency, while the DEQX offered a little more body, rounded images and weight. The two were so close that I felt one could get equal or greater differences by changing digital interconnects. For this experiment I used an Antipodes Kokiri digital cable on one set-up and an Acoustic Zen Digital 75 on the other. This was quite a revelation considering how well the DEQX had performed as my reference for the last four years.

The DEQX can also function as a preamplifier but is more limited in that regard because it has a fewer number of analogue ins and outs than the Stellar. The full DEQX unit costs USD$5,700. The Stellar DAC sells for a very reasonable USD$1,700. Quite the bargain.

By switching cables back and forth it was quite difficult to tell which set-up was superior and/or which combination proved to be more listenable. Careful note taking was the only way I could be assured that I knew what combination of DAC and cables I was listening to. After many hours of listening it became apparent that the PS Audio enjoyed a slight edge when paired with the Antipodes cable. While the Acoustic Zen produced a more transparent presentation, I preferred the more full bodied result that the PS Audio/Antipodes combination delivered.

In addition, the DAC (via remote control) provides three digital filter settings, that provide greater flexibility in adjusting the final sound quality.

The PS Audio’s Stellar DAC is a well built, quality component with excellent functionality (headphone jack, too) with solid performance at an affordable price. In other words, a true audio bargain. 

Further information: PS Audio

 Reference System

Amplifiers: Merrill VeritasMonoblocks
Preamplifier: Music First Classic v2
Speakers: Alta Audio Celesta FRM-2
Analogue: Avid SEQUEL SP/SME IV arm; Cartridge: Shelter 9000
Phono Preamplifier: AVID Pulsare updated to II
Digital: MSB DATA CD IV Transport
Preamplifier/Processor: The DEQX HDP-4 w/USB option board used as DAC and Subsonic filter; QolSignal Completion Stage
Speaker Cables: ANTICABLES Level 5 SIGNATURE, Acoustic Zen’s Absolute, Waveform Fidelity GS Mk III
Power Cords: Waveform Fidelity GS Mk II
Interconnects: ANTICABLESThe Level 4.1 xlr REFERENCE PLUS XHADOW, Antipodes Audio REFERENCE, Acoustic Zen’s Absolute Copper, Morrow Audio MA-7
Accessories: Redpoint BLAKHOLE’s, Herbie’s Audio Lab Tenderfeet, Soundcare products, Acme Audio Labs wall outlets; Power Conditioning: Waveform Fidelity