PS Audio makes two DACs, the NewWave at $995 and the high-end PerfectWave MKII at $3995, both built in Boulder, Colorado, USA. After recently reviewing the very impressive low- priced NewWave model and concluding that it is both outstanding and a bargain, I could not resist moving on to try out the high-end MKII model. How much better can digital audio sound?
There were two deeper related reasons for doing so, however. First of all, the NewWave led me to rid my system of its CD player. I am very grateful. PS Audio’s NewWave proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that CD players are dead — Q.E.D. (Quite Elegantly Demonstrated — in layman’s terms). Additionally, the MKII promised to rid my system of its 50 pound Marantz SC-7S2 preamplifier — another middleman removed. That is not trivial. This outstanding preamp even now sells new for $4000. No need for this? As stated on the PS Audio Website, ‘Our first choice for connecting the MKII to your system is all by itself and directly into your best power amplifier without going through a preamplifier first. There’s simply “no preamp like no preamp” and the MKII direct into your system provides a remarkably clean, simple and elegant path for the music.’
The MKII even has a balance control.
Secondly, the super-sophisticated technology built in the MKII is mind blowing. We are not talking about mere cosmetic changes/differences with the NewWave, but major and significant advances and improvements in DAC technology. Not only does the MKII use as its heart, a Wolfson WM8741 stereo differential DAC chip, a new generation of high-end such chips that can handle 32-bit input up to 192kHz and even has a built-in volume control, but the MKII also uses high-speed analog switches instead of saturated logic digital switches. If that were not enough, it also has 11 separately regulated power supplies dispersed within the unit, fixed digital clocks, and a unique PS Audio ‘Digital Lens’ technology that allows for a new ‘NativeX’ mode option different from the standard Native mode option. Although both Native modes play the exact resolution as fed to it, the NativeX mode in PS Audio’s own words, ‘will reduce incoming jitter levels jitter on any input of the MKII to below 1 pico second, regardless of how jittered the incoming signals are.’
Impressed? Well, I am not quite done yet tooting PS Audio’s horn. In addition to USB with XMOS based asynchronous input for connecting to a computer, the MKII has 6 other asynchronous digital inputs (including two I2S over HDMI inputs), five apodizing and phase correct filters to choose from, the ability to reverse the polarity (phase) of any input or piece of music played — by the simple push of a button, and a small, elegant and slim hand-held remote control that allows you to adjust volume, balance, and change all the various options I just mentioned. You can even connect different sources to the MKII at the same time using different digital inputs (a CD player, a computer, and a transport, for example), and shuffle through them at your leisure using the remote control. Finally, there is an optional ‘PerfectWave Bridge’, either already installed when you buy the MKII or to be installed later by yourself, that allows you to stream audio up to 192kHz/32 bit over your home network. (I did not choose this option: I view a ‘home’ as meaning a ‘house’ meaning having at least three times as much space as my New York City apartment.)
I point out right up front so as not to scare the reader away with all this extraordinary technology. The MKII’s vast complexity is hidden entirely inside. Setting up the MKII is very easy to do, and using it is remarkably simple.
For this review, I connected the DAC directly to my amps using XLR interconnects thus requiring only one set of analog interconnects for my entire system. You can also use RCA interconnects if you so wish. I only used the USB input connected to my Mac Mini as server using Pure Music, and focused on the NativeX and Native modes. I also focused on PS Audio’s two most recommended filter options, Auto (Automatic) and MP Apod (Minimum Phase Apodising). Then, I listened to a wide variety of music to determine if and how all of this sophisticated technology translates into audiophile quality sound. To prepare for this, I first burned in the unit for several days by playing music continuously 24 hours a day by having my Mac Mini randomly select music ad infinitum.
Setting Up The MKII
I chose the black model; it also comes in silver. Physically, at 14” (L) x 17” (W) x 3.5” (H), it is twice the width of the NewWave model, but identical in length and height, and retains the same sleek look. It weighs in at 22.4 pounds (versus 12 pounds for the NewWave). It took all of 20 minutes to set it up within my system, with most of that time spent disconnecting and lugging my 50 pound preamplifier out of the cabinet to make way for the MKII. All I had to do: Snap two XLR cables (already attached to my two mono amps on one end) into the back of the MKII, attach a USB cable (already attached to my Mac Mini on one end from its previous use for the NuWave), plug in a power cord, and then turn on the unit.
Setting the option to NativeX mode (or any other mode) is done by pressing a button on the front panel touch screen located on the right corner; similar buttons allow choosing the filter option, polarity option, and the USB option. You can also choose such options by using the remote control. All of your selections once chosen are displayed on the touch screen as small blue lights, and a very convenient add on is that even the current sampling rate for the music you are playing is always displayed (44.1kHz, 96kHz, 192kHz, etc.). Volume level is displayed and controlled as a thin lit line on the bottom of the touch panel. Nice and simple — and easy to read. My Mac Mini immediately understood the change to the new MKII DAC and no preference setting changes of any kind were needed in my software to proceed further. This was by far the simplest and most trouble-free upgrade I have ever experienced on my system.
A small blue light button in the upper left corner allows you to put the unit to sleep, known as ‘Ready Mode’, so as to keep on critical internal circuitry, on the one hand, while turning off the front panel lights and the various outputs on the other hand to save energy when not in use. The power switch is on the back, and if you do turn the unit off for a while (overnight, say), it could take several hours after powering back on to get the unit warmed up to par for playing, so you want to avoid doing that whenever possible — use the Ready Mode instead. A very nice feature of Ready Mode is that you can change interconnect cables and USB cables while in this mode instead of turning the unit off entirely to do so. Since I planned to experiment with several interconnects and USB cables, this was welcome news.
How Does It Sound?
After five continuous days of burn in, the MKII’s performance opened up dramatically and I was stunned at what I heard: An impeccably smooth, soft, fluid and natural sound with a warmth and openness at all frequencies that was totally new to me. And all this while retaining the crucial (to me) lively, precise clarity of percussion attack and decay that I demand due to my past as a drummer. A whole new level of quality in sound for my system was apparent.
Although I had numerous CDs ripped and ready as standard Apple Lossless 16bit/44.1kHz files, and was originally planning to deal with them first, I could not help myself and instead went right for the jugular for my initial serious testing: High-resolution 24-bit FLAC files. This was because it was already obvious that the more natural and sharper acoustics and better imaging quality that I had already witnessed with high-resolution files on the NuWave were now on full display with the MKII, and at a level well beyond my previous experience.
I started off with the Steely Dan album ‘Gaucho’ at 96kHz/24 bit. It was truly out of this world; the closest I had ever heard in my apartment to a live performance — so natural and clear with such fine detail of little things like wooden blocks, a bell or two and supporting vocals. Or, so I thought, until I continued onward. I moved next to another selection, ‘Oh, Sussanah’ from James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ at 192kHz/24 bit. Gorgeous. So lovely, that even my 2-and-a-half year-old-daughter immediately took to it and wanted to hear it again. And again. And again. And again. The left channel displayed Taylor’s acoustic guitar so vividly, and the imaging had his warm mid-range voice with its unique American signature right in the center of my listening stage. I re-listened to that one track at least four times before moving on to his more famous track ‘Fire and Rain’ with its tastefully used low-toned tom tom drums backing up his voice that the MKII displayed so naturally. I now appreciate why James Taylor is considered by many to be an American treasure.
Next, I listened to the Norah Jones album ‘Come Away With Me’ at 192kHz/24 bit, in particular, her famed tracks ‘Don’t Know Why’ and ‘Come Away With Me’. I was astounded by the natural, smooth, earthy and seductive warmth of her voice as displayed by the MKII. What a pleasure.
Out of a sudden impulse, I quickly listened to part of the classic ‘Roundabout’ track from the Yes album ‘Fragile’ at 96kHz/24 bit resolution to check on the MKII’s ability to really expose the famous and unique high-pitched acoustics of the snare drum used in Bill Bruford’s drum kit (how Bruford created the sound of that snare is filled with progressive rock folklore). For that assignment, I gave the MKII a letter grade of A+.
After listening to many other high-resolution FLAC files and ripped CDs of popular, jazz, and rock styles with the very same results (Duke Ellington, ‘Concert In The Virgin Islands’, at 96kHz/24bit FLAC, is stunning sounding on the MKII; live performance quality again) it was now time to move on to classical music.
My father, an audiophile and classical pianist himself, had just sent me a classical CD to check out. Although I paid little attention at the time I still have various memories as a teenager of Mark Levinson visiting our house in the 1970s to help my father adjust his equipment and listen to classical music. I also recall my father’s stories of seeing Glenn Gould perform live several times before Gould quit giving live performances in 1964. So, I took his suggested CD seriously and ripped it right away: ‘Beethoven’s Complete Works for Piano and Cello’ performed by Zuill Bailey (cello) and Simone Dinnerstein (piano). It is exquisite. It even contains delightful variations by Beethoven of works by Handel and Mozart. Putting aside the wonderful performance itself (the two musicians work so well together), it was the natural warmth, richness and fullness of the tone from the cello displayed by the MKII that caught my ear. It was astonishing. It really sounded like Bailey’s 1693 Matteo Gofriller cello was anchored on my living room floor with Bailey giving me a private performance. Intrigued, I then listened to Bailey again via the album ‘The Spanish Masters’ as a 88kHz/24bit-FLAC file. This is a bizarre album because Bailey is playing alongside a deceased pianist — the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla himself! How did they do this? Well, they remastered a recording of de Falla playing piano from some time ago, and had Bailey play his cello alongside. Once again, the acoustics as displayed by the MKII of Bailey’s cello playing were simply outstanding and lifelike. And this time Bailey was also noticeably playing his cello using various methods including pizzicato.
The quality of sound of Bailey’s cello from the MKII motivated me to listen to other string instruments in a classical setting through the MKII. Since I was not in the mood for violin, or bass, I compromised — the viola. Similar to the cello in some ways, I find it attractive because it offers that darker, warmer sound that is nuanced with melancholy and is more like a human voice.
The husband of a colleague of mine is a professional violist and was kind enough to come by and suggest listening to Kim Kashkashian playing Bela Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Viola and Orchestra’. He explained to me some of the fascinating history of this odd and technically demanding piece commissioned by the Scottish violist William Primrose in the 1940s. The story involves Bartok himself driving around Manhattan in his car for a meeting, not able to find parking and thus returning home with the intention of returning a week later but never finishing the piece (he died). It was completed by Tibor Serly several years later. All I can say is that the viola sound coming from the MKII was once again remarkably natural and sounded like a live performance. I continued to listen to the whole piece (three tracks total) throughout the evening and the next day. And, although the complexity baffled me at times, and the melancholy aspect was perhaps a dash more than I could take in large doses, the quality of sound was absolutely remarkable. I had never heard a viola sound so lifelike on my system before. So I went one step further. I acquired a 24-bit FLAC file of Kashkashian, ‘Kurtág / Ligeti: Music for Viola’. These are very modern cutting-edge pieces (Kurtág is still alive while Ligeti died in 2006) with very demanding technique, and with unusual subtleties [Audiophiles who want an aleatoric musical challenge, should try György Kurtág's exquisite music - Ed]. The sound of the viola was even more clear and true now, just stunning, with intervals of complete silence followed by riffs of sudden plucking. This is an example where using 24-bit sampling makes a real difference that anyone can notice using a fine high-end DAC and the MKII showed itself off with shining stars.
The PS Audio PerfectWave MKII Digital Analog Converter is in the upper echelon of benchmark digital, particularly due to its extraordinary natural live performance sound, but also because of its price/performance ratio, especially if you consider the amazing technology within it that includes the ability to flawlessly play 32-bit FLAC files up to 192kHz. And then there is its simplicity and ease of use. Keep it on the NativeX mode, and the MP Apod filter option and forget about all else; just listen to music. We expect body, length, nose, and balance for the complex life experience of the finest wines. The MKII delivers just that for digital music.
[It is with great pleasure that we award the Audiophilia Star Component Award to the PS Audio PerfectWave MKII Digital Analog Converter. Congratulations! - Ed]
The PS Audio PerfectWave MKII Digital Analog Converter (DAC)
Manufactured by PS Audio
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, Colorado 80301
Phone: (720) 406-8946
Fax: (720) 406-8967
Source: Reviewer purchase
Asynchronous USB 192kHz input
Native and Native X mode
Integrated volume + balance control
High voltage class A discrete output stage
7 asynchronous digital inputs
Network media DAC capable
Color touch screen with album cover art
Fixed low jitter PerfectWave clocks
24-bit FLAC files
Steely Dan, Gaucho, 96kHz/24bit
James Taylor, Sweet Baby James, 192kHz/24bit
Norah Jones, Come Away With Me, 192kHz/24bit
The Spanish Masters, Isabel Bayrakdarian and Zuill Bailey, 88kHz/24bit
Kim Kashkashian, Kurtág / Ligeti: Music for Viola, 44.1kHz/24bit
Duke Ellington, Concert In The Virgin Islands, 96kHz/24bit
Recomposed by Max Richter - Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, 96kHz/24bit
Billy Cobham, Spectrum, 96kHz/24bit
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7, Conducted by Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic, 88kHz/24bit
Yes, Roundabout, 96kHz/24bit
CDs (converted to Apple Lossless 16bit/44.1kHz)
Beethoven: Complete Works for Piano and Cello, Zuill Bailey and Simone Dinnerstein, Telarc (2006) (2 CDs)
Kim Kashkashian. Bela Bartok: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra. Peter Etvs (Conductor), György Kurtág. ECM (2000)
Fusion India, Passage to India, Navras Record Ltd (2003)
Sting, Brand New Day CD, A&M Records (1999)
Jacintha, Autumn Leaves, the Songs of Johnny Mercer CD, Groove Note Records (1999)
Bob Sneider and Joe Locke, Nocturne for Ava CD, Origin Records (2009)
Sergio Mendes, Brasileiro CD, Elektra / Wea (1992)
Jacques Loussier Trio, The Best of Play Bach, Hybrid SACD - DSD, Original recording remastered, Telarc (2004)
Murray Perahia, Bach, The Goldberg Variations CD, Sony (2000)
Computer (as server) with peripherals: Apple Mac Mini (2013 model with 1TB internal Fusion Drive) running Pure Music/iTunes, with a monitor, keyboard, mouse and LG BE14NU40 external disk drive for CD ripping, and two Seagate Backup Plus 3TB external drives running in RAID 1. An Apple iPad for remote use.
Amplifiers: 2 Wyred 4 Sound W4S mAMP Monoblock Amplifiers
Speakers: B&W 804 Diamond
Speaker cables: Acoustic Zen Hologram II, spade with bi-wire (for the speaker end)
Amps to DAC interconnects: Acoustic Zen Absolute (Zero Crystal Silver) XLR
USB cable from Mac Mini to DAC: Wireworld Platinum USB cable
Power cords for amps: Kaplan Cable HE Mk2
Power cord for MKII DAC: Kaplan Cable GS MkII
Power cord for Mac Mini: P.I. Audio Group MPC/Mini++
Power center: PS Audio Dectet with PS Audio AC-10 power cord
Kaplan Cable customized Hubbell wall outlet for the PS Audio Dectet