Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
This has been one of my most difficult reviews in more than a decade of reviewing audio gear. While the PS Audio PerfectWave MKII DAC (PWD) is primarily a DAC, with its multitude of inputs and options, it can be much more than just a DAC. The PWD is part of PS Audio's PerfectWave system. The other source components that complete the system are the PerfectWave Transport (which is reviewed separately) and the PerfectWave Bridge, which allows the DAC to stream audio from a computer network or play music from a disc. My review sample had the Bridge installed, as it was the network audio streaming capability that the Bridge provides that really piqued my interested in the PerfectWave system. Many purists will be pleased to know that the PWD is also a preamplifier, making a separate preamplifier unnecessary (unless you want the option of listening to other sources).
The unit reviewed here is the MKII version with the Bridge. The PWD itself retails for $3,995 and the Bridge is an additional $795. Owners of the MKI version or one without a Bridge can easily upgrade their units, as discussed below in The Hookup section. The PWD is an extremely sophisticated DAC built around a Wolfson WM8741 stereo differential DAC. Seven digital inputs, including I2S over HDMI, toslink, S/PDIF, AES/EBU, USB and network inputs, are available. The inputs are all asynchronous, with the network input accepting up to 192 kHz/32-bit data and the USB accepting up to 192 kHz/24-bit signals. This should allow users to play just about any high-resolution audio file. Most types of audio file will work, including FLAC, WAV, AIFF, ALAC and many more.
The PS Audio website details many technological highlights, including an array of audiophile components and selectable filters, but the piece of technology that really makes the PWD stand out is the Digital Lens. The Bridge has had its own Digital Lens since its introduction, but the PWD only received its own Digital Lens with the MKII iteration. The Digital Lens is PS Audio's proprietary jitter-reduction device. I was first introduced to the idea of jitter reduction with Theta Digital's Timebase Linque Conditioner and long discussions with Theta's lead designer, Mike Moffat. I became a believer in jitter reduction then and PS Audio's Digital Lens reaffirmed my belief in it. I note that the Bridge has its own Digital Lens because, when the Bridge is selected as the input, the signal is run through two Digital Lenses.
Input selection, as well as phase, volume, balance, filter and sample rate selections, can be made from either the included remote control or the generously-sized touch screen that dominates the front panel of the PWD. The PWD is a full-sized audio component with rounded corners and a horizontal accent line bisecting the front panel. The aluminum and steel chassis is made in Boulder, Colorado, and is available in black or silver with a polished black MDF top. The chassis does not have the jewel-like finish of a Rowland, but it is clean, attractive and feels very solid. The PWD has the same industrial design as PS Audio's PerfectWave Transport; the two look nearly identical, with the exception of the disc drawer on the transport.
While the above provides an overview of the PWD's features and some information on the technology utilized, there is a lot more information available on the PS Audio website. PS Audio also has a very active forum that Paul McGowan, the head of PS Audio, actively participates in, allowing owners or those interested in PS Audio gear access to loads of information. The company has a well-deserved reputation for excellent customer service, which is accessible via telephone or Internet.
The PerfectWave components are packed in a unique, environmentally responsible manner. The PWD was sandwiched between two flexible sheets of clear plastic, suspended by cardboard frames. (I note that this system was very easy to unpack, but an extra set of hands was very helpful with repacking.) When I originally received the PWD, it was a first-generation unit. Just as I was finishing the first version of this review, the MKII version of the PWD was announced. The end user could upgrade existing units with no need to send it in to the dealer or factory. The difference between the MKI and MKII units included moving from a 24/96 USB input to 24/192, which meant improved power supplies, balance control and a Digital Lens for the remaining inputs (the Bridge already had its own lens).
The MKII upgrade kit came with everything necessary to perform the upgrade: parts, tools, a soft cloth to place the PWD on and even new screws, so that the upgraded unit would have unmarred screw heads. The process was relatively simple, with easy to follow written and video instructions. The increase in performance was significant, and my listening notes below are all based on my listening to the upgraded MKII version of the PWD.
My review system changed over my extended review period with the PWD. The PWD was always placed on a Billy Bags rack, with no additional damping or vibration control. Power conditioning was by Richard Gray. I did not have an opportunity to try out PS Audio's new PowerBase, which combines power conditioning and vibration control. Disc transports included PS Audio's PerfectWave Transport and an Oppo Digital BDP-95, respectively connected by Kimber Cable's HD-19 (I2S via HDMI) and DV-75 cables. Computer audio files were played back two ways. First was through a MacBook Air running Amarra and connected to the PWD with Kimber's B Bus AG USB cable. Second was by using a DLNA server over an Ethernet connection to the Bridge input. I used this method with both OSX- and Windows-based machines, and with PS Audio's eLyric Music Manager and J River Media Center 18. Entire articles can be, and have been, written on DLNA music server software, so I will not go into them here. If you are interested in learning more about these programs and how they perform with the PWD, I recommend browsing the PS Audio Community forum. The PWD also has wireless network connectivity built in, but as my main network switch was only a few feet away from the PWD, I did not try the wireless connection.
There have been numerous firmware updates to both the PWD and the Bridge, all of which were simple to perform. The Internet forums are abuzz with discussion as to which firmware versions sound the best. I did hear some relatively small variations between versions and ended up using PWD firmware 2.2.0 because it worked best with 176.4 kHz/24-bit files.
Read about the performance of the PerfectWave MKII DAC on Page 2.
It is clear that the PWD MKII has a plethora of features, making it a veritable Swiss Army knife for digital audio signals, but how does the PWD sound? Let's face it, no matter how many different types of inputs, outputs or processing capabilities a device has, they are not worth much if the sound quality does not keep up. I quickly learned that there was no need to worry about features taking precedence over sound quality at PS Audio. The sound quality of the PWD MKII was excellent.
The Scala & Kolacny Brothers self-titled album (Atco, CD) has been getting a lot of play after being introduced to me by MBL's Jeremy Bryan. The album features acoustic covers of rock songs by a girls' choir and a piano. Two tracks in particular have become favorites, Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" and Radiohead's "Creep." The voices and piano were natural and relaxed. The overall soundstage was large, but it was easy to pick out individual voices. The PWD not only got the nuanced details and spacing right, it more importantly did so with a sense of emotional attachment. While the term spookiness may seem a bit much, it comes to mind when trying to describe the sense of presence possessed by these tracks when played through the PWD.
Sticking with acoustic performances, I listened to Nils Lofgren's "Keith Don't Go" off of the Acoustic Live album. (Capitol, CD) I played this track back several times in several ways, including off the network through the Bridge, from my MacBook Air via USB, off a CD using either the PerfectWave Transport or Oppo BDP-95 as a transport, and also through the Oppo BDP-95's balanced analog outputs.
I found the Bridge to provide the best sound, with the PerfectWave Transport via I2S a close second. These two inputs provided more detail, particularly in defining the instrument edges in space than Coax and USB, which were similar to each other but provided slightly less defined images than the Bridge or I2S inputs. Comparing the sound of the PWD to the Oppo BDP-95's internal DACs, the Oppo BDP-95 had a more forward sound, with stronger but less detailed bass. The bass notes through the PWD were natural-sounding, with lots of texture and detail. While the BDP-95 still provides great bang for the buck performance, in comparison, the bass notes sounded as though a DJ bumped up the EQ settings and the texture present through the PWD was diminished, leaving a softer, more bloated sound in the bass region. The vocals through the Oppo were more forward than through the PWD, with the PWD sounding more balanced and natural. The imaging was similar but more defined through the PWD.
As the presentation between the Oppo and PWD were so different, I was curious as to which provided a more authentic and accurate presentation. For that, I turned to Dean Peer's album Airborne (ILS, CD). Dean has played at some industry shows and, besides being one of the nicest guys you will ever meet, he is a heck of a bass player. Being familiar with his playing, I listened to this album through both. Each piece of equipment was good, but listening to Airborne through the PWD more closely resembled what I remembered hearing when listening to Dean play live.
The PWD's great sense of soundstage space was confirmed by using an old favorite of mine, Fairfield Four's "Roll Jordan Roll," from their album Standing in the Safety Zone (World Entertainment, CD). Again, the presentation was very natural on the vocals. There was good spacing in the soundstage, with the lead vocalists up front and the rest of the choir kicking in around 2:15 into the track just behind them.
Moving on to another old favorite of mine, "Birdland" from the album Fatha by Earl Hines (RealTime Records, CD), many of you know "Birdland" as a jazz standard, but this version is a bit different, with Red Callender playing the tuba. The blat of the tuba was very lifelike. Each instrument was solidly positioned in a three-dimensional image, providing a realistic sense of spacing. Overall, there was a little less warmth than with the McIntosh MCD-500, but a bit more resolution.
One of the PWD's strong points is that it is equally at home with high-resolution recordings and with standard red book. Reference Recordings was kind enough to send me a couple of their high-resolution HRx recordings. One piece I have especially enjoyed is "Bacchanale" from Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah on the Exotic Dances from the Opera disc (Reference Recordings, HRx). This is a dynamic orchestral piece with a very large soundstage, with lots of detail in the strings and wind instruments. The instruments are portrayed with sufficient detail to form solid images, which are not romanticized. The drums are dynamic with solidity and visceral slam without any bloat. The soundstage is deep, extending well beyond the front wall of my listening room and laterally beyond the outer edges of my speakers. The individual instruments were discernable, with solid placement and clarity akin to a good seat in the lower third of the Hollywood Bowl (summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) I also listened to a standard-resolution copy of this recording on CD. In comparison, the high-resolution version had a more defined, slightly larger soundstage. As expected, there was more detail, allowing me to hear farther into the image, but the biggest benefit was the increase in texture of the sound of each instrument, bringing a heightened sense of realism.
Using the PWD as a music server involves more than listening. For the most part, I used the network connection to the Bridge and either PS Audio's eLyric Music Server or JRiver's Media Center software controlled by PS Audio's or JRemote. I have spent less time with the JRiver software than eLyric, but it seems to be more stable. If the rumors are accurate, a version of JRiver optimized for the PWD should be available soon.
There are no downsides when it comes to the PWD's sound quality. Some may prefer a warmer or more polite sonic signature, such as those provided by Cary, McIntosh and others, might go the other way and want something more forward, such as what the Oppo BDP-95 provides. Are there other DACs that are better? Nothing I had on hand bested the PWD, but my limited experiences with and non-direct comparisons to the higher-end DCS stacks and Meitner pieces (both of which cost significantly more) indicate that these pieces may have an even higher overall level of performance.
As for features, I would have liked to see a headphone output included, especially as the PWD may be replacing the preamplifier in some systems. If the PWD were going to take the place of both a digital front end and preamplifier, many would welcome this feature. Another feature I would like to see implemented is SACD/DSD support. However, I do not consider this as crucial, given the relatively small number of available DSD audio files and the capability to transcode these files. The last feature I would like to see is a USB input for thumb drives. As we get away from disc-based media, I suspect that the use of portable drives will be on the rise.
Now for the complaints. In all fairness, they are not with the PWD itself, but rather the music software that is required in order for the Bridge to function. PS Audio's free eLyric Music Manager usually works fairly well, but can be glitchy. Those who listen to a lot of classical will also miss gapless playback functionality. While the eLyric software has been steadily improving, many listeners are reporting a better experience with third-party solutions, such as JRiver's Media Center. PS Audio seems to recognize this shortcoming, as it is working on a virtual sound card that would make the use of third-party programs for network-streamed audio much easier to use and there are abundant rumors of a PS Audio partnership with JRiver for a PerfectWave system-optimized software solution that should be released shortly. An easy to use, sound quality-optimized, reliable and responsive software package would bring the overall user experience up a level.
Competition and Comparison
There are a whole bunch of DACs on the market. More and more of them are now coming with good, high-resolution capable USB inputs. However, network streaming-capable DACs are still pretty rare. There are a few on the market from Cambridge Audio, Pioneer, Marantz and others that have network functionality but are not at the sound quality level of the PWD. Linn and Naim have a few network-capable DACs that probably are in the same performance range, but I have not personally heard them (outside brief CES demonstrations). I expect this product category to grow rapidly. Marantz also has a new Network Audio Streamer the NA-11S1 coming to its reference line this spring, and NAD also showed some prototype streamers at CES. To learn more, visit the HomeTheaterReview.com DAC page.
The PerfectWave MKII DAC is one of the best-sounding sources I have heard. When fed a high-quality recording, the PWD will provide a richly detailed and lifelike presentation. While I never found the sound of the PWD to be harsh or unmusical, there is no romanticizing or added warmth that was not on the recording.
With CDs and DVD-ROMs, the best performance was when the PerfectWave Transport with its I2S connection was utilized. Computer audio files were capable of offering the same or higher-quality performance with a properly configured system. Either way, it is important to recognize that the best possible performance will likely require more than simply connecting the PWD to a pre-existing setup. However, with some basic setup, it is easy to get a truly exceptional digital front end.
Aside from some of the control glitches with the computer playback software, the PWD was a joy to use. The large touch-screen on the front provided status, information on the signal (file type and resolution) and even cover art. The various control applications for iOS devices are continuing to improve as well. Occasional glitches would not of course be applicable to playback with the PerfectWave Transport (or other transports).
The PS Audio PerfectWave MKII DAC is a great piece of equipment and I can recommend it without hesitation. The user experience with its DAC portion is excellent. The experience is good with this device as a music streamer, but I would like to see a better integrated software package to improve the computer audio streaming experience and DSD/SACD support. I know that PS Audio is working on both of these matters and that improvements will be available to current owners. Those looking for a state of the art DAC would be doing themselves a disservice not to audition the PWD.