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PS Audio PerfectWave DAC MKII review (Part 2)

  • (You can read Part 1 of this review here.)

    Boxing match.  Opening the PerfectWave DAC box is the first sign that the guys at PS Audio take their innovation seriously – the packaging is ingenious. The usual Styrofoam cheeks are nowhere to be found. Instead, the unit is sandwiched between two layers of polyethylene, held taught by a stiff cardboard frame. The PerfectWave DAC effectively floats in the middle of the box. Clever.

    Moreover, support for a PS Audio purchase doesn’t end with the swipe of your credit card. CEO Paul McGowan wants to talk to you directly over on the PS Audio website. He’s active both in the community forum section and he pens regular entries in his own column, Paul’s Posts. A pity that McGowan confesses to only reading the first and last paragraph of reviews.

    The PS Audio website shows off the rare combination of style and substance. In it you will find a whole swirl of information for both existing and prospective product owners. As with any big purchase, the devil is in the details, many of which are discussed at length on their community forum. It’s a good place to start if you hit a roadblock with usability or have a technical question. It’s also where I learned about sonic differences between different PerfectWave firmware revision.

    Firmware. As with the MKI, the MKII PerfectWave is user firmware upgradeable. Grab the latest version (as a .zip) file from your local dealer or this PS Audio community forum thread, unzip its contents to the root directory of an SD card, push it into the slot on the rear (gold teeth face upwards), restart the unit and watch the upgrade progress on the screen. It takes a couple of minutes before the unit again reboots and music flows once more.

    Firmware upgrades don’t just bring functional and on-screen aesthetic changes. Througout 2012, a smattering of PWD users had slowly begun to report a sonic change in moving from 2.0.3 (and 2.0.2) versions to the later 2.2.0 (and 2.1.0) files. After all, it makes intuitive sense. If small perturbations in code can cause desktop PC players to sound different to one another then why not with firmware code? After months of 2.2.0 listening I swallowed an investigative downgrade pill. The USB connection announcement to OS X loses its PSAudio branding and directly references the XMOS receiver chip. The remainder of the review process (another six months!) saw this reviewer stick with 2.0.2.

    Know that the differences that follow are super-subtle but very real. The 2.2.0 firmware draws with musical shapes with a hint of hardness. Think 2H pencil instead of the 2.0.2’s 2B graphite blend.

    The newer firmware brings you a couple of rows closer to the performance; it also plays it with a shade more ebullience. 2.0.2 isn’t as strident in the upper frequencies. It doesn’t try as hard. When playing the likes of Thin White Rope (80s American desert rock) or Julian Cope (90s British psych-pop) the 2.0.2 firmware wins out for this listener due to its softer incision. Those with more laid back rigs might find the spicier 2.2.0 more to their liking. Horses, meet courses.

    Heart of Dark(o)ness. “Hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Kurtz.”

    For ninety-nine percent of reviews, my [crude] listening notes would be re-fashioned into something more coherent. Not this review though. The PerfectWave MKII took this Captain Benjamin Willard deep into Cambodia – so intense was the journey into my music collection that what follows are snippets from notes scribbled as the PerfectWave boat moved me up river over the course of eight months…

    Frazier Chorus – Ray. NUANCED. Natural flow. Analogue gestalt and rich tone combined with superior resolution. Air, detail, texture. Lit up but not over-excited…

    …Built To Spill – Carry The Zero EP. Cheaper DACs throw these guitar shapes like glass shards. The PWD brings smoother edges, even at B2S’s most raucous garage-rock climax. Did someone say analogue? Sit down!

    …David Byrne – Rei Momo. This album is an old friend. Blat from horns. That’s what we want and that’s what we get. Again with the subtlety and nuance and inflections. You can’t fake this shit easily…

    …Elvis Costello – Spike. Tramp The Dirt Down and sweetness begins to raise its head. Is that the sound of run-in?

    …Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Nocturama. Depth, heartiness – a thicker soup laced with noodles…

    …Elvis Costello & The Attractions – My Aim Is True. Wider, taller, deeper, more CONVINCING than budget units. Groove, boogie of Mystery Dance. Greater recording studio/room information. The drum roll that introduces Watching The Detectives unleashes more skin information….

    …Modeselektor Remix Radiohead. Refashion them a new one. Bend and contort bass shapes with percussive stabs and rolling toms that puncture the 130bpm pulse/throb. Big, bold, dumb and widescreen…

    …Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide. Guitar and vocal of Promised Land. Smooth and seductive, without roll or or detail congeal…

    …Cocteau Twins – Heaven Or Las Vegas. Sweetness that’s not saccharine. Nutty sweetness. Almonds? Almonds: smooth at the front of the palette, sweet in the aftertaste…

    …Julian Cope – Jehovahkill. More run in (?), more smoothness, more relaxation/effortlessness, ZERO hint of rigidity/tension/aluminium/metal tinges
    supple, nimble, lithe – gymnast. NOS liquidity – it’s right there. Sumptuous….

    …Thin White Rope – The Ruby Sea. Midnight black, out in the desert. Campfire tunes for the dispossessed. Sinister underpins inviting, involving scene…

    …Remaster of Talk Talk’s Colour Of Spring. The first signs of Mark Hollis’ commercial retreat. Not Hollis sticking it to the man but taking a left turn until the road turns to sand. Detailed, stress-free, percussive shape and texture, acoustic guitar strums interleaved…

    …Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen. Horsin’ Around – subtle cymbals are tickled into life. Even quiet detail is more evident…

    …The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Depth of soundstage, spacious room, easy to ‘see’ drums 6ft back from guitar grind…

    …Pink Floyd – Animals 2011 Remaster. Takes the midrange liquidity of the db Audio Labs Tranquility and runs it up the flagpole. There’s that word ‘analogue’ again.

    MKII vs MKI. A common marketing ploy to extract cash from first generation product owners is to junk the outgoing model with over-enthusiastic verbiage about the incoming upgrade. It’s a lazy tactic used by marketing copywriters (who are paid to do so) and review commentators (who should know better). Thankfully, PS Audio hasn’t resorted to such cheap trickery and I’m not about to fall into that bear pit either.

    Having had the MKI and MKII side by side for a number of weeks, it is clear from even the most cursory A/B switcheroo that the MKII is a step up from its predecessor when deployed in NativeX mode. But – and this is an important but – the MKI is still a superb-sounding DAC. It isn’t ‘broken’ (compared to its successor) and it certainly isn’t ‘mid-fi’. The MKI can still hold its own, easily besting the wave of sub-$2000 DACs that flows through here.

    The aforementioned budget DAC devices are perfectly fine when playing in their own field…but comparative contrast is a bitch. Switch any one of them out for the either PerfectWave and you immediately notice superior bass propulsion and a more wholesome treble (and superior decay). The MKII ices with a further veil lifting and high frequencies that are good enough to lick. There’s zero hint of tension or chromium plating. Sweet as, bro’.

    Think of the MKI as a flat white or a cappuccino. Then picture a long black (Americano). That’s the MKII. It’s tastier and brings more zing. More kick too. Without the milk and froth, you’re closer to the bean, closer to the music. The MKI presentation is a shade more congealed that its successor. The NativeX-ing MKII is more proficient at clearing clean spaces between stage players without a thinning of acoustic mass.

    The PerfectWave MKII isn’t the best DAC in the world either. To say so is dumb hyperbole. Running up a Tom Evans amplifier and Avant Garde Trio hill against a dCS Puccini + uClock saw the dCS ascend with more graceful ease – the PS Audio unit was contrasted as a meal with beautifully presented tonal flavours but tainted by too much pepper and spice. There’s nothing out of the ordinary there. At AU$29k, one would expect the dCS to best the considerably cheaper PS Audio box. That the latter got so close with listener satisfaction and detail trawl is commendable.

    Concluding. A sequel is a tricky thing to get right. Alien or Aliens? The MKII PerfectWave is definitely more James Cameron than Ridley Scott. It’s bigger, bolder and more entertaining than the original.

    The PerfectWave MKII isn’t cheap and I’m not about to toss off some glib remark about it being the same price as more exotic interconnects. That’d be lazy journalism. As your DAC spend rises, so do your expectations. This new PerfectWave more than met mine. It’s superior to the MKI and the upgrade kit ensures existing users can join the party without dumping their old unit on Audiogon or eBay.

    The MKII is proof positive that the value-for-money quotient needn’t crash in more expensive DAC territory, even if it is less common.  So convincing is the Digital Lens’ impact on sound quality, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if PS Audio started licensing this technology to other manufacturers.  Taking a broader perspective, the MKII PWD pulls a hand-brake turn on diminishing returns to serve up sound quality that’s spectacularly vivid.  Here be strength with image specificity, clarity and presence.  Why buy something this expensive when a cheaper DAC would get the job done?  Making the leap is similar to moving from a 6MP point and shoot to a 18MP DSLR with a full frame sensor.

    PS Audio ensures you’re looked after each step of the way: the packaging, customer support, website, YouTube channel and firmware upgrades are solid examples of this manufacturer’s innovative ambition. (Did I mention that each PerfectWave DAC is assembled by hand in Boulder, CO?)  The pay-off from which will no doubt be heightened brand loyalty. In the case of the PerfectWave DAC such brand loyalty is hard earned and well deserved.


    Associated Equipment

    • Logitech Squeezebox Touch + Hiface Two
    • KingRex UD384 + UPower
    • MacMini + JKSPDIF MK3
    • Red Wine Audio Signature 15
    • Audio EL34 Sterling
    • Trafomatic Premise
    • Sansui AU-417
    • Sansui AU-517
    • Sansui AU-719
    • NAD 3020
    • Magnepan MMG
    • WLM La Scala
    • WLM Gran Viola
    • Usher S-520
    • ProAc Tablette Reference 8
    • Zu Omen bookshelves


    Audition Music

    • Frazier Chorus – Ray (1991)
    • Built To Spill – Carry The Zero (1999)
    • David Byrne – Rei Momo (1989)
    • Elvis Costello’s – Spike (1989)
    • Catchers – Mute (1993)
    • Elvis Costello – My Aim Is True (1977)
    • Radiohead – TKOL Remixed (2011)
    • Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide (1991)
    • Cocteau Twins – Heaven Or Las Vegas (1990)
    • Thin White Rope – The Ruby Sea (1991)
    • Talk Talk – The Colour Of Spring (1989)
    • Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen (1985)
    • The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)
    • Pink Floyd – Animals (2011 Remaster)


    Further Information

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to PS Audio. Been following their stuff for years, but somehow it still doesnt pass the smell test. The $1K ‘upgrade’ cards and all the add on fo-fo reeks to me of a rip off. At around $5K by the time you get done, its right there with the Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC ll. Thats one high end piece of kit, and Berkeley dispenses with all the fancy sounding ‘digital lens’ and all that hocus-pocus. I appreciate that. What is a ‘digital lens’ anyway – some kind of crystal or clocker. If thats what it is just call it that, dont insult our intelligence! If I want magic audio stuff I’ll buy Bose.

      • Hey earwaxxer – I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to hear your thoughts on how the PWD MKII stacks up against the Berkeley soundwise.

      • He is a bit of a skeptic and has been following their stuff for years, but has he ever heard it? I somehow don’t think it would be too difficult to insult this guys intelligence!

    2. Hi John, Great review. Your site is excellent. I’ve been thinking of getting the PWD MkII to replace my audio gd Dac19dsp. How does the PWD stack up against the Ref 7.1? Grateful for your thoughts.

    3. Hey John – I would LOVE to see a shootout of sorts between the hottest contenders in the $5K slot. Here is what I would suggest – hint, hint: (1). PWD MKll. (2). Berkeley Alpha DAC ll. (3). Lampizator Level IV or V. (4). MSB ‘The Analog DAC’ or Platinum DAC IV. (5). Metrum NOS Hex DAC. (6)Empirical Audio Overdrive SE. Let the games begin! – My prediction would be the MSB Analog DAC. It is $7K though, so I would expect it to sound better but who knows. Sorry – I a review junkie here – In case you couldnt figure that out!

    4. I read your review, because I am in the market for a high quality DAC, and also because I am a stranger in a strange land, when it comes to DACs and the latest state of digital audio. Thus your review leaves me a bit confused, because you don’t state what source you used to feed the Perfectwave. Judging from your equipment list, I am guessing you used the MacMini. Is that correct? If so, did you use the USB connection or some other? Did you feed the Perfectwave with the output of a transport? One consideration for me is that I have a decent collection of CDs (and a few SACDs) that I would like to be able to listen to via my putative new DAC, and I wonder whether you auditioned the PW with such source material. Thanks for any additional information.

      PS. I am not entirely in disagreement with the fellow who objected to the buzzwords PS Audio has coined to describe the various parts of their circuit. Terms like “Digital Lens” and “NaturalX” (and many others used to describe the parts of the Perfectwave) do not impress me; they only make me suspicious at worst or confused at best. But that’s marketing.

      • Yes Lew, I used the MacMini USB direct into the PWD. The terminology really doesn’t phase me. NativeX = no up-sampling and Digital Lens is Paul McGowan’s name for the buffering technology…which may or may not get ported into other PS Audio products.

    5. Hi John,
      You mentioned you went directly to the PWD MKII from the Mac mini via USB. Did you try going from the Mac mini USB to the SPDIF on the PWD MKII via an Audiophilleo or other converter? Just curious if you tried it or were so satisfied with the straight USB connection that you did not feel the need to.

      • Hey Scott. I tried a couple but didn’t find they made any difference. They certainly didn’t make things worse!

    6. Great review.

      Question: when connected by USB to a Mac using iTune, are add-on software like Amara or Pure Audio usefull or not any more (like with the Devialet where the entire decoding is done inside the DAC and iTune is only used as an interface) ? Same question when connected by USB to a PC runing iTune under Windows ?


        • I understood from an exchange of mail with PS Audio’s tech support that when using iTune (through USB), the decoding is done INDISE the DAC, and therefore iTune is only used as a container/interface, hense no need for add-ons. This seems to be the “purest” way to play audio from a computer ? I am correct ?

    7. John, I pretty much agree completely with all your comments on the MKI and MKII. I originally purchased the MkI about a year after it came out and immediately upgraded to the MKII when it became available. I have also had the network bridge card installed from day one. I have noticed all the nuance changes from firmware upgrades for both the DAC and the Bridge.

      My Prefectwave DAC unit is feed from my audio/video server that is housed in a closet about 75 feet from my media room. All the audio files are FLAC ranging from 44/16 to 192/24 files. The files are converted by elyric at the server and sent across the network as WAV files. This puts the conversion from FLAC to WAV on the server not on the DAC. As crazy as it seems everything in the system from the power suppy in the server to the network cables make a difference in the sound. I really thought I was hearing things when I upgraded from CAT5 to CAT7 network cables. However there was a subtle but noticeable difference.

      In an email I received from Paul McGowan he intimated that a future firmware upgrade may allow the MKII to play DSD files. Let’s hope this comes to fruition. You will then have to report on how those files sound.

      Anyway, thanks for the great review.

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