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Climbing Pikes Peak with the PS Audio DirectStream

  • Is PS Audio’s Paul McGowan the Steve Jobs of American hi-fi? Not only does he like to ‘think different’ but also he knows how to spin his products’ points of difference with marketing verbiage that’s more commonly found in the world of consumer electronics than the high-end audio ghetto.

    Case in point: PS Audio’s press release for their DirectStream DAC promised a unit that would rescue PCM and make rival DACs sound ‘broken’. That’s probably wishful thinking on McGowan’s part but his point was made: the DirectStream’s was different.

    At the core of the majority of modern day D/A converters sits an off-the-shelf chip manufactured by the likes of ESS, Cirrus Logic, Analog Devices or Texas Instruments, onto which in-house-coded software is installed. Once the chip leaves the factory its software (usually) cannot be altered or upgraded.

    For the DirectStream DAC, McGowan eschewed the Wolfson chips found in PS Audio’s preceding PerfectWave DACs in favour of an altogether different solution: a Xilinx Spartan 6 field-programmable gate array (FPGA).

    Paul McGowan holds court at CES 2015.

    An FPGA isn’t a magic bullet in and of itself – processing the incoming digital inputs, applying heavy mathematics for DSD up-sampling and reducing jitter requires a skilful software engineer to write the code that will ultimately run on the FPGA.

    For their similarly FPGA-loaded Hugo, Chord Electronics’ John Franks enlisted the help of South Wales’ Rob Watts. For the DirectStream DAC, Paul McGowan retained the services of one Ted Smith. Both are terrific sounding DACs and were up there in my favourite bits of 2014 (only bested in some respects by the R-2R, PCM-only Aqua La Scala MKII). You’ll note that at time of writing all three sit at the very top of the Darko DAC Index.

    What sets the PS Audio decoder apart from the Chord box is user upgradeability. Like the NuWave Phono Converter and PerfectWaves before it, an SD card slot on the rear of the DirectStream permits consumer-installable firmware updates.

    However, improvements to the DirectStream’s software take this update process to the next level. Each new DirectStream release comprises fresh code for the PIC (Programmable Interface Controller) and an FPGA software revision from Ted Smith himself, each of which goes through significant listening evaluation by McGowan’s golden-eared buddy Arnie Nudell before a final sign off from McGowan himself.

    For end users the upgrade process is simple enough: download the latest firmware release from the PS Audio website, unzip its content to the root of an SD card, insert the SD card (gold teeth up) into the slot on the rear of the DirectStream DAC and then restart it. The front panel logo will flash during the upgrade process before the DAC reboots back into normal operating mode. The firmware version can be verified from the DirectStream’s settings panel (push the little cog wheel located on the top left of its touch screen).

    I moved my own DirectStream from v1.1.9 to v1.2.1 over the Christmas period and noticed the upgrade dialed back some glare deep within the chord-strum that grinds away in the background of Sharon Van Etten’s “Tarifa”. Here was a tune that no longer grated quite as much as it once did, thus further exemplifying the effortlessly chilled – but not chilly – nature of the DirectStream’s sonic presentation that I championed in my full review last August.

    There’s much to admire in the DirectStream’s delivery, especially if you don’t always spin immaculately recorded material. Fans of Crazy Horse-led Neil Young or Ramones-esque garage rock will find the glass-shard nature of transients suitably tamed.

    Some users complained that this rendered the DirectStream was too polite, particularly down low. It’s not as ebullient-sounding as the AURALiC Vega but the Vega is locked down – upgrades aren’t possible. Want more vinegar in your (direct) stream? January 2015’s firmware upgrade could well be what you’ve be waiting for.

    Placing a heavier marketing spin on the software component of the DirectStream, Paul McGowan has recently reframed present and future downloads as incremental updates to the DAC’s operating system. The numerical naming system has been replaced by an Apple-esque naming convention: it’s not v1.2.3 that arrived mid-February but ‘Pikes Peak’. Updates from hereon in will be named after Colorado’s fourteeners – mountains that exceed 14000ft.


    With Pikes Peak installed the DirectStream enjoys an uptick in excitement through bouncier micro-dynamics. Better instrumental separation makes soundstaging seem more cavernous. No doubt about it, the Pikes-Peaked DirectStream sounds more energized (read: ballsier) than it did previously. However, with a greater commitment to liveliness and textural reveal comes a compromise: the DAC is no longer quite as forgiving of poorer recordings.

    To wit, some listeners might still prefer v1.2.1. – fair enough. No need to sit there cursing the shock of the new when it’s easy to roll back the firmware operating system to the earlier version. Download, unzip, insert, reboot. Oooh matron.

    Each of us enjoys a different system, room and listening preferences. PS Audio’s firmware operating system updates advance what’s possible from a single piece of hardware. Mirroring operating system upgrades for Apple products, we can see DirectStream as decoding computer with with myriad possible personalities; end users can select the one they find the most agreeable then swap it out for another when a change of flavour is required. How’s that for scratching the upgrade itch? It’s analogous to rolling tubes in valve land or swapping out the cartridge on a turntable. It’s your world, customer.

    Further information: PS Audio downloads

    Written by John

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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