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PS Audio NuWave DSD DAC review

  • Citing trickle-down technology from their flagship DirectStream DAC (US$5999), PS Audio’s NuWave DSD DAC (US$1299) has been “personally voiced” (as stated in the company’s literature) by founder Paul McGowan. His intention? To bring some DirectStream goodness to a more compact and affordable DSD-able decoder.

    As laid plain in its name, this new NuWave DSD (US$1299 or US$899 with trade-in) can process DSD – something that the forerunning NuWave could not – and an important feature for listeners exploring the slowly expanding but still comparatively small catalogue of über hi-res audio content.

    In an era of chunky black boxes and chewing gum packet-sized DACs, the NuWave’s sleek, shelf-gliding profile is a sly attention-drawer. Subtly propulsive with its aesthetic style, the PS Audio’s latest offering looks as thought it might have emerged from some European architect’s lair, its elongated body adopting the lines of a classic French Peugeot 504 Cabriolet.

    On the inside, the new box from Boulder accepts PCM up to 192kHz/24-bit via coaxial S/PDIF, TOSLINK and fully asynchronous USB as well as single (64) or double (128) rate DSD via USB and I2S. Decoding comes via ESS’ patented Hyperstream DAC architecture and Time Domain Jitter Eliminator in the form of a ES9010K2M SABRE chip, for which the silicon manufacturer promises SNR of up to 116dB and THD+N of –106dB.

    But the PS Audio website states their new baby “accepts PCM up to 192kHz/32-bit”. 32 bit? Some clarification would be needed here. PS Audio representative Bill Leebens wiped away the spec speck thusly:

    “Ah—here’s the story: It’s 24 bits through coax and USB. The chip is 32-bit capable, but the only input that will accept 32-bit is the I2S input. And I have no knowledge of anything that will output 32 bits to I2S, although our next-generation transport MIGHT. So—in practical terms, it’s 24 bit. Sorry for the confusion.”

    Getting techier still, the NuWave DSD’s USB path is based on the same XMOS technology found in the DirectStream DAC. Arriving PCM signals commence their journey through the NuWave DSD in Native Mode (PS Audio speak for ‘non-oversampling’) and therefore without SRC (Sample Rate Conversion) which PS Audio claims degrades quality.

    The signal is then routed to a Complex Programmable Logic Device (CPLD) which identifies sample rate and format, and re-clocks the data to reduce jitter before sending the refreshed audio stream downstream to the DAC chip.

    What’s a CPLD? Think of it as a simplified Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). Here’s Leebens again: “The operative word is ‘simplified.’ It’s a small-scale programmable device, but not a full-tilt one like the DirectStream DAC contains, that controls EVERYTHING.”

    A Class A hybrid output stage joins the dots between the DAC’s output and the NuWave DSD’s RCA and XLR outputs. PS Audio’s analogue filter is entirely passive, reportedly bettering DACs that rely on active filtering, which PS Audio believes infuses music with a “harsh, bright sound.”

    The power supply in the new NuWave is a large toroidal transformer with 15,000 mFd of storage capacitance. The original NuWave DAC weighed 12 pounds; the heavier transformer of the DSD-capable successor ups the tonnage to a respectable 20 pounds, giving this unit surprising heft considering its somewhat diminutive frame.

    The NuWave DSD will look familiar to owners of PS Audio’s PCM-only NuWave DAC, as they appear to share a similar cosmetic case. Measuring 14” x 8.3” x 2.4”, the NuWave DSD’s shell is made from a combination of aluminium and steel, again similar to the DirectStream. This NuWave is half the width of its bigger bro, but runs its entire (full) depth, and like all PS Audio products – Sprout excepted – is manufactured, programmed and tested in Boulder, Colorado.

    The unit feels decidedly silky to the touch. Smooth operator. Though its corners are sleekly rounded and its top plate finished in mirror-like piano black, the NuWave’s brushed aluminium front panel tactility takes us beyond simply functionality. To the left PS Audio’s logo: a minimalist wave? Stock-ticker of the future? Digital 1s and 0s sloshing around in a box? To the right, a square cluster of six blue LEDs that show signal lock and sample rate. Small arrow-shaped ‘up’ and ‘down’ buttons allow for hands-on input selection; this PS Audio converter arrives without remote control wand.

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    The NuWave DSD’s rear-end reveals a small power button which PS Audio warns against flipping “on” until the power cord is attached.

    A week was all that was required for break-in/warm-up. For listening proper, I placed the NuWave DSD DAC on four Isoblocks to rigidly decouple it from the dullard MDF shelves of my Salamander four-tier rack. A Mytek USB cable connected the NuWave to a MacBook running Audirvana+. A one-meter pair of Analysis Plus Copper Oval RCA cables connected the NuWave to a Shindo Allegro preamp. All review cuts (unless otherwise noted) were AIFF files, ripped from CD.

    After a testy process that required loading drivers and digging deep into the manual during my review of the Mytek Manhattan, this DAC proved to be a breath of Nu Air, one that had me thinking, “Wait. That’s it? Showtime!”. No drivers, plug and play.

    First impressions (that held fast throughout the review period) were of a DAC that has major get-up-and-go; music sounds lively and powerful regardless of source material. The NuWave DSD lacks the profound resolution of the four-times-as-expensive Mytek Manhattan DAC, but provides more of an upfront, first row performance with generous helpings of colour, tone, texture (though sometimes a little blurry down low), presence, big dynamics, and low-end gravitas. Paul McGowan obviously likes his music present and palpable. The impression of a first row sitter will be gratifying to those who like to be arrested by sound. When music is delivered full frontal, one can possibly forgive less appealing detail. Who complains about the skin blemishes of a lap dancer?

    I am a big fan of composer/guitarist Pat Metheny and I believe his music is largely under-appreciated despite him having written, in my opinion, some of the most creative and enduring jaaz of the past forty years. And yet the people who bash him first? Jazz musicians. For this fan, Metheny’s compositional prowess grows by the year. He has written for trio, solo, quintet, quartet, his one and only Orchestrion, and most recently the SWR Big Band on Hommage á Eberhard Weber, an ECM records tribute to bassist Eberhard Weber.

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    Metheny’s 2008 trio release, Day Trip, with drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Christian McBride, is one of his many outstanding sounding recordings; Metheny typically pays as much attention to the quality of his productions as the music itself. Opener “Son of 13” is a blazing up-tempo bruiser, and through the NuWave it shimmers and sizzles with percussive insight. It’s a festival of rhythmic percolation courtesy of Antonio Sanchez (who composed last year’s highly controversial, multiple award-winning soundtrack to the film, Birdman). Highly resolved cymbals, drum rim clicks and bass drum strikes sears meaty ears to a musical grill and emboldened in part by his use of the butt-end of the pick rather than the usual tip-attack approach, Metheny’s guitar comes on with burnished, glowing tone.

    Within a reasonably deep soundstage, “Son of 13” sounds open, clear, and clean, the PS Audio machine highlighting the song’s upper frequencies so as to depict music in full daylight, uppermost frequencies sounding positively lit-up from within. Drums and cymbals are superbly resolved, each rim click and cymbal crash resonating long and deep and the NuWave’s Day Trip was extremely airy, present, and fast. Zing!

    The angels sing, the saints fly before your eyes. It’s jazz among the heavenly spheres.

    However, McBride’s upright bass was somewhat recessed if still tactile. Given this bassist’s extremely fat acoustic sound (nothing short of a modern day Ray Brown) the lack of truly forceful low end notes was troubling.

    The following Metheny trio track, “Let’s Move,” provided more of the same airy filigree, with the fine gradation of resolution and detail beaming through. McBride’s mid-bass was clear and graphically outlined, but the sound was somehow all surface and lacking its usual woody depth.

    Guitarist Alex Machacek’s “Air” (from Alex Machacek/Marco Minnemann’s 24 Tales) put a fine point on this crystalline, upper frequency approach. This guitarist’s brilliant plectrum forays, matching the drummer’s performance, is one that focuses on cymbals, cymbals, and more cymbals. Minnemann’s myriad trills, rolls and splashes compliment Machacek’s silvery picking set in a lush (and here) huge soundstage.

    Too much of a good thing? Possibly.

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    The NuWave manual states “Be sure to use a high quality well shielded and well regarded interconnect” and furthermore “power conditioners and the quality of the AC power delivered to the NuWave DSD can make a significant difference to its sound quality.”

    No kidding – I moved the NuWave DSD’s power supply from the wall to the Mapleshade Clearview Double Helix power strip. This brand takes an occasional beating, some of it earned, but this little power strip works surprisingly well, in this DAC’s case increasing transparency and general extension.

    I then switched the Analysis Plus Copper Oval interconnects for my Shindo one-meter interconnect. The sonic improvement of this cable swaperoo was immediate and transformative. The hitherto missing lower frequencies returned the complement with greater fortitude.

    Backtracking to Metheny’s Day Trip, Christian McBride’s taut upper register bass plucking was now allied to superior low-end bloom, thrust and force. McBride is one of the most commanding upright bassists. I now had a greater sense of muscle, each finger a piston of power. The recording felt deeper and spatially bigger, with a better fleshed out, more complete soundstage. The music put on slightly more dynamism and with no loss of upper frequency air and resolution. Everything was more connected with improved cohesion between instruments. It became easier to follow musical lines and subtle musical cues.

    Bouncing around my digital music collection via Audirvana+’s iPhone app, I stumbled upon classic hip-hop in the shape of Salt-N-Pepa’s 1986 smash, “Tramp.” Who can forget the power of Salt-N-Pepa’s insightful words of wisdom? “It’s me (why?) because I’m so sexy / It’s me (what?) don’t touch my body (boy) / Cos ya see, I ain’t no skeezer / But on a real tip, I think he’s a…tramp.”

    “Tramp” had my head pumping back and forth like a bottle-head puppy in the rear window of a street-roving 1969 Chevrolet Impala! Essentially, a giant boom-bap beat of neck-cracking proportions, “Tramp” is all subsonic bass attack and snare-slapping punch-to-the-skull goodness with a B3 Hammond organ hook that makes the track funnier than the ‘80s era hair styles that accompanied it. Throbbing, pushing, pile-driving, the NuWave DSD delivered all the gleeful urban hilarity of this hip-hop classic like a pit bull prowling the block on all fours.

    Again, this powerful playa reveals its audible ID: a warm-blooded, decently resolving and dynamically super-charged DAC that benefits greatly from well-appointed ancillaries. If the sound with the Analysis Plus Copper Oval ICs (MSRP $350) had been the end of the story I would have questioned McGowan’s voicing; thankfully the Shindo interconnects (MSRP $999) shone a light on the NuWave’s finer points: better flow, greater impact, increased palpability, and much better low frequency resolution.

    The lesson – and not necessarily a financially welcome one – NuWave seems to calls for similarly costly hook-ups to properly expose its capabilities.

    I cued up Radiohead’s sample symphony “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box” (from Amnesiac). Wave upon wave and layer upon layer of scrambled effects, spooky voices, instruments, and oddities that loom like the nightmarish loonies of a mental ward. Oozing syrup like, synth tones frame Thom Yorke’s oddly detached vocals like A1 sauce slathered on a Porterhouse. Its main rhythmic pulse comes from the nervous clanking of metal hubcaps that ride atop sub-bass blips.

    Here the song was more resolved than I’d ever heard it – El Supremo for headphone listening? Interesting – I wondered aloud if the Mytek Manhattan’s take on the same would match this?

    For deeper electronic immersion I fingered Flying Lotus’ “Heave(n)” (from Until The Quiet Ciomes), also featuring Radiohead’s Thom Yorke; another soundscape of rattling percussion, crackling popcorn sounds and swirling synths. What the NuWave does well, a trait which I believe all good hi-fi components deliver, is separate the audible nature of each recording played back through it. The NuWave has a knack for teasing out each recording’s unique space and colour, from the ‘60s sounds of John Coltrane and Glen Campbell to the modern recordings of Radiohead and Flying Lotus.

    The final PCM track to hit the decoder from Boulder was jazz drummer Kendrick Scott Oracle’s release, Conviction. A forward-thinking jazz drummer with two feet planted firmly in the past and the present, Scott solos on “Cycling Through Reality” for a hot-headed, deeply saturated solo drumming skull-cruncher. Through the NuWave DSD DAC bass drum and floor tom pitches were actually lower and boom-ier (in a true, acoustic sense) than any of the previously spun electronic tracks.

    The NuWave delivered speed, depth and impact from Oracle’s drum solo. Specifically, a tight (but-not-too-tight) grip on the drum set’s enormous frequency range, solid tonal fundamentals, micro textures and walloping groove.

    I fell in love with the sound of DSD whilst reviewing the Mytek Manhattan. DSD files sound incredibly pure, full, tonally complex and, above all else, holographic.

    When DSD is done well, as per the Mytek DAC, it heightens one’s musical engagement. More so than native PCM, at least to these ears and this brain. When listening to DSD, I sit in greater awe of the musicians, their talent, their enormous skill and soul. The first time I heard Ella Fitzgerald via DSD was a transcendent moment: I was transported to an intimate club in the 1940s with Fitzgerald fronting drummer Chick Webb’s big band, and singing directly to me. Fitzgerald had never sounded so young, so engaging, so pure, so beguiling. How would the NuWave fare with Fitzgerald for an evening? Would it move me in the same way or to the same degree?

    Mytek’s Michal Jurewicz and Chebon Littlefield were kind enough to let me hang on to their Manhattan DAC so that I could compare the NuWave to it. And as enthralling as I find the NuWave, the five-times-more-expensive Manhattan DAC betters it in most measurable (by ear) ways.

    On French electronic duo Air’s “How Does It Make You Feel” (from 10 000 Hz Legend) background noise was significantly lower on the Mytek, which better sorted out instrumental and vocal lines and offered improved overall resolution. This was most noticeable on the track’s low end synth bass, which resounded more clearly and forcefully in Manhattan hands. I am sure my downstairs neighbouurs thought we were under thermo nuclear attack.

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    Pat Metheny’s guitar on “Son of 13” became more liquid sounding and tonally sweet via the Manhattan DAC, no longer purely a midrange object of fascination. McBride’s acoustic bass was also more tactile, present and meaty, while drums snapped just as hard while projecting an even larger space within a similar soundstage of depth and height.

    Flying Lotus’ “Heave(n)” was transformed from (what I suddenly realied was) a congested mix into merciless blue sky clarity, every animal howl and demonic shudder now superbly clear, with truly profound low end stick-that-into-your-forehead bass resolution via the Mytek. Scary good! The Mytek made better sense of this complex music.

    And Ella swinging DSD 1s and 0s through the Mytek Manhattan? While not as markedly different as the wide variance when comparing PCM files, the Manhattan’s version of Ella on DSD gave her rich vocal more sweetness and greater tonal complexity. It somehow made her lovebird cooing more dramatic, as well, playing up the quiver in her vocal, allied to the strength of her technique. This Ella sounded older and more experienced than the juvenile girl portrayed via the NuWave’s DSD presentation. But again, the overall differences were far less via DSD playback than PCM. Huh.

    Often you don’t know what you’re missing until something shows you a better way. So was my experience with the NuWave DSD DAC. While the $4995 Mytek Manhattan DAC bests the US$1299 PS Audio in myriad ways, its supremacy over the NuWave troubled me not during the latter’s review period.

    Of closer financial proximity to the NuWave are the Benchmark DAC1 HDR (US$1295) and the Rega DAC-R (US$1195). While I have not heard the Rega or the latest iteration of Benchmark, I reviewed the now discontinued Benchmark DAC1 USB for ( in 2009. While I found the Benchmark DAC1’s resolution of all frequencies to be AAA, it had a slightly crisp character with some material that made me love it a little less.

    As some might expect with a pro-audio derived device, the Benchmark is unforgiving of poor source material. The NuWave on the other hand is kinder whilst giving up little to dynamics, colour, texture and flow which in turn allows recorded music to unfurl as naturally as its live counterpart. You know it when you hear it. And also when you don’t.

    The PS Audio machine is an good music maker, with serious rhythmic drive, and in this regard at least, the Mytek’s peer. The NuWave’s forward-lean with momentum makes jazz, electronic, and classical music a joy to dig in to. It creates an intimate and upfront musical performance that’s big hearted, fleshy and enthusiastic.

    I greatly enjoyed listening to music though this DAC but did it’s relatively low price make me enjoy it even more? I remain surprised that a DAC this good is available for close to a US grand. Perhaps this is the DSD-able DAC that will set the pace for all comers in its price range.

    If I were told I would be required to live with the NuWave DSD DAC as my go-to digital machine, for say, the next year or so, I’d be a happy surfer on (its) sine waves. Indeed, I would count myself lucky among audiophiles. Paul McGowan – do I need Salt-N-Pepa to give you a call? Tramp!

    Further information: PS Audio

    Written by Ken Micallef

    Ken Micallef is a New York City based freelance writer contributing to such publications as Downbeat, Modern Drummer, Electronic Musician, Bass Player, and AutoDesk’s Line//Shape//Space. Micallef began his audio reviewing career at before graduating to Srajan Ebaen’s 6moons. He currently contributes to Positive Feedback as well as DAR. Ken resides on the top floor of a Civil War era Greenwich Village building where he has been known to drop enormous water balloons on drunken tourists.

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