FPGA. Field programmable gate array. Without code, it’s nothing. With Ted Smith code it’s a D/A converter for PS Audio. The (DAR-KO Awarded) DirectStream’s talents in unearthing music’s inner-spaciousness but with nary a sign of transient etch or glare made it the go to DAC for those migrating from vinyl to digital for the first time or those who prefer their digital served with a dollop of cream. It took the LOL out of those who would refer to Redbook as LOwLy.
Inexpensive however the DirectStream was not: US$5999. Filling its rear-panel slot with a Network Bridge II for a fully-networked solution meant another US$899.
How about a pared-back version of the DirectStream with in-built Network Bridge II for US$3999? That’s the question being asked by Colorado’s PS Audio as they introduce the all-new DirectStream Junior (DSJ) DAC that saw first light of day at CES 2016 last month after two year’s behind-the-scenes development.
DSJ remains an FPGA-centric decoder, complete with Ted Smith code, but its circuitry has been unified onto a single board and the transformer-based output stage has been swapped out for a “balanced solid state output”. The master clock descriptor moves from “ultra” to “super”.
Talking Junior’s FPGA code, designer Ted Smiths says, “The code is essentially Yale – it has a few changes to talk to the new host processor code and to support some clock related signals for the Bridge, but it’s the same operationally and does the same bit munching. With one exception – the new AUTO input select. When AUTO is chosen, the FPGA monitors all inputs for a valid and changing signal. Then the system selects for input the input that last became valid.”
Inputs? A single I2S HDMI socket plus one each of AES/EBU, coaxial, asynchronous USB and Toslink. Just like DirectStream, Junior up-samples all inputs to DSD before processing.
On the output stage, Smith takes us deeper: “The [original] DirectStream has a dual-differential/balanced output: four balanced digital switches per channel, two going up every time two go down. Though the Junior uses the same digital switches and hence the whole analog path from the FPGA to the outputs is balanced, its output stages are not dual or differential (we had to save some money somewhere:) The transformer is ‘replaced’ with a very fast line-driving output op-amp; once again balanced to keep the common mode rejection that the transformer confers on the DirectStream.”
Outputs? Junior sports a pair of balanced XLR and a pair of single-ended RCA.
The on board Network Bridge II serves as a DLNA/UPnP renderer; JRiver users should have no issues streaming to Junior directly and gaplessly. Roon compatibility is in the works.
Junior inherits its forerunner’s firmware upgradeability. Here though updates will be applied via USB stick instead of SD card. No doubt some users will prefer that. Also preferable (to this commentator at least) is the Junior’s volume pot, which stands in for the DirectStream’s touchscreen – which I always found a little too fiddly for its own good – and allows one to get hands on with volume attenuation in the more traditional sense. The endless pot’s feel is rather nice and the adjacent OLED display handles visual reporting of volume level and active input.
On sound quality, PS Audio reckon DSJ delivers 85% of the DirectStream’s performance for two thirds the price of Big Daddy (but with a Network Bridge II lobbed into the bargain).
Lifted from the company’s dealer marketing materials (which mistakenly made it onto the web and were scraped by Google):
“The two instruments have near identical character of sound. Full, rich, warm, never electronic. Both units share the remarkable ability of helping RedBook CDs sound close to high resolution audio, and uncover a wealth of music long buried in home libraries.”
“Where the two noticeably deviate is in terms of spatial accuracy, transparency, separation of instruments, soundstage width and treble accuracy. The best measure of these differences can be expressed in percentage. DSJ provides 85% of DirectStream’s performance in the aforementioned areas.”
“…at $3,999 MSRP this product kills the competition”.
PS Audio’s marketing department are well known for their bold proclamations – that’s the language of business. Moreover, US$4K remains ‘up there’.
Returning this news coverage to terra firma, I spoke with PS Audio’s mainman Paul McGowan about DirectStream Junior at its unofficial unveiling at CES last month. See/hear here:
And yes, there’s a review unit at DAR HQ already. Expect further coverage to spill once the internal Network Bridge II has been made Roon Ready via firmware update; it will be ready when it’s ready. Just like my review! In the meantime, we get a chance to hear more from Señor Smith on any design or code differences, hopefully in the comments section below.
Until then, a cool head is recommended.
Early adopters are advised that the DirectStream Junior begins shipping later this month and will be available in PS Audio’s standard silver and black finishes.
Further information: PS Audio
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