PRISM SOUND CALLIA DAC – comprehensively assessed

The Prism Sound Callia DAC is modest in size but luxuriantly captivating!

sound advocate ed choice

The Prism Sound CALLIA Reference DAC, Preamp, and Headphone Amplifier are designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom. The company is best known for its professional recording hardware used in recording studios around the world. The Callia incorporates Prism Sound’s relentless approach to audio engineering resulting in an immensely satisfying, intensively musical DAC whose overall performance is far beyond its modest price point.

For a product that sounds as beautiful as it does, the Callia engineers emphatically state that this DAC was not “specifically” designed to be an audiophile product, but rather a product for both Consumers and professionals who were simply looking for a phenomenal high-quality DAC for serious listening. While this may seem like a trivial point, the Callia engineers take this quite seriously. To quote, “If we were going for the audiophile market solely, we would have made a slightly different product both in terms of feature set and look!”

Having originally been selling at $2750, the unit has been substantially reduced by Prism Sound and at this time it must be considered as a genuine EDITORS CHOICE from the Sound Advocate! Please do not be “clouded” by its exceptional price point. This DAC, when used within a system made up of some of the utmost, “top shelf” audio components, will perform like a unit costing, at least 3-4 times its asking price– Yes, you heard me right!

Their products include digital recorders, editing workstations, test, and measurement equipment as well as multi-channel DACs and ADCs. Their modular ADA-8XR multichannel AD/DA converter unit is a benchmark for high-quality ADCs and DACs in the recording industry.  

This may not be so surprising. The circuitry within the Callia DAC is identical to the ones found in their high-end Lyra, Titan, and Atlas recording interfaces, which recording engineers claim to deliver exceptional resolution and detail both in recording and audio playback.

The Callia Build is exquisite and robust, and the controls function smoothly and quite exquisitely. Although the unit itself doesn’t look overly special, many months of ardent listening sessions have proven that this DAC compares quite favorably to the Wyred4Sound Anniversary DAC, and the Audio Note CD3.1x/II—and that is saying a mouthful!

Callia will offer you bit rates of 24 PCM at up to 384 kHz sampling rates (with a 32-bit max over USB) and 192kbs at a 24-bit maximum via digital and 1x and 2x DSD. Inside, the Callia, the chipset is the admirably regarded Cirrus Logic CS4398, judiciously devoted to its feeding with power filtering, noise shaping, and up-sampling.

All inputs astutely take advantage of Prism Sound’s CleverClox hybrid PLL clocking circuitry.  Thus, its sophisticated digital re-clocking system is designed to remove jitter from any reference synchronized source before it is used as a conversion time base, thus eliminating any audible effects of sampling jitter.  

The Callia’s analog circuitry path is entirely balanced, while the unit has a defeatable volume control to manage its preamp output. They can be enacted by using the small dip switches located at the back of the unit. This line volume control can be disabled for use with external preamplifiers, and the line outputs can be muted when headphones are used.

The rear panel of this pretty little guy also has coaxial and optical S/PDIF inputs and a USB port. They are laid out simply and concisely making connections easy and fast. The blue LEDs on the front panel indicate which source is active, bit depth (24 when lit), and sample rate. The bit rate is displayed by the illumination of one of two LEDs for 44.1 or 48kHz.

Prism Sound Callia DAC

Prism Sound’s Callia includes pairs of balanced and single-ended outputs on the rear and its stereo headphone output on the right of the front panel. The CALLiA was incessantly designed to be a superlative DAC and an outstanding Headphone amp.

In essence, the engineers at Prism Sound have designed the Callia’s headphone aspect, not as an afterthought (as can be true on other products), but to be the best of both worlds! Whilst most of the base Headphone circuit is the same as their professional products the headphone section has received a serious upgrade. Prism Sound’s pro products are designed to drive a wider range of headphones including some less expensive models while Callia has been refined and upgraded to drive a narrower range of (for the most part) much better more power-hungry headphones.

The two volume controls are surrounded by circular arrays of blue LEDs; the larger array for the primary control will automatically illuminate as the volume is increased.

While the Callia will take delivery of sampled rates at 352.8 and 384kHz, it downsamples these to 192kHz before sending them to the DAC. Prism Audio explains this as a “high precision digital interpolation filter.” It additionally converts DSD64 and DSD128 to PCM, mentioning that this lets them reap precisely the response they want since the early days of DSD.

TO PREAMP OR NOT?

In the last year or so of evaluating some of the best sounding DAC’s currently available to enthusiasts, I have constantly found, with just about everyone, that the subjective audio quality of the respected DAC is improved when using a separate, HIGH QUALITY, preamplifier (autotransformer and transformer passive line stages for volume control.) when inserted between the DAC’s output to the preamp inputs of your particular amplifier in use.

I have observed this whether the component is passive or solid-state; coax or balanced XLR cables. Needless to say, it is a strange phenomenon in and of itself and a hotly debated subject over the years by engineers, reviewers, and consumers alike. At this point, however, no definitive answer as to why has been established.

Although logic says this should not be the case, in many cases, a separate preamp can improve the sound quality; namely, sound staging, layering, and smoothness. The key is, balancing the subjective sound improvements against any possible losses in transparency. 

Nevertheless, when talking to a few product designers, they have readily agreed, in most cases to the above. However, I did enjoy the Callia DAC straight into the power amps used for this evaluation so this could be another exception to the rule here.

LISTENING

Let me preface this appraisement of the Callia by stating that 2 new components were recently added in the middle of the review process which had a very discerning influence on this DACS’ subjective sound quality. Namely, the Norma HS-IPA 1 and the illustriously profound, darTZeel CTH8550/2 (reviews forthcoming).

However, the initial evaluation started with the PS Audio M700 monoblocks and my reference sources; the Audio Note CD3.1x/2 CD/DAC and Wyred4Sounds 10th Anniversary DAC as comparisons. The Audio Note transport was connected to the Callia’s coaxial input directly while using the preamp/volume control section of the Callia. As you will see later on, I slightly preferred using the Callia without its direct volume control but through the PREAMP section of the above amplifiers that were engaged in this evaluation.

Program material listings are interpolated into the review but as always, a plethora of the finest, simply miked and engineered CDs, Cd ripped downloads and streaming were included, both classical and acoustic pop material.

Describing the Prism Sound Callia is a delight in and of itself. This small (in size) DAC was quite remarkable in several ways. It reproduced sound stage width and depth, in almost all circumstances, with exceptional proportions. The Callia fundamentally reproduced musical tracks with excellent instrumental timbre, clarity, and harmonic fundamentals of the most demanding sources and voices with intense musicality.

What stood out initially was its reproduction of orchestral strings, as the mid-high frequencies are always MY initial fundamental test of any piece of audio equipment, and how they interact with the users existing components. Vocal integrity is also of prime importance.

As we move on to the midrange and high frequencies, vocal sibilants were silky, and expertly defined. If your reference loudspeakers will allow, the Callia’s extension, smoothness, and lovely ambiance never will sound raspy or brittle. The Callia also did a remarkable job in the midrange with a fleshy, elegant, and wonderfully liquid response—this combined with an “accurate” rendering of female and male vocals, particularly with recordings that were not manufactured and blatantly abused in the engineering process. The sound production is full-bodied and huge— (contrary to some opinions), assuming your reference loudspeakers and amplification can produce the most meticulous qualities of high-definition sound resolution.

Prism Sound Callia DAC boxed

Stereo imaging was surprisingly anchored, well placed, and never phasy in its locational effects. This was brought out quite exemplary when streaming with my Innuous Zenith MK3  music server, but most particularly, when the darTZeel 8550 MK II integrated amplifier was introduced into the system. As mentioned above, this amplifier raised the Callia (and just about everything else paired with it) to the pinnacle in definitive musicality!

I’m now wondering if the engineers at Prism Sound were aware of the majestical increase in sonic results that can be obtained when Callia is mated to the most discriminating audiophile amplification?

FURTHER LISTENING

With more listening hours accumulating, I persistently made small changes to the cabling used, while noticing tiny differences in the reproduced sound. This pertained to the Wireworld Eclipse 8 and Silver Eclipse interconnects as well as a re-introduction (after a few months sabbatical of the Inakustik LS-4004.)

Even so, and consistent with the above comments, superlative results were just about always confirmed. If we take another quite dramatic source to test Callia with – “Rossini Overtures” conducted by Christian Benda and the Prague Philharmonic, you will experience a recording of amazing detail, subtlety, breathtaking sound quality nuance, and a marvelous soundstage reality. The Rossini Overtures recreated some astounding orchestral bass drum “thwacks” in the deepest part of the soundstage which the Callia reproduced with fine authority.

If by chance, you happen to be using a well-designed bookshelf or stand mount loudspeaker, while not being able to reach the lowest bass fundamental frequencies, Calli will ensconce you with a formidable bass impact response which was deeply satisfying. The above is a recording event engineered for what it is- within the confines of the concert hall-with superb microphone placement—and Callia reproduced it with genuine authority! This DAC (which was now mated to the Dartzeel) in its self-effacing manner, will surprise you at how each part of the orchestra, including bass drums and brass envelope you from the full front back wall width and depth perception in a way quite beyond reproach!

As for acoustically recorded pop, one need not look further than the Eagles, with these 2 albums originally released in 1980, and 1976 to uncover some of the hidden depths of the Callia. The live bands’ exceptional vocal saturation and natural tonality (speaker-dependent, of course) along with a great concert acoustic never shrieks or shouts at you with Callia inserted into the mix. A fine live sound recording with this historic band! No less arousing in performance is a live concert recording featuring the stunning pianist Khatia Buiniatishvilli as she performs Beethoven’s piano concerto #1.

Here, once again, the live experience is quite close to perfection and Callia was well equipped to take on and reproduce the subtleties and intensely satisfying details of this simple, yet accurately, engineered recording experience. The recorded piano is displayed here with a fast, flawless decayed ambiance and keyboard tonality that is underscored by the thrilling orchestral sound and hall depth surrounding her that is quite exemplary to hear when auditioned with the darTZeel, Norma, and the PS Audio amplifiers.

COMPARISONS

Subjective comparisons to my reference DAC’s are inescapable and imperatively informative. This inevitably took up lots (too much!) of back and forth listening time but was well worth the effort. As such, and as one would expect, the Callia was graced with some minuscule differences between my Audio Note CD3.1x/2 and the Wyred4Sound 10th Anniversary DAC.

The sonic tonality and soundstage perception as compared to the Audio Note was that the Callia was perceived to be “microscopically” more forward sounding. However, Callia’s depth perception was not altered by any means. I believe this may be a result of the Audio Note ECC88 tube output stage, which in effect brings forth that illusion of soloists and vocals a mere hint back in the sound stage, bathed in ambiance on some recordings. With so many varied engineering techniques used today, one never knows what to expect. Nevertheless, the differences are quite small so personal preference is to be acknowledged here.

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Editors Listening Room

As for the Wyred4Sound, the differences present themselves in another way. Certain recordings may…. sound a “spec” brighter on the Anniversary DAC, and in many cases this was sublime. However, as is usually the case for me, this only applied to mass strings, and it certainly took nothing away from the Wyred4Sounds wide soundstage and layered depth effect. Again, I must state, different recording techniques will differentiate these small differences and eventually rule the day.

DOWNSIDES?

If there was anything users might wish for with the Prism Sound Callia DAC it certainly does not relate to this DAC’s overall sound quality. However, some enthusiasts will miss a remote control for use of its preamplifier section.

This first occurred to me upon initially starting to use the Callia. Apparently, after talking to Rich Matthai of Full Scale Audio, Prism Sound does not intend to add a remote, at least in the very near future.

But–never fear people, for as stated above, I found the Callia produced its finest sound qualities when bypassing its volume control and used with a high-quality, separate preamp or line stage preamplifier. On the other hand, when I first started to use it directly into the PS Audio power amplifiers, the sound quality was close to the aforementioned setup. This small aspect of the Callia most certainly should not be a determining factor in your purchasing decision!

CONCLUSIONS

As it happens so often, the best audio components do not necessarily have to be the costliest. The Prism Sound “Callia” DAC is another component that represents this to the ultimate level.

The Callia will take your digital music files and CDs to a thrilling level of audio bliss at a fraction of the cost of many more notable models now available to consumers today.

The Callia is, without a doubt, an excellent-sounding DAC, and in certain instances, can reach the heights of my two reference, and more expensive DAC’s, namely the Audio Note CD3.1x/2 DAC/CD player and the honorably established Wyred4Sound 10th Anniversary DAC. Of course, there are other great DACs available at somewhat similar pricing such as Mytek, Border Control, Auralic, and others, to name a few, some of which I have not heard as of yet.

I would most certainly urge any audiophile and/or music lover to try to audition this unit, preferably in their personal system, if possible. It is a spectacular buy with glorious sound quality and thereby earning an Editor’s Choice award from The Sound Advocate.

Review Equipment: Loudspeakers: Spendor SP1 ~ Audio Note UK AN/ED ~ Quad ESL-63 ~ Stirling BBC LS3/6 Digital:  Innuos Zenith Mk.3 server/streamer ~ Wyred4Sound 10th Anniversary DAC ~ Audio Note (UK) CD3.1x/2 ~ Amplification: PS Audio M1200 and M700 mono blocks ~ dartZeel 8550 mk 2 integrated amp ~ Norma HS-IPA 1 integrated amp ~ Cables – Conditioners: Inakustik AC-3500p power station & LS-4004 speaker cables, AC-2404 reference Air Power Cord ~ Silversmith Audio ‘Fidelium’ loudspeaker cables ~ Wireworld Silver Eclipse 8 bi-wired speaker cables ~ Wireworld Silver Eclipse 8 interconnects & Electra 7 power cords/ Audio Art 1 e” AC Power Cord.

Prism Sound Callia Reference DAC $1399. usd

Rich Matthai
Business Development Manager
Full-Scale AV 
rich@fullscaleav.com
Mobile:  615-856-4016
Office:  615-833-1824
Fax:  440-327-1670

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