Douglas Moore explores the Denafrips Venus II DAC in this in-depth review!
I must admit, I am a bit of a DAC junky. I have always been interested in all the digital conversion designs, especially when they all claim that they are the best. I was there, in the 80s and 90s, watching separate converters first come out from companies like PS Audio and Theta Digital. I experienced the sound of DAC chips from Burr-Brown, and later, ESS and AKM, among many others. I always thought that, out of all of the components in the system chain, the DAC was the one component whose formula was easy to balance.
The other components in the audio chain, such as preamps and amplifiers, all stay in the analog domain. If the designer did their job, they could pull this off with as little harm done as possible to the sound quality. With a DAC, you are taking a digital signal of 1s and 0s and changing it to an analog sound waveform, all while dealing with all the nastiness that comes with that. Screw that up and you can have the best preamp, amplifier, and speakers in the world, and it won’t make any difference. They will sound bad.
Talk about a headache for a designer!!
The DAC Dilemma
I see people, all over the internet, blasting about which DAC chips are the best or which input method is best, not to mention oversampling vs. non-sampling, and then driving themselves to a padded room over the measurements. And, while all of this can make for a fun debate, the truth is that the best DAC chip won’t produce anything worth having if the other circuits in the DAC aren’t up to quality.
It’s more than just throwing the best parts in a box and hoping for the best.
Designing a great DAC is one of the tougher jobs in audio. There is much more to a good DAC than a chip. A DAC is like a good supply chain: if everything from the raw ingredients to the finished product is handled with care, and to the best of abilities, then the result will be worth it. From input boards to the analog output circuits, it all needs to be at its best for great things to emerge. There has to be a marriage of measurements and critical listening from people that know-how, and what, to listen for to get it right.
The Precision Standards Of Denafrips
Denafrips is a company out of Singapore. They build high-end audio at more attainable prices. They sell their products through Vinshine Audio, which deals only in Denafrips, and is the only qualified source to purchase them. Their unit came to me very well packaged and is built like a tank, weighing in at over 18 lbs, which is a lot for a DAC. Build quality was top-notch as well.
The Venus II uses a technology that, in fact, has been around for a long time. They use an R2R technology. This refers to the use of a bunch of resistors in a ladder configuration to take the incoming digital info and turn it into an analog waveform. Now, the resistor ladder is not new to the DAC world, but the way that Denafrips does it, considering the price point of these units, is amazing.
They buy resisters in bulk from a high-quality supplier and test each one. They only use the ones that meet their 0.005% precision standards, translating into better sound and better control of the digital to analog process. While all PCM files are put through the resistor ladder for conversion, Denafrips incorporates an FPGA (field-programmable gate array) for their DSD and DXD conversion process to keep from having to convert DSD to PCM to go through the resistor ladder.
They did this to keep the DSD/DXD files in their purest form
Venus II DAC Circuitry
I have always thought that the power supply in modern gear is an often-overlooked thing in DACs, especially when people are comparing them. In my opinion, even though the circuits in a DAC do not take a ton of power to run, having a larger, linear power supply is what gives a DAC that effortless, finessed sound, allowing the circuits inside to get all the power they need. All while working very little to do so.
To begin, the Venus II (the third down from their top of the line “Terminator Plus”) fuses two O-Type transformers in their power supply, one for the analog and one for the digital section. O-Type transformers have some advantages over the toroidal transformers that are used in most modern gear. The coil length is shorter, from about 11.4%-30%. Secondly, the coil has no folding angle and, thus, has less magnetic loss and more uniform distribution. Separating the power supplies for the analog and digital sections and housing the power supply in its separate chamber helps to keep the noise to a minimum. High-quality EVOX/WIMA capacitors are used to stiffen the power supply even more.
As for inputs on this DAC, it has all the standard fair of TOSLINK, coax, USB, and I2S. I did all my listening through the USB or coax, and this is the area I will be concentrating on in this review. I wanted to try the I2S since I have heard it is first-rate but did not have an I2S source at the time. All inputs are put through Temperature Compensated Crystal Oscillators, or TCXO. They reclock and FIFO buffer the signal so that there is less reliance on how good your source clocks are.
There is something about the simplicity of the Venus II I like. It has no display and no remote. It has a main back-mounted power switch. You use a front-mounted standby on/off to turn the unit on or off during normal operation. It has an input selector button, a mute button, and a phase button to reverse phase. There is also an OS/NOS button to switch between the oversampling and non-oversampling modes, which I talk about below.
While some people like to have a display to make sure they are getting their bits and bytes to the DAC, in all their glory, Denafrips uses a light system that shows you a combination of lights showing the input signals, bit depth, and sample rate. Another row of lights shows the input that is selected. Simple and effective. Although the Venus II does not have a remote to switch through the inputs, I mainly use USB for 90% of my listening. So, it did not bother me one bit. My wife would say we have too many remotes anyway!
Hookup was a breeze and I let the unit sit on for a while before starting any listening. Alvin Chee from Denefrips advises turning the unit on and letting it settle for a few hours to make sure the capacitors fully charge before doing any critical listening, leaving the unit on all the time, if possible, to keep things at its best. DACs are pretty reliable units, so this did not bother me. I leave my preamp and DAC on, all the time unless we are traveling and won’t be home for a while. Denafrips has a Theysicon driver for Windows-based PCs, for compatibility, that is easily downloaded from Denafrips. All others computers and streamers should work without drivers.
The only process that was difficult to do was switch between the digital filters on the unit. The Venus II has 3 settings for listening. No oversampling, oversampling with fast roll-off filter and oversampling with slow roll-off filter. You have to use a combination of the front panel buttons to switch between them, and it can be a pain. Luckily, I liked the oversampling slow roll-off filter in my system the best, so I hardly ever switched it. The non- Oversampling Mode presented a very detailed and elegantly transparent sound but the oversampling slow filter seemed to produce the largest sound stage and most musical sound in my system.
All this techno-babble means nothing if it doesn’t bring in the goods when called for. And the Venus II truly delivers.
The Venus II presents a very lifelike musical, might I say, analog sound in my system. The imaging and the sound-stage of the Venus II change as I change the filters. The Oversampling Mode Slow Filter seems to produce the best combination in my system. Both were spot on and very lifelike. I am somewhat of a sound-stage fanatic, to the point that I do not want to hear speakers in my system. I want the music to sound as if the band members are playing in front of me, with no hint that the sources are speaker elements. It takes very precise speaker placement, room treatment, and component matching to pull it off. But, if you can get there, it’s an experience like nothing else (but an actual live performance).
The Venus II makes use of its technology and effective power supply to anchor a rock-solid foundation for the best imaging and sound-stage my system has presented so far. In Bob Moses’ album Battle Lines, An Eye For An Eye is a great song to test the sound-stage of a system. It has a very wide and deep stage on a good system, while also testing a system’s ability to handle synthetic-style music. The Venus II performed admirably on both.
This is where that big linear power supply comes in. I always can tell when any source component has a good power supply because the bass just seems to present itself in a robust, detailed, and a natural way that lesser units just can’t do. The Venus II provides some of the better bass from any digital component I have heard. Keyword: natural. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is a great test of bass tightness and control in the system. The studio work on this album is very good and it can bring out the best in a good system, especially in the bass department. Oftentimes, lesser components will present the album as ‘boomy’ and unnatural. That’s not the case with the Venus II.
This is where R2R DACs shines. The midrange is natural and lifelike. I have heard many DACs that will present a female voice in an edgy, grainy fashion and make the whole vocal etched and hard to listen to. The Venus II does none of that. For example, most people who are into hi-end audio have listened to Nora Jones’ Come Away with Me, at some point. The album does an excellent job of testing the female vocal prowess of a good system. The Venus II does not disappoint.
Also, guitars sound like what they are supposed to. I can tell a Fender from and Gibson or a PRS and, as a musician myself, these things are important distinctions that allow me to listen with more believability.
I have always had a very sensitive hearing at high frequencies. I worked as a manager of a higher-end audio store in my hometown in the 90s. We sold a lot of the brands people were into back then. I remember when we took on B&W speakers as an individual line. The first ones arrived from the new 600 series and, at first, listen, they were detailed. But, very soon they became fatiguing and tiring. The highs were just too extended and unnatural. (Not all B&W speakers are like this, but some models are just too much for me to handle).
Certain components can be that way as well. For example, having that etched sound makes a cymbal sound more like nails on a chalkboard and less like cast metal. The Venus II provides some of the most lifelike treble that I have heard anywhere near this price class. Cymbals sound just like they should with the right amount of decay (if the studio did their job) and the instruments in the treble-range sound natural. Miles Davis’ Concierto de Aranjuez is a great album to test a system’s treble, with a multitude of instruments. From trumpet to flugelhorn, to castanets and shakers, it will test the treble in your system.
The Venus II shows all of this in all its glory without going bright or losing its resolve.
Having owned several DACs over the years, the most recent that I can compare directly to the Venus II is the PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC. I have owned PS Audio equipment on several occasions and they always seem to deliver a well-thought-out sounding piece of audio gear. The Stellar Gain Cell DAC is no different. When I had it in my system, I enjoyed what I heard, but when I switched it out to the Venus II, everything jumped a level up in detail and natural presentation.
The tone and timbre were better with the Venus II. It just took the music to another level sonically. I just think the R2R architecture on the Venus II allows it to set a more natural light on the music that the Stellar can’t compete with.
Bass on the Stellar is good, but missing some of the natural tone and tightness that the Denafrips presents. A stand-up double bass has more body and texture on the Venus II. A violin has more bite and dynamics. When listening to guitars, I could hear more of the guitar’s lineage with the Venus II: From a full-bodied Martin d18 to Tommy Emmanual playing a Maton Acoustic made with woods only found in Australia. A good piece of audio gear will allow you to hear this.
In its simplest form, the Venus II allowed more of the music through than the Stellar GCD.
In a perfect world, with an unlimited budget, I would love to own Mola Mola’s Tambaqui at around $14k. Or an MSB Select DAC at $105k. They are, arguably simply better DACs. But, a more realistically affordable price of $2,940.00, as of this writing, is a great price to pay if you are in the market for a reference-level DAC. The Denafrips Venus II, where new world engineering meets old school design, is my new affordable reference DAC!
Review System: Speakers: Spatial Audio M3 Turbo S open baffle. DIY sealed enclosure Subwoofer system. Digital: Denafrips Venus II, Modified PC-based Music server/streamer. Amplification: Hegel P20 preamp. Pass Labs X150.5 power amp. Conditioner: PS Audio Quintet. Cables: All custom-made speaker and power cables using top-shelf cables and connections.
- Proprietary R2R + DSD Architecture
- True balanced 26BIT R2R + 6BIT DSD (32 steps FIR Filters)
- Native DSD decoding with 0.005% precision resistors
- Encapsulated Premium Ultra Low Noise Power Supply
- TCXO – Temperature-Compensated Crystal Oscillator
- Adaptive FIFO Buffer Reclocking
- New Improved Digital Signal Processing FPGA Code
- DSD1024, PCM1536 Supports On USB & I²S Input
- Proprietary USB Audio Solution via STM32F446 Advanced AMR Based MCU
- Licensed Thesycon USB Driver For Windows Platform
- Driverless On Mac & Linux
- Dual AES/EBU Input Supports
- Sharp/Slow Filters Option
- I²S Pinout Configuration
- I²S DSD Channel Swap Configuration
Frequency Response: 20-70KHz -3dB THD+N: 0.0020% S/N Ratio: 120dB Dynamic Range: >121dB
Stereo Crosstalk: -110dB AC Power Requirement: 100-240VAC, 50/60Hz (Worldwide Voltage)
Power Consumption: ≤20W Dimension: 320 x 330 x 110 mm (Including feet)
Package Dim: 470 x 440 x 175 mm Package Content: DAC only. No power cord & remote control.
Weight: 8.5 Kg
Color: Silver / Black
PRICE : $2,940.00
DENAFRIPS web : https://www.vinshineaudio.com/shop
S A L E S email@example.com
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