Pure Audio’s Latest DAC Top Shelf Digital

By Jeff Dorgay

Listening to the twinkly introduction of The Claypool/Lennon Delierium’s South of Reality, it’s instantly clear just how much music the $1,995 Lotus 5 DAC from Pure Audio offers.

It’s smooth, spacious, and dynamic presentation gets you into the groove immediately. Hours later, we’re convinced that this is a fantastic DAC, offering tremendous musicality. Gone are the days when you used to say “it sounds pretty good for digital.” With variable balanced XLR and single ended RCA outputs, the Lotus 5 is the perfect choice for those wanting to put together a high-performance system that won’t break the bank, and don’t need to embrace analog.

The rest of the system is equally modest, yet carefully chosen for high value for the dollar. A pair of Harbeth P3ESRs with a REL T7i subwoofer and the latest incarnation of the Dynaco Stereo 70 round out the picture with Cardas Iridium power, speaker and interconnect cables make for a killer system that will leave enough change from your ten-thousand dollar bill to spend a week in Hawaii on holiday, two if you go during the off season.

While you’re there, stop by Underwood HiFi and take “Underwood Wally” for a beer and thank him for selling components that deliver great music and leave you enough spare change for said holiday.

Competition breeds better products

With so much competition in the $1,000 – $3,000 DAC range these days, it is truly amazing at how much performance this buys you. As good friend and fellow audio writer John Darko and I were discussing on a recent podcast, DACs in this range could be easily outclassed by a $1,000 turntable a decade ago. This is no longer the case.

The Lotus 5 can handle everything – DSD, high res PCM and MQA, so however you like to serve up your files, it gets the job done. The only thing lacking is the ability to use it as a ROON end point. Considering how many great (and inexpensive) streamers on the market, this isn’t a deal breaker. During the course of this review, files were supplied by three sources: a Mac Book Pro, a Naim Uniti Core, and our vintage Sony ES CD player, via the optical output. All work equally well and the Lotus 5 brings enough life to the Sony changer to make it a viable digital source, despite being a vintage piece.

Built around Sabre/ESS DAC chips, the Lotus 5 is incorporating a lot of technology that’s not out of place in ten-thousand dollar DACs. The straightforward, yet elegant casework (silver or black) gives the Lotus 5 a luxurious look and the remote is well thought out, allowing you to easily scroll through the various menus, with the ability to choose output level, variable or fixed output and seven digital filter choices. As with nearly every other DAC offering this functionality, I ended up sticking with the factory settings after trying them all. Your level of OCD will determine where you land and for how long.

Great sound, great combination

Extending listening on a wide range of music confirms the initial impressions. Digital has come a long way in the last decade, and this is an incredibly relaxed and musical sounding DAC for $1,995. Even compared to today’s hardware, playing the Lotus 5 side by side with components from Naim and Simaudio that cost more than twice as much (but to the Sim’s credit, it does offer a headphone amp and analog inputs as well as a cracking MM phonostage), the sheer level of music revealed by the Lotus 5 is right there. And even if you are using it strictly as a DAC, it still holds its own.

The overall sound is very neutral, neither adding nor subtracting musically, with a tonal balance that isn’t in your face, but won’t be mistaken for having a few vacuum tubes under the hood either. Personally, I prefer this, because it gives you the option to fine tune the system to your taste and associated speakers. Want a bit more, warmth, and romance? Pair the Lotus 5 with your favorite tube amplifier. Those wanting less of that can go the solid-state route.

I found an excellent combination beyond the tubed Dynaco that I started with, combining the Lotus 5 with the Pass XA30.8 and Focal Kanta no.3s in my living room system, replacing the Simaudio 390 that was there previously.

Soundstage width is nice and wide, exceeding the speaker boundaries, offering a big sound. Where the Lotus 5 shows its limitations compared to the crazy money DACs is in ultimate resolution, soundstage depth and that way that a mega DAC fools you into thinking you are listening to analog. Yet in the context of similiarly priced hardware, the Lotus 5 is at the top of the heap.

The top end of the Lotus 5 offers top of the class high frequency refinement as well. Listening to acoustic music really shows off how well this DAC performs. Guitar, piano and violin are rendered without harshness or glare. Again, tough to want an entry level turntable after listening to some high res tracks here.

Another system that proved a fantastic match was utilizing the Coincident Dynamo III (an 8wpc SET tube amp) and our Pure Audio Project horns. The Lotus is an excellent control point here and made the heart of an incredibly enjoyable system. There is something so nice about the simplicity of a DAC/PRE, a power amplifier and a set of great speakers, that makes it incredibly easy to just kick back and relax without requiring a second mortgage to do so. Installing the Lotus 5 in the context of some decidedly upmarket gear that is well beyond its price point shows it incredibly capable.

A final, yet important point worth sharing about the Lotus 5 is that it is equally adept at decoding all digital files. Some DACs we’ve evaluated, especially those at the lower end of the price spectrum are often optimized for one segment of digital playback, i.e., high res performance is optimized at the expense of RedBook files, etc. It’s refreshing to see that Pure Audio has approached all options with equal respect. DSD and MQA files are also handled with care and ease, so no matter what you’re listening to, you’re covered.

Bottom line

As mentioned earlier, the Lotus 5 would be a great value even as a DAC alone, but considering the variable outputs and it’s ease at driving any power amplifier you might want to mate it with, that puts it over the top as a top performer and incredible value.

While my viewpoint might make some uncomfortable, the advent of Tidal and Qobuz offering so much music for so little money (and leaving the MQA vs. FLAC high res files out of this) I find it tough to really want to embrace analog if I had to start from ground zero. So, if you happen to be a digital music only music lover, I can’t think of a better anchor for a great two channel system than the Pure Audio Lotus 5 in this category.

With that being said, I am more than happy to award this DAC one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2019. And Wally has mentioned that they will be offering 20% off to TONE readers, so be sure to mention this, should you call to order one. Tell them we sent you.

The Pure Audio Lotus 5 DAC/PRE

Msrp: $1,999


Power amplifiers Dynaco Stereo 70 (current model), Pass XA30.8

Speakers Harbeth P3ESR w/REL T7i subs, Focal Kanta no.3, Quad 2815

Cable Cardas Iridium

Power PS Audio P15