PS Audio’s DirectStream Memory Player and DAC

The second I pushed the play button on PS Audio’s DirectStream Memory Player, listening to my favorite Art of Noise SACD, it was instantly clear that this is an exciting product.

Dropping in a DVD Audio disc of The Doors’ LA Woman is equally thrilling, with buckets of low level resolution, the stuff that we all got excited about years before HD Tracks came on the scene. There’s some incredibly cool stuff going on at the extreme high end of digital, but it’s gonna cost you about as much as a new Z06 Corvette. Equally exciting things are happening at the entry level of digital too, but groundbreaking as some of it is, it doesn’t pass muster in a mega system. PS Audio’s new combo gives a major helping of cost no object digital for just under $12,000, and they even send someone to your door to unbox it. Now that’s impressive.

Crazy as it might sound, the $5,000 to $15,000 range is somewhat vacant. A few boxes come to mind, but they are mostly DACs. Simaudio’s 780D is exceptional at $15k, but it doesn’t play shiny discs. And some of us still want to play shiny discs; some of us have big collections of shiny discs. Even DVD-a shiny discs. If you are strictly a streaming audiophile these days, you don’t need the DMP – skip to the DAC section of this review. But if you’ve got the urge to spin physical media, read on. The DSMP is a revelation, and if you don’t need a disc spinner, this marvel will only set you back $5,999.

Much like my reference dCS, the DirectStream DAC does not rely on off the shelf DAC chips; instead it is controlled by FPGA (field programmable gate arrays) and all the upsampling, decoding and filter functions are software controlled, which will make this DAC a lot more future proof than one reliant on implementing the latest Sabre chip. Super impressive for just under six grand.

The Disclaimer

Don’t freak out, the DMP is based on an OPPO transport. But before you cry wolf, fraud, or “oh no, not another AYRE debacle,” chill out. The PS people are very forthright about the transport and PS’ Bill Leebens says candidly, “The basic drive mechanism is a Blu-ray unit sourced from Oppo. The mechanical element is all that remains: all video circuitry, which can add noise and distortion to the audio signal, has been removed. All control and processing of both digital and analog signals is done in circuitry designed and built by PS Audio.”

So, you aren’t paying $5,999 for a hot rodded Oppo. There are only so many sources remaining for a transport that can play everything, and even dCS only offers an SACD capable transport for their six-figure Vivaldi 2. The good news is that Oppo sells a lot of boxes, so you can be sure that replacement mechanisms will be readily available because let’s face it, everything that spins will fail at some point. I see this as a very good thing. It’s also worth mentioning here that both the DAC and the transport are hand built in PS Audio’s factory right here in Boulder, Colorado.

The Catch

To achieve full-blown SACD performance, where the DMP is grabbing the DSD bitstream directly from your SACD disks, you need the matching PS Audio DirectStream DAC, also priced at $5,999. We reviewed an early version of this DAC several years ago, and found it to be an excellent performer. The current version is more of the same, utilizing PS Audio’s I2S bus through HDMI. This allows the DAC to directly read the DSD stream. Because of the way the I2S keeps data and clock signals separate, it makes for a more lifelike musical rendition.

It’s common knowledge these days that jitter and timing errors are the major culprits behind digital discs sounding harsh, crunchy and un-musical. Great as the benefits of keeping things on the bus separate in the SACD/DSD realm, the effect is just as powerful when playing standard redbook CDs. And if you’re a lover of the shiny discs, chances are you have a ton of these.

Back to The Music

Playing a notoriously lousy CD from my pile, The Eurythmics We Too Are One is nothing short of a revolution. It’s not like I haven’t heard CD’s sound this good before, I’ve had some of the world’s best digital players in my rack over the last ten years – I’ve never been married to analog. I’ve just never heard CD’s sound this good in a box this approachable. Does it blow my dCS Rossini DAC and clock out of the water? No, but the sound quality is damn close and my $40,000 dCS doesn’t play my SACDs. Am I going to put my Rossini up on Audiogon? Nope, but I’m seriously thinking of buying the PS Audio pair to sit right beside it on my rack. I like the shiny discs.

The DirectStream DAC by itself is equally exciting with digital files. This is a breakthrough product in terms of what it offers in musical truth for the price asked. The difference between good, really good, and great digital is the degree that it gets out of the way of the music. Quick test: if you find yourself thinking or saying “this sounds pretty good for digital,” said component has failed the awesomeness test. The DMP combo passes this test with flying colors – regardless of disc or file type played. Of course, just like with analog, the better quality of the file, the more enticing the result.

I suspect much of this is due to the DirectStream DAC converting whatever you feed into it to DSD and then processing it thusly. Without getting overly technical, moving everything to the DSD world either eliminates much of the digital artifacts that plague the digital process, making it easier and less offensive on the ears when filtered out. I keep harping, but even a brief demo on a few familiar tracks will convince you just how natural sounding this DAC is. A few hifi critics have even gone so far as to say “they would give up their turntable” for this DAC. I won’t go quite this far, as I like the black discs too, however, unless you’ve got a pretty spendy vinyl rig that is meticulously optimized, you’ll be shocked at how much less time you spend fiddling with vinyl; perhaps saving it for the best of the best analog recordings in your collection.

No matter what music you like the best, and what format, it’s easy to get lost in it with the DMP. If you have a spare internet connection for the transport as well as the DAC, the transport loads and displays the album art and metadata on the front panel screen. I like the extra user friendliness this provides, especially from across the room, or when a guest is over that isn’t always familiar with my musical taste.

Rather than going into minute detail about this track or that track, suffice to say that everything is as it should be. Bass is detailed, powerful and defined. Highs are rendered effortlessly, without grain, yet full of extension. And the delicate midrange is lovely. Yet what makes this player so fantastic is the integration of all of it – I never found myself wanting more, nor did I ever (on even the longest listening sessions) start picking things apart. The homogenous manner by which the PS transport and DAC recompile digital music files is effortless in every way. I’m guessing you won’t need more than about three tracks to be convinced just how good they are.

More Stuff You Don’t Need

If you are a digital only audiophile/music lover, the high quality of the Direct Stream DAC’s digital volume control and line level circuitry is so good, you can skip the preamp, making this pair an even better value. With fully balanced circuitry and transformer coupled outputs, we had great luck using the DirectStream DAC in this mode with a wide range of power amplifiers. It drove 20-foot runs of balanced XLR and single ended RCA cables without a hitch.

Thanks to six digital inputs (coax, XLR, optical, USB and two I2S) the DirectStream DAC is the perfect digital hub. An additional $899 gets you PS Audio’s network bridge card, giving you Ethernet access as well. This allows your favorite UPNP or NAS to be connected and accessed directly. We can all log in to our favorite internet forum and argue about which offers the best sound, but I found the PS pair universally good, regardless of input. For those who love it, the PS combo is ROON ready, so you can have all that at your fingertips as well. This is a formidable combination.

Can You Tell, I Really Like the DMP

Cool as the extreme user friendliness of this pair of PS Audio components is, it’s the sound that sets this one apart from its comparably priced competitors. This is one of the world’s finest players at any price, and I’ve heard or owned most of them. There is a level of sheer refinement here that I guarantee will win you over.

Much as I love analog, and think streaming TIDAL is super cool, there are times that I don’t want to be a suspension mechanic or an IT guy. That’s when putting a shiny disc in the drawer and just pressing play is a lovely thing. Unless you’re going to drop six figures on a dCS Vivaldi or an Esoteric Grandioso, I can’t think of a better digital disc player than the PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player and DAC. (Neither of these six figure players will play your DVD-a discs) If I had more than two thumbs to raise I would offer them, it’s that good. The only remaining choice is whether you want silver or black.

The PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player and DAC

MSRP: $5,999 (ea.), Network Bridge – Additional $899 (main factory site)

Gotta have em right now?

To purchase the DAC, Click here:

To purchase the Transport, Click here:


Preamplifier              Pass Labs XS Pre

Amplifier                    Pass Labs XS 300 monos

Speakers                    Focal Sopra no.3

Cable                          Cardas Clear and Tellurium Q Silver Diamond

PS Audio’s DirectStream Memory Player

I go back with PS Audio. Way back. Back to when most of today’s digital/computer audio experts were running around in their underoos while their dads were listening to Led Zeppelin in the living room. That’s when I had one of these: the original PS Audio DAC.

I’ve still got it and it still works. So I guess that settles any thoughts of  “PS Audio reliability issues.” Back in the mid 80s, this baby set me back a cool $1,000. Six months prior, when I bought my Nakamichi CD player, I noticed a jack on the back that simply said, digital output. The salesman gave me a blank stare when I inquired what said jack was for. Now I knew.

A mad dash home to plug it in yielded pretty impressive results. Digital sounded pretty rough then and the PS Audio Digital Link went a long way towards making those shiny discs sound a lot better. First disc in the tray to give the Digital Link a spin? Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Nothin’ Fancy. It rocked, and I still remember my audiophile pals thinking I was out of my mind for dropping a G on that little box. But it was pretty awesome, and stayed a staple of my system for quite a while, replaced by another PS Audio DAC about ten years later.

Fast forwarding to 2017, there aren’t many disc players left, and precious few that play everything. This is one of the things that makes the PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player so intriguing. $5,999 gets you a high resolution transport that plays CDs, DVD audio discs and SACD’s. Multichannel too. Those of you that still like physical media, rejoice. This one’s for you.

The folks at PS Audio were kind enough to send along their companion (also priced at $5,999) DirectStream DAC. This has been on the market for a while now, and has garnered more than it’s share of awards. We reviewed an earlier version of this DAC years ago, and found it to be a top notch performer for the price asked.

What makes this combo so intriguing is it’s ability to extract the DSD layer from your SACD collection and process everything in the DSD domain. Thanks to PS Audio’s I2S bus going from transport to DAC, you aren’t getting PCM conversion when listening to your favorite SACD.

So, I guiltily pulled Skynyrd’s Nothin’ Fancy out (this time on SACD, natch) and pushed the play button. The first impression is outstanding, and we’ve got more listening to do, but so far, this combo not only proves exciting, it’s performing quite well with some other incredibly expensive digital hardware on the rack from a few of the usual players.

Stay tuned!

PS Audio NuWave DAC

Working as a DJ for hire in the eighties, I was exposed to more than my share of New Wave songs, upturned collars, pastel colors, and hair gel. During those years the early CDs started taking hold. With them came forth the digital music revolution for the consumer, challenging the dominance of beloved records and cassettes. While analog will forever have a place in the hearts of audiophiles, the raw convenience of digitally stored files enables and maintains a solid grip. Digital-Analog Converters (DACs) today bring forth a great deal of musical pleasure from the latest high resolution digital files and also breathe new life into older standard CD-quality 16bit/44.1kHz material.

With all my fond memories of the New Wave era, the NuWave moniker on PS Audio’s latest budget DAC has a lot to live up to. Could it provide the same high level of musical enjoyment I associate with my past?

The Ghost in You

The NuWave carries high quality internals, though it serves as the entry level DAC in PS Audio’s product line. Its big brother, the $3,995 PerfectWave, has handed down one of its strengths – its low-jitter clocking circuitry – to its smaller sibling. The benefit of this capability is pulling from the source the best possible digital stream to be processed. From there it is sent to the analog section which is fueled by a very substantial power supply; then it’s translated into music.

Close to Me

On close inspection, the NuWave is a petite 14” long x 8” wide by 2.5” high. It weighs in at around 12 pounds. Once placed on a shelf the front profile is quite modest. The metal case of the test unit is coated in a matte black finish. Silver is also available from PS Audio. The front panel has aesthetically pleasing curved edges wrapping around to the sides.

Buttons on the front, and the PS Audio logo on the left side, glow blue. With some equipment I’ve experienced, LEDs have the potential to scorch a retina, but not with the NuWave. In this case, the overall appearance is both pleasant and subtle.

The package does not include a remote, which makes sense given the basic in-and-out philosophy of the NuWave’s build. There’s not a lot to adjust or control after a source is selected and a standard or up-sampled signal chosen. One additional LED indicator notes whether the PS Audio has a solid lock on the signal.

I was surprised that no USB cable comes with the NuWave. You’ll definitely want to have that on hand for setup. I found the Cardas Clear USB a good match. PS Audio does include a very basic power cord, but it’s likely one you will want to upgrade later to get the most from the unit.

One Thing Leads to Another

Physically connecting the NuWave to the rest of the audio system proves straightforward. The PS Audio offers three inputs for digital sources including USB, S/PDIF coax and TOSLINK. The USB connection provides the greatest flexibility for high resolution files and will serve most users as the best option for computer-based music. While there is not an AES/EBU digital input on this DAC, the RCA coax input serves well as a secondary input source from CD players and other devices with a stereo digital output.

Despite the small size of the unit, this DAC has both balanced XLR and RCA outputs giving it helpful flexibility in an audio system.

With all cables connected, it’s a simple matter to choose the input source from the front panel selector button. If only one source is connected, the NuWave defaults to it. If multiple sources are connected to the DAC and one is playing, NuWave’s autoscan feature will pick the input receiving a signal.

Once that’s done, the user has another toggle to select one of two modes. “Native” mode creates a straight pipe from the source so a 16 bit/44.1kHz signal remains exactly that.  Another option is 24bit/192Khz up-sample mode. PS Audio recommends that users try both and decide what sounds best to them. Most of my listening took place on the “native” setting.

Work for Love

Once physically connected to sources, the final step is configuring a bit of software. PS Audio claims the NuWave acts in a plug-and-play fashion with a Mac computer, but a bit more human intervention is required for Windows-based systems. First, a driver must be downloaded from PS Audio’s website and saved to the computer. Once that driver is installed, a quick visit to the Windows 7 control panel’s “Sound” settings offers the PS Audio DAC as an output option. A right-click of the mouse gives a user the option to make the NuWave the default recipient of the audio signal.

Once complete, JRiver needs a small adjustment too. Clicking on the Player menu, and selecting “Playback Options,” a window opens which allows the user to make a few more minor changes. The “Playback Device” pull-down menu allows a user to select the NuWave as the default for music output.  On the same window, I selected a larger buffer size than the default setting to encourage and maintain the best streaming quality. Accepting these changes and closing the configuration windows, the only remaining step is selecting what music to enjoy.

In total, the configuration process took no more than five minutes, with most of that time consisting of driver download and installation. PS Audio does a nice job here to make the setup process streamlined for the NuWave DAC owner.

PS Audio suggests leaving the DAC powered on all the time so that it maintains optimal readiness for the best sound.

We Got the Beat

Testing begins with CD-quality source files. In the spirit of this review’s theme, it seems only fair to begin with Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” which many consider the first true New Wave song. Given the age of the recording and the CD’s limitations of a 16bit/44.1kHz signal, the right-to-left soundstage exceeds my expectations by extending well beyond the speaker limits. Perceived front-to-back layering is reasonable; however, it’s not the NuWave’s strength. Debbie Harry’s voice is recessed into the mix and when blended with the guitars and drums the result remains largely two-dimensional. This characteristic seems consistent throughout my Redbook CD test tracks.

Rock This Town

Stray Cats frontman Brian Setzer and his Orchestra provide a good test for the sonic portrayal of guitars, drums, and horns. His remake of “Rock This Town” offers significantly more polished recording quality than the original, though still limited to CD-quality. The NuWave captures all the energy and excitement of the performance.

The NuWave’s decoding process leaves the music enjoyable and fatigue-free. However this characteristic exists at the expense of some detail. In comparison with other, more expensive DACs on hand, the woodiness in saxophones diminishes. Bass, while quite deep, is not as tight. Similarly, the complex sounds of cymbals are truncated to a significant degree in comparison with the impact, ring and decay I’m used to hearing. Vocals are a bit hot in the mix. But at the NuWave’s $995 price tag, these are relatively minor quibbles considering what you do get. Especially from a price-performance perspective the PS Audio does a mighty good job and has the finesse to hold a listener’s attention through hours of listening.

Dancing With Myself

As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out,” so playback shifted to test higher resolution material. Though the NuWave there’s a huge sonic improvement in virtually every attribute.

For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” on 192kHz throws an impressively huge soundstage, both wide and tall. Vocals remain front and center where they should be, while drums step to the rear. The richness of the guitar on “Dirty Pool” reveals the level of emotion entrapped in the recording.

Similarly, Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” in 192kHz emerges with deep, plucky bass. Well-rendered, sonically convincing drum and tambourine pour forth. Background vocals complement and showcase the emotional undertones in Marley’s voice. This is especially evident during “Redemption Song.” While vocals remain a bit forward, individual strums of the guitar are almost tangible.

NuWave’s rendering of Norah Jones’s “I’ve Got to See You Again” layers vocals, piano, strings and percussion adeptly blended together in a cohesive and compelling sonic experience.

For those who have a lot of high resolution digital content, the NuWave will surprise you with its capability. If you don’t have high resolution content yet, you owe it to yourself to try it!

Make a Circuit With Me

After spending time with several DACs over the last couple months – the Chord Chordette Qute ($1,800), AUARALiC Vega ($3,500) and Light Harmonic DaVinci ($30,000) – some interesting comparisons emerge. Although a native 44.1kHz signal may not be a stellar source, each of these DACs takes what bits it’s given and outputs highly enjoyable, refined sound. At a cost multiple times more than the NuWave, a user should expect more from them.

When listening to high resolution content, the gap does shrink a bit and the NuWave showcases what it’s capable of resolving. It’s a big step up from CD-quality experience. The NuWave won’t unseat the other DACs, but it leaves a listener with a very satisfying musical experience for a small fraction of the price.

In essence, more money buys a user additional capabilities like DSD decoding, variable output, custom filters, and/or a remote. It also enables more natural sounding, three dimensional and nuanced portrayal of the music. In the case of the DaVinvi, opulently so, but at 30 times the price.

Take Me, I’m Yours

Caveats considered, the PS Audio offers a lot of value and does a very good job providing a no-fuss setup and usage experience. It offers all the basic functionality most users need a DAC to do, and the sound is mighty good for a component under a thousand dollars.

The Smiths made famous the New Wave classic song, “How Soon is Now?” How apropos for this review. For those seeking a high quality DAC under $1k, especially those who want to delve further into high resolution digital content, give the PS Audio NuWave DAC a try and you might find it in your home system sooner than you think.

PS Audio NuWave DAC

MSRP: $995


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources HP Desktop computer with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19   Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    EAD 9000 Mk3 DAC    Genesis Digital Lens    dCS Purcell
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables    Cardas Clear USB cable
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels