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Denafrips Ares II DAC

As an audio enthusiast, I am open to new products, ideas, and innovations by the many audio companies out in the ether right now. The DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) is one of those products I have only dipped my toes in and hadn't truly embraced. Understanding the basic mechanics of a DAC and the fact that digital music cannot play without one made me curious about improving the sound within my system. By integrating a new DAC as a separate component and ditching the onboard DAC's that many of my sources use natively, the goal was to see if there would be an audible difference and improvement.

Denafrips is a growing company out of Guangzhou, China, founded eight years ago. In their sophomore stages of being a company, I feel they have truly understood what a DAC is supposed to sound like, as analog as possible, which has been the buzz on the web for quite some time. Many reviewers and consumers are raving that the prehistoric Resistor-to-Resistor (R/2R) technology they use in their DAC's, specifically the Denafrips Ares II, can provide the listener with an incredible analog experience.

The Denafrips Ares II uses the most primitive R/2R DAC technology, which they feel is the most suitable architecture to reproduce music. R/2R is the method from which how DAC's were made in the past until delta-sigma DAC's became more cost-effective and widely adopted. Fundamentally the digital signal is driven through a ladder of physical resistors instead of the traditional DS chip.

Many measurements of the conventional R-2R DAC are generally not as good as the mainstream DAC chips of today. The Denafrips, coming in at around $700, is something I would consider affordable, not budget, or cheap, but feasible for most consumers serious about sound. Therefore, I was surprised that its features, components, and build quality are like a higher-end boutique product.

Denafrips also claims that its resistors are individually measured and matched both mechanically and using human involvement, unique to manufacturers producing affordable products.

When Amir from Audio Science Reviews measured this unit, it seemed he was pleasantly surprised at how low the distortion was on this DAC. The battery of tests he put it through passed, most with flying colors. And we all know how critical he can be with measurements. So that is a massive sign that Denafrips designed this DAC for serious performance. The total harmonic distortion of the Ares II is rated at .004%; however, when measured by ASR, it measured ten times better than the specifications.

Unfortunately, I don't have extensive engineering or amplifier topology background, so I can't explain the process with scientific confidence. I am giving you the cliff notes. If you are still intrigued and want to learn more about it, hundreds of white papers out there can explain the subject with more depth and science.

I know for sure that the process to produce a DAC with the R/2R architecture is a costlier one, which is why many entry-level DAC's choose not to use this technology in their products.

When Alvin from Vinshine Audio (Worldwide Distributor for Denafrips) out of Singapore sent me this DAC for review, I was very intrigued to see how it would impact the sound within my system.

Upon arrival, I opened the package like a kid on Christmas. Packaged well; from the box emerged a generic power cable and a warranty card. Typical for a product of this caliber. What I wasn't expecting was the weight of this relatively small DAC. It felt like they put some heavy-duty components inside the metal frame at a hulking eight pounds. Denafrips assembles their DAC's in-house and manufactures most of their parts, including that huge toroidal power transformer inside the ARES II, which was more than likely the main contributor to the heavyweight of this DAC.

The Ares II is capable of native DSD decoding up to DSD1024 and up to PCM1536 on its USB2.0 Type B input which you can find in the rear of the unit. Along with the USB input, there are two digital coaxial and two optical inputs as well. The outputs pleasantly surprised me since I was looking for balanced outputs, and this unit did not disappoint, providing both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs. The thick gold-plated RCA connectors emanated quality and class. Sometimes it's the small things that could matter the most to some consumers.

The front of the unit is way more matter of fact, with small round buttons that control the inputs, muting, and configuration of their modes and filters. DAC's typically aren't too feature-rich, some having different sound filters at best. DAC's shouldn't be colorizing the sound; they should be reproducing the music as close to the original recording as possible. Most audiophiles desire transparency.

The Ares II has two modes, NOS (Non-Over Sampling) and OS (Oversampling), and in the oversampling mode, you choose two filters, Slow and Sharp. There isn't a remote, LCD screen, or any simple way, in general, to switch between these different configurations. It's a specific sequence of buttons you must press, which I have featured a step-by-step process with the video accompanying this article.

After powering up the Ares II, which couldn't have been easier, I prepared for my lengthy listening session utilizing my Primare DD15 transport using an Audioquest coaxial cable and the Bluesound Node 2i connected with an Audioquest optical cable. I powered the unit with a power cable from Pangea to upgrade the generic power cord provided.

The first thing that just hit me in the face was the warmth of the sound from this DAC. The Ares II has such an analog sound to it. As I closed my eyes, which I often do to avoid any distractions, I would've thought I had snuck a tube amp into my system. The Ares II is a welcomed change from the budget Topping E30, one of the only other DAC's I have had experience listening to. The E30 wasn't "bad" but didn't provide such a distinct and comfortable listening experience as the Ares II.

I started with my Primare DD15 and inserted the brand-new Dune Soundtrack from its newest release last week. I was delighted with how the low end was punchy and aggressive, and the instruments were mellow and very pleasing to hear. The legendary Hans Zimmer scored the Dune soundtrack, and we all know he loves his deep bass, especially with the Interstellar soundtrack, which was my following choice. I used my Dali Oberon 3 bookshelf speakers paired with the Velodyne DD-12+ subwoofer for this demonstration, which gave me room-shaking bass during some of the tracks on both CDs.

Following I used my Spotify and Qobuz playlists to test out the unit's higher PCM capabilities. Spotify isn't there yet; however, I gravitate to them because of their extensive catalog. I didn't use TIDAL for this evaluation since this DAC's architecture isn't made for MQA.

I allowed the playlists to play for days, enjoying the vast selection of rock, ambient, industrial, hip hop, and electronic tracks. Too many to possibly list. However, a few that stuck out to me were Placebo's, Every You Every Me and Every Day is Exactly the Same by one of my top favorites, Nine Inch Nails.

I found that my preference is to set the Denafrips to Oversampling while using Soft Mode. It was such a dynamic yet relaxed sound that played through my speakers. It felt vintage. The masses were correct about this one. Which is the sound I have been seeking for quite some time. I wanted that mellow vintage sound produced years ago with today's offerings' punch, clarity, and precision. I believe I found that with the Ares II by Denafrips.

The best candidate for this DAC is any music lover serious about audio but doesn't want to go too deep into the rabbit hole financially. By keeping this DAC at this $700 price point, Denafrips has opened a massive opportunity for people with moderate budgets to enjoy the fruits of high-end audio without any diminishing returns or paying exorbitant prices. The value created by Denafrips is genuinely apparent, and I know that once you hear it, it will sell itself.

For most, this DAC is an end-all. For me, it's just the beginning. I can't wait to experience what other unique offerings exist in the world of audio.

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