In this installment of my article series on my quest for a new DAC, I'll be evaluating the Denafrips Terminator. When I revealed my shortlist and the criteria by which I selected DACs I'd evaluate, the Terminator was easily the one for which I received the most questions and anticipation. Clearly, this DAC has many people intrigued. And why not? On paper, it appears to deliver formidable value for its cost (US MSRP $4299).
But let's back up. I first heard about this DAC, and the company, in the weeks leading up to AXPONA 2018. A friend alerted me to the fact that Gingko Audio's room at AXPONA would have a demo setup comparing the entire lineup of Denafrips DACs. Intrigued, I showed up for one of these demos, and came away quite impressed with what I heard. The Terminator, in particular, made a very positive impression on me, despite the usual suboptimal show setting. And its price point was right in line with my budget.
I mentioned my interest to Chris, a request was made and - yada, yada, yada - a gigantic box eventually showed up at my doorstep, sent to me by Mike Powell, the newly appointed US distributor for Denafrips. Mike impressed me by insisting he personally burn in the unit at his end until he was satisfied it was at its peak sonic quality. Gotta respect that level of dedication!
Form and Function
This thing is called the Terminator, and ja, it's a beast! At 19kg/42lbs, it tested my back and knees as I wrestled it onto my rack. It won, as my back was sore for a week afterwards. But enough about my lack of core conditioning.
The enclosure looks very elegant to my eyes, with a minimalist front panel design. My review unit was in black, and reminded me of a stealth bomber. The display LEDs are little pinpoints of red, and have a narrow field of display, so from most angles, they're barely visible. This thing is clearly built to be heard, rather than seen. This is a positive in my book. Compared to components whose displays can be bright enough to read by, I'll take Denafrips' approach any day!
In fact, the only button I actually used on the front panel was switching between NOS (non oversampling) and OS mode. More on this later.
The Terminator comes with a full complement of inputs (RCA and BNC coax, Toslink, USB, 2x AES/EBU, and I2S via both HDMI and RJ-45). The analog outputs include both single-ended RCA and fully-balanced XLRs.
Let's talk about why I was intrigued by this DAC. First, the table stakes. This DAC checks all my fairly modest functional requirements of:
● PCM support upto 384 kHz,
● DSD support up to DSD256 native, DSD128 (DoP), over USB.
More intriguing is its proprietary R2R + DSD architecture, as I've never really spent quality time with a topnotch R2R DAC other than the Schiit Yggdrasil. As regular readers of my series may have learned about me, I put a lot of value on, and give much credence to, the clock architecture, the PSU design, and the analog stage of a DAC. The Terminator uses Crystek CCHD-957 clocks. These are fairly well regarded, although certainly not the last word in low phase noise.
What about PSUs? This is far more exciting since, nestling under the hood are separate transformers (and PSUs) for the digital and analog stages of the DAC. A 60VA unit for digital duties, and a beefy 250VA unit for the analog stage. Now we know what's in the belly of the beast!
You can read the full specifications on the Denafrips website.
In addition to Mike's thoughtful burn in prior to sending me the unit, my Terminator received several hundred more hours of burn-in because it arrived just a few days after the Ayre QX-8, creating an evaluation logjam. Such are my first-world problems! Suffice it to say that by the time I did any critical listening to the Terminator, it was sounding its best.
And boy, does it sound good! While every aspect of its performance is above reproach, its defining characteristics are solidity, density, dynamism, and outstanding bass. Not only is this thing a physical beast, but a sonic one too. It takes music by the scruff of its neck and tells it who's boss.
Fed some Daft Punk, like the Giorgio Moroder track on Random Access Memories (24/88.2), the Terminator lays down a dense, rich, detailed tapestry of sound, with every instrument rooted in their spot in the soundstage. The low end is particularly satisfying, and even someone like me with 2 left feet can't help but jump off my chair and start moving to the beat.
I hasten to add that while deep bass and a dense soundstage are its particular strengths, the Terminator does not lack in any other areas. Tonally, this is a rich, even a dark sounding DAC, with a smooth and resolving top end. And when the music gets complex, like a large Mahler symphony, there is not a hint of muddiness or congestion.
As I've explained, my listening tends to be predominantly classical, but I do enjoy pop and rock, especially prog-rock from the 60s and 70s. One delightful outcome with the Terminator was that I listened to a lot of non-classical music with a new level of enjoyment.
If you're of a certain age, like I am, where you remember iconic rock albums in their originally released vinyl form, you'll also remember the apparent disappearance of deep bass in the subsequent releases of these albums in the CD era. What the Terminator does is make some of these digital recordings fun again.
On Supertramp's Another Man's Woman from Crisis? What Crisis? (16/44.1), I've never heard this track sound as punchy and deep as this. While deep bass is emphatic, the Terminator does not forgive harshness in the upper registers. There is a slight sizzle on the top end here, but it's in the mastering. The Terminator does not mete out mercy for this. Such is not the nature of a beast.
I've always had mixed feelings about REM's Shiny Happy People from their iconic Out of Time album (24/88.2 on Qobuz). It's a great song, but tends to have a bit too much treble energy for my ears. On the Terminator, the treble harshness was still evident, but tempered somewhat by the deeper bass.
Oversampling and Filtering
According to Mr. Zhao, designer of the Terminator, "In OS mode, it is oversampling to PCM384 / DSD256 respectively. The filter is undisclosed." It didn't take me long to discern the Terminator sounded much better in OS mode (i.e. NOS OFF). The difference was not subtle. The soundstage was more expansive, and the sound was just more refined across the board. OS stayed on for the rest of the evaluation.
Exploring this further, I experimented with upsampling using Roon's DSP. Upsampling PCM content to 352.8/384 using the "precise, minimum phase" filter, I heard a pretty nice bump in sound quality, over and above the Terminator's built-in OS. In the past, I seem to have gravitated to DACs that did not particularly benefit from SW upsampling, so this experience was a new one for me. I kept this setting for the remainder of my evaluation, and the comparisons. Note: I did not upsample DSD input streams.
I know people will ask - why not HQPlayer? As I've explained previously, my upstream chain has been optimized around a low-powered music server, the Innuos Zenith SE, which does not have the horsepower to run HQPlayer, and is not (yet) supporting HQPlayer's NAA endpoint.
Given my experience, I would strongly encourage people considering this DAC evaluate it with upstream software upsampling and filters.
Comparison with the Ayre Codex
First up, I compared the Terminator to my current DAC, the Ayre Codex. This comparison did not take too long, as this wasn't a fair fight. The Codex was comprehensively bested by the Terminator.
In Veinte Años from Buena Vista Social Club (24/96, ripped from DVD-Audio), while the Codex still rendered this song musically engagingly, it sounded almost skeletal in comparison to the Terminator. This song, like every song in this album, is imbued with an incredible amount of detail and texture, and this is rendered so much better on the Terminator. The laúd has a vibrancy and richness that comes across as more realistic. I keep coming back to the word "tapestry," since that is what the Terminator creates with music that has complexity and texture. And those glorious bass lines are so much more visceral.
Still, speaking in the Codex's defense, this difference was only apparent when listening to the DACs head to head. I still feel the Codex is a triumph of tradeoffs, and for its cost and form factor, delivers a heck of value.
Comparison with the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ and Uptone JS-2 PSU
Stepping up the value chain, I pitted the Terminator against my ~$3k reference: the combo of Brooklyn DAC+/JS-2.
When I first evaluated the Brooklyn+/JS-2, I loved the dynamics of this combo on the thumping drum strokes at the beginning of the last movement of Mahler Symphony No. 10, Thomas Dausgaard, Seattle Symphony ( 24/96). Well, the Terminator surpassed that. On the Brooklyn+ combo, these strokes sounded almost hollow and boomy compared to the weighty, meaty thwacks on the Terminator. It's funny how the tables turn in these comparative descriptions. The Terminator's superior bass was evident here too, in clearer double bass lines. In other areas, the 2 DACs were neck and neck. Soundstaging was similar, and while the Terminator still had a slightly darker tone, the Brooklyn+ sounded just as refined and resolving.
All in all, this was a battle well fought by two worthy opponents. The Terminator won the day, but this was by no means a beat down or walk-over. The Terminator costs a little over $1k more, and you get a lot for that extra outlay. This was a fair result when comparing two overachievers in their respective price points.
Comparison with Ayre QX-8
Ah - this is when things got really interesting. How would the Terminator do relative to the current leader of the pack in my DAC series? They are similar in price - $4299 (Terminator) vs. $4950 (QX-8 USB). Could the Terminator displace the QX-8 from it's pole position in my quest?
On Cocteau, from Ottmar Liebert's excellent binaural album Up Close (24/96), it was fascinating to hear the strengths of each DAC reflected in the listening experience. The Terminator's excellent bass and dynamics imparted a vibrancy and energy that was really exciting. The QX-8's excellent imaging and sound staging were evident, aided by the excellent binaural recording. The sense of ambiance and space was greater. Overall, on this track, the Terminator was the one I preferred.
Fusion albums are always hit or miss for me, but I was intrigued by this recent BIS release, Journey (24/96). A collaboration between a Carnatic (a South Indian classical genre) violin and a tuba? This could be genius or a colossal disaster. But RvB of BIS wouldn't release a disaster, so I checked it out. It's fabulous! In the 2nd movement of the Concerto for Indian violin, tuba, and orchestra, there is a section from about 5:00 to 6:00, where Subramaniam plays his violin with the raspy, almost ragged tone of the Carnatic tradition. The QX-8 rendered this with more richness and detail than the Terminator. On the other hand, at about 9:00, there is a melody where the tuba and violin play together. The Terminator's rendition of the tuba is weighty and powerful, while the QX-8's is more soaring, and the latter captures the violin's timbre better. For different reasons then, both DACs deliver this melody in a beautify way. The QX-8 pulls ahead in portraying the orchestra in a bigger soundstage, and individual instruments are better resolved.
I found this contrast between the strengths of these 2 DACs on track after track. The Terminator's deeper bass and greater dynamics - although not by much - were consistently evident. The QX-8 excelled in its more expansive, airy, and open soundstage. While it did sound a little leaner than the Terminator, I found it to have a smoother, more refined tonality. Finally, extremely fine micro-details were better resolved on the QX-8.
So is there a winner? I'll talk about this more in the Summary. Each DAC has its strengths! I will say that my preference for one over the other seemed to correlate with the genres of music being listened to. For pop/rock music, I tended to prefer the Terminator, but for most acoustic genres, especially classical and jazz, I leaned towards the QX-8.
Comparison with the Ayre QX-5 Twenty
I still had this puppy on loan, so had to do this comparison. Well, there's a reason the QX-5 Twenty costs north of $9k. In many ways, the QX-5 was the amalgam of the strengths of the Terminator and the QX-8! It was even more refined and resolving than the QX-8, but with dynamics and low end oomph to match the Terminator.
Pay, and ye shall receive!
Comparison with the Schiit Yggdrasil
Just as with my other DAC evaluations, the Terminator took a trip across town to my friend Eric's speaker-based setup, to compare with his Yggdrasil. His setup comprises an Innuos Zenith SE server, driving a chain of SOtM tX-USBultra and dX-USB HD Ultra to the DAC via AES/EBU. Both the SOtM boxes are powered by independent rails of a Paul Hynes SR-7 PSU. He too uses a Mutec Ref-10 reference clock on the SOtM boxes. In our comparison, we drove both DACs via AES, which is another difference from my home setup, which is all USB.
The analog chain comprises an Audio Research Reference 6 preamp, Hegel H30 power amp, and Magnepan 3.7i speakers, with dual Rhytmik F12g subwoofers. His Yggy unit did not have the new Gen 5 USB stage, nor the new Analog 2 upgrade, but right after our session, it got sent off to Schiit for the upgrades. Hopefully in a few weeks, I'll be able to revisit this comparison with the upgraded Yggdrasil.
One final note: since we were using AES as the input, which tops out at 192kHz input rates, we didn't use any SW upsampling to either DAC.
We level matched both DACs using an SPL meter as usual, and settled into our listening. Just like it did in my system, the Terminator made a positive impression from the get-go on Eric's system. "Hot-damn, this is sounding good" w as the consensus!
On Morning Bird, from Sade's Soldier of Love (16/44.1), it was immediately clear that great as the Yggy was, the Terminator was something special. The piano in particular was much more realistic, more physical. The lower octaves of the piano were more muscular, and the sound of the hammer hitting the piano string was more palpable. Sade's voice seemed to emerge from a blacker background, with not the hint of sibilance we were hearing on the Yggy. Finally, the Yggy sounded thinner and more constricted. I never thought I would ever write the previous sentence, but comparisons can be cruel.
Moving on to the 3rd movement "Rondo. Allegro" of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor," performed by Yevgeny Sudbin with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra (24/44.1), the Terminator set down a more dense, solid, coherent, and majestic soundstage than the Yggy. There was a sense of power and control to the music. Once again, the piano was rendered much more dimensionally, and every instrument was locked in its position in the soundstage, with no breakup even on the crescendos. I've heard this piece through the Yggy several times before, and always found it completely satisfying, with no cause for complaint. To hear it bettered to this degree was quite revelatory.
The Denafrips Terminator DAC rocks! I mean that somewhat literally, in that it is outstanding on rock music. Its dynamics, deep bass, and sheer solidity are scary good, and amazing at its price point. Anyone who is considering a DAC in this price range should give it an audition.
In terms of my own preferences and tastes, it's a real toss up between the Terminator and the QX-8. I love the Terminator when listening to more casual pop/rock genres. And the Terminator is a fun DAC to listen to! But the other side of me that loves classical music just finds itself gravitating to the Ayre QX-8. This is a very personal preference, in that I put greater value in the extra air, image size, and refinement from the QX-8, while accepting its limitations in the areas of solidity, deep bass, and density. Someone else will probably make a different tradeoff.
For me, it came down to what music I listen to the most. The reality is that I listen to a lot more classical music than other genres. So yes, for my tastes and ears, the QX-8 wins out. Although - just by a nose.
In many ways, having the QX-5 Twenty around allowed me to see the yin and yang nature of the Terminator and the QX-8. The Terminator with its visceral dynamics and bass, vs. the QX-8 with its more refined, detailed, and elegant sound. I want both!! I know - some of you will say - you'll eventually just want to get the QX-5 Twenty and be done with it. It's looking like that, isn't it?
We shall see. I still have some more DACs in the pipeline. Stay tuned!
Here is a diagram of how the Terminator integrated into my system:
Music Server: Innuos Zenith Mk II SE
Headphone Amplifier: Cavalli Liquid Gold
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 (Super DuPont Mod), Audioquest Nighhawk
USB Regenerator: SOtM tX-USBultra
Ethernet Switch: The Linear Solution OCXO switch
Reference Clock: Mutec Ref 10 10MHz clock driving the tX-USBultra
Power supplies: Utpone LPS-1.2 for switch, Paul Hynes SR-4 for tX-USBultra
Power Details: Dedicated 30A 6AWG AC circuit, PS Audio P5 PerfectWave Regenerator
Power Cables: PS Audio AC-12 (wall to P5), Pangea AC-9SE MkII (Cavalli Amp), Cardas Golden Cross (Zenith SE), Pangea AC-14XL
(Mutec Ref-10), Pangea AC-14SE MkII to all PSUs, Cardas Clear to all DACs under test
USB cables: Phasure Lush USB
AES/EBU cables: Cardas Clear
Clock cables: Habst 5N Cryo Pure Silver
Ethernet cables: SOtM dCBL-Cat7 (switch to SE), TLS cable (switch to QX-8)
DC cables: Audio Sensibility Signature Silver (LPS-1.2), Paul Hynes DC3FSXLR fine silver (SR-4)
Interconnects: Cardas Clear XLR balanced (DAC to Amp)
Headphone cables: Cardas Clear balanced and SE cables for HD800
Many thanks to Cardas Audio for providing a full loom of Cardas Clear cables to allow identical cables to be used for all the DACs under test!