DenaFrips Pontus Digital to Analog Converter. The Best DAC This Reviewer Has Ever Heard; Bar None!
My last review, as you might remember, was the latest iteration of the very successful Schiit Yggdrasil DAC. It is a very nice DAC, and it sounds extremely good and is quite an improvement over the earlier Yggy models. But, since receiving this unit, I have also received the Pontus DAC from the Singapore based company DenaFrips (a division of Vinshine Audio PTE. LTD.), and this has changed everything. The Pontus, is a (lower) middle offering from this company, located above the entry-level Ares II but below the Venus, the Terminator and the Terminator+ in price and in performance. I’ll say it up front: this is without a doubt, the best sounding DAC this reviewer has ever heard, and the difference is far from subtle. With the Pontus, there is simply more THERE there! In every way, the realism and analog-like presence is miles ahead of anything (other than the higher priced models in the DenaFrips line-up of DACS such as the Venus, Terminator and Terminator+) currently available under $10 grand and including some DACs costing 10X and more than the modest $1670 U.S. price of the Pontus (yes, that’s correct, Sixteen Hundred and Seventy US Dollars!
The Pontus is a 24-bit R2R (sometimes called a ladder DAC) that supports all sampling rates from 44.1 to 192 KHz on all inputs and will support up to 1536 KHz on both USB and i2S. It has both RCA single-ended (2.2 volts RMS) or balanced XLR (4.4 volts RMS) outputs. Frequency response is 20 to 70KHz +0, -3dB and a THD + N spec of 0.0025%. The dynamic range is greater than 121 dB with a signal to noise ratio of >120 dB.
Physically, the unit is 320 mm (12.6”) X 330 mm (13”) X 110 mm (4.3”) and weighs 8.5 KG (18 pounds) The unit will work on 100 - 240 VAC and either 50/60 Hz. It comes with neither an IEC AC cord or a manual (the manual is available on the website – and increasingly common trend these days, but the buyer is on his or her own when it comes to a mains cable). The complement of inputs are 2- SPDIF Coax (one RCA, one BNC) one Toslink SPDIF, 2 AES/EBU inputs, one USB, and one i2S via HDMI (about which, more later).
The build quality is very high and, as you can tell from above, it is quite heavy for it’s size being not quite standard rack-mount width.
Interface and Layout
The front panel of the Pontus is fairly simple. To the extreme left you will find a power switch button with a red LED light above it. To the right and slightly above the centerline, are a series of tiny, red LEDs. These muted lights represent which input is selected. These are coaxial input 1 (RCA Jack), coaxial input 2 (BNC Jack) optical (Toslink), AES1, AES2 (both XLR) USB (USB “B” connector) and i2S (HDMI). Continuing across the front panel are a series of lights indicating basic sample rate (44.1K, 48K) and the sample rate multiplier (1X, 2X, 4X, 8X) and DSD.
Below the row of indicator lights is a series of pushbuttons which control various DAC functions. Again from left to right are: input-, input+ (these step up and down through the available inputs), absolute phase, Oversampling/No Oversampling, Mute, and Mode (this latter selector allows the user to match his i2S pinout in the connected HDMI plug to which ever non-standard i2S pinout the connected device uses. There is a table in the downloadable user manual to help with this configuration).
To the extreme left is a mains switch which works rather unusually. The indicator, another tiny, red LED is above the push operate/standby switch is normally on when the unit is in the “standby” mode and goes out when the unit is switched to “operate”. When in standby, push the button once to switch to operate, and push again to re-enter standby. The unit is technically powered up whenever plugged-in as it should be for optimum performance.
A characteristic that the Pontus shares with the Yggdrasil DAC from Schiit is that from more than a few inches away from the front panel, all of the legends indicating selected input, sampling rate and other operational modes are unreadable and are, for all intents and purposes, downright invisible from most user’s listening position. Also noted is that for changing modes of operation such as selected input, oversampling, etc., a simple hand-held remote control would have been helpful.
Now, we get to the nitty gritty of this review. As stated above, This is the Best DAC that this reviewer has ever heard! I was able to A/B the Pontus against some formidable competition, but I have also listened at great length to such DACs as the MSB Diamond 4 with outboard clock, the dCS Vivaldi, and the Pontus blows the all out of the water. Of course the MSB and Vivaldi DACs are being evaluated here from memory, as I do not have access to them for direct comparison. Sonic memory is not very reliable (so take these recollections with a grain of salt), but I do clearly recall my impressions of these very pricy DACs. Neither of them caused the jaw-dropping reaction to their sound as did the Pontus even before I compared it to some of of its contemporary competition!
As to that competition, I was able to directly compare this modestly priced DAC to the latest $2500 Schiit “B” spec Yggdrasil, the Chord Hugo2 (formerly a favorite of mine) and a Benchmark DAC3. Comparing these three competition DACs, from best to poorest sound were the Hugo2, the latest Yggy, and the Benchmark. Compared to the Pontus, all three were left wanting by a huge margin.
As most readers here know, I have a rather large collection of my own master recordings. I made these recordings using my own equipment and they are comprised of a surprisingly eclectic range of musical genres. I have recordings of major symphony orchestras, string ensembles, jazz and swing bands, small jazz ensembles recorded in a variety of venues from symphony halls to intimate nightclubs to winery tasting rooms to private homes. Two of my favorites are the Stanford University “big band” recorded at the famous Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the Stanford Campus and the Larry Douglas All-tet recorded at a nightclub in Menlo Park CA. These, along with the many recordings I made as the recording engineer for the San Jose (CA) Symphony under the late Maestro Georg Cleve, and all being true stereo (XY, or MS) recordings, offer some fascinating insights into all aspects of DAC performance.
Let’s use my Larry Douglas All-tet recording to explain what this DAC does better than any of the others. This group, consisting from right to left, with a trumpet, an electronic synthesizing xylophone/marimba, a full drum set, and a stand-up acoustic bass viol, a hollow body amplified guitar, and a Yamaha electronic keyboard was set up in the front of the restaurant/night club. The microphone used, in all but the symphony recordings, was a single-point Avantone CK40 large capsule stereo mike (link) and sounds superb.
I might also mention that this recording was recorded in DSD using a Korg MR-2000S 5.6MHz DSD recorder. In post production, the DSD file was converted to 24-bit/96 KHz LPCM. On the other DACs, the bass on this recording was somewhat thin. On the Pontus it was deep, well defined and had a lot more punch than with any of the other DACS. The other DACs also exhibited a slight “veiling” effect that was totally absent with the Pontus. I suspect that this is some kind of ailising noise modulation, but whatever it is, it’s not noticeable when listening to any of these DACs by themselves and only shows up when compared to a DAC that has less (or none) of this type of noise. With regard to this characteristic, the Yggy was second to the DenaFrips.
Another characteristic of the Pontus compared to the rest is a smoothness and lack of grain in the high frequencies. The overtones from the xylophone exhibit a purity and a sense of high frequency “air” that is totally missing in the other DACs! This makes instruments show a palpability that is startling when you first hear it. When the trumpet plays he steps, literally, out of the speaker and emerges into the room. I have heard this phenomenon before with several other good DACs such as the newest Yggy and the Chord Hugo2, but never to this extent. It is so unexpected that it is actually more than a little spooky. While on the subject of the trumpet, in many places while it’s playing one is aware that on the left side of the ensemble, the Yamaha keyboard is playing a piano counterpoint to the trumpet. The problem is that with every other DAC I’ve heard, with the trumpet playing, you can’t hear what the piano is playing. You can hear it, but you can’t make out the individual notes! Now, when the trumpeter takes a breath, one can hear the piano plainly and can hear what the pianist is playing, but it gets submerged again when the trumpet resumes! With the Pontus, one can plainly hear what the piano is doing even while the trumpeter is holding forth!
A similar thing is happening with the stand-up bass. With the rest of the ensemble playing, one can tell that there is a bass “continuum” playing from within the ensemble, but with all of the other DACs, you can’t parse what the bass player is playing. One is merely aware that the there is a strummed bass in the mix someplace. With the DenaFrips, the bass line is clearly audible and very easy to follow. I was there at the recording session, and clearly heard the string bass while I was recording the session, but, and here’s the amazing thing, I’ve never before heard it on playback, but I never thought about it until I heard it for the first time with the Pontus!
Finally, there’s the soundstage. It is wider and deeper than with any of the DACs with which I compared the Pontus. A true stereo presentation is what can be attained with any of the coincident miking schemes. XY and MS can present as accurate a picture of the soundstage of a performance on speakers as one can get from a binaural recording, or actually being there (except for sounds that arrive from other directions than that from which the performance emanates, of course). The efficacy with which one’s stereo can presents this information is determined by the quality of one’s playback gear. With digital, it is largely down to the D to A conversion. All DACs do a credible job (mostly due to the inherent extreme channel separation of the digital recording process) of this. But there is sound-staging and there is sound-staging, and the Pontus just does it better than the others in this test. Having been there, I have a vivid mental picture of how the musicians were deployed, and I can close my eyes and pinpoint every instrument, not just to their relative area within the sound-field, but specifically to the exact spot occupied by each musician!
Needless to say that the other recordings exhibit these same characteristics, both on my own recordings and on commercial recordings in my collection. Right now, as I type this, I’m listening to the film music of Ralph Vaughan Williams as played by Rumon Gamba with the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos via Tidal. Vaughan Williams score for the wartime film “The 49th Parallel” is a gorgeous, colorful score and is beautifully recorded. I’m listening to it for the first time through the Pontus, and it’s like I’m hearing this familiar recording (to me) for the first time. Certain characteristics of the orchestration have made me stop typing a number of times because I hear, (for the first time) things in the music that I never even knew were there!
If you are in the market for new DAC and have been shopping around, (and even if you aren’t in the market) stop looking. Do not pass go and do not collect $200, add another $1500 to that and go to the DenaFrips web page and order a Pontus pronto!
This DAC is transparent in ways that you won’t believe a piece of electronics could be transparent. The soundstage is holographic, the bass is punchy and deep, the midrange is unbelievably creamy and rich yet incredibly detailed at the same time. When playing music, the electronics simply disappear letting all the music out into the room. I rate this DAC an 11 out of 10 and I can’t recommend it highly enough. In fact, I’m going to buy the review sample!
Keep an eye-out for a follow-up article on how to play actual SACDs (not just DSD files) through the DenaFrips Pontus’ i2S HDMI input. The relatively inexpensive hardware needed to do this is only available from China, and although I’ve ordered it, it could be January before I get it. Patience, my friends, all will be revealed in good time!
- Manufacturer: DenaFrips
- Model: Pontus
- Price: $1,670
- Product Page: DenaFrips
- User Guide: PDF
- Configuration Guide: Videos
- Where to Buy: Vinshine Audio