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    Review | DenaFrips Pontus DAC

     

    DenaFrips Pontus Digital to Analog Converter. The Best DAC This Reviewer Has Ever Heard; Bar None!
    George Graves

     

     

    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!

     

     

    Pontus DAC Front Open Top.jpg

     

     

     

     

    Description

     

    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. 

     

     

    Pontus DAC Rear Open Top.jpg

     

     

    Sound 

     

    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!


    Pontus DAC Angle Open Top.jpgAs 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!

     

    Pontus DAC Rear Angle Open Top.jpgA 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! 

     

     

    Conclusion

     

    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!


     

     

     

    Product Information

     

     

     

     



    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments



    15 hours ago, AudioDoctor said:

    Jeremy Clarkson thinking the 911 is a "jumped up beetle" hasn't hurt 911 sales one bit... Cayennes are selling like freaking hotcakes too

     

    58 minutes ago, AudioDoctor said:

    Ok, now look at Cayennes...


    We weren’t talking about Cayennes.  We can’t even stay on topic off topic.

     

    image.png.3035026e5d013e9cd942627a25604b95.png

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    6 minutes ago, bluesman said:

    We weren’t talking about Cayennes.  We can’t even stay on topic off topic.

     

    No real man buys a Cayenne. Period.

     

    Matt

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    25 minutes ago, bluesman said:

     


    We weren’t talking about Cayennes.  We can’t even stay on topic off topic.

     

    image.png.3035026e5d013e9cd942627a25604b95.png

     

    I would really like to stop the off topic, but if you're going to continue get your facts right.

     

     

    Screenshot_20201216_145117.png

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    49 minutes ago, Vhond said:

    Why 4 out of 5 stars? (maybe I missed it?)

    The star rating is given by anyone and it’s supposed to be a rating of the review, not the product. 

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    On 12/16/2020 at 12:33 PM, matthias said:

     

    No real man buys a Cayenne. Period.

     

    Matt

    My wife might beg to differ.  I've personally progressed from a 911 Carrera4 Targa to a Panamera Turbo S to a Cayenne (it's more practical on the farm) and as much as I loved the 911, it remineded me of a great pair of headphones (light, crisp, incredibly detailed, bass when needed, but tiring after a few hours).  In comparison, the Panamera Turbo (even though Porschefiles hate it) was like sitting in the front row at the symphony or in front of Chris'  Wilson Audio Alexia's at full throttle -- you just couldn't believe almost 5,000 lbs could hold a curving road, or press your skull into the headrests, or hold onto a icy patch that way.  And you could drive it for 12 hours straight and still get out fully relaxed.  That is the one good thing about the Cayenne -- I can fall asleep in it better that either of the other two. ;-)  

     

    By comparison to the Panamera, my M5 and M6 and even my Tesla S seemed like blunt instruments -- lots of bass, lots of speed, far less finesse.  Only a Tesla D with Ludricrous mode that I borrowed for a week has come close.  But, most of those differences only became apparent over months and years of owning these cars; if I had just taken them for a 24 hour test drive, I might have reached completely different conclusions.

     

    Which actually brings me back to the original subject of this thread:  When I hear people describe the Pontus or any of the other Denafrips DACs or for that matter any R2R DAC I hear a lot of the same things said as when people describe why they still prefer analog -- more air, more reverberance, perhaps even conceding a bit of euphonic distortion...compared to what others describe as the clinical precision of the delta-sigma DACs.  I've found that depending on my filter choices in HQPlayer, I can actually simulate some of those same differences.  But I have also found that when I go for the "analog/R2R sound" I tend to prefer it when I first walk into the room and for an hour or two thereafter (like the 911), but when I want a sound I can live with for hours and days on end, I choose the leaner, more subtle style that makes little impression at first, but an hour or so into a listening session you find that you have become completely lost in the music (the way my Panamera made me feel - but lost in the drive).  

     

    Are there long term R2R afficionados who would strenously disagree? 

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    18 minutes ago, sdolezalek said:

    Are there long term R2R afficionados who would strenously disagree? 

     

     

    Yes, to the point where I might get a hernia. 

     

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    2 minutes ago, Blake said:

     

     

    Yes, to the point where I might get a hernia. 

     

    Ah yes, but if I remember correctly, you've gone all in for the Termintor-Plus and you've been selling off your (overly clinical/detailed, weak on bass) Sennheiser 800/800S collection... ;-) 

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    George can you comment on the Pontus vs.Bryston 3.14 vs. Lumin X1?

     

    Thanks, and great review. I wonder how much better the higher end Denafrips units are?

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    13 hours ago, Steve_Burl said:

    George can you comment on the Pontus vs.Bryston 3.14 vs. Lumin X1?

     

    Thanks, and great review. I wonder how much better the higher end Denafrips units are?

    I wonder the same thing. As to your Q, no I have not heard either the Bryston or the Lumin DAC. I have reviewed one of the Lumin music streamers, but not their DACs.

     

    rant/ Frankly (at the risk of rendering an unsolicited opinion), I don’t see the point of a hardware music streamer. They are mostly very expensive, and an older computer running Roon or Audirvana et al, does just as well, to serve-up your streaming services such as Tidal, Quobuz, and Amazon Music, and is, in fact, far more capable. Here’s an example. A couple of summers ago, the BBC decided to stream the annual Proms concerts in FLAC in addition to the normal MP3 compression format. You needed to be able to run a certain release of Firefox web browser on a different BBC feed to be able to parse the FLAC. If you could do that, you had access to live, full bandwidth performances of world-class conductors leading the great BBC Symphony Orchestra, every day, in almost 2 months worth of nightly performances, in real time, from the world-famous Royal Albert Hall in London! No hardware streamer could have done that, regardless of cost. But any laptop, running Windows 7/10, Mac, or Linux could do both easily. I even had an application running simultaneously with the correct version of Firefox, which allowed me to capture to a SSD, every performance. It just seems to me that a computer does the streaming of ripped or subscribed-to music over the Internet just as well as any dedicated hardware box, and does other related tasks (such as capturing a stream to HDD) as well, and can do so for a tiny fraction of the cost of an expensive streamer. And even were the price the same, there’s no way that a streamer could be as versatile or as adaptable to changing situations (such as the aforementioned BBC Proms FLAC streaming events). Of course, as always, YMMV. /rant😉

     

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    Wonderful review. I am very interet in Pontus. Curious any one compare it to Holo Spring 2? They seems fail into the same price range

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    On 12/16/2020 at 5:00 AM, bluesman said:

    FWIW, I put 911 in quotes because it's a fictional model number that only describes the 1963 original.  Porsche numbered every one of his designs sequentially, regardless of the item.  The car introduced in 1963 was actually design 901, and that was what they intended to call it.  But Peugeot had some kind of international registration on car models with 3 digits and a zero in the middle, so Porsche made it the 911.

     

    FWIW, IMO it's not worth very much. 😀 A Porsche 911 is a Porsche 911 is a Porsche 911. What a company may designate designs of a particular model internally may be irrelevant to its branding. Porsche has sold and continues to sell the model as a 911 since 1963. The fact that it was originally going to be the "901" is of historical interest, but it doesn't make "911" fictional.

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    On 12/10/2020 at 8:55 AM, orosie said:

    LOL....people can be so fragile these days.

    It's not fragile to understand what people are really saying when they communicate. No one cried, no on'e feeling are hurt. Not fragile; just pointing out what he was saying.

     

    Do you like sites that devolve into flame wars?

     

     

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