Back in 2014, to much appreciative applause from industry pundits and the audiophile community alike, the DirectStream DAC was released. The digital-to-analog converter takes any digital input format and converts it to Direct Stream Digital for output that's touted as being "near-perfect analog." At just under US$6,000, however, it's eye-wateringly expensive. Maker Colorado's PS Audio has spent the last two years looking into delivering similar performance in a cheaper package. This quest has led to the development of the DirectStream Junior.
Direct Stream Digital, or DSD, is an audio recording process that's said to deliver a sound which is closer to analog than the much more common PCM. PS Audio's Paul McGowan gave a good general overview of DSD back in 2012, describing it as a continuous single bit stream running at 64 times (or more) the sample rate of a CD. "If you take a DSD stream and run it through a simple analog lowpass filter to smooth out the on/off transitions, you get music," he said. "This is amazing considering that if you do the same with PCM you get only noise."
The original DirectStream DAC can upsample PCM and DSD audio to ten times the DSD rate, is said to iron out jitter problems from different sources, and is promised to uncover a world of musical details "masked by typical PCM-based processors." In designing the less expensive Junior, PS Audio's Ted Smith was challenged with using the same basic architecture as the original, but in a smaller chassis, with a network bridge included, and ensuring that the new model could perform at least 80 percent as well as the DirectStream DAC.
Smith simplified the power supply, output circuity, display and user interface, and managed to meet the design challenge while also delivering more of the detailed, natural sound of the original than planned. Both models use identical field-programmable-gate-array architecture, and they both upsample incoming audio to ten times the DSD rate, but the Junior boasts out-of-the-box network connectivity thanks to the inclusion of the company's PerfectWave Network Bridge II.
PS Audio says that Junior users can look forward to the same full, rich and warm high quality audio as its ancestor, but it doesn't have quite as much spatial accuracy, transparency, instrument separation, soundstage width and treble accuracy. "We'd estimate that Junior provides 85 percent of DirectStream's performance in those areas, and without hearing the original, listeners will find it hard to believe that anything could possibly sound better: Junior is that good," said the company. "Ultimately, DirectStream is better than Junior, but compared to any other DAC near its price – Junior can safely hold its own."
The DirectStream Junior will start shipping this month and carries a recommended retail price of $3,999. If high resolution PCM audio is more your digital music flavor, Schiit Audio's flagship Yggdrasil multi-bit DAC is available now for $2,299.
Product page: DirectStream Junior