I review many integrated amplifiers and receivers, but it's been ages since I covered a matching preamp and power amplifier. So when I was offered the PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC stereo preamp ($1,699, £1,700) and Stellar S300 power amp ($1,499, £1,500), I quickly accepted. They're available in silver or black finishes, both feel substantially built, and they're designed and assembled in PS Audio's factory in Boulder, Colorado. The company's roots in American high-end audio date back to 1973!
The Gain Cell DAC's front panel may be a model of simplicity, but it still offers the user a number of options: phase invert, digital filters, preset maximum speaker volume, preset maximum headphone volume and more. Analog connectivity runs to one stereo XLR input, three stereo RCA inputs, stereo RCA and XLR outputs, and a 6.3mm headphone jack on the front panel. Digital audio connectivity includes one optical, one coaxial and one USB connector, as well as an unusual one called I2S that looks like a HDMI connector, but it's strictly a digital audio connector. The Gain Cell DAC handles high-res PCM files up to 384 kHz, and standard and double rate DSD files.
The S300 is a hybrid Class A/Class D design that delivers 140 watts per channel for 8 ohm speakers, 300 watts per channel for 4 ohm speakers, and PS Audio claims the amp is stable when wired into 2 ohm loads. Those numbers are impressive, the S300 easily able to drive the most demanding speakers without strain. The amp has stereo RCA and XLR inputs and two pairs of heavy-duty speaker cable binding posts.
PS Audio claims the Gain Cell DAC and S300 are both "fully balanced" designs that sound best when used with their XLR connectors, not RCA connectors. I agree, but the difference in sound isn't huge.
This review was written shortly after I finished thestereo receiver review. That receiver was truly amazing for the money, $799, so would the Stellar components sound any better? Unboxing the sleek Stellars they felt more upmarket than your typical receiver, that's for sure. The Stellars quickly established their superiority in transparency and tonality, and they also looked and felt better built than the RR 2160.
I used KEF LS50 andspeakers, but I spent most of my time working on this review with the two Stellars hooked up to my flat panel speakers, and the combination really clicked. They sounded so good together I couldn't bring myself to try too many other speakers. The sound was rich with resolution to die for.
Comparing the Gain Cell DAC with thedigital converter, the differences were clear cut. The Brooklyn was the more "analog" of the two. It was richer in tone and body, and there was more spatial depth with hi-res files of Radiohead's "A Moon Shaped Pool" album. The Gain Cell DAC was no slouch, with more jump and energy overall, but in the end I preferred the Brooklyn.
The Stellar components highlighted the .7 transparency and low distortion, and the clarity is astonishing. That's what distinguishes these speakers from the competition.
Magnepan speakers aren't known for their deep bass punch, but here with the two Stellars the .7 speakers' low bass was kicking with "The Legendary Skatalites in Dub" reggae album with really low, feel-it-through-your-toes bass. Austin Wintory's orchestral score for "The Banner Saga" sounded downright huge, and the low bass drums definition was truly stellar!
I also played a few LPs on an SME Model 15 turntable with a cartridge and phono preamplifier, and the Stellar components let all of the analog beauty shine through. The LP's sound had an organic presence, full-bodied dimensionality, with lively bass. I also played the S300 in my home system with a Pass Labs XP 30 stereo preamp, and came away mightily impressed with the amp because it tells the truth about the sound of my music collection.
My takeaway: The more I listened to the Stellar Gain Cell DAC and S300 the more I liked them. They can be bought separately of course, but of these two components I came to feel the S300 amp is better than the Gain Cell DAC preamp. So if you can afford just one, get the amp.