I love analog audio, but I've never complained that digital audio sounded unpleasant or bright, just a little boring, and it doesn't pull me in like a decent turntable. Music on LP connects better, and to my delight that's what's happened with the Denafrips Ares digital converter. Digital sounded a few steps closer to vinyl, and if that translates as more "analog-like," so be it. With the Ares I heard everything deep down into the mix, like never before.
The Ares is competitively priced at $680, £550 and AU$980 but what makes it unusual is that it uses a bank of resistors to perform the digital-to-analog conversion.
The sound is big, but Ares is nice and compact, just 2.4 by 8.4 by 9.9 inches (45 by 215 by 230 mm). The front panel has a large Standby button, then a row of much smaller digital input selector buttons for USB, coaxial and optical digital inputs, plus Phase and Mute buttons. A series of incredibly tiny and not-at-all-bright red LEDs indicate the selected source, the sample rate and whether the converter is playing DSD files. No remote is included.
Judged from the outside it's a smartly designed, but no-frills basic black component, but I popped the cover and took a gander at what the Denafrips engineers crafted. The Ares doesn't use an off-the-shelf digital converter chip like most converters do. The Ares innards instead house a Denafrips designed discrete, high-precision resistor ladder (R-2R) digital converter. I've never before seen one like that in a less than $2,000 converter. Ares decodes high-resolution PCM files up to 24 bit/384 kHz sampling rates, and up to 11.288MHz (4X) DSD native files. The internal power supply boasts a large custom-wound toroidal transformer and a bank of 72 small capacitors.
The rear end has a USB, two coaxial RCA and two optical digital input jacks; and stereo RCA and XLR analog output jacks. The bottom panel has four rubber-tipped conical feet, and a slide switch to select 115- or 230-volt operation. Build quality feels robust, and the warranty runs three years.
Listening to the Ares
The Ares sound wasn't anything like any other digital converter I've tried at home; it had more body and dimensionality, and the sound broke free of myspeakers. The music had more guts and power, sounding a lot more like LPs, or to put it another way, the sound of live music.
To put the Ares in context I brought out a Schiit Bifrost Multibit converter ($599), which sounded brighter and crisper, but more uptight, and dimensionally flatter than the Ares. With the Ares the sound opened up, it was effortless, the Ares let the music come through with greater ease. It was a bigger sound, with more soundstage depth, and low level, quieter, more subtle detailing was enhanced. This kind of resolution was unprecedented for the money.
Next, I brought out atube digital converter ($1,350, £1,046 and AU$1,804). I love it for its sweet sound and soundstage depth, but the Ares' purity and superior clarity was in another league. The music popped into focus, as if veils had been lifted. The Border Patrol SE sound was gorgeous, but it sounded a tad sluggish after I spent some time with the Ares.
Though I try to avoid using the term "musical" to describe the sound of components, that's exactly what made the Ares special. There was a live quality to the sound, more bounce to the rhythms, more visceral impact in the bass. I was shaken by this little converter, the entry-level model from Denafrips. I hope to get my hands on one of its higher-end models in the coming months.
Vinshine Audio is the global distributor for Denafrips; all products are direct shipped from Guangzhou, China, to each customer. The Ares current price is $680 in the US, £550 in the UK and AU$980 in Australia.