Because AES/EBU is my default connection method and I have been listening with the Grimm MU1 a lot lately, I started with this server, connected with a Jorma AES/EBU cable to either the Denafrips or the Aqua DAC, which are connected to the Audio-GD preamp using the Driade Flow Link Reference 808 RCA cable. Between the preamp and the power amp, I use the Driade low Link Reference 808 XLR cable.
After having listened to the Terminator Plus for several days while making sure that it was properly warmed up, and swapping back to the Formula xHD (with V2 output board), there are obvious differences, but also many similarities. While the two DACs were easy to tell apart, I really liked them both and it only took me seconds to get accustomed to either. At this point, I knew that this was going to be a tough test.
Right off the bat, it’s clear that the Terminator Plus is a superbly transparent, extremely neutral and linear, and supremely highly-resolving DAC. There’s nothing in my arsenal that can beat it in these regards, or most other sonic aspects, for that matter. In these aspects, even the CH C1 DAC is not significantly better. I’ll let that sink in…
What we’re stepping into here is no longer a matter of quality but one of perspective and personal preference. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to explain the differences. Coming from the Denafrips, the Aqua is earthier, more sonorous, meatier. Its presentation is soothing and cohesive and not focused on any one aspect. It’s comparatively slightly smooth but it still presents the musical whole with very little editorialization. I should also mention that I never before felt the Formula DAC to be smooth. In fact, until the Denafrips Venus, it was the most neutral and linear DAC that I had heard.
Speaking of which, as good as it was in many aspects, the Venus did not entirely convince me because it had a slightly technical presentation with a mild synthetic tonality. With the Terminator Plus, these restraints have been removed altogether. There’s simply not a hint of artifice to be found. However, the Terminator Plus is so extremely transparent and precise, and indeed analytical, that some people might experience it as being overly clean, even if I don’t think it is analytical to the point of being clinical. Upon first listen after swapping, the Denafrips seems leaner than the Aqua but it would be just as valid to say that the Aqua sounds fuller. In any event, the Terminator Plus’s bass is nimbler and more precise with absolutely no excess fat or weight and this can make the DAC feel lightweight even if it really isn’t. In fact, its bass is as accurate as I have heard it. It can appear subtle, light, and unassuming, or seem like chiseled-from-granite depending on the recording and it has a kind of crispness and immediate incisiveness that makes many other DACs sound a little overweight.
I know that I tend to ramble on about bass. But it’s this foundation onto which the rest of the frequency spectrum is built. With the Terminator Plus, the superbly accurate bass makes not only bass drum and bass lines sound more realistic, everything sounds more convincing, from vocals to percussive sounds and from synth stabs to woodwinds. It all sounds breathtakingly pure. No doubt, this overall high precision makes that the DAC also has remarkably distinct imaging. Overall, the Terminator’s soundstage isn’t really any wider or deeper than that of the Aqua but because it is so very crisp and articulate, everything within it seems to be spaced out more and the performance becomes more captivating because of this.
Especially after the Terminator had wowed me with its high precision and wonderful imaging, mentally, I was noting that the Denafrips might be the better DAC. But when switching to the Formula xHD, that mental note is immediately challenged. Yes, the Aqua is less endowed in terms of ultimate precision but somehow, still, it sounds just right. The music comes through and my foot starts tapping. Maybe it’s due to its slightly fuller and slightly more ballsy sound but even if my mental engagement is lowered a notch, emotionally, I’m involved immediately. After having switched a couple more times, I think it’s mostly a matter of higher precision versus a more forgiving sound and with that, a very personal decision.
I hasten to add that the Denafrips, unlike the Weiss DAC502, is not a DAC that veers on the technical side rather than being musically appealing. Even if it has a cleaner delivery, the Terminator Plus never fails to involve me emotionally. One does need to make sure to have the rest of the system in order as shouty tweeters are not accommodated and badly recorded source material will also sound bad.
AES versus USB
Now that I have the Terminator Plus’ performance mostly pegged using the Grimm source, it’s time to see how the various inputs compare. First, let’s switch to the Antipodes K50 to see how the Denafrips’ USB input compares to the AES/EBU input.
Fourplay has always had a thick and warm sound. Their song Chant sounds appropriately cuddly but arguably a little too thick through the inherently rather smooth-sounding K50 (especially when using Roon) and using the Jorma AES/EBU cable. When switching to USB using the Final Touch Audio Callisto, remarkably, the sound becomes significantly more incisive and concrete, while retaining Fourplay’s intended warmth. This is remarkable because the Callisto normally provides a particularly free-flowing delivery meaning that the difference is induced by the Terminator’s USB input section. It’s also very interesting to note that the USB connection seems to greatly reduce the Roon-induced extra warmth. Apparently, their proprietary solution is indeed something special! However, I also note that the USB input sounds more spacially restrained, the soundstage doesn’t breathe quite as freely as it does with the AES input. This is nothing that the Denafrips can be blamed for, though, as I found this is the case with any server that I tried. It seems to be a limitation or “feature” of the format.
Still, I had to give the Vermouth Reference USB cable a go. Well, I’ll be… the music grabbed me right away! Not only did the Vermouth instill the music with precisely the right amount of warmth, but it also re-enabled the flow and soundstage breathing of the AES input, while retaining the Denafrips’ USB input’s higher level of precision and transparency. Wow. I did not see that coming. This is the thing with USB – the quality of the connection is extremely dependent on the implementation of the interface on both ends, as well as on the cable. This is also true for AES/EBU, but certainly to a lesser extent in my findings thus far.
Continuing the comparisons with different styles of music, including soul, electronic, and jazz, focused more on rhythm and transient behavior, it’s clear that the USB connection consistently provides the most technically accurate sound. With this connection, the transient behavior is most impressive, as are the articulation and transparency. However, with music not focused on transient but more on ambiance, my old argument against USB makes itself known again: the depth of imaging.
At this point, to shine additional light on the USB versus AES/EBU matter, I added in the Aqua LinQ streaming endpoint using HQPlayer embedded on the unit itself (Aqua Core module), meaning that Roon on the K50 streams in the NAA format directly to the LinQ. This results in a sound that is tighter and more incisive than when using AES/EBU straight from the K50 but while retaining much of its flow and depth of imaging. Granted, the K50 all by itself remains the smoothest and most organic, but the added zip and impact of the LinQ make up for this, and on balance, I prefer this rendition with most music.
Going back once more to the direct K50 to Terminator USB connection using the Vermouth cable it must be said that this still provides the technically most precise rendition. The bass is tighter and more articulate, the midrange cleaner and clearer, and transients sharper and more sudden, and to top it off, the low-level detail retrieval is also unbeatable. So, as indicated, a personal matter. What do I prefer? Well, it depends on the music style. With smooth music such as soul or whenever there are sensitive vocals in the mix, so far, I tend to prefer the AES/EBU connection but with fast jazz or other overtly transient-driven music, the USB connection is really fantastic.
Somehow, irrespective of the cable, USB paints a flatter and less organic picture than other connections and, alas, the same is true with the Terminator Plus. This limitation aside, this DAC’s USB input provides hugely impressive sound and for those who are less hung up to the organic or emotional side of the music, it will likely be the preferred choice.
The best HDMI cable I have is a relatively simple Sony cable. Theoretically, the I²S connection should always beat any other connection that relies on muxed-in clock signals such as S/PDIF and AES/EBU. But as previous comparisons already confirmed that the Jorma AES/EBU cable will provide better sound when the competing I²S cable is said Sony sample, I will swap the Jorma cable for a much more standard Mogami cable so that the two can be fairly compared.
On the topic of clock signal, USB connections these days are almost always Asynchronous and thus should not be affected by source clock issues, or certainly not as much as they seem to be, but clearly, there’s something else going on with the format. Nevertheless, I will include USB in this final comparison but to keep it fair, using a standard “freebie” cable instead of the Vermouth.
First, I tried getting the LinQ to play to the Terminator Plus using standard Cat6 S/FTP RJ45-terminated network cable. The Denafrips manual mentions selecting the I²SA-input when configuring the pinout and does not mention the RJ45 B and C inputs but I tried it nevertheless. First, selecting the A-input as indicated in the manual and then also by selecting the actual physical input that I used and going through all the pinout settings once again. Alas, none of the Denafrips’ pinout configurations resulted in sound from either of its two RJ45 inputs. Thus, what remains is its HDMI input which I tried next using the K50.
Now freshly connected with three standard cables, I returned to the playlist and listened to I²S, then AES/EBU, and finally USB.
Right away, with no required configuration, the K50 played ball with the Terminator’s I²S input A. Not only did it play ball, it played a mighty fine game! Just as the USB input, the connection seemed to mitigate the extra Roon-induced warmth to provide what sounds like a more direct connection. Switching to the AES/EBU input, I found no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Rather, the sound became more closed in, less fleshed-out, leaner in the bass, and flatter in terms of soundstage depth, considerably so, actually. Especially reverbs and decays went way deeper with the I²S connection than with the USB connection. This is not really a surprise, though, because in my experience, I2S is always the better connection, so long as the competing cables are of equal quality. What was a surprise is the magnitude of the difference. Sometimes, the differences between S/PDIF or AES/EBU and I²S are really subtle, like a cloudy day versus a sunny day (such as with the Jay’s Audio components), but in this case, it really is a matter of day and night. It reminded me of the time when I compared a Wadia 861 CD player’s internal ClockLinked connection to an external loop using its outputs and inputs and the sound just collapsed and lost a lot of listener involvement as a result. Anyway, so far, I²S is clearly my favorite connection to use, if available.
In the interest of full disclosure, before going to the standard USB cable, I connected the Jorma AES/EBU cable and compared the sound to the I²S sound. Ohlala, this was interesting! Now, the two inputs sounded much more alike. The bass fullness, tonality, and overall fleshing-out were pretty much identical. Kudos to the Jorma cable for squeezing so much from a technically relatively inferior format. But I had to admit that the soundstage depth was still better with the I²S cable. The latter ultimately also provided an emotionally slightly more involving sound.
Then, finally, for the comparison between I²S and USB, both using standard cables. I was expecting the USB input to disappoint but that wasn’t the case. It was leaner and tonally less saturated but otherwise actually pretty good. As heard before, it provided exceptionally good detail retrieval (although not better than the I²S connection) and very good renditions of the reverbs. However, once again, the USB connection just sounded cooler and more technical, less alive and breathing, spatially more restricted, and ultimately, emotionally less compelling.
No matter how well-implemented a DAC’s USB section is (and Denafrips absolutely did a fine job here), in my experience, I²S is simply the better connection, and this comparison proves it once again. The upside is that the results as described were attained with a very simple HDMI cable meaning that cost is not at all an aspect but, naturally, your source does need to be outfitted with this connection method.
This DAC is simply without flaws. It sets the standard not only at its retail price but it’s one of the finest DACs that I have heard irrespective of the cost. Whether or not you will like its super-transparent and ultra-precise rendering of the music is a personal matter but I will say that it’s rare for an audio component with such extreme levels of precision to remain refined and nuanced while also being musically appealing and emotionally engaging. Direct competitors in order of ascending retail prices are the Mola Mola Tambaqui, the Aqua Formula xHD, and the CH Precision C1. All three offer different facilities and provide different tonal- and spatial presentations. But these differences are not nearly as large as one might suspect based on the cost. Most impressively, none of the other DACs manage greater levels of transparency, detail retrieval, or overall precision.
As far as I am concerned, the unit has only two downsides and neither has anything to do with its sound quality: the non-intuitive configuration of its parameters and the absence of remote control. Nevertheless: highly recommended!