PS AUDIO STELLAR GAIN CELL DAC
+ Top-notch, no-compromise performance from everything it sets out to do as a DAC, preamp and headphone amp.
– At its asking price, nothing.
IT IS a great time to be an audiophile today, with high-performance audio equipment becoming more accessible than ever. Yes, prices of gear are higher than what they used to be, but so are those for everything else, for that matter! The point is, if you take inflation into account, you are now able to obtain great-sounding hi-fi at price levels that are relatively more affordable than they were before.
In my opinion, however, one particular component in the audio chain has more great value options then the rest – digital-to-analogue converters. There is a larger demand (both headphone- and speaker-based systems), just as there are more manufacturers making them. The result? More options and competitive pricing, and the consumer only stands to benefit from this!
Coming into this crowded field is PS Audio’s Stellar Gain Cell DAC, but it’s label doesn’t tell the whole story – it includes preamp and headphone amp functions as well!
In terms of digital formats and connectivity, the Stellar does it all – PCM (up to 24-bit/384kHz), DSD (up to double rate), and it will accept signals via USB, coaxial, optical and even an I2s feed through HDMI. In addition, there are three filter settings you can use as per your preference.
It’s no slouch in preamp guise either. Besides the fact it can accept three other analogue sources (including one balanced XLR), it is a fully-balanced design which employs PS Audio’s Gain Cell technology to carry out this function (in a nutshell, the company says no mechanical elements are used, e.g., attenuators, and signal gain is achieved electronically, more details here). The Stellar also does phase inversion (digital inputs only) and even has a home theatre mode, where volume (to main left/right stereo speakers) can be controlled with an external AV amp/receiver.
All these powerful functions fit into a relatively small form factor, weighing 6kg with dimensions of 7.5 x 43 x 30cm (h/w/d). Build quality is superb, and its chassis is solid and inert with a handsome rough-textured finish. Styling cues are on point too – minimalist yet elegant.
There are no surprises here and the process is the same as any other DAC and preamp. All necessary drivers (utilising Asio) are available on the PS Audio website, which installed without a hitch. Connection options are all well laid out and clearly labelled, so once you hook up all other analogue sources (note there is no phono stage on board), connect it to a power amplifier (if you’re a headphone user, insert quarter-inch jack) and it’s all systems go.
The Stellar’s display is minimalist and its menu system extensive, but it’s all quite intuitive and obvious when you start scrolling through it. You may need to consult the manual occasionally, but I found I was doing that mainly to see what the unit could do rather than figure out its workings, which speaks volumes of its ease of use. The remote control supplied may look rather spartan but covers all the functions available on the Stellar.
To get straight to the point, the Stellar will do everything you want it to with superlative performance, and this applies to all three aspects of its utility.
Its digital decoding is smooth and non-fatiguing, yet incredibly detailed, unveiling all the layers and colour from the data. It doesn’t favour any particular genre of music – whether it is rock, jazz, vocals, instrumental or orchestral, it never puts a foot out of line. It isn’t as warm as and loses out a touch in absolute musicality to the resident M2Tech Young DAC, and if I have to pigeonhole its sound, will say it is neutral with a slight leaning towards warmth. It is also not as transparent as the Sony HAP-Z1ES, yet more than sufficiently so to reveal all the nuances of the performer in the recording.
Even when pipped against the pricier Odyssey Tempest preamp, the Stellar doesn’t give up much ground. It’s volume knob is nicely weighted with a great feel to it and allowed for very fine adjustments in output. It was also deadly silent, with no added grain, hum or buzz to the signal. Signal gain is very good, which according to specifications, allows for +12dB over line-level.
Switching over to headphones likewise showed equal competence, and at no point did I feel it was inferior to either the Chord Mojo or Hugo units. A different presentation, perhaps, but every bit as enjoyable and able to competently drive and bring out the best of the resident cans.
When used in the main system as a DAC/preamp, the Stellar just sounded, well, right. It brought little attention to itself and simply let the music flow. It had speed, dynamics, great tonality and matched well with the Odyssey Kismet amps, too.
THE LAST WORD
It is rather amazing to consider how much excellence PS Audio has managed to squeeze into this one product. Would you get better sound, say from a standalone DAC that costs as much as the Stellar? Possibly, but you’d still need to buy a preamp to go with it. And chances are, one with similar flexibility and performance as the Stellar’s won’t be available on the cheap. Factor in the excellent headphone amp section and it’s hard to argue with the appeal and value of the Stellar.
If your system already comprises top-notch gear, this may not represent a significant improvement over the existing. But if you’re looking for insights into the high-end from mid-level equipment, this may be the easiest and most affordable ticket there. Highly recommended!
Sources: Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD Audio Player, Toshiba notebook running Windows 10 and JRiver Media Center software, M2Tech Young DAC, Chord Mojo and Chord Hugo DAC/headphone amps, Rega P5 turntable, Hana SL cartridge / Amplification: Audio Image phono stage, Odyssey Audio Tempest preamp, Odyssey Audio Kismet monoblocks / Speakers: Magnepan .7 / Headphones: HiFiMAN HE-400i, Final Audio Design Pandora Hope VI / Cabling: Clear Day Double Shotgun speaker cables, An assortment of pure silver interconnects, DH Labs SilverSonic USB cable
Malaysian price: RM7,990
Malaysian distributor: A&L Audio Station (+603-2282 9884) / WhatsApp + 6014 8222 333) / Find your distributor.