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Audio Ramblings - the PS Audio BHK Signature Preamplifier and DirectStream DAC

09-01-2016 | By Dave Clark | Issue 87


So here I am retired, and with lots of time. Time for music, beer, wine, the magazine… my art and more (like being on the Board of Directors for two non-profits here in LB—yikers what have I done?)... and time to listen to our music with the PS Audio BHK Signature Preamplifier and DirectStream DAC. Time to realize that things also need to change. To move forward… like with our system.

Getting sort of long in the tooth, and for sure still way good and fun, but both the Cary SLP-05 preamp and Playback Designs MPS-5 are aging like myself… slowly and surely slowing down and showing their age.

The Cary is a good, but man has it been 10 years already (reviewed HERE in 2006)? A stellar product for sure, but damn, the headphone jack was never drilled properly so no go using that… the remote is quite rudimentary (volume/mute only)… and the unit takes up too much real-estate on the shelf (as my system expands that space is becoming quite desirable) based on its two-chassis design. And it is, well… old like me and so perhaps something better and easier to use, more hip and cool is in order? Of which I think I am hip and cool, though I am not so easy to use…

Plus it only has two balanced inputs (would be nice to have more), has a lot of tubes (the four POPE NOS tubes are getting quite noisy too)… and so here comes the PS Audio BHK Signature preamp. Pretty much everything that I find lacking in the Cary feature-wise, the BHK preamp possesses, but everything I appreciate in the Cary sonically and musically, the BHK also possesses and builds upon by going that much further down the road.

Both are fully-balanced designs (in and out), use tubes for the input stage, and are of extremely wide bandwidth. Plus they look cool and sound amazingly good with our music.

But the BHK has a remote that allows for selecting inputs, volume, mute, and balance… and will also control the DirectStream DAC. Sweet. And it has 5 inputs that can be used in either single-ended (RCA) or balanced (XLR) and a headphone amplifier that works! Sweeter still.

So yeah, similar but better, and if you want to head on over to the PS Audio site you can read, read, and read some more about how Bascom King took all he has learned and channeled that into the preamp's design and functionality. Plus everything else there is to know about the preamplifier. For sure there is way more going on, on the inside of BHK preamp, than its simple and yet elegant outside appearance would suggest. Truly well done.

And then there is the Playback Designs MPS-5 (reviewed HERE) back in 2009. Yeah, still stellar, but what has time done to the progress of DAC design? Especially those that run off firmware as opposed to some DAC chip? While the MPS-5 is such a DAC, featuring software to derive the conversion of digital into analog as well as dealing with jitter and such, it is long in the tooth in every respect. The USB input is rather generic requiring the use of an external box (their USB extender box) to make it not rather generic, the player is not networkable, and for sure I am not spinning CDs like I used to but that is a nice option when the desire or need arises. And it gets hot when left on, of which it needs to be to sound its best. Heck, I am not even sure what firmware I am at since I have not updated it in years—which is not a knock on the company but more a knock on me for being lazy. Without a doubt the MPS-5 is still a reference player in every respect both sonically and musically, but its features are somewhat dated. Like I would love to not use their USB extender box for USB connectivity—of which I never found to sound as good as going through the Sonicweld Diverter (a USB to S/PDIF converter that, at $4000 was, is, as good as anything ever could be).

So here we have the PS Audio DirectStream DAC with the Network Bridge option… well, gee… everything I wished the MPS-5 had plus more, WAY more. Yeah they are both balanced, firmware driven (though with the DS it uses what is commonly referred to as a Field Programmable Gate Array or FPGA to deal with digital and feel free in going to the PS Audio site to read, read, and read more about how Ted Smith took all he has learned and channeled that into the DS DAC along with everything you could ever think to ask and more about the DAC itself), makes any digital in sample-rate that of DSD, and every sort of digital in and/or out one would ever want... but on the DS DAC the USB is as right as right can be and you get more things happening inside and out. And it looks cool, runs cool, and sounds as good as the MPS-05 too. Sweet. Well… maybe better. Sweeter still.

So where I am going with this? Well… damn, lost my train of thought. Oh…this is more about a system or how my system has evolved over time both musically and sonically and not so much a review of either of the two PS audio pieces noted here though I guess it is sort of that too. Of course AC cords from Triode Wire, cables from WyWires, Purist Audio, Sablon (HERE), and Skogrand (HERE), the Quattro Wood CT loudspeakers from Vandersteen (HERE), tweeters from Enigma Acoustics, the BHK-250 amplifier from PS Audio (HERE), and serious help from Auralic (HERE), SBooster (HERE), iFi (HERE), Entreq (HERE), Telos, Synergistic Research (HERE)… and the list goes on. All have made things so much better. I will get into several of those noted above in later columns and have already written about the rest elsewhere as noted… but as it now stands, my system is simply everything I, err we, could ever have wanted both musically and aurally. End of the road? End of the journey? Will never say that, and probably should have not said that it is everything that… but damn it is just so right.

PS Audio BHK Signature Preamplifier and DirectStream DAC

PS Audio BHK Signature Preamplifier and DirectStream DAC

So let's tear this down a bit, back it up, and let me say this… the PS Audio DS DAC ($6899 with Bridge) and Playback MPS-05 are way more alike sonically and musically than different with the differences being more subtle and of a preference than anything else. DS DAC digs perhaps a bit deeper, layers a bit deeper, goes a bit wider, and does this is such an uncolored and truthful way that we feel we are getting more of our music there into the room. Is this more an issue of software choices, USB implementation, analog output design… and so on? Without a doubt. And for sure the MPS-05 is stellar, but DS is sort of a slight side-step with our music and on our terms—both fit the bill, but the DS tends to win out. Others may disagree and find more comfort in the MPS-05's slightly darker quality than the slightly more lighter (or analytical) quality found in the DS, and I get that. Different strokes, different needs and wants. Different reactions and interpretations of what is playing—of what people want or need. As it stands, the DS is supplanting the MPS-05 here, and with its features and such, it is a real winner… make that it is a keeper.

PS Audio BHK Signature Preamplifier and DirectStream DAC

It is highly resolving and yet never fatiguing. The DS is extended and well-balanced with nothing raising a finger to point at sonically…other than it is so engaging to listen to… dynamic as all get out and startlingly so. Music leaps out at you with pace and rhythm. It is quite fun and never disappointing.

Both Gary Beard and Greg Petan have written about the DS DACs (DS Junior for Gary and DS for Greg) in pf and David Robinson wrote about the DS a while ago as well (HERE)… so we have a decent amount of ink already on the units—the DS Junior being very much like the bigger DS brother. Other than what they wrote, and what I wrote above, there is not much to add except this…

The PS Audio DS DAC is in many ways a game changer. Much like the Merging Technology units, you can bypass the need for USB or whatever and go straight 'network' via the Bridge option leaving behind the issues of noise and whatnot that lies within the typical digital connections (USB, S/PDIF, etc.). I have used the DS in either configuration and find the differences to be rather, well… interesting to say the least. Using Lightning DS via the Aries from Auralic (USB) versus MConnect (a free app to control files via DLNA) to send files to the DS presents USB as being more detailed and resolving as opposed to a richer, warmer, more analog like via network. Which is right, which is better? Both. Can live with either simply on musical terms, though MConnect's GUI is rather limited even when pointed at Lightning DS. Pretty much folder view with scant info about your music. It works, but is there is not much in terms of visually engaging the user.

Drop the USB and go noise free via your network. Easy peasy. I will admit as to not trying going direct with the DAC's own volume option… since I am preamp bound with so many sources, not really an option or desire here. But from what others report, should be fine… maybe another day on that? Oh, and you can invert phase too! In or out… whatever sounds best if that is something you have a hankering for such things.

Hiccups? Like Gary with the DS Junior I do have an occasional issue… like the Aries losing USB connectivity to the DS, though a reboot of the DS fixes that rather quickly. And as to networking I found it to be plug and play. Shows up on the network lickety split and works as advertised. Easy cheesy. Nothing else to shake a stick at… the unit works.

AC cord of choice? Well I always review components with the supplied stock generic cord. That is what I base all my comments and observations on when reviewing. So all that above is stock. Now I am fortunate to have a good number of aftermarket AC cords here to play with… all in the hopes of improving the sound in some way. For sure the sound could change, but I am looking for something that does not change the basic characteristic, but perhaps adds a bit—like seasoning if you will to bring out the components' best. Of course this is clearly subjective and what I like you might not… and vice versa. Which is all cool. Like I said above… Different strokes, different needs and wants. With the DS I found a number of cords to work quite well—all stunningly good in their own way though with some ever so slight tradeoffs... but one really did the trick. The Digital American from Triode Wire Labs allowed the DS to open up and remain true to its character. What the cord did was pretty much up the ante a notch or two without adding or subtracting from the DS' state of the art sound, even though it did add a wee bit oomph and richness or warmth that I was wanting in my music, so I guess it did add something. All a matter of subjective preference, of course. See, while the Neutron SW16 Digital Power Cord from Dynamic Design killed it on the MPS-05 and elsewhere here in my system (as did for David Robinson and Marshall Nack in their systems). Oddly, it was a wee bit too forward on the DS. Ditto the Sablons. More of what I was not wanting to hear... and clearly not what I was expecting at all based on using them for quite awhile now. The Neutron SW16 Digital Power Cord is simply stellar and a true reference in every place I have tried it, but with the DS… uh, not working my friend. Put it on the MPS-05 and the like, and "oh my brother from another mother"… true magic... damn it is clearly worth the price of admission. And while I love what the Sablons bring to the party on everything I have them on, uh… yeah, wrong side-dish with the DS. So another not here my friend. Of course we have to consider the whole system here, and any cable becomes a balancing act at best. Take the DS and place it into a different system or even mine with different speakers, and what not, and the results will no doubt be different.

So as the system stands now, the Triode Wire cords are the ticket and a true bargain. More on these later but, damn… they are good!

Which brings me to the PS Audio BHK Signature preamp ($5999). Yeah. This preamp is way cool and really, really good. Again, like what we hear when comparing the MPS-05 and the DS, differences between the BHK Signature and Cary SLP-05 are more alike than different. Cut from similar cloth tubes and balanced (the PS Audio BHK Signature preamp uses two Psvane 12AU7 tubes from China), they have a very similar fit musically and sonically… here in our system at least. I would say though that the BHK Signature is a bit bigger (make that BIG) sounding and slightly more resolving as well. It is extended as all get out and stunningly dynamic. Layers, layers, layers… space… big wide open space… palpable presence that is oh so tangible… sweetest ever. Listen to the latest release Scenes from the Wilderness from Explosions in the Sky. Tactile and there. Crazy good. But then I am listening to the system as noted above… and things are so scary good with our music. What I love is how the density of music is held together as whole and yet, there are all the little bits and pieces; details within the complexity.

Not the least bit euphonic, the preamp brings the best of tubes and solid-state and melds them into a musically engaging experience. You get tubes, but then you get solid-state too. Never strident or aggressive. No grain or grit. Smooth and airy. No etch either… unless… I went with the wrong AC cord. Yeah once again the Triode Wire worked wonders here though the Sablon did well too but I would give the nod to the Triode Wire American 10 Plus series. Simply stunningly good at elevating the performance of the PS Audio BHK Signature preamp in every way while not subtracting or coloring the sound in a direction we would find less appealing.

I love the remote and having the ability to do whatever I need to from the seat of the couch—to either the preamp or DAC. This is way cool. No hiccups at all. The preamp, as does the BHK amp and DS DAC, allows for standby mode keeping the units rather ready. On and off from the remote. Easy as pie. You can even name the inputs if you are that anal, but I am fine with 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. No hum, noise, or whatever and tube hiss is only audible from a few inches in front of the speakers… another winner here. Another keeper.

Paired with the DS DAC and BHK-250… nice. Nice indeed. Synergy and magic. Right now here in our listening room. While the Reimer Tetons, Clayton M200s, Playback Designs MPS-05, and Cary SLP-05 all clicked and made music, the current system of Vandersteen Quattro Wood CT, PS Audio BHK-250, PS Audio DS DAC, and PS Audio BHK Signature preamp click together at a completely different level—and they should since they all come from the same manufacturer. And for sure the sound is very similar to what we had prior in so many respects, but man, is this good or what?! Way deeper bass, way more open, way less whatever being in the way of our music… way more music. Dynamics… try My Disco's "1991" or anything from Lustmord. Happy times.

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