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10-15-2018 | By John Zurek | Issue 99

I remember my first high-end digital player, a California Audio Labs DX-1. Looking forward to perfect sound forever, I tried to sell myself on the virtues of that CD player. Listening through my (then) Martin Logan Aerius speakers and Classe amp, I could never shake the feeling that the DX-1's sonic signature was contributing to my musical anxiety, and I was never really happy with the sound. I was a newbie audiophile, and digital high end was in its infancy.

I also remember my first digital experience. It had nothing to do with audio at the time. One of the labs in an electronics class required that we build a discreet R-2R ladder DAC. I remember breadboarding the circuit with crappy resistors from my Radio Shack stash of parts. Sure enough, the crude resistor ladder converted ones and zeros to analog. Decades later, all things digital have come a long way from those early days. Or maybe like tubes and vinyl, they've come full circle?

After many stand-alone CD players, I wanted more control over my digital source. This led me to use a highly modified Mac Mini with my first stand-alone DAC, the Mytek Stereo 192, which in my opinion still sounds pretty good. Running Amarra for 16/44, and Audirvana for high res, this was the first digital front end I was truly happy with. I used to think I really could live with it forever, even though I knew the DAC had been eclipsed by new models. Recently I heard the DENAFRIPS Ares entry level DAC (about $650) in a friend's system. He said he took a chance on the little Ares for his second system, but it was so impressive he tried it in his reference system, and it performed beyond what its price would indicate. As I listened, the Ares sounded engaging, relaxed, and detailed.

Since then I've heard other DENAFRIPS DACs, and I was intrigued. From the entry-level Ares to the flagship Terminator (about $4300 USD), they all had a house sound that appealed to me. The DENAFRIPS line is available through Alvin Chee's Vinshine Audio in Singapore. Alvin is responsive, knowledgeable, and easy to work with, and I predicted a satisfying experience with Vinshine. Prices on their site are in the Singapore dollar, which equals roughly .73 USD. Shipping is included.

The subject of this review, the DENAFRIPS Pontus is an R-2R ladder DAC. Old-ish technology reborn. The Pontus sits in the middle of the DENAFRIPS line, and is designed around the similar architecture of the higher level Venus and flagship Terminator models, which use improved transformers and higher tolerance resistors, among other premiums.

According to DENAFRIPS, the Pontus is "a true balanced, dual mono R-2R network array DAC. Each channel is equipped with independent high-speed FPGA to control the decoding by means of 4 sets of 0.01% R-2R networks. This design has very small linear error, high decoding speed, low digital noise, not only to ensure that the audio signal is low distortion, but also to ensure a very low background music noise; it allows the listener to enjoy the true music with dark background. The power supply is encapsulated in a thick metal alloy, equipped with dual o-core transformers, completely isolated super linear regulator, and a multistage power supply for digital and analogue sections, ensuring low noise, high availability power supply to the DAC."


After unboxing, I admired the sturdy build and simple, sophisticated design. Milled from solid aluminum plates, front and side panels are both functional and handsome. This component could hold its own with just about any audio jewelry. It gushes with understated elegance. I did not open the unit, but viewing the photos of the Pontus' internal circuitry on the Vinshine site revealed serious manufacturing quality and solid engineering.

The front panel controls include a standby button, input button, phase output (on/: positive phase, LED off: negative phase) OS/NOS (oversampling in PCM mode only), MUTE, MODE (i2s mode only). LEDs above the control buttons indicate digital audio signal input sampling rate.


The rear panel includes balanced and unbalanced analog outputs on the left, and 2 coax, 2 AES, optical, i2s, and USB inputs on the right with an IEC power receptacle.

I connected the Pontus to my highly modded Mac Mini via my reference DanaCable USB cable, and selected Combo384 Amanero, the USB driver. I was up and running in minutes, and had no delays in selecting either Amarra for 16/44 or Audirvana to play high res files, although I did need to tweak some settings in Amarra. The Pontus plays both PCM and DSD formats, each through its own discrete resistor network. A minimum of 100 hours break-in is recommended.

The user can change the sampling mode on the fly from NOS (no oversampling), where the sampling rate of the digital input signal remains untouched, and it is converted to analog output signal right away. The LED is lit to indicate the DAC is in NOS mode.

As I started listening, the first cut confirmed at least part of what I'd heard from DENAFRIPS DACs in other systems. Many of the characteristics that matter to me were finally captured in my room without dropping a needle on vinyl. I heard a signature that was slightly warm and a sophisticated sense of flow and space. Maybe it's that spatial correctness that gave the Pontus the ability to resolve detail without digital glare with no lack of frequency extension. Highs were radiant, smooth, and not rolled off.

Vocals were rendered with a palpable organic quality that rounded the outside edges, making them less laser-like and blending more naturally into the soundstage. Not so much in your face, and more like the quality of a live voice, a startling difference from other DACs I've heard. Midrange was relaxed, nicely detailed and flowing. Bass had an authoritative slam and full body, whether electric or acoustic.

I could not detect any major peaks or dips in response, and this DAC was especially good at retrieving dynamic detail. It treated well-recorded orchestral and string quartet works with the respect they deserve, and excelled at reproducing attack and delay of acoustic instruments. It did not seem to favor any one type of music, and reproduced the slam of electric bass and drums particularly well. If, like me, you listen to a wide range of music this is a plus. The Pontus was also forgiving of less-than great recordings.

The Pontus celebrates subtle detail with intricate and refined delicacy. Its sophistication enabled me to easily discern many facets of the music that were previously masked. Precise resolution of leading and trailing edge transients revealed its commitment to rhythmical fidelity. This DAC gives the space between notes the accuracy it deserves. It is very well organized, like a good bass player and drummer that are locked into a groove that gets your head bobbing. Complicated passages, whether electric jazz, orchestral, acoustic bluegrass, or acoustic jazz were played faithfully, never leaving ambiguity.

I can't say that the Pontus sounds completely like analog, but to my ears it definitely sounds un-digital. You may have been wondering about the unusual name of this company. It came from the first letter of each the following: Dynamic, Exquisite, Natural, Attractive, Fidelity, Refined, Intoxicating, Pure, Sophisticated. From my point of view, the Pontus succeeded on all these points, although some more than others.

No doubt this is an excellent DAC, and it is also a great value. It strikes a very nice balance of pace and timing, great tonality, and a relaxed presentation that both engages and leaves the listener craving for more.

The DENAFRIPS Pontus gives me what I've always wanted from a DAC. It connected me with the music on a high level, and transported me much closer to an analog experience. It checked all my boxes. At this very reasonable price, about $1600 US, I can't really find any downside. Perfect, no, but I'm thinking maybe digital is no longer the compromise it used to be. There are other R-2R DACs out there, but in my opinion, no one gets it done as well as DENAFRIPS at this price. The Pontus is easy to recommend, and for the first time in many years I bought the review sample. Well done.


Retail: $2200 (Singapore Dollars)


Contact: Alvin Chee