I’ve had the Denafrips Terminator in my system for almost six months now, so it’s finally time to retrieve and collate the various scribbled listening notes I leave scattered around the place and to type out a mini-review.
I’ve been a bit of a Luddite when it comes to digital, it’s all been moving along at a rate that I’ve found difficult to keep up with. Not to mention the mind-boggling contradictions that make it difficult to pull the trigger on anything new in the digital world. “What contradictions?”, I hear you ask. Well, to those moving along on the periphery of digital advancements (such as myself), it’s looked and felt like it’s the numbers game that’s been driving innovation and advancements in technology, with a race for higher sampling rates and higher bit rates seeming to attract the most attention among potential buyers of new digital gear. But then from the left-field comes a product like the Denafrips Terminator DAC, with its ‘non-oversampling’ R2R architecture being a real blast from the past. And Denafrips isn’t the first company to seemingly wind back the technology to the mid ’80’s. I’ve already reviewed a NOS ladder DAC – the Audio Mirror Tubadour SE – reviewed here and it’s one of several high-end DACs that has its roots set firmly in decades gone by.
OK, so the above might be doing a little disservice to the folks at Denafrips since the Terminator is hardly a relic from the past, a point made obvious when you take a peek under its hood. Over 1000 0.005% tolerance resistors populate the circuit board, providing the backbone for the Terminator’s converter matrix. 6-bit DSD support for up to DSD256 and 26-bit resolution for PCM files.
Features Summary Of The Denafrips Terminator DAC
- Up to native DSD256 (USB and I2S inputs only)
- PCM 384 kHz / 24-bit (USB and I2S)
- Up to PCM 192 kHz / 24-bits on the remaining inputs.
- Upsampling mode to PCM 384 kHz and DSD 256
- Mute and Phase buttons (red LEDs on the left will flash sequentially)
- Mode button allows for configurable HDMI I2S pin-outs for source compatibility (there isn’t an industry standard for I2S).
- 2 x Coaxial: RCA and BNC (75 ohms)
- 1 x TOSLink
- 1 x SUB
- 2 x AES/EBU
- 3 x I2S: HDMI (LVDS), RJ45 (LVDS), RJ45 (VLCMOS)
- RCA – 2.3 Vrms, 625 ohms
- Fully Balanced XLR – 4.6 Vrms, 1,250 ohms
OK, so taking a look at the above specs, one can’t help thinking that these are not exactly state-of-the-art, even considering the fact that the Terminator is surely going to be used by most folks in non-oversampling mode. Well, it seems that Denafrips thought so too, and so out came a plug and play DSP upgrade board, user-installable in just a few minutes and improving the spec as follows:
Technical Highlights of the new DSP board:
- Improved Digital Signal Processing FPGA
- Four(4) sets of Linear Technology LDO Voltage Regulators
- DSD1024, PCM1536 Supports On USB & I²S Input
- Proprietary USB Audio Solution via STM32F446 Advanced AMR Based MCU
- Dual AES/EBU Input Supports
- Sharp/Slow Filters Option
- I²S Pinout Configuration
- I²S DSD Channel Swap Configuration
- DSD64-DoP On All SPDIF Inputs
- DSD1024 On USB & I²S Inputs
- 24bits / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192KHz On All SPDIF Input
- 24bits /1536kHz On USB & I²S Inputs
- Sampling Mode: Non-Oversampling NOS / Oversampling OS
- Windows USB driver ( Thesycon V.4.82)
- Driver-less On Mac & Linux
For a measly $300 or so, that’s a fairly nice step up the ladder (‘scuse the pun) towards a pretty impressive set of digital numbers.
Setting Up The Denafrips Terminator (with latest DSP board) In My System
Initially, the Denafrips Terminator DAC was slotted into my system as a straight replacement for my Sim Audio Moon 380D, using the same Aurender N100H and Cambridge Audio Azure 851c sources.
For the first week or so I listened mostly to the Denafrips Terminator DAC using my Cambridge Audio Azure 851C as a transport, connected to the DAC via a Synergistic Research Digital Corridor No. 2 RCA Digital Coaxial/SPDIF, and later via AES/EBU. I slightly preferred this ‘basic’ setup using a CD transport over running the Aurender N100H. I found the N100H to be a very good unit but the playback quality varied significantly based on the source of the playback file. I’ve amassed quite a large digital library over the years and it’s hard to remember where each recording came from or how it was downloaded or ripped. I didn’t want that variable in the equation while getting to know the Terminator DAC so I stuck mainly to CDs, at least for critical listening sessions. I’d switch between the CD transport and the Aurender N100H only when I knew for certain that the ripped file source was from the exact same CD that I was spinning inside the transport, and only then when I knew for certain it was a reliable FLAC rip.
For power cables, I tried the ESP Reference and the WyWires Blue Juice II. I couldn’t discern any real difference, so I retained the ESP Reference cord for the remainder of the review. The digital gear is all hooked up to a PS Audio P10 regenerator. I’ve played with different isolation devices over the months and I found the Symposium Acoustics SuperPlus works well as a platform, and a modified NoboSound spring system works well between DAC and platform, as a replacement for the stock feet.
My first impression of the Terminator DAC, with only minutes of warm-up time, was ‘wow’. Although the unit was fully broken-in, it needs to stay powered for at least 24 hours to give its best, but even cold it was a big leap forward over the excellent Moon 380D it replaced. The Terminator’s sound was big, enveloping, warm yet detailed, quite luscious in, dare I say it – an analog kinda way.
However you want to cook it, the Denafrips Terminator is just a fantastic DAC. The bottom end has weight and solidity and underpins the music giving it a solid foundation and a nice ‘live’ vibe. If you had to pick it apart you might say that its bass is more tube-like than solid-state. More tubby and natural than taught and clinical. Some would prefer one over the other, take your pick.
The midrange is where the good stuff happens and the T DAC delivers the mid frequencies almost to perfection. The midrange is not exactly neutral, however, so if your upstream gear is on the warm side, this DAC might not be a good fit. One thing that struck me about the midrange is the feeling of ‘presence’. Coupled with the solid bass foundation, music really feels as though it’s a live recording, even when you know of its studio origins.
Transparency through the mids is good, but not excellent. Switching from NOS mode to oversampling does seem as though it lifts a little veiling on the music, perhaps at the expense of that warm glow that NOS mode imbues. As this vernacular suggests, it’s a little like comparing a fantastic tube amp with a fantastic solid-state amp. Each has its own set of virtues, and with the Denafrips DAC, you can literally take your pick with the mode switch.
I found the top-end a little subdued, in my system. It’s airy enough but on complex musical passages, there’s a slight dulling down of that top-end frequency that’s useful in unlocking subtle details and cues in and around the performers. It’s a minor criticism of an excellent DAC.
My early impressions were that this really is a fantastic DAC, but it wasn’t until changing a couple of other things in my system that it really started to show its full potential.
First up I changed my streaming/server setup, replacing the Aurender N100H with a Small Green Computer SonicTransporter i5, Sonore UltraDigital and Sonore UltraRendu (with LPS).
The SonicTransporter/Sonore setup is a significant improvement in sound over the Aurender N100H, though trickier to set up and maintain. For those unfamiliar with the architecture of the i5 setup, basically, the SMG SonicTransporter i5 is a stripped-down intel computer with everything optimized for music server functionality. It houses (in my case) the Roon core software, allows connection for both internal and external storage via USB, which in my case is an 8TB Seagate USB drive. The i5 then connects to the router via Ethernet. The UltraRendu is then required to provide a USB connection to the DAC, the UR also connecting to the router via Ethernet. Here’s an image of the layout:
I use the i5/Sonore setup with Roon, control coming from an ancient iPad with a cracked screen. I’d a variety of USB cables on hand for the review and settled on a DH Labs Silver Sonic Mirage for most of my listening.
With the above source replacing the Aurender I felt that even on files of dubious quality and origin, the sound surpassed that from my 851C transport.
With the i5/Sonore, the music took on extra clarity and detail and delivered a phenomenally 3-D soundstage with a natural and unforced image presentation. I’m not allowed to use adjectives like ‘musical’, or ‘organic’, for fear of being mocked by the audiophile community, but the sound of the Denafrips Terminator is just so musical, and so organic. With the Aurender N100H and the Cambridge 851C as sources, I’d considered the Terminator DAC to be quite excellent, even despite its slight lack of midrange transparency, and the slight thickening of the musical presentation, and the slight lack of top-end air and sparkle. With the Aurender/851C sources, the Denafrips is perhaps just a tad too far on the warm side, a little too dark, a little too much of a deviation from neutral. With the i5/Sonore gear, the whole presentation became more clear, more transparent, more alive, and more neutral.
I didn’t think it could get much better than this.
A while later I was able to add the Sonore UltraDigital to the mix and feed the Denfrips Terminator DAC via i2s. This cleared another layer of opacity from the window, a layer I didn’t realize existed until it had been removed. Unfortunately, I’d sold the Aurender by the time the UltraDigital came on the scene so I wasn’t able to hear the N100H going USB into the UltraDigital and i2s out to the DAC, but I’m sure it would’ve been an improvement as I’ve never really been fond of USB for audio applications, at least not without some ancillary help.
For those considering it, the i2s connection is a definite worthwhile improvement in performance over the USB or any of the other digital inputs. It isn’t a deal-breaker if you can’t run i2s however, but you won’t be unlocking the last nth degree that this DAC has to offer unless you take the last step. I would say that the biggest effect of switching to i2s is what appears to be a lowered noise floor. There’s just more ‘black’ behind everything. Notes pop with a far greater contrast between the note itself and the silent background from whence it came. When you strip away that ‘invisible’ background hash, the stuff that you shouldn’t actually be able to hear, you find yourself hearing more of the music in a way that becomes noticeably less restrained. There’s an improved sense of dynamics and musical presence when the background noise floor is lowered, or removed.
With i2s, I found the boundaries of the soundstage to be ever so slightly expanded in all directions, but mostly in the front-to-back plane. I’m sure this was wholly an illusion born from the simple fact that the grey background hash had been stripped from the white canvas, leaving only the colorful imprint of the actual performers standing in stark contrast on the stage.
Enter The Denafrips Gaia DDC
It made sense to dispense with the Sonore UltraDigital and to replace it with Denafrips’ own digital to digital convertor, the GAIA DDC. Not inexpensive at around $1800, the GAIA is the perfect partner for the Terminator, providing inputs for USB, SPDIF, AES/EBU TOSlink, and having the all-important i2s output. In Denafrip’s own words:
“The GAIA accepts USB, SPDIF (Coax, TOSLink, AES/EBU) inputs. These digital signal data-stream will be FIFO buffered and reclocked via the Precision Oven Controlled Crystal Oscillator OCXO. This process eliminates the jitter to a negligible level, ensuring the digital output signal are free from the harmful jitter noise. “
The GAIA can also accept the clock output from the Terminator II, but not from my version of the DAC, the Terminator I. Sonic improvements are said to come from allowing the DAC to provide the clock, but the GAIA has the Precision Oven Controlled Crystal Oscillator OCXO so it’s no slouch on its own.
I found the GAIA to steer the Terminator even more away from the warm spectrum and even closer to a neutral presentation. Dynamics improved nicely with the GAIA and the whole soundscape appeared more natural without ever being etched. Gone are any concerns over a slightly reticent top-end, when using the GAIA. Reduced is the slight tubbiness in the bass, low frequencies are more taught and tuneful yet still retain that natural tone and timbre that was present from the DAC even without the GAIA.
Playing through my usual reference tracks I would have to say that the GAIA is a nice addition but it isn’t an essential addition by any means. The Sonore UltraDigital with LPS retailed around $400, and versus the $1800 GAIA it did perfectly fine at getting i2s into the Terminator. But the GAIA/Terminator combo is undoubtedly more resolving, and more neutral, albeit with a sound that has slightly less flesh on the bones than with the naked Terminator.
I haven’t heard the Terminator Plus, but it’s said to be more neutral, dynamic, and resolving than the Terminator I. I suspect the GAIA with TI takes one close to the resolution and neutrality which is said to be a key feature of the T+.
I’ve heard people say they prefer the sound of the TI over the T+, I can’t comment on that but my sense is that it would come down largely to the tonal balance of the rest of your system. If you need more resolution, more air, more sparkle, then either the Terminator I with upgraded DSP and GAIA DDC, or the T+, but if you prefer a warmer, fuller, slightly softer presentation, then the Terminator I with upgraded DSP might be the best fit.
Of course, there are several ways of tweaking the sound of the stock Terminator DAC to your liking. Most obviously, you can switch between the DAC’s oversampling and non-oversampling modes. Unfortunately, you’ll need to get out of your chair to do this, as the DAC does not include a remote. That’s something of an oversight IMO, since I found myself preferring certain musical genres to be oversampled and others not. NOS mode is great for when you’re kicking back in your chair with a nice whiskey listening to some jazz or folksy music, perhaps the late great John Martyn’s “Solid Air”. Or perhaps you need to take the edge of some poorly recoded classic rock from the ’70s and ’80s. However, if you’re in analytical mode; perhaps you’re trying to hear the effects of switching out a USB cable, or you have some well-recorded classical music that needs a little more resolving power and capacity to separate out complex musical passages, then you might prefer a switch to oversampling mode, as I did.
Then there are some filter options, accessible from the front panel and only functional in oversampling mode. My hearing must be toast because I could hear no difference between the different filter options. Then, of course, Roon users can have at the different up/oversampling settings within Roon itself. You can tweak these and hear the effect instantly. You might decide to switch the DSP off in Roon and send the Terminator a basic stream and let it do the up and over, or not. And then there are the settings within the UltraRendu for up and oversampling. (If all of that isn’t enough to put you off digital, then I don’t know what is. It certainly takes some of the pleasure out of listening to music, having the distraction of so many configurable options at your fingertips and others just out of your arm’s reach.)
Whichever path you take I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better DAC in the $5K to $7.5K range than the Denafrips Terminator. Fed by a good source, it’s resolving but also supremely musical and by far the closest to matching the performance of my analog front end that I’ve encountered to date.
- MSRP $4498 (includes latest DSP board)
EQUIPMENT USED IN THIS REVIEW:
- Dr. Feickert Analogue Woodpecker / Kuzma Stogi 12VTA / Benz Micro LP-S
- Emotive Audio Epifania Linestage
- Manley Labs Steelhead RC (also used the line input)
- Denafrips Terminator / Gaia DAC/DDC
- Sonic Transporter i5 / Sonore UltraRendu
- Cambridge Audio Azure 851C (used as a CD transport)
- Allnic Audio A-6000 300b monoblocks
- Art Audio Carissa 845 SET
- Dunlavy SC-III Speakers
- Spatial Audio X3 Speakers
- Klipch Klipschorns
- Cardas cabling and ESP Essence/Reference PCs
- Transparent USB Digital
- DH Labs USB
- Synergistic Research Digital Corridor No. 2 RCA Digital Coaxial
- ESP Reference PC
- WyWires Blue Juice II
- PS Audio P10
- Various spikes, cones, tweaks, acoustic panels etc.