Giving the Stellar Gain Cell DAC a try

gmcman
gmcman Posts: 1,637
edited November 24 in Going Digital
I have the upgrade bug and wanted to get my ears on the Directstream to see how my systems synergy works out, I know there are many options out there but figured I would start with the SGCD so I could compare.

I've been listening to the SGCD for almost a week, been busy with work and home projects so trying to get as much listening in as possible. The 2ch rig consists of a Marantz SA8005, McCormack RLD-1, along with a recently ultra modified DNA-1. using 2.3TL's with a lot of upgrades.

With the SGCD in the chain, I'm using the 8005 as the CD player, feeding the SGCD with a Nordost Silver Shadow digital coax with BNC ends and RCA adapters. That coax really opened up a lot of detail, so far I'm enjoying it.

Overall, my current setup sounds good, looking into either a preamp or CD/SACD and preamp. With the Aries Mini as my streamer, I wanted to try the PSA DAC and maybe even see if the SGCD would fair well as an analog preamp.

I really want to like the SGCD, surprisingly it's not analytical sounding, it's quite detailed and smooth, the instrument separation is what surprised me being able to easily distinguish from a bass guitar, drum, piano, a bit easier than the RLD-1 in the quiet passages. I had the mindset it would be bright, very forward, slightly analytical, but only slightly forward, not bright at all.

The SGCD is slightly forward with vocals, just slightly, but sounds like a 1KHz eq slider was just ever so slightly raised. I will contribute half of this forwardness with the added clarity.

Now the part that makes me "want" to like it. The SGCD does a great deal of good, more than expected, but I can't put my finger on it, but even with all the added clarity, smoothness, instrument separation, the recordings that I'm used to with the SA8005 as the DAC, feeding the RLD-1, just don't sound like they are as organic and "in the room" with me. The SGCD as a DAC sounds like a very, very, good recording coming from the 8005, but as a recording, not like I'm standing in the room with the band.

The SGCD has a slight "closed fist" of a soundstage even being as wide as the speakers, but with the RLD-1, It's like I'm walking in a large room with the singers 10' in front of me, and the whole room becomes a sea of sound, almost no boundaries. The sound with the RLD-1is very even, the vocals blend seamlessly with the instruments, however with the SGCD, instead of a huge oval, I get the feeling 60% is within the center 5', and the rest is muted slightly to the edges. When I remove the SGCD, as soon as the track starts, it's just relaxing on the ears as my focus is the whole room, a seamless blend, but the SGCD doesn't deliver that, and it's noticeable right as the track starts playing.

I'll give it a few more days, but I don't think it will become as organic and lifelike as the RLD-1, and I feel it might be a step backwards. The RLD-1 does not have a DAC, but the analog portion seems to be more natural.

Comments

  • jdjohn
    jdjohn Posts: 2,184
    Just to clarify, you have a PSA Directstream, and then added a PSA Stellar Gain Cell Pre/DAC?

    Not too long ago, I had an entire PSA SGC stack, with the Stellar Phono pre, Pre/DAC, S300 Class D power amp, and (still have) a Stellar Powerplant 3 regenerator. Without going into a lot of detail, I basically came to the same conclusion as you of the system sounding a bit too 'forward' for me. There was great projection into the room (especially the mids), but I found the depth, width, and height lacking a bit, so eventually I moved on. I still have a lot of respect for PSA gear...would love to hear their Strata integrated, BHK pre and power amps. Of course their trade-in program makes upgrading (a little too) easy.
    "This may not matter to you, but it does to me for various reasons, many of them illogical or irrational, but the vinyl hobby is not really logical or rational..." - member on Vinyl Engine
    "Sometimes I do what I want to do. The rest of the time, I do what I have to." - Cicero, in Gladiator
    Regarding collectibles: "It's not who gets it. It's who gets stuck with it." - Jimmy Fallon
  • gmcman
    gmcman Posts: 1,637
    jdjohn wrote: »
    Just to clarify, you have a PSA Directstream, and then added a PSA Stellar Gain Cell Pre/DAC?


    No, I want to try the PSA Kool Aid, but would like to try the SGCD first.

    My current DAC is the Marantz SA8005.
  • jdjohn
    jdjohn Posts: 2,184
    Go for it, bro. I have no experience with modern Marantz gear, so no point of reference to offer.
    "This may not matter to you, but it does to me for various reasons, many of them illogical or irrational, but the vinyl hobby is not really logical or rational..." - member on Vinyl Engine
    "Sometimes I do what I want to do. The rest of the time, I do what I have to." - Cicero, in Gladiator
    Regarding collectibles: "It's not who gets it. It's who gets stuck with it." - Jimmy Fallon
  • BlueBirdMusic
    BlueBirdMusic Registered User Posts: 1,565
    gmcman, I have had the PSA Nuwave DSD Dac for a few years, and about year ago I purchased a SA8005. I like the SA8005 DAC better than the PSA DAC, too.
    You Can't Resist Propaganda if You Can't Recognize It
    If the telephone doesn't ring ......... it's me
    Harry / Marietta Georgia

  • gyosa
    gyosa Posts: 590
    edited November 25
    Say what you want about ASR , but measurements are measurements…..
    It appears that not much of PSA’s stuff “measures” good , except the S300 amp - which I own and love…

    Bk


    https://audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-the-ps-audio-stellar-gain-cell-dac.9273/

    Parasound A21 , Yamaha wxc-50 , Polk SDA 1c’s ( my first love .. ) , Kimber Kable 4TC, Sony 42” - BEDROOM

    B&K EX-442 ( it will go in my casket when I die ... ) , PS Audio 4.6 preamp ( old school , but it still jams on ... ) , Yamaha wxc-50 , Boston Acoustic voyager 7’s - POOL

    PS Audio Stellar S300 , Cambridge Audio 851n , Yamaha wxc-50 , Kimber Kable 4vs , Salk Supercharged Song towers ( difficult choice between these and my family if I had to choose ... 😩 ) , Sony XBR-A8F 65” OLED , Onkyo TX-RZ610 - DEN , MAIN RIG

    Onkyo TX-nr609 , Polk atrium 7 , Boston acoustic sound ware (4) , Boston acoustic sub , B&W center , Sharp 65” TV - PATIO

    DAYENS AMPINO ( thanks Verb ! ) , KEiiD streamer ( this was only 60 bucks ?? ) , Polk atrium 8SDi’s - KID’s BEDROOM


  • mhardy6647
    mhardy6647 Posts: 28,268
    gyosa wrote: »
    Say what you want about ASR , but measurements are measurements…..
    It appears that not much of PSA’s stuff “measures” good , except the S300 amp - which I own and love…

    Bk


    https://audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-the-ps-audio-stellar-gain-cell-dac.9273/

    Absolutely true, but more indicative of the penchant of some companies to engineer in a sound rather than cleave to the most literal interpretation of "high fidelity" (= low distortion). Nelson Pass, e.g., is pretty plainspoken & unapologetic about this; Paul McGowan is rather cagier on the topic, but it's pretty apparent that the PS Audio products measure as they do by design.
    Note that this is neither an endorsement, nor a critique. ;)


  • gyosa
    gyosa Posts: 590
    But don’t we strive for the most “un-colored” , “accurate” reproduction of recorded music ?

    Isn’t that the “holy grail” ?

    I also own a PSA 4.6 preamp I bought in the 1980’s , use it primarily in “straight wire” mode ….
    Outdated by modern standards , but still sounds great.
    That’s why I still use it .

    Bk
    Parasound A21 , Yamaha wxc-50 , Polk SDA 1c’s ( my first love .. ) , Kimber Kable 4TC, Sony 42” - BEDROOM

    B&K EX-442 ( it will go in my casket when I die ... ) , PS Audio 4.6 preamp ( old school , but it still jams on ... ) , Yamaha wxc-50 , Boston Acoustic voyager 7’s - POOL

    PS Audio Stellar S300 , Cambridge Audio 851n , Yamaha wxc-50 , Kimber Kable 4vs , Salk Supercharged Song towers ( difficult choice between these and my family if I had to choose ... 😩 ) , Sony XBR-A8F 65” OLED , Onkyo TX-RZ610 - DEN , MAIN RIG

    Onkyo TX-nr609 , Polk atrium 7 , Boston acoustic sound ware (4) , Boston acoustic sub , B&W center , Sharp 65” TV - PATIO

    DAYENS AMPINO ( thanks Verb ! ) , KEiiD streamer ( this was only 60 bucks ?? ) , Polk atrium 8SDi’s - KID’s BEDROOM


  • mhardy6647
    mhardy6647 Posts: 28,268
    gyosa wrote: »
    But don’t we strive for the most “un-colored” , “accurate” reproduction of recorded music ?

    Isn’t that the “holy grail” ?

    I also own a PSA 4.6 preamp I bought in the 1980’s , use it primarily in “straight wire” mode ….
    Outdated by modern standards , but still sounds great.
    That’s why I still use it .

    Bk
    "We"? Well, I'd say (based on ca. 5 decades of fiddling with this stuff) that some folks do -- and some folks look for emotion or soul or something that isn't necessarily found in high fidelity.

    Klipsch still sells loudspeakers, e.g. Nothin' about the "Heritage Klipsches" (whether of past or present) fits very comfortably into the "un-colored" or "accurate"categories.

    B)

  • VR3
    VR3 Posts: 24,845
    I find perfectly flat playback a tad humdrum myself
    - Not Tom

    "No, that's silly talk. Dude, you can't possibly be this audio dumb so quit the act." - Doro
  • invalid
    invalid Posts: 720
    The question is, are you looking for accurate electrical measurements or something that sounds more like music.
  • mhardy6647
    mhardy6647 Posts: 28,268
    edited November 26
    invalid wrote: »
    The question is, are you looking for accurate electrical measurements or something that sounds more like music.

    That's a big 10-4. ahem IMO, of course. :#

    In fact, I think the best approach is to figure out what accurate (and precise) measurements correlate most reliably with qualitative aspects of what any individual considers good sound. B)
    Given four-plus decades as an analytical scientist, I am not exactly anti-measurement, you know? ;)

    Where the "objectivist" crowd hits the wall (and, again, IMO -- and not that anyone asked ;) ) is these notions of using 'social science' type experimental measurements to develop empirical/statistical "models" for what people on the average (some average...) of what people prefer (lookin' at you, Harman). Because, on the average, well... people are funny. :|

    On the average, our cat Zappa was grey.
    14210705656_26d3a13824_b.jpg

    B)
    VR3 wrote: »
    I find perfectly flat playback a tad humdrum myself

    Again, FWIW... I think the discriminators (or qualifiers, if you prefer) for what floats one's boat at the levels folks on this forum are typically* interested in are more subtle than frequency response per se.

    EDIT: That sentence sounded a whole lot better in my head than it does written down :p
    I do (still) suspect that the spectrum of harmonic distortion products may have a lot to do with what any given individual prefers in terms of sound reproduction. I know my approach is to listen to things that are hard to reproduce in a natural sounding manner (e.g., the piano) and use that as a guide. I like stuff to sound real as opposed to realistic.
    _______________
    * i,e., on the average ;)
  • treitz3
    treitz3 Posts: 14,677
    ~ Not all things that can be measured can be heard and not all things heard can be measured ~

    Tom
    ~ In search of accurate reproduction of music. Real sound is my reference and while perfection may not be attainable? If I chase it, I might just catch excellence. ~

    ~ I have found excellence ~

    ~ The best way to enjoy digital music reproduction is to never listen to good analogue reproduction ~

  • maxward
    maxward Posts: 973
    @mhardy6647 Your post above brings to mind a quote that a friend used years ago, “World famous….at least around these parts.”
  • mhardy6647
    mhardy6647 Posts: 28,268
    maxward wrote: »
    @mhardy6647 Your post above brings to mind a quote that a friend used years ago, “World famous….at least around these parts.”

    It's a small world, after all... :#
  • JayCee
    JayCee Posts: 1,260
    Never heard the Stellar line but very happy w/my BHK stack, DirectStream and P15. For me, best I've had and I've steadily moved up the food chain.

    I'm having fun rolling tubes but may someday look at going back to all really good solid state, or, at least, tubed pre and SS amp. I have zero complaints and they pair very well with my uber modded 1.2tl's.
    Speakers: Polk1.2tl's (Uber Mods) Pre/Amp/DAC: PS Audio BHK Signature & 250, DirectStream Cables/IC's: MIT S1Bi-Wire/S1 Balanced +Avel Lindberg 1000VA "Dreadnought" Power Conditioner: PS Audio P15 Power Plant Power Cords: Core Power Technologies Gold, DH Labs Power Plus DIY w/Neotech NC-P301 & P311ends Streamer: Roon ROCK on wifi'd NUC & Uptone EtherREGEN, AfterDark, Emperor Double Crown Clock, Black Modernize LPS⟿Ω☯☥☮⟿🔊♩♪♫♬♩♪♫♬♩♪♫♬
  • gmcman
    gmcman Posts: 1,637

    I appreciate all the input, it's been a long few days trying to run the SGCD through it's paces. I was able to compare many tracks in a few configurations and overall I really like the SGCD, but likely going to part with it. It offers quite a bit for it's price point, especially hovering around the $1K mark in the pre-owned dep't.

    I ran the Aries mini through the SGCD's USB input, redbook and SACD from the Marantz SA8005 through the SGCD, as a DAC and just a preamp, as well as the McCormack RLD-1 albeit as a preamp only.

    When I'm using the RLD-1, I do notice that the SGCD has it beat in a quieter background, as well as being able to bring out the very subtle details in the quieter passages, quite possibly the fact the SGCD has a much nicer PSU.

    The RLD-1 while being solid state, when paired with the SA8005, there is that hint of a "tube like" organic glow to the vocals, and this is a clean, organic glow, very true to life, and this provides the realism I'm finding hard to beat at this price point, the SGCD in my setup, cannot provide this when using the DAC of the SGCD.

    Now the SGCD as solely a preamp, does very well...so well that if I didn't have the RLD-1, I would be keeping it. The SGCD fed from the DAC of the SA8005 via unbalanced RCA, sounds very good, I was surprised how natural it sounds.

    When using the SGCD as a DAC with 44.1 material, or USB from the Aries, that organic, lifelike, vocal presentation switches to a clean solid state sound while being slightly forward, losing that hint of realism and is easily distinguishable.

    The analog section is almost as natural sounding as the RLD-1, especially being slightly cleaner, but that leaves the issue of the DAC taking a small step backwards in that natural sound, so I feel I should pursue a DAC that can offer that natural sound and not be slightly forward biased.

    The slight forward presentation is the 2nd issue I'm dealing with. What the SDA 2.3TL is doing on it's own, with regards to a wide, even soundstage left to right, is being slightly distorted with the very slight forward presentation of the center image. What is normally an even, very wide, soundstage that fills the room in an effortless sea of music, tends to protrude more from the center, removing that uniformity from left to right.

    The SGCD is very flexible and sounds very good, I wish I could have tried a memory player and utilize the I2S input. The fact it has 3 analog inputs, HT bypass, USB, coax, toslink, I2S inputs, they really covered their bases.



    gyosa wrote: »
    Say what you want about ASR , but measurements are measurements…..
    It appears that not much of PSA’s stuff “measures” good , except the S300 amp - which I own and love…

    Bk


    https://audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-the-ps-audio-stellar-gain-cell-dac.9273/

    Thanks for the link, and not a stab at you as I appreciate all input and criticism. I have seen that review, and FWIW, to be frank, I have to leave ASR and their research to themselves. I admit, I have seen their test results and have thumbed through the pages, but for them to pass judgement on how something sounds without listening to it just boggles my mind. I applaud their efforts, and their results might mirror actual findings, but to me ASR is somewhat of a Pandoras box.

    The SGCD might not measure well by their standards, but I found it very clean and clear sounding, more so than my RLD-1 which I prefer over the SGCD with regards to soundstage depth, width and uniformity.

    When listening to the SGCD, I want to reach out and move the imaginary 1kHz slider down about a half percent.

    The SGCD is everything I need in terms of features, definitely makes me want to try the DS Sr. along with the memory player. The fact the RLD-1 is lacking just slightly in the dark background and micro details is what's giving me this upgrade bug.

    I have had an eye on the Ayre K5xe but really wish the HT bypass feature wasn't as quirky as it but not a total deal breaker.

    I know that was long, thank's for all the input and criticism.

  • JayCee
    JayCee Posts: 1,260
    edited November 29
    Very thorough audition/summary of your conclusions/preference.

    Since you're interested in the DSD...a moving target but the replacement for the PSA DSD, will be called "MKII", is on the horizon. Guessing early 2022??? I suspect there will be DSD's hitting the used market if not traded in.

    I've loved the evolution of the DSD based on the FPGA and refining the firmware. There may be naysayers but, IMO, Ted Smith, digital guru/designer of the DSD, is a very remarkable dude and has squeezed every "bit" of potential out of the stock DSD.

    Major plus, in my book, is lots of folks going the DIY route of upgrading the DSD w/the insight of Smith. Targeted areas are the analog output transformers (approx $50 + shipping), power supply and RFI fabric in key areas. All upgrades are getting very positive results. I have the transformers, small amount of EMI fabric and am on a list for an auto-on board to facilitate power-up for an external power supply. One of the forum members and his EE son developed the board and are awaiting the first production batch.

    I have no intention of buying a memory player and, so far, haven't gone down the I2S rabbit hole. However, I have a BDP-105 and will probably play around w/it since several of the PSA forum members have use 3rd party hardware w/the DirectStream to scrape off the raw DSD bits.

    Not suggesting, at all, that the DSD "needs" to be upgraded but making the point that as good as it is, and I thing it is very good w/the current firmware, there are still significant performance gains for not a lot of coin were you to pursue one. Fortunate, as I'm always looking to DIY improvements on all my gear in the same vain as my much loved SDA's.

    Seems you do your homework and I'm guessing you may have seen the upgrade thread? In case you haven't or for anyone else interested, it's here: https://forum.psaudio.com/t/modding-the-directstream-dac/2680/ and VERY LONG. Jump to the last month or so to see the culmination since 2015. I'm also attaching a PDF w/the key posts I've gathered for reference when I do the upgrades.

    Just some food for thought, above, and you might want to join the PSA forum if you haven't or are interested in picking up a DSD Sr, used. Hope this helps in some way.
    Post edited by JayCee on
    Speakers: Polk1.2tl's (Uber Mods) Pre/Amp/DAC: PS Audio BHK Signature & 250, DirectStream Cables/IC's: MIT S1Bi-Wire/S1 Balanced +Avel Lindberg 1000VA "Dreadnought" Power Conditioner: PS Audio P15 Power Plant Power Cords: Core Power Technologies Gold, DH Labs Power Plus DIY w/Neotech NC-P301 & P311ends Streamer: Roon ROCK on wifi'd NUC & Uptone EtherREGEN, AfterDark, Emperor Double Crown Clock, Black Modernize LPS⟿Ω☯☥☮⟿🔊♩♪♫♬♩♪♫♬♩♪♫♬