You just can't stop the onslaught of discrete R2R DACs. The Denafrips Pontus is a R2R DAC with separate resistor networks for both PCM and DSD. Really solid build, a lot of nice ideas and a price tag that will not break the bank - S$2,200.
Denafrips is a China manufacturer with a line-up of 4 DAC models, ranging from the very budget friendly base model, Ares (retailing for the very auspicious sum of S$ 888) to the top of the range model, Terminator (no Arnold jokes please ! This retails for S$ 5,860). At the time of writing, the exchange rate was about S$ 1.35 for US$ 1.
The model on review here is second from the bottom.
Pontus was a sea god in Greek mythology. This Pontus is a rather petite landlubber. Measuring just 320 x 330 x 80 mm, the Pontus weighs 8.5 kg. It is very well equipped with a total of 7 digital inputs (coaxial RCA, coaxial BNC, twin AES / EBU inputs, Toslink, I2S (my sample uses HDMI, but RJ45 can be specified), and USB.
The output stage is fully balanced, and both XLR and RCA outputs are provided.
The front panel buttons from left to right are for the power switch, inputs, phase (called Reserval (sic)), oversampling, mute and the digital filter mode. A plethora of pin-prick indicators show the active input, sampling rate and DSD mode. In my bat-cave, the wording was so small that I couldn't really see anything.
Denafrips may want to have a re-think on its ergonomics and the quality of it's user manual. I found it very odd that the Reserval (spell-check guys !) light indicated normal phase, while the OS/NOS light indicated that no over-sampling was selected. The manual simply explains that the mode button toggles between slow / sharp filters and advises that, "You are fine with either selection should you hear no difference."
Otherwise, the Pontus is all good. The build quality is outstanding, especially considering its price tag. I liked the cut-outs at the rear of the top panel. They look artistic and bring some variety to the otherwise monotonous box. Practically, the cut-outs were probably necessary to avoid blocking the push tabs of the XLR sockets.
Looking at the pictures on Denafrips web-site, parts quality is outstanding, with a Furutech AC inlet and other premium parts from manufacturers like Nichicon, Neutrik, etc.
The Pontus uses double toroidal transformers for its power supply and dual mono FPGA decoders. The R2R ladder network uses 0.01 % precision resistors and is capable of 24 bit resolution. DSD is decoded natively by a separate resistor network.
Looking at the comparison chart on Denafrips website, Pontus is separated from its elder siblings by a number of features. The Terminator sports a far larger power transformer, while both the Terminator and Venus get higher precision R2R resistors (0.005 % tolerance), Femto clocks and a 26 bit resolution R2R ladder network.
All inputs are capable of DSD64, while DSD 128 and 256 are only available via USB and I2S. PCM sampling rates up to 352.8 kHz and 24 bit resolution can be decoded.
I tested most of the inputs including the I2S and USB inputs on both PCM and DSD 64 - no issues were encountered. The I2S output from my Singxer SU-1 did require a bit of leg work to get the settings right though. No surprises there, since there is no real industry standard for I2S pin outs. I did not use the I2S input much. I only had a stock HDMI cable on hand, and this probably curtailed performance.
I spent most of my time listening through the AES input with a Viard Audio Silver HD Digital cable. This had the best balance amongst the cables at my disposal. To ensure a fair comparison to my Totaldac D1-six, I set up the Pontus the same way, using the balanced outputs of the Pontus, converted to single ended using my Totaldac XLR to RCA transformer based adapters.
I will go right out and say this - the Pontus offers outstanding sound quality for the money. I would be hard pressed to suggest another unit with competitive performance at the price bracket.
The Pontus would best be described as sounding very cohesive. It has a very composed sonic presentation with a good even balance. Resolution is very good, with commendable retrieval of micro-detail.
Tonally, I would put it as sitting somewhere to the subtly warm side of neutral. In comparison, the Vinshine DAC or the Holo Audio Spring DAC (Level 3) have a warmer balance.
Bass notes are reproduced in a tight, clean and rhythmic fashion. There is no bloat, fullness, or overhang here, and some may find the low frequencies to be somewhat dry and lightweight. This tended to give the Pontus a reduced sense of scale and dynamic restraint.
Initially, I found the midrange to be overly laidback. Out went the excellent Blackcat Tron coaxial cable, and in went the Viard Audio Silver HD Digital AES cable. The Viard has a very neutral tone and a drier balance than the Tron. While the midrange remained on the laidback side, it was nicely detailed and expressive.
High frequencies are great with the Pontus, with good extension, refinement and nice reproduction of acoustic space in recordings.
Soundstaging and imaging are also a strong point, with very precise placement of instruments both laterally, and depth wise. Sonic images were always kept tightly in focus, without any wavering even when things got busy.
Suggestions though that the Pontus is the one DAC to rule them all are misplaced (why do all audiophiles get all excited by these possible David vs Goliath stories ?). You can get much higher performance than the Pontus, but by spending at least three or four times more money. My Totaldac D1-Six has superior dynamics, more powerful bass, and a dimensionality to the sound that makes the Pontus seem flat in comparison. However, I could buy a Pontus for each of my three bedrooms, my two toilets, kitchen, dining room and still have a fair amount left over.
Great performance at the asking price. Probably not the best choice for bass heads, but otherwise, the Pontus has very little flaws. Makes you wonder how good Denafrips top model is ? It's never been better for audiophiles on a tight budget - Highly Recommended.
A big thank you goes to Alvin Chee of Vinshine Audio for arranging this review. Vinshine Audio is the global dealer for Denafrips.
Denafrips Pontus DAC
Price - S$ 2,200