The DAC of the Aurender A10 is another very solid performer built around a pair of AKM chips run balanced for optimal S/NR. Since my first exposure to AKM in Esoteric's D05, Ive always favored their slightly sweeter warmer treble over the more analytical ESS signature. The A10 is no different. It provides great resolution and soundstaging possibly due in part to its dual-mono discrete power supply, with just enough sweetness to save older compressed CD from harshness. The Aurender also processes MQA streams from Tidal but I won't spend much time on that. As this review confirmed yet again, solid processing of quality 16/44 trumps MQA-anything. MQA is a way to reduce piracy of high-resolution releases. That's a respectful feature to help keep music producers in business. I personally simply have turned the page on any claims that it improves sound quality with any consistency.

More surprising will be the inclusion of the Playback Design IPS-3. Its DAC lifts directly from their MPD-3 of prehistoric digital times known as ~2013. What's unique about their DACs of the era is being among the first to process PCM and DSD on FGPA, not by R2R or Delta Sigma. The striking aspect of this DAC is not only being very much listenable today but in many ways still state of the art. You can fault it for seeming a bit timid dynamically and maybe a tad too relaxed but tonal colors are superb and so is 3D imaging. There's no hint of digital glare. I can listen for hours without stress or editorializing. That's ideal for my Rogers LS 3/5a which editorialize enough on their own to require no extra sauce. The IPS-3 is probably one of the most underrated overlooked integrateds of the early 2010s. It delivers sound that is both fluid and tonally correct in ways that few have matched in my home until now. Although certainly a centenarian in DAC years—like dog years but with a higher multiple—it is unafraid to throw down the glove and take on the young Turks of China. If you've read Srajan's Terminator review, my comments about their two entry-level DACs will sound like plagiarism. Actually, let's plagiarize verbatim Dan's final words of a "very natural sound, accurate but luscious with a sweet midrange, articulate bass and refined highs. You could say that it has the character of a great 2A3  SET". I couldn't agree more. The end.

You wanted more? Let's try to refine the picture for Ares II. The comparison to a high-quality 2A3 SET is still spot on. Ares II has that luscious sweet midrange you'd expect, with a sunny treble to illuminate the soundstage without putting anything in a harsh light. It doesn't quite have the ephemeral lightness of a 45 SET but far more robust bass and it avoids the bloat and slowness of lesser 300B amps. There's one proviso critical to get the best from both Denafrips. They must be run in oversampling mode if oversampling in the transport is no option. There's a subtle but real upper midrange glare that sneaks in on 16/44 PCM if not oversampled prior to conversion. It didn't do it to the same extent as the SOtM but was present nonetheless. Once you activate oversampling, that glare disappears and you hear these Denafrips in their full glory. Obviously this is no issue with DSD which doesn't encounter the same processing as PCM.

If you compare Ares II to the Burson Swing on Vivid opamps, Ares II wins on tonal accuracy and richness any day, Swing on transient speed and a bit more resolution especially of bass. If you think about the continuum from fast, lean and tonally paler to slower, denser and richer, the two DACs sit on either side of the divide not very far off the middle. Swing is a bit faster and more detailed, Ares II a bit slower and less defined but with a tonal richness I'm used to hearing from far more expensive gear. Between Swing and Ares II, the choice comes down to flavor & features. Swing gives you decent digital volume but as those things go, deep attenuation is undesirable. Ares II gives you much better build quality with balanced connectors should you need them. What about Swing with the Classic opamps known for their slower richer qualities? With them Swing hits its brakes and veers more deeply into the warmer softer side of things. It does so far more than Ares II and probably more than is appropriate for most systems. Ares II provides more accurate tone and sharper transients than Classic Swing to be the better option across the board if you like things on the richer end of the spectrum.