What about that fabled Playback Design IPS-3 few have heard? That's not as easily parsed. Both provide a similar sense of space/scale, Pontus with more warmth and slightly less definition, the IPS-3 more middle of the road on warmth, more relaxed on dynamics. I personally had a slight preference for Pontus. It played a bit more joyous and boisterous for a more emotionally engaging presentation if perhaps less neutral at times. Still, I got the appeal of either. If I wanted to meditate, the IPS-3 would be my pick. If I wanted to connect with the musicians, Pontus is the better choice. As a lucky reviewer, I could do both. A few parting shots as I wrap. I couldn't compare Pontus to LampizatOr's Golden Atlantic which left over a year ago. What I do remember of the LampizatOr was extremely close to what I heard Pontus do now. I'm sure that attentive listening would tease out differences by direct A/B but I'd expect those to be subtle. What wasn't is that Pontus was perfectly silent which I never achieved with LampizatOr. That piece always made its presence known by some form of buzz often linked to a quickly deteriorating regulator tube. Taking into consideration the massive price difference between a Golden Atlantic and any Denafrips DACs save for the Terminator-Plus, I would strongly encourage interested parties to consider Pontus or Venus II as very viable alternatives of a similar sonic ethos, then pocket the substantial savings with glee.
My second thought? I found differences on DSD less pronounced than PCM. For good or bad, it seems that DSD hardware decoding may not be as sensitive to the hardware used, at least within reason. Ares II, Pontus and Playback Design all sounded far more alike on DSD. Although the differences mentioned for PCM still applied, they did so to a much lesser extent. By contrast, I found the Denafrips DACs and especially Pontus to best showcase their strengths with older CD rips and less-than-stellar 16/44 material. They made them fully enjoyable not in a tube-y curtailed way but more by restoring the tonal and dynamic balance which early CD lacked. I own thousands which eventually found their way as rips of various quality onto my Aurender's hard drive. I loved how they sounded with Pontus. All glare was gone, instrumental texture restored and the sense of dynamic compression that plagues them on conventional DACs mostly absent. For readers who replaced their disc collection with high-resolution downloads, this may not mean the same. If on the other hand you've been on this journey for a long time to possess much CD-sourced material, you owe it to yourself to rediscover it over a Denafrips.
Finally the key question asked at the start: is Pontus worth the extra $1'000 over Ares II? Without a doubt! Ares II is an affordable entry into the Denafrips house sound that won't disappoint. If your budget stops there, you'll never notice the strategic omissions which allowed Denafrips to offer it at this price. Pontus meanwhile is your first step into the true high end, at a definitely not high-end price. Pontus is a very addictive starter drug but with a fatal flaw in its drug trafficking logic. Pontus is actually so good that you may never feel the need to try anything more pricey. And yet Venus II is looming. I wonder how good that will be? But then I'm incorrigible. For most music lovers, Pontus can be the end of a journey from which they'll never have to look back!
When it comes to awards, Denafrips seem so set to reset reference points that they collect awards on every new piece they introduce. Their founder said that he's on a mission to redefine price and performance in quality audio. Both Ares II and Pontus deliver on that. Perhaps Denafrips should receive our first-ever brand award for turning the industry upside down at a time when stratospheric prices proliferate senselessly? In the absence of such a brand award, we'll have to make do with a twofer…