R2R leagues. From the chip not jet set of AMR, Metrum and Schiit to those doing it discrete à la Aqua Hifi, Aries Cerat, Holo/Kitsuné, MSB, Rockna, Soekris (LampizatOr, LessLoss) and TotalDac, the retro R2R movement is in full swing. Given Mr. Zhao's statement—about more freedom to impose a designer's will on the conversion process—it's a sensible assumption that this league expresses more not less audible variety. In our system, the last two long-term residents of the sort were Metrum's Hex and Aqua's La Scala MkII. Then the latter was dethroned by its optocoupled Formula elder. That's what the Terminator faced. For a fully balanced signal path, Wyred4Sound's STP SE Stage II preamp handled volume and signal buffering, LinnenberG's Allegro monos amp duty. Speakers were our best, the four-way Audio Physic Codex with their hidden woofers. Unlike Metrum's Adagio and Jade whose flexible reference voltage means variable gain—Etalon Sound do the same for their discrete R2R DreamDac—the Terminator's gain is fixed. It must be followed by either a preamp or an integrated amp to control volume.

Italian formula versus Chinese finisher. To avoid resetting/re-launching PureMusic with each swap, I ran the SD card transport's AES/EBU feed. Because the Aqua is a non-sampler, I also ran the Denafrips in NOS mode. Now each switch only involved muting the preamp and reseating a pair of XLR cables and the digital link. In no time and with no uncertainty, this showed how the Terminator was lusher in the midband; and had more general gravitas as though each of its steps left a slightly deeper imprint in wet sand. This moved color depth, tone body and dynamic impact into the foreground. In fact, this very much sounded like I imagine a combo of the Formula's power supply and resistor ladder would behave with the La Scala MkII's tube-buffered outputs; beyond even the optologic version of the La Scala which I reviewed. Right there, at ¼th the Formula's price but with added DSD, the hammer fell. Kachinnnng! Another recent digital visitor, the LessLoss Echo's End, demanded $5'342, came in a petite wooden box with far less functionality and used a €335 OEM Soekris R2R board. So today's award really wrote itself.

For those who need more, let's open up the last paragraph. Like most cheaper class D amps can, much digital prioritizes detail separation. A type of skeletal viewing cuts down to the bones. It inspects how things are put together; underneath as it were. It's a reveal of structural and mechanical elements. In soundstaging terms, it's a very precise articulated mapping. In compositional terms, it's a look at the conductor's score to show each individual instrumental line. All of it happens under bright whitish neon-type lights. In turn, much valve gear prioritizes harmonic density. This get thicker and heavier and the lighting gets more yellow. Now certain skeletal insights obscure but body and skin tone enhance as does congruency. One of the core decisions every listener must make is where on this line to sit. Ultimate transparency opposes ultimate body. It's bone versus flesh. Our Formula sat closer to the transparency polarity. By definition, this meant a slightly leaner more lit-up lighter presentation. The Terminator moved over a bit to the opposite pole. This included more voluptuousness and weight. Quite by design, it mellowed whatever glare the Formula couldn't exorcise on poor productions. Audiophilia calls that more forgiving. It means that more of your bad recordings sound better. Only radicalized audiophiles call that irrelevant. Of course with the magnification power of these leagues, don't expect miraculous transformations of turds to treasures. This is relative language about relative observations.

I don't think it's factual but in common parlance, 'digital' seems to occupy the transparency polarity, 'analogue' the body/density pole. In just that sense, Mr. Zhao's Terminator felt deliberately weighted towards a more analogue feel. But it didn't really sound managed with harmonic distortion as typical tube sound will. I've grown quite allergic to that patina and didn't see it here. Hence I can't really predict what measurement would correlate with this added profundity. Switching back and forth whilst looking for it, I didn't hear any less detail. I simply heard more mass and richness. If one weren't focused on the Terminator's detail, the Formula is likely to sound more detailed. Its perspective is on transparency. What both presentations shared was what I view as a common strength of well-done R2R: rhythmic fidelity. It's the timing and cleanness of transients. It's spectacularly unconfused. It maintains musical tension and swing like a tune which really locks into its groove. It conveys a particular rightness which, like 1st- or no-order speakers, can mint listeners who wouldn't listen to anything else. On that score, both decks had the same flavour. The Terminator simply added a whiff of 'analogue' or 'tube' feel. Being digital and solid-state, that suggested very deliberate know-how; and finesse to obtain just the right dose. To quantify that dose by triangulation, Nagra's Jazz inserted in lieu of the Wyred4Sound preamp. Just as suspected, the move from Formula to Terminator had been of the same type and degree. Those familiar with the Nagra know it as a thoroughly modern valve design with low 60Ω Z-out, wide bandwidth and very high S/N ratio. Its tube contributions are subtle but meaningful. At ~€13'000 with i/o balancing transformers, it's bespoke Swiss finery. The implied fine print? €26'000 for Aqua+Nagra could be mimicked with ~€7'000 for Denafrips+Wyred. Those in need of a heavier dose would combine Denafrips+Nagra. The upshot? Without valves, the Terminator managed a quite similar makeover as the Swiss.

It had me flash on a recently syndicated review by Warsaw contributor Dawid Grzyb. In describing the fidata digital (server) transport, he wrote that "the Japanese crew evidently feels music and—let me stress this again—translating that into hardware can't have been a coincidence or stroke of luck. The outcome is too coherent, vivid and sophisticated to think so." Having good taste is easy. It simply recognizes sophistication; elsewhere. Making it happen on demand, oneself, is quite different. In audio, whatever ideas live in one's inner ear must be made manifest in soulless hardware; and in this instance, also abstract code. Whilst Denafrips the brand is a new name for the West, its creator Mr. Zhao's experience is far older. It's simply that as former OEM designer, he can't talk about those 15 years without violating non-disclosure agreements. But injecting the human touch into high-resolution digital with this class was bound to draw from them. The sonic result is completely and utterly non-fatiguing. Peaceful not agitated might capture the flavor. Yet unlike angelic, ethereal and super airy presentations which lack get-down gumption, the Terminator played it properly earthy and muscular. Such language for a machine is odd only when taken literal. Reviewing is also about what a particular presentation feels like. Now talk of frequency response, harmonic distortion and soundstage width is insufficient. More emotionally tangible pointers are needed. Being so non-edgy and un-aggressive yet burly, the choice of name, except perhaps for the muscles, seemed not really about Schwarzenegger's relentless macho character at all. It appeared to be more of a final statement which ends all discussions on the subject. Or, perhaps, Mr. Zhao felt that for the ask, his flagship hunts down then blows up the competition in specactular Ahnuldian fashion? In that explosive meaning...

Instead of hard-mounted footers, the Terminator's bottom plate contains three shallow circular recesses for them.

... the completeness of his total package was really the biggest shock. Built from thick panels, the top plate grooved to secure the side walls, the insides divide into upper and lower halves via steel plate. The lower half contains its own box-within-a-box for extra shielding of the beefy power supply. So already the construction goes the extra mile. Combining discrete R2R with DSD goes another; servicing I²S via three different hookup conventions another; smart power for universal compatibility from a linear power supply yet another; and 100-hour factory burn-in one more (Dan had added 200 hours). Then there's the 19kg of raw hardware. Selling it all for ~€3'600... now that's a wakeup call to those who pay attention. Add that global reseller Alvin Chee of Vinshine Audio is reportedly super responsive. This takes the web-shop-with-China worry out of the picture. Finally, Denafrips' 3-year warranty adds more peace of mind. Considering, doesn't this all sound nearly too good to be true? It does but it isn't. So the Denafrips Terminator walks off with a virtually automatic award. Thanks to my friend Dan for the loaner and another reader for the first prompt. Like the self-avowed Denafrips marketing philosophy, this was all about word of mouth from happy owners. Never mind the frippy name then. What an exciting discovery. I'll be back?

On more commentary, this Terminator would be back indeed. That's because I requested that Dan share some of his own thoughts about his latest acquisition. "Psycho wine tasting. I love red wine. For fun, a few years ago I set up a blind tasting competition with four acknowledged experts agreeing to participate. Suffice to say that the prize was a 1982 Ch. Latour. There were four pairs of Bordeaux vineyards, one a 'grand vin' and the other a cheap version from the same region. They collectively sniffed and guessed correctly six out of the eight varieties but all of them got it wrong with the last pair where on purpose I swapped the 'cheap' label with the Grand Vin. You will guess the reason why this happened. For my Chinese newcomer, I first lined up older models of a dCS combo (2010), TotalDac (2011), Tobian T9, Schiit Yggdrasil (2016), Metrum Octave (2014), Aqua La Scala (2015), Holo Audio Spring/Kitsuné Level 3 (2017), APL HiFi DSD-M (2015) and a custom-made APL HiFi with TDA 1514 triple crown, PCM only (2017). It got a bit complicated and soon I decided to leave out some of them from the shootout as being unfair because new and improved versions are now available. So I won't comment on what I heard in the first round.

"For my final round, I kept the Terminator, Yggdrasil and APL with Phillips chip. I used Voxativ Pi speakers driven by either Thomas Mayer Elrog 300B monos with 10Y drivers; or Radu Tarta 50 monos with 26 inputs and 46 drivers. As an amplifier freak who owns lots of them, I can choose different setups for different projects. Preamps were David Berning's ZOTL Pre One, Wyred4Sound's STP SE2 or Thomas Meyer's differential 10Y (1602). I moved most of my favorite tracks to SD cards (one folder for each alphabet letter) and used them as digital source via an Aune S18 reader for the Terminator and Yggdrasil; or by direct card input for the APL. By switching the preamplifier's inputs, it was easy to A-B-C them using three identical Toshiba Exceria Pro 32GB cards playing simultaneously for the three converters. I played a lot of different music from psychedelic rock to 'world' and classical music. They all sounded very good but none of them was absolutely 'perfect'.

"In my opinion, the same qualitative jump happened to DACs over the last few years as it did for amplifiers 5-10 years ago. There are now several very good choices for those who want to set up a particular audio system. My rating of my final three contenders was:
• Denafrips - very natural sound, accurate but luscious with a sweet midrange, articulate bass and refined highs. You could say it has the character of a great 2A3  SET.
• APL with analog output based on Russian 1578 military 6SN7 type tubes - best resolution, musicality and sexiness, call it an Elrog thoriated tungsten 300B.
• Schiit - pure and powerful sound, no frills, direct, reminding me of a 45 tube presentation.
As a general impression, the $$$ APL (PCM only) was the best though only by a small margin followed by the $ Terminator then $ Yggdrasil (the latter not far away but only after more than 500 hours of run-in). I understand perfectly well and felt for a while reluctance to accept such small sonic differences being related to very large gaps in respective prices. But this is a personal journey. Everybody has their own taste, expectations and is entitled to their own opinions. The most important thing in this hobby is to share some of the joy and excitement of discovering how fundamentally beautiful and important music is and remains. Within the context of my DAC options then, I would call the Denafrips a very cost-effective high level proposition and my favorite way to use it is via the HDMI output of the Aune SD card reader."

Publisher's final comment: The same reader who had initially hipped me to the brand reported on their Italian Terminator tour. "A friend wrote that two of his friends came to his house to hear it. One owns a dCS Debussy, the other an MSB Platinum IV. They brought these with them to compare. They could not believe their ears. That same friend who for good reason knows all the current Terminator owners in Italy—so far there are ten but three others have ordered one after hearing it—reports that owners of a Lector Digitube S192, Lector Digicode 2.24HZ, Schiit Yggdrasil, AMR DP777SE (me) and dCS Debussy have sold theirs and bought a Terminator." With such anecdotal evidence, it's clear that Mr. Zhao's flagship troubles quite exalted company.

Denafrips website