Bottomline: Both DACs present the qualities of “They’re in the room” in different ways.
The Terminator does so more with spatial clarity, vividness, and air. You hear deeper into the trinkets, layers, and grooves of the sound. From the leading edges of a violin, drum skin flex, and finger movement on a trumpet. All are placed in plain view with uncanny control and speed. It just sounds more tonally “elegant” and agile.
The DAVE takes a more naturalistic approach. Its greatest strengths are timbre and coherence – a formidable combo. From endless experimentation with DACs, I’ve discovered that timbre is something that’s very difficult to mitigate post-DAC with cables and other components. Although not the warmest sounding DAC, the DAVE relays accurate tonal color. Especially off brass, finger snaps, and rapid scaling of piano notes. There’s just more metal, chest & throat, and blood flowing through the layers of the music. It can’t dissect the music as cleanly as the Terminator – but layers in tonal variations very well.
I personally enjoy the more down-to-earth and truer colors of the DAVE, especially with vocalists. I also really enjoy the built-in preamplifier (much better transparency), the convenience of a remote, and the performance when used with the Hugo M Scaler. Keep in mind, the Chord Electronics DAVE is more than triple the price of the Denafrips Terminator. And the Hugo M Scaler is another $5,000.
That being said, the level of clarity, energy, and envelopment the Denafrips Terminator provides is undeniable. It’s especially insane with large ensembles, live rock, and some electronic music.
PS Audio DirectStream DAC ($5,999)
The PS Audio DirectStream DAC (DSD) is undeniably musical and easy to listen to – especially with its Snowmass firmware. What the DSD lacks in comparison is higher resolution, depth, and tighter delineation. It can’t match the detail or focus but is undeniably competent. Especially in regards to tonality. It also has upgradable firmware and a volume control – which comes in handy.
If you prioritize a sweeter, more romantic tone, go with the PS Audio DirectStream DAC. It’s popular for its tonal character. Otherwise, the Denafrips Terminator simply dominates on soundstage, clarity, depth, air, and most everything else. It sounds clean and minty fresh in comparison.
Lumin S1 ($9,800)
The Lumin S1, to my ears, is more tonally satisfying versus the Denafrips Terminator – but isn’t as dimensional or dynamic. For what it’s worth, no DAC on this list could beat the expansive soundscape and low-level resolution of the Denafrips Terminator. Period. I believe this is the primary reason for the attention it’s getting.
But the other DACs all seem to have a more natural color – while the Terminator tilts towards treble. Not too much of a surprise as this is the “typical tradeoff” for all that is Terminator.
In conclusion, if you mostly value transparency, soundstage, and resolution – the Denafrips Terminator is superior. It’s the most detailed sounding standalone DAC I’ve heard so far. As such, the Terminator will probably complement a warmer/darker system. On the flip side, if the tone is non-negotiable – you may prefer the