🔷 Denafrips Ares II

I got a huge win by buying the Ares II and I really love it and can only rec it.
But as already mentioned, go for the weak link in your chain and I also see your meze 99 as the weak link.
So I would clearly start there and find an upgrade for the meze 99 first.

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Looking for one of these gems atm. PM me if you know of any! Cheers!

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Well, I am a timbre man (hehe) and Schiit is just up the freeway from me, so I decided to go with the Bifrost 2. Loving it so far, thanks!

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His explanation on the technical side of SD vs R2R is indeed a very nice one. Although his explanation on analog filters vs digital ones is kinda confusing as, usually, they have different purposes on a DAC chain.

Still, this is a great review for anyone who has no idea what an R2R DAC is what’s the difference.

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INTRODUCTION

It’s been almost a month since the Ares II was added to my collection and that means it’s review time! The Ares II is the second DAC in the ~$700USD range that I’ve had the privilege of spending time with. It’s current MSRP – mid-January 2021 – is a bit hard to nail down. Vinshine Audio lists its price as 1028.00 Singapore dollars, which Google tells me converts to 772.35 USD. As far as I know the Ares II is still in production but in a COVID world its availability might be a bit spotty for the time being.

TL;DR

The Ares II is very good DAC that offers lots of decoding options, 5 digital inputs, balanced outputs, excellent soundstaging, and a very energetic, engaging sound. It likely would have been a gamechanger – as I described the Schiit Bifrost 2 – had it reached my desk before the Bifrost 2.

FEATURES & BUILD

The Ares II is a true R2R (discreet resistor-ladder) DAC. It can decode PCM up to 32-bit and 1536 KHz (which, is straight-up overkill) and up to DSD1024 (also overkill). It has one USB input, 2 coaxial spdif inputs with RCA connectors, and 2 TosLink optical spdif inputs. It has both unbalanced RCA and 3-pin XLR balanced analog outputs. The front panel has a standby button on the left side and a total of 7 buttons on the right side. There are dedicated buttons to select each of the 5 inputs, a phase button (which toggles between positive and negative phase in much the same way that Schiit’s Bifrost 2 does, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never had to use it), and a mute button. There is also an array of small red LEDs to indicate which input is selected and what signal the DAC is receiving. Finally, the Ares II offers both oversampling and non-oversampling (NOS) conversion modes. They probably exist, but I don’t know of other DACs that offer a NOS mode at this price point.

The Ares II is surprisingly heavy. It has a fairly thick, rugged metal chassis and a beefy internal power supply. I was quite surprised how much heft it had as I was rearranging my desk to accommodate it.

I have two complaints about the Ares II’s build. The 7-button array on the front panel is the first. The buttons are small and black on a black chassis with small white lettering to label them. In a darkened room it can be a challenge to push the right button. There is also no remote control so if this DAC is for a 2-channel speaker system you’ll have to get your lazy keister out of the chair to switch inputs. The second complaint is the feet that are on the bottom of the chassis are sturdy, but surprisingly tall. I see no reason for the chassis to have this much clearance off the desktop – no ventilation holes on the bottom – and I’ve had more than a few pens/pencils roll underneath there and I had to find something to fish them out.

SOUND

Test Gear

Headphone amps I’ve paired it with include Monolith Liquid Platinum, Cayin HA-1Amk2, Lake People G111, Schiit Asgard 3, Schiit Jotunheim 2, Schiit Magnius, iFi Zen CAN, Massdrop + Eddie Current ZDT Jr., and several budget models. It’s also been connected to my old Onkyo AVR that has a dead HDMI output and is now used as my desktop power amp to power a pair of Definitive Technology SM45 desktop speakers with a Polk PSW-505 sub connected via speaker-level connections. The Headphones I’ve used include HiFiMan Edition X V2, Audeze LCD-2 & LCD-3 (both prefazor), Audeze LCD-X, OG Audioquest Nighthawk, Massdrop + Fostex TH-X00 w/ Lawton Purpleheart chambers and driver mods, Massdrop + Sennheiser HD6XX, Beyerdynamic DT-880 600Ω, and Focal Elegia – oh, and Koss Porta Pros just for the heck of it. So, yeah, a lot of different stuff.

Sound Signature & Presentation

The Ares has a very neutral presentation. There really isn’t any frequency range emphasized or recessed. In oversampling mode, the presentation is a bit soft and relaxed. However, activating NOS mode really wakes it up. In NOS mode the Ares II has a very energetic presentation. I’ll use the word “fun” to describe this energy, but want to make sure that in this context “fun” is not to be confused with how “fun” is often used to describe a bassy sound signature. Here, it’s the liveliness of the presentation that adds an element of fun. This liveliness also makes the Ares II sound like it’s very detailed. It has good detail retrieval with nothing obviously missing from familiar tracks, but I think it comes across as more resolving than it actually is because of this energy. Timbre is solid. The timbre is not a standout feature like it is on many of Schiit’s amps and dacs, but nor is the timbre ever distracting or lacking. So to sum up this paragraph, the Ares II has a very neutral sound that can be somewhat soft and relaxed in OS mode and energetic and lively in NOS mode.

That’s No Moon, It’s a Space Station!

Where the Ares II really shines is with soundstaging. It creates a sense of space that can be absolutely enormous. Concert halls sound huge. Pipe organ recordings sound like they’re recorded in enormous cathedrals (because they usually are!), recordings of rock concerts sound like they’re in large arenas, etc. For the price point the Ares II also does an excellent job with soundstage depth. Moreso than any other DAC I’ve listened to the Ares II sound is not just wide and tall, it’s deep. The Ares II also images quite well, placing sonic images within its large soundstage quite well. The separation of those images is also good but maybe not be quite class-leading for $700ish DACs. Still, if you tell me that you have $700 for a DAC and soundstage is the most important thing to you, here it is!

COMPARISON WITH OTHER DACS

The Ares II represents a large step up in performance from $250 or less DACs. It’s a very large step up, in fact. As I stated in my Schiit Bifrost 2 review, there is somewhat of a “DAC hole” between about $250 and $700, meaning that if you want to significantly improve performance from a $250 DAC you have to move up to this 700ish Ares II level (or Bifrost 2 or Soekris dac1321). It’s difficult to communicate in words how big of performance jump there is here, too. Many will balk at spending $700+ on a DAC, but that performance jump is huge and will be worth it for many.

At $699USD is the Schiit Bifrost 2. I already compared the BF2 and the Ares II in my BF2 review so I’ll basically just copy/paste that here and massage a few words to make it all fit together. The BF2 and Ares II are essentially equals from a technical standpoint. To say one is better than the other at any particular aspect of performance in no way means the other one is bad. They’re both really strong across the board. It’s really about preference between the two. I think BF2 has better bass control and slam, slightly more natural timbre, and while it takes time to tease it out, is slightly more resolving/has better detail retrieval. The Ares II has better staging, sounding both a little wider and deeper to my ear. A passage from Why So Serious? from the Dark Knight soundtrack beginning at about 3:27 has a deep, driving synthesized bassline with a softly played snare drum that sounds like the drum was recorded in a parking garage or empty gymnasium. Both DACs made that space sound huge and placed that drum seemingly several feet in front of me. The Ares II made that space seem just a bit more cavernous, placed that drum a little deeper into the soundfield, and I think the Ares’s imaging was a little sharper too. The BF2 made that synthesized bassline punishing and almost tactile. The Ares II, especially in non-oversampling mode, also has a more energetic presentation to it in every frequency region except the deep bass that can sound more engaging, or even fun, than BF2. This energy can present initially as being more detailed, however I think the BF2 actually draws more out of the recording than Ares II, it just does so with a more laidback presentation. From a features standpoint, the Ares II offers more decoding options than BF2. So, if you have 500 SACDs and native DSD decoding is important to you, that might be a deciding factor. Ares also has 2 optical and 2 coaxial inputs and to my ear less of a difference in sound quality between spdif and USB. However, for me on most material that I listen to BF2’s bass and timbre with still very good spatial performance make it my preferred DAC between these two. BF2 is the one I use for critical listening and exclusive modes more often. The Ares has become the DAC I lean to while working because its bigger sense of space fatigues me less quickly over longer periods of time; I just feel less claustrophobic with it after wearing headphones for hours. I want to emphasize though that neither BF2 or Ares II are bad at anything here and neither feel claustrophobic in sound, it’s a question of degree and the differences are slight.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I initially ‘borrowed’ the Ares II from the previous owner just to do a review. About two weeks into that borrowing I just said “Shut up and take my money!” and kept it around [thanks to that seller, btw, excellent deal!]. Right now the Ares is my primary long-listening-while-working DAC. It’s spaciousness is less fatiguing than my other DACs during those marathon sessions. It really is a fantastic DAC and should be on the short-list of DACs to check out if you’re using a $250 DAC right now and looking to breathe new life into your whole system. In my Bifrost 2 review, I referred to the BF2 as a gamechanger. The Ares II likely would have been too if it had made it to my system before the BF2. You can’t go wrong here, though. Ares II is an excellent DAC.

Hey, that was shorter than most of my reviews! Not as many quirky features to discuss in this one, I guess. Solid, solid DAC though. Enjoy the music, everyone! :beers:

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Thanks for this! I’ve been extremely curious about the Ares II, and even a bit more intrigued now, honestly. I never thought about having “complimentary” DACs before really, other than a Zen Dac I was using for a while to change things up now & then.

I’ve seen some descriptions of this DAC, as it being energetic, but never a mention about bass control. sub base etc. So I am glad that you pointed that out as I am a bit partial to that characteristic and might have been disappointed if going in blind with an Ares II expecting it - especially coming over from a Bf2.

From your collection of amplifies which one was your favorite matchup with the Ares II, and why?

:thinking:

I may have to ask you to accept an “I don’t know” on that one. I think I’ve paid more attention to headphones. It widens out my 6xx, for example. But MLP, G111, Asgard 3, Cayin 1Amk2, all are pretty wide sounding. I suppose MLP does the best job of bringing back in some of the “lost” timbre Ares has compared to BF2.

I hope this helps, but I don’t feel like it does :grimacing:

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No worries, I probably asked an abstract question compounded with a serious case of layperson speak. I think you read between the lines well enough and answered it with the timbre comparison.

Great review.
And as a fellow Ares II owner I can only agree in your findings. Especially the soundstage which is quite fantastic, I just love it for that alone.

:+1:t2: :+1:t2:

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Mine finally arrived! How long should I burn it in?

Without auditioning one myself, I would expect the DAC to be one for at least an hour or two to come up to temperature. Turn it on and leave it on.

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I wouldn’t say there is a burn in period but as dago mentioned the dac does need to warm up and does sound different after having been on for about 40 minutes to an hour

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i’m pretty sure denafrips does in house burn in before shipping, so should just have a inital warm up period and it will be good. I do recommend leaving the DAC on instead of having to go through warm up period every time you want to listen

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Yeah they will burn it in for 100 hours before shipping. They also recommend leaving the device permanently plugged in.

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So… you guys were right. The thx 789 and the ares 2 are not a great combo. They look really nice stacked on top of each other though lol.

It seems my previous dac, a modi 3 with an apple charger, paired better with the thx 789 giving it more bass and less harsh treble.

The clarity of the ares 2 is clearly a step up. I can finally hear the singer take breaths on good recordings.

The real issue is somehow this combo makes the treble too forceful, and everything is in your face. The bass impact, sub bass on my ear, has reduced greatly with my Anandas. It seems you guys recommend the liquid platinum, but… it’s pretty ugly. Is there an amp I can pair with the ares 2 that would also stack well like the thx?

If this is how people have heard my beloved Ananda’s, no wonder they think it lacks bass :confused:

I’m going to try this for peak audiophile behavior

I currently have the ares 2 attached to my speaker system. Reverb is pretty nuts with it, specifically for piano. Can I get that same effect with headphones? Bass impact is noticeably reduced over a modi 3 atm.

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Have you tried NOS mode yet? I think that helps overall. I don’t think that’s going to fix the pairing with the THX amp, though.

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Doesn’t it come with NOS turned on?

I don’t think so…but also don’t know for sure. Mine was used and arrived with it deactivated. Here’s how to make sure:

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Thank you!