Hardware Reviews

Denafrips Iris 12th and Ares 12th celebrate in style

Denafrips Iris 12th Anniversary DDC and Ares 12th Anniversary DAC review https://the-ear.net

Denafrips Iris 12th DDC and Ares 12th-1 DAC

Although this is the first time The Ear has published a review of one of the brand’s products, Denafrips has been making news amongst the audiophile community over the last few years. Technology such as R2R DACs and I2S connections have become synonymous with the brand, whose DACs, in particular, have gained a reputation for lowering the entry fee for serious performance. The Ares 12th DAC reviewed here is an updated version of the Ares, which received many plaudits from both the press and the audiophiles alike.

The Iris 12th DDC is described as a digital-to-digital converter. In plain English, the Iris is designed to clean up the signal from a USB input and convert it to an alternative output format. This process is said to improve sound quality due to what is described as ‘advanced processing techniques’. The digital signal is buffered and re-clocked with a high-quality femto clock. Galvanic isolation prevents noise from joining the party which is a good thing especially where USB connections to a laptop are concerned. I was impressed to see the Iris 12th has a weighty linear power supply, which is an impressive feature considering the asking price.

Denafrips Iris 12th Anniversary DDC and Ares 12th Anniversary DAC review https://the-ear.net

The Ares 12th DAC is an R2R, non-oversampling DAC that like the Iris 12th, contains a beefy LPSU. The shielded O-core transformer is designed and built in-house using UP-OCC copper and is rated at 60VA. An Alterra FPGA board does the clever processing, and the R-2R ladder network is described as a true balanced affair based on 480 hand-picked high-precision resistors.

Design and build

Both units have an anodised aluminium chassis (available in black or silver) to house the electronic goodies. One of the first things I noted was the satisfying weightiness of each component. Undoubtedly, those large transformers are responsible for a significant part of this heft. The Ares 12th can convert PCM data up to a massive 1536kHz via USB input and DSD 1024. All input sockets are gold-plated and appear to be of good quality. I like to see an IEC input with all three pins utilised, so I was pleased to see precisely that to the rear of both of the Denafrips components.

The Iris 12th has three digital inputs, BNC 49.152M and BNC 45.1584M, which come into their own when the Iris is paired with the Denafrips Terminator Plus and allow that unit’s clock to control the Iris 12th via these inputs. The USB input is the third and the only one I used during the review period. The Iris 12th has five outputs: coaxial and AES SPDIF, optical and I2S via both RJ45 and HDMI. The Ares 12th has inputs for USB, optical and I2S over HDMI. Outputs are via either RCA or XLR.

Denafrips Iris 12th Anniversary DDC and Ares 12th Anniversary DAC review https://the-ear.net

The Iris 12th has both HDMI and RJ45 I2S outputs, but the Ares 12th only has the HDMI I2S input, so if you are planning to use this connection together, you will want a good HDMI cable. Last week, I chatted a digital audio expert about the challenges of designing a good I2S connection. He told me that I2S was never intended to be used for external connections, and sending this signal via an HDMI cable gives the designer a whole host of issues to engineer out. Despite this, I have been intrigued by the opportunity of connecting a good SACD player to an I2S-equipped Denafrips DAC and have read about positive experiences from people who have done so via appropriate I2S converter boxes.

The options for connecting the two products are SPDIF, optical and I2S. Optical is limited to 24/96, SPDIF is limited to 24/192 PCM and did not sound as good during my brief trial. You cannot natively send DSD over SPDIF or optical connections, but DSD over DoP is possible.

The facia of both units has red LEDs which indicate the sampling frequency and the selected input. There is an array of buttons for selecting inputs, and in the case of the Ares 12th, there are buttons to mute the signal, a phase button, which, as well as inverting the phase, can also be used to switch a digital filter in and out of the circuit. There is also a switch to toggle between non-oversampling and oversampling, which confused me as the company describes the Ares 12th as a non-oversampling DAC. Still, I am sure there is a logical explanation. I did experiment with both oversampling and filter options, but I found their effects subtle, and they did not fundamentally change the sonic characteristics of these products.

Denafrips Iris 12th Anniversary DDC and Ares 12th Anniversary DAC review https://the-ear.net

Performance

Firstly, I will state that the sound quality of each component makes them potential bargains. The Ares 12th rivals the performance of far more expensive DACs that I have at my disposal and left me wondering; if the company’s entry-level DAC sounds this good, just how good are their higher-end models? The Iris 12th came to me after Jason Kennedy had already put it through its paces, and he was very impressed.

I will first talk about my experiences with the Iris 12th, when used in my main system, between my recently acquired Melco N1 and Moon 780D DAC. Initially, I connected the USB output of the Melco N1 to the Iris 12th, then SPDIF from the Iris 12th to my DAC. This left me somewhat disappointed and confused, as the results were inferior to the Melco being connected directly to my DAC over USB in several areas. After a chat with Jason, we agreed the SPDIF connection may be the issue. Thankfully, Dan George from The Chord Company came to the rescue, and a Chord Epic AES cable arrived in the post a few days later. This cable allowed me to hear more of what the Iris 12th was capable of. I noted that particularly with older, more murky recordings, such as Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, benefited from an uplift in clarity and focus when the Iris 12th was in circuit. Of particular note, instruments previously buried in the murkiness of the recording were now more prominent in the mix. Things were a little less clear-cut with better recordings, such as Peter Gabriels I/O. Here, I could detect that certain instruments appeared to float free at the front of the soundstage, but paradoxically, perhaps the system sounded slightly more relaxed and a little fuller, without the Iris in circuit.

Ares 12th 1 Silver Front 12th

The next step was to listen to the Ares 12th with and without the Iris 12th in a second, headphone-based system. As previously mentioned, the Ares 12th does not have an AES input, so unfortunately, Chord’s fine Epic cable had to be replaced by an Audioquest HDMI cable. The Denafrips combo worked well via my older Melco N1A/2 and into a Heed Canalot III headphone amp. This allowed me to directly compare the Denafrips combo to a high-quality streaming headphone DAC I use frequently. You will be reading about the rather eccentrically named Sendy Peacock headphones used in this setup in a future review. Firstly, I was greeted by an extremely enjoyable performance with the Melco fed directly into the Ares 12th. The sound was full, weighty and not short of dynamics and life. While not as fast and snappy a performance as via my regular headphone DAC, the music was well-balanced and sounded sweeter, with vocal benefitting s in particular.

With the Melco N1A/2 feeding into the Iris 12th and then into the Ares 12th, I experienced a significant uplift in performance. The music was now far more focused yet still natural in balance. Previously, I have been left somewhat underwhelmed with devices that add extra processing to digital music, which I often found to increase the detail and resolution, but to the detriment of music’s sense of body. There were no negatives here, just more detail, focus and vibrancy. The Melco/Denafrips Iris 12th, Ares 12th, and Heed Canalot III, as a ‘killer’ headphone source, significantly outperformed my usual headphone solution. Replacing the Melco with a feed from my Windows PC using J.River resulted in a less refined and transparent version of the music, which showed me that even with the Iris 12th working its magic, a low-noise digital signal is still essential.

Denafrips Iris 12th Anniversary DDC and Ares 12th Anniversary DAC review https://the-ear.net

Finally, I put the Ares 12th into the main system for a day, replacing the Moon 780D. As expected, there was a drop in performance, but the music was still enjoyable. The soundstage was still wide and possessed a good sense of depth, and there was a decent level of detail. It was clear the Ares 12th is a decent DAC. Adding the Iris 12th over I2S was a showstopper, bringing the performance far closer to my Moon DAC. I am listening to Truth Liberty & Soul from Jaco Pastorius as I type. This is a DSD 256 transfer from the original analogue master of a live concert in 1982. The music is vibrant, natural and involving. The soundstage is wide, with a decent depth perspective.

Compared to my Moon DAC, all that is missing is some snap and focus, that palpable sense of acoustic that you get from really good Hi-Fi, and a little resolution. Considering the price difference between the Denafrips combo and the price I paid for the Moon ex Demo, the difference is far from chasmic. Jesca Hoop’s The Lost Sky, from her Memories Are Now (24/96 Qobuz download), sounded glorious. Perhaps the vocals lacked some of the insight and expression that I get from the Moon, but I would not be questioning this had I not heard the track so many times in my usual setup. Here, the soundstage filled my room, again only lacking the final sense of air and space that I get from what was, until recently, Moon’s top-of-the-range converter.

Conclusion

This combination from Denafrips is seriously entertaining and fantastic value for money. My comparisons between the Melco units suggest that the benefits of the Iris 12th may vary more between DACs than input servers. The Iris 12th DDC brought far more significant improvements with the Ares 12th in my system than via my Moon DAC, which has an excellent USB input section. With the Moon DAC lacking an I2S input and there being no way of connecting the Iris 12th and Ares 12th over AES, it is hard to draw firm conclusions. It does appear that whatever the potential issues with I2S are, Denafrips seems to have obtained the best from this connection.

Denafrips Iris 12th Anniversary DDC and Ares 12th Anniversary DAC review https://the-ear.net

However, I can firmly conclude that this entry-level combination from Denafrips produces thoroughly entertaining music and makes me curious about the brand’s higher-end models. This combination makes a lot of sense for the price, and perhaps the money saved here could free up your budget to fund improvements elsewhere in your system, such as a good server or network switch. Although it does not give you the fastest of presentations, this combination has a lovely, clean, sweet sonic balance and entertains; what’s not to like?

Specifications:

Iris 12th
Type: digital to digital converter
Digital input: USB 2.0
Clock inputs: 45.1548MHz, 49.152Mhz
Outputs: AES on XLR, coaxial SPDIF on RCA, Toslink, I2S on HDMI and RJ45
Format: 24bits / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192kHz on all output, up to 768KHz on USB, up to 384KHz on I²S
Power supply: linear
Size H x W x D: 44 x 220 x 250mm
Weight: 3.5kg
Finish: anodised black or silver
Warranty: 2 years

Ares 12th
Type: R2R digital to analogue converter
THD+N: 0.004%
Dynamic Range: >119dB
Digital Inputs: coaxial, Toslink, USB Audio, I2S on HDMI
Analogue outputs: balanced XLR, single ended RCA
Supported Digital Formats: PCM from 44.1kHz to 1536kHz in 24 bit, DSD64 to DSD1024
Output voltage: RCA at 2.0Vrms, 625 Ohms, XLR at 4.0Vrms, 1250 Ohms
Headphone output: N/A
Dimensions HxWxD: 45 x 215 x 230mm
Weight: 3.5kg
Finish: anodised black or silver
Warranty: 2 years

Price when tested:
Iris 12th £600/S$899
Ares II 12th £1,065/S$1,549
Manufacturer Details:

Denafrips
http://www.denafrips.com

Type:

DDC and DAC

Author:

Chris Baillie

Distributor Details:

Willow Tree Audio
07412690415
http://www.willowtreeaudio.co.uk

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