Reference Audio Mods PS Audio Ultralink III Digital to Analogue Converter
|UltraLink, Ultrasmooth, Ultra-affordable|
My favorite room at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was that of Reference Audio Mods (RAM), a company of audio tweakers. In my show report, I mentioned the absence of AC noise in that room, something I had associated with the likes of Bybee's new Super Effect products. But peering behind the equipment rack (as audiophiles are prone to do), I noticed huge wooden boxes that I was told contained batteries to supply power to the electronics. The result of the absence of traditional power supplies was spectacular, causing me to contact the folks at RAM shortly after the show. I spoke with Kyle Takenaga, owner, operator and chief bottle washer, about the room setup at the Audio Fest, and his response was a combination of things that included modifications to every component as well as running everything on battery power.
Since then, I’ve been corresponding with Takenaga and he has mentioned other more affordable equipment modifications he thought were really special and, perhaps more importantly, affordable. One of those was the PS Audio Ultra Link III digital to analogue converter (DAC) which he said gets a very nice sonic boost with his $600 modification. It occurred to me to give the RAM-modified Ultra Link III an audition, but having never heard a stock unit, what could I possibly tell? So before accepting Takenaga’s offer, I called PS Audio’s helpful and supportive owner Paul McGowan and he had a stock unit sent to me. McGowan is fully aware of RAM's modifications to the Ultra Link III and regards RAM is a legitimate company, thus PS Audio’s one year warranty generously remains intact.
Well, within days after receiving the modified Ultra Link from RAM, Fed Ex again appeared at my door, this time with an unmodified unit from PS Audio. Nice. Externally, the only differences were the stock unit's coaxial digital output and RCA analogue outputs, which were replaced with NextGen RCA connectors. But it's the innards of the Ultra Link III where RAM made most of the changes. Including improving on the power supply, which Takenaga said was “imperative.”
For a modification at this price point Takenaga stuck to a fairly straight forward approach...Power Supply and clocking. Internally, parts were swapped out and replaced with more expensive components, such as Jensen Reservoir (4-Pole) and Rubycon capacitors. The main clock is also swapped out for the more accurate Audiocom Superclock 4-S boasting less than 2 picoseconds of jitter (average jitter levels are usually around 5 picoseconds). The current 24-bit, 192 kHz DAC chip from Texas Instruments speaks volumes for what has become available (read: affordable) in digital today. Stock Rectification is swapped out for RAM, custom-made rectifiers featuring low impedance and low eddy-current distortion (An important priority in RAM's approach). Internal connections use Audio Consulting silver wire. Finally, there is the option of WBT NextGen RCA connections which offer the benefit of low eddy current distortion. The review unit featured this option. Finally, Kyle mentioned the output stage was left in stock form since the level 2 modification (a far more direct approach - coming soon) of this dac will eliminate much of the circuitry with the high quality "Swiss made" Audio Consulting coupling transformers.
Physically, the PS Audio Ultra Link III takes up half the width of your standard audio component. Build quality is substantial. For me, this gives the Ultra Link III a well-thought out feel that speaks volumes about the quality that go into its manufacture. Its attractive silver face has two buttons to select input and to change resolution, flanked by a trio of selection indicator lights. The PS Audio logo is placed front and center, aesthetically understated as with all PS Audio products.
On the back are connectors for S/PDIF (coaxial), Optical (toslink) and USB inputs. A feature you won’t see too often on products priced below a grand are both RCA (coaxial) and XLR (balanced) outputs. There's an AC power switch and an IEC socket, for those who may want to experiment with alternate power cords. All in all, this is a handsomely built device that feels like it was built to last a long time.
My initial thoughts were “let’s just have some fun” and see how a stock PS Audio Ultra Link III would fare against some serious competition, such as my beloved and far more expensive Audio Mecca Mephisto CD player (priced at around $7,000). I used my old, reliable Pioneer Elite DV-38A DVD-A player as a transport, and swapped between Sunny Cable Technology series 1000 cables and Cable Research Lab's very impressive Gold series products. Preamp used throughout was the Zanden Audio 3000 preamp, which drove a pair of Bel Canto Ref 1000s. I also had time to listen to the remarkably small but powerful electronics from NuForce featuring their Ref 9 SE amplifiers and T-9 preamp. Loudspeakers were the very impressive Sun Union Prince (manufactured in China). After a week of ‘round the clock burn-in, I casually listened to this setup compared to the Audiomecca Mephisto CD player. I was very surprised by the ultra-smooth presentation and, one might say, 'analogue disposition' this affordable DAC displayed. It had excellent high-frequency extension and sweetness and a very open, airy top-end, while maintaining the rich tonal balance on voices that I associate with high-priced separates. I was surprised at the level of transparency of the stock PS Audio Ultra Link III. It's utterly clear aural window isn’t some frequency balance trick, where the upper mid-bass is rolled off to enhance the frequencies above it. No, I suspect the Ultra Link III is so transparent because it is ultra quiet. The contrast — intense but quiet — that it brings to the individual instruments is quite an achievement at this price point.
On the Audiomecca, cymbals produced a weightier sound and more natural color. The midrange also was more earthy and three-dimensional. I must point out that the Audiomecca generally produces a meatier midrange than most other players I’ve compared it to. However, the Pioneer/Ultra Link III came close to matching the Audiomecca in nearly every other sonic aspect we audiophiles deem important: PRAT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing), tonality, speed and articulation, three-dimensionality and smoothness. Usually, when I encounter products this good, they cost many times the asking price of the Ultra Link III. Before I knew it, I had stack of reference discs that would have me listening for hours of comparisons. And this from a stock unit! I take off my hat to the guys at PS Audio for designing and manufacturing excellent sounding products, and keeping them affordable.
Finally, I thought I had a good grasp of the sonic character of the PS Audio Ultra Link III. And I was thoroughly impressed. I replaced the stock unit with the Reference Audio Mods unit. Everything else was exactly the same.
Listening to a short but spiritually invocative track from Jon Faddis’ highly acclaimed Teranga CD [KOC 9969] aptly named Transitions, I was struck by the sense of speed and clean low bass energy. Ironically, this increase in speed and clarity has a way of making the music sound rhythmically slower. This low-end clarity came as a surprise, because I didn’t think the stock unit sounded either dark or muddy or ill-defined by comparison. Yet, I immediately got a different sonic impression, everything sounded cleaner, clearer, and more distinct.
The modified PS Audio Ultra Link III had more PRAT but mostly on the rhythmic side. For example, track one from the same disc, entitled Hunters and Gatherers, features African conga along with excellent drum work from Dion Parson. Of course, Faddis really shows off his seemingly limitless gifts, but it is the contrast between trumpet, drum, conga and bass — remaining clear and harmonically rich in their own separate sonic space without wavering — that showed me what RAM’s upgraded PS Audio Ultra Link III could really do. What’s equally impressive is how they’ve managed to improve an already great sounding product.
Now, there may be some folks who mistake its quick footing and clarity with a loss of low-end heft. This is typical of what happens when you clean up low-frequency noise, which I think is exactly what’s occurring here. However, after a lengthy listening session, the improved clarity, speed, and increased space around instruments will make an obvious case for superiority.
The ability to differentiate individual instruments, while enhancing both sound stage depth and width, and on disc after disc, made living with the modified PS Audio Ultra Link III from Reference Audio Mods a real treat. Their $600 mod is an obvious choice. If you’re itching to upgrade your CD player but don’t want to shell out too much, you ought to consider this unit. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
Contact: Reference Audio Mods
14150 Fourwinds Rd.
Riverside, California 92503, USA
Contact: Kyle Takenaga
Tel: 951-780-2869 Cell: 951-454-4842
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