In this review, we’re taking a deep dive look at the highly praised Denafrips Ares II R-2R digital to analog converter.
Recently, the folks at Vinshine Audio reached out and inquired if I’d be interested in checking out the Denafrips Ares II and I jumped at the opportunity. In the audio community, the Ares is considered a unicorn in the $800 USD price range, and I was very eager to hear for myself if all the hype was real.
The unboxing experience of the Ares II is as bare bones as it gets. Included is a power cord and an authenticity confirmation card, and of course the DAC itself. Taking the Ares out of its packaging for the first time, I was struck by the heft of the unit. If weight is any indication of sound quality, this DAC would certainly not disappoint. The Ares measuring in at 8.5 by 9 inches making this a desktop friendly piece of gear.
The all-metal design is clean and simple with no gimmicks. The front facia features a sleek row of tactile buttons with corresponding red LEDs which indicate input selection and phase and mute. The second row of LEDs reports the current sample rate of media being played. The unit can be put in standby mode, but it is recommended to leave the unit fully powered 24/7 for best performance.
While the front interface is intuitive, this is where some minor quirks of the Ares are revealed. In order to engage the over sampling and non oversampling modes which this DAC features, a combination of the mute and optical 1 input must be pressed. The same goes for engaging the fast and slow filters. A combo of mute and optical 2 will allow you to cycle through these features. It would be nice to see the filter and sampling modes have their own buttons.
The rear IO panel of the Ares features standard inputs and outputs for a unit at its price point. The input section features a USB port, dual optical inputs and dual coaxial inputs. The output section includes single ended RCA connections and a balanced XLR output to connect to an amplifier. The power phase of this DAC is integrated inside the unit with a power on off switch on the back.
Removing the lid of the Ares reveals a large printed circuit board which is home to a capacitor bank and a plethora of resistors. The bulk of the Ares’ weight is attributed to its O-Core Shielded AC transformer. O Ring transformers are known to produce less noise than standard power transformers and is a major upgrade when compared to budget DAC offerings.
What sets the Ares apart from most DACs in its price range is that it uses an R-2R ladder network for audio decoding - which is an older type of analog technology that is starting to gain popularity again amongst the audio enthusiast community. Rather than using mass produced delta sigma chip to decode digital audio signals to an analog signal, the Ares features 2 resistor ladders in a true left and right balanced design that filters the audio signal.
R-2R DACs are known for having superior instrument positioning accuracy within a soundstage than typical Delta Sigma DACs. Music takes on a more 3-dimensional presence and has a live off the floor sound.
For this review, I used my PC as an audio source via the USB connection. To get Windows to recognize the Ares, a USB driver is required which can be downloaded from the Denafrips website. Installation of the driver is as straightforward as any other peripheral.
Denafrips uses a proprietary chipset for its digital inputs as opposed to standard XMOS chips. The benefit of this proprietary design is that jitter in the audio signal is greatly reduced, but at the cost of higher latency. While music playback is not affected by this added latency, consuming multimedia content such as videos and PC gaming are affected to the point of being unusable. Dialog in video will be out of sync and quickly becomes distracting. Assessing any kind of positional audio cues while gaming is unattainable. Due to this latency, I’d only recommend the Ares as a music decoder in an audio only setup.
When auditioning the Ares II, I focused on a desktop listening experience with all testing using lossless 16 bit or 24 bit lossless high resolution FLAC files.
The first track I played through the Ares was Nude by Radiohead, and I was completely blown away. This track showcases all the qualities the Ares excels at. The opening instrumental is lush and rich sounding with a wide soundstage that pulls you in straight away. After the opening wave of sound dissolves, we’re left with a bass guitar and drums kit that sound life-like. Thom Yorke’s vocals are front and centre as if he’s in the room with you, combined with a vocal reverb which is to die for. By the end of this track, I knew the Ares was the real deal.
Reverb in vocals rendered by the Ares are very natural sounding. As a guitar player, reverb is one of my favorite effects to use while playing, so I’m fairly critical of reverb reproduction in recorded music. Unquestionably, the Ares is the best DAC I’ve heard in its price range that can resolve convincing and natural sounding reverb.
With oversampling mode engaged, I feel there is more definition around the edges of notes. It’s not by any means harsh sounding, but just enough to not be fatiguing.
The Non oversampling mode by contrast feels slightly less defined around the edges, and has a thinner sound versus with oversampling selected. The mode you’ll be drawn to is user preference, but the majority of Ares owners seem to prefer both the slow filter and over sampling modes engaged and I have to agree.
Another standout track during testing was Patrick Watson’s Little Moments - a gorgeous blend of acoustic and electronic sounds with a ghostly vocal track. The layers of instrumentation in the soundscape pulls you into the emotion of the song. The Ares presents a soundstage with depth and texture.
One attribute of the Ares which really stuck out to me was the clarity in vocals of rap music. Listening to A Few Last Words for the Firing Squad by RTJ, the vocals are delivered with authority and a crisp and clear flow.
Overall, the Denafrips Ares II has been an absolute joy to listen to, and will be sticking around in my audio setup. I highly recommend it to folks who are looking to upgrade from a budget DAC or are looking for a live off the floor sound.