Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
Denafrips shipped their first products in 2012. However, my research indicates that the brand has already amassed a loyal following for its wide range of products: digital-to-analog converters (DACs), preamps, power amps, a headphone amp, and reclockers for syncing digital clocks across multiple components. All Denafrips products are made in Guangzhou, China, and are distributed and marketed worldwide by Vinshine Audio, which is based in Singapore. Worldwide shipping is included in the prices, listed in Singapore dollars (SGD).
At $8698 SGD (ca. $6465 USD), the subject of this review, the Terminator-Plus, is the flagship of Denafrips’s line of five DAC models.
The Terminator-Plus is a more sophisticated version of the Terminator II ($5998 SGD or $4558 USD). I haven’t heard the Terminator II, but in using the Terminator-Plus I experienced some surprises, the first being how staggeringly heavy it is for a single-box DAC: 42 pounds, or about the same as many stereo power amps. Most of the weight is the metal case itself, all panels of which are of 0.4″-thick brushed aluminum. And here was my next surprise—I loved the looks of my review sample.
The Terminator-Plus measures 16.93″W x 4.92″H x 14.96″D. Prominently machined into its front and top panels is the Denafrips logo, and across nearly the full width of the front panel a smoothly tapered notch—the easiest way to tell the Terminator-Plus from the Terminator II, which has a flat front panel.
Simple and attractive, the Plus’s front panel has a single row of 19 red pinhole LEDs indicating the input selected, the sampling rate, and the oversampling/non-oversampling (OS/NOS) and on/standby statuses. These tiny LEDs are hard to see unless you’re looking at them straight on, at which point they’re just about right—not too bright.
Below the LEDs is a single row of seven pushbuttons: Input -, Input +, Mute, On/Standby, OS/NOS, Phase, and Mode. The Mode button is versatile: For example, when the DAC is set to Oversampling (OS) the incoming datastream, Mode can be used to select a Slow or Sharp digital filter, each of which, as you’ll read below, affects the sound quality. To toggle between Slow and Sharp, press Mute, then Mode. When the Terminator-Plus is set to Non-Oversampling (NOS), the digital filters don’t apply.
On the rear panel are balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) analog outputs, and nearly every type of digital input now commonly available: S/PDIF coaxial (RCA), S/PDIF optical (TosLink), two AES/EBU (XLR) that can be used individually or together (one for the left channel, one for the right), and one USB (Type-B). The Terminator-Plus also has three I2S inputs—one HDMI (for I2S LVDS) and two RJ45 (one for I2S LVDS and the other I2S LVCMOS). I2S is a data bus that separates clock and serial-data signals, making possible the use of simpler receivers than those required for communications systems that need to recover the digital clock from the datastream itself.
All of these connection and configuration options allow the Terminator-Plus to handle a wide range of bit depths and sampling rates: up to 24-bit/192kHz on all digital inputs, and up to 1536kHz on the USB and I2S inputs. Via DSD over PCM (DoP), DSD64 is available on all inputs, and up to DSD1024 on the USB and I2S inputs. I suspect that most users will appreciate these capabilities, and that, even at today’s rapid rate of technological progress, the Terminator-Plus will not be obsolete for many years to come.
There are two word clock outputs, one suitable for 44.1kHz and its multiples, the other for 48kHz and its multiples. Each can be used to connect to a digital source component that accepts a compatible external clock signal, for synchronized clocking between it and the Terminator-Plus. I had no gear that allowed me to test this, but I imagine that this, too, would be a welcome feature to many.
When I set the Terminator-Plus on my equipment rack, I was delighted to find that it comes with spiked feet, and metal-and-wood coasters to protect the surface it sits on. My review sample came in an interesting shade of black (silver is available) with a rich emerald tint. It’s something to think about, should you want a rack full of color-matched components: There’s black, and then there’s Denafrips black.
The main difference between most DACs and the Terminator-Plus—and another reason for the latter’s weight and size—is that, like all Denafrips DACs, for PCM signals it’s a discrete R-2R, or ladder, DAC. An R-2R resistive ladder network is a long string of resistors connected in parallel and series, using only two values (R and 2xR) and acting as a voltage divider, the output voltage depending on which of the parallel resistors are connected to the reference voltage and which are connected to ground (this determined by the digital bits). The number of resistors required—i.e., the length of the ladder—is dictated by the bit depth. The most significant bit (MSB) is applied closest to the ladder’s output, while the least significant bit (LSB) is farthest from the output.
While it’s possible to construct an inexpensive ladder DAC, in the Terminator II and Terminator-Plus Denafrips has taken a more extreme approach, as described on their website: “The DAC core conversion module R-2R is constructed with 0.005% high precision, 10ppm low thermal effect precision resistors. Each channel uses more than 500pcs of these precision resistors, or 1000pcs for two channels, it’s 4 times more than the other typical R-2R DAC.”
The Terminator-Plus sends DSD signals through entirely separate discrete D/A conversion circuits designed specifically for DSD, though Denafrips says little about that on their website or in the manual. The only things I could find were the mentions of a 6-bit architecture and “32 steps FIR analogue filters.”
In addition to the conversion circuits, a lot is going on inside the Terminator-Plus—more than in DACs based on off-the-shelf DAC chips. There are two relatively huge (for a DAC) toroidal transformers, one each for the analog and digital sections. Denafrips claims that these power supplies are isolated from each other as much as possible—they’re connected by only a single oven-controlled crystal oscillator (OCXO) encapsulated in metal. Many neatly arranged surface-mount components comprise the rest of the power supplies, as well as the left- and right-channel R-2R sections.
My review sample had already made stops in other reviewers’ listening rooms, and arrived without its owner’s manual (it can be downloaded from the website). Alvin Lee, owner of Vinshine Audio, answered in detail a couple of operational questions I had, and sent me links to videos on how to adjust the digital filters, the I2S pin-out configuration, and other setup options.
No power cord or remote-control handset is included. The Terminator-Plus R2R’s transferrable warranty is good for three years.
Setup and system
Although my review sample of the Terminator-Plus R2R had already been used by multiple reviewers before me, it’s reassuring to know that Denafrips burns in its DACs at the factory for 100 hours before shipping, and that its quality-control processes include tests with an Audio Precision analyzer.
I placed my reference DAC, a Bryston BDA-2 ($2395, now discontinued), atop the Terminator-Plus, which instantly made the Bryston look tiny. To the left of these were my Bryston BP25/MPS1 preamp and Bryston BDP-1 digital player in another stack, and to the right my Bryston 3B SST2 stereo power amp. I connected the BDP-1 to one of the Terminator-Plus’s AES/EBU XLR inputs using a SignalCable AES/EBU balanced digital interconnect.
On my rack’s lowest shelf was a Torus RM15+ power-isolation transformer into which all components were plugged with SignalCable Magic Power or Pangea Audio AC14SE power cords. Balanced interconnects were AudioQuest Red River or SignalCable. The only speakers I used were my 5ʹ-tall Dynaudio Contour S5.4s, sitting on IsoAcoustics Gaia II isolation feet and connected to the Bryston amp with 10AWG SignalCable speaker cables.
My carpet-on-concrete basement listening room measures 18′ 8″L x 11′W x 7′ 6″H. My years of dialing in this space have resulted in six Vicoustic Multifuser DC2 diffuser panels (each 2′W x 2′H x 4″D) strategically placed against the walls and, behind the speakers, two 4′H x 2′W x 4″D absorption panels I made myself.
With the Denafrips Terminator-Plus already well burned in, I warmed it up for an hour, then sat down for my first critical listening session at my usual moderate volume level at the listening position of ca. 85dB (C-weighted, Slow). Using the front-panel controls, I checked the DAC’s settings to see which filters were engaged. Having as yet no point of reference for the DAC’s sound, I left these settings as they were: Oversampling on, digital filter set to Slow. On first listen, it was instantly clear that the Terminator-Plus was a really good DAC. This was the biggest surprise of my encounter with it: A company I’d only recently become aware of had made the best-sounding digital product I’d ever heard in my system.
What first jumped out was the cohesiveness of the music across the entire audioband. In this regard, the Terminator-Plus was somehow a full step up from the already quite-sorted Bryston BDA-2 I’m used to. For example, “Falling Down Blue,” from Blue Rodeo’s Tremolo (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Warner Bros./Tidal), is a slow, plodding tune with bass that will roll right through your room if your system is capable of going down low. Through the Denafrips that bass was fully reproduced, and with greater detail than I’d heard before. I was impressed—bass grip and depth are things my system and Bryston DAC already handled well—and this extra detail in the low bass added a lot to the convincing re-creation of the sounds of acoustic spaces. It was similar to how adding a subwoofer to a pair of stand-mounted speakers can increase the size of the soundstage.
Midrange performance was also spot-on and very enjoyable. On Live at Luther College, by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds (16/44.1 FLAC, Bama Rags/RCA/Tidal), the two acoustic guitars sounded luscious and had great energy. The tonal details the Denafrips was able to extract from familiar recordings was the most significant improvement over all other capable DACs I’ve had in my system. For instance, Matthews’s voice was perfectly placed relative to his guitar—the aural image presented in my listening room was a convincing one of Matthews sitting with the guitar on his lap and slightly forward of his voice. The impressive retrieval of midrange detail also let through completely the rasp of his voice, without overemphasis.
Similar to what I’d heard in the midrange frequencies, the highs were ultrasmooth and incredibly open, and had believable weight, all of which allowed voices and instruments to be presented convincingly. Although the mids and highs were slightly more forward on the soundstage than I’m used to from my reference Bryston DAC, after several tracks I was convinced not that the Denafrips was unnaturally forward, but that the Bryston was a bit laid-back.
Over the next few weeks of listening sessions I struggled with how to describe the beautiful sound of the Terminator-Plus without making the SoundStage! Hi-Fi editors roll their eyes at my first draft. I was inclined to gush, and claim that it did nothing wrong, and more things right than many components I’ve heard. It wasn’t perfect in every way—no hi-fi component is—but its sound was so well voiced that I could imagine almost no system whose sound it wouldn’t improve.
To test that, I took the Denafrips to my father-in-law’s home for deployment in his excellent-sounding system: Oracle CD550 CD player, Sugden Masterclass AA preamp, Accustic Arts Amp I Mk. 2 stereo power amp, and Harbeth M40.1 loudspeakers. He slowly and carefully assembled this system over decades, and the result is a super-smooth-sounding, easy-listening rig suited to all types of music other than the most rambunctious and beat-heavy electronica. Using the Oracle CD550 as only a CD transport and with the Denafrips doing DAC duty, the sound was as I’d heard in my own very different system: very fluid, extremely well voiced, and further enhancing the palpability of singers and instruments in an already excellent system. My father-in-law and I were surprised by just how much this DAC improved the sound of his system.
With the Terminator-Plus reinstalled in my system and Oversampling (OS) engaged, I wanted to test its onboard filter options more thoroughly. A few A/B tests of the Slow and Sharp filters revealed no drastic changes in the sound, but I generally preferred Slow—it seemed to reproduce my music with greater ease, and more natural rhythm and pacing. For example, when I played less-well-recorded music with the Sharp filter engaged, transients and decays were now too quick and abrupt through my already-energetic system. Perhaps the Sharp setting would improve things in a system with an overrelaxed sound, but not in mine. The change in sound between the Slow and Sharp filters was similar to the differences I’ve heard between speaker cables: real but slight. This will come down to personal preference.
I disabled both filters by switching the Terminator-Plus to No Oversampling (NOS), and quickly discovered that I preferred Oversampling 100% of the time—it brought more lifelike weighting and dynamics to acoustic instruments and voices. Compared to what I’d grown used to with Oversampling and the Slow filter, NOS seemed to flatten and deflate the voices and acoustic guitars a bit in Matthews and Reynolds’s Live at Luther College, and the soundstage was a bit less three-dimensional. I returned the Denafrips to my preferred settings and again marveled at how much better it sounded than my reference DAC.
I was at first skeptical about how the Denafrips Terminator-Plus would sound in my system—a DAC costing $6500 seemed a bridge too far into the land of diminishing returns. After all, how much could the sound of my room, speakers, and other gear be improved?
Many audiophiles have invested in equipment “upgrades” that look good on paper but, instead of improving the sound, merely change it while providing a few more convenient features. With all the capability the Terminator-Plus promised on paper, I half expected that its high price mainly covered all the tech inside and the impressive build quality, and not much more. After all, I’m still very impressed by my Bryston BDA-2 reference DAC.
But with the Terminator-Plus, Denafrips has hit one out of the park. It’s now clear how they’ve built a loyal following in less than a decade. After many weeks of very enjoyable listening sessions, the Terminator-Plus proved a distinct step up in sound quality from my Bryston BDA-2 DAC in every regard. Its many features, wide range of input and output options, and excellent build quality only make it more of a great value, even for $6500.
. . . Evan McCosham
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Speakers: Dynaudio Contour S5.4 with IsoAcoustics Gaia II isolation feet.
- Preamplifier: Bryston BP25 with MPS-1 outboard power supply.
- Power amplifier: Bryston 3B SST2.
- Digital-to-analog converter: Bryston BDA-2.
- Streamer and computer: Bryston BDP-1 streamer, Apple MacBook Air laptop computer running Audirvana, Roon.
- Digital links: SignalCable balanced XLR (AES/EBU).
- Analog interconnects: AudioQuest Red River XLR, SignalCable XLR.
- Speaker cables: SignalCable 10AWG with banana plugs.
- Power cords: Pangea Audio AC-14SE, SignalCable Magic.
- Power conditioner: Torus RM15+ power isolation transformer.
- Room treatments: Vicoustic Multifuser DC2 diffusers, homemade absorption panels.
Denafrips Terminator-Plus Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $8698 SGD (ca. $6465 USD at time of publication)
Warranty: Three years, transferrable.
33 Ubi Avenue 3