Denafrips Pontus II DAC Review

Review
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This is a review summary written by Terry Ellis March 2022.

For my video full review please see my YouTube channel link here 

Denafrips are a Chinese based manufacturer, who have made some serious (sound) waves across the HiFi World in the last few years.  Knowing their reputation, I was very keen to at last get a chance to play with one of their DACs but especially the Pontus II because it seemed like it should be great value. After spending some time enjoying it I can say it certainly is just that. In fact, in isolation it ticks all the right boxes but the DAC market is extremely competitive and like everything in HiFi, it is just not that simple!

Quality by design

The Pontus II is Denafrips’ second in a range of five, balanced, oversampling (if you want that feature enabled), R2R, or resistor ladder DACs, ranging in price from about $850 to $6,500. Priced at just over $1,800 the Pontus II is fair chunk of money but you do get more than a fair chunk of DAC for that. The first thing that impressed me about the Pontus II is the build quality. Yes, it has a familiar aluminium case form factor, but Denafrips have gone to the trouble of engraving ‘Denafrips’ on not only one but two of the case panels. Particularly pleasing are the nicely styled buttons and the quality of the connections on the rear, including a Furutech power inlet.  These are all nice touches that I am sure cost more in terms of manufacturing but it is good to see them and I appreciated the extra bit of quality because it makes a difference, I am sure that is the reason Denafrips do it.  On the inside there are parts galore, lots of resistors and capacitors, and I am impressed with the encapsulated dual linear power supply design;  very stand out and impressive for a DAC at this price.

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Vocals To Die For

I have enjoyed a number of listening sessions with the Pontus II forming an integral part of a highly resolving review system, which does not paper over any sound cracks. The Pontus II has had nowhere to hide and yet it has been a great DAC to sit and listen to.

The Pontus II creates a very engaging sound with both male and female vocals being delivered in a very pleasing and welcoming manner that encouraged me to listen to more music.  This is what good HiFi is all about. I enjoyed the fullness of tone and the solidity the vocals delivery nice and tangible in the centre of the sound stage, with a good amounts of clarity, resolution, and edge definition.

The soundstage noticeably resolution improved impressively as the DAC ran in. I have been enjoying very three-dimensional sound, I am referring to music elements coming from behind the plane of the speakers also in front and out to the sides with a remarkable palpable holographic nature and good levels of clarity. The Pontus II has good timing and resolution throughout the frequency range.  The bass delivery is very solid and, in the main, well timed. At times it can sound a little thick in the bass or maybe I can describe this better as a little over exuberance.  I am  ok with this because it know if done in a certain way it can add some warmth, or positive bloom to the music that helps with the sense of scale and overall boldness.

The treble delivery is very smooth, with a nice amount of detail but could be a little too smooth or soft for some audiophiles or with some speakers. I was fine with the combination of slight bass bloom and reserved treble as it created a large engaging and very musical sound with good energy that kept my attention, and made music a fun and lively experience.

Good Choices

There are several different options  to think about that effect the sound quality of the Pontus II. Firstly, you can choose to oversample the music, or not. I preferred the oversampling enable for 99% of the review time. As a negative, the oversampling does soften the sound a touch, but nothing too much to worry about. This is important because oversampling also cleans up the sound noticeably and improves the musicality with the edges sounding less sharp making for a more pleasing and enjoyable overall listen across a wider variety of music. I think this is key because these sound attributes would be the reason an audiophile would choose an R2R DAC like the Pontus II in the first place.  I like the fact we can choose to engage the oversampling or not depending on how we like the sound and it is an easy instant change so its easy to choose and change your preference.

The second sound tailoring option is the choice between two different digital filter modes – sharp and slow. For me, with my review HiFi system, I preferred sharp, because it is the mode with the most clarity and transparency, making me the listener feel closer to the music. Slow makes the sound heavier and fuller, which could be a good thing for some, but in this system I did not like the sound as much hence why its great to have the option to choose.

The last thing to consider, and make sure you get right, is the phase, it is not like speaker phase differences in sound, which are usually obvious, but it is the difference between selecting the sound with the most focus, clarity and bass presence.  I found it to be a crucial option to pay attention to in order to allow the Denafrips to perform at its best and sound as it should.

On the rear is a good selection of connections and a plethora of digital inputs to choose from. I was surprised to see two balanced AES inputs. I like the fact that there is a BNC SPDIF digital input as well as the usual RCA based digital input. Every high-end DAC should offer BNC for coaxial in my opinion.

Pontus II v the competition

If you bought the Pontus II on a whim and put it into your system, I think that you would be very happy, for the reasons I have been through above. It is easy to understand why other audiophiles and reviewers have spoken very highly of the Pontus II and I want to join them by throwing my hat into that ring too. I really like it; it is a great sounding DAC. However, what happens if you are currently a Chord Qutest DAC owner would this be a sensible upgrade for you? This comparison turned out to be rather interesting.

For comparison, I wanted to put the Pontus II up against at least one DAC I know well and I chose the Chord Qutest. I also had at my disposal the Musician Audio Aquarius, which I have just reviewed. The Aquarius is another balanced R2R DAC which costs $3,199 and that is nearly double the price of the Pontus II. It would have been better to compare it to the Denafrips Venus II as they price comparable but at the time of the review, I did not have access to the Venus. Please do bear in mind the significant price difference here as I talk you through my findings.

The comparison between the Aquarius and the Pontus II is a really easy one, the Pontus II does sound bolder maybe a little bigger, and in some ways a little more fun. However, I realise that I was probably a little harsh on the Aquarius in my recent review, or I had not fully appreciated how good it is at the time. I found it to be noticeably the better DAC. It has better timing, more resolving power, from top to bottom but especially in the treble, a clearer overall sound stage, more space between instruments or the musical elements, better quality bass but slightly less bass.

I have been using a song by the famous LA jazz singer Lynne Stanley who is a friend to this channel.  On her album London Is Calling there is a song called Bye Bye Blackbird. Lynne is an audiophile, and she pays huge attention to the quality of her recordings and music production. I know because I have discussed this with her personally. In this song it is just her singing backed by an amazingly well recorded double bass; one of the best double bass recordings I know of. Playing this song through the Pontus II it sounds awesome. The double bass is big on the right-hand side and the resolution is good enough you to hear the string work of the musician contrasted with the big bodied dull boom sound of the instrument. Lynne’s voice hangs nicely in the air, this is a very impressive sounding piece of music.

Listen to that same song through the Aquarius and the double bass goes noticeably behind the speaker plane, sharpens in focus and you can hear more detail and more contrast between the musician and the instrument body resonances.  The song is delivered in a tighter manner, with less bloom and hence more authenticity.  Lynne’s voice also sits a little further back, and is more focused. This is not a totally night and day difference, but it is a very audible difference and instantly noticeable as a better sound and presentation. Remember, the Aquarius costs double that of the Pontus II and so it should sound better and demonstrates the reason you might spend more on the DAC for better resolution, more clarity and transparency to the music. The Aquarius is not perfect, but it is an excellent sounding HiFi DAC and the better of the two here however, not every audiophile will have the system to do this kind of difference full justice. I don’t mean that with any level of arrogance I say it because in a many instances the Pontus II will provide more than a high enough sound quality for the audiophile

Before you place your order…

The next comparison made my head spin, and I must have conducted the listening comparison five times in order to check and confirm what I was hearing.  This was because the Chord Electronics Qutest DAC here in the UK it is much more affordable than the Pontus II, several hundreds of pounds so. In the U.S. it is more expensive at $1,945 but for purposes of a comparison I think we can say they are priced equally enough.

The Qutest DAC I have owned since it was first released but haven’t used it much in the last couple of years and I didn’t remember it sounding this good.

First we need to clarify some important differences. The Qutest is single ended analogue connection unit only and not balanced; the Pontus II sounds better using balanced and that is a difference in my testing of the two products. Also, you have to connect digitally to the Qutest via SPDIF coaxial and I was using I2S to connect to the Pontus 2. Both digital connections came from the same source and digital bridge the Singxer SU6. I also selected the Qutest to output 3V to closer match the 4V of the Pontus II balanced output. With those important setup differences aside I was still shocked by the sonic differences.  The Qutest created a sound that was more lively, more immediate, more impactful, more solid and punchy. I kind of expected this difference between a good FPGA and an R2R DAC presentation from my other past experienced.  The Qutest also had more soundstage clarity, closer to the level of the Aquarius and with a noticeable uplift in the precision and focus of its sonic delivery. Also different were the dynamics, or perceived dynamic range. There was a lot more treble information from the Qutest, with cymbals sounding more detailed and attacking. Other higher frequencies also stood out more and popped out more from the background. I also perceived the bass as more powerful. Listening to the Lynne Stanley song the Aquarius still delivered the most overall transparency out of the three DACs. and got out of the way of the music the most. However, the Qutest was very close and in other music the Qutest sounded the most detailed, with backing layers of music that were vague or subtle now clearer and easy to interpret, again mostly in the high frequency aspect of the recording.

There is one other major important sonic difference I noticed with the Qutest. With great quality recordings the Qutest sounded great, but it punished poorer recordings where they could sound a harder and more forced and not as pleasant, whereas the Pontus II lets you know the music is not great, but it doesn’t make it a negative experience to listen to. Overall, with the Pontus II you can listen to more varied music quality for longer without fatigue and importantly with no boredom or obvious complaint.

An excellent great value DAC 

I found this a fascinating overall comparison to undertake because it shows why R2R DACs are very popular and that they offer something different. They make music a joy to listen to and we cant underestimate the importance of this, but it also makes sense to me why there are models from Denafrips at higher cost levels because, obviously, as greedy audiophiles we want it all. We want to be able to listen to music all day with fantastic resolution clarity and transparency.  Unfortunately, to get closer to this Holy Grail is not easy and each successive rung up the ladder will be more expensive to build and buy.

I could have adjusted the settings on the Qutest to mellow its sound and I tried this but it still sounded like a Qutest and did not sound like the Pontus II. They are very different DACs and have different strengths and merits. Which one you choose is up to you. You can get great sounding music from both. However, if you are struggling with your system being too hard and clinical then the Pontus II would be a great DAC to consider.

To conclude, the Pontus II is a fine HiFi DAC offering at its price point, which will undoubtedly make a lot of audiophiles extremely happy with its bold, engaging, lively, warm sound with a fantastic build quality.

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A Serious Bang for Buck Award is granted in recognition of a products stand out high performance being significantly greater than its perceived price point

For the full Specification of the Denafrips Pontus II DAC   
See the website here

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