PS Audios New Integrated Amplifier - Stellar Strata

Discussion in 'General Audio Discussion' started by tranq, Jun 23, 2020.

  1. tranq

    tranq Facebook Friend

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    So I have had a couple shiny new toys in my place the last few months. The first one I got is the new PS Audio Integrated. I wanted to share my thoughts on it here... Its a long read, if you are tired it may help you fall asleep...

    This thing has a lot going on and a lot going for it. This is my first experience with a PS Audio product, and while it has been very interesting & very enjoyable, I am finding that audio products are like life, in that most things aren’t perfect. This is probably quite obvious to many of you, but it was only 2 ½ years ago that I started with some 50 dollar AKG’s and a 99 Schiit Magni 3, before continually moving up the food chain. When you start testing the audio waters with a 150 dollar investment you think that if you get the opportunity to beta test something that retails for $ 2999, that it will be perfection. Well….. Man its good, really really good, but software vagaries being what they are its not perfection. As I mentioned, this was a beta, I’m sure the issues I had will get worked out shortly.

    Sooooo anyway – lets get into it. The Stellar Strata is a new offering from PS Audio and placed in their Stellar family of products. The components in this group would probably be considered PS Audios mid-priced lineup, but for me a 3k component is top end. It’s meant to be a clear step up from the popular Sprout. At least a couple of folks on the beta forum who have a Sprout and Strata seemed to indicate the Strata was a marked improvement from the Sprout, as it should be. The Strata is a discrete design integrated amp (some would call it a super integrated). Designed and Assembled in the USA, featuring PS Audios famous Gain Cell preamp technology (Class A), their popular DAC designs, and of course it utilizes a class D ICE Module for differential output on the stereo power amp.

    They have also included a new feature in this amp. The folks at PS Audio designed, programmed, and built - a digital streamer within the amp itself. This “bridge” as they call it allows the user to control and stream music through the amp from popular steaming services such as Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, Spotify, etc. It is NOT Roon capable, has built in Ethernet and Wifi (2.4Ghz only). This streaming feature was really intriguing to me, and part of the reason I jumped at the chance to be a part of the beta when the emails went out back in March. I had been inquiring about the status of the amp for a year or so, and was thankfully on their mailing list. The app itself is nicely done, available for iPhone and Android devices and was pretty handy except for one exception. I could easily log into Amazon and Spotify through the app, but for the life of me I couldn’t get connected to Tidal or Qobuz. This is disappointing because Spotify is not CD quality, and Amazon HD is not currently available with the PS Connect App. I seem to be the only one on the beta forum reporting this issue. Everyone else was able to log in and use both apps. I seem to have a way with software and electronics, often experiencing issues that other users don’t have. Maybe I’m an idiot, I don’t know, but I do seem to set off metal detectors at airports and stadiums with recurring frequency. So there’s that. At any rate it’s a beta, and I’m not concerned about it for future users or long term usage. That being said, it was a bit of a hassle because Qobuz and Tidal are my main apps. For Tidal and Qobuz I ended up using a Google Chromecast Audio (CCA) and the USB input on the DAC portion. The built in DAC had lots of inputs, coaxial, Toslink, USB, i2s.

    This was my first experience with a PS Audio Dac – its really nice. I used Toslink, Coaxial, and USB. I used the Strata to drive Zu Omen DW’s and KLH Kendalls. The Strata powers them both with absolute ease. I spent most of my critical listening with the Strata either getting fed via USB internally or via my Schiit Bifrost 2 – USB to Balanced Out, into the Strata’s analogue inputs. The dac in the Strata is really nice. It does sound noticeably different then my Bifrost 2. With USB into the Strata I noticed the soundstage has more forward placement and perceived volume level for the treble and upper registry instruments and sound. This makes detail and transients easier to hear. This soundstage placement did seem to affect the mid bass placement and texture a little bit (Steely Dan, Deacon Blues), but it didn’t seem to affect the lower bass or midrange at all. That was with the Zu in my basement listening room. When I moved the Strata upstairs to the living room it paired magically with the KLH Kendalls. Different rooms & different speakers, but the Strata sounded light years better than the Marantz PM6006 that normally pushes the KLH Kendalls. In my basement I felt as if my listening spot was too close for the more forward presentation of the Strata with onboard dac. In my living room I felt as if the speakers disappeared and sound was just emanating from space. Regardless of room, speakers, or dac, the Strata displayed great separation, detail, imaging, transients, fine details, etc.

    I typically listen to a wide range of music – rock, country, classical, jazz, blues, electronic, pop, bluegrass, etc. I listen to everything from stuff recorded in the 30’s to albums released last weekend. Strata reveals it all.

    I spent a good deal of time listening to the Strata getting fed via balanced inputs from the Schiit Bifrost 2. My main system for the last 6 months has been a Schiit Bifrost 2, Schiit Saga, Schiit Vidar, Zu Omen DW. Putting Strata in that chain and removing the Saga & Vidar has allowed me to see how it compares to them. I will say that the Schiity Duo held their own right away, but I think part of that had to do with burn-in on the Strata. Early on I didn’t notice a huge difference, and I was surprised at how well the Vidar and Saga sounded when looking at price, but as Strata started to break in, I really noticed the treble start to rise above what the Vidar can do. Strat is a differential amplifier, and having had the recent opportunity to listen to a second differential amplifier, I believe there really is something to that kind of speaker amp.

    I think the Class A preamp of Strata pairs really well with the Class D driver/output stages. I am hearing more detail with the Strata, without a total loss of the fullness/body I get from the tubed Saga & Vidar combo. To say that another way, the amp stage of the Strata delivers music that is very detailed and isn’t thin sounding. It doesn’t sound as full as the tube buffer on saga can deliver, but that is neither good nor bad, just a preference and observation. I could quite happily listen to the Strata for a long time (especially with the KLH pairing). I wish that I had the funds to afford a top quality amp both in my living room and basement. If I did, I would take my chances on the Strata app issues getting resolved, and keep the Strata for upstairs use. It really sounded great up there, and is probably better suited for family room use then the other products I have. I don’t have any equipment for measurements, but the Strata is a really clean and detailed sounding amp. Imaging, placing, separation, depth are all really nice. I would say that Strata has a little less body then the Vidar/Saga combo, but it does not sound sterile or thin, and the detail retrieval makes up for any loss of body or heft. Treble and fine upper registry detail were very nice. I did have a DIY (design and construction) class A tube HP amp for a portion of the beta, and I often used this as a preamp/buffer into the Strata, this made a world of difference to the body and fullness, without any loss of detail. That amp was a loaner from my friend (also the designer) because I had never heard an old school design tube amp before. Thanks Tom, I loved my time with your Incubus Elegans’.

    Now, feeding the Strata from another amp/dac/preamp is interesting, because of some of the extra features the Strata provides. They have volume trim, +/- 10db for the analogue inputs. This is pretty nifty, as you can increase the volume if your input is too weak, or turn it down if it’s too hot. I have never seen this feature before (yeah I’m a noob, but surely you understood that if you have read this far). As far as additional bells and whistles, the dac on the Strata has three filter settings, each offering subtle tweaks to the sound profile of the dac. I couldn’t tell you what one I liked best, they all make audible changes, but they are subtle. The perfect feature for crazy audiophiles to agonize over. There is a phase invert option, again it’s nice to have, most music won’t need it.

    Now some other things I liked, and a few things I didn’t. Like – the fully functional remote – coming from Schiit gear, a remote that allows the device to power on and off is nice. Like – the power cable - That cable is a beast, especially for a stock cable. Like – The quality of the binding posts - Often overlooked, crappy binding posts piss people off. These binding posts are stellar (sorry not sorry for the pun). Dislike – I have come to like binding posts that are arranged vertically instead of horizontally. I might be weird, its ok. Dislike – I wish the speaker binding posts had been on left and right side, instead of grouped on the left. Like – the locking balanced inputs - Small touch and attention to detail, very nice. Like – the build quality and visual design of the amp - very nice, very sturdy. Like – a display showing volume level and other info - Seems basic I know, not everyone offers it. Dislike – Some of the settings on the display are so tiny, you need to put your face on the display to see them. Would be nice if there was a way to cycle through the display readouts at a larger size with the remote. (maybe by holding down the DIM button for 3 - 5 seconds or something). Like – the built in streamer – nice feature, just wish it worked better for me when I had the amp. Dislike – the limited functionality of the streamer.

    This last dislike is a big reason that I am sending it back instead of keeping it in house. If it weren’t a 3k integrated I could live without a fully functional streamer because the rest of the amp sounds so good. I have read that Roon won’t work, and that the streamer isn’t currently capable of playing Amazon HD content. Both of those things are bummers. I wonder how much of the BOM is tied up in the streamer, because I love everything else about the amp. I also really wish there was DIGITAL OUTPUT. There are two coaxial inputs, would be great to see one of those inputs turned into an output, so the streamer can be used with external dacs. There is also a USB A port, for firmware, would be nice if that could output a digital audio signal. It would also be great to buy this product without the streamer or the dac, as many people are already invested in separate components.
    No details were given on what kind of hardware is used for the streamer, but a cheap google Chromecast Audio can function as a Roon endpoint, and raspberry pi could function as a streamer and offer digital outputs. Surely PS audio could design an amazing internal hat for a raspberry pi. Hopefully these perceived shortcomings will be revisited on future versions of the amp.

    At any rate the Strata sounds really great, both dac and amp, and nothing is perfect. I am very thankful to the PS Audio team for my time with the amp & taking me on as a beta participant. I will miss the Strata once it has been sent back to the mothership. It has been determined I am in the early stages of audio hoarding, and I don’t want to part with anything! As a final note, the Strata is a great sounding piece of kit, works well with various speakers, excels at all volume levels, and plays well with all types of music. I found myself particularly enjoying bluegrass, jazz, small group classical, acoustic rock, and pop/electronica. Many thanks if you actually read through all of this!

    I'm also doing a write up on another integrated amp that I have in house, and will be doing a comparison write up of the two amps after I get the other collection of thoughts sorted. Working from home with a desk in the middle of my listening room has its perks..
     
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2020
    Jerry, luckybaer, Walderstorn and 6 others like this.
  2. tranq

    tranq Facebook Friend

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    Here's a couple of basic photos, they are not glamour shots...

    MVIMG_20200626_004901.jpg MVIMG_20200626_004757.jpg
    MVIMG_20200626_004706.jpg
    Nice looking amp though, good fit for an understated guy like myself.

    I caved and re-upped my spotify subscription 9.99 for 3 months.... The PS Connect app works really well with spotify, I just wish spotify had at least cd quality.
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2020
  3. farbinator

    farbinator Rando

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    There is something to be said about a beautifully well executed understated design. Great review.

    I'll freely admit it's relatively inconsequential because I'm sure many folks putting down $3K on an amp will run it hardwired to ethernet but I am curious why only 2.4 Ghz on the WIFI side. I'm surprised you can even still buy 2.4Ghz only capable chipsets.

    I get that the extra throughput possible on 5 Ghz is not really useful for audio, not to mention the performance issues when you start to factor in physical barriers but if you've got a crowded network with a bunch of older legacy 2.4Ghz devices that might come into play if you want to use WIFI for convenience. Heck, might as well just throw a WIFI 6 capable chipset in it to be future proof.
     
  4. tranq

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    Thanks, I appreciate that.

    Yeah it's an interesting design. On the beta forums some people were saying hardwiring via Ethernet introduced noise and killed bass. And then it got blamed on older noisy routers/switches. I use 2.4ghz with all my audio connections due to better range, and my video dongles all stream on 5ghz, but it was still an interesting choice.

    I saw a Darko review today on YouTube about the Cambridge CXN v2 network streamer. That looks like a fantastic piece of kit.

    https://www.cambridgeaudio.com/usa/en/products/hi-fi/cx-series-2/cxn
     
  5. tranq

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