Denafrips Ares II DAC

Seventeen years ago I was crazy enough to start up the online publication Affordable$$Audio. One of my newly recruited writers, came to me with the idea that we focus on the newest category of audio equipment, the digital to analog converter. At that time, the market was dominated by expensive units with just a few reasonably-priced ones available. Thankfully, over the next four years, the market exploded and the budget audiophile was able to get in on the action. 

Now in 2023, the DAC market is mature to the point that even the most absolutely frugal enthusiast can find worthy improvement in their system. The second part to this maturity is that there are a couple of ways to experience the benefits of a DAC, the standard Delta/Sigma, software-based, and the “rediscovered” Resistor to Resistor (R2R) ladder approach, as this was the original DAC method. Of this last group, arguably the most recognized brand is Denafrips, based in Guangzhou, China, and distributed by of Singapore.

I’m going to keep this explanation of the R2R ladder DAC simple, as Denafrips website and other reviewers have provided very worthy efforts. Essentially, the R2R system works by sending the left and right channel each through four pathways, two + and two -. The multiple pathways eliminate potential errors. One of the specific ways this is accomplished by Denafrips is the very tight tolerance matching of each resistor.

The Ares II is both understatedly handsome and solidly built. Even though it measures approximately  8.25w x 9.25d x 2.5h, the gauge of the metal case is substantial, and the weight is a surprising 7.7 pounds. The black finish keeps the look clean. The layout of the front panel consists of a large standby power button on the left. Starting at just past the mid panel are seven small horizontal buttons in a trench. Above and below each button are the smallest red LEDs in the industry. The ones above signify: USB, CO-1 (COAX), C0-2, OPT-1 (optical), OPT-2, PHASE, MUTE. The LED’s below correspond to 44.1, 48, 1x, 2x, 4x, 8x, DSD. This layout works with one exception, switching between non-oversampling (NOS) and oversampling (OS).

The backside is very well laid out. From left to right XLR outputs, vertical RCA jacks, COAX 2 & COAX 1 sitting above OPT2 & OPT 1 (yes, the numbers are in reverse order), USB, vertical power toggle switch, and power cord receptacle. Four cone-shaped feet support the chassis. When setting up the Ares II, keep in mind that with such small LED’s that unless the DAC is near eye level, they are hard to see. Age makes that all the more difficult. Therefore, consider placement if you like having visual confirmation of settings. A look inside reveals an impressive linear transformer taking up much of the right side. The front half of the left side consists of rows of capacitors, while the back half are the various chips.

Using the USB input, the Ares II can handle sample rates up to DSD1024 and PCM1536. Upon setting up, make sure to use the manual until you are used to the button combination that places the Ares II in the NOS or OS mode as it involves using the MUTE button. The Ares II places all data in high speed FPGA memory. From there, the digital signal goes into a FEMTO Clock and finally into the D/A conversion stage.

Listen To The Music

While I did try out all the inputs, the vast majority of time came from using the USB input as my main source is an iMac running Roon/Qobuz/personal collection. Immediately noticeable is that the Ares II is an easy listening DAC. It’s smooth, not technical by any measure. In many ways reminding me of the Neko Audio D100 that I owned in the early 2010’s. Listening to Keith Jarrett, the mid and upper piano notes never find the edge of musical sharpness. Instead, the listener receives a bucketful of comfort. 

In my review of the Peachtree Carina integrated amplifier, I discussed the value of user choice with NOS or OS. Yes, it applies with the Ares II. The ability to tailor the DAC output to your electronics or speakers as you perceive it, is awesome in my mind. With Totem Model 1 speakers paired with solid state or class D, NOS mode was the preferred choice. The same holds true with the Paradigm Prestige 75F. When the Vista Audio i34 integrated tube amplifier the choice of NOS or OS switched to the type of music. Though I found the OS mode was engaged more often.

The Cars brilliant first album highlighted how the choice benefited the listening experience. Besides being toe-tapping happy, there are a significant number of intense upper frequency power sections within the album. The NOS mode rounded the music just enough allowing the warmth of the midrange to create relaxing satisfaction. Interestingly, with the Magnepan .7, as well as the LSA Signature 80 speakers, with their less bright top ends, the OS mode, I found, presented a better overall experience. The OS gives the Ares II with these speakers the needed additional detail necessary for my ears.

Back to overall performance, the Ares II gets the midrange right. Listening to Rickie Lee Jones’ The Magazine, as the tracks roll I never learned in, instead I just relaxed, put head back, and savored. A perfect example is “Theme For a Pope”, with its accordion, an instrument that can drive some people from a room. Yet, with the Ares II, I wanted to hear more of this instrument, especially in combination with the acoustic guitar. It’s akin to the sweet and savory combination in cooking. With the song “Gravity”, Jones’ unique vocals shine through. Thankfully, ProTools hadn’t existed, otherwise I fear her tone and styling would never be known.

Cruising through the rest of the album, the track “It Must Be Love”, the midrange once again takes center stage, creating (with the recording engineer’s skill), a three-dimensionality, and yes warm tone that appeals to so many listeners. The Ares II just nails the enjoyment of listening throughout the album. The horn/piano combination in “The Real End” is a worthy example of this DAC’s ability to present instruments at their best in the recording.

With any piece of audio gear, the ultimate goal for me is musicality. Defined, does the performance both provide an honest recreation, as well as an emotional connection. The Ares II does both. A favorite test album is the very hot treble throughout Kamikiriad by Donald Fagan. Several years ago I had a Bryston BDA-1 borrowed from a friend. The BDA-1 pushed resolution and detail to the absolute edge. The downside was that Kamikiriad wasn’t an enjoyable listening experience, just too sharp for my ears, as well as a couple fellow audiophiles that came over for a listen.

Played through the Ares II, Kamikiriad is a joyful listen. The treble, while still very detailed, has stepped back from the edginess. “Trans-Island Skyway” with combo of electric keyboard, hi-hat and boosted Fagan vocals has all the nuances intact, yet instead of gritting one's teeth, the head is nodding in rhythm to the music. The balance of the album’s tracks follow the same path via the Ares II, a natural ease that makes music relaxing. Even in OS mode, with its slightly more detailed resolution, the musicality remains. A good way to explain visually is that while the Ares II is still a step back, it’s leaning towards the edge rather than straight upright in NOS mode. 

Final Thoughts

As a history teacher, it shouldn’t surprise me that ideas and technology get recycled. Battlefield concepts from WWII that have been ignored for 75 years are now being used by Ukrainians. In audio, we have an ever-increasing base of DAC manufacturers going back to the R2R design. For all the criticism, both industrial and political, Chi-Fi has added positive elements to the hobby. While the Ares II won’t be my main DAC, it is a permanent part of my vintage Adcom/Totem living room system. In the end, the Denafrips Ares II may give up a bit of resolution, but the increase in musicality far outweighs the sacrifice. For the budget-conscious audiophile, the Ares II is a first-rate, terrific value.

Ares II Update

Just as I began writing this review the Ares II was replaced by the Ares 12th Anniversary model. The review model I bought used and was checked out prior to reviewing by a qualified technician. The new 12th anniversary has been updated, including the major criticism that the unit needed a dedicated NOS/OS button. An addition is the inclusion of an i2S input while sacrificing one COAX and Optical inputs.

Reviewed by Mark Marcantonio