My Video Review:
With the release of their entry level Digital-To-Analog-Converter Ares – which symbolizes the God Of War in Greek Mythology, Denafrips officially announced a long-term-assault and declared war to the Delta-Sigma DACs found in 99% of all your modern audio sources as smartphones, TVs, laptops, even modern audio components.
With the release of Pontus – A primordial God that symbolizes the sea itself, Denafrips sent another message suggesting that Pontus will sound like the calm waves of the sea, smoothing out all that digital glare.
With the release of Venus DAC which symbolizes the goddess of love, desire, beauty, prosperity, fertility and victory, Denafrips again sent a message of what should we expect from this wonderful DAC. I want to point out that Venus goddess is an essential deity and a true ancestor of the Roman people, even Julius Caesar claimed Venus as his ancestor. In the name of this god, Romans celebrated The Veneralia on April 1 in honor of Venus Verticordia and Fortuna Virilis. As you can see, Venus has deep roots in the Roman Empire and when looking at the map of the Denafrips users all around the globe, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that most of them are located in…Italy, what an interesting coincidence.
As I already explained in my Ares DAC review, Denafrips is very much against those delta-sigma modulators and chooses a more complex R-2R resistor ladder DAC network - that in short terms is a binary-weighted DAC that uses a repeating cascaded structure of resistors with values of R and 2R. This improves the precision due to the relative ease of producing equal valued-matched resistors. You must know that the performance of R-2R ladder DACs is relying a lot on the accuracy of those resistors, the higher the accuracy – the clearer, more detailed and transparent the sound will be.
The Denafrips Venus DAC that I will be testing uses an advanced 26 Bit R-2R true balanced configuration for PCM material plus another 6 bits of resolution using 32 steps FIR filters for DSD material.
Instead of going for hundreds of 0.01% precision resistors as they did for Ares and Pontus, Venus and Terminator are using 0.005% - higher precision resistors for a clearer and much more detailed sound.
Venus came in an extra-large box, surrounded by lots of foam, there is nothing more and nothing less. User manual and USB driver can be found right here, for a DAC of such caliber you will need to supply your own power cable, it is just normal using a higher quality one. I hoped Venus would come with a remote control but sadly that is not the case.
Design & Build Quality
Venus, as of today is the biggest and the heaviest DAC I had the pleasure of testing at my place. It is even bigger than most of the integrated amplifiers I have tested and bigger than some power amps. It is scary just looking at it. At 1 cm and a half, it has the thickest aluminum front cover and the whole structure seems to be built to last a life-time. In all honesty, Venus is built like a Faraday cage, I even put it on top and underneath few integrated amplifiers and few headphone amplifiers and it never shown an increase in background noise.
All the screws were moved on the back panel for a super clean look. Those low intensity LEDs have the perfect brightness even in a dark room. I really like the raw aluminum look of the silver version, the laser engraving on the front and on top is looking great too.
I like that it has rounded edges on the top and front plate, so it will not damage my headphones when I’m handling them around, I like the flushed buttons on the face plate, I like the satisfying click sound they make when pressed, the buttons are firmly attached to the device and are not wobbling around.
It has the same width with the SparkoS Labs Aries and with Flux Labs Acoustics FCN-10 so I used it mostly with these in my office powering some inefficient desktop planar headphones. In the living room, Venus was connected to a Hegel H190 integrated amp or to a Benchmark HPA4 (preamp) + Keces S125 (power amp) and then to a pair of Buchardt S400 loudspeakers so I can definitely say that I have tested the Venus in all possible scenarios.
Together with Terminator, Venus is using an oversized encapsulated linear power supply that added a lot to the weight. Venus weights a whopping 8.5 Kg and once you lift it up its clear we are dealing with a serious piece of equipment. All in all, I have nothing to complain in terms of design and looks.
Controls & Connectivity
We are dealing here with a 100% dedicated DAC, without any preamp functionalities, so obviously there aren’t any volume controls.
The front panel is quite simple to remember, from left to right you have your digital input selectors, the selected digital input will be shown by an orange LED on top, then you have the Reversal button that will toggle the phase output – LED On the phase is positive, LED Off the phase will be negative. The big rounded button is your stand-by button, but in my experience, I would leave the Venus powered On all the time. OS/NOS button will change from oversampling to non-oversampling mode, LED On means NOS mode is engaged, next is the mute button and the Mode button will select a different configuration for the HDMI I2S pin-out, please check the user manual for the exact I2S pin-out changes.
On the back you have 7 digital inputs: a coaxial input, a BNC input, two AES inputs, an optical, an I2S input via HDMI and an USB input. On the analog side you have your typical RCA and XLR outputs.
Under the Hood of Venus
Compared to Ares, Venus is actually a true balanced, dual mono R-2R network array DAC. I opened the top cover to see all the magic for myself and here there are: Four beautiful rows filled with high-precision matched resistors. Four rows meaning four channels, meaning a true balanced signal.
Venus is using the highest-grade resistors you can possibly have, at only 0.005% precision, the same resistors are used in the more expensive Terminator DAC as well. This R-2R network of resistors will ensure the smallest linear errors, high decoding speed, super low digital noise and a low background noise.
I see that each channel is equipped with an independent high-speed Altera MAX II FPGA and between them I am seeing the highest performance femtosecond clocks from Crystek: the famous CCHD-957-25, one for 49.152 MHz and one for 45.1584 MHz to safely cover all the sample rates Venus can playback.
On the newest DSP board, I can spot another crystal clock, an additional Altera Cyclone II FPGA, an ARM processor plus a dozen of op-amps. The DAC board is also populated by hundreds of audio-grade electrolytic capacitors from Nichicon and United Chemi-Con. This is the reason Denafrips is recommending leaving the Venus powered On all the time and if you just turned it On, it will need at least 4 hours of warm-up until it will sound at its best.
Underneath the DAC board, I can spot a huge linear-power supply which is completely encapsulated and can’t be opened up. On the plus side that thick metal alloy is used as a shield from nasty electromagnetic interference coming from the power transformers. Inside it, dual O-Core transformers are completely isolated using linear super regulators, there are multiple filtering stages for the analog and digital sections, ensuring a super low-noise and an instant power delivery to the DAC section.
What is kind of interesting is that the USB board is by default disabled so it will not interfere with the rest of digital inputs, it is only engaged when the USB input is selected. Venus can decode up to 24-bit 1536 kHz PCM material via USB and I2S and up to DSD 8X (DSD1024) via the same inputs. Venus will also consume 20 Watts of power, unusual for a DAC seeing it storing and dissipating so much power, but in the same time it leaves a message of how powerful it might sound.
OK everyone, it is time to have a serious listen.
I. Burn-in Requirements
Since Venus has more than 100 capacitors inside plus two oversized O-Core transformers, it was mandatory leaving it powered On playing some tunes on repeat. After I received it, I plugged it in for a quick listen: It was interesting since I wasn’t experiencing any hardness and stiffness I am normally experiencing with delta-sigma DACs, this time around Venus sounded all over the place, slower and much wider than I expected. Driver control was kind of weak, those capacitors were still empty and I couldn’t spot a nice slam in the chest or a nice transient response. I left it on for a week connected to a laptop, it just passed 150 hours of burn-in and as I understand it had some burn-in before that. I sat down, I put my headphones on and that was probably the moment I was searching for my jaw that just hit the floor. Such an unrestrained and effortless presentation, with layers on top of other layers of information flowing like a river towards me. I experienced the widest soundstage I ever heard in my living room, with notes coming from awkward angles and with a fluidity and I never thought was possible.
II. Tonality and Timbre
When I tested the Denafrips Ares, it impressed me a lot with its effortless presentation but in the same time it rounded the frequency extremes hurting the sub-bass and the upper treble which I didn’t like that much and it didn’t offer the slam I was craving for while listening to faster and harder music.
Venus is very different in this regard, it has a really high-density type of sound that fills the gaps in the room, it makes the music sounding bigger than life, really bold, carrying a heavier and fuller tone. It sounds incredibly effortless and easy going, like its disappearing and leaving the rest of the electronics do its job. With Delta-Sigma DACs, I am picking up the tonality and timbre quite easily as all of those are somewhat tilted towards details, maybe tilted toward speed or some frequency range. Venus is not tilted towards anything in particular, you just feel entering a big auditorium filled with music, you feel being the centerpiece and the mastermind, picking the notes you want, listening to any range you want, disentangling even the most crowded music on the planet. I have a fetish listening to older music like Django Reinhardt and some of that music is almost unbearable on simple delta-sigma DACs because they tend to accentuate all the flaws, the background noise and make it brighter sounding than usual. Listening to Django Reinhardt - Minor Swing (1937) on Venus, it somehow bypasses those cons and makes everything shine brighter, guitar weeps gentler and the rhythm is as jumpy and as melodious as I know it to be. I slowly nodded my head picking up the pace, background noise almost completely disappeared and made this performance almost flawless (considering its age).
The more I listen to Venus, the more I understand that it doesn’t want to impress with anything in particular as nothing really stands out, exactly as it happens in real life when you go out in a jazz club or at a rock gig.
III. Transient Response
The biggest flaw (for me) of the Denafrips Ares was the transient response that just wasn’t keeping pace with faster engaging music like electronica – some digital sounds were rendered way too slow or not at all, even double drums on some rock tunes sounded like a blob of sounds ruining the listening experience. Venus doesn’t have any of that and sounds impressively fast, engaging, slamming with authority like Thor’s hammer on some particular sounds. Since I am coming from a Delta-Sigma DAC (Matrix Element X) it was much easier to me listening first to the Venus in the Over-Sampling (OS) mode.
I just recovered from a nasty flu that glued me to my bed for about seven days and from kidney pain due to antibiotics. Days later, when I started listening to music I feIt I need a kick-start, something to raise my mood that would engage that writing mode of mine. There is a one minute song that always does the trick for me: Dirty Shirt – Latcho Drom (Letchology, 2019), from the first seconds blood started boiling from the inside, my feet started dancing themselves, it was pumping good vibes and positive energy directly into my brain, I repeated the process another two times so that kick-start would have a bigger impact on me. Venus was capable of keeping up with that song, slamming hard, creating a short magical moment for me that raised my mood, breathed a bit of life and ignited a much-needed spark in me.
IV. Soundstage King
The best part I liked about the Ares DAC is that is pushed a big and believable stage not only in front of me but also around me. Venus by comparison is pushing that stage past the boundaries of my imagination. I don’t mean just a wider soundstage than usual, not at all, I mean bigger and farther away in every possible direction on all X, Y and Z axes. The gap between the notes becomes huge, more air is rushing in the room to unrecognizable. Even bad mastered and really crowded music starts sounding airy, open and wide. Only very few digital to analog converters were able to offer a believable stage that breathes and sends layers of depth information to the listener.
Inspired by the painting The Birth Of Venus by Sandro Botticelli made in the mid-1480’s which is still one of the finest paintings from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, I decided listening to Therion – Birth of Venus Illegitima (Vovin, 1998). That crowded mix of god-like voices plus a heavy mix of instruments created an unforgettable moment for me. I was particularly impressed by the intensity of the male and female voices, carrying so much weight, so much emotion and so many chilling vibrations went down my spine. I was also impressed by the cymbals that sounded extremely clear, yet completely grain and harsh-free. When the composition keeps rising and rising close to the end, the stage opened-up and I could listen individually to any note I would want, such a nice rendering of this song!
V. Genre Master!
I’m my +10 years experience of reviewing digital to analog converters, Venus is the second DAC I can definitely call a genre master! I will not hide the truth of who I am and what I like: I can start my day by listening to some Antonio Vivaldi, then I can move to some jazz like B.B.King, Miles Davis, then to some electronica like The Prodigy, some drum & bass, techno, acid and then to some really angry metal tunes. I love all my music equally and some of it represents a state of mind, maybe my mood level in a particular day or maybe I am just recharging my internal batteries. There aren’t a lot of DACs that will playback equally well everything from classical to angry metal, most of the time is one or the other but never both. I believe that Denafrips Venus is the first DAC that can playback all the melancholy, sweetness or sorrow of a classical piece, it can render that raw energy of electronic music, and even preserve the grotesque and the brutality of the metal music - that is a first in my experience. I believe the OS/ NOS button is a god-sent, I really enjoy listening to slower paced music and all types of acoustic music in the NOS mode and if I want to rock-out and increase the pace, the slam and the precision then I will engage the OS mode that works wonders with faster and heavier beats.
This is exactly what I did, listening to Antonio Vivaldi – Op. 8, No. 1 - 4 For Violin, Strings, and Continuo: Allegro - Danza Pastorale (The Four Seasons, Chesky Records, 1993) it reminded that I am still listening to a high-end DAC, instrument placement was simply fabulous across the room, pin point imaging was the best I encountered, notes were flying from behind me, such a weird experience at first but a really pleasant one in the end. I can clearly hear the leading edge of any note, the start and the end of any note. The hidden micro-details can be easily spotted but they never really shout: Look, I’m here! It is more like gently grabbing your attention and showing all that is hidden in the background.
I then engaged the OS mode and started listening to some older electronica like The Prodigy – The Music For Jilted Generation (1994) the gentler approach I was experiencing on Vivaldi was completely wiped and exchanged with an aggressive and raw tone, pace increased a lot, dynamics increased as well, Venus entered the dance floor and was throwing some hard slamming beats to unrecognizable. Some voodoo inducing beats were slamming with a serious force in the chest and ear-drums, I couldn’t believe I’m listening to the same source, it really changes to the music it is playing, what a chameleon of a DAC the Venus is!
Moving on some raw metal like AC/DC – Back in Black (1980), while listening to Back in Black, I again felt that the true nature of this song was completely preserved and from a good boy, Venus transformed into a nasty beast with pointy horns that made me toe tap and air guitar for the rest of the song. The guitars sounded extremely real and alive, the voice sounded guttural and imposing, drums sounded fast and kicked hard, cymbals had the right amount of extensions and outline without being a burden. The more music I would add the playlist, Venus played it all with its chin up like a true Genre Master!
VI. Frequency Response
Venus seems like a big departure from its smaller brother Ares and where the youngster failed, big brother was showing how things should be done properly. The more I listen to Venus connected to some revealing amplifiers and transducers, the more I start understanding how complete it is sounding in terms of frequency response. Up until this moment from tens of sources, I think only three of them were able to awake some of the lowest octaves and low intensity hums. Venus will be definitely added to this group. Venus presented sub-bass information with such an ease; I didn’t need stressing myself to hear it. It was always bold, rumbling, very present, going to the lowest depths and having a nice sustain and decay. If sub-bass information is important to you, then Venus can unleash the full force of the low-end. Going up to the mid-bass the same story repeats itself, it is always full-bodied, heavy and nimble if the song is asking for it. I liked that I was able to hear multiple layers of bass in a very detailed manner. It is not only going low, but it is also incredible clean and transparent type of bass.
In terms of midrange I will just say it from the start, that there are very few delta-sigma DACs that can render it properly and by that I mean life-like, soul-grabbing and involving. R-2R DACs always shined in the midrange department the most. In this regard Venus feels like the strongest gladiator in the Coliseum, unchallenged by anyone. I never heard such an involving and musical DAC, while listening to acoustic music it all transforms into an act of pleasure. If I’m engaging the NOS mode, I just want to listen to music and nothing more. The grain from the music disappears in such a manner that I have a feeling this music is happening right now without some kind of conversion. That thin silk thread is binding all the musical notes in such an easy way and smooth fashion it’s almost like listening to a digital vinyl.
The transition to higher regions is done in a natural way. Finally, I can hear the treble reaching higher octaves. There aren’t signs of roll-offs or anything like that. It is the first R-2R ladder DAC that can render it clean, transparent, detailed and even past 16 kHz without obvious flaws. When you listen to a lot of rock and jazz you are kind of prepared that at some point a cymbal or a bell will bother you with a bit of brightness and expect the same coming out of Venus. You hear the shimmer, you hear the body of the cymbal, you hear it crashing on you and yet not a sign of brightness or dryness. This is another skill learned by the R-2R designs that is making them popular among jazz and rock listeners. Venus presents a clean and detailed treble response but in a natural way without some sort of digital glare.
As a whole, Denafrips Venus presented a clear and a very extended frequency response without a single roll-off in any region. There aren’t drops or rises, just a complete, full-bodied and really textured presentation, if only all digital sources would sound this way.
From the flock of digital to analog converters around me, there is probably only one that could stand a chance versus the Venus and that is the Matrix Audio Element X that in my experience stollen some skills from its R-2R brethren.
Denafrips Venus (3998 SGD / 4598 SGD in EU) VS Matrix Audio Element ($3000 / €3000 in EU)
If you are located in Europe, Venus is more expensive due to VAT and to the rest of the world, Venus is by a hair cheaper compared to Element X.
When it comes to features, Matrix Element X blows Venus out of the water as it can work as a dedicated DAC, as a balanced headphone amplifier, as a dedicated streamer (via Wi-Fi), it is Roon and MQA enabled, it can work as a preamplifier and also has an internal music player controlled by a smartphone app, it also has a much needed remote control.
By comparison Venus is just a DAC with a fixed volume level, nothing more, nothing less.
When it comes to music reproduction there and few things that they have in common and a lot of things that are really different on both units.
Venus to me presented the widest and the deepest stage I encountered at my place, it goes almost to the infinite abyss. Element X has a smaller and cozier stage, like I’m listening to music in a smaller venue. Venus sounds incredibly deep and I can easily detect which musical instrument is closer to me and which one is farther away. Element X can do that too but to a lesser extent, I can’t look that deep into the recording with it.
When it comes to naturalness and how believable everything is, Venus again is an undefeated champion. It always grabs my attention with its smoothness and easiness, with its amazing control and grip. Venus sounds just right with any music I would listen to, with Element X there is just sometimes a feeling that this is still a digital conversion, I feel the notes clicking just a bit more, more than it happens in real life. I sometimes have a feeling that with Element X the music sounds more detailed than in real life. It wants to make everything extra crisply, clear and detailed, but the truth is that not all sounds are sounding this way in nature. Element X is by a hair more artificial sounding, but in the same time offers a clearer leading edge of every note, the outline is clearer sounding and it is decaying by a hair faster.
When it comes to details, Element X is a bit forced sounding, it grabs you and shows you: Here! Look! A micro-detail, look here another imperfection or mastering error. Venus is showing all those details as well, but it is not forcing you to hear them, as if you have a choice: to spot all the imperfections and mastering errors or not. You can focus on them only if you want. As I was listening to older music, it was much more enjoyable to do that via Venus, than via Element X.
Venus is exactly as detailed, as transparent and as extended in the frequency response as Element X but it just uses a different method of music reproduction. Venus feels like a really old smoky whisky and Element X feels like a fresh out of the barrel whisky, entering your blood-stream in an instant while Venus will linger a bit more in your mouth for a longer after-taste.
There is one thing where I feel Element X is above the Venus and that is the transient response. Don’t get me wrong, Venus can sound really fast and it always kept its pace with the demanding rise of dynamics, I will never call it slow or mellow. However, Element X was just faster, or should I call it lightning fast sounding and to this day, I don’t think there was a DAC beating the Element X in terms of slam and how fast are those transients. With fast electronica, Element X is the boss and to this day was undefeated at its own game. I really like listening to my electronica via the Element X.
Denafrips Venus is an incredible sounding DAC from any point of view. It will please all types of music lovers with sweet sonics, rich harmonics, with its full-bodied and grain-free presentation. I tried looking for the needle in the haystack but the more I looked the more I was losing the “find a bloody con” game. Is the Venus a perfect sounding digital source? No. But it is the closest to perfection I encountered thus far in my long journey. If you would trade convenience of a remote control and of a volume control with ultimate sound performance, then Denafrips Venus is definitely for you.
Venus is built like a tank, weights like one too, but looks like the goddess Venus itself with those curved top and front plates and with those curvy sexy feet. Thus far, it’s the most natural, the most airy, deep and wide sounding DAC I experienced at my place and sure enough it impressed the hell out of me. If you have the cash to spend and if you’re looking for the next best thing, Denafrips Venus just might be the ticket to the musical wonderland you are searching for a lifetime.
- Beautiful and sleek looking device
- Incredible build quality and weight attached to it
- Widest possible soundstage, deep sounding as Mariana Trench
- Crazy good pin point imaging and 3D holography
- Linear frequency response and super extended on both ends
- Impressive levels of transparency and resolution
- Excellent dynamics, pace, rhythm and timing
- Lacks any noise and distortion, black as night background
- Full-bodied, rich in tonality and the most life-like sounding source I listened to
- Possesses an amazing slam in the chest and a quick transient response
- Widest selection of digital inputs
- Amazing price for an immaculate performance
- A remote control would be nice
- DACs: Denafrips Venus, Matrix Audio Element X, KECES S3, Burson Conductor 3 Reference, Audio-GD D.28, Flux Labs Acoustics FCN-10
- Headphone Amps: Benchmark HPA4, SparkoS Labs Aries, xDuoo TA-30
- Preamps: Benchmark HPA4
- Integrated Amps: Hegel H190, Keces E40
- Power Amp: KECES S125, SMSL DA-8S, Burson Audio Bang
- IEMs: FiiO FH7
- Full-sized headphones: Audeze LCD-4, Erzetich Phobos, Hifiman Arya, Quad ERA-1
- Loudspeakers: Buchardt S400, KEF LS50W
- Interconnects: QED Reference XLR (x2), Aune AL3 XLR
- Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
- Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3)
- Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC400, KECES BP-600