The Denafrips Terminator II DAC Review
By Steve Huff
I recently, not so long ago, reviewed the Denafrips Pontus II DAC. I loved it. In fact, it was the best I had in my system up until the much more costly Chord DAVE arrived.
My Video Review
The DAVE was such a huge jump up in performance from any DAC I have ever heard in my life that I actually went against my thinking brain ($$$) and purchased an open box unit from a dealer with a decent discount. It brought life, energy, clarity, and much more depth and details to my listening sessions. It brought instrument separation like I never heard, but with body, grunt, sparkle, clarity and sweetness.
Then right after my credit card busting DAVE purchase (and after my 15 day return period was up) a box from Fed Ex arrived. It was a Terminator II DAC from Denafrips, in for review. The near top of the line from Denafrips with a $4500 USD price point, or less than half of the cost of the open box DAVE.
This big box has been gaming some pretty impressive reviews, and I was about to find out if the hype was real and just how close this guy could get to my new reference, the DAVE.
The Terminator II is a R2R ladder DAC and if you ask around the HiFi community you will hear from those who swear by R2R DACs. I have found that the R2R designs from Denafrips have a way of digging out those details, but with a more musical and natural presentation over their competitors in the R2R field of DAC’s.
One would think using the word “musical” means mushy, slow and soft but none of that applies to the Terminator II. The Terminator II is musical yet detailed at the same time. It has a clarity and detail while projecting a holographic, full and expansive soundstage.
Again, I will say it here..DAC’s can make a big difference in a well tuned, transparent and high end system. For me, the DAVE and now the Terminator II (which I will call the TII from here on) made a bigger improvement to the sound than anything else I have put in (besides speakers of course). Bigger than a pre-amp, amp or cables.
Denafrips DAC’s are made in China and must be ordered from Singapore via Vinshine Audio which is where you can pick up one of these DAC’s. That is not a bad thing really as when we buy direct we pay less and we get more for our money. Period. No middleman and no big ad and marketing campaigns means that truly high end sounds are now within reach for so many more of us into this crazy hobby. That’s pretty cool.
THE TECH SPECS:
- Proprietary R2R + DSD Architecture
- True balanced 26BIT R2R + 6BIT DSD (32 steps FIR Filters)
- Matched Precision Thin Film 0.005% R-2R Network Arrays
- Encapsulated Flagship Ultra Low Noise Power Supply
- Oven Controlled Crystals OCXO
- Adaptive FIFO Buffer Reclocking
- New Improved Digital Signal Processing FPGA Code
- DSD1024, PCM1536 Supports On USB & I²S Input
- Proprietary USB Audio Solution via STM32F446 Advanced AMR Based MCU
- Licensed Thesycon USB Driver For Windows Platform
- Driverless On Mac & Linux
- Dual AES/EBU Input Supports
- Sharp/Slow Filters Option
- I²S Pinout Configuration
- I²S DSD Channel Swap Configuration
- DSD64 (DoP) on Coax/AES/Opt Input
- DSD1024* On USB & I²S Input Only
- 24bits / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192KHz On All Input
- 1536kHz* On USB & I²S Input
Sampling Mode: Non-Oversampling NOS / Oversampling OS
- Coax via RCA
- TOSLink x 1
- AES/EBU x 2
- USB2.0 Type B
- I²S via HDMI LVDS
- I²S via RJ45 LVDS
- I²S via RJ45 LVCMOS
- RCA at 2.0Vrms, 625 Ω
- XLR at 4.0Vrms, 1250 Ω
- 44.1KHz, 48KHz
- 22.5774Mhz, 24.576Mhz
- 45.1548MHz, 49.152Mhz
Frequency Response: 20-40KHz -0.2dB
S/N Ratio: 127dB
Dynamic Range: >132dB
Stereo Crosstalk: -110dB
AC Power Requirement: 100-240VAC, 50/60Hz (Worldwide Voltage)
Power Consumption: ≤20W
Dimension: 430W x 380D x 125H mm (Includes Footers)
Package Dim: 610 x 570 x 275 mm
Package Content: DAC only. No power cord & remote control.
Weight: 19.0 Kg
Color: Silver / Black
Warranty: 36 Months
The build quality of the TII is stunning. It’s like the Pontus II but larger, much heavier and it is a very nice looking handsome unit. It looks and feels like a bonafide high end piece because it is. If this was made in the USA my guess is that it would come in at or around $8k. Maybe even more. Slap a big brand name on it and the price would go sky high.
The TII feels like a tank and comes in at a whopping 41lbs. It has spiked feet and a big beefy linear power supply that is housed inside of its own box with a solid Steele plate that separates it from the other parts inside. A box within a box design if you will. That is how Denafrips describes it.
I’ve not seen a power supply like this in a a DAC before. VERY nice.
“Beefy dual O-Core Transformers for Digital and Analog sections, Ultra-Low ESR, Long Endurance Reservoir Capacitors, and multi-stages super linear power supply, ensuring ultra precision, low ripple power supply charging up DAC.”
The power supply is about as good as it gets for a DAC. Really good power supplies can truly boost the performance of a DAC and this one is all set out of the box.
I use my DAC purely for streaming Tidal, Spotify and Qobuz and have discovered a while ago just how important the front end of your system is, or the source. The DAC is a very important piece when assembling a HiFi system. I would always suggest to spend the most on speakers, then the source/DAC, then the amplification and then cables.
So yes, the DAC plays an important role in how your system sounds and how much magic it can create.
Like the Pontus II it has a NOS (non over sampling) mode and an also an upsampling mode. Unlike the Pontus II I much prefer the TII in oversample mode within my system. The NOS mode sounded a tad dull in my system but the oversampling mode was incredible and 90% of the DAVE sound (but with a little more warmth in the mids and a teeny little bit of a more recessed midrange). If you have speakers that lean more toward the treble side, the NOS mode may do wonders for you. If you have a warm set of speakers, the normal mode should do the trick.
I placed this DAC in my system as is, without any fancy reclockers or accessories (I prefer to see what a device can do on its own, as that is what we pay for). I tested USB and COAX and after many back and forth comparisons I can say that the COAX sounded more detailed, livelier and had a much bigger soundstage and 3D depth. The USB by comparison sounded a little dry and flatter.
So I ended up listening with it hooked up via COAX for half the time and USB for the other half. I recommend COAX if USN and COAX are your only options as I have.
When I placed in the TII I let it run in for a few days first before I sat down for a serious late night listening session. When I initially heard what was coming out of my Fleetwood Deville Speakers and Pass Labs amplification I was a bit disappointed though not in the way you think.
That disappointment was not with the Terminator II but it was because I just bought the Chord DAVE for $5k more than this would have cost me, and the sound coming out of the system with the TII was absolutely almost as good as the much more pricey DAVE but in a slightly different way. I said “I could live with this” and “this is a serious DAC” and finally “I could have saved $5,000”!!!!
Neither was better or worse in general. I enjoyed both presentations as both provided a truly high end refined sound with all of the traits that make for a musical presentation.
What the TII was doing…well it was sounding a bit more smoother than the DAVE. The DAVE was bigger, bolder and projected bigger images.
The TII is a bit more subdued in the way it brings forth details, yet is just as transparent and 3 dimensional as the DAVE. A touch warmer (and I mean a touch) but with just as wide of a holographic soundstage.
The details of the TII were not as crisp or pronounced as the DAVE nor did they have the body around each sound and instrument as the DAVE did. Even so, it was such a sweet and magical presentation and I feel many would prefer the presentation of the Terminator II. The TII does have “the magic” my friends and I would call this DAC one of the best you can get for under $7500.
Such a sweet non aggressive sound that is up there with some pretty expensive company.
I knew the TII was special from the moment I heard Nick Murphy’s “And you don’t even know you hurt me”. A beautiful piano piece that I became absorbed in with the TII in play.
This instrumental is also magical with the DAVE but with the TII the sound is a touch more human, richer and has a beauty to it that is hard to describe. It’s just very “right” to these ears and has a bit of a more relaxed sound vs the DAVE allowing me to melt into the performance more.
I listen in my “sweet spot” where the system is optimized for my ears and for that magic I spoke of above. When a recording has magic, and my gear can decode that magic, it has a way of speaking to my soul and I become one with that performance for a few minutes. It’s part of the addicting nature of HiFi for me.
Compared to the Pontus II it is many levels up in refinement and has a blacker background that allows music to pop out from the darkness with ease. Yes this is a silent noise free DAC. It’s more open, expansive, detailed and yet has a glow and sweetness about it within my system that is so nice. It’s very focused and presents music with more depth vs the Pontus.
But I had more listening to do. Sometimes first impressions wow you and then dull you later. I had to give it some time installed within my system.
AS TIME WENT ON…
After much more listening time with the Terminator II I realized some of the differences between it and the DAVE which I use for my reference DAC.
While the DAVE was more dynamic, bigger, and lively, the TII was smoother and had more depth.
While the DAVE had a sharper attack, the TII was more subtle in the way it went about things. It was nice.
Both are exciting and dramatic to listen to.
The DAVE focuses on certain sounds and instruments and brings them forward. The TII presents the music in a more natural and balanced way not bringing attention to anything. It’s something to behold and comes down to personal preference.
The Terminator II is also insanely transparent. Meaning the music is so 3D you can see through it as the layers are exposed before your ears.
I was scratching my head.
The Dave retails for $12,595.00 as of January 2022. The TII can be had for $4500 USD. That’s an $8,000 difference.
Sure, the DAVE has the headphone amp built in. It has a digital pre-amp as well. It has a remote. The Terminator II has none of these features. It has one job and focuses on that one job. To decode those digital bits and deliver them to your ears through the rest of your system.
With that said there are times that the DAVE can be a little bit too much of a good thing. The Denafrips is smooth, detailed. big, deep and has reference quality written all over it. The bass does best what the DAVE is doing within my system as well, by a hair.
The Terminator II is top notch. It is world class. It’s among the best there is in the DAC world and easily bests most in the under $5-$10k category. It’s just so damn musical and beautiful in the way it brings music to my ears.
HiFi from China is approaching some serious levels these days, and from what I have seen and heard from Denafrips (and brands such as Line Magnetic, Holo, Kinki Studios) I have been very impressed. You get much more for your $$ but the cons come with no USA dealer network for those of us in the USA. Even so, buying direct works well and saves us money.
It’s amazing what is happening within the HiFi realm these days. On one hand, prices are going insane for some pieces and brands in our crazy world. The definition of what high end is keeps getting higher and higher on the cost ladder. Some of it may be justified but I feel most of it is not.
Then we have brands like Denafrips and Kinki Studios that bring an awful lot of that high end (in sound and build) to us for so much less. While the TII is still expensive it easily competes with the big guns in the DAC world.
While the DAVE is a better package of DAC, Head amp and Digital Pre I would recommend the Terminator II above the DAVE to most people looking for a DAC only due to cost and what we get for the money. I could easily, and I mean easily live with the Terminator II as my last DAC, or at least one that would last me for at least 5-7 years. It’s reference.
This DAC could be the one that elevates your system to new heights. A stunner for sure. I will also say these are almost impossible to find used. When they do go up for sale they fetch near full retail as of Jan 2022. It’s a very in demand DAC and its popularity is well deserved.
Read the reviews from users and the pros, mostly all say the same thing. That this is one incredible powerhouse DAC. During my time with it I had no issues or problems. Pairing it with the Kinki Studios EX-M1 was a fantastic synergistic match. I will post my review of the EX-M1 soon, and that is another powerhouse product from the east. Stay tuned.
You can read more about or purchase the Denafrips Terminator II DAC HERE.
When you see the page you will see a higher price as that is in Singapore dollars. Click the US flat up top for US prices.
LOOK AT YOU from Patrick Watson streaming from Qobuz is one of those soft ethereal type of songs but with haunting vocals and instrumentation in the background. I’m a fan of Patrick Watson’s music as some of it is so beautiful to listen to. This song has a very 3 dimensional presentation with the right equipment. It was presented with immense depth, dimensionality and in a full, wide and relaxed way with the Terminator II. The details were all there, but they were never forced into my face. The TII brought it all to life as it should be.
For kicks I put in a Cambridge DAC MAGIC ($500) which is my low end DAC reference. Compared to the TII I lost the depth, 3 dimensionality and the sound went from big, full, transparent and fluid to flatter, harder, brighter and not as pleasant with a hing of grain present.
The TII as I said is WORLD CLASS.
SARDINE SONG from LAV is another one of those that bring haunting vocals and a gentle musical presentation that is organic, ethereal and beautiful. The DAVE brings all of this together perfectly. With the TII there is just an effortless way the music pours out of my speakers. I say “pour” as that is what it sounds like. Liquid. Effortless. Easy. Magical. This TII is amazing.
REQIUM by Vincente Amigo from his album Memoria de los Sentidos is a beautiful song that mixes acoustic nylon stringed guitars with a deep drum beat and oh so rich and present vocals. This song with the $12,500 DAVE is an all out masterpiece. Crisp, detailed but with body and presence that brings the strings to life. The Terminator II brings a more open and laid back performance but guess what? The details are all there as is the life and beauty of this track. Slight warmth with a big open sound is what you can expect from the TII here. While I prefer the DAVE here ever so slightly, the TII is not far behind and it presents the song with just as much beauty as the DAVE. It’s just more subdued and doesn’t project as far out from the speakers.
This DAC gets my highest recommendation as it hangs with some of the best for much less. It’s built like a tank and does its one job as well as it could. It has magic, air, space and all of the things we look for in a true high end audio piece.
The DAVE I spent much more for is not better. In fact…as time went on I slightly proffered the TII within my system. Can’t go wrong and if you are ready to step up to a source that will transform your system do check out the Terminator II from Denafrips.
I was afraid it would be thin and overly detailed. Not the case at all. It’s not lean or sharp at all, rather very refined and mature and smooth.
MY REVIEW SYSTEM AS OF JAN 2022
Pass Labs XP-12 Preamp
Pass Labs XA60.8 Amplifiers
Fleetwood Deville Speakers
Chord DAVE Dac
Lumin U1 Mini Streamer
Cardas Clear Reflection Cables
Audioquest Niagara 1200 Power Conditioner
It will be great if you could review the Holo Audio May and share your impressions comparing May and Terminator II.
Speakers aside, the progress being made with a stand-alone DAC is now the second-biggest fundamental tweak to any system. Such are the advances that I predict in a few years $2000 will bring the top-end performance of today. I have heard a Dave DAC in a fabulous sounding system, the owner saying that the DAC was essential to the final sound. The DAC is not yet a mature technology like almost everything else in Hi-Fi. Your Fleetwood speakers fascinate me, would love to hear a pair but there seems to be no importer for the UK market…Fascinating reviews as ever.
▫️I often give a listen to some of the albums you mention, so this is a useful part of your reviews. While the bulk of my listening is to classical and jazz, I do sometimes enjoy listening to pop, bluegrass, etc.
▫️While I’ll never know what I may be missing with different and more expensive gear, I do know that the system I have now (after recent upgrades) sounds very good and satisfying to my ears in my space. While part of the hobby is following the latest and greatest (I love reading your reviews), It is also nice to be able to enjoy the gear you have without lusting for upgrades.
▫️It is nice that you are doing more on hifi than cameras recently since I’ve mostly lost interest in new cameras. I shot family Christmas this year with an A9 and a 35mm prime and I didn’t wish for newer gear or even reach for other lenses. What I had just worked.
Thanks! All that matters in audio is that the one listening can enjoy the music! No one needs fancy systems but some enjoy them ; )
Thanks for the review. You may want to consider the Weiss DAC 501 — it would make an excellent reviewer’s reference. It’s high resolution while remaining musical, neutral yet engaging, and precise without sounding like hi fi (unnatural). It “gets out of the way”. As a straight down the middle piece of gear, it would allow you to easily compare other DACs and hear your amp/speakers. They show up on the used market from time to time, and I don’t think the full retail is crazy when you consider it has a great built in streamer and excellent compact Swiss build quality from an industry legend. I preferred it to the Bartok. Happy listening.