PS Audio Stellar GainCell Dac & S300 preamp/amplifier review

Introduction

PS Audio is no longer a stranger in my household. There have been several systems in the house that have used PS Audio or is currently using one. I have also recently reviewed their budget entry-level offering of an integrated amplifier, the Sprout100. But this time, I have received 2 of their products to review in tandem. Both are in the Stellar lineup, just a step up from the Sprout100, and is still one of their more “budget” option, considering the much pricier halo offerings PS Audio typically offers. As such, one benefit to this is the fact that they can trickle down related technology and experience to bring better sound, possibly a good value for more people to enjoy. After all, not many people can afford PS Audio’s top of the line offerings. But with the stellar line, I would not be surprised to find this in many more people’s systems. As such, I question: are they worth it?

Disclaimer

As a disclaimer, for this review, I have received only the products from PS Audio to review. All expressions, thoughts, evaluations in this review are solely from me. They have not influenced this process in any way. PS Audio has only seen the review before hand for fact-checking purposes only. I once again thank PS Audio for graciously working with me and lending me their product for this review.

Specification

Stellar GainCell DAC (GCD)

Physical
Unit Weight13.5 lbs [6.1 kg]
Unit Dimensions17” x 12” x 3”
Shipping Weight17 lbs [7.7 kg]
Shipping Dimensions23”x 18” x 9”
Power requirements
Input PowerModel specific 100VAC, 120VAC, or 230VAC 50 or 60Hz
Power Consumption20W
Mains Power InputIEC C14
Fuses100V T250V-2.0AH (2A Slow Blow)
120V T250V-1.6AH (1.6A Slow Blow)
230V T250V-1.0AH (1.0A Slow Blow)
Accessories includedUS (NEMA 5-15P) (all versions)
Schuko (CEE7/7) (230V version)
UK (BS1363) (230V version)
Analog inputs
RCA
XLR
3 stereo pair
1 stereo pair
Digital audio inputs
I2S1 PCM (384KHz max)
DSD64 DSD128
Compatible with DirectStream Transport SACD handshake for DSD playback
Coax2 PCM (192KHz max)
Optical1 PCM (96KHz max)
USBPCM (192KHz max)
DSD64 (DoP) DSD128 (DoP)
FormatPCM, DSD
Analog Audio Outputs
RCA
XLR
Headphones
(Analog Unbalanced) 1 stereo pair
(Analog Balanced) 1 stereo pair
One 1/4″ headphone connector front panel
Analog Performance
Gain
Maximum output
Sensitivity
12dB +/-0.5dB
20 Vrms
5.3Vrms
Input Impedance47KΩ single ended RCA
100KΩ Balanced XLR
Output Impedance100Ω single ended RCA
200Ω balanced XLR
Frequency Response20Hz – 20KHz +0/- 0.25dB
10Hz – 100KHz +0.1/-3.0dB
Noise20-20KHz <-90dBV
S/N Ratio1KHz >110dB (max output)
Channel separation1KHz >90dB
Input separation1KHz >90dB
THD&IM1KHz < 0.025%
20-20KHz < 0.05%
Headphone performance
Output power @1% THD300Ω 300mW
16Ω 3.25W
S/N Ratio 1kHz
Noise
>95dB (max output)
<-80dBV
THD & IM 1Vrms out300Ω <0.05%
16Ω <0.06%
Output impedance<4 Ω
Features
Volume Control0-100 (1/2 and 1dB steps, 80dB total range)
Balance Control24dB each direction in 1/2dB steps
Home Theater ModeAssignable to any analog input
Adjustable (in setup) to any level
Polarity (phase) ControlDigital sources only
Filter Control3 selectable digital filters (PCM digital sources only)
Trigger output(3.5mm 5-15VDC) 2
Remote Control Price:Yes. Infra Red $1699

Stellar S300 Stereo Amplifier

Stellar S300 Stereo Amplifier
Unit Weight13 lbs [5.9 kg]
Unit Dimensions17”W x 3”H x 12”D (13″D w/connectors)
Shipping Weight16.5 lbs [7.5 kg]
Shipping Dimensions22”W x 8”H x 17”D
Color OptionsBlack
Silver
Voltage Options
(Factory set only)
Japan 100V
North America 120V
Europe/Asia/Australia/New Zealand 230V
Mains Power InputsIEC C14
Idle Power Consumption13W
Accessories IncludedUS (NEMA 5-15P) (all versions)
Schuko (CEE7/7) (230V version)
UK (BS 1363) (230V version)
Audio InputsRCA (Unbalanced)
XLR (Balanced)
Speaker OutputsCopper base nickel plated binding posts (2 pair per channel)
DC Trigger Input3.5mm 5-15VDC
Warranty3 years parts and labor
Signal
Gain30.5dB +/-0.5dB
Sensitivity for rated output power1.01V
Noise1kHz@300 Watts < -100dB
Input impedanceUnbalanced 50KΩ
Balanced 100KΩ
Output Impedance50Hz, 2.8VRMS <0.007Ω
Damping factor50Hz. 2.8VRMS
8Ω >1100
4Ω >550
Frequency Response2.8VRMS into 4Ω
10Hz – 20KHz +/- 0.5dB
10Hz – 50KHz +0.1/-3.0dB
THD&IM
1KHz, 1W/4Ω<0.02%
10-20KHz, 1W/4Ω<0.02%
10-50KHz, 1W/4Ω< 0.05% (90kHz BW)
1KHz, 37.5W/4Ω< 0.01%
Output PowerBoth channels driven 120vac mains, 1kHz, 1% THD
140W minimum
300W minimum
2Ω PriceStable for musical transients $1499

Setup

Setup (taken after the evaluation process. Pictured instead of the NHT CS12 is the SVS SB-1000PRO. Monitor was added after evaluation as well)

For this review, the GCD mainly reside in my main system, taking the place of the Parasound NewClassic200 and the Emerald Physics 100.2SE on the desk. The Music Hall DAC 15.2 is removed as the Stellar GainCell DAC preamp includes a DAC.

List of main related components for this review:

  • Modified CyberPowerPC desktop
  • Parasound NewClassic 200 Integrated Amplifier
  • NHT C3 3-way Bookshelf Speakers
  • NHT CS12 Subwoofer
  • Massdrop X Sennheiser HD6XX open-back headphones
  • Sony MDR XB50AB Extra Bass Earbuds
  • V-Moda Crossfade Wireless 2 (wired)

As my usual Velodyne DLS-4000 subwoofer was having issues, I am using a loaned NHT CS12 subwoofer for this review, as I had it on hand during the period of review. The Onix Rocket RS250 have been replaced with the NHT C3 since the last review, and although rarely mentioned, my Sony MDR XB50AB earbuds was used in this review more extensively. I have since accounted for these changes, and they should not affect my expressions in this evaluation.

Per usual procedure, I allowed for a grace period of a week (with 4-5 hours per day) of casual playing before any critical listening and evaluation to allow for a “burn-in” period.

Build Quality and Impressions

Both products arrived in double-boxed packages, well packaged with foam, and includes both manual and catalog of other current PS Audio offerings. There is also a gratitude of purchase message, which seems to be the standard for any of their products. This is also a good thing, because from this it does not seem that PS Audio cherry-picked their products for my review. I am sure that this is also a form of their “guarantee of confidence” within their products that they manufacture. These come from a relatively adjacent state of Colorado, headquartered in the city of Boulder. Both the GainCell DAC preamplifier and the S300 stereo amplifier are not exactly cheap, but they are rather attainable compared to their other offerings, at $1699 for the GainCell DAC and $1499 for the S300. Both the GainCell DAC and the S300 are offered in a silver finish like this review sample, and also in a black finish for those who want a more subdued look that doesn’t stand out.

These two stellar products share design cues, as with other products in the lineup. In addition to the product and product manual for the GCD specifically, it also comes with a remote for its operation. Both products are in a full-size, standard 17” wide chassis. This would fit right at home in an entertainment center. It’s not your typical design with the thick 1/8” bent metal that cover the top, bottom and front of the product with a little slip in the middle where they meet. For the S300, there is nothing else to it other than a light-up PS Audio logo that also acts as a power button which can be pressed. The GCD packs more features as it has other functions that require them, such as a small screen to display volume, input sampling rate, etc. There is also a small button to the left of the screen from the picture perspective that you can press for input. To the right the small button there is a large volume knob, and further to the right of the volume knob there is a 1/4” headphone jack. Not only is the GCD a preamp with a DAC, PS audio also advertises that this model has a dedicated headphone amplifier; they didn’t skim out on this aspect. See the next section for more on that. Nevertheless, both the GCD and the S300 have a relatively substantial weight on them, around 12kg total for both or around 26.5lbs. Each are about similar weight, with the GCD being 13.lbs (6.1kg) and the S300 being 13lbs(5.9kg). With the 2 thick pieces of metal on the top and bottom though, these are very, very rigid and strong products, experiencing no flex at all when carried or when I tried to twist them (Please do not try this at home with your other components). I would not usually do this with review components; however, these are so stiff and solid feeling I was comfortable doing so moderately.

On the rear, the S300 is rather symmetrically organized, with the speaker level outputs on the outside of the product, and the inputs in the middle, offering both RCA and XLR forms of inputs. In the middle of the inputs are trigger inputs as well if such the user would like to pair it with another compatible product. To the left most on the rear, is also where the detachable power connector resides as well as a power switch right beside it on the bottom of the device. The symmetry is something I appreciate as it did make for recognizing which input goes where as well as which wires is specifically left and right input outputs. As there are 4 speakers level terminals on the S300, you can bi-wire your speakers if you so desire, which I personally found redundant and did not use for this review.

The S300 is a Class D amplifier that offers a rather powerful 300W at 4Ω, or 180W at 8Ω of amplification, capable of powering harder to drive speakers, utilizing a dual mono design, which splits the power supply into two, along with the amplification, reducing any crosstalk between them. In terms of the design of the amp, in the words of PS Audio, it includes, “an ultra linear high-current output power stage with a discrete Class A MOSFET based AnalogCell input stage”. This should in theory, based on my limited understanding, be a good combination for a quality amplifier, which will be proven in the next section.

For a two-component system like this case, with a modern preamp and an amplifier to power everything off a PC in my case, the GCD offers everything needed, and more. The DAC in the GCD is a rather off-the-shelf component, utilizing a 32-bit ESS Sabre Hyperstream architecture, and is pretty powerful, being able to decode 24bit 192kHz on the USB. It also goes further, being able to decode up to DSD128. I find that this is more than enough, as most music nowadays is streamed, and the best offering through a service called Qobuz, is at 24 bit 192kHz bit rate.

Of the two products, the GCD comes with a remote, so you can control the preamplifier from a distance. Every necessary convenience is present to be able to just sit back and relax. The remote is small and compact with nice tactile buttons. It can, however, be a little small in the hands, but the large buttons make up for it, making it hard to accidentally miss a button. All the labels are relatively straightforward, and the plastic is a nice smooth-to-the touch material. The prints are also nice and seem durable in the long run. It does get a little greasy over time, and it doesn’t have backlighting, but it still relatively legible even with little lighting.

Not to mention, there are little things that PS Audio has coded into the GCD that I appreciate. For example, when switching between headphones and speakers, the preamplifier will automatically turn off the output to the speakers when you plug in headphones. It also remembers the volume you listened to while in headphones mode, so jumping right in where it left of before is a breeze, and rather worry-free. With a healthy 300mW at 300Ω or 3.25W at 16Ω of amplification from the headphone section, you’ll be able to power most headphones on the market. With in-ear monitors (IEMs) or earbuds, I find that these are sensitive enough to power them as well. Using my Sony MDR XB50AB earbuds, I didn’t feel the need for finer levels of adjustment in the volume control.

Combine the GCD and the S300, to get everything needed to start playing back audio selections in style, as well as convenience. The offering of the GCD and the S300 is a serious powerhouse, capable of powering any system. The GCD offers a very capable DAC, the signature GainCell volume control for a “pure” volume control, a plethora of choices for inputs, at your fingertips with everything being able to be controlled from the remote control. As the GCD lacks amplification, the very capable S300 will power almost everything thrown at it, with a healthy 300W at 4Ω, Class A MOSFET input stage and Class D amplification stage for both power and performance.

Sound Impressions

PS Audio never fails to impress me. I have never been disappointed in their products. The streak remains alive. PS Audio delivers with the GCD and S300 preamp and amplifier. Both are respectable in their own rights. And, both pair very well with each other. Let me explain as we go along.

The GCD is a modern preamplifier, and excels at what a preamplifier does. First and foremost: controlling volume from multiple sources. As mentioned in the previous section, the volume control is noticeably better than the entry-level Sprout100 I reviewed recently; rightfully so with the higher price point. During my testing, the system delivered, preserving the emotional experience in the listening at any volume. If there is one gripe I have about the volume control on the GCD, paired with my resident reference amplifier, the Emerald Physics 100.2SE, the control is not as sensitive as I’d like it to be. Specifically, for near-field listening when I’m working at the desk, the steps between volume level 8 and 9 from the GCD for example, is a little steep. I’d like it at 8.5 but that does not exist. In other listening situations however, the steps are more than sensitive enough. The preamp responds very well to different components though, with differences being able to be exhibited between the S300 and the 100.2SE, an amp that costs more than the S300.

In other news, the GCD as a desktop headphone amp, is extremely good. The headphone amp in this review is rather extensively tested, as I quite often use headphones while I’m at the desk so as not to disturb house members. That said, I was very impressed with the headphone amp. Although not as smooth as the Sprout100, the experience is more realistic, and hence, better. If I were to compare, the Sprout100 is a little too smooth, very forgiving for all types of music, whereas the GCD is rather lively because of its harsher character. A drawback would that it can be unforgiving for certain recordings. In terms of composure, the GCD exhibits confidence, and is a joy to listen to. I do notice that the soundstage is pretty wide and deep. Overall, I can confidently use this during Zoom lectures and meetings as it does have perceived comprehension improvements. It’s not too critical of bad mastering or quality as exhibited in Zoom meetings, and it is the same for playback as well.

Impressively, the DAC in the GCD can handle pretty much almost everything handed to it. Not to mention, the GCD and S300 pairing has very nice control over the bass which improved when the S300 is switched with the 100.2SE amplifier. However, it’s a pretty close distance between the S300 and the 100.2SE, which has a much higher price tag at MSRP. I did notice more control, precision, and clarity with the 100.2SE, but very minimal, and I would be happy with either the S300 or the 100.2SE if I were to daily either. The S300 exhibits much better soundstage over the 100.2SE though, with a slightly deeper and wider soundstage.

Large Room Testing configuration (not seen: Sony SS-K10ED flanking left and right of table)

Speaking of the S300, I did ask my resident audiophile family member to test it out, and it achieved impressive results, powering some Revel Ultima Studio speakers. The S300 controlled the Revel impressively with one standout being strong bass control. This setting was not tested extensively, as it was just to try it out with a relatively full-range floor standing speaker. It was comparable to reference components in this system, which was also quite the feat.

If there was one word to describe both PS Audio components’ strength, I would have to say control. Both the GCD and the S300 have impressive control over any speaker powered by them. In particular, the soundstage and the depth of the soundstage is one common improvement heard even when inserting the pair into other systems I have. Bass can seem much tighter, more impactful, with vocals and instruments showing composure, accuracy, and position. It was a given that the obscure areas I look for in imaging; the area between the center of the 2 speakers and the speakers themselves, was easily replicated and executed. One nitpick I had was that I would have liked it if the GCD and the S300 pairing could have been a little smoother with my main reference speakers, the NHT C3. Either way, I found great value in this pairing, as I could compare the performance of the two to more expensive components I have experienced. These products packs impressive performance I can confidently recommend. An impressive pairing from the stellar lineup from PS Audio.

Conclusions

PS Audio doesn’t play around, even with their relatively budget offering of the Stellar GainCell DAC preamp and the S300 amplifier. Both are great products for the money and are ones to shortlist towards anyone looking for a DAC/preamp and amplifier pairing. The GCD is very capable and can even handle upgrades to other components well. The S300 can hold it’s own with some big boys in my comparison. If these were not considerations for components that one would build around, they should at least consider very highly.

Summary

Good

  • Superb “control”, both in the audio and the features department
  • Plenty of power
  • Great sounding combination
  • Power DAC capabilities
  • Good looking
  • Wide and deep soundstage

Possible Improvements

  • Backlit remote

Overall Rating (4.25/5)

  • Sound Character: 4.5/5
  • Imaging: 5/5
  • Accuracy: 4.5/5
  • Conveniences: 4/5
  • Value: 4.5/5
  • Affordability: 3/5
  • Suitability for small living space: 3/5

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