PS Audio Stellar Strata Integrated Amplifier review

Introduction

This review is sort of in conjunction with the Stellar GainCell Preamp DAC (GCD) and S300 amplifier. There was a sort of luck that a few the Stellar line from PS Audio happened to land in my hands. As the obvious difference between purchasing the “stack” versus the integrated in terms of features is the presence of a streaming feature with this Strata. Mainly I’ll touch on the differences between them and the worth proposition between either one.

Therefore, to get started, the Stellar Strata, still within the Stellar line in PS Audio that is more of their “budget” line that aims to be attainable to much more of the enthusiast masses, versus their significantly more expensive lineups further up their product list. For a total of $2999, the Strata is an integrated amplifier, the offering which is basically take a one-enclosure plug-n-play for anything stereo related. Versus a GCD and S300 pairing, which totals to $3198, a difference in about $200 is present between both offerings, but will the $200 be something worth taking the Strata over a GCD and S300 pairing? Let’s explore.

Disclaimer

For this review, I have received only the Strata itself 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 beforehand for fact-checking purposes. I once again thank PS Audio for graciously working with me and lending me their product for this review.

Specifications

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
Maximum Power Consumption500W
Mains Power InputIEC C14
Fuses100V T250V-2.0AH (5A Slow Blow)
120V T250V-1.6AH (4.5A Slow Blow)
230V T250V-1.0AH (2.5A Slow Blow)
Accessories includedUS (NEMA 5-15P) (all versions)
Schuko (CEE7/7) (230V version)
UK (BS1363) (230V version)
Analog inputs
RCA3 stereo pair
XLR1 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 (384KHz max)
DSD64 (DoP) DSD128 (DoP)
FormatPCM, DSD
Analog Audio Outputs
RCA(Analog Unbalanced) 1 stereo pair
HeadphonesOne 1/4″ headphone connector front panel
Analog Performance
Gain12dB +/-0.5dB
Maximum output20 Vrms
Sensitivity5.3Vrms
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
Network
WiFi100 mbps
Ethernet100 mbps
Power Amplifier
THD & IM< 0.02% @ 1KHz, 1W/4Ω
< 0.02% @ 10-20KHz, 1W/4Ω
< 0.05% (90kHz BW) @ 10-50 KHz, 1W/4Ω
< 0.01% @ 1KHz, 37.5W/4Ω
Output PowerBoth channels driven 120vac mains, 1kHz, 1% THD
100W minimum @ 8Ω
200W minimum @ 4Ω
Stable for musical transients @ 2Ω
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 ControlInfrared

Setup

Main testing location (shown are the GCD and S300 pairing in use in this instance)

For this review, the Strata slots in where I mainly place the Parasound NewClassic Integrated 200 which is purposed for preamplifier duties in my reference, and everything is connected to it. Mainly I evaluate the Strata as an all-in-one, but I also add other reference components to test specific aspects of the Strata.

List of main related components for this review:

  • Modified CyberPowerPC desktop
  • NHT C3 3-way Bookshelf Speakers
  • Sony SS-K10ED 2-way Bookshelf Speakers
  • Massdrop X Sennheiser HD6XX open-back headphones
  • V-Moda Crossfade Wireless 2 (wired)
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 20 with PS Connect and MUZO player

For this review, the Strata slots in where I mainly place the Parasound NewClassic Integrated 200 which is purposed for preamplifier duties in my reference, and everything is connected to it. Mainly I evaluate the Strata as an all-in-one, but I also add other reference components to test specific aspects of the Strata.

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

Build Quality and Impressions

Essentially, all three of the Stellar line that I have experienced have very, very solid builds, with essentially the same good looking style. From the front the Strata looks exactly the same as the GCD, except for a different display, and the printed lettering. There is a backlit PS Audio logo which is a power button in itself, a button next to the display to change inputs, the large volume knob beside the display and a ¼” headphone jack. It’s business as usual for PS Audio in front of the Strata, and this format personally works for me, and probably the only little criticism I have for the front is that PS Audio logo button. I personally use it at my desk because it’s quicker to just press when I have to leave, and it’s a little hard to press than I would have liked. With the included remote, I realized that it was actually interchangeable with the GCD, so no worries about mixing the two up, or talking about different remotes. That also means the same remote, so I’ll only get into the basic idea from the last review. It’s small but it has nice legible and rather big buttons. In the more distanced location I tested this in, the remote is used the most in either case, which is what I imagine most users will do.

Going back a little bit, PS Audio also provides the power cable, and the remote for the Strata. A user would just need to connect this to power, attach speakers, and a system is set to take on just about anything. An additional feature that is included in the Strata not offered with the GCD and S300 pairing is a streaming option. This is tied to the 9th input available to be accessed via the remote, or the little button to the left of the screen. If the GCD and S300 is two components in different enclosures, is the Strata like a GCD and the S300 in one? Not exactly. I had asked PS Audio representatives, and they have mentioned a few key differences.

Essentially, the preamplifier module is the same as the GCD, bar from a few changes made to accommodate the other features and items that are added in the Strata. It gets more interesting with the amplifier. Compared to the S300, the ICE module internally is actually a newer version to that of the S300. It’s also less powerful. The Strata tops at 200W to 4Ω while the S300 tops at 300W to the same impedance. As for why the Strata includes a streaming function whilst the GCD doesn’t, that reasoning lies with the fact that PS Audio designed with GCD as more of a separate component, while the Strata is designed as a completely integrated product. With that philosophy, PS Audio seemed to go all out with the all-in-one mentality, going ahead and including streaming with the Strata.

In other matters, another difference between the GCD and the Strata is the display that is on the front of the device. The Strata’s display seems to have much more resolution, whites appear more blue-ish white versus the more cream white on the GCD’s display, as well as more information presented on the front of the display. This makes sense as the streaming function would take advantage of the display when the title is shown. When asked about the differences in display, it was also mentioned that the display on the Strata is one of a newer generation of screens they are moving towards. Speaking of the display, when testing in my large room testing location, the Strata’s display is bright enough for daylight and is large enough to just be barely seen from around 7 feet away. Only the volume is large enough to be seen at this distance though, but other information such as connectivity, filter and bit-rate would only really be much more useful in troubleshooting, so I don’t mind the smaller fonts on the other information. Off-axis viewing on the display is good as well though, as observed when I at my desk. I appreciate this as it was rather distracting at times in another product review when the off-axis of the display bled the backlighting of the display.

Going to the rear of the Strata, unlike the GCD and the S300 which can afford symmetry due to the space available, the Strata does not have that luxury. Nevertheless, the rear panel is highly organized, with marked groupings for the digital inputs and analog inputs. The speaker terminals are all grouped to one end, the right side of the panel when viewed from the back. The detachable standard 3 prong power connector is on the left-most side, with a power switch above the power. Although a little busy on the back, it does not feel crowded.

Although not obvious on the rear of the Strata, the inclusion of streaming capabilities has truly made the Strata a complete package, one where I don’t feel the need for much else. Speaking of the streaming experience, as the GCD and S300 pairing did not have the streaming option, I need to get into more details. In the specifications, the Strata states that the network when using either Ethernet cable or just wireless connection is rated at 100mbps, which is not what internet service provides’ (ISP) maximum offerings these days, but that is more than enough to stream even the most demanding of music in my experience with other high-end streamers, almost instantly. The other issue would be buffering due hardware limitations. The Strata isn’t instantaneous when selecting playback music, with Tidal playback through the Muzo app or the PS Connect app, which is compatible with the Strata. As the PS Audio app specifically for the Strata was experiencing a lot of bugs, the Muzo app was the main method of playback during my evaluation period. Overall, except for a few connection delays, streaming was a breeze, although the delay between selecting a song and the Strata changing to the song can be a little long and the timing can be sporadic.

Streaming was mostly done in the large room testing location, which was closer to the router, and more convenient to do. When done in my main testing location in my room, the connection was stable and there were no dropouts. In the large testing location, there was no issues whatsoever at all. Everything could be played, and connecting was a breeze, with the Muzo app and (when not bugging) the PS Connect app instantly recognizing the Strata immediately. It also must noted that Spotify was much more instant in buffering or changing song selections, vs Tidal with it being around 30s on bad day. I’m not sure what was the issue, since the ISP speed at home is rated to be 400mbps, which holds true when I tested using an internet speed test. I could have overloaded the buffering when I spammed when selecting a song on the app by accident. Overall, the convenience of streaming is realized, and although not the best I’ve experienced, it is very competent, and something I would still use daily. This only completes the very compelling all-in-one package of the Strata.

Sound Impressions

Like the GCD and S300 pairing, the Strata seems to exhibit similar character. Although as noted in the build impressions, the amplifier is actually of a newer ICE amplification version in comparison to the S300 amplifier. Combine this with PS Audio’s touch and passion for audio, and you get the Strata, containing discernable differences from the GCD and the S300 pairing. Personally, I prefer the Strata versus the GCD and S300, so let’s get into why exactly.

First of all, the Strata in general exhibits this musicality, an aspect that seems to be a touch lacking in comparison with the GCD and S300 offering in the lineup, when doing an A/B comparison. Although the character is very similar between the GCD and the S300, the Strata exhibits this musicality that just differentiates itself. In fact, it is the first thing that was noticed when I had inserted the Strata into my main testing location in my room. Music seems to be more dynamic, and hence the emotion and musicality. With the GCD and the S300 in comparison, I notice that they are a little bland around the edges. What I mean by that is that in certain passages, it can be more noticeable, such as those with dynamic changes from loud to soft or the opposite. When listening to it critically, what I can only gather is that everything in general in improved. The dynamics, the background instrumental clarity, are the two that I notice most, and it seems like they only differ by a little, but it has quite a tremendous impact in that it seems to make the listening experience much more enjoyable versus the GCD and S300.

As a PS Audio product, it seems that the overall “control” of the speakers with their components is rather top-notch as always. The control follows through with both streaming and source playback. Like the GCD and S300, the bass, the mid and high exhibit this composure that I’ve been hearing with components I’ve experienced at this price rang, and this is no different. PS Audio added their flair to the Strata as well, with this deep and wide soundstage, which pairs well with rather strong imaging speakers like my NHT C3. I also found in the large room testing location, where the Sony SS-K10ED resides, that the Sony seems to have more confidence in the bass region, even more so than other components tested here, and with pop songs and the help of the room boosting the lower frequencies, I found no desire for a subwoofer in most of the song I listened to. With the Sony SS-K10ED, I found that the pairing very near perfect in terms of the overall character it exhibited with them. I found sibilance how preferred it, somewhat sharp but not fatiguingly sharp, and it does not ever get too sharp at any point. Mid-range was full-bodied and very enjoyable to listen to.

Everything except imaging and sibilance follows through with my NHT C3 in the main testing location, exhibiting a strong imaging performance, with a wide and deep soundstage that is able to extend past the speakers. Nitpicking a little, the sibilance is a little sharp for my liking, but the Strata pairs well with a slightly warmer speaker like the Sony, which is a slightly warmer speaker, and hence I would pair the Strata with relatively warm sounding speakers.

I must give another nod to the strong “control” that these PS Audio products have again. Other that the exhibited confidence, the Strata, like the GCD and the S300 also makes for more precise listening experience, with listening to fast stop-go, staccato, passaged in classical seemingly rather effortless and no smudging of the notes. I listened to the Strata without a sub in the main testing location for awhile as well since the Velodyne has been retired for the issues it was having, and before getting this SVS. I was also impressed at what it could pull out from the C3, which is not easy in this room as well with the weird low frequency absorption at around 60hz observed when I did a room acoustics measurement test. I did feel the need for a sub here, but when the song doesn’t have that much bass, I found it could pull it off very well, despite the lack of bass due to the room itself. Again, I think the only word I could pin this on is the superb “control” it has on any speaker played from it.

Conclusion

PS Audio offers a very complete package with the Strata, one that would be truly an “only add speakers” experience for a stereo system. It is also not too hard to accommodate for a 2.1, offering a wide selection of inputs and outputs, including digital to use with a very good DAC inside, capable of High-Res and lossless formats such as DSD if and when you do want to try those formats out. Streaming is a breeze, with relatively minimal delay, and is a wonderful addition that I would use daily without much complaint except for the slight delay. The display is a little small, but the crucial information is still visible from about 6 feet away, and everything is controllable via the remote included, which is a nice little controller with big buttons. I find it is pleasing to look at while not drawing attention on itself, and not to mention the superb overall control of your speakers this component seems to have. Over the separates option of the GCD and the S300, I find the Strata more musical and overall, more enjoyable to listen to. For the price difference, I’d personally take the Strata, unless you need more power that would require the S300. Unless you are going with much more expensive components, I have never heard of a better package for the money yet. Highly recommended for the uncompromising listener who does not want the hassle of dealing with separates.

Summary

Good

  • Superb all-in-one offering package
  • Musical amp, wide and deep soundstage
  • Superb control in both audio and features
  • Great overall sound Character, even off-axis
  • Powerful DAC capabilities

Possible Improvements

  • Less buffering for larger high-res files
  • Backlit remote

Overall Rating (4.5/5)

  • Sound Character: 4.75/5
  • Imaging: 5/5
  • Accuracy: 4.5/5
  • Conveniences: 4.75/5
  • Value: 5/5
  • Affordability: 3/5
  • Suitability for small living space: 3.5/5

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