The Denafrips brand has exploded on the scene in the last few years and become a beacon of quality and value in the world of high-performance audio. Denafrips’ component design and build quality combine to yield a very competitive price to performance ratio. In some cases, like their Terminator Plus DAC, they even offer state-of-the-art sound quality at price points attainable by many audio enthusiasts.
Alvin Chee, the owner of Vinshine Audio, oversees the production and international distribution of the Denafrips offerings. Alvin is the Energizer Bunny of the organization. While managing the company’s day-to-day global operations, he also finds time to do numerous YouTube videos explaining the use of the products. He furthermore answers emails and inquiries at all hours of the day or night. I don’t know when this guy sleeps!
Customer support is his focus, and he serves it up at a level that many other companies would hope to emulate.
If you have been following The Audio Beatnik, you know that I have previously reviewed two Denafrips products; the Pontus II DAC and the Iris DDC. Both impressed me. After my recent encounter Axiom II Walker Mod unity gain preamp, where I said “Its tonal neutrality was on display. I did not sense any coloration being added by the AXIOM II Walker Mod. There was also no evidence of any grain or texture”, my desire to further explore this category of preamps was reignited.
Fortuitous in timing, the flagship Athena Preamp was released earlier this year, coinciding with my renewed interest in this type of preamp. Alvin sent one my way to review in late May. Yes, the stars had aligned, and I was all set for a mid-August review.
As luck would have it, my family experienced some health issues, delaying my review schedule during the summer. Once those issues had passed in late August, two hurricanes greeted me, which effectively took the month of September away from me as I dealt with their impact.
I tell you this because there is a silver lining to many clouds. In this case, I lived with the Athena for six months and enjoyed its company. That was three months longer than a typical review cycle, and the extra months allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the preamp. It is that understanding of what the Athena preamp brings to the table that I want to share with you.
But first the details.
Housed inside a 17” W x 15” D x 3.75” H fully aluminum chassis is the now-familiar two-tier construction of the unit, which is common to several of the Denafrips products. Internally, a double layer of MU metal sheets bisects the preamp, which creates the top and bottom compartments. The MU metal sheets offer EMI and EMF suppression between the power supply section and the analog circuity above it.
The lower compartment houses the encapsulated and shielded power supply with two transformers, one for the CPU and the digital and relay controls. The other is dedicated to analog circuitry. Multiple stages of Low Drop Out (LDO) voltage regulators and a large capacitors bank provide clean power.
The top compartment houses the analog circuitry that includes both Class A input and output buffers with high speed, low distortion, and a fully discrete module design. Multiple rows of smaller capacitors are used rather than fewer large capacitors, another common Denafrips design feature.
The four white rows are the silver-coated relays that compose the balanced shunt-type relay volume control that uses an optical encoder for the volume pot. Denafrips describe it as an “advanced microprocessor CPLD discrete relay-based 60 steps volume control, coupled with current drive Darlington arrays network and the precision matched Military-specs Metal Film Resistors, yielded perfect channel balance, ultra-low distortion THD+N at 0.000120%.”
Using a shunt-type volume control ensures you only have two resistors in the signal path at any volume level.
The Athena is an active zero gain preamp. That means it has active input and output buffers but does not amplify the signal itself, hence zero gain. There are no capacitors in the signal path, which sports a Class A bipolar output stage with low feedback. The Athena Preamp is fully balanced, including the balanced relay volume control. Typically, the volume control is where balanced circuits go to die and are converted to a single-ended design. It is rare to see the balanced circuity carried through the volume control in a product anywhere near the Athena’s price point.
Moving around to the back of the unit reveals one set of SE inputs and four sets of XLR balanced inputs. The XLR 4 input is a direct pass-thru input, and the selector relay switching has no control over it. It is the purest possible input as it bypasses all relay contacts. The outputs are comprised of two pairs of XLR balanced and one pair of SE connectors. Input impedance is specified at 12.2kHz and output impedance at a very useable 200 ohms.
The front panel has the input selection buttons, volume control, and the combined power/mute button. In the center resides the large dot matrix LED display that shows the input and volume selected. Sharp-eyed readers will note that I previously described five inputs, but there are only four inputs buttons. Since XLR 4 is a direct bypass, there is no selector button for it, and a signal input to XLR 4 will play no matter what input you have selected on the unit.
The remote control is machined from a single block of anodized aluminum and is quite formidable and will come in handy should you feel threatened by anyone in your listening room.
It controls the preamp volume, source selection as well as dims the display to 3 different levels. Unfortunately, it does not allow you to turn the display completely off. Extra buttons are for additional Denafrips products like the companies Avatar CD Transport. I would prefer a simpler remote with fewer buttons as you only use 8 of the buttons on this remote to control the Athena, and they all reside at the top third of the remote.
One last detail. Each Athena is tested on an Audio Precision APx500 Audio Analyzer to ensure it meets spec before shipping.
I spent my review period with the Athena Preamp integrated into my main system. The digital side uses a ROON Nucleus → Soundaware D300REF or PS Audio SACD Transport → Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC→ Athena. The analog front end is the AMG ViellaV12 JT Turbo/ DS Audio Master One combination. Amplifiers used were my Quicksilver MS-190, PS Audio M1200’s, Pass Labs SIT-3, and the Kinki Studio EX-M7 (future review coming). They powered my Acoustic Zen Crescendo II and Volti Audio Razz during their visit to my listening room. The Pass Labs SIT-3, with its unusually low 11db of gain, was a non-starter with the Athena as I could not achieve the typical volume level. Here is a point you need to be aware of whenever you consider buying any zero-gain preamp. Make sure you have enough overall gain to achieve the volume level you like. The volume level will be a function of the total gain of the front-end electronics and the speakers’ efficiency. The other three amps with their more typical gain were better able to cope with this caveat.
Denafrips advises using the balanced signal for both inputs and outputs, and I agree. Also, the XLR 4 input that bypasses the input switching offers a noticeable step up in performance.
Eyes Wide Shut
During my decades in audio and video retail, I found that people are much more confident in their ability to describe differences in the video than in audio. A customer could easily tell me what he liked or disliked about a picture but typically had trouble telling me his likes and dislikes in audio. Customers often had the confidence to insist on their video preferences but lacked confidence in their ability to do the same with audio.
I bring this up because I will approach Athena’s description from a different angle.
Color and Sharpness
When you look at a row of TVs on display, you see differences in color temperature and intensity or color level. You also see sharpness differences that are related both to resolution and sharpness settings.
Let’s look at those two areas, sharpness and resolution, as they relate to the Athena preamp, and I will try to relate to you what I “see.”
In Video: Color Calibration vs In Audio: Tonal Balance
Most people have not experienced a TV or computer monitor that has been color calibrated. Once calibrated, natural colors like flesh tones, which are very hard to reproduce, look natural and right. And color levels and intensity are not cartoonish with overly saturated levels. The picture has a natural feel as if you are looking out of a window.
As it relates to the Athena or any audio component, the color calibration of a TV is very much like achieving the correct tonal balance in your music. You are listening for the correct balance of tonal density that does not highlight any specific area. You want a balanced sound, with nothing added or removed.
The Athena, being a unity gain preamp, where the audio signal is not amplified, has a minimal impact on the signal. That is not to say that the Athena does not impact the sound. But I found that the Athena had a very small impact on the overall tonal balance. It does not highlight any areas and remains true to the source. Athena simply seems to get out of the way of the signal, and what you send it emerges virtually untarnished tonally.
In Video: Resolution and Sharpness vs In Audio: Detail and High-Frequency emphasis
I always had fun with this trick on the sales floor. I could easily make a TV with higher resolution specs looks worse than a model with a lower resolution spec by turning down the sharpness control. The resolution of a TV defines its limits in the amount of information it can resolve on the screen. And sharpness is simply a filter on the emphasis of that information. A slight emphasis can create the illusion of more resolution, and deemphasis will do just the opposite.
As for the Athena Preamp’s resolution, with its exceptionally low noise floor, nothing gets buried. It fully resolves the signal.
As for sharpness, the Athena was just a tad shy of neutral, and Its impact is an ever-so-slight rounding of the leading edge.
As a side note, I find it interesting that in the end, most customers did not like the calibrated TV picture settings, and when I would ask them to adjust the picture to their liking, the vast majority would end up turning up the color and sharpness.
Can you say, “tone controls”?
No Gain… No Pain
The first thing I noticed about the Athena is that it has no “electronic” signature. By that, I mean you do not detect or sense electronics in the signal path. Initially, it is a bit disarming, and you may think it is not as detailed or dynamically expressive as you like. But give it time to grow on you. Many components, much like the TV sharpness control that I referred to earlier, produce the illusion of detail by highlighting the leading edge of the signal. While initially exciting, invariably, over time, this becomes tedious and detracts from enjoying the music. Not so with the Athena.
Tracy Chapman – Crossroads
The Athena builds the musical picture from the midrange out. The dead quiet background provides a perfect canvas to paint the music onto. With wonderfully dense organic colors with paint strokes that provide depth and dimension. This works exceptionally well with digital sources. The soundstage is deep, wide, and has good height.
As overused as these two words are, “natural and relaxed” are the first words that come to mind when I listen to the Athena.
On the Bob Ludwig mastered Crossroads album, Tracy Chapman’s voice is rendered with exceptional depth, and density, and more body than I knew was there. The pain, angst, and yes, hope in songs like This Time and the title cut Crossroads, are easily transferred to the listener by the Athena Preamp. Subtle background details throughout the album, like banjos and bongos, are not buried in the music. They stand out clearly in their own space and with their individual tonal quality. Her guitar work is powerful and natural, and there’s that “word” again.
Pablo Villegas – Americano
Every electronic component impacts the sound in some way, so where does Athena’s Achilles heel lie? I mentioned earlier that Athena introduces an ever-so-slight softening of the leading edge. If the ultimate resolution of detail is your thing, do not fret. All the detail is there. It is just not illuminated as brightly and does not become the focal point of the listening experience, and they are not cut out or gated. Think Mosfet vs. bipolar, moving magnet vs moving coil, Boralo vs Nebeolo.
Listening to Spanish Guitarist Pablo Villegas’s Americano disc on the Harmonica Mundi label was a good example of this. It takes you around the world with a range of music from Venezuela, Brazil, and Spain to John Willimas composed music, then on the American Bluegrass. Quite an array of music.
On October 24th, 2019, I was privileged to hear him play in concert and sat about 12 rows away from him. In many ways, the Athena reminded me of that experience as the music I heard that evening was more about tone and musicianship than details like finger movements on the strings. Yes, I hear those details on the album. However, I was more drawn to the tone and emotion of the guitar work. The Athena, with its lack of electronic edge, really stood out on this album.
The Police – Synchronicity
Like any good pairing, the careful choice of ancillary components is required to achieve a final product you enjoy. In the case of Athena, I wanted to use cables that had a wide-open feel and were dynamically expressive. Cables like the Analysis Plus Silver Apex interconnects, and Ultimate Power Oval, or the Triode Wire Labs Obsession power cords are a few of the cables that I felt let the Athena “breathe” more freely.
The Athena proved it could get up and rock on another Bob Ludwig mastered album, The Police: Synchronicity! Sting’s bass guitar line in Every Breath You Take is powerful, fast, and clean. Quick attack with no overhang. The soundstage on songs like Walking in your Footsteps and Wrapped Around Your Finger is huge with excellent width and height. As for detail and resolution, the Athena easily reveals this is an album whose parts were assembled in a studio.
Carmen Lundy – Soul to Soul
The more I listened to the Athena, the more it reminded me of my PASS Labs SIT 3 amplifier. An amplifier that also builds the music from the midrange on out and that you can listen to endlessly without listener fatigue.
In early 2016 I saw Carmen Lundy in concert, where she performed many of the songs on this album mastered by Doug Sax. The audience, myself included, was spellbound during her rendition of When Will They Learn. During her performance of the song, I was transfixed by the music and the words, and at the end of the over 7-minutes, I was emotionally drained. Listening to that same song in my room on the Athena produced a similar response. Yes, the Athena can connect you to the music.
The Athena’s overall build quality, both internally and externally, belies its $2,000 price point.
However, it is the naturalness of the sound that makes the Athena an attractive value. This is a very good preamp that handles the signal it is given with the utmost care. While not the last word in that “throw the window wide open” listening experience I have heard in pricier units, I found that the Athena rewarded me with a listening experience that allowed me to forget the system and enjoy the music and the artist.
Once carefully paired in my system, the Athena was one of those rare components that seemed to disappear and did its job without fanfare and drawing attention to itself. I felt the Athena had invited me into the house, and I was asked to sit down and visit.
In the end, I never felt rushed to leave and was very comfortable in overstaying my welcome. And, that is all I want from an audio component.
It sounds simple, but so many components miss this mark.
As for the Athena, bullseye!
Price: Approx. USD $2,000 at time of writing
Price based on the Singapore dollar.