Denafrips Athena Preamp Review

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.

The Construction

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

The Hookup

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. 

Cables were from Triode Wire Labs, Audience, Analysis Plus, and Acoustic Zen. Power conditioning used was the P.I. Audio UberBUSS and the LessLoss Firewall 640X C-MARC.

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. 

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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”?

The Sound

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. 

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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.

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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.  

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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. 

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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. 

Conclusion

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. 

Vinshine Audio

14 thoughts on “Denafrips Athena Preamp Review”

  1. Thanks for the great read. I currently have the Athena on pre order but I’m considering canceling it because I really want the LTA level 2 preamp. Is there a noticeable difference in quality between the two or is it just preference? I’ve considered owning both so I can have a SS and a tube pre for different genres of music. One for rock and electronica (Athena) for fast transients, black background and micro dynamics and one for my pretty music where timbre and colors are more important to me (lta). Any wisdom you could incorporate would be great

    1. Thanks for reading The Audio Beatnik. I love your idea of having two preamps on hand. I find it is fun to switch to a different “flavor” every now and then. Unfortunately, I have not heard the LTA Level 2 so I can’t comment on that comparison.
      I do have three upcoming preamp reviews in the works. One on the Kinki Studio EX P7, another on the Benchmark LA4 and lastly I am working on a Wyred4Sound STP-LE Level 2.
      My focus in 2022 with be on analog front ends including turntables, cartridges and preamps ( phono and line level)
      Stay tuned and have fun with your system and the music!!

  2. Nice review. I have had my finger on the trigger for the Athena but I seem to get the feeling from another review about the “roundness” of the attack. As a former/recovering drummer I like the attack. But the density of the sound you wrote about draws me in. I currently have a tubed preamp and so far my favorite tubes in it are the warmest. So as I potentially look to go solid state, the warmth and body of the Athena seems like a good fit. But then my brains wanders back to the “rounded” attack.

    I’m glad to see that you feel it fast (I listen to fast, dense music) as its my biggest concern on this (well besides having more than one single ended source).

    The STP SE 2 was also recommended although, like I said, the body and density of the Athena turns me on, at least mentally.

    Any other thoughts on whether it can organize dense music?

    1. Hi Mike,
      As I continue my march thru preamps this year, I have an upcoming review of the Kinki Studio EX P7 preamp that will drop in the next 2 weeks.
      After that will be the Benchmark LA4 and I am currently trying to secure a STP SE 2 for review in the April timeframe.
      Stay tuned…..

  3. Hi Ken,
    I noticed that one of the amps you tried the Athena with was the Kinki EX-M7. As you said, Denafrips recommend using the balanced input/outputs of the Athena but the EX-M7 is a SE design inernally. I was wondering which way you hooked up the Athena to EX-M7 and whether you tried both SE & balanced to compare whether one combination outperformed the other?
    Many Thanks,
    Darren.

    1. Greetings Darren,
      Congrats to you for paying attention to whether equipment with balanced connectors are truly balanced designs.
      I wish manufacturers were a bit more transparent on this subject.
      I found the Athena’s balanced outputs were superior to Athena SE out when connected to the XLR input of a truly balanced amplifier.
      To your question… I did try the Athena’s balanced out into the XLR in on the EX-M7 and compared it to the SE out to SE in and heard no real difference. The XLR in on the EX M7 is merely an “adapter” to let your balanced cable interface with the EX M7 and does not extract the performance advantage of a truly “balanced to balanced” design.

  4. Many thanks for taking the time to respond Ken, much appreciated.
    I guess Athena SE out to EX-M7 SE in means balanced to SE conversion in the Athena whereas Athena XLR out to EX-M7 XLR in means balanced to SE conversion in the EX-M7 … so if the same make/model SE and XLR IC’s were used for the comparison I guess it makes sense that there would be little if any difference heard.

    Kind Regards,
    Darren.

  5. John Curl had some notes about not using a lot of small capacitors in the power supply due to some sort of distortion characteristics. He posted corrections to his amp circuits for amps like the HCA-2200ii to cut out the offending parts. Not sure if that issue applies here.

    1. Yes… I am familiar with that line of thinking from my old modification days. John suspected the use of multiple small capacitors might lead to a resonance and , more specifically, thought the use of the multiple capacitors in the HCA-2200 II circuit was unnecessary. Those comments and that amp are from the early 1990’s . I suspect things have progressed quite a bit in capacitor design since then ( ESR in particular) and I find that Denafrips has some excellent engineering.
      Thanks for taking time to comment… Ken

  6. I love my Athena but have a query.
    I know that the combined input impedances of a power amp and an active subwoofer can present a load that some high end tube pre-amps are not comfortable with and can degrade sound quality. This has been a common complaint with Audio Research Reference tube preamps and many others.
    Does this issue also apply to solid state preamps like the Denafrips Athena?
    If you ran SE from Athena to main amp and XLR from Athena to subwoofer (but the subwoofer wasn’t a true balanced design internally) doesn’t this mean that the main amp and subwoofer are effectively both running SE in parallel and presenting a combined load of say 18K that would bog down the Athena?

  7. I love my Athena but have a query about connecting subwoofer(s) to it. I know that the combined input impedances of a power amp and an active subwoofer can present a load that some high end tube pre-amps are not comfortable with and can degrade sound quality. This has been a common complaint with many high end tube preamps.

    Does this issue also apply to solid state preamps like the Denafrips Athena?

    If you run SE interconnects from Athena to main amp and XLR interconnects from Athena to subwoofer(s) that have XLR connectors but are not true balanced, doesn’t this mean that the main amp and subwoofer(s) are effectively both running SE in parallel and presenting a combined load of say 18K that might not let the Athena play at its best? Or is the buffering of the Athena’s outputs different to that of many tube pre-amps and not concerned by the load of main amp and subwoofer?

    If someone is able to shed some light on this it might save me from making an expensive mistake.

    Many Thanks,
    Darren.

    1. Hi Darren,
      That is a great question and an often overlooked issue with running two outputs on a preamp.
      I ran into this years ago when I noticed a decrease in sound quality in my main speakers when I would hook up a
      powered subwoofer to a second pair of preamp outputs. Not only can the combined load affect the sound but the total capacitance of the cables
      can also potentially impact the sound.
      The question boils down to “Does one preamp output electrically see the other output?”
      The most common way to isolate two outputs is to individually buffer each output.
      Since the answer is dependent on the circuit design, I will need to send an inquiry to Denafrips to see if their design isolates the outputs from one another and let you know what I hear back.
      Thanks for a great question and stay tuned …. Ken

      1. I heard back from Denafrips and the outputs are buffered but not individually buffered. So that means there could be some potential interaction between the SE and Balanced outputs although I would expect that interaction to be less than with a capacitor output coupled tube preamp.
        When I want to add a power subwoofer to a setup, I hook up the powered sub to the preamp output ( do not use the crossover built into the sub) and turn the subwoofer on with the sub volume all the way down. Then I listen to main speakers and see if it has impacted the sound of the system.
        If it does, you can use a subwoofer isolator like the MSB Sub Isolator which was designed by them to address this very issue….. Ken

        1. I use the Athena with active ATCs via XLRs. My REL sub only supports RCA, but works well without affecting the sound of my main speakers.

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