Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Fifteen years ago I was introduced to digital music streaming when I bought the Logitech Transport (I still have it!)—a brute of a box that played Internet radio stations and CD-quality music files stored on my computer. When higher resolution PCM and DSD sources began proliferating, I moved on to streamers capable of playing such files and added subscription services like TIDAL. I thought my streaming odyssey had finally peaked when PS Audio introduced its Bridge II network card that was Roon Ready, could unfold the growing number of MQA files and handle resolutions up to PCM 192kHz and DSD64. Earlier this year PS Audio replaced its DirectStream DAC with a MK2 version that had more advanced digital signal processing, noise-reducing galvanic isolation, and clearly better sound than its predecessor. The MK2 DAC lacked the rear panel slot for the Bridge II card but PS Audio’s website announced that a new streaming device, the PS Audio AirLens, was in production and would soon be available. Well, soon turned out to be several months but, spoiler alert, it would be well worth the wait.
Good Things Can Come in Small Packages
Having been the “lucky” reviewer of numerous audio components requiring at least two people to hoist them out of their cartons before mounting them on my equipment racks, the AirLens was a most pleasant surprise, tipping the beams at a mere 4.8 pounds. The front panel only sports the blue PS Audio logo when the unit is powered on and will pulse while playing MQA files or upgrading firmware. From left to right, the rear panel has a WPS button/LED, a status LED, a USB port for firmware updates from a thumb drive, an Ethernet jack, coaxial and I2S audio outputs, an AC inlet and power switch. On the bottom of the AirLens are 6 DIP switches for adjusting maximum PCM and DSD rates, DSD modes, volume control, and 1 more DIP switch for uploading firmware and streamer module upgrades.
Current codes for the AirLens firmware and streamer module firmware can be determined by pressing the WPS button and counting the number of rapid green blinks on its LED for the major version and slow orange for the minor version, followed by slow red blinks for the streamer firmware. DIP switch 7 is up for upgrading firmware and down for streamer upgrades before the WPS button is depressed for 15 seconds. Once done, if a new firmware version is available, the status light will blink orange, then green while verifying the version. As updating occurs, the status light will rapidly blink green, then red as the unit resets itself, followed by a power on light sequence from the WPS LED. The appendix of the owner’s manual has a detailed guide to all of the LED lighting sequences for other functions such as Wi-Fi or Ethernet connections. Like the PerfectWave SACD Transport and DirectStream DAC MK2, the AirLens uses galvanic isolation from input to output to eliminate Ethernet and Wi-Fi sources of noise. Other specifications are listed below and include Roon Ready and access to popular music subscription sources like Spotify, TIDAL and Qobuz.
Beam Me Up!
There is a quick-start leaflet in the carton, but I would recommend downloading the full owner’s manual from the PS Audio website before getting started. Owners of a PS Audio DirectStream DAC MK 1 or MK 2 should turn the first 6 switches up which is what I did. I checked for firmware versions and found that there were no new upgrades yet available. PS Audio recommends using an I2S output for highest resolution performance (up to DSD256 and PCM of 384kHz/32-bit) which is how I hooked up the AirLens to my DirectStream DAC MK2 during this review using a Nordost Valhalla V2 HDMI cable that costs $1000 more than the streamer! The DAC MK2 was connected to my reference system: a Pass Labs XS Preamplifier, two XS 150 monobloc amplifiers, and pairs of MartinLogan CLX speakers and Balanced Force 212 subwoofers. The Roon software on my Nucleus+ immediately recognized the AirLens and things were off to a flying start.
After a 50 hour break-in period, serious listening sessions began with Rickie Lee Jones and Joe Jackson duetting over an outrageously potent acoustic bass on “Showbiz Kids” (It’s Like This, FLAC 44.1kHz/24-bit) in a deep soundstage, while Bashiri Johnson’s triangle did not miss a beat. There was a naturalness to the voices that would be a hallmark of most of the vocal recordings that the AirLens dredged up.
Shifting genre gears, the 1992 reunion recording by the Fairfield Four (Standing in the Safety Zone, FLAC 44.1kHz/16-bit) led by W.L. Richardson. The articulation of each voice was remarkable during their a capella version of the cover gospel song.
Moving up the resolution ladder, a BlueCoast DSD256 recording of Australian pianist Fiona Joy Hawkins and violinist Rebecca Daniel treated my ears to the title track of their recent album Heavenly Voices. Both instruments and Fiona Joy’s vocalise were reproduced with a warmth and a sense of space that put everything right into my sound room.
Just as remarkable was an MQA 96kHz/24-bit download of Peter Gabriel’s best album So. During Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush in “Don’t Give Up.” The power of the expansive synthesizer, persistent percussion, bluesy piano and the details of this complex score were clearly heard from side to side and front to back.
After hours of listening, my sessions finished with a DSD64 download of the remastered Dark Side of the Moon. Having heard this Pink Floyd recording in many audio formats, the AirLens raised its three-dimensionality, bringing the remarkable interplay between vocals and special sound effects to an entirely new level.
Bridge II vs AirLens
For this part of review, I brought my DirectStream DAC MK1 into my main system and hooked up the AirLens to one of its I2S inputs. Listening to the same tracks as above, it was a simple matter of switching back and forth in Roon between the Bridge II and the AirLens. While the DAC MK1 was not as airy or detailed as the DAC MK2, it was still easy to tell the two streamers apart. The Bridge II had been in my system for nearly 5 years and had been my main source of streamed music. The AirLens costs twice as much as the Bridge II but delivered clearly superior sound on every track in terms of soundstage projection, recovery of details, and naturalness of vocals. I have no doubt that the role played by galvanic isolation and the AirLens’s physical removal from the DAC’s innards had much to do with these sonic results.
The Final Assessment
The galaxy of digital streamers has become quite crowded as the cost of topflight technology no longer necessitates stratospheric prices. It is clear by design that the AirLens was intended to mate with PS Audio DACs like the DirectStream MKs 1 and 2, the Stellar Gold (when it is released) and the Stellar Gain Cell, all of which have I2S inputs, as do a growing number of other DACs. My only quibbles with this otherwise superb component is its lack of a screen to show firmware version status and the somewhat involved approach for downloading new firmware versions. Neither was a showstopper for me and it should not be for you either when performance this good arrives at an affordable price. Highly recommended.
- Flawless operation
- Excellent build quality
- Superb sound
- Excellent owner’s manual
- Firmware upgradability in the field
- Firmware upgrade process somewhat involved
- Brand: PS Audio
- Website: www.psaudio.com
- MSRP: $1999.00