Fellow former herb enthusiast, Paul McGowan, and his merry band of audio wizards at PS Audio have released a new integrated amplifier. No, not a new Sprout; their overachieving, entry-level integrated amplifier that only requires a pair of speakers. This time it is a more refined product, the PS Audio Stellar Strata. An integrated amplifier which is still overachieving, and ripe with features. You still only need to provide a pair of loudspeakers but there is nothing entry-level about its sound quality.
The Stellar Strata is slim and elegant. Like all the PS Audio products I’ve spent time with, it is functional in its appearance – which is how I like it. Slim it may be, but this is one heavy and solidly built component.
It is also very powerful. The PS Audio Stellar Strata outputs 200 watts/channel (4 ohms), or 100 watts/channel (8 ohms) and is stable into 2 ohms. In short, in can drive most loudspeakers with ease. The power amplifier uses an ICEpower Class D module in the output stage.
A Class A balanced analog preamplifier controls volume. This volume control, the “Gain Cell,” was developed by McGowan and according to PS Audio, it is superior to most other such implementations. The Strata is fully balanced throughout.
The DAC inside the Strata receives all incoming digital signals in native mode into its Digital Lens, then reclocks the signal, thus reducing jitter. The DAC can decode PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD128. The Stellar Strata connects to the new PS Audio PerfectWave SACD transport via the I2S input.
The new kid on the block here is the streaming board. It supports UPnP, Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify Connect.
Support for Roon is unfortunately not available right now.
Digital inputs are aplenty; USB (384kHz, DSD128), I2S (384kHz, DSD128), TOSLINK (96kHz), and coaxial (192kHz). There are three RCA stereo inputs and one balanced XLR. Lastly, there’s an RCA output to connect to another power amplifier or powered subwoofer.
Headphone listeners will notice that there is a single ¼’ headphone jack on the front panel and I was pleased to see that McGowan has designed a Class A headphone amplifier for the Stellar Strata that is no afterthought.
Currently, my loudspeakers in our living room are a pair of Larsen 8.2 ($9,400) from Larsen HiFi. They’re ortho-acoustic speakers that project sound into our living room in a delightfully peculiar way. I have enjoyed them with several relatively modest setups: The Croft Acoustics Micro 25 and the Series 7 were the most transparent; the Exposure 2510 the most neutral; and the Schiit Vidar and Hugo2go the most fun.
But it wasn’t until I plugged in the PS Audio Stellar Strata that I found the one I liked the most. The Larsen 8.2 were given an immediate dose of sumptuous wetness, liquidity, and full-fat milk. With no hit to either resolution or drive, and absolutely no muddy water in the midrange. The Stellar Strata made the Larsen 8.2 sound fuller, fatter, more transparent, and more engaging than through either of the other amps at my disposal.
Besting my Croft Acoustics set-up was no small feat. The PS Audio Stellar Strata is more expensive but not significantly so.
It is difficult to make the Larsen 8.2 sound bad. But it can also be difficult to make them come truly alive. Before the Stellar Strata joined the party, I struggled with getting them to sound just right. The bass could sound dry, then the treble would annoy me, then the bass would be too fat and slow, and then there would be issues with vocals. I’m being very picky here, but these things matter. Music reproduction encompasses so many different variables and it’s not enough to do only a few things really well.
The Strata solved all of that. Deep bass that extended down in the 20Hz range. A very smooth treble that was perfectly balanced between detail, energy, and friendliness. The midrange took on an open, full, and, somehow, lush character. With the Strata, the Larsen 8.2 now sound bigger than before, more open, more transparent, more dynamic, and certainly fuller.
The Strata did all that in one take. That is the sign of a superb amplifier.
We need to talk about the DAC and internal streamer. With most music I preferred the onboard DAC to my Chord Hugo 2. That’s saying something.
The Hugo 2 with the 2Go streaming module is highly detailed and a terrific and super convenient battery powered Roon Endpoint. Points to Chord for offering Roon compatibility.
But it can also sound a bit thin compared to the DAC inside the PS Audio Stellar Strata. And it wasn’t one of those hair-splitting subtle differences. Floating Points’ Crush sounded more organically full; Björk’s Post also sounded better — less hard, more fluid. Her voice was smoother and more liquid. Also, the Hugo2go can be ruthless to crappy recordings; the Stellar Strata make them more palatable.
However, on something like Selected Ambient Dub Works 06-09 by Blamstrain the difference between the two DACs become less obvious, and I actually seem to prefer the Hugo2go. The Stellar DAC is a smidgen more unfocused making the pulsing, breathing bass too wobbly. But these are small differences. Listening to ambient dub or other throbbing, hazy music, would I be able to consistently tell the two DACs apart if I didn’t know which one was playing? Doubtful.
My only gripe with the Strata is its streaming capabilities. This integrated amplifier is supposed to be a one-box solution. But the PS Connect app is not up to the task. It is not an app I would consider using daily. PS Audio have said that their streaming board doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle Roon.
In my opinion that is a mistake – especially if the app you offer is hobbled. I tried the Strata with the app, and it was not ideal. Most of my listening was done with the Node 2i from Bluesound acting as streamer and Roon Endpoint. I’ll put it like this: if the Strata did Roon I would buy it instantly.
I move the PS Audio Stellar Strata into my smaller listening den. I connect the F-302 from Fyne Audio. A spectacular pair of budget speakers (review here). A go-to track of mine, Stretch Your Eyes by Agnes Obel, has a smooth presence. Obel’s voice is silky and thrust into the room. The instrumentation takes on a reverberant quality that I don’t usually get through these speakers.
A switch to my Omega speakers shed further light on the Strata. It keeps its rich sounding character; and still avoids any treble shenanigans. But when I compare it to my separates setup – a 300B power amp from Audio Classic and the MZ2 from Linear Tube Audio – it does not sound quite as open.
There’s less space within the recording. To add, the Strata lacks the über-saturated tone of my 300B setup. The Strata counters this with more effortless dynamic swings and much tighter and deeper bass. Anyway, it’s not a fair fight. My 300B setup is assembled specifically with my Omega in mind. Further, Omega speakers are built and tested to work with tubes.
The PS Audio Stellar Strata is a one-box solution that made every other speaker I have sound as good as I’ve heard. It offers almost effortless dynamics and a rich tonal balance that worked with almost every recording that I placed in its path.
The streamer section falls down because the app does not deliver a commensurate experience in comparison to the rest of the product. Having to use the $549 Bluesound Node 2i to have access to Roon, MQA, and a better interface was disappointing.
The Stellar Strata delivers an exceptional musical performance even with my misgivings about the app. If you are in the market for a one-box solution between $2,500 and $3,500 – it belongs near the top of your audition list.
For more information: PS Audio Stellar Strata (psaudio.com)