Prism Sound Callia DAC Preamplifier

Prism Sound Callia DAC Preamplifier

Prism Sound is well known in the pro audio space where their analog to digital converters (ADCs) are used in many of the best recording studios worldwide. The Prism Orpheus ADC/DAC was reviewed here in 2009. The Prism Callia USB DAC Preamplifier is a new product aimed primarily at the home or non-professional market. The D/A conversion is essentially the same as the Orpheus so the sound quality should be similar.

The $2,595 Callia is a two channel DAC with digital preamplifier. If all of your sources are digital, the Callia can replace a conventional preamplifier and drive your power amplifier directly. The unit can handle sampling rates from 44.1 kHz to 384 kHz and DSD64 or DSD128, although rates above 192 kHz are down converted by 2x, which would seem to negate any extra value from recordings made with sampling rates above 192 kHz. From the Prism Web site:

“CALLIA uses the same "CleverClox" hybrid digital phase-locked loop (DPLL) circuitry as Prism Sound professional products. Prism Sound digital audio products re-generate ultra-stable clocks for best quality conversion.”

Various LEDs indicate the selected digital input and other LED combinations show the sample rate. Also included is a 1/4 inch headphone output with separate volume control, and a large knob to control system volume when the DAC is used as a preamplifier.

The review system includes a custom Windows 7 music computer running JRiver Media Center 22; Cary DAC-200ts, Auralic Vega and Mytek Brooklyn DACs, the latter with external power supply; Lynx Hilo AD/DA converter with external power supply; VPI Aries 3 turntable with a Kuzma 4-Point tonearm; ZYX UNIverse Premium, Miyajima Madake, Clearaudio Titanium V2, Lyra Atlas and ZYX UNIverse II moving coil cartridges; Pass Labs XP-25 phono preamplifier; Mark Levinson No. 52 and Bent Audio Tap-X preamplifiers; Rogue Audio Stereo 100, Pass Labs XA30.8, McIntosh MC152, and Dennis Had’s Inspire Fire Bottle SE power amplifiers; and Emerald Physics 4.7, Fritzspeakers Carrera, Magnepan 3.7, and Focal Chorus 714 loudspeakers. The cabling is Audioquest WEL Signature, Nordost Valhalla 2, the very new Audience SX, and Mogami interconnects and speaker cables. Three USB cables were used: Wyred4Sound USB PCOCC Premium, Lavricables "dual head" cable, and the USB cable that is included with the Callia. Power protection and purification are provided by a PS Audio Dectet for the preamplifiers and source components, and a PS Audio Quintet for the power amplifiers. The latter provides remote turn-on and -off of power amplifiers that lack a 12V remote trigger.

The review unit was brand new, having only a short test period at the factory. The sound out of the box was nearly unpleasant. Don’t listen to a new Callia. Put a CD on “repeat” and walk away. The sound after 24 hours was much improved, and the Callia received a total of 200 hours of break-in time before any listening notes were recorded. After that amount of use, the sound was about what might be expected from much less ambitious DAC.

The upper frequencies are clear and extended, but with little harmonic depth. They sound cool and crisp, much like the Auralic Vega, although not as pure and free from artifacts. Cymbals sound thin and overly metallic, without much of the tonal character that makes it possible to hear these disks of ringing copper alloys as musical instruments instead of undifferentiated struck metal.

The Callia is very dynamic. Both small scale micro and large scale macro dynamics are presented with terrific speed and power. The dynamic performance of the Callia is its main strength.

The sound stage has good depth, but the performers are quite blended together and it is rarely possible to identify the locations of individual musicians on that stage. This is probably a phase issue. The image specificity from my own 24 bit 192 kHz LP recordings was often acceptable, but this was rarely the case with commercial 16 bit 44.1 kHz CD “rips”. The latter are usually upsampled by JRiver Media Center to 24 bit 176.4 kHz (4x), but also testing by playing back these files at 16/44.1 made little difference to the quality of the sound stage image.

Switching to the $1,995 Mytek Brooklyn, another DAC preamplifier with additional features including an analog input, two headphone outputs, and a MC/MM phono stage, instantly delivered an easily noticeable upgrade in sound quality. Adding an external power supply to the Brooklyn takes its performance to another level entirely. The Brooklyn’s sound stage is then much more precise, there is more resolution and “air” in the treble range with more body and depth in each note. The Mytek presents a more believable sound and is more delicate and refined. Using an external power supply with the Lynx Hilo improves the Hilo's sound quality across the board. Connecting an external power supply to the Callia is not an option.

The Callia is more detailed with greater leading edge to impactful sounds than the Lynx Hilo. The $2,499 Hilo is a 4 year old design that has a maximum resolution of 24 bit 192 kHz. The richness and harmonic depth that is somewhat lacking with the Callia is more present with the Lynx. The $3,995 Cary DAC-200ts is far more natural and analog sounding, providing greater warmth and harmonic depth than the Callia and is almost as believable as the Brooklyn with external power supply.

We seem to be at a turning point in digital technology. We can easily process, source to speakers, at 32-bit resolutions. The small additional storage requirements for these larger 32-bit depth files is worth it! Add in sampling rates of 192 kHz or higher and digital can meet or exceed the quality of LP analog sound in all relevant parameters. But long auditions of a good number of recent DACs indicate that although the technology is there, there ain't no soul! Mostly. As we see repeatedly with tech innovation, it usually takes a later version or two for the new tech to deliver on its promise. We'll all stay tuned for that good future!

This review is about half as long as most reviews here on 10 Audio. Other reviewers have reported better results than are presented here. The unit was returned to the US representative with the understanding that it would be evaluated for possible sub-par performance. Therefore, a follow up to this review is possible, pending another audition.

At this point in time, this audition suggests bypassing the Callia in favor of the better sounding, less expensive, and more feature rich Brooklyn.

Overall Rating: 7 LPs

Link to Prism Sound