Musician Audio Aquarius


Headphoneus Supremus
R-2R DAC with exceptional clarity and detail plus a hint of warmth
Pros: Great detail retrieval, accuracy, timbre, and soundstage realism, combined with a bit of musicality and note thickness, nice build quality and appearance, plenty of inputs
Cons: lower than average output voltage (not a huge deal but worth noting particularly with DSD), pure DAC only with no extra features, LED indicators are very small and hard to read from across a room

I apologize in advance for all this, but it seems we can't talk about Musician Audio without also discussing its "sibling" brand Denafrips. So let's get it out of the way now: Musician Audio products are probably designed by the same team, and built in the same factory, as the well-known Denafrips equipment. Much (but not all) of the gear from each brand has a corresponding version from the other firm. Rather than rehash the topic, I'll point you to this fair and balanced summary by Srajan Ebaen, which lays out much of the behind-the-scenes info and gets details straight from the source - the head man Mr. Zhao over at Denafrips. He can't quite explain every single specific detail but I think it's pretty clear what the situation is.

Everyone is free to have their own opinions, but to my mind there are only a few things that matter. First, is any intellectual property being stolen? Despite the ambiguity of certain aspects with regards to sales/distribution, I'd say that IP theft is very clearly not happening. Second, will Musician Audio support their gear to the same standards that we've come to expect from Denafrips? That part I can't answer directly, but those of us in North America who purchase from authorized dealer Power Holdings can rely on Arthur's proven customer service should any issues arise. Lastly, is the gear actually any good? That's what I'm here to discuss.

To that end I've arranged to spend some time with the Musican Audio Aquarius DAC ($3199) as well as the Musician Andromeda headphone amplifier ($869) to see how they perform - as individuals, but also as a team. Perhaps it's an unlikely match considering the price spread between the components, but price doesn't always dictate performance, and Musician only has the one headphone amplifier at this point so I figured it was worth a shot. I'll create a separate review entry for the Andromeda, but I wrote this as sort of a combined evaluation so they will both have the same content.


Musician Audio initially launched their $1100 Pegasus DAC which lots of people seemed to enjoy. Now that they have more brand recognition, they've followed up with a fairly large spread of gear, including the more affordable Draco DAC and the flagship Aquarius DAC. There are also several digital to digital converters, a preamplifier, the Andromeda headphone amp, and even a set of nice looking monitor speakers.

Note that while some of these, based on price and size and capabilities, seem to have an obvious counterpart from the Denafrips stable, others are not so easily classified. The digital to digital converters are very similarly positioned across both brands. In the DAC lineup, I think it's safe to say the Musician Draco competes with the Denafrips Ares. And the Musician Monoceros preamp seems nearly identical to the Denafrips Hestia.

Then again I can't really say where the Musician Pegasus falls. Denafrips doesn't have anything quite like it. Same thing with the headphone amplifiers, where the only model Denafrips makes sells for nearly three times the price of the sole Musician Audio offering. As far as the Aquarius DAC goes, while it is priced roughly equal to the Denafrips Venus, it appears to be quite different from an internal perspective.

Build quality on the Musician gear is very impressive. Again, if you've encountered a Denafrips product, the experience is very similar with two notable exceptions. First, the Musician gear uses faceplates with some interesting angles to them, which is a subjective thing but I happen to really like. Second, the Musician stuff is a bit lighter in weight compared to the hefty Denafrips models. This reflects their internal design philosophies which go in somewhat different directions despite their many similarities. We do still get satisfying weight, surpassing many similarly-sized alternatives from other brands, but it just isn't quite as extreme.


Denafrips is all about massive power supplies - most of their DACs sport a pair of huge transformers and row after row after row of stiffening caps. I recently covered their Pontus II DAC which had over 150 of them in total. In contrast, the Musician Audio Aquarius (and all Musician gear as far as I can tell) tones things down to more sensible levels, more in line with what one might find in any number of other quality DACs on the market. There's still a large O-type transformer flanked by substantial capacitance but it isn't as overbuilt as the Denafrips gear. That likely accounts for the weight difference between them as well.

Aside from that, we see many similarities. That'd be the R-2R + DSD architecture, composed of hand-selected .005% resistors, marshalled by custom FPGA processing, with a bespoke USB solution rather than off-the-shelf chips. The spec sheets read mostly identical but the interior view for each brand shows the different approaches, and that does play out when we listen.



How about that Andromeda headphone amp though? So much attention is given to the digital products from Musician that it's easy to overlook this model. The amp appears sized to match the Draco or Pegasus DACs which probably make more sensible partners than the big Aquarius, but nobody ever accused me of being sensible.

Andromeda is a fully balanced discrete class A design with 3.8w on tap into 32 ohm loads. Connectivity is about as simple as it gets - just a single pair of XLR inputs, and a pair of XLR outputs which allow the device to double as a basic preamp. Up front it's a 4-pin balanced jack plus a 1/4" output which to my mind is not really the ideal choice - remember this is a fully balanced design so single-ended use will be a compromise. The simplistic theme continues when you realize there is no gain adjustment and no need for a button/switch for input selection. That leaves us with just a power button and a volume knob. It doesn't get much more singularly focused than this.

Internally we get a universal-voltage linear power supply which appears to be similar to that in the Pegasus DAC. That means a big O-type transformer with substantial (but not overly so!) filtering. I see some MOSFETs sprinkled throughout but those are likely part of the power supply - Musician uses a big heatsink to cover the output transistors so I don't have further details on that part of the design.


I actually received the Aquarius DAC first, so I got that set up with my Niimbus US4+ amplifier and later swapped in the Violectric V590 (obviously ignoring the internal DAC of that device, at which point I've basically got a V550). Music came via Roon though a Euphony Summus music server over USB or coax or I2S. All power and analog cables were from Audio Art, and the whole thing got balanced power from an Equi=Core 1800 conditioner. I primarily listened using XLR outputs, using the "slow" digital filter, and chose OS mode as the NOS option seemed a bit dull and disorganized to my ears.


Listening to the Aquarius/Niimbus combo with a Meze Elite produced bold tone colors, big dynamic slam, and a sweet, welcoming midrange that sounded excellent with everything I threw at it. From the intense chug of early Mastodon, to the piercing trumpet of Tiger Okoshi, to the expressively atmospheric vocals of Agnes Obel, this setup really delivered. It reminded me very much of the Wyred4Sound 10th Anniversary DAC, a significantly more expensive device that has always been among my favorites when it comes to enticing tonality with a hint of warmth that doesn't go overboard.


I swapped out the Elite for an Audeze LCD-5 and was able to hear even further into the mix, with superb delineation between instruments on the Jimi Hendrix classic All Along the Watchtower. The LCD-5 has exceptional capabilities when it comes to upper midrange and treble articulation, and that "snap" was on full display when listening to Impeach the President by The Honey Drippers. No wonder that track intro has been sampled a million times! Timbre and tone of string instruments was spot on, allowing me to enjoy everything from Crooked Still to Break of Reality to Yo-Yo Ma. This result would be impressive for any DAC but is particularly noteworthy in an R-2R design, where technicalities can sometimes take a back seat in favor of note weight and liquidity.

I then switched out the Niimbus amp in favor of the Pass Labs HPA-1, and heard a subtle shift in tone when listening via Audeze's LCD-5 as well as their LCD-24 Limited. The Pass amp has an excellent "Class A" presentation, with plenty of drive and gusto, but is also a bit less tonally rich through the midrange region - only obvious upon direct comparison to the much more expensive Niimbus amp. It's a subtle difference, and many otherwise excellent DACs I've had in my system were not able to really flesh it out. In other words, many DACs make the Niimbus and Pass Labs amps seem virtually identical, which they are not. So when the Aquarius makes that crystal clear, that earns it high marks for honesty.

One interesting aspect of the Aquarius is that the output levels are a bit lower than average. Musician lists the output voltage as 3.6Vrms via XLR and 1.8Vrms via RCA. The typical numbers are 4V/2V for many DACs, so we're talking about a roughly 11% difference - not drastic or perhaps even immediately obvious, but something to be aware of if the music initially feels a bit "soft". That applies to standard PCM material, but remember that when playing DSD, the Aquarius has its own separate signal path. That gives us 2.6V from XLR and 1.3V via RCA - quite a bit lower than you'll find from many other devices - the PS Audio DirectStream is the only recent DAC I can think of with similarly low output levels. During head-to-head comparisons, one has to take this into account, or else the louder DAC will have an unfair advantage.

Now, part of this has to do with DSD being inherently "quieter" than PCM, for various technical reasons. Many DACs automatically apply 6dB of gain to DSD in an attempt to level things out. Roon also gives the option of applying variable gain when converting DSD to PCM for exactly this reason. So this is not a novel thing. But since the Aquarius already has a somewhat lower than average output voltage, having DSD even lower seems much more noticeable than it does with most other DACs. Again, it's not a "problem" per se, just something to be aware of to make adjustments accordingly. In my case that meant changing the pre-gain settings on the Niimbus US4+. In other cases it might just mean cranking the volume knob beyond the range you typically use.


After more gear swapping, with various amplifiers (both tube and solid-state) as well as headphones from Focal, AKG, Sennheiser, 64 Audio, etc, I came to some conclusions about the Musician Aquarius. First, it's got a very neutral and natural tuning, which doesn't feel as obviously euphonically colored as many of the ladder-based DACs I've used over the years. It's not dark or smoothed in the treble, though it does have just a hint of extra warmth if one listens carefully for it. Compared to the Pontus II which I had in for review a few months back, the Aquarius has by far the more accurate, refined, uncolored presentation. It might not initially be as fun or engaging, but over the long haul it's the more rewarding sound as far as I'm concerned. It's also far more universal in terms of what other gear/music it plays nicely with.

At the same time, the Aquarius does have something special about it, in which it deviates from the standard (potentially boring?) reference sound. Is it the low end authority and subtle bass bloom? Is it the natural, organic midrange? Maybe the sweet treble that balances air and subtlety while remaining smooth and free of glare? I don't think these things are necessarily inherent R-2R traits any more than they are Delta-Sigma or FPGA, as you'll find good and bad examples of all types... but in this case the Aquarius does exhibit some of the stereotypical ladder-DAC behavior. Not necessarily in terms of frequency response but rather the general "feel" of the presentation.

Compared to the Denafrips Pontus II, the Aquarius is more open, with a wider soundstage and more precise imaging and superior layering. It's also more focused and intense, where the Pontus II portrays transients a bit softer. The Denafrips device is warmer and certainly more smooth on the top end, which can be welcome or not depending on the circumstances. Despite how much I enjoyed my time with the Pontus II, I definitely think the Aquarius is a higher tier DAC - as it should be selling for almost double. The real competition would be the Denafrips Venus II which unfortunately I have not experienced.

If forced to choose a popular DAC for reference, I'd say the Aquarius reminds me of the Sonnet Morpheus. Both are very snappy, fast paced but full-bodied, and give a vast holographic feel to the music. Contrast that with the Denafrips house sound which to me seems reminiscent of the Metrum Acoustics presentation - also from designer Cees Ruijtenberg. Unlike his newer Sonnet-branded devices, Metrum's focus is generally more on warmth, smooth/inoffensive treble, and an almost analog sense of liquidity to the affair. It's interesting how the same designer can make two different product lines and give each a unique perspective, as that also seems to be what happened with Denafrips/Musician Audio.

Like the Denafrips models, the Aquarius also sounds best via XLR outputs. It also sounds best, to my ears at least, with OS mode engaged. I don't know if Musician has the same faux-NOS mode as Denafrips - the user manual has a section tauting their "Self-developed and designed digital filters, working in 16 X Over Sampling mode, each level of filter has a 32-bit input resolution, which can greatly increase dynamic contrast, analysis, and more natural and delicate timbre, etc." Yet there is nothing explicitly stating whether NOS mode is truly non-oversampling, or if, like Denafrips, it employs linear interpolation for all PCM material under 768kHz. As I said earlier I find the NOS mode to sound comparatively muffled and dull, so I just stick with OS mode regardless.

I feel the Aquarius does respond quite well to upsampling, either to DSD or very high sample rate PCM. That's the way I prefer to run it (via I2S input, although USB is also excellent) if at all possible. That said, the distinction between that and just running a native signal does not seem as pronounced as it did with the Pontus II. I would happily run the Aquarius with native material straight from a CD transport, where I might not bother with the Pontus II - not that it would sound terrible, but I'd certainly know what I was missing. Aquarius seems more capable of dealing with relatively pedestrian transports and it doesn't suffer so much when using coaxial or optical inputs (though I do still prefer AES if we aren't doing upsampling over I2S/USB). Combined with the more universally appealing and even-handed presentation, this makes the Musician Aquarius an easy DAC to fit into any system and enjoy. Keep in mind this is a DAC and only a DAC - no volume control, no integrated streaming, no headphone amplifier, just a plain D/A converter doing a superlative job at its one and only task.


As for the Andromeda headphone amplifier, it is much easier to evaluate. Build quality is crazy good - it could easily be mistaken as costing several times the actual asking price. It's just a very focused/simple device with a wonderfully transparent sound. It's highly honest to the source, so no sugar coating and no euphonic coloration whatsoever. It's powerful enough to drive most headphones without issue, and has an impeccably clean background. To test this, simply plug in a headphone and crank the volume full blast with no music playing. You'll wonder if you forgot to even turn on the power - that's how silent it is. This translates to impressive dynamic swing and stunning contrast during musical passages.

The lack of gain adjustment was never an issue for me. I used all sorts of headphones from dynamic to planar models, low impedance to high, sensitive and more difficult loads, with no issues. I admit that I don't currently have a Susvara or HE6 here to try, but I suspect those would be some of the few out-of-bounds headphones one might find on the market. Aside from that pretty much everything else should be fair game as far as power goes.

That includes sensitive in-ear monitors, with the caveat that you'll definitely want to use the balanced output. Using the 1/4" jack sometimes gave me a mild "buzz" sound that was just loud enough to be troublesome. This could have been a byproduct of some sort of interference or perhaps a ground loop, but my system is normally dead-quiet so I'm not sure that's the case. Note that this only appeared with some of my more sensitive IEMs - others didn't pick up on this sound at all, and none of my big headphones did either. Still, using the balanced output eliminated this completely, and I still found I had a decent amount of play in the volume knob before things got too loud for comfort. Using the XLR out, the Andromeda paired harmoniously with the 64 Audio A18t, Empire Ears Zeus XRA, AME Customs Radioso, and even my old JH Audio JH13 that I haven't used in ages. The Andromeda's clarity and ability to resolve fine detail really is impressive.


I do wish I still had my old Auralic Taurus mkII since the Andromeda very much reminds me of that lovable device. The Taurus sold for $1900 almost ten years ago and was considered an excellent performer at that price, being chosen by both myself and my then-boss Tyll Hertsens as a reference headphone amplifier. So to hear the Andromeda perform so similarly, at a drastically lower price, is very welcome.

That said, Andromeda isn't always a great pairing in every system. I loved it with the Aquarius as that DAC has just a touch of warmth and a great sense of ease to the presentation. I also very much enjoyed it with the Wyred4Sound 10th Anniversary DAC and the Yulong DA1. And while I didn't get to try it, I suspect the Denafrips Pontus II would also be an appealing partner.


On the other hand, the Benchmark DAC3 B would likely not be an ideal match - a bit too caffeinated, too much energy in the upper mids and treble region. Same with the Matrix Element i and perhaps the various Mytek DACs too - depending on the headphone being driven. The theme here is that I prefer pairing Andromeda with DACs that are at least slightly warmish, since brighter/more articulate DACs (even very good ones) can be too much of a good thing.

Again, the Andromeda is a brutally honest amplifier that pulls no punches in revealing the true nature of a headphone. It's not one to "take the edge off" and certainly not one to add fullness, body, or tonal richness to an otherwise thin headphone. To put it another way - if you love a particular headphone, Andromeda will do a great job bringing out its character. But if you don't like a headphone, or are somewhat on the fence about it, Andromeda will not "fix" it for you. You've been warned.


In the end, I'm rather impressed with what Musician Audio has to offer. The Aquarius is a loveable yet very sophisticated and mature take on the classic R-2R presentation. It's extremely technically capable without veering too far off into analytical territory, and I think a lot of people would be really pleased to have it in their system. It's certainly one of the most capable DACs I've experienced in the ~$3k price range.

Meanwhile the Andromeda is an incredible headphone amplifier for the asking price of well under $1k. It may not be the most full-featured amp out there but it more than makes up for that with its surgical sonic precision. I love the amount of resolution it draws out of the music without being shouty or harsh, and although it isn't necessarily a warm, thick amplifier, it certainly can produce massive bass slam when the recording calls for it. Factor in the extreme build quality - it really does present like a more expensive piece - and the Andromeda starts to seem like a real bargain.

Maybe someday Musician will launch a bigger, more costly headphone amplifier, with more bells and whistles to better match their other top-range gear. But after spending time with the Andromeda, I'm not sure that's necessary at this point. Andromeda performs at such a high level that it really doesn't seem out of place with the $3199 Aquarius - and I can't think of another sub-$1k amp which can make that same claim.


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In theory at least, the benefit of a local dealer or distributor is to act as the middle man between you and the company, working out any issues or replacing defective stuff out of their own stock. So in that sense if you order a Musician Audio product from Power Holdings it should be a safe bet. One would assume that a single upset customer can be ignored to some degree, and a reviewer may even be ignored depending on their level of influence, but a dealer/distributor (who is a business partner of sorts) is really tough to ignore. That has bigger financial implications.

But who knows... in my mind these companies should all be bending over backwards to earn stellar reputations in the first place. That's like the most basic thing they can do, separate from any of their actual design skill or marketing etc. Even if you have run of the mill gear that isn't particularly noteworthy, a reputation for excellent customer support can help distinguish you from the rest. But what do I know.
Thanks for another detailed and very readable review. IMO this is a model of good writing, perceptive listening, and background knowledge of the companies and components that preceded these review components.

"brutally honest" -- that's an amusing phrase. I find your reviews honest to a fault, yet notably lacking in brutality or edge...just straight ahead observations & explanations.
Awesome review John. Detailed, honest, and full of incredible comparisons that really takes you to the heart of each products purpose. Bravo!