The Gold Note DS-10 is nothing if not an elegant solution to cramming four boxes (by my count) into one (half-sized) chassis without surrendering much in the way of performance cues. Cues that wouldn’t be missed (IMO) unless revealed in a head-to-head comparison with separates.
The combined headphone amplifier/preamplifier/DAC/Streamer is a hybrid design and can be susceptible to sonic shortcomings due to the nature of integration. Purists will rail against such mongrels, citing the clarity and purity of tone, timbral shadings and detail retrieval nascent upon the path of separates: separate head-amp, preamp, DAC, streamer, power supplies, etc. And while they speak truth – the higher one climbs to attain audiophile ascension, the more boxes one tends to beget – at what point does the law of diminishing returns come into play?
The sum of these parts can be daunting. While I’m not one to deny the audible benefits of separates, headamp/DAC/Streamers like the DS-10 reveal that there is less light falling between integrated options in the $3k range and higher-priced separates than previously thought.
A diminutive, but weighty alloy chassis with an eye-pleasing ratio of width, height and depth, the DS-10 is the perfect visual accessory to its larger stablemate, also in for review, the Gold Note IS-1000 integrated amplifier/DAC/Streamer. Fit and finish of the DS-10 is exemplary, with a hand built and substantial heft to the grilled casework. The fascia is well thought out and uncluttered with a small power-on light, a quarter-inch headphone-output socket (which auto-engages when in use), a volume knob, and an LED screen easy enough to read from several feet away that can also be dimmed or turned off. The plethora of digital I/O on the rear of the unit is neatly grouped and labeled. The large and comfortable-to-hold plastic remote control continues the gestalt.
Setting the DS-10 up in my system was about as easy as adding digital audio gets. I plugged in the supplied AC mains cord and ethernet cable to their respective sockets and quickly configured it for playback via Roon through a Nucleus+, with both on a local switch. Digging into the onboard hardware options was fairly intuitive and required minimal browsing of the supplied manual (push/rotating the ALPS volume pot navigates the menu system, as does the remote). Initial listening was done without implementing any of the many dozens of grouped filter/equalization options the DS-10 is equipped with, which include low-pass filters, high frequency de-emphasis and variable output voltage. To facilitate handling the differing impedance and dB requirements of headphones, users can specify either low (five-watt output) or high-sensitivity. Since the HIFIMAN HE1000SE (30 ohm/96dB) and Audeze LCD-4z (15 ohm/98dB) used for this review are both low impedance designs, yet have relatively high sensitivity, I tried both options and settled on the high-sensitivity option for the HIFIMAN, and the low for the Audeze. YMMV.
I kept the DS-10 up and running pretty much 24/7 the first few weeks after Rutherford Audio shipped it to me, and threw on headphones most nights for an hour-or-so of listening before crashing out. I then plugged it into a Shindo Mr. T power conditioner that I use for digital sources only. This dropped the noise floor considerably, improved pitch stability and allowed the DS-10 to breathe easier for lack of a better descriptor. A week later I swapped the stock, no-name AC mains cord for an Audio Note ISIS and was impressed at how much more impact it afforded the output of the DS-10. Overall tenor of presentation further relaxed, treble extension opened up and smoothed out while bass and midrange tightened with a noticeable uptick in ultimate resolution of playback.
The DS-10 sound does not espouse technical merit, it is about listening to music and enjoying it."
I auditioned ethernet cables at several price points, but the Final Touch Audio Matis, while certainly not an modestly priced option, allowed more low-level signal detail, rhythmic drive and timbral bloom through than anything else I had. In the time since I had the DS-10 in for review, Gold Note has come out with the PSU-10 EVO dedicated power supply that features “dual-choke technology,” and a “Multi cascade design with 4 transformers.” The company claims “Our proprietary technology removes impurity and interference from the AC power system.” Online pricing for the PSU-10 is $1,299 USD. I found the DS-10 provided an exceptionally black background with the setup I was using, but for power purists who want to double their box count that option is available.
Once I had a good handle on what the DS-10 was bringing to the table without any filter options (straight, as it were), I started to experiment with the filter/EQ/output options. I didn’t go nuts, I just methodically adjusted each setting in grouped increments and ended up utilising equalisation curve (low pass filter) set to “3,” the high-frequency de-emphasis, set to “2,” and the internal power profile set to “6.” You could literally spend months messing around with these settings, but I was more than satisfied with the results I gleaned in about an hour of back-and-forth with a few reference songs which I used for the review. I connected via Bluetooth for Spotify listening off my phone and laptop without issue, but only for casual listening.
Straight settings - no presets:
The DS-10 sound does not espouse technical merit, it is about listening to music and enjoying it. While one can drill down on sonic minutiae, that doesn’t always convey the overall picture. This is a captivating music playback device that can be listened to for hours without fatigue (the limiting factor is headphone comfort, not the amp). The overall sound is broad-bandwidth with believable impact to bass notes, a fleshed-out midrange and acceptably-extended treble. Depending on the recording, at times the highest-frequency peaks did flatten out a bit, although they never went dry. I’ve heard a more liquid top end through the LTA MicroZOTL MZ3, but that was with a much higher-priced totaldac d1-direct separate feeding it. Of note, there was never any perceived strain through the DS-10. It let me know the amp section had headroom and wasn’t running out of steam. On Marcel Fengler’s album Fokus, the DS-10 showed a capable hand at balancing the deep, driving bass lines and breaks with authentic spatial ambience up top.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” is mid-‘70s U.S. teen-anthemic rock at its finest. The LP of the same name is infused with an untamed, romanticised, full-throated roar, but by Springsteen’s own admittance was “the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom.” All about dynamic swings, slam, speed and inexorable musical buildup and release, this is a cathartic album to listen through. With the DS-10 one gets the feeling that higher volume isn’t the answer, yet the songs beg for more grunt. With treble slightly flattened-out and compressed, I’m left feeling a wee bit dissatisfied after hearing the first few tracks – the DS-10 wasn’t doing anything wrong, it just wasn’t translating that last 10 per cent of the punch and emotional gut-check I know the whole album is capable of producing.
Growing up in Canada, six-hour road trips for summer vacation, spring break, etc. are a requisite. It’s a sprawling parliamentary mosaic of almost every type of geography. Trips would always involve mix cassettes my father would make specifically for driving long distances. They would have songs like “In A Big Country” by Scottish band Big Country, and were our soundtrack to the endless ribbon of sky meeting tree tops that rolled by the car window. “In A Big Country” always invokes historical vignettes from those childhood trips and the feeling of vast space and possibility. So, I listen to it to be transported. Through the DS-10 what I was hearing didn’t quite get me all the way there. A little rolled off for my tastes at the frequency extremes, but what tradeoff for this – midband? Spatial bloom? Yes, somewhat. Imaging is rather tight and focused in a sphere behind my eyes, but I want a bigger sphere.
As much as I obsess over music, I’m also a self-professed cinephile with a DVD collection that causes storage consternation. Interstellar is a film that features one of the most impactful and ethereal soundtracks I’ve heard for quite some time courtesy of Hans Zimmer. When I saw it in the theatre for the first time I was immediately struck at how the music was as much a character in the film as the actors. It overwhelmed, crowded, drowned out and smothered the viewer’s experience at times – all on purpose. It was breathtaking. I was hooked and determined to buy the soundtrack as soon it was released. “Dreaming of the Crash” opens the album and the slow attenuation of a field recording of windswept barrens showed off the resolving power of the onboard AKM AK4493 DAC. Here the octave-plunging, thunderous crescendo at the end of “Crash” was rendered with almost all the deafening authority I hoped for.
Playback with Presets engaged:
Audiophile covens, for some reason, recoil at the idea that the owner of a high-fidelity product could be allowed access to what traditionally would be called ‘tone controls.’ It is anathema. Why this has persisted I have no idea, but with digital audio we have seen some ground ceded back to the listener. As mentioned previously, I had the DS-10’s equalisation curve (low pass filter) set to “3,” the high-frequency de-emphasis, set to “2,” and the internal power profile set to “6” for final listening sessions.
With these options engaged, the percussive focus becomes tighter, deeper and firmer down low, with significant gains on frequency extremes of bass control, treble extension and liquidity. The treble flattening previously experienced is no more and songs are imbued with a considerably more muscular, physical presence. There’s tangible improvements to perceived power and drive.
“Born to Run” comes to life as though a 2-D cutout has suddenly gained a dimension. Any stridency I perceived with excessive attenuation compensation to make up for lack of grunt is gone. I’m now listening at a lower volume and getting bigger, more impactful and dynamic sound. That goosebump energy that the song is capable of inducing is now apparent.
“Big Country” opens the way I remember it: cavernous stereo-panned drums and ripping percussive slam accompanied by ragged, chiseled guitar riffs. Bass muscle is back with the diminutive DS-10 sounding more like it’s utilising output transformers. Sound stage and spatial reference has opened up across the board with the imaging sphere behind my eyes expanded in all axis.
Subtle wind, particle and storm details from the field recording that opens “Crash” become more defined, more articulate, forward in the mix and more natural-sounding. There is an increase in the organic-based resolution of the tangibility of the music. That crescendo of a gong ring plunges deeper between the lowest octaves and is noticeably more controlled.
The Gold Note DS-10 integrated headphone amp/preamp/DAC/streamer is the most fun I’ve had listening to headphones with a one-box solution under $5,000. The dCS Bartok is the undisputed one-box champ, which while an accurate statement, at four times the price of the DS-10, isn’t a fair one. The DS-10 is an accomplished purveyor of realism, aural authenticity, resolution and musicality in its sonic signature, especially with its digital filter/EQ/output options engaged and fine-tuned to specific taste. While not necessarily as unequivocal in my praise for the DS-10 when run ‘straight’ – an opinion others may not share as we all desire different sound from our hi-fi – the fact that the output of the unit needed only relatively minor tweaking to take it to the next level is testament to the elegance of the signal path the engineering team at Gold Note created.