It is a versatile preamplifier that provides both pure analog and digital input switching. With a price tag of $1699, this seems to be a lot of product for the money and its multi-function nature can help reduce the clutter in one’s whole hi-fi system by reducing the number of component boxes in it. But convenience is one thing and performance is another thing. The review covers the feature and performance of this interesting product in more detail.
The Stellar GainCell Preamp/DAC (GCD) is from PS Audio’s Stellar line, which is designed with affordability in mind for the budget-minded audiophile. The Stellar line represents the entry tier to the company’s plethora of separate hi-fi components. With its unassuming low-height-profile, the GCD offers fully balanced analog circuitry from input to output and a full-featured DAC based on the 32-bit ESS Sabre Hyperstream architecture, which is capable of processing both PCM (through all its digital inputs, up to 24-bit/384-kHz) and DSD signals (through its I2S and USB inputs, up to 128 Mbps). The versatility of the Stellar GainCell Preamp/DAC does not stop there; it also includes an analog headphone amplifier with a headphone jack on the front panel. Other features of the preamplifier include selectable DAC filters, home-theater bypass, and DC triggers. All this for $1699! This sounds like a bargain if the product can deliver the crux of the matter, which is high-fidelity sonic performance. This point will be contemplated more in this very review.
PS Audio Stellar GainCell Preamp/DAC
- Analog preamplifier with DAC functionality in one chassis.
- DAC can handle both PCM (up to 24-bit/384-kHz) and DSD music signals (through its I2S and USB inputs, up to 128 Mbps).
- Excellent build quality and finish.
- Great sonic performance.
PS Audio is not an unfamiliar brand to me and most audiophiles. I have had and still have PS Audio hi-fi components in my systems. Some notable ones are the oldie but goodie HCA-2 stereo amplifier and the excellent PerfectWave DAC II. PS Audio has been around for a while and the company’s reputation among hi-fi stereo connoisseurs is rock solid. This success is not only garnered by the quality of the products PS Audio produces over the years, but also by the company’s willingness to stand behind its products, offering support for service, repair, and product updates that are above and beyond the industry’s best practices. In the US, the company relies on the direct-sales approach for its business, offering the purchase of its products with 30- day return privilege and all shipping costs covered. This allows the customers to try out the products for free in their home environment for 30 days, which is the best possible audition scenario. Where else can you get customer service like this?
The Stellar GainCell Preamp/DAC (GCD) reviewed here is from the PS Audio Stellar line, which represents the company’s affordable-tier products. Paul McGowan, the CEO, and founder of the company mentioned that PS Audio has always prided itself on providing high value in products. The Stellar line represents the very realization of this company’s mission. One quick look at the GCD’s list of functions gets you the high-value sense of the product. For $1699, you get a product that can serve as an analog preamplifier, a full-featured DAC, and a headphone amplifier. This product would definitely pique my interest if I were in the process of building a modestly budgeted hi-fi system.
3 stereo pairs
1 stereo pair
Digital audio inputs:
1 PCM (384KHz max), DSD64, DSD128
2 PCM (192KHz max)
1 PCM (96KHz max)
PCM (384KHz max), DSD64 (DoP), DSD128 (DoP)
Analog Audio Outputs:
RCA XLR Headphones:
(Analog Unbalanced) 1 stereo pair (Analog Balanced) 1 stereo pair
One 1/4″ headphone connector front panel
20Hz – 20KHz +0/- 0.25dB
10Hz – 100KHz +0.1/-3.0dB
1KHz >110dB (max output)
1KHz < 0.025%, 20-20KHz < 0.05%
Output power @1% THD:
S/N Ratio 1kHz Noise:
>95dB (max output)
THD 1Vrms out:
300Ω <0.05% 16Ω <0.06%
0-100 (1/2 and 1dB steps, 80dB total range)
24dB each direction in 1/2dB steps
Home Theater Mode:
Assignable to any analog input Adjustable (in setup) to any level
Polarity (phase) Control:
Digital sources only
3 selectable digital filters (PCM digital sources only)
2 (3.5mm 5-15VDC)
13.5 lbs [6.1 kg]
17″ x 12″ x 3″
Preamplifiers 2020 Review, Amplifier 2020 Review, PS Audio, Stellar GainCell, Stellar, GainCell, Preamp, DAC, PS
The Stellar GainCell preamp/DAC, with its full-width (17″) aluminum chassis and low height profile, sports a minimalist appearance (like the other components in the Stellar line) that looks modern and elegant. The review sample has a matte silver finish with black side panels, which to me looks particularly classy. A black finish is also available. The GCD is rather heavy for a preamp. It feels quite rigid and very well constructed.
The front panel of the GCD is clean and uncluttered. Located on the front panel are the round volume-control knob, the LED display, the input selector/setup button, the 1/4″ headphone jack, and the PS Audio square logo button, which also serves as the standby/on button. In the setup mode, the volume knob also serves to navigate through the available setup options.
The blue LED display of the GCD is sufficiently bright and displays volume level in relatively large digits that can easily be read from 10 ft away. It also displays other information, such as the input name, DAC filter, the type of signal (PCM or DSD), and the DAC sampling rate, but it is in much smaller digits, and thus it is visible only from a close distance. Most of the time, this information is not really needed during the operation of the unit, but sometimes I do wish to be able to tell easily the sampling rate of the digital signal fed or which DAC filter is being used without getting up from my seat. Certainly, there is not enough landscape on the OLED window to display everything in large digits, but a possible way to overcome this is to rotate the information displayed using large digits, for example by using a remote-control command. The display brightness is adjustable (Bright or Normal) from inside the menu. It can also be turned on or off from the remote. Its “Normal” brightness setting was sufficient for me and I usually engaged the “Auto” feature, which turns on the display for a few seconds if it detects a change in the incoming signal and off otherwise.
The input/output connectors of the GCD on the rear panel are nicely laid out. There are three unbalanced analog line-level inputs as well as one balanced XLR input. The volume level of one of the analog inputs can be set fixed for home-theater passthrough input, which is a convenient feature for home-theater integration, allowing the surround processor to control the volume of the two front channels when this input is selected. The level of the fixed volume is adjustable and if a unity line-level gain is desired, the manual states that the volume level should be set at 76 (out of 100 scale).
The digital inputs include one I2S, two S/PDIF coax, one optical, and one USB. The I2S input uses HDMI cable for parallel data connection consisting of separate clocks and data. The I2S input keeps the data in their parallel form, which is the native form required by the DAC to process, hence skipping the data combining and separating process used in the other connection methods. Because of this, theoretically, it is the best digital connection to use. However, such a digital data output format is not yet standardized, and thus it can only be used with the digital source components that output I2S data using HDMI connection. It is also important to note that the signal transfer capabilities of the various digital inputs of the GCD vary depending on the capability of the connection type. The I2S and USB inputs can handle up to 384 kHz PCM and 5.6 MHz DSD signals. Only these two types of inputs can be used to process the DSD signals, while the others can only process the PCM signals. The coax can handle up to 192 kHz signals, while the optical can only handle up to 96 kHz signals. The GCD has a pair of unbalanced and a pair of balanced analog outputs. Two mini mono-RCA DC trigger outputs are provided in between the left and right outputs.
As indicated by its name, at the heart of GCD is the analog GainCell, which is used to eliminate the sonic degradation problem associated with volume control. The GainCell varies the gain as the means of controlling volume without additional circuitry in the signal path, hence preserving the signal purity. The DAC section of the GCD is based on the 32-bit ESS Sabre Hyperstream architecture with a fully balanced Class A analog output stage. As mentioned, the DAC can handle both PCM and DSD signals. PS Audio also manages to squeeze in the proprietary technology called the Digital Lens, which is derived from its higher-end DACs. The Digital Lens technology discovers the sample rate and format, reclocks all incoming data, reduces jitter, and reshapes the data output to the DAC chip. In essence, the Digital Lens technology makes the signal purer with less noise/errors in the effort to generate more accurate digital music reproduction.
The GCD is supplied with a relatively small infra-red remote control, which can be used to switch on/standby the device, select the input, adjust the volume level or mute the sound, select the filter or phase for the digital playback, and dim/un-dim the LED display. The buttons of the remote are of good sizes, so even though the overall dimension of the remote is small, I found it to be relatively comfortable to use.
The GCD is ready to use out of the box and requires only minimal setup. Just like a traditional preamplifier, one can just plug in the sources to the appropriate inputs, connect the outputs to a stereo amplifier, supply the power to the unit, and switch it on to make the unit operational. The setup mode, which can be accessed by long-pressing the input-selector button next to the LED display, needs only be accessed for balance adjustment, phase setting, maximum analog and headphone volume limits, input name editing, home-theater bypass setup, DC trigger delay, and DAC mode setting. The enabling of the DAC mode will bypass the analog preamp section and the GCD will function only as a DAC with fixed volume output. This mode should only be used if a separate preamplifier is present in the hi-fi chain.
For the review, I used the Musical Fidelity A5 CD player as an analog source, while the Auralic Aries G1 streamer and the Bel Canto CD3t transport served as the digital sources. The CD transport was connected through the coax cable, while the Aries G1 streamer was connected through the XLR and USB ports. The USB connection was needed to test the DSD playback capability of the GCD. The amplification used during the review was alternating between the PS Audio HCA-2 and the Bel Canto Ref500S, driving my trusty NHT Evolution T6 speakers. PS Audio PerfectWave DAC II was also used for the comparison.
First off, let me start by saying that reviewing the GCD has been a joy. I knew from the first time I fired up the GCD that I would be in for a treat. True enough, the GCD never failed to impress me with its strong all-around sonic performance, which was even more remarkable when its modest price tag was factored in.
Norah Jones “Feels Like Home (2004)”
As an analog preamp, the GCD behaved as a good preamp should be. It was neutral and transparent, or in other words, it did not get in the way of music. The musical presentation of the GCD is well balanced across the audible frequency spectrum. I did not notice any specific emphasis on certain frequency ranges that might detract musical enjoyment experience. Moreover, the GCD conveys the rhythm and pace of the music convincingly.
For example, the song Those Sweet Words by Norah Jones from her Feels Like Home (2004) CD was presented in such lively rhythm and pace through the GCD, making me toe-tap. Norah Jones’ voice sounded natural and full-bodied. Overall image presentation had good focus and tended to be slightly laid- back. The sound of the musical instruments accompanying the singer seemed to emanate steadily from the stage-space surrounding the singer with believable width and depth.
As a digital preamp, the DAC in the GCD locks in and recognizes the bit depth and rate of the incoming signals swiftly. I threw in various music files in various formats (PCM and DSD) and bit depths/rates to the GCD, and as long as they were within the signal specifications that the GCD could handle, it played them fine. Phase and filter adjustments are also provided to tailor the DAC better to the rest of the system and the listener’s preferences. There are differences among the three DAC filters provided in the GCD (Filter 1: slow roll-off linear phase, Filter 2: fast roll-off minimum phase, Filter 3: fast roll-off linear phase), but for most music, I found these differences were subtle. After listening back and forth with these filters for a variety of music, I settled with Filter 1 during most of the listening sessions, which to my ears, gave the best overall results in my system. Your taste and system may dictate otherwise.
Keiko Matsui “The Ring (2002)”
The GCD is very adept in navigating through a dynamic piece of music like Steps of Maya from Keiko Matsui’s The Ring (2002) album. The GCD was able to convey the minute details in the soft and loud passages of the track articulately. The separation among instruments in the track was portrayed excellently. The soundstage portrayal was deep and wide, and the underlying deep bass in the track was delivered with good authority. Will all these nice attributes, the GCD never failed to convey the emotion in the music, allowing me to get more involved in its presentation.
Mandy Moore “Silver Landings (2020)”
By now, it should be clear that I admire the musicality of the GCD. Even though the GCD might not be the best in all the things that it does, nor does it pretend to, it seems to do everything right. Hence, it is honest in its presentation and never tries covering its shortcomings with some unnecessary artifacts. During the review, I had a chance to compare the DAC performance in the GCD with the PerfectWave DAC II, which used to be PS Audio’s top-of-the-line DAC before being superseded by the DirectStream DAC.
Obviously, it is not a fair comparison, as the PerfectWave DAC II carried more than twice the price tag of the GCD.
While the PerfectWave DAC II was more superior as expected, nevertheless this comparison showed that the GCD was more than capable to hold its ground and did not give up much to the PerfectWave DAC II, a testament on how well PS Audio did in engineering the GCD within the target price point. Its shortcomings were not at all obvious or objectionable, and in most cases, the GCD made up more on the other aspects of its performance that was more crucial to the overall musicality of the presentation. For example, even though the bass response of the GCD is in general quite satisfactory, it does not have the same attack and slam as that of the PerfectWave DAC II. Mandy Moore’s Forgiveness song from her album Silver Landings (2020) contains some deep-bass underlying-rhythm throughout. This bass energy was presented by the PerfectWave DAC II with such a gutsy attack and authority. By contrast, the GCD bass presentation of the song, while still conveying the overall bass energy, was not as authoritative. Also, the GCD did not have the last bit of crystal-clear upper midrange and treble presentation of the PerfectWave DAC II. This last point, however, is not a clear cut and only detectable from a careful A-B comparison.
Lastly, I would like to point out that the headphone jack on the GCD is not provided only for convenience. It surprised me in terms of the high-quality sound it could produce. I am not so much of a headphone guy, but from my brief tryout of the headphone feature of the GCD using my son’s V-Moda Crossfade Wireless 2 in wired mode (which is Hi-Res certified), I was quite impressed by the clarity, details, and natural sound of the music I listened through it. In those aspects, it handily beat out the Audiolab P-DAC portable headphone amplifier (MSRP $199) that my son normally used. In fact, I also found that the GCD’s headphone performance even bettered that of my Auralic Altair DAC/preamp/streamer (MSRP $1899 as reviewed 3 years ago).
In the Stellar GainCell preamp/DAC, PS Audio has successfully created a high performance-to-cost ratio preamplifier that is equally adept in handling both analog and digital sources. The combination of features, hi-fi performance, and affordability makes this a high-value product that is hard to beat.
- Simple but handsome looking
- Solid build quality
- Handles both analog and digital signals
- DAC is capable of up to 384 kHz PCM and 5.6 MHz DSD signals
- Great sonic quality
The PS Audio GainCell preamp/DAC is a winner in every respect. It is an excellently built versatile preamplifier that can handle both the analog and digital signal switching equally well. Not only that, but it can also serve as a very capable headphone amplifier. Its audiophile quality is obvious in every aspect of its sonic performance. Transparent, great tonal balance, and good dynamics are some of the nice traits of the sonic characteristics of the GCD. As a DAC, it is capable of handling both PCM and DSD high-resolution music signals, which adds to its repertoire of capabilities. Considering that this versatile great-sounding product can be had for only $1699, the GainCell preamp/DAC truly represents a great bargain in the hi-fi world. Moreover, with 30 days home-trial offer and generous trade-in policy, this is a must audition product for someone looking for modern affordable preamp/DAC. The GCD easily earns my highest recommendation!