PS Audio Stellar Strata Integrated Amplifier Review: An Astounding Powerhouse!

PS Audio Stellar Strata Integrated Amplifier

$2999
PS Audio Stellar Strata Integrated Amplifier
9

Build

10.0/10

Features

8.0/10

Sound

9.0/10

Pros

  • Well built, looks great
  • Refined Sound
  • Powerful Amp Section

Cons

  • Built-In Streamer Is Basic
  • Not Roon Ready
  • No MQA

Summary

The PS Audio Stellar Strata Integrated Amplifier ($2999) is the “all-in-one” incarnation of their value-priced Stellar line, long known as an affordable entry point to high-end hi-fi separates. 

It’s their first one-box solution that leverages their well-received DAC, Preamp, and Hybrid Class A/Class D amp technology (with sweet-sounding MOSFET input stage), then layers a network streaming “bridge” for instant playback of services like TIDAL. 

With the Stellar architecture, it’s a clear step-up in both build quality and sonics from the $1000-$2000 integrated amplifiers. While the quality of the built-in streamer doesn’t quite match up with the rest of the package, it still sounds good and gets the job done.

If you need an elegant one-box solution that provides gobs of clean power (100W into 8ohms, double that into 4ohms) for power-hungry speakers, you should check out the smooth, transparent sound of the Stellar Strata.

Disclaimer: The Stellar Strata was sent to us by the manufacturer in exchange for an honest review. It will be returned once the evaluation is complete.

Stellar Strata Build/Features

At one point, PS Audio almost exclusively espoused the virtues of hi-fi separates, putting them forward as the best way to experience 2-channel stereo. To that end, they marketed their Stellar Line of components as an affordable yet sophisticated way to enter that world. 

However, times change, and many manufacturers have realized both the practicality and popularity of upscale “all-in-one” amplifiers, basically high-end integrated amplifiers with music streamers built-in. PS Audio has recognized the viability of this product category as well, coming up with their own all-in-one option. 

The fruit of their shift towards the high-end all in one component is the $2999 Stellar Strata Integrated Amplifier, an impressive looking piece of gear that incorporates a DAC, balanced analog preamp, high-definition streaming module (up to 24/96), and power amplifier that provides a minimum of 100W per channel into 8 ohms (and 200w into 4 ohms). 

The Strata utilizes the familiar PS Audio Stellar enclosure, which is the same sleek, robust metal cabinet they use for the Stellar Gain Cell DAC, along with the rest of the series. 

Basically, it is a modified Stellar Gain Cell DAC with an added power amplifier and streamer. The LCD screen has also been upgraded to a nicer full-color version, and the DAC chip has also been upgraded to the ESS 9016 from the older ESS 9010. The Dedicated Class A Headphone Amp is carried over. 

Also carried over is the illuminated logo that doubles as a standby switch, something I really dig on the Stellar gear. Why? Well, I have to admit, just because it looks cool. 

The rear panel is similar to the SGCD as well, except the XLR analog outputs are removed in favor of 5-way metal binding posts. They are the same custom machined connectors used on the Stellar Amps, and they again look really sturdy. 

There’s also an Ethernet input for wired connection to the music streamer, but most people, I assume, will connect wirelessly using the compact Wi-Fi antenna, which is on the rear panel as well. 

Everything else on the rear of the Strata comes directly from the Stellar Gain Cell DAC, including the five digital inputs (1 USB, 1 Toslink, 2 COAX, 1 I2S for direct DSD), and 4 pairs of Analog inputs (3 RCA, 1 XLR). You also get a pair of RCA analog outputs for connecting a sub or power amp and a trigger output for remote control of a connected power amp. 

The digital inputs handle the following formats:

  • I2S PCM (384KHz max) DSD64 DSD128 (Compatible with DirectStream Transport SACD handshake for DSD playback)
  • Coax PCM (192KHz max)
  • Optical PCM (96KHz max)
  • USB PCM (384KHz max) DSD64 (DoP) DSD128 (DoP)

Note there is no MQA here, and no, the Strata is not Roon ready. 

Inside of the Strata, we also see tech brought over from the Stellar Gain Cell DAC and the Stellar Power Amps. That includes PS Audio’s Analog Gain Cell for no-loss volume control, a new version of the discrete Analog Cell input buffer, which again employs Class A biased MOSFETs. 

MOSFETs are well known for their warm tube-like sound, but they are also known to provide a less-focused soundstage than other options. This wasn’t something I heard in the SGCD, so I don’t expect to hear it in the Strata.  

The Analog Cell then hands the signal off to a 200w per channel Class-D amp module from Denmark’s ICEpower, giving the Strata a lot of efficient power. The ICEpower modules are also known for their crisp sound and tight bass. 

I liked how this combination worked in the Stellar power amps, and I think it again works well in the integrated format, even though you only have a single 200w amp module in the Strata instead of the dual-mono set up in the power amps. 

To me, the key is definitely the Analog Cell, where the PS Audio engineers were able to add some welcome depth to the sound. PS Audio stresses that even though they used some elements from several other products, for the Strata everything was designed and tweaked to operate as a system, creating a cohesive component. 

A look in the expansive menu reveals quite a few useful options, including three selectable digital filters, customizable input names, input volume trim, headphone amp gain, trigger delay, backlight dim, factory reset, etc.

You can even set it to show metadata for music played via the streaming bridge. The type is a little on the small side, making it hard to read from across the room, but it’s still a nice touch. This is a full-featured amp.

Of course, this being a Wi-Fi-compatible device, you also have a lot of network settings, including WPS for quick Wi-Fi setup and a manual Wi-Fi setup as well. WPS is definitely the preferred option because entering a long Wi-Fi password using the volume/menu knob is not the easiest thing.

As stated earlier, the built-in network “bridge” or streamer has app-based control, which brings DLNA, TIDAL, Spotify, QOBUZ connectivity to the Strata. 

Unfortunately, I have to say, the PS Connect app (available for iOS and Android) is somewhat rudimentary and really doesn’t match the overall elegance of the system. It feels like more of an add-on as opposed to a “baked-in” part of the package. 

That said, the app is easy to use, allows high-res music transmission, and gives you a ton of sources to choose from. I connected to TIDAL, Qobuz, and my DLNA compatible NAS drive with no issues. It’s also worth mentioning that several competitors at this price point don’t offer an app at all.

 

If you have a fast mobile device, the app operates smoothly, just don’t expect many device-specific settings like you would get with some of the other systems out there. I also wish there were more options to sort or filter thru a long list of music. 

You also get a handy remote, which fits nicely in your hand. While there is no backlight, which would’ve been nice, it’s intuitive and provides shortcuts to many menu options I discussed earlier. There is no direct access to the menu or network bridge, however.  

Listening To The PS Audio Stellar Strata

For my listening tests, I connected the Strata to a pair of Q Acoustics Concept 300 ($3499) bookshelf speakers perched upon their matching Tensegrity stands ($999). The Concept 300’s are 6-ohm speakers with an 84db sensitivity rating, and they provide a test for any integrated amp. They need a lot of high-current power to sing. 

Since this integrated is sold as a complete system, I started by playing various music from the built-in network streamer.

As stated earlier, the PS Connect app is quite easy to use; all you have to do is download it from whatever app store you use (Android, iOS) then log in to the supported Streaming Service of your choice. You can also play local music from the device you have the app installed on.

By the way, since the Strata is DLNA compatible, you can stream directly from any DLNA compliant software, like JRiver, for example.

No matter which streaming option I selected from within the app, be it TIDAL, Qobuz, or NAS Drive, it sounded good, providing a somewhat laid back and sweet presentation with a relatively wide soundstage. Imaging was nicely focused, especially on the left and right sides of the soundstage. It drove the Concept 300’s with no problem, bringing out all the dynamics and fireworks these speakers are capable of. 

If you’re looking for a super analytical system, Strata isn’t it. It’s more of a smooth operator, preferring to gently draw you in rather than wow you with sparkle right off the bat. It also does a nice job of controlling the low end allowing the Q Acoustic speakers to drive the rhythm with immediacy. 

While it seems to provide a tad bit of extra warmth on the low end, the Strata has good tonal balance overall, allowing high-resolution speakers like the Concept 300 to do their thing. I think its measured performance is the mark of a true high-end amp, and its nuance will provide more enjoyment over the long run. If you want a little more sparkle than it provides out of the box, the auxiliary digital filters will add a small amount. 

After playing many tunes through the Strata’s Network Bridge, I wanted to hear how it sounded with a good standalone streamer.

I hooked up the Cambridge Audio CXN (V2) streamer to the optical input on the back of the integrated and played some music from Roon. The Strata sounded even better with the CXN, providing a bigger scale, and wider soundstage, along with more focused imaging. 

When I listened to “Draw Your Swords” by Angus and Julia Stone, the vocal was more defined and natural. The strings also had more body and texture, plus there was a little more separation in the mix. To me, that shows that this amp can scale up with a source upgrade if you choose to do so.

In general, I did wish for a little more focus and depth, especially in the center of the soundstage. Still, overall I loved the silky highs,  sweet midrange presentation, along with the taut bottom end that propelled the music forward in an exciting manner.  

The Strata is a very musical amp, but it does require some care in speaker matching. Since it has a smooth, laid-back sound, you don’t want to pair it with warm, laid-back speakers, or it may come across as a little uninvolving. A pair of speakers with some nice top-end air, forward mids, and tight bass will complement it well.

The Q Acoustics speakers I mentioned earlier, The Triangle GENÈSE Trio I reviewed a little while ago, or something from Kef or Focal, will do the trick.

The Wrap Up

PS Audio has done a great job of transitioning their quality Stellar line from hi-fi separates to an all-in-one format. They were able to bring the same great looks, quality build, big power, and smooth sound PS Audio is known over to a more accessible device. 

While the Strata’s built-in streamer doesn’t quite have the sophistication of the rest of the package, it sounds decent and quickly provides access to tons of music. To me, it’s just icing on the cake anyway because the powerful and clean amp section, along with the quality DAC, is alone worth the price of admission. I would have no problem buying this integrated and upgrading to a standalone streamer later. 

Other things to think about are the lack of MQA decoding and Roon compatibility. 

That said, if you’re looking for a sleek, silky smooth sounding integrated with big power (200w per channel) to run hard to drive speakers or fill up a big room with sound, you should check out the PS Audio Stellar Strata Integrated Amplifier

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