April Music Stello DP200

Stello DP200April Music founder Simon Lee is an enthusiast who loved hi-fi so much that he abandoned a stable job to import esoteric foreign brands into his native South Korea; he then subsequently decided to start making his own designs too. Some interesting products ensued, including the DP200 you see here. Although run-of-the mill now, the idea of an upsampling DAC preamplifier such as this was leading-edge stuff back in 2008. Indeed it was the first product of its type that I had ever come across.

Selling for £1,495 on launch in the UK, it combined analogue preamplifier, digital preamplifier and upsampling DAC functionality, plus optional MM/MC phono input card and/or analogue-to-digital converter card, plus a standard headphone preamplifier. It’s a fully balanced discrete Class-A design, with high quality components inside, and very tidy it looks under the hood. Cable runs are neat, and it’s been designed with short signal paths. There are three analogue inputs (1 XLR balanced, 2 RCA unbalanced) and two analogue outputs (1 XLR balanced, 1 RCA unbalanced). The first analogue in can be configured for use with an optional phono card (£195). This offers MM and MC input, with six different loading and four different gain settings, all of which are switchable by rather fiddly jumpers inside the case on the card itself.

On the front panel there’s a small row of buttons which variously select Input, Bypass (allowing the connection of a surround processor), Upsample (the internal DAC supports formats of up to 24-bit, 192kHz, with upsampling rates user-selectable from front panel or remote control – settings of bypass, 48kHz, 96kHz and 192kHz are available), Record and Volume. The latter is a 120-step digital affair, and interestingly works individually on each input so you can set your ‘ideal level’ for each source, and not lose it when you flick to another. The 16×2 character alphanumeric fluorescent display keeps you well informed about what’s being routed where, and is dimmable but not defeatable.

Setting up the DP200 is not as complicated as its expansive specification would suggest. It’s a case of plugging in an IEC power lead, hooking up a power amplifier at one end and whatever source components at the other. Configuring the phono card is a pain however – as you have to undo eight Allen screws and slide the casing off the chassis, find the card, find the jumpers and then wrestle with a rather arcanely written appendix in the middling instruction manual. Hopefully, your friendly local dealer will do this for you. The remote control is a pleasant surprise – although a largish black affair (quite eighties retro, in fact), it’s fashioned from aluminium alloy with a very positive action. There’s even a mini control panel for Philips RC5-compatible CD players included.

This is a slightly bright sounding product – but never harsh or forward. Indeed, the DP200 cannot be regarded as astringent in any way; rather, it has a impressively open feel across the audio band. It throws out a wide, panoramic recorded acoustic, with a strong and tuneful bass. Although not rich or coloured, it’s most certainly not dry in the way that Naim preamps can be so characterised. Indeed it’s a touch on the euphonic side of neutral, but only fractionally. Vocals have a direct and natural quality, which gives a fine sense of timbre and texture. Acoustic instruments have an innate naturalness to them that is rare at this price point.

Treble is impressive, with an upfront and explicit nature, yet things never descend into brightness. There is real atmosphere and space here, and delicacy is very much in evidence too, conveying all the shimmering, sonorous glory of hi-hat cymbals, for examples. Yet, for all its crispness, there’s just ‘a touch of silk’ that proved rather reminiscent of Japanese high end. Allied to that ever-so-slightly warm bass, the result is an open sound with a hint of euphony.

The internal DAC is was super by the standards of 2008, with a tremendously clean and detailed nature. As with the analogue input, bass is generously full yet articulate, midband expansive and atmospheric and treble smooth and sweet. Pressing the Upsample button makes more spacious and three dimensional, an obvious overall improvement; the midband hangs back behind the plane of the speakers, treble assumes a natural airiness, while bass becomes fuller and more musical. So the DAC is surprisingly good, and the same goes for the headphone amplifier, which isn’t quite up to the best separate designs but sure is no slouch.

Few Stello DP200s were sold in the UK, but when one does pop up in Europe then it’s well worth considering for £300 to £400 or so. It’s no universal panacea and is now bettered by the likes of Audiolab’s M-DAC at least in its digital performance, but still it’s a really classy and versatile bit of kit, and one of the best hidden secondhand bargains of recent years.

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