Prism Sound is a name synonymous with high-end audio production. Their audio interfaces and related technology are integral to some of the most prestigious recording and mastering studios in the world. Their list of users is a who’s who of musicians, engineers and production studios alike, and now they are bringing that quality, and years of experience, to the home listener.
What It Is, and What It Does
The Callia is a compact state-of-the-art digital to analog converter (DAC) for use in no compromise high quality home audio systems. It can handle digital signals up to 32-bit (USB only) and sample rates from 44.1 kHz up to an astonishing 384 kHz. It also handles DSD processing (Direct Stream Digital from SACD), making Callia compatible with all major music releases.
It is a class compliant asynchronous USB Audio Device Class 2.0 (UAC2) which means the DAC controls the flow of audio data, buffers it, and uses its own stable, CleverClox technology for extremely low sampling jitter. Its fully-balanced signal path minimizes distortion artifacts within the system, and the analogue circuits are galvanically isolated from the power supply unit (PSU) and digital circuits to eliminate interference. The volume control has precise, inter-channel gain matching, +/-0.05 dB, which means that turning down the device to lower levels will not interfere with stereo image or balance.
The low impedance, low distortion headphone amplifier, optimized for headphone impedance is fantastic, and adds another layer to the listening experience. On the rear of the device it is possible to switch impedances to match your headphones, or at least give them that extra kick.
Once paired with a decent set of headphones, the amp is powerful and clean, bringing depth and clarity to well-produced music that has to be experienced first hand to truly appreciate.
By default, plugging in headphones will disable audio to the XLR/ RCA outs, but this can be overridden using the aforementioned switches at the back.
Hooking it Up
It has an excellent array of high-resolution inputs for USB (UAC2 over USB 2 or later), Coaxial RCA Phono (supporting S/PDIF and AES3-id or AES3 with suitable adaptor) and S/PDIF OPTICAL equipped digital devices.
For analog audio outputs, Callia offers both balanced XLR as well as unbalanced RCA phono connectors on the rear panel.
The output volume can be set via the volume control in order to use the Callia as a preamp straight into a power amp, or optionally fixed for use with integrated and pre/power combos.
Sizewise, it’s a slick 3/4 rack sized desktop device with a dark grey anodized front panel featuring, from left to right, an indented Prism Sound logo, an array of blue LEDs that indicate the current source input, sample rate and bit depth of the source audio, a large volume knob, a smaller dedicated headphone amp volume knob, a headphones jack and a standby button.
Prism Sound is all about uncompromising quality and accuracy, so no surprise that everything from service support to the packaging, to the product itself, just feels spot on and worth it.
There is no worse feeling than investing in gear only to feel that the company somehow skimped on some aspect of the product like say plasticy knobs, or ever so slightly wobbly faders, but that does not a happen with Prism Sound, the Callia is solidly built—it weighs a hefty 2.1 kg—and the knobs feel like they can turn you back. The finish is impeccable and oozes a sense of quiet, cool power.
Ease of Use
In theory, the Callia is plug in and play on a Mac, and Windows requires installing a driver and then it’s plug in and play—but, there’s a catch—the rest of your equipment and software has to be able to keep up.
At this level it is pointless to spend so much money on a DAC, only to stream music from iTunes, VLC, or YouTube, even in HD. At the very least one should invest further in audio playback software like JRiver’s Media Center or Audivarna —bit perfect music players that play back an audio file as is, and bypass OS audio processing entirely by interacting directly with your audio device.
So, provided your playback system and listening environment is more than decent, having the Callia take over DAC duties from your PC is like having a thin layer of cotton wool pulled out of your ears, music suddenly has so much space, depth and clarity, but the detail this provides is never overt or obvious.
Sure, high-quality MP3 is indistinguishable from CD to a majority of listeners but come on, spending nearly two grand on an audio device only to pump the bare minimum of audio quality through it is like buying a 48 channel SSL console only to record your kid’s first words in MP3.
Is it Snake Oil?
Well, a lot of audiophile mumbo-jumbo is strictly pseudoscience and buyer’s remorse-slash-justification for spending 20k on a single speaker cable, but not with Prism Sound.
The argument here is not actually about if it sounds better or not, that is subjective, the issue is with accuracy and precision in transferring digital audio into the analog realm, and time and again third-party benchmark tests have shown that Prism Sound is simply one of the best at doing this. Independent testing matches their product documentation and specifications, and you will be hard pressed to find other companies so upfront and confident with their own test results.
Straight off the bat, I am wholly biased when it comes to Prism Sound. Their Lyra 2 audio interface sits at the heart of my humble bedroom studio, and it is single handedly one of the best audio investments I have made.
This puts me at an advantage, though, to back up their claim that the Callia brings professional reference quality audio into the home.
That is no surprise really, the high quality DAC circuits inside are identical to the ones found in their high-end Lyra, Titan, and Atlas recording interfaces, which deliver exceptional (and highly sought after) resolution and detail both in capturing and playing back audio.
How does it sound?
Spending a great deal of time listening to music in any given environment is much like getting used to driving a particular car, your own car. You get to know its strengths and weaknesses, and regardless of cost or brand it gets you successfully from A to B.
Most of us have experienced that moment when we get back into our own car after someone else has driven it, and there is an instant gut feeling that something is different. The seat is too far forward, steering wheel is tilted too far back, rearview mirror is wrong angle, and the side mirrors not pointing exactly where they “should be”.
Listening to high-end audio gear, in an appropriate environment, is exactly the same experience for your ears, but in reverse.
In your rearranged car you feel weird, and immediately reset all your positions to feel comfortable and back-to-normal, but with high-end audio you realize you have had your seat too far back all along, and the new position of the rearview mirror actually gives you more coverage of the road behind you, and now the side mirrors are in the “right” place and giving you a much wider sense of space around the car making you more confident in decisions when parking, or passing another vehicle.
Oh, and the new steering wheel angle? Way more turning precision, who knew?
Then, to your surprise, you realize that the engine has been swapped out from a 1.5L to an ultra-silent V8, and there is this latent power underlying every move. You are no longer rattling your jalopy to pieces on the highway at 100 kph, you’re cruising at two hundred, with more to spare, and there’s nary a rattle to be heard.
That’s what adding a high-end DAC does to your sound system, if it can keep up.
Of course there are less expensive (and way, way more expensive) alternatives, but figure that Prism Sound’s professional ADA-8XR has long been the DSD conversion tool of choice in many of the world's top SACD mastering studios, so the fact that the Callia uses similar architecture makes it the perfect choice for DSD reproduction in the home.
Although the high quality DAC circuits inside are identical to the ones found in the Lyra, Titan and Atlas recording interfaces, the Callia is strictly hi-fi sit-back-and listen technology and not a substitute for a professional sound card, and any aspiring music producer would do well to invest rather in a 1 or 2 channel Lyra interface, or if you have the moolah to spare, more channels via the Orpheus or Titan interfaces.
There is no hyperbole when I say that this must be one of the best value stereo hi-fi DACs on the market. With competition at this level of accuracy and quality running into the tens of thousands of euros, to me the Callia is a no brainer.
Detailed and accurate DAC with a solid construction and good looks.
The physical display of the bit depth and sample rates of audio files currently playing is really useful.
Integration with high-end audiophile software media players is seamless.
Plug in and go.
Prism Sound's legendary audio quality in the house.
Led Zeppelin has never sounded so sweet.
Strictly hi-fi/stereo only - so that awesome sonic quality is "limited" to music playback only—no obvious integration with a typical AV set-up.
No way to justify buying one for the studio... better off investing in a Lyra if you are making music.
The rest of your playback gear (and environment) needs to be on par to reap true sonic benefits of the device.
Having to send the unit back after demo.