Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
I love it when I can look at a product’s designation and tell what it is and what it does without having to dig much deeper. Denon is really great about this with its A/V receivers, breaking the family into the S Series, X Series, and A Series, and keeping the incremental numbering consistent from year to year, so I can come pretty close to guessing a unit’s price and features just by ogling a string of letters and numbers such as “AVR-X3800H.” That sort of consistency isn’t unheard of in the two-channel world, of course, but we definitely need more of it. And based on the new MaiA DS3 ($1599, all prices USD), I’m guessing Pro-Ject Audio Systems agrees.
Let’s unpack that name. “MaiA” tells you that it’s an integrated amplifier (My audio integrated Amplifier). “DS” puts it in the DS line, which is as high as you’ll likely see an integrated amp in the Pro-Ject Box Design family. The R line above it is generally reserved for a much more separates-oriented approach to hi-fi, and as you move down to the S line, as with the MaiA S3, you start to lose connectivity, especially in the digital domain, and the power supplies aren’t quite so robust. There’s also the E line, the entry level, which lacks an integrated amp offering altogether. The “3,” meanwhile, points toward this being the third iteration of this model, following the original MaiA DS (from 2015) and the follow-up MaiA DS2 (from 2020). Easy-peasy, right?
The new DS3 version features a handful of upgrades, including a beefier amplifier, an upgraded DAC, and improvements to Bluetooth connectivity. On its own terms, it’s still an I/O-rich integrated amp that seems aimed at analog- and digital-audio enthusiasts equally. From left to right, it features a phono stage with support for MM or MC cartridges (a push-button above selects between them), four line-level stereo RCA inputs, a stereo RCA fixed-level output, a stereo RCA preamp output, two independent optical digital ins, one coaxial digital in, and a USB-DAC input. There’s also a subwoofer out (unfortunately misspelled “Sup Output”), 12V trigger input and output, and Bluetooth antenna (version 5.0 with support for aptX and, new as of the DS3, aptX HD codecs).
Despite being an itty-bit of a thing, measuring just 71mm × 206mm × 194mm (HWD)—that’s about 2.8″ × 8.1″ × 7.6″, if you only measure things in Freedom Units—the amp is rated to deliver 80Wpc into 8 ohms or 140Wpc into 4 ohms with 1% THD, although I’m not sure if that’s full range or measured with a 1kHz signal. The specifications do list signal-to-noise as 97dB @ 1kHz, and THD of <0.01% at 10W (into 8 ohms), which is probably about how hard most people will drive the amp under typical listening conditions with normal music in a normal-sized room.
The MaiA DS3 is a clean-looking piece of kit with no screen of any sort, but rather a handful of LED indicator lights that give you a good sense of what’s going on with the amp as long as you’re within a couple of feet of it. There are lights for each of its nine inputs, flanked by buttons for cycling through the inputs. Above, you’ll also find lights that tell you whether data from DSD files (.dff or .dsf) being fed to the MaiA DS3’s USB-DAC input are SACD-res, double rate, or quad rate. There are no similar indicators for the bit-depth or resolution of PCM data, but the DAC can handle up to 24/192.
Flanking the DSD-rate indicator lights, you’ll find a button labeled +6dB, which raises the gain of all inputs by the indicated amount, and a Pair button that unsurprisingly puts the amp in Bluetooth pairing mode. To the left of those lights and buttons, you’ll find a rather small volume knob that nonetheless has a good bit of heft, a headphone jack with specified output of 430mWpc into 32 ohms (1% THD), and a standby button.
Setting up the Pro-Ject Audio Systems MaiA DS3
Getting back around to the rear panel, one thing I mentioned in my unboxing blog post but want to underline again is just how tiny the amp’s five-way binding posts are. They’re positively miniature. Thing is, though, they accepted the banana plugs from my pre-terminated Elac Sensible speaker cables just fine. I couldn’t help but wonder how they would accommodate a bare-wire connection, so I borrowed some Monoprice Choice Series 12AWG cable from the front right speaker of the home theater system in my master bedroom and gave it a go.
Turns out, with a bit of twisting and turning and after removing the cap from a binding post entirely, I was able to get 12AWG wire to fit, though my recommendation would be to pick up some good 14AWG wire instead if you plan on going bare-wire. Conversely, you could buy some banana plugs, spades, or pins and save yourself the hassle.
That aside, setup was as straightforward as could be. Best I can tell, the subwoofer output of the MaiA DS3 is just a summed-mono preamp out, so there’s no bass management to test. As such, I connected my pair of Paradigm Studio 100 v5 speakers, with some bookshelf speakers and a sub in reserve in case the amp couldn’t drive my big three-way towers to my satisfaction. (Spoiler warning: it could.)
The package comes with an unlabeled CD that features USB drivers for the DAC, but I didn’t find it necessary to install them on Windows 10. I ran two USB cables from my Maingear Vybe media and gaming PC to the system: one directly to input 8 of the MaiA DS3, and the other to my iFi Zen One Signature DAC, which I routed into input 2.
I did this for two reasons: to compare the Pro-Ject’s DAC to a DAC I know well, and because relying on only one source, as is my natural tendency, has gotten me into trouble in previous reviews. And indeed, if I hadn’t added a second source here, I wouldn’t have uncovered some noteworthy characteristics of Pro-Ject’s pack-in remote control.
It’s a nice-enough-looking remote, and it feels good in the hand. But it doesn’t quite operate in what I would consider an intuitive way, perhaps due to its universal nature. You’d think the number pad at the top of the remote, for example, would be perfect for giving you direct access to the amp’s nine inputs. It doesn’t.
There’s also a button labeled Input just above the D-pad that you’d think would let you cycle through inputs. It doesn’t. The only way to switch inputs via the remote, it turns out, is with the CH + and CH – buttons to the right of the VOL + and VOL – buttons, which are themselves so small as to be easily overlooked in the clutter of other controls. In the end, these four buttons, along with the standby control at the top, are the only buttons on the remote that do anything with regard to the MaiA DS3. The other 40-odd buttons do precisely sod-all, as far as I can figure. And yes, that includes the Mute button at the upper right, about as far away as you can get from the volume controls.
Pro-Ject does sell a step-up Control it DS/RS remote for $49 that might improve things a bit—if nothing else, it looks less cluttered—but I didn’t receive one of those with my review unit. Even that fancier remote wouldn’t have done much to fix the fact that the only way to find the input I was looking for was to start a source playing, start cycling through inputs, and wait until I heard the music that I knew I should be hearing. The LED lights are simply too small and too tightly spaced to be of much use at more than an arm’s length away.
When I cycled past the phono input with audio running into the adjacent input 2, I did notice some bleeding of the signal. It was the only leaky input out of the bunch, though, and I unfortunately don’t have a working turntable, so I couldn’t test how this affected vinyl performance.
The company was kind enough to send along a pair of its DS2/DS3 Wooden Side Panels, which can be purchased separately for $129/pair. These affix with a quartet of magnets, and they absolutely transform the look of the amp in ways I’m not sure can be done justice by photos. The magnets aren’t very strong, by the way—certainly not as strong as those found on the Cambridge Audio Evo 150’s swappable side panels—so you’ll want to make sure you have the amp in place before you stick them on, and remove them if you plan on moving the amp even a little. But they are the very definition of gorgeous minimalism.
How does the Pro-Ject Audio Systems MaiA DS3 sound?
As I hinted at above, despite the MaiA DS3’s specifications, I was still somewhat skeptical about whether or not it could drive my reasonably thirsty Paradigm three-way towers at screw-you SPLs with very bass-heavy music. One track I’ve been spending a lot of time with here lately that I know will start to thin out a bit if an amp’s power supply isn’t up to the task is “The Way of the Ghost” from the original score for Ghost of Tsushima (24-bit/48kHz FLAC, Sony Music Masterworks / Qobuz).
At right around the 1:22 mark, there’s this deceptive percussive outburst that builds in intensity over the course of about three seconds, and if your amp’s power supply fails to deliver enough current quickly enough, it can sound a little weak-sauce through big towers. The MaiA DS3 pounded out those drum beats without breaking a sweat, but that ended up being the least impressive thing about its delivery of the tune.
Toward the end, especially starting at around 2:56, “The Way of the Ghost” takes a much more delicate turn, becoming a haunting back-and-forth between wind instruments and strings. I simply adored the way this system handled the graceful decay of each note, and especially the way it rendered the tones, textures, and timbres of the shakuhachi.
The song’s reprise, featuring Clare Uchima on vocals (track 17 on Qobuz; track 6 on the first side of the second platter if you’re listening on vinyl), was the song I relied on most for comparisons between the MaiA DS3’s built-in DAC and my reference iFi Zen One Signature DAC. There’s a lot going on in the high frequencies here, and it’s an incredibly dense mix, especially toward the middle of the composition, so I figured it would be as good a test as any.
Indeed, I could pick up on subtle differences between the two. The DS3’s DAC is a little crisper and more detailed, but also a little less smooth. What I couldn’t do was consistently identify one as better than the other. I liked that extra sparkle a little more with some songs and a bit less with others (such as George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90.”) But only a very tiny bit. We’re deep into hair-splitting territory here.
That says to me that the MaiA DS3’s DAC is quite good. Its reconstruction filter (not selectable) doesn’t seem to be doing anything wrong. And my suspicions on that front were confirmed when I switched over to “Old Friend” from Lyle Lovett’s I Love Everybody (16/44.1 FLAC, Curb Records / Qobuz). The attack of the percussion was really nice here, as was the interwoven fabric of the cello, violins, and acoustic guitar.
As always, though, it was Lovett’s voice I was focusing on. If you’re listening along at home, cue the track up to around the 1:32 mark. That “ho-o-o-old on” can, for whatever reason, sound mildly grating through some DACs or preamps or what-have-yous. Conversely, any component that gets this melisma right is almost guaranteed to get everything right with the midrange especially, and the MaiA DS3 knocked it out of the park.
Oddly, the only exception to this was when I adjusted the volume with the remote while listening. I cannot explain why, but turning the volume up or down introduced an uneven graininess that encouraged me to find my preferred listening level and leave it there.
Another wonderful track that shines a spotlight on the MaiA DS3’s strengths is “Hawaii Oslo” from Hania Rani’s Esja (24/44.1 FLAC, Gondwana Records / Qobuz). If you’ve never seen Rani play this one live, do seek out a YouTube video at your earliest convenience. It’s a borderline religious experience.
But what makes it fascinating from a sonic perspective is the way the pianist literally reaches inside her instrument to pluck and mute the strings with her fingers as she plays. It makes for the most indescribably fascinating attack and decay. There’s also just a metric ton of room ambience in the recording—beautiful natural reverb that goes on for days—and the sense of space the Pro-Ject amp delivers is laudable. Starting at around the 1:36 mark, there’s also the sort of low, droning bass that can straight-up wreck a pair of speakers if the amp fails to muster sufficient clean current and goes into clipping. But it all sounded absolutely smashing through the MaiA DS3. In terms of fidelity, there’s absolutely nothing to complain about here.
The MaiA DS3’s headphone jack also drove my Audeze LCD-2 cans like it was smuggling 400 cases of Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta (if you’re not old enough to get that reference, please Google it and thank me later for expanding your cinematic horizons), and despite the lack of AAC codec support on its Bluetooth input, it handled wireless audio from my iPhone quite well.
What worthy competitors should you also consider auditioning?
Depending on your wants and needs, there are a few other integrated amps near the price of the Pro-Ject MaiA DS3 that may or may not be a better fit. The NAD C 700 ($1599) might work for you if you know you don’t need all of the MaiA’s analog connectivity, and especially if you’re more into digital streaming. It not only supports AirPlay 2 and BluOS, but also decodes MQA, and it has a 5″ color LCD screen. Despite this, it’s not far off from the size of the Pro-Ject amp. It boasts 80Wpc into 4 or 8 ohms and has an HDMI eARC input, which could be super handy if you plan on using your integrated amp as a soundbar replacement. It also has bass management, with a crossover that’s adjustable from 40Hz to 200Hz. You can also customize the name of each input.
If you’re looking for something in a somewhat more traditional form factor, there’s the Rotel A14MKII ($1599.99). This Certified Roon Tested amp is very similar to the Pro-Ject in terms of I/O. It does have one extra coaxial digital connection, but in practice I do believe it has only two S/PDIF inputs, and for each you have to select between coaxial and optical. It supports MQA and MQA Studio, and it also has AAC codec support on its Bluetooth antenna, but its phono stage is MM only, and it doesn’t have a subwoofer output. Still, at 80Wpc into 8 ohms or 150Wpc into 4 ohms, it’s a robust amp.
TL;DR: Is the Pro-Ject Audio Systems MaiA DS3 worth the money?
If you’re looking for a compact integrated amp that’s designed and manufactured in Europe, with oodles of inputs, great performance, a banging headphone amp built in, and a clean, minimalist look, the MaiA DS3 feels like a darned good value to me at $1599. It does have some operational quirks, mind you—of exactly the sort you’d expect from a more boutique brand. If I were tasked with building a wish list for the inevitable MaiA DS4, I’d ask for a more functional and intuitively designed remote control, direct access to inputs, some way of dimming the front-panel LEDs, and a proofreader for the silk-screening on the back panel. Oh, and if I’m feeling really greedy, some neodymium magnets for the side panels to make them a little grippier.
As it stands, though, there’s so much I dig about this little int-amp. It has more personality than a terrier puppy, and yet it doesn’t feel the need to express that personality with its audio output. It’s nice and neutral and makes all the right noises, and it’s got enough power to drive much larger speakers than you’d think it should based on looks alone. It’s pretty clear to me that it’s stable with loads under 4 ohms. If it’s adding any appreciable distortion or noise to the signal, I’m not hearing it, except when adjusting the volume knob. The operational idiosyncrasies might be a little frustrating, but it’s not up to me to say how much you should care about such things.
. . . Dennis Burger
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v5.
- Speaker-level connections: Elac Sensible speaker cables.
- Sources: Maingear Vybe PC, iFi Audio Zen One Signature DAC.
- Headphones: Audeze LCD-2.
- Power protection: SurgeX XR115 power conditioner.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems MaiA DS3 Integrated Amplifier
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
11763 95th Ave N
Maple Grove, MN 55369
Phone: (510) 843-4500