Saturday, 10 June 2017

MEASUREMENTS: Oppo Sonica DAC (ESS Sabre ES9038Pro based device)

My Raspberry Pi 3 "Touch" on top of the Oppo Sonica DAC - notice the DAC can handle up to PCM 768kHz (and DSD512 / 22.4MHz).
A few weeks ago, I published the preview of the new Oppo Sonica DAC and noted some issues I ran into with unusual jitter and digital filter measurements. Thankfully, Oppo was able to correct the issues within a week with the beta firmware and I see that the official firmware incorporating the improvements is now out - Sonica-33-0511 on the support website (May 15, 2017 date).

With it becoming official, I figure it was time for me to run and post results of objective tests on the device. This should give us a taste of both the capabilities of this Oppo Sonica DAC as well as look at what the "latest and greatest" ESS Technology ES9038Pro 8-channel DAC chipset is capable of... Although I have not seen it specified anywhere, my assumption is that the stereo configuration in this device ties 4 of the DAC channels for each of the stereo pair.

I. Intro & Set-up

I've already discussed the external appearance and control mechanism of this DAC previously. There are a number of subjective reviews recently so I refer you to those writings if you want more information on subjective matters, the control app, "look and feel", etc. (see here, here, here, here).


I've posted the picture above previously but I wanted to remind everyone of the physical connectors back there. I'm most interested for this post in showing the objective performance with standard digital inputs - USB and S/PDIF. Along the way we'll compare the performance with some of the better DACs I've used over the last few years and I'll show results from DLNA streaming over WiFi and the quality of the AUX In connection for passing analogue through.

The measurement chain, unless noted otherwise looks like this for USB2.0 input:
Pi Touch --> 6' USB --> Oppo Sonica DAC --> 6' RCA / XLR --> Focusrite Forte ADC --> 6' USB --> Win 10 laptop
When I'm measuring through the S/PDIF input:
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (i5) --> 6' USB --> CM6631A USB-to-SPDIF --> 6' TosLink / coaxial --> Oppo Sonica DAC --> 6' RCA --> Focusrite Forte --> 6' USB --> Win 10 laptop
If you're familiar with my posts here, the measurement chain is typical of other devices I've looked at. I typically will use the same USB2.0, TosLink, coaxial, RCA, XLR cables... For measurements, unless stated otherwise, they're all generic wires as I have found no evidence for significant improvement with more expensive wires in typical audio use.

II. Digital Oscilloscope, Digital Filter, Impulse Response

As usual, we start microscopically and have a peek at the waveforms from the device.

Here's the 1kHz 0dBFS 16/44 square wave with the digital oscilloscope - all volume settings "locked" at 100%:

Peak voltage from RCA is ~1.81V (1.3Vrms). We can see that the channel balance is truly excellent. When I see that kind of precision on the oscilloscope reading, it usually means very good performance is ahead. Notice that there's only post-ringing in the square wave transitions so this means it's using a minimum phase filter.


Indeed, Oppo has decided to use a "sharp" minimum phase filter with a moderate amount of post-ringing. Polarity is maintained with the initial deviation positive (as specified in my test signal).

And here is the "digital filter composite" based on discussions with Juergen Reis and similar to what Stereophile has been doing over the last few years:


Overall that's a good "DFC" plot of the 16/44 test signals showing good suppression of aliasing - about -100dB suppression of the ~40kHz harmonics compared to the ~20kHz cluster. Small amount of overload seen with the 0dBFS wideband white noise but practically should not be audible. Remember that this is the improved digital filter setting from the updated firmware as discussed in my previous preview post.

III. RightMark Tests

Now let's run the DAC through the usual RightMark suite of test signals and see if we can get some comparisons of frequency response, dynamic range and distortion amounts.

16/44:
As usual, we start with the "standard resolution" test signal.


As you can see, we have a good selection of devices here for comparison. There's the Sonica DAC on the far left, then Oppo's BDP-105 fed by USB, TEAC UD-501, Logitech Transporter, the little SMSL iDEA DAC, and finally Logitech's Touch. Even a cursory examination of the data suggests that there's very little difference between the devices at 16/44!


As you can see in graph form, the differences at 16/44 for modern devices are trivial! You can determine this for yourself by doing a volume controlled blind test.

Not unexpectedly, the device which performed the poorest in this round-up was the Logitech Touch which came out in 2010 using a middle-of-the-road "consumer level" AKM4420 DAC in a rather feature-loaded package.

24/96:
As we turn to high-resolution performance, this is where the "spread" between devices widens a bit, but to be honest, there's no "bad" DAC here so we can't expect to see anything terrible.


Clearly we see the ESS Sabre reference DACs in the Sonica DAC (ES9038Pro) and BDP-105 (ES9018) perform extremely well... Then again, the dual TI/Burr Brown PCM1795s in the TEAC UD-501 are excellent.


If we're super critical, we can see that the TEAC UD-501 has a couple of noise spikes at 120 and 180Hz. The Oppo BDP-105 is remarkably good except for a little bit more noise below 60Hz compared to the Sonica DAC. Though not clearly demonstrated in the busy noise level graph, the Sonica DAC is remarkably quiet with no evidence of hum at 60Hz. Excellent, and speaks to a very quiet power supply.


24/192:
Finally, let's have a look at the devices that can handle 192kHz sample rate.


Like the 96kHz test, we see a similar picture for the noise floor. A couple noise spikes in the TEAC sticking out, slightly higher low frequency noise floor with the BDP-105... Nothing of concern at all IMO. Very impressive how the SMSL iDEA mini-USB DAC hangs in there with the other big boys!

XLR vs. RCA:
IMO, if you really want to squeeze out the absolute best from today's DACs in high resolution, make sure to use balanced cables...

Unfortunately, the Focusrite Forte cannot handle the high peak voltage of 3.5V from the Sonica DAC. As a result, I had to use the digital volume control to pull back the amplitude by 4dB to get the following results (let's just look at 24/96):

As you can see, I've highlighted the -4dB adjustment I had to make to the Sonica DAC and -3dB with the TEAC UD-501. These compensations obviously would hamper the noise floor results. As impressive as the BDP-105's noise level and dynamic range are, if we added another 4dB back into the Sonica DAC's results, we would be expecting close to 120dB dynamic range or about 20-bits of resolution. This is the highest resolution I have ever seen within the limitations of the hobbyist equipment I'm using. Along with this, we see vanishingly low distortion results with the Sonica DAC. Impressive.

Remember, despite the improvements over regular RCA, these differences are extremely small and it would be ridiculous for me to claim that I can hear any difference. This is of course unless there's something else happening like noise polluting the RCA playback chain to widen the difference.


IV. DSD64 / DSD128 / DSD256

Quickly, here are the results from the RightMark 24/192 PCM test converted to DSD64 and DSD128 using Weiss Saracon. I've also included a realtime upconversion to DSD256 using JRiver 22. All measured through the RCA output.

Alas, I was not able to achieve stutter-free DSD512 realtime upconversion with my Intel i5-6500 based PC. (Honestly, I see very little benefit to DSD512 as there is no actual content out there plus DSD256 already would achieve quality way beyond human hearing limitations!)



Remember, with conversion there will be small losses as seen in the numerical data. Most notable is the higher noise level with DSD64. Of interest, notice the realtime conversion to DSD256 using JRiver has a slightly higher noise floor than the Weiss Saracon conversion but because it is DSD256, the noise-shaping ultrasonic noise is pushed beyond the frequency limits of a 192kHz sampling ADC.

V. S/PDIF & DLNA Input

Although these days I would highly recommend that audiophiles use USB 2.0 or ethernet, for those who want or need to use S/PDIF, here are the results. As noted in the Intro, this is with the Surface 3 sending USB to a CM6631A USB to S/PDIF coaxial or TosLink converter:



In the summary and graphs, we also see the results from using the Sonica DAC as a DLNA streamer over WiFi. I had set up my music server computer in the other room with JRiver 22 as DLNA server.

Based on the objective data, the evidence suggests that USB remains the preferred interface for this DAC. There's a reduction in the dynamic range with coaxial and TosLink input and slightly worse THD and IMD distortions as well. Note that these difference are extremely small and I would not worry about a sonic difference; it's just that because I know there is a difference, I would recommend sticking with USB preferably.

One interesting finding I noticed when putting together these graphs is that there's a small 60Hz hum noticeable with TosLink and WiFi DLNA playback in the "Noise Level" graph, but not with USB and coaxial input. This was a reproducible finding. Of course, given that the noise is down at -130dB, it's an academic difference rather than of practical concern. For comparison, with the Logitech Touch analogue output, the 60Hz hum is up at -114dB.

For those wondering, yes, the Sonica DAC can also handle DSD through DoP over DLNA up to DSD256 using JRiver.

Sadly, the Sonica DAC does not currently provide gapless playback as a DLNA streamer whether of PCM or DSD data. Admittedly this is a significant limitation and could be a "deal breaker" for many who are aiming to use this device as a stand-alone DLNA streamer. It's rather unpleasant listening to a live concert with breaks between tracks!

VI. Jitter

Remember the old firmware had issues as reported in my previous "Preview" post. This has since been fixed. Here's what the 16-bit and 24-bit J-Tests look like with the various inputs:


As expected, USB output looks very clean and jitter-free. Using my Surface 3 USB-to-S/PDIF CM6631A converter, likewise, we see that jitter is not an issue at all with coaxial and TosLink inputs. Fantastic reminder that jitter is just not worth really worrying about - not only would it be inaudible with most decent modern equipment, but with a device like the Sonica DAC, it's even objectively essentially non-existent.

If you're wondering, I had a look at DLNA jitter over WiFi and there was nothing unusual at all. For fun, here's JRiver 22 converting the J-Test to DSD256 DoP realtime, streaming to the Sonica DAC over WiFi!


That looks rather beautifully jitter-free! Despite realtime computer processing sent over a wireless connection... I've heard of subjectivist audiophiles getting anxious about this kind of thing worsening sound quality and especially jitter; maybe they should try some disciplined listening tests before uttering such nonsense :-).

To be clear, I would not advocate transferring DSD or any kind of hi-res audio through WiFi unless you're absolutely certain that connection strength is reliable. Dropouts from buffer underruns don't sound good.

VII. AUX Input

Finally, I just wanted to test the quality of the AUX Audio Input for when you have an analogue signal you want to play back through the DAC acting as a preamp.

What I did was:
TEAC UD-501 DAC playing RightMark output --> 6' RCA --> Oppo Sonica DAC AUX input --> 6' RCA --> Focusrite Forte --> 6' USB --> Win 10 laptop

I can then compare the direct output from the TEAC UD-501 with what comes out from the Sonic DAC having been fed through the AUX input. I kept the amplitude at 100% to maintain full signal strength and least potential signal processing:



Hmmm. Not so good. The AUX In is able to pass through just slightly higher than 16-bit resolution. It looks like at best the signal is resampled to 48kHz. Obviously higher distortion and crosstalk. According to this review on Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity, the AUX In is resampled with the TI PCM1808 ADC at 24/48. No wonder I'm seeing these results... BTW, that review shows measurements from the old firmware with notable jitter anomalies; I left a comment about this and the moderator deleted my message!

Bottom line is simple. If you want to maintain the highest quality output from your device, best not to pass it through the AUX In and go straight to a higher quality pre-amp.


VIII. Conclusions

There you have it everyone, I hope a reasonably thorough look at what the Oppo Sonica DAC can do for you through a more objective lens... Remember that subjectively I thought this device sounded excellent as I had previously discussed. Over the weeks, I've listened to more albums through this device and also utilized room-correction DSP to improve the sound in my room. Absolutely top-notch levels of sonic fidelity.

Also, check out the manual online to have a closer look at the operations if you have further queries.

In summary then:
1. This is a very high performance stereo line-level DAC. No headphone output. No extra fancy processing provided; look elsewhere for MQA for example. And no selection for digital filters (at least as of this current firmware).

2. For best performance, use XLR output. This generally goes for all of the better DACs with the option of RCA vs. XLR. Balanced output allows for improved noise rejection especially good if you have the need for longer cables.

3. Fantastic performance especially highlighted by the USB 2.0 interface. Very impressive low noise floor, microscopic levels of distortion, irrelevant amount of jitter (no need for advertising hype claiming "femtoclocks" and the like). This is of course what we expect of the ES9038Pro DAC - the current "top of the line" Sabre DAC from ESS.

4. S/PDIF performance was good, although objectively the output was bested by USB and DLNA network streaming. I found the level of jitter rejection through the S/PDIF to be excellent with this device.

5. Yes, by all means, enjoy upsampling to PCM 768kHz and DSD512 with software like HQPlayer, JRiver, and Audirvana+. Unlikely we'll ever see actual native music at such extreme bitrates (storage-wasting and absolutely unnecessary for human consumption). Remember that you'll need quite a fast CPU or GPU when converting/upsampling to DSD512 in realtime to avoid dropouts!

6. I found the DLNA streaming feature worked well. Logging on to my network with the initial set-up was easy with the Sonica App (I used the Android version). Streaming over DLNA from JRiver 22, I had no troubles at all. The device was easily found on my network, responsive, and sounded great. Spotify and TIDAL streaming are supported through the app so you can play music without needing a server computer running on your home network.

7. Don't use the AUX In for high quality sources. The 24/48 digital resampling for the AUX Input likely will diminish the quality of whatever device you're connecting. Not ideal but OK if all you're doing is connecting a "standard resolution" device like a CD or MP3 player. Maybe next time, they can use a higher quality 24/96 ADC.

8. Wish list:
- GAPLESS PLAYBACK - this is the big one. It's 2017, I've been doing gapless over the Squeezebox / Logitech Media Server system for years. A real shame that the DLNA streaming feature cannot handle this. The workaround of course is to do something like stream to a Raspberry Pi connected to this DAC through USB.
- Selectable digital filters. Not essential but I think this would be a nice addition since the ES9038Pro is touted as having 7 settings in PCM to choose from. Having this available also provides at least the sense of a more complete high-performance package for the audio enthusiast since we are missing other common features like headphone out. Also, I wonder if there's any way to turn off the Sabre's filter to run in NOS mode for those who might want to do this in conjunction with software upsampling? Remember that the recently released Oppo UDP-205 is even capable of selecting filters, and that's a video player!
- More levels of OLED dimming. Currently there are only 3 levels - "High" (full), "Dim" (maybe around 50%), and "Off" (turns on for ~5 seconds with sample rate changes or starting playback, then turns off). Surely we can do a few more levels than just the single "Dim"?
- A way to turn ON the device with Sonica App? At this time you can use the App to turn the device off / put to sleep but there's no way to turn it on other than pressing the front power button. I don't know if the hardware will allow it, but this would be useful for convenience.
- Support for other streaming options? How about Roon RAAT, HQPlayer NAA, or even good 'ol Squeezebox SlimProto TCP? These protocols would also allow gapless playback and presumably more seamless PCM/DSD transmission with RAAT and NAA. Probably unlikely to happen with this device but having options like these incorporated into future network-aware DACs seem like a worthwhile move.

Although not discussed today, Bluetooth 4.1 streaming works well although it is lossy compressed audio sent through my Samsung Galaxy Note 5 phone. It might be interesting showing the results of the RightMark test over Bluetooth another time.

The question then is: "Are we there yet?" in regards to high-fidelity playback of digital audio such that there's really nothing more we can ask of our desire for pristine playback quality. I would say yes. In fact, given the limitations of human hearing, we've been "there" for years now.

As I said a few weeks back, if we think about audio reproduction rationally, there does come a time when we have achieved "high fidelity" to a level where it really is "good enough". In terms of technical accuracy, I don't believe you can really beat the quality of the Sonica DAC using USB playback these days.

So if we're "there" in terms of sound quality with DACs, what's next? The obvious answer to that is features. Sure, maybe the next generation of ESS Sabre DAC chips in a few years could be smaller, use less energy, cheaper, and even provide a few more dB's of dynamic range, but IMO we've reached the end of the road when it comes to any "need" for technical accuracy. I think consumers are already expecting features like network connectedness, filter choice selection, perhaps MQA for some, DLNA/Roon compatibility, Bluetooth connectivity, gapless playback... The Sonica DAC can do some of this already but missing others as noted in my "wish list". All these features will become the most important elements of the "complete package" to differentiate devices as audiophiles recognize that they can still choose between "different sounding" gear, but technically "better sounding" has clearly reached a point of grossly diminished returns (this can be easily proven with blind testing high quality DACs).

No doubt, the Sonica DAC is a well constructed device offering reference quality sound in 2017 at an affordable price of ~US$800. Though I think there are a few things Oppo could have done to complete the feature set, and present a more thorough enthusiast-oriented package, but at this price point, I have yet to see any competitors challenge with similar ES9038Pro-based devices.

RacingPHT wanted to have a look at the AP measurements from Oppo for the Sonica DAC - here they are. Enjoy...

--------------------------

The other week, I went with a buddy to visit Commercial Electronics here in Vancouver. Specifically, I wanted to see first hand and listen to these babies:


Those are of course the BeoLab 90 speakers referring to the 90th anniversary of B&O in 2015. They are an interesting integration ("marriage" perhaps) of modern audio technologies: multiple small but powerful Class D integrated amplifiers (touted as 8200W total), multiple DACs, digital crossovers and DSP processing for room compensation. Check out the detailed whitepaper PDF to read more.

How do they sound? Well, there's an impressive ability to adjust DSP parameters like the "beam control" to change apparent width of sound dispersion and define direction of the "sweet spot". I see it's hooked up with gigabit ethernet to the store's music server system:

Check that out... No fancy power cable needed!
I was told it can handle up to 24/192 input. I listened to a few "classic" audiophile tracks like Steely Dan's "Babylon Sisters", tracks off Beyoncé's Lemonade, a few 2L samples, yes, even Diana Krall and The Eagles :-). Unfortunately I didn't see a CD player connected to these speakers to play my own CD I brought along.

Very clear sound. Good definition and nice "sparkle" (I can see why some have commented on these sounding a bit "bright"). On the "wide" setting, the soundstage is appropriately broad, and there's an "omni" mode as well. As usual, it's difficult to evaluate sound without a familiar, better, and quieter sound room. What I heard certainly had great potential. At an asking price of >US$80k (I was quoted a price of CAD$115k here in Canada), this of course better sound decent! :-)

I had seen pictures of the BeoLab 90 on the internet over the last couple of years and wasn't all that impressed. However, in real life I actually thought they looked OK if not "interesting"... They were not as tall as I had originally imagined. Obviously one would have to consider how they would look in the context of the rest of one's home decor!

Have a great week ahead folks and hope you're all enjoying the music!

34 comments:

  1. Excellent review and thank you very much for the file sharing!

    As an owner of active studio monitors, I think this DAC is all what I need. Although the DAC part of BDP105 seems also doing exceptionally well.

    Did you find any audible differences between minimal phase filter and linear phase filter with other DACs?

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    1. You're welcome RacingPHT.

      I find myself "immune" to the effects of minimum vs. linear phase filtering :-). I'm happy to leave everything to linear filtering simply because ringing is not a problem with properly bandwidth limited music given the samplerate (which should include ALL high fidelity albums). And linear filtering preserves phase response across the spectrum.

      Based on the research done on this blog a few years ago:
      http://archimago.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-linear-vs-minimum-phase-upsampling.html

      I see no significant reason to insist that there is such a thing as a "better" sounding setting that can be agreed upon. Notice that the blind test utilized rather steep filtering that accentuated the amount of ringing. The vast majority of DACs including the Oppo Sonica DAC here have filter parameters with far less ringing whether pre- or post-.

      Guys like Meridian (and now MQA) *want* us to believe that ringing is a big deal and that the impulse response somehow translates to "smearing" and other such claims, suggesting that a short minimum phase impulse response is "better". I believe this too is nonsense being sold to an uneducated audiophile press who disseminate without mindful consideration of the frequency domain imperfections this brings.

      Remember folks, the *iPhone* introduced the world to minimum phase filtering without great fanfare or claims of fidelity. I know for a fact that the iPhone 4 used minimum phase filters and that was released back in June 2010. The idea of "no pre-ringing" has been available to the public for a long time now...

      Delete
    2. Yes that DACs preserving wavefront shape(at lease to some degree) is a good idea. However with my 4 way 2.1 system with analog crossovers, the phase issue is probably much larger with loudspeakers systems and I feel phase issues is not very audible for me even at low frequency(I could bypass subwoofer crossover by a click and I still feel bass quality is better with Sub).

      BTW the best loudspeaker system I enjoyed consists of a MBL 4 way speaker and the "phase issue" seems to be much worse than a single driver system.Yet I feel the dynamic is very lifelike.

      Delete
  2. Once again, thank you for the nice review.

    As you know there are DACs that sell for many multiples of the Sonica's price. I'm sure there are people who would claim that these uber-pricey DACs sound "much" better than the Sonica which would directly contradict the notion that the Sonica's performance represents the ultimate "pristine playback quality", given the "limitations of human hearing".

    While you were discussing those BeoLab speakers I was thinking that Commercial Electronics must also sell some very pricey DACs. Wouldn't it be interesting to take your Sonica in to do a head-to-head comparison with some of their DACs to see if, in fact, there really isn't any need to spend more?

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    1. Hi Doc,
      Interesting idea about taking the Sonica over and trying. Actually, it would be even easier to take the SMSL iDEA over and do an A/B test :-).

      The problem with audio has always been that it's ephemeral. Unlike an image which we can capture and show everyone what we see...

      Even if I brought over the Sonica DAC, had a listen intently with a couple of buddies and the sales guy, what difference would that make unless I can document it and express it so that others can understand what I'm hearing... This is of course why I think objective analysis is essential in this hobby. Subjective claims can be made and *are* made all the time. Much of it is meaningless and some of it blatantly false or stated with financial gains in mind.

      Over the years, with the testing and discovering stuff like the jitter anomalies in the Sonica preview, I'm of the personal opinion that objective measurements, even if they don't tell the whole story, expresses a very substantial part of what we hear. "Reviews" IMO would be extremely incomplete without a reasonable technical evaluation!

      Delete
    2. Have you had a chance to do a subjective head-to-head between the SMSL iDEA and the Sonica? Objectively they seem very similar.

      Delete
    3. Yes.

      Indeed... Very similar :-)

      Pssst... Don't tell my wife how much the cost differential is!

      Delete
  3. Archimago, you really should get yourself a better ADC. For example your jitter plots. They have the same noise floor in 16 and 24 bit. That can not be. The needles in 16 bit are too short, the noise floor is too high. At 24 bit the noise floor should be at least 10 dB lower so that the measurement reveals sidebands that are hidden with the 16 bit one. But it seems your ADC limits the measurement to 16 bit resolution, as there is no difference to see.

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    1. Hi Techland...

      The noise floor on the diagram is more complicated than that. Yes, a nice ADC would be better and allow me to look even deeper into the noise floor but remember that I'm using the freely available WavSpectra for those jitter tests set at 130k sample points for both 16 and 24-bit measurements. Apparent noise floor is related to the *bin width* of the FFT sample points. You do not expect that the apparent noise floor will be different between the 16-bit and 24-bit J-Test FFTs.

      For example, something like a professional Audio Precision will use 1.2M points as in the download package from Oppo and this will improve the apparent noise floor while resolution of the frequency peaks get better as well. (Doubling of the number of bins in the FFT will lower the plotted noise floor by 3dB.) If you look at both 16-bit and 24-bit tests from Oppo, the noise floor is around -150dB; you don't see the FFT floor drop for the 24-bit test - it's not supposed to.

      Here's AP's article on "FFT Scaling for Noise":
      https://www.ap.com/technical-library/fft-scaling-for-noise/

      What you DO see however is the effect from the jitter "stimulation" tone which is that 250Hz LSB square wave and all the harmonics. A low noise, high resolution DAC will allow those harmonics to peek through as per the Sonica DAC here so long as the ADC has >16-bit resolution (which the Focusrite Forte has).

      Sure, I'll be happy if someone wanted to donate AP measurement equipment :-)... But honestly, the human ear is *nowhere* as sensitive as the ADC already. Remember, the human mind/ear does have very significant limitations compared to the accuracy of a machine these days. For example, if I had 2 signals - one simply 11kHz -6dBFS sine and another one with the 16-bit J-Test 250Hz LSB squarewave, there is ZERO chance the human ear would be able to differentiate the two at anything close to normal listening levels unless jitter were truly awful and gets stimulated badly by the LSB tone... However, we can see that my ADC has absolutely no problem showing us the effect of the 250Hz squarewave and the morphology of it with the jitter-free Sonica DAC.

      Delete
    2. You are right. I checked my measurements again and seem to have remembered those incorrectly. My noisefloor is at about -160 dBFS using a 262k FFT, and it stays there at both 16 and 24 bit test signals (as expected just all the jitter peaks are gone at 24 bits). Note that the peak signal is at about -5 dBFS, much higher than yours. The 16 bit jitter needles peak out about 30 dB of the noise floor - around 15 dB in your pics. This much better resolution is from a less noisy ADC, not millions of points.

      Delete
    3. That's nice Techland, remind me, which ADC is that you're using?

      Again, I don't think for human consumption, we really need that kind of ultimate resolution. Especially for real music where the noise floor of the recordings themselves are essentially never complete "silence".

      To be able to measure reasonably closely spaced frequency anomalies down around -140dB I think would easily surpass what any human hearing would accomplish!

      Delete
  4. HpW Works

    Hi Archimago. Have you had the chance to try HpW Works for Jitter Analysis? Besides AP, I have had very good experience with that software, especially for J-Test measurements. Thanks.

    Juergen

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    1. Thanks again for the tip on HpW :-).

      Delete
  5. Let me have one question on "software" volume control in Sonica DAC. This device in fact combines DAC + Streamer + Pre-Amp. Your measurement proves high quality of DAC and as well some feature limitation of Streamer (no gap less playback). But how good is the output, when I connect Sonica directly to power-amp and l set the volume down to 9 o'clock? Why am I asking? I have quite powerful amp, but smaller speakers. On my pre-amp I usually set volume between 9 to 12 o'clock. I'm afraid the dynamic range of the output might be limited due to software volume control. Any experience or opinion, please?

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    1. Hi Pavel,
      I ran a little listening test this afternoon... I set my preamp to 0dB, and used the volume control on the Sonica DAC set at -25dB to listen at normal levels through my dual Emotiva XPA-1L monoblocks (250W into 8-ohms) to Paradigm Signature S8's. XLR outputs.

      It sounds great. Not exactly optimal of course and in fact should be worse than a direct connection to the power amps... But noise level is low with good subjective resolution.

      These days, with 32-bit DACs, a -30dB reduction to hit a comfortable listening level would only amount to 5-bits worth of attenuation any way. With a high resolution DAC like this, I'm happy to stick with digital volume control.

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    2. Thank you very much for your tests!

      Delete
  6. Hello
    Archimago
    Do you compare this dac with an R2R dac like Audio-GD S19?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've seen a couple other reviews that say it's okay but nothing special. I expected better.

    IMO, when they decided to use the flagship DAC IC from ESS, they should have used a linear supply in this DAC. Or at least have provided an external DC power input so people can tweak and perhaps improve the performance.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Archimago
    Excellent review, thanks.
    Is the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital on your radar?
    - also ES9038PRO based
    - MQA unfolding in Hardware
    - headphone amp
    - developed by John Westlake
    - 350 Euro
    At that price quite a package.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the heads up!

      Interesting specs indeed. I'll keep it on the radar for sure. I did have a quick look online and see that it only has single-ended RCA outputs... Hmmm, seems a shame given they've gone all the way with the high-end DAC chip and dual mono design!!!

      Delete
    2. Single ended seems ok for a unit measuring 103mm square ..
      :-)
      This is what John Westlake had to say about his baby in the MDAC thread on pinkfishmedia:

      "Its a good little DAC, Dual ESS9038Q2M, Multi regulated PSU, Polypropylene capacitors and precision MELF resistors etc... but you have to consider its small size and theres only so much that can be squeezed into such as design and yet still keeping it simple for production in Europe.
      You want a small no nonsense DAC for your Office / Bedroom etc its perfect.
      Supports MQA and is Roon certified...
      The DAC really appreciates a good clean PSU - and works very well with the Detox.
      Its also works well with DSD DSD performance has been much improved with the new Hyperstream II DAC's from ESS - I'm glad that we are able to use the latest Hyperstream II devices"

      I am in no affiliated with either John Westlake or Pro-Ject. Simply found this an extremely interesting specimen pushing the envelope for low cost devices.

      Rudi

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    3. Sorry, just saw it's ESS9038Q2M not ESS9038PRO

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  9. the output might be limited due to software volume control. Any experience or opinion, please?


    gclub

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  10. Thanks for the review. Which is the better measuring dac, Oppo Sonica or the Teac NT-503?

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    1. Lots of differences between those 2 devices! I would not pick one over the other based on say just the measured output from the XLR analogue for example.

      If the question is; which DAC chip has better measurements in terms of resolution between the ESS ES9038Pro vs. AKM AK4490? Then probably the ESS would win with lower noise floor.

      Having said this, the AKM has a volume bypass "direct" DSD mode for what that's worth...

      And I would not be at all surprised that sonic differences are minimal in a volume controlled blind test :-).

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    2. OK, thanks. Yes, I'd be most interested in XLR out being used as a pre too and measuring the output of the dac in doing that. Whether a dScope or AP.

      Your last sentence though is probably the key! Most of this stuff can't be picked out in a true scientific controlled test.

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    3. While I generally think the Sonica is a good product, it has much more potential. However, Oppo appears to not give the Sonica the attention it gives its blu-ray players. It is my impression that the Sonica and the UDP-205 have similar audio sections. The UDP-205 just received beta firmware that allows it to decode MQA files. Similarly, the UDP-205 and 203 are usable as Roon endpoints and the 205 allows you to access the digital filters of the ESS sabre DAC -- no such luck with the Sonica. I began to get annoyed, since I have purchase many Oppo video devices in the past (BDP-105) and have been impressed by the value-added after the sale. I wrote to Oppo about this as follows:

      "I own a Sonica DAC and am very disappointed you are not giving this product the attention you are giving to your blu-ray players, given that the audio section of the sonica is very similar to that of the 205. I am especially disappointed that, unlike the 205, you are not offering MQA support. I am also disappointed that you can't use the adjustable filters on the Sonica, as you can on the 205.

      I have owned many Oppo products in the past (primarily blu-ray players), and don't remember a product being treated like an afterthought like the Sonica DAC, which has the potential to be an even better product.

      This will make me reconsider my purchasing options int he future.

      Please let me know if you have any additional plans for the Sonica."

      This is the response I received:

      "The Sonica DAC has received more attention than our players as we included streaming service support for Tidal and Spotify which will never be a part of the UDP-20x series of players, and the lack of MQA decoding is related to the processing power in the Sonica DAC being substantially lower that used in the UDP-205 players. So the ability to support processing intensive instructions, like MQA, is something that may limit the capabilities of the Sonica DAC."

      I find it hard to believe that the Sonica has less processing power than the Audioquest Dragonfly, Bluesound Node 2 and IFI idsd nano black label, all of which are cheaper than the Sonica and support MQA decoding. I conveyed these sentiments to Oppo.

      Oppo's approach to the Sonica makes no sense to me. How do they expect to keep customers if they respond differently to customers who buy products other than their blu-ray players.

      Any thoughts about this? If you feel similarly, consider conveying this to Oppo.




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    4. I don't have a Sonica. But if I did, it wouldn't bother me if it was not able to decode MQA. However it would be nice to know that it had some extra DSP power for the ability to add other features in the future.

      I questioned why Oppo didn't design the Sonica DAC with a high quality linear supply instead of the switching supply?

      From what I've read, seems like reviewers don't think it's anything special or even a great value. If so, It's surprising that Oppo would use the ESS flagship DAC chip in the Sonica but fail to implement it as best as possible

      Perhaps they will offer an upgraded model at some point and include those extra features.

      PS. I thought I read that the Dragonfly doesn't do full MQA decode?

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    5. Hi Bruce,
      I can certainly appreciate your concern about the lack of an MQA upgrade to the Sonica when the BDP-205 has been given this ability in firmware.

      While Oppo might feel differently, I agree that if they really want to position the Sonica as a specialized audiophile DAC, they should make every effort to include MQA as a feature - who else is likely going to care after all!? Furthermore, since TIDAL is featured on the DAC, having internal MQA decoding would ideally round out the package. Even though I am far from being pro-MQA :-), I can appreciate the desire of a complete solution like this! In fact, this would be a great selling point for the device.

      As suggested by the Oppo response, it looks like the internal processor might not have the juice for the full decode which is what would be needed if it is to stream TIDAL from the network. Remember that the Dragonfly Black is only a "renderer" but not decoder. It might be worth asking if the Sonica DAC is capable of just the "rendering" step when attached to USB input and not actively streaming off the network. Who knows, perhaps there's enough power to also do decoding in USB input mode.

      Full disclosure, I actually sold my Sonica DAC a couple months back! A friend gave me an offer I could not refuse and since I still have my excellent TEAC UD-501 on the audio rack, he "needed" to upgrade his DAC more than I had use of it... In any event, I will fire off an E-mail to Oppo to ask and specifically inquire if MQA "rendering" +/- "decoding" might be possible through USB input. Certainly no harm for Sonica DAC owners to ask!

      Larry: The Sonica DAC *does* have a linear power supply with a good sized toroidal transformer.

      Just the same, remember that linear or switching doesn't in itself guarantee good sound.

      Remember Benchmark's demo to dispel the myth that "switching supplies are noisy" from 2016:

      https://benchmarkmedia.com/blogs/application_notes/152143111-audio-myth-switching-power-supplies-are-noisy

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    6. Thanks, for some reason I thought I read that it had a switching supply. I think men like heavy transformers. Not sure I completely agree with the Benchmark demo. I think high frequency noise wreaks havoc in other ways. But no doubt they've gotten better. As have Class D amplifiers. But still not sure I'd go for Hypex over a big Pass Class A amp unless I needed multiple channels.

      Well, I hope Oppo takes the DAC market more seriously and offers an upgraded model.

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  11. I received my Sonica today. Based on archimago's measurements, I was really hoping it wouldn't be a noticeable upgrade from the Chromecast Audio, but unfortunately it is.

    A physical remote would have been useful to switch sources (haven't figured out how to do this with the Sonica app) and control volume because my control point is jRemote for jRiver.

    Interestingly the RCA output of the Sonica is a lot lower than that of the CCA. I have the volume control disabled on the Sonica and I really have to crank up the integrated amp attached to it to get to my normal listening levels.

    And yes, the Oppo has a toroidal transformer - one of the reasons I bought it; I love toroidal transformers (for no technical reason - they just always seem to sound better to me) which is why I prefer the Emotiva BasX (cheaper!) line to their newer "Class H" switching PSU amps.

    Thank you archimago for your measurements. Measurements plus a good return policy make for the best combination. You get equipment that measures well, try to see if you like the sound and return if you don't. Perfect!

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    1. So I guess the Sonica doesn't really have a pre-amp section with a gain stage.

      Also, lack of gapless playback over DLNA is unforgivable. I've written to OPPO about this.

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    2. Reply from OPPO:
      "The ability to support gapless playback through the network as well as through attached USB storage is something that we are looking into supporting, but we do not know yet at this time if this is a feature that we can add through a future firmware release.

      So if gapless playback is a necessary feature for the Sonica DAC, then we would recommend having it returned for refund as we can't guarantee that this will be added to a future firmware release."

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  12. Arcimago,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Still find it hard to believe that the Sonica DAC doesn't have the processing power to do full MQA decoding. My BluSound Node 2 and ifi idsd nano black label both do full decoding, as well as the Meridan Explorer -- all much cheaper than the Sonica.

    As you say, why market a specialized product if you are unwilling to give it the support it deserves.

    There have been no firmware update to the Sonica since May. Contrast this with the UDP-205.

    Very surprised by Oppo given the excellent support they give their Blu-Ray players.

    If they aren't willing to give the attention to a specialized products it deserves, why bother!!

    Sonica owners, if you care, let Oppo know how you feel.

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