The purpose of a DAC (Digital Analog Converter) sounds disarmingly simple. To convert digital signals to analog. Every aspect of modern life depends on them, even if few are aware of it. Every smartphone, computer, tablet, music player and more utilize them, with prices and complexity ranging from pennies to thousands of dollars. So, when Oppo Digital announced their new Oppo Sonica DAC – Audiophile DAC & Network Streamer, the audio world took notice. What would their take be on creating a DAC for the age of streaming audio, high-res files, and NAS devices?
So, imagine yourself in their shoes. Oppo has a long history of exemplary audio and video products, based around optical disc players, from their early Universal DVD decks to later Blu-ray, and a few years ago they entered into the personal audio space. Personal audio is a risky area to enter into, as the distribution channels are more challenging, consumers view products almost like fashion accessories, so marketing an earphone for example is more difficult than a Blu-ray player. Oppo in typical fashion produced a series of superb planar magnetic headphones, a best-of-class Class A headphone Amplifier, the HA-1, followed by two portable DACs with integrated amplifier, the HA-2, and HA-2 SE, a finally a standout tabletop streaming speaker system, the Sonica, all of which provided a roadmap for their next generation of hardware.
Because Oppo’s reputation was built on hardware, the kind you plug into a wall, it was a sure bet that along with developing 4K UHD Blu-ray players they would take that hardware expertise into other areas. The first of these directed efforts resulted in the Sonica Speaker System, which we reviewed last year. What made that unit a standout product was its embrace of an app driven ecosystem. The unit didn't employ a DAC, but rather a digital converter that in concert with the app on your phone or tablet, allowed files to be played without ever entering into the analog world, until the last step, the digital audio amplifiers. So, with the flick of a finger, you could play just about any audio format, from almost any source, from DNLA adherent NAS devices, streaming audio, and even an external analog audio source plugged into the speaker with a cable controlled by the app.
This isn’t ancient history, as it provided the workflow for their next product, the Sonica DAC. In many ways the Sonica DAC is contradictory. On one hand its output is purely stereo analog, no multichannel capability, so almost retro in that aspect. Looking for an HDMI port? Well, keep looking, you won’t find one on the Sonica DAC. Yet on the other hand it's designed for the most current of digital workflows.
So, who is the Sonica DAC designed for? Anyone who wants a state-of-the-art no compromise stereo DAC. I tested it using a few different systems including a Pioneer AV Receiver that allows for Pure Direct, which is straight non-digitized audio, no room corrections, just straight audio. I also tested with an older GAS Thalia Pre-Amp, into an upgraded Hafler DH-200 amplifier. Physically it’s not a large unit, 10 x 3 x 14.2 inches, and weighs in at a solid 10.4 lbs. This feels like a solid brick of metal, with a flawless high-quality fit and finish. It has a small OLED display to alert you to the status of the unit, but in practice once you set it up, it’s not really needed again since you can do everything from the app.
The inputs include Wi-Fi, LAN (Ethernet), USB Audio (Computer) and USB Host (Hard drive), and optical and coaxial SPDIF inputs. Included are single ended and balanced outputs, and for installers, included is a trigger input and output, allowing it to be controlled by external gear.
Setup is easy, and because of previous testing, we already had the Sonica App installed on both our iPad and Samsung Android phones. But even for a first-timer, setting up the app is very easy. The app can support multiple devices, so we found ourselves streaming different music to the Sonica Speaker and to the Sonica DAC. It supports Spotify Premium and TIDAL, and the previously mentioned analog input which can be switched on from the Sonica App, and finally Bluetooth streaming. The audio output is balanced, from the DAC chip to the XLR outputs. The stereo RCA outputs are converted from the balanced outputs.
The hardware specs are extraordinary for a unit at this price. The DAC chipset is the new flagship of the ESS SABRE PRO series, the ESS Technology ES9038PRO 32-bit HyperStream DAC. OPPO states that “the ES9038PRO sets a new benchmark for audio excellence with its best in class 140 dB of dynamic range.” In other words, if you want the state-of-the-art in the DAC, the Sonica DAC doesn't disappoint. Similar to the power supply in their HA-1 Headphone Amp and DAC, and in their Blu-ray players, the unit is powered by “a massive toroidal power transformer, which offers superior efficiency and significantly lower exterior magnetic field interference compared to traditional laminated steel core transformers.”
How will most folks use it? While you can plug in into your computer, much like any traditional DAC, our hunch is that few folks will end up using it that way. We predict that it will be used as the heart of a system, completely controlled by the app. The app had a few hiccups at first, but they were tamed by software updates, and a firmware update or two. There are a few features that we hope that Oppo adds to the app. At the moment, there isn’t an indication of the sample rate or bit-depth when playing songs, so for us, when we do an A/B comparison of a 44.1khz file vs. 96khz, there isn’t a way to figure out what file you are playing. The GUI is somewhat minimal, it does the trick but could use a bit more attention and gussying up.
For example, the Oppo Blu-ray Players and the HA-1 both display track information while playing, and the HA-1 provides a graphical display as well. So, it would be useful if those same capabilities were added into the Sonica App. Will this be compatible with MQA? Possibly through the app, similar to the approach taken with a browser plug-in, but Oppo had no announcements. This week saw the first serious implementation of MQA firmware updates by their partners including AudioQuest, whose Black and Red Dragonfly DACs finally received their MQA firmware updates this week. So, perhaps we will start to see more MQA implementation. Of course this only impacts folks using MQA streaming at the moment as there are few other MQA encoded tracks. One issue of hardware based MQA decoding is that the tech specs are far from settled, and many older or even current devices won’t be able to handle the increased processing requirements unless specfically designed for it. There are a few things that I’d have loved to seen included, including a headphone jack, and multichannel capability, but I understand that it was meant to be a stereo only component, but maybe in a future model? I do think that a headphone jack would be a welcome addition, especially for anyone seeking to use this with a computer. But, the HA-1 handles those responsibilities just fine, so I can see Oppo not wanting to muddle the product matrix.
How does the Oppo Sonica DAC sound? As you might expect from any past experience with Oppo products it sounds wonderful. When I compared it to the Oppo 105 Universal Blu-ray Audiophile player, the sound signature was almost identical, which is as much a testament to the 105’s much heralded audio tuning as it is the family tree the Sonica DAC joins. How to describe the sound? Precise, open, airy, and invisible. If there was a difference between the 105 and the Sonica DAC it’s subtle. The new unit seems a bit more open with the soundstage and some transients seemed more defined. Overall, every bit of content we threw at it, played back seamlessly, not only technically, but in terms of audio footprint. HD Tracks supplied the new Bob Dylan “Triplicate” title, “The Doors” 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition”, Green Day “Revolution Radio”, and the recently remastered Paul McCartney title “Flowers in the Dirt”.
The Sonica DAC has an almost neutral audio stance, thus vocals, orchestral, jazz, rock, big band, ballads, and folk music all sounded exemplary. The Sonica DAC is ideal for the heart of a system that will probably end up being all things to all people. In our home, it’s not uncommon for the Sex Pistols to be followed by Phillip Glass, and Thelonious Monk to segue into The Wild Tchoupitoulas. Listening to John McEuen’s “Mr. Bojangles” revealed the bottom end warmth, while Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” felt even more road worn and celebratory. All were recent high-resolution remastered releases, and never sounded better.
But to really gauge the unit’s capabilities, you need modern high-resolution recordings. So, the superbly recorded titles from Chesky Records including the recent Camille Thurman, John McEuen, David Chesky, and Macy Gray releases really do steal the show. Joining the list were the new Dylan “Triplicate” and Green Day “Revolution Radio” titles. True high-res music begins with high-res recordings, and those releases reinforce that fact. With the recent release of the Oppo 4K UDP-205 Universal Audiophile Blu-ray player, and its upgraded components, new ESS PRO DAC chipset, updated headphone amplifier and other sonic and hardware improvements, it will be curious how it will fare against the Sonica DAC. Look for a review of the Oppo 205 in the near future.
The Oppo Sonica DAC represents a merging of three worlds. First, as an analog only stereo component; secondly, a world-class Digital Analog Converter, with a no compromise DAC coupled with an immaculately engineered and executed analog stage, and finally; third, as a component that revolves around a modern app driven approach to music content, including streaming, NAS, Bluetooth, USB, and more. Several reviews have commented on its affordable price, but even at $800 it’s not a purchase that anyone should enter into lightly. Fortunately, the Oppo Sonica DAC delivers on every promise, from audio quality to a contemporary approach to source and track selection. The build quality is first-rate, and it’s a component that has a large degree of future proofing due to its app driven software, and updatable firmware, and at its price point, there isn’t any serious competition in the audiophile arena. The Oppo Sonica DAC comes highly recommended.
Harris Fogel, with additional editorial assistance from Nancy Burlan, posted 5/25/2017
For more information on the Oppo Sonica DAC – Audiophile DAC & Network Streamer visit: www.oppodigital.com
For more information on HD Tracks visit: www.hdtracks.com