Two products that the consumer tech world is awash with are cell phone cases and wireless portable speaker systems. So, when Oppo announced a new small wireless speaker we were interested. A small company, Oppo has garnered just about every award and commendation for their line of Blu-ray players, planar magnetic headphones, and high-quality headphone amplifiers and DAC's. So, we wondered what would differentiate their take on a wireless speaker from the rest of the pack. Plenty it turns out!
The Oppo Sonica Wi-Fi Speaker System is a small unit, with a gently rounded fabric covered front measuring 11.85” Length x 5.8” Depth x 5.3” Height, and weighs in at a solid 5.3 Lbs. Our test unit was black, which is available now, but there is a silver version on the way. According to Oppo, “Structurally, Sonica is molded from tough, glass-filled ABS polymer compounds, and the enclosure’s shape was purposefully designed with curved surfaces for a wider sound field. Multiple internal reinforcement ribs provide maximum stability. The power supply and amplifiers are installed on a solid metal baseplate that facilitates heat dissipation and results in cooler, more reliable long term operation of the active components in the speaker.”
The Sonica has five drivers in total, 3 active, one long throw 3.5-inch woofer powered by a 30 watt Class D amplifier, accompanied by two 3” bass radiators. Two additional Class D amplifiers, 10-watts each, power a stereo pair of 2.5" wideband drivers, creating a 2.1 stereo configuration. The wideband drivers are protected from waveform interference caused by the woofer by the use of individual isolation cups. The system is world-ready with autosensing for voltage, so the Sonica will work with just about any voltage you might find throughout the world. No need for lousy sounds on the road! It can be used as a Bluetooth speaker as well in addition to a standard Auxiliary Input.
An upcoming feature will allow you to automatically equalize the speaker for whatever room you place it in, similar to home theater calibration, and audiophile calibration schemes. Utilizing Dirac Room Calibration, a brand new and easy-to-use room correction software tailored for Android and iOS devices. This will allow the system to compensate for room dynamics, and more. At the current time it hasn’t been implemented in the app, but will be ready in the near future. OPPO Digital plans to release this feature via firmware and app updates in the Sonica Wi-Fi Speakers. We think that this feature alone will set the Sonica apart from its competition.
So, how does it sound? The answer is terrific, especially belying its small size and footprint. Igor Levitsky, the legendary designer behind the critically acclaimed OPPO planar magnetic headphones, did the acoustic design and tuning of the Sonica Wi-Fi Speaker and it shows. The bass is tight, can shake a room, yet bass is controlled and musical. The mid and high end sounds like a quality component system, free from sibilance and harshness. To really get the most out of the system, you need to download the free Oppo Sonica app, available for Android and Apple iOS. The app is necessary to set the system up on your network, and to tailor the sound quality and EQ. After you install, it guides you step by step to link the unit to your Wi-Fi or Ethernet network.
The app is where part of the magic occurs. Once on the network, it instantly found our Seagate NAS Pro, and in a few seconds we were listening to a 192khz/24 bit version of “Little Crimes” the new Melissa Menago title from Chesky Records. This is amazing in a product at this price, and the lack of technical knowledge it required. Not only were we listening to a high-res file with no effort at all, it found and played the file from our network much faster than even our dedicated computer systems and software. When we attended a recent High-Resolution symposium at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, one key requirement for success that everyone agreed on is the need for the industry to insure that playback of hi-res music files is painless and trouble free. The combination of the Oppo Sonica App, and the Oppo Sonica speaker, proves just how easy it can be. Using the app you are simply selecting music, no need to even think about format, resolution, bit-depth, or even file size.
Listening to the Melissa Menago title on the Sonica, the room was filled with even the most delicate nuances of the ambient sound of the recording, created using the Chesky Binaural Plus microphone system that even picked up the sound of the rain gently falling on the roof of the church it was recorded in. The Sonica’s stereo separation was better than we expected given the single unit configuration. Menago is best known at the lead singer for the band June Divided, Little Crimes is an acoustic performance with Menago on vocals and guitar, Chris Kissel on guitar, and Keith Gill on percussion. The delicacy of Menago’s vocals really shine on this recording, and surprising selections such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow which transitions into Such Great Heights, or her version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The album has the sense of a musician delighted to step away from the hardware demands that rock and roll demands, this is truly an unplugged performance, and both Chesky’s production and the performance are in sync.
We then shifted to the newly released Van Morrison “It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Volumes II, III, & IV” title. This is the first time recordings of these concerts have been released, and they were lovingly remixed from the master tapes, so represent the best possible audio quality, courtesy Sony/Legacy Records whose responsibility is the Sony and CBS back catalog and reissues. Many music fans consider the original release to be Morrison’s best live recording, and among the best live albums in rock and roll, and it's included in many best-of lists. With the Sonica, Morrison’s impassioned vocals, the punch and power of the New Caledonia Orchestra came through loud and clear. This is a speaker system clearly unafraid of bass. Switching to the HD Tracks new hi-res release of Mudcrutch 2, proved the system a good match for a well recorded and performed set of rock tracks. A few clicks on the app led to the Room Optimization feature, which has presets for different EQ options, and we selected one that emphasized the bass. The Mudcrutch recording has plenty of well-defined bass lines via Tom Petty’s return to the bass. Once again, the Sonica didn’t disappoint, and the room was energized. We pushed it as loud as the app would allow and it sounded good, although at 95% and above a bit of sibilance started to make itself known. But, it was very loud, filling a large room, and the bass had no hint of distortion at all. A small tabletop system like this isn’t intended to replace a dedicated component system, but for its size, it’s a serious performer capable of musical and nuanced sound.
The system can play just about any audio format you throw at it, including: AAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, APE, FLAC, M4A, M4A (Apple Lossless) ALAC, MP2, OGG, WAV, & WMA. And best of all, it’s all the same to the app, which just goes about its business as a music player. It can also select streaming services such as Tidal or utillize Apple AirPlay. We were confused about precisely how the system was able to play the different formats. Our original inclination was that the Oppo Sonica App was decoding the files and then sending that data to the speaker. It turns out that idea was wrong, and that our concerns that the app might be a resource hog on your phone or tablet were unwarranted.
What is actually happening is this. The app directs the speaker to the location of the music files or streaming service, and the speaker has a decoder chip that does the heavy lifting of format and resolution conversion to a digital signal that then is fed directly to the digital amplifiers, so while the system works like a DAC, its actually not a DAC. Accordingly if you use Bluetooth or the Aux input you don’t get the benefits of the decoding or high-bit capability, so for the best quality audio you need the app and high-quality source files. We played WAV and MP3 files, as well as Apple Lossless and AAC files, all without a hitch. Want greater stereo separation, then you can order two units, and the system will treat them as a stereo pair. Want to place units in different rooms? Well the system supports multi-room configurations.
We found the Oppo Sonica Speaker an extraordinarily well-thought out and executed system. With its unique combination of a dedicated app, full network and Wi-Fi connectivity, and the ability to play just about any file format, coupled with sterling sound that is the equal of more expensive systems, and the feature set on the app surpasses other systems like the B&W Zeppelin series, but at a bargain price. None of this should come as any surprise to Oppo fans, since Oppo's hallmark is superb equipment at affordable prices, and the Oppo Sonica is no exception to that history. The Oppo Sonica Speaker system comes highly recommended!
Harris Fogel, with additional reporting by Thomas Fogel-Burlan, posted 6/20/2016
For more information on the Oppo Sonica Wi-Fi Speaker visit: http://www.oppodigital.com/sonica/sonica-WiFi-Speaker-Overview.aspx
For more information on HD Tracks visit: www.hdtracks.com
For more information on the Chesky Records visit: www.chesky.com