Many enthusiasts recognise Oppo Digital as a manufacturer of overachieving universal disc players, high performance planar magnetic headphones, and related personal audio electronics. But, over the past year or two, Oppo has begun to explore the wireless audio product category, first through its Sonica-series multi-room wireless speaker systems and now through the audiophile-grade Sonica DAC/network streamer, which is the subject of this review.
I first encountered the Sonica DAC at a trade show late last year, where I had a chance to speak with Oppo’s Chief Technology Officer Jason Liao about the unit. Liao, who is often modest to a fault, carefully outlined the elaborate features and functions of the Sonica DAC and then said, very softly, “I think it’s the best sounding source component Oppo has ever built,” which was saying a mouthful, considering the source. I decided then and there that, pending Editor Sircom’s approval, Hi-Fi+ would have to review the unit once it entered full production to see what it could do.
In trying to understand the Sonica DAC’s capabilities, it helps to start by looking at its primary function, which is to serve as a versatile, audiophile-grade DAC. To fill that brief, the Sonica DAC is based upon ESS Technology’s ES9038PRO 32-bit HyperStream DAC device, which is the flagship of the ESS SABRE PRO-series range and is said to offer a stonking 140dB of dynamic range. The DAC’s USB input supports PCM audio from 44.1 kHz up to 768 kHz with word lengths of 16, 24, or 32-bits; it also converts DSD 64, 128, and 256 in DoP (DSD over PCM) or native format, and can even handle DSD512 in native format. Additionally, the DAC provides connections for USB storage devices, coaxial and optical (Toslink) S/PDIF inputs, plus a host of network streaming inputs, which we will touch upon in a moment. The S/PDIF inputs, network inputs, and USB storage device inputs, support PCM files captured at 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz rates with bit depths of 16 to 24-bits, plus DSD 64 files.
In the interest of achieving high signal purity and low noise, the Sonica DAC provides fully balanced analogue circuitry from end to end (that is, it preserves a balanced circuit topology all the way from the DAC chip on through to the XLR connector-equipped balanced outputs on the rear panel). In fact, Oppo stresses that even the single-ended, RCA jack-equipped outputs rely upon an output signal that is, “converted from the balanced output.” Oppo claims that its balanced circuit design, “provides better common-mode noise rejections, improves signal quality, and results in better channel separation by eliminating the common ground return path.”
Feeding the Sonica’s digital and analogue audio sections is a beefy power supply based upon what Oppo describes as, “a massive toroidal transformer, which offers superior efficiency and significantly lower exterior magnetic field interference compared to traditional laminated steel core transformers.” This helps explain, in part, the fact that while the Sonica DAC is not a physically large unit, it nevertheless tips the scales at a hefty 4.7 kg (a weight exceeding that of some of Oppo’s earlier generation universal disk players). Suffice it to say that when you lift the Sonica DAC from its box, it presents itself with an impressive quality of heft that suggests it is a substantial component in more ways than one.
If offered purely as a conventional digital-to-analogue-converter, I suspect Oppo’s Sonica DAC would win acclaim as a product offering exceptional sound quality and uncommon value for money. But, the simple fact of the matter is that the Sonica is much more than just a conventional DAC, because it is also a full-featured and elegant network streamer and digital audio player. Specifically, the Sonica DAC is capable of connecting to its owner’s home network—either via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and then of connecting to any DLNA servers, network-attached USB storage devices, or streaming service applications such as Spotify or Tidal that the owner may have in place. Moreover, users can connect USB storage devices directly to the Sonica DAC, and play files from those devices under the control of a free app available from Oppo. Finally, the Sonica DAC offers Bluetooth 4.1 and Apple Airplay connectivity, meaning it can stream wireless audio content from iOS or Android smartphones, tablets, etc.
What makes all this streaming content relatively easy to access is Oppo’s free, clever, and easy-to-use Sonica app, which is offered in Apple iOS or Android versions. After downloading and installing the Sonica app on the control device of choice, one simply verifies that the device is connected to the home network and then walks through a simple, straightforward set-up procedure through which the app first ‘discovers’ the Sonica DAC, then configures the DAC for connection to the home network, then seeks out available network storage resources and/or USB storage devices connected to the DAC itself, and finally enables playback of files from those resources through the app’s user interface. The Sonica app is not as full featured as similar apps I have seen from AURALiC, Naim, or Roon, but it is blessedly simple to install and to use, meaning you won’t need an advanced degree in Computer Science to make the music happen. (In an overly complex world, simplicity can be a great gift, wouldn’t you say?)
Looking to put the Sonica DAC through its paces, I connected it to the analogue inputs of the remarkable and very revealing new Sonoma Acoustics Model One Electrostatic Headphone system. This not only gave me the opportunity to evaluate the sonic performance of the Sonica DAC through an extremely high-resolution transducer, but also enabled me to compare it with the high performance DAC built into the Sonoma system’s electrostatic headphone amplifier.
If I had to sum up the Sonica DAC’s sound in just one word, the word I would choose is “masterful”—a word not often associated with sub-£1,000 DAC/streamers. (Come to think of it, there really aren’t very many sub-£1,000 DAC/streamers on the market, are there?) I call the sound masterful because, in ways large and small, dramatic and subtle, the Sonica DAC tackles all kinds of musical material with a sophisticated, extremely revealing, and sure-handed touch. Yet unlike components so fixated on ‘detail retrieval’ that they lose the main musical thread, the Sonica always retains a graceful, appropriate, and authentic touch of musical ‘sweetness’ (where the recording permits this). I am not speaking about sweetness of the cloying or syrupy kind, but rather about the sort of sweetness that exposes the timbral differences between classical guitars versus steel-string guitars, or that can show the at times biting attack of brass instruments while also revealing their underlying burnished metallic glow. The point is that the Sonica DAC manages to provide rich (but not artificially enriched) tonal colours, cleanly delineated (but not ‘edge-enhanced’) transient sounds, and an ability to dive deep to tease out useful bits of low-level musical detail, yet without sounding cold, glassy, or analytical.
Some great examples of these qualities in play come in the form of Miles Davis’ live performance of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ as captured on Live Around the World [Warner Bros., 16/44.1]. The track, of course, features Davis’ trumpet played at everything from whisper-quiet to quite full-throated levels and in each instance the timbres of the horn, as rendered through the Sonica DAC, sounded spot on—especially in moments where Davis inserts transitory, high-energy trumpet commentary on the song’s main melody. But another fascinating element involved the sheer wealth of low-level stage sounds captured in the recording (for instance, a moment where an onstage amplifier emits a brief ‘squawk’, or where extremely delicate percussion accent notes are supplied by members of Davis’ band)—all of which are adroitly rendered by the Oppo. Such details not only create a wide, deep soundstage, but also give the track its unmistakable you-are-there live feel.
But turning to a much earlier recording (from the early 1970’s), I also tried Miles’ Davis’ Tribute to Jack Johnson [Columbia, DSD64], and was struck again by the Oppo’s desirable combination of tonal richness, transient acuity, and effortless detail. The nearly half-hour long track ‘Right Off’ leverages profound grooves created by bassist Michael Henderson and percussionist Billy Cobham, and as I listened to their work unfold it occurred to me that I had never before heard Henderson’s bass sound so earthy, punchy, and agile as it did through the Oppo, nor had I heard the brisk urgency of Cobham’s intricate cymbal work rendered with such incisive (yet still smooth-sounding) clarity and transient speed. Again and again, then, I found myself wanting to compare the Sonica DAC (in favourable ways) with DACs several times its price.
At the end of the day, the best reason to consider Oppo’s Sonica DAC is because of its masterful sound, which honestly would do a far more expensive component proud. But the Sonica’s extreme versatility and multi-faceted streaming capabilities take things to an even higher level, making the Sonica a ‘DAC for all seasons and reasons’. With a selling price a tick under £800, the Sonica DAC/streamer is not just an audiophile gem, but also a legitimate bargain.
Type: Solid-state high-resolution PCM, DXD, and DSD‑capable digital-to-analogue converter with wireless and network streaming capabilities
Digital Inputs: One USB (B-type) for digital music playback, two USB (A-type) port for connecting USB storage devices), one coaxial S/PDIF, one optical S/PDIF (Toslink), one Ethernet port (via RJ-45 connector), Bluetooth 4.1, Wi-Fi 802.11.a/b/g/n/ac
Analogue Input: One auxiliary stereo RCA pair
Analogue Outputs: Stereo single-ended RCA, stereo balanced XLR
DAC Resolution/Supported Digital Formats:
USB: Stereo PCM and Stereo DSD (DoP v1.1 or native).All PCM from 44.1 kHz to 768 kHz with word lengths of 16, 24, or 32-bits/s to 384KS/s with word lengths up to 32-bits. DSD 64, DSD 128, DSD 256. DSD512 native mode only)
Coaxial and Optical S/PDIF: Stereo PCM and Stereo DSD (DoP v1.1 or native), All PCM from 44.1 kHz to 192kHz with word lengths of 16 or 24-bits, DSD 64
USB (Type A) Storage/Supported Digital Formats:
USB: 2.0 mass storage only
Audio formats: AAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, APE, FLAC, M4A, M4A (Apple Lossless), ALAC, OGG, WAV, WMA, DSF, DFF
Sample rates/formats: PCM up to 192 kHz/24-bit, DSD 64
Frequency Response: 20Hz–20kHz, +0/–0.04dB, 20Hz–160kHz (+0/-2.4dB)
Distortion (THD + Noise): < –115dB
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-weighted) and Dynamic Range: > 120dB
Output Voltage: 4 ± 0.4Vrms via XLR output, 2 ± 0.2Vrms via single-ended outputs.
User Interface: Oppo Sonica App (available for iOS and Android devices), front panel OLED display
Dimensions (H×W×D): 76 × 254 × 360mm
Manufacturer: Oppo Digital, Inc.
Tel: +1 (650) 961-1118
UK Distributor: Oppo BD UK, Ltd.
Tel. (UK): 0845 060 9395, (Europe): +44 (0)1603 402240
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