Music in the Round #60 Page 2
On top of its performance as a plain-vanilla (!) universal player, I know of no other high-quality player with such a comprehensive feature set. Although $1199 is a bit higher than the $999 of its predecessor, the BDP-105's capabilities are so much greater that it's an even bigger bargain.
Can the BDP-105 become a solution to multichannel PCM or DSD streaming? Neither its USB nor Ethernet inputs would accept DSD. Via Ethernet, though, I could stream multichannel audio files. The lack of gapless playback was an issue for both inputs. I raised these issues with Jason Liao, Oppo's CTO, at CES 2013. He told me he was fully aware of them, but said that Oppo had their own priorities for these and other firmware revisions.
Liao and I then visited the Sony DSD demo room, where Liao met Cookie Marenco and Gus Skinas (see CES report above). There and then, I thought I saw Liao growing more enthusiastic about both multichannel and DSD, though he remained uncommitted. Still, I think his appreciation for the value of multichannel and of DSD was genuine. I flew home from Las Vegas optimistic.
exaSound e18 multichannel DAC
While surfing the Internet for DACs, I found a small Canadian company, exaSound Audio Design, that offers two interesting models: the eight-channel e18 and the two-channel e20, each priced at $2499. Both have impressive specifications and use the same Sabre32 ES9018 D/A chips found in the Oppo BDP-105. The e20 supports native 2.82 and 5.64MHz DSD, as well as PCM, and has balanced and unbalanced outputs and a ground-lift switch. It also has good word-of-mouth on the Web. The e18 will handle almost any PCM format up to 32-bit/384kHz, including DXD, which is PCM at 24/352.8. DXD was developed for the Pyramix DSD workstation, since there were no DSD editing tools, and its data ratetriple that of DSD64should maintain data integrity. The e18 has no ground lift, balanced outputs, or, supposedly, DSD, but it won me over simply for its multichannel ability.
Following a brief e-mail exchange, I spoke with George Klissarov, president of exaSound, about his products and our reviewing policies. He agreed to send me an e18. I downloaded from their website the USB driver and owner's manual, which included clear instructions for installing the USB driver and using the e18 with a PC running Foobar or JRiver Media Center, or with a Macintosh. I was already running Media Center 18, and installing the driver was a breeze. The exaSound Dashboard, which installs with the driver, displays active bargraphs of the signal level in each of the eight channels, permits trimming and balancing of each channel, and can serve as an overall level control.
In normal operation, the e18's large screen displays five fields. Across the top, from left to right, it shows the chosen input connector (USB, IN1 Coax, IN2 Optical), the format of the music data (PCM, DXD), and the sampling frequency of the source. Across the bottom are displayed the number of channels and the volume level. To the left of the display are a power button and a headphone jack; to the right are buttons for setup and input selection, and to the right of these are the volume up/down buttons. Other information is displayed during setup and adjustment. An Apple Remote Control was provided; the e18 can be reprogrammed for most IR remotes. Clearly, there are enough options to suit anyone's preference.
Connecting the exaSound to my system should have been as trivial as running a cable from my PC to the e18's USB jack, but the eight RCA jacks on the e18's rear are merely numbered 18I had to search for their specific channels. Even then, I wasn't certain I'd hooked up everything correctly until I confirmed it with a test disc. I connected jacks 16 to my Zektor multichannel switch so that the e18 directly drove my power amps, as exaSound advises. I balanced the speaker outputs with the individual channel-level trims on the exaSound Dashboard. Of course, adjustments for speaker distance/delay, bass management, and room EQ weren't possible, but . . .
What a blast! The exaSound worked flawlessly with JRiver Media Center, delivering exquisite two-and multichannel sound through my weekend system. Stereo at 24/96 or 24/192, multichannel FLAC at 24/96, or, holy moley, 24/352.8 multichannel DXD from 2Lyou name itall were so strikingly pure and vibrant that they were addictive. After comparing many of the downloaded tracks with their disc equivalents, I find it difficult to state an unequivocal preference. Via the exaSound e18, all downloads had an immediacy and a dynamic pulse that were exhilarating. In comparison, the discs sounded a bit constrained, whether run with room EQ, Direct, or even directly from the Oppo BDP-103's analog outs. Implementing speaker distance/delay, bass management, and room EQ made the sound smoother and more harmonically balanced, but couldn't restore the vibrancy of the downloads sent through the e18. Of course, I wanted those corrections and the immediacy. Even when I ran the e18's outputs into the analog inputs of the Marantz AV8801 pre-pro and my old Sony TA-P9000ES analog multichannel preamp, there was still more bounce to the ounce than from discs.
My criticisms of the exaSound e18 are mere quibbles: Its output jacks should be labeled by channel, and/or the manual should include more explicit connection instructionsand I'd like the e18 to remember my last volume setting each time I power it up. Otherwise, to echo the conclusion of JRiver's Matt Ashland (whose technical support I gratefully acknowledge), "The e18 is basically a perfect hardware and driver combination." Ohit doesn't do multichannel DSD.2 But I knew that going in.
Coming around in the Round
I've been badgering manufacturers at CEDIA, CES, and by e-mail about why the streaming features now included in multichannel disc players, pre-pros, and AVRs seem capable of only two-channel playback. Marantz's AV8801 pre-pro, reviewed in my March column, is restricted to stereo in a limited range of formats, and can't act as a DAC with streaming sourcesalthough it does do Airplay. I've been playing with a nice new AVR, Onkyo's TX-NR5010, which can stream as both a controller and a renderer in almost any format, including DSD (!), but again, not in multichannel. The situation is even dimmer among high-end pre-pros, including those from companies that also make DACs. This is entirely incongruous for multichannel products.
If Oppo can do handle multichannel audio via Ethernet and exaSound can do it via USB, why won't others? And DSD, in stereo and multichannel, should be part of the feature set, in order for products to compete in the market. Since CES 2013, I've heard a number of rustlings of interest but no one is certain of the market or wishes to be a stalking horse. However, Mytek's Michal Jurewicz has developed something of a proof of concept based on the Stereo192-DSD D/A processor, which straddles the professional and hi-fi worlds and has been featured at many audio shows. For the past several weeks I've had a Stereo192-DSD in my main system, and it produced outstanding sound with two-channel DSD files. I would dearly love to hear what it can do with multichannel. At the Sony-DSD demo at CES 2013 (see show report above), Jurewicz was working behind the scenes to construct a USB driver that would apportion and synchronize the appropriate channels among a stack of three Mytek Stereo192-DSD DACs. As of early February he had demonstrated this successfully, and I have been sent a prototype setup. This, and more, next time in the round.