exaSound e28 8 Channel DSD DAC: Computer Audio Is Surrounded!
Argh! A multichannel review? Seriously? Who likes multichannel? And file-based multichannel? Seriously? Who does file-based multichannel? Isn’t surround sound for sci-fi spaceship flyovers and spooky foley effects in horror movies? And you call yourself an audiophile?
Ok, so I got all that (tongue in cheek) out of the way. Those of you who have embraced computer audio and are content with two-channel soundstages, I implore you to read on. Maybe just one or two (thousand?) of you can discover the incredible potential of the realism and adventure, in the VAST catalog of hirez multichannel music that is becoming available to use, at your listening seat.
When I first realized the potential of computer audio, when I first heard and experienced both the sonic improvements and the incredible convenience of remote-controlled file-based music playback, I was dreaming of the day when this paradigm would allow me to listen to ALL my music, both 2 channel and multichannel. I have a significant amount of time and energy invested into my multichannel music (not to be confused with movie setup) signal path, and am lucky to have dedicated equipment for both 2 channel and multichannel hirez listening. It’s not necessary to be this OC, but I am.
Since multichannel may be new to many CA readers I may spend a little time describing its unique aspects and setup parameters. They are not overwhelming, but as they say “the devil is in the details”. (Note: and since this is my first real review for CA, I thought I’d add that my review style is non-technical and more from the listener/user perspective than from the details of the specific reviewed unit per se. You can look up specs from the mfg’er website .)
A well-setup multichannel system will provide for unparalleled realism in the reproduction of sound. We are not talking 3D ping-pong effects, or spaceships flying over you, we are instead trying to realize the potential of hearing high resolution music recorded in three dimensions, being played back in three dimensions. An analogy: it’s day one of your vacation and you are getting yourself immersed in the Atlantic Ocean waves, and the sounds of the beach environment. The waves hit you in front, sure, but quickly surround you and get you drenched all over. The sounds of the seagulls are all around you (let’s hope they are not vultures or maybe you didn’t take that wave well). We take all these sensations for granted. Yet, when given the chance to hear hirez music in “Surround” (I hate that term but realize it is code for multichannel) we are usually hesitant, expecting clever but unrealistic “effects” and, worst case, home theater trickery and faux “concert hall” ambience. But 2013 finds us with a wealth of well-recorded three-dimensional music that does one of two things very, very well: it either helps us settle into the exact recording space that allows for more natural timbre decays and sensory cues that we often feel more than hear (Channel Classics, Pentatone, Telarc, BlueCoast Records, etc) or, through the mastery of multichannel producers like Elliot Scheiner and Steve Wilson, give us an alternate adventurous universe of being immersed in the recording process of 24 channel studio productions. Note: this last category has a few poor ping-pong examples (just like early stereo) but the vast majority are incredible trips of fancy mixed with full-range hirez power and detail. Amazing either way!
So, this is why I was excited to be one of the first to hear the new DSD-capable USB one-box eight channel exaSound E28 DAC.
What’s In The Box
The exaSound E28 is the brainchild of a team led by George Klissarov, founder and president of exaSound Audio Design, located in Toronto, Canada. George is a fellow multichannel fanatic, and his earlier E18 DAC was also multichannel, but not optimized for DSD (he later updated it to now do 2 channel DSD64). After designing and releasing the 2 channel E20 DSD128-capable DAC (being 2 channel only the E20 can take advantage of the 9018 8 channel chip by using 4 channels per side, a real advantage to some aspects of 2 channel listening) George and his team began investigating the limits of the 9018 chip design, and he found he could get it to produce not only DSD128 (aka 2X DSD) and 32/384k PCM, but also DSD256 (aka 4X DSD). Moreover, although scarletbook spec for DSD is based on the 44k sample rate, players like Foobar have the capability to upsample 48k-based files to 128 and 256x rates. The exaSound E20 can handle those unusual rates, as well…leaving it quite future-proof for what DSD-aholics believe is the holy grail of 1 bit rates, 256X (noise shaping needs that are so high into the ether that they theoretically may not be needed). He subsequently upgraded/updated the E20 to MKIII status and has been shipping them for several months now.
So, fast forward to the E28. It is based on the exaSound standard, the ESS SABRE 9018 chip, can do PCM to 32/384k, DSD to DSD256 (44k and 48k based) and delivers these in EIGHT channels! It is fully MKIII spec’d so it includes all sample rates and includes the new 0.82 picosecond master clock. It is housed in a half-wide aluminum enclosure with a nice two line LED readout on the front panel, along with volume, power and setting buttons. Also included up front is a seriously good headphone output, connected to a third-generation exaSound dedicated hp amplifier. The rear panel inputs: an RCA S/PDIF and an optical toslink digital input (RCA to 192k, toslink to 96k), a 12V-1.5A dc jack (for supplied external ps) and a full size (thank you George) USB B connector (this is where all the goodies reside). The eight (8) numbered analog outputs can be shipped either stock (gold-plated RCA, 2Vrms) or custom (mini-XLR, 4Vrms). The exaSound team wanted to keep the enclosure to half width for use with computer servers on the same rack (think Mac Mini or CAPS Lagoon size) so eight (8) full sized XLR balanced outs were not feasible. George includes an Apple remote wand for master volume, power, mute and input functions, and explains in the user manual how to incorporate 3rd party remotes to use the same codes. After testing the remote volume I didn’t use the remote (see below), but the functionality and flexibility is welcome to most users.
The DAC shows its unique 8 channel DSD256 and 32/384 PCM capability via that full sized USB B input. (Note: there is a smattering of multichannel prosumer PCM DACs out there, from the likes of Metric Halo, Prism Orpheus and the DSD SDIF-based Mytek 8x192, but this is, to my knowledge, the first prosumer single box multichannel DAC that can do multichannel to this level). I have recently written about my prototype three-box Mytek Stereo192 DSD multichannel setup. I was told by many readers that although the setup was unique, powerful and interesting, it was nowhere near realistic nor convenient for the average-to-advanced computer audio user; let alone the cost of 3x DACs. I will acquiesce; it is a bit of a challenge, but it provided a real benchmark for what multichannel DSD can provide. The E28, albeit single 9018 chip-based, is a much more realistic computer audio design; a one-box solution that allows even greater sample rates and more integrated operations.
There is one current inconvenience I need to illuminate: the full multichannel power of the E28 is heard via custom drivers for both Windows and MAC. A custom ASIO driver for Windows allows all sample rates at 2 or 8 channels. Currently the custom OSX driver allows for up to DSD128 multichannel (with 256 on its way). Frankly, I do not see either of these issues (custom drivers or DSD256 missing from MAC) worth any lost sleep. Good luck, in August 2013, finding any DSD128 surround music, let alone DSD256. It’s coming, but suffice it to say that these sample rates are wayyy ahead of the availability curve. Even if you use this DAC as your 2 channel solution, the sample rate issue is realistically non-existent.
Since this is my first review for Chris’s main CA Review section I thought it made sense to describe my setup with this DAC. Please note that my system is somewhat advanced (read: a mess) and for normal E28 DAC use one needs to simply install the ASIO driver. That being said, this is about my setup: I am lucky enough to have a dedicated multichannel rack, which then integrates into my 2 channel rack via a unity gain (aka home theater) bypass into input 4 of my 2 channel preamp. What is even more serendipitous is that as I evolved my 2 channel computer audio signal path I stumbled upon JPlay as the sound engine, running off JRIver. This evolved into a two-pc setup (a sort of client-server approach, not worth going into right now) that has my client CAPS Lagoon (aka CAPS V2+) on my multichannel rack, and 3M away a direct ethernet-connected server pc (CAPS Zuma) on my 2 channel rack. Well…since my client CAPS Lagoon already has JRIver running on it, I simply loaded the exaSound ASIO driver, hooked up the USB to a mobo USB port (and added the iFI USB power) and away we go. Changing from Jplay to exaSound is as simple as changing the ASIO driver pulldown in Jriver (the Meitner and Chord drivers are on the server machine so they do not conflict). I’ve also created a new multichannel view via a simple rule in JRIver (“channels greater than 2”) and so JRemote and JRiver do not skip a beat from providing me the same look and feel, whether 2 channel Jplay or multichannel exaSound.
The Windows WS 2012 CAPS Zuma gets loaded with the ASIO driver, which brings up a nice control panel. Here one could do channel trims from the comfort of one’s listening chair, although I defer to my multichannel analog preamp, where I do channel trims on its external front panel. Multichannel calibration involves 3 main aspects: channel trims (akin to balance in 2 channel), channel delays (if your speakers are not equidistant from you, which is not usually an issue in 2 channel) and bass management (again, not usually an issue in 2 channel unless you run separate subwoofers). The latter two functions are considered DSP and are easily done within the software player like JRiver. However, if you know anything about DSD you know that DSP is not available. Argh! Now what do we do? In the case of DSD delays, there is no real current solution (although both JRiver and exaSound are working on solutions that will keep delays in the DSD format), but I find most serious multichannel setups are not so irregularly shaped that the lack of delays in DSD material is a huge issue. In bass management, a simple solution is to calibrate your LFE (dedicated subwoofer channel) via the subwoofer itself, using DSD material, then use DSP to allow for any PCM differences (often a 5 to 10 db difference in PCM mastering of LFE). JRiver automatically invokes DSP only for PCM material, so there is no need to toggle things on and off. Just set and forget. The only change needs to occur if you use the DAC for 2 channel listening; then simply turn off the DSP in Jriver.
I run the E28 full open throttle, meaning I do not use its remote volume control. Instead I use my own multichannel analog preamp and have the E28 set at 0db. I did test the remote volume and find it to be fine, but like most remote volume DACS I tend to prefer, in my own system, the sonic traits of running through a dedicated preamplifier. YMMV. However, realize that a remote volume does indeed allow you to use this without a multichannel preamp involved (i.e direct to amps).
One final (we hope) setup caveat: As mentioned in my cursory E20 thread review, I love the fact that George and his exaSound team created a product set that allow them to spend its R&D $$ on what’s in the box, and provides us users with an easily upgradeable external power supply. The stock one supplied is a nice enough SMPS laptop-like design, but I jettisoned it after initial listening. I am using my Hynes SR3-12 linear power supply for all the remaining evaluation. The differences heard were immediate and uncompromising: better heft and weight, lower noise floor and more stable soundstage. The stock SMPS (2.5mm dc plug) provides a very fine sound, easily livable, but for $200 (yes I stole the SR3-12) the upgrade was a no-brainer. (Note: it is available new for $500, and found on used sites for around $350; other 12V 1.5A linear options exist all over the net).
DSD and PCM Multichannel Playback
My multichannel sources were limited to 5.1 DSD64 and no-greater than 24/192 5.1 PCM music. Why? Two reasons: 99.9% of all multichannel material is currently max’d at DSD64 or 24/96; and secondly my CAPS Lagoon Atom-based pc does not have the cpu cycles to run multiple channels of DXD/352.8k (my most cpu-intensive multichannel material) without hiccups. Did I say the E28 was future-proof?
I have a vast catalog of ripped SACD DSF files in both 2 channel and multichannel (where available). I also have dozens of ripped DVD-Audio PCM-based albums, and some new multichannel files via download sites. Downloaded multichannel?? Yes, sites like Morten Lindberg’s wonderful 2L Recordings and Itrax (Mark Waldrep’s AIX recordings) have been allowing for multichannel PCM downloads for some time now. And soon many DSD recordings will be available. Jared Sacks’ Channel Classics began selling multichannel DFF downloads several months ago, and I have been tasked with the wonderful job of helping his label get ALL of their native DSD recordings ready for a new sister download site complete with searchable tags (yes, DSF format). My job is to ready the metadata/tags for the almost-200 albums. The site will be open to other labels, as well, so we are standardizing the tagging nomenclature, and getting it ready for all DSD-capable software players to handle (DSD tagging, especially for classical recordings, is a whole subject for another time ). I am not being paid for this task, but offered to help due to the experiences I’ve had doing 2 channel DSF tagging. If you’ve not heard Jared’s recordings, do yourself a favor and try one or two, there are samples on his Channel Classics site. Jared’s project is not the only one going on out there. Many DSD labels are readying their sites for download. Cookie Marenco is actively pursuing it for her multichannel content (she led the way in 2 channel DSD download site availability), as are many others. It’s an early adopter period, but one that will soon see the fruits of this initial traction. Lord knows there is plenty of source material.
Ok, so how does the E28 sound? Great! George Klissarov and team have figured out a way, for less than $3300 (and less than $2500 in the E20) to harness the incredible detail and resolving power of the 9018 chip, and yet tame its (IMHO) often-aggressive leading edge and Hubble-like resolution-beyond-what-is needed. The musicality of this DAC, like its stereo cousin, is amazingly liquid and organic, with great timbres (colors) and rich harmonics (saturation). This evaluation is not intended to be a comparative one (there was too much time in between hearing the E28 and the Mytek stack to say anything other than that the sonic differences via short-term memory aren’t worth writing about) and I haven’t heard the Metric Halo LIO-8 in multichannel mode for over 2 years, but there is nothing in either the E28’s DSD or PCM multichannel performance to say it is lacking for any multichannel fan. It is a bar that has been set; I’d LOVE to hear a multichannel setup that “blows it away”.
For those interested in its stereo capabilities, I did compare it to my memory of the E20 (unfair at best), and I will state that it is more detailed, but seems the E20 has a little bit lower distortion, better noise floor (likely the addtl parallel DAC channels) and overall I slightly prefer the E20, which by itself is somewhat of a giant-killer. But back to its true strengths, multichannel.
For the “realism” category of great hirez multichannel music I played several selections from Channel Classics, Chandos, Pentatone and some 2L DSD and PCM surround tracks (2L’s catalog falls into both realism and adventure categories). For the DSF tagging project I have the added pleasure of working with Tom Caulfield, our own tailspn here at CA, the Grammy-winning recording engineer on Chandos’s Life And Breath, a Rene Clausen chorale recording by the Kansas City Chorale. The sense of space, not huge space, but that of a space much larger than one’s listening room is awe-inducing. It is not over-the-top by any means, and you’d swear the rear speakers are not on, but remove them and hear the church walls disintegrate and the sound become less than real. Those ambient cues are often a mess in standard SACD/universal playback, as the clocking and quality of the power supply and analog stage here is VERY important. Conversely, when the timing is right, the cues tell the brain that you are indeed transported. Very nice!!
My first session with this DAC, once broken in for the requisite 100+ hours, was one of revelatory late night listening. I’d never heard ambient cues done any better, and the former scoffing at “ambient mixes” became a discovery of huge often-historical spaces in my listening environment. Severance Hall, here in Cleveland, is a site for many late 60’s and 70’s Szell and Maazel recordings, with either Sony or Telarc at the lead. I am quite used to the Severance sound, and indeed the Hall was transplanted into my listening space. And, some of these multichannel recordings were 50 years old.
By the way, multichannel does not always mean 5.1 (five channels full range with a dedicated LFE sub channel). In fact, most realism category members are 5.0, and several are 3.0. This latter category might be an excellent introductory ramp for those of you debating on going to multichannel. Hundreds of late 50’s and early 60’s recordings were done in three channels (read RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence catalogs), including some wonderful Nat King Cole music that has been painfully remastered by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray for Chad Kassem’s Analog Productions label. These are not “faux” 3 channels, but instead the actual masters, with Nat’s incredible voice locked in center. You gotta hear “The Christmas Song (aka Chestnuts Roasting)” once in this setup to really hear it for the first time. Wow! And the E28 reproduces it with all the silky, caramel-ly overtones that the recording requires, yet as detailed and revealing as you’ve never heard. Then take that experience and put it to Nat’s entire catalog around that time, it’s quite a musical trip.
(Editors Note: The Nat King Cole multichannel DSD downloads are coming soon from Acoustic Sounds )
In the “adventure” category there is no benchmark but Beck’s Sea Change, and award-winning surround mix by Elliot Scheiner that makes listening to the 2 channel version (MFSL is the best, even better than the hirez ones) a completely different experience. The mix is so well done, and makes so much musical sense that it needs to be heard in order to understand why “aggressive” multichannel mixes are so well liked by people like me. Don’t put the DTS version of Venus and Mars (very ping pongy) in the same category. Once you hear Sea Change through the E28 (in either it’s DVD-A or SACD/DSD version) you will understand what kinds of colors and overtones the E28 can reproduce. Beck’s low-period break-up masterpiece sounds like a boring country-style album via FM radio. Instead, it is a color-filled ride through his sweet-n-sour way of expressing his music. Pop mixed with tribal electronic, all told by Chet Atkins. And Scheiner’s mix allows all these subtle flavors and textures to rise out and make sense.
While on the subject of “adventure” mixes, please go directly to the net and buy all three Donald Fagen solos (also mixed by Mr Scheiner), Peter Gabriel’s DSD-based UP multichannel release, and if you are a Deadhead, grab the DVD-A’s of Mickey Hart’s mixes of the classic duo American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. Be aware that the special prize in each of these Dead classics is a brand new 2 channel mix, and a 5.1 mix that does Jerry and gang proud.
Even classical and jazz reissues can be well done in “adventure” style. On 2L’s recent Hoff Ensemble’s Quiet Winter Night (Grammy-nominated for surround, and available as Blu-ray or 24/96 PCM and upsampled DSD mch downloads) the surround mix has the quite eclectic percussion, some deep tom tom beats by Rune Arnesen, set in the rear channels and moved somewhat over you. The effect is perfect with the quiet wintery theme. Gimmicky? Nope, not to these ears. And the E28 takes that low percussive droning sound and gives it the necessary weight and heft required to get the feeling across, yet allows for the air to identify the individual skins being thumped. Again, the timing in the rear channel seems perfect. My Oppo 83SE does an ok job on the Blu-ray, but comparatively is now a “miserable” job that I can’t listen to. Oops.
In summary, the exaSound E28 is a groundbreaking DAC. It is the first prosumer DAC (i.e not Sonoma or Pyramix) I’ve ever seen or heard that can do any sample rate of PCM and DSD that will likely take us into the next few years of bleeding edge, let alone standard, multichannel sound. Future-proof? Check. Musical? Check. Value proposition meter? High. Upgradeable? Check. Well done, George and team. Wonder what they can do with a no-holds barred design? I’d love to be in the first group to hear it
Finally, I want to thank Chris Connaker for asking me to join his review team. I am honored. Next up are reviews of the Chord Chordette QuteHD 2 channel DAC, and an article about storing and expanding all this multichannel and 2 channel hirez music on a Synology NAS.