• exaSound e12 DAC Review



    The exaSound e12: The little engine that could...change how we think of sub $2k DACs


    George Klissarov of exaSound had an idea that he could take his award-winning e22 stereo DSD DAC and create a lighter smaller (read: less expensive) version that lost none of the sound quality....none! The savings would be in case size, inputs and output parts, removal of the display and an ever so slightly less refined power filter. He told me about it over a year ago and I jumped at the opportunity to hear it. Did I mention that was over a year ago? His dream of lightening the load did not result in a DAC he was willing to sell. And if you know George at all you know that he is such a man of principles that he is willing to forego markets and user experiences if it means sound quality impact. exaSound DACs get their magic from a proprietary sauce that includes, among other things, very custom ASIO drivers. These drivers preclude exaSound DACs from playing in the plug-n-pray world of Ethernet renderers and Jplay sound engines, among others. One buys an exaSound DAC to marry it to an ASIO direct stream that is hand-wired for sound...period.
    So, back to the e12 project. He is relentless in his quest for an exaSound seat at the table of "cheap and cheerful" sub $2k DACs, but not willing to make the tradeoffs. Design after design fail to impress Mr Klissarov's stubborn benchmarks. The e12 idea languishes for awhile, until one day he pings me that the right combination of processor, FPGA, linear power filtration to each subsystem and whew...that only took over a year!! Now he and I are back in conversation and I take delivery shortly thereafter.

    The e12 is a small form factor (5" x 1.5" x 7") with only USB input and RCA single ended outputs. If you must have more, stop reading and go look for an e22 review, and go find $1500 more dollars (or my e28 one if multichannel is your thing). The front fascia has three small lights (USB lock/PCM/DSD), rather than a large display. Me, I could care less...in fact I am glad; I have written several times that 1) I put my DACs far enough away from my listening chair that the display information is mostly moot; 2) displays make noise; 3) displays cost money.




    The e12 keeps everything else that made the e22 such a winner; galvanic USB isolation, multi-layer ac filtering, the top-of-the-line reference level ESS Sabre 9018S chip, set to stereo (4 parallel channels per side), and a secret sauce (I'm beginning to think a lot of it's the custom ASIO driver) that somehow tames the Sabre chip allergy I was born with (I've written before that the SABRE chipsets are so detailed and fast that the leading edges can often be razor sharp, and that only a few DAC manufacturers can tame this detail beast...namely folks like Auralic, Mytek and exaSound).

    This small form factor is also due to the fact that, like his other slightly less diminutive e22 and e28 cases, the power supply is external. I love this design (and have written about it in exaSound and Chord reviews before) because it allows one to field upgrade the DAC when funds and timing work out for the buyer, and it means I've spent more money per pound on the actual R&D'd pieces (DAC, analog stage, etc). Me? I spend a few days listening to the stock laptop-style ps then quickly replace with my trusty $200 (bought used) Hynes SR3-12 linear 12V power supply. (A newcomer takes the Hynes place eventually; I will explain later).

    The piece de resistance, IMHO, of the exaSound value proposition is that it does raw direct DSD up to DSD256 via a hand-built tube-based (ok, just kidding..making sure you were reading) custom ASIO driver that is not only Windows capable but also MAC OSX. Furthermore, if you couple it with JRiver, there is a plugin that will synch JRiver's internal volume control with the exaSound volume control (SABRE chip's own digital volume), so you can sit at your listening chair, turn JRemote's volume up and down and you are not playing with a poorly developed OS-based volume option, you are running volume directly off the darn chipset, regardless of PCM or DSD bitstreaming. Pretty kewl.

    The newest exaSound ASIO driver also allows the user to set a maximum volume limit (just in case) and set a timer when the unit will power itself completely off (note: that last feature is not a favorite of mine since I constantly preach that digital things that have digital clock things in them should never be turned off, lest you want to wait anywhere from 6-48 hours for the clocks to thermally reset to perfect equilibrium...luckily the timer has a "never" setting). George was asked to provide that, and certainly a manufacturer needs to comply with CE, etc.

    So....can the reduction of parts and features and costs be defined as cutting corners on sound quality? Or is this one of those addition-by-subtraction things that occur randomly in the universe (and sound like justified bullshit most of the time).

    I began my evaluation by reducing my dual pc setup to one mighty i7 (16GB RAM, battery powered SSD OS, Hynes powered mains) server. The pc uses a JCAT USB card (if 5V needed, which is true for the exaSound, then linear power is provided via Red Wine Acopian ps), either a JCAT or TotalDac D1 USB cable, JRiver 20 daily build, Jremote and floats in a warm bath of ...(still reading??). I then ran sound tests on it via my plethora of other DACs in the house (Directstream, Hugo, etc) in order to get a good understanding on what a Jplay-less JRiver sounded like on this single pc setup. During this time (2 weeks) I ran the e12 on my Mac Mini second system, with outputs connected to a load but no speakers, etc. It was simply run on a test tracks playlist (various test tracks and music tracks) on repeat for 14 days straight. "Hi, my name is Ted and I'm an audiophile."

    The e12 is capable of PCM to 32/384k and DSD to DSD256, so I threw all those sample rates at it. I started with good ole' DSD64. If Mari Kodama's Pentatone Beethoven piano sonata cycle doesn't sound like a piano is in my music room then we have our first blemish. But in fact, her piano never sounded better, with a beautiful blend of attack and decay, bloom and then brake. Wonderful stuff (some don't like her performances on this cycle but I don't know well enough to care ). The unusual jazz trio of trumpet, guitar and bass on fone's La Notte (SACD126) is another of my DSD go-to albums of late, and the e12 reproduced it with very nice burnished tones and razor sharp edges, but not too sharp. The depth of stage is very important in this minimalist recording, and the e12 created plenty for my enjoyment. Even when switching to PCM, the e12's combination of detail and airy delicacy made great redbook sound great and even lousy compressed redbook sound bearable (life is too short to have a DAC that can't play your favorite compressed hits of the 70's). OK, stadium Arcadium is unlistenable with all the money in the world, so that is where it ends.

    All of these comments above were with the stock SMPS laptop style power supply included with your purchase. When I replaced it with my trusty Hynes SR3-12 12V linear power supply the noise floor dropped, the weight of the instruments increased, the dynamics improved and the image specificity (finding the edges of instruments in space) got ever so slightly better. However, these improvements were in the neighborhood of 10% or subjectively "better but not can't live without better", whereas with other DACs that allow external PS swaps these improvements were downright substantial and required, even the e28 (see review).





    UpTone Audio JS-2

    I was intrigued by the linear power supply that upstart UpTone Audio (John Swenson and Alex Crespi aka superdad) was building, and they loaned me one to try in this evaluation. John had a huge hand in the design of the I2S interface on the Sonore Signature Rendu, which impressed the heck out of me, so I knew these guys had some great ideas in them. This $925 dual rail power supply (5A total, choke-filtered supply and expensive R-core transformer) allows the user to dial in voltages on both rails (large thread here on CA for more details); dual rail power supplies are a great choice for powering separate equipment on a subsystem (like a pc, for example, one goes to mains, one to SSD). In this unique case, where the e12 has galvanic isolation after the USB, I used only half of it (one rail, set to 12V...equivalent to my Hynes SR3-12 functionality) so as to not risk bringing common noise (ground) to something separate in my signal path. The noise floor dropped slightly lower again (music emerged from a void, startling at times), bass was slightly more rythmic, and all other aspects matched the Hynes point for point (IOW, started at a great place and got a bit better!). And this from a ps that was using only half its capability, was readily available for purchase (Hynes PS's are very hard to come by) and supports the folks here on CA. Incredible first product; nice job guys!


    HQPlayer

    This multi-platform software player has quite a reputation on these forums. I had tried it a few years ago and wasn't prepared to deal with the rudimentary GUI and plethora of settings, so I let the trial expire. However, in my life as technical editor for NativeDSD I would assist Tom (tailspn) with readying files for production and we had come across numerous needs for new DSD tools to adjust things like bit rate, multichannel gain trims, etc...all within DSD, and all of the best ones were coming from one source...the desk of Jussi Laako, Signalyst (aka Miska). I feel like Jussi thinks in one-bit 100Mhz , and when you combine that with the growing group of supporters for his ever improving HQplayer I decided it was time to buckle up and take it for a ride (free trial).
    When one foregoes such wonderful user friendliness as JRemote one must have one's head examined, right? I mean, life is too short...that is a phrase that kept creeping into my needs-examining brain. So I put on the above-mentioned Pentatone and fone Records demo tracks just to get a quick summary of what life would be like without JRemote. Well.....let's put it this way, I have not fired up JRemote in over two months! Do I miss her? A lot; she was my first real love. Will I get over it? Already have.
    I am a huge proponent of finding a DAC's sweetspot. It is almost always a single sample rate (or small range) where the music sounds best. For those DACs that process both PCM and DSD it is almost always one format over the other (leading me to ruminate that maybe we are just going to have to live in a world where there are two DACs in our musical life, a great DSD one and a great PCM one). Now, however, with HQplayer (and possibly other great software) I am understanding why so many otherwise-right-thinking audiophiles would dare to resample their music to a certain format or rate. I always thought that philosophy was full of gimmicky DSP justification, a sort of "mine goes to 11", regardless of how "11" even sounds. But in the hands of professional quality algorithms and filter sets, resampling to a sweetspot may, in fact, be a great bridge to the solution of needing to deal with two DACs.

    HQplayer is, at its most basic, a set of pro quality PCM and DSD filters, PCM dither choices and DSD modulators....all put in front of the user with a rudimentary GUI. It includes an even more rudimentary library manager. All that being said, It should not be taken lightly; it is a major musical tool that any DSD DAC should not do without! Once the GUI is improved (Jussi is writing APIs to allow 3rd party development of control points) this utility becomes a major player in DSD (and PCM) playback.

    OK, so how does the e12 sound with HQPlayer running the show? Let's start with redbook. Gillian Welch's 2011 alt-bluegrass masterpiece (and one of the best albums I've heard in years) Harrow and the Harvest is not an audiophile recording, but it is a beautiful interplay of tonality, starkness and emotional twang. With HQplayer set to 192k and poly-sinc-mp filtering the soundstage was lit perfectly for her center-fill voice, and her soft playing was nicely grounded in a more yellowish light; Dave's contrasting often-seemingly off key guitar accompaniment was magical. The album is a genius mix of 21st century alt-folk songs that seem as though I grew up with them, yet each is original and different enough to keep one guessing. I admit I never grow tired of this album, but with the e12 and HQplayer it takes on a more performance-in-my-house immediacy that needs a slightly darkened room, a late night glass of wine and say goodbye to 45 minutes. It's a beautiful ride. And this is redbook!

    Another 16/44 album that must be heard with the e12/HQP combo is the tremendously entertaining live recording Live a Fip from the French avant-garde-ethno-jazz-world trio (usually made up of at least four players!! ) The Hadouk Trio. On some systems this redbook recording (also available as 24 bit but almost why bother) can sound too dynamic. The Trio use an aggressive blend of percussion, woodwinds like the ancient duduk (beautiful other-wordly sound), some modern effects and a unique invention by the bass player (it's always the bass player), a gumbass...a combination of electric bass and an ancient guembri (look it up). The resultant sound is soft world music put on steroids! With the e12/HQP you are transformed to the live event; mics pick up the sound of the venue and load your room (or headphones) with it, even prior to the first note played. The textures and timbre that are hinted at with most software players are released into the wilds of your room with the e12/HQP. This ain't your world-travelling-South American-now-living-in-Holland uncle's world music...it's now plainly heard as coming from somewhere near the third moon of Saturn. Oh, and it's two discs...so put aside an hour or more! Nice ride..again.

    My final redbook example is Keith Richard's solo album Main Offender, likely a drunken weekend recording session where they made the songs up during one party and then laid down the tracks during the second night...and then accidentally released the master tapes as redbook. The impact of Keith's rhythm guitar genius is so evident in this little diddy that it is infectious. The e12/HQP might even be able to identify the amps, but I'm not expert enough. Growl, buzz, impact. Even his pathetic vocals come across as real and full of rock and roll. Main Offender is clearly evidence that 16/44 can be used to create wonderful popular/rock music. Leave the compressor alone please!

    Let's jump ahead to DSD64. Now we set HQplayer for SDM (Jussi hates the term DSD ), 5.6Mhz rate, and set your favorite modulator (mine being ASDM7) and away we went. That's not so difficult, is it (I could have used these settings for PCM-DSD conversion but I found I liked separate format settings better)? Throw fone's La Notte on the playlist and be unprepared for the depth of soundstage when the trio of trumpet, guitar and acoustic bass start playing in your room (you starting to get the consistencies here). My Aerial 20T's excel at soundstage depth, and this recording has it to burn. Heck, with the filter settings one can almost "tube roll" one's soundstage depth and width from one's armchair (I use remote desktop app on iPad to control HQplayer running on the i7 server).

    The e12 is a Swiss army knife for sample rates (as are other modern DACs) but I got the distinct impression that George had made sure each selection was voiced properly..this wasn't just a "quad rate" feature list item. DSD256 (left played "direct" by HQPlayer) native recordings (and tape transfers) had an effortless quality that reminded me of vinyl. Flow and continuity were the feelings that came to mind. Be careful, late night DSD256 listening can be lulling; I want DSD256 recordings playing in my Soylent-Green induced final resting setup....etherizing melodies that calm and soothe so effortlessly that I................

    At $1999 msrp (throw in a hundred bucks or so for HQPlayer) the exaSound e12 challenges other sub-$2k DACs to get serious about deserving a place at the table of your main high-level audio system. We now need to insist on USB galvanic isolation, high-end power filtration, raw DSD playback capabilities..all at this new price point. This DAC should be considered by anyone who needs only single ended connections and has a USB Windows or Mac source. Anyone! Imagine the monies saved to use for recreating hundreds of performances in your music listening room.

    Thanks to George, Jussi, Alex, John, Josef, Marcin, Vincent and the movers and shakers of CA's forum to push me into new territories. I'm loving the music.

    NOTE: Although I volunteer my time and effort to NativeDSD.com I am not financially in conflict with their hardware sales program, which includes DACs such as exaSound. I do not get any material or financial reward from my work (except great friendships and inside release information ).





    Ted Brady


    CA Profile






    Product Information:

    • Product - exaSound e12 DAC
    • Price - $1,999
    • Product Page - Link
    • User Manuals - Link
    • Measurements - Link













    Comments 51 Comments
    1. firedog's Avatar
      firedog -
      Ted -

      Great review. Thanks for your hard work. Your enthusiasm for this DAC is evident. Just to be clear: you think that properly setup it really is as good as the e22?
      And a real challenger for other DACs in the $3500 and above category?
    1. wdw's Avatar
      wdw -
      I am very intrigued by this product and recently was in email conversation with George. The summary was that since I am serving my music with an Aries, George advised me the exaSound would not have the requisite front end computer based USB drivers, so in my case, not a good choice.
      Seems like an ideal product otherwise.
    1. rickca's Avatar
      rickca -
      The Uptone Audio LPS is a JS-2, not a JPS-2. Please correct your article.
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Quote Originally Posted by rickca View Post
      The Uptone Audio LPS is a JS-2, not a JPS-2. Please correct your article.
      Oops, thanks. Done.
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Quote Originally Posted by firedog View Post
      Ted -

      Great review. Thanks for your hard work. Your enthusiasm for this DAC is evident. Just to be clear: you think that properly setup it really is as good as the e22?
      And a real challenger for other DACs in the $3500 and above category?
      Yes, it is an e22 without display, XLR or that 7th level of power conditioning (which doesn't seem to matter as George figured a way to equal it in the 12). A challenger in the $3500+ category? Well, there are very good DACs up there, so you'd have to bring them inhouse. But this little e12 fights above its weight class, yes. Thanks for the nice words.
    1. Vinh's Avatar
      Vinh -
      Hi Ted. Fantastic review. However I am more than curious to hear comparision with Hugo which you so highly praised (an expected review has not been published).
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Quote Originally Posted by Vinh View Post
      Hi Ted. Fantastic review. However I am more than curious to hear comparision with Hugo which you so highly praised (an expected review has not been published).
      Thanks. The e12 and the Hugo are somewhat dissimilar, from their markets to their strengths and weaknesses. Hugo's market is both the portable crowd and the PCM crowd. It does DSD nicely, but is not the direct raw native DSD processing ninja that the e12 is. The Hugo has UAC2 USB input so it is renderer friendly. The exaSound is purposely built around DSD64, DSD128 and DSD256 perfection, and George hand built an ASIO driver so it would give a direct unencumbered path to DSD files. Does it play PCM nicely? Of course, more than nicely. It is a great PCM playback engine (especially through HQPlayer or a well-tweaked pc running JRiver)....but the Hugo is slightly warmer and slightly more effortless at PCM playback (to my ears in my system). Realize, however, that I am splitting some fine hairs here, and reporting back on only this one aspect, all through my system. Their differences, though, are hardly anything greater than being a perfect match for one's system versus another's.

      The Hugo requires adapters (USB to mini, interconnect cable adapters cuz most won't fit), doesn't do DSD256, doesn't do raw DSD (only DoP) and is 25% more money! It runs off the grid on a rechargeable battery. The exaSound e12 has only USB, no fancy lights, and benefits from better power (nice upgrade path, frankly).

      These two DACs are like the low end of a luxury automobile line. You get great trickle-down features, a nice badge, and more horsepower than you'll ever need in daily or even weekend driving. One growls a little more and feels the road, one is quiet and smoothes out bumps. Both are quite a blast to drive.
    1. ednaz's Avatar
      ednaz -
      I'm a recent e22 buyer, and even my "all that stuff doesn't matter" wife has wildly embraced the sound. She NEVER played the digital system over the last four years, but she's now listening to music through the e22 all the time.

      I vacillated for a week between getting an e12 instead of e22 - I don't listen direct to headphones, am less likely (not totally unlikely, but not a big deal) to plug multiple sources into the DAC, and find all those displays to be distracting. In the end, opted for the e22, and at the price have zero regrets. But I'm now thinking about getting an e12 for my studio's sound system.

      I had a few email exchanges with George and was struck by his practicality. If you read the manuals for his DACs, he dismisses fancy USB cables, but not linear power supplies (other than to disavow warranty coverage if you experiment with that, a good decision because it's easy to imagine misbegotten power supply decisions). But, very focused on not just ASIO but on a specific version of ASIO. Seems to me to have thought through what ills his design have muted, and what ills may still be external to his control.

      It's so hard these days to really do a comparison, unless you've got the cash flow to bring a half dozen DACs into your home. The best high end audio places around me - and I live in the NY City area - have a couple of DACs, and all that any one shop has tend to be in the same price range, so it's hard to get a sense of the value of making a jump to the next cost step. Still, I went to quite a few places before ordering the e22. I think it sounds better on my middle of the road home system than some of the very costly DACs did on very high end systems.

      And precise enough that I can tell each step from iTunes to red book to 24/48 to 24/96 and on and on. IMHO, it's an honest DAC. The better the information you feed it, the better it sounds, even with Marantz middle of the road pre/pro and amp, and Goldenear speakers. I'm eager to try it in my studio system (Krell integrated/Gradient Revolution speakers) because I'm sure it'll be even more exciting.
    1. shahed99's Avatar
      shahed99 -
      Great review Ted! I wanted to confirm your redbook settings on HQ Player. You didn't turn on 'SDM' on HQPLayer when playing PCM. That should mean that PCM wasn't converted to DSD. Thats intended, right?
    1. shahed99's Avatar
      shahed99 -
      Ok, I take that back. Just noticed this reply from Miska "It shouldn't be necessary to use DoP when using Amanero's ASIO driver as it supports ASIO raw DSD. Set "SDM Pack" to "none" to enable ASIO DSD and rates up to DSD512 (if the DAC supports it)..."
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Quote Originally Posted by shahed99 View Post
      Great review Ted! I wanted to confirm your redbook settings on HQ Player. You didn't turn on 'SDM' on HQPLayer when playing PCM. That should mean that PCM wasn't converted to DSD. Thats intended, right?
      Thanks. Yes, I did both. I upconverted PCM to 384k and I upconverted PCM to DSD256. On most material I liked 384k PCM ever so slightly better...but on anything with piano (redbook rip of Jan Lundgren Trio - A Swinging Rendezvous - Two Little Pearls is a great example, upright bass and piano) I preferred the sound of PCM converted to DSD256. I simple menu pulldown of PCM to SDM accomplishes that.
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Quote Originally Posted by shahed99 View Post
      Ok, I take that back. Just noticed this reply from Miska "It shouldn't be necessary to use DoP when using Amanero's ASIO driver as it supports ASIO raw DSD. Set "SDM Pack" to "none" to enable ASIO DSD and rates up to DSD512 (if the DAC supports it)..."

      That's simply the DAC's ASIO vs DoP setting; has nothing to do with format choices...like later upsampling PCM to whatever.
    1. wdw's Avatar
      wdw -
      Has to be said that HQ Player can't really be too interested in selling its product.
      The web site, interface, and even the trial version is just useless to even a reasonably technical layman...I even ventured a joke (I thought funny, as a few more did) on the HQ thread and his response was that, simply, his product demands a certain level of technical expertise...like the Terminator... HELLO?.
      If anyone has to use any of the available VNC apps to control their stereo then we are all spending far too much time at it and this only an indication of an immature (beta) program.
      If Miska sincerely want to develop his program, I would suggest he employ someone who is not such an propellor-head to design a "human" inferface.
      From all that I've read we would welcome a user friendly version.
      WDW
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      I'm finding the learning curve for HQplayer to be reasonable, and the sq quite worthwhile. Obviosuly, YMMV. Remote desktop is no big deal, but yes a nice JRemote-style app is what all of us would want. Who wouldn't.
    1. tranz's Avatar
      tranz -
      Quote Originally Posted by ted_b View Post
      I'm finding the learning curve for HQplayer to be reasonable, and the sq quite worthwhile. Obviosuly, YMMV. Remote desktop is no big deal, but yes a nice JRemote-style app is what all of us would want. Who wouldn't.
      Hi wdw,

      To add to that. And even much bigger companies do not.....Amarra by Sonic Studio for example. It is incredible what Miska has done as a one man band. HQ Player is not bit perfect (on a Mac at least) so it is not something to use for standard playback anyway. It is a tweaker's tool which requires a bit of effort.
    1. bmoura's Avatar
      bmoura -
      Quote Originally Posted by wdw View Post
      Has to be said that HQ Player can't really be too interested in selling its product.
      The web site, interface, and even the trial version is just useless to even a reasonably technical layman...I even ventured a joke (I thought funny, as a few more did) on the HQ thread and his response was that, simply, his product demands a certain level of technical expertise...like the Terminator... HELLO?.
      If anyone has to use any of the available VNC apps to control their stereo then we are all spending far too much time at it and this only an indication of an immature (beta) program.
      If Miska sincerely want to develop his program, I would suggest he employ someone who is not such an propellor-head to design a "human" inferface.
      From all that I've read we would welcome a user friendly version.
      WDW
      Ted's news that Miska is developing APIs to allow others to hook in to the HQ Player filters is very encouraging. I love HQ Player's upsampling filters but hate the app.

      When we can use his filters with an easier player app, like JRiver, will be the day that his excellent filters really hit the market!
    1. Jimmypowder's Avatar
      Jimmypowder -
      Quote Originally Posted by bmoura View Post
      Ted's news that Miska is developing APIs to allow others to hook in to the HQ Player filters is very encouraging. I love HQ Player's upsampling filters but hate the app.

      When we can use his filters with an easier player app, like JRiver, will be the day that his excellent filters really hit the market!
      I agree completely
    1. Freann's Avatar
      Freann -
      HQP filters in an app of my choice? This I like.
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Let's not get too carried away. Jussi simply said he is contemplating writing exits for those who want to write 3rd party control points. It's not a done deal.
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      But he does already have things like the new hqp-control program in 3.71 that lets Geoff's Tidal integration project pass playlists back and forth, for example. Exits forp layback control is on his agenda.