exaSound PlayPoint Network Audio Player Review
O Canada ... Computer Audiophile readers have heard plenty about Canada lately. Starting with the terrific Peachtree Audio nova150, made in Canada, followed by the wonderful Bryston BDA-3, made in Canada, and now the exaSound PlayPoint, also designed and manufactured in Canada. As my mom used to say, while I was playing hockey against great Canadian teams as a kid, "There must be something in the water up there." Anyway, Canada's exaSound Audio Design is a company that's dedicated to solid engineering and leading edge technology. exaSound has lead the pack with many "world's first" implementations, such as a multi-channel asynchronous USB to I2S interface capable of supporting multichannel DXD at 352.8kHz/32bit, a USB to I2S interface supporting 2-channel DSD64, DSD128, DSD256, DSD512 and PCM 384kHz/32bit, an 8-channel DXD 384kHz/32bit consumer-oriented DAC, a high-end DACs (both two-channel and multi-channel) capable of achieving DSD256 playback at sampling rate of 11.2896 MHz and 12.288 MHz. Keep in mind that a few of these innovations date back to 2011, when many manufacturers were still trying to support 24 bit / 192 kHz audio, and thought DSD was only something obtainable from a physical SACD disc. The exaSound PlayPoint doesn't feature any world's first features, but it's still way ahead of much of the competition. In fact, I'm willing to bet that the exaSound team would have been the first to offer a RoonReady product if only they had access to the software. I remember talking to George from exaSound, who was extremely eager to get going on a Roon implementation, long before most companies had even heard of Roon. Needless to say, the PlayPoint supports the latest and greatest features and is an excellent companion to the current lineup of exaSound DACs.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
The exaSound PlayPoint was designed to accommodate the needs of most audiophiles and music lovers, yet at the same time it was designed to function under a strict set of rules. By that I mean, the PlayPoint has great flexibility with respect to features such as sample rates and playback methods, but the device, in its current implementation, must be connected to an exaSound DAC to function. The PlayPoint is hard-coded to output audio to an exaSound USB DAC. There's certainly nothing wrong with this, in fact it's a wonderful way to guarantee specific aspects of the player work, as designed, every time. It's a closed environment that leaves nothing to chance. In this era of wild-west style interconnectedness, where things are just supposed to work, but they rarely do, some members of the CA community will delight in the fact that the PlayPoint is the tongue to an exaSound DAC's groove.
At a very basic level, the PlayPoint is a digital to digital audio converter. Audio enters through an Ethernet or WiFi input and exits via a USB interface connected to an exaSound DAC. The PlayPoint enables all exaSound DACs to essentially connect to a home network, but without the need for a touchscreen, network input, CPU, RAM, and Linux operating system in every DAC. In a way, the PlayPoint is an extension for exaSound DACs, improving their functionality and longevity with future firmware upgrades and features enhancements.
The exaSound PlayPoint is capable of completely replacing one's computer or augmenting one's computer in the audio playback chain. Based on my extensive use of the PlayPoint, I found value in both methods. Which one the user selects is an individual choice based upon needs, wants, and performance. For example, the PlayPoint can run Roon Server, with a hard drive full of music connected directly to a USB port. In this case, there's no need for another computer to playback audio. On the other hand, the PlayPoint can function as an HQPlayer Network Audio Adapter. This method of operation requires a fairly powerful computer running somewhere on one's network to handle the audio resampling before sending it to the PlayPoint. I'll dig deeper into the different configurations I used a bit later in the review.
The exaSound PlayPoint is a customized mini-computer for high performance audio. It's understated appearance is dominated by the touchscreen front panel. This touchscreen is capable of displaying several pages worth of information and enables the user to configure, control, and update the unit. I'm not a touchscreen type of guy, as I prefer to do everything via my listening chair, but there is a certain degree of comfortability to be found in having direct access to a component, should the need arise. One example of this can be read in the CA forum recently, when a user needed to know the IP address of a audio device so he could troubleshoot a networking problem. His device had no capability to display this information. Whereas the exaSound PlayPoint can display this and much more right on the front panel.
The PlayPoint supports both wired Ethernet and 802.11ac wireless. According to exaSound, only multi-channel playback requires use of the wired network connection. Stereo audio up through DSD256 and PCM 384/32bit works just fine via WiFi. I would have tested this myself, but due to circumstances beyond exaSound's control, I was unable to connect the PlayPoint to my wireless network. I currently have a complete wired and wireless network, designed by Access Networks, installed for review. This network doesn't support Wireless Protected Setup (WPS), which is required for the PlayPoint to connect via WiFi.
The rear of the PlayPoint features a power port for a 12V, 3A power supply. I didn't try anything other than the supplied PSU, but I'm sure there are many other PSU options for this interested in aftermarket supplies. The PlayPoint features both a single USB 2.0 port for audio and a single USB 3.0 port for a hard drive. The USB 3.0 port can supply up to 500mA of power to an external drive. While reviewing the PlayPoint I tried a few different hard drive options. I had no issues with USB sticks, and great luck with an external 1TB mSATA drive. I ran into trouble with one hard drive that required the use of two USB ports for power. With a single USB data port on the PlayPoint, this type of drive was a nonstarter.
Note: After sending this review to exaSound for a check of technical accuracy, I received the following note relating to the use of multiple USB drives or drives requiring more than one USB port for power.
"A powered USB hub can do the trick. Also with a powered hub you can attach more than one HDD. Theoretically up to 8, I’ve seen Roon Server auto-detecting two USB drives. It is a feature they are still working on. It takes a moment to recognize the second drive. Manual mapping is possible, drives are mapped as /media/usb1, /media/usb3 .... /media/usb8."
The PlayPoint's volume control has some very nice features, made possible because of the tight integration with exaSound DACs. When volume is adjusted on the PlayPoint, the command is sent through to the DAC, and its ESS 9018 DAC chip handles the hardware volume control. The level is adjustable in steps of 0.5 dB. Changing this volume can be done four different ways, 1) With an iOS or Android device running an app like Roon or MPaD, 2) From the touchscreen on the front panel, 3) the volume buttons on the DAC front panel, and 4) an IR remote (included with DAC, not PlayPoint). When the level is changed via any of the aforementioned methods, it's synchronized to both devices (DAC and PP). I used the volume control in the Roon iOS app with great ease and success. I'm always hesitant using a software application to adjust volume, because of previous experience, but was delighted by the Roon / PlayPoint performance. I have Roon running on an iPad right next to my listening chair, so adjusting the volume is accomplished with a simple tap and swipe. During my review of the PlayPoint, I connected an exaSound e22 DAC. This DAC has a line output level of 4 Vrms (balanced) and 2 Vrms (unbalanced). Using the balanced output, I had enough power to drive my amplifiers directly. However, it is possible to set the PlayPoint to 0dB for connection to preamplifier. This setting puts the unit in volume bypass mode, disabling hardware volume control.
The exaSound PlayPoint's software features are bigger differentiators than its hardware features. The PlayPoint runs a version of the Linux operating system, with custom software and drivers for exaSound components. Of note is the exaSound proprietary ZeroJitter USB audio interface with error correction. Yes, error correction. I don't know of another Usb audio device that has error correction. All of them have error detection without correction. exaSound does this using its own asynchronous USB streaming protocol that can retransmit the same block of data when error is detected. Part of what makes this possible is the fact that USB audio is streamed at speeds much higher than the rate of playback. Readers should also note that this isn't unique to the PlayPoint, exaSound's Windows and Mac drivers feature the same error correction.
The PlayPoint's firmware / software is upgradeable with the press of a button on the front touchscreen. These updates lengthen the life of a product and enable the company to constantly improve the product. The most recent update features a change to Roon Server that automatically configures local USB drives. This is actually a really nice feature that enables users to know nothing about Roon's storage configuration, yet still have their storage devices work perfectly within the app. Another great feature enabled by a front panel button press, is remote support. I've had the PlayPoint for several months. During this time, my device ran an alpha version of Roon Server. I had an issue, as most people do with aha software, so I pressed the remote support button and let exaSound know the support ID number. Without further interaction from me, the PlayPoint was fixed (by switching my unit to the public release of Roon Server).
The PlayPoint supports several different playback modes, including RoonReady, Roon Server, HQPlayer NAA, OpenHome, UPnP, and AirPlay. One nice feature of the PlayPoint is that the device can play via any of these modes without manually switching the PlayPoint into a specific mode. For example, I was playing audio using Roon one minute and HQPlayer NAA the next. The only thing I did different was use a different app to send audio. Most other devices in this or a similar category require the endpoint be manually set into a specific mode for playback of Roon or HQPlayer NAA or UPnP. Astute CA readers will notice that the PlayPoint offers both RoonReady and Roon Server features. This is a big deal, especially for those seeking simplicity and one less computer in their playback chains. RoonReady is a certification from Roon Labs that means the device is an audio endpoint capable of receiving audio from the Roon application. Sending audio to a RoonReady endpoint requires that Roon Server or desktop application be running somewhere on one's network either on a computer or network attached storage unit. Roon Server on the other hand, when running on the PlayPoint, only requires an iOS or Android device for remote control. The PlayPoint looks at either a USB drive containing music files or a network attached storage drive with music, and the mobile device is used for all interaction with the exaSound device. No other computers need be present to browse, select, and listen to music.
The PlayPoint in My System
I focussed on using the PlayPoint a few different ways, while briefly testing the others. Here are descriptions of each configuration I used for more than a short period of time:
1) Roon Server running on the PlayPoint. Music stored on a USB 3.0 1TB mSATA drive connected to the unit. This is the configuration I can see many people using because it's so simple and self-contained. My library contained about 2,000 albums and 25,000 tracks in this setup. Navigating within Roon was fast. Searches provided results quickly and search suggestions popped up while typing. Roon's audio analysis, that operates on new music imported into the library, was acceptable in that it took about two days for all 25,000 tracks to complete analysis (on the fast setting). One possible issue with this configuration is the amount of music one can store on a connected USB drive if USB bus power is required or solid state storage is required by the user. My total library is about 5TB and didn't fit on my USB storage device. That said, based on my unscientific research, most people don't actually have that much local music.
2) Roon Server running on the PlayPoint. Music stored on a NAS. This was my first configuration because I wanted to use my entire 5TB library. I ran into some performance issues with my 70,000 tracks and 5,500 albums. The PlayPoint was pretty sluggish when searching. Results could take anywhere from 5 to 25 seconds to appear, and search suggestions were nowhere to be seen under the search bar. In addition, Roon's audio analysis, that operates on new music imported into the library, was very slow in this mode. I had to stop and start the analysis a few times and lost track of the total time it took to analyze all 70,000 tracks after about one week. That said, this was done with Roon alpha software and could be improved upon in the future.
3) RoonReady endpoint on the PlayPoint. Roon Server and music stored on NAS. This configuration worked great, but failed to take advantage of many of the features of the PlayPoint. I still needed another device running Roon Server and storing music, in order to stream to the exaSound unit. Yes it worked without issue and I highly recommend this method if one is interested in using the PlayPoint in this fashion because he wants access to a large library, running on a NAS, with very speedy search results etc...
4) HQPlayer NAA running on the PlayPoint. HQPlayer running on another PC. Music stored on a NAS. Users who know about HQPlayer and NAA understand that it's not a plug n' play app and they usually expect some additional hardware and software configuration. If you don't know what HQPlayer is, I suggest doing some serious homework on its benefits and complications compared to other applications. In this mode the PlayPoint worked great, receiving and passing through DSD256 / PCM 384 to the exaSound e22 DAC without a hiccup.
Now for the part of this review that may frustrate some readers, the listening experience. This has nothing to do with the really good sound quality I heard through the PlayPoint / e22 DAC combination. Rather it has everything to do with the situation. Assessing the sonic attributes of the PlayPoint alone is impossible as is assessing these attributes on a DAC of my choice. The exaSound PlayPoint only works with an exaSound DAC. exaSound DACs only work with the PlayPoint (in this device category). Thus, an apples-to-apples comparison, or at least listening session was impossible. I could have connected a device such as the Auralic Aries, that supports RoonReady, to the e22's coaxial digital input and compared that to the PlayPoint / e22 combo via USB, but that's not really fair. The Aries wouldn't have the galvanic isolation of the exaSound combo, the asynchronous clocking, or the support of DSD256/PCM 384 etc... Plus, in this very limited test, I'd mostly be listening to how well the e22 DAC handled different sources, not how well the PlayPoint performs sonically. In an effort to satisfy everyone, I can say the sound I heard through the exaSound combination was really good. All my usual suspects such as such as Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Jack Johnson, The Band, and Blind Faith, all sounded very enjoyable. In fact, I listened to the Roon radio feature for a few hours through this combo and enjoyed every non-fatiguing minute. Two new albums that really sounded great through the PlayPoint / e22 combo were Macy Gray's debut on Chesky Records, Stripped at 24/192, and Jack Whites' Acoustic Recordings 1998 - 2016, with much better dynamic range than all his previous work to date.
After finishing writing this review and sleeping on it, I decided to circle back and offer some additional sonic impressions. This morning I am listening to Walter Becker's 2008 solo album Circus Money, through the exaSound combo. Immediately I am impressed by the punch and realism of the kick drum on the track Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore. There is a very nice smoothness to the sound of this track, with the bass line throughout leading the way with a great groove. Perhaps the bass is a touch smoother than I am used to, but I'm not entirely sure to what I should attribute this sonic character. Tapping over to my favorite track on the album, Three Picture Deal, I am pulled right into the party by the bass and drum augmented by Roger Rosenberg's baritone saxophone. The sound is laser focussed as the beautiful sounding backing vocalists enter the fray with soft harmonies. As the track closes out, there is a 1980s feel to it with everything going on at once, lead vocals, backing vocals, piano, saxophone, drums, bass, etc... The exaSound combo reproduces all the instruments nicely in separate spaces, making this a very musical finale to a track that could sound like a jumbled mess if reproduced with less capable equipment.
Switching up to Tracy Chapman's self titled album, I am impressed with the exaSound combo's ability to convey emotion in tracks such as Behind The Wall and Baby Can I hold You. When playing Fast Car, the bass from the very beginning is as extended as I've ever heard it reproduce in my system. I'm not sure if anything else has changed since last listening to this track, but I am immediately impressed by the solidity of the exaSound PlayPoint / e22 pairing. Tracy's acoustic guitar covering the midrange, is bolstered by this deep and omnipresent bass foundation. It sounds very pleasing, enjoyable, and fun.
In the mood for great musicianship and in-your-face rock and roll, I turn to Rage Against The Machine. Listening to Killing In The Name, from the Audio Fidelity remaster of Rage's self titled album, I experienced more of the same powerful bass and drums that I so much enjoyed on previous tracks played through the exaSound PlayPoint and e22 DAC. Fortunately for this component combo, the powerful bottom end doesn't harm the top end. Throughout the track both the crashing and delicately tapped cymbals come through with great clarity emanating appropriately form the right channel. I can't say I've noticed such clarity while listening to this track previously. Skipping a couple tracks, but listening to my favorites, the rest of the album continued to impress me when reproduced through the exaSound combination. I would like to say the exa combo is a beast in the bottom end, a bass monster, but that could have a negative connotation that isn't justified. I guess I'll leave it at this; the exaSound PlayPoint and e22 combination shouldn't be considered bass-shy, and will kick the listener in the chest whenever appropriate.
The exaSound PlayPoint network audio player is loaded with support for sample rates up through DSD256 and PCM 384kHz as well as featuring playback modes galore. Enabling its customers to take advantage of whatever high resolution music they have or even resampling lower resolution to something higher with HQPlayer/NAA, is a hallmark of exaSound. You got it? exaSound can play it. Software features such as RoonReady and Roon Server, put the PlayPoint in a very unique class of components. This uniqueness is also derived from the fact that the PlayPoint only outputs audio via USB and to an exaSound DAC. Such a closed system may turn off a few potential customers, but it will also be just what the doctor ordered for many. If I had a dollar for every time someone talked to me at an audio show about an issue with computer audio, I'd be retired on a the beach in Malibu. This isn't rocket science, but I completely understand people are frustrated. Solutions such as the exaSound PlayPoint could be excellent for those who have no knowledge of computer audio or those who have no interest in learning. The PlayPoint is also for the learned computer audiophile with an interest in simplifying or the existing exaSound customer looking to turn his DAC into a complete audio solution, just add music. Based on my experience with the PlayPoint, I can easily recommend it to all exaSound customers and those seeking a complete digital source (PlayPoint) & DAC solution (exaSound DAC) that was created to fit like a glove.
PlayPoint and e22 DAC with Sabrent USB 3.0 MSATA II Enclosure
Sabrent USB 3.0 MSATA II Enclosure (sold separately)
- Product - exaSound PlayPoint Network Audio Player($1,999)
- Product Page - Link
- Where To Buy - Link
- User Manual - PDF
- Source: Aurender N10, MacBook Pro (running Windows 10)
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, Mytek Digital Brooklyn
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB, Sonore microRendu
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
- Product - exaSound PlayPoint Network Audio Player($1,999)