Sunday, 21 January 2018

Oppo Sonica DAC - A Misunderstood But Must Have DAC!




Yes. To me this is the most misunderstood hifi kit for 2017. Is it a DAC? Pre amp? Streamer? Media player? What is the difference with the excellent HA-1 unit. Well, there are a lot of difference between them. Some of them that I can list down:

1. The Sonica uses ESS ES9038PRO SABRE DAC while the HA-1 uses the SABRE32Reference ES9018
2. The headphone amp section have been taken off in the Sonica
3. The network capability have been added into the Sonica. This to me is the most significant addition to the unit.
4. Off goes the remote from the Sonica and replaced with an app.

THE BUILT AND SPECS
The Sonica comes in a similar width and length as the HA-1. However the heigh is lower as you can see below when I stack both of them together. It actually looks kind of cool together. One thing about Oppo, their fascia and display design is one of the best out there. The glossy finish of the chassis and also control knobs are of very high quality and classy looking. Their black design is like Mont Blanc in the fashion world.





In the rear, you will get the usual galore of inputs and outputs where the output also offer balanced XLR connection. All of the RCA sockets are of gold plated. Putting in my Audience RCA, it snuggly fits onto the sockets.

With the network capability added, you can access your digital music either from:
  1. Internet - Spotify and TIDAL supported
  2. Network Access Storage (NAS) - The unit will play directly all your files once its on the same network
  3. Hooking up a laptop or PC to its asynchronous USB input at the rear and use the Sonica impeccable DAC chip
  4. Hooking up a HDD or thumbdrive into the USB input at the rear or front
  5. Hooking up an analogue source either a tape deck or phono stage or even conventional CD player. 
  6. Via Airplay directly from your iPhone/iPod/iPad
  7. Via Bluetooth connectivity
Digital Inputs:
  • 1 x coaxial
  • 1 x optical
  • 1 x asynchronous USB
  • 1 x USB for HDD
  • 1 x USB for iPod/iPhone
Analogue Input:
  • 1 x stereo Aux In
Output:
  • 1 x stereo RCA
  • 1 x XLR Balanced





THE SET UP

The Sonica was set up in several ways for this review:

1. Via USB input from 2 different sources - Sony HAP Z1 ES and the current craze Tinkerboard
2. Wireless via Wifi
3. Wired via ethernet
4. Via Bluetooth

The first test is of course stability. The recent streamers that I reviewed came in different level of stability. After nearly 10 years of streaming, I get quite annoyed when a streamer that claims to stream wirelessly Hi Res Audio up to DSD, but could not deliver the stability when the digital files are being played. I can understand 10 years ago, but in today's environment, I expect my wireless music to be streamed without lag or long buffers. My NAS and router is only about 2 feet away from my set up. So nothing is blocking the wireless signal.

....and the Sonica is currently the MOST STABLE streamer I have experienced at this price tag. I played various Hi Res files from my NAS for a straight 24 hours and not once it lagged nor stop playing. This is already big advantage over a lot of other players.

However, I do face an issue via USB when I change from track to track (DSD files). The Sonica gives me a loud 'pop' sound on my speakers. It happened on both Sony player and Tinkerboard. Tried different USB cables but still problem persists.

THE SESSION

I would not really bother playing low bit MP3s when you have a sophisticated unit like this. The 3 tracks I use here are:

1. Louisiana 1927 by Aaron Neville (16/44 ALAC)
2. Somewhere, Somebody by Jennifer Warmes (2.8 MHz DSD)
3. Take Five  by Dave Brubeck (2.8  MHz DSD)



Sonica with Tinkerboard - Aaron Neville

On a basic file like this, the Sonica expanded the overall ambient of the whole track. It brought up the emotions delivered by Aaron to a new level. The simple bass line on this track sounds deeper than usual and the clarity of the snare wire dispersion somehow sounded more luscious.  Even the rim shot sounded very natural.  Aaron's vocal was full of emotion and the Sonica just governs the whole track with such a huge soundstage that I thought I was in a concert hall.


Sonica and Sony HAP Z1 ES - Jennifer Warnes

With DSD files, the Sonica could still present a different perspective of how the sound is. I have tested a few DACs that can actually outperform SONY internal DAC but somehow, the ones that can actually do that is priced at level that I am not willing to swipe my VISA card.  The Sonica however, managed to provide me with that different experience even with an already good DSD file. Again, the bass line on the intro on this track was really deep that I can hear or feel the string vibration. I just love the details that Sonica unleash. And the percussion on this track was capture and replayed by the Sonica in a very three dimensional way that again, it created a very huge ambient on my system. 



Sonica and Sony HAP Z1 ES - Dave Brubeck

What can I say, I love DSD. Some may debate whether the commercial files we purchase is truly Hi Res DSD (how can we enhance something on a track when it was not there to begin with). At this point, I cant really think about things that is out of my control. I get files, I listen to them and I feel its better than Redbook CD... then to me its better. Regardless of what the remasters or re-engineering  of the tracks entail. I cant do a review of a kit without playing this track Take Five of Dave Brubeck. Its like my Holy Grail when it comes to Jazz and bass experience. On this track, the low end notes from the percussion is very distinct and hard digs deep as well. But it does not take away the huge soundstage and luscious dispersion of the snare and ride cymbal. The Sonica somehow injects a certain musicality trait into the presentation that is quite a different experience.

SO...DO I GO WIRELESS OR WIRED OR DIRECT USB?

I replayed all the tracks in different ways. I must nothing can still beat a direct hook from a HDD or player via USB onto the DAC. If you music is on a NAS, try to connect the Sonica via the wired ethernet method. I feel this give a meatier presentation. The wireless method eventhough stable, it does lack some emotion and liveliness.

OTHER PERFORMANCE

Using Spotify and Tidal was a breeze. Only on this unit, I started to realize the the advantage of Tidal over Spotify when it comes to SQ. Tidal Masters sounds delightfully musical on this Sonica. The same tracks above sounded quite energetic with a good balance overall. It still not at par as the DSD files I have. But for Tidal and Spotify subscription rate, it is still good.

CONCLUSIONS

At RM4200, this streamer meets all what you need in this modern streaming era. Stability, above expectation SQ, ease of use apps, stylish design and most importantly, it offers great flexibility with regards various files that it can adapt to. For an instant upgrade to your digital files experience, the Sonica can easily give you a more in depth bass experience but at the same time balances it with a surreal soundstaging experience.

Do audition this unit in CMY if possible if you are in the market for a new fuss free streamer.





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