ExaSound Audio Design e20 Digital-to-Analog Converter

Game-Changer

Equipment report
Categories:
Digital-to-analog converters
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Products:
ExaSound Audio Design e20
ExaSound Audio Design e20 Digital-to-Analog Converter

Setting Up and Using the e20

I placed the e20 on a shelf on my Billy Bags equipment rack and connected it to my linestage with Audience Au24 e balanced interconnects. Thanks to the e20’s compact dimensions, I had room on the same shelf for my Auraliti music player and my Sony XDR-F1HD tuner. I don’t think most people want huge audio/video racks in their listening rooms these days, and compact components like the e20 are one way to minimize shelf space requirements. I connected my Auraliti-based server to the e20 using a WireWorld Gold Starlight 6 S/PDIF cable, and my computer-based server using an AudioQuest Diamond USB cable. The e20’s power supply uses an unpolarized C7 connector instead of an IEC jack, so I used the rather flimsy-looking stock power cord.

Recommended break-in time was 50 hours, rather short for any component. So I inserted the e20 in my break-in system and gave it 200 hours through the S/PDIF coaxial input and another 200 hours through the USB input. A load was connected to the unbalanced output jacks to assure the analog output section was properly broken in. I also plugged in some headphones during the USB break-in, so the headphone amplifier section would also get broken in. If you think reviewing is glamorous fun, I hate to tell you that most of this reviewer’s time is spent breaking equipment in. I usually don’t do much listening during break- in, rendering moot the assertion that break-in really amounts to getting used to how a component sounds.

One of the tedious aspects of using a computer as your music server is adjusting settings on the server software to produce the best sound quality. ExaSound helps you do that with very detailed set-up instructions in its manual for the J. River software. I’m a Windows guy, so I use these Windows programs. I used Foobar2000 version 1.1.15 server software, which exaSound recommended for its stability along with J. River. ExaSound points out that J. River is the company’s first choice for its feature set, user interface, and customer service. Foobar2000 is simpler to use, but both offer excellent sound quality. ExaSound also has a very thorough set-up guide for Foobar2000 software available on its Web site, and I found it essential, since the set-up process was rather complex.

I printed out the guide to use at my computer, but due to the illegibility of one captured screen, I skipped part of a step, with the result that DSD files wouldn’t play. Klissarov patiently walked me through the setup, and we implemented the necessary setting, after which both DFF and DSF files played just fine. Although the e20 will automatically switch between DSD and PCM files, Foobar won’t; you have to go into Foobar’s File/ Preferences menu and change some settings. It’s not hard, but neither is it intuitive, even if you’re familiar with Foobar’s PCM playback settings.

I couldn’t really test exaSound’s claim that the e20 is “capable of driving the most demanding headphones.” Probably the most demanding headphones available today are HiFiMAN’s HE-6s, which need around five watts, but since I don’t have a set of those cans, I had to be satisfied using the higher-sensitivity (and far cheaper) HiFiMAN HE-400s. I also used more conventional stock Sennheiser HD 650 and AKG K701 headphones, which are easier to drive.

Sound: USB

To get my footing, I started listening via the USB input to some of the PCM files I normally use for reviews. My first impression was that the e20 sounded very clean, with a slight high-frequency emphasis. It wasn’t at all peaky, but had a bit of extra sparkle. Jennifer Warnes’ recording of “The Panther,” from her CD The Well [SDR], opens with a wide assortment of percussion instruments, and the e20 portrayed their highest frequencies with considerable extension and detail.

On Jordi Savall’s CD La Folia 1490-1701 [Alia Vox], the piece “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” sounded very energetic, again with excellent high-frequency detail in the percussion instruments, including the opening cascabels. The bass drum, which extends surprisingly deep for an early music piece, had lots of impact. I’ve heard deeper bass extension, though not much.

One of the first high-resolution albums I downloaded was Seventeenth Century Music and Dance from the Viennese Court by Ars Antiqua Austria, conducted by Gunnar Letzbor (96/24 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks). Initially, with other gear, I thought it sounded sweet but a bit bland and flat. However, with the e20, the string tone glowed with harmonic richness, and the dynamics sprung to life, infusing the album with energy and flow.

With some a cappella choral music, The Tallis Scholars’ Allegri Miserere (96/24 FLAC, Gimell), the e20 made the soundstage appear deeper than I’m used to. This recording features a main choral group at the front of the soundstage, with a smaller solo group some distance back in the church where the recording was made. Through the e20, the solo group seemed farther back than usual, although still easily understandable. Reverberant room noise from the solo group seemed somewhat reduced.