Roon Labs has received boatloads of accolades, including our review in Issue 258, for its excellent-sounding and useful computer playback software. But until recently a major limitation has been that it only runs on computers—Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Some audiophiles don’t want anything that looks like a computer anywhere near their audio racks. So Roon has worked with manufacturers of dedicated music servers to install its proprietary playback programs on their components. Which brings us to the subject of this review, exaSound’s PlayPoint network audio player, one of the first such players to use Roon playback software. It’s no surprise that exaSound is a pioneer in bringing Roon to the server market; the company is usually among the leaders in fielding new technologies. And since the PlayPoint only works with exaSound’s DACs, that gave us an excuse to sample its new e32 DAC, one of the first to use the new ESS 9028PRO chip. Of course, using Roon requires a Roon account, which costs $119 per year, or $499 for a lifetime subscription. You control a Roon Server with the Roon remote program on a tablet or computer. If Roon is not within your financial means, the PlayPoint also works with Linn’s Kazoo app, which can be had as a free download for iOS (Apple) devices or for BubbleUPnP (Android)devices. (If you want to learn more about Roon, check out its user guide at roonlabs.com.)
Built in Canada, exaSound’s e32 DAC and PlayPoint Network Player are housed in small extruded silver aluminum cases, each measuring 6.5” x 2.2” x 9.25” and each weighing 2.4 pounds. Both use external in-line power supplies. The PlayPoint sells for $1999, the e32 for $3499. The PlayPoint will play multichannel recordings—up to eight channels. . Since they are so small, the PlayPoint and DAC easily fit side-by-side on a standard rack shelf. Need even more room? You can stack the PlayPoint on top of the DAC; their unusual polished metal feet with O-ring cushions on the bottoms won’t scratch the surface you place them on.
The PlayPoint and DAC will play PCM files up to 384kHz/32-bit, and DSD files up to DSD256. That’s just about anything commercially available, except MQA. When I asked about plans to add MQA playback to the player, exaSound president George Klissarov said he was working on it.
As noted above, the e32 DAC is among the first to use the new ESS 9028PRO chip, which Klissarov calls the first true successor to the highly regarded ESS 9018S. “We did a number of refinements of our designs, in hardware, firmware, and drivers,” he said. “We are very excited about the improvements in sonic fidelity and in technical capability.”
The DAC has both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs. Since it has a volume control with a remote control (an Apple remote), it can be used as the control center for your system, and drive a power amplifier directly. It also has a surprisingly good built-in headphone amplifier, so if ’phones make up a part of your listening experience, you won’t necessarily need a separate amp to drive them.
I asked why the PlayPoint would only work with an exaSound DAC, and Klissarov told me, “We use proprietary drivers that are as important for the sonic qualities of our DACs as the custom DAC hardware that we design in-house. With the PlayPoint we have complete control over the sound streaming chain—software and hardware. The goal of the PlayPoint project is to provide to our customers an alternative to using a computer in the music room. It is difficult to achieve the same or consistently similar performance with third-party DACs. Opening the PlayPoint to other DACs will require a sizable testing effort on our side, plus Roon certification for every kind of third-party DAC. We will be working in this direction.”
Setup and Use
The PlayPoint and e32 DAC easily fit side-by-side on one shelf of my equipment rack, leaving enough room there to hold my 2.4” wide Rothwell Headspace moving-coil headamp.
I connected the PlayPoint to my home network using a Cat 7 network cable and, via a Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7 USB cable, to the e32. I connected the e32 to the linestage using Audience Au 24 SX balanced cables. Both the PlayPoint and the e32 were plugged into an Audience aR6T power conditioner. The Roon Remote app running on my iPad Air 2 controlled the Roon Server on the PlayPoint.
As I mentioned, some readers might not spring for a Roon license, so I also tried Linn’s Kazoo app on my iPad to control the PlayPoint. Although not as easy to use as Roon, it was completely functional, and offered the ability to explore the folder where your music files are stored, just as if you were using a computer. (That sometimes makes it easier to find music files. I’ve suggested that Roon add such a feature, but they seem adamantly opposed to it.)
I tried several other remote control apps for various streamers/servers left on my iPad from previous reviews and discovered that Esoteric’s Sound Stream app worked quite well with the PlayPoint; I slightly preferred its user interface to Kazoo’s. And it sounded doggone good, too.