Time traveling forward several centuries to Shelby Lynne’s album Just a Little Lovin’ (DSD64/DSF, downloaded from Acoustic Sounds), the exaSound combination shook the room with bass—of course, the new subwoofers helped a bit, too. But the midrange also showed slight improvements; I heard vocal inflections and phrasing I’d never before noticed. There was an increased sense of air around Lynne. The PlayPoint/e32 depiction of instrumental color was quite realistic.
Another contemporary recording is Alex de Grassi’s “Shortening Bread” from Blue Coast Records recording guru Cookie Marenco’s album Special Event 19 (DSD64/DSF, downloaded from downloadsnow.net). The PlayPoint/e32 combination produced plentiful detail, with both the strings and body of the guitar contributing equally to the sound—as they should. The harmonic structure of the guitar was spot on, and transient detail also seemed just right. This album is one of the best guitar recordings I’ve heard, and the exaSound gear let me hear more of it than usual.
Last up was a brand-new work just released in December 2016, Bjørn Kåre Odde’s “Snilla Patea,” a haunting piece for solo fiddler and chorus featuring composer Odde on fiddle and the well-known Schola Cantorum chorus. You can see this recording session on YouTube, where the layout uses a single microphone close to the fiddler, with the chorus arranged in a circle around the microphone. Known for its exquisite recordings, the Norwegian 2L company (2L.com) exceeded its extremely high standards with this state-of-the-art example. Yeah, I know, that sounds like reviewer hyperbole. Except this time it’s right. The PlayPoint/e32 combination reproduced the fiddle with full-fleshed harmonics and beautifully realistic detail; not sterile like some DXD (352.8/24) recordings, just exceptionally natural. Given the recording layout, you’d need a surround-sound system to do it full justice; on my two-channel setup, the chorus is placed between the speakers. Among the most realistic vocal recordings I’ve heard, it sounded (pardon another tired cliché, but it fits this recording perfectly) like the performers were in the room with me. There was no sense of strain or peakiness, just accomplished musicians obviously enjoying performing. The recording is available in various formats, including DXD, DSD128, and even MQA.
My SOtM sMS-1000SQ network music player and its dedicated sPS-1000 power supply drive a PS Audio DirectStream DAC, which together sell for almost $10,000 and are full-sized components. The DAC “only” plays DSD128, although it can handle DXD recordings. One of the attractions of the PS Audio DAC is the ability to upgrade its operating system, and such updates have made quite audible improvements. Like the exaSound gear, it has balanced and unbalanced outputs and a volume control that lets it drive power amplifiers directly. It has a remote control, but no built-in headphone amplifier.
On “Folia Rodrigo Martinez,” the midbass sounded slightly more forceful; the drum sounded more continuous as the frequency increased, with no smearing. Overall, the sound was a smidgen more open. There was not even a trace of peakiness. “Miserere” showed a similar openness, no tenor brittleness, and a refined sense of spatial separation of the solo group. The reverberant echo that helps create the impression of this separation was just slightly more pronounced, making the group seem slightly further back from the front of the soundstage. In “Shortening Bread” the SOtM/PS Audio combination displayed even more realistic guitar sound, with a tad better microdynamic tracking and longer transient decay. In “Just a Little Lovin’,” the opening bass notes, which are quite deep and powerful, presented better top-to-bottom integration than with the exaSound gear, so that the instrument sounded like the real thing. Lynne’s vocal inflections didn’t display the extra detail the PlayPoint/e32 had revealed, but still sounded quite “there.” The soundstage on “Snilla Patea” sounded less ethereal, with the singers pointedly placed between the speakers. Surprisingly, I heard a very tiny bit of glare compared to the exaSound gear.
In summary, the $5498 combination of the exaSound PlayPoint network player and e32 DAC sounded very close to the $10,000 SOtM network player and PS Audio DAC, while taking up one fewer shelf on my equipment rack. The principal difference was in the bass, where the SOtM/PS Audio combination exhibited better continuity between deep bass and midbass. The exaSound combo seemed to have a tad more extended and smoother high-frequency response that provided additional detail on some material. The exaSound combination also plays DSD256 files, while the SOtM/PS Audio combination “only” plays DSD128. I don’t regard that as significant, but if DSD256 albums are in your acquisition plans, it may be important. Neither combination decodes MQA files (they will of course play undecoded MQA files), but exaSound’s statement that it is working on adding that capability could also be significant; I’ve heard no similar statement from PS Audio. And it’s the DAC that decodes MQA files—the player just sees MQA files as FLAC files and plays them. If a player can’t handle FLAC files, look elsewhere. (See Industry News this issue for an update on this subject.—Ed.)
The exaSound PlayPoint and its companion e32 DAC are miniature masterpieces that illustrate that excellent sound doesn’t require large components. The DAC is small enough that it would make a particularly good choice to pair with a computer, especially since it has an excellent headphone amplifier. Because it uses the increasingly popular Roon playback software, the PlayPoint is a great alternative to running Roon on a PC or laptop. You get the advantage of Roon’s very attractive interface running on a tablet or another PC or laptop used as the control app. And Roon is relatively easy to set up. Of course, the best user interface in the world is useless if the equipment running it sounds bad. Fortunately, the exaSound gear sounds fantastic—and retails for a reasonable price. Highly recommended.
Specs & Pricing
exaSound PlayPoint Network Audio Player
Type: Roon-ready network player
Formats supported: DSD64, DSD128, DSD256, PCM 44.1kHz to 384kHz/true 32-bit in FLAC, AIFF, and WAV formats
Inputs: USB 3.0 for external hard drive, RJ45 for connection to network
Outputs: USB 2.0 for DAC, HDMI reserved for future use
Drive capacity: None; external drive required
Streaming services: Tidal
Dimensions: 6.5” x 2.2” x 9.25”
Weight: 2.4 lbs.
exaSound e32 Digital-to-Audio Converter
Type: Solid-state DAC and headphone amplifier, Roon Ready
Inputs: SPDIF on coax and TosLink, USB
Formats supported: DSD64, DSD128, DSD256, PCM 44.1kHz to 384kHz at 32 bits maximum resolution
Output: Balanced on XLR jacks, unbalanced on RCA jack, headphone on ¼” jack
Dimensions: 6.5” x 2.2” x 9.25**
Weight: 2.4 lbs.
EXASOUND AUDIO DESIGN
3219 Yonge Street, Suite 354
Canada M4N 3S1
Speakers: Affirm Audio Lumination speakers; Syzygy Acoustics SLF870 subwoofers (2) Amplifier: Berning ZH-230 stereo amplifier
Preamplifier: Audio Research LS28 linestage
Sources: SOtM sMS-1000SQ network music player with sPS-1000 power supply; QNAP TS-251 network attached storage (NAS) drive; PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Torreys operating system
Interconnects: Audience Au24 e balanced interconnects; CablePro Freedom unbalanced interconnects
Speaker cables: Crimson Audio Crimson RM Music Link loudspeaker cables
Power cords: Purist Audio Design Venustas power cords; Clarity Cables Vortex power cords; Audience powerChord-e; Au24 SE LP powerChord
Digital: Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7 USB cable
Power conditioner/distribution: Audience aR6-T