I’ll start by using the Sonica internal player to decode music files. First up was old fave “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” ripped to AIFF format from the CD La Folia 1490-1701 [Alia Vox AFA 9805] performed by Jordi Savall and his band of Renaissance specialist musicians. The first thing I noticed was that the bass rolled off a bit early, so I couldn’t hear the deepest notes (which extend to the mid-20Hz range), as I do on my larger system. It’s hardly a surprise that the two 12" subwoofers with 1200-watt amplifiers in my larger system go deeper than the two 6½" woofers in my smaller system. The next thing I noticed was that aside from the deepest bass, not much else was missing. The Sonica produced plenty of bloom and air around the outlines of the instruments. The soundstage was not defined with pinpoint accuracy, but I think that’s characteristic of this recording. However, the instruments were spread out across the soundstage between the speakers, so the music sounded quite open and spacious. The Sonica conveyed plenty of inner detail and nuance, with harmonic envelopes that sounded complete and natural. It tracked the changing dynamic level quite well, if not as precisely as some much more expensive DACs. Some equipment portrays the music as having several discrete dynamic levels instead of a continuously varying level—but not the Sonica. The leading-edge transients of the castanets were prominent, but not unnaturally emphasized. Besides going deeper in the bass, my larger system, currently with a $5995 DAC and a $900 digital player in use, portrays the instruments with more texture and detail, more accurately rendered harmonic structures, and a more precise soundstage. But that comes at a much steeper price. Sometimes you do get what you pay for.
Next up was Shelby Lynne’s cover of Dusty Springfield’s song “Just a Little Lovin’” [DSD64/AIFF, Acoustic Sounds]. This recording opens with a deep bass figure, which continues throughout the song. After the way the Sonica handled the bass in “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” I expected a rolled-off reproduction here, too, but was pleasantly surprised that the bass depth and weight were quite impressive. OK, subwoofers still reign, but the Sonica’s bass had surprising impact. Lynne’s vocals were portrayed with nuance and shading, though perhaps were not the last word in texture.
Another fave is Thomas Tallis’ “Miserere” from The Tallis Scholars album Allegri’s Miserere & Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli [24/96 FLAC, Gimell]. It’s an a cappella performance by a small choral group recorded in a church. Performers consisted of a main choral group spread across the front of the soundstage, a solo tenor, and a small solo group located some distance behind the main group. The main group was spread across the soundstage; the Sonica depicted the spread as wide-open. There was a modest amount of reverberant echo from the solo group in the distance, which made them sound separated by a medium distance, but the reverberation didn’t sound smeared as it does with some components. The Sonica reproduced the solo tenor’s voice with nice tone, and no stridency or breakup. There was an ever-so-slight hardness to the main choral group’s sound.
On the album Lincolnshire Posy, [176.4/24 FLAC, Reference Recordings/HDTracks], the Dallas Wind Symphony plays Percy Grainger’s “Lads of Wamphray March” with the requisite vigor and pomp. The Sonica splendidly portrayed the forward momentum and dynamics that earmarked this piece. It’s hard to capture all the tonal characteristics of a wind band without relegating some instruments to a distant tier, but this recording nails it, while preserving a realistic soundstage. The march sports a large bass drum that is whacked lustily throughout the piece, and the Sonica didn’t roll off the drum’s deep extension. Even when the drum was hit softly, the Sonica still made it sound like a drum rather than an indistinct rumble. I challenge you not to like this cheery, upbeat album.
To check out the Sonica with an external player, I switched to the SOtM sMS-200 network player and queued up Blue Coast Records’ just-released album Moonlight Ladies—Sneak Peek, with Jenna Mammina doing vocals and John Burr on piano. Mastered at DSD256, it sounds startlingly clean and realistic, unlike DXD, which sometimes sounds startlingly clean but a little sterile—to me, at least. The SOtM and Sonica reproduced both Mammina’s voice and Burr’s piano with amazing textural accuracy—not spectacular, unless you count realism as spectacular. I’m not always a fan of Mammina’s voice, but in this album, it fits the text and music to a tee. Just beautiful. The SOtM/Sonica pair captured the subtle microdynamics superbly, with notable palpability and presence. It’s a great recording, and the SOtM/Sonica did justice to its playback.
Since it’s functionally similar, I’ll compare the Sonica to the internal DAC/player on the NAD C 368’s add-on BluOS module. As noted earlier, this module supports MQA but not DSD.
On “Lads of Wamphray March” the bass extended quite deep, but the detail that told me these low notes originated from a bass drum was missing. So were the harmonic details that made the instruments sound real. Playback sounded like I’d switched to a lower-resolution file.
Next, I queued up “Just a Little Lovin’” and there was lots of very deep bass energy, but sonically it was a bit lacking in detail. Lynne’s voice was not quite as full and detailed as the version played through the Sonica. Same story for instruments—not quite as detailed and harmonically accurate as when played via the Sonica. I could go on, but the story would be similar.