exaSound Audio Design PlayPoint Network Audio Player and e32 DAC
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.
My music files were stored on a QNAP TS-251 NAS attached to my home network. ExaSound recommended three days’ continuous play for break-in, so I let it play much longer than that before I began critical listening.
The only set-up problem I encountered was when the Roon Server asked me the network path to my NAS so it could find my stored music files. I’m sure a real computer geek would have had that information at his fingertips, but I didn’t. However, I sat down at a Windows 10 computer attached to my network, and used File Explorer to browse to a file stored on my NAS, then looked at the Properties of the file. In the Location field was the path to the file, which was the information Roon needed to see. (I’m not sure how to do that using a Mac or Linux computer.) The next Roon release (v1.3) is expected to simplify this process.
Fortunately, I have a lifetime subscription to Roon so I could readily use it with the exaSound gear. I went through the set-up process that identified the PlayPoint as a zone and told Roon where my music files were stored so it could use them and watch for new files when I purchased a download or ripped a CD. Roon has proved to be the best music player program I’ve tried at identifying music files you’ve just added to your drive. I also had to set up Roon to use my Tidal account. After that easy process, Roon played Tidal files as if they were on my own network—and the integration of those with my own file collection was amazing.
During the review period, I also reviewed HiFiMan’s new HE1000 V2 headphones. Since the e32 includes a very accomplished headphone amp, it was one of the amps I used to drive those ’phones, and it acquitted itself quite well. The low-sensitivity HiFiMan headphone benefited from the e32’s generous power output: 4 watts into 16 ohms.
I used my iPad as the main Roon remote, selecting music to play from its screen. Roon shows your albums sorted in several ways: by date added (the default mode that shows you newly added albums), by album title (like iTunes), by artist, by album date, or by the albums most played. I sometimes have trouble finding an album I’m looking for, but fortunately, Roon has a fine search field. Most remote apps scroll through the available album display vertically, but Roon scrolls horizontally. When you install a new album on your drive, you probably want to play it right away, but many playback programs take quite some time before they recognize newly added albums; Roon recognizes these almost immediately. Like any other playback app, Roon takes a while to master, but the learning curve is not too difficult, and the availability of the aforementioned user guide helps a lot. Occasionally, when sitting at another computer, I would use a second copy of the Roon software as a remote. It had the advantage of looking exactly like Roon Server software.
The PlayPoint doesn’t have a routine for backing up your music files, and it has no capability for ripping CDs. That’s no big deal; a system where your music files are stored on a NAS usually has its own backup routine. If your music files are stored on an external USB drive, there are lots of backup and sync programs to help back up your files. And ripping CDs is easy to do using specialized computer programs, like dbPoweramp.
One change in my system affected what I heard in the review: Two wireless Syzygy Acoustics SLF870 subwoofers in for review had temporarily replaced my single JL Audio f110 sub. I liked them a lot, so I decided to use them for this review. Since I replaced a single 10” sub with two 12” subs, it should come as no surprise that the pair of Syzygy subs could play louder and lower, which enabled me to better evaluate bass performance.
Time travel is a favorite theme in science fiction stories, but as far as I know, it’s still a fictional concept. The closest we can come to traveling in time is via the arts, where through music, paintings, sculpture, and literature we can travel to past eras. So without deliberately trying to listen to music from periods ranging from long ago to very recent, I realized that’s what I’d done.
Jordi Savall leads his band of Renaissance specialists in the old favorite “Folia Rodrigo Martinez,” ripped to AIFF format from the CD Alia Vox AFA 9805 (La Folia 1490-1701). Its estimated composition date is 1490. The PlayPoint/e32 combination revealed lots of detail in this über-familiar recording, with an extended but not peaky high end. (Well, OK, once or twice I thought a smidgen of peakiness may have crept into the reproduction, but very little and very seldomly.) Thanks to this treble extension, I heard extra detail in the percussion instruments that rendered them audible throughout the piece. The castanets, for instance, are played fairly softly and often smear into the background; here they remained distinct. On the other end of the frequency spectrum, the bass was quite powerful, though not overdone. The Syzygy subwoofers enabled the PlayPoint/e32 combination to show me some details about the bass in this piece I hadn’t previously heard; specifically the drum, which extends into the mid-20Hz range, is being struck with different force at different points in time. Previously, these different drum whacks seemed much closer in forcefulness. However, the PlayPoint/e32’s midbass seemed slightly discontinuous—slightly congested in comparison to the deep bass. In the midrange, the exaSound gear provided plenty of air around the instruments, and accurate tonal textures with precise scaling of microdynamics.
Allegri’s “Miserere” from The Tallis Scholars’ Allegri’s Miserere & Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, a 96/24 FLAC album downloaded from Gimell.com, is another familiar piece I often use because it provides a lot of useful sonic information. An a capella choral piece thought to have been composed in the 1630s, it’s arranged here for a main choral group and a solo tenor positioned at the front of the soundstage, with a small solo group located some distance behind the main group. The PlayPoint/e32 combo portrayed the recording with a wide-open soundstage, revealing lots of detail about the solo tenor and main choral group. The distant solo group was accurately portrayed as having a slight high-frequency roll-off, and a well-defined impression of distance behind the main group. There was only a slight reverberant delay in the solo group’s output, caused by echoes from the recording environment (a small church). Reproduction of the solo tenor’s voice exhibited no hardness, as is sometimes the case through other equipment.
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