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Oppo Digital Sonica Network DAC

Oppo Digital Sonica Network DAC

Oppo Digital has an enviable reputation for manufacturing high-value audio and video equipment. Sometimes “high value” is a euphemism for “cheaply made,” but not so with Oppo; its universal disc players totally rewrote the book on what constitutes good value for the money, making things very uncomfortable for manufacturers whose products didn’t measure up. In addition to the disc playback units that gave the company its start, Oppo produces a line of headphones, a headphone amp, and now this stand-alone digital-file player. What’s a digital-file player? It’s a combination of a digital player that streams music files from a drive, either on your network or plugged into the rear panel, and a DAC that converts the digital signal to an analog signal that your amp can play. The Sonica, which has no optical or internal storage drive, will work with either a wired network connection or a wireless connection. Files can be stored on a network attached storage drive (NAS) connected to a network via the RJ45 connection on the rear panel, on a computer connected via the USB Type B connectors on the rear panel, or via a USB drive connected to USB Type A jacks on the front and rear panels. A free Apple or Android remote app, appropriately named Sonica, controls playback.

The $799 Sonica can either accept an input from an external source, such as a computer or file player like the Sonore microRendu (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), or can directly accept files sent by an external DLNA server. It also includes an analog input, which would make it usable as a system controller, eliminating the need for a linestage; however, the Sonica isn’t supplied with a remote control. You’ll need to use the Sonica app or buy Oppo’s optional hand-held remote control. The Sonica app, however, provides an on-screen slider control so your tablet or smartphone becomes the volume control. Through the USB 2.0 Type B input, the Sonica can accept PCM files up to 768kHz/32-bit and DSD up to DSD512—both higher sampling rates than any commercially available music files I’ve seen, but maybe that’s a way of future-proofing, except that it doesn’t play MQA-encoded files, which depend on the DAC for full decoding. Through the RJ45 network input, the Sonica will only play 192/24 PCM files and DSD64 files. Why the disparity between capabilities with an external source and the internal player? It’s a matter of economics—the Sonica is after all, designed to a price point, and this is one area where cost limited playback capability. Unless you’re interested in pursuing the highest-resolution file playback, Oppo’s choices make a lot of sense. Of course, several other digital file players—I’m thinking of the Marantz HD-DAC1 or the Auralic Aries Mini—can provide higher-resolution file playback. The Marantz, which costs the same as the Sonica, includes a headphone amplifier, but doesn’t offer wireless connection.

The Sonica surely doesn’t look like a cheap component—it wouldn’t be out of place next to any top-quality DAC I’ve seen. The thickbrushed-aluminum front panel and solid, sturdy black case are quite unexpected in a $799 unit. Using ESS’ latest and greatest DAC chip, the ESS9038 Pro Sabre DAC, the Sonica’s specifications are impressive. Its analog circuitry is fully balanced clear to the output, with unbalanced outputs derived from the balanced circuits. A hefty toroidal transformer powers the Sonica. Relatively compact with measurements of 10″ by 3″ by 12.2″, the Sonica’s case rests on four large rubber-based feet that won’t scratch your furniture and should absorb vibration.

The Sonica front panel contains a central display window that’s big enough to show lots of information. To the right of the window is a large knob, the Sonica’s volume control. To the left of the window, a smaller knob selects the input and menu choices. There’s an on/off button on the left end of the front panel. That’s a plus. On the rear panel are the usual input and output jacks, along with an IEC jack for the power cord.

Setup and Use
The first thing I saw when I opened the box was a huge cardboard sheet the size of the shipping box. I hoped it might be a Getting Started Guide, but it was a list of some of the Sonica’s features. Next out of the box came a well-illustrated 24-page User Manual and a power cord, which I used for the review. I connected a Crimson Audio RM Music Link unbalanced interconnect cable to the amplifier (which only had unbalanced inputs), and plugged the Sonica into my home network using generic Cat 7 cable.

To use the Sonica as a streaming player, I downloaded the Sonica app to my iPad. The very clearly written user manual had step-by-step instructions that made it a cinch to get started—the Sonica almost installs itself. Having struggled for hours getting some network streamers up and running, I can’t begin to tell you how welcome an easy installation is.

 

The Sonica main screen is shown on in Figure 1.


In the left column are the Sonica’s various inputs. You can see that in addition to the physical connections, there are connections to Spotify and Tidal, so you can stream music from those services through Sonica. Of course, you’ll need an account with them to use those services. Below the streaming services are inputs from the mobile device you’re using (an iPad in my case), for network playback, for USB storage if you plug in a USB storage drive, from the Aux In for the analog input, and for a Bluetooth connection, like a smartphone. When I touched the Network Playback icon, I was invited to select several storage locations on my network: the network attached storage drive (NAS) itself, MinimServer (a DLNA server program running on the NAS), or the desktop (which didn’t have any music files). The screen shot in Figure 1 shows the result of selecting the NAS drive. To see the albums on the NAS, I touched the Albums menu item, and got the display in Figure 2. I also plugged a flash drive containing several of my most recently acquired albums into the front USB connector.


As you can see, compared to many other playback programs, Sonica is rather austere; its display in the right column is limited to an alphabetical list of the albums on the NAS, all 1720 of them. I kept hoping the generic folder displayed at the beginning of each album name would eventually turn into the cover art for the album, but it didn’t happen. There was no way to access an album except to scroll down to it. For the large number of albums on my NAS, that was a posterior pain, and I know my collection pales in comparison to that of many avid collectors. If you’re like me, you’ll probably resort to using the Search feature to locate albums you want to play. When you do that, you’ll find that Sonica searches everything that’s plugged into the DAC: Tidal, your NAS, your server running on the NAS, a USB drive plugged into the Sonica—and shows items matching your search criteria everywhere. The Tidal search items are plainly displayed, but you sometimes have to drill down a level or two further to get to a song on an album in your drives.

To play an album, first touch it to select it, then touch the Play All symbol at the top of the screen to play the album. You can also select individual songs to play, or compile a playlist. I miss a display where album cover art is shown in a grid to help you select what you want to hear, like most other playback apps provide (Roon comes to mind). On the other hand, I appreciate having a Folder view, which lets me view the contents of my music folder like I see it from my computer, which Roon doesn’t provide. I didn’t try Spotify, but Tidal looked and worked liked Tidal usually does. Touch the Exit menu selection to return to your local playback. I later discovered that Sonica’s limited display stems in part from enabling it to run on a smartphone. Most remote apps really need a tablet computer to work, but I was able to navigate the menus from my iPhone 7 just fine. If you don’t have a tablet, that can save you a boatload of money—they can be pretty expensive.

A 56-page guide to the Sonica app is available for download at Oppo’s website. Wow—that’s the first guide to an app that I’ve ever seen, though I’ve seemingly been lamenting their absence forever. Thanks, Oppo. The well-written guide is quite helpful, too.

I was most interested in how well the Sonica’s internal player worked, but since the Sonica’s DAC section accepts higher-resolution files than the player section, I hooked up the nifty little SOtM sMS-200 mini network player to the Sonica using a Wireworld Platinum Silver USB cable and played files up to DSD256, the fastest sampling rate files I had available. A great feature of the SOtM player is its available software, which includes Roon. Of course, some regard a Roon subscription as a bit pricey—but come on, this is hi-fi we’re talking about.

Since the Sonica is economically priced, I connected it to my smaller system, which uses a NAD C 368 amplifier driving KEF Q700 speakers. The NAD amplifier has an optional BluOS module, which allows it to act as a DAC and a player, similar to the Sonica except that NAD has decided not to support DSD but does support MQA—go figure. However, due to the limitations of its DAC, MQA is only supported up to a 192kHz sampling rate.

 

Sound
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.

Comparison
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.

 

Bottom Line
If the Sonica were just a DAC, it would still be a deal, but it’s also a versatile streaming file player. The file player section plays most hi-res files, though not the highest-resolution ones. The DAC section does play extremely high-resolution files, though not MQA-encoded files. Does that matter? We hear a lot about Tidal streaming MQA-encoded files, and other MQA-encoded files being available for download, but currently I see only a handful of MQA files either streamed on Tidal or available for purchase. Hopefully more will appear soon. [At the time this issue went to press, there were just over 5000 MQA-encoded titles on Tidal. —RH] But the Sonica played the highest-resolution PCM and DSD files in my collection without breaking a sweat, and in today’s marketplace, those vastly outnumber MQA files. Paired with the SOtM sMS-200 streaming music player, another high-value component, the Sonica’s DAC was even more spectacular playing the highest-resolution files commercially available. In short, the Oppo Digital Sonica sounded and looked great, and was a super deal for $799—just what I’d expect from Oppo. An easy recommendation.

Specs & Pricing

Type: DAC and network streamer
Inputs: USB 2.0, SPDIF on RCA and TosLink digital; one RCA analog
Formats supported: AAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, APE, FLAC, M4A, M4A (Apple Lossless), ALAC, OGG, WAV, WMA, DSF, DFF
Output: Balanced or unbalanced, variable
Dimensions: 10″ x 3″ x 12.2″
Weight: 10.4 lbs.
Price: $799

OPPO DIGITAL, INC.
162 Constitution Drive
Menlo Park, CA 94025
(650) 961-1118
oppodigital.com

Associated Equipment
Speakers: KEF Q700
Amplifier: NAD C 368 with optional BluOS module
Digital sources: Dell Latitude E6330 laptop computer running 64-bit Windows 10 Professional, JRiver Media Center Version 23, and Roon music server software; SOtM sMS-200 network music player with mBPS-d2s power supply; QNAP TS-251 NAS
Power conditioner and distribution: Isotek Sirius

By Vade Forrester

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