Oppo Digital Sonica Network DAC

High Performance, Little Dough

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
OPPO Sonica
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.