Sunday, March 18, 2018

Guides, Testimonials, News

Based on this thread, I bought an Exasound e32.

Some background: in the last few years I have owned quite a number of very good DACs, including the Chord Hugo and QBD76HDSD, Metrum Pavane, Calyx Femto, Invicta Mirus, Meitner MA1, Naim DAC, Auralic Vega and others. All of them were slightly unsatisfactory in one way or another, and I ended up selling them and moving on to the next one. Currently I am using an EAR DAC 4, since I have a system based around an EAR 912 preamp and EAR 890 power amp.

I primarily listen to vinyl, mostly because I generally find digital audio unsatisfying. I have tried without success to move away from vinyl a number of times, but have always been disappointed by even the very expensive DACs I have owned. This is partly why I have been through so many DACs, looking for that elusive quality that would make digital truly satisfying.

I wasn’t convinced by the Chord DACs, although I have not yet heard the Dave. The Sabre based DACs are interesting, since they do seem to have a common sound signature compared with other types of DAC, and I have owned a few of them. DACs using the previous generation of Sabre chips (ie the 9018) have been frustrating, because they show the possibilities digital done properly, but unfortunately never quite reached their promise.

I am convinced (as appears to be Rob Watts of Chord and others), that timing issues (in a broad sense) are responsible for the strangely unnatural sound that many DACs have, and also explain why vinyl, for all its faults, can still sound superior, with its more natural sense of the stop/start and flow of notes and transients. My previous Sabre DACs hinted at a resolution of this issue. They sounded fast, mercurial, liquid, with a sense of timing that was very natural. But they also traded this off against a sound which could be a little thin, grainy, and have some irritating artifacts. When I saw that Sabre had released a new series of chips and that DACs using them were getting good reviews, my interest was piqued.

The thread I linked to above comparing the Exasound e32 to the Yggdrasil and QX5-Twenty (amongst others) led me to order the e32. The price was reasonable (by high end standards) and particularly when bundled with a Teddy Pardo power supply, which I know to be excellent, since I have been using Teddy’s power supplies (and other products) for years.

I received the e32 a week ago and have been burning it in continuously since then. In my experience, Sabre DACs take at least 100 hours to sound acceptable, and go through the biggest transformation during the burn in process of any components I know. All of the Sabre DACs I have owned, even the Audioquest Dragonfly Red, have sounded absolutely dire straight out of the box - edgy, harsh and grainy. I am using the e32 with an SOTM SMS-200 with an MCRU power supply, and a Matrix X-SPDIF 2 usb converter. I also have an SOTM Ultra on order. As mentioned above, I am using EAR amplifiers, Cardas Clear Reflection Cables, and Harbeth M30.1 speakers.

After the e32 had the requisite 100 hours, and had become much smoother and fuller sounding, I began listening seriously. What I noticed initially was a rather warm sounding DAC, quite colourful but not quite as resolving of three dimensional space as my EAR DAC 4, which also had a more neutral tonal balance. But as I kept switching between the two, the sound of the e32 kept drawing me in, in a way that the EAR DAC (and one or two other lesser dacs that I had on hand) did not do. And as I kept listening and the DAC ran in further, this sense intensified. I was finding the e32 strangely satisfying and engaging, in a way that I have not yet experienced with digital. While there is clearly a lot of the Sabre sound in evidence – and it is a very distinctive sound – it does not have some of the downsides I have previously experienced with Sabre DAcs, such as a tendency to thinness and a slight treble glare. There is a natural warmth to the sound of the e32 and an engaging sense of flow. For example, I am not really a fan of oud music. But when listening to a track from oud player Anouar Brahem track on Tidal I found when listening to it on my EAR DAC, I was as uninterested as usual, and yet on the e32 I found myself compelled to keep listening to it.

Over the last weekend, I hardly touched my turntable (the excellent Kuzma Stabi Reference, with a 313 VTA arm and Lyra Etna SL cartridge). When I did so, the usual gap between vinyl and digital had seemed virtually to disappear, and the downsides of vinyl – surface noise, speed variations – were more noticeable. Has the latest generation of Sabre DACs finally fulfilled the promise of digital? Of course, it is not only the Sabre chip which is responsible for the sound I am hearing – the e32 is obviously an extremely well designed and built DAC, and I am sure a significant part of this sound is due to George Klissarov’s excellent engineering.

This has led me to think in a couple of directions. The first is whether I should compare it to the Ayre QX5-Twenty, which uses the ESS9038 chip and was said to produce a modest improvement over the e32 (at three times the price). The second is whether to replace my SOTM streamer with the Exasound Play Point, which may enhance its sound further. Because I am so impressed with the e32, I am leaning towards the latter and have already enquired about buying one. If so, I will update this thread with impressions of the Play Point, particularly against the SOTM Ultra.

Ross B.

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