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Monday, May 11, 2015

Audiophile Modification Review!
Music Technology Oppo BDP-95 Player
Digital Clock/Discrete Analog Out Upgrade


©Everything Audio Network

Brevis
Price: $1,800 (unbal.); $2,400 (bal.)
Likes: organic analog tone, smooth treble
Dislikes: audiophile modifications cost $
Wow Factor! a more intimate-sounding '95
More info: Music Technology

by John Gatski
  Like cars, hot-rodding a piece of audio equipment has been around since, well, since the advent of audio gear. From simple replacement of stock tubes with “high-end” hand selected tubes to changing power supply capacitors, output devices, etc., no piece of audio gear is perfect when it is stock, say those who seek to always make hi-fi sound better.
  I remember in the 1990s, getting an Audio by Van Alstine Dynaco ST-70 upgrade kit that claimed to improve the classic EL-34 tube amp by installing a new component board with quieter driver tubes and improved power supply parts. Guess what? It worked; the upgrade kit significantly tightened the ST-70‘s lumpy bass, decreased the self-noise and gave the warm tone a little sparkle.
  Well here I am, 20 years later, in the middle of another article about a mod of a different component: an analog mod to a popular piece of digital gear, the very popular Oppo BDP-95/BDP-105 universal player, which uses the high-end ESS Saber 9018 DAC chip. As my reviews have noted over the last five years, these Oppo players offer tremendous bang-for-the-buck features and quite good audio. But of course, the tweakers always want to squeeze out a little more, so we sought a mod-focused company to see if we could get more sound out of an Oppo— and at what cost.

The Music Tech mod
  The modification I am reviewing here is the Music Technology discrete-output analog output section upgrade (JFET discrete output with upscale wire, caps, and resistors), combined with a digital clock upgrade that increases the clock frequency from 50 MHz to 80 MHz and provides substantially more power regulation of the clock than stock. Developed by Music Technology’s guru Bill Thalmann, the analog output upgrade is claimed to net a more audiophile, rich, organic presentation than the stock op-amp outputs. The clock mod is claimed to enhance digital conversion stability, and audibly increase the focus of the image and sense of space.
The green PCBs show the overall Music Tech/Oppo upgrade

  Music Technology has plenty of experience in the inner-workings of audio gear. It is one of the top East Coast hi-fi/pro audio repair facilities, located in Springfield, Va., and has a solid reputation for troubleshooting perplexing components. The company also does specialty repair and upgrades, including the reel-to-reel deck upgrades for the Tape Project Apogee ribbon speaker rebuilds, and can fix all brands of pro and musician-related gear.
  “Music Technology’s SACD/CD/DAC upgrades consist of our SteadiClock high precision, low-jitter clock and our all JFET analog signal path upgrade,” Thalmann said. “Practically all stock players use an abundance of op-amps. In my opinion, no matter how good the op-amp, they simply will never sound as good as a low- or no-feedback discrete circuit. The reason for this is the amount of feedback needed to control an op-amp’s gain. This damages time coherence, which hurts image focus, among other things.”
 I think it’s quite commendable that the Music Technology mod can eek out this enhanced listening experience considering how good the stock Oppo player is. With the upgrade, you get a more classic audiophile sound stage, that aforementioned smoothness, plus all the ergonomic benefits of the Oppo players.

  Music Technology has plenty of experience hot-rodding digital audio players. In 2004, Thalmann performed numerous Vacuum-State mods of Sony SACD players, such as the classic SCD-777ES and SCD-2000ES audiophile — players that were long on innovation, but came up short in ultimate playback potential. The VS mods, as I can attest since I had my ‘777 tweaked by Music Technology, pushed the players to true audiophile caliber — with a velvet smoothness and a wider soundstage. Thalmann said that Music Technology’s own custom digital player upgrades bring that audible finesse and to almost any player made today.
  Music Technology performs its upgrades for most digital players in either balanced or unbalanced configurations. But according to Thalmann, the Oppo BDP-95/105 series are popular candidates for the mod because they have a good-sounding stock circuit: the premium ESS Sabre DAC 9018 chip, which is known for its excellent performance and is widely implemented in audiophile players and DACs.
  Thalmann says the Music Technology discrete J-FET analog output and clock mod require quite a bit of PCB board modification to get it to fit in the Oppo players, especially the balanced version. But once the upgrades are made, usually two weeks from the time the player is shipped to MT, the time and expense is worth it, Thalmann added.
High quality caps are used throughout the mod circuit

  The upgrade price is $2,400 for the balanced/clock mod, which can be done in the Oppo 103/105s because of the extra room in that slightly bigger chassis — and $1,800 for the unbalanced/clock upgrade that was done in the BDP-95 for this review. Potential customers also should know that the said modification voids your factory warranty. If you don’t mind paying for a new one and losing your warranty, you can buy a new BDP-105 Oppo for $1,200 and have the player shipped to Music Technology for the upgrade. Another, less costly, acquisition route would be to find a used BDP-95 for, say, $400 or $500 and then do the unbalanced mod. The ’95 and ‘105 use the same DAC and both have balanced outputs. The stock ‘105 has a beefier power supply, fan-less cooling and could play DSD from a thumb drive, but essentially sounds the same as the BDP-95.

The candidate
  The mod version I reviewed was a 2012 Oppo BDP-95. To audibly determine whether the digital clock mod and the analog mod make an audible improvement in the player’s sonics, I had the upgrade done in stages and then evaluated their subjective performance, separately, and then with both in place. The clock mod was done first then the analog output upgrade
  Music Technology took about a week to complete the clock mod in late 2014. After the circuit was added, Thalmann said it needed a week of burn in. After the break-in period, I commenced the listening comparison between the Music Technology-modified BDP-95, and a stock BDP-105 (which essentially sounds the same as a stock ‘95.) I set up a listening test that included a Benchmark DAC2-D (now the DX), the stock ‘105 and the clock-modified ’95.
MT can mod unbalanced or balanced output, plus digital clock

  I took the analog outs from each component and connected them to a Coda preamp, which is quite transparent and has fast input switching. I matched the levels using test tones and an AudioControl RTA for each of the players and the DAC. The modified ’95 provided the digital signal for the Benchmark DAC. The Coda preamp fed a Rogue Audio Medusa hybrid amp/MartinLogan Montis electrostatic speaker set up. A fixed output from the Coda also distributed audio to a Bryston BHA-1 headphone amp. Oppo PM-1 and AKG K702 headphones were used during HP listening.
  All analog connections were made using WireWorld premium interconnects. A WireWorld coaxial digital cable linked the BDP-95 to the Benchmark DAC. Essential Sound Essence II reference power cords linked all components to the AC.

On the clock
  First up was the Warren Bernhardt So Real recording (Tom Jung’s DMP label). The original DSD, live-to two-track jazz album is so good, that I dubbed off a 24/96 version, made with the magnificent, accurate, ultra dynamic Benchmark ADC1 A/D so I could use the music to test PCM products as well. It is a perfect recording to test, subjectively, with extended dynamic range and excellent stereo imaging.
  After several hours of careful listening to the modded clock circuit in the BDP-95 player versus the stock Oppo, playing through the ML Montis and through the Bryston Headphone amp, I could not reliably hear a difference between it and the stock ‘105. Imaging focus, timbre, transient reproduction sounded identical. I played dozens of additional tracks over the next week, and the result was the same with the A/B comparisons. If there was a difference, I could not reliably hear it with the clock mod.
Music Technology has plenty of experience in the inner-workings of audio gear. It is one of the top East Coast hi-fi/pro audio repair facilities, located in Springfield, Va., and has a solid reputation for troubleshooting perplexing components. The company also does specialty repair and upgrades, including the reel-to-reel deck upgrades for the Tape Project and Apogee ribbon speaker rebuilds.

  I checked in with Thalmann and told him about my sonic observation with Phase I of the mod. He said the clock mod stems from his Vacuum State mods he did prior to his own custom mods, when the DAC clocks were not as good as they are today. I can attest that the Vacuum State clock mods did make a difference in smoothness on the old Sony SACD players, but today’s stock digital clocks, integrated into the Oppo and many other players, may be good enough that any further modification of the circuit will not net any sonic benefit. Older digital players, though, may benefit from the clock mod.
  Thalmann said the Oppo clock is better than most stock SACD/universal players, but he believes it is still possible to get some improvement with his clock mod that is further showcased by the analog upgrade. To my ears, I did not hear a difference with the clock mod by itself.

Part II: the analog connection
  So I sent the player back to Bill so he could do the analog output section mod. After a couple of weeks. He called me and said it was ready. I picked up the player. Allowed it to “stew” for a few days, and then resumed my listening sessions that I had started weeks before.
  This time, in the first few minutes of the Bernhardt album play, I definitely could hear an audible difference between the stock BDP-105 and the upgraded ’95. There was a warm, more laid back presentation from the modified Oppo. As good as the stock player is for sound quality — a warm, smooth midrange and tight bass — there are some types of music with low-treble, presence emphasized instruments that can sound a little glassy. The Music Technology analog mod smooths out that glare, more like a tube-design signal path. A textured presentation that gets its presence tamed a bit. More natural on upper register piano, high notes on a violin and the metallic brush attack of a drum cymbal. This signature reminds me of the best turntable/preamp combo played through a FET or tube amp, but the bass is more accurate.
The Music Technology analog mod smooths out that glare, more like a tube-design signal path. A textured presentation that gets its presence tamed a bit. More natural on upper register piano, high notes on a violin and the metallic brush attack of a drum cymbal.

  I did notice, however that the top end seemed to be a bit constrained versus the Benchmark and the stock ‘105. I asked Bill if he was doing any additional filtering on the top-end to enhance its analog organic flavor perception in the midband. He said indeed the roll-off filter, centered at 30 kHz, was in the circuit. I asked if he could extend the frequency response to 40 or 50 kHz in order to open up the top of the base band enough to allow high-res recordings with extended top-end to standout in the playback. He complied, swapping in a 40 kHz filter.
  Back in the review system, the Music Technology-modded Oppo, with new bandwidth filter, now was hitting its stride. Over several months I played scores of recordings that were flattered by the change. Old '80s CDs really benefited from the Music Technology/Oppo treatment. My vintage 1988 ‘Til Tuesday  —Everything’s Different Now, sounded less glaring through the Music Technology-designed mod. And the HD Tracks Tom Petty and The HeartbreakersDamn The Torpedoes 24/94 album, always a bit edgy to my ears, gets a smoother sonic portrayal — without sounding rolled-off. “Just right” was what I had written in my notes.
  Versus the $2,000 Benchmark DAC, the modded Oppo held its own, but the separate D/A netted a modicum of increased resolution in the top-end and a small, but noticeable high-treble presence that the Oppo mod lacked. The Oppo, however, was a trace smoother in the low treble. Would be interesting to hear the MT mod in the Benchmark.

Hot-rod Oppo
  After all the listening was over, I mulled over the sonic merits of the Music Technology mod, I knew that the eternal question would be: is the Music Technology mod worth the bucks? To my ears and through very careful listening, the analog mod definitely has an audible effect on the sound over a stock Oppo. Its classic, textured, almost tube-like persona should appeal to those who like the organic, analog character in their music. Those who want their digital to sound more like vinyl and tube amps. Smoother with a generous, wide, sonic portrait that makes you want to is sit down with a glass of red wine and spend the evening listening to a symphony, or Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue SACD.
BDP-93/95/103/105 players are prime candidates for MT mod

  I think it’s quite commendable that the Music Technology mod can eek out this enhanced listening experience considering how good the stock Oppo player is. With the upgrade, you get a more classic audiophile sound stage, that aforementioned smoothness, plus all the ergonomic benefits of the Oppo players, including ability to play music from a thumb drive as well as SACDs, DVD-As and Blu-rays.
  Since the clock mod is part of the upgrade package, it does not hurt the player to have it done,. But in my test setup, I could not reliably hear a difference between the clock-modded ’95 and a stock BDP-105. The JFET analog mod, however, does make a difference. Music Tech said they believe the two mods together make a bigger difference than just the analog mod. Since I did the clock mod first, I do not know if the analog mod by itself would have sounded different.

The verdict
  I can’t wait for Music Technology to add more products to the “mod” list, such as some classic DACs and CD players. As long as there is room to install the board, Music Technology can mod pretty much any DAC or digital player.
  Based on my listening experience, the Music Technology mod is worthy of an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award, but as with most audiophile mods that I have seen, upgrades don’t come cheap. If you buy a new BDP-105 player at $1,200 and spend $2,400 for the balanced upgrade/clock package, you’ve got $3,600 invested. If you are big in the wallet, it does not matter. If not, find a used player to sweeten the proposition. Either way, I think you will like the result.

   John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1992. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music,The Audiophile Voice and High Performance Review. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, MD. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. He can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Personal Audio Review!
Oppo HA-2 Portable USB Audiophile DAC,
Oppo PM-3 Planar Magnetic Headphones

Oppo HA-2 Review Photo Everything Audio Network
Oppo HA-2: The Little DAC That Can 

Brevis...
Price: HA-2 ($299); PM-3 ($399)
Likes: (HA-2) hi-res DSD/PCM, I/O
Likes: (PM-3) comfy, smooth sound
Dislikes: HA-2 needs an auto-off mode 
Wow Factor: how much for this combo?

by John Gatski
  Oppo has done it again. Like its niche-busting BDP-95, BDP-105 universal players and HA-1 premium DAC, the innovative electronics company has come up with another winner: the HA-2 portable, battery powered, DAC/headphone amp. At $299, the HA-2 is an impressive, smart-phone sized DAC; it can decode up to 32-bit/384 PCM, quad-speed DSD, and can drive almost any kind of headphones, including Oppo’s top-of-the-line PM-1, as well as their other models including the PM-3 tested in this article.
  With its hi-res USB 2.0 input doing most of the connectivity tasks, the icing on the cake is that the HA-2 also has an analog input, which makes it dang near compatible with almost any audio device: Android, iPhone, iPad, computers, etc. Plus, it can charge your phone or tablet, if either needs a shot of DC java to keep it going, From an audio quality perspective, the DAC is just as impressive as its feature set, especially with an Android tablet/phone and the USB Audio Player Pro software player. Even versus its big brother audiophile HA-1 DAC preamp, the HA-2 reveals a similar, essential sound signature that belies its under $300 price tag.

Oppo PM-3 budget audiophile headphone and HA-2 DAC

  As for its closed back headphone companion, the new PM-3, introduced concurrently with the HA-2, it is a steal at $399 — offering abundant sonic detail and ample bass wrapped in a planar-magnetic driver smoothness. And the HP is featherweight light and comfy. All in all, the tandem definitely is definitely worth the money.

Features
  Equipped with the ESS Sabre32 Reference ES9018-K2M mobile DAC chip, the HA-2 is a 32-bit-capable, up to 32/384 PCM and 5.6 MHz DSD over DoP playback. The smart-phone sized DAC sports a high/low-gain switch, 1/8th-inch headphone amp out, analog volume control, two USB ports (USB A female, Micro USB female) and an analog in/out 1/8th-inch jack for line out and line in, depending on the setting of the I/O switch. The HA-2 package comes with a Lightning-to-USB connector cable for iPhone/iPad connection, a USB A Male to Micro USB Male cable for charging and computer link-up, and a custom micro USB male to micro USB male OTG cable for use with Android devices.

Simple controls: volume, analog mini-jack I/O and HP jack

  The built-in, high-capacity lithium battery can run in excess of 8 hours, and can even charge your smart phone or tablet. The HA-12 is supplied with a fast charger that outputs 5V at 2.5 amps to 80 percent, then reduces current for that last 20 percent of charging.
  The HA-2 can be mated with Mac, PC, Android and IoS devices that have onboard players via USB or from the analog connection. Either way, you can play any kind of audio from MP3s, FLAC, ripped CDs, linear PCM or DSD. The analog-to-analog 1/8th jack cable allows those with non-digital input devices to take advantage of its superb headphone amp.

 Like its niche-busting BDP-95, BDP-105 universal players and HA-1 premium DAC, the innovative electronics company has come up with another winner: the HA-2 portable, battery powered, DAC/headphone amp. At $299, the HA-2 is an impressive, smart-phone sized DAC; it can decode up to 32-bit/384 PCM and quad-speed DSD.

  Onboard players that come standard on smart devices are often limited on the hi-res playback pathway, but there are third party software players that bypass the digitally limited internal playback systems for computers and mobile devices. These third party programs — such as USB Audio Player Pro for Android and Audirvana, JRiver, and Vox for Mac computers — enable playback of ultra-high sample rate PCM and DSD playback. This high-res playback is where the HA-2 really excels; just plug into the USB and listen to your favorite hi-res tunes from your HD Tracks downloads or original recordings that you make at home.
  From a mobile audio device perspective, I have used the Android-based USB Audio Player for two years with great success in playing up to 32/384 PCM (test files), and up to 24/384 PCM and DSD 5.6 MHz audio files. The HA-2 fits in perfectly with these kinds of software players.

HA-2 input selector switch and dual-USB inputs
  The HA-2 controls its volume in two distinct ways. By mapping USB volume control commands to the Sabre DAC chip's internal digital volume control, the user can adjust the signal volume using the playback app or software — without losing audio resolution or causing bit truncation. The HA-2's analog volume control knob can then be used to further adjust for a comfortable listening level. Speaking of control, the HA-2 also has a bass boost function switch that is implemented purely with the analog audio circuits, adding about 6 dB of boost in the 80 Hz to 180 kHz frequencies.
  We did not measure the HA-2’s audio parameters, but an Oppo spokesman said that signal-to-noise from the low-voltage, low current circuit is in excess of -108 dB. Pretty darn good for a battery powered mini-DAC!

New PM headphone
  The PM-3 planar magnetic headphone is similar in look and styles as the $1,200 PM-1 released last year with the flagship HA-1 DAC/line/HP amp. But Oppo has managed to squeeze in planar-magnetic driver technology and comfort in this closed-back budget audiophile headphone, which retails under $400.
  Planar magnetic design drivers has been around for about 40 years. It is basically a hybrid design utilizing the principle of magnetic speaker design and electromagnetic design. Like a dynamic headphone — with its standard magnet drivers — planar magnetic headphones use a magnetic field that surrounds a conductor, which has an electrical current flowing through it to drive the speaker diaphragm. Planar magnetic drivers are noted for their smooth, slightly warm, musical tones without excessive top-end harshness. And in recent years, companies such as HIFiMAN and Audieze have been part of the technology's resurgence.
Oppo PM-3: planar magnetic HP for $400

  The PM-3 has been pared down in materials and ultimate design versus the premium price PM-1, but much of the PM-1’s essential design was incorporated into the PM-3. The Oppo HPs features 55-mm planar magnetic drivers, utilizing a symmetric, push-pull, neodymium magnet. The PM-3 was designed by Igor Levitsky, a noted acoustical engineer, who has been a speaker designer for more than 30 years. The PM-3 specs include 102 dB sensitivity at 100 MW input power.
  The PM-3 is said to be the lightest planar magnetic closed-back headphone on the market, weighing in at 10 ounces; its light weight is the result of using lighter weight driver and headband materials. Though lightweight, the PM-3 fit just fine around my ears with adequate clamping. when I moved my head about.
  The headphones come with a denim carrying case, an audiophile 3-meter cable with 1/4 phone jack adapter. Optionally, you can buy an accessory cable that also has a built-in mic for smart devices listening and talking.

The setup
  I connected the HA-2 to various audio output devices for this test, including a 2015 Apple iMac, an HTC smart phone, and Dell Venue 8 Android tablet. The smart devices were linked to the HA-2 via the supplied OTG link cable. The computer was connected via a USB A male-to-USB B male cable from Wireworld’s Starlight brand. Other USB DACs on hand included a Benchmark DAC-2D, Oppo HA-1 and USB-input Resonessence Concero HP, which is bus powered.
  I also compared the HA-2 to current portable player/DAC/HP amp combos, such as the Astell and Kern AK-100 and the HIFIMAN HM-802, which are considerably more expensive than the DAC-only Oppo HA-2., but remember they have a built-in player. Other headphones were also brought into the review: Shure SRH1840, AKG K702, Sony MDR-7510, and Oppo’s PM-1 flagship.

The audition
  My first listening scenario was using the Oppo with the HTC HK Edition smart phone, updated with the Lollipop Android version. Using the supplied special OTG cable and two supplied neoprene bands, I hooked the phone and HA-2 together make a singular unit. Its is bit hefty in weight compared to standalone players, but the two units tied together have a robust, high-end feel.
  Upon first play of various Hi-Res Jazz and Classical tracks, my first impression of the Oppo combo was one of awe. How did Oppo squeeze in such high-end sound into such a low-cost DAC? Listening to a dub of Kenny Burrell - Midnight Blue SACD at 24/192, this jazz guitar and accompanying band recording relays its sound via a generous, full stereo image. The cut "Midnight Blue" personified that ESS Sabre32’s smooth, yet quick attack on the transient tones, such as drum cymbals. It makes for a satisfying hi-fi listening experience.
Oppo PM-3 headphone, HA-2 DAC photo on everything audio network
Smart phone, tablet? Oppo PM-3/HA-2 an ideal match

  Through the PM-3s and the other headphones auditioned with the DAC, the signature was similar, taking into account variations in the HPs. The HA-2‘s easy-to-listen character puts some audiophile high-DACs to shame in the smoothness department. This DAC generates zero listener fatigue. I had a number of readers ask me about the HA-2 compared to the Oppo HA-1 audiophile DAC. Ultimately, the HA-2’s sonic width and depth is not the equal of the Oppo HA 1 (remember it has a $1,299 price tag) and discrete HP amp) or a Benchmark DAC2, but you know you are listening to hi-res through this DAC.
  Compared to the AK 100 hi-res portable player, the Oppo is slightly warmer and smoother on top. The HIFIMAN player mimics the Oppo smooth character, but through my headphones, the Oppo seemed a smidge more spacious in the stereo image. however, neither of the player/DACs play 24/352.8 (DXD) downloads, such as 2L.
  On playback of the ultra hi-res (24/352.8 DXD) Mozart Violin Concerto 1 (2L), the HA-1 really did a good job with the detailed recording’s violin harmonics, as well as the dynamics of the orchestra. And yet again, not a hint of any harshness on the top end.
  In switching musical genres, I played the 24/96 20th Anniversary of Nirvana - In Utero, never considered the epitome of hi-fi. Considering its low-fi, Grunge roots, I was surprised by how much the remastered tracks revealed: way more separation among the guitar, bass and drum layers, and much tighter tone of Curt Cobain’s distorted Fender guitar. Again, I was impressed with HA-2’s ability to decode and play this album with only the intended sonic haze being relayed.

Budget-priced PM headphone
  The PM-3 headphone is good fit for the mobile HA-2 DAC; its high sensitivity, slightly elevated midbass, and enhanced presence sonic signature — coupled with its closed back construction — allow listeners in noisy environments to keep the music flowing. The Oppo PM-1 flagship is a bit richer in the instrument tone and fuller in the low bass, but the PM-3 is revealing in its own way and much lighter. It is as good as several $500+ phones I have sampled. It is not as extended sounding as my AKG K702, but the PM-3 is well balanced — especially for $399
 For the money, no competitor can touch the compact, self-powered HA-2 DAC. You can use it with your smart phone, tablet or your computer software players, analog or digital output. Heck, you can even use it with your main audiophile system.

  On my ears, I found the PM-3 feel nearly perfect: the light weight definitely enhances the long-term wear factor, and they did not clamp too tightly. Speaking of ergonomics, the standard cable does not have the audiophile cachet of the PM-1/PM-2’s, thickly wrapped audiophile cord, but it is easier to manage since it bends much easier than big brother’s nylon wrapped cords.

Perfect for computer audio
  For computer listening, I connected the HA-2 to my iMac, and played from several different software players. Audirvana worked hitch free, up to 24/384 (my own home brew guitar recordings), and numerous HD Tracks downloads and various other recordings. The HA-2 and the PM-3 HPs came in handy when I wen to my beach house. I used the Macbook Pro and the Oppo duo for a length editing session on some vinyl ripping I had done at 24/192 A/D via a Benchmark ADC1 A/D converter. With the Oppos' in hand, I recorded the LPs in Audacity, then edited out the into surface noise and the outro surface noise, then enjoyed the sonic results of my work. As with the smart devices, the LP-dub audio from the computer to the HA-2 sounded fantastic. The original LP had enhanced separation, and I heard every bit of that wide stereo image through the HA-2.
  From a functional standpoint, I had no problems with the HA-2. Its two USB ports come in handy for variable device matching, and its long-life battery netted me almost 9 hours of continuous play through headphones. As claimed it will charge a smart phone, but you cannot charge the DAC battery and the phone battery at the same time. It took four hours to charge the HTC battery,  at 6 percent remaining, using the HA-2’s USB A female output jack; at, the end of the charging cycle, the DAC battery was significantly drawn down.
  On other phones and tablets (such as my Dell Venue 8) you can use an OTG/charge adapter and charge the phone and DAC at the same time when using a USB Hub. Highly recommended for Android devices.
  One thing I would like to see Oppo add to the DAC is an auto shut-off function. I ran the battery down to zero four times times during the review; I kept forgetting to turn it off. The little power indicator lights are not enough of a reminder to turn it off. Thus, an auto turn-off that puts the unit to sleep (after a fixed number of minutes of being idle) would enhance battery longevity.
Android tablet with USB Audio Player Pro and HA-2

  The other oddity noted was the initial lack of 32-bit pathway recognition when using Apple computers. I discovered that the HA-2, initially, did not show up as a 32-bit DAC in the Mac’s Audio settings. Apparently, a software variable prevented the Mac from seeing the DAC’s 32-bit option. I alerted Oppo to my discovery and they developed a firmware upgrade, which enabled the 32-bit pathway. (Publisher's Note: Before I get criticized about how 32 bit PCM is pointless, I am aware there are no 32-bit recordings, and almost no 32-bit recoding gear, but I am sure it will come in the near future. There are DACs that have the playback capability, including the Oppo HA-1 and HA-2, as well as TEAC UD-501. In the meantime, I have created 32-bit integer test recordings by upconverting 24-bi files. There is no sonic improvement since the 32-bit is not native, but this upconversion allows me to see if 32-bit DACs recognize the 32 bit integer tag of my test tracks).
  One other ergonomic note about the HA-2. Although I like the idea of attaching the DAC to a smart phone with the neoprene bands. It is an inelegant docking solution. Positioning of the band can cover up portions of the phone display and you can scuff up your phone. It would be great if Oppo, or an accessory company, could come up with a case that holds the two units and allows for easy access to controls and the cable ports.

The verdict
  For the money, no competitor can touch the compact, self-powered HA-2 DAC. You can use it with your smart phone, tablet or your computer software players, analog or digital output. Heck, you can even use it with your main audiophile system via an 1/8th-inch-to-RCA adapter out the analog port. It won’t beat the big boy DACs, but you are in the ball park. And how many $300 DACs can decode ultra high sample rate music to 384, and quad speed DSD? I carry the HA-2 everywhere I go when I want to listen to hi-res on my HTC phone or Dell tablet. And I have gotten in the habit of throwing it in my laptop bag when I go out for recording tasks. There are numerous scenarios in which the HA-2 can accomplish the task. computer, phone, tablet. You can even hook the analog output of an iPod to take advantage of the HA-2’s extra HP gain.
  The PM-3 planar magnetic is very good companion headphone that is hi-fi enough, lightweight and, again, quite inexpensive for a serious headphone. If you buy it with the DAC, you have a dandy little, hi-res DAC/HP monitor system for under $700. Ain’t that a reason to give the tandem an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award? I think so.

   John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1992. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music,The Audiophile Voice and High Performance Review. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, MD. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. He can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Audiophile Review!
Parasound zdac v.2
Stereo D/A Converter


Parasound zdac v.2 DAC
"Upgraded Headphone Amp Enhances The New Zdac"

Brevis...
Price: $549 retail
Likes: more HP oomph, first-rate build
Dislikes: give us 24/192 via USB please
Wow Factor: still way above its price

by John Gatski
 In 2013, I reviewed the Parasound zdac, a great value/performance 24/192 D/A that fit into numerous audio listening niches, including audiophile, home recording, and for use as a computer DAC (to 24/96). Never one to rest on its success, Parasound has made some key upgrades to the zdac, and made it better.
  Priced at $549, the zdac v.2 now offers front-panel quarter-inch and eight-inch headphone jack, separate line out and HP volume controls, digital audio connection to Lighting jack-equipped Apple devices (USB adapter required), increased headphone amp gain, fixed/variable line out switch and 12V input/output triggers.

Features
  The new zdac maintains its solid feature set of USB, Coax/TOSlink SPDIF digital inputs, plus XLR balanced and unbalanced analog RCA line outputs. The most audible improvements are increased headphone gain and the fixed variable line out switch for those who want a fixed level for routing the output audio to other preamps.
  The zdac v.2 maintains its computer compatibility with USB input, though it is still limited to 24/96 using the USB 1.0 protocol, which requires no computer/device drivers. However, most DACs use the USB 2.0 protocol, which requires specific drivers, but allow up to 24/192 and higher sample rates. Today, most DACs, even inexpensive ones, can decode up to 24/192 and higher sample rate audio; some as high as 24/384. I would like to see Parasound add sample rate decoding to at least 192 via USB to remain competitive. With the increase use of computers as primary hi-fi players, a DAC needs that high-sample rate compatibility.
  Nonetheless, you can still play 24/192 via the optical input from a Mac computer to a zdac v.2. On 2013 and newer Macbook Pro Retina laptops, the  Mac's optical digital audio output maximum sample rate has been increased from 96 kHz to 192 kHz, which means the zdac v.2 (and many other DACs) will natively play 192 kHz audio hi-res from those Macs  Older Intel Macs have the ability to play out to 96 kHz only. Those computers take the 24/192 and downsample to 96 kHz, which means the zdac v.2 can still play music from 192 kHz sources.


Plenty of connectivity, including balanced XLR out


  The zdac v.2 maintains its excellent sound quality by using the Analog Devices AD1853 24-bit/192 kHz digital-to-analog converter chip, the same chip used in the Benchmark DAC1 series. All digital input signals are re-clocked and up-sampled to 422 kHz for improved sonics and improved jitter reduction. The Analog Devices AD1895 sample rate converter chip is used for the up conversion.
  The zdac's high-current headphone amp is claimed to drive virtually any headphones from 32 to 600 ohms. Unlike many low-cost DACs, the zdac v.2 is designed with a high-quality, toroidal transformer in its power supply circuit, ensuring plenty of voltage and current to drive most any headphone and line devices. The zdac v.2 factory specs are quite good with a 110-dB signal-to-noise ratio, and low distortion throughout the audio band at the various sample rates. The analog outputs, via unbalanced or balanced, have plenty of oomph — with 2.1 volts and 4.2 volts respectively.
  The half-rack zdac form factor makes it easy to install in a rack or to carry around in your bag for use as a stereo-recording monitor DAC wherever you go. The unit weighs about 5 pounds. It is available in silver or black finish.

The setup
  As with most DACs that I test (and I test a lot of them), a DAC needs a good listen to establish a sonic benchmark. I linked the zdac v.2 to an Oppo BDP-95 via SPDIF. For comparison, I had the original zdac, a Benchmark DAC2-D, and Mytek Stereo 192-DSD: much more expensive DACs, though with the similar form factor. I also listened to a couple of DACs closer to the price range of the zdac v.2: the  USB-connected Korg DS-DAC-100M ($350) and the USB/SPDIF Resonessence Concero-HP ($849); these two DACs do not have near the connectivity features and advanced analog circuit of the zdcac v.2  but do have good audio quality and compatibility with higher sample rate PCM and DSD.
  I know there are lower-cost DACs out there, but when you compare the build quality and parts selection and its well-above-its-price-range sound, the Parasound zdac v.2 is a steal at $549.

  For headphone amp comparisons, I listened to audio via the onboard headphone amps. For additional comparisons, I also routed the Parasound’s analog output to a Bryston BHA-1 HP amp/line out as well as to the analog input of the Oppo HA-1 HP Amp/DAC.
  Headphones included AKG K702 Anniversary, Shure SRH1840, Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic and Sony MDR-7510 headphones. Wireworld digital cables were used throughout the system. Essential Sound Products Essence II Reference power cords connected the components to the AC.
  I also integrated the zdac v.2 into my high-end playback system, consisting of, at the time, Pass Labs XP-10 preamp, Pass Labs XS-150 mono block, Class A amplifiers and my MartinLogan Montis speakers.

The audition
  When I reviewed the original zdac in 2013, I raved about its sound quality, considering the price. In fact, when I took it to the Capital AudioFest that year and put it in our stack of DACs A-B listening sessions, most people were hard pressed to differentiate it from other DACs, including the more expensive ones, in the demo.
  For the most part, the zdac v.2 is sonically identical to the original, but with increased headphone amp gain. In fact, i did not need to turn the volume control knob nearly as far with the low-impedance AKG headphones as I did the original zdac.
  During my testing, I played dozens of hi-res tracks from different genres, including Classical, Jazz and Pop. As with the original zdac, the zdac v.2 is a detailed, revealing DAC that performs considerably above its price point. I have always liked the analytical character of the Analog Devices DAC chip (Benchmark used it in its DAC1 Series), and the zdac v.2 gives me that quality in spades. Tight bass, a generous soundstage and crisp transient response on such instruments as cymbals and piano will please those who appreciate honest digital audio decoding.

Smart devices play just fine with zdac v.2


  When playing a DSD-to-PCM dub of the Warren Bernhardt So Real SACD — from the Oppo BDP-95 and monitoring via the AKG K702 headphones — the detailed presentation of drum cymbals piano and bass was well spaced. The kick drum was nice and tight. The line-output lets out more image and width when paired up with the gorgeous-sounding MartinLogan Montis electrostatics and the pair of $60,000 Pass XS150 amps that I recently reviewed.
  When comparing the zdac v.2 to the ESS Sabre chip units Benchmark DAC2-D, Mytek Stereo 192-DSD and Resonessence ConceroHP, the zdac's tight, tightly focused signature was more apparent in headphone amp A/B comparisons. The Benchmark and Mytek had more warmth to the mid and bass frequencies, and  a bit more space around the instruments, but again, I liked the analytical persona of the Parasound.
  When comparing the DACs through speaker listening, their sonic personas are harder to differentiate. They all sounded good. Picky headphone listening can spot the audio variables between these DACs, but a room often swallows up those differences. The zdac v.2 is definitely a competitive D/A.

Mobile-source audio
  With the 24/96 ceiling on zdac v.2's USB input, I carefully selected 96K download music to play from a Dell Venue 8 tablet via USB Audio Player Pro software. I linked the two via Wireworld Starlight USB cable, the software player recognized the DAC, and I commenced playing a variety of tunes.
  The first cut I played was "Tangerine," from the 24/96-remastered, hi-res Led Zeppelin III. The remaster has much greater separation and space between the instruments, which includes acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitar, mixed into a widely spaced stereo image. Through the headphones, the zdac v.2 projected the gracious instrument spacing of the mix, and its cool, quick transient character enhanced the detail. The line out into the amp/speaker system was even more immersive through the ML electrostatics.
  When playing a DSD-to-PCM dub of Warren Bernhardt’s So Real SACD — from the Oppo BDP-95 and monitoring via the AKG 702 headphones — the detailed presentation of drum cymbals piano and bass was well spaced. Kick drum was nice and tight. The line-output lets out more image and width when paired up with the gorgeous-sounding MartinLogan Montis electrostatics and the pair of $60,000 Pass XS150 amps

  On my PCM 24/96 dub of the Mercury Living Presence BachThe Complete Cello Suites by Janos Starker SACD, I really liked how well the organic tone of Mr. Starker’s cello — with the complex string harmonics, subtle room reverb —played through the zdac v.2. It may only be $549, but this is a really good DAC.
  As with the original zdac, the zdac v.2 is a smart choice to add new life to your old CD player or a cheap DVD player. I used the zdac v.2 as a high quality DAC/headphone amp for a RCA portable Blu-ray player with built-in 9-inch LCD that I took to my beach house. Playing through a connected HDMI de-embedder, I played CDs, 24/96 hi-res downloads and BD stereo soundtracks using a pair of Oppo PM-1 planar headphones. With the zdac v.2 this little A/V system kicked butt. I even watched The Who - Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 Concert Blue-ray, with the linear PCM stereo soundtrack blasting through the headphones.

A workstation D/A
  For those who have home recording suites (even pros), the zdcac v.2 can be smartly placed next to your editing computer or source deck, and used for monitoring your mixdown or direct stereo recordings. It would be better if it did 24/192 as well, but if you do CD quality or the more typical 24/96, the zdac v.2 works just fine. And as mentioned, it does decodes 24/192 from a Mac through the computer's optical output on the newest Macbook Pros, and outputs the 192  kHz audio at 96 kHz from older Intel Macs.


Per usual, Parasound uses good design and parts selection


  I pressed the zdac v.2 into duty for editing a Gibson jazz guitar track I was working on using a Macbook Pro and the Apple Logic recording/editing program. Via the Shure SRH-1840 open headphones during playback, I could clearly hear deep into the track, with the guitar’s pick attack and smooth Fender Deluxe Reverb harmonics, without any additional grit coming from the DAC. At twice the price, you will not do any better.

The verdict
  As with the original, Parasound zdac  I had few complaints about the zdac v.2, it has true hi-sound quality, the headphone gain gets a boost, we now have separate volume controls for line and headphone, and the a fixed/variable line-out circuit adds to its flexibility. It only lacks the ability to natively play 24/192 music via the USB, though you can play 24/192 via Mac using the optical jack. I know there are lower-cost DACS out there, but when you compare the build quality, parts selection and its "well above its price range" sound, the Parasound zdac v.2 is a steal at $549. A Stellar Sound Award for a stellar DAC.



John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1992. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music,The Audiophile Voice and High Performance Review. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, MDArticles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. He can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net