DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw

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ted_b

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First off, thanks to AC member, Mike Eastman, for letting me demo and eval this new DSD-capable DAC.

Part One: First impressions (day 1-3)
My first impressions of the Exasound E20 DAC come with a slight (or maybe large, we’ll see) caveat.  Although Exasound includes a 12V brick laptop style power supply in this $2499 DAC so far all listening was done using a 3rd party upgraded linear power supply, my Hynes SR3-12.  It seemed a natural fit as it is already set for 12V and uses the same dc plug that the E20 needs.   This “upgrade-ability” is a big plus for DAC designs like the E20.  Think about it:  you get to spend $$ on the DAC design only, use the stock (medical grade) ps for awhile, and then save up for upgraditis.  Plus, the EMI is a good 1 meter away, as no transformer is enclosed inhouse (reminds me of the saying "when criticizing someone first walk a mile in their shoes"...that way when you criticize them you are a mile away...and have their shoes!!  :) )

First off I want to say that these impressions are not meant to be a shoot-out among the DSD-capable DACs I own (Meitner and Mytek) and the E20.  I did very little a/bing with the Mytek so far, and none with the Meitner.  That being said, I’m well aware of the sound of each (and the price of each  :) ).  Now, on to Exasound and the E20.

Exasound is a relatively new small company in Toronto, Canada (wow, there are lots of good audio companies in Canada) headed up by George Klissarov.  I had a nice chat with George, and he seems to be the real deal.  He was unabashed about how and why I would remark about his DAC, and he felt that the world needed a more truthful, less hifi-sounding DAC; that is, more truthful for the lover of acoustical instruments where there is no perceived upper midbasss hump installed.  Maybe braver, in light of what other
DACS try to do to poor recordings.   And George was very open to constructive criticism as he evolves the E20 design.  (Note:  I have a nice place in my heart for George cuz he and I are big multichannel music fans, too, and maybe I can help spur on a DSD-capable mch DAC, a kind of E18 with DSD.   :thumb: ). 




So, first I’ll get out the constructive criticism.  The DAC uses a mini-USB connector (like a few of Antelope’s designs) and George is aware that this reduces the audiophile USB cable rolling habit to only a few, or requires a mini-to-standard adapter (which I used in my listening).  Second, the analog outputs on the back are reversed, with right channel outputs on the right (as you look at them from the back) forcing one to cross cables to their pre or amps.  Finally, the DAC is small and looks less $2500 than its competitors (kind of a “dollars per pound” criticism).  But the proof is in the sound, right?

The system used my CAPS v2+ Win 8 server, running J River in ASIO (Exasound’s own custom ASIO driver).  The E20 can be listened to in one of two ways; either directly to amps (George’s preference) using the supplied Apple remote wand (or any remote programmed in the E20 menu) or “bypassed” to a preamp (my addtl constructive criticism..I’d like a bypass function rather than setting the volume to max 0.0DB but maybe that is bypassed?). (Note: see George's comments at the end) The DAC is not overly hot, as 0.0db produces 2V RMS, perfect for my Concert Fidelity CF-080 preamp.  I listened in both setups.  In MY system, with my stuff, I much prefer going through the CF-080, as it produced a soundstage that was much more fleshed out, with better heft, weight, timbre, depth and width..losing no resolution.  But my pre is big $$ and I can imagine many folks preferring the dc-coupled output going “Apache” style into their amp(s).  The latter wasn’t bad, just not as good as my preamp.

OK, so what does this DAC sound like.  Well, again with my Hynes SR3-12 (which I stole from a AC seller for like $250) this DAC produced DSD that was easily the best I’ve heard under $3k, and redbook PCM that rivals my $7k Meitner.  This is not to say that the 24 bit rates are trash, no, simply that the redbook playback was what drew me in to thinking this DAC is really something special.  Again, these are first impressions, and I will spend more time in 24 bit land going forward.  I need to dust off my 352K DXD stuff, too.

The E20 has an ease and musical PRAT that just does not produce listener fatigue at all, over several hours.  It has no real downsides in PCM, it’s only downside in DSD being that it does not render the musicality of my almost-3X as expensive Meitner like it seems to do in PCM.  DSD was good, as good as I’ve heard in this price range, but tended to not have the millions of colors, nor the perfect control during complexity that the Meitner does.  Bass control, bass tunefulness, frequency extremes, midrange glow (but not bloom) and soundstage rock solid-ness!  All there, with redbook especially.  It has no issues with drivers or sample rate changes, and seemed to have fire up from a power reboot easily, after the requisite server reboot (most DACS like to be the first one on when a server is rebooted, so the server can recognize the powered DAC immediately).

As I’ve said multiple times now, this was a first impression, and was using a very nice linear power supply.  But if you have Bath Ruth on the bench, why not use him.    I will, over the next few days, listen intently to the stock ps as well, and will report back on any changes.  Until then, we have a new $2500 DAC to put on the recommend list!!

Ted

Editor addendum:
George Klissarov's clarifications of two issues: volume bypass and operator error safeguards


1) Let me explain about the volume control – it is not analogue nor digital… it is right in-between the two worlds. The signal over the USB  from the computer to the DAC travels always at the 0 dB level. So there is no bit-loss like in digital volume controls.  When you request a volume level, we send a command to the DAC – a couple of bytes to instruct the DAC chip ES9018 to produce lower voltage. So the 0dB sound stream is converted to lower voltage analogue signal. 

From the analogue side of the equation,  the signal is not attenuated, it is just born smaller. So you don’t have the signal to noise difficulties of conventional analogue volume controls.

Back to the bypass of volume – you have it. If you see 0dB on the LCD display, it is our guarantee that the command sent to the DAC chip is “don’t mess with the volume”.  The purpose of the display is honesty. Drivers can mislead you about sampling rate or volume level. When we put it in the display it is “carved in hardware”. It is a commitment.  By the way the display blinks if the asynchronous buffer gets empty – another clear indication of trouble free streaming.

2) we also have a safety net around power up and shut down. Look at the blue note  icon on the tray. It takes a second to recognize that the USB is connected and to display the red square. This is self test time. There are 4 sates
•   Cable disconnected – exclamation mark over the blue note
•   Blue note – cable connected but unit is off
•   The unit is connected and ON  - red square over the blue note
•   Green triangle over the blue note – the unit is playing.

If you accidentally unplugging the USB or power cables, there will be no bangs.  There is enough power stored inside the unit to keep the controller alive after loss of power, so that the relays will quietly cut off the outputs.  Don’t try this without a preamp with lowered volume first – there are factors beyond the DAC – for example static charges on your hand. On Mac we can continue playback after you reconnect the USB.

Ric Schultz

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #1 on: 6 Dec 2012, 10:21 pm »
Great review!  Sounds like the designer actually listens!

Can you open er up and take some super clear close ups so we can see what makes all this magic?

ted_b

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #2 on: 6 Dec 2012, 11:00 pm »
Ric,
Thanks.  Yes, George seems sincerely interested in feedback, and frankly has already said to me that the next release of an Exasound device will have the USB and reversed analog outs fixed.  Regarding the innerds: As this is not my personal piece of equipment, but instead on loan,  I'm gonna have to say no.  Maybe Mike or George will oblige later.

ted_b

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #3 on: 7 Dec 2012, 06:48 pm »
Part Two: Final Impressions (24/352 and stock power supply)

Well, I swapped out my Hynes SR3-12 (12V linear power supply by Paul Hynes) and instead installed the stock SMPS medical grade power supply (looks like a laptop-style brick) that is included with the DAC.   I was expecting a significant downturn in sonics.  What i got wasn't insignificant, but wasn't a deal breaker either by any means.  The soundstage depth narrowed ever so slightly, the weight of the lower midrange and deepest bass got slightly lighter, and the air that is 12k-ish lost a little. Not a huge big deal, frankly.  If I had started with this power supply I would have said all the same things about this DACs ability to do PCM, especially redbook.  It is a very musical DAC that creates a wonderfully timbre-rich soundstage, yet delivers the micro-details so evident in modern DAC designs (so many ultra-detailed DACS, though, have no sense of timbre, color or PRAT).  If I had started with this power supply I would have said all the same things about its ability to do DSD, both DSD64 and DSD128.  The E20 conveys my favorite aspects of DSD, a smooth yet quick attack and leading edge (yes, the edges are fast but smooth on DSD), a musical but tight bass register, and a grain-free sense of space....all there.  With the Hynes it is slightly closer to my Meitner reference, but again, that is an upgrade option not available on DACS with internal power supplies.

I don't have a lot of DXD (aka 24/352k PCM) but what I have is well-recorded 2L light classical, almost folk classical at times.   The E20 renders 352k with the same sense of PRAT that it does to redbook and 24/176k, but with even more (of course) resolution and what I call "palettte of colors", i.e timbre/tone.  Note:  it might simply be a weird coincidence but I like everything based on 44k on this machine slightly better than anything based on 48k.  It's not that 24/96 or 24/192 doesn't sound very good; it does.  But the giant-killer sound comes from 16/44 and 24/176k.  Maybe just me.  :)

As stated earlier, George Klissarov and his Company seem quite open to feedback, and have a trial/demo period stated on their website that should allow most AC members, especially N. American-based, to evaluate this DAC in the only place worth evaluating from...your own system in your own uniquely sounding room.  Have fun.

munosmario

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #4 on: 8 Dec 2012, 10:36 am »
"First off I want to say that these impressions are not meant to be a shoot-out among the DSD-capable DACs I own (Meitner and Mytek) and the E20.  I did very little a/bing with the Mytek so far, and none with the Meitner."

Why not, Ted? given that you have (or had) the three units in house, not to do so seems like a wasted opportunity for a really even greater review. In any event, despite what you said in the quote, your review does not make at all any comparison to the Mytek...but includes some illuminating ones to the Meitner. Incidentally, in the other thread about DSD capable DACs you idicated that you thought your Mytek did about 90% of your Meitner....after experiencing it, where does the E20 reside in that comparison scale? It would be great if you could elaborate a bit further.

Mario

wisnon

Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #5 on: 8 Dec 2012, 10:48 am »
Mario, there is enough there to draw your own inference.

rklein

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #6 on: 8 Dec 2012, 01:06 pm »
I believe that Ted mentioned in his first post that the E20 did the best DSD that he has heard in a $3,000 DAC.  I believe one can buy a Mytek 192 for around $1,500.

Regards

Randy

mikeeastman

Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #7 on: 8 Dec 2012, 02:02 pm »
 I want thank Ted for taking the time to demo the dac for me. A true gentleman and a scholar.  :thumb: :thumb:


  Mike  .

ted_b

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #8 on: 8 Dec 2012, 02:07 pm »
Mario,
First off, thanks for the questions.  They are indeed legit.  I guess I have an aversion to shoot-outs as they tend to become only about one aspect of "whats best in that system" vs what each piece of equipment is all about.  Often it's like asking two major league pitchers to throw their best fast ball, even when one of them has, as their out pitch, as mean a slider as their is in baseball.  Also, I did not have either in my system long enough to understand how well they react to cable changes, both IC and power.

Second, I gave you some subjective terms like "best under $3k".  Well, that includes ALL DACS under $3k.  And yet that is about only one aspect.  DACs like the Mytek offer firewire, offer both analog and digital volume controls, offer firewire recording loops, offer AES/EBU inputs, offer SDIF or analog inputs, and finally, most importantly......in my big rig I cannot run the Mytek in pure native bypass mode due to its "hotness", it's pro-level output gain (despite the -6db jumpers) causes my pre to clip, so I run it in analog at -5 (reference level).  That is a system-dependent variable, and an important one.   Oh, and it's $1100 less (not counting the Hynes upgrade).

As far as percentages, I have to say that the cost of moving a degree or two closer to reference can be VERY expensive.  I think 10% is a huge jump, as is 5% (when you get passed 80-85%).  I would put the E20 at 93% (with Hynes) for the time being, since you asked.  I might change those numbers with another mood, though.  :)


munosmario

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #9 on: 8 Dec 2012, 05:02 pm »
Thanks a lot Ted. Didn't know that you have an aversion to shoot-outs...sorry, if I appeared as trying to put you on the spot....not my intention. Since you said "this DAC produced DSD that was easily the best I’ve heard under $3k, and redbook PCM that rivals my $7k Meitner" just wanted to get an idea of how the E-20 fitted in you % evaluation scale--using the Mytek as a baseline, at 90% of the Meitner. Of course, if you change your  test method, or your reference, or overall system, so should go the scale and ratings.

You indicate that you did not compare the Mytek and the E20  because the Mytek was to hot and overloaded your preamp. Must likely it is too late, but it would be interesting to compare these two notable implementations of the Sabre ES9018 chip without your preamp...besides a way to compare their PCM and DSD sound quality--sans the flavor of your tube preamp, which you obviously prefer--if any thing, as a way of evaluating their digital volume controls. A lot of time and effort is going nowadays into designing those digital volume controls (in sequence with perfecting the USB interface). Quite fascinating your addendum with George's description of his approach in the E20's.

Thanks and cheers,

Mario

ted_b

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #10 on: 8 Dec 2012, 05:23 pm »
Mario,
You slightly misunderstood my Mytek comments.  I DID listen to the Mytek, just before the E20, one night, with friends, and it was unanimous that although very close the E20 had the better sound, in my system.  One thought it may not be worth the price diff, the others thought otherwise.  My point was simply that the playing field wasn't level; the Mytek was forced to be used with analog volume attenuated so as not to clip my preamp.  I've heard both DACs sans preamps, and both do a good (not great IMO) job.  I can't say that one implementation of remote volume (digital or otherwise) changes their relative positions vs my reference.  I will say that the Mytek has choices (analog vs digital, filters, etc) that i didn't use.  Again, unlevel playing field.

BTW, if we were doing something comparable....something sexist like comparing beauty in women we would be comparing two fashion models to each other, often differentiated by what they are wearing at the time, and whether one likes blondes vs brunettes.  In both cases beautiful, nonetheless.   :thumb:

munosmario

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #11 on: 8 Dec 2012, 07:46 pm »
 :lol: :lol: But then, there is still the issue of how do they compare to the "Reference", or is it "References", namely, a blonde Referencce and a brunette Reference?

Now I get it, you enjoy much more dealing with pretty females, with different hair color, than splitiing hairs comparing, side by side, the sound of audio equipment....fair enough, I could not agree more :lol:

Mario

saisunil

Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #12 on: 8 Dec 2012, 09:35 pm »
Also Mytek has an amazing headphone amp - that piece alone performed at +/- $750

brj

Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #13 on: 11 Dec 2012, 02:49 am »
Thanks for the review, Ted.

For the record, comparisons against other gear don't have to be a shootout.  The advantage is that they provide a baseline or reference for others that have heard comparison pieces, but not the component under review.  There is no need to declare a winner (as it would very with the audiophile, their tastes and their system anyway), but providing specific, detailed comparisons and contrasts is very helpful indeed.

rklein

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #14 on: 12 Dec 2012, 01:07 am »
I was able to hear the Exasound E20 DAC in my system as Ted came down to my house a couple days ago with the E20 in tow.  8)

My current system comprises the following:

NCore mono amps that I have tweaked with various improvements chronicled on another thread
Bent Audio TAP preamp (passive) (borrowing Ted's until I score my own)
C.A.P.S. V. 2+ music server powered by a Hynes SR3-12 Power Supply running Windows 8
Running J.River V. 18
Mytek 192 DAC (borrowed from Ted until I decided on a DSD capable DAC
DIY'd TRT speakers from Selah Audio
MG Audio Planus 2 speaker cables
Running everything balanced with Furutech XLR I.C.'s(these are also Ted's - he has my son as his servant until I return all his gear)
All components plugged into MY PI audio Uberbuss

I want to start out by stating that I was extremely happy with this setup.  The synergy that was happening with the above components was (as Billy Crystal would say) simply marvelous!  The transparency/honesty of the recorded material was very satisfying.

Upon Ted's arrival we inserted the Exasound E20 into the setup.  Installing the Exasound driver was a piece of cake.  Rebooted the C.A.P.S. and we were ready to go.  My first impressions were that I preferred the sound of the Mytek 192 DAC.  However, as we continued to listen my impressions started to change.  At first, I thought that the E20 sounded somewhat spread and not as focused as the Mytek.  As I listened more, I actually eas hearing more texture in the sound.  The lower bass and especially the mid-bass had more integrity.  More heft if you will.

The mids and highs were also a bit more smooth yet retained every bit of detail that I was digging from the Mytek.  The E20 exhibited a more musical presentation no matter if we were playing Redbook, HiRez or DSD material.

I started to notice another trait of the E20.   I put on a DSD recording of Carl Orff's Camina Burana performed by The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Shaw.  The challenge in playback is the beginning of the 1st movement.  It starts out very softly with chanting sounds from the chorus.  About a minute later the full orchestra comes in and usually you have to turn the volume down from where you had it for the beginning.   With the E20, I did not have to do this.  The low level retrieval is very very good.  I find this to be an important plus as I don't have to then turn the volume down in the loud passages.

We also listened to the headphone sections on both the Mytek 192 and the E20.  Before I talk about this, there is a caveat...I have a pair of Stax cans that I have hard wired to my Pioneer Elite Receiver up in our family room.  They weren't going anywhere!!  I also have a pair of Audio Technica ATH-50's that I use for IPod/IPhone/late night listening to TV in bed, etc.  These are the cans used with the two DACS.  With that in mind, I thought that the Mytek had a slight edge in this department.  For me, this is not a very important feature as I rarely listen with headphones in my main rig.

The last area I want to talk about is the digital volume control on these units.  While the Mytek has both analog and a digital VC, I found that I much preferred running the Mytek into the Bent Audio preamp.  I thought (and still do) that this combination was fabulous.  Again, I thought the E20 into the Bent TAP was great as I stated in my above comments.  What really floored me was when I played the E20 directly into the NCores sans the Bent TAP.  I could hear NO LOSS of transparency.  No loss of texture.  No loss of anything to be honest.  I realize that Ted preferred running the E20 into his Concert Fidelity tubed preamp.  One needs to put this in its proper perspective.  The Concert Fidelity preamp is a $20,000 piece!!  What this tells me is to improve upon the volume control of the E20 you better be prepared to pony up some serious $$$$$$. 

To my ears, the E20 gave the best presentation of the SABRE chip that i have heard to date.  I realize that the Invicta DAC is getting excellent reviews as well.  However, that DAC runs $1,500 more than the E20.  I think the E20 at its price point is a very solid contender.  So much so that I ordered one. :thumb:

Regards,

Randy
« Last Edit: 14 Dec 2012, 01:12 am by rklein »

rklein

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #15 on: 12 Dec 2012, 01:28 am »
I need to add one other piece of information concerning the E20.  I used my Accopian Gold Power Supply to power my C.A.P.S. server and moved my Hynes SR3-12 to power the E20.  I never used the stock PS that was supplied with the E20.

Randy

ted_b

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #16 on: 12 Dec 2012, 01:47 am »
I enjoyed my time at Randy's place.  I concur with his findings, in his system, but I am still a fan of going through the preamp. Easy for me to say as I have a much heralded high $$ pre, but the Bent (mine also; the only things at Randy's place that aren't borrowed from me are his NCores and his family!!  :)  sounded great too.

Mike wanted to know about the headphone amps.  The Mytek hp amp is very very good, and although likely better broken in than the one on the E20, was better enough regardless that I don't think it mattered.  However, your cans may vary, your load may very, etc.  That comparison is only scratching the surface.  And the E20 headphone amp sounded just fine, thank you.

rklein

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Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #17 on: 12 Dec 2012, 02:11 am »
Yes, I am slowly weaning myself off of Ted's gear. :lol:   On a more serious note, I have threatened Ted with bodily harm if he ever sells his Bent TAP.  It is one amazing piece of gear.   The fact that the E20 acquitted itself so well without the TAP in the chain speaks volumes(no pun intended) as to the quality of the E20's VC.

Randy

wisnon

Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #18 on: 12 Dec 2012, 01:46 pm »
I need to add one other piece of information concerning the E20.  I used my Accopian Gold Power Supply to power my C.A.P.S. server and moved my Hynes SR3-12 to power the E20.  I never used the stock PS that was supplied with the E20.

Randy

So what do you think of Native DSD in general?

JoshK

Re: DAC review: Exasound E20 32/384k DSD DAC mini-reveiw
« Reply #19 on: 12 Dec 2012, 02:12 pm »
I found this review enlightening.   Especially since I am local in Toronto.    After I get my system setup, I may have to contact them about a trial against my Lite Audio DAC-83.