Monday, April 23, 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.

Update - January 7, 2018

I thought I would give one more update on the e32, now that it has had another month of use. In the meantime, I have also had the opportunity to compare it with two other - much more expensive - DACs, the Ayre QX5 Twenty and the Chord DAVE. The Ayre I borrowed from a helpful dealer for a week, and the Chord DAVE I ended up buying after hearing it in a dealer's system.

In the thread I linked to in my first post above, the e32 was found to sound very similar to the Ayre QX5 Twenty, although the QX5 surpassed it when used with more revealing components.

However, I found that the e32 was at a similar level to the QX5, with differences in presentation down to personal preference. I should add that this was using the Fidelizer Nikola power supply with the e32, which elevates its performance noticeably.

The Ayre should in theory be better than the e32 - as I understand it, Ayre use the higher end 9038 chip instead of the 9028 in the e32, Ayre use proprietary filters and turn off most of the features of the ESS chip, Ayre have their own high quality internal linear PSU, and use a discrete output stage, instead of the opamp output stage of the e32.

In practice, this results in a sound which is bigger and airier than the e32, very quiet, very detailed, and also a little fuller and smoother. I suspect that this is a kind of "voicing" by Ayre to ameliorate a little of the edginess for which Sabre chips are known.

However, the Ayre was also a little less colorful; the e32 had slightly greater tonal saturation. While a bit leaner and less full sounding than the Ayre, the e32 was a little more focussed and perhaps just a notch faster. The Ayre was smoother, but possibly just a shade too smooth, while the e32 did not seem to gloss over any edges in the recording.

I borrowed the QX5 intending to buy it, if it provided a noticeable improvement on the e32. But I found that, like much in audio, it was a question of trade offs and preferences. While the Ayre was better in some ways, from a purely sound quality perspective, on balance I preferred the e32. I can understand that others might have a different preference.

But I did end up buying the Chord DAVE. I had all three on my rack for a week, with each one under a separate zone in Roon, so I could switch back and forth between them. As good as both the QX5 and e32 were, the Chord DAVE is on a different level to both. DAVE has a naturalness and a deeply satisfying sense of musicality that I have previously only got from vinyl. Both the e32 and QX5 came close, but could not quite match what the DAVE was doing. But DAVE is 5 times the price of the e32, and when you add the Blu2 transport (which I did, and which elevated it further), it is 10 times the cost of the e32, so you would expect it to be significantly better. But if I had not heard the DAVE I would now be happily living with the e32.

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Posted in: Reviews, e32 DAC
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