Sunday, July 14, 2024

Guides, Testimonials, News

by Lynn Olson 


See the complete article at

Positive Feedback ISSUE 75
september/october 2014

"...And a surprise. My favorite room at the show, exaSound, did not have high-efficiency speakers, tube amps, a phonograph, or even a linestage. I'll come right out and say it; this was the best digital sound I've ever heard, and at times a dead ringer for first (not second) generation analog mastertape. The system couldn't have been much simpler: an exaSound 28 eight-channel DAC, connected directly to a five-channel Bryston 9BSST amplifier, driving five Magnepan 1.7 loudspeakers. The room was small, almost closet-sized, with room for only six chairs… three in front, three directly behind them. The rest was speakers, which were no more than five feet away from where I sat (in the center, of course).


Photographs by Lynn Olson


I came back to this room, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and the sound was wonderful each time. This is rare, almost unheard-of, at hifi shows. It was always effortlessly mastertape realistic, with no digital artifacts at all. The source material was superlative, ranging from 1x, 2x, and 4x DSD, five-channel surround DSD, and 1x and 2x DXD (a professional 352.8/32 format used for editing DSD masters without generation loss).


The real stunners were five-channel DSD, which sounded as good as what I've heard at the local Sonoma mastering lab in Boulder, and two-channel DXD. Wow. I don't usually hear sound like this. Even our hard-core all-analog guy, Thom Mackris the turntable builder, had to admit that it actually sounded pretty good. I'm not a fan of transistor amps or Magnepans, but there was nothing to criticize in this room. The sound was always superb, no matter what. Even plain old 44.1/16 content, the bottom of the digital barrel, sounded free of grit and grain, just lower resolution.

It is not true that 44.1/16 (Red Book CD standard) has to sound gritty and "digital". No. That's bad conversion, which is very, very common and hard to avoid. If the conversion quality is high enough, it just sounds lower-resolution than the professional formats. It's also bad conversion when DSD sounds radically different than 88.2/24 or higher quality PCM. Both formats, not just one, should approach analog mastertape quality, If a converter favors one over the other, something's wrong, and nearly all converters I've heard to date seem to have a preference.

The exaSound converter has no preference; at the level of 176.4/24 PCM, or 2x DSD, everything sounded like a mastertape. At the highest level (which for me is DXD), the "recorded" sound disappeared completely, and it sounded like a direct mike-feed. That's how good DXD is. It's refreshing to know that at the professional level, and now through downloads, we can hear sound like this. The engineer who made these recordings was there on Saturday, and I congratulated him on the remarkable sound quality of the recordings.

What surprised me was everything was against the exaSound demo; a small room with only a little damping on the walls (see pic), a minimalist system with transistor amplification, and speakers that are not known for their dynamics. Wrong. The sound was 3-dimensional (in all directions) and far larger than the room, natural-sounding, and powerfully dynamic. Maybe exaSound was just lucky, and got a "magic room", but I don't believe you get lucky three days in a row, and playing all kinds of music (including full-scale classical and organ music). No. That doesn't happen by accident. Everyone else was struggling with the funky room acoustics, but this sounded like a professional DSD/DXD mastering studio. I honestly don't know how they did it.

What did our little band of three learn from our travels to the glass canyons of the Denver Tech Center? You must go and hear for yourself! No disrespect to the review staff at PFO, but you have to hear for yourself. The equipment that was most talked-about in the magazines and newsgroups was often dismal, sometimes shockingly so, while brands that were not as well-known surprised me (and the others) with their beauty and quality. I was about to generalize that "tubes are the way"… and in most rooms they were a mark of quality… but the exaSound room showed me that an unusual amplifier and speaker setup was the biggest surprise of the show"



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