Oppo Sonica Audiophile DAC and Network Streamer Review

Manufacturer & Model
Oppo Sonica Audiophile DAC and Network Streamer
MSRP
$799
Link
https://www.oppodigital.com/sonica-dac/
Highlights
Lossless wifi streaming, versatile source selectability, impecable performance specs, simple styling that houses some of the most advanced DAC technology available.
Summary
The Sonica Audiophile DAC and Network Streamer is Oppo's next installment in their wifi streaming series, following the Sonica speaker last year. Accompanied by the Sonica app as control center, the Sonica DAC is capable of reference-grade performance.
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The Streaming DAC For Guys Like Us
Back in 1978, singer-songwriter-producer-technologist Todd Rundgren predicted in an interview that our day would be so full of computer technology and inexpensive storage that the ownership of a platter containing a recorded music album would be a thing of the past. He did not quite describe the future of recorded audio and video as we now have it, with the internet, gigabit fiber links, wifi, and media streamed from exabyte-sized databases to any corner of the planet in milliseconds for pennies, and the CD is far from obsolete, not to mention VINYL, but he was far more accurate than most in the record industry cared to admit at the time.


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Rear view of the Sonica DAC

Network streaming is IN, and the makers of the technology that routinely streams media to any room in a modern household are embracing it through products like Oppo’s new Sonica Audiophile DAC and Network Streamer as fast as they can get them to market. The Sonica DAC is Oppo’s second entry in the wifi streaming market, following the Sonica speaker that came out last year. Both Sonica products rely on the Sonica app - supported on smartphones and tablets - to flow that data through air and wire, convert bits to volts, and stream music into our ears, wherever they and we may be.


A DAC Plus A Whole Lot More
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The controller for the Sonica DAC can be any smartphone or tablet running the Sonica app

Oppo’s products aspire toward the high end of the feature / performance / quality scale. The Sonica DAC certainly fits in with the other products in the Oppo family. The Sonica Wifi Network Streaming DAC's footprint stacks nicely on the HA-1 DAC and Headphone Amp that Oppo introduced three years ago, and shares many features of the pedigree. Digital inputs include coaxial, optical, asynchronous USB, and of course, Ethernet and wifi. USB ports are provided front and rear for local storage, a hard drive or flash drive for instance. There are also (yawn) RCA analog inputs, not as exciting, but ever so convenient when using the Sonica DAC as a source selection center. The Sonica DAC has both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs.

The front panel controls are simple: a power on/off button, a multi-function selector with push-push and turn-to-select operability, a volume knob, and an OLED display to inform the user of the input in use, the data type, frequency, and word size, and to step one through the interconnection process. DSD is fully supported up to DSD64, and PCM data is supported up to 24 bits at 192 kHz.


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Inside view of the Sonica DAC

The streaming heart of the Sonica DAC is the flagship of the ESS SABRE PRO series, the ES9038PRO. The 9038 is capable of 120 dB signal-to-noise ratios, and with the fully differential signal path inside the Sonica DAC, distortion and common-mode noise are vanishingly low, along with channel-to-channel crosstalk. The power supply is based on a toroidal transformer and linear regulator, ensuring clean power for all circuitry.

Bluetooth 4.1 and Apple Airplay are also built in for a convenient way to pair the Sonica DAC with your mobile devices. Neither is lossless, however, so slight degradation will occur in these modes.

I was a little surprised to find that the Sonica DAC did not have a headphone output. Of course, that would put it directly in competition with the HA-1, which would hardly be fair. The HA-1’s Class-A output stage and its ability to drive high-impedance phones to high levels puts it in a separate league from the Sonica DAC, if driving headphones is required. At the same time, the HA-1 uses DAC technology that is 3 years older than the Sonica DAC, so direct comparison becomes a little bit problematic. This leaves the door open for another future product, the Sonica DAC / Headphone Amp. Boy-howdy will I want to get my hands on one of those. This is total conjecture on my part, needless to say.


Set Up - Configure - Listen - Enjoy
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The left front-panel knob allows selection of the desired hardware input as the device's "Aux" input

I chose to compare the Sonica DAC to several others in my reference collection that have given particularly impressive results, spending several hours with favorite test tracks, planar-magnetic headphones, and electrostatic speakers. Each would provide a different perspective.

Comparison 1 was a tiny $180 DAC that has stood tall in a number of comparisons and reviews. The sonic difference was noticeable, although anything but obvious. The subtleties of sibilants and sharp percussive sounds felt better preserved and protected by the Sonica DAC.

Few DACs can boast of having an ESS SABRE PRO inside. Yet the DAC at its heart is only as good as its configuration and the circuitry surrounding it. The team at Oppo has shown us again how a great product with groundbreaking features and performance is built. The SABRE PRO's 140-dB-capable signal-to-noise ratio is complemented by a fully differential design from DAC to XLR output, which means common-mode noise and distortion sources have no way to get to you or your tracks, at least not at the DAC point in your signal chain. A toroidal transformer minimizes magnetic interference and maximizes power supply efficiency. Channel separation benefits from all of the above and ensures the sharpest images and the darkest darkness in the soundstage spaces separating them.

A DAC’s reconstruction filter is key to its sonic purity. My Comparison 2 specimen, another in my reference collection, is one that allows switching between several built-in filter configurations. The cleanest of the three possibilities provides another reference for the Sonica DAC to be compared against. Once again this is a comparison between products in different leagues, with different functionality, the Sonica DAC having an overwhelming advantage. But little lessons pay big dividends, and this portable, USB-powered DAC / headphone amp showed me what to listen for, a particular lack of sizzle that tightens the highest end of the sound and opens up the spaces between images in that range just a smidge.

That preamble describes the open clarity that is characteristic of the Sonica DAC, a tiny difference that will spoil and convert you when you get tuned into it. The absence of this high-frequency splatter - a harsh term, but the best I have found to describe this subtle but unmistakable artifact - is preferred in a DAC’s sonic character.

The most serious comparison - Comparison 3 - involved the HA-1 from Oppo. This all-differential class-A solid-state headphone amp, besides being able to warm your hands on a chilly morning, is, so far, the ultimate in clean, pure music delivery into a pair of headphones or an amp and pair of electrostatic speakers.

This comparison was the most difficult to get any useful info from. Only in a comparison involving the PC-USB input mode could I hear a faint difference in the character of the high frequencies, a difference which could not be classified as better or worse, but simply different. Other than that, the two stacked up as very much the same,


Stream From Anywhere
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Sonica DAC with the Oppo HA-1 DAC / Headphone Amp

Other than sounding absolutely great, the Sonica family has the DNA of a hunter-gatherer. The Sonica app’s long arm includes interfaces for reaching out to Spotify and Tidal streaming services, plus interfaces for accessing music files on your controlling smartphone or tablet, for playing files from a UPnP and DLNA network source, from USB storage devices, from Bluetooth devices, or from an auxiliary input on the Sonica device being referenced. I was a little confused by the interface on the Sonica DAC until I realized that it defers to the Sonica app in control, which can select among the streaming digital sources or the Aux hardware input referenced on the Sonica device. As I mentioned in the Sonica Speaker review, the Sonica DAC or Speaker in question takes over the streaming directly once the app gets it going, so a different controlling smartphone altogether can access the Sonica device and seamlessly know what song is playing, at what track time point, and from where, and even the current volume setting on the Sonica device. I daresay the Oppo team has spent some time laying out Sonica’s strategic path.


Measurements
It takes some serious and expensive test equipment to measure and verify the specs put forth for the Sonica DAC. My setup merely showed its own limitations for every spec I tried to measure, as I expected it would. Frequency response, noise, and harmonic distortion levels are simply beyond inaudible and almost immeasurable as well. I gave a good effort at trying to detect the channel separation limit at 10 kHz and fared no better. The Sonica DAC specifications for channel separation, or crosstalk, do not give a test frequency for the 120 dB spec, and I have found this parameter to be neglected in the specs for many current devices, although it is more likely to be a problem in a power amp where large common ground currents are being dealt with than in a DAC. Silly me for wondering if the Sonica team might have overlooked this somehow. I found no evidence to that effect.


Conclusion
A two-channel system that hopes to truly impress in this day and age will necessarily consist of components that, each looked at individually, are designed to not be a weak link in an audio system. The Oppo Sonica Audiophile DAC and Network Streamer is a mighty and worthy link in any audio chain.The role of Digital to Analog Converter has been elevated from being a chip buried along with many others in the depths of an AVR to being a hub in a system that can handle any type of source, near or far, with ease and clarity. It is a DAC, a gatherer of streaming sources, and a control app all in one, from Oppo, the company that keeps giving us some of the most advanced components in the world of audio. In a world where a high-end DAC can have a price tag that runs in the tens of thousands, the Sonica DAC shows how digital to analog conversion can be done as well or better, with a world of pertinent additional function, for far less. The Sonica DAC - the DAC for guys like us.


Oppo Sonica Audiophile DAC and Network Streamer
Specifications
  • General
    • Dimensions (W x H x D) - 10.0 x 3.0 x 14.2 inches, 254 x 76 x 360 mm
    • Weight - 10.4 lbs, 4.7 kg
    • Power Supply - AC 110-120 V ~ / 220-240 V ~ 50/60 Hz
    • Power Consumption - 30 W (operation), 0.5 W (standby)
    • Trigger Input - 3.5 V - 15 V, 10 mA minimum
    • Sampling Frequencies - 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, 192 kHz
    • Word Length - 16-bit, 24-bit
    • DSD Sampling Frequencies - 2.8224 MHz (DSD64)
  • AUX Audio Input
    • Input Impedance - 10k Ohm
    • Maximum Input Level - 2 Vrms
  • USB Ports (Type A)
    • Profile - USB 2.0, mass storage only
    • Audio Format Support - AAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, APE, FLAC, M4A, M4A (Apple Lossless) ALAC, OGG, WAV, WMA, DSF, DFF
    • Maximum Sampling Rate - PCM up to 192 kHz / 24-bit, DSD up to 2.8224 MHz (DSD64)
  • Wireless Standard
    • Wi-Fi - 802.11.a/b/g/n/ac
    • Bluetooth - Bluetooth 4.1
  • DAC Performance Specifications
    • Output Level:
      • XLR Output - 4±0.4 Vrms
      • RCA Output - 2±0.2 Vrms
    • Frequency Response:
      • XLR Output - 20 Hz - 160 kHz (+0/-2.4 dB), 20 Hz - 20 kHz (+0/-0.04 dB)
      • RCA Output - 20 Hz - 160 kHz (+0/-2.4 dB), 20 Hz - 20 kHz (+0/-0.04 dB)
    • THD+N at 1 kHz (A Weight, 20 Hz- 20 kHz):
      • XLR Output - < -115 dB
      • RCA Output - < -115 dB
    • Channel Separation:
      • XLR Output - > 120 dB
      • RCA Output - > 120 dB
    • Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A Weight, 20 Hz- 20 kHz):
      • XLR Output - > 120 dB
      • RCA Output - > 120 dB
    • Dynamic Range (1 kHz -60 dBFS, A Weight, 20 Hz- 20 kHz):
      • XLR Output - > 120 dB
      • RCA Output - > 120 dB


Unboxing the Sonica DAC






 

Comments

Todd Anderson

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Great write up, Wayne. Enjoyable read... looks like another super solid entry by OPPO.
 

tripplej

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Yes, excellent write-up. Great work. Thanks. :)
 

AudiocRaver

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Thanks, guys, this is a great streaming DAC. It is good to know that Oppo is a name you can trust for advanced products like this.
 

Matthew J Poes

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Wayne did you try it as an analogue preamplifier by chance? I had been looking at this as possibly a nice DAC and preamplifier option.

I wish they would make an 8 channel version of this. USB 8 Channel audiophile dac preamplifier.
 

Jack

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Thank You for the write up Todd, well done.
This is one of the first Dac's that makes me want to upgrade from my present one. Hmmm
 

AudiocRaver

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I have not tried it yet as a straight preamp, and yes it would be GREAT if they came out with an 8-channel version, especially with HDMI in.
 

AudiocRaver

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It is a fine DAC, and when you add the lossless wifi and Sonica app features, "hmmmmm" is right!
 

tesseract

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I love it, an all-in-one audiophile 2 channel solution.

Thanks, Wayne! I might have to swing by sometime and lay ears on this bad boy!
 

AudiocRaver

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Absolutely, Dennis, although - sadly - the "drop by" distance is a bit farther than it used to be (used to live in Lincoln NE, recently relocated to Western North Carolina, actually South-Central-Western North Carolina).

I am hoping to clean up my "messiness" act and try to have a somewhat-open-door policy for folks to come by and listen to whatever is set up for reviewing, once I get my new room together.
 

tesseract

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Absolutely, Dennis, although - sadly - the "drop by" distance is a bit farther than it used to be...
Distance has never kept me from great friends or auditioning great audio. Get that media room done and expect a visit!
 

Jack

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Yay, listening session at Wayne's !!
 

Sonnie

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When and what time Wayne... let's all go! I'd love to hear this. I'm not much on streaming, but who knows, I might get interested after playing around with it some.

Nice review Wayne... OPPO never ceases to amaze, and the same with your reviews!
 
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