OPPO DIGITAL SONICA STREAMING DAC

The OPPO Sonica DAC is the second streaming DAC I have reviewed and I quickly came to the conclusion that this is how all DACs should be designed. The advantage of the streaming DAC over the USB DAC is that it removes the computer from the equation. I hear you saying, “but it requires some sort of WiFi device, be it tablet or phone to operate it, which is in fact a computer, so what’s the difference?” I’m glad you asked. First, there are the limitations of USB, not in bandwidth (though that can be an issue) but in protocol. This is especially an issue if you like to listen to DSD and expect to get the advantages that entails. You see, USB is spec’d for PCM and does not allow for bit-streaming, which means that you either have to: A. use custom drivers (particularly difficult with Macs) which have their own issues, B. convert the signal to PCM, at which point you have sacrificed whatever sonic advantages DSD might have or C. compress your bitstream into a PCM signal (ala DoP) which requires 30% more bandwidth to accommodate not to mention the extreme processing overhead at both ends required to do this in real time.

Which brings us to the second issue with using a computer as source; unless you dedicate a computer strictly for use as a music source, and optimize it as such, a computer has a lot going on in the background (not to mention programs you might be running concurrently) which competes with your music software for resources (browsers are especially guilty of this). I have a fairly robust desktop computer (3GHz Quad-core with 16GB ram) and still JRiver occasionally ha some hiccups.  Another issue with computers (at lease of the desktop variety) is portability. My USB DAC has to stay in the office with my computer which is sub-optimal for listening to music on my sound system which is in a different room.

All of this is cured by the streaming DAC which can speak to my computer via a DLNA server, or draw files from a NAS (Network-Attached Storage, essentially a hard drive with a built in server), or, my preferred method, an external hard drive can be connected directly to the DAC.

OPPO Digital is a small American audio/video company based out of Menlo Park, California (not to be confused with OPPO Electronics, a separate but related company), who quickly rose to fame designing and building high performance and inexpensive DVD and Blu-ray players. About three years ago, they launched themselves into the personal audio gaining almost instant popularity with their DAC / headphone amplifiers and planar magnetic headphones, and now they have upped their game with the Sonica Streaming DAC.

The Setup:

For digital inputs, other than WiFi, LAN (Ethernet), USB Audio (Computer) and USB Host (Hard drive), the Sonica has both optical and coaxial SPDIF inputs. There are both single ended and balanced outputs, and both a trigger input and output to allow the Sonica to control or be controlled by external audio components.

OPPO Digital’s Sonica App is available for both Apple IOS and Android, meaning you are almost sure to have a compatible WiFi device on hand already, and are not forced into buying one specifically for this purpose. The Sonica DAC can connect to your network either via WiFi or Ethernet, though if you are going to access high resolution files via a DLNA or NAS I would recommend Ethernet for performance reasons. As I chose to connect my hard drive directly to the Sonica, I used WiFi for communications. Setup is fairly straight forward, and the App walks you through it. (Note: the Sonica App is able to support multiple Sonica devices, which can be operated in conjunction or separately – currently they also offer a Sonica Speaker and other devices may become available at some time in the future.)

For internet streaming services the Sonica supports both Spotify Premium and TIDAL, while for other services they can be streamed via Bluetooth from your mobile device. OPPO also provides an analog input which can be switched in and out from the Sonica App. Another unique feature of the App is a Sleep Timer, an unusual feature for a desktop DAC.

The Sound:

To break it in, I connected the Sonica to my Questyle Audio 800R Current Mode Headphone Amplifier and ran Napster for several days via Bluetooth from my iPad Mini. The sound was remarkably good from a compressed streaming source. I then connected it to my two channel system for a listening test. The sound was good, but a little thin in the mid bass range, so I connected it to the Wells Audio Milo (which needed burning in) and later the ERZETICH Perfidus and burned it in for another week. Reconnecting to the two channel system I began my listening with “And You And I” (Close to the Edge – Yes – DSD). It was clear that the Sonica benefited from the extra burn in, the opening acoustic guitar crisp and full the bass deep and authoritative. The Sonica’s ESS SABRE PRO DAC chip (ES9038PRO) presented a large and precise soundstage, the triangle easily discernible even during crescendo moments.

Switching to Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra for Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite” (DSD), I was put in mind of a box seat in large indoor concert hall, the performance dynamic and energetic with a certain sweetness to reeds, flutes, brass and strings. The impact of the tympanis were palpable and involving.

After an extended two channel session, it was time to return to the two 800Rs in dual mono with the MrSpeakers ETHER C Flow Headphones for the personal audio touch. Selecting a live recording of Kraftwerk’s “The Man Machine” I was transported to the performance I attended at the Greek Theater several years ago. Totally immersed in sound, the experience was exhilarating.

Desiring to be similarly teleported to another era I put on Satch Plays Fats and “All That Meat And No Potatoes”, it was like being at the Cotton Club, Velma’s voice rich and lush a good counterpoint to Satchmo’s basso. The horns were presented as immediate and resonant and the clarinet interlude was honey sweet.

Now seemed the time to return to low resolution sources (IE: Napster via Bluetooth) to get a real handle on the DAC’s capabilities, after all it is a lot less work to render high resolution tracks than low bit compressed tracks. The first song was Phillip Phillips “Where We Came From”. The sound was a bit grainy especially during the choruses, not exactly harsh, but definitely brittle. This played out further with “Rewind” by Stereophonics.

On the other hand Regina Spektor’s “Braille” came across pretty well with just a tad of siblance.

The Sum Up:

The OPPO Digital Sonica DAC is an incredible value for the price. Employing the ESS SABRE PRO DAC chip, it offers excellent sound quality for a DAC in the under $1,000 arena, and features few others can match. The Sonica App is simple, easy to use, and versatile, and as stated before, offered for both IOS and Android. It should be noted, for those who such things are important, it does not support for streaming DSD128 or DSD256, nor PCM over 24/192kHz. It is also a “what you see is what you get” kind of DAC, so don’t expect it to make mp3s sound like DSD.

All said and done, streaming DACs like the Sonica are the wave of the future, and for my money, the way all DACs should be designed. If you are looking for a desktop solution or whole house audio, you simply can’t go wrong with the OPPO Sonica DAC.

Price: $799USD

SPECIFICATIONS:

Designs and specifications are subject to change without notice.

General
Dimensions (W x H x D)10.0 x 3.0 x 12.2 inches, 254 x 76 x 360 mm
Weight10.4 lbs, 4.7 kg
Power SupplyAC 110-120 V ~ / 220-240 V ~ 50/60 Hz
Power Consumption30 W (operation), 0.5 W (standby)
Trigger Input3.5 V – 15 V, 10 mA minimum
Trigger Output12V, 100 mA maximum
Operating Temperature41°F – 95°F, 5°C – 35°C
Operating Humidity15% – 75% No condensation
USB Audio Input (USB B Type)
Input FormatStereo PCM, Stereo DSD (DoP v1.1 or native)
PCM Sampling Frequencies44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, 192 kHz, 352.8 kHz, 384 kHz, 705.6 kHz, 768 kHz
PCM Word Length16-bit, 24-bit, 32-bit
DSD Sampling Frequencies2.8224 MHz (DSD64), 5.6448 MHz (DSD128), 11.2896 MHz (DSD256), 22.5792 MHz (DSD512, native mode only)
ProfileUSB 2.0, USB Audio 2.0
Coaxial and Optical Digital Audio Inputs
Input FormatStereo PCM, Stereo DSD (DoP v1.1 or native)
Sampling Frequencies44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, 192 kHz
Word Length16-bit, 24-bit
DSD Sampling Frequencies2.8224 MHz (DSD64)
AUX Audio Input
Input Impedance10k Ohm
Maximum Input Level2 Vrms
USB Ports (Type A)
ProfileUSB 2.0, mass storage only
Audio Format SupportAAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, APE, FLAC, M4A, M4A (Apple Lossless) ALAC, OGG, WAV, WMA, DSF, DFF
Maximum Sampling RatePCM up to 192 kHz / 24-bit, DSD up to 2.8224 MHz (DSD64)
Wireless Standard
Wi-Fi802.11.a/b/g/n/ac
BluetoothBluetooth 4.1

DAC Performance Specifications

SpecificationXLR OutputRCA Output
Output Level4±0.4 Vrms2±0.2 Vrms
Frequency Response20 Hz – 160 kHz (+0/-2.4 dB) 20 Hz – 20 kHz (+0/-0.04 dB)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)< -115 dB< -115 dB
Channel Separation> 120 dB> 120 dB
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A Weight, 20 Hz- 20 kHz)> 120 dB> 120 dB
Dynamic Range (1 kHz -60 dBFS, A Weight, 20 Hz- 20 kHz)> 120 dB> 120 dB

https://www.oppodigital.com/

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Gary Alan Barker

Gary Alan Barker is a writer who has been a member of the Audio Industry since 1978, having acted as technical writer for several high-end audio companies, and been an electronics hobbyist since 1960. He has also been a musician and writer since the mid 1960s.

7
REPLY
  • Matt Baumer
  • 2017-06-30 10:22:00
  • I was hoping you'd comment on the performance of this DAC with Tidal, and also discuss the iPad app. I would like to have the ability to sit on the couch with my iPad and control Tidal playing MQA files at full resolution through my system, with a minimum of fuss/conversions/equipment on the other end. Thanks!
  • Reply


  • Gary Alan Barker
  • 2017-04-30 19:33:00
  • Thank you for your comments. Since before digital audio became a reality, I dreamed of having a music server. Over the decades I have experimented with different formats including VHS HiFi but it wasn't until a little over a decade ago that computers made the posiblity of a music server practicle. I built my first music server admittedly due to the cost and lack of expandability of most music servers at the time, unfortunately my render at the time (a PS3) was very limited as to what file types it could play (which is sad given it can actually play DSD but only from an Optical source), so my server was regulated to video, and my music database limited to use in the studio and DAPs. When I got my current reference DAC it opened me up to the limitations of USB (my studio DAC uses a proprietary interface and has it's own sound card) and computers in general as a part of a music playback system. I really believe that devices like the Oppo Sonica are the next wave and will make music enjoyment much more practicle.
  • Reply


  • Don Disbennett
  • 2017-04-29 11:15:00
  • Thank you for the "compliment" as I am not a digital engineer, just an old audiophile who has been involved with both computers and digital audio as long as they have existed. I also professionally reviewed audio gear and covered audio shows for another publication. ASIO is an older, but still widely used, type of driver for bitstreaming audio files and some devices will allow you to use ASIO or another newer type you didn't mention: WASAPI and WASAPI Event Style. I have used JRiver Media Center since version 13 or so and it works with both of them in addition to ASIO. It also allows one to disable Event Style WASAPI for some older gear which can't handle this type of processing. There are also a few others which are built into Windows computers such as Direct Audio and Kernel, but one should avoid those if ASIO or WASAPI are available. All that being said, I DO AGREE with your summary point that most PCs are NOT the best way for streaming digital audio. In addition to the factors you mention, most computers have far too many other programs running in the background which may produce noise or even brief interruptions to the audio stream. The exceptions are dedicated audio only computers such as the Baettis, but most of those are quite expensive and for the same money one can buy a really nice audio streamer (such as the Oppo Sonica) and have money left over for other gear and/or music purchases. I think the use of everyday computers for audio came about at a time when there were few, if any, dedicated digital streamers and people mainly wanted to rip their CD's to mp3 for their new iPod. Since most people already had some sort of computer and it could easily accomplish this ripping, why not? Later, they began wanting to play those mp3's on those computers and subsequently wanted to send those mp3's from their computers to their music systems, oblivious to the noise, jitter and limitations inherent in doing so. Thank you for the nice review of the new Oppo Sonica; like all Oppo gear it appears to be well thought out and a great value for one's audio dollar!
  • Reply


  • Gary Alan Barker
  • 2017-04-28 19:52:00
  • I am not an digital engineer, so I will bow to your superior knowledge, as you appear to be privy to information I am not. Everything I have read, and everything I can find states that "The USB audio 2.0 specification defined several formats for the more common PCM approach to digital audio, but did not define a format for DSD. In 2012, representatives from many companies and others developed a standard to represent and detect DSD audio within the PCM frames defined in the USB specification; the standard, commonly known as "DSD over PCM", or "DoP", is suitable for other digital links that use PCM. Many manufacturers now offer DACs that support DoP." According to JRiver: "With a DAC that supports native DSD playback, it is possible to bitstream DSD and bypass MC's audio engine (and, therefore, the DSD to PCM conversion). There are multiple DSD bitstreaming technologies: ASIO 2.2 DSD over PCM (DoP) DSD over DLNA (DoPE)" And I have been operating under the belief that all manufacturers that build DSD DACs have been using one of these three technologies. But none of this changes my basic premise that the computer is an unnecessary and potentially detrimental unknown factor in the equation, that dedicated hardware solutions (even if they employ software internally) are a more elegant and efficient solution.
  • Reply


  • Don Disbennett
  • 2017-04-27 11:53:00
  • There is a difference between USB 3.0 for computers and USB Audio Class 2.0 or USB Audio Class 1.0. As you stated, most recent computers have at least one USB 3.0 port; depending on the motherboard they often have a mix of USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports. However, this really has nothing to do with audio per se. Just because a computer has one or more USB 3.0 ports, does not imply that it can stream USB Audio Class 2.0 PCM at higher than 96/24 rates. In fact, computers with only USB 2.0 ports can easily stream PCM at higher than 96/24 rates with the appropriate Class 2.0 Audio drivers and these same computers can also bitstream DSD, if the attached DAC supports it. Further, most newer DAC's do not require, as you stated, that DSD audio be sent via DoP, which is merely DSD files which are packaged as PCM. Although initially DACs which supported bitstreaming of DSD audio files were quite rare, nowadays even less expensive portable DACs support this. For example, the Fiio line of inexpensive portable DACs support DXD (very high rate PCM) as well as DSD bitstreaming; however, using such a DAC on a PC will require the appropriate USB Audio Class 2.0 driver provided by the DAC manufacturer. So the ability to bitstream both PCM audio above 96/24 as well as DSD audio is a function of the connected device (DAC or streamer/server) plus the appropriate USB Audio Class 2.0 driver from the device manufacturer, not the particular PC to which the device is connected. Check the web site of any DAC/streamer/server manufacturer such as Oppo, Mytek, Fiio, PS Audio, Aurender, etc. and you will find that they have a USB Audio Class 2.0 driver which must be downloaded before the connected PC can stream audio, even PCM audio, above 96/24. Windows has drivers built in for audio at/below 96/24 and Macs have drivers built in for PCM audio up to 192/24 so they usually do not require that the device manufacturer's drivers be installed to stream audio at those rates. This is very confusing I must admit since there are now many USB 3.0 devices such as external hard drives which can transfer data at 10X the rate of a similar USB 2.0 drive when connected to a USB 3.0 port on a computer, but this has nothing to do with audio devices.
  • Reply


  • Gary Alan Barker
  • 2017-04-26 20:55:00
  • Shouldn't be an issue as most PC's use USB 3.0, the problem is that USB doesn't support bitstreaming which is why most DACs use DoP (DSD over PCM). My reference DAC uses ASIO, but the most elegant solution is to bypass the computer entirely eliminating the issue.
  • Reply


  • Don Disbennett
  • 2017-04-25 12:28:00
  • Regarding your comments about using USB to bitstream DSD audio from a computer to your DAC, it should be pointed out that DSD isn't the only format requiring "special drivers" since PCM above 96/24 will also usually require such special drivers (Class 2.0 USB Audio) and in a very few cases, some DACs will require special drivers even for PCM at 96/24 (I own one, although I don't really understand why it needs a special driver). So people who intend to stream or otherwise play higher resolution audio, be it PCM or DSD, will likely need to install a special driver on their PC. MAC's don't normally require a special driver for PCM audio up to 192/24 as they come with such drivers "built in".
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