Oppo Digital Sonica Wi-Fi Speaker Reviewed

Oppo Digital Sonica Wi-Fi Speaker Reviewed

Adrienne Maxwell auditions Oppo Digital's new Sonica Wi-Fi tabletop speaker--a fully featured 2.1-channel model that supports AirPlay, Bluetooth, and DLNA wireless technologies, as well as multi-room streaming.

Oppo-sonica-thumb.jpgYou may know Oppo Digital for its acclaimed lineup of universal disc players, like the BDP-105 and BDP-103. Or perhaps you know the company for planar magnetic headphone offerings like the PM-1 and headphone amps like the HA-1. Now, Oppo hopes to distinguish itself in a new and very crowded product category: wireless tabletop speakers.

The company recently introduced the $299 Sonica speaker, a powered 2.1-channel tabletop speaker that combines a 3.5-inch bass woofer, dual three-inch bass radiators, and a pair of 2.5-inch wideband drivers. The Sonica uses four amplifiers: The bass drivers are powered by two 15-watt amps in bridged mode, while a 10-watt amplifier powers each wideband driver.

Oppo has developed its own Wi-Fi-based streaming platform to wirelessly play music from smartphones and tablets, but you're not locked in to using the company's proprietary wireless system, since the Sonica also supports AirPlay, Bluetooth, and DLNA streaming. To further broaden your connection options, the speaker has USB and auxiliary inputs, and you can stream those sources over Oppo's Wi-Fi system if desired.

Via the Oppo Sonica app for iOS and Android, you can manage your music sources, control music playback, link multiple speakers together for multi-room playback, and set up stereo speaker pairs.

It's fair to say that, on paper, the Sonica delivers all the requisite features to make it a formidable presence in the tabletop speaker category, but let's put the paper down and see how it performs in the real world.

The Hookup
Oppo sent me two Sonica review samples so that I could try out the multi-room aspect. The speaker has a simple but elegant aesthetic and nice build quality for its price. The rounded cabinet, which has a hefty and inert feel to it, sports a brushed-black finish and a non-removable cloth grille that runs across the front and around the sides. The speaker measures 11.9 inches long by 5.8 wide by 5.3 high and weighs 5.3 pounds.

On top are buttons for mute and volume up/down, as well as indicator lights for Bluetooth and network connection. On the unit's underside, toward the front, is a small "mood" light that glows during music playback. You can turn this on or off, as well adjust the color, brightness, and style (constant or "breathing") via the Sonica app.

Oppo-sonica-back.jpgAround back you'll find the power port, auxiliary input, USB port, and an Ethernet port if you prefer a wired network connection over the built-in Wi-Fi (dual-band 802.11ac, with MIMO technology to improve signal reception and reliability). One minor issue I noticed is that, with one of my review samples, it was a bit of a struggle to push the power cord all the way into the slot to ensure a reliable connection, but it did get there with some effort.

Setting up the Sonica is pretty straightforward. Once the speaker is plugged in and powered up, you can initiate the Bluetooth pairing mode (if that is your connection method of choice) by simply pressing the mute and "+" buttons simultaneously and then pairing your device. The speaker uses the Bluetooth 4.1 standard.

To add the speaker to your home network for Wi-Fi/AirPlay/DLNA playback, you first need to download the free Sonica app. I downloaded the iOS version to an iPhone 6. The app's "Welcome" page will prompt you to add speakers via either an Ethernet or a Wi-Fi connection; I chose Wi-Fi and was prompted to enter my network password. The app then scans the home for any "network-ready" Sonica speakers (the top-panel indicator pulses blue during power-up, then it pulses orange when the speaker is network-ready). If you're adding more than one speaker, it may take up to 30 seconds for all speakers to appear on the list; once they do, hit the "add" button, and you're all set. Oppo does not give you the option to name each speaker during setup, which would be nice, but you can name the different speakers after the fact.

If you unplug the speakers to move them around the house, they will automatically rejoin the network when powered back up. To change the home network you want to use, you can press the Sonica's mute and "-" buttons simultaneously to clear the current network status and start over.

The Sonica system supports a variety of music file formats; the official list on the website is as follows: AAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, APE, FLAC, M4A, M4A (Apple Lossless) ALAC, MP2, OGG, WAV, and WMA. DSD playback is not supported, but the Sonica can decode files up to a 24/192 resolution in the FLAC, WAV, and Apple Lossless formats. In addition to being able to decode hi-res files, the system can also wirelessly stream hi-res audio (up to 24/192). According to Oppo, when you stream to one speaker only, the audio path will be in hi-res. When streaming to multiple speakers, the signal is downconverted to a 44.1 or 48 sample rate.

Music sources that I used for my review included an iPhone 6, a Mac PowerBook running iTunes, and a Samsung Galaxy tablet running the AllShare DLNA app. My music files included a mix of MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF, and FLAC. I also loaded the HDTracks 2015 sample disc (24/96 resolution in the FLAC format) on a USB flash drive to test the USB playback.

Sonica-app-1.jpgPerformance
Let's begin by talking about the Sonica control app, since that's going to define the user experience for anyone who plans to stream music via Wi-Fi/DLNA. The iOS version of the app follows standard iOS patterns in terms of page layout and navigation. Along the bottom of the page are icons for Music, Favorites, Settings, and Speakers. Under Music, you'll see options for TIDAL (the only integrated streaming music service), On This Mobile Device (to access the music files directly on the phone or tablet), Network Sharing (to access remote DLNA servers), USB, Aux In, and Bluetooth. If you load files on a USB drive and connect it to one Sonica speaker, you can view the song files through this interface and play back the files on any connected Sonica speaker.

Whenever I selected a song through the app, playback began almost instantly, and the system responded instantly to other commands like stop, pause, and track skip. I liked the fact that the app listed the file type (like AIF or MP3) next to each song title. Once you begin playing a song, the Playback page has pretty much everything you need: cover art; play/pause, skip back, and skip forward buttons; a shuffle/repeat icon; volume control; a Favorites heart to add the song to your Favorites playlist; and a queue list to see what's coming up. The experience is very similar to using the iOS Music app--which is good or bad, I suppose, depending on how you feel about Apple's Music app. At least it's familiar to the vast majority of iOS users, and I personally appreciated that familiarity. (I also checked out the Android version of the app, and its design and navigation were basically identical.)

On the Favorites page, you can access recently played songs and favorite songs, as well as build playlists directly on your phone or tablet. There's no need to sync with an external device to load playlists.

The Speakers page is where you'll find a list of all connected speakers, with the ability to move audio playback to different speakers, to rename speakers, and to group them together for simultaneous multi-room playback. Since I only had two speakers to test, I could only create one speaker group at a time. According to Oppo, there's no hard limit on how many speakers or how many groups you can add. The number of speakers is determined by the network bandwidth. In a typical Wi-Fi network, Oppo had 14 speakers playing at the same time. For group playback, in a 2.4G network, there can be up to six groups playing at the same time, and in a 5G network there can be up to eight groups playing at the same time. It's quick and easy to create these groups, but make sure to group your speakers or select the desired speaker before you begin song playback--the system doesn't like it when you try to move music around or regroup speakers during audio playback (more on this in a moment).

One of the stated features of the Sonica is the ability to group two speakers together in a stereo pair. The option to set this up is not located under Speaker Grouping, as someone (namely, me) might think. There's a small "+" sign on the top left corner of the Speaker page; press this to get options for "Add Speakers," "Stereo Pair Settings," and "Stop All." Creating and separating stereo pairs is really easy to do through this setup tool.

Finally, there's the Settings page, which contains basic setup tools like a night mode, a sleep timer, and the ability to adjust the LED lights (as I mentioned earlier). But there's also one interesting feature here that you might want to check out. It's called Sound Optimization, and it's where you'll find preset sound modes to tweak the Sonica's output to suit a certain room type and speaker location. There are four presets vaguely labeled Preset 1, 2, 3, and 4, plus one called Super Bass. Not sure which one to choose? Use the "Guide Me" tool and select your room size, speaker location, and whether or not you want bass boost, and the app will recommend which preset to use. The default preset is Preset 1; and, after some experimentation with other options, I found that to be the preferred choice for my listening environment. It's worth mentioning that Oppo is currently working with Dirac to develop a room calibration tool for the Sonica system (presumably similar to Sonos' Trueplay) that will be available through a firmware update at a later date.

Now let's talk about the performance of the speaker, which I can sum up in one word: impressive. I was very impressed with the Sonica, both for its dynamic ability and its well-balanced audio presentation--particularly its performance in the midrange and upper bass regions. I demoed the system in a two-story home with a wide-open floor plan and found that just two speakers (one upstairs, one downstairs) provided ample coverage for casual whole-house music listening. When using Oppo's Wi-Fi system, I didn't experience any lag or sync issues between the two Sonica speakers.

One of my favorite test tracks for speakers is Tom Waits' "Long Way Home." The combination of Waits' deep, raspy vocal growl and a steady bass line can reveal a speaker's shortcomings both in the mid and bass regions. Through the Sonica, the bass notes weren't muddy, boomy, or anemic; rather, each note had good presence and definition, while Waits' vocals had the requisite meat and texture, with a fullness that surpassed my expectation for a speaker this size.

"1979 Semi-Finalist" by The Bad Plus is a well-recorded jazz track with a rich, warm tonal quality in its combination of upright bass, drums, and piano. The Sonica presented all three instruments accurately in a natural, balanced manner. The piano didn't exact have the airy, spacious feel you might get from a larger, higher-end tabletop speaker, but its sound was smooth and rich.

Next it was time for something with a bit more grit and gusto. I queued up Rage Against the Machine's "Bombtrack" and again was impressed with the Sonica's dynamic punch and impact. When a speaker is lean in the mids, I'll find myself turning down the volume with this song, as it can easily get bright and fatiguing, but that was not a problem here. The top end had excellent immediacy without being harsh.

Finally, "Little Plastic Castle" by Ani Di Franco gave me a chance to listen to some female vocals and horns, as well as a quick bass line where the distinct notes can easily turn to monotone mush or disappear almost entirely through a small, lesser-quality speaker. Once again, the Sonica did not disappoint; Di Franco's vocals sounded natural, rich, and without any hint of edginess, and the bass notes were clean and well defined.

One final positive that I noted about the Sonica's performance was how even the soundstage was. I could walk around the room without hearing any obvious tonal shift. There was no clear sweet spot; instead, the speaker cast the same full, balanced, enjoyable sound evenly around the room.

The Downside
The one playback issue I noticed was that the Sonica system currently doesn't offer gapless playback. It inserts a split second of silence between tracks that are supposed to run together.

Oppo still needs to work out some kinks in the multi-room functionality, if it hopes to compete with the likes of Sonos and Heos. As I mentioned, it's easy to move audio playback from one speaker to another using the Sonica app, as long as you remember to pause the song before you do it. If you forget and just switch speakers, the app appears to make the switch and thinks that it has made the switch, but the music continues to play out of the original speaker--which messes up the whole system configuration.

Once you've added a speaker to a group, you can't use it independently unless you switch to AirPlay or Bluetooth usage or break up the group. Overall, the Oppo multi-room system doesn't have as much flexibility to create permanent zones; rather, the multi-room aspect is treated more like a temporary feature to be enabled or disabled as needed.

There's no dedicated Sonica app for the PC or Mac, like you get from Sonos. Honestly, though, the inclusion of AirPlay, Bluetooth, and DLNA renders this a non-issue in my book, since there are plenty of ways to stream music from your computer using one of those technologies.

For me, Bluetooth was the least reliable option. I experienced a lot of audio dropouts when streaming audio over Bluetooth from my Mac laptop (which has Bluetooth 4.0), even at a distance of less than 10 feet. Streaming music over Bluetooth from my iPhone 6 was more reliable.

Comparison & Competition

The wireless multi-room speaker category is absolutely booming, so the Oppo Sonica faces a lot of competition. The most obvious and formidable competitor is Sonos, and its Play:3 ($299) would be the exact competitor to the Sonica, price-wise. It features Sonos' Trueplay room tuning technology and can also be set up in stereo pairs, but it lacks built-in Bluetooth and AirPlay.

Likewise, from Denon's HEOS line, the HEOS 3 is $299 and was recently updated to include Bluetooth and hi-res audio support.

Polk's Omni S6 ($349.95) is another competitor. It uses DTS's Play-Fi wireless multi-room technology and can be set up in a stereo pair, but it also lacks Bluetooth and AirPlay. You can read our review of the smaller Omni S2 Play-Fi system here. Sister company Definitive Technology sells the slightly higher-priced W7 ($399), also based on Play-Fi.

Yamaha's MusicCast line and Bose's SoundTouch line also include wireless multi-room tabletop speakers in this price range.

Conclusion
I've come to expect good things from any product with the Oppo name on it. The company tends to do its homework before entering a new product category and consistently offers products that strike a great balance between performance, features, and price. The new Sonica Wi-Fi speaker is no exception. Oppo has covered all the bases in terms of connection options, the speaker has a high-quality design and build, and it performs really well. The multi-room functionality isn't quite as advanced as some competitors, so the Sonica may not be the ideal choice for someone trying to build a complex wireless multi-room setup. But for someone who's looking for a few affordably priced, great-performing tabletop speakers that will work with a wide variety of music sources, Oppo's Sonica speaker is an excellent choice.

Additional Resources
• Check out our Bookshelf and Small Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
Oppo Introduces Sonica Wi-Fi Speaker at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit the Oppo Digital website for more product information.

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