Ben Shyman is an AV reviewer based in New York City. His interest in audio/video gear began in the late 1980s when he worked as a salesman for a regional AV retail outlet in northern New Jersey, selling brands such as Adcom, Sony, Bose, Sunfire, Nakamichi, and Pioneer. He published his first review on AVRev.com in 2004. His specialties include bookshelf speakers, audiophile electronics, and high-resolution source components. Ben fully embraces the digital future of music, including streaming audio, and believes in high-end elegance and simplicity in constructing AV systems.
Over the past decade, audio/video enthusiasts have become intimately familiar with OPPO Digital, a company with an established reputation most notably for designing and manufacturing high-quality universal disc players that meet most high-end audiophile standards. OPPO's ultimate success has been rooted in direct sales with products that not only perform to high-end standards but do so without breaking the bank. OPPO's entire line of universal disc players decodes nearly all types of audio and video formats, including high-resolution music. The company's recent generations of universal players utilize digital-to-analog (DAC) chipsets from ESS Technology, an industry leader for its line of Sabre DACs.
The new Sonica DAC, the subject of this review, is the company's first dedicated stereo DAC/music streamer. Over the past few years, many manufacturers have added similar products to their lineups, so it's no surprise that OPPO, given its wide consumer appeal, would skip the opportunity to throw its hat into the ring, as well.
Consumers can use the Sonica DAC as a standalone DAC capable of decoding high-resolution sources up to PCM 32/768 and DSD512--or as a high-resolution audio player capable to 24/192 and DSD64--or as a music streamer. In my setup, I used the Sonica as a dedicated DAC, passing analog audio via its XLR outputs directly to the analog inputs of my reference Classé CP-800 stereo preamp. I also tried it as a digital preamplifier, passing analog signals directly to the XLR inputs of my reference Pass Labs XA30.8 amplifier. All analog and digital audio cables were Platinum and Starlight 7 series from Wireworld.
The Sonica DAC is built like a tank. Its undersized black, brushed-aluminum chassis is surprisingly heavy for its size, a function of having a large power transformer. The black, front faceplate contains source and volume knobs, a USB type A port, and an OLED display. Functionally, the Sonica DAC is easy to set up and use. One nice feature for a product in this price range ($799 direct) is that the Bypass Mode can be easily toggled independently for the AUX input or all inputs.
The OLED display was bright and could be easily dimmed, but fonts and graphics were not smooth and contained jagged edges. This left me disappointed. It appears that the designers scrutinized every other detail right down to packaging, so I was surprised that the screen seemed a bit like an afterthought. Granted, manufacturers typically manage costs to enable them to hit certain consumer price points, but a higher-resolution display would have been more appropriate. On the other hand, kudos to the company for choosing to utilize the top-of-the-line, audiophile-grade, ESS PRO Series Sabre chip, the ES9038PRO, which is likely considerably more expensive than any other chip that ESS produces. Given the choice, I would opt for the more advanced DAC technology over a sharper OLED any day.
Some folks may also be disappointed that the Sonica DAC does not come with a remote, but that sort of misses the point. The Sonica DAC is a networkable music streamer and should be used with the Sonica app, downloadable for free from the App Store or Google Play Store. I used the Sonica app on my iPad Mini when I utilized the Sonica DAC as a preamplifier. The DAC and app performed well on my network. I preferred to use Audirvana's A+ Remote app to control my system, however--even though the A+ remote was unable to control the Sonica's volume independent of the Sonica app and switching between the A+ app and the Sonica app was a distraction. Hopefully, OPPO in a future firmware update will consider adding this functionality.
Musically the Sonica does not disappoint, although it required a few days of break-in to sound its best--especially in musical highs, where it initially sounded harsh. I listened to DSD, 24/96, and 24/192 sources, as well as Red Book titles in 16/44.1 via Tidal Hi-Fi. As I refer to my listening notes to describe the Sonica's signature characteristics, I repeatedly wrote that it possesses a sweetness in the midrange and midbass, and it presents a more accurate soundstage than many other DACs I can think of. Whether I was listening to Steely Dan (Gaucho, DSD), Paul Simon (Live in New York City, TIDAL), The Beatles (1, TIDAL), John Coltrane (A Love Supreme, DSD), Richard Thomson (Acoustic Classics, TIDAL), Pete Townshend (Who Came First, 24/192), or Miles Davis (Kind of Blue, DSD), these traits were evident, especially during acoustic passages. I would not describe the Sonica DAC as especially revealing; if it has a weakness, even after breaking in, I would say that it was still not quite as smooth in the highs as I would have liked.
• The Sonica DAC is a high-value product: It is built like a tank, and it plays high-resolution sources admirably well.
• The Sonica DAC has a sweet-sounding midrange and midbass.
• The Sonia DAC utilizes top-of-the-line technology in the ES9038PRO SABRE DAC, the flagship chip in the ESS PRO Series Sabre line.
• The Sonica DAC doesn't come with a remote; but, in fairness, it's meant to be used with the free Sonica app, which one can download from the App Store or Google Play Store. The app is very easy to set up and use.
• The OLED display should have a higher resolution.
• The Sonica DAC has limited compatibility with Audirvana and its A+ Remote application, which are a big part of my "disc-less world."
• If the Sonica DAC has a sonic weakness, it lacks the smoothness in the highs that you can get from more expensive DAC products.
Comparison and Competition
As of this writing, I know of only two other products currently utilizing ESS PRO Series chips besides the OPPO Sonica DAC: the Benchmark DAC3 (which I am currently auditioning, ES9028PRO, $2,195) and the Ayre QX-5 Twenty Digital Hub (ES9038PRO, $9,000). There is a lot more to making a great-sounding DAC than just picking the most expensive chipset; power source, output stage, and volume control are particularly important. The Benchmark and Ayre likely cost multiples more than the OPPO for these reasons alone. Arguably, by utilizing the most modern chipset available, however, the Sonica DAC is more futureproof than most DACs; if/when OPPO decides to make a few firmware upgrades (including, dare I say it, MQA), the Sonica will truly live on the bleeding edge of DACs in the sub-$1,000 market.
The DAC market is crowded in the $799 arena. A few names that come to mind include the Peachtree Sona DAC ($1,299) and the Schiit Audio Gungnir ($849), as well as the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus ($500) or Cambridge Audio Azur 851D ($849). Interestingly enough, none employ an ESS PRO chipset or can decode DSD, and only the Azur 851D has media streaming capabilities. The Sonica DAC is a more feature-rich product than any listed above.
The OPPO Sonica DAC is a product that will fit the bill for many audio enthusiasts, especially those using TIDAL to stream 44.1 audio or possessing a large library of lossless or high-resolution musical sources. The Sonica DAC is clearly a high-value product. There is no doubt in my mind that a debate will ensue whether the Sonica DAC is a material improvement over those who use a BDP-105 Universal Player as an outboard DAC. I cannot comment on this because I have a BDP-95 and do not use it this way. But keep in mind that the Sonica DAC is also a music streamer; if you have a large digital library, it is clear to me that the Sonica is a more thoughtful solution.
• Check out our Digital to Analog Converter category page to read similar reviews.
• Visit the OPPO Digital website for more product information.
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