exaSound are a Canadian brand that make just a handful of products. Here David Blumenstein takes delivery of their $3499.00 e33 Digital to Analogue Converter. 

Five years ago I embarked upon a decision to pick up sticks and emigrate to London from New York City. This was made somewhat more concrete for me as a result of my father’s passing and my desire to get away and make a fresh start.  I knew that wherever I would call home music, more specifically my library would come with, but not all my gear and definitely not my records and CDs. The decision was to streamline as much as possible and limit gear to whatever could fit in good sized Airline approved carry-on roller bag. This meant that I had to digitise all my music and that apart from my speakers I would be taking my Mac Mini, hard drives and trusty universal, 110/220v, Bel Canto Design s300 integrated amplifier with built-in 24/96 DAC. Everything else would be purchased upon my arrival. I went through a slew of speakers before I finally felt comfortable with the Audio Physic Tempos, and it was during that time that not only did I find myself downloading and acquiring more HD, high definition files, but also  discovering something new to me called DSD, Direct Stream Digital.

As I was slowly settling into my new life abroad, I felt that I was just settling for sonic quality, so I plunged myself into the UK hifi community; joining online forums and reading all the local magazines. I had purchased a very capable and portable FOSTEX HP-A4 headphone amp/DAC to tide me over. It is powered over USB and supports DSD 128, so I thought I had it made, and then DSD 256 raised its head, but more importantly the sound was good, but not the level that I would drop everything and rush home for. Armed with all the research and queries of forum members, I listened to and demo’d the following DACs which were available to me in the UK, without extraordinary import taxes and duties: Chord Hugo, Mytek 192, M2Tech Young, Auralic Vega, Wyred4Sound and miraculously the exaSound e22. Miraculous, because apart from reading about the DAC, it was only because of advert in one of local hifi magazines that I learned there was a sole distributor up in Cambridge, outside of London.

It is now just about three years since acquiring the exaSound e22. The decision not so obvious, as it met my particular criteria:

  1. Portability, it would comfortably fit in my roller bag
  2. Universality, auto switching power supply, so I could plug it in anywhere.
  3. Integration, using the Apple remote meant one less gadget to keep track of
  4. Sonics, in a word “Glorious”, and a reason for me to run not walk from the underground station to my flat.

The exaSound e22 remains the mainstay of my digital system. Over the past few years I have auditioned other DACs, listened intently to others in the possession of friends and kind strangers, but nothing I heard so far in terms of my aforementioned criteria, price and sonic quality has turned my head, until of course George Klissarov, founder and designer of exaSound announced the new e32 DAC, not a slipstream update, but a bona fide upgrade moving on from the ESS 9108S Sabre32 chip to the new ESS 9208 Sabre32 Pro chip, which after email exchanges with ESS and a close look at the block diagram, I learned that the 9208 affords designers a slew of new technical/design possibilities and improvements, however as it relates to prospective exaSound customers here are the highlights:

  • Enhanced firmware and drivers for both Mac Core and Windows
  • Seamless format switching and handling of higher resolution formats when compared to the e22, the e32’s predecessor
  • Inclusion of a 12 volt 1.5 amp power supply input which allows for a number of linear power supply units to be used and after listening to a few which I either had on hand or borrowed, was not convinced that the additional outlay returned an exponential increase in sonic quality.

There is renewed debate in the benefit of a Linear Power Supply over a switched one, and this will no doubt rage on.

My digital library is now just over 10TB, and while that has indeed grown and storage solutions changed over the years, I have remained consistent in my use of an Apple Mac Mini Late 2012 as my source running various software playback programs: Audirvana Plus, Signalyst HQPlayer primarily for ASIO playback, upsampling and files manipulation. ROON has just recently been added to my arsenal.

HQPlayer’s ability to manipulate files with its myriad of filters and settings can be a minefield. I had to remember to go back and listen to unaltered files when assessing the e32, and remind myself what I was listening to and the role the DAC was playing in all of this.

For reasons of transparency, I have been and continue to be a long time proponent of Damien Plisson’s Audirvana software from versions 1.x, 2.x and now 3.x. As for ROON, this was most recent, and somewhat ironic as I count the principals behind ROON and SOOLOOS as friends of mine for just about 20 years now.

ASIO Windows – Steinberg vs CORE  Apple. It should not be a competition and more of a matter what one’s hardware supports. With exaSound’s proprietary drivers Apple Macintosh users can take advantage of both Core Audio and ASIO and make up their own minds which sounds better.

There are numerous papers and posts arguing their benefits and deficiencies. I made a point of including HQ Signalyst software and ROON in my arsenal because they both support ASIO playback and I want to not just notice but hear the difference. There’s also been quite the debate over Native DSD and DOP, DSD over PCM playback and that that latter is by definition inferior in some way. After extensive listening, switching back and forth between the two it remains subjective – a matter of personal preference. Unfortunately, in the course of the review, am finding that the number who find themselves steadfast and strident in one camp or the other, stating their allegiance to me directly, not surprisingly, were found to have a horse in the race looking to sell me on a better bit of gear/piece of kit. 

Bottom line: My ears are my instruments of choice and not an oscilloscope. Having devoted an entire day to ASIO/Native DSD and CORE/DOP listening comparisons, tantamount to aural ping pong,  all i can do is wish you the best of luck in your own double-blind test.

The associated equipment for this reviews is as follows:

Source;  Apple Mac Mini – Late 2012 – running Apple OS X Sierra as its operating system. Playback software: Audirvana Plus 1.x, 2.x, 3.x, HQ Signalyst and ROON. Files are stored on hard drives connected directly via USB and over the local area network, wired and wireless – WIFI.

DACs: exaSound e32, exaSound e22, Fostex HP-A4, Audio Note DAC 1.0

Amplification: Parasound Halo 2.1, Bel Canto s300

Speakers: Audio Physic Tempo, Platinum Audio Solo

Interconnects and Speaker Cables:  Audioquest

After almost three years now, I know the exaSound e22 from stem to stern. I know how it operates, how it handles, how it sounds. It has travelled with me across continents and until the e32 I would NOT part with the unit. The e32 has taken my listening experience and enjoyment to a whole new level. The clarity, the depth and the soundstage. From my days in the darkroom, the blacks are indeed blacker.

The e32 handled them all with such aplomb. Not satisfied, I never am, it was time throw everything at the e32 in a feeble attempt to flummox. I put together a massive playlist of files of all manner of format, file type, bit depth to trigger a reaction and wanted to see it fail. Damn you exaSound, the e32 did not miss a beat.

If one is going is going to acquire a top level DSD 256 capable DAC, might as well as get a hold of proper DSD albums and tracks. I made it a point to contact friends and soon to be friends from the Blue Coast, Yarlung and Native DSD/Channel Classics DSD labels so I can put the e32 to the DSD 256 test. I listened extensively to vocals, instrumentals and symphonic pieces  and was blown away by the sheer depth of it all. DSD, Direct Stream Digital, is an acquired taste and much like everything else in this wonderful HiFi world of ours is up for debate.

Two years ago I contacted Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast to supply me with 2 sets of files PCM 24/96 and DSD 128. These files were to come from the same masters and be as identical as technologically possible. Earlier this year I received a new batch of PCM 24/96 and DSD 256. I listened to the first batch and second batch with my e22 and then again with my 32 this month. The comparisons were startling. The PCM files, upon the second hearing sounded richer and fuller from both batches and whereas in the first listening there were stark differences between them, not so much with the e32.

Having downloaded Jenna Mammina’s Closer To You from Blue Coast, not small task when you take a look at the file sizes. I was transfixed by her rendition of Elvis Costello’s Watching The Detectives  and Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Listening to the e22 it sounded alive, natural to the point that I could trace her breaths between lyrics, but then with the e32 I blinked once at it was if I was in the studio with her. Talk is made of breaking barriers, but not like this, it’s as if the fourth wall crumbled ever so gracefully.

It doesn’t stop there. In doing this review I set out to better understand the Native DSD process and learned a great deal about what goes into recordings before it gets to the studio. I received sample classical DSD256 files of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony’s Third movement and was asked to play them on my DAC and report back not only what I heard but which I preferred.

As luck/skill/fate would have it I chose the file that not only sounded better to me but to the producer/recording engineer of the music in question. I preferred the track where there appeared to be greater depth and contrast between the sections of the orchestra. I was expecting to hear tales of daring-do in the studio but learned to my surprise that everything was exactly the same, save for the manufacture of the microphones. There was no mistaking the difference listening through the e32. I sat down time after time marvelling at how I was hearing each instrument as if each member of the orchestra was being afforded a solo. Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra never cease to amaze on the Channel Classics label.

Gary Koh, of Genesis Advanced Technology, turned me onto the Yarlung label and the Smoke and Mirrors Percussion Ensemble’s Volumes 1 and 2.

The sound is transformative. Close your eyes and it’s not your cares that disappear but your system. If this is what Native DSD 256 is all about then bring it on. I’m open to seconds and thirds of the stuff. Am not going to shun DSD, as some might like, if it is out there and my DSD supports the format. Whether or not it survives, everyone should at least listen to DSD for themselves. Closed ears are the hallmarks of closed minds.

As for PCM files, regardless of depth and bit range, the e32 revealed more detail. Marcus Miller never sounded real to me. And for those who are of the mind that Rebook, like Latin is dead, I suggest acquiring anything and everything on the Stockfisch label. It is through such recordings that we come to understand and appreciate the power and versatility of the exaSound e32.

I could have gone into endless detail about technical advancements and features which would mean precious little to a lot of people.

If nothing else such information could be used to compare a device’s cutting edge quotient, but at the end of the day that’s what the official websites and promotional literature for. In touching upon the new ESS 9208 PRO chip and exaSound’s drivers I hit on what I deem to be the most noteworthy. I am here to write for those who appreciate gear but listen to their music.

Three years is a long time to own a DAC. What with all the improvements and advancements being made, so the exaSound e22 is a marvel in that regard. The exaSound e32 took my digital library an order of magnitude further. I was listening to the familiar and it made it unfamiliar as new details in the music emerged.

The e32 may very well unseat my DAC. I was prepared for it to be different and given my experience with exaSound I should have realized that this would be far more than an update but a wholesale upgrade. exaSound owners owe it to themselves to hear the e32 and experience the progression. The rest of you in the market for a DAC and in this price range should definitely include the e32 in your shortlist to audition.

AT A GLANCE 

Build Quality:  Built to last. Ergonomically designed: economy of controls 

Sound Quality: Detailed, wide open soundstage, a clarity which not only lets your hear the music, but the layers you didn’t know were there 

Value for Money: You reach a point in your life where if you want it, here it is, come and get it. Value is subjective. If you want the aforementioned sonic quality ask no questions 

Pros: Proprietary CORE Audio and ASIO drivers developed to extract the best from the respective systems. Built on top of ESS 9208 S Pro chip. Intuitive interface and detailed online support for playback software configuration 

Cons: Apart from the price. Human condition is to want everything for less, am at a loss to list any 

Price: $3499.00

 

David Blumenstein 

Specifications 

  • Sample Rates: ENclusiv™ comprehensive sample rate support
    • DSD: 2.8224 or 3.072 MHz
    • DSD2: 5.6448 or 6.144 MHz
    • DSD4: 11.2896 or 12.288 MHz
    • LPCM/DXD: 44.1kHz to 384kHz at 32 bits maximum sampling rate
    • Native support for 88.2, 176.4 & (DXD) 352.8kHz master files
  • Converter Core: ESS Technologies 9028Pro reference monolythic 8 channel DAC configured for stereo
  • USB Input: Proprietary ZeroJitter™ asynchronous USB interface with error correction on classic B–Type connector, USB cable included
  • Host Support: Custom, high performance Mac OS & Windows ASIO drivers; MAC Core Audio drivers with DoP256 support
  • Player Application Support: Automatic sampling rate switching, software upsampling up to 384 kHz PCM and DSD4
  • Clock: FemtoMaster™ super–low jitter quad-clock architecture, with 82 femtosecond master clock and 3 auxiliary stream-control clocks
  • Power Conditioning: 11 linear power filtering stages
  • Host Noise Rejection: GalvanicInfinity™ – Galvanic isolation between the USB subsystem and the DAC circuitry eliminates ground loop noise and blocks computer–generated interference
  • Headphone Output: Third generation headphone amplifier, 4W into 16Ω doubles the current output to drive low impedance and low sensitivity headphones
  • Digital Inputs: Two S/PDIF inputs provide jitter reduction and superb D/A conversion when used with CD transports
  • Analog Outputs: Simultaneously driven, gold–plated balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA line outputs
  • Power Management: 12V Trigger output
  • Remote Control: Included 7 button remote, the e32 can be easily programmed to work with most IR remotes

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