Until recently I didn’t know anything about the exaSound brand. A chat with a friend who recently went on a business trip to Canada brought the 8 channel DAC to my attention. What is the true meaning of buying an 8-channel device? For orthodox audiophiles it may seem comparable to riding an 18 wheeler through the center of Warsaw. It appears not everyone is satisfied with having just a Left and Right channel. The e28 is aimed at a group of music lovers who want to improve the sound of their systems both for listening to stereo and multichannel. However, given the deep-seated beliefs and focus of the audience of our website soundrebels.com, I allowed myself to treat the exaSound’s new product as a typical two-channel DAC. The fact is that we have this rather exotic device in our hands and we can enjoy it for long time.
The ExaSound e28 DAC is, despite the small and almost inconspicuous case, not only a DAC but also a pre-amplifier, and a high quality headphone amplifier. The elongated chassis with slightly rounded edges is made of extruded anodised aluminum. Slightly bevelled sides of the front panel can be regarded as a skillful blend of elegance and ergonomics. Despite the small surface area every detail has been carefully and pleasantly laid out. The Allen screw bolt heads, chrome buttons and headphone jack form a clean design around the two-line display. Both the manufacturer’s logo and all button names have been engraved. On the left side of the display there is a power switch and 6.3 mm headphone jack. On the right – a group of four buttons. Two of these control the selection of sources and access to the menu and the other two are used for volume control. The Rear panel, despite its small size and a number of outputs is not overcrowded. On the left are the digital inputs coaxial and optical sockets, a USB input, and a small, external power supply interface.
Upon request the e28 DAC can be customized with balanced Mini-XLR outputs rather than the standard RCAs. We tested the custom Mini-XLR version. To my admiration the stereo version of this DAC, the e20 is equipped with both RCA and full size XLR line outputs. A sleek aluminum-body Apple remote control is a nice addition. The exaSound e28 and other elegant solutions, such as the Vitus, give a glimmer of hope that, at least in the realm of high-end devices, ugly plastic OEM remotes are a thing of the past.
The e28 can be configured for use with almost any third party IR remote control. The procedure is easy even for a person with no technical background. Simply press the setup button and follow the prompts that appear on the front panel. The e28 assigns the appropriate commands to the appropriate buttons. The whole process takes just few seconds.
The main board occupies the entire interior of the e28 DAC. To accommodate the multi-channel requirements, there are eight output stages. All digital inputs go to Xilinx Spartan ® XC3S50AN programmable FPGA. The galvanically isolated Asynchronous USB input uses FTDI FT2232HL controller. The heart of the system is an ESS ES9018 Sabre32 DAC chip capable of handling PCM signals with sampling rate up to 384 kHz/32 bit and DSD up to 12.28 MHz (256 FS). DSD is processed without conversion to PCM. To ensure the lowest distortion and jitter exaSound used three precision crystal oscillators. Two of the oscillators are responsible for accurate reclocking of the input data. One supports the multiples of 44.1 kHz (44.1, 88.2, 176.4, 352.8 kHz). and the other handles the 48 kHz family of sampling rates (48, 96, 192 and 384kHz). The third oscillator acts as a master D/A conversion reference clock with 0.13 ps. accuracy. To achieve the highest possible sonic transparency, the e28 DAC uses fifteen power filtering stages and galvanic isolation between the digital and the analog section. The headphone amplifier module is based on two Texas Instruments LME49600 IC’s.
I received the small package with the e28 DAC inside. I was asked to audition the device, to check how it works and to see what this company was all about. When I began testing, I wasn’t aware that before I could hear the unit, I would have to talk to the manufacturer. Apparently a DAC is a DAC, and the number of channels doesn’t matter, if you have more than what you need. In my case I was completely happy with two channels. The remaining 6 were waiting politely to be used in the home-theater cinema of my neighbour. But….the two page insert in the box only contained connections description and a brief overview. It referred me to the manufacturer’s website. Once I downloaded the extended user manual I was able to set up the unit without any problems, but to get the drivers I had to use a login that wasn’t provided anywhere. For further information, I had to contact the manufacturer. I wasn’t aware that I was missing the welcome email from exaSound with username, password and download instructions.
My request was answered by the exaSound president, George Klissarov. He was really surprised to find out how far his e28 DAC had wandered. Mr. Klissarov was more than happy to help me out. Installing the drivers went smoothly. Keep in mind that if you are using the Kaspersky Internet Security software, you need to turn it off. It blocks the exaSound drivers and they may not work properly. After installation, the user gets access to the DAC control panel and the choice of two and eight-channel ASIO drivers. Having finished all this I could finally connect the e28 DAC to a PC. I was planning to have a few days of breaking in while waiting for the shipment of Mini XLR adapters. The Mini-XLR to RCA and Mini-XLR to XLR adapters made by Cardas were required to connect the e28 DAC to a full-scale system. I was naturally not patient enough to wait for the adapters, and I intensively tested the e28 DAC with headphones.
From the very first moment the Canadian DAC offered outstanding sound purity and smoothness expressed on a vast dynamic range. The e28 sound can be described as a combination of the best DAC features I’ve experienced with Antelope Audio and April Music Eximus. The transparency, speed, and holographic space of Antelope Zodiac were blended with incredible musicality and brilliance of color of Eximus DP1. Listening to the e28 doesn’t cause any fatigue at all. These impressions were intensified after the transfer of DAC to my main system.
Let’s start with the great symphonic album „Diabolus in Musica – Accardo Interpreta Paganini”, where the first violin has a lively dialogue with a triangle, echoed in the background by the orchestra. As this recording is incredibly dynamic a high degree of sensitivity and resolution is required in order to enjoy the complete listening experience. The e28 handled well the extreme dynamic range. It reproduced precisely the size and place of the solo instruments on stage and did not let up in the dynamic passages where a multitude of other sounds were interwoven as accompaniment. Moreover the e28 performed perfectly at the high notes, providing crystal clear and simultaneously silky smooth sound despite handling a vast amount of information. The listening process was never boring. I was only drawn in more and more by the movements in the pieces.
Occasionally I was glancing at the volume potentiometer. The purity and absence of annoying distortion encouraged me to raise the volume so that I could not only hear, but feel the power of the orchestra. I didn’t want to change the repertoire too drastically so I reached for the audiophile edition (24k gold, 24 bit) of the „Gladiator” soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. Hollywood didn’t affect the quality of the DAC in the slightest. The whole piece sounded coherent, smooth ,full and most importantly, complete. There was no sound compression, like in the other versions of this recording. The audiophile version of the recording sounds great from the very beginning, however the more you listen the more you realize that virtually the entire album has one volume level. The Japanese release is different, it is just as it should be – as the original recording. Quiet passages are quiet and orchestral tutti can breaks the walls down. The exaSound e28 was able to show all those dynamic jumps immediately and directly, without the unnecessary attempts to save the listener from intensive emotions. Every detail was reproduced as it was recorded to the disk, down to the very last bit.
Continuing with soundtracks, I enjoyed (again and again) listening to the soundtrack of the „Sons of Anarchy”, where romantic ballads like „Bird on a Wire” (Katey Sagal & The Forest Rangers) are interspersed with sharp rock band playing in the style of „Slip Kid „(Anvil feat Frankie Perez). This varied repertoire couldn’t cause the e28 to stumble. It handled lyrical passages, ethereal spell-casting strokes of guitar strings and sensual women’s voices with ease, authenticity and authority. Where it was necessary to play harder, one almost could feel on the skin the „juiciness” of screamed phrases by the singer.
For dessert, I left the two special discs. The first is the „Cantora 1”, where the unforgettable Mercedes Sosa sings along with representatives of the younger generation. The second, where this amazing singer also leads, but now in a much more serious repertoire is „Misa Criolla” of Ariel Ramirez. „Cantora” and especially „La Maza” with Shakira is a great test of the expression of subtle differences in color, power of emissions and manner of articulation. „Misa Criolla” sets very high standards when it comes to creating the space – the correct representation of the acoustics of the room where the recording was made. The E28 sounded perfectly and „passed” the test on both albums. Sosa and Shakira singing with one voice sounded very legible and, although so different in age and repertoire they were still so close. The performance of the Ramirez’s Holy Mass, Sosa singing against a choir with minimal background instrumentation, aroused respect and reverence for the extremely strong emotions palpable in her voice. That ability to render dormant emotions in music is the reason why the modest exaSound e28 DAC gained my sympathy and sincere appreciation.
Some of you may be wandering why am not addressing the usually exaggerated differences between conventional, archaic CD recordings and the high-resolution PCM/DSD sources supported by the e28 DAC. To be honest, I asked myself this question after a cursory reading of this text. The answer turned out to be prosaic, and I hope you take it as sincere. In the case of the E28, the quality does not depend on the quantities of multi-bits or kHz / MHz. The value comes from the class of the music. The ability to play any digital format available on the market is just a nod to the client and shows exemplary ergonomics. We cease to care about the technicalities of the recording format and we focus on what’s important – how a track or album sounds and most importantly whether the music will meet our expectations and tastes, our purely esthetic concerns.
There are exceptions that prove the rule. In an exchange of correspondence Mr. George Klissarov kindly provided 3.5 minute of a Paganini violin solo made by the 1-bit Audio Consortium and recorded with the highest available DSD sampling rate – 11.28 MHz. The realism of this recording is simply shocking. I was able to hear effects only available from sources like a turntables and even reel to reel decks. But let me stress the differences in price between these systems, and E28 DAC!
Of course if there is a high-resolution re-mastered version of a recording, it will sound better, cleaner and more realistic than the original 16bit/44.1 kHz CD. I will emphasize again: the e28 DAC, utilized to its full potential with computer via Asynchronous USB, frees music lovers from the dilemma of format selection and leaves them free to enjoy their music. We can then choose the source material with the highest quality available and we can be confident that the e28 will give us the best possible reproduction. The higher the quality of the source, the more perfect the reproduction.
Music without emotion is like a delightful food without spices – it is seemingly admirable, but when you try it, it is simply insipid and non-virulent. For audiophiles, the Canadian exaSound E28 DAC is like master chef in the award-winning restaurant. It prepares dishes from the received bits not only in a stunning array of colors that are looking great on porcelain tableware, but also captivating with the complexity of flavors and aromas. Therefore it remains for me nothing more than to invite you to a feast. Bon appétit!
Text and photos: Marcin Olszewski
Manufacturer: exaSound Audio Design
Price: $ 3,299.00
– D/A Converter IC: ESS Technology ES9018S Sabre32 Reference DAC
– PCM Sampling Rates – Asynchronous USB ASIO: 44.1kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, 192 kHz, 352.8 kHz, 384 kHz
– DSD Sampling Rates – Asynchronous USB ASIO: 2.8224 MHz (64Fs), 3.072 MHz (64Fs), 5.6448 MHz (128 Fs), 6.144 MHz (128 Fs), 11.2896 MHz (256Fs), 12.288 MHz (256Fs) – (OS X tylko do 128 Fs)
– Sampling Rates-SPDIF Coaxial IN 1: 44.1kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, 192 kHz
– Sampling Rates-SDIF Optical IN 2: 44.1kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz
– Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise,1 KHz, 0dBFS: 0.000359%
– Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 125db
– DAC Master Clock Jitter: 0.13 ps rms (0,082ps rms – na zamówienie)
– Digital Inputs: USB 2.0 (typ B), SP/DIF Coaxial, SP/DIF TOSLINK (optical)
– Line Output: 8 RCA/ 8 Mini XLR (na zamówienie)
– Line Output Level: 2 Vrms (unbalanced), 4 Vrms (balanced)
– Headphone Amp Current Output: 250 mA peak
– Power Consumption: <15 W
– Dimensions (W x H x D): 165 x 55 x 235 mm
– Weight: 1.1kg
System used in this test:
– CD / DAC Ayon 1SC
– Digital source selector: Audio Authority 1177
– Stream player: Olive O2M; laptop Dell Inspiron 1764 + JRiver Media Center;
– Integrated Amplifiers: Electrocompaniet ECI 5; Moon 600i
– Speakers: Gauder Akustik Arcona 80
– Headphones: Brainwavz HM5; Nu Force HP-800
– IC RCA: Antipodes Audio Katipo; Harmonix CI-230 Mark-II; Harmonix HS101-Improved
– IC XLR LessLoss Anchorwave; Organic Audio
– Digital IC: Fadel Art DigiLitz, Harmonic Technology Cyberlink Copper; Apogee Wyde Eye, Monster Cable Interlink LightSpeed 200
– USB Cables Wireworld Starlight; Goldenote Firenze Silver
– Speaker Cables: Organic Audio; Signal Project Hydra
– Power Cables: Furutech FP-3TS762 / FI-28R / FI-E38R; Organic Audio Power; GigaWatt LC-1mk2
– Power distribution board: GigaWatt PF-2 + cable LC-2mk2; Amare Musica Silver Passive Power Station
– Table: Rogoz Audio 4SM3
– Ethernet cables: Neyton CAT7 +
– Accessories: Sevenrods Dust-caps; Furutech CF-080 Damping Ring; HighEndNovum PMR Premium; Albat Revolution Loudspeaker Chips