Oppo Sonica DAC Review
It might say ‘DAC’ in the spec but the Sonica is a little more ambitious
What is the Oppo Sonica?The Oppo Sonica is a standalone DAC and the latest arrival in Oppo’s non-video player category. This program has been ongoing for a few years now and has resulted in some decidedly impressive products. From the mighty PM-1 headphone that kicked the whole process off, through the more affordable (and still excellent) PM-3 and portable products like the HA-2, Oppo has shown a flair for interesting technology implemented in an impressive way. So if the latest video disc format is indeed the last, then the company has something credible to fall back on.
The Sonica is the first of these products to move its focus away from headphone and headphone ancillaries. It instead pitches into the competitive market for standalone digital to analogue converters. For a class of product that was almost extinct at the start of the century, the DAC has come back with a vengeance… but there are signs that this is shifting again to a slightly different focus. Perhaps because of this, the specification is rather broader than that of a classic DAC as we shall see.
As such, the Sonica promises some interesting possibilities but it has to stand out from a very busy crowd of products and show that Oppo can get things right on their first time out. Is this the start of the next wave of Oppo excellence or will the hunt to find the category to supplement their 4K players continue?
SpecificationsRight from the off, the specification of the Sonica is sufficiently different from a conventional DAC to be worthy of note. There are three digital inputs – one optical, one coaxial and one USB-B connection. This is hardly the most impressive complement going at £800 and in fact, the Chord Mojo has exactly the same selection for half the price and about one tenth the volume. The USB-B connection does at least have some impressive notional performance. It can accept PCM at 32/768kHz (and if anyone genuinely knows of a single piece of music encoded as such, do let me know) and DSD 512 (the same). This is the same level of format handling as the Chord Hugo 2- in short, it’s pretty close to the state of the art. The legacy connections top out at 24/192- but that’s still likely to be enough for most needs. These then output to RCA and XLR connections.
This might seem a little parsimonious in socketry terms but there are some interesting additions. The first is that the Sonica – like a number of rivals – is a preamp as well as a line level device. The volume is handled by a rotary encoder and has a reasonable 100 step increment from min to max and a pleasingly linear gain across the full range of adjustments. What is notable about the Sonica though is that the encoder is not solely responsible for the digital inputs but a useful additional feature.
Sat beside the digital inputs is a single RCA analogue input. This is not a true analogue design as it will go through an A-D process. For a few people, this is going to be a bridge too far – how can it be ‘analogue’ when it becomes PCM? – but some previous experiences with such systems suggests they can be impressively transparent. Obviously, a single input is hardly a vast complement but given that in 2017 you are only likely to have a single analogue source, it’s enough to move the Sonica from digital preamp to all-function preamp. Alternatively, if you are looking to use the Sonica as a line level only device, the volume control can be completely bypassed.
Neither do the Sonica’s specifications end there. There is a 24/192kHz UPnP streaming module that can access material via local connection or network – either wired or wireless. This is then backed up by native support for Tidal and Spotify. Tying this together is an app for Android and iOS that ensures that you can control everything in an orderly fashion. This instantly puts the Sonica in a rather different category to a straight DAC and starts to go some way to explaining the price it comes in at.
One of the other reasons for the list price is that the Sonica is built around an ESS Sabre ES9038PRO DAC. Now, to paraphrase H.G Wells, ESS DACs proliferate like the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water, but the 9038PRO is a pretty big deal. It is the reason that the Sonica has the decoding grunt that it does and, if some relatively knowledgeable corners of the web are to be believed, it has a cost on its own of around $70. As such, this is a pretty significant piece of hardware to have in a sub £1,000 product. It’s supported by a healthy power supply and discrete output stage.
DesignOppo is a company that is in possession of one of the most bipolar design departments of any brand I regularly interact with. On the one hand, you have the wonderfully solid and elegant PM-1 with its superb choices of materials and distinctive but practical industrial design, or the HA-2/HA-2SE that manages to look fantastic and make every other portable DAC seem like a lumpy and inelegant blob to try and stow about your person. On the other hand we have their Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray players and the Sonica. Now, to be absolutely clear, there is nothing wrong with the Sonica in an absolute sense… but I think most people would struggle to get terribly excited about it.
The chassis is a little over half standard width and is largely made from metal. With no significant heat sources in it, the Sonica has no venting and is easy enough to stack in a system if you needed to. The front panel has an input selector dial and volume control, both of which feed back to a front panel display that is legible enough if not terribly sophisticated. There are no hard controls for the streamer section which is a personal bugbear of mine but this is not unusual amongst more affordable streamers these days. The overall build is good and while I find it dull, I’m also happy to concede that it should sit happily in most systems without looking offensive.
The other piece of good news is that the Sonica control app is pretty good. It’s stable in use, has a straightforward process for connecting the DAC to a wireless network and works quickly and smoothly. The Tidal implementation is also excellent. I have generally come to regard the Naim implementation of Tidal to be a benchmark but I have to admit that the Oppo solution is equally good. As there is no remote as standard with the Sonica, the app is going to be doing a lot of legwork but it’s very good and little things like having a pause button present on the iOS lock screen make all the difference in long term use.
Right from the off, the specification of the Sonica is sufficiently different from a conventional DAC to be worthy of note
How was the Sonica tested?The Oppo has been connected to a Naim Supernait 2 and Neat Momentum 4i speakers for line level testing. It read content from a Western Digital MyBook over wireless, a Melco N1A2 via USB and a Naim ND5 XS via coaxial. All devices have been connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Sigmas mains conditioner. An Audio Files modified Audio Technica LP5 and Avid Pellar phono stage have been connected to the analogue input. The preamp has then been tested into a pair of Acoustic Energy AE1 Active speakers using the same input devices. Test material has included lossless and high res FLAC, AIFF and DSD, Tidal, Spotify and vinyl.
Sound QualityThe Sonica had the slightly daunting task of slotting into the gap left by the Chord Hugo2. At less than half the price of the Chord and possessed of a ‘normal’ (albeit extremely high quality) DAC chip rather than a bespoke FPGA, the Sonica has its work cut out. What is notable is that the performance gap between the two is indeed a gap and not a chasm. The review sample had some hours on it prior to arriving here and after a brief run, its performance has been entirely consistent. What is immediately noticeable when listening to the Sonica is that Oppo has – deliberately or otherwise – engineered the Sonica to be a little more neutral than the HA-2SE. Where the smaller DAC has a slightly forward quality to it that makes for a more exciting listen with uptempo material, the Sonica is more considered.
Crucially, it isn’t slow or languid though. There are some comments to be found elsewhere online suggesting that the Oppo can sound dull or restrained whereas in reality, it pretty much gets on with producing exactly what is in the signal you are feeding it. Listening to the delicate and lovely Wintermusik by Nils Frahm, the Oppo delivers a performance that is utterly unforced and impressively natural. The piano sounds natural and there is a wonderfully well-judged sense of scale and presence to it. The Oppo is able to create the sense that you are listening to something other than digital.
When you do step up the pace and ask for a rousing burst of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome, the Oppo keeps the space and composure but has no trouble delivering the faster bassline with real impact and power. The low-end is detailed and unfailingly well implemented but there is a constant sense that the Sonica has real heft to it. You don’t need to have a physical bass impact for this to be apparent either. The bass guitar in Ray LaMontagne’s Trouble has a suitable sense of its scale without being overblown or obvious. There will be some people who want more urgency to the way that more aggressive music is delivered – the Naim ND5 XS has a bite and attack that the Oppo can lack – but across a wide spectrum of music, it's a good balance.
As we have noted, the analogue input is not a ‘true’ analogue connection but listening to an Audio Files modified Audio Technica LP5 and Avid Pellar through it, it is honestly extremely hard to tell the difference. The character of the LP5 and Pellar is still very much apparent and far more so than any traits of the Sonica as a ‘straight’ digital device. The way it handles Underworld’s Dirty Epic has all of the urgency and impact of the LP5 and the same superb bass extension. The analogue signal might be converted but the essence of what you are hearing is the analogue source.
Switching the Oppo over to acting as a pre-amp with a pair of Acoustic Energy AE1 Actives is a worthwhile experience. The Sonica isn’t a perfect pre-amp – having to use the app for remote volume control is an annoyance – and with the AE1s, at least, the suitable gain is up towards the higher end of the volume but is isn’t hard to get reasonable fine adjustments. More importantly, the combination of Oppo and AE1 is a very satisfying one. There is a certain sense of togetherness with the two products that is partly shaped by the AE1s seamless integration that comes as a function of how it has been designed. Listening to this compact and aesthetically pleasing system, it is hard not to feel that this is the better way of constructing a system if you are starting from scratch.
The Oppo is able to create the sense that you are listening to something other than digital
- Flexible and comprehensive specification
- Accurate and detailed sound
- Very well assembled
- Not terribly exciting to look at
- Does its best work with good quality signals
- No shortage of competition
Oppo Sonica DAC ReviewThese days there are DACs of all shapes and sizes available for the price of a good night out. Spending £800 on one is a fairly serious statement of intent and there are plenty to choose from at this price point too. In some ways, the Sonica doesn’t automatically stand out from the pack. It’s well specified but not outlandishly so and the appearance is pleasant rather than striking.
Spend a little time with the Sonica and its charms start to grow on you. The specification is sufficient that you don’t really find yourself thinking “it would be useful to have x or y” and it’s a thoroughly satisfying thing to use day to day. More than this, the performance of the Oppo is deeply satisfying. If you’ve got a wide selection of music and you want to enjoy all of it without fear or favour, the Oppo is a device you need to be listening too. If you are looking to construct an active system, it’s a deeply capable pre-amp too. This might be a new product area for Oppo but the results are good enough to earn recommendation from us.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £800.00
Ease of Use8
Value for Money8
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