Introduction - what is the Topping E30?
The Topping E30 is a compact multi input DAC. The specification is not, in the context of the third decade of the 21st century, terribly remarkable. Its format handling, while extensive, is also not ground breaking. What serves to fire the E30 up the ranks in interest stakes is that it delivers on its specification and format handling for £115. That’s the price from a UK distributor too; something that most AVForums product reviews are conditional on there being one of.
Now, I may be about to reveal more about myself than is wise but I’ve idly listed things I have spent more than £115 on. Obviously, it includes all the things you might expect but there are a fair few that might be seen to be of less immediate worth including (but not limited to), a pen (this has happened twice in fact), a record, a single kitchen knife (which I no longer own), and last but by no means least, a number of nights out which, when I consider that I’m not exactly a ‘private table and champagne’ kind of night out person, might reflect on why I can remember so few of them.
What I’m saying is that this is a fully functioning DAC that occupies a price point that, depending on your views on the fleeting nature of our existence, may not even be in the discretionary spending category. What can you expect for this level? Interestingly, this is also one of the most requested products I’ve ever had so I guess we ought to see what is what.
Specification and Design
Topping is one of a few companies in recent years across a few different disciplines, that has gone from seemingly nothing through to being a frequently considered option. They are Chinese and have been in existence since 2008. They now make an extensive range of products that include DACs, headphone amplifiers and a compact stereo amplifier. Pretty much everything the company makes seems to be united in costing considerably less than you imagine it should.
The E30 is a three input DAC with digital volume control, allowing you to use it as a preamp should you wish (with caveats that we’ll come to). It offers you one USB, one toslink and one coax input that are made available to a stereo RCA output. As noted, this is nothing spectacular in itself but it’s worth noting that the two DACs that have been reviewed in this price point before; The Audioquest Dragonfly Black and iFi Zen DAC are both single input devices. Topping does make a single input DAC incidentally in the form of the D10s and this is available for £90. Those extra inputs put the E30 in a slightly different category though. Here is a DAC that can take a signal from your PC source and handle optical from your TV (and, if you were minded to, bolster the sound of an elderly CD player too).
And the word ‘bolster’ isn’t used in the spirit of blind optimism either. The E30 is built around a duo of components from AKM. Decoding is via a AK4493 DAC which is joined by an AK4118 interface module (which provides the required interface for the coax and optical input. The USB connection uses an XMOS XU208 USB interface for communication. Nothing here is truly unprecedented (I apologise for using the de facto word of 2020 there but it is the correct one for the job). You can find plenty of devices that combine these components and there are still more that offer a higher specification but you then need to glance back to the top of the review and that £115 price tag. It’s an astonishingly comprehensive one for the asking price.
It’s also one that seems to have survived 2020 too. Earlier this year Asahi Kasei Microdevices was severely damaged by fire and this has put the squeeze on the supply of their components. Topping has managed to secure the parts it needs to keep making E30s at this price which is no mean feat. Hopefully, the supply of these devices will improve over the next few months as the damage is repaired.
This hardware allows the E30 to decode stereo PCM at sample rates up to 32/768kHz and DSD512. Now, for the avoidance of doubt, these are figures are not revelatory; it’s been over five years since we saw that Chord Mojo which offered 768kHz decoding and a few devices we’ve reviewed in recent years have offered DSD512 too. It is also worth reiterating that the bulk of commercially available material tops out at 192Khz - there’s no burning need for more decoding than this. Once again though, this is being offered for £115.
Power for the E30 is 5V DC - that is to say USB voltage but the E30 actually receives this power on a circular pin connection. A cable with this connecter at one end and a USB A connection at the other is supplied so the E30 can either be powered by one of the umpteen USB charger plugs you’ve accrued over the years or directly from a suitable USB device.
Most of the extended functionality of the E30 is a result of what is built into the DAC chip. This means that there are six adjustable filters and the aforementioned volume control. The volume control is engaged by selecting pre mode by holding down the front panel display for three seconds and pressing it again to enter pre mode. This gives a usefully well incremented volume control but one that can only be adjusted via the remote control which means that - judged purely as a preamp - the Topping isn’t quite as flexible as the iFi Zen DAC.
The filters on the E30 and on DACs in general seem to be a point of contention for some listeners so I might as well take this moment to point out that they are not there to sound radically different. As digital audio has moved beyond the original ‘red book’ standard for CD, there have been improvements both to the bandwidth of the audio supported and the manner in which it is presented for decoding. The filters here are various, wholly correct implementations of the way this extended bandwidth is treated. You aren’t really supposed to prefer one, you’re supposed to choose one based on your reading on the subject and the one you feel offers the best technical answer to the business of digital to analogue decoding. You have done this reading… haven’t you?
All this comes wrapped in a compact chassis available in black or silver. The E30 is more than acceptably built for the asking price and there’s no escaping that it is an unexpectedly convenient device to live with. The remote control, as well as offering volume, can switch between inputs, change the filters, put the E30 in standby and, if you are using it as a preamp, stick it line level. Combined with a display that can show the selected input, incoming sample rate and the volume level (the latter alternating with the sample rate if you are in preamp mode), this is an impressively flexible little box.
You can find plenty of devices that combine these components and there are still more that offer a higher specification but you then need to glance back to the top of the review and that £115 price tag
How was the E30 tested?
The Topping was run for a few days on the instructions of the distributor ElectroMod. Once done, it has been connected to a Roon Nucleus via USB cable and an LG 55B7 OLED via optical. It has been tested with the Rega Io, Musical Fidelity M2si and McIntosh MA7200 using Q Acoustics Q3030i, Sonus faber Lumina I, Acoustic Energy AE1 Classic and Kudos Titan 505 speakers. The test material has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Qobuz, Tidal and on demand TV services.
More: Audio Formats
When I reviewed the iFi Zen DAC, I took time to point out where it sat in the context of technical development so I’ll avoid doing that again. I will point out for the record that the format handling here was ‘premium’ two years ago, ‘cutting edge’ five and ‘vapourware’ ten. That the E30 exists at all and does the things it says it does is faintly remarkable. And, just to confirm, it does everything it says. Upsampling testing with the Roon Nucleus to both 768kHz and DSD512 are successful, wholly stable and performed without histrionics.
Let’s be honest though, the combination of dedicated Roon hardware and its DSP and the E30 is likely to remain a rare one. To judge the E30 fairly, you need to turn all the wizardry off and send it files ‘as is’ and judge what comes out the other end. And what comes out the other end is exceptionally good. Returning to Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm for a spot of nostalgia, the E30 delivers the staccato energy of Like Eating Glass with genuine conviction. Kele sounds like Kele, that fabulous drum routine fizzles with energy and the tonal balance of the whole performance is never anything other than convincing.
There is also some of its AKM DNA in there too. Compared to the fractionally etched way that ESS DACs work; packed with detail but ever so slightly forced with it, or the slight ‘darkness’ of Burr Brown’s silicone, the Topping has a helping of the sweetness that AKM seems to imbue their hardware with. It’s never overbearing but it means that even hard edged material gains a fractionally forgiving edge that then doesn’t overcook good recordings.
This lends the E30 an ‘undigital’ edge that I have found extremely appealing. Trying to define this exactly is maddening but it effectively translates into there being little sense of processing or artifice to what it does. There’s nothing showy or overt, no ‘look at how clever we are’ flourish that amuses for a day and then grates thereafter. The highest praise I can give the E30 is something that, unless explained, sounds like a backhanded compliment. That praise is that I can listen to it for hours - indeed I have - and not yearn to go back to the other hardware here. With music I know well and that I play regularly on a digital front end that offers no change from £8,000, the E30 does enough to be a pleasure.
Any criticisms of the E30 have to be made with that retail price all but tattooed on your frontal lobe. When running with the Musical Fidelity M2si, side by side tests with the Chord Qutest demonstrate a reduction in space and scale to the presentation. The live version of Daft Punk’s Da Funk on Alive 2007 loses some of the ambience and the crowd isn’t so well defined from the music itself. You can have ten E30s for a Qutest though. Whereas when an affordable turntable passes through, the difference between it and the Rega Planar 10 that lives here is a stark gulf, the reality of modern digital is that devices like this have pushed the floor from which diminishing returns kicks in to a few steps over ground level.
The flexibility is impressive too. Using the E30 for TV duties is a pleasure. That presentation works a charm with dialogue, keeping it clear and easy to follow, even during moments of congestion, and the result is wholly satisfying. Furthermore, the remote is a bit of a gamechanger here because it means physically using the E30 in this role is far less onerous than something that needs to be switched over manually to achieve the same thing.
The reality of modern digital is that devices like this have pushed the floor from which diminishing returns kicks in to a few steps over ground level
- A truly extraordinary specification for the asking price
- Refined and engaging presentation
- Compact and well made
- Preamp functionality tied to remote
Topping E30 Digital to Analogue Converter Review
With the Editor’s Choice Awards for 2020 still only a scroll down the front page away from this review, the inevitable question of where the E30 sits compared to the iFi Zen DAC is one that needs answering. With a round of drinks between them in pricing, the iFi is a better preamp, has headphone amp functionality, balanced operation, MQA decoding and is fractionally better built. It remains a phenomenal bit of kit. The E30 is cheaper, has better connections, a remote and a display and should you be the proud owner of a copy of Brothers in Arms or whatever masterpieces are available in DSD512, it will play those too.
In a way, it’s irrelevant which one is better. Both are outstanding and they cumulatively lower the price that you can add seriously capable digital decoding to an affordable Hi-Fi system. The Topping E30 drops this price another few pounds lower for a truly superlative bit of kit. The E30 might be small but it is unquestionably brilliant and has to be seen as a Best Buy.
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