A Network Audio Player & a Multichannel Amp

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THIS ISSUE: A first look at exaSound’s PlayPoint network player and a second listen to Theta’s Dreadnaught D amplifier.

 

The number of devices that can constitute a home-audio streaming system ranges from one—a laptop computer running a music program to play internally stored files—to x the unknown. These days we have storage devices, servers, streamers, renderers, bridges, controllers, players, and DACs, at least one of which is hoped to have a volume control. Any combination of these elements can be put in a single box and described by one of many new hyphenated product categories—or can be given a name along the lines of exaSound’s PlayPoint Network Audio Player: a model designation that at least hints at this product’s ability to play music. Let’s see what else it can do.

EXASOUND PLAYPOINT

exaSound’s website states that the PlayPoint has a network input, uses USB to connect to an exaSound DAC (and, at the moment, only an exaSound DAC), and that “playback is controlled remotely with various apps for iPad, iPhone, Android devices, Macs and PCs.” I believe that qualifies it to be called a renderer. More pointedly, the PlayPoint is an intelligent network interface: it and its DAC can be located and operated remotely from the source of the music files.

Because I own an exaSound e28 multichannel DAC ($3299),1 on which I rely for all of my music listening when using my main system, in Manhattan, I was excited to get my hands on a PlayPoint to see how it might enhance that experience. The PlayPoint (PP) costs $1999, weighs 2.4 lbs, and is contained in the same sleek, compact case as the e28. This case measures just 6.5" wide by 2.2" high by 9.25" deep, which means that a PP and an e28 can share a shelf in an equipment rack, linked by a short (but not too short) USB link. On the front panel is a large multicolor touchscreen—it takes up most of the panel—and a power button and indicator light. On the rear panel are terminals for two WiFi antennas, an input jack for its 12V power supply, a USB 3.0 port for an external hard drive, a USB 2.0 port for output to an exaSound DAC, an HDMI connector reserved for future use, and an Ethernet RJ45 network jack. In short: one input (Ethernet), one output (USB).

The action is in the touchscreen. Turning on the PP brings up a splash screen, soon replaced by the Home screen: on the left are Volume Up, Mute, Down; on the right, navigation Up, Home, Down. Next to the volume controls is a digital readout of volume level in dB. Along the top right of the screen are three icons indicating the integrity of the Ethernet and USB links and the status of the audio engine—the latter an indication that the unit is booted-up and the software loaded. Play something, and the center of the screen changes from the company logo and product name to a display of the format and resolution of the file, flanked by track clock and track duration. Just below these is a live line graph of the progress of track play. At the bottom are navigation buttons for previous track, pause, stop, and next track.

The PlayPoint is an intelligent network interface.

Moving one screen up from Home gives you a volumecontrol slider that I found more convenient than the Up/Down buttons, as well as access to individual channel-level settings, automatically configured for stereo or multichannel to suit the connected DAC. Stepping down from the Home screen brings up the current song title, recording artist, and album name, followed by setup screens for device identification, networking, naming of the PP (in case more than one is in use on the network), and firmware updates.

So far, so good. But how to get music to the PP and DAC? exaSound says the easiest way is to use an AirPlay Player controlled with an iPad, to get a streaming service such as Tidal. I tried it and AirPlay works, but it is limited to 44.1kHz stereo PCM. The high-resolution multichannel options, in order of increasing complexity, are:

1) MPD open-source player: Described by exaSound as “a de-facto standard for network audio,” this requires the installation, on the user’s iPad, of the MPaD/MPoD controller app and the use of a local hard drive for file storage. (A step-by-step configuration guide for this is available at exaSound’s website.) This is said to support PCM and DSD at all resolutions and numbers of channels. I didn’t try this option, because using smaller local drives with large, highbit-rate multichannel files is clumsy. I also didn’t try the PP with Roon, because Roon doesn’t yet support multichannel.

2) UPnP Player: exaSound recommends installing on the NAS a UPnP music-server software such as MinimServer, as well as a controller (eg, BubbleUPnP) on the iPad. Streaming high-definition formats up to multichannel DSD256 is possible, but exaSound warns that a “really fast and stable Gigabit Ethernet network or state of the art tri-band 805.11AC wireless router” is required.

1 See my review in the November 2013 issue: www.stereophile.com/content/music-round-63-page-2.

3) Network Audio Adapter (NAA) configuration for use with Signalyst’s HQPlayer upsampling, multichannelfriendly player ($145.79): To me, this seemed easiest: all I would need to do would be to download and install, on my Baetis XR3 server, a trial version of HQPlayer—a potent music application that plays CDDA (Audio CD), FLAC, DSDIFF/DFF, DSF, and RIFF (WAV, including DXD) files, as well as physical discs from the Baetis’s built-in CD drive. HQP also offers an impressive array of digital filtering tools and facilities for bass management and equalization. However, my experience with HQP has been frustrated by a lack of explicit instructions and its relatively bare-bones librarymanagement abilities.

Nonetheless, I perversely began with HQP. With exaSound’s notes and a little gentle guidance from HQP’s developer, Jussi Laako, I had it up and running on the Baetis, and playing via Ethernet through the PP and e28. Everything— from an actual physical CD in the Baetis’s drive to multichannel DSD256 from attached drives or the NAS—played flawlessly. The only fly in the ointment was that more than half my collection consists of ISOs—archival image files—from SACDs, which HQP didn’t recognize.

So, on to UPnP, which was promised to be easier but was a little more tricky. The installation of MinimServer on the NAS was uneventful since it’s a QNAP-supported app. Control was another story. I couldn’t find a free compatible controller app for my iPad, and besides, I just don’t like to rely on the iPad for music control. When I need it, it seems always to be somewhere else . . .

What I do like is the big video atop my audio rack, with its keyboard and mouse—these being the peripherals attached to my Baetis XR3: a computer in all but name. So I decided to try to use JRiver Media Center as a DLNA control point, which took a bit of fiddling to set up. In the course of this, I discovered that I also could use JRMC as a DLNA server with its own libraries. Unfortunately, neither bass management nor DiracLive EQ is supported. As with HQP, none of the DLNA configurations would recognize the ISOs.

Using UPnP, with JRMC as the controller, made access to and control of my music much easier than I’d had with HQP. There was the same wide spectrum of resolutions, bitrates, and channels, and there were no problems with signal irregularities or interruptions, even though my wired home network may not represent the state of the art.

The sound quality was outstanding in both UPnP and NAA configurations. The PlayPoint lets you have an excellent multichannel digital music player anywhere there is access to the home network.2 The PP’s graphic user interface displays program information and facilitates fine-tuning of individual channel levels. Add an iPad or Android control device and you get total control. Having lived with the exaSound e28 for many months, I’m convinced that the addition of the PlayPoint in no way compromises its excellent sound while greatly enhancing its functionality.

2 I did no testing with a wireless link because the results would have limited application for most readers. The performance of wireless home networks varies widely, depending on the capability of the router and/or intervening switches and relays, and on the physical construction and layout of the house. I also must admit that not everyone needs a PlayPoint. I live in an apartment; all of my audio equipment is in one room. Clearly, a single USB cable from my server to my DAC would be a lot simpler and cheaper than everything I describe in this column.

 

The graphic user interface facilitates fine-tuning of individual channel levels.

Ethernet DAC vs Ethernet DAC

Having reviewed Merging Technologies’ NADAC Multichannel-8 DAC ($11,500) in my March 2016 column, it seemed appropriate to consider how it stacked up against the exaSound combination of e28 DAC and PlayPoint player. Superficially, both approaches depend on Ethernet for connection between various elements, and, once configured, neither requires hands-on attention from the user. Each offers local control of playback volume and tweaking of individual channel levels. The e28-PP combo scores with its easier-to-use touchscreen GUI, the NADAC by having a real volume knob. Both will display file format and resolution, but the e28-PP also displays program content. If you’re using a tablet or smartphone with your music server, all that is probably a wash.

In terms of installation and setup, the two are distinct. I’ve listed the several ways one can link the e28-PP to one’s music source. The NADAC uses an ASIO driver (as do most USB DACs), which seems simpler. However, that driver and the NADAC depend on the Ravenna protocol, which places significant demands on a typical home network. Still, once the configuration is established, these issues will be of little long-term concern.

In terms of sound quality, the exaSound and Merging Technologies installations set the standard for multichannel playback, but they weren’t indistinguishable. With each connected to a multichannel input of a Parasound Halo P7 preamplifier, I was able to directly compare them via remote control. The three comparisons were:

A) exaSound e28 (USB) vs Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8 (Ravenna) using JRiver with DiracLive EQ

B) exaSound e28 + PlayPoint (DLNA) vs Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8 (Ravenna) using JRiver

C) exaSound e28 + PlayPoint (NAA) vs Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8 (Ravenna) using HQP

The distinctions between the exaSound combo and the Merging Technologies DAC in comparisons A and B were similar, with or without EQ. The exaSound had a more emphatic but tightly defined low bass, and seemed a bit warmer than the NADAC Multichannel-8, which seemed simultaneously less forward and more open. But each was so excellent that I found it hard to choose between them—my preference was swayed by the recording played. For example, Willie Nelson’s Night and Day (DVD-A, Surrounded-By SBE-1001-9, out of print) seemed more present and palpable with the exaSound, but Roy Orbison’s Black & White Night (SACD/CD, Image Entertainment ID2770OBDVD) had greater impact and better spatial delineation with the Merging+NADAC. The most significant result of this comparison was that the sound quality of the e28 direct via USB was equal to that with the PlayPoint inserted.

The Internet buzz about HQPlayer made me want to try it, despite its library and GUI limitations, and now that I have it working, I see and hear what that buzz is all about. I decided that to fiddle with the myriad filter options as part of this comparison would lead to confusion and madness, so I stuck to exaSound’s recommended settings.3 Both the exaSound and the Merging Technologies NADAC were revealed as sounding even more transparent and balanced than I’d previously realized. The exaSound’s slight warmth became an uncanny presence, particularly with small groups, and a staggering immediacy with large ensembles. Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony’s recent recording of Beethoven’s Symphony 5 (SACD/CD, Reference Fresh! FR-718) was rendered with clarity and hair-raising dynamics. In A/B comparisons with this recording, the Merging Technologies NADAC sounded slightly more distant, but with the impression of greater physical size of the orchestra to go with the dynamics. The scaling of image size and weight to dynamics, as well as the more subtle ambience, was a signature trait of the Merging Technologies NADAC. Sure, the exaSound did that, too, but with less conviction. I’m not going to toss my e28, but the Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8 does justify its far higher cost.

3 For PCM: filter = poly-sinc, dither = TPDF. For SDM (DSD): oversampling = poly-sinc and modulator = DSD5.

 

THETA DIGITAL’S DREADNAUGHT D SAILS ON

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, the word dreadnought means: a warm garment of thick cloth, or the cloth itself; a British battleship of that name or class; or anything that is among the largest or most powerful of its kind. The alternate spelling dreadnaught seems to be used mostly, or only, as a proper noun: eg, as the name of various US battleships, of rock bands in Australia and the US . . . and of a power amplifier from Theta Digital. Select company.

For the past three months, I’ve been using Theta’s modular Dreadnaught D as my go-to amp.4 To refresh your memory, Theta sent me a review sample configured for five channels of 225W each, but I’ve been using only three of those channels. At first, fed by my Audio Research MP1 multichannel preamplifier, the Dreadnaught D powered three Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond speakers; currently, it connects a Parasound Halo P7 multichannel preamp to a pair of B&W 802 D3 speakers, and to a lone 800 Diamond for the center channel.5

From the moment I installed the Dreadnaught D in my system, I recognized that it was special. Since then, I’ve assessed it more carefully and compared it with several other amplifiers. The Theta’s abiding quality has been its lack of any distinctive sound of its own, which allows me to discern subtle distinctions in source, speaker, and setup—and, most important, frees me to delight in the melodies, colors, and schwung of the music I love. Sure, some folks choose components whose sound compensates for faults elsewhere in their systems, or to enhance the tonal features of their music. That’s okay—but a power amp is the last component I’d choose for this. Compared to amplifiers, speakers and room acoustics are so nonlinear that one has no choice but to base buying decisions on preference. But heck—an amp should, as Stewart Hegeman suggested, be “a straight wire with gain.”

The Dreadnaught D’s sound fit that description. My initial impression of its rightness was based on my ability to hear lots of detail without effort, but also without the magnifying glass of tonal emphasis. As I shifted my attention from the sound of singer to band to hall, everything I sought was there, and all without calling out to grab my attention. Bass weight and extension were excellent, and that did catch my attention when I switched between DACs (see above), or when the new B&Ws replaced the older ones. Power and dynamics were satisfying. Some have suggested that my speakers and system might benefit from more than the Theta’s 225Wpc. Perhaps it would, but most of my listening is in multichannel, with contributions from more than just a stereo pair; the additional contributions from the other channels, as well as the contributions of the surround field, mean that less is demanded of the front L/R speakers than would be in a two-channel setup. That said, with the Dreadnaught D, Supertramp’s remastered Crime of the Century (24/192 download, A&M) was more than fulfilling—and room-filling— at neighbor-disturbing levels in plain old stereo.

With regular multichannel fare, the front three channels could throw a deep, spacious stage of believable reality. From the warm basso continuo and the silvery song of Rachel Podger’s violin in Biber’s Rosary Sonatas (2 SACD/CDs, Channel Classics CCS-SA 37315) to the full panoply of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Choir, conducted by Mariss Jansons in Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (SACD/CD, RCO Live RCO 15003), nothing sounded out of place or strained.

4 See “Music in the Round,” March 2016.

5 The Parasound Halo P7 is on loan while the ARC is back in Minnesota for maintenance. A full review of the new B&Ws is in process.

 

In comparison to some other amps, all in the range of 200–300Wpc, the Dreadnaught D was distinguished by its lack of distinction. The McIntosh Laboratory MC303 is nominally more powerful and decidedly heftier, but it sounded softer at the extremes of bass and treble. That softness made even higher levels tolerable with the Supertramp remaster, but without increasing my satisfaction. Although NAD’s compact Masters Series M22 is nominally more powerful than the Theta and has a subtle liveliness that the Dreadnaught didn’t, I preferred the Theta’s more natural-sounding lack of liveliness in my room and system—although, in another context, the M22 might be my choice. Finally, Parasound’s Halo A31 was quite neutral, with barely a tinge of treble liveliness. With music such as the Brahms Requiem, the Parasound better delineated choral voices, but I’m not sure the result was any more musical information than I got from the Theta. Actually, all four amps sounded very good, and each, heard in isolation, could be quite satisfying.

So, my knee-jerk first reaction to Theta Digital’s Dreadnaught D is the same as my considered response. I’ve been on a long search for a powerful, transparent three-channel power amplifier that I can lift. The Dreadnaught D meets the first two criteria. Maybe I should start going to the gym.

Kalman Rubinson ([email protected]) gets the best from his multichannel music in both his Manhattan apartment and his weekend retreat in New England.

CONTACTS

exaSound Audio Design

3219 Yonge Street, Suite 354

Toronto, Ontario M4N 3S1

Canada

Web: www.exasound.com

Theta Digital/ATI

1749 Chapin Road

Montebello, CA 90640

Tel: (323) 278-0001

Web: www.thetadigital.com