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exaSound Audio Design e22 DAC Review

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exaSound Audio Design e22 DAC

The exaSound Audio Design e22 is the company’s third generation USB DSD256 DAC with preamp compatibility for headphones and audio systems. Improvements over the previous e20 include a 82fs Femto-Master-Clock, a headphone amplifier twice as powerful, lowered noise and distortion levels, a 12V Trigger Output, USB 2.0 input, and heavy duty RCA connectors.

In addition to the aforementioned DSD256, playback formats include DSD64, DSD128. For non-DSD files the exaSound Audio Design e22 operates at 384kHz/32bit maximum PCM (CD format) playback, as well as native support for DXD 352.8kHz master files. The hand built unit uses the ESS Technologies ES9018 Sabre 32 reference DAC chip, which I proclaimed years ago to be the next wave of excellence in DAC technology. The odds are good that if you own an audiophile 32 bit DAC it has a version of the ESS chip in it. The Owner’s Manual indicates that the DAC chip set is a, “… patented 32-bit Hyperstream architecture,” which is reminiscent of the language used by Simaudio to describe the first 32 bit player I used, the Simaudio Moon Evolution 750D DAC/Transport. It makes me wonder if both Simaudio and Exasound co-opted the architecture from ESS Technology.

exaSound has created its own Asynchronous USB Zero-Jitter Interface with error correction. This is not surprising, as George Klissarov, president of exaSound Audio Design is an engineer who feels he can do better than most. From the sound of the e22 I conclude he has done quite well in that regard. The unit employs 11 linear power-filtering stages, has galvanic isolation between the USB subsystem and the DAC circuits, and can be programmed to work with most IR remotes.

In terms of how the sound is played back, it seems that the exaSound Audio Design e22 is mimicking memory players when the Manual states, “In the case of the e22 DAC, sound data is requested by the FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) core and stored in the device FIFO (First In First Out) memory buffer. The FPGA core makes sure that the buffer never gets empty during playback. Data from the buffer is streamed to the DAC chip. The precision of the timing of the output stream is determined only by the DAC oscillators and it is not degraded in any way by the computer clocks or by delays caused by the USB interface.” Audiophiles have laid out big money for memory players, and if the e22 operates likewise it would be a bargain perhaps due to that feature alone.

Solid-state memory playback is one of the holy grails (it seems there are several) of the computer audiophile set. I was told more than once I needed to perform all manner of upgrades to my Mac Mini, including power supply, operating system alterations, playback software, and solid state memory. I have done nothing but improve the power cord and have largely left the heavy lifting of improvements to the DACs being reviewed. Rarely have I been so slow regarding an upgrade path, however, I am thoroughly enjoying testing how far a stock file playback source can be taken prior to upgrading the server. Also, the DAC sector of the HiFi industry seems to be torrid with developments. Today’s hot wonder DAC is tomorrow’s also ran. Quite literally, the investment to upgrade the Mac Mini could be matched in one generation of DAC improvements, and to improve a DAC I only need to swap it out, not pursue an entire upgrade of my file playback system.

The results have been most gratifying, to the point that I continuously wonder whether the megabucks spent on servers are that much more efficacious than the relative pittance required for a USB cable and DAC. With time I should be able to test my methods against premier file playback devices. So far, demanding heavy lifting from the DAC has been a rewarding method, as I have not needed to rebuild the computer, and the results have been impressive to industry insiders familiar with file playback. It’s not my goal to see how lowly I can make my server source, but it’s a lot of fun to use a super-capable DAC and get sound I couldn’t dream of when I used upper echelon Redbook players as little as two years ago!

The exaSound Audio Design e22 built in preamplifier function allows the e22 to be used directly with analogue power amps, and it may result in significantly improved sound quality, especially in respect to lower noise levels. Always ensure that when doing so prior to powering on the amp the e22 volume control’s setting is below -25dB. The unit comes with a standard 12V/1670mA power adapter. I typically seek to improve power cords/adapters at every possible chance. In this instance I did not have occasion to try another power adapter/cord. Note, however, that doing so may void the warranty.

exaSound offers a 30-day in home trial of the e22. Details can be found on their website, http://www.exasound.com/Home.aspx The company also offers the e28, a mutli-channel DAC with sampling rate capability for PCM up to the level of the e22 (384kHz), and DSD 2.8 to 12.2MHz (DSD256).

exaSound Audio Design e22 DAC

Arrival and setup

As the exaSound Audio Design e22 is physically a lightweight component it is relatively easy to protect in transport, and it arrived in a double-boxed parcel featuring a tidy, ergonomic box containing the unit and accessories. Also tidy was the Specifications and Owner’s Manual – consisting of one glossy, double sided page. Images of the front and rear panels were busy with numbered arrows pointing to respective features. George does not seem to be in this for the fame; no fanfare was given to the company’s vision or history. How many times have you seen the big buildup, the hagiography of the company spilled out on the first page like a prelude to a holy tome. Like the device, the one-page Manual seems to be created with the consumer’s highest priority in mind, the sound. The images showed two types of remote controls; I had been sent the Apple ancillary remote, which at least initially I thought would be fine as I run an Apple Mac Mini for my server. Instructions were also provided for use of a dashboard to operate the e22 from a Windows machine.

The e22 unit itself is tame and understated compared to the “look at me” products in the marketplace. A dull light gray anodized faceplate with engraved function labels and silver push buttons is disturbed only by a rectangular window with archaic blue LED readout reminiscent of my days coding BASIC in high school.

The Power button and standard ¼” stereo single-ended headphone plug sit off to the left of the display, while the Setup, Input and Volume up/down buttons reside on the right. The labeling of the buttons is elegantly etched into the faceplate, however this makes it difficult to read in less than very bright light. As there is a modicum of functions to memorize this should not be a significant drawback.

The installation of the exaSound Audio Design e22 into my system was seamless and simple, as my Mac recognized the software driver immediately. Thank you, George! However, music did not flow until I actually selected the driver from the OSX Mavericks System Preferences and Sound menu. I was happy to comply with the last instruction in the e22’s setup listing, “Play some music!” You don’t have to tell me that twice!

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