When I first heard the name “Exogal,” I associated it with the host of Marvel Comic superheroes being made into movies. It seems the list of characters that haven’t been immortalized in film is growing thin, as evidenced by the recent addition of Ant Man. Exogal conjured in my mind some waif in an Iron Man-like getup. As far as comics go, it wouldn’t be far off, as it doesn’t take much imagination to make a superhero movie nowadays.
What does take a bit of imagination is the creation of a new DAC, or more precisely, a new method of rendering digital media such that music sounds more natural. In order to do so, Exogal has done away with the typical treatment of zeroes and ones by choosing not to merely oversample and upsample, but rather use an algorithm to create an entirely new digital signal for conversion to analogue. More on that momentarily, but first, an introduction to the team at Exogal.
There are no women on the team, a real shame, for it prevents me from continuing with the heroine theme. We’ll have to settle for the four principals who migrated from Wadia when it went through what I’ll call a business conversion and final assimilation by the Fine Sounds Group. Jeff Haagenstad, the CEO who sets the agenda for product development, in an interview shed further light on the other partners. Jim Kinne, whom I had the pleasure of meeting along with Jeff at dinner one evening during Axpona 2015, is the Chief Technology Officer. The Exogal website states simply, “Jim’s philosophy is to design products for optimal listening, not just to test well in a lab. If it’s optimized for listening, inevitably it will test well. The reverse is not always true.” Larry Jacoby is Vice President of Manufacturing Engineering, and Jan Larson is the Chief Operating Officer. Read more about the company on the blog at the Exogal website.
I will begin my accolades early, as rarely have I seen a company bring its first product to market in such a well-planned and executed fashion. The Exogal Comet is a “total package” device, thoroughly thought out and beautifully crafted. It appears more like an offering from a company in the game for decades rather than one established in 2013. When a team of leaders having depth of experience pools their resources, a quality product had better result, or they might be ex-industry members! There is too much competition for a garage startup outfit to support four men who have had careers in HiFi. Aspirations run high for Exogal, as evidenced by the name referring to “Out of this Galaxy,” sound.
What is the Comet?
Jeff stressed that the Comet is not just a DAC, as a DAC is normally occupied with crunching numbers through interpolation, either oversampling or upsampling, and filtering the result. The attempt is made in most DACs to accept the signal entering the device and bolster it, unless it is a non-oversampling DAC. Either way, the signal retains its “sharp corners” as Jeff states, a truncated waveform not resembling analogue waveform. Output filtering is typically put into such DACs to smooth the result. Conversely, the Exogal software calculates the slope and rate of change across the samples to smooth the waveform, resulting in a massive DSP re-rendering of the waveform. In fact, the original signal is not converted into the analogue waveform, but rather an improved copy without the digital artifacts, is created, a form of signal replacement. Consider it to be like Invasion of the Body Snatchers for a digital signal.
Imagine a 20-mile long mountain road that winds through a pass at varying inclines and degrees of curvature. Further, imagine that every 1,000 feet there is a lengthy patch of unfinished road where there is a drop off of two inches to a gravel stratum. This is like the typical digital signal. Exogal is a creative road crew that goes the extra mile, calculating the variables in the road and instead of inserting virtual filler, creates an entirely new road without patches. The result is a much smoother ride. You may not be on the original road, but you’re going to like the trip a whole lot more!
Cute as a button
Hey! Where are the buttons? The Comet has no buttons because it’s intended to be less like a vintage component and more like a contemporary lifestyle device fit to integrate with phones and streaming audio. The chassis is a buffed aluminum compartment with mild curvature and flat black inset top, perhaps only 1/3 the size and weight of a standard component. The front display is not only unobtrusive, it’s nearly non-existent! At a bit larger than one square inch, it was all but indiscernible from my listening chair 12 feet away. The only thing I could read was the volume level. The lighting and angle of viewing had to be just right, for if I had the wall sconces on, all was ok, but when the ceiling can lights were on, it was useless.
How can such a glaring mistake be made on a component designed by four industry experts? It is not a mistake but intentional, as Exogal does not wish for the owner to actually use the display. The goal was to make the Comet thoroughly compatible with handheld devices such as a phone. The Comet has a downloadable Apple Device Application which will allow it to be used with any Apple iPhone 4s or newer, iPod Touch (5th Generation or newer). As I have a Samsung phone, I had to content myself with other means of control pertaining to my Apple iPad.
I use a $5 app called Splashtop, which puts my Mac Mini’s screen on my iPad. The music software I have been using is called HQPlayer, and it has capacity to upconvert 16/44.1 to 32 bits and absurdly high clock frequency rates. With the Comet, I have successfully converted standard redbook quality files to 32 bit and clock frequencies of both 2.8GHz and 6.1MHz. Unlike most DACs that are limited in the clock frequency, according to Jeff, the Comet is potentially unlimited. I was able to get the HQPlayer software to cooperate in rendering the upconversion at 32 bit/ 6.1MHz ! Merely changing the setting of file playback from 2.8MHz to 6:1MHz was efficacious enough to merit that setting continuously.
There are plenty of debates regarding how to control the listening level when using multiple devices with volume controls. I opted to peg the Comet’s preamp output at 100 and control volume from the HQPlayer software on the iPad. I would rather have the convenience of remote volume than get my butt off a chair every time I switch a track and seek the optimum level. There are very few times when convenience may trump performance, but having a remote control volume is what I consider a necessity.
The first remote supplied was the SR71 Smart Remote, a pittance of a pointer with a narrow and limited IR range. Thankfully, it seems from customer feedback, Exogal sent an improved, that is marginally larger, remote, which fit the bill. It has basic functions; the left/right buttons adjust down/up volume, the top button steps through the Inputs (AES/EBU on XLR, SPDIF on 75Ohm BNC, Toslink, USB-B, Analog on isolated RCA), and the bottom button switches between Main outputs and Head (phone) output.
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