Read the Exogal Comet DAC Review
We are entering a new era in digital audio, the era of the PowerDAC. What is a PowerDAC? It is a digital-to-analog converter that doubles as a power amplifier. It could be called an integrated DAC/amplifier, but PowerDAC sounds portentous. Let your mind trickle over the potential of a product… a DAC that also functions as a power amplifier. Do you understand the implications of the emergence of such a product? In an era where digital music is the medium of the masses, and where convenience scores higher on most people’s lists than sound quality, the PowerDAC will address both convenience and sound quality at a reasonable price. The Exogal Ion PowerDAC, the subject of this review, is small and light at only 9 pounds, aesthetically pleasing, is easily operated, controlled with personal devices such as phones and tablets, and breaks ground with a sound quality experienced by very few audiophiles in the solar system.
Technology creep and a harsh reality
Let’s begin by acknowledging the harsh reality associated with technology creep and the advent of new components. Technology creep is a phrase I have coined to portray the incessant march of technological development and how that development works its way into our lives. Over time our components, yea, the entire system that was at a very high level of performance years ago slips in terms of its performance relative to today’s standard. State-of-the-art sound is never a destination, but rather an incrementally moving target.
Unless an audiophile has been experiencing newer equipment and upper end systems, it is easy to think that there has not been that much change in terms of good sound. Our memories also fool us into thinking that the sound we heard many years ago was as fine as the sound we hear today. Neither is true. Once we set aside our nostalgia and take a measured look at the old systems, we see that they had significant shortcomings.
Eventually, all gear becomes obsolete, replaced by better products with much better sound. Witness the demise of the 8-track tape, cassette tape, and in more recent days the CD. As might be expected there is a sector of contemporarily challenged audiophiles who adhere to the notion that vintage gear is sonically better than new. No matter the topic, there will be some people who simply do not wish to move into the future and continue to claim that the past was better. There are not many human activities involving technology where that perspective survives. Do people lament that TV’s were better 30-40 years ago? How about cars? Computers? Bicycles? In almost no human activity involving technology is older better, except perhaps in terms of longevity. Technologies come, and technologies go, and now with the advent of a more affordable integrated digital amp in the Exogal Ion I predict that in the future we forward thinking audiophiles will no longer be using analogue amplifiers. Don’t scoff at that statement, as you haven’t heard the Ion – yet. When you hear it I predict you will nod your head, even if reluctantly, in agreement that the digital amp is the future.
Digital amps are the future, NOW
Four or five years ago I proclaimed class D amps were the future. Now, with the advent of the Exogal Ion PowerDAC I’m altering my proclamation; as of today the future belongs to digital amps. The Ion PowerDAC is forcing a rethink of my expectations, for just a year ago I was enthralled with the Red Dragon S500 class D amplifier. Here I am only several months later saying that a better technology is here. Technology creep is very disruptive. The digital world is changing with breathtaking speed and yet much of the HiFi industry seems stuck in a time capsule. Big, heavy analogue amps, tubes, vinyl – to persons under 25 these things make audiophiles seem incapable of integrating technological change. For a while the vinyl is cool, but that novelty wears off, worn thin by the demand for convenience.
Don’t misunderstand me; I can put together a wonderful sounding traditional system, as do thousands of listeners who love those products. The problem is that with new digital developments in terms of performance these others get left in the dust. The Exogal Ion races ahead of classic amplification components regardless of cost at such terrific speed it leaves a wake like a comet’s ion trail, for which it is named, of performance particulate to settle on these older, literally slower technologies. Am I suggesting that a solid-state amp or a DAC can be slow? Yes, they actually are “slow” when compared to the performance of the Comet and Ion, and that is what we shall explore.
The practical outcome of all this is with the advent of the Exogal Comet and Ion in terms of design and performance, your DAC and your amp have slipped decidedly toward becoming obsolete. Exogal has just killed their performance in a targeted strike. Thus I am the bearer of both bad and good news for you. The bad news is your amp and DAC have plummeted in terms of their performance relative to the new standard. It is tough enough to hear of one genre of component being eclipsed, but two simultaneously is quite painful. However, as the Comet and Ion are reasonably priced for their performance threshold you have an opportunity to own not only the best sound in the price category, but a best sound in the industry now, not five years from now as you wait for it to trickle down in cheaper products. The reason I say “a best sound” is that I have not been afforded the opportunity to compare the Comet and Ion to top end DACs as dcs or MSB or amps such as Boulder, Constellation or Soulution. That would be a very interesting comparison, one that I am open to if these other companies would like to send me their equipment. It is possible that these others would run circles around the Exogal combo, but I suspect not. From what I have heard of dcs, MSB, Boulder, Constellation and Soulution at shows I think the Exogal pairing would compare quite favorably. The Comet and Ion are priced for Millennials and sandwich generation music fans who don’t have a great deal of disposable income, but the Comet/Ion perform together more like components designed for “one percent” audiophiles.
Your amp and DAC are still operationally fine; you could run them for a considerable time. As long as you never hear the Comet and Ion you could be happy. However, your components have been made obsolete by the advancements found in the Exogal Comet and Ion, and those who gravitate toward them will have an “out of this world” experience enjoying them. It will help to appreciate what has happened as you learn what the Comet and Ion are and what they are capable of when used together.
Passing the Law of Efficacy
Technology creep also presents us with plenty examples of insipid change promoted as monumental. As might be expected, Exogal is not the only company trying to upend the market. More recently we have seen the introduction of QOL, DEQX and MQA. Having heard the first two they were not inspiring enough to merit a review and the last seems stuck in development limbo. Perhaps you will believe me when I say that the performance advantage conferred by the Comet and Ion is such that they do not deserve to fade away, but rather be adopted by scores of audiophiles.
In 2010 NAD brought out the M2 Digital Amplifier based on PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) that was purported to sound very good. NAD seems to have reverted back to separates for their Masters series in the M12 Digital Preamp DAC ($3,499) and M22 Stereo Power Amplifier ($2999), an nCore hybrid Class D design. It would need to be a revolutionary development in Class D to be competitive with the Ion’s digital amplification. The M22 has what is called “Power Drive”, which senses a speaker’s impedance and adjusts the amplifier to suit the speaker. It might be an efficacious technology, but only a comparison would tell if the M22 would compare favorably to the Comet and Ion.
The Technics R1 Reference System was lately reviewed in The Absolute Sound and it has true digital amplification, but also carries a price tag of $26K for the electronics and $27K for the speakers – not accessible for most audiophiles. Conversely, here comes Exogal with an extreme resolution DAC and digital amplifier with real world pricing, $8K for both the Comet and Ion, as the Ion must be used only with the Comet. While this is not cheap it is much more affordable than the Technic’s $53K price tag including matching speakers. Regarding the radical difference in appearance of the R1 System and the Exogal products, people seem drawn to meters on amplifiers. I adjure the reader to not judge the Exogal products by their diminutive size and lack of fancy meters, as it is not the size of the case, or the meter that determines the sound. The technology employed in the Comet and Ion ultimately must result in performance worthy of the price. In a barrage of testing the performance of the Comet and Ion pass the Law of Efficacy easily.
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