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Audio Blast: Exogal Ion PowerDAC with HyperDrive Upgrade

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Also read Doug’s Exogal Comet DAC Review (2015) and Exogal Ion PowerDAC Review (2016)

When my Dutch friend and ski instructor, Marty, taught me downhill skiing I was quite intense and asked him to take me to successively more challenging slopes. Starting at age 27, in three brief seasons I went from novice to skiing black diamond moguls in the Canadian Rockies. A large part of that involved blowing up, falling. I fell a lot. At one point I was frustrated and said to him, “I’m doing a lot of falling,” as I thought the falling should decrease with experience. I will never forget his reply, “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” To which I replied, “You will never see anyone fall more than I will!”

And I did. That day I pushed myself harder than ever and fell even more. At the end of the afternoon when I maniacally pushed myself to do a bit of a workout (because skiing was not “workout”) including sit ups, upon reclining for the first one my neck gave out and my head fell back, hitting the floor. It seems I had flipped and tossed myself forward, backward and sideways on the slope such that I pulled my neck muscles and two days later had a case of Wry neck! He later commented to my wife that he had never seen anyone so aggressive in learning on the ski slope. I didn’t think of myself as aggressive, just intense.

Intense could also describe how I build audio systems. I like progress, improvement and I don’t like waiting hundreds of hours to make it happen! That is why I completely ignore “burn in” and build until a system satisfies me. As a system builder I continuously assess not just how a product sounds, but the potential it holds for sounding great. How does this relate to Exogal, the maker of the Comet DAC and Ion PowerDAC? The white paper just published, “EXOGAL Computational DAC and PowerDAC Technology: The Resounding Difference,” by Jeff Haagenstad, Exogal’s CEO, is an interesting read. Mercifully written in audiophile vernacular, it seeks to explain that Exogal aggressively pursued a new DAC topology, choosing to crunch numbers and blow up units until the elegant, applied Calculus produced a new waveform as well as a new form of DAC, the Computational DAC.

I have covered the operational and sonic characteristics of the Comet DAC and Ion PowerDAC previously in my reviews of those products. This article discusses the kicker, the HyperDrive upgrade for the Ion PowerDAC. This is a significant and most welcome improvement to an already great product. Getting right to the bottom line, I fully endorse this upgrade and strongly recommend owners get it. For a limited time Exogal is offering this upgrade for half price, $250, and eventually it will cost $500. A true “no brainer,” even the $500 cost is a good deal for the improvement in sound quality offered.

In a phone conversation, Jeff conservatively estimated the influence of the HyperDrive power supply enhancement, pegging it at a 10% perceptual difference. I like and respect that conservative description. It’s nonsense for companies and individuals to make boasts that the sound quality has improved 50% or is “twice as good.” Ten percent is realistic and significant. Experimentally, a 10% improvement can sound mighty impressive, as does the HyperDrive. Emotionally, the improvement feels much more than 10%, so I do not wish for readers to say, “Well, if it’s only a 10% improvement, is it worth the money?” Yes, it is worth the money, no reservations!

Exogal has made the power supply of the Ion more stout, while the Comet has not been retooled in this upgrade. Let me make clear again, as I did in my reviews, that while the Comet alone is lovely and a most worthy DAC for those who wish to eschew the merry-go-round of DAC technologies, it is enhanced with the addition of the Ion PowerDAC. Noting that both components contain the word DAC, the processing and refinement of the Comet is improved still further with the addition of the Ion. Now that the power supply of the Ion is improved powerfully (yes, even though conservatively said to be a 10% improvement), the Computational DAC technology employed by Exogal is now fully realized. As I had failed spectacularly on the ski slope, Wadia had failed spectacularly to bring a PowerDAC to the market. But in my case skiing black diamond moguls came out of it, and in the case of Exogal the PowerDAC was successfully designed. Following some blowups —the jet of plasma story in the white paper is entertaining —Exogal has succeeded, and done so brilliantly!

It is clear in my reviews that I enjoy the nature of the Exogal sound. I like the information-saturated, smooth, urbane character of the components. I obtained quite excellent sound with more efficient speakers. The caveat previously was with the Kingsound King III electrostatic speakers and Legacy Audio XTREME XD Subwoofers, which the Ion simply could not drive well enough to play at higher levels. The Ion seems utterly incapable of distortion at higher levels, but neither did it supply enough drive to play the speakers and subwoofers above a moderate listening level, nowhere near live level. I had to jack up the subs to their full output in order to get significant LF with the King III. It simply was not an optimized match. Still, the sound was so pure that I used it at times anyway.

Now that the Ion has HyperDrive the experience with this less efficient speaker has been transformed. Now I can get prodigious LF, both from the panels and the subs. The character of the bass is more robust and powerful. But, more than that, there is an attendant improvement across the board. In listening notes I recorded that the treble is more airy and pristine, the coherence of the multiple ESL panels of the speaker better, center imaging more tight, the depth of the sound field extended, and the sense of immediacy elevated.

Prior to the upgrade driving the King III to nearly full-out operation would send the Ion into self-protection mode. Though it happened several times the resilience of the design proved itself in that a restart brought back the unit. With the Ion having HyperDrive installed I spent a fair bit of time with higher listening levels; at the 98 setting, where previously it would silence itself in short order, no such squelching occurred. That is not to say that with HyperDrive it will never self-protect, but it seems to have eliminated the condition in my experience, chiefly because I no longer have to push the level to 98. Much of the time now I have all the level I can handle between 92-94 on the digital readout. The fortitude with which the diminutive PowerDAC can drive speakers is impressive! I’m getting sound that is as forceful and even more refined from the Ion with HyperDrive pushing the King III and EXTREME XD Subs as I did with the Comet paired to beefy monoblock amps (i.e. 200-600wpc)!

I have lived with the Comet and Ion for a couple of years now, and I know their “fitness level.” I am in no position to comment on the dietary and medical considerations of the Keto diet, but I have seen the before and after comparisons in which the adherent’s body looks utterly transformed, the same person but appearing so differently. That is what HyperDrive does for the Comet and Ion. It yields a more gutty, visceral, sultry, and beguiling result and, importantly, a tantalizingly unique sound physique. Of all the DACs I have handled from $3K-10K, none produce the unique aspects of the new Exogal pair. Going to older recordings is an invigorating experience because so much of the performance’s tangential action, so much previously buried information, is revealed that I sit in rapt attention. Most curiously, the subtleties in timbre varying in real time in a performance are revealed in an obvious way, and this is uncommon. It’s a nearly alien experience (the name “Exogal” conveys sound quality out of this galaxy), even after hearing so many beautiful systems, but so right that the mind instantly agrees with it.

TheHyperDrive has reshuffled the performance ranking of the DACs that I have reviewed in the past three years. Most recently, I have reviewed the COS D1 DAC+Pre and the Benchmark Audio DAC3 with Benchmark AHB2 amplifiers. No combination of these integrated DACs with amplifiers has touched the caliber of sound that is being heard with the Comet and Ion with HyperDrive. The benchmark AHB2 also struggled to drive the King III ESL speakers, but now the Ion has had its limitations greatly reduced.

I am not saying that the PowerDAC now has no limitations on output or driving inefficient speakers. Some listeners push well past my comfort zone in terms of how loud they listen. There are also plenty of speakers even more difficult to drive than the King III. Owners may desire a “live” level sound, and at that point the Ion may bump into protection mode once again. I’m not pushing to that point in listening, even though Exogal might wish for me to, because I have no desire to abuse my ears in such a fashion, nor do I recommend others engage in such activity. Where the absolute limits of the Ion lie is beyond what my ears are willing to endure and how hard I wish to push the panel speakers. It is news enough that what was a weaker amp has now become stout enough to satisfy all my preferences for driving the ESL.

Tangentially, the received truth that circulates proclaiming that pro-oriented gear, in this particular case the Benchmark Media components, has the edge on detail retrieval is defeated by the Comet and upgraded Ion. The combo entirely outclasses the aforementioned in terms of field of focus, contrast to black backgrounds when hearing minutia in the recordings, and a sense of hyper realism. The Comet had been received in the community as a bit soft, politely rounding edges. That was much less so when used with the Ion. Now that the HyperDrive is here, the vindication of the Computational DAC is at hand, as it resolves music in exemplary fashion, and with no listening fatigue. This is the most SOTA sounding result with any DAC I have used to date, regardless of cost. To optimize it you will want to pay attention to all cables (USB or SPDIF), power cords and speaker cables. Even though it shouldn’t make a difference, I would love to try an upgraded Exonet Link (HDMI cable without video capabilities) cable.

Color me very pleased, yea, hyper for the HyperDrive! I continued to HyperDrive-ventilate as I switched out two other hybrid speakers for assessment: the PureAudioProject Trio15 Horn 1 and the Vapor Audio Joule White. In both cases these more efficient speakers responded to the Exogal pairing with the best sound achieved from them to date. The PAP Horn 1 offered me more midrange magic than historically. My friend, Dave, who has the Volti Audio Alura, has commented that while the Trio15 is lovely, he missed the midrange presence. I have spent considerable time trying to make this speaker without a midrange driver sound like it has one. Never have I gotten closer than with the new Ion. HyperDrive is pulling forth beauty in the frequency spectrum from mid-bass to upper midrange that I didn’t know the speaker was capable of achieving.

Similar joy awaited me as I switched to the Vapor Joule White. I had to work a bit more for this positive outcome, but the work was rewarded handsomely. The HyperDrive will accentuate all frequencies, and with the RAAL ribbon there was more upper-end energy than I wanted. Anticipating that the super-clean output of the Ion could be leveraged, I doubled up the speaker cables going to the Joule White’s bass posts only. The change is properly described as explosive, a bombastic increase in tight, powerful bass. Now, with a powerful foundation (again, not possible historically with amps from 200-600wpc) the speaker was balanced top to bottom with as much deftness in the bass as the treble. Over the years I had tired of the cabinet/box bass sound — that is, until I heard this! HyperDrive and double speaker cables on the bass posts have revived my zeal for dynamic speakers.

Exogal’s white paper stresses how they have taken a distinct approach to data management in a DAC, and that approach appears to be distancing itself from the field of alternatives. Owners of the Ion, you have an extremely powerful device in your hands; by upgrading you have the opportunity to turn it into one of the very few affordable components that can arguably achieve SOTA sound quality. The Comet and Ion with HyperDrive may be the most forward thinking and performing DAC on the market today.

I heard little at AXPONA this past month that brought this level of sound quality at the price point of the Comet and Ion. One room that achieved this level of information retrieval was the Sonus Faber and Audio Research system set up by Quintessence Audio, but it was edgy and tonally tipped up, even as it was extracting so much detail. It had better yield detail for a system costing over $250K.

With the HyperDrive upgrade the Comet and Ion take top honors in terms of DAC/amp combos I have reviewed. It’s a very good thing for other amp makers that the Ion is captive to the Comet DAC because if this performance were available in an Exogal amp apart from the commitment to the Comet, not only might class A and A/B amps suffer in comparison, even class D would find justification difficult. They had better hope Exogal doesn’t produce a stand-alone amp. That, however, is the entire point; what does it say to the community when the DAC performance asserts itself above the norm, and the amp performance as well? It says the Comet and Ion with HyperDrive are in the running for best of breed. The incessant carping from budget audiophiles that costs have runaway and no one is making fine, affordable electronics in audiophilia is silenced by Exogal. The improvement of the Ion has made the PowerDAC the most exciting technology to grace my room in years! If the first wave of Exogal products can do this, I can scarcely imagine what the company will be doing in five years. This is a technology and company to keep your eyes on. As for me, I’m keeping my eyes on this set, because it won’t be going anywhere.


Copy editor: Dan Rubin

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4 Responses to Audio Blast: Exogal Ion PowerDAC with HyperDrive Upgrade

  1. Doug Schroeder says:

    God’s Joy to all,

    After a few more weeks of working with the Comet and Ion with HyperDrive, I will share here also something I just posted at an audio forum:

    Lately the digital/amplification is crushing it, sensational results with the EXOGAL Comet DAC and Ion PowerDAC with upgrade HyperDrive. I just recently wrote about the upgrade to the Ion, and I did not overstate the improvement. It’s terrific, and makes the Comet and Ion the best DAC/Power scheme I’ve used to date bar none. VERY high end sensibility for about $7K. Not chump change, but more erudite than any big gun separates DAC and amp (stereo or Monos) I have used. I suspect that with time I will best this performance, but in my experience it would take a lot more MSRP firepower to do so.

    One of the outcomes of this upgrade is not only that the low end is supported better in terms of output, but in an uncanny fashion the “rightness” of the weight and macrodyamic impact of the bass is breathtakingly correct. The power scheme of the Comet/Ion with HyperDrive seems to produce such clean and “quick” bass that following the bass line is pure pleasure; no sloppiness, no sloughing along. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. The power delivery to the LF is constant, not seemingly rolling off as with most A or A/B amps. The consistency of output of the lower notes without overdriving higher bass notes is evident. It is a refreshing, gripping listening experience.

    Douglas Schroeder

  2. Douglas Schroeder says:

    God’s Joy to all,

    In my use the Snake River Audio Cottonmouth Power Cords are FABULOUS with these components!!

    Douglas Schroeder

  3. Bob says:

    Hi, Following your review of the Ion I bought one as I already had a Comet for a few years. Recently I got a new cell phone which will not work with the Exogal app., apparently the app is too old to work with a more modern phone. Exogal do not seem interested. Can you tell me what you used to control the app.?

  4. Bob,
    God’s Peace,

    I have no update from Exogal on when the ExoRemote will be updated. I have been using the small plastic remote that came with the unit. I understand that there has been a technical issue with interface of the app and devices, and I hope Exogal finds a solution soon.

    Douglas Schroeder

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