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Audio Blast: Return of the Discrete Opamp Roller!

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List of Opamp articles by Doug Schroeder (reverse chronological):

It was a sad turn for opamp rolling audiophiles when both Morningstar Audio, owned by Bill O’Connell, and Alex Yeung of Eastern Electric closed their businesses. Bill was the importer of the Eastern Electric DACs that offered good build quality and that were also good for opamp rolling. The Eastern Electric line of DACs with socketed opamps were valuable as quick and easy DIY opamp rolling projects to improve performance and tune systems. I relished the time spent on maximizing the Minimax DACs, and you can read about it here at Dagogo.com. Thankfully, I own two of the Minimax DACs, a Plus and a Supreme. You can bet I am supremely careful how I roll opamps in them, for there is no longer EE support for them.

Allow me to vent for a moment about a dysfunctional situation in audiophile land. We have shiploads of mediocre cables hawked at all price points. We have a ridiculous number of products meant to do little more than elevate and isolate components, or simply hold them, most with meaningless claims. We have more than enough nonsense products that only the insecure and foolish would buy. Meanwhile, the potential to significantly improve audio systems through discrete opamp rolling languishes, yea is practically dead except for the DIY community. For a pittance compared to exorbitant tweaks, discrete opamps can alter a system’s performance solidly. In addition, they come in a variety of brands and models, like cables, so that they are ideal both in terms of convenience and efficacy to contour systems to the owner’s taste.

Back in 2011-2012, I went on a binge of discrete opamp rolling. Opamps are cheap relative to their efficacy, and at the time I made sure that beyond the samples sent for review I purchased several more for use in my office system. At that time, I recommended the enthusiast simply buy all brands reviewed: Sparkos Labs, Burson Audio and DEXA NewClassD. Together they were a toolkit to tune an audio system easily and inexpensively, one of the most affordable ways to do so. Thankfully, it wasn’t the last of that particular good advice I can give.

The better part of a decade has passed and I still often use the Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Supreme in my system. I can make any speaker system perform admirably by working with the discrete opamps. There seems an almost universal neglect of this method among manufacturers in helping audiophiles enhance their systems. Truly wretched sounding IC opamps are stuck in most components. If audiophiles would hear through comparison how much sonic degradation was happening inside their supposed ultimate build $10K component because of cheap opamps they would be livid. The fact that this is discussed so infrequently is evidence that the average audiophile has no clue how much these devices alter the sound. Others take the stance that because they “think” it would not matter so much, therefore it is not that important — a lazy attitude.

It appears that this easy method is largely ignored in the domestic two-channel HiFi industry. Look at the mind-numbing array of dubious products associated with analogue, and yet supposedly artisanal component makers can’t be bothered to push the limits when it comes to opamps. I understand one reason they won’t, and it’s a very good one. There are plenty of less competent persons out there, people who don’t bother to read directions or follow them, or who try adjustments to systems when in an altered state, i.e. drunk, or the system is on…Then there are those who make a mistake inserting an opamp and simply deny responsibility because they are not willing to pay for repair, foisting onto the company the cost of their mistake. If not for such liabilities more companies might offer the wonder of socketed opamps. For now, we will simply have to endure the barrenness of the landscape, hoping someday to emerge upon a lush world where the pleasure of easy-to-roll opamps is common.

 

Cheap offers opportunities

Integrated circuit (IC) socketed opamps cost a fraction of discrete opamps, and typically have relatively poor sonic characteristics. I just ranted about companies not using socketed opamps and a primary reason is because a company that builds a quality component will solder the connections, not use socket (unsoldered) connections. Consequently, in building a higher quality component, these manufacturers inadvertently are depriving enthusiasts of the potential to far more significantly improve their component. The manufacturers can boast that the entire board is soldered in premium fashion, all the while the device, the opamp that has been soldered in, can be second rate. It’s a catch-22 situation; the component maker does not want to open themselves up to accusations of building sloppy, slapped together products, but in doing so with opamps the average audiophile who does not have high de-soldering and soldering skills is cut out of the action.

One of the insider secrets of HiFi is that there is not a manufacturer who will admit to using cheap parts, but many do. In an effort to keep costs down corners are cut, and IC opamps are a discreet way of doing so. Many manufacturers have determined that it is not important enough to use discrete opamps. Consequently, while the component may be quite reliable, it is not necessarily an extreme performer — in spite of the brand’s advertising claims. That is not to say it is impossible to build an extreme component without discrete opamps, but in my experience using them would make the product far better.

There are still companies trying to fan the flame of discrete opamps, among them Burson Audio, which makes not only discrete opamps but also audiophile components. One of their latest offerings that is “opamp rolling ready” is the Conductor Reference 3 Headphone Amp/Pre Amp/DAC ($1,799). It sports a pair of the ESS9038 DAC chips for DSD 512, as well as 38-bit 786kHz audio. If you aren’t quite ready to reach for the top shelf components, you may want to try the Burson Playmate Headamp/DAC/Preamp at $399, as it also offers discrete opamp rolling.

 

The opamps and components under review

During my discrete opamp foray years ago I worked with NewClassD, Burson Audio and Sparkos Labs. I contacted these participants recently and heard from Sparkos and Burson. In addition, I discovered a new participant, Sonic Imagery Labs, via recommendation from an audio forum.

Part of the resurgence in interest for me has been the discovery of a rather unique component offering further exploration of opamp rolling. That most helpful forum participant who recommended Sonic Imagery Labs discrete opamps also mentioned the Kinki Audio EX-M1 Integrated Amplifier as a product having socketed opamps! Looking into it I found that this integrated has been updated to the EX-M1+ model that adds operational flexibility over the original design. The tantalizing prospect of rolling not only a DAC but also an integrated amplifier in one system was too much to ignore; a  review of the EX-M1+ will follow shortly.

In a rare turn of events, the exact same models of discrete opamps are used in the Kinki EX-M1+ Integrated as in the Eastern Electric DACs. This allows fluidity in swapping opamps between these components, and it also greatly reduces the risks of inserting of an inappropriate opamp for these components. It is an ideal scenario for extending my exploration of discrete opamps.

8 Responses to Audio Blast: Return of the Discrete Opamp Roller!


  1. Mike says:

    I have a degree in electronics and when I see the word discrete used along with opamp, it means it is a circuit that is built from individual, separate components, as opposed to one that is integrated. You are speaking of one that is socketed as opposed to one that is soldered in place. Electronics tech or engineer doesn’t use the term “discrete” in this way. Furthermore, if the opamp has sufficient GBP and high slew rate, low noise floor, to accurately reproduce signals in the audio band, using a better, more expensive component will likely not improve the sound. If you start with a BB OPA2134, which is more than plenty in the aforementioned specs, replacing will only make your wallet thinner… nothing else.

  2. Mike,
    God’s Peace,

    I will let you take up your concern about the nomenclature of these opamps with the three companies reviewed, as they all refer to their own products as “discrete” opamps. I believe my references in the article are correct, as I do not confound the terms “discrete” and “socketed”.

    I have no interest in debating what I have recommended. If you wish to move toward state of the art sound, and $200 is too much to spend to put your opinion to the test, then we do not have much else to discuss. 🙂

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

  3. Mike says:

    Doug,
    Sorry, my mistake.
    Mike

  4. YYw says:

    Oh yes! Thank you Douglas for doing this discrete opamp thing! Also, mind sharing a little on what you think about the EX-M1+? Particularly the sound signature & depth of sound stage?

  5. YYw,
    God’s Peace to you,

    Thank you for your kind comment. There will soon be a full review of the EX-M1+ here at Dagogo.com

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

  6. Paul Letteri says:

    Having heard these opamps one not even mentioned ,and in my opinion and others is
    A Newer company from Poland selling these on Ebay. Staccato which use In part Jfets in the input and output for higher output current running in pure class A with very nice large verticals heat sinks .
    Between 100-150 hours to run these in . These were the clear winner everythung just sounds more real
    Waller richer and detailed. I had thought previously the Sparkos was best not even their new pro
    Series are as good .and they plan on coming out with. A reference model after the new year possibly.

  7. Greg says:

    Fantastic article! Thank you for taking the time to do this and explain the process as well as the sound characteristics of each manufacturer’s op amps. I tried all three and ultimately settled on a full set of Burson V6 Classics for my EX-M1. They sound great with my Klipsch speakers and give me the sound I was wanting.

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