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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.

22 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.

    • Zitoun says:

      Hello Paul,
      Vert interesting experience, did you try it on the kinki exm1+? Which model are you using, I will be happy to know more about your experience after few months.

    • Peter Bowen says:

      Hi Paul, how did you go fitting one of the Staccato dual op-amps (the OSH-DHb?) in the EX-M1. They seem like they might be a very tight fit from my measuring. I currently have all Sparkos. Did you end up with all four singles being Staccato as well? I’m not sure whether to pull the trigger on any/all of them. Postage is a killer to Australia, as well. Kind regards, Peter.

      • Peter Bowen says:

        First off, I was remiss in not thanking Doug for writing this insightful article when I asked a follow up question of Paul re Staccato op amps. Thank you! I own a second hand EX-M1 that had the stock op amps changed to a complete Sparkos set (4 singles and a dual). The detail and dynamics that they extract from my system is exceptional. Every now and then, though, I felt they were almost too clinical on some material and I was interested in trying the Staccatos after Paul’s comments and the AudioFool review. I ended up buying 4 single Staccatos (OSH) but not the dual, as I wasn’t sure if it would fit in the EX-M1. The Staccato singles fit easily in the EX-M1 without requiring risers and after a couple of days of listening I can report that, to my ears, in my system (Audirvana, Cambridge CXN, EX-M1, PMC twenty5.21s and a REL T7/i sub), the result, to date, of 4 Staccato singles with the Sparkos dual is definitely a more musical experience that seems more at ease and more coherent. Trying a Staccato single in the EX-M1 dual slot seems to suggest that both the Staccato dual OSH-DHa and the OSH-DHb will fit in the EX-M1 if the nearby cable loom is tucked out the way. The OSH-DV will not fit due to the orientation of the boards. Will I go all Staccato? Probably not. I like the transient detail the Sparkos dual provides. Anyway, I hope this helps someone – remembering the caveat that all these tweaks are preference, hearing, system and room dependent. Thanks, again, Doug. Have fun.

  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.

  8. Greg,
    God’s Peace,

    It is this kind of reaction that gives me immense satisfaction in writing! Thank you for your feedback!
    If you ever get bored with the sound and want a change, you have the capacity to alter the system. It’s got great flexibility. Also, if you ever change a set of cables or component, or speakers, return to the opamps and try some other combinations. They confer such a powerful change that it is worth the effort.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

  9. Caspar says:

    I have complete set of staccato opamps in my Kinki for a few days now.
    Installation was easy.
    [img]https://i.imgur.com/Mp7Fb8y.jpg[/img]

    • Peter Bowen says:

      Good to hear, Caspar. What are your thoughts on the sound quality? Did you replace the stock op amps, or had you already replaced them with something else? The more I listen to my system (see above), the more I like the Staccatos in the Kinki. They just sound more natural and musical than the Sparkos, to my ear. I also find the soundstage depth seems better. I am now thinking I will probably buy a Staccato dual 🙂 Regards, Peter.

  10. Caspar says:

    Hi Peter,
    sorry for the late reply. I just read your post on stereo.net.au.
    I replaced the stock OPamps, but did not compare tu Sparkos or Bursons.
    The Staccatos sound great. Very natural with a good balance between definition and timbre .

    • Peter Bowen says:

      Thanks for letting me know, Caspar. I have a Staccato dual on the way from Poland at the moment to “complete the set”. You state their attributes very well – “a good balance between definition and timbre”. Regards, Peter.

  11. MikeG says:

    I’ve recently bought EX-M1 and replaced stock opamps to Staccatos (full set). Even from the start the soundstage was deeper comparing to stock. I know the quality of Staccato as I have them in my DAC (the previous version). Still have to wait a bit before the final judgement. There is one thing I need to ask – the heat. With the stock opamps the cover was basically cold, which was quite surprising to me. With opamps replaced – it is warm. Should this be a concern? Do you have any experience with this? I would really appreciate the feedback as I don’t want to damage the amplifier.
    Thanks in advance

  12. MikeG,
    God’s Joy,

    That sounds like a nice experiment! I cannot tell you, however, about the heat question. I have not had issues with any other opamps, and have not tried the Staccato opamps.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

  13. Michael says:

    Hello Douglas,

    I just purchased the Kinki EX-M1+ In speaking with the Sparkos folks about opamps, he stated that the dual opamp in the unit was not in the signal path so I should not bother changing that one. So I just ordered four singles. I’m loving the improvement that it’s brought. Incredible! I also have the Burton’s and the sonic imagery standing by for trial but I’m so smitten with the sound I’m getting now that I can’t bring my self to take the sparkos out!

    I was curious what you thought about that or if you can say if you heard any difference in changing just the dual. Seems pretty likely that you would not have changed just the dual and listened.

  14. Michael,
    God’s Peace,

    It has been a while since I have done opamp rolling in the EX-M1+, but I have some (top secret!) more opamps on the way currently. So, I will be revisiting rolling, and will pay special attention to the dual opamps. I do recall that different combos of dual and single most definitely DID bring substantive changes over whole sets. So, I’m not sure I concur with the idea of leaving out the single opamp. I will revisit it. BTW, I would certainly not avoid changing an opamp simply because it was not in the signal path. That is the same kind of logic that suggests changing power cords are of no use. Anyone who has changed them has heard for themselves what upgrades to the system outside of the signal path can do!

    Oh, yes, I would change just the dual and listen! I did all sorts of such experimentation with DACS prior, and will revisit it with the new opamps on the way in the EX-M1+.

    You have only scratched the surface of what you will be hearing! You have two other sets, and then, if you have the duals of those company’s opamps, you have a lot of hybrid combos to hear! You will be astounded at how much variance comes from such rolling of opamps. Have fun! Be purposeful, and preceise; always know the orientation is correct. Take particular care with the Burson opamps, and perhaps mark them with permanent marker, like I did, otherwise its too easy to place them 180 degrees opposite of correct position.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

  15. armuto says:

    hi, great infos about discrete opmap, but i want to know which one has the wider soundstage? not mentioned in review. please rank wider to narrow. thanks

  16. Armuto,
    God’s Peace,

    The reason I do not discuss width of soundstage is because the opamps do not dramatically influence the width, as in wider/narrower, appreciably. They change dynamics, precision/cleanness, and tonality as the most impactful aspects of sound, but I have not had the experience of greatly widened soundstage by using four different brands.

    The function of width of soundstage is imo controlled by other aspects of the components, and components that do not use socketed opamps. The placement of the speakers and relation of the listening chair to the speakers are the dominant factors in the soundstage. Toe in and Toe out are critical in widening or narrowing the soundstage. I also strongly recommend that if the speakers are short, sitting below ear level, then there should be a lift put under the front to slope the baffle backward and lift the soundstage. Conversely, with very large speakers that may launch much of the sound waves over one’s head, I always place shims/lifts in the back to slope the front baffle downward toward the ears. This greatly improves the cleanness and focus of the center image and will make the soundstage more consistent across left-center-right.

    I have found that the depth of soundstage IS greatly influence by the precision of the opamps, quite literally allowing to hear deeper into the venue/recording space. The size/fullness of instruments on Left/Right also are more generously sized and more densely rendered with superior opamps. But, I do not hear them relocated to a wider position. In fact, I hear more information in the intermediate locations, between Left and Center, and between Right and Center, filled better with superior opamps.

    I suggest you do not seek opamps based on the change to width or narrowness of soundstage. I suggest you seek them for qualities I have discussed above, and use components such as amps, and positioning to attain the soundstage width you desire.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

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