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Audio Blast: Return of the Discrete Opamp Roller!

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Opamp-rolling basics

All of the brands of 8-pin DIP opamps used in this review come in two forms, Single and Dual. The Eastern Electric DACS use a pair of each; two Singles and two Duals are required for the DACs to operate. The Pin 1 orientation for placement is critical, and wrong orientation will likely result in damage to the component. The audiophile bears responsibility to familiarize him/herself with the protocol of removal and insertion of opamps. In addition, proper location on the circuit board of Single and Dual opamps is necessary. Each must be used in the proper location inside the component, and they cannot be swapped. Both orientation (determined by Pin 1) and location of the type of opamp must be observed for every opamp.

Most discrete opamp manufacturers’ Single and Dual models are easily identified by a single small circuit board (Single), or two of them in parallel (Dual). Burson’s previous generation of discrete opamps was bare, making it easy to determine which were single and which were dual. Now they both come encased in a tiny plastic housing bearing miniscule lettering. In less than half an inch of space lie two lines of identification: “V6 Vivid Single” or “V6 Classic Dual.” This strikes me as an accident waiting to happen. The lettering is so puny that when I work with these opamps, I have to use my prescription glasses to ensure I am placing them properly. Thankfully, color scheme also is used as an identifier, so that when reaching for the red-colored housing I know I am using the “Vivid” version and when I snag the orange housing, I have in my hands the “Classic” version.

Still, with the Burson V6 series the identification of a Single or Dual requires scrutiny, so I removed all doubt by using a permanent marker to make a big “S” (Single) or “D” (Dual) on the housing to simplify usage. Counter-intuitively, the logo and lettering are not on the Pin 1 side. Pin 1 is located by a vertical indentation running the length of the housing on the backside of the housing.

Other methods of quick identification of Pin 1 location are used for opamps and circuit boards. Any of the following may be used: silk screened “Pin 1,” very tiny, on underside of Sonic Imagery opamps (make sure Pin 1 is oriented properly on the circuit board when you turn discrete opamps over!); silkscreened v-shaped indentation in the outline surrounding the socket on the circuit board; half-circle cutout at the base of the opamp socket on the circuit board or opamp; or an identifying mark on the top of the opamp (Sparkos uses a chunky right angle marker on its top in the corner over the pin 1 location).

In addition, socketed risers, which can be stacked, elevate the opamp to clear lower interfering objects. Think of risers as floors of a building; you can turn a two-story into a four-story building and get the bulk of the opamp up high enough to clear other parts on the circuit board. All discrete opamps can use the risers, but I warn not to absolutely rely upon their orientation as an indicator of Pin 1 location, for it is possible for a riser to be put on the opamp 180 degrees out of proper orientation. Do not simply slap a riser onto an opamp! If all of half-circle cutouts on the socket, opamp and risers line up, you have it right.

All these details can sound daunting, as though it is far too complex, but it is not. These markers are easily learned and simple to line up in proper orientation. It is a physically easy task, but demands concentration and precision if you are doing several rolling sessions for comparison. As when hooking up cables to components I always triple check the installation. If you need more education on this, my prior articles discuss this in depth.

In summary, all Single and Dual opamps must be in their proper places, and Pin 1 must be properly oriented. NOTE: The sockets in the component may be turned at a right angle, or even reversed 180 degrees, to the front of the component. The Single and Dual opamps are not necessarily oriented parallel to each other. Do not make assumptions about the location of Pin 1! For example, the Kinki EX-M1+ Integrated requires four Single opamps, and their Pin 1 location is oriented 90 degrees to the right of the front face of the unit. Only one Dual opamp is used, and the Pin 1 location is oriented directly toward the front face of the unit.The orientation of the opamps in the Minimax DAC and the Minimax DAC Supreme are not the same. Pin 1 location for all the sockets in the Minimax DAC are 90 degrees to the right of the front face of the unit, while Pin 1 location for all sockets in the DAC Supreme are toward the front face of the unit. My best advice to avoid a mishap: do your homework before you roll.

 

Rolling along

In Darwin’s Doubt Stephen C. Meyer discuses combinatorial inflation, a phrase coined by mathematician David Berlinski to describe how, with the addition of characters, the possible number of combinations “inflates” quickly in an exponential fashion. It is a very strong mathematical objection to a materialist explanation how life arose. Due to combinatorial inflation there is a vanishingly small chance that matter and natural selection over time created the specified combinations of over 1,000 bases that the average gene requires, and over 300 amino acids that the average protein has. They must be in precisely correct order – one sequence among the myriad of options, and the combinatorial inflation of that string of characters yields a probabilistic challenge so astronomical that it is safe to say it will not occur by the means Neo-Darwinism credits (Meyer, p. 175).

Not nearly as ambitious a combination as that for genes and proteins, my rough calculation is that there are 96 possible combinations of discrete opamp configurations with the two components and three brands of opamps under review. Each of the EE DACs takes one pair of Single and one pair of Dual opamps to function. I have three complete sets of discrete opamp Singles and Duals from each manufacturer for the DAC alone. The Kinki Studio EX-M1+ takes four Singles and one Dual. I have two complete sets of discrete opamps for the integrated from two manufacturers.

Initially it seemed that the EX-M1+ had fewer discrete opamp rolling options, that is until I asked the resident tech, Alvin, at Vinshine Audio in Singapore whether I could mix and match the individual Single opamps used to make each channel’s pairs. Answer, yes! Consequently, there are nearly as many opamp options for the EX-M1+ as there are for the DACs.

The EX-M1+ requires four Single opamps, a pair per channel. Thankfully the pairs are isolated clearly to allow for easy identification, as opposed to a symmetrical shape or row of four. I thought it would be cool if I could mix each pair, i.e., a Sonic Imagery Single and Sparkos Single as a pair for the left channel, and another set for the right channel. Kinki Studio presumes that the owner will use four identical Single opamps to form the two pairs, but I didn’t have to! Each pair can be hybrid, using a combination of two different brands (but always the same type, Single) of opamps. Be aware that this is not officially endorsed by Kinki Studio and likely would void your warranty. Opamp rolling is largely considered a do at your own risk activity, but as long as you are careful to follow the two rules of location and Pin 1 orientation it is among the least risky activities in the DIY world.

In the Eastern Electric DAC (and I presume also in Burson components) opamps must be swapped by identical pairs only, i.e., if the DAC currently has a pair of Burson Single opamps and Sonic Imagery Dual opamps, on a whim I might try Sparkos Labs Single opamps and Burson Dual opamps. But it is not possible to hybridize the pairs as can be done with the integrated amp. Doing so would by necessity skew the sound between Left and Right channels.

 

Strong reactions expected

You will likely have one of two reactions to all this: Cool or Yuck. It takes a certain kind of analytical, inquisitive mind to relish such activity. If you snort, “What a waste of time,” then you have my sympathies, because you will never experience the glory of such an affordable, simple method to supercharge your component. If, conversely, you are excited by the idea that for $722 MSRP for all three sets, excluding shipping, you can have a permanent system tuning method that will work for any system you build, then, my friend, you have found a sonic gold mine! With these three sets the audiophile could conceivably find the ideal combination of opamps for both a DAC and the Kinki Studio EX-M1+ Integrated Amplifier. As the EX-M1+ requires four Single opamps, the additional two Single opamps to facilitate rolling the EX-M1+ would cost as follows: 2x Sparkos Single = $78; 2x Sonic Imagery Single = $98; 2x Burson V6 Vivd/Classic = $70. Consequently, with the components under review the cost of outfitting both with ultimate flexibility would be $820 or less. That is an affordable and powerful system tuning option when compared to other methods of altering an audio system’s sound.

There are three ways you can go about using discrete opamps. The simplest option is to select one manufacturer’s set and be content with the assurance that when they are rolled into the unit there will be an improvement holistically to the sound. A more involved method is to procure all the manufacturers’ pairs of Single and Dual opamps from Sonic Imagery, Sparkos and Burson and compare them. A preferred set will reveal itself and you will feel like a champ! The most involved activity is the full out mixing and matching, which I have found consistently brings the best results overall, but it takes lots of time.

Speaking of time, I do not wait around for magical transformations to audio systems. After more than a decade of attempting to make headway by working with it, I now pay zero attention to burn in. When I want change, I make it happen. I do not spend my life pining for a sound I want, I obtain it. Regarding these opamps, initially I listen long and carefully to each manufacturer’s set to learn the character of the opamps. I play inordinate numbers of test tracks in comparison to resolve in my mind what each brand does. (This article does not contain descriptions of particular pieces of music because the influence of the opamps is universal; all music is influenced as described in regards to the opamps.)

However, when I mix and match, I move things along. If, after several tracks I am intimately familiar with, I do not hear the bass, midrange, soundstage, clarity, dynamics, low-end volume and cleanness, etc. I feel I should hear, that permutation is dead to me. There are many, many variations and the probability of a better one is almost assured. I keep notes on the precise location of all discrete opamps, types and brands for every arrestingly beautiful result. I then have a shootout between them. At some point I call it quits, when I find a set that seems to universally improve all systems. If, at some point, I have changed the system enough that the combination of discrete opamps does not seem gratifying, I experiment with some combinations that I enjoyed.

16 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.

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