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OPPO Digital Sonica DAC Review

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OPPO Digital of Menlo Park, California continues to amaze me with the build quality and sound performance of their products, for ridiculously inexpensive prices. From their very first DVD players, their products have been overachievers and they’ve caught everyone off guard with how good the audio sections of the players sound. Want to know how good they are? Next time you’re at an audio show, notice how many OPPOs there are in rooms with systems that cost well over $50,000. Another way to know how good they are is to look at who is choosing to modify them.

 

Description

The newest product in the OPPO family of digital audio products is their Sonica DAC; it is the company’s first dedicated DAC/music streamer. Over the past few years, many manufacturers have added similar products to their lineups, so it’s no surprise that OPPO, given its wide consumer appeal, would take the opportunity to throw its hat into the ring as well. The Sonica DAC merges audiophile-grade performance with the latest network streaming technology for only $799. Like the BDP-105D USB DAC/Streaming Blu-ray player I reviewed back in June, the Sonica DAC is built like the proverbial tank and everything about the packing shouts high-end audio.

It’s hard to believe, but the Sonica DAC really does improve on the highly regarded audio performance of previous OPPO products, such as the BDP-105 universal player which I own. One of the ways they achieve this is by upgrading the DAC chipset to the flagship ESS Technology ES9038PRO 32-bit HyperStream DAC. This is the flagship of the ESS SABRE PRO series. The OPPO web page says, “the ES9038PRO sets a new benchmark for audio excellence with its best in class 140 dB of dynamic range.

Another area where the Sonica DAC has been improved is in its power supply. The audio circuitry is now powered by what they say is “a massive toroidal power transformer, which offers superior efficiency and significantly lower exterior magnetic field interference compared to traditional laminated steel core transformers.” The Sonica DAC’s audio output path is fully balanced from the DAC chip all the way to the XLR outputs, and the RCA output signal is converted from the balanced output.

The Sonica DAC can be used as a traditional DAC or as a high resolution network player that can decode audio files up to 24-bit 192 kHz from formats such as FLAC, WAV, and Apple Lossless, as well as DSD64 files from DLNA servers and connected USB drives. When I looked at all those specifications I thought I’ll never figure all this out. It continues to amaze me how nervous young guys are about playing vinyl and how uncomfortable guys over 50 are with computer audio. I must admit though that it was pretty straight forward when I started to hook the OPPO Sonica DAC up and before long I had music playing off the network and streaming from my phone. It took me a little effort to get Tidal up and running, but I managed to do it by actually reading the directions.

One of the things that makes the Sonica easy to use is that it is controlled by a dedicated app. It works on smartphones and tablets, allowing you to easily find and access content from DLNA servers, connected USB drives, and streaming services such as Tidal and Spotify. It worked with smartphones and tablets running Android or iOS.

Listening

If you’re a regular reader you know I’m first and foremost a vinyl guy, but good FM radio is one thing that I miss in the 21st century. I don’t like satellite radio; its programmed playlists get boring really fast and its sound is boring, also. One of the things that excites me most about the Sonica DAC is that I can access and stream music from my computer, phone and services such as Tidal. In most ways this  satisfies my need for a radio. This use for the product lets me stream albums and decide if I want to buy them or just put it on when I’m doing other stuff and still get good sound. Like a great FM tuner was in the day, the Sonica’s sound quality is good enough for me to really enjoy the experience of listening to streamed music.

The OPPO Sonic DAC offers more value than any FM tuner on a number of levels. For one thing, even with the very best FM tuners you were at the mercy of the station’s playlist. With the new streaming DACs like the Sonica you can choose to listen to a playlist of the genre of music you want to hear. So, you still get the chance of hearing music you already like with the possibility of hearing new music you might like. This is where it’s much like listening to FM. The big difference comes in that you can choose specific albums or artist you want to hear. An even bigger difference is you can use it for your main music source by connecting it to a transport, a dedicated digital music player or a computer.

In my review of the Oppo BDP-105D I said, “The biggest compliment I can give the Oppo BDP-105D is that it is the only digital player I have had in the digital/video system that I have been able to sit and listen to for a long periods of time without deciding to go downstairs and listening to the reference system.” With the Sonica DAC this was still true, but the only problem was I couldn’t wait to take it down and put it into the reference system.

ESS Sabe ES9038PRO

 

Listening in my Reference System

So, how did it sound in my system? In a word, wonderful! One of the things I love about vinyl is how easy it is to listen to for hours on end.

Well, the Sonica DAC is very listenable. Truth is with well recorded digital it is as listenable as any digital system I have had in my system., but with some of the poorer recorded music that I love I still find vinyl easier to listen to. No, the OPPO does not sound as listenable as my vinyl rig. It sounds different from analog with its own strengths and weaknesses. What I am saying is that the Sonica DAC was a revelation for me. I didn’t know streaming digital, High-Rez files, or CD quality files could sound this good in my system.

I was also very impressed with the Sonica’s ability to let me become emotionally involved in the music. This is an area that makes or breaks it when I consider whether or not I’ll buy a certain piece of equipment. I just have no interest in listening to music that doesn’t move me. The Sonica DAC passes this test with flying colors. I can hear everything with clearer voices, strings, and horns all sound, so clear that I can hear all the air and nuances that make them sound so real. The air and nuances of music is where I feel the Sonica DAC bettered the 105D.

Voices, strings, and horns all sound so natural through the OPPO Sonica DAC, with all the air and nuances that allows them to sound so real. I highly value the ability of equipment such as the DAC to let me hear the air and nuances of music; it helps a system to sound more alive. The dynamics, scale, and size were stunning; as good as any digital source I have heard. As dynamic as the system was, the micro-dynamics were equally impressive.

The Sonica DAC on really well-recorded material can hold its own with any format with bass reproduction. Having said that, I must mention that with at least 75% of the digital recordings I have, the bass still seemed to have a one-note quality and lacked in air compared to my vinyl system. Admittedly, my vinyl system cost over $30,000 compared to $800 for the Sonica DAC. Still, this is no reflection on the Sonica DAC but the sad state of many digital recordings.

The OPPO’s dynamics and scale are stunning, it can create a truly big sound with a driving lifelike pace to the music. The micro-dynamics are quick and have better PRaT than most digital sources. The Sonica DAC has a lifelike, coherent soundstage, the kind of soundstage I love; it is musically and emotionally satisfying while never distracting you from the performance. It occupies space, not one that floats around in thin air. The Sonica DAC images precisely but not in a way that brings attention to itself.

Sonica-DAC-inside

Conclusion

The Oppo Sonica streaming DAC is one of the most versatile, best sounding digital sources I have ever used. Add to the fact that it only costs $800 and that just about makes me doubt my sanity!

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4 Responses to OPPO Digital Sonica DAC Review


  1. David Snyder says:

    Great review. Sounds like you had a lot of fun with the Sonica DAC. It’s definitely on my list of things to audition. I do wish that Oppo would consider implementing the software necessary for a device like this to be Roon Ready. That said, I suppose you could easily attach a Raspberry Pi running DietPi and Roon Bridge to the Sonica via USB and be all set.

    I may have missed it, but what source material were you feeding the Oppo while you had it in your main system, and what device did you use to do that. Was a DLNA server (like JRiver) or a directly attached PC or CD transport? … or some combination of these? Thanks.

  2. Rich Sacks says:

    Tidal connection-cable or wireless? NAS? PC or Mac? So many details missing here. Always enjoy Jack Roberts reviews. David Snyder’s questions deserve answers and call for a Part II follow-up.

  3. Rod Welst says:

    I do not get it, how can two reviews of the Oppo Sonica DAC be so drastically different as to the sound of the DAC? You paint a very positive overall sonic portrait of the Sonica …

    And then from whathifi.com this Sonica DAC review…

    Quote: “The low frequencies fall a little flat through the Oppo.

    The edges aren’t as precise, the rhythm isn’t snappy or fluid, and the anthemic tune loses its rousing impact as a result. Dynamically, the Oppo leaves something to be desired.”

    Read more at https://www.whathifi.com/oppo/sonica-dac/review#5WM18zMaEpfcZVRd.99

    I just wanted you to know, I am a owner of a new Sonica DAC and not a Troll trying to make trouble…

    I made the purchase mostly from your review …

    • Dear Rod,

      Thank you for your readership and email. Yours is a very good question that warrants a bit of answering.

      At the same time Jack was reviewing the product, Oppo Digital also sent one to me for auditioning per my request. While I have the $8k Bricasti Design M1 dual-mono DAC and the $35k Esoteric K-03/G-01 combo as my digital reference, I found the $799 Oppo Digital Sonica DAC to be the other overachiever of 2017, next to the $499 Audioengine HDP6 bookshelf speakers.

      Far be it from us to dispute the findings of other publications, but we all look at things a bit differently. The findings of What Hi Fi? is not invalid and where there are differences in system characteristics and personal perspectives, there will be different findings. In my opinion, there aren’t many budget components of such competent intrinsic performance parameters as the Sonica DAC that warrants use of far more expensive systems for it to flaunt its potentials.

      A tip: Try the Sonica DAC’s WiFi streaming!

      Sincerely,

      Constantine Soo

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