Ex­aSound Audio De­sign e22 Dig­i­tal-to-Ana­log Con­verter (DAC)

NOVO - - PRODUCT REVIEW - Gae­len An­drews

The story of ex­aSound Audio De­sign is an in­spir­ing one - the company was born when elec­tron­ics en­gi­neers, soft­ware de­vel­op­ers, mu­si­cians and en­trepreneurs got to­gether and de­cided to pur­sue their pas­sion for mu­sic. This Cana­dian company fo­cuses ex­clu­sively on build­ing the finest dig­i­tal-to-ana­log con­vert­ers (DACs) for the dig­i­tal audio world that has so firmly cap­tured mu­sic lovers. All ex­aSound hard­ware and soft­ware is de­signed and hand-built at its Toronto, On­tario fa­cil­ity. I first met George Klis­sarov, the pres­i­dent of ex­aSound Audio De­sign, at TAVES in 2013. He was per­form­ing a sem­i­nar about dig­i­tal audio in his show room, of course us­ing one of his dig­i­tal to ana­log con­vert­ers. I was im­pressed with the sound, and more im­por­tantly I saw some­one who’s try­ing to make a pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the audio in­dus­try. The rea­son I say this is sim­ple – ex­aSound is fo­cused pri­mar­ily on sound qual­ity. The fun part of the quest of find­ing your per­fect sys­tem is learn­ing the bal­ance be­tween what con­trib­utes to bet­ter sound, and what con­trib­utes sim­ply to a higher price.

ex­aSound’s mis­sion is to bring un­com­pro­mised sound to audio sys­tems and mu­sic en­thu­si­asts. While at $3,499 its new­est DSD-ca­pa­ble e22 DAC isn’t ex­actly in­ex­pen­sive equip­ment, it in­tends to com­pete with more ex­pen­sive com­peti­tors. There aren’t many DSD-ca­pa­ble DAC’s un­der the $2,000 price point, and in this league the com­pe­ti­tion climbs beyond $9,000. All ex­aSound prod­ucts are de­signed and built in Toronto, On­tario (Canada).

de­sign | fea­tures

One of the most ob­vi­ous de­sign traits of the e22 DAC is that its chas­sis is about 1/3 the width of a con­ven­tional com­po­nent, and it’s in­ten­tion­ally a sim­ple look­ing unit. This is done to save re­sources that can be ap­plied to im­prove sound qual­ity. The chas­sis is made out of alu­minum and feels sturdy. The but­tons have a re­li­able feel, firmly click­ing with a short and pre­cise pop, like mil­i­tary grade but­tons. The e22 has a cool blue dis­play that shows the file types, sam­ple rates, in­puts, and vol­ume.

One of the pri­mary in­ter­nal com­po­nents in a DAC is its chipset. ex­aSound uses ESS Sabre’s flag­ship 9018 chipset at the heart of the op­er­a­tion. It does PCM sam­ple rates from 44,100 Hz to 384,000 Hz, and bi­trates from 16 to 32 bit, and also plays the lat­est DSD files from 2.822 to 12.288 MHz. High res­o­lu­tion files are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly avail­able, and the high­est sam­ple rates are now also com­ing out, so the e22 will stay cur­rent for quite some time.

To re­duce noise, the e22 comes with an ex­ter­nal power sup­ply, and in­ter­nally there are 11 power fil­ter­ing stages for the spe­cific needs of var­i­ous in­ter­nal com­po­nents. In­puts in­clude a sin­gle USB and two S/PDIF: coax­ial and op­ti­cal. Tim­ing the audio sig­nal and re­duc­ing jit­ter, are 3 os­cil­la­tors tim­ing the audio bits that are ac­cu­rate to 0.082 ps (1 ps = 1 tril­lionth of a sec­ond). Out­puts con­sists of gold plated XLR and RCA audio out­puts, a head­phone out­put with a ded­i­cated in­ter­nal am­pli­fier and a 12V trig­ger for another de­vice.

ex­aSound pro­vides its own cus­tom ASIO soft­ware driver with the e22. This soft­ware es­sen­tially al­lows a proper “hand­shake” be­tween your com­puter’s op­er­at­ing sys­tem (Win­dows or OS X) and the e22. There were a few set­tings to change with the JRiver Me­dia Cen­ter com­puter play­back soft­ware, but once it was set up, I could seam­lessly play any PCM or DSD file back to back. Firmware and soft­ware driv­ers are one area that can be over­looked when choos­ing a DAC, so it’s worth look­ing into how well it will in­te­grate with your com­puter and audio sys­tem. ex­aSound has evolved with its firmware and soft­ware with their lat­est e22, which im­proves re­li­a­bil­ity and sound qual­ity. The e22 of­fers vol­ume con­trol, and the ASIO driver doesn’t use bits to re­duce vol­ume, en­sur­ing full sound qual­ity at all vol­ume lev­els. To achieve the clean­est sig­nal path, one could con­nect the e22 di­rectly to a power am­pli­fier.

per­for­mance

I in­serted the e22 DAC into my sys­tem, be­tween the PC and the Si­mau­dio i-5 in­te­grated am­pli­fier, con­nect­ing them with the Nor­dost Red Dawn LS un­bal­anced ca­bles. Car­das Clear Light ca­bles con­nected the am­pli­fier to my beloved Brys­ton Mid­dle T loud­speak­ers.

The e22 is a spe­cial piece of equip­ment. It of­fers a level of re­al­ism with a pal­pa­ble pres­ence of mu­si­cians and air within the record­ing space. It is able to pro­duce that air be­tween vo­cals and in­stru­ments

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