- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Thursday, 15 December 2011 00:00
- Written by Doug Schneider
If, like me, you get a thrill from components with innovative styling, outstanding build quality, advanced features, and great sound, all for a price that an average-income audiophile can afford, then you’ll want to read this review. But before I get into the details of the new Eximus DP1 DAC/preamplifier/headphone amplifier ($2995 USD), I’ll explain how this product came to be.
The Eximus brand’s parent company is April Music, based in South Korea, and the mastermind behind April’s multibrand approach is founder and president Simon Lee, whose ear for sound is as keen as his instincts for the needs of consumers.
April Music will probably be familiar to SoundStage! Network readers; their best-known brand is Stello, a line of very-high-value components that we helped put on the map in 2004, when I reviewed one of their first products, the Stello DA220 DAC. Since then, Stello has made many other outstanding products, including the DA220 Mk.II and, most recently, the Stello Ai500 integrated amplifier, which Philip Beaudette raved about in his January 2010 review, as have others.
April Music also owns Aura, another brand of reasonably priced products, though these emphasize décor-conscious styling for modern environments -- all Aura products are small, with chromed panels and black accents. Philip recently reviewed two such products for SoundStage! Xperience, the Aura Groove integrated amplifier and Aura Neo CD player-DAC.
Eximus is April Music’s most expensive line, though its components still cost far less than the top lines of most other companies. April doesn’t state whether or not the Eximus name was derived from the word eximious, meaning “choice, excellent,” but it seems likely. The Eximus DP1 is accompanied by the new Eximus S1 amplifier, rated to deliver 125Wpc in 8 ohms in stereo mode, or 500W as a bridged monoblock.
April Music’s strategy of different brands for different customers is not unlike the SoundStage! Network’s approach of producing different online publications, each catering to different readers. In audio or journalism, it’s hard, if not impossible, to make one thing that satisfies everyone.
Though it may be three components in one, the DP1 is compact and light, measuring about 8"W x 2.5"H x 11.5"D and weighing less than ten pounds. It’s a fully balanced design, which means that the bulk of its circuitry is duplicated, which reduces noise and distortion. It has single-ended and balanced outputs, the latter being particularly helpful if you’re running long interconnects from it to your amp, which is what a lot of people will do with monoblock amps, each of which is usually placed close to the speaker it drives. Balanced cables are better over long runs because they’re better at rejecting noise.
The DP1 might be small and light, but its case is fairly thick and beautifully machined, replete with the Eximus name and a leaf pattern carved into the top panel, as well as many small holes in the side panels that obviously help dissipate heat, but are patterned to add a certain degree of style. According to Simon Lee, the leaves represent spring -- April, to be precise.
The fit and finish are terrific, the styling first-rate. In fact, what April Music has created here would be fitting for a product that retails for over $5000, not a mere 60% of that. From what I understand, most of the credit for the casework goes to Neal Feay Company Inc. of California, which April Music commissioned to design and make the metalwork for the DP1 and S1. They’ve done an exceptional job. Besides the overall appearance -- the DP1 looks like a compact piece of luxury audio gear -- I particularly liked the shape and feel of the volume control, as well as the buttons, which not only look elegant but feel firm as well.
The solidity of those controls is crucial -- the DP1 has no remote control. Turning it on or off, adjusting the volume, selecting a source, etc. -- all are done using the controls on the front panel. That’s no big deal for me, but those who like to wave a wand from the listening chair might be turned off, no matter how elegant the DP1’s controls look.
The DP1 acts as a preamplifier and headphone amplifier, but probably its most important function is as a D/A converter, which is probably why most people will buy one. It’s not surprising, then, that the company has outdone itself in this regard. The DP1 has six digital inputs -- AES/EBU, TosLink, I2S, USB, and two S/PDIF -- and each can accept signal resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz. That’s plenty of inputs to choose from, but it’s going to be the USB input that many audiophiles will most wonder about, given the rapid growth of computer-based audio.
The DP1’s USB input operates asynchronously, meaning that the word clock is controlled not by any computer the DP1 might be connected to but by the DP1 itself -- a technique used to lower jitter. The input is based on the USB Audio Class 2.0 technology from the UK firm XMOS, and relies on their XS1-L1 processor. Very precise dual clocks are used for the 44.1 and 48kHz sampling frequencies and their multiples (88.2, 96, 176.4, 192kHz). The XMOS system is natively supported by Apple’s OS X (v.10.6.3 and higher), which means you should be able to hook up the DP1 to your Mac computer with a USB cable (supplied) and it will work. For Windows-based systems, you must first install a third-party driver such as Thesyscon (supplied with the DP1, along with instructions on how to install it), then connect the USB cable. I used the DP1 with my Sony Vaio laptop, which runs Windows Vista, the most hated Windows operating system of all due to purported bugs (I’ve never had problems), and it worked flawlessly with J. River’s Media Center 15 playback software via ASIO output. Windows XP and 7 are also supported.
The DP1 uses a Cirrus Logic CS8416 digital-input receiver that has been galvanically isolated from externally generated noise; two Texas Instruments PCM1794A DAC converter chips, one for each channel; and a Texas Instruments SRC4192 asynchronous sample-rate converter that can be bypassed, or set to resample incoming signals to 96 or 192kHz by pressing a button on the DP1’s front panel. Incoming sample rates are indicated by a front-mounted LED beside the Source button -- sample rates of 44.1 or 48kHz are yellow, 88.2 or 96kHz are red, and 176.4 or 192kHz are green.
The DP1’s digital and analog circuits are on discrete circuit boards for better isolation, and those who plan to use the Eximus only as a DAC, not as a preamplifier, can bypass the volume control by pegging the volume to maximum, at which position the attenuator circuitry is switched out of the signal path and the DP1 delivers full voltage (up to 4.6V) to a separate preamplifier.
The DAC section is technically advanced and rich in features, with plenty of digital inputs. But on the purely analog side there are only a couple of inputs: one set of RCA-based singled-ended inputs on the rear panel, and a 1/8” mini-jack input on the front -- far fewer than are provided by the typical preamplifier. There are no balanced analog inputs, though I wish that Eximus had provided at least one set -- I have a lot of balanced gear.
The lack of analog inputs will be a problem for those who have multiple analog source components, and the lack of balanced inputs will be a deal breaker for those who absolutely need at least one pair. On the other hand, the Eximus DP1’s small rear panel probably couldn’t accommodate much more than the connectors already there. I suspect that when the DP1 was being designed, it was targeted at the person who has mainly digital source components and just one analog source, perhaps a tuner or a turntable with a phono stage. As I said, it’s next to impossible to design a component that will satisfy everyone.
According to Simon Lee, the front panel’s 1/4” headphone jack isn’t an afterthought; rather, the DP1 has a dedicated headphone amplifier with circuitry that’s separate from the DAC and preamp sections, again for improved isolation, and was designed to drive headphones rated from 8 to 600 ohms. The preamp output automatically mutes when headphones are plugged in. There’s one more interesting headphone feature: a Filter setting, engaged by pushing a button on the front panel, that boosts the bass frequencies, should your headphones need extra whump down low.
I’m only a casual headphone listener, but I will say that the DP1 drove my Sennheiser HD 580 ’phones exceedingly well, providing great clarity and rock-solid control, as well as all the sonic attributes described below. My focus in this review, though, was in the areas I know well: preamplifier and DAC performance.
The Eximus DP1 may be small, but whether I was listening to it as a DAC-preamp, or as a purely analog preamp fed an analog signal from one of the other DACs I had on hand, it produced a lively, full-bodied sound that was extremely clean, exceptionally dynamic, and very refined. This little component sounded big. There was also a transparency that made the DP1’s overall sound so pristine and crystalline that I had no hesitation in partnering it with the best stereo amp and speakers I’ve ever had in my room: Ayre Acoustics’ VX-R amplifier ($14,950) and Vivid Audio’s Giya G2 speakers ($50,000/pair). The Eximus’s sound not only had outstanding transparency and detail that put me very close to the music and was thoroughly engaging to listen to, its imaging was impeccable -- musicians occupied discrete points on the stage, with rock-solid specificity and great separation of each from the rest.
The DP1 also had punch and sock in the low end that belied its small size. I played the percussion-heavy “Objection (Tango)” from Shakira’s Laundry Service (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony) through the ultra-full-range Giya G2s and was absolutely floored by the force and weight. Impact the DP1 didn’t lack. The ultra-low frequencies that permeate the first two tracks of the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA) lacked not one bit of bass depth. And “The Battle,” from Hans Zimmer’s score for Gladiator (16/44.1 FLAC, Universal), sounded as full and impactful as through any DAC and/or preamp I’ve heard.
Assessing the DP1 as a purely analog preamp was a touch difficult, given its single analog input and limited switching capabilities. In that regard the DP1 doesn’t do much, particularly when compared with something like the similarly priced Simaudio Moon 350P preamplifier, which, at least in terms of features, does pretty much everything under the sun -- and it has balanced inputs and a remote control. So if you want a lot of features, don’t get the DP1. But do look to the DP1 if you don’t need features but want pristine clarity and transparency akin to what you hear from much costlier preamps. The DP1 sounded exceptionally transparent, slightly more so than the feature-rich 350P; the source components I hooked up to its single-ended inputs were faithfully reproduced, with no veiling or obscurity. On the basis of sound alone, I preferred the DP1 to the 350P, mostly because it was so transparent and clean. Evaluated as an analog preamp, the DP1, in a nutshell, gets less-than-spectacular marks for functionality, mostly due to its small number of inputs, but in terms of sound quality, particularly in the areas of clarity, transparency, and dynamics, the DP1 reaches far higher than its modest price would indicate.
But for all aspects of the DP1’s digital section I have nothing but the highest praise. It’s not only full-featured but sounded stellar, approaching the state of the art of digital sound. Equally good results were had via USB connection to my computer, or via an AES/EBU interconnect to Bryston’s BDP-1 digital player, which was also in for review.
The DP1 sounded clean, transparent, and dynamic as all get-out. Music leaped from the Giya G2s in an immediately visceral and exciting way that made it thrilling to listen to. Some of that immediacy and liveliness obviously had to do with the quality of the DP1’s circuitry, but also, I think, because there was no preamplifier in the way -- the path from DAC to amp was that much simpler and, therefore, purer. In high-end audio, less is often more.
Images were sharply delineated on the soundstage, which had excellent width and a good sense of depth. Automatic sample-rate switching worked flawlessly, as would be expected from ASIO-based output via Windows, and the DP1 sounded incredibly good no matter the resolution of recording material I played through it. To me, the jury’s still out on whether high-resolution (i.e., higher than 16-bit/44.1kHz) sounds universally better than CD-quality playback, or, if it does, how high in terms of bit depth and sample rate things need to go. (Many people have noted improvements up to the 88.2 and 96kHz sample rates, but nothing past.) However, I did play back hi-rez material at various sample rates, and it sounded amazing. One fine example is Sara K.’s cover of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” from her What Matters (24/96 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks). Bryston supplies this and a few other demo tracks on a thumb drive that accompanies the BDP-1. Played through the DP1, K.’s voice hovered with uncanny presence and dimensionality on a stage astonishingly well defined, the music emerging from a background of complete silence. It sounded night-and-day better than typical CD does, but I believe a lot of that had to do with the upfront recording quality, and less with bit depth and sample rate. Still, I can’t dispute that the sound of hi-rez material such as this, played through the DP1, exceeded the best I’ve ever heard from any CD-resolution source.
The DP1 can upsample 44.1kHz signals to 96 or 192. In my experience, upsampling occasionally improves the sound -- generally, the highs sound more refined, with a better sense of spaciousness or air. More often it doesn’t sound better, just different, and sometimes it can actually sound significantly worse. Many upsampling systems I’ve heard induce some artificiality in the sound that can become distracting and off-putting; in the worst cases, I’ve heard an almost “phasey” quality akin to what I hear from low-bit-rate MP3s. I also sometimes hear a loss of immediacy and attack, as if the music is being glossed over to the point that some of the dynamic range has gone missing. These problems seem to get worse with non-integer upsampling -- for example, upsampling from 44.1 to 96kHz, or from 48 to 88.2kHz. If you’re going to resample something, integer up- and downsampling seem to work best.
That said, upsampling doesn’t always screw up the sound. Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport (review forthcoming) upsamples with seemingly no ill effects, so it can obviously be done right. On the other hand, the 650D’s stratospheric price of $9000 might be what one has to pay to hear it done right.
I played around with the DP1’s upsampler and found that I could consistently hear a difference. Occasionally, the sound did seem to improve -- that increase in spaciousness and air I mentioned. To the Eximus’s credit, at no time did I hear phaseyness or other weird anomalies, so kudos to the designers. On the other hand, as with almost every other DAC and CD player I’ve reviewed that has user-selectable sample-rate switching, I found that no upsampling provided the starkest, most visceral, most realistic, most transparent sound. For me, these qualities outweighed the tiny benefits of upsampling. As a result, I usually just left it off, leaving intact the signal’s native resolution. But the upsampling option is there, and I applaud April Music for making it user-selectable. I encourage you to try it and judge the results for yourself -- it’s just a matter of pressing a button and listening for what you like.
The Eximus DP1 has plenty to crow about and I found little in it to criticize, so I’ll deal with the latter first. Most notable was the DP1’s lack of analog inputs, particularly a balanced one. Another is the absence of a remote control. These things will be significant shortcomings for some, irrelevant for others. I would like more inputs, but the lack of a remote was of little concern.
Otherwise, I have nothing but praise for what the DP1 provides. Its appearance and build are fitting for a product at twice or even thrice the price; on the digital side, its rich feature set and thoroughly up-to-date technology approach the state of the art; and the DP1’s distinctive, lively, ultraclear sound -- whether it’s used as a DAC-preamp, an analog preamp, or a headphone amp -- is ridiculously good at the price. The DP1 is a modestly priced product that will fit well into a modestly priced system, but can also work surprisingly well in a state-of-the-art rig like mine. High praise indeed.
First Stello and then Aura became well known by including in their lines excellent components ideally suited to varying consumer needs. The outstanding DP1 paves the way for the Eximus brand to do the same. For all that it offers, the Eximus DP1 is eximious: choice, excellent. It is also, like everything made by April Music, an excellent choice.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Speakers -- Vivid Audio Giya G2
- Amplifiers -- Ayre Acoustics VX-R (stereo)
- Preamplifiers -- Simaudio Moon 350P, JE Audio VL10.1
- Digital sources -- Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport, Hegel HD10 DAC, Bryston BDP-1 digital player, Sony Vaio laptop
- Digital interconnects -- AudioQuest Coffee USB, DH Labs D-110 AES/EBU
- Analog interconnects -- Nirvana S-L, Nordost Valhalla
- Speaker cables -- Nirvana S-L
Eximus DP1 Digital-to-Analog Converter/Preamplifier/Headphone Amplifier
Price: $2995 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
April Music, Inc.
3F, Bangbae-Hill Bldg.,
Seocho-Gu, Seoul 137-064
Phone: (82) 2-3446-5561
Fax: (82) 2-3446-5564
May Audio Marketing
2150 Liberty Drive, Unit 7
Niagara Falls, NY 14304
Phone: (800) 554-4517, (716) 283-4434
Fax: (716) 283-6264
259 Edgeley Blvd., Unit 10
Concord, Ontario L4K 3Y5
Phone: (905) 532-9004
Fax: (905) 532-9105