At Long Last! Listen To Your SACDs Through an Outboard DAC
When Sony/Phillips Announced their new Super Audio CD format (SACD) in 1999/2000, Sony opened a marketing office in NYC to advertise and promote the new format. They reached out to a number of audio writers (including, yours truly) with the “gift” of a new Sony SCD-777ES player (listing for $3500) and a “subscription” to all SACD releases as they came out – regardless of label! As a result of that, and the many SACDs that I received from companies such as Telarc and Reference Recordings, etc, after Sony shut that office down (not to mention the ones that I bought myself), I have hundreds of SACDs!
For years, I used my SCD-777ES player to play them and enjoyed what I thought was great SACD playback. After all, the Sony turned out to be, at the time, the best regular CD player that I had heard. Why wouldn’t the SACD portion of the player be just as exemplary? Then, about five years ago, the 777 stopped being able to play SACDs. It still played regular CDs but it wouldn’t even “recognize” the SACD layer in the dual layer discs and the early Sony SACDs, which were single layer (and culled mostly from the Columbia Records catalogue) wouldn’t play at all. I was devastated. I had recently bought a really cheap Sony BDP-BX37 Blu-Ray player on E-Bay and when I subsequently discovered that it would also play SACDs, I was ecstatic! Sadly the euphoria didn’t last long as this Blu-Ray player’s SACD playback was terrible and certainly not satisfying to anyone who was used to the SCD-777ES.
In the meantime I had taken the 777 ES to the Sony warranty repair shop in my area, and was told that the problem was that the laser LED for the SACD portion of the player had failed and there were no more spares (an old story with Sony) as they made only a certain number of spare laser assemblies and this turned out to be a weak spot in the player’s design. In other words, almost all of the 777s either had failed or will fail in this manner! So the player could not be fixed (anyone interested in buying that brick from me?).
The Blu-Ray player sounded so mediocre playing SACDs, that I essentially stopped listening to them. My SACD copies of Miles Davis’ “Kinda Blue” and “Sketches of Spain,” Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out,” Bernstein’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and all the other Columbia SACDs that I own couldn’t even be ripped to iTunes or JRiver’s Media Player because these were single-layer discs with no Red Book CD layer.
When I obtained an Oppo UDP-205 media player, I was heartened because the player used a state-of-the-art DAC section built around the top-of-the-line ESS “SaberDAC” ES9038PRO DAC chip and it supported SACD. Again, I was disappointed. The SaberDACs are of the Delta-Sigma variety and are (in my humble opinion) far inferior to many of the modern R2R (ladder DAC) designs for PCM, but due to their single-bit architecture should be perfect for SACD. So, I don’t understand why the SaberDAC Pro sounds so mediocre in this regard. Both the Schiit Yggdrasil and the super-cheap Schiit Modi Multi-bit DACs performed rings around the ES9038PRO chips in the Oppo on PCM, but alas, none of the Schiit DACs support SACD. The Oppo, while it does support SACD, it really doesn’t sound all that much better than my cheap Sony Blu-Ray player.
Out of the Box Thinking
I was contemplating writing-off my entire SACD collection because, let’s face it, who wants to listen to SACDs that sound, essentially no better (albeit somewhat different) than their Red Book versions? I was pretty much at a loss. When I received the Denafrips Pontus DAC, I was interested to note that all of the company’s DACs support the I2S digital interconnect protocol via HDMI. I also noted that the Oppo had two HDMI outputs. ‘VIDEO’ was, of course, for connection to one’s TV for playing Blu-Ray discs and DVDs. But I found the second one was labeled ‘AUDIO’ and that intrigued me. I also knew that even though no SACD player (to my knowledge) ever broke-out the DSD signal (the actual SACD digital format) from any player, that DSD signal was available as part of the HDMI digital video protocol.
That got me thinking. I wondered if I could just connect an HDMI cable from the AUDIO output of the Oppo directly to the HDMI input of the Pontus DAC. Even though I really didn’t expect it to work, I figured that it was worth a try. It couldn’t harm anything, and who knew? I might “get lucky”. Well I wasn’t disappointed when it didn’t work, after all that’s what I suspected would be the outcome.
But, I was still intrigued with the possibility. The fact remained that the DSD signal from an SACD was available on the HDMI interface. But further reading of the Pontus manual told me that the HDMI input was dedicated solely to I2S digital signals. Was there any way to convert the HDMI from a Blu-Ray player to I2S? I went on E-Bay and searched for “HDMI to I2S”. My ad hoc search yielded a series of circuit boards and complete units that took an HDMI output from video sources and output I2S over HDMI as well as coaxial and optical SPDIF! All of the units and boards seemed to be the same thing from different vendors. The bare circuit boards were around US$45, and the complete, packaged units (same circuit) seemed to be US$55-$60. I ordered one of the complete units from China (naturally) and waited for it to arrive.
Here’s the URL for the E-Bay page containing all of the converters from different vendors: https://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p2499334.m570.l1312&_nkw=i2s&_sacat=0
Connecting the Oppo Through the I2S Converter Box to the Denafrips DAC
The I2S converter arrived from China during Christmas week. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer Christmas gift to myself. My friend Ted and I busied ourselves hooking it up.
Let’s take a look at the converter unit. The box is about four-inches by four-inches by about two inches. Normally, this unit does not require an external DC power supply as most players will provide the needed 5 Volt DC via the HDMI cable. But, in case it does require external power. It's connected by the kind of barrel connector that often comes with wall-wart type supplies. The converter, however, comes with no power supply, wall-wart or otherwise, and the buyer must supply his own if his player does not supply the needed voltage or if the current from one’s HDMI source is insufficient. I felt that a better supply, than that available from my Oppo player, might be worth it, so I employed an ifi brand ‘iUSB’ box that I wasn’t using and a cable that had a USB Type A connector on one end and a suitable barrel connector on the other (BTW, about the unit’s power supply polarity; the unit comes with no documentation, and I had to test the polarity myself with a multimeter. So, to save any readers who want to try this project, the trouble of checking this themselves, the barrel is negative and the “tip” is positive.).
The box has three HDMI female connectors, one is located on the audio output interface side of the unit. This is the output that goes to one’s DAC. The “output” side also sports a coax and a Toslink SPDIF connector and an I2S connector that I don’t recognize (and isn’t used in this application). The ‘HDMI side’ of the unit has the HDMI input from one’s player, and an HDMI output to one’s TV. Also provided is a three-position slide switch that enables the user switch the HDMI output between one’s TV, an amplifier that takes HDMI in, or ostensibly both (it’s labeled DUO, so I suspect that’s what it means – No manual, remember?). Then of course there is the 5 volt external power supply jack and a red LED indicating that an outboard power supply is connected and is turned on.
With the Oppo UDP-205, one connects the “Audio” HDMI output of the player to the input of the I2S converter box (if your player doesn’t have an audio-only HDMI output, use the video HDMI output) and the output of the HDMI side of the converter box goes to the HDMI input on one’s DAC. That’s pretty straightforward.
Unfortunately, unless one is lucky (and depending on the brand of I2S connected DAC), that’s not all one must do. Apparently, there is no standard for connecting I2S over HDMI. The manufacturers can use any pins not used by the HDMI standard in the connector for the I2S interface. In many cases the user would have to find which pins on the converter box have the I2S signal on them and then perhaps rewire the DAC’s HDMI (or other I2S connector) to match. It is possible that your DSD-capable DAC doesn’t have an HDMI connector for I2S. The converter box also outputs I2S over both coax and Toslink. Denafrips has thoughtfully provided their DACs with a method for using the front panel switch buttons to allow the user to try all the different possible combinations. When the correct one is found, the I2S light on the front panel illuminates. Rather than go through the procedure here, I invite interested readers to go to the YouTube video listed below:
The video says that it's for the Venus II model, but it also applies to the Pontus, and both the Terminator and the Terminator+ models. The only Denafrips DAC that doesn’t support I2S is the entry level Ares II.
As luck would have it, if you are using one of the Denafrips DACs that support I2S, The correct pinout to interface with the Chinese converter bought from E-Bay is the default Denafrips’ configuration!
Once the I2S light on the front panel is lit, you’re all set. Just insert an SACD into the player’s transport and hit play. The DSD light will come on and 44.1 KHz sampling light will illuminate, and the 1X light will also light-up. Ignore the sampling rate light, but the 1X light will indicate that a DSD 64 source is playing. DSD 64 is the default for SACD, and 1X is probably the only light that one will ever see. 2X would mean DSD128, and 3X would indicate DSD256. DSD512 is not supported, but that’s OK because there are no SACDs (to my knowledge) in either DSD 128 or DSD 512.
Be prepared for the best SACD playback that you have ever heard! I wish that my SCD-777ES was still functioning, to compare, but I do have the Oppo UDP-205 with the highly touted ESS ES9038PRO DAC chip and I have an inexpensive Sony Blu-Ray player that also plays SACD. Neither of them are even in the same galaxy with the Denafrips Pontus I2S configuration! The bass is deeper than the ESS DAC, the highs are cleaner and much less grainy. The soundstage is both wider and deeper and the image specificity (in recordings where such exists) is simply more holographic. Of course, all of this is contingent on what brand of I2S-capable DAC you end up using. In short, I noticed similar sonic characteristics with the Pontus that I experienced listening to 24/96, or 24/192 LPCM sources on the unit.
In conclusion, just for fun, I tried the setup with my cheap Sony BDP-BX37 Blu-Ray player (for which I paid less than $50). I turned on the DSD over HDMI option in the audio settings and connected it to the I2S converter box via the video HDMI out on the Sony. It worked perfectly as I suspected it would, but unexpectedly, the output from the Sony, though, supposedly merely a digital DSD data stream (after all, we are only using the players as transports), sounded much worse than the same SACDs with the Oppo as the transport!
If you choose to go this route, I suspect that any Blu-Ray player that advertises that it will play SACD discs via HDMI will play them without hassle, but be aware that the end result will depend on the quality of the transport player every bit as much as it will depend on the quality of the I2S compatible DSD capable DAC.