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    At Long Last! Listen To Your (Physical) SACDs Through an Outboard DAC

     

    At Long Last! Listen To Your SACDs Through an Outboard DAC
    George Graves

     

     

    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.).

     

     

    image1.jpg image2.jpg

     


    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!

     

     

    Operation

     

    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.

     

     

    Sound

     

    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. 


         

     



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    This is really cool George! I know there are many people who don't want to rip their SACDs and would rather just put a disc in and call it a day. Plus, the ability to use a great DAC is so cool.

     

    Thanks!

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    Hi George-

    AFAIR, all ESS chips convert DSD to PCM internally, they don't do one-bit conversion direct to analog. There are AKM chips that convert DSD directly to analog, without internal conversion as an intermediate step.

    Maybe that's why you don't like the sound of the Oppo.

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    There are other Universal players that have this I2S type of format, one is a Pioneer Elite DV-79AVi/AVi-s which calls it i.link connector. There are more out there also.

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    5 minutes ago, firedog said:

    Hi George-

    AFAIR, all ESS chips convert DSD to PCM internally, they don't do one-bit conversion direct to analog. There are AKM chips that convert DSD directly to analog, without internal conversion as an intermediate step.

    Maybe that's why you don't like the sound of the Oppo.

    It's always great to possibly correlate a technical reason for the sonic preferences of someone. Thanks @firedog.

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    58 minutes ago, firedog said:

    Hi George-

    AFAIR, all ESS chips convert DSD to PCM internally, they don't do one-bit conversion direct to analog. There are AKM chips that convert DSD directly to analog, without internal conversion as an intermediate step.

    Maybe that's why you don't like the sound of the Oppo.

    Could be. I was under the impression that as a 1-bit (delta-sigma) DAC that the ESS DACs would do a direct conversion of DSD.

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    Wow! What a Great article! As an Oppo 205 owner and someone with many many hundreds of SACDs, I found this very interesting! May have to investigate the denafrips dacs (always have salivated at the reviews of them) to try this out!

    Any similar solutions to extract the multichannel layer off of the SACDs to a higher quality multichannel DAC (without some semi-elaborate process of ripping them/iso files)? I enjoy both 2 channel and the multichannel sacds (esp for classical music). 
    thanks!

    Doug

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    1 hour ago, gmgraves said:

    While that’s very true, the solution mentioned in the Stereophile article costs about US$1000 vs around $60 for this solution. One has gotta want to play one’s SACDs through an outboard DAC very badly, to be willing to go that route. Luckily, now one doesn’t have to...

    Sure, but lots of DACs don't have an HDMI input, but do have an SPDIF input. 

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    31 minutes ago, miguelito said:

    I actually purchased a similar device a few years ago:

     

    http://www.hifi168.com/bbs/showtopic-249820.aspx

     

    Works fine.

     

     

    not an expert here, but I don't think that device sends the DSD in a manner that any device can use directly like the I2S over HDMI does. I on't think any commercial device accepts pure DSD over a coaxial connection, only DSD over PCM. correct?

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    If you owned a Bryston BDA-3 DAC, this would have been quite easy.  Connect a HDMI cable to one of the HDMI outputs of a Oppo BDP-95 model (or later) and connect to the HDMI input of the Bryston DAC and you are good to go.

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    26 minutes ago, bbosler said:

    not an expert here, but I don't think that device sends the DSD in a manner that any device can use directly like the I2S over HDMI does. I on't think any commercial device accepts pure DSD over a coaxial connection, only DSD over PCM. correct?

    This device sends DSD from SACDs over DoP (aka DSD over PCM) over a coax SPDIF connection. My dCS Rossini DAC reports DSD is received.

     

    The player in this case is an Oppo BDP-93.

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    3 hours ago, miguelito said:

    This device sends DSD from SACDs over DoP (aka DSD over PCM) over a coax SPDIF connection. My dCS Rossini DAC reports DSD is received.

     

    The player in this case is an Oppo BDP-93.

     

    Please clarify - are you saying that you can connect the Oppo Player to your Rossini dac via coax and get a DSD stream out of the Oppo and into the Rossini over that coax connection.  I have a Vivaldi and assume I could do the same thing.  This would be great and eliminate ripping SACD's.

     

    As an aside, I am pretty sure the Vivaldi transport sends DSD from SACD's to the Vivalidi dac (or upsampler), but I do not have a Vivaldi transport, so I am not certain how it works for sure.

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    1 minute ago, MarkS said:

    Please clarify - are you saying that you can connect the Oppo Player to your Rossini dac via coax and get a DSD stream out of the Oppo and into the Rossini over that coax connection.

    I can connect the HDMI out of the Oppo (setting the Oppo to output bitstream I think it is called - DSD over HDMI), into this adapter, which in turn transforms the DSD stream into a DoP stream and sends it to the Rossini over coax/SPDIF.

     

    The Vivaldi or Rossini transports send DSD to the DACs over a double-AES connection (only). I don’t now if that is DoP but it is almost certainly not.

     

    As for this device, I had someone buy it for me in China (costs ~$450) but you can use other methods that will buy it for you and send it over. 

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    What i2s cable did you use for this article or just a high speed hdmi cable, is there a difference?

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    54 minutes ago, Daveyu said:

    What i2s cable did you use for this article or just a high speed hdmi cable, is there a difference?

    Just regular HDMI cables. It never even occurred to me to try boutique HDMI cables. You can if you wish, but that’s a road I don’t want to travel down.

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    The weak link here is the SACD transport being used. Besides the proprietary transport in the T&A SACD player, the best available transport I know of for SACD's is the Denon/Marantz unit. That is what DCS uses, I believe. This is important, because all laser disc transports will die, and spares of the current Denon/Marantz unit can still be purchased.  If someone (me) really wants to play their SACD's and have no need for an outboard DAC (to stream), then the Denon DCD-1600NE player is a steal. Much better sound than my old Sony SCD-1 (better than the 777), which died a similar death. (And, that is after replacing the laser once already. Did I need to buy 2 spares?) If the Denon 1600 is too low-fi, then Denon has higher end models, as does Marantz. Over and done with. Yes, I did buy spare parts for the Denon: an entire mech and laser assembly for $99 versus $250 for the Sony laser alone back in the day.

    g033DCD1600-F.jpg

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    4 hours ago, Shib said:

    The weak link here is the SACD transport being used. Besides the proprietary transport in the T&A SACD player, the best available transport I know of for SACD's is the Denon/Marantz unit. That is what DCS uses, I believe. This is important, because all laser disc transports will die, and spares of the current Denon/Marantz unit can still be purchased.  If someone (me) really wants to play their SACD's and have no need for an outboard DAC (to stream), then the Denon DCD-1600NE player is a steal. Much better sound than my old Sony SCD-1 (better than the 777), which died a similar death. (And, that is after replacing the laser once already. Did I need to buy 2 spares?) If the Denon 1600 is too low-fi, then Denon has higher end models, as does Marantz. Over and done with. Yes, I did buy spare parts for the Denon: an entire mech and laser assembly for $99 versus $250 for the Sony laser alone back in the day.

    g033DCD1600-F.jpg

    Absolutely! That’s what I found. The quality of the SACD playback is determined fairly, largely, by the quality of the transport. The Oppo 205 gives incredibly analog-like playback through the Denafrips Pontus. But the same SACDs played on the Sony’s transport, was pretty poor.

    One experiment that I tried after I had submitted the above article, was to compare an SACD sampler of releases from Reference Recordings, with the Reference’s CD ROM of the same material through the same Pontus DAC. The material on the CD ROM, was in the form of a group of 24/192 WAV files. The results surprised me. The SACD outperformed the 24/192 WAV files in every way an audio presentation can be aurally compared! I hesitate to make odious comparisons, but certainly, in that case, the high sample rate LPCM was inferior to the DSD data from the SACD. Hardly scientific, but certainly an eye opener.

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    3 hours ago, gmgraves said:

    Absolutely! That’s what I found. The quality of the SACD playback is determined fairly, largely, by the quality of the transport. The Oppo 205 gives incredibly analog-like playback through the Denafrips Pontus. But the same SACDs played on the Sony’s transport, was pretty poor.

     

    Hello George, for once we are in agreement. The heavier duty the transport, the less vibration, and less work is required by the laser and its focusing mechanism. An analog out from a pressed metal transport of Sony SACD BD ( I have several) will always sound like that, pressed metal. The coax digital out is marginally better through an external DAC, although I have not tried the methods in this article (no DAC that's suitable for inputs, or player with HDMI out combo).

     

    I'm quite happy with the Accuphase DP-720 SACD XLR out or via their HS-Link (LVDS) to a compatible DAC for SACD playback, it still has the edge even over ripped DSF files. One day the laser will die, I am assured that spares are available for some time yet.

     

    Interesting read and great discovery :)

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    @gmgraves

     

    The Sony BDP-BX37 was unique SKU US/CA model, only available in a set of retail stores owned by a very rich Southern family 🤠, designed to hit what was at that time the lowest available price point for those desiring to try Blu-Ray.  For comparison on a supposed audiophile site you picked a highly amusing device.  Certainly amusing to me since I bought one used a year or two ago to do basically the same test(s).  Admittedly I didn't get CC to monetize purchase of a dongle and moved directly on to watching a 99¢ BD after determining this device was not an unrecognized jewel missing some key hardware mod/firmware adjustment.    

     

    Absolved of provenance.  I think your article missed a key element by failing to mention the Burr-Brown (Texas Instruments) PCM1738 DAC chip in the Sony which ultimately provoked you to explore the OPPO's capabilities further.  Some mention of why one/both of us chose this exact model wouldn't have gone astray either.  Though probably beyond the scope of this article.  I'd also liked to have seen a few lines, or HINT HINT get the boss to clean up and promote his previous article, on mShuttle file transfer as a second reference point to depict how broadly it and the OPPO varied in function as transports.      

     

    As always, you prove a very interesting character under any pen name.   

     

    Edit: While digging up that pdf I came across this Audio Circle link which delves fairly deeply into the questions at hand.

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    Interesting article which got me thinking about my Cambridge Audio DVD99. To clarify I found this on ASR:

    i) conventional HDMI video-audio interface, in which the digital video and audio signals are processed by an HDMI controller chip. An extension of this standard is "DSD-over-HDMI" - which encrypts DSD data (yes, this is I2S) within conventional HDMI multiplexing methods. I understand that quite a number of SACD players have this feature, but the only receiving devices commercially available which support this feature are Home Theatre Receivers (no DAC's) and even then, only a modest number of HTR's.
    The downside of this method is that the digital clocking of HDMI chips yields relatively high jitter.

    ii) I2S-over-HDMI interface - This is what Paul McGowan is talking about! There is no digital processing involved - the (weak) I2S signal is amplified by an LVDS transmitter, then connected to an HDMI jack. This is where confusion often arises - "HDMI" is involved only for its physical connector! There is no HDMI-associated processing involved.
    This can be a very high quality, low jitter interface, indeed.
    The downside is that this interface is quite rare, and your choice of hardware is very limited. Yes, Paul McGowan's "PerfectWave transport" supports I2S-over-HDMI - but it only plays CD and DVD discs - not SACD! There's no off-the-shelf SACD player available which supports I2S-over-HDMI. DSD-over-HDMI, sure, but not I2S-over-HDMI. This is for (Sony) legal/licensing reasons, not technical reasons.
    Examples of other playback devices which offer direct I2S output (and optional I2S-to-HDMI) are the Raspberry Pi computer, and a conventional PC with Pink Faun I2S Bridge.

    I wonder if jitter is part of the problem @gmgraves experienced?

    It seems that accessing the DSD stream from a disc player is complicated by the need for highly specific hardware (matching SACD player output to DAC input via de-embedder), and not least by Sony's protection. It seems my Cambridge Audio DVD99 can output DSD-over-HDMI so potentially a de-embedder could get me half way to routing DSD to my DAC, however it only accepts DSD over USB - probably a very common problem.

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    20 hours ago, firedog said:

    Hi George-

    AFAIR, all ESS chips convert DSD to PCM internally, they don't do one-bit conversion direct to analog. There are AKM chips that convert DSD directly to analog, without internal conversion as an intermediate step.

    Maybe that's why you don't like the sound of the Oppo.

     However, Oppo 205's audio setting menu allows it to convert DSD directly to analog.  

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