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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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    Very interesting article!

    I am testing the association OPPO 205 (as SACD player) - BRYSTON BDA3 (DAC) via HDMI; it is fully functional and the sound is excellent (pre Audioreaserch REF5- 2 amp. REF210).

    However I am the lucky owner of two EMMLABS CDSA e one SONY SCD777ES, having a huge collection go SACD; so my opinion is that the EMMLABS CDSA is still the best player for SACD.

    Thanks!

     

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    4 hours ago, Stradivarius3 said:

    Very interesting article!

    I am testing the association OPPO 205 (as SACD player) - BRYSTON BDA3 (DAC) via HDMI; it is fully functional and the sound is excellent (pre Audioreaserch REF5- 2 amp. REF210).

    However I am the lucky owner of two EMMLABS CDSA e one SONY SCD777ES, having a huge collection go SACD; so my opinion is that the EMMLABS CDSA is still the best player for SACD.

    Thanks!

     

    The Oppo UDP-205 as a stand-alone SACD player is mediocre at best, but it does seem to be an exemplary transport for streaming DSD data to an outboard DAC. I’ve tried several Sony Blu-Ray players and an Oppo 105, and the UDP-205 sounds superior playing SACDs through the I2S converter to the Denafrips Pontus via HDMI with the Oppo 105 as a close second.

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    1 hour ago, gmgraves said:

    The Oppo UDP-205 as a stand-alone SACD player is mediocre at best, but it does seem to be an exemplary transport for streaming DSD data to an outboard DAC. I’ve tried several Sony Blu-Ray players and an Oppo 105, and the UDP-205 sounds superior playing SACDs through the I2S converter to the Denafrips Pontus via HDMI with the Oppo 105 as a close second.

    I'm wondering if transport has the same effect on the bass with DSD as it does with PCM? The bass from my Linn Genki feed via coax to DAC far surpasses

    the bass  octave reach from an Oppo 103 feed coax to same DAC for CD/HDCD material. Can't do an SACD comparison.

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    5 hours ago, davide256 said:

    I'm wondering if transport has the same effect on the bass with DSD as it does with PCM? The bass from my Linn Genki feed via coax to DAC far surpasses

    the bass  octave reach from an Oppo 103 feed coax to same DAC for CD/HDCD material. Can't do an SACD comparison.

    Can’t say for certain. The differences in presentation between the transports I’ve tried seem to be pretty much across the board; bass, mids, treble, image specificity, overall sound-stage etc.

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    Have you compared Oppo thru Pontus to ripped SACD streamed to Pontus, I have ripped most of my SACDs using the method described on HiFiHaven (only requires Blu Ray player and memory stick with software) and was wondering if transport would be superior

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    I thought i have heard for many years that hdmi was an inferior interface because of jitter and why no one uses hdmi in the "audiophile" world?

     

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    5 hours ago, beerandmusic said:

    I thought i have heard for many years that hdmi was an inferior interface because of jitter and why no one uses hdmi in the "audiophile" world?

     

    I don’t see how a “wire” can introduce jitter, anyway, I’m not sure that would matter in this case. Anybody know for sure?

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    If it's the termination that causes jitter than sure it could be an issue, but if it's the protocol, then that's irrelevant because you aren't using HDMI protocol.

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    9 hours ago, beerandmusic said:

    I thought i have heard for many years that hdmi was an inferior interface because of jitter and why no one uses hdmi in the "audiophile" world?

     

    I don’t see how a “wire” can introduce jitter, anyway, I’m not sure that would matter in this case. Anybody know for sure?

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    5 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    If it's the termination that causes jitter than sure it could be an issue, but if it's the protocol, then that's irrelevant because you aren't using HDMI protocol.

    but isnt the hdmi protocol used in the conversion?  How else would the audio signal be translated?

    To be honest, to my ears, I have many times thought that hdmi sounded pretty damn good (at least compared to typical bluray internal dacs).

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    Just now, beerandmusic said:

    but isnt the hdmi protocol used in the conversion?  How else would the audio signal be translated?  Not doubting what you are saying, just trying to figure it out?  How does hdmi signal get to analog in an avr vs how it is converted from hdmi to i2s?

    To be honest, to my ears, I have many times thought that hdmi sounded pretty damn good (at least compared to typical bluray internal dacs).

    I could be mistaken with respect to this specific case. Many I2S implementations use HDMI ports and cables, but not the HDMI protocol. 

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    1 minute ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    I could be mistaken with respect to this specific case. Many I2S implementations use HDMI ports and cables, but not the HDMI protocol. 

    i am referrring to the "box" that gmgraves purchased that converts the hdmi signal to i2s for the dac.  I would think that some hdmi protocol would be needed to convert it.

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    5 minutes ago, beerandmusic said:

    i am referrring to the "box" that gmgraves purchased that converts the hdmi signal to i2s for the dac.  I would think that some hdmi protocol would be needed to convert it.

    Ah yes. 

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    17 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Ah yes. 

    But who knows what "jitter" is audible anyway (grin).  I still say for my ears, many times hdmi sounds much better than analog out of many/most universal disc players that i have heard.  They usually sound more dynamic and better bass, but i guess that just means that the dac in the avr (in my case, i use a marantz sr6013 as a preamp) is better than the dac in the universal disc player regardless of hdmi jitter.  I don't argue on these sites much anymore as my hearing has continued to get worse  (smile)....seems like not much i throw at my system makes it sound "next level" in my budget anymore.  I will always try new amps and speakers though (grin)....i just found out nelson reed made a vintage low end speaker with an ATC midrange...that might be interesting.

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    1 hour ago, beerandmusic said:

    But who knows what "jitter" is audible anyway (grin).  I still say for my ears, many times hdmi sounds much better than analog out of many/most universal disc players that i have heard.  They usually sound more dynamic and better bass, but i guess that just means that the dac in the avr (in my case, i use a marantz sr6013 as a preamp) is better than the dac in the universal disc player regardless of hdmi jitter.  I don't argue on these sites much anymore as my hearing has continued to get worse  (smile)....seems like not much i throw at my system makes it sound "next level" in my budget anymore.  I will always try new amps and speakers though (grin)....i just found out nelson reed made a vintage low end speaker with an ATC midrange...that might be interesting.

     

    You should check out some of the newest digital speakers out there - remarkably good value for value. Currently, I'm using ridiculously cheap Edifier speakers, driven through the digital optical input from an equally cheap DVD player - and at the current state of tune, ticks most boxes. Biggest problems for this level of gear is that they are very sensitive to noise on the mains - if you go this route, all efforts to isolate the setup from crap coming over the power feed will be rewarded 🙂.

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    Maybe we could start a club....I also have a Sony SCD-777ES that is faulty....Wish it could be repaired!   I do have a Oppo 105....and I've quit listening to Multichannel since I joined Roon...and miss the audio that is provides....since it sounds so good!  

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    17 hours ago, fas42 said:

     

    You should check out some of the newest digital speakers out there - remarkably good value for value. Currently, I'm using ridiculously cheap Edifier speakers, driven through the digital optical input from an equally cheap DVD player - and at the current state of tune, ticks most boxes. Biggest problems for this level of gear is that they are very sensitive to noise on the mains - if you go this route, all efforts to isolate the setup from crap coming over the power feed will be rewarded 🙂.

    Irrelevant (as is usual for Frank)!

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    27 minutes ago, LarryMagoo said:

    Maybe we could start a club....I also have a Sony SCD-777ES that is faulty....Wish it could be repaired!   I do have a Oppo 105....and I've quit listening to Multichannel since I joined Roon...and miss the audio that is provides....since it sounds so good!  

    I hear you. The SCD-777ES is so well built, sounds so good, and is so elegant, that it’s a crying shame to have to have to relegate it to a closet, throw it away, or sell it on EBay for parts.

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    On 1/10/2021 at 11:02 AM, gmgraves said:

    The Oppo UDP-205 as a stand-alone SACD player is mediocre at best, but it does seem to be an exemplary transport for streaming DSD data to an outboard DAC. I’ve tried several Sony Blu-Ray players and an Oppo 105, and the UDP-205 sounds superior playing SACDs through the I2S converter to the Denafrips Pontus via HDMI with the Oppo 105 as a close second.

    Great thread, thanks.  Also have hundreds of SACDs and have been procrastinating on the ripping project.  My OPPO bluray died and was going to replace it with a Panasonic DP-UB820 (frequently compared to the Oppos).   The Panny has an audio only hdmi output (like many of the Sonys) but unlike the Sonys you may have tried it is not designated as an SACD player. 

     

    Stupid question, does a blu ray player need to have SACD playback designation in order to be an SACD digital transport with these Chinese adapters??

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    1 hour ago, jxo said:

     

    Stupid question, does a blu ray player need to have SACD playback designation in order to be an SACD digital transport with these Chinese adapters??

    If it can't play SACDs, you cannot expect that it will rip them.

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    9 minutes ago, Kal Rubinson said:

    If it can't play SACDs, you cannot expect that it will rip them.

    I have a couple of flimsy Sony BX510s for ripping and I can see why these may not be the most well made transport devices.   I assume bits are bits but I was asking whether using a bluray player for digital transport to a DAC would be different for any reason (as distinguished from a Sony player for ripping purposes).  I assume a solid blu ray player with a dedicated audio hdmi output would be unable to read an SACD (unless its a Sony).   Just checking.    Btw, those cheap Sonys regularly used for ripping are not feature designated as SACD players.

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    1 hour ago, jxo said:

    Great thread, thanks.  Also have hundreds of SACDs and have been procrastinating on the ripping project.  My OPPO bluray died and was going to replace it with a Panasonic DP-UB820 (frequently compared to the Oppos).   The Panny has an audio only hdmi output (like many of the Sonys) but unlike the Sonys you may have tried it is not designated as an SACD player. 

     

    Stupid question, does a blu ray player need to have SACD playback designation in order to be an SACD digital transport with these Chinese adapters??

    I believe that it does. As I understand it, there is more to the SACD standard than just a DSD audio file.

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    19 minutes ago, jxo said:

    I have a couple of flimsy Sony BX510s for ripping and I can see why these may not be the most well made transport devices.   I assume bits are bits but I was asking whether using a bluray player for digital transport to a DAC would be different for any reason (as distinguished from a Sony player for ripping purposes).  I assume a solid blu ray player with a dedicated audio hdmi output would be unable to read an SACD (unless its a Sony).   Just checking.    Btw, those cheap Sonys regularly used for ripping are not feature designated as SACD players.

    First of all, your player does not need to have a dedicated audio-only HDMI output connector to output DSD over HDMI but the Blu-ray player itself must support playback of SACD to either rip or play (through an outboard DAC) an SACD disc.

    My experience is that those “cheap” Sony Blu-ray/SACD players don’t make very good sounding rips (stands to reason, they don’t sound very good as transports to play SACDs through outboard DACs via I2S, so why would a rip from these players sound any better?).

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    2 hours ago, jxo said:

    I have a couple of flimsy Sony BX510s for ripping and I can see why these may not be the most well made transport devices.   I assume bits are bits but I was asking whether using a bluray player for digital transport to a DAC would be different for any reason (as distinguished from a Sony player for ripping purposes).  I assume a solid blu ray player with a dedicated audio hdmi output would be unable to read an SACD (unless its a Sony).   Just checking.    Btw, those cheap Sonys regularly used for ripping are not feature designated as SACD players.

    I do not know what it means to be " not feature designated" nor does it matter.  If the device will not play SACDs, it cannot rip SACDs.  If it can play SACDs, it may be able to rip SACDs.   Does your question go beyond that?

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