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SOtM s DP-1000EX DSD DAC & Pre AMP

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There has been a change in the front ends of hifi systems that started with the introduction of CD players, writes George Sallit Editor of HIFIWIGWAM's RealReviews.

As well as introducing a new way to encode music, CD players changed the world of preamps by having an output of 2V (or more). That does not sound important but as power amps only need 1-2V for full output people started to question the role of the preamplifier.  And in particular, the need for active pre-amplifiers.

I have recently reviewed two good passive preamplifiers and I was very happy with their sound. But some people have found that passive preamplifiers can reduce the bass impact of the music as well as the overall drive. Fortunately, for the two preamplifiers I reviewed, (Hattor and Townshend Allegri) that was not a problem or it was only a minor issue.

Another change in audio front ends was the re-introduction of the DAC as a separate box. This allows people to stream music, use other digital sources and potentially upgrade any CD players.

More recently preamplifiers have started to acquire digital inputs, which has been achieved by adding a digital board to the preamplifier. And not to be outdone, DACs have added analogue inputs and volume controls. And to be honest, I was unimpressed by their sound quality.

The preamplifiers acquired digital boards by used a fashionable DAC-of-the-moment and cheap op-amps on their outputs. They were inexpensive add-ons and unfortunately sounded it. The DACs were not much better. They used badly designed digital volume controls that literally decimated the sound (in both senses of the word). They decimated the signal by chopping off bits to reduce the volume. Not a brilliant start but some companies waited and others learnt quickly. Round 2 last month.

I provided a second reviewers’ comments on the Lindemann Musicbox:15DSD. It was the first all-in-one box that actually sounded very good. In fact, most of the old issues had gone. The Lindemann is made in Germany and its sound was a big surprise. Being a German product I expected it to sound bright, forward and very mid-range focused. When I worked in Vienna I visited the Haus der Musik, which had a German system on the top floor.  This was billed as ‘the best audio system in the world’. It wasn’t. It confirmed all my biases and prejudices about German audio. If you are ever in Vienna and visit the Haus der Musik (or the Musikverein for stunning live music in a brilliant hall) you will have to put your fingers in your ears on the top floor. Bright?…..well a trip to the dentist may be preferable.  

The Lindemann changed that. The sound quality was very good and using it was very convenient. The sound was if anything a shade darker than ‘perfectly’ neutral. Not a problem with a lot of over processed modern music. But it was also very clear and transparent and had a huge 3D soundstage.

 And now I have in front of me the Korean equivalent, with a digital front end and an active preamplifier. This box of tricks is the SOtM (Soul Of the Music) sDP - 1000EX DSD DAC & Pre-amp. Although it has a big title, it comes in a small (36 x 24 x 6.8cm WxDxH) case that matches their sMS-1000 music server. The SOtM sDP-1000EX DSD is a 32/384 DAC with DSD128 support and it has a 0.5dB-step remote-controlled volume. It has AES/EBU, BNC, coax, Toslink and USB 2.0 inputs. It also has analogue XLR and RCA inputs. Unusually it has an on-board twin-pack battery supply with uninterruptible power cycling with fully automated charging allowing constant play. There are ultra low-noise regulators, high-performance oscillators, ultra-low jitter clocks and active noise cancellation. It costs £3,495 so is in the same price bracket as the Lindemann and the Naim 272.

It comes with a nice metal remote control rather than one of those £5 plastic remotes from the spares box.

The manual that comes with it, although in three languages, does not describe all the features with some features buried. I managed to find a balance control that was very useful for me as I listen of axis although it was more by accident as it is not mentioned in the manual. Press MENU and it appears.

The SOtM has an analogue volume and balance control. For me that is a great sound quality plus.

The main DAC chip is the AKM AK4490 chipset about which I have heard good things. They are reported to be more musical than the fashionable ESS Sabre chips that have been reported as being ‘so accurate they border on clinical’. 

But what was really unusual is the SOtM can be completely powered from re-chargeable batteries. Yes batteries. The SOtM has two batteries that are charged from the mains using an Elite Audio supplied SMPS transformer. When you use the SOtM one battery powers the SOtM whilst the other battery is being recharged. The aim of doing this is to reduce any AC mains noise by powering the preamp from clean DC from a re-chargeable battery. This is not the first piece of audio equipment to be powered by batteries but it is still fairly rare. Yet here it is in a very modern product. I have to admit to having some reservations about having the mains connected via an SMPS to generate the 9V needed to recharge the batteries. However, you can (and I did) charge both batteries and then just play it without the mains connected. It will last at least a night that way. SOtM also make a low noise linear mains supply but it is quite expensive at £1,000, although it powers more than one unit.

One issue with using batteries is that after about a year or so you will have to change the batteries. It does not look difficult to do as there is a separate compartment on the base of the unit.

OK so how did it sound?

I set it up being fed by an Auralic Aries (with the femto clocks and low noise power supply), feeding a Nord Class D power amp and going into my Audionote Es. I also tried a CD transport from Audionote and the Esoteric P03/DO3 Transport/DAC (a bit of a cost imbalance).

The first thing that struck me was its big 3D soundstage. The clarity of the sound was very good and it was easy to hear all the individual musical instruments (and effects used). The overall frequency balance of the sound was slightly towards clarity and ease of hearing of individual instruments. It sounded a shade brighter than neutral. If you want your music to be explicit and clear, then this is the guy for you. Having said that it definitely does not veer into being edgy.

The bass was fast and played tunes. It was possible to hear the different tonal balance of different drum kits and the different types of bass strings used. No (amorphous) bass thumping in the background.

On fast paced rock such as Dream Theater’s latest, which I played as a 24/96 file, the drama, impact and threat from Dystopian Overture was great to hear, even if it was unnerving music. As a complete contrast, Laurie Anderson’s Bright Red album has a great and dramatic drum sound. The SOtM showed off the power of the drums accompanied by Laurie’s very clear voice. Applewood Road has three female singers harmonising into a single microphone with some simple but musical instrumental additions. This came over clearly and delicately with a natural live sound.

It was easy to hear how well Steve Wilson has re-mastered/improved various Yes and Jethro Tull albums. No automatic press the buttons and make the music sound good with a big dollop of boom and tizz. He has carefully and sensitively increased the clarity of the sound without distorting the musical message. The SOtM showed this easily and you can tell what was being played or added. And for full blast rock and roll then Led Zep and Davey Knowles showed what the SOtM could achieve. Mistakes by Davey was very detailed with a clear cymbal sound. A nice slab of UK blues.

The SOtM is a very low noise device and when I tried it solely from the batteries there seemed to be a small increase in clarity but it was not dramatic. Maybe my direct spur mains helps?

In comparison to some of the top end stuff I have here the overall tonal balance of the SOtM was slightly forward in the mid-range and there was a loss of the filigree of fine details.

If you are interested in buying an all-in-one front-end then you should hear the SOtM. It is easy to hear what has been recorded, it has a big soundstage and great clarity.

This REALREVIEW was done by George Sallit (George47) and the product is available from our trusted partners at Elite Audio www.eliteaudiouk.com on 020 3397 1119 (Please mention you are a member from HIFIWIGWAM)020 3397 1119

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Super Wammer

Fantastic review! 

Explaning what a dac sounds like can and is a nightmare well done sir!! 

A link to there web site?  

Ive spend gods knows how much on dacs in the last three or so years, £10,000 or more none have or got close to that im there pull you in sound quality that say vinyl and even tape yes Cassettes!!  

Will give the web site once over

Great review :^

Shan 

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Super Wammer
On 29/03/2017 at 19:58, Naimkiller said:

Fantastic review! 

Explaning what a dac sounds like can and is a nightmare well done sir!! 

A link to there web site?  

Ive spend gods knows how much on dacs in the last three or so years, £10,000 or more none have or got close to that im there pull you in sound quality that say vinyl and even tape yes Cassettes!!  

Will give the web site once over

Great review :^

Shan 

I can sell you a machine for £10k that gives an authentic cassette sound if you like :)

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Moderator

Yes excellent review , but yet another DAC without HDMI I/Os .

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Interesting that it uses an AKM chip; afaik Rotel were the first to use any in hi-fi: in the RDP-980 DAC, which I still use, precisely because it is one of the most musically satisfying DAC's I ever came across. (Short of dCS; I loved the original Elgar, and I'd have a dCS DAC like a shot now if I could afford it. . .)  It also had absolutely tight perfect timing. It always surprised me how many CD players and DAC's fail at this: a good test (I'm giving away a secret here) is Brubeck's 'Take Five' (but it has to be on Sony's 'Legacy' remaster) with its peculiar time signatures. It's extraordinary how many (and some very well thought of and reviewed, too) CD players and DAC's make a real mess of it.

A British manufacturer (I don't think I'm allowed to say which even now) a little later used one of AKM's chips in a very well regarded top of their range CD player. (The MD of the company thought I'd been leaked a design secret when I asked him if it was, and took a lot of persuading that I'd simply thought the sound was familiar.)

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