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exaSound PlayPoint DM review

  • The PlayPoint DM Dual-Mono Converter and Network Audio Server is exaSound Audio Design’s new flagship product that combines a state-of-the-art DAC with a Roon music management network server. I have always been impressed with exaSound’s products having reviewed the e22 DAC in 2014 and the e32 DAC in 2017 (for AudioStream). Both of these DACs were well engineered and delivered first-rate sound at very reasonable prices.

    George Klissarov, President of exaSound Audio Design, has decided to chart new territory with the release of the PlayPoint DM by delivering the most advanced DAC that exaSound has ever produced and combined it with a Roon Certified network server. In terms of price, the PlayPoint DM’s price of US$14,000 goes far beyond anything they have previously released. Their current line-up puts the e32 Mark II DAC at US$3,500 and their PlayPoint Mark II Server at US$1,999.

    Some feature highlights of the PlayPoint DM: a fully balanced dual-mono design with two ES9028Pro DAC chips; a balanced dual-mono headphone amplifier, ZeroResolutionLoss™ Volume Control; and exaSound’s FemtoMaster™ multi-clock architecture.

    The network server in the PlayPoint DM comprises a Linux computer that runs Roon Labs’ Server music playback software and functions as a Roon Core. The PlayPoint DM’s server is not limited to just playing Roon, but also supports open-source UPnP/OpenHome streaming technologies.

    I asked George Klissarov a series of questions concerning the design of the PlayPoint DM:

    SP: What else can you tell us about the “computer-server” aspect of the PlayPoint DM?

    GK: “Combining server, streamer, and a dual-mono DAC in one unique component requires careful integration and balanced overall design. The server component needs to be powerful enough to support all the capabilities of the DAC. At the same time, it shouldn’t put too much thermal strain on the device. We’ve implemented a computer-server subsystem designed to support bit-perfect operation of the Roon Core at the native format of all supported music sources – PCM from 44.1 kHz to 384 kHz and DSD up to DSD256. The PlayPoint DM comes with a Quad-Corе CPU running at 2.24GHz, 4GB of RAM, and 128 GB M.2 SSD storage for the music library. It supports two USB 3.0 external USB storage devices, spinning drives or SSD. Up to 8 drives can be attached with an externally powered USB hub.”

    SP: Is there any advantage in having the “computer-server” located in the same case as the DAC?

    GK: “The advantage is simplicity of use and flexibility. The PlayPoint DM comes with the built-in Roon Core preconfigured for use with the built-in Roon Ready zone. It can be used right out of the box with minimum configuration. Users can also stream to third-party Roon Ready devices. Users interested in power-intensive DSP processing can opt to use an external Roon Server.”

    SP: How does the DAC in the PlayPoint DM differ from the e32 MK II?

    GK: “At the very basic level the PlayPoint DM is like two e32 DACs side by side for the left and the right channels. Each one having its own independent circuit board, power lines, DAC chips, output stages and headphone amplifiers. “

    “There are further refinements. In the e32 DAC digital circuits are isolated from the analogue stages. PlayPoint DM takes the concept of Galvanic isolation to the next level. The left and right channels are isolated from each other. This affords ultimate stereo separation and maximum reduction of external and internal noise.”

    “The PlayPoint DM brings a balanced, dual-mono, bridge mode, high-power headphone amplifier featuring both XLR and 1/4″ connectors for use with the most demanding headphones.”

    SP: Can you elaborate on the power supplies and their four-way galvanic isolation?

    GK: “Each side of the DAC comes with 11 linear power filtering stages. We utilize a distributed system of cascaded linear regulators. Cascading multiplies the effect of each stage. The noise level at the most sensitive place – the reference voltage sources of the DAC chips – is below two micro-Volts.”

    “Power conditioning and noise-filtering works fine for traditional analogue audio devices. However, they are not sufficient to solve the issue of digital noise. Noise caused by digital switching circuits can travel via the ground connections. To block the propagation of digital noise it is necessary to eliminate the electrical connection between the digital and the analogue subsystems. We achieve this by using several types of isolation components – transformers, optoelectronic couplers, and digital Isolators. Compartmentalizing various subsystems with isolators keeps the external noise out and the internal noise in. Digital inputs are isolated from the internal blocks of the PlayPoint DM. The digital subsystem is isolated from the analogue circuits, left is isolated from right.”

    “Each of these refinements makes a contribution to sound quality. Combined, their effect is significant. With vanishingly low noise and distortion, every music detail is presented against a very low noise background, highlighting the micro and macro dynamics.”
    What is special about the ZeroResolutionLoss™ Volume Control?

    “The central design idea behind our DACs is to custom build hardware and software environment for the ESS 9028PRO DAC chip that fully utilizes its capabilities. ZeroResolutionLoss is one of the three major components of the architecture of this environment. On the computer-server side, our drivers always stream the audio data at the maximum 0 dB level, bit-perfect, so there is no resolution loss in the audio streaming chain from the playback software to the input pins of the DAC chip. When the user turns the volume knob, volume level commands are sent to the to the DAC chip but the sound streaming remains at full scale – 0db. The volume level is set at the most opportune place, at the border between the digital and the analogue domains. According to ESS, this solution is as good as an analogue volume control with 130 dB dynamic range, without the physical complications and the cost associated with it.”

    “Our drivers, firmware and proprietary streaming protocol not only allow for the best resolution volume control, they offer the convenience of volume control synchronization. Volume can be changed from the playback app on your iPad, from the touch-screen or the volume knob of the PlayPoint DM and it will work the same way. The Sabre DAC chip handles the volume control and all volume sliders on the apps and the touch-screen remain synchronized.”

    While unpacking the PlayPoint DM, I was impressed with the physical appearance of this product; an appearance that is unlike anything exaSound has previously built. This DAC-Server has ½ inch sculptured aluminum front and side panels with an aluminum top plate that features a large “exaSound” carved directly into the metal — a choice of black, silver or zebra finish.

    Included with the PlayPoint DM is a separate 12v Teddy Pardo power supply that is designed for optimum audio performance. The heart of the power supply is derived from the SuperTeddyReg – a regulator that Teddy Pardo feels is superior to that found in conventional linear power supplies and superior sounding to switch mode power supply designs.

    The Front Panel
    The PlayPoint DM has a glass capacitive touchscreen that allows one to make numerous setting changes. The color screen has a number of displays that will appear if you are using features like Roon. Simply touching the arrows allows the user to navigate through different screens. One can easily update the firmware of the PlayPoint DM from a screen as and when exaSound offers updates. Advanced configuration comes via a web interface.

    There are 3 input selectors for SPDIF, Optical, and LAN. A volume control (with a push mute feature) allows us to directly drive a power amp. A 0db fixed volume setting is for pairing the PlayPoint DM with an existing preamp.

    Right and left balanced headphone outputs are accessible from the front panel as well as an unbalanced stereo headphone output. The power switch is found on the front panel and illuminates when on.

    The Rear Panel
    The PlayPoint DM accepts 4 digital inputs: LAN-Ethernet RJ45 connection that supports 32-bit resolution PCM with sampling frequencies up to 384kHz and DSD up to 12.288MHz/DSD256;
    75-ohm S/PDDIF RCA that supports PCM up to 24-bit resolution at sampling frequencies up to 192 kHz; TOSLINK Optical with PCM 24-bit resolution up to 96kHz; and .a pair of USB inputs that support direct connection of one USB 3.0 HHD or SSD drive with power consumption less than 500mA and one flash drive. Up to 8 USB drives can be attached with a powered USB hub.

    For WiFi hookups, exaSound supplies 2 antennas for attachment to the back panel.

    On analogue outputs we, get a pair of balanced stereo outputs as well as single-ended. A 12V input is used with the outboard Teddy Pardo power supply. Left and right 12V Trigger Outputs are also found on the back panel.

    Setting up
    I evaluated the exaSound unit using its onboard Roon Core Server software. exaSound worked closely with Roon to optimize the network playback performance of the PlayPoint DM and obtain Roon Certification.

    I connected a USB 3.0 hard drive with music files and to my network via Ethernet. Using my iPad Pro 10.5 running the Roon remote software, the PlayPoint DM was immediately recognized on my network. The Roon setup was very simple — DAC audio settings are made automatically. For those of you that abhor setting up a computer as a music server, you will love the outrageous simplicity of the PlayPoint DM / Roon setup.

    exaSound points out that using a USB drive for your music files reduces the workload on the home network and simplifies network configuration. The PlayPoint DM supports Roon libraries up to 128,000 tracks.

    Upsampling / PCM to DSD conversion enthusiasts will be happy to know that the PlayPoint DM also supports Network Audio Adapter (NAA) protocol for network streaming with Signalyst’s HQPlayer.

    Roon Server performance
    Regardless of the quality of the sonic goods delivered by the PlayPoint DM running Roon server, its stability and reliability remain very important considerations for me. With over 90,000 tracks sourced directly over USB, I experienced not a single issue. In fact, I found no functional differences between using the PlayPoint DM as an all-in-one or outsourcing server duties to the Roon Nucleus+. Not a single network issue or drop-out!

    I listened to the PlayPoint DM connected directly to my Ayre Acoustics MX-R Twenty amplifiers which took their feed from an Ayre KX-R Twenty preamp. Balanced connections were used between all components. I found the PlayPoint DM’s volume control to be very good sounding when driving my Ayre MX-R Twenty monoblocks directly. While I did find the $29,550 Ayre KX-R Twenty preamp to sound a little better than direct drive with the PlayPoint DM’s volume control, I think that most users will feel that they are getting top performance from the PlayPoint DM when eliminating the preamp.

    It didn’t take me long to realize that the PlayPoint DM was a very special DAC / Server that was not only extremely transparent and revealing of the sources fed to it, but wonderfully musical as well. The PlayPoint reproduced both macro and micro dynamic changes with absolute precision without sounding bright or unpleasantly hard. The bass was very well defined with wonderful impact and definition. But what really impressed me was the PlayPoint’s ability to allow me to hear a richly layered soundstage with bloom and dimensionality that just drew me into the music. Purity and liquidity are descriptions that would readily stick to the PlayPoint DM.

    Classical music enthusiasts are going to love listening to orchestral music reproduced by the PlayPoint DM. It has the ability to unravel complex musical passages as well as reproduce the hall acoustics captured by the recording. These qualities were highlighted by the Channel Classics recording Essentia (DSD256) featuring Dana Zemtsov with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Zemtsov’s viola was harmonically rich as well as delicate in tone and texture, all reproduced inside a soundstage that captured an open and airy orchestra sound.

    As I listened to Brenda Navarette’s album Mi Mundo (192/24), I experienced stunning realism and immediacy to this Cuban singer/percussionist’s performance – it left me grinning at the beauty of the recording. The sound spread beyond the outer borders of my speakers with excellent focus and clear reproduction of the voices and percussive instruments while always sounding natural and effortless. The dynamic qualities of the percussion and bass were reproduced with a transient quickness and impact that were a real treat for this listener.

    One recording that will challenge the best of systems is Don Grusin’s live album The Hang; a 96/24 presentation that combines the musical skills of Don Grusin with a host of top-flight musicians including Patti Austin, Ernie Watts, and Sadao Watanabe. I decided to open up the volume level to allow me to feel the dynamic impact reproduced by my Wilson Alexia Series 2 speakers. If this recording sounds congested during the dynamic passages, it’s something in your system. The PlayPoint DM sailed through this album with a “you are there” presence with absolutely no layer congeal. There was terrific weight and slam to the bass and percussion with impressive reproduction of instrumental textures. The powerful rhythmic drive of many of the selections were reproduced with a lively, upbeat sound that was an absolute pleasure to experience.

    The headphone amplifier
    The headphone amp built into the PlayPoint DM had zero difficulties driving the Sennheiser HD650 and AudioQuest NightHawk headphones. The sound was clean and direct and mirrored the quality heard when playing via loudspeakers.

    I have enjoyed the Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty ($9850.00) for the last several years and have found it to be a first-class performer. But when compared to the PlayPoint DM, I found several obvious differences that convinced me that the exaSound was the superior sounding DAC. The PlayPoint DM is the bigger sounding DAC with a wider and deeper soundstage. Instruments and voices reproduced in the PlayPoint DM’s soundstage are also better focused when compared to the Ayre. The PlayPoint DM seemed to be slightly more relaxed sounding resulting in an audible richness that I found to be more engaging when directly compared to the Ayre.

    I found the PlayPoint DM to be not only an impressive sounding DAC, but one that successfully combines a Roon server for peerless setup simplicity and rock-solid performance. Undoubtedly, the PlayPoint DM is going to impress the hard-core digital enthusiast as well as audiophiles who have previously avoided digital products because of their (perceived) complexity.

    Further information: exaSound Audio Design

    Associated hardware
    The exaSound PlayPoint DM was powered with a Shunyata Research Sigma NR AC cable, and Shunyata Triton V3 / Typhon QR power conditioners. Each Ayre Acoustics MX-R Twenty monoblocks were powered with their own Shunyata Research Typhon QR power conditioners.

    Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Diamond, Blue Jeans Cable Cat 6a
    Server: Roon Labs Nucleus+
    External Hard Drives: G-Technology 24 TB G|RAID Thunderbolt 2 / USB 3 
Analog Cables: Shunyata Sigma SP Speaker cables, Shunyata Sigma XLR
Preamplifier: Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty preamp
Amplifiers: Ayre Acoustics MX-R Twenty monoblock amps
Speakers: Wilson Alexia Series 2
    Other DACs on Hand: Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty 
Power Conditioners: Shunyata Research Hydra Triton v3, Typhon QR, and DPC-6 v2

    Written by Steven

    Steven Plaskin is a retired podiatrist living in Southern California. He reviewed for AudioStream for six years before joining Darko.Audio.

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