HQ REFERENCE DAC ES9018S

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General

Hq-Audio is proud to announce the fist addition to our level ES9018S series with the new HQ reference DAC ES9018S . Under development for over 5 years it’s quite incredible this product is available as a kit, rather it is an exceptional piece of high-end audio that can also be purchased in kit form or as factory assembled.

HQ reference DAC ES9018S features include:

ES9018S chip.
CRYSTEK CCHD-575
All Low Noise LT3042
Control Volume and Remote.
Lundahl LL1684 Transfomer output
New HQ-HV Power Supply.
Full ground isolation from USB module
RCA SPDIF input.
Toslink input.
Neutrik AES/XLR input.
Amanero USB Module.
Available as a Kit or Factory Assembled
(Finished Product).

The Premium USB interface

USB is supported by a unique true asynchronous FPGA based solution from the italian company Amanero. We believe it is the sound leading USB interface and gives a perfect Audio match for the Raspberry Pi. Besides being excellent in sound, the USB interface supports future high resolution audio format in PCM up to 384 and up to DSD512

HQ reference DAC ES9018S architecture

1. All new digital DAC board using 8 pcs of the Ultra low noise Regulator LT3042 (<1 uV noise) to feed ultra quiet DC voltages to the digital board.
2. i/V conversion with a dedicated resistor to transfer the analog signal from the DAC board to the Transfomer board.

3. Analog output stage encorporating a LL1684 zero feedback configuration with both single ended output using RCA connectors and true balanced output using XLR connectors.

4. Beautiful remote control.

5. Amanero USB moldule.

LL1684 TRANSFORMERS

After many listening tests with my friends I consider this configuration as the best.

I don’t suggest an I/V made with a transformer so use only 1:1 configuration with center 10K // 2.2 – 22uF Sanyo OS-CON as described in the old Glass Audio article of Stefano Perugini.

The LL1684 with the amorphous core is the best choice as output transformer.

I/V transformers LL1684

Current to voltage transformers are key to the Hq-Audio philosophy. These amorphous core I/V transformers in the HQ reference DAC facilitate the ultimate in signal transfer between the digital and analog domains.

This preserves the small analog signal at birth and presents it to the line stage 100% intact. It is one of the most critical components (and little understood) of the Andra and Quanghao design philosophy.

The REMOTE Control

The DAC includes a gorgeous remote control is made of cast aluminum. Convenient, beautiful and easy to use. Just press the button and you have great features like: On-Off function, Volume control of the 32bit Attenuator, input select, mute function, select of PCM/DSD filter types and the frequency cutoff of the filters. All the settings can easily be memolised. The Remote is the PERFECT COMPANION FOR YOUR DAC.

Features

ES9018S chip.
CRYSTEK CCHD-575
All Low Noise LT3042
Control Volume and Remote.
Lundahl LL1684 Transfomer output
New HQ-HV Power Supply.
Full ground isolation from USB module
RCA SPDIF input.
Toslink input.
Neutrik AES/XLR input.
Amanero USB Module.
Available as a Kit or Factory Assembled
(Finished Product).

Specifications

Reference ES9018S-Resolution 32 Bit

Output Tubes: 02 x LL1684

Audio Outputs: 1 x Stereo Pair RCA, 1 x Stereo Balanced.

Output impedance: 100 Ohm.

Output Levels: 2.0V RMS fixed, 4.0V RMS Balanced.

Total Harmonic Distortion:  <0.015%

Digital Inputs: Amanero USB SPDIF RCA, XLR digital

Input Format Support: PCM to DSD512

Mains Power: 220-230V, 50/60Hz

Power Consumption: <50W

Dimensions: 70 x 330 x 330mm (H x W x D)

Weight: 7.5kg

Finish: Silver

Parts Compliment includes:

Remote Control

Output : LL1684

Filter capacitors: Solen MKP.

USB caps

Power caps

Use Manual.

Technology & design

HQ reference DAC ES9018S – USB PCM / DSD DAC – version 2          
August 
2013 – now

new group open to buy kit or assembled <

INTRODUCTION

After the great success the first version Quanghao opens a new group buy to produce a new series of DAC.

This ES9018 DAC have these features:

– PIC Microcontroller to remap DAC and share I2S connection with DSD signals
– Amanero module integrated to have USB input
– Support 44,88,96,192,352,384KHz PCM and DSD to play SACD ISO
– Full ground isolation from USB module
– On board reference 100MHz Crystek oscillator with a jitter of 0.5psec
– Ultra fast oscillator buffer
– 4 inputs:  USB, Spdif coax on BNC, AES/EBU Professional on XLR, Optical Toslink.
– 2 output stages choice: differential no feedback discrete current amplifier or transformers
– 4 row x 20 characters LCD
– Controller compatible with any 5V LCD and VFD
– Simple firmware upgrade
– Large dB volume display
– Top performance linear pre-regulator LT1963
– Separated fast shunt for any digital section
– Separated fast shunt for any analog channel
– Remote volume control
– Remote mute control
– Remote input control
– Digital filter control
– Optional passive I/V

The main characteristics of the ES9018 are  the patented 32-bit Hyperstream™ DAC architecture and Time Domain Jitter Eliminator.
This is the first DAC chip that does not use the master clock on I2S bus and it automatically resample the input signal at the highest resolution available 32bit 384KHz.


USB – I2S  MODULE

We have an active collaboration with Amanero srl and Quanghao is the first DIY company to have integrated this USB-OEM module.
Using the Amanero module we can play also 32bit 384KHz and DSD files (SACD format).


ES9018 DAC MODULE

The DAC module use a dedicated power supply with shunt separated for any section of the ES9018:

  • 1.2V core
  • 1.2 analog (left and right separated)
  • 3.3V digital
  • 3.3V analog (left and right separated)
  • 3.3V oscillator

All the power supply use a controlled current source and a hi-speed shunt linear regulator.

This module the ES9018 when connected to the controller module can be configured to select 4 different inputs:

I have followed the configuration suggested on http://hifiduino.wordpress.com to share the same 3 wire for I2S and DSD.

The DAC input configuration is remapped by the Micontroller module setting the register #14.

Here the schematic modified from original to add the 3 spdif input and to show both mode in the same image.

Using the controller module is also possible use the internal high performance volume of ES9018 with characteristics better than hi-end analog types (see article).


DAC ES9018 with solid state output stage

DAC ES9018 with LL1684 output stage


OSCILLATOR

This is a critical component, the sound performances can be compromised with a cheap oscillator so we are using the CCHD-575 Ultra-Low Phase Noise  Crystal Oscillator, 3.3V HCMOS.
The frequency 100MHz as been choiced to support any PCM and any DSD sampling frequency. 


POWER SUPPLY

In the first version there was a shunt power supply based on op-amp with high global feedback, in this new release we have develop after many simulations a new discrete shunt without op-amp, the feedback is lower but it the response on transient is better.

 


CONTROL GUIDE


CONTROLLER MODULE FIRMWARE

To program the 16F877A Microchip microcontroller I have used the PICKIT 2 USB Development Programmer/Debugger (cod. PG164120 or DV164121) with a cost about 40-50$

I love the C language because it is very simple if compared to assembler.

The my C source has been compiled with HI-TECH PICC-Lite Compiler V9.82 for PIC10/12/16 MCUs.HI-TECH Software has provided a  freeware HI-TECH PICC-Lite compiler as a tool for hobbyists and students, but the licence allows its use for commercial purposes as well. It is ideal as a teaching tool for an introduction into the ‘C’ language and embedded programing on a Microchip device.

 


OUTPUT STAGE OPTION 1 – DISCRETE NO FEEDBACK

– no feedback
– very low distortion because it work ass current amplifier
– Full class A operation on any load
> – Dual Single Ended mosfet buffer
– zero dc offset using dc servo loop – variable voltage gain only changing a single resistor (I/V)
– 3 voltage amplification setting with jjumps
– high output current to drive any low iimpedance headphone in pure class A
– high output voltage to drive any high impedance headphone
– very low output impedance to drive anyy cable
– both un-balanced and balanced output <
– differential configuration to reduce ccommon mode DAC errors
– output relay for the startup-up phase
– discrete high current shunt regulatorss




OUTPUT STAGE OPTION 2 – LL1684 TRANSFORMERS

After many listening tests with my friends I consider this configuration as the best.

I don’t suggest an I/V made with a transformer so use only 1:1 configuration with center 10K // 2.2 – 22uF Sanyo OS-CON as described in the old Glass Audio article of Stefano Perugini.

The LL1684 with the amorphous core is the best choice as output transformer.


PHOTOS OF PROTOTYPE

PHOTOS OF LAST PRODUCTION


CONFIGURE PLAYER

In order to play PCM and DSD audio tracks on Windows XP or 7 you can use Foobar2000 or JRiver Media Center.

The JRiver is more simple and with this configuration you can play 44,88,96,192,384KHz, DSD files and SACD ISO.

To use Foobar2000 is much more complex

    You can follows the guide on: http://hifiduino.wordpress.com or this following images.

copy foo_input_sacd.dll, foo_dsd_asio.dll and foo_out_ks.dll in the directory C:\Program\foobar2000\components

If you select as output device the ASIO4ALL when you start to play any tracks an little icon will be insert in the Appl. Bar.

Download

Review

HQ Audio HQ reference DAC ES9018S review

From Italy (and of Vietnamese origin) came another highly attractive DAC offering, in a rather cool and stylish outfit. Based on the ESS ES9018 Sabre chip which is quite popular and could be found in many DACs but of course, the DAC chip is only one part of the whole story, the surrounding circuitry, the power supply and other components are highly important as well. There is some controversy in regard to importance of the DAC chip and many believe there are other things that play a bigger role in the sound of a DAC.
The ESS ES9018 Sabre chip uses the patented 32-bit Hyperstream™ DAC architecture and Time Domain Jitter Eliminator and the additional list of features goes like this:
 – PIC Microcontroller to remap DAC and share I2S connection with DSD signals
 – Amanero module integrated to have USB input
 – Support 44,88,96,192,352,384KHz PCM and DSD to play SACD ISO
 – Full ground isolation from USB module
 – On board reference 100MHz Crystek oscillator with a jitter of 0.5psec
 – Ultra fast oscillator buffer
 – 4 inputs: USB, Spdif coax on BNC, AES/EBU Professional on XLR, Optical Toslink.
 – the output stage uses LL1684 transformers and two Clarity Caps (ESA series)
 – Simple firmware upgrade
 – Large dB volume display
 – Top performance linear pre-regulator LT1963
 – Separated fast shunt for any digital section
 – Separated fast shunt for any analog channel
 – Remote volume control
 – Remote mute control
 – Remote input control
 – Digital filter control
 – Optional passive I/V

The HQ reference DAC ES9018S seems remarkably well made but strangely enough, the right channel is located on the left side and vice versa. The channel labeling is done right, though. The interior of the HQ reference DAC ES9018S is very neatly laid out with short and optimized signal path. On the back side there are USB, coaxial, AES-EBU and optical inputs while the outputs could be either RCA/asymmetric or XLR/symmetric. The HQ reference DAC ES9018S – USB PCM / DSD DAC comes in either black or “silver” anodized aluminum chassis, the review sample being the latter. I really liked the big informative display which shows all the relevant info like the volume level, active input, filter band and type, etc.

The sound

Right out of the box, the HQ reference DAC ES9018S gave a very dynamic presentation, more so than the comparable DAC offerings that I have tried recently. I have listened to it casually for a few days just to provide some burn-in phase for the internal parts, especially the caps which can take ages to smooth out and open up. After two weeks of use I did noticed the sound changed quite a lot in the positive direction. The slightly sterile character on vocals and percussion was greatly ameliorated and the feeling of air and openness was much improved. The overall dynamics, bass punch and depth were spectacular for a device of this class. The lower midrange had body and sounded very controlled and dynamic at the same time and this to me is of paramount experience if we seek parallels (we should) to the live sound. The image focus of instruments and vocals was razor sharp and holographic in its appearance but not of the dreaded pin-point variety.  The sound was very lively, immediate and upfront, kind of a front row experience, I would say but still sounding stress-less. The depth layering was still good by any standards and so was the soundstage height and with instruments appearing beyond speaker edges – if the recording called for it.
The tonal character, the timbre of the instruments was as good as it gets and perhaps even a class above the norm which was most welcome. The whole midrange was fluid and showed excellent micro dynamic responsiveness and detailed insight. Orchestral works showed no signs of compression, loss of transparency or lack of individual instruments` separation, not even during the climaxes. The vocals had an open, live quality that was really appreciated and reinforced the overall enjoyment and provided for a very involving listening experience. The lower and upper treble were exemplary smooth sounding, with excellent resolution and detail retrieval. The hall reverberation cues were properly reproduced in length and intensity.
The HQ Reference ES9018S DAC`s performance was consistent across variety of genres and even sound formats. Whether the 44.1, HD or DSD, one could easily forget the medium and just delve deep into the musical event and absorb the message.
Briefly, I have also tried to drive the power amp straight from the HQ Reference ES9018S DAC and to a good effect, there was no apparent loss of energy and drive which was really nice and is probably an attribute of the ES9018S` nicely implemented digital attenuation section but of course, using an active preamp like the Thrax Dionysos I have had on hand, proved to be a better solution which should come as no surprise.

Some music

Carole King (born February 9, 1942) is an American singer and songwriter whose “Tapestry” album is, well, one of my favorite ones. It is one of the best-selling albums of all time, with over 25 million copies sold worldwide. It received four Grammy Awards in 1972, including Album of the Year. The lead single from the album — “It’s Too Late” reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and remained on the chart for 17 weeks. In 2003, Tapestry was ranked number 36 on Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Whoa, that sounds impressive but sometimes, strange music finds it way into the charts, not so with “Tapestry”, this album represents sophisticated pop music from that era. Perhaps worthy of mentioning, James Taylor, who encouraged King to sing her own songs, also played on Tapestry.
Through the HQ Reference ES9018S DAC, the “It’s Too Late” song evoked many fond memories of that era. It was capable to provoke real emotions and in a sense showed some great “time machine” qualities, meaning it could transport the listener to some distant space and time, on his musical journey. Although this is not an audiophile recording, the overall quality was beyond any serious criticism, especially the 1999 remaster which was later put on the SACD. The drums had a rhythmic, propulsive quality that made the whole track really attractive to listen to. Carole`s voice was intimate and alive sounding, provoking intense emotional involvement. A quick comparison with the CD version showed some (expected) differences: the SACD version was smoother and less mechanical but to say the CD version was hugely inferior, would be an exaggeration. Music from the seventies was largely recorded without excessive compression that the current production strives for and was hence MUCH MORE listenable and enjoyable. Of course, this is something the modern producers couldn`t care less for; their singles simply need to be louder in order to be memorized by the general public which in turn should provide the endless stream of coins for their pockets. Of course, all recorded music is commercial but these guys have pushed things to the sickening levels.
Regardless, the HQ Reference ES9018S DAC showed some real musical qualities when it came to bringing out the best in contemporary or old recordings of yore.
Jennifer Jean Warnes (born March 3, 1947) is another American singer, songwriter that I enjoy quite much. Her desire and ability to sing came early; at age seven she was offered her first recording contract, which her father turned down. She sang in church and local pageants until age 17 when Warnes was offered an opera scholarship to Immaculate Heart College. She chose to sing folk music as it became popularized by Joan Baez in the mid-1960s. In 1968, after a few years with musical theatre and clubs, she signed with Parrot Records (a London Records subsidiary) and recorded her first LP. Famous for her compositions, interpretations and her extensive repertoire as a vocalist on movie soundtracks, she is also a close friend and collaborator of Canadian singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen.
“The Well” was recorded in 2001 and is one of the albums I keep listening to. It consists of rhythm and blues, folk, country, jazz, Irish songs…just a diverse mixture of tunes that reflect Jennifer`s vast musical interests.
“The Panther” is my favorite track that features some percussion and guitar playing along with her melancholic, dark voice; all recorded in a very intimate way. Through the HQ Reference ES9018S DAC I was confronted with a very believable facsimile of the original event and a very immediate sounding one. The guitar had the power and energy of the real thing and so had Jennifer`s voice, percussion likewise.
“Invitation To The Blues” is a beautiful ballad that features some nicely recorded piano sounds. The weight, the color, the sparkle of that grand instrument were all reproduced with remarkable fidelity, through the HQ Reference ES9018S DAC.
Eiji Oue and The Minnesota Orchestra – Exotic Dances from the Opera, certainly needs no introduction to the music lovers; it is frequently heard at high end audio shows as well as at audiophile`s homes and for good reasons: great orchestral music recorded in superb fashion. The “Dance of the Tumblers from The Snow Maiden” was reproduced with all grandeur through the HQ Reference ES9018S DAC, showing exemplary dynamics, tonal shadings and separation of the individual instruments in an orchestra.
James Stanley Hall (December 4, 1930 – December 10, 2013) was an American jazz guitarist, composer and arranger. Premier Guitar magazine stated that “It could be argued that the jazz guitar tree is rooted in four names: Django [Reinhardt], Charlie [Christian], Wes [Montgomery], and Jim [Hall]”.
Jim Hall – “Concierto” album (recorded in 1975) is an album full of instrumental  lyricism and creative improvisation. Out of nine tracks, three are JimHall`s originals but the highlight of the album is certainly the rendition of Joaquín Rodrigo`s Conceirto de Aranjuez (Adagio):
Of course, the musicians took the right to interpret the piece their own way but the end result is simply enchanting and highly captivating. The interplay between the instruments is…well, it goes beyond mere words, it needs to be experienced. The HQ Reference ES9018S DAC showed itself in a very positive light, as far as musical involvement goes. It showed all the subtle nuances contained in this marvelous recording, showing finesse, power (when called for) and emotional content. Of course, not only Concierto de Aranjuez but the the whole album is simply phenomenal. One of my favorites is Cole Porter`s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”, another great interplay of legendary musicians.

Conclusion

At this moment the HQ Reference DAC ES9018S – USB PCM / DSD DAC proved to be my favorite of the bunch; a very aesthetic one box solution that plays all formats exceedingly well, is cleverly constructed and remarkably well made. In sound quality terms it provided everything the competition has to offer and in some cases even more. It takes a lot of knowledge, experience and sensible thinking to design a DAC like this and thus my only possible conclusion is: the HQ Reference DAC ES9018S – USB PCM / DSD DAC deserves much wider recognition and acceptance – highly recommended.