by Andrew Allen Ballew
To give a short recap of where we have been, I received both versions of Topping's E70 DAC. The first to arrive was the older E70 with ESS9028PRO chipset. Then a couple weeks later, the E70V arrived, sporting the latest AKM flagship chipset, the AK4191EQ Digital Processor and Modulator, and the new AK4499EXEQ, which converts the modulated signal received from the AK4191 into analog. However, from the outside, these DAC's are identical. Even in their feature sets, including LDAC Bluetooth 24/96. But, as I mentioned in 'part one' of this review, they do indeed sound quite different.
I will not reprint all that was said about Topping; about its mission/philosophy. You can find that in part one of this E70/E70V review/comparison, by clicking HERE for the link.
It is good to see AKM getting back on its feet. Even though the process is very slow, and they are beholden first to their larger customers (automotive), it is nice to see new things coming the audiophile way. I personally find this latest flagship DAC fascinating. Unfortunately, the information we have about it is slight. There has yet to be any release to the public of a comprehensive Data Sheet. What I can tell you about it, is it is NOT a switched capacitor DAC, as seemingly all have been out of AKM recently. This is a switched resistor DAC. (The previous AK4499 is the only other AKM I am aware of as I write that is not switched capacitor. Feel free to correct me if I have overlooked something. This new AK4499 that requires the AK4191 to operate seems to be similar or the same as the post-modulator section of the old AK4499).
The specifications of this new double chipset are ambitious. Based on my measurements, most of which even better the previous E70, which was incredible on the test bench, speak to the success of the AKM engineers in this new endeavor.
Let's Get Right Down to it...
I see no need to waste any time, so let us dive right in. For better context, click here and read the E70 review. All listening was done with PCM filter 6.
I described the E70 as 'soft and smooth'. The E70V? It gives you what is on the recording. There does not seem to be very much 'editorialization' by the E70V. It is balanced, detailed, reveals fine textures, and if it's a bad recording, you will know it. However, great recordings will be truly magnificent, and the sound is among the best I have heard from DACs under $500. I listened to one recording made with the Pacific Microsonics Model Two ADC in the E70 (ESS) review. Considering that the E70V (AKM) is such a window on the sound, I evaluated it with a couple more recordings made with a Pacific Microsonics DAC.
The Best Recordings in the World
Keith Johnson is the mastermind behind Pacific Microsonics. He is also the inventor of HDCD, a leap forward in CD quality in the mid-1990's before the likes of DVD-Audio and SACD came to town. HDCD encodes the equivalent of 20 bits worth of data in a 16-bit digital audio signal by using custom dithering and audio filters. But it isn't HDCD that became his 'claim to fame'. It was the ADC itself, which is still coveted in recording studios long after being discontinued. It is a 100 percent PCM ADC. No Delta Sigma. It will capture analog up to 24 bit/192khz. Johnson went on to use this ADC at his 'Reference Recordings', which was dedicated to making the best digital audio recordings ever heard. I believe he succeeded, as that same tech is still used 'til this day at Reference Recordings, and the fidelity is remarkable. (I feel obligated to note that Reference Recordings seems to have moved on to high speed DSD these days. I have several of their recordings of the Pittsburgh Symphony in DSD 256.)
First up is an 'oldie' but goodie. Reference Recording's amazing capture of Eugene Istomin playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No.21 in C minor accompanied by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gerald Schwarz. This recording made 'The Absolute Sound' Super Disc List, and was the 'Stereophile' recording of the month in May, 1996.
The version I auditioned was at 24/88.2khz. The first thing noticed is the EXTREME detail. Nothing artificial; this is actual recording space detail captured to the 'nth' degree and reproduced faithfully by the Topping E70V. Dynamics are impressive, a real improvement on one of the only real complaints about the earlier E70. Piano is reproduced here to near perfection. The tiniest dynamic shadings of tension and resolution are captured and reproduced with an exquisite touch.
Sticking with Reference Recordings, the next works I auditioned on the E70V came from a much more recent release recorded on the Pacific Microsonics Model Two at 24/176.4. In this case, I happened to have the master recording at 176.4khz. The release is called 'Danza del Soul' by Chris Brubeck performed by the Concord Chamber Music Society. Yes, he is THAT Brubeck, son of the late and great Jazz composer and musician.
'Danza del Soul' is what I would call a bit of an esoteric work. Thoroughly modern. The work begins with solo clarinet that is reproduced about as nicely as one could ask. The reedy, yet bell-like rounded tone is captured and reproduced here by the E70V with both commendable detail AND tone. Overtones are easily picked out by a keen ear. Later in the recording when the bass comes in, it is quite an experience. Bass is strong, goes deep, and contains fine texture and nuance as well. Eventually we will get a musical drama going on with the clarinet, cello and bass, yet here comes the percussion, finding its own musical space as the imaging stays rock solid between all instruments. This is truly audiophile worthy reproduction. Might we have a new standard set for under $500? I do not know, as there are so many products out there to be reviewed, but, I would go to battle with this DAC any day, of this I am sure.
Next up I took a turn with the Doric String Quartet on the Chandos label, performing the Korngold String Quartet no. 1 in A major. From the first note what stands out is the excellent transient response. There is speed and power here, but not at the expense of nuance and beauty, which will be heard just a few bars later. The string tone is rounded and pure, with the sweetest of vibrato and micro-dynamics, that when reproduced well may be just the type of small detail that separates a good DAC from a great DAC. If I had any qualms or reservations, it would be in the soundstage. While things were very nicely spready out from left to right, from front to back the DAC left things a little flat. But overall, another win for Topping.
I waited until last to mention my only real disappointment with this DAC. For a great deal of you, this will not mean much, as DSD is still a niche format, even amongst the audio zealots it seems. At the very least, it is a polarizing format. All you need to do to learn that, is just take an afternoon and peruse a few audio forums. As for me, I find great recordings in both PCM and DSD formats, and I even really like the other controversial format, MQA. (As with the E70, MQA is regrettably omitted here, too.) But, there indeed is SOMETHING about DSD, when heard at its best, that is just compatible with my ear.
The E70V certainly will play DSD. All the way up to 512fs. But the manual is incorrect when it says there is a choice of two filter settings, and it also lists the wrong cutoff frequency for the one filter that is locked in. The actual cutoff frequency for DSD64 is a very, very low 19khz. Below this review in the graphs section you will be able to see the rolloff of this filter, and it reaches its stopband at 30khz. Which is actually not that much different than a 'slow' PCM filter. Why is that a big deal? The area where DSD may have an advantage over PCM, is in time domain performance. Yes, it must be filtered anyway and lose some of that advantage, but there is a balance to be found between filtering and how much ultrasonic noise one is willing to deal with in designing a DAC. I have listened to lots of DSD on the E70V, including DSD64, and of course it doesn't sound 'bad'. It sounds fine. But it isn't bringing out the maximum performance of which the AKM chip is capable.
One consequence of a DSD FIR filter, is the filter cutoff frequency doubles with DSD speed, assuming the coefficients do not change. I have confirmed that this is the case through DSD256, but DSD512 is beyond my current ability to measure the cutoff frequency. If we assume the usual holds true, then the DSD512 frequency cutoff would be around 150khz.
Therefore it would be my personal choice to oversample any DSD files to DSD512 with the E70V. And indeed, I found a notable increase in fidelity with the DSD64 files I played when they were oversampled to 512fs.
This one is easy. The Topping E70V Velvet Edition is one of the best DACs under $500 I have heard. Even more-so than the Topping E70. Compared directly to the RME ADI-2 PRO FS R Black Edition DAC that uses the AKM AK4493 chip, the Topping E70V comes pretty close! No, it doesn't match or beat the RME, but considering the price, it makes the Topping a real winner in its own right.
The question may be for some of you, which version should I get? The E70 for less money, or pay the premium for the E70V? If budget is tight, then I can wholeheartedly recommend the original E70. If you prefer a smooth, laid back sound, that may hide any warts in poorer recordings, I recommend the E70. The DSD performance of the E70 is also excellent; actually I consider DSD playback to be its strength.
But if you can stretch your wallet, my recommendation is get the E70V. In spite of the issue with DSD I highlighted, overall I consider it the better sounding DAC. It is much more true to the source, and will give you its best when you give it a great recording. It may not be as nice to you with poorer recordings, though. It is dynamic, paints a good soundstage, and also is great with micro dynamics and textures. If you listen to DSD, you may find better performance oversampling to a higher rate, or you may find it sounds just fine as it is. The difference is not enough to be a deal breaker when one considers how overall fine the sound is. Highly recommended at this price point. Worth a listen even if you are looking at a higher price point!
The Topping E70V put simply, measures better than any DAC I have yet had the privilege to evaluate. The SNR, though falling just a bit short of the E70, is still an amazing -127.1db (A). THD exceeds the E70 at -131db, and likewise SINAD is an impressive 121.3db, outpacing the E70 once again. The ESS chipset in the E70 is famed for its jitter rejection. Don't tell that to the new AKM chipset in the E70V, as it equals or even slightly beats the E70 in jitter rejection! Please see the graphs below for more data. Stereo Separation never rises any higher than -123db, 3db better than the E70.
OUR RATING: (0-10 scale. 8 or higher numbers represent best of industry. For the final score calculation, each category is given a (undisclosed) weighting and is tallied for final score. Although perfect 'fairness' is unlikely, our system tries to be as unbiased as possible
sound quality: 8.3
build quality: 9.3
ease of use: 8.8
TOTAL RATING: 89.3
Click on any graph for larger version. On mobile devices, landscape mode may be best.
Below are the response / rolloff of the single DSD filter, at DSD64, DSD128, and DSD256