To begin to understand 'Chi-fi', in this case specifically Topping, one must have an understanding of Shenzhen, which many think of as China's 'Silicon Valley'. The region is historically known as Sham Chun, and is what is called a 'sub provincial' city, and is considered a 'special economic zone'.
China's "Special Economic Zones" (SEZs) are designated areas within the country that are set up with the aim of promoting economic development through foreign investment and trade. These zones were first established in the 1980s as part of China's reform and opening-up policy, and they have played a crucial role in attracting foreign investment and boosting the country's economic growth. This is done with tax breaks, relaxed CCP economic restrictions, and with infrastructure support. Shenzhen SEZ, was actually this first 'Special Economic Zone' developed, due to its close proximity to Hong Kong. So, if it is has to do with technology, Shenzhen is where it is at.
And Shenzhen is where we find Topping. And a plethora of other Chi-fi brands. Some owned by the same company, some not. Many of them never even branding a product for themselves; they OEM for others.
(ERRATA- Topping is actually located in Guangzhou, about 80 miles from Shenzhen. Every other point remains the same, though, and Guangzhou and Shenzhen are both players in the Chinese "Silicon Valley")
But as far as Topping is concerned, its 'end-game' is clearly stated on its website. I will state it verbatim here:
"TOPPING is the top. We give a more profound meaning for TOPPING that is, develop and expand, evaluation, and quality. TOPPING always remains true to our original aspiration, adheres to this concept to the pursuit, and explores on the road of Hi-Fi.
TOPPING firmly believes that the Hi-Fi should be highly united with pleasant hearing and superb performance. Therefore, since its establishment, TOPPING has determined a R&D route of parallel hearing experience and parameters, and put the R&D in the first place. We set up the R&D department composed of senior engineers and audiophiles and invested a large amount of money in purchasing professional audio instruments to ensure performance. In 2016 and 2019, we purchased professional audio testers APx555 and APx555B from Audio Precision, which are the top audio testers in the industry nowadays, for R&D and mass production testing. Each product will enter the hearing adjustment stage after achieving excellent parameters and performance during the R&D process, then we will again check whether the parameters are still excellent after getting the satisfactory sound, which process is repeatedly refined."
Well, in MY mind, it doesn't get any clearer than that. It confirms what I have suspected all along. Topping's philosophy, and more power to them for making a million dollar success out of it, is to maximize the measured results of their DACS and AMPs. Because everyone knows, a DAC that measures better must BE better, right? It must by nature sound better? No, I am afraid it isn't that simple.
But I give tremendous credit to Topping. The two DACS we will be looking at have truly state of the art measurements one might expect from say, DCS. Actually even better measurements than you might see from the latest DCS dac. Further credit is due because sound quality isn't left out of the equation in the name of numbers. Is it possible for something that measures this well to sound bad? Oh yes. But, thankfully that isn't that case here. Now, with all of THAT boring stuff out of the way, let's talk kit.
THE TWO BROTHERS. ERR, or SISTERS.
There are two Topping E70 DACs on the market at the time of this review. That wasn't always the case. The E70, which uses the ES9028 chipset has been out for some time now. The E70V, V as in Velvet, is a recent release that uses the very latest and top of the line AKM chip. Actually, it isn't even one chip. What normally occupies one square of silicon, is now spread between two. The E70V chip, known as AK4191EQ+AK4499EXEQ (yeah I know, its a mouthful), splits apart the digital and analog operations of the DAC chip. But other than that, the E70 and E70V are absolute twins. Same chassis, same rear panel connections, same front display, same touch sensitive power and select switch on the left, same tactile rotary selector on the right. But, in spite of all these similarities, sound is NOT one of them. And that is a good thing for us, or else this would make for a much shorter and more boring review! But seriously, there are very real differences in the presentations of these two DACs. I have a stack of notes I made during my listening for each DAC. I have so much I cannot squeeze this ALL into one review. It must be split into two, just like the AKM DAC...(i know, i know...). We will start with the older brother, the Topping E70 with ESS ES9028 DAC onboard.
The Topping E70 was the first to arrive at the EuphonicReview.com lab, and it was also the first Topping product I have had the privilege of inspecting and reviewing. Compared to more expensive products, its packing is a little sparse and utilitarian, but I do like very much the black boxes that exude a bit more 'something' must be in the box than expected. Something a bit premium. The DAC itself gives off a similar feel. For the price of approximately $350 US, it is a nicely built product, that feels solid to the touch, is symmetrical to the eye without any obvious misalignments, and while the front screen isn't anything like the latest DACs with impressive GUI, it seems just about right to me. Not too much, not too little. It sits there, does its job and looks impressive doing so.
Never once did I run into any kind of problem with this DAC. It worked exactly as it should. No hiccups, no pops or clicks when switching audio resolution or format, and nothing ever lagged. Having a remote is a very nice touch at this price point, and is a big deal because this DAC can be setup in preamp mode, connecting directly to an amplifier. I ran the E70 with my software 'gauntlet' consisting of Roon, J-River, Audirvana, and Foobar. The E70 performed with flying colors coupled with each software player.
The Topping E70 uses the ES9028PRO chipset. It uses a single chip, however each single chip has 8 channels. In this case, each of the 2 stereo output channels has 4 parallel channels summed together for an increase in fidelity. ESS also uses differential processing to further increase fidelity.
Asynchronous USB input is handled by the XMOS XU316, along with a customized Thesycon driver. In this particular application, the XU316 allows for signals up to 768khz PCM, and 512fs DSD. One thing missing here though, and in my opinion is a major oversight, is the omission of MQA decoding. I am sure this was to meet a price point, and allow for some differentiation between Topping models. What is DOES have as a major feature that some others do not, is High-Resolution LDAC 24bit/96khz Bluetooth capability. I wish I could say more, but I have no options in my lab or any of my other collections to test the Bluetooth capability. So for those who are interested in this feature, the best I can do is tell you yes, it is there, just waiting to be used.
The power supply is 100% internal, and is very well regulated based on the extremely low noise and low jitter measurements. It is not specified as a linear or a switching supply, but there is no wall wart with which to be concerned and either way, the low noise speaks for itself.
Rounding out the features summary is a 12 volt trigger for use with a companion headphone amplifier, such as the L70. There are also two SPDIF inputs in addition to the USB input. One optical and one coax. I have tested the optical and coax inputs, and can say they are not an afterthought. Test bench performance is practically the same regardless of input.
SPEAKING OF TEST BENCH PERFORMANCE...
This section almost leaves me speechless. I will have more graphs and the end of the review, but I can't help but mention the incredible performance numbers being reached by a $350 DAC. Again, I return to Topping's own philosophy of design. This is how they make products. They maximize their product's performance on a Audio Precision top of the line Analyzer. The results speak for themselves. I will list just a couple of the results here, compared to one of my reference DAC's, a RME ADI-2 PRO FS R Black Edition.
The RME ADI-2 PRO maxes out at an impressive -124db (A) Signal to Noise ratio. The Topping E70? -127.4db (A). Truly incredible bandwidth. SINAD seems to have become the measurement du jour, and neither DAC dissappoints, however the Topping E70 beats the RME by over 5 decibels, with the RME at 114.4db, the Topping E70 at 120db.
The RME by any standard just a mere couple years ago was state of the art. Its noise and distortion levels are so far beyond what we can actually hear, it STILL is state of the art. But the E70? It is practically on the Moon. (Don't be surprised when we get to the E70V, we are all the way to Mars.)
FLY ME TO THE MOON...
with Diana Krall and her 'Live in Paris' album, ripped from CD onto my NAS, with playback provided by Roon on a HP All-in-One PC, to DAC via Audioquest USB cables with a Topping HS01 Galvanic Isolator in chain. Headphones used in evaluation are Sennheiser HD650. Headamp is the iFi ZEN CAN via balanced XLR to pentaconn connections. PCM Filter 4 (slow minimum phase) was used on every auditioned PCM recording. DSD filter 4 (70khz fc at 64fs) was used with DSD. Output voltage was set to 4 volts for all listening and measuring.
As is the case with most DACs in this price category, at times bass can be a tad 'wooly' and indistinct, getting lost in the mix. The general nature of the reproduced soundstage is what I call 'wall of sound', and not the Phil Spector way. Rather instruments and voices tend to overlap rather than occupy distinct spaces either side to side, front to back, or a combination of both.
Midrange vocals, however, seem to be voiced prominently to the front and center. Diana Krall's deep, sultry tones sound excellent here with no sibilance whatsoever. However, drum transients on this album are reproduced a bit weakly. It's as if the DAC is being so polite and holding back when it should be rocking. But when the instrumentation settles down, whatever is being highlighted in solo comes through with captivating quality. Upright bass solo grabs your attention immediately, and any of that wooliness from before is gone in this moment.
Overall, the presentation is well done. Even if drums are lacking energy, what is captured is smooth and never harsh. What is missing, though, is the last word in speed and transient performance. I experimented with a couple different headphones to see if I could rediscover any of the missing 'uumph' in the drums and speed in transients. Neither the Hifiman HE560 nor the Focal Clear MG Pro could help in that department. While they certainly brightened things up, with the 560 even bringing the sound to the point of harshness, the inherent characteristic of the Topping E70 is soft and smooth.
My next stop was with Bill Evans and the Bill Evans Trio that included Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. This particular version of the album 'Waltz for Debby' was mastered at 24/192 from the analog tapes to digital with the incomparable Pacific Microsonics Model Two ADC. Some of the best sounding recordings in the entire history of digital audio have been made on the PM ADC. The first track up is 'My Foolish Heart.' The track begins with some stunningly smooth brush strokes on snare and cymbal. Bass, as has been the case, still comes in a bit weak, but its tone is quite natural and the presentation is very clean. Here the soundstage is quite wide, but there could be more front to back space and depth. When the full complement of instruments are playing, the soundstage behaves as before, with somewhat indistinct imaging. However the overall presentation is extremely pleasant, smooth, and very, very well done. Nice job Topping.
My evaluation playlist next takes us to a recording of Voces8 called "Lux", which means "Light" in Latin. As evaluated this album is 24bit/96khz and was recorded by Decca Studio Masters. The particular track I evaluated, an arrangement of Ben Fold's "The Luckiest", was recorded in the magnificent acoustic space of Dore Abbey in Herefordshire. My jaw literally dropped when hearing the beautiful vocal tone of Voces8 for the first time. And the Topping E70 just got out of the way and let the voices and their overtones just ring and swirl around one another in what must be an ecstatic experience heard live. But this is the kind of track where this DAC should shine. Textures and lightning fast transients are not what is captured in this recording. Rather the beauty is in the "rounded" tone, and those soaring overtones. This is a magnficent presentation in that regard. However, I must come back to what is missing here, and the last sense of scale and soundstage isn't quite here. The acoustic space sounds smaller than the Abbey is. Overall though, a sublime reproduction by the Topping.
It was at this point, that I wondered if I could improve on any of these weaknesses by sending the ES9028PRO chip in the E70, high rate DSD instead? The ESS chipsets use quite a bit of DSP on DSD by the time it exits as analog, but, it possibly gets one LESS step of DSP than PCM. There is no oversampling filter in its signal path. Also, even though ESS is tight lipped on how anything works inside its DACs, at this point we know their DSD implementation sounds excellent. We also know that their digital filter used in the 'intermediate' stage is excellent in that it rolls off nice and slowly and still has useable information at frequencies of 700khz and above, before the samples begin to become completely redundant due to the filtering process itself. So they seem to take care of the transient information of DSD very well as they deal with the ultrasonic noise.
It couldn't hurt to give it a try, and I find Roon's DSD oversampler quite good, so I replayed the VOCES8 album at DSD512, using a 5th order modulator with a slow minimum phase reconstruction filter for the PCM before it enters the modulator.
The results were stunning. Indeed, there WAS a greater sense of the Abbey's space now. What was once missing was not quite missing anymore. While not perfect, the sense of space definitely improved.
I continued to listen to everything at DSD512 for the remainder of my review time with the Topping E70. I revisited some tracks I have already written about, and heard similar improvements in transient response and imaging. It also works wonderfully well on Native DSD material, especially on DSD64. Remodulated to DSD512 with a competent modulator allows DSD64 to keep its existing bandwidth while giving it room to 'breathe' as it can place all that ultrasonic noise in a much bigger more expansive 'attic' if you will. Note that your results will vary depending on what hardware or software you use. Whether it is J-river, HQPlayer, Foobar with ASIO Proxy, your results could vary greatly.
The Topping E70 with the ES9028PRO is a competent DAC that anyone should be proud to own. In spite of the incredible measurements, I would NOT expect perfection at this price point, though. I can say the bias in my mind and heart wanted this to be the giant killer those insanely good measurements seemed to say it was. It would be WONDERFUL if a DAC under $500 could shame the industry's best and score a victory for the everyday audiophile. So I am actually going against any biases that I might want to have when I tell you that this is a solid performing DAC with a very, very good sound, but NOT a giant killer. It is in one word 'smooth'. It is very, very easy to listen to, adds no sibilance to voices, and does a nice job with tone, especially on vocals. But it lags a bit behind when it comes to transients, it can get a bit congested at times when things get musically busy, and isn't the last word in detail and texture. It also has a LOT of competition in the under $500 category, even from its own den! Up next soon in part 2 of this review, we take on the Topping E70 VELVET edition, with its AKM chip...
The Topping E70 has the highest Signal to Noise ratio I have ever measured coming in at -127.4db (A). That is more than 21 bits of resolution!!! As expected from a ESS chipset and its excellent jitter reduction system consisting of programmable PLL and ASRC, the performance here is outstanding with less than 3 picoseconds of jitter at 24 bits. Stereo Separation is also exceptional, never getting worse than -120db. See bottom of review for graphs.
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: 8.0
build quality: 9.3
ease of use: 8.8
TOTAL RATING: 86.9
Click on any graph for larger version. On mobile devices, landscape mode may be best.