Opera Consonance's D-Linear 7 and D-Linear 8 are two types of digital components that I have never had the pleasure of auditioning in my system. They are also two types of digital components that I never even knew existed. I suppose if I was asked whether a Chinese audio firm manufactured anything like these two components I would surely have answered in the affirmative, for these days it seems as if anything is possible. Although, if asked whether anyone would want such a component, my answer to such a question would surely be less definitive. But after only a short time I started thinking: "I may have not ever desired them, but now that they're here, thank you very much".
OK, I'm not the most advanced of computer-audiophiles on the planet, but I'm far from clueless. I have a few terabytes of FLAC files on outboard hard-drives, and I've been listening to these files through USB digital-to-analog converters for quite some time now. Of course there are other computer audiophiles that are way ahead of me and been performing tasks such as pumping music wirelessly throughout their entire homes for even a longer period of time. But my excuses have always have been, at least as far as I was concerned, quite rational (but read on before you write me off too quickly). And I strongly suggest reading this entire review to discover all that these units have to offer other than the simple act of decoding digital signals.
My main system has the host computer in the same room (I prefer "listening room" rather than "man cave". Whatever). This system is the larger of the two that includes the rather large Sound Lab DynaStat electrostatic/hybrid speakers aided by a Velodyne subwoofer. FLAC files are played on Foobar 2000 or MediaMonkey running on a 3.20 GHz Dell PC with 8G RAM running Windows 7. The visiting Opera gear's AC was routed through Virtual Dynamics power cords which were connected to a PS Audio Power Plant AC regenerator, which in turn connected to one of the two listening room's dedicated power lines. The second system is an all tube based system with Dynaudio stand-mounted speakers. While they took up residence in this system both the D-Linear 7 and 8's AC cords were connected to a Panamax power conditioner. Before the Opera gear arrived, the only "high-quality" audio source in this system located two floors away from the server has been disc-based digital and the occasional use of an iPod or a classic AR FM tuner.
On the rear panel of the D-Linear 7 are two USB inputs, one labeled "USB Device", which is for a physical connection of a hard drive, the other, "USB Host" is for a portable flash drive. To the right of those inputs is the Ethernet connection labeled "LAN". There are two digital outputs, a AES/EBU which is an XLR-type connection, and an RCA coax. The stereo analog outputs are gold-plated unbalanced RCA jacks. The power switch, fuse, and IEC AC output jack for its removable power cord are nearest to the top of the cabinet on the right side. The clean and almost spare modern-looking front panel of the D-Linear 7 has only the LCD touch-screen, and for convenience an input labeled "USB Host" for a flash drive connection. The four-inch high, nine-inch wide, and twelve-and-a-half-inch deep cabinet is lifted almost 0.75-inch off the shelf by its four composite cone-shaped feet.
Where to start? Although I ended up spending quite some time listening to files from a hard drive attached to the USB Device input and from a shared hard-drive through the network, I was most interested at first in using the D-Linear 7 as a stand-alone Internet radio. It worked just as well using a hard wired Ethernet connection when in the main system as when receiving a WiFi signal in the second system two floors away from the wireless router. But more on that in a bit. Of course more useful in assessing its sound quality was when I used a hard drive connected to the D-Linear 7 to decode FLAC files. When playing files the screen had the same layout as when playing the Internet radio – track name, number, elapsed time, sample rate, volume, and the expected CD player-type functions were listed. Using the D-Linear 7 to play files was intuitively simple. All of its functions are duplicated on its remote.
If I were the owner of this unit and was dependent on it to play my music music files I would spend some time massaging the data on my drives. The majority (but certainly not all) of my files were ripped from CDs by using Exact Audio Copy (EAC), and each artist, then each album of each artist was a separate folder. The D-Linear 7's shuffle function ("random play") only randomized files within the same folder. Other than that snag, using the D-Linear 7 was super-simple to use. Setting the D-Linear 7 to receive a WiFi signal worked flawlessly even when a part of the second system two floors away from the wireless router. Like I said, I used a cable between the hard-drive and the D-Linear 7 instead of a NAS drive, only because I don't own NAS drives, per se. But this was not such a big deal because I was also able to access the drives that were hard-wired to the host computer by setting the network functions on the computer to "share" the hard drives through the network using the resident Linksys-G broadband router.
D-Linear 7 Sound
It wasn't until when I later performed some quick A/B comparisons between the Opera and my resident Benchmark DAC1PRE that revealed the Benchmark had an edge in sound quality. The Opera had a lighter sound, that is, the Benchmark had more low end weight and a slightly more detailed sound (without sounding etched) that benefited just about any file I played through it. But the Opera D-Linear 7's internal DAC produced a sound that is certainly competitive to just about any DAC I've heard within its price range, and although putting it up against the Benchmark is informative, that comparison really isn't fair – one is comparing apples to oranges, not only because the Opera has a self-contained Internet radio.
The Internet radio function was much more fun and way more convenient to use than listening to Internet radio on the host computer's browser, favorites settings, and any plug-in I've ever used. But the sound quality of Internet radio is highly dependent on the radio station selected, that is, a bit rate of 128 Kbps is the highest I got from any station that seemed worthy of my time. Therefore, "serious listening", that is, listening to Internet radio while planted in the sweet spot paying full time and attention was not something I did very often. But that's just fine, as even terrestrial radio stations are more for off-axis enjoyment and as anyone who enjoys the format will tell you – and with over 10,000 Internet radio stations available by only pressing a few buttons on the D-Linear 7's remote and scrolling through its menus, the world was my musical oyster. This was true especially in the less revealing second system, where the sonic flaws of the DAC (which, as I said, were only slight) when listening to full-rez files through its DAC, and especially the Internet radio (which were more than slight). No, the second system isn't a kitchen iPod dock table radio, its a system with PrimaLuna monobloc tube amps, Balanced Audio Technology preamp, and stand-mounted two-way Dynaudio speakers, but still, it certainly wasn't as Olympian as the main system. And its less revealing nature made listening to Internet radio that much more enjoyable. The Opera Consonance D-Linear 7 is a piece of audio equipment that is fun. That alone makes it worth recommending.
Opera describes the Opera D-Linear 8 as a component that only is a USB wireless DAC receiver, but a "universal" DAC for transports, in that it can decode signals from its Opera's own Consonance HD interface, as well as DVD player, Blu-ray disc player, and cable TV decoders and satellite receivers. It contains an onboard "high-end" (their term) headphone amplifier, and the D-Linear 8 has both RCA and balanced XLR outputs.
I was most interested in using this device to receive a wireless signal from my host computer. I left enough time one afternoon to adjust to a learning curve that I should expect from a unknown technology, but that was unnecessary: I plugged in the USB dongle to the computer which automatically disconnects the sound card options of the computer, and after selecting the wireless USB input on its selector knob, music played through the D-Linear 8. Done.
D-Linear 8 Sound
One of the reasons I was convinced that the sound quality of this unit was up to par is when I was listening to the D-Linear 8 while Foobar 2000 was on shuffle. On came the first movement of Shostakovitch's Symphony No. 15, the chamber music version played byviolinist Kremerata Musica on Deutsche Grammophon. It's out-of-print, which is quite a shame because it is not only one of the best sounding 44.1/16 recordings in my collection, it is also is quite a fine performance and unique arrangement of this great piece of music. The movement opens with his version of a toy shop, first with the sound of a high note of a glockenspiel, followed by the whimsical yet sardonic sounds of flute and violin straight out of Shostakovitch’s famed vocabulary, as well as quotes not only from Rossini (William Tell Overture) but from past works of his own as well. Bass drum and tympani whacks had enough muscle behind them to shake the room (and showed that the rather diminutive Dynaudios could pull this off), and all the sounds were well sorted out in a soundstage that never sounded cluttered, largely because of the realistically scaled sonic distance between the instruments. This was true regardless of the sarcastic cacophony that Shostakovitch attempted to impose. As far as chamber music goes, this piece is as demanding as one can imagine, and if you have even an inkling of the range of my taste (or lack thereof) in music, likely the D-Linear 8 would be asked to decode everything from classic '70s hard rock, to modern jazz, to chamber and orchestral, to world music, to '50s soundtracks, to electronic music – and I'm sure I'm leaving some genres out – all while I was wearing my reviewers hat. I would surely notice if it faltered. The only hiccup I heard was an actual hiccup, when the signal dropped out a couple of times. Changing the "band" on the Opera's USB dongle on the PC cured that, as it has eight available channels to optimize its signal transmission. There was no need to change any settings on the D-Linear 8.
When I listened to the few hi-rez files on my computer's hard-drive the sound quality for the most part took a giant leap forward. One was an album that I recently downloaded from HDtracks, John Coltrane's classic A Love Supreme. I implore anyone who has even the slightest interest in jazz to download this album, as anyone with ears will acknowledge that the 96kHz/24-bit sound on these files blows away any other digital rendering of this masterpiece. Elvin Jones' cymbals in particular have a realistically natural sizzle that is startling, and Coltrane's in-the-room-with-you presence is wonderful. That higher resolution files through the D-Linear 8 sounded better than "regular" files is to be expected, and the fact that it can decode files up to any resolution that one is likely to encounter is impressive. But I have to be honest – although I did indeed listen to plenty of files with a resolution of higher than standard CD I did a heck of a lot (or greater) more listening to these plain vanilla 44.1kHz/16-bit music files, if only because of the sheer number of those recordings in my collection. But still, it is nice to know that the ability to decode these files is there when the need presents itself. As far as other disc player formats are concerned, I did take the time to use the D-Linear 8 to decode the few two-channel music DVDs I own, and my finding were consistent with the other formats played through it, at least comparatively so. And this is a good thing, as I was impressed not only by these higher resolution files. On the files sourced from Red Book CDs, its sound through its digital input was very similar to the D-Linear 7. But both unit's sound quality was dependent on the type (and thus quality) of source file as well as the method of input, and variable enough that publishing "ratings" at the end of this review would be pointless. Comparisons of the D-Linear 8 to the Benchmark DAC1PRE resulted in similar findings – but only when comparing discs played via coax input, where it was nearly as good, but not quite, in a variety of departments. But it was again helpful to remind myself that this comparison wasn't really that fair because they are two products that have in common only the fact that they can decode a digital signal. The comparison of the Opera's wireless signal vs. its direct digital input were more instructive, yet rather pointless. It is what it is. But read on.
While the Opera gear was on loan I listened to hi-rez files downloaded from quite a few sources, with a rate of as high as 192kHz , but some others including a few from Reference Recordings that had a slightly lower (but perhaps insignificant? Let's save that discussion for another time) sampling rate of 176.4 kHz. These tracks sounded similarly outstanding. I was driven to play the "Reveries" album numerous times, this album has Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra in pieces as diverse as Ravel, Faurè, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius, and I ended my day listening to a personal favorite, the track of Eric Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 quite a few times before calling it a night. Everything any audiophile could ask for in terms of not only resolution but involvement were present during the playing of these spectacular orchestral tracks. I spent even more time, I'd say most of the weekend, listening to hi-rez tracks – but later discovered that even standard 44.1kHz/16-bit tracks sounded much, much better with the combination of the D-Linear 7 and 8 than just relying on the 7 to decode files sourced from files on the hard-drive. The bass response in particular was markedly improved, it seemed to reach deeper and also seemed to have a sharper focus. Tracks such as the third movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams Sinfonia antartica with its organ pedals that shook the window frames of the listening room. This great recording on Naxos with Kees Bakels conducting the Bournemouth SO is legendary for its bass response, and the D-Linear 7/8 combo did not disappoint. Also noteworthy was my time playing back some stuff from the great-electronica-scare-of-the-1990s, including the slamming sixth track of of Front 242's album 05:22:09:12 Off, which I don't feel at all comfortable mentioning it by name in this publication.
The combination of the two Opera units will cost one just a bit over two grand, and I most audiophiles would still consider this an affordable option for a DAC. Yet the combination offers a plethora of features not available in an "ordinary" DAC. And if just the sound quality of the decoding prowess of the combo is the only feature that one considers, it is still just about unbeatable at this price.
Since it does take up some real estate on the front panel, I would be remiss in not at least making a mention of its headphone input of the D-Linear 8. I was pleasantly surprised. I used both the easy to drive Grado SR-80 'phones and the larger, and of course more expensive, Sennheiser HD-600 cans. The D-Linear 8 had no problem getting more than acceptable sound out of either. The smooth volume control on the right side of the front panel had a nice high-end type feel, and there was no problem in reaching a sufficiently low volume even when using the super-efficient Grados, and conversely both pairs of headphones got loud enough up to the level where hearing damage became a concern before I hear any distortion. Comparing it to a Headroom dedicated headphone amplifier was revealing in that it demonstrated that the D-Linear 8's internal headphone amp fell a little short in terms of bass extension and overall instrument separation, but I guess that's to be expected. Still, the D-Linear 8's internal headphone amplifier sounded much more like a well thought-out circuit than an afterthought.
One more thing: if they had showed me the plans for the D-Linear 7 or 8 before its design was concluded, I would have mentioned its lack of an input for a computer's USB cable which was, at least in my main system, sorely missed – especially once I had the two set up together. OK, the wireless transmission of the digital signal is the D-Linear 8's raison d'etre, yet the inclusion of an asynchronous USB input on either of these units would enable one to have the option of hard wiring the computer to this DAC, and would have made using an outboard hard-drive hooked up to the D-Linear 7 an option rather than a necessity. Although in my conversations with Opera's North American distributor Grant Fidelity, they seemed to think that Opera was very open to suggestion, and gathered that it would not be unreasonable that this feature would be included in future revisions of the units. Although I'm not an audio engineer, I couldn't imagine that it could raise the price of either of these units that much. Though even without this, the D-Linear 7 and 8, and especially the combination of the two, not only performed impressively well but were awfully fun to use. And especially fun to listen to.
A Note From The Manufacturer