Oppo’s HA-1: The Whole Sonic Picture

As most of you know, I’ve been an unabashed fan of Oppo since I got my hands on their first Blu-ray player, the BDP-83. They’ve managed to build a well-deserved reputation for reliability, support, sound and video quality AND VALUE. These days, it seems my entire facility has items with the Oppo logo on them. Except the latest additions are not spinning discs but rather delivering the last couple of steps in the music reproduction chain. Their PM-1 Headphones came out several months ago and now you can plug them in to the new HA-1 Headphone Amplifier. But the HA-1 is much more than a simple headphone amplifier.

I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peak at the new HA-1 unit at the recent AXPONA 2014 show. The good folks at Oppo got their very first shipment and asked me if I would like to use it at my demonstration/sales table. Of course, I said yes and was pleased to find a box waiting for me at the front desk of the Westin Hotel. Inside the box, I found a silver HA-1 and a new set of the PM-1 headphones. Combined with the BDP-83 that I brought with me, the AIX Records sales table was almost 100% Oppo powered.

The BDP-83 was used as the source and played my latest Blu-ray HD-Audio Sampler. The various outputs from the BDP-83 were split across several devices. The HDMI signal was connected to my Smyth Realiser, but unfortunately the Smyth power supply failed and I wasn’t about to demonstrate the Headphones[xi] “surround headphone” demo. The HDMI connection was rerouted to the Toshiba video monitor. The optical output carried a S/P DIF digital signal to my Benchmark DAC2 and the coaxial output was routed to the coax input on the HA-1. But what do you supposed the HA-1 and DAC2 displayed on the front as my tracks were playing? They appear as “downconverted” 48 kHz/1-bit PCM stereo audio. Why?

In fact, I was asked about this by several of the AXPONA attendees. “You’re the high-resolution audio guy, right? Why are both the HA-1 and the Benchmark DAC2 indicating that your stuff is only 48/16?,” they wanted to know. As I’ve explained in a previous post (click here to read it), the labels forced the labels to downcovert the S/P DIF outputs to 48/16 to deter theft of the their master recordings. [NOTE: they don’t have a problem licensing their high-resolution masters to the likes of HDtracks and Pono at 96 kHz or 192 kHz but from optical discs? No Way!]

This unfortunate reality makes the HA-1 subject to the copy protection scheme associated with the S/P DIF outputs…if you’re using one of the HDMI de-embedders (such as the Kanex Pro unit I purchased) AND the right Oppo BDP player (sadly the 83 is not one of the blessed units) you can get the 96 kHz/24-bit high-resolution signals to externals DACs. Using the Kanex box with my BDP-83 bumped the word length to 24 bits but the sample rate stayed the same…48 kHz.

So maybe I would get better sound if I hooked up the analog outputs of my BDP-83 and connected them to the analog inputs of the HA-1 using the new headphone amp as a preamplifier with volume control? Since the same ESS 9018 Sabre Reference DACs are in both units and the engineering focus of the HA-1 keeps reference quality analog audio front and center, I think the quality would be the same or better. In my brief listening tests this morning I confirmed this.

I’ve break down the HA-1 unit in more detail tomorrow.

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

12 thoughts on “Oppo’s HA-1: The Whole Sonic Picture

  • May 9, 2014 at 12:22 pm
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    I’m a little confused. Why are you demoing the blu-ray disc as opposed to the itrax downloads? You could plug your laptop into your dac and presto, full quality. Since you have access to the original digital video files, you could also demo your video via a computer without having to deal with blu-ray. Blu-ray sucks! You should also make your video available on itrax inside an mkv container or the like.

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    • May 9, 2014 at 4:49 pm
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      This was only a first step. I will also access iTrax files but it is still important to be able to play discs…even the new Blu-ray Pure Audio ones. Blu-ray doesn’t suck. It’s a great format for getting great sound and video inexpensively for those that don’t want to deal with files.

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      • May 9, 2014 at 7:06 pm
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        I understand that you are explaining how to play a blu-ray disc (though I really don’t know why you’d want to — especially in two channels — just rip it for heaven sake). I’m only trying to address your sales pitch at a trade show. If I had never read your blog or listened to one of your albums, and I saw you downsampling your ‘hi-res” tracks as part of your demonstration, I’d probably keep steppin’!

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        • May 10, 2014 at 12:53 pm
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          Not everyone is comfortable of knowledgeable about ripping anything more than CDs. Blu-rays have a place in the audiophile ecosystem…although admittedly it is diminishing as file downloads and high-quality streaming advance. I routinely demonstrate the Smyth Realiser at the trade shows that I attend. It uses the HDMI output from the Oppo BDP-83 that I take on the road with me. There is only a single HDMIO output on the 83, so I can’t use the Kanex Pro de-embedder. That means that the downconversion takes place on the S/P DIF outputs. My use of an audio system at my sales table is not about demoing HD-Audio but showing off the artists and repertoire.

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  • May 9, 2014 at 5:45 pm
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    From Oppo’s rep from Head-fi and other website, the DAC and its analog circuity of HA-1 are far more updated and better than BDP-83.

    Unless you have BDP-83 SPECIAL EDITION, normal BDP-83 has Cirrus 24bit DAC chip, not Sabre one. Best solution is rip the Blu-ray Pure audio into FLAC files and play them, using HA-1 as computer DAC. Buy AnyDVD HD from slysoft.com and DVD Audio Extractor from dvdae.com, and start ripping them!

    And, yes. This is why SACD was doomed, and Pure Audio Blu Ray is already doomed from the start; DRM.

    So here is the story. When HDMI was introduced, it came with HDCP copy protection to make sure people cannot enjoy high-quality video and audio via traditional outputs. Well, the people’s response was… well, they decided to not enjoy high-quality video and audio. It turned out it was not a big deal, and for most of the people, DVD-quality was more than enough.

    So, we have low-quality netflix… Oh wait, there are people who do not use netflix because they think it is still too expensive, so they only watch stuffs on youtube. A lot of opportunities for selling high quality media have evaporated because of excessive greed, and unfortunately they won’t come back.

    Dr. Waldrep, you should get a software called “AnyDVD HD” from Slysoft for defeating copy protection on Blu ray discs. Jriver Media Center, for instance, requires this software to play Blu-ray. It’s really a requirement rather than optional at this point.

    Everyone who frequently involves with Blu-ray media in general should have AnyDVD HD. Yes, they won’t be able to rip SACD (you need unpatched, first generation Playstation 3 for this), but you can backup any Pure Audio Blu Ray albums with this software. It will make a perfect CD image without DRM so there is no loss on audio quality whatsoever.

    Only problem is that the software is rather expensive. It’s 120 euro for permanent license, and 1 year for 63 euro.

    Reply
    • May 9, 2014 at 6:08 pm
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      You’re right…I was thinking about the BDP-95 and 105. My standard 83 doesn’t have the juice up DACs.

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      • May 10, 2014 at 2:41 pm
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        Wish the HA 1 had second set of unbalanced outs. Many have adopted to supreme bass playback via servo plate amps and woofers. While fhe plate amp covers accurate bass it relieves the main amp of putting out lots of distorted power. As such, low powered amps esp SET types really shine thru with mids and highs. Just my 2 cents worth.

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      • May 11, 2014 at 3:26 am
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        If you wish to Rip BD you might also consider “MakeMKV” it will put the audio into a suitable MKV container which you could use natively or demux and be left with a multi-channel wav file.

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        • May 11, 2014 at 3:47 am
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          Actually, MakeMKV will do a full backup re-creating the BD file structure on the hard disk, from that point on you can use a variety of tools to either extract the audio track or create an ISO which can be played back using software, or even hardware based players such as from “Cloud Media” et al.

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  • May 11, 2014 at 3:15 am
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    I’ve recently signed up for your mailings and am enjoying them. Your recent article where you discuss Oppo hits home with me. I currently have the BDP-105. I believe this is the 4th model I’ve owned. They provide an excellent value and when I’ve A/B’d it with some of my friends’ more esoteric DACs, etc., the Oppo wins.

    For me, the performance is the most important aspect of a recording. Some years ago, a friend of my Dad’s who restored gramophones played me a recording (a shellac ’78) of Tetrazzini singing an aria from Manon. This player had a beautiful wooden horn and he played it with a wooden needle that he had to sharpen. Of course the orchestra sounded ‘antique’ but her voice sounded incredible; like she was in the room. I’ve heard the same recording on a Nimbus CD and it doesn’t come close to the realism.

    The best of both worlds would be sublime and that’s what we listening enthusiasts search for through the reproduction equipment and recordings that we purchase. My musical tastes are fairly narrow (‘classical’ and opera) and within that area, I’m most interested in the great performances of the past, especially in operatic performers (from the beginning of audio recordings up through the generation of singers who are now passing away).

    I have purchased downloads from HDTracks and I find their 24 bit offerings to be noticeably better than the CDs that I own (i.e. the Solti recording of Wagner’s Ring and Joan Sutherland’s “The Art of the Prima Donna”). After listening to your talk on AVS with Scott Wilkinson, I realize that these can only be as good as the original (from tape). I read a lot of negative comments on the internet about HDTracks and 24 bit offerings (and the associated costs), in general, poo pooing the claims of audio superiority. My ears disagree with them. The two recordings I mentioned above, I’ve known for many years both on vinyl and CD and there’s something in the 24 bit copies that’s better; more presence, deeper sound stage, warmth, not edgy. Some friends of mine have made 24 bit copies of some of my favorite vinyl and I’m thrilled with the result. How wonderful if these recording could have been done in your studio or with the equipment that is now available!!

    Unfortunately, we live in a society where cheap and easy makes the most profits for companies. The buying public, in general, is not interested in high quality, especially when extra cost is involved. The demise of plasma TVs over LCD, the popularity of the ubiquitous MP3, etc. are good examples. I’ve had some friends over to A/B a 16bit CD to a 24 bit example of the same performance. They can, indeed, hear the difference but to most of them, it’s not worth the extra money. There are those of us who feel it is more than worth it to get the best possible reproduction and there will always be a niche market for high quality audio.

    Keep up the good work!

    Kurt Graves

    Reply
    • May 14, 2014 at 6:53 pm
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      Hey I don’t think we ever saw that follow up review/discussion of the HA-1.
      Will we see it soon?

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      • May 15, 2014 at 7:43 am
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        Stay tuned it’s coming.

        Reply

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