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I’ve dreamed of wireless speakers for years. For one, I’ve always been owned by at least one cat, and, well, what you’ve heard is true: Curiosity can kill cats. I’ve had more than one sail through its first four or five years of life showing no interest in wires -- then, suddenly, the left channel starts to fry, and close inspection reveals a chewed wire. Fortunately, none of my feline friends has chewed anything carrying current heavy enough to kill.
Of course, there are other reasons for wanting wireless equipment (décor, mobility), and Bluetooth sought to give us wireless performance. But in return for the freedom of physical connection, we had to endure compromised sound. Bluetooth is OK for background music at a party or headphones at the gym, but despite a lot of improvements over the years, Bluetooth remains unsatisfactory for serious listening.
Enter Oppo Digital’s Sonica Wi-Fi speaker ($299 USD), which, like other, similar devices, may well change the way many of us assemble audio systems. Wireless, it gets its signals through your Wi-Fi network. Depending on how that network is set up, Wi-Fi transmission can have greater range than Bluetooth, and can broadcast signals of uncompromised high fidelity -- even high resolution. The Oppo Sonica can accept resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz, in wired or wireless mode. File types accepted include AAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, APE, FLAC, M4A, ALAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, and WMA. The Sonica also supports Apple’s AirPlay. Oppo suggests storing your hi-rez files on an Android phone, a USB drive that can be plugged into the back of the Sonica, or a DLNA server on your home network.
You can send signals to the Sonica direct from your phone or handheld device, which makes the Oppo’s price seem quite low. A pair of Sonicas might cost $2 shy of $600, but think of the money you’ll save by not having to buy a preamplifier or power amp -- your device will provide preamp functions, and each Sonica has a built-in amp matched to the drivers. For those who are immune to the wiles of surround sound and want only two-channel stereo, a Sonica system might be the way to go.
In the box
The nicely designed shipping/display box contains the Sonica, an AC cord (yippee, no wall-wart transformer -- you can plug the cord into any AC outlet without having to worry about spacing), and a brief instruction book and quick-start guide.
The Sonica itself is sleek and sexy. It measures 11.75”W x 5.25”H x 5.75”D and weighs 5.3 pounds; from the front it has a rounded, rectangular shape, and it’s made of sturdy, glass-filled ABS polymer. Unlike the punched-metal grilles of almost every Bluetooth speaker, the Sonica’s grille is covered with cloth. At the bottom of the grille is the Oppo logo, embossed on a piece of plastic made to look like metal. Classy. Behind the grille is a mood lamp that can make the speaker seem to float on a pool of light. Through the Sonica app, this lamp can be adjusted to undulate, glow steadily, or go dark; the intensity and the actual color of light can also be changed. The speaker itself comes in black or silver.
The top contains discreet LEDs, one for power and one for Bluetooth pairing, as well as a rocker switch for volume up/down, and a Mute pushbutton. I found that I could best control these functions with my iPod Touch, so I never used these switches; but if you need them, they’re there.
On the Sonica’s rear are a two-prong socket for the power cord, an Ethernet LAN port for wired connection, a USB Type-A input, and a 3.5mm auxiliary input.
The Sonica has four separate amplifiers, whose response is tailored via digital signal processing (DSP): two 15W amplifiers are run in bridged mode to power a 3.5” woofer, which is in turn loaded by two 3” passive bass radiators. Two 10W amps power a pair of 2.5” wideband drivers. According to Oppo, “To avoid distortion the bass woofer features a heavy magnet system and large linear displacement, whereas the radiators utilize linear suspension with optimized axial stability. The 2.5” drivers use high-energy Neodymium magnet systems with copper shorting caps.” It all seems to work -- listening to the Sonica, the last word that came to mind was distortion.
The power supply and amps are installed on a solid metal base plate that helps dissipate heat. Braces are used throughout to add to the Sonica’s stability. Two rubber strips on the bottom keep the speaker solidly in place so it won’t “walk.” The Sonica’s build quality gets an A+.
It was easy to plug Oppo’s power cord into an outlet and its other end into the Sonica. The next thing to do was to download the Sonica app to my iPod Touch. The rest of the setup was a snap.
I set the mood light to off and its color to blue, in case I decided to turn it back on. There are nine choices of color. I set Aux In to automatic, and left the Sleep Timer and Night Mode off. (Night Mode changes your device’s color scheme from black type on white to white type on black.) I left Bluetooth off, but tested it to confirm the pairing procedure: When you turn the Sonica on from the remote, you then have two minutes to pair it with your device. It worked like a charm but I used Wi-Fi for my critical listening.
I used the Sound Optimizer on the app to pick the preset best for me. I used the Guide Me tab, which asked me to choose my room’s size (Small, Medium, Large) and the Sonica’s location (Against the Wall, Open, Corner Bookshelf). Based on my choices (Medium, Open) it suggested that I use Preset 2. A word about the Sonica’s room optimization: It’s effective but hardly definitive. Oppo is working with Dirac Research to develop Dirac Room Calibration, which will work for each Sonica(s) in each room. When it’s ready, this will be provided via a firmware and app update.
After I’d simply and quickly made all these adjustments, I clicked the music icon in the lower left of the screen to choose the music I wanted to hear. My options were Tidal, On This Mobile Device, and Network Sharing (my Logitech Media Server Library). Calling up the first two was almost instantaneous, but to load my network took quite a while. Still, that’s where I started, with a highly regarded recording from the golden age of stereo: British Band Classics, Vol.2, with the Eastman Wind Ensemble conducted by Frederick Fennell (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Mercury Living Presence). Walton’s “Coronation March: Crown Imperial” sounded just swell, the instruments perfectly delineated with excellent timbre, particularly the woodwinds. The original LP was a test disc from hell: At the end of the trio, to return to the main theme, there’s a drum thwack that used to bounce record styli out of the groove, unless they were attached to a very good, compliant cartridge. But that thwack came through the Sonica cleanly and crisply -- I could feel the stroke and hear the result. A pipe organ enters toward the end, and it, too, sounded impressively weighty through the Sonica.
Next I chose the setting On This Mobile Device. After a hold-your-breath duration of time, my entire onboard music library popped up. Wanting to hear some full orchestra, I chose “Flying Theme from E.T.,” from John Williams and the Boston Pops’ Encore (16/44.1 ALAC, Philips). This selection begins with a rhythmic ostinato in the horns, then continues with the soaring melody in the strings, with swirling accompanying figures in woodwinds and piano, the glockenspiel now and then chiming in for emphasis. I was blown away by how the Sonica reproduced this music: with absolutely stunning clarity and definition, and varying, unequivocally accurate timbres. The sound transcended that of any Bluetooth speaker I’ve heard.
Turning to some pretty hard rock, I sampled “Diane Young,” from Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City (16/44.1 ALAC, XL). There are several drum outbursts, especially at the beginning, that had sounded unintentionally distorted through every Bluetooth speaker I’d auditioned, even KEF’s impressive Muo. Not through the Oppo Sonica. I attribute that to the quality of its drive-units and amplifiers, but also to Wi-Fi transmission of the signal.
With purchase of a Sonica, Oppo provides a three-month subscription to Tidal’s HiFi level, at which there are no commercials and everything is at the CD resolution of 16/44.1. After that it costs $19.95 a month, which might seem like a lot until you realize that for about the cost of two CDs, you get a massive selection of CD-quality choices. No wonder the younger generation has abandoned CDs and embraced streaming. At the gym, I’ve recently run into more than one under-30 guy who’s never bought a CD!
Tidal offers playlists, tracks, and albums. I browsed them all, from rock to opera, and the Sonica sounded splendid with everything that had a good original master to begin with. The Oppo’s open, clean, unfettered sound opened a new wireless world for me. Did I say that I checked out the Sonica’s Bluetooth sound, and it was very good? But its sound via Wi-Fi was better, and a clear indication of the future.
The Sonica had the most tonally even sound, from top to bottom of the audioband, that I’ve heard from a speaker its size. The sound was transparent, focused, and without coloration. A single Sonica was impressive enough; I imagine a stereo pair would be even better. Though the Sonica had very good bass, its size limits the very lowest frequencies produced by bass drum, organ, and synthesizer. Oppo tells me that another Sonica is in development that will be twice as big as this one and will contain a subwoofer, two bass drivers, two midranges, and two planar-magnetic tweeters.
Oppo Digital’s Sonica is a most impressive little speaker. The Sonica system is evolving -- other streaming services will be added, and Dirac’s room-correction system is about ready to launch. Wi-Fi makes it not only possible but easy to regularly update the Sonica as technology is improved or refined. In my experience, Oppo is one of the few companies that seems tuned in to what buyers want, and willing to make changes and take customers’ suggestions until they get it just right. It will be exciting to watch their line of Wi-Fi speakers grow. The Sonica is a great start of what should prove an impressive series.
. . . Rad Bennett
- Portable music players -- Apple iPod Touch (fifth generation), Astell&Kern AK Jr
Oppo Digital Sonica Wi-Fi/Bluetooth Speaker
Price: $299 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited.
Oppo Digital, Inc.
162 Constitution Drive
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Phone: (650) 961-1118