By Jim Bray
It's a company known best for making spectacular universal networking disc players, as well as some personal audio products, and OPPO Digital has now branched into the crowded speaker market with a networking system designed to go head to head with other, more established systems.
By "more established", I mean the Sonos and Boses of the world (not just them, of course, but they're perhaps the most high profile), companies that not only offer good speaker systems, but speakers systems that interact with your music regardless of where it may be: on your network, your smart device, in "the cloud," on a USB drive, whatever.
Click on the image for a slideshow.
It's a daring step for the company (I'm a big fan of their products) and as usual they've pulled it off with aplomb. Well, mostly.
Sonica is a stylish, black standalone speaker (though it's also designed so you can use two to create a stereo pair) that's sized right to fit on the shelf below my TV, providing big sound from the flat panel and, well, just about everywhere else. The Sonica system comes with Wi-Fi, AirPlay USB and Bluetooth capabilities built in, and you download a companion smartphone/tablet app to control it. You can also use the app to manage multiple speakers in your home, as long as they're on the same network (and why wouldn't they be?). The app leaves a bit to be desired as far as workability is concerned, but I'm confident that - given OPPO's history - firmware updates will improve it over time.
And, in fact, this has happened already; last weekend I received notification of an update that, among other things, allows the app to be used in landscape mode rather than merely portrait. A small thing, perhaps, but not if you're flipping between apps in landscape mode and had to keep twisting the device around 90 degrees to operate the Sonica. That would describe me, so thanks for that, OPPO!
The company sent me one of the $299 USD Sonica systems, so I haven't been able to check out features such as its ability to have multiple speakers play or use it as a stereo pair, but I have no reason to think it won't work as advertised, given my history with the company's products. OPPO says you can stream different tunes to different speakers, which is nice if you're having arguments about what to play; you can also have all speakers play the same tunes, which is nice if you're having a party or just moving around the house while listening (like when you're doing chores).
According to the manufacturer, the acoustic design and tuning of the Sonica Wi-Fi Speaker is performed by Igor Levitsky, the same guy who designed OPPO's award-winning PM-series of planar magnetic headphones. The speaker drivers, amplifiers, and the Sonica chassis itself have all been tuned for a "deep, pure, and engaging sound that can be further optimized with built-in presets for different room sizes, speaker locations, and listening preferences using the Sonica app."
As is usual for OPPO stuff, the Sonica system is extremely flexible when it comes to the types of files it can handle. It'll decode audio files up to 24-bit/192 kHz regardless of whether they're stored on your mobile devices, USB drives, DLNA servers, or whatever. It'll handle lossless formats such as FLAC, WAV, and Apple Lossless, though I had some music files at which it threw up its little virtual hands in disgust and refused to play - such as native SACD files. This was the exception rather than the rule, however.
The Sonica comes with multiple built-in adaptive antennae with MIMO technology to help ensure optimal (or is it OPPOtimal?) signal strength for 2.4 and 5 GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi networks. I tried it in several locations in my home, including some that have had spotty reception, and never had an issue.
The Sonica comes with four separate amplifiers built in, set up in a 2.1 stereo configuration. There are two 15 watt amplifiers connected in a "bridged mode" (combining the output to make 30 watts) to drive the 3.5 inch woofer and two 3 inch bass radiators. Two other amplifiers, each of which sports power output of 10 watts, power the pair of stereo 2.5 inch wideband drivers. That doesn't sound like there's a lot of power, but in actual use it sounds like there's a LOT more power than that when you crank it, and it does like to be cranked (not that it doesn't sound great at low volumes as well).
As with other speakers of this ilk, you don't get a lot of channel separation, but if that's important to you OPPO, as noted, will be more than happy to sell you a second (or third, fourth, whatever) Sonica.
OPPO says it mounted the two complementary bass radiators on each side of the enclosure, opposite each other, to enhance the bass response while also cancelling unwanted vibrations in the enclosure. This is so the Sonica doesn't rattle itself off its shelf when it's cranked. And so far, so good!
The sound is the most important thing, of course (well, that coupled with the flexibility), but I must also mention that the Sonica is a handsome unit, though I have a feeling its shiny black case will be a fingermarks magnet (fortunately you don't have to touch it much once it's hooked up).
The system is also easy to use. There's a volume control on the top, a rocker-type switch (though you don't have to be a rocker to use it) you can use if the volume control in the app doesn't make it play loudly enough for you - or you don't have the app handy. A mute button also sits atop the unit and there are indicator lights for Bluetooth and network connection.
There's also a USB and 3.5 mm auxiliary jack on the back panel. Both work fine, though I'd have rather seen them on the front for convenience - though at the expense of aesthetics. I'd also have liked to see a digital audio input such as a TOSLINK (optical) so I could plug in my TV's audio output easily. On the other hand, I plugged it into an old Sony LCD panel I have that came with analogue outputs and it worked just fine.
And if you don't have Wi-Fi, OPPO has taken care of you by including a wired network port as well.
You can also connect the Sonica to your smart devices via Bluetooth and connection/pairing is easy, though you have to physically connect the Sonica to your device each time you want to use it, via the device's setup rigmarole, which is a bit of a pain.
Network setup is straightforward and you can change the speakers' names if you want to identify them for easy recognition (such as "living room" or "bedroom").
I used every playback method the Sonica offers. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth performance were both fine, though I was a tad disappointed I had to stream stuff like Tune-in and Accuradio via Bluetooth rather than over the network. This could be the nature of the beast, however, since I've never streamed such apps via Wi-Fi with anything else, either - I just want it all!
The app would also mislabel songs sometimes, playing a particular song while reading out that it was actually playing something else (this could have something to do with my dog's breakfast of files, too). I also found the app interface a tad clunky, though on the other hand that was when I was streaming "favourites" I'd set up via Wi-Fi, favourites that came from all over my networked drive and therefore caused the system to do some "hunting and pecking." It wasn't a big deal, though.
On the other hand, when I slapped my Technics Tracks "ultimate" Quadrophenia album onto a USB drive the Sonica played them just fine, and they sounded great. I missed the kind of "gapless play" feature OPPO has on their BDP-103 and BDP-105 universal Blu-ray players, which is great for albums (like Quadrophenia) where there are continuous cuts, but (I speculate) that could be over the horizon with a firmware update.
I also wish OPPO had decided to build a battery into the unit so I could take it out onto my deck more conveniently, but they're not alone in this and obviously decided that the Sonicas should be mostly mounted in one place. Besides, adding a battery would add size, weight and cost to the unit.
The app lets you set up favourites lists and playlists, which is handy, and the Sonica system remembers them across devices: when I switched from my iPad Air to my Samsung Android phone, all my favourites were there waiting for me.
So how's the overall sound? Given my history using OPPO products I expected the Sonica to sound great and I wasn't disappointed. I was also thrilled to find it likes to be played loud - just the way I like it (to my wife's ongoing chagrin) and it doesn't seem to prefer one type of music over another. I fed it just about every category of music there is, short of hip hop; it excelled on symphonic stuff, but as mentioned with its Quadrophenia performance, when I played rock music it rocked appropriately. In all, it's a wonderful sonic experience considering its size and affordability.
One other bit of flexibility I'd have loved to have seen is a remote control. Sure, you can use the app and it works fine, but sometimes I like to leave my device plugged in in a different room and would love being able to skip tracks, etc., with a remote. OPPO is hardly alone here, however, and it's nowhere close to being a deal breaker as far as I'm concerned.
Not surprisingly, OPPO has once again come up with an excellent product that works and sounds very well. I can't wait to see what they do with the 4K disc player they're rumoured to be readying for release in the next few months.
On a related note, the company has released a firmware update for its BDP-103/D and BDP-105/D disc players. It adds support for TIDAL music streaming and improvements for various playback methods (including better gapless playback for 176/88.2 kHz WAV files) as well as numerous other tweaks. So if you're fortunate enough to have one of those exquisite players, it's time to download and upgrade the firmware, which is very easy to do. You can find the upgrade on OPPO Digital's website.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
We welcome your comments!