The topping D90LE is basically a carbon copy of the D90SE flagship released last year. The only difference is the omission of the MQA support which helped Topping lower the price by 100 dollars. As I didn’t test the SE version, I was genuinely curious to find out how Topping’s best sounds and compares to the more affordable models and similarly priced competition. Let’s find out.
Build and Features
I have never seen a Topping device that was not built well and felt sturdy. I didn’t expect the company to break that tradition with their second most expensive DAC, and they didn’t. D90LE is enclosed in a thick and sturdy aluminium case and finished to high standards. The front of the device has a clean look and a functional layout. The OLED display hasn’t changed for some time now. Browsing through settings using front panel commands is not the most convenient but it is functional. There is a remote provided too and it does make controlling this unit quicker and more intuitive.
As for the back panel, it hosts a plethora of digital inputs. It starts with common ones like USB, optical Toslink, and SPDIF over RCA, but then it builds on that with AES over XLR and I2S over HDMI. Lastly, you can see a detachable BT antenna there so whatever type of connection you might need, D90LE got you covered. When it comes to analog outs, both single-ended connection over RCA and balanced one over XLR are available. An interesting thing to mention here is that you can choose between two output levels. By default, the DAC will provide 2V/4V over its RCA/XLR outs respectively, but you can change that to 2.5V/5V if you wish to do so. I’ll be talking more about the effect this option has on the sound down below in the sound section.
Looking on the inside, D90LE is based on the best DAC chip that Sabre has to offer – ES9038 PRO. Paired with the second-generation 16-core XMOS XU216 processor, this DAC will take any format up to 768 kHz PCM and DSD1024. That’s all the hi-res support you could ever want and more than most of us will ever need. As already mentioned, Topping has decided to ditch MQA support in this model which enabled a price reduction. The hardware itself is the same as in the D90SE model and capable of supporting it, but MQA is not free, and the cost of licensing it is passed down to customers. I believe it’s nice of Topping to provide us with this kind of choice so each of us can choose between the MQA and non-MQA flavors.
My testing started with the DAC being in a default 4V output mode. This means that RCA outs will provide 2.1V and XLR ones 4.2V to be exact. I’ve used it as a DAC only, connected to my own preamp and power amp. Topping’s house sound was immediately recognizable. I am talking about that tonally neutral and precise sound that can dig lots of details. Starting with tonality, I can’t say that any part of the spectrum gets more attention than the rest. The bassline is not only deep but forceful too, so when it hits it really hits. Similar eagerness can be noticed in the rest of the spectrum too. If I had to use only one word to describe how D90LE sounds, it would most likely be energetic. That trait is so obvious that I can only think of a few DACs I’ve ever tried with this kind of force. Luckily, such brute force is accompanied by a firm grip and control over any tone. That starts with a very quick bassline but extends to the midrange and highs too. Every note can start and stop on a dime which makes edges exceptionally clean, yet energetic. Transients are lightning-fast and crisp, so much so that I feel this DAC is etching every note using a laser beam.
Dynamics are strong, and that goes for both micro and macro dynamics. Sudden and quick changes in rhythm are not presenting any trouble for this Topping, and neither do huge dynamic swings. D90LE will simply refuse to lose its composure no matter what type of music you throw at it. Vocals and all instruments are well separated and put precisely in their places. They sound present and quite full-bodied too. Talking about placing musicians, it’s good to know that this model has a bigger and deeper soundstage than basically any Topping I’ve heard so far. In fact, if you take any Delta Sigma DAC of any brand up to one thousand dollars, you’ll hardly find a bigger soundstage. For that, you’d have to go R2R.
Now when I think of it, there’s literally nothing that could be described as mild or mellow about the way this DAC sounds. Clarity, dynamics, kick, firm control, extension on both ends, and even a respectable soundstage – all are here. But what isn’t then, you might ask. Well, if you want something that could be called smooth, liquid, or musical. Something that will soothe instead to excite – that’s just not something it can give. D90LE brings edge, flare, and lasers to the show. Love it for what it is or leave it.
Sound (5V Mode)
Now let’s talk about what happens once you switch to a higher output voltage mode. In this state, sound becomes even more forceful. The bass is incredibly punchy and the energy of every note is upped as if your DAC just drank an energy drink or two. You might as well prefer this and I have to admit it razzle-dazzled me for a few songs. But it quickly wore off and DAC just started sounding brutish and crude this way. Some fine detailing and tone texture seemed to be drowned in this rush of energy. Some of the air around the instruments was less noticeable too, so I quickly returned to 4V mode and stayed there.
All this was true when D90LE was used as a DAC only, connected to a proper preamp or integrated amp (that has a preamp built-in). But if you’re one of those people that likes to connect a DAC directly to the power amp and then use volume attenuation on the DAC itself (which never worked for me really), then 5V mode will probably sound fuller and more alive.
SMSL M500 MKII and M400 – Both of SMSL’s DACs sound full and juicy in the midrange, and almost bloomy in the midbass. Both are ever so slightly tame in the highest spectrum and this makes for a warm and full-bodied sound signature. Topping D90LE is more neutral sounding, not truly bright on its own but still not as warm sounding as these SMSLs. Topping hits with more slam too, it presents crisper edges and quicker transients. It sounds more energetic overall. D90LE can also spread a slightly wider soundstage. So both SMSLs sound slightly narrower and less revealing, but also smoother and more relaxed, so choose your poison.
EarMen Tradutto – is probably the only DAC below the one-thousand mark that can match D90LE’s bass slam. When Tradutto slams it really slams too. Outside of the bassline, Tradutto has a clean but very smooth and musical presentation that’s not unlike that of SMSLs from the previous paragraph. If anything, Tradutto is even more musical, even tamer and sweeter-sounding up top. Its soundstage is also not as wide as Topping’s but it is equally deep. So once again, we are facing a similar dilemma – a more resolving, more natural, wider sounding D90LE or fuller and more musical sounding Tradutto.
Denafrips Ares II – is an R2R DAC that excels in sounding huge and organic. It is the only DAC that I know at this price range that sounds even wider, taller, and bigger in every way than the D90LE. It also sounds effortlessly organic and tonally rich the way no Delta Sigma DAC can. On the other hand, when compared to a super crisp and clean D90LE, Ares II sounds like a bloated DAC that lacks definition and speed. When it comes to dynamics, Ares II does big dynamic swings well, but microdynamics not so much. Compared to D90LE it simply sounds slow and sluggish. So if you’re after that smooth, organic, and analog-like sound, you might as well prefer Ares II. But if you want a modern-sounding, clean, dynamic, fast, and energetic sound then D90LE should be your bet.
Topping D90LE is the best-sounding Topping DAC to date in my opinion. More than that, I believe that D90LE objectively triumphs over any DAC priced below one thousand, but HiFi is a highly subjective hobby. Your taste might differ, and your system will almost certainly differ, so use my impressions as a guide to finding your own favorite instead of taking my words as absolute truth. But if you do like clean-sounding Delta Sigma DACs, this one should definitely be near the top of your consideration list.
|TOPPING D90LE – CHARACTERISTICS|
ESS ES9038 PRO DAC chip
Output level RCA: