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Gryphon Diablo 300

Hardly any other name in the history of high-end digital audio components is as storied as Wadia Digital. If you’ve been around high-end circles for any number of years, you’ve no doubt known an owner of a Wadia DAC, transport, or player. Maybe you’ve owned one yourself.

Wadia is still around, and they’re making some products that, on the surface, look pretty good. But now that the Fine Sounds Group owns the brand, I’m not sure how much Wadia’s current line is connected to the highly acclaimed products of yore. You could make the case that the old Wadia is the new Exogal.

Exogal Comet

Exo-who? I hear you ask. Exogal. Founded in 2013, Exogal is made up of a number of audio-industry veterans -- such as Jim Kinne, the chief technology officer. Kinne, a cofounder of Wadia, was with the brand in its heyday, and was responsible for the 27 Decoding Computer, 270 CD transport, and 790 PowerDAC, among other Wadia models. Kinne and Exogal’s other partners -- Larry Jacoby (Wadia’s other founder), Jeff Haagenstad, and Jan Larsen -- have laid out Exogal’s mission statement thusly:

to create products that are “out of this galaxy” [Exo, out of, plus gal, for galaxy]. By taking a completely new look at product engineering, Exogal delivers products that are aesthetically beautiful while producing extraordinary sound at a fraction of the cost of most high-end systems.

Exogal’s first product is the Comet DAC ($2500 USD).

About the Comet

The Comet (1.875"H x 7.45"D x 11.5"W, 9.2 pounds) enters the hotly contested market of DACs costing around $2500. There are lots of them. You could argue that Benchmark defined the category early on, but companies such as Hegel Music Systems and Auralic now make highly successful DACs in this price category, and more seem to arrive every day from myriad other companies old and new. What differentiates the Comet from them all?

Its case is made of machined, naturally colored, brushed aluminum, with an inset top panel of smoked acrylic on which is engraved Exogal’s orbiting-planets logo. The Comet’s bottom plate is fitted with an acrylic base that sits on four small nub-like feet. The overall look, feel, and build quality are better than the average of other products I’ve seen at the price -- not overdone or blingy, but solid and confident.

Inset on the front panel is a small monochrome display that earns my primary criticism of the Comet. It’s almost impossible to read, whether from across the room or up close. The gray readout, which is surrounded by a silver backdrop, creates too little contrast in some lighting situations to be legible. If you look close, it will tell you the input selected and whether the active outputs are the main RCA and XLR connectors or the side-mounted headphone jack. The volume level is also displayed numerically, from 0 to 100 in 0.5dB steps.

Exogal Comet

On the rear panel are the inputs: asynchronous USB, AES/EBU (XLR), S/PDIF (BNC), TosLink, and line-level analog, the last directly feeding an A/D converter. Coupled with a 32-bit digital volume control, this array of inputs arms the Comet with enough flexibility for it to serve as the control center for many high-end systems.

Outputs consist of pairs of XLR and RCA jacks, and a stereo headphone jack. Uniquely in my experience, the Comet’s single-ended and balanced analog outputs can be used simultaneously. The single-ended outputs can be programmed for stereo or for center/subwoofer operation. The single-ended outputs have programmable offset level relative to the balanced outputs, so that their levels can be perfectly matched. A $2500 DAC that can be the heart of a biamped system, or a 2.1-channel setup with a dedicated subwoofer, is pretty cool. The Comet will accept signals of up to 24-bit/192kHz (including 88.2 and 176.4kHz) on all of its inputs except TosLink, which tops out at 96kHz. The USB input accepts 32/384 PCM and DSD64 and DSD128.

Other rear-panel features include two 3.5mm connectors, one of which is a serial connector for connection to an automation system; the other is for triggering other components, such as a power amplifier. A proprietary Exonet connector will allow the Comet to directly communicate with other products Exogal plans to launch, such as their forthcoming Ion digital power amplifier. There’s even a USB connector for charging your Apple or Android device. Thoughtful.

Exogal Comet

I asked Exogal’s CEO, Jeff Haagenstad, which DAC chips are used in the Comet:

The Comet contains TI PCM4104 DAC chips for the Main outputs and TI PCM5122 DAC chips for the Headphone outputs. I purposely use the word contains because we don’t do the actual “DAC-ing” in these chips, we only use their final output stages. The actual DAC function is performed in a proprietary six-core DSP that Jim [Kinne] developed, the guts of which we don’t talk about. Other than [that] Jim designed it, it smokes everything else on the market, and we’d be happy to license the technology to other manufacturers!

Even in the Comet’s first few hours of operation, I could easily tell where its designers had put their resources and where they’d pared back. An example of the latter is the remote control, a little plastic job that looks like the remote that comes with a subcompact car. Not exactly high end. But then, it’s clear that Exogal knows you probably won’t use it. I quickly loaded Exogal’s Android-/iOS-compatible app on my iPhone 6 and had full control of the Comet, including volume (with numerical readout!), source selection, Full Mute and Reduced Mute (-20dB), and the choice of either the main outputs or the headphone jack. The app worked like a champ throughout the review period.

One thing that the user manual makes abundantly clear is that Exogal wants you to use the Comet directly connected to your power amplifier, which they feel offers the best sound quality. They state that the Comet’s “output stage can drive any power amplifier and any interconnects, even at very long lengths.” But won’t that digital volume control compromise sound quality at its lowest settings? Not according to Exogal:

While conventional thinking indicates that reducing the volume digitally can sacrifice low-level resolution, Exogal has created an innovative solution. Exogal’s digital filtering algorithm produces a 24-bit output rather than the 16 bits stored on the CD. This high-resolution signal is then used in the computations [that] in turn reduce the volume level. This new signal is fed directly to the DAC chips. Through this innovative method, the Exogal Comet maintains high resolution even at the lowest volume-control settings.

System and setup

I took Exogal’s advice and connected the Comet directly to an NAD Masters Series M22 stereo power amplifier, a new model based on the highly regarded Hypex Ncore module. The M22 was tethered to Triangle Magellan Cello or vintage PSB Alpha speakers. All connections were made with Siltech Explorer cables. The source was an Apple MacBook Air, playing files from an external hard drive or streaming music from the Tidal service at CD resolution. I had zero operational problems with the Comet -- it worked flawlessly throughout my listening. The control app was stable and almost immediately responsive.

Listening

Confident that the Comet had no operational problems and that I’d figured out how to operate it, I jumped right into listening. I first cued up “4 Broken Hearts,” from Norah Jones’s . . . Little Broken Hearts (16-bit/44.1kHz Tidal, Blue Note). I was immediately greeted with a well-sorted and stable soundstage. There was no instrument wander, or the vagaries that come from imprecise imaging. I’ve heard this sound characteristic before, which I’ve sometimes described as calming. Maybe composed is a better word. Either way, the soundstage was presented neither too forward nor too recessed, but balanced nicely between the two. I could hear no imaging abnormalities that would lead me to believe the Comet was coloring the sound with contrived spatial properties.

The Comet was also blessed with great clarity. I’ve heard less-expensive DACs that sound murky and slow, perhaps in an attempt to make poor recordings listenable. Some succeed in that regard. The Comet was having none of that, instead sounding open and alive, and wearing each recording’s detail right on its sleeve. And in that sense -- detail retrieval -- it sounded like a far more expensive DAC. “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind,” from Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth (16/44.1 AIFF, Curb/MCA), was presented with a finely textured, dense reproduction of Lovett’s voice that never veered into the syrupy sort of sound I so despise these days. On the contrary, the Comet’s sound was, in the best possible sense, lively.

Exogal Comet

As should be expected from any decent modern DAC, there were no tonal anomalies to speak of. The Comet was dead neutral in terms of frequency response -- the extremes of bass and treble were extended and powerful. The percussion in “Contact,” from Citizen Cope (16/44.1 Tidal, DreamWorks), was punchy, keeping the beat driving the music right along. The Comet was suited to all types of music, seeming to prefer no genre over the rest.

Listening to the Comet right after Hegel Music Systems’ HD12 DAC ($1250) was a study in contrast. In my review of it, I said: “The HD12 didn’t wow me with overtly obvious detail retrieval, as something like the Weiss DAC202 will -- and the latter might be the sort of sound you crave -- but neither did it gloss over detail.” The Comet, by comparison, was more overtly detailed. With all types of music it was the more open-sounding DAC, and so revealed more of what was on recordings. The Hegel could sound bigger with some music, but the Comet was faster and more precise. There’s no question that the HD12 is kinder to lesser-quality recordings, making tinny-sounding tracks just a bit more tolerable than did the Comet. But the Exogal was just more resolving, as should be expected at precisely twice the Hegel’s price. Basically, its performance ceiling was a smidge higher.

Exogal Comet

The Comet was just about ideal -- it’s sure my ideal for a DAC at this price -- but in some areas it’s bettered by more expensive DACs that I’ve heard. Some DACs present a more three-dimensional soundstage, and the dCS Debussy ($12,000) is one. Music takes on a more holographic nature through the dCS. The Calyx Audio Femto ($6850) is even more razor-sharp in its rendering of fine detail, shining more brightly in the very area of strength that the Comet enjoys. These were, however, more subtle differences than you might expect. DACs have greatly improved in the past few years, and the Comet is an example of that trend. I’ve never heard such a detailed, resolving DAC at this price.

That greater retrieval of detail showed up in tracks such as Richard Strauss’s Festival Entrada, from Jerry Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony’s Crown Imperial collection (24/176.4 WAV, Reference Recordings). The Comet’s ability to keep this music composed, coupled with its exceptionally quiet background, made for a thrilling musical experience.

Conclusion

The Exogal Comet is one of the most flexible audio components I’ve had the pleasure of using. With its complete array of digital inputs -- and even an analog input -- and XLR and RCA outs, along with a transparent digital volume control and a very useful control app, there are very few modern audio systems that it won’t accommodate. And everything works without quirks!

But I’d be selling the Comet short if I focused more on its flexibility and features than on its sound quality. And its sound is where the Comet really shines. My listening gave me the sense that the Comet’s designers didn’t try to balance trade-offs, or make sonic compromises here and there, to tailor the sound to a particular type of listener. The Comet seemed determined to let me hear everything that a recording contained, as if it cost ten times as much as it does. In short, the Comet needs no excuses made for it. It sounds great not only for its price, but regardless of price.

Exogal’s first product, the Comet, is a sure-fire winner. I can’t wait to see what they do in the years to come.

. . . Jeff Fritz
jeff@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Magico Q7, PSB Alpha, Triangle Magellan Cello
  • Amplifiers -- Ayre Acoustics MX-R monoblocks, NAD Masters Series M22
  • Preamplifier -- Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty, NAD Masters Series M12
  • Sources -- Apple MacBook Air running OS 10.9.4, iTunes, Amarra 3.0.2, DSDPlayer for Mac, Tidal streaming service
  • Cables -- Nordost Valhalla interconnects, speaker cables, power cords; Siltech Explorer speaker cables, interconnects, power cords

Exogal Comet Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $2500 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Exogal
4657 Aspen Ridge Circle
Eagan, MN 55122
USA
Phone: (651) 964-0698

E-mail: info@exogal.com
Website: www.exogal.com