by John Richardson
It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a high-end digital to analog converter, or DAC. Back when I was frequently contributing at Stereomojo.com, I was sort of their go-to DAC guy. It was interesting work, as the USB-based DAC was then a fairly new concept, and technology was changing at a whiplash pace. Nowadays, it seems, high-end USB-based DACs are as commonplace as flat panel TVs and iPhones. OK, that last statement might be a bit of hyperbole, but you catch my drift. Seems like pretty much everyone either makes one or sells one.
I’ve moved towards other audio gear such as speakers and amplifiers of late, maybe to scratch that diversification itch, or maybe because it’s what my editor tosses my way. I’ve also found myself finally settled on a digital setup that has made me happy for the last few years, namely the Antelope Audio Zodiac DAC, upgraded with a very overbuilt custom linear power supply from the good folks over at YFS, or Your Final System. This setup seems to offer, at least for me, a more than satisfying combination of warmth, punch, musicality, and resolution. I’m sure there’s better out there, but I’m on a real-world budget, much like many of our readers here.
Enter the Comet. Given its reasonable $2,995 price tag (or $3,495 with optional linear power supply), I was actually pretty interested in checking out this new DAC from a recent startup company called Exogal. I like that name. In my world, the term “exo” is short for “exothermic” which means to give off heat. That’s right, it’s a synonym for “hot”. And “gal” is another term for… Well you know. I think I’m going to start calling my wife “exogal” until she decides to slap me down, once and for all.
Anyway, what the company name really represents is this: “exo” meaning “outside of” and “gal” being short for “galaxy.” Put it together, and you’ve got “out of this galaxy.” All this makes me think of a favorite jazz artist/composer, Sun Ra, piloting his starship between his home planet, Saturn, and the furthest reaches of outer space looking for all kinds of funky intergalactic mischief and adventure. I’m already feeling the need to summon up some Sun Ra as part of this review.
Reading up on the background of Exogal, I couldn’t help but to sense my interest level ramping up. The company was founded in 2013 by four guys working in various aspects of the digital industry who started to feel a bit closed in by big business. Guys who were looking for more artistic license and creative freedom to harness the engine of cutting-edge digital technology. In fact, Exogal’s chief technology officer, Jim Kinne, was a big-wig designer at digital audio leader Wadia, where he developed some of their most successful recent technology. In short, these fellas know what they are doing. By combining expertise from all sorts of digital applications such as mobile phones, signal processing, computer operating systems, as well as digital audio, Kinne and associates are able to truly think outside of the proverbial box and maybe come up with something that is truly “out of this galaxy.”
So then, back to the DAC. The Comet is a low profile affair that looks a lot like a larger version of my Mac Mini computer. It’s got that same brushed aluminum finish, along with nicely rounded corners that any Mac aficionado can really appreciate. In the center of its front side, it’s got a little screen (if you could call it that) which gives the status of the device in small, more or less unreadable text. Well, I’d call it unreadable — unless you are right on top of it, which really isn’t the point since the device has no push-button controls on board. The Comet is fully remote-controlled, which bugged me a bit, as I tend to be more tactile and old school about such things. DACs should have buttons and knobs like any other piece of self-respecting audio gear… And those damn kids should get off my grass, too. Now then, where are my bifocals?
I suppose Exogal is actually doing a smart thing here by marketing to the millennial crowd. The Comet has a handy little remote (that Scot promptly lost track of), but happily it is also designed to be controlled by a smart phone or tablet, and yes, there’s an app for that. Problem is, I don’t own a smart phone, so my own “exogal” (er, wife) had to download said free app onto her iPhone. Once there, it worked like a charm, even in my wobbly old Generation-X hands. The only problem I had was wresting the iPhone away from my wife to operate the DAC. Specifically, the app lets you control volume, digital input source, and toggle not only between operating mode and standby, but also between main output and headphone output.
[Editor’s Note: Before I … mislaid … the remote, I did use it. A lot. Exclusviely, even. After I … mislaid … it, I downloaded the app. Guess what? The app is way more useful than the remote — it’s faster, more accurate, and vastly easier to use. My advice? Stick the remote back in the box, forget it, and use the app. Exclusively. Seriously! Even after recovering it, I never used it again.]
All audio input/output connections (well, besides the headphone jack) are made on the Comet’s backside. Here you will find both balanced (XLR) and single ended (RCA) analog outputs. Available digital inputs include asynchronous USB, toslink (optical), AES/EBU, and S/PDIF 75 ohm BNC. A pair of RCA analog inputs are also included, which is a nice touch, especially if you want to use the Comet as a simple preamp as well. In terms of digital word length and resolution, the Comet will process just about anything out there from 16 bit Redbook files on up to DSD 128 files. Keep in mind, however, that only the USB option will process 32 bit word lengths and DSD files.
Oh, and before I forget to mention it, the Comet is entirely designed and built in the USA, in Minnesota specifically. Have you ever noticed how much really good high-end audio gear is made in Minnesota? I have… and I figure it must have something to do with the long, cold winters there.
Around and around the sun we go
It was finally time to set things up and do some listening. My first attempt with the Comet was to run S/PDIF signal from my trusty SoundDevices usbPre2 audio interface into the Exogal’s BNC input. I got everything set up as instructed in the manual, got some music playing, and ran up the DAC’s volume to 100%. Turning the volume up on my preamp gave me nothing. Nada. Zilch. I just couldn’t get sound out of the Comet from the BNC. This really bummed me out, as that’s the setup I routinely use with my Antelope Zodiac DAC, and I wanted to make comparisons keeping everything exactly the same.
Undeterred, I got down to business and hooked the DAC up via its USB input directly to my Mac Mini. Now things got cooking, and sound came streaming out of the system. Had I been the new owner of the Comet, I’d have gotten on the horn with Exogal’s customer service and gotten things sorted, but I was impatient and decided to forge ahead with the review using the USB route instead.
I’m not going to tell you that my jaw dropped, or that I was stunned silly by the sound I heard. I will tell you that I was really enjoying what I was hearing, right from the first minute. The Comet immediately struck me as smooth and musical; almost analog-like in presentation. After spending considerable time with it, my first impressions remain pretty much the same. This is a DAC I can place into my system, enjoy immensely, and more or less forget about. Most of us buy a piece of gear, crave it for a few weeks until the novelty wears off, and then start to think about what we will do next to tweak it, upgrade it, or worst of all, replace it. I never got this feeling with the Comet; I just enjoyed it without thinking too much about it, which must be a good thing. I’d even received an upgraded power supply from Exogal to use, but I was reticent to put it in, as I was enjoying the sound so much as it was. Well, I eventually did get around to installing the “better” supply, but only much later in the review process (more, below).
So then, on to some music
I’d like to give a shout-out here to a recording company that I was unfamiliar with: MA-Recordings, originally based in Japan, but now in Encino, California. While browsing around at the latest Capital Audio Fest, I saw that MA had a table set up peddling a bunch of its compact disc releases. Being a sucker for such things, I felt compelled to buy one, just to try it out. Yeah, that’s how I roll, and sometimes I get burned, and sometimes not. This time I struck solid gold. The disc I chose was “Opening,” by Mathias Landaeus‘ jazz trio. Swedish jazz. I know what you’re thinking: Jazz at the Pawnshop…. Boring, snooze-fest, boring. But it isn’t. It’s sublime. Beautiful. Eye-opening. A nice mix of soft ballad and somewhat cool free jazz, played on piano, acoustic bass, and drums. And it’s beautifully recorded, presenting some of the most natural sounding recorded piano I’ve heard, along with a stunning hall acoustic. What was really cool was that the guy who sold me the disc was Todd Garfinkle, the producer and engineer. He shared with me a bit of information about the recording venue and session and reiterated that he was pretty happy with the results he got. Before too long, I’m going to have to try out some more of MA Recordings’ stuff. Go check out their catalog at www.marecordings.com.
The natural presentation offered by the Exogal Comet was the perfect means of presenting the music on “Opening.” Detail retrieval was superb, and the DAC seemed to emphasize, in a very good way, the size and character of the recording venue, a studio set up as a small public hall for recording live events with limited audience. I could easily pick up the natural reverb of the studio, as well as the stunning shifts in dynamic of the drum kit, especially in a cut such as “Boy Cow.” And if you don’t get just a bit sentimental listening to Landaeus’ lilting rendering of “What A Wonderful World,” then you have no humanity in you whatsoever. In short, I remain somewhat in awe of the beauty and life-like sound of this recording as presented by the Comet.
All in all, there’s something of a correctness of tone to the Comet that just plain gets the notes right. I can’t exactly put my finger on this quality specifically, but I know it when I hear it, as it gets me that tiny bit closer to the actual musical event portrayed in the recording. Same goes for the low level resolving power of the DAC. It’s there, but it doesn’t exactly call a lot of attention to itself, as it does in many other DACs that ultimately emphasize the resolution and detail thing. In contrast, the Exogal DAC seems to do do resolution in a manner similar to well-played vinyl: it’s there, but it doesn’t scream out at you. It’s just a natural part of the musical texture that’s perfectly integrated into the listening experience as a whole. OK, I’m getting a tad holistic here, I know, but I just don’t know how to better describe what I’m hearing. In fact, maybe that’s the best way to concisely shed light on the Comet. It’s got a holistic way of portraying the musical event as a tightly woven tapestry of sound where you can’t make out the individual stitches (why would you want to anyway?) but rather take in a beautifully integrated, yet mightily detailed, sonic picture.
These qualities made listening to my classical/chamber/orchestral collection a real joy. I found myself digging out chestnuts I hadn’t heard or enjoyed in a very long time. One example is the lovely ECM recording of Arvo Part’s works, which includes such iconic pieces as “Fratres”, “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten”, and “Tabula Rasa”. I’d digitally archived this fine record (LP, ECM 1275) a few years ago, but probably haven’t listened to it in two or three years. Thanks to the Exogal Comet, I’ve now found it again, in the form of a well-executed needle drop. I don’t even recall what turntable/cartridge combo I used when I made the recording, but it sure is nice.
Checking out the first cut on this album, “Fratres”, I was wowed by its sheer austerity and loveliness. Apparent were layers of soundstage depth that I hadn’t recalled from this recording before. The solo violin eerily hung between and behind my trusty ATC monitors, and I could almost sense the subtle vibrato texture of bow on strings. As in the case of the “Opening” album referred to above, the velvety harmonics of the accompanying piano seemed spot-on in their lushness and presence. If the tonality of my system isn’t quite on, I find myself shying away from my classical music collection and leaning more toward jazz and rock, which seem somehow more forgiving in that respect. With the Comet in play, I found myself gravitating more toward orchestral and small-scale string works and vocals, and as in the case of the Arvo Part works, stuff I hadn’t pulled out and enjoyed in a very long time. I think we can all agree that these occurrences indicate that good things are happening in the system.
Alright then, I promised a bit of Sun Ra earlier. So here we go. Normally, I’m partial to Sun Ra’s more mainstream late 1950s hard bop work, but I do enjoy some of his later, funkier, and more psychedelic offerings. One such album is Lanquidity (digital download, HDTracks), and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. Here, the Arkestra is in full swing, blowing down the walls with some seriously spacey funk-a-delic jazz fusion. The crazy hypnotic effect of this music seemed somehow magnified by the system with the Exogal DAC doing its thing. Checking out cuts such as “Twin Stars of Thence” and “There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You of)” puts me in that otherworldly sort of realm, and without the aid of foreign substances! The music is somewhat ambient and really draws the listener in. From the driving percussion to the intense free soloing from keyboards, sax, and trumpet, the album was like a newly discovered gift. For instance, the whispered vocals in the latter cut jump up out of nowhere and hang in space in front of, between, and behind the speakers, making for an other-worldly experience I hadn’t quite noticed before. Thanks to the Comet DAC, this stuff did seem to emanate from somewhere beyond the galaxy. Just as Sun Ra would have wanted it… And I don’t think I’ve ever heard it sound a whole lot better.
All of what I’ve reported so far has been with the stock switching power supply in place. So, how does the Comet perform with the upgraded supply? Well, that’s next. It wasn’t a night and day difference that I heard, but really quite subtle. Pretty much what one would realistically expect when swapping a really good power supply for one that is a little bit better. These are the kinds of audible differences that aren’t immediately obvious, but rather become mildly apparent over time.
A quick listen to a favorite recording, Edgar Meyer’s “Unfolding,” (LP, MCA, archived digitally) seemed to indicate better fleshing out of spatial details than I am normally accustomed to. For example, the dueling fiddles in the lovely and lively cut “After Dark” seemed to take on lives of their own, sparring in three-dimensional space like two twisting, twirling serpents. Although subtle, I have to admit that this aural experience caught me somewhat off guard and had me immediately enthralled. I had to play the cut again just to make sure that lightning really can strike twice. It can. As good as the Exogal Comet is with its stock power supply, I really did get just a bit more with the upgraded linear supply. More what, you ask? Well, simply stated, more of all the good stuff!
Revisiting Mathias Landaeus’ “Opening” served to drive home those minute but noticeable ways in which the linear supply strides out ahead of the stock one. All of the original beauty and feeling were still there, but now I was drawn in more readily with enhanced texture and attack. Hammers impacting strings on the piano were more evident, leading to more of an “I am there” illusion. Also noted was a bit more soundstage depth than before along with enhanced space around instruments. Again, these were subtle, but ultimately noticeable differences that became more apparent with extended long-term listening.
If you are in the market for the Exogal Comet, but are on a real-world budget, my advice would be to skip the linear supply upgrade initially. The DAC is more than fine without it, and you can readily enjoy what it has to offer in its stock form. When you’re ready, then go ahead and do the upgrade. You’ll enjoy it more that way since you’ll have a baseline to compare it against.
Comparisons: Antelope Zodiac DAC
The closest in-house comparison I can make against the Comet is my modded Antelope Zodiac DAC. My modification consists of a custom linear power supply from Your Final System (YFS) that adds $1000 to the cost of a $1700 DAC. This total brings the overall cost close to the Comet with its upgraded supply ($2900 total). To keep the comparison as fair as possible, I used the USB option on the Zodiac, running its output directly to my Wytech Labs Coral preamp, the same as with the Comet.
I’ve always felt the Zodiac’s usb option to be just a bit mellower than its S/PDIF input which I normally use. That’s OK, as I think it’s a better comparison sound-wise to the Comet that way. Both DACs were quite agreeable to spend time with, but there were a few minor differences in sound. Even via its usb input, the Zodiac seemed just a bit “snappier” in comparison to the Comet. Just a little more “get up and go” if you know what I mean, which lent a tad more toe-tapping pace to the music. Where the Comet seemed to have the edge was in its ability to produce that super-sweet velvety texture to the notes. Not that the Antelope DAC was any slouch in this regard; the Comet just added that little bit more that gave the music that luscious analog-like presentation I mentioned before. Taking things a step further, I also found the Comet to be a little more layered and dimensional in its ability to throw a convincing sound stage.
Keep in mind here that the Antelope Zodiac was originally designed as a mastering DAC to be used in recording and production studios. It’s meant to be somewhat lean, quick, and detailed, and some folks will prefer such a presentation. This might be especially true if you have a particularly warm sounding system, and you feel like adding a bit of “yin” to your system’s “yang.” On the other hand, I’d classify the Exogal Comet more as a music lover’s or audiophile DAC. It’s plenty detailed, but it seems to tend toward the warm and pretty side of the equation. If that’s how you like to fly, and a lot of us do, then all’s well in audio land.
As a final point of comparison, I was expecting to hear greater low-level resolution from the Zodiac. Maybe I did, but it was a hard call. The Zodiac gives a more “in your face” presentation of detail. The Comet, in contrast, seems a bit more self-effacing in that regard, but upon careful listening, one realizes that there’s more than enough low-level resolution being offered up. It’s just done a bit more in the shadows, like an effective sleight of hand. Audible detail just sneaks up on you without your realization of it… It’s just there! And as I said before, it’s in an analog sort of way, not jumping up and making a big deal of itself.
Given that the modified Antelope Zodiac has been my reference DAC now for several years, the favorable comparison of the Comet against it must say something about the new-found regard in which I now hold the Exogal DAC.
In the end, I have to admit that I’m fairly well impressed with the Exogal Comet DAC. At its asking price of $2995 in stock form, it’s a fine audiophile investment that I’m sure will bring lots of enjoyment to critical listeners and music lovers everywhere. Start there and see how you like it (I think you will…). If the bug bites down the road, go ahead and spend the extra $500 on the upgraded linear power supply, as it only makes things incrementally better.
Summary of high points? Coming immediately to mind are the superb harmonics and timbre offered, which are among the most realistic and lifelike I’ve experienced from a mid-level piece of digital gear. And don’t forget about the precise and deep layering of the soundstage and airy space around instruments for you imaging freaks out there.
I’m sure a lot of folks will also appreciate the fact that you can control the Comet with something that’s always on hand (or in your hand): your mobile communication device. Remotes tend to disappear, but no one loses their iPhone. Even I, the guy who refuses to use a cell phone, have to admit that I liked the control app.
My only small quibble with the Comet was that I never was able to get it to communicate with my usbPre2 interface via S/PDIF. No matter, as its USB interface worked swimmingly; to the point that I never felt the need to change anything. Even so, I’m sure that the issue wasn’t insurmountable and probably could have been addressed with a quick phone call.
When all is said and done, I’m not sure which will be more painful, boxing up the Comet, or giving my wife her iPhone back….
An update to this review can be found here.
About the Author
John Richardson has been interested in music and audio since his early teen years, or stated another way, as long as he can remember. He has been involved in the audio community in one way or another for around 20 years and for the last five has been a regular contributor to the on-line magazine Stereomojo. There, he has been the resident computer audio guy and “value conscious audiophile” (aka “cheap bastard”).
John is also a professor of analytical chemistry and forensic chemistry consultant in his spare time when he isn’t listening to music or evaluating gear. He tries to fit in plenty of time to hang out with his two teenage kids, his lovely wife, and the family cat, though only the cat also seems to harbor audiophile tendencies. John also enjoys running, cycling, golfing, hiking, or just about any other activity that sucks up time and money.