Yes, I put an ES9028Pro on my Buffalo III

A few years back I was hit by Murphy and I was hit hard.

It was the time when you had to be very patient and even somewhat lucky if you wanted to buy a Buffalo DAC. You had to wait for the boards to go on sale and then be quicker than the other (equally “DAC hungry”) DIYers for the privilege of owning one.

I had just gone through all of that trouble and had managed to acquire a brand new Buffalo III board. I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it’s already been more than 5 years. I had it connected to my bench top power supply and was just doing a dry-run, I hadn’t even built the IVY-III yet, looking to see that everything was working as it should, when all of a sudden the lights on the Tridents all went very bright for half a second and then the magic smoke escaped. My power supply’s regulator IC had chosen the worst possible time to kick the bucket. Cost of repairing the power supply: ~1€. Cost of getting a new B3: ~400€ plus another 2 months of waiting.

An autopsy of the damaged board confirmed my suspicions: Almost every active component on the board was gone. Besides the Tridents and the AVCC module, the ES9018S and the Crystek clock were toast. The only components that survived were the ones behind the 3.3V regulator, which proved to be resilient enough to withstand the ~35 volts that were fed to it. So the cost of repair would be prohibitive, especially considering that I couldn’t find anyone that would sell a single ES9018S chip. So the bad board went into a cardboard box and lay there for close to 5 years.

Fast forward to 2016. ESS announces the successors to the ES9018S, the ES9028Pro & ES9038Pro chips.

These chips have a brand new digital core, much improved from the ES9018. There are new digital filters, a new DPLL system, new THD compensation features, a new gain compensation function, etc.
The ES9028Pro is supposed to be an ES9018S with an updated digital core, while the ES9038Pro is supposed to be an ES9028Pro with 4 times the output stages, resulting in an extreme output current capability. This very high current would be the reason why its DNR and THD+N performance would be off-the-charts. But it also meant that all of the existing I/V stages that were designed for the ES9018 would not work for the ES9038Pro. As of this writing, neither Twisted Pear Audio or Acko have on offering proper I/V analog stages.

I made this little table to give you a better idea of the differences between the old and new chips:

ES9018S vs. ES9028Pro vs. ES9038Pro
Feature ES9018S ES9028Pro ES9038Pro
Package 64-LQFP 64-LQFP 64-LQFP
DNR (dB) 8-ch current mode 129 129 132
DNR (dB) 8-ch voltage mode 120 no data no data
DNR (dB) stereo 133 133 137
DNR (dB) mono 135 135 140
THD (dB) current mode -120 -120 -122
THD (dB) voltage mode -108 no data no data
Differential voltage out (AVCC = 3.3V) 3.05V p-p 3.05V p-p 3.05V p-p
Differential current out (AVCC = 3.3V) 3.903mA p-p ~3.8mA p-p ~15.1mA p-p
Max PCM (w/oversampling) 500KHz 768KHz 768KHz
Max PCM (bypassing OSF) 1.536MHz 1.536MHz 1.536MHz
Max DSD (native) DSD128 DSD1024 DSD1024
DoP decoding N Y Y
Max DSD (DoP) N/A DSD256 DSD256
Digital filters (PCM) 2 7 7
Gain Calibration N Y Y
Programmable THD compensation N Y Y
Master or Slave mode support N Y Y
S/PDIF inputs 8 13* 13*
Power management N Y Y
Power consumption 100mW 500mW 500mW
1.2V (VDD) power consumption 37mA 82mA 128mA**
AVCC power consumption 25mA 47mA 90mA

* up to 13
** most likely an error in the datasheet

This info comes from the official brochures that are available on-line, with some additional info from the NDA-protected “full” datasheets. ESS, if you are reading this (and you probably are), there really is no point in trying to keep these datasheets secret. If someone like me (with my non-existant connections) can find them, so can your competitors. Plus I can’t really say that I found any content in your datasheets that would warrant such extreme measures. But I digress.

So, upon inspection of the datasheets the first thing one notices is that both new chips are pin to pin compatible with the ES9018S. That was just too convenient for me and my bad Buffalo board. Good job ESS, I really appreciated that. 🙂 🙂

On the software side, things were very different to the ES9018S. The number of registers had more than doubled (48 registers in the ES9018 versus 115 in the ES9028/38) plus their arrangement was totally different, so I would need to do a total rewrite of the code to support it. Good. More fun to be had. 😀

So now a lightbulb had lit up in my head. I didn’t have much to lose – I already had the board, I could hook up temporary power supplies and a temporary clock so all I had to buy was the actual chip. Considering that I would like to be able to use my existing analog stage, I chose to go with the ES9028Pro. I got on Ebay and ordered a couple (a friend had also decided to bite the proverbial bullet and do the same “mod” to his Buffalo).

Next up was power requirements. The required voltages are the same but the required current has doubled or even tripled, depending on which chip we are talking about. That could be a problem for the AVCC module and Tridents of the Buffalo 3. I needed to do some reading-up on the AVCC & Trident modules. It turns out that the Trident modules are capable of supplying up to 100mA of power (with the proper CCS resistors) so in theory they could be made to work. But my (burnt) Tridents were v1.1, meaning that they were not exactly famous for their robust-ness. Asking them to work near their thermal limits would be looking for trouble. Plus, while researching the Tridents I learned of their latest version, the Trident SR. These now use ultra low noise LDOs (ADM715x) and are rumoured to sound even better than their older shunt types. These days my ultra low noise LDO of choice is the LT3042 so I drew up a set of PCBs that would be a drop-in replacement for the Tridents & AVCC and made an order to a well-known Far East board house.

While waiting for the chips to arrive I had put together some Arduino code that would initialize the chip and provide some basic functionality. It was nothing special – serial port only – but it would get the job done.

After a few days the ES9028Pro chips came and there was no way I was going to wait another month for the new Tridents.

Off came the damaged components..

..to be replaced by fresh capacitors and the brand new ES9028Pro.

For the time being I chose to not solder on a new Crystek since I could not be 100% sure that the board would work.

Instead, I soldered on a two pin header to which I connected an Si570 programmable oscillator that I had lying around.

Power was to be delivered by the on-board die-hard 3.3V LDO with a little help from a small PCB holding a LT3042 taking care of the 1.2V.

I hooked everything up, connected my Arduino, powered the thing on and loaded an I2C scanner on my Arduino. I did a scan and found a single I2C address. That was not good. I should have found two (one for the on board port expander and one for the ES9028). I double checked my connections, my power, made sure that my Si570 was outputting a proper clock, but still nothing. It was time to go back to the datasheet.

My eye fell on the section pertaining to the Reset pin. It stated that it was an active-low pin and that a system reset could be performed either by pulling the pin low or by a software command. The Buffalo III design called for this pin to be pulled low by default so I hadn’t paid any real attention to it. It turned out that I should have. I soldered a 2 pin header and put a jumper on it. The board immediately came alive and was detected by my I2C scanner. 😀 So, the Reset pin should be pulled up.

With that out of the way, I connected my test I2S source (a Chinese clone of an Amanero – not as good as an original Amanero but OK for testing and pretty expendable). The DAC locked with no problem into all sampling rates up to 352K and DSD128 (I didn’t bother to try to go higher) and started playing music!

Now I’m waiting for the new replacement Tridents & AVCC module PCBs to arrive so that I can do a proper test vs. my Buffalo III.

I also need to do a version of my TFT HiFiDuino code for the 9028/9038. Stay tuned.

New page: S/PDIF receiver with the WM8805

It took me a little longer than usual (the board had been sitting around in my workshop for almost a year and a half), but it’s finally up. A page for a very good quality and very versatile Arduino controlled s/pdif receiver.

Check it out here: http://www.dimdim.gr/diyaudio/spdif-receiver-with-the-wm8805/

Controlling an AK4490 DAC with an Arduino

These days I’m co-developing an AK4490 based DAC. The aim is to end up with a no-compromise dual mono design, one that would perform at the very least on par with my Buffalo III.

Of course, to do that one has to run the 4490s in software mode.

As a matter of fact, it is generally preferred to run a 4490 in software versus hardware mode, for several reasons.

To begin with, in software mode the 4490 supports DSD decoding. It goes as far as to support a “Volume Bypass” feature which bypasses most of the processing done on the DSD signal (a.k.a. “the ΔΣ modulator”), resulting in more pure sound. But of course we do lose the ability to do volume control in software.

Software mode also allows us to try out all of the supported SQ features, like the different “Sound Setting” modes.

At last but not least, we get digital hardware volume control.

This is the prototype that we designed, getting I2S input from an Amanero and being controlled by my custom STM32 controller (more on that in the near future).

I searched the Net for any ready-made code that would control the 4490, but I couldn’t find anything worthwhile, so I began virtually from scratch.

So, my Arduino code (a.k.a. “aKduino”) enables:

  • Controlling an AK4490 through the I2C bus.
  • Automatic switching between PCM and DSD. It does rely on getting a “DSD type signal” from our USB-to-I2S interface of choice. The 4490 by itself is not capable of determining whether its input is PCM or DSD.
  • Setting the volume (in 9 steps.. just to confirm that volume control does indeed work).
  • Selecting “Volume Bypass” for direct DSD processing.
  • Selecting the internal DSD filter’s cutoff frequency (50KHz or 150KHz).
  • Selecting one of the 4 available PCM filters.
  • Enabling or disabling the Super Slow filter.
  • Selecting one of the 3 available “Sound Quality” settings.
  • Displaying all of the registers’ settings (for troubleshooting purposes).

Software Requirements:

  • Nothing (for now)

Basic Hardware Requirements:

  • Any Arduino (*)

(*) I should note here that the AK4490’s datasheet states that all of its I/O pins are expecting 3.3V logic levels but there has been a large number of reported cases of 5V Arduinos working without problems. I’m too much of a coward to try that myself so I used level converters for my initial testing and eventually a custom STM32 board that uses 3.3V logic but you may want to try your luck with 5V logic levels. Just don’t blame me if your 4490 gets damaged in the process.

Currently the code is at v1.35: aKduino Code (488 downloads)

Here is the revision history:

v1.35 20/12/2016:

  • Code cleanup for first public release.

v1.33 19/12/2016:

  • Added full control of sound parameters through serial port.

v1.27 18/12/2016:

  • First functional version.
  • Automatic switching between PCM and DSD by monitoring DSDPIN.

Kali FIFO Buffer & Reclocker for SBCs

kali_on_bench

Back in August an interesting thread was started on diyaudio.com.

It described a FIFO buffer and reclocker, aimed at SBCs and more specifically the RPi.

Its name was Kali.

The FIFO board would be able to “fix up” the RPi’s problematic I2S output so as to improve the sound quality of the used DAC.

As the discussion progressed, more interesting details came to light.

Kali was basically an FPGA design with on-board RAM, high quality clocks and flip-flops. It would buffer the DATA stream in RAM (about 0.7 seconds of audio) and it would then reclock it using flip-flops outside of the FPGA. The clocks used for the reclocking would be high quality NDK units sporting extremely low phase noise.

It would be powered by a 5V/3A power supply and would supply filtered power to the RPi (or not, selectable by a jumper) as well to the DAC that would sit on top of Kali.

It would have a claimed 3ps of jitter, which is an impressive feat for any I2S source.

It would provide a high quality MCLK output from a U.FL jack underneath the board.

The board’s general availability was scheduled for the end of August, and its price would be in the neighbourhood of $70.

At around mid August cdsgames offered to give away a number of units to diyaudio members for testing. I took him up on his offer and he was kind enough to send me one (along with a Piano 2.1 DAC board, but that’s for another post).

Fast forward to mid-September, when I received a package from India. In it was Kali and Piano 2.1 (more about that in another post).

kali_in_packaging

On the left side of the board we can see the DC IN jacks (barrel and pin header), plus a couple of inductors that help with filtering the power lines. On the top left there is a jumper that controls whether Kali will supply power to the RPi or not. The Kali lists as minimum requirement a 5V/3A power supply. However, Kali itself will consume only about 100mA. The rest of the power is intended for the RPi and the DAC board. Note that Kali is designed so that it powers the RPi and not the other way around.

In the middle of the board the two chips that dominate are the 4Mbit SRAM chip and the Lattice MachXO3L-4300 FPGA itself.

To the right we have the two NDK clocks, one for each one of the two “families” of sampling rates.

kali_clock

The Kali comes in two versions. One with clocks at 22/24MHz, capable of supporting sampling rates up to 192KHz, and one with 44/48MHz clocks, going up to 384KHz.
Note that there are two footprints available for the clocks so that a curious (and somewhat experienced) DIYer can also try out clocks with different footprints, like for example Crystek units. If you choose to go that way, keep in mind that you will also need to change 2 capacitors from 0.01uF to 0.1uF.

At the top of the board we have the usual 2×20 header that reproduces the RPi’s GPIO pins. There is one notable exception – Kali does not supply 3.3V at the relevant pin, so if your DAC needs to take 3.3V from that pin it will not work (more on that later).

Note that even though Kali has a JTAG header, the manufacturer currently does not support firmware upgrades. That’s understandable.. JTAG is not for consumer use and the manufacturer has to protect his IP..

At the lower end of the board we have an array of LEDs indicating the sampling rate of the incoming signal, along with the status of the buffer (Empty / Full / Lock) and the selected oscillator.

kali_lights_on_44-1k

At the bottom of the board there is a U.FL socket that outputs Kali’s MCLK.

kali_mclk_out

So, we have an RPi, we have Kali, now what we need is a DAC. Kali will put a few restrictions on your DAC choices. Your DAC will have to run as “slave” to the RPi, that is it will have to take its BCLK from the RPi and not the other way around. Examples of such DACs include for example virtually all of the DACs based on ES9023 chips. DACs that are designed to run as masters (in order to battle the RPi’s legendary jitter problem), such as the Hifiberry Dac+ Pro & Digi+ will not work, at least not without some extra work.

Plus, like I mentioned earlier, Kali does not supply 3.3V on its top 40-pin header, so if your DAC requires that voltage you’ll need to find a way to supply it externally.

Straying a bit from the DAC HATs, Kali will have no problem feeding pretty much any DAC that accepts standard I2S, like for example a TPA Buffalo DAC.

kali_buffalo_iii

As a matter of fact, in my system Kali did a remarkable job of improving my RPi’s I2S output. The difference was obvious immediately. My RPi went from being a “net streamer quality” source to giving my Amanero a run for its money. Remarkable.
I am not talking about differences in bass or treble or tonality. It is like Kali manages to extract more music content from the data files. It revealed details that were there but were not audible. The music became more “real”. Imagine going from SD TV to HDTV. And that with the same 44.1K/16bit source material.

This improvement is not apparent only on expensive gear either. My first tests were done on my workbench with my RPi feeding an $8 9023-based DAC and listening through my headphones.

kali_tests_workbench

Even with this setup, Kali made a significant improvement to the sound. The $8 DAC went from sounding like an $8 DAC to performing at least decently. It was an obvious improvement.

So I can not imagine a scenario in which the Kali will not make an audible improvement to the sound.

Note that the first batch of Kalis (the ones that were sent to reviewers and a small number of units that were actually sold) had a bug that caused 16bit audio to have its channels reversed (and some more weird stuff happening with their I2S output resulting in somewhat degraded sound quality), but according to allo.com all effected units have been exchanged with fixed ones plus the ones that are shipping now to customers come with a fixed version of the firmware.

Even if for some reason you come by an affected unit, all you have to do is tell your RPi to output 32bit audio. That will fix everything.

I’d like to thank Ioan (cdsgames at diyaudio.com) for sending me the remarkable Kali. It will for sure become a permanent part of my audio chain.

At the time of this writing, Kali is being sold directly from its manufacturer’s site (allo.com) as well as from Volumio’s online shop.

Driving the Fostex T50RP MK3 headphones

After too many years of abstinence from headphones, I was given as a present a pair of Fostex T50RP MK3s.

These headphones have an excellent VFM, having true planar magnetic drivers at a price point of ~150€.

This is what they look like on the inside:

Fostex inside (Medium)

Picture borrowed from here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/763009/fostex-new-rp-headphones-t50rpmk3-t40rpmk3-and-t20rpmk3/375#post_12077324

There is a drawback though, and that is their low sensitivity. ~92dbs mean that my current cell phone has no hope of making them rock. No chance at all. Same goes for pretty much any USB-powered DAC/headphone amp. So anyone serious about driving these headphones needs to look into a proper headphone amplifier.

I said to myself that I should try to build a proper amp with parts that I already had lying around, so I looked at my stockpile. I realized that I had a brand new pair of AMB alpha20 class-a line amplifiers, rated at 3.0Wrms into 33Ω with a ±18VDC power supply.

AMB alpha20

The T50RP are 50Ω and can handle up to 3000mW, so I thought that they would be a good match.

Powering the alphas by my bench power supply, I connected them to my audio card’s line out (an Auzen X-Meridian) and hooked up the headphones. The result was impressive. The alphas delived sound that was clear, crisp, with very little distortion. Plus they managed to achieve SPLs well into eardrum-damaging territory. Good.

Next up was the power supply. I had a set of Salas BiB shunt regulators that were collecting dust, so they would do just fine.

Salas BiB 1.1 alpha20

I set them up for a CCS current of ~300mA.

The case would be a Modushop.biz Galaxy 1U aluminum one that I had bought for a project that never went beyond the design phase.

I was missing a transformer that would fit inside the 1U case, so I bought a 25VA unit from Mouser.

At last but not least, I needed a 1/4″ TRS jack that could be mounted on a 10mm thick aluminum face. Neutrik had the perfect part for the job:

nj3fp6c-bag

So, all I ended up purchasing was the trafo and the 1/4″ jack. Nice.

2015-11-29 17.57.20_resize

So now I had a functioning headphone amplifier.

The next step is to add a USB to I2S interface, a DAC, some sort of volume control, another power supply to power them and an Arduino & Screen to control them. Space might be an issue..

DIYINHK XMOS Multichannel 32ch USB to/from I2S/DSD SPDIF Interface

About a month ago DIYINHK released a USB to I2S interface board based on the brand new and all-powerful XMOS xCORE-200 chip.

xcore-200-microcontroller
cXU216[1]

The specific chip used by DIYINHK is the middle-of-the-line XU216-512 which corresponds to some pretty serious horsepower: 16 logical cores for a total of 2000 MIPS, 512KB SRAM, 2MB FLASH.

IMG_0622_res

So, what can we do with all this horsepower you say? It’s simple. Tons of channels of high-resolution audio. Plus I2S inputs, besides the usual outputs. Plus DSD1024. Plus use a cool OLED display as a VU meter.

The board I bought came with the default firmware, which supports:

  • 6 channel 384kHz I2S output
  • 4 channel 384kHz I2S input
  • spdif output
  • OLED VU meter
  • Volume up/down control button

Here is a video of it in action:

A maximum 32 channels can be supported with the right firmware (not provided by DIYINHK).

DIYINHK XMOS multi 1
DIYINHK XMOS multi 2

The board (a 4-layer design, btw) comes with three high quality NDK NZ2520SD Ultra low phase noise oscillators. There is provision for powering two of the oscillators externally, by removing a ferrite bead and applying power through one of the headers.

The board is not USB powered. It needs a relatively beefy 3.3V power supply, capable of providing a maximum of 800mA (even though a typical power consumption is in the neighborhood of 570mA). Beware, a weak power supply or an inadequate connector will cause to board to not power up.

It comes with a fully featured Thesycon driver for Windows. Linux & Mac OS don’t need a driver.

An interesting detail is that the Windows 10 driver that is available only supports stereo operation and no multichannel (v2.26). If you want multichannel you’ll have to go back to Windows 7 (v1.67) (or perhaps Linux or Mac OS, it isn’t clear..).

DIYINHK’s site says that the latest available driver is v2.26, but I did not find such a driver in their downloads section, so I emailed them about it. They sent me a link for an even newer driver, v3.20.

DIYINHK XMOS Driver 3.20 1
DIYINHK XMOS Driver 3.20 2
DIYINHK XMOS Driver 3.20 3
DIYINHK XMOS Driver 3.20 4
The board has a ton of exposed I/O, split into three 0.1″ headers. These are the pinouts, according to DIYINHK:

xmos-multichannel-high-quality-usb-tofrom-i2sdsd-spdif-pcb

Now, if these pinouts look somewhat cryptic to you, you are not alone. I will try to clarify things a bit.

This is the most interesting header:

Header 1

I have marked in red the power supply input. It is a good idea to use all of the pins for making the connections, since ~800mA is nothing to sneeze at.

The pins in green are the I2S outputs. For 2 channel operation you will need to connect the DATA, BCK & LRCK pins. The rest of the output channels should be available at pins DO2, DO3 and DO4. I say “should” because I haven’t tested them. I should repeat that multichannel operation with the provided driver is only possible at the moment with Windows 7 (and possibly Linux & Mac OS).

The pins in yellow are the I2S DATA inputs. For 2 channel operation you will need to connect the DIO1, BCK & LRCK pins. The rest of the input channels should be pins DIO2, DIO3 and DIO4. The same multichannel restrictions I mentioned above apply to the I2S inputs.

The OLED screen is connected to one of the side headers, like this:

xmos-multichannel-high-quality-usb-tofrom-i2sdsd-spdif-pcb (3)

DIYINHK XMOS OLED IMG_0636 (Medium)

The left header is the XSYS connector for uploading firmware to the XMOS.

Next up: connecting it to my PCM4222 EVM ADC board.

Soekris DAM1021 s/pdif Inputs Board

I made a little s/pdif input board for my Soekris:

2015-12-05 16.41.34 (Large)

It has a coax input, two Toslink, and it includes a USB-to-serial adapter so as to facilitate easy update of the DAM’s firmware.

It also has an on-board low noise LDO for the Toslink modules and their switch, plus one more LDO for supplying the 1.2V necessary for the coax port.

More info to follow..

New page: Super Solid-state Sidecar

I built a solid-state alternative to the TPA’s Sidecar.

2015-11-03 20.19.20_resize

Its main features are:

  • Switching between I2S and S/PDIF with bus switches (solid state devices).
  • Support for two I2S inputs, with source selection.
  • On-board LDO regulator with 4.9V output for the Buffalo III’s 4-input S/PDIF board.
  • Drop-in replacement for the Sidecar.

Schematic, PCB, etc. in its dedicated page: Super Solid-state Sidecar for Buffalo III