Onkyo DP-S1 Review
- Sounds excellent
- Wide format support
- Can't be used as an external DAC
- Limited built-in memory means you must get extra cards
- Poor UI
- Review Price: £399
What is the Onkyo DP-S1
The Onkyo DP-S1 is the entry-level model in Onkyo’s portfolio of hi-res digital audio players. It sits just beneath the PD-S10, which boasts a few more gigabytes of potential memory capacity (using micro SD cards) and compatibility with Onkyo Music – the brand’s online hi-res music store. But you’ve got more chance of spotting a polar bear in the Sahara desert than finding a PD-S10 in the shops.
Both models follow in the footsteps of the flagship, DP-X1, which takes its DSD credentials to 11.2MHz and runs on the ubiquitous Android operating system, rather than the Linux-powered UI of the DP-S1. From a playback perspective, what really stands out here is MQA, plus – arguably – Tidal.
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Onkyo DP-S1 – Design
The Onkyo DP-S1 is a neat, compact unit, which in terms of its weight and physical dimensions brings back memories of the audio cassettes of my childhood – you know, those analogue tapes that could store a whole album on each side.
Not surprisingly, build quality is far more impressive and the obsidian-like fascia is nicely offset by the sturdy pumice-like frame and leatherette rear panel.
One of Onkyo’s main rivals is Astell&Kern, which has been at the forefront of audiophile DAP (digital audio player) performance for some time. Its portable players are literally at the cutting-edge of design in that they can slash a suit pocket to shreds in no time. Happily, the edges of the Onkyo DP-S1 look sharp but closer inspection reveals they’re slightly softened so the player is perfectly comfortable to hold.
Within the fascia is a 2.4-inch touchscreen, with all other exterior controls dispersed around the narrow sides. These comprise the nicely milled volume control dial (a design that’s replicated by various manufacturers these days), on/off button, transport controls (play/pause, skip, rewind), micro-USB slot, dual microSD card slots (max 200GB each), a lock switch and power button.
The volume control feels loose and can continue rotating even after the volume has reached its maximum, which is annoying if you want to crank it up without looking at the screen. On the plus side, the on-screen adjustment is nicely responsive to the movement of the dial, and the setting can be locked with the aforementioned slider switch.
As well as a common or garden 3.5mm headphone socket (which is gold-plated), there’s also a 2.5mm balanced output for use with compatible headphones. Balanced headphones are very much in the realm of audiophiles, but the 2.5mm balanced output is starting to feature regularly on mid-range players such as the Astell&Kern AK70 Mk II and Sony ZX300.
The DP-S1 can’t be used as an external DAC, but both headphone outputs can be configured as a line-out for use with an external amplifier, such as in a car. Not a fan of wires? You can stream from the unit to a Bluetooth receiver, although you’ll have to settle for the bog-standard SBC codec rather than the superior aptX.
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Onkyo DP-S1 – Features
Although there’s no Hi-Res Audio logo on the body of the player, the name of the audio game is undoubtedly hi-res. In terms of format compatibility, the DP-S1 ticks every box you could expect from a sub-£400 palm-sized player: FLAC, DSD (5.6MHz/2.8MHz), DSD-IFF and for Apple Mac users, AIFF.
There’s even support for MQA, the relatively new kid on the hi-res block that delivers astonishingly clear and detailed sound from unexpectedly small files.
More good news is that the built-in Wi-Fi connection is a conduit to three online services, namely TuneIn radio, Deezer and, most satisfyingly, Tidal – with support for Tidal Masters, the world’s first Hi-Res Audio streaming service.
Under the DP-S1’s hood is some serious sonic muscle in the shape of twin Sabre ES9018C2M digital-to-analogue converters and twin Sabre ES9601K amplifiers, capable of driving headphones from 16 to 600 Ohms. Timing accuracy is optimised by the use of dual clocks, which can automatically detect 44.1kHz and 48kHz signals (and multiples thereof).
Like all good audio players, the DP-S1 likes to take standard resolution sources and subject them to a bit of spit and polish in the shape of some sonic upsampling. On offer here is 32-bit upsampling to 88.2kHz, or 176.4kHz for 44.1kHz signals, and 96 kHz/192 kHz for 48kHz sources.
User adjustments include three selectable digital filters (Sharp, Short and Slow), and a 10-band equaliser with six presets and three customisable presets.
Ultimately, the DP-S1 is judged on its audio performance and capabilities, but in terms of ease of use it comes up a little short.
The external buttons are fine, but compared with my iPhone 7 the DP-S1’s 320 x 240-pixel TFT LCD screen is a small and sluggish blur. The homescreen looks reasonable: a sensibly laid out grid providing access to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, settings, line out, balanced output and the equaliser, plus the music library and online source.
As interfaces go, it’s dullsville all the way – white or yellow text on a grey background – but even less impressive is text’s lack of sharpness (caused by the screen’s low pixel density) and, where album art is available, mushy-looking images. At least the player is quick to boot up from a standing start.
Enter the library and you find a long list of shortcuts to folders (internal or external storage), albums, artists, playlists, songs and genres. You can click into each shortcut and scroll through each list.
The lack of a search function is annoying, everything is listed alphabetically, but you can at least go back step-by-step through the menu or quickly arrive at the homescreen by pressing a small grid icon that appears on every screen.
When a song is playing, its title, artist name and album name appear below the album art, plus there’s a tiny progress bar. A second screen allows quick access to the EQ adjuster, output mode (line/headphone), repeat/shuffle options and handy ‘Add to playlist’ option.
Use the homescreen to make Wi-Fi network connections (entering passwords is somewhat laborious but only needs doing once) and pair Bluetooth devices. There’s an Audio menu for adjusting the gain, limiting the volume and switching the USB socket to output DSD (as DoP) for use with an external DAC.
Other handy features include adjustments for the display time-out setting and auto power off (off, 10, 30, 60 minutes) in case you forget to do so manually. With minimal screen interaction you can expect to get around 15 hours of use at reasonable volume level, which is pretty decent really.
Overall, it’s a case of ‘could do better’ when it comes to the UI, with almost no comfort to be taken from the fact that Onkyo has a smartphone app that replicates all of the menu’s features without actually managing to make the experience any better.
When it comes to loading music on to the player it’s a game of two operating systems – Windows and Mac OS – with Onkyo’s pleasingly designed X-DAP software (freely downloaded from its website) only compatible with Windows.
This provides access to playlists in iTunes on the computer as well as a shortcut to the Onkyo Music download store. Connect the player to your computer using a USB cable and it’s a cinch to load playlists on to the DP-S1’s internal memory or SD cards.
Mac users do at least have the ability to drag and drop from iTunes, since the player appears on the desktop as an external device when connected by USB. However, it’s frustrating not to being able to view and edit playlists on the desktop.
Onkyo DP-S1 – Performance
I paired the Onkyo DP-S1 with a pair of Oppo PM2 planar magnetic cans, plus some Focal in-ears that I use for listening on the go. With both headphones the DP-S1 certainly equips itself well when it comes to sound quality with hi-res audio files. Throughout the dynamic range it brings out detail with dexterity and finesse.
I found myself totally immersed in Mahler’s ‘Symphony No 5’ (FLAC 24-bit/44/1kHz), with violins floating above the wind instruments. I heard sumptuous texture in the ominous cellos, something you simply don’t get on an iPhone.
Classical music is a good test for any music device because you often get great variations in volume. Inferior players have you reaching to turn up the volume in quieter periods. This wasn’t so the DP-S1, which does a great job of revealing detail when the dynamics are suppressed.
The player also packs a real punch with lower frequencies. The bass in Coldplay’s ‘Sky Full of Stars’ proving nice and tight, with impressive extension – the perfect foil to Chris Martin’s sonorous vocals that are arguably referencing the synth that indeed sparkles like a star-soaked night sky.
Sonic imaging is excellent, with Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Never Going Back Again’ (24-bit/96kHz). The initial acoustic guitar twanging away wonderfully in the forefront and the quieter vocals pegged further back.
For some 192KHz MQA action I turn to Chicago’s ‘A Hit by Varèse’, which shows just how good the format is. It’s a multi-layered cacophony of vocals, jazz and heavy rock. On an inferior player it sounds like a load of mush. Here it’s a revelation, and the clarity with which each instrument appears is astonishing – drumsticks, high hat, sax, bass guitar, trumpet. The whole track is brilliantly reproduced.
When connected to the USB input of a Revo music centre, the player acts as if it’s connected to a computer and tries to operate as a mass storage device, making it unreadable by the Revo. Not so easily defeated, I connected the DP-S1 to a Musical Fidelity V90-HPA headphones amp using the latter’s asynchronous USB input. Now, both devices got on better than Trump and Putin on a Moscow night out and the amp was able to bypass the player’s DAC.
And what a revelation, with a significant boost in gain and with it, plenty of clarity. The hallmark of a good combination of equipment is when you can listen for ages without suffering from sonic tiredness. This is because the transparency of the sound is so pure your ears aren’t forced to try to interpolate missing information. So it is here with Mahler’s ‘Symphony No 5’ and Holst’s ‘Planets’, where I closed my eyes and it almost felt like I was just a few rows back from the stage at the Royal Festival Hall.
Playback, while not gapless, is near – as you transition from one track to the next, the gap is very brief.
The online services are a handy addition, especially Tidal, although users of the likes of Spotify and Qobuz might demur at their absence. Annoyingly, Tidal doesn’t offer offline listening, but it does support hi-res audio with access to Tidal Masters, the gradually growing library of MQA recordings. The interface is rather dull – all plain text, until you find and select an album or specific track – but the sonic quality is terrific.
For example, with ‘Nightswimming’ from REM’s Automatic For the People, remastered and packaged as an MQA file, Michael Stipe’s vocals and the treble piano are so clean and polished that it has the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. There’s plenty of dynamic bandwidth so that when the lower frequency strings come in they’re textured and punchy, without cramping the vocals.
TuneIn radio, while providing access to countless global radio stations, is lamentably low in quality – Classic FM, I’m looking at you here.
Battery life is a claimed 15 hours, but will more likely come in somewhat under that. I found I lost count long before the battery seemed to deplete, and am confident the player could outlast any trip between power-charging opportunities.
Why buy the Onkyo DP-S1?
If you consider yourself to be a connoisseur of music then you’re probably already aware of the benefits of owning a separate music player. You could spend over a £1000 on a higher-end model, but the DP-S1 offers many of the features of players more than twice the price, without giving up too many of the benefits.
The main compromises are that the UI is cramped, sluggish and unexciting; you can’t use the player as an external DAC; and, if you’re a Mac user, you can only drag and drop to load tracks on to the player. There are also hidden costs in that the internal memory is a mere 16GB so you have to buy your own micro SD cards, plus to access Tidal Masters you’ll need a top-tier subscription.
That said, the DP-S1 sounds brilliant and does sonic justice to all your hi-res audio formats including DSD, ALAC, FLAC and critically, it’s compatible with MQA.
Rival models around the same price include the FiiO X5 3rd Gen, which has a much nicer Android-based UI and larger, more detailed screen albeit in a larger, heavier body. The FiiO can also stream Tidal as well as Qobuz and Spotify, but it doesn’t support DSD files. Astell&Kern’s AK70 Mk II, meanwhile, is a tad more expensive and offers a similar overall package, especially now that A&K has taken the original AK70 and tweaked its performance in terms of signal-to-noise, crosstalk, jitter and output level thanks to the provision of a dual DAC.
Compact and versatile, the DP-S1 delivers where it matters most –with superb hi-res audio sonics.