Opera Consonance has several different designs running at the same time. This is one of its classic or Reference line models, sporting an arched slatted wooden or metal top plate, with a black or silver front panel and a symmetrical layout of a pair of chromed knobs either side of a central display. There’s also the squared off, none-more-black ‘Forbidden City’ line, the rounded off ‘Figaro’ models, and the distinctive, curved ‘Droplet’ models. But the Reference models are perhaps the most immediately recognisable products from Opera.
The Reference DSD1.1 is almost two DACs in one. The principle notes on the balanced stage and headphone amp speak of a DAC that is focused, transparent, and dynamic. The single-ended DAC notes are more about the DACs expressiveness, and its tonal and timbral qualities. Ultimately these are qualities common to the Reference DSD1.1 across both its outputs, it’s just that the accent changes slightly when moving from balanced to single-ended. Note, however, this doesn’t apply to different file formats, and the DAC is extremely consistent in moving up the audio ladder. In fact, this creates one of the most credible DSD performances I’ve heard at this price point, regardless of choice of output.
What is common to both balanced and single-ended outputs is a strong sense of both scale and refinement – especially refinement. This refinement is not bought at the expense of leading or trailing edges of music, and it doesn’t mean the DAC is rolled off at the top or overblown in the bass; these are the usual trade-offs to gain a touch of high-end sophistication without a five-figure price tag. Instead, it comes from a very fluid and organic sounding midrange, extending the harmonic structure of music up into the top registers and – albeit to a lesser extent – down through the organ pedals. There is an ever-so-slight bloom to the sound in the upper bass that gives the Reference DSD1.1 a characteristic fullness to the presentation, like the LS3/5a’s mild thickening of piano.
This refinement is more about presenting the sonic beauty of music than its sheer attack, and it would be easy to dismiss the Reference DSD1.1 as a DAC that doesn’t ‘time’. In fact, I think a more accurate reading of the Reference DSD1.1’s performance is that it’s a DAC that emphasises phrasing over timing. There is an excellent sense of flow from musical theme to theme, and the DAC is very keen at displaying the changes in tempo within those musical themes.
Where it lags a step behind the Rhythm Kings is working those subtle ‘microtiming’ changes that separate, say, a really profoundly good jazz drummer from some ‘going through the motions’ session guy or Sunday afternoon pub player. This is a subtle distinction, however, and I would be happy to trade this temporal precision for the refinement and ease of listening the Reference DSD1.1 brings to music. The headphone amplifier stage is good, too. It’s not an afterthought, but neither is it designed for serious users with amp-crushing headphones.