AUDIOPHONICS I-Sabre DAC ES9018K2M - now reviewed


Some of you were asking for feedback on this DAC - IT IS NOT WORKING PRODUCT OUT OF THE BOX

  • There is no documentation available to set it up
  • There is no driver provided, as ES chipmaker doesn’t allow Audiphonics to put it in open source
  • There are three theoretical modes how it could be operated, but without clear documentation
  • There is no real support available from Audiophonics customer service (some irregular & unclear emails only, so seems they do not know yet themselves how to configure it)
  • It is not in standard compatible to play bit perfect 16 bit music (Audiophonics write that through their Rune image with SW volume control (& and up sampling in Raspberry Pi?) it should work - but didn’t work for me)
  • In standard it theoretically should play 24/ 32 bit music (Audiophonics tell that it will work with RPI DAC generic and HiFiberry driver - but didn’t work for me)
  • Theoretically with manually switching 5V/ Ground to IR pin, it then could be configured to be switched to 16 and 24/32 bit playback (didn’t work for me, and if it would - who would do that each time)
  • Theoretically with some serial scripts it could be configured to be managed through Raspberry PI (not clear how, and I couldn’t install the suggested scripts in DietPi - see link below and let me know if you find the way how)
  • It could qualify as Engineering Sample, but even then with no documentation and no real support to configure it.

See picture - there is one loose wire hanging on it when delivered, and some other wiring connections on top of it are required to run it, but not fully clear what (I tried combinations Audiophonics illustrate on web, but no sound).

Also seems in photos on web with guidelines there are some mistakes.

This is only support that Audiophonics team was able to provide:
"In both case use “Generic RPI-DAC”, you can also use Hifiberry DAC (but there’s some issues with 16bit files.
There’s a real driver for K2M but ESS doesnt allow us to make it open source…

you can also use serialdrive :

You can try our last Runeaudio release here :

It will work (without any modifications).
Sorry to cannot be more reactive these days …"

So, I will see in next few days if Audiophonics team is able to explain how to operate this DAC. If no success, I’m returning it next Wednesday.


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The DAC work out of the box in slave mode with RPI-DAC driver.
You just have to connect the wire on ground pin.

Advanced serial sync mode is available for advanced users.
With that mode a python script can drive the DAC hardware Volume and Bitrate settings.
Currently available for MPD devices, soon for ALSA mixer.

Ready to use RuneAudio image is also provided on our forum. (serial sync or not)

Dear Nicolas,

Like you just described, this DAC does not work out of box.

I have been trying it for several days with and without Audiophonics Support team limited help.

I have connected the indicated pin to the ground exactly as in the picture.
I have set up default RPI-DAC driver in configuration.

There is no single sound coming out from this DAC, when I’m suing Roon via ALSA on DietPi, nor AirPlay/ Shairport via ALSO on DietPi. Neither 16, nor 24 bit music.

RuneAudio will not help, as we use Roon for the music management and playback.



Just to add, I have also tried to set up this DAC in the Slave mode - exactly as you suggested above even with the Audiphonics RuneAudio image from your web link.

It does not also give out any sound neither through MPD nor AirPlay playback, even RuneAudio in both cases show the actual playback happening, and allow to change volume in MPD.

I have been writing this many times to Audiphonics Support team and asking for help, but no solution.


If you don’t have any sound with our RuneAudio image the DAC is maybe defective, I’m really sorry about that.

RPI-DAC driver oversample all data to 24bit, and our DAC in mode 1 accept 24 bit data.
Bitrate problem give a white noise under one channel.

The DAC was faulty, and is replaced by Audiophonics. The fixed DAC is currently in the post back to me.

However, in meantime from communication with Audiophonics team following is unfortunate status for Roon.
Audiophonics ES9018K2M DAC doesn’t support 16 & 24 Bitperfect playback and HW volume control via ALSA. Consequently, it can’t be used with Roon.
It works only with Runeaudio.

I’m waiting last status update from Audiophonics if they have fixed ALSA compatibility or it might be coming soon.
If not, then I will have to reject the delivery and get refund for this DAC.



Received replacement DAC. With new DietPi installation it partially works now.
24bit playback with hifiberry DAC drivers is good, but 16 bit playback is noise with some music mixed in one channel.
No driver for ES9018K2M, and no workaround yet finalised to have serial drive of 24 & 16 bit sync for ALSA (=Roon).

I received from Customer Service some modified DietPi image, that was neither installation image, nor was working properly when written on boot flash.

Looking forward to:

  1. Get from Audiophonics clear step by step instruction what SW to add to normal DietPi and required configuration changes
  2. Hope that Audiophonics will engage with DietPi directly to ensure support for Audiophonics ES9018K2M DAC


Thanks to @Audiophonics customer service team!
Today I received new image, and could finally run the DAC.

It kind of works - plays both 16 and 24 bit files now.

Three comments:

  1. On start is giving failed error or is not found on launch, varying on restarts
  2. After launch on the screen I see “A,1,95,1” being nonstop pushed, and I can’t stop it
  3. On Audiophonics web it is marketed that ES9018K2M has these capabilities:
  • d’accéder à la Haute Résolution 32bit 384KHZ directement compatible sur Rapsberry-Pi
  • conversion numérique analogique PCM (32bit /384khz Max) avec lecture DSD non native

In current image with 384 kernel installed it only supports up to 192kHz, as well DSD 64 playback (even in 352.8 kHz PCM) is not supported (not speaking about DSC or DOP) - DSD only works with downconverter PCM stream to 176.4 kHz that is below the marketed specs…

Seems Audiophonics main problem is that ESS Technology doesn’t allow Audiophonics to have driver support for ES9018K2M on Raspberry Pi.

The limited hifiberry overlay doesn’t allow to run at 384 kHz and neither promised DSD playback even at comparable PCM rate… That leads to false marketing and messed up product, not speaking about physical patch wiring required for different setups (that normally should be SW configured), and the complex serial drive workaround the DAC usage is tumbling over.

I really hope on the very kind @Dan_Knight support to make embedded DietPi support. Also I hope @Audiophonics succeeding to resolve driver support with ESS Technology to have functional (to promised 384 kHz & DSD performance) and out of box easy to set-up DAC.

Later this week I will review and report on audio quality performance of Audiophonics I-Sabre DAC ES9018K2M.


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I’ll get started on this in the next day or two :slight_smile:

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I did tonight testing of 6 configurations:

  • Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC
  • Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC 2.1
  • Audiophonics ES9018K2M DAC
  • without and without Allo Kali reclocker


  1. All three DACs work perfectly fine with Allo Kali reclocker
  2. The best DAC is Audiophonics ES9018K2M both with and without Allo Kali reclocker
  3. The best surprise is Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC that has major sound quality improvement with the Kali reclocker, while being worst without it

All tests are subjective listening tests of two persons of two very different tracks in 94-24 (Audiophile jazz prologue III vocal - You’ve Got a Fried, and Sonic’s Mad audiophile sampler pop - Love will save the day).

I spread 1 to 6 ratings across configurations with 6 being the best and 1 being the worst
DAC: w/o reclocker vs. with reclocker
Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC : 1 vs. 4
Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC 2.1: 2 vs. 3
Audiophonics ES9018K2M DAC: 5 vs. 6

Listing comments:

  • Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC - without reclocker has very flat, metallic sound and no bass, but that has dramatic improvement with the reclocker gaining massive dynamics and pleasant transparency, very wide stereo - becoming 2nd best configuration
  • Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC 2.1 - without reclocker has flat, harsh electric sound with explicit middle and high frequencies, with the reclocker gaining transparency and dynamics but overall having minor improvement and staying almost as low in performance as without the reclocker
  • Audiophonics ES9018K2M - has 5% lower total volume than Allo DACs, without reclocker has great natural voice and soft sound with good bass, with the reclocker increasing dynamics with focused sound stage and detailed reproduction of clearly distinguished of low, mid, and high frequencies - very pleasant listening, more focused and narrow stereo the both Allo DACs

Conclusion 1, even Audiophonics ES9018K2M set-up is very cumbersome and user unfriendly (HW installation requires connecting one loose wire plus need to find one more to build a bridge of IR pin to +5V, no driver support from chipmaker, no proper documentation of the product, currently false marketing of 384 kHz playback capabilities, extra SW installation and configuration required to work around driver shortcomings with serial synchronization of 16bit playback), and Audiophonics customer service almost non-exiting, this is the best DAC, and can be perfectly used without, or with Allo reclocker just slightly increasing the audio quality

Conclusion 2, for users who don’t have time to loose and look for the audio quality, the best simple out of box solution is Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC with Allo Kali reclocker

Conclusion 3, stay away from Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC 2.1 that is average performing DAC in any configuration - without Allo Kali reclocker, or with the Allo Kali reclocker having no real improvement, while being sold at substantially high price, and not having integrated headphone AMP as Allo Piano Hi-Fi DAC, also unclear need of subwoofer filtering in the DAC (not speaking of extra SW requirements to manage it)


P.S. I don’t have these DACs - HiFiBerry and IQaudIO (Zero I don’t consider), and haven’t reviewed them, but you can find reviews of these products in Hans Beekhuyzen Channel on YouTube -
If I read it correctly - they are not as good as old Audiophonics SABRE V3 DAC, which according to my reviews was worse that both Allo DACs, not speaking of the new Audiophonics ES9018K2M.

@ALLO_audio_boards and @Audiophonics are welcome to comment


Thank you for your thorough post!

Well, now I am tempted to get Allo Piano DAC 2.1 with KALI reclocker. It is arround 110 EUR investment here is Europe. I am only afraid that it will spoil my sync with other RPis. I am running five. 3 Hifiberry AMP+ and 2 DAC+. And all AMP+ are on WiFi, sadly. So I have my sync fears already risen. Still, so far, all in all, sync works quite ok. :slight_smile:

Anyone has info about running such a mixed environment?

The Kali reclocker buffers .7s so will not sync with the other RPis

Can’t you adjust for that time shift in Roon audio settings? Might not be 100% sync, but in multi room set up probably not noticeable.

Also consider ES9018K2M that without reclocker is as good or better (depending on you audio style preferences) as Piano 2.1 with recklocker.

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hey guys,

Janis, as usual, a pleasure to read!

Its a positive review for the ES dac.

Our best selling bundle is the PIANO 2.1 + KALI, price tag is more than 20EUR less than the ES (especially if you use the exclusive coupon code wink wink ) and you get “da dass”!

In terms of sync… i am sure there is a way around it.


As Janis writes… [quote=“Janis, post:10, topic:17134”]
HW installation requires connecting one loose wire plus need to find one more to build a bridge of IR pin to +5V.

If I am not mistaken that applies to all usages with Raspberry Pi’s solutions? Then surely @Audiophonics, that 2 hardware interventions can be done in-house?

More serious obstacle for me, as a buyer and part-time DIY-er with basic soldering skils surely is lack of driver! I, for one, am very keen to go down the Audiophonics I-Sabre route, but this is really holding me back. It is not about 112 EUR, but if I find I like it and multiply that by 10 (I have a large setup), then the price tag is too much for unpolished product.

As the general consensus here is that it is one of the best cards for RPi, I suggest @Audiophonics that you fix those issues and give us an update. Pretty please. :slight_smile:

Audiophonics ES9018K2M DAC is good sounding (natural round and soft sound with good bass, mid, and high distinction), but not finalized product for advanced DIY enthusiasts, ideally understanding French… :smile:

You need to know what you are signing up to when buying it.

Thus, in my view for general customer the Allo Kali Reclocker with basic Piano DAC (attention not the 2.1 version) is better choice (if you don’t mind a little more harsh sound, which again on some tracks gives very pleasant sparkling transparency feeling comparing to more subtle Audiophonics).


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First kudos for our friends at audiophonics for the Sabre DAC.

Regarding your findings.

Sabre 9018 is a very good IC. The only problem is drivers are not open sourced. From what we know they will never be.
Now Kali was designed to improve the clocks of RPI and I think it does a great job . No matter what DAC board you will get in the future including Sabre (slave DAC) Kali will always help.
Piano 2.1 was designed to take full advantage of the DSP capabilities (xover). I think that Dan from DietPi is implementing it right now. Please retest it then.

Meanwhile , we are launching a few more HATs.
First the BOSS , a master DAC with PCM 5122 (clocks on board). They should be ready for independent testing in 2 weeks. Best bang for the buck.
Second the galvanic isolator HAT. It will work with both master and slave DACs. Needs a extra power supply (we recommend battery )
Third , relay attenuator . It will work as stand alone and for our DACs exclusively . Attenuate volume in hardware using Susumu low noise resistors.
Forth and maybe the most important for all of you. Hiend DAC made by allo. An R2R Dac with 0.01% resistors and reclocking circuit. At about 150$ it will be a game changer. Mark my words. Please be patient on it since we want to make it right .

Oh yeah, we have a 5 project. I call it the Digiless. A recloaked Spidif output with galvanic isolation that will have 4ps (max) measured at output. This again will be a game changer for transporting (a la microrendu)

Enjoy the music . Please post your replies on the allo thread and keep the discussion here for Audiophonics Sabre.


Hi Janis,

Excellent hands on and in-depth review.

Just wanted to check if you were using DietPi for these tests, and, version v142?
In DietPi v141, we were using the Piano 1 DAC dtoverlay for Piano 2.1 aswell. As of v142, the new/dedicated overlay for Piano 2.1 is now being used and will improve sound quality:

I did upgrade to v142, and tried to use Allo Piano DAC 2.1 driver, but it didn’t work. DAC 2.1 was not visible in Roon with the 2.1 driver. Might be shall, do all clean installation of DietPi instead of upgrade?

Therefore, I did testing for both Allo Piano DAC and Piano DAC 2.1 with the same basic Piano DAC driver.

If I don’t use xover, would it have any impact on sound quality in full range from Piano DAC 2.1?


Yes it does. Not because of the Xover only, but because the new driver bypasses the PLL of the DAC IC completely (pll introduces about 75ps of jitter). Basically you will be running on clean SCK instead of PLL SCK