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ASUS Xonar Essence One review (Rolling Review) rickysio Mar 31st, 12, 07:44 PM #1

Pegasus, the winged horse in Greek mythology represents inspiration and knowledge. These facets are not lost in ASUS, which is named after it. The company embodies the strength, purity, and creative spirit of this mythical creature, and soars to new heights with each product it produces.

Through the years, ASUS’ visionary approach has seen it become a major proponent in consumer technology, bringing quality innovation and design into consumers’ lives.

On February 28, 2008, ASUS formally introduced the world to its fledgling audio solution, the PCI based ASUS Xonar DX. Offering an up-to-date driver set versus Creative, it found success and subsequently multiple successors were introduced, the most notable of which was the Essence ST/STX.

But even then all these audio solutions were sound cards (and some other pint-sized USB DACs like the U1[2007] and the U3[2011]) and audio snobs turned their noses up at them, in part due to the location of it in a noisy PC environment. Whether or not the reputation is well-deserved is irrelevant, as long as it wasn't located outside the PC casing many simply ignored these solutions as inferior, despite RME and Lynx both having high-end sound card products), and despite measurements and charts showing that the noisy PC environment had become a non-issue in this case.

Then on August 15th 2011, ASUS introduced the Essence One.



(There's going to be a suspicious lack of pictures, mostly because my room's lighting is inadequate and a handphone's [Nokia N9] camera can hardly be expected to deliver stellar ones under the conditions it is used in.)

Rolling review means I'll update this whenever I finish testing some more.



It is better to remain silent and be taken as a fool, than to speak and prove your ignorance beyond doubt.
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Last edited by rickysio; Apr 22nd, 12 at 01:28 PM..
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rickysio Mar 31st, 12, 07:45 PM #2
Disclaimer:
I'm not your typical audiophile. I don't have golden ears, and if I did, you wouldn't be reading this review but purchasing one of the magazines that have my review published.

I have bilateral non-syndromic sensorineural hearing loss to the moderate extent of a less common nature, as the loss is relatively 'universal'. Put simply, I just require louder volumes. I don't have any specifically weak region that would interfere with listening. Of course, in a way this might bias results if an equipment delivers better results at the volume louder than most people would listen to, but that's complicating matters too much to warrant much discussion since it would require very specific scenarios, considering the mindbogglingly large range of equipment available. I am, however, effectively deaf to tones above 16KHz.

Also, this is a trial unit.

And the key disclaimer of all : Your Mileage Might Vary!

Set up
.FLAC

foobar2000

ASIO
  • ASUS Xonar Essence One
  • StyleAudio Carat Ruby II
  • FutureSonics Atrio MG7 Special Edition (Aesthetically special only) [Dynamic]
  • VSONIC GR07 [Dynamic]
  • TDK BA-200 [2xBA]
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rickysio Mar 31st, 12, 07:45 PM #3
Unboxing experience


Large. Heavy.



Immaculately packed, with a rather generous crumple zone, with padding on the top and bottom of the Essence One. One box is empty, but the other contains the power cord, 1/4" to 3.5mm converter and a bog-standard USB cable. The Essence One itself is wrapped in plastic, and the two volume dials have additional hard plastic 'covering' the front protecting it from scratches.



The manual, report and driver CD are contained in the bottom padding, which is enclosed in plastic.
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Last edited by rickysio; Mar 31st, 12 at 08:41 PM..
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rickysio Mar 31st, 12, 07:45 PM #4
Around the Essence One
On the front panel, you have the power button (whose transparent ring around it lights up in the typical PC blue LED colour when powered one), followed by the upsampling button, input selection button, mute button, speaker volume pot, playback format display (from 44.1KHz to 192KHz and a Bit Perfect button that lights up only with ASIO, not with WASAPI), the front panel 6.3mm jack volume pot and the 6.3mm jack itself.

On the back, it features a pair of unbalanced RCA outputs, XLR balanced outputs, coax, optical and USB-B inputs along with some vents, a voltage selection switch and the typical C14 input inlet (same as most PSUs and monitors).

It has a decidedly utilitarian appearance with shiny silver screws standing out from the matte black aluminium body. Said body has a anodized finish that shows fingerprints quite easily so OCD people beware.

The LEDs are decently bright but not exceedingly so. Can be a tad distracting if you are used to more discreet power LEDs (In comparison my Carat Ruby II only features one small LED, but it is also much much much smaller).



On the topic of size it will likely dominate your desktop. It is almost as large as a regular Steelseries QcK mousepad, but significantly more 3D. It has a slight trapezoidal shape with a slightly smaller base than the top, which happens to be curved and features the tiger design in gold silk screened on top.

It isn't an attention grabbing design but rather stealthy until it gets switched on. While it won't really fit with the typical HiFi systems with their hard corners it does look like it can easily be in their company, but perhaps situated right on the top rack instead.
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Last edited by rickysio; Apr 20th, 12 at 10:04 PM..
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rickysio Mar 31st, 12, 07:45 PM #5
Setting it up
Just plug your USB/coax/optical cable and C13 power cable into the back and your choice of listening equipment onto the relevant connectors. Since I'm using IEMs, the 3.5mm>6.3mm connector goes onto the front panel.

One point of note is that it starts up with USB as the default input method, you need to toggle till it's at your choice of input using the front panel button. It will remember the setting from then on.

In Use
The volume pots are stepped and clicks into place, but with less definition than I was expecting, a little on the mushy side.

There's a "twack twack twack" sound produced over the output when switched on.

Otherwise it works as a DAC+Amp is supposed to work.

Gets a little warmer than my Ruby II, but otherwise it isn't hot - merely warm.

-1 May 2012 -
Finally got it to fit my supertight RCA cables, turns out it plays back over both outputs. Yes, that is, both speakers and headphone out have output simultaneously.
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Last edited by rickysio; May 1st, 12 at 04:31 PM..
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rickysio Mar 31st, 12, 07:46 PM #6
Sound quality
I find myself in a dilemma. How to review a DAC? A proper High Fidelity DAC and Amplifier should have no particular signature of it's own since fidelity is defined as adherence to fact or detail; accurate; exactness.

I cannot honestly spout terms commonly thrown about by audio reviewers without being able to justify what I say. Mostly I find the terms too esoteric and I'm not even sure if they truly know what their words mean!

So I turn to comparisons at times.

Admittedly I have no method of equalizing volume to a strict degree and have to depend on my ears, which will affect results, but I do what I can - in this case I have to match the Ruby 2 to the Essence One since the Ruby 2 offers more granular control since it's stepless.

I used Audacity to generate a set of tones to volume match as close as I can, but human error is still present.

I mainly test with the FutureSonics Atrios since they're my daily drivers and I'm most intimately familiar with their sound, but I switch it with the TDK-BA200 and VSonics GR07 every now and then. The BA200s get the least run time with the two since I have the most comfort problems with them, so in order of usage the Atrio comes first and the GR07s second. (Basically the BA200 is a very occasional test. My ears hurt really bad with them. The fit might be good but I haven't yet found an ear tip that doesn't make me want to do something to the asshole who made the BA200 have a very uncommon ear tube diameter.)

Caution : Everything below should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Just a little note here about the Ruby 2. Tests done on an Audio Precision machine by German mag Stereoplay (it incidentally gets a rating of absolute spitzenklasse - absolute top class by that mag, and is merely 1~2 point short of a Violectric D800V for sound quality. It got awarded with a Stereoplay Highlight award. Take that as you will. I spent a few minutes translating some part of the review with Google Translate.) indicates that it has a wtf-ish 100Ohm output impedance so BA users had best beware if they're using a Ruby 2. However my main testing IEMs are dynamics so they're less sensitive to output impedance - testing done with the GR07 at 60Hz indicates the Ruby 2 is only a thimble less 'loud' - but less loud enough to be distinguished. Whether this is because of expectation bias or not, I cannot say. The Essence One's lead extends slightly more at 40Hz - had to test this with the Atrio since the GR07 doesn't seem to extend that low well. 20Hz? No contest. There's a distinct difference, one that would come to play quite obviously in quite many tracks...

The Atrio does go way deeper than most (99% of the market?) IEMs (whose frequency ratings are overrated) so that's a factor one has to take into account.

While this review would be more valid as a measure of differences between DACs via blind testing I have no capabilities of doing that.

Sega - Cybertroopers Virtual On
The very first video game of the series, with this track being ripped from the PC version. A mainstay of my childhood.

Track 2 is basically a rather repetitious track with a quite constant bass beat along with some other instruments and so in the background. The Essence One fares well with this - some lesser DACs (like onboard or the HA-Info NG27 I bought cheaply previously.) cannot keep up with the sheer speed necessary. The Essence One paints the jack-hammerish thuds well defined and clearly has the speed and clarity needed to perform.

When roughly matched with the Ruby 2 the Ruby 2 falls a little short. The Essence One drives lower with more oomph and punch behind it, whereas the Ruby 2, chiefly because of its slightly lessened bass seems more 'clear' in the bass regions than the Essence One. The differences are slight, however.

Trying out Track 24 gives Essence One the edge in clarity however, there's just a smidgen more crispness, more definitive and sure-ness in details save for the bass where the slighly more anemic Ruby 2 holds the less boomy advantage (which is a little pyrrhic of an advantage since bass is sacrificed for this). They present similarly high level of details but the Essence One simply seems more surefooted when presenting it. It's like a paper cut cleanly versus one with little burrs left on the cut edge. (With the BA200, the edge becomes almost painful... Stunningly sharp. The Ruby 2 is only a tad blunter, but the Essence is simply stunningly sharp with this track.)

Neil Young - Cortez the Killer (From Zuma)
A 7 minute long epic (that should have been longer, according to Young's father in Neil and Me) about violence with a love story spanner suddenly chucked in at the very end, it has the distinction of being the very first Neil Young song I've ever heard (that I'm aware of).

The various instruments were clearly separated from Young's voice, smooth, and perfectly capable.

Both of them generally do fine with the track, with the caveats mentioned above (Ruby 2 not hitting as deep in the lows) apparent. The clarity edge of the Essence One isn't as apparent here since the song isn't as demanding of crispness as the other songs. It is still present, but not as apparent.

The Ruby 2 however just has this edge in vocals where Young's voice is more emotionally resonative. It's not that the Essence is lacking, but the Essence is in a way presenting the vocals in a less... emotionally stirring manner. Perhaps it's the edge in clarity causing this, as what they say about rose-tinted glasses.

DJ Avalon - When Will You Come Home
I don't know who he remixed, and I don't know why the DJ Foggy/DJ Rad/Whatever version sounds exactly the same, but I'm just following the file name. Perhaps not very high fi of a track - but I quite like it.

The Essence One gains an almost unexplainable edge. It simply defines things cleaner. There's more... 'space'. I guess this is what people call soundstage, but the Essence One simply seems to have more space with the track. The Ruby 2 sounds a little congested by comparison, not lacking in speed but there's a definite advantage in the Essence One's presentation.

There's more 'space' between the various... err... effects. Separation is also more cleanly defined. The Ruby 2 is more than adequate in replicating this track but the Essence One simply betters it. I think the previous test tracks weren't really demanding of this so I didn't notice it.

The bass issue of the Ruby 2 also rears its head here, as well as the Essence One's detail edge.

Gary Schnitzer - Melodia
Schnitzer is a more than a capable musician. He can make the violin sing a song by itself. Simply stunningly beautiful, it's my favourite album - I even went to the extent of importing the CD since I can't find it locally.

The trailing edges of violin masterfully replicated, the instruments cleanly separated, never confused. I don't think anyone will find the Essence One lacking with this album. Lesser DACs tend to have trouble replicating the emotionally charged violins.

The Ruby 2 gets a tad more emotion out of the instruments however. They just sound like they're singing. Without this comparison DAC however, the Essence One does play back rather well, but in comparison it just isn't able to cross the final hurdle. Admittedly it is quite a short hurdle, but that's what my ears hear.

Without the comparison though I'd be unable to pick out the difference - it is very very slight.

bond - Lullaby
The lack of capitalization intended (in deference to 007), they're a Australian/British string quartet that specialises in classical crossover music. Bond has been described as the best-selling string quartet of all time.

The clarity edge helped - I'm hearing slight more detail than versus the Ruby 2, and like with When Will You Come Home the sound is more spacious and 'clean'.

Globus - Epicon
A particularly epic sounding record (save for some songs), what with the orchestral and choir supporting background. If you've ever seen movies, you've heard the aural magicians behind this at work - Immediate Music.

Madre Terra - With a powerful main vocal and an occasionally wispy and delicate choir supporting, powerful orchestra backing it up, the Essence One handles it with sufficient fitnesse. But as with the previous few tracks, it somehow is lacking more in the emotional aspect of the vocals.

This track does allow me to weigh more about this though. The singer, with the Essence One, sounds like he's competing in the technical category in competitions. It is lightly more nuanced, more light variations in the voice audible when focussing on them, but a little less on the emotional weight. It remains to be repeated that the difference is slight and if I don't concentrate it will easily be missed. Which admittedly does bring up the possibility of it just being an invention of my mind.

Take Me Away - This track gains new life with the Essence One. The track is more than demanding on bass, and boy, does the Essence One deliver in spades. The Ruby 2 simply makes the track sound polite.

There's a certain portion, near the beginning (about the 30 second mark) that is quite dependent on soundstage strength since it is mixed ALL the way to the extremes. The Essence One simply depicts it with better soundstaging (more distance between singer/s and listener) and more exactness. There's some... 'bleed' with the Ruby 2 away from the extremes.

Overall

I've tested with many many other albums/tracks like Ingrid Michaelson's Human Again, Lauren Hill's Can't Take My Eyes Off You, Temple of the Dog's Hunger Strike, amongst many others. Of course they were done far more casually and less intensively than with the few mentioned above.

Perhaps one point many like to consider is the musicality, one that allows the person to tap along to the music. The Essence One is more than capable. As for power output wise, it by reports on the internet has scarcely any trouble.

I'm not a firm believer in swapping OPAMPs since the stock ones would have been the ones the circuit board and other components were tuned to by the engineers, so I didn't do any modding of it. Nonetheless the socketed OPAMPs mean those who want to can.

Perhaps one of the more 'useful' tests is the YouTube test. As many know youtube tends to feature compressed audio. Any DAC that can make them listen-able (on board fails for me in this usage case) and the Essence One is more than up to the challenge. I tested this with Coldplay's Paradise and How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep by Bombay Bicycle Club amongst others. There's still the weirdly sounding youtube-sound vs the actual files thing, though that's youtube's issue to sort out.
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Last edited by rickysio; Apr 25th, 12 at 08:08 PM..
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rickysio Mar 31st, 12, 07:46 PM #7
Some issues
As some people have reported, the volume pot has some serious balance issues in the lowest few notches. On mine, I notice it on the bottom 0,1,2,3 notches. By 4 it is less drastic (effectively mono at 3) but there's a noticeable difference. (Notch 5 is normal listening volume for me so it's not a concern for me, but less deaf users should take note and try it out first before committing if you're planning to use more efficient headphones/IEMs with your more efficient ears.)

It is also apparently insufficiently shielded. You'd occasionally hear the RF "baat baa baa baat" sounds although weirdly it is intermittent (only occurs for some texts and calls) and attempts to pinpoint a certain area has been futile. I haven't had this problem with my Ruby 2, and weirdly the problem is intermittent. It can happen every hour or so then not occur for days.

Otherwise, the only other flaw I can determine at this time is that it needs a driver installation to even work. I guess the controller is not USB Audio Class 1 compliant.

(Others have reported a noise issue but I haven't experienced it.)

Upsampling
Press the button, and your music is upsampled with the headlines grabbing "8X! Symmetrical! Upsampling!" features. Subjectively, not much of a difference. I'll be keeping it off myself.

There's a brief pause before the upsampling takes effect. What I notice, in my opinion, there's a increase in midbass (probably by 1~2dB, I can't say for sure. It's a noticeable increase for sure though.) On my Atrios it makes the bass feel more slurred and muddier. But hey, Atrio.

There's also a slightly noticeable decrease and alteration in treble frequencies. Violins won't hit their highest possible registers. They just sound more a tad more subdued and muted. There's some shaping as well since there's a slight but noticeable alteration. Makes music more easy to listen to though if the song is particularly sharp (Like Lauren Hill's Can't Take My Eyes Off You which loses some (not really a lot) of it's bite).
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Last edited by rickysio; Apr 21st, 12 at 10:52 PM..
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rickysio Mar 31st, 12, 07:46 PM #8
Conclusion
Is it a good DAC? Unquestionably so. The very fact that ASUS dares to include an AP report with the DAC speaks volumes (many vendors don't even own audio analysers). For the some who will argue that designing by ear is a more valid process than using audio analysers...

A fool and his money is soon parted may or may not have relation to the last sentence in the above paragraph.

It measures impeccably well, serves up quality sound, comes in a well built chassis, with only a few cons to its name it is a deserving product and more than able to stand with the others in the same price range.

(Curiously the Styleaudio Ruby 2 is selling at downright retarded prices on ebay. 600USD anyone?)

For S$699, is it a good DAC? That question is one you have to ask yourself. The audio world is one of diminishing returns and the tipping point is user dependent.

Now that the review is almost over, one of the more interesting questions is as follows.
Will I buy a Essence One?



No I won't.



I simply don't have the space for it.
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Last edited by rickysio; Apr 21st, 12 at 11:33 PM..
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9VARZ Apr 10th, 12, 06:28 PM #9
Review kena abandoned liao?
Views expressed are my own.

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Gollum Apr 11th, 12, 10:13 AM #10
price? looks interesting
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wenasong Apr 11th, 12, 10:49 AM #11
It is in the range of 500-600SGD.

Anyway, you can also consider TEAC UD-H01 DAC for the price of 500 bucks.
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Gollum Apr 11th, 12, 11:06 AM #12
Quote:
Originally Posted by wenasong View Post
It is in the range of 500-600SGD.

Anyway, you can also consider TEAC UD-H01 DAC for the price of 500 bucks.
mmm available in sg already?

getting sick of the dac1 pre sound
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wwenze Apr 11th, 12, 11:19 AM #13
$699 if i'm not wrong
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Gollum Apr 11th, 12, 11:27 AM #14
Quote:
Originally Posted by wwenze View Post
$699 if i'm not wrong
where ah?? tia
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wwenze Apr 11th, 12, 12:33 PM #15
Need to contact ASUS_SG, limited units brought into Singapore.
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