World of sound cards for PC, dominated with authority by Creative until that time, started to get confused four years ago by those from Asus. The launch of Xonar series, with its top models D2/PM and Essence ST/STX, brought the PC into a territory for audiophiles. By that time, the only viable alternatives were only the expensive CD players or external DACs. If D2/PM was a sound card dedicated to PC multimedia systems, Essence targeted the segment of audio enthusiasts and audiophiles, offering stereo RCA outputs, integrated headphone amplifier, socketed op-amps and high-end DAC chips from BurrBrown . Essence ST/STX remained, until now, the reference segment, having a great success among passionate of quality auditions for the PC audio.

With these products, those from Asus have come very close to the limits of internal sound cards and, therefore, the next step is called Asus Essence One. This is an external DAC in its own right, built with a sense of responsibility, respecting all audiophile principles.

DESCRIPTION:
Xonar Essence One is presented very well physically, the box is made entirely of aluminum, giving the impression of well done work, the impression of that contributes also the respectable weight of the DAC. The design of the housing is dominated by “Qing tiger” – an symbol of 4,000 years old, which in Chinese legends represents a relentless longing of man to the essence of sound.
On the front panel we have the power button, surrounded by a blue light when it’s powered on, upsampling function, which According to manufacturer performs a “8x Symmetrical Upsampling“, then a source selector with options like coaxial, optical, USB and even “mute” button rarely found in a DAC. Further, we have two volume potentiometers, one for speakers and one for headphones, a series of LEDs that indicate the received bitrate by the DAC, and finally, a dedicated headphone output. In each box there is respectively a leaflet in which appears the laboratory measurements of each copy of Essence One. It’s looking strikingly similar to a postcard and it carriers the name of “Audio Precision test report“.

On the back, things look at least as well, we have there almost all types of connections: unbalanced RCA analog outputs, AES/EBU balanced outputs through 3-pin XLR connectors, S/PDIF coaxial and Optical input plus an asynchronous USB input. All connectors are of course gold plated on both the front and back, except for IEC connector. The good news is the presence of the standard IEC connector that will allow to future owners to personally experience the controversial topic called power cables and their effect on the sound ...

Inside, the DAC leaves the impression that it is part of a totally different price class, certainly not entry-level, we have an absolutely impressive toroidal transformer there, if we consider that it’s a device that does not consume a lot of energy, a power supply circuit built with transistors and an impressive number of op-amps and quality capacitors. Op-amps are mounted on sockets, being easily possible to change them, depending on the tastes and possibilities. Without claiming to perfectly understand the scheme used by Asus – I’m not electronics guy – I will get to the list of items identified by me; data with which a passionate electronics guy will probably make a clearer impression of Essence One …

Power:
– Toroidal transformer, output +5 V 0.9A, +12 V 0.7A,-12V 0.7A
– 1x PM06AVE3 -5.0 P + LM2940CT (National Semiconductor Voltage Regulator)
– LM2990T -12 P + 2x JM13ABE3 (National Semiconductor Voltage Regulator)
– Capacitors without brand inscription, probably OEM for Asus.

Digital:
– DSP: Analog Devices ADSP-21 261 (150MHz SIMD SHARC Core, 900MFLOPS)
– USB: C-Media CM6631 (Asynchronous USB up to 24bit/192khz)
– S / PDIF: AKM AK4113VF (the most powerful AES/EBU transmitter from AKM)
– DAC: 2x BurrBrown PCM1795 (32bit/192khz, 123db SNR) used in mono mode, one for each channel, to increase the SNR and lower the noise. These chips can be found, for example, in the top of the range of Onkyo receivers, the TX-NR5008 model.

Analog speakers:
– 3x JR12ACE3 LM 4562NA (National Semiconductor OPAMP)
– 6x 13AE08W NE 5532P (Texas Instruments OPAMP)
– Nichicon and WIMA capacitors.

Analog headphones:
– 2x EM13ABE3 LME 49600 TS(National Semiconductor High Current Audio Buffer)
– 2x JR06ABE3 LME 49720NA (National Semiconductor OPAMP)
– Nichicon and WIMA capacitors.
Volume potentiometers are produced by the famous company Alps, their products can be found in the construction of expensive audiophile gear

TESTING:.
We tested the Essence One headphone output and stereo RCA and XLR outputs. For a better picture of the DAC’s potential, we used top equipment, as follows:

- Speakers: Dynaudio Contour S1.4 and ELAC BS184
– Stereo aplifiers: Anthem 225i and Creek Destiny
– Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 and Audez’e-LCD-2
– Balanced Interconnect cables: Nordost Purple Flare
– Unbalanced Interconnect cables: Chord Crimson, Eagle Cable MC90, Nordost Purple Flare
– USB to Coaxial converter: AD Labs Mars
– DAC/headphone amp: Burson HA-160D

Music played:
– Zdob si Zdub – 450 de oi
– Eagles – Complete Greatest Hits
– Katie Melua – The Katie Melua Collection
– Film Music of Hans Zimmer – City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
– 50 Cent – The Massacre
– The LINN Collection
– Dire Straits – Love Over Gold
– Chesky Records – Ultimate Demonstration Disc
– Diana Krall – Quiet Nights
– Vivaldi – The Four Seasons (BluRay Audio DTS-HD MA 24/96)
– Sting – Live in Berlin (BluRay DTS-HD MA 24/96)
– WYCLEF JEAN Featuring Refugee Allstars – The Carnival
– Marcus Miller – M2
– Armin Van Buuren – Universal Religion
– CD1 JAZZ&CLASSICS (personal playlist)
– CD2 MODERN Music (personal playlist)

THE SOUND IN SPEAKERS:
Undoubtedly, Essence One is addressing to the bass lovers, the so-called “bass-heads”. They will certainly appreciate it, excelling in this area. I liked the quality of the bass, having scale, precision and depth. Audition room was filled to a very high level with low frequencies and we decided to mellow it down a bit on Contour bookshelfs with some sponges, placed in bass-reflex ports. The result was an excellent one, low frequencies being very good, whether I was listening to classical, jazz or hip-hop music. One of the most demanding bass tests, the guitar of Marcus Miller from Red Baron or Power, is completed without any problem by Essence One. In our test systems, low frequencies are perfectly controlled, dynamic and speed being at high rates.

The presentation of the stage I liked in particular. The soundstage is wide, the location of voices and instruments in space is correctly conveyed to the listener. The song “Singin’ In The Rain” interpreted by the famous Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras has an excellent stereo image, the presentation of the stage being very precise – the female vocal backing to the left, one male on the right and orchestra straight in front of them, all happening behind the three tenors. On the classical music things are quite similar, you can distinguish accurately the distance at which the singer, the violin or the piano are located. The moment we used the balanced Nordost Purple Flare cable, soundstage became even more expansive. This was the only notable difference between unbalanced RCA outputs and XLR balanced outputs, and it’s the only one that should be taken into consideration by jazz, live or classical music lovers.

Due to the rather limited time we had in possession of Essence One, it was used extensively. My eardrums were not tired after a few hours of continuous music listening, the sound character of the DAC being smooth, relaxed, non-sibilant or aggressive. The sound is delivered correctly, not trying to do more than it can, and results is a natural sound, balanced and mellow, suitable for long auditions.

The level of detail is average in the class to which it belongs. It is superior to all sound cards tested by me, whether it is called Essence ST, Auzentech X-Fi or Creative X-Fi Titanium, but it is slightly below RD-26 DAC from Ad Labs. The latter is more detailed and more precise, the sound is more transparent, microdetails having a more substantial presence. It should be aware that these things will fade on cheap systems, Dynaudio and Elac speakers are generally unforgiving on these chapters. The Violins from Vivaldi – The Four Seasons or the triangle from Stereoplay – The Pink Panther Theme “rise above” with RD-26, the sound cuts finer and more accurate the eardrums, it’s more sharper. Extension of high frequencies is not a reference one, probably they preferred to maintain a more balanced and relaxed character, at the expense of a clinical resolution. It is difficult to obtain a very detailed sound without becoming too aggressive.

Excellent midrange reproduction resulted in prolonged audition, in which I enjoyed the reference female voices. Rebecca Pidgeon, Celine Dion, Cesaria Evora and Diana Krall enchanted me once again with the talent and emotion of music performed. Xonar Essence One sounds rounded, midrange frequency being well presented in the context, pleasantly combining and discreetly blending with the instruments on stage. The result is a presentation with a “live” flavor of the recording. Elac BS184 speakers have a more aggressive character, with sharp highs and mid frequencies slightly dominated by the power of bass. Coupled with Creek Destiny amplifier and with Essence One as the source, I had a very pleasant surprise, synergy of the three resulted in a perfectly balanced sound and an extra of musicality. It was proved once again that “the matching” of the components of the audio chain is extremely important in the final result.

A less pleasant aspect is the USB connection. Basically the DAC was unusable using this connection, the sound becoming full of distortion, noise and crackling. Most likely it is due to USB driver still being in beta stage, the sound being flawless on Toslink and coaxial digital connections. I installed the USB driver on four different PCs with the same result.

THE SOUND IN HEADPHONES:
On this test I’ve made a direct comparison between Essence One and Burson HA-160D.
The first remarkable thing about Essence One is the amplification without any problems of headphones with high impedance. The device doesn’t have an impedance switch, but I did not feel the need to implement one. The Asus DAC was silent, noise-free, including with the Sennheiser IE8, headphones that are known to be very sensitive to noise, electromagnetic or analogue. The unit drove with authority both IE8 and the large HD800 or Audez’e LCD-2. For LCD-2 I’ve used the volume pot at about 12 o’clock and for HD800 at 11 o’clock. The device uses separate volume controls for headphones and speakers, both being made by Alps – high quality pots, having a low harmonic distortions with inaudible channel imbalance.

As the DAC part, I can say that the internal amplifier sounds warm and dark, having an outstanding pace. Asus has a little deeper bass than Burson, hitting even harder, but looses control over it quicker. Coupled with LCD-2, on some rock tunes, bass seemed too much, hitting hard and going down to the lowest octaves. Bass lovers will appreciate it definitely.

Mids are also slightly increased and focused on. It was a great pleasure to hear for about one day, old favorite rock songs and some jazz. Midrange is nice and easy and slightly laid back, Burson by comparison have the mids slightly more upfront. On the Essence One, the guitars, violins and piano sounded exceptionally well, sound is like calling you back for one more song, one more album. Helped by the good midrange, The DAC/Amp combo has a great presence on some tracks, thanks to good mids and exceptional stereo image I’ve got “goose bumps” feeling.

On highs, the things are a little different, those are slightly hidden and unaccented. They are not missing, but neither can be heard the extreme extension. For this is gets an minus from us. Highs are less detailed and have an almost non-existent extension. I suppose that by using other operational amplifiers (op-amps), the sound can be fine tuned and the high extension changed, depending on preference. So, the highs can be easily raised or extended by a relatively small cost.

Because of authoritarian bass and mids and retained treble, the sound is very calm and sweet. It has that analog sound, rarely encountered in solid state audio gear. The device seemed a bit more melodic than Burson, but lost much terrain on the details department, on the image focus and on wider extreme frequencies of the later. Personally, I liked the sound performance of this device, with few exceptions. For pure listening pleasure, Essence One sounds much better that it’s smaller brothers Xonar Essence STX or Xonar D2/D2x.

HD800 with Essence One was a very satisfying combo, smoothing down the highs and in the same time adding a bit of bass energy and soul into the mix, resulting in better harmonics and a more enjoyable sound.

At high volume, almost on max, I felt a slight clipping and distortion with the HD800, and with LCD-2, which says that the amplification is weaker than in the case of Burson. However, I assume that no one will listen for longer periods of time at such high volume.

Essence One has a very good speed, punch and PRAT. At one point, I woke up headbanging on “Hanna” soundtrack by Chemical Brothers and on other more energetic rock tunes. For fast, rhythmic music , you will have no problems, I recommend it without reservation.

CONCLUSIONS:
Asus has taken a major step forward with Essence One, being truly a product that addresses to the audiophile segment. Very good sound and solid construction recommends the new product from Asus as a strong competitor in the DAC segment of 400Euros (unofficial price for now). I think that the product we’ve tested wasn’t at 100% of it’s potential, changing the op-amps and firmware updates being able to bring significant improvements, which happened over time with other cards from Xonar series.

PROS:
-Nice design
-Solid construction, quality components
-Excellent bass
-Connectivity and versatility at the highest level
-Upgrade possibilities
-Voices and mids sounds special
-Wide soundstage

CONS:
– USB driver still in beta stage
– No remote
– Details are only average

This article was completed with the broad involvement of my colleagues Sandu Vitalie and Cosmin_C, who I thanks this way. I want to thank those of Asus Romania, for the opportunity to test this product for the first time in Romania and to provide world’s first review on Essence One.