Essence is a hybrid company founded by Bob Rapoport, whose prior claim to audio fame was the reintroduction of the Dynaco Stereo 70 Mk II power amplifier in the early 90s. Currently, Essence imports loudspeakers made by Ben Peters of Audiostatic in the Netherlands and by Acoustic Energy from Great Britain. Besides distributing loudspeakers Essence also manufactures electronics, including the $499 High Definition Audio Control Center (HDACC) reviewed here, which Essence calls “the digital nerve center for a modern audio system.” Let’s see how essential this new Essence HDACC could be for your contemporary home entertainment system.
The Essence HDACC is basically a DAC/preamplifier/headphone amplifier with a twist—the addition of an HDMI v1.3 input and output (pass-through) connections. This lets you route any HDMI source through the HDACC, which then uses the HDMI audio while sending that signal out to your display device. Unlike multichannel receivers with HDMI inputs, the HDACC is a two-channel device. Through HDMI the HDACC can support uncompressed LPCM 24-bit/192k two-channel soundtracks from Blu-ray sources.
The HDACC has provisions for two analog inputs: one 3.5mm stereo mini-jack on the front panel and a pair of single-ended RCA jacks on the back. The component also has a built-in A/D converter so that once the analog signal has been digitized, it can be up-sampled to one of five user-selectable rates from 44.1 to 192k. This upsampling feature works with any source input connected to the HDACC, including MP3s and digital streams from the Internet. The HDACC also supports DSD up to 128x via the original DCS method.
Other inputs include a USB 2.0, RCA coaxial digital, optical/SPDIF digital, with digital outputs for both coaxial and optical. For an additional $40 users can opt for a moving-magnet phono preamplifier to replace one of the line-level analog inputs. Analog outputs include one pair of single-ended RCA and one pair of balanced XLR, which can be designated as fixed or variable outputs, and a ¼" stereo single-ended headphone output that has variable impedance settings. This variable impedance feature allows the Essence HDACC’s headphone amplifier to establish a better match with a wider range of ’phones than a fixed impedance circuit.
The Essence HDACC is housed in a half-sized chassis with curved sides that give it a less boxy appearance. The front panel is Plexiglas with a large OLED display window in the center, a rotary volume/selector/menu knob on the right, and a headphone output and “iPod” analog input on the left. The HDACC also comes with a credit-card-sized remote that includes power, mute, menu, volume up/down, and input selection buttons.
I tried the HDACC in two very different systems. First I used it in my computer-audio system connected to a new MacPro desktop via USB 3.0 connections. In this system the HDACC had no issues playing PCM WAV files up to 192/24 via Audirvana+, PureMusic3, and Amarra Symphony. Most DSD DSF and DFF files also worked fine via Audirvana+, but occasionally I came across one of my own live-recorded 128X DSD DFF files that would not play properly (all I heard was white noise), but I suspect it was due to a quirk in the Audirvana+/HDACC interface, not a bug with the HDACC itself.
The second system I used with the HDACC was a room-based 2.1 system. Here I had an opportunity to use the HDACC’s HDMI connection and pass-through to connect an Oppo BDP-95’s HDMI feed and route its video to my Vizio P Series 60” monitor. I also used the HDACC’s optical digital input to route the over-air audio coming from the Vizio monitor into my audio system. Once installed, the HDACC handled its digital audio switching and routing without any glitches or head-scratching moments.
The HDACC’s volume control deserves some mention. It is digital but has sufficient bit depth so that it does not lose resolution at low volumes. It is also calibrated in ½ dB steps that are clearly displayed, so that if you need to match or duplicate volume levels you can do it with repeatable reliability. You can also switch the HDACC into a fixed-output mode via the menu.
The HDACC’s menu and set-up controls are fine once you discover their quirks—if you press the menu button on the remote twice, instead of letting you cycle through the options, the second push dumps you into the HDMI input. To cycle through menu options you must use the up/down arrows on the remote or the rotary volume control of the HDACC itself, then push the knob to select a sub-menu. This is a less-than-intuitive process that will take a while to lock into your reptilian brain. Also, if you plan to do a lot of switching through the HDACC’s upsampling options, I suspect you will find the nested submenu access to the SRC menu to be less than ideal.