Essence High Definition Audio Control Center

A DAC and Headphone Amp with a Twist

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters,
Essence High Definition Audio Control Center
Essence High Definition Audio Control Center

Sonic Impressions
The whole sonic point of a preamplifier/control center is that it should do as little as possible to degrade an audio signal. And while I did not find the HDACC to be as transparent on analog sources as my current reference, the Tortuga Audio LDR3.V2 (due primarily, I suspect, to the A/D and D/A that were part of the HDACC’s analog signal chain), on digital sources it was almost as highly resolving as the best DACs I’ve used recently, including the NuPrime DAC-10H. The NuPrime still seems to have a slightly lower noise floor that sonically manifests itself as additional ease in hearing into dense mixes. Also, through the NuPrime DAC-10H the spaces between instruments are more clearly demarcated due to the absence of low-level electronic noise.

One of the more intangible (and heretofore immeasurable) sonic aspects of a component’s performance is the level of involvement with the music that it creates. In this regard the HDACC is very good, but still not quite on the same level as the best DACs I’ve heard. In comparison the HDACC is a more matter-of-fact device with a slightly more mechanical presentation than the $12,995 Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DSD256 upsampling DAC, with Voltkus PSU, and 10M Rubidium clock.

The HDACC’s upsampling feature had the most effect with 320k MP3 files (the lowest-res files in my library), where increasing the rate to 88.2 or 176.4 reduced electronic grain and edginess in the upper frequencies. On anything above Red Book CD 44.1/16, I found the upsampling had no positive audible effects I could detect in matched-level A/B tests.

The HDACC headphone amplifier was a good match with all the ’phones I tried that were less than 95dB sensitivity, regardless of impedance. With more sensitive in-ears such as the Westone ES-5, I heard some constant low-level hiss that remained at the same level regardless of the volume or impedance settings. More conventional headphones such as the Sennheiser HD-600 mated very well with the HDACC’s headphone section, with no hiss or hum.

Recently I switched from Hulu with commercials to Hulu without commercials. To celebrate, I began a CSI marathon. Using the HDMI outputs from my Vizio P Series monitor I was fascinated by the array of extremely low-level background sounds accompanying the dialogue—there was always something going on in the way of rumbles, hums, and other walla. The HDACC did a fine job of retaining these subtle background noises while keeping the dialogue clear and decipherable.

On Blu-ray Disc sources played back by the Oppo BP-95, the HDACC did a superb job of handling the HDMI digital stream and converting it into pristine sound. On the live music albums where I had the option, I preferred the sound from the higher-resolution LPCM soundtracks to the standard-resolution and down-mixed two-channel streams via SPDIF or TosLink. With most two-channel DAC/pre’s, I would not have had the option of using these higher-resolution tracks via HDMI simply because they do not have those inputs. Some audiophiles may want to acquire an HDACC for the primary purpose of using it to decode Blu-ray HDMI feeds for their 2.1 high-performance system.

Competition and Comparisons
Although there are inexpensive and good-sounding USB DACs starting at around $150, such as the Audioengine D3, the $350 Resonessence Labs Herus+, and the $299 LH Labs Geek Out V2, none of these offers the same level of ergonomic flexibility (such as inclusion of a moving-magnet phonostage) or an HDMI input and output. Even at higher price-points very few “purist” two-channel DACs offer the HDACC’s HDMI input options.

Many audiophiles have or want to have a 2.1 audio system connected to a video display. Quite a few of these systems use or plan to use an AV pre/pro to convert HDMI sources to two-channel audio. The Essence HDACC offers a better, less expensive, and higher-performance way to accomplish this (as well as supplying a digital input and output hub). Combine the HDACC with a high-quality integrated amplifier, such as the $2500 Parasound Halo, and a pair of decent loudspeakers (and subwoofer), and you have most of what you need to assemble a high-performance, mid-priced, 2.1-channel audio system that can handle anything you can throw at it— and deliver beautiful sonics in the process.


Inputs: HDMI, USB (Type B), coaxial, optical, analog stereo (RCA), 3.5mm mini analog
Outputs: HDMI, coaxial, optical, line analog stereo (RCA), XLR balanced analog stereo), 1/4" headphone
Weight: 1.8 lbs.
Price: $499 with free shipping in the U.S.A.

ESSENCE For High Res Audio
Saint Petersburg, FL 33711
(727) 580-4393