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Essence High Definition Audio Control Center

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.

Product Description
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.

Ergonomic Impressions
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.

 

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.


Conclusion
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.

SPECS & PRICING

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
essenceelectrostatic.com

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