Audio enthusiasts are becoming more and more particular about their sources, pouring a ton of money into everything from high-end CD players and vinyl players to headphone amplifiers and dedicated DACs. These are somewhat difficult to find locally and there’s been some stagnation in the PC audio source market. From some time now, ASUS has been the only active brand selling sound cards designed specifically for desktops. The last major release that caught our attention was the Essence STX. They’ve got us salivating again and this time it’s because of the over-the-top, headphone external DAC-amplifier ASUS is calling the Xonar Essence One.
Design and Build Quality
If the Xonar Essence One were a tank, it would undoubtedly be the M1 Abrams. It’s by far the heaviest audio source for a headphone that we’ve seen. It weighs more than a high-end gaming laptop does and is built inside a solid metal frame. This is not a DAC you’re going to be carrying around with you everywhere you go.
All the connectivity options you'll need
The Essence One has a whole bunch of controls at the front. The dials and knobs are made of plastic. The primary volume dials are larger, but we would’ve preferred chrome metal dials in place of plastic ones.
The insides of the beast
Still, the dials have a very nice feel and grip to them. The bundled connector and cables are of good quality, as well. The power supply is built into the chassis of the DAC.
At the heart of the Essence One is the C-Media CM6631 sound processor. It’s the same chip used in some other high-end enthusiast level full-scale speaker amplifiers and receivers. The CM6631 enables the Essence One to support upto 192kHz sample rates at 16/24-bit lengths. The Xonar Essence One comes in a huge box bundled with the necessary cables, a certificate with test results, a manual and an installation disc. The USB cable is used to connect your PC or notebook to the DAC.
Connectivity options include the USB port, a TOSlink optical port, a balanced pair of XLR ports for output, a 6.3mm analog port for the headphones at the front. A gold plated 6.3mm to 3.5mm connector is also bundled. SPDIF inputs are also present. The Essence One has ASIO support and we also used WASAPI while reviewing the product. The amplifier is able to drive 600 Ohm impedance headphones. There is no microphone input.
The dials at the front of the player let you select the source, set the volume and mute the source. There are a line of indicators that tell you the sample rate of the audio signal, as well. There are two volume dials, one for the headphone connector at the front and the other for speakers if you use the output connections at the rear.
Op-amp that can be swapped
Open it up and you’re treated to a very neatly packed PCB with the large power transformer and a separate board that handles all of the power requirements of the Essence One. The C-Media CMI6631 chip is hidden under a heatsink. There’s also an Analog Devices ADSP-21261 signal processor that's clearly visible.
Analog Devices signal processor
There’s a set of Texas Instruments NE5532P op-amps being used, as well as a few LM4562NA op-amps from National Semiconductors. ASUS claims you can swap these with others to change the way the DAC sounds.
The amplifier on the Essence One is really powerful and it shows in the way it drives any pair of headphones. There’s a very steady increase in volume as you rotate the dial. There’s no way you can max the volume without either damaging the headphones or your ears. Setting the PC volume to 50 per cent and the amplifier volume to roughly 40 percent was extremely rough and almost painful. Caution is advised while using the volume.
Simple controls with two volume controls, for headphones and speakers
The USB upsampling feature changes some of the characteristics of the headphone boosting its sample rate, but we preferred using the DAC with the standard output. Using ASIO and WASAPI was easy and there was close to no delay noticeable. Installation of the DAC was also simple and except for a small driver set, there was nothing else required to be setup. We used the volume dial on the DAC at all times while reviewing the product.
There’s a good amount of difference in audio quality, in terms of vibrance in range and detail while going from a standard integrated audio solution found on most motherboards to an entry-level sound card such as the Xonar DX. The Xonar Essence One takes things to a whole new level. The bass sounds more pronounced, more accurate and tighter. Mixing of instruments is reduced, as well.
The Xonar Essence One is a wonderful piece of equipment, but it’s not the first. There are many not-so-mainstream companies that make DACs with built-in amplifiers. Availability of these devices is poor and often, you end up having to import them. The Xonar Essence One is one of the first mainstream DAC-amplifier for enthusiast.
A one of a kind, from ASUS
Going by the quality and the power it outputs, it’s certainly a very good product to own. It’ll cost you Rs. 21,000, but then this is only for you if you own a decent set of monitor speakers or headphones above the Rs. 15,000 mark.
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