McGary Audio

Essential Sound

Friday, June 26, 2020

Audiophile Review!
McGary Audio SA-2 Tube Amplifier
“Delivers More Power, Finesse”


Brevis...
Price:  $7,985
Likes: Magnificent sound
Dislikes: Would be quibbling
Wow Factor: Silky smooth dynamics!

by John Gatski
  I have reviewed a lot of amps in 30 years of evaluations. Numerous solid state and tube amps. When it comes to tube designs, I make I no secrets that I am fond of the quiet, quick accurate, valve designs over the overly smooth, euphonic versions. I like folks like Rogue Audio David Berning, LTA and the like.
  Two years ago, I reviewed the made-in-Virginia McGary Audio SA-1, a 30-watt powered EL 34 output stereo amp and really liked its ability to resolve Hi-Res music with a detailed, tight bass and dimensional stereo image. However, some owners said that with their speakers, the McGary sound needed some more horsepower. Hence, the McGary SA-2 Stereo Amplifier.

Features
  Retail priced at $7,985, the SA-2 is hand assembled-in-Gainesville Virginia by Mike McGary, an engineer and part-time hi-fi designer; McGary uses top-quality electronic components, circuit design, and point-to-point wiring. This is an all-new design, versus the SA-1, and McGary notes, is an all-vacuum tube design (not a hybrid) with increased power output of 80 Watts RMS per channel and self bias using KT88/KT90/KT120 tubes (no bias adjustments required) with a  20 Hz – 20 kHz bandwidth.
  The retro, red- and white-paint scheme, open-chassis hulk of a tube amp features user-adjustable (global) negative feedback control (1.5 dB-9dB range), and triode or ultralinear output mode of operation. The SA-2 can be configured in the 80 wpc, stereo mode, or switched into mono operation (monoblock) amp for power up to 160 watts (if you want to have more zip with two amps).

  In light of all the new Class D and hybrid designs in Hi-Fi amplification, its nice to see companies like McGary carrying forth the classic tube amp design that sounds so sweet. It definitely deserves an Everything Audio Stellar Sound Award.

  Connections include unbalanced (single-ended) gold sputtered RCA inputs located in front (with a diamond shaped mini-cover to conceal the connections) and Neutrik balanced XLR inputs in the rear
  There are Magic Eye vacuum tube displays for left and right output, level meters with intensity display control (high-off-low). Spec wise, the signal-to-noise ratio is greater than 85 dB (unweighted/unfiltered); referenced to full-rated output power at 1 kHz). There are speaker taps for 4, 8, and 16 ohm speaker output, via gold-plated binding posts. 


 Adjustable feedback is novel. (photo by Paul Elliott)

  The SA-2 structure is one solid piece with American-made, 13-Gauge steel enclosure, powder coated throughout (red lollypop color base with satin black top plate), ceramic tube sockets (attached directly to the chassis), point-to-point, hand-soldered with 16-gauge, Teflon insulated, silver-plated copper wire. All electrical connections feature Cardas silver solder — with star grounding.
  According to Mike McGary, the color options for the SA 2 amplifier enclosure, top cover plate and the transformers can be customized for an additional cost just in case Red is not your thing.
  McGary recommends premium tubes for the SA-2. Tubes that McGary recommends and installed as standard include, (NOS) GE (Joint Army Navy or ‘JAN’) 6BQ7A input tubes, (NOS) GE 6SN7GTB driver tubes, and (New) Russian Genalex (Gold Lion) KT88 output tubes. 

Set up
  The biggest effort required by the McGary SA-2 was lifting the 60 pound brute onto a floor-placed, rack shelf. Oh my arms and hips love the heft of all those tube transformers and heavy build chassis! I used the McGary SA-2 in various configurations. MartinLogan Expression speakers, MartinLogan Motion 20i small tower speakers, Pass Labs SR-2 three-way’s, a pair of Westlake Tower 5s, and Amphion Argon 1 mini-monitors. Preamps included a Rogue Audio RP-7/RP-9, the ultra-transparent Benchmark LA4, and a vintage Coda High-Current bipolar output preamp.

Taps For 4, and 8 Ohms speakers; XLR input jacks are on the rear.

 Sources included Oppo BDP-205, Benchmark DAC3 HGC D/A Converter, Mytek Brooklyn Plus D/A and Mytek Manhattan II D/A converters. Turntables included Clear Audio Emotion with Benz MC cartridge and an outboard solid state preamp. All analog and digital connections connections were made via WireWorld cables and Essential Sound Products Essence II power cords and power strip.
  The biggest set up adjustment for the SA-2 is setting the user-adjustable feedback. The amount of gain is variable; feedback gain can lower distortion and improve power band response. Almost all amps have some mount of negative feedback, but the general consensus among audiophiles is less is better, especially for sold-state amplifiers.

Mike McGary, testing audio tubes. (photo by Paul Elliott)
 
  In my set up and initial listening sessions with the McGary, I found the feedback control adjustment at about 3 o’clock made the amp sound its best, but it was not always audible on different kinds of music. Solo classical guitar sounded great with moderate feedback, or no feedback at all. The audibility also is complicated by whether you are in triode or ultra linear. The ultralinear mode sounds better, up to a point, with more feedback, and I think the bass is better defined on heavily processed Pop music than the triode mode. So audibility is in the ear of the beholder and variables of operation mode (ultralinear/triode) speakers, room, type of music and preference all figure in to it. The variable feedback and triode/ultra linear mode make it infinitely tweakable in its sound. It's up to the user to decide what is best for him.

The audition
  First up were the MartinLogan Expressions electrostatic speakers. As I expected, the McGary amp delivered Hi-Res audio was glorious with this set up. The Tom Jung-recorded Warren Bernhardt DSD tracks, via the Apple Macbook Pro, Audirvana Plus player software and the ultra revealing Benchmark DAC-3 HGC DAC and LA4 solid state preamp, were expansive, smooth, yet with a transient energy that was tight and quick. Cymbal splashes on the title cut had a very realistic sheen and wonderful presence, while the directional cues of the drum stick moving on the snare was nailed perfectly. That cut always impresses in the demos.
  On the Hi-Res DSD/SACD reissue of Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio - Midnight Sugar, the McGary SA-2 really cast the spotlight on this Japanese ode-to-American Jazz. The title cut, with its slow, simmering bass line and brilliant, transient-infused piano and drum kit, revealed an open, dynamic, sonic smoothness dressed up in an easy-to-listen vibe.

  Of course, the Benchmark PA4 preamp delivers the Benchmark DAC3’s decoding of this wonderful-sounding album to the McGary amp so it could do its job. As previously mentioned, I liked the 3 o’clock position on the SA-2 feedback and the ultralinear mode; triode mode on this recording seemed less dynamic to me. The studio liveness of the this album’s tracks is more obvious, to me in the ultralinear mode.
  On the Hi-Res DSD/SACD reissue of Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio - Midnight Sugar (mid-1974 Three Blind Mice label-, the McGary SA-2 really cast the spotlight on this Japanese ode-to=American Jazz. The title cut, with its slow, simmering bass line and brilliant, transient-infused piano and drum kit, revealed an open, dynamic, sonic smoothness dressed up in an easy-to-listen-to vibe. The amp’s delivery of this album, as delivered by the upstream components — the always-willing Oppo BDP-205 and the revealing Benchmark LA4 pre — never wandered into harsh territory that I have heard through other amplifiers. 
  The 2019 24-bit remix/remaster of The Beatles — Abbey Road LP also sounded aces. The increased openness of the remixed/remastered “Hear Comes The Sun” — with an increased breadth of the acoustic guitar and the luscious chorus – was absolutely gorgeous through the McGary SA-2.

  On Classical, I played the DSD remaster of The Beethoven OverturesGeorge Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra. On the three Beethoven Lenore Overtures and The Fidelio Overture (Op. 72), the Beethoven signature is paced perfectly and the SA-2 delivers the rich string textures of the CO, always brilliantly handled by the legendary Mr. Szell. Stereo imaging is spacious, yet the up-close nature of the recording reveals quite a bit of nuance, which the the SA-2 relays oh so well. Szell’s recordings of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to capture more detail than many other analog orchestral recordings of the day.
  I played numerous Pop tracks,  including a recent DSD release of Dire Straits 1978 self-titled debut and and Communiqué, my favorite DS albums. Using the Rogue Audio RP-9 and the McGary amp, along with the Mytek Manhattan II DAC and Westlake Tower 5 speakers. the remaster’s energetic, well-engineered tracks were reference in their presentation.

Premium parts throughout this impressive sounding amp. (photo by Paul Elliott)

  Fewer tracks in the mix process allows the individual dynamics to shine, and shine they do. Six-Blade Knife and Sultan of Swing crackle with energy with Mr. Knophler’s Fender Stratocatser, fingerpicked-riffs, blazing rhythm, as well as the ace drumming from Pick Withers and others in the Dire Strait supporting cast. I love the drum cymbals through the McGary.
  The 2019 24-bit remix/remaster of The Beatles — Abbey Road LP also sounded aces through the McGary, via the Clear Audio Emotion and Benz MC cartridge , the Westlake Tower 5's and a pair of Amphion Argon 1 a made in Europe, 5-inch/1-inch speaker. Both Westlake Tower 5’s an the bookshelf-sized Argons kicked out lots of sonic detail from SA-2. The increased openness of the remixed/remastered “Hear Comes The Sun” — with an increased breadth of the acoustic guitar and the luscious chorus – was absolutely gorgeous through the McGary SA-2.
  I switched over to a set of 2012 Pass Labs SR-2 three ways, which sound great in rooms that are bright, such as hardwood floors or other reflective surfaces, such as windows, counters, etc. I placed the system in my upstairs hardwood floor living room (Whew! Had to lug the 70-pound SA-2 and Pass speakers up the stairs from my typical dungeon basement listening room).
  Playing music from Frank SinatraThe Reprise Years, the synergy between the SA-2 and Pass speakers was well synchronized. Mr. Sinatra’s later-year vocal resonance, pitch and phrasing, combined with the incredible Big Band horn and percussion dynamics, was ear candy through the Rogue RP9 and McGary amp. The brass section bite was dynamic, but oh so smooth!
  BTW, for those who thought the 30-watt SA-1 didn’t have enough oomph with harder-to-drive speakers and big rooms, the SA-2 takes care of that. Through all the various speakers that I tried — loud Classical orchestral music, Rock, Big Band — I could not strain these amps. The 95 dB plus was all I could stand, but no audible clipping. Just clean as the proverbial sonic whistle.

It’s a keeper!
  I had zero issues with the McGary SA-2. A tube protection cage might be nice. And I prefer all my cable connections on the rear, but those are little niggles that have nothing to with how good the amp sounds. The feedback control can make an audible difference — if you crank it up, but my tastes tended to be of the more conservative approach — a little feedback goes along way in the listening. I did not turn it off or overly crank it up.

  I did swap in a set of original Svetlana 6550s from the 1990s, that I have been hoarding, just to compare the tubes. I then tried some J and J KT88’s as well as the stock tubes. The sound was similar among all the sampled tubes, and the bass stayed tight and the noise low. Shows you that a good design goes a long way; even with different tubes, the SA-2 always shines.

The verdict
  The nearly $8,000 price tag for an audio amplifier is not small change to spend, but the McGary SA-2 is a hand-made, USA-engineered and built, using premium parts and tubes. I think its price is not out of line for a premium, high-power, USA-made tube amp. With a top notch preamp (the Rogue RP Series is highly recommended if you are into tube pre’s), speakers, good source player and well-recorded music, the McGary SA-2 is aces. In light of all the new Class D and hybrid designs in Hi-Fi amplification, its nice to see companies like McGary carrying forth the classic tube amp design that sounds so sweet. It definitely deserves an Everything Audio Stellar Sound Award.
  Thanks to audiophile-extraordinaire Paul Elliott for his feedback and photo skills.

  EAN Founder John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for SoundOnSound, Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via email: everything.audio@verizon.net

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Audiophile/Videophile Review!
Essence For Hi Res Audio
EVOLVE II-4K HDMI Interface
Multichannel DAC/De-Embedder!

“An A/V Box Every Audiophile/Videophile Should Have”

Brevis...
Price: $299
Likes: 8 ch. of D/A, 2.0 D/O
Dislikes: TOSLink-only digital
Wow Factor: multi problem solver

by John Gatski
  I love audio problem-solving boxes. Covert this, convert that, match levels here, pro to consumer, consumer to pro. You name it, I have probably reviewed it in my nearly 30 years of evaluating gear.
  Enter the Essence EVOLVE II-4K ($299). Similar to the company’s original Evolve interface from a few years ago, the new unit has been updated with HDMI 2.0 for 4K sources and displays and great sounding 7.1 multi-channel ESS DAC chip.
  The EVOLVE II-4K evolved from the product line of original HDMI de-embedder from seven years ago. In fact, I did a roundup review in the spring of 2013. (Click Here to read the roundup.)

  The EVOLVE II's DAC performance, combined with a quality, multi-channel analog input/output preamp, rivals or exceeds what you get out of many modern pre/pros, receivers or BD player D/A sections. An Oppo 205‘s analog output did not sound any better than the EVOLVE II through my AudioControl Maestro M3 pre/pro.

  These de-embedders allow users to take the  LPCM audio from a HDMI output source, such as a universal/Blu-ray player, and play it through the box’s internal DAC (multi-channel or stereo). More important to me, these problem solvers allowed the end user to tap into a universal player’s original two-channel output, via the HDMI, and feed an outboard DAC through a SPDIF output contained in the de-embedder. BD, DVD-A’s, files on a USB stick could be output full hi res via the de-embedder-to-DAC connection. 
  These de-embedders became very popular for audiophiles and videophiles who wanted more versatility from their Blu-ray player.

Enter the EVOLVE II-4K
  The Essence EVOLVE II-4K is the most complete HDMI interface box yet. It features HDMI input (accepting any HDMI standard from 2.0 back and older), 7.1 channel internal ESS DAC via RCA output, two-channel PCM up to 24/192 via TOSlink, and finally, HDMI pass through, which means this box enables compatibility of older and newer HDMI standard products, such as receivers, pre/pros and BD players.


Easy-to-connect: HDMI in and analog or TOSLink out

  The compatibility with HDMI 2.0 standard means that it supports 4K video and advanced audio formats such as Dolby Atmos. If your current preamp or receiver does not support HDMI 2.0, you can use the EVOLVE II-4K as a video I/O and the multichannel analog output routed to your existing pre/pro or receiver
  My interest in the EVOLVE II-4K was two fold: first, to maintain classic HDMI de-embedder capability to grab the full hi res stereo PCM stereo soundtracks from BD's and DVD-A's and feed that audio to a separate, outboard stereo DAC; and second, to enable high quality multichannel D/A conversion capability for those who have great legacy multichannel  input preamps or receivers, but can no longer find multichannel D/A BD players to connect. Oppo was the last man multi-channel BD player standing, but gave up the fight two years ago with its much-lamented shutdown in 2018.

Features
  The EVOLVE II-4K is a simple, easy to use problem solving interface. It is a half-rack sized, powered by a 12-volt, DC external wall wart. It sports a rear panel connection panel with HDMI input, HDMI pass-through, TOSlink digital output and 7.1 multichannel analog output, thanks to the ESS chip set. The analog outputs are: L, C, R, SL, SR, SBL, SBR, and SW. That’s all there is to it. So simple, yet so useful. A selector switch selects between TV 24/48 mode and full LPCM 7.1 channel output.
  The EVOLVE II-4K was designed with the ESS 9008 8-channel, 24-bit chip set, which is more modestly priced than the 9018/9028/9038 32-bit upper end series DAC chips. (The 9008 chip is able to decode DSD from an HDMI equipped SACD player, but the DSD-to analog conversion is not enabled in the EVOLVE II).
  As proven by the EVOLVE II’s subjective performance, the ESS 9008 is a very good sounding chip set, and its lower price helps keep the EVOLVE II cost down. The EVOLVE II's  $300 price point is amazing — considering what it does, and how it sounds.
ESS 9008 DAC Chip Factory Specs
DNR:            +134 dB (mono mode)
         DNR:              +128 dB (8-channel mode)
THD+N:  –118 dB (8-channel mode)

Tap into your BD player's bitstream
  For those who rely on separate DACs but want to link to an HDMI-equipped player, the EVOLVE II enables you to extract the digital LPCM, hi-res, stereo soundtrack from Blu-ray concerts and specific BD hi-res albums that players do not allow to be transmit in full-res outside the player’s internal converter. Try plugging a BD player's SPDIF output into a DAC and play the Blu-ray music. Nada, it wont play it. Plug the HDMI into the EVOLVE II, and viola, full hi-res stereo to your favorite DAC or the essences's box’s internal DAC.
A RCA portable BD player becomes a hi-res audio player
  For those with DVD-As, most BD/universal players will “dumb down” the SPDIF digital output, 24/96 or 24/192 will become 16/48, or 24/48. Down conversion sounds awful. But with a player’s HDMI output connected to the EVOLVE II, your DVD-A’s 24/192 stereo can be output to your favorite DAC through the TOSlink output. No dumbed down audio with Evolve II.
  My other favorite feature of the EVOLVE II is its ability to give excellent multi-channel D/A conversion (and inexpensively) for those who have great sounding preamps with multi-channel inputs that don’t have or don’t like to use onboard conversion. In the early days of BD players, they all had D/A multi-channel outputs. They disappeared as preamps and receivers with onbaod DAC's took over, but the prepare/receiver D/A sections quality is not always better than a players D/A output.

  With a BD/universal player’s HDMI output connected to the EVOLVE II, your DVD-A’s 24/192 stereo can be output to your favorite DAC via EVOLVE II's TOSlink output.

  There are great sounding analog input/output legacy preamps and receivers from Lexicon, Parasound, AudioControl, Marantz, Denon etc, that just need quality input source. If you have an older Oppo 83 to 205 series that still work, you are good to go, but those players are getting old, breaking down — and parts are hard to find. The Evolve II is yor best choice if you want to keep using analog input preamps sections for multi-channel.
  The EVOLVE II allows you to take any BD player with HDMI, even a $100 one, and feed the EVOLVE II HDMI input, which decodes the LPCM 7.1 bitstream (Dolby Digital, DolbyTruHD, DTS Master HD) etc, and outputs audio via the eight RCA analog output jacks. Just like your Oppo (or any other onboard multi-channel D/A BD player did). If you liked the sound of your of your analog I/O, multi-channel preamp or receiver, you can keep using it. Thanks to EVOLVE II.

In Use
  I set up several testing scenarios for the EVOLVE II: one for feeding a stereo DAC from EVOLVE II’s TOSlink output and the other for three multi-channel interface scenarios, utilizing the EVOLVE II's multi-channel DAC output for connection to two older, analog, multi-channel input receivers and high-end multi-channel pre/pro.
 For example, I played the 24/192 stereo tracks from the 2L Ole Bull classical violin Blu-Ray, and it sounded amazing, coming out of the $149 portable, battery powered, RCA BRC 3087 Blu-ray car player. The Benchmark DAC was doing all the conversion, thanks to the EVOLVE II interface.

  For the stereo PCM de-embedder, the Evolve  II worked like a charm. I could use most any BD player. Just plug in the HDMI output  from the player to the EVOLVE II, and connect a TOSlink cable from the EVOLVE II to a separate DAC, such as my Prism Sound Callia or Benchmark DAC3 HGC. The former required an optical-to-RCA digital converter connector
  For example, I played the 24/192 stereo tracks from the 2L Ole Bull classical violin Blu-Ray, and it sounded amazing, coming out of the $149 portable, battery powered, RCA BRC 3087 Blu-ray car player. The Benchmark DAC was doing all the conversion, thanks to the EVOLVE II interface. It also worked like a charm with the Prism Callia DAC.


Music BD play options increased with EVOLVE II

  I really enjoyed my two concert Blu-ray’s: The Who — Live At The Isle of Wight, and Woodstock — Anniversary 2.0 sereo soundtracks, using the RCA car player.  The EVOLVE II’s ability to relay two-channel PCM stereo output also means you can play hi-res files up to 24/192 from USB drive port Blu-ray players.
  Also, if you have an economy BD player with only a built-in HDMI output (not even stereo analog out), you can use the EVOLVE II's  L- and R- analog DAC outputs and still have better sound than 90 percent of the receivers out there that are used as the DAC for BD players. (New receiver D/A sections seems to be designed with economy, rather than audio quality, in mind.)
  The onboard EVOLVE II’s ESS DAC is really good. You have to really have an astute ear to discern appreciable difference between it and more up-scale DACs in real world listening. The sound character is smooth.

Full-res from legacy DVD-As
  Switching  BD players, I tried an eight-year old Pioneer universal player that can also plays DVD-A's. I played a few of my favorite DVD-A’s: Talking Heads — Little Creatures, Queen — The Game, Grateful Dead — Workingman’s Dead, Fleetwood Mac  — Rumours, Yes - Fragile, Jethro Tull - Minstrel In The Gallery, David Bowie - Young Americans, and numerous AIX Records DVD-A titles. 
  Thanks to EVOLVE II, as the go between box, I enjoyed transparent DVD-A PCM transmitted from the Pioneer to the Benchmark DAC3. No dumbed-down conversion, reduced quality out of the player for me.

Multi-channel DAC via EVOLVE II
  The EVOLVE II is basically the last box standing in terms of giving us audiophile/videophiles the equivalent of multi-channel output BD player. With its ability to convert advanced digital audio bitstreams to 7.1 channel analog output for connection to your favorite analog input multi-channel preamp, the EVOLVE II is the new Oppo.
  You may have forgotten how good older, multi-channel,analog input preamps and receivers sounded with analog input from the older BD players. Well, I have not forgotten, and I truly lament the demise of onboard BD player D/A conversion and the lack of multi-channel inputs on most newer pre/pros and receivers.
  To test the EVOLVE II’s D/A conversion quality, I tried it with a mid-priced 2006 Denon 2802 A/V receivers with good-sounding, multi-channel I/O preamp/amp section, and a 2012 AudioControl Maestro 3 Pre/Pro, also with multi-channel analog/input.

Give multi-channel analog input receiver new life.
  Using the EVOLVE II, I was impressed with how good the old Denon receiver sounded using the EVOLVE II DAC/Denon 2802 receiver for the audio. The ESS 9008-based 7.1 D/A in the EVOLVE II, in combo with the 2802's multi-channel preamp/amp sections, showcased a smooth, articulate sonic signature for surround track listening.



 The Evolve II's sonic character is much smoother than many newer, mid-priced receivers that use cheap, onboard D/A decoding and skimpy amps. On the Adele  —  Live At The Albert Hall Blu-ray, the dynamics and concert space impressions were very positive from the $300 box.
  A sample of the animated BD, Monsters Vs Aliens, revealed the EVOLVE II’s smoothness and abundant detail on movie soundtracks. I was impressed with the ESS 9008 D/A chip while doing the review. It sounds really good. Only on very careful A/B listening tests, with matched stereo track levels and a transparent revealing headphone amp, could I hear any differences between the EVOLVE II and an Oppo 205 BD/universal player’s analog output. The EVOLVE II is that good!

Legacy  prepro's like Evolve II
  With the EVOLVE II's 7.1 output linked to my 2012, AudioControl Maestro 3’s analog multi-channel input, I found the playback of the same movies and concerts a step up over the Denon receiver, due to the AC’s Arcam-based, more upscale analog section (the M3 was originally $7,000). I used three Mytek Brooklyn Class D amps for amplification and my reference professional Westlake Cinema speakers in a 5.1 configuration.
  By the way the Maestro’s onboard D/A processor used a highly regarded Wolfson multi-channel DAC in its day (and even today it sounds good), but I could not reliably hear a difference when I compared it to the EVOLVE II’s multi-channel D/A performance. The box always impressed my ears.
  The Maestro 3/EVOLVE II combo also made for a great stereo music listening experience. Although its design is from a few years ago, it is definitely audiophile in character. I particularly liked how good my AIX Mark Chestnut Blu-ray disc stereo soundtrack sounded with this combo.

The verdict
  All in all, the Essence EVOLVE II is a no brainer for getting HDMI audio devices to link up and produce quality audio. It transmits up to 24/192 LPCM stereo, as well as the advanced, lossless audio soundtracks of movies — via the multi-channel 7.1 output. It also allows your HDMI video to pass straight to a TV (through the HDMI output) so you can have the latest 4k LED TV and use your old pre/pro or receiver. With the EVOLVE II box, you do not need to upgrade the receiver.

  Thanks to EVOLVE II, as the go between box, I enjoyed transparent DVD-A PCM transmitted from the Pioneer to the Benchmark DAC3. No dumbed-down conversion, reduced quality out of the player for me.

  I think the EVOLVE II is a steal at $299. My only complaints: it does not decode DSD from SACD/universal player. I did find that with an HDMI-output Macbook Pro laptop, the EVOLVE II would pass a software-based player’s (Audirvana, FooBar, etc.) DSD-over-DoP data stream through the TOSlink output jack. The DSD data stream is transmitted inside a LPCM 24/176 carrier, which is decoded by a DSD-over-DoP capable DAC; I used a Benchmark DAC3 HGC to decode the DSD that was passed through the TOSlink connection. The EVOLVE II internal converters do not convert the DSD.
  My other niggle was that Evolve does not have a SPDIF coax jack. Some of the newer TOSLink circuits in other devices do not support 24/192. RCA SPDIF always does.

  The onboard EVOLVE II’s ESS DAC is really good. You have to really have an astute ear to discern appreciable difference between it and more up-scale DACs in real world listening. The sound character is smooth.

  Overall, the EVOLVE II is a quite useful as a low-cost, combo HDMI de-embedder/high-quality, multi-channel DAC that nets you  up to 24/192 quality from lossless codecs (DTS MasterHD, Dolby TruHD) and LPCM multi-channel or stereo audio. This box gives you the ability to use virtually any Blu-ray player with any legacy or current multi-channel input analog preamplifier, or preamp section contained in a receiver. And the results are amazing, given the price. The SPDIF output offers two-channel music lovers the ability to play BD and DVD-A soundtracks through an outboard DAC.
  Video-wise, the EVOLVE II's HDMI 2.0 spec input/output  bypass circuit also allows the end-user to connect to any 4K screen, and enables older legacy HDMI devices to work with newer receivers and preamps.
  The EVOLVE II's DAC performance, combined with a quality, multi-channel analog input/output preamp, rivals or exceeds what you get out of many modern pre/pros, receivers or BD player D/A sections. An Oppo 205‘s analog output did not sound any better through my AudioControl Maestro M3 pre/pro.

  And in a later test scenario, I found that the EVOLVE II's multichannel D/A output sounded better than a $3,000 Marantz receiver I had on hand. The  Marantz's internal decoding was, subjectively, much more closed in than the Essence EVOLVE II’s multi-channel D/A output connected to the Marantz’s analog inputs.  
  If you have a multi-channel analog preamp that you always liked the sound of, the Essence  EVOLVE II-4K HDMI v2.0 DAC is your savior. The gravy is that it also gives you compatibility with legacy HDMI AV formats, and it de-embeds full-hi res, Blu-ray and DVD-A stereo PCM audio and passes it to your fancy, shmancy audiophile DAC.  Enough said. Buy this box! It was good enough to make EAN's 2019 Product of The Year selections.

  EAN Founder John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for SoundOnSound, Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via email: everything.audio@verizon.net