McGary Audio

Essential Sound

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

Monday, March 2, 2020

EAN Audio Show Spotlight!
The Florida Audio Expo 2020:
The South's Up And Coming Hi-Fi Show!

A tower of Benchmark at Florida Audio Show

by Paul Elliott
(photos courtesy of Paul Elliott)
  It was thought to be a good thing to be in Tampa in February 2-3, escaping the cold of Winter in Baltimore. Thursday, it was in the 80s when I arrived. Thursday night we had a tornado (F1) pass by and dissipate just a half-mile away. The rest of the weekend was what we come to Florida for, bright and sunny outside while we scurry up and down dark halls sniffing at and lifting the skirts on the newest and best in audio gear. I guess this is where I say “what a strange world we live in.” Is this a mixed message here? Maybe. I like music and I want it to sound good in my home. Yes, this is where I should be. 


The Feb. Florida Audio Expo is growing.

A regional southern audio show
  The Florida Audio Expo, held at the Embassy Suites Hotel, is still in the toddler stage with this being the second year. Last year there were around 40 or so rooms. This year there were 60+. Big increase for the two-year-old audiophile gathering. No public calamities that I saw or heard about. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves — both vendors and participants I chatted with seem to agree. The hotel provides a great breakfast for anyone with a room key. Friday was a busy day, Saturday was very crowded, and Sunday well there was plenty of room to move around in.
  I’m going to touch on 15 to 20 rooms very briefly over three or four parts with a final bit on the overall show and highlighting four remarkable (personal choice here) rooms. I did the top-down thingy, starting on the twelfth floor and working down to the big exhibit rooms on the second floor on Sunday.

An HP audition of Benchmark HPA4 and DAC 3

The king of pristine!
  My first room was the Benchmark room to make my editor happy. All of the Benchmark products were on display. The Benchmark HPA4 Headphone Amp combined with a the Benchmark DAC3+ were all around the room.
  I listened to a wide range of headphones from the Audeze LCD-2($899) to the Focal Stella for $3000. The LCD-2 must be considered a bargain with Planar Magnetic drivers — with a published response of 10 Hz to 50 kHz. They all sounded great with the sonic flavors evident via the revealing Benchmark tandem.
  The Audeze LCD 4Z ($3995) features dual, push-pull magnet structure, 5 Hz to 50 kHz response and high efficiency, with a fit and finish that can only be described as “elegant”; the Meze Empyrean ($2999), with its “Isodynamic Hybrid Array,” were my favorite. The Focal Stella with the highest efficiency and lowest distortion was simply amazing, but a just a bit forward in the highs for me.

A pair of Steinheim Alumine 3's

Aluminum speaker by Steinheil
  New to me was the aluminum-cabinet speakers from Switzerland. The Steinheim Alumine 3 floor stander. Beautifully made and standout looks. It sounded very precise to me. Driving this tandem of 154 pound, 41-inch-tall speakers was the VAC 200 iQ and Master Line stage. When I was in the room it was the Aurender A30 ($18K) — a do-all caching music server, Streamer, CD Ripper, HDD Storage, and Full MQA Decoder DAC, and Headphone Amplifier, —doing the honors. Aurender was in many rooms here in Florida, and I can see and hear why this is such a popular digital piece of kit.

AMG Giro TT/9WT tonearm with optical "stylus"
Budget magnepans from Musical Surroundings
  It is a rare thing to run across Magnepan speakers at an audio show, and they do pop up every once in a while. The Musical Surroundings room up on the eleventh floor highlighted a pair of .7’s ($1,400) sounding very nice. I have been a fan of Magnepan for a long time and have a pair of 3.3a’s in my main system. If your room lets you place the speakers far out into the room, dipoles present a very seductive sound. Starting from the source, an AMG Giro deck and a 9WT tonearm ($14.2K) (with an optical cartridge system), the DS Audio E-1 ($2,750).
  This cartridge system uses light to measure the distance that the stylus moves and converts this to an analog. Included with the cartridge are a dedicated power supply and RIAA equalizer. No need for a phono preamp, so the price is extremely attractive. The little tower thing with green lights standing next to the AMG Giro is the DS ION-001 ($1,800) vinyl di-ionizer, that removes static electricity build-up on the LP surface.



  Powering the Magnepan .7’s was the Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum lll integrated amp ($3k). This 100-watt/channel, KT120, push-pull amp had plenty to drive the power-hungry Maggies. As with every Rogue amp, the sound was impressive — extended stereo image, detail and a tight fast bass!

Raven Audio Elite Silhouette
  The Texas guys: Raven Audio is always a “jumping” room. They were showing two systems, sort of top and bottom. Both using the superb Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ ($2,195) and Manhattan II ($5,995) as a source. The budget system had the Blackhawk Mk lll (around $4k, depending on the choice of a wide range of NOS tubes) integrated amp with 6L6’s belting out 20 T-E-X-A-S size watts for the Celest’ Tower ($3995) using their Waveguide (horn) tweeter to minimize room reactions.


Blackhawk Mk lll (top), Elite Series Silhouette Monoblocks

The second system we heard the Corvus Tower system consisting of a monitor sitting on top of a bass module allowing for a full range (20 Hz to 20 kHz) system. For this system, Raven was showing off their Elite Series Silhouette Monoblocks ($27K).  They know what slam is in Texas, maybe they invented it, and it was in the room with aces.

Modwright high end digital and analog
  The ModWright room was sounding right, real right with the debut of the Eggleston Works OSO floor standers ($12K). This was one of the rooms I wish I could have spend much more time in. This was a small floor stander with a big sound; this speaker has the finesse to be intimate. Wolf Audio Systems was doing the honors when I hit the room with the Alpha 3 SX ($9895) music server.

The T+A MP 3100 HV DAC SACD player

The T+A MP 3100 HV DAC SACD player
 This new model pushes the limits of micro-vibration control, electrical grounding, and radio frequency (RF) suppress for black hole quite backgrounds.  The T+A MP 3100 HV DAC SACD player ($21K)” is now capable of carrying out the full-signal processing of DSD bitstream data — in addition to processing PCM data to impeccable standards. This extensive development was necessitated by the machine’s new integral disc mechanism: an SACD drive which is a completely new development, featuring the very latest decoder, and capable of reading CD (PCM 44.1 kHz ) and SACD (DSD 64/2.8 MHz) discs at the highest possible quality.
  The other digital sources, both integral and external, also benefit from this new improvement. As in the MP 3000 HV, PCM data is converted using our outstanding double differential quadruple converter for all the digital signal processing. DSD data are handled by the unique analog true 1-bit DSD converter from the PDP 3000 HV, which processes the DSD data in native form as a bitstream rather than converting them”.
  ModWright kept everything under control with its KWH 225i Tube Integrated ($8,495). This is a Class-A, tube design with increased power to 225W. It sounded terrific!

Valentia Active Speakers ($12,450) 
  David Janszen’s room was unique in that there was no equipment alter. The Janszen Valencia floor standers ($12,450) are active (built-in bi-amplifiers) with balanced inputs (can use adapters for RCA’s). Dave was using a Bluetooth adapter to play music files from his phone.  The sound was lively, full range and focused. These speakers use two electrostatic panels behind the grill cloth that disperse the majority of the sound spectrum at a wide-angle. I detected no beaming; low frequencies were handled by dual 6.5-inch woofers. The frequency response is an impressive 20 Hz to 32 kHz. The crossover is DSP — for a very clean sound.

The Active Janszen Valencia

  Also, David Janszen was showing a prototype (the seventh) of his new Lotus electrostatic headphones. These are getting pretty close to full production. I loved the sound. Laid back and very smooth. No hard edges, just simply marvelous. They do have a battery to bias the diaphragm that one must remember to turn on via a touch switch. The battery is rechargeable, providing four weeks of four hours a day of use. The frequency response is full range — from 18 Hz to 32 kHz. These weigh only 500gr. I can hardly wait to buy a pair.
Part II of Florida Audio Expo coverage is coming!


  Paul Elliott is a long-time audiophile, based in Baltimore. He is a freelance writer and member of the DC Hi-Fi Group. EAN is an audio review web site/blog. 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