Link Spotlights

Friday, February 20, 2015

Audiophile Review!
Essence HDACC 24/192 ADC/DAC
Stereo Preamp/Headphone Amp:
Bargain Price Converter/Preamp
Includes Multiple I/O WITH HDMI

Price: $699
Likes: HDMI, 3x digital I/O, A/D
Dislikes: lacks bit status display
Wow Factor: do-it-all A/D-/D/A
More info: Essence HDACC

by John Gatski
   I love cool little gadgets that are accomplished multi-taskers. Back in the 1990s, digital recording and mastering engineer Bob Katz came up with a box called the FCN-1, a digital I/O that served professional audio engineers by converting from one output format to another and removing and/or ignoring copy code restrictions when making digital dubs for pro use. The Essence HDACC reminds me of that quite-useful FCN-1 with its multiple in/outs, including HDMI. Plus it is quite a good DAC and headphone amp as well.

   Priced at a bargain price of $699, the Essence HDACC is a 24-bit/192 DAC with built-in headphone amp, fixed-level 24/192 A/D, a built-in sample rate converter, SPDIF/TOSLink digital I/O, HDMI digital input for stereo playback (one of the few DACS that even have HDMI), balanced and unbalanced analog output, and analog input for playback through the preamp or feeding the A/D. To further showcase its multiple input dexterity, the Essence HDACC also has USB 2.0 input for computer playback — up to 24/192.
  The HDACC does not natively play DSD from HDMI or USB sources. However, if your Blu-ray player converts DSD-to-PCM (many do), that audio can be transmitted through the HDM to the HDACC. The DAC then outputs the PCM through the DAC. Oppo players, for example, convert the DSD bitstream from a SACD, convert it to 24/88.2 and is output through the HDMI. My Marantz UD-7007 does the same. The DSD-to-PCM loses a little bit of its natural smoothness and transients versus the native DSD bitstream decoding, but it is hi-res enough. Better than 16/48.
  The Essence HDACC features an ESS Sabre DAC, Cirrus A/D chip, adjustable impedance HP impedance-matching circuit, as well as a dynamic range control, embedded in the DSP. The DAC is not that big, about 1/2 rack wide, but the feature set and connections do not feel cramped. A headphone jack and a dual-function volume control/menu operation knob and an OLED display inhabit the front panel, no other controls needed.

I/O galore including HDMI

  The rear panel includes the aforementioned SPDIF coax I/O, TOSLink I/O, HDMI 1.3 I/O, analog RCA I/O, balanced XLR analog output and a USB 2.0 Type-B connector input. The units runs on a 5V 300mA outboard power supply. The power switch is located on the top left front.
  Spec-wise, the factory numbers show a 109 dB S/N ratio (107 dB a-weighted); the other numbers, such as frequency response, crosstalk, distortion are good as well, though the frequency response is only listed to 20 kHz — even though it is wider for frequencies above 44.1 kHz.

All this and A/D too
  Although the HDACC is a first-rate DAC with lots of atypical DAC features, such as the HDMI conduit, the inclusion of an onboard A/D converter intrigued me. Consumer A/D-D/A combos are quite rare — more typical in pro and musician configurations. They are mostly used in USB-interface boxes for recording to the computer. The HDACC configuration gives you the versatility to use the A/D to dub LPs, or other media you own, or use it as a computer interface via the optical port. Though the A/D level is fixed and operates natively at 24/192, you can use the sample rate converter to set an alternative frequency: 44.1 kHz to 176 kHz. Because of the good quality converters and its price, I can see pros and consumers using this feature — not to mention all the I/O options.
  Although there is just the one control, the HDACC is simple to operate. Just push the volume button, select the menu you want and push the button to make your selections for input, sample rate, headphone impedance, etc. The display includes sample rate, volume level, selected input; no digital bit status, however, my only negative in the entire review.
  As enamored as I am of the multiple I/O and onboard A/D, I don’t want to lose sight of the rare DAC HDMI input feature. The HDACC is one of the few out there that even have HDMI. Essence President Bob Rapoport said the HDMI input opens up the separate DAC users to Blu-ray audio, which includes hi-res concerts and pre-recorded music discs from labels such as AIX.
  The Essence HDACC quickly became a favorite all-in-one, do-it-all, bang-for-the buck digital converter/HP amp. Its got that rare DAC HDMI input, and I found numerous uses for the HDACC with my laptop as a standalone DAC and A/D.

  The HDACC offers the HDMI “handshake protocol” that allows Blu-ray audio players to transmit their full fidelity audio out the digital conduit. The two-channel audio is broken out via Essence HDMI de-embedder. Thus, you can play the separate two-channel soundtracks from Blu-ray concerts in full res, or even listen to the L/R channels of DTS Master HD, Dolby TrueHD or linear PCM multichannel soundtracks. Often, BD concerts or prerecorded 5.1 lossless soundtracks put the discrete stereo in the L/R channels.
  The Essence DAC not only allows you to listen to the Blu-ray player HDMI output, but the HDACC elaborate routing options allow you to feed the HDMI input audio to another DAC at the same time, through the SPDIF or TOSLink, or both outputs at the same time. Feed two DACS if you want.

The audition
  I put the HDACC through several months of testing and found it so useful I was hesitant to give it back. First, I used it as BD/universal player DAC. First up, I hooked it to my Oppo BDP-95 via a WireWorld Starlight HDMI cable and played my Blu-ray copy of The WhoLive At The Isle of Wight 1970 concert film. The 16-bit/48 kHz sample rate discrete stereo soundtrack sounded pretty good. But when I selected the DTS Master HD 5.1, I got to hear the 24/96 L-R channels, essential the stereo mix in higher resolution; it was awesome, smoother and more open. It did the same with my Woodstock blu-ray.
  Another Blu-ray sampled through the HDACC was the Celine Dion - New Day Concert. The Dolby TrueHD multichannel is phenomenal, but through the HDACC, I was damn impressed with the 24/96 LPCM stereo presentation. The ESS Sabre DAC-equipped HDACC has that signature smoothness of the ESS chip with abundant detail and good width and depth in the stereo presentation. My Benchmark DAC2-D $1,799 and Mytek Digital Stereo 192-DSD, $1,500 had a bit more dimension and sparkle with this recording (thanks to the HDACC’s ability to connect to them via the SPDIF outputs to set up a comparison), but not as much as the price difference might make you think. The HDACC’s sonic character was quite good through both the headphone amp and the line out, especially the XLR analog outputs.
  The HDACC headphone amp could drive the AKG-K702 and Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic headphones with no problems when using the low impedance HP settings available in the HDACC.
  I played numerous HD Tracks and my own hi-res recordings of jazz and acoustic guitar from the Macbook Pro using Audirvana. I was quite content with the HDACC as my computer DAC during its trial with Everything Audio Network. I used it for multiple audio tasks for my Mac audio workstation, editing and processing hi-res stereo tracks. The unit fit perfectly next to the Macbook Pro, tethered to it via the USB cable.
  The HDACC also was an ideal mate for my Dell Venue 8 and the highly capable, hi-res Android software player, USB Audio Player Pro. With that setup, I used the Shure SRH1840 reference headphones. I played dozens of 24-bit tracks through the duo, without any problems or glitches. The HDACC lacks 352.8 kHz and 384 kHz sample rate decoding, but the USB Audio Player Pro program detects a DAC’s maximum sample rate and down samples to that rate. Thus, my 2L DXD (24/352) classical tracks and my own home-brew 24/384 guitar recordings were played back at 24/192, but they still sounded quite good through the Essence.

And recording, too...
  To test the HDACC’s A/D converter, I hooked up my Mackie 1402 mixer using two Audix SCX-25 microphones to record a Martin acoustic guitar. The mixer's tape outputs were connected to the analog inputs of the HDACC. Since the HDACC does not have USB output, I connected the TOSLink output of the HDACC to the TOSLink input of the Macbook Pro. I selected the digital input in the Audio settings, and commenced recording with Bias Peak recording/editing program, a now defunct software package that is still better than 99 percent of the two-track software editors on the market today.
 Although the HDACC is a first-rate DAC with lots of a atypical DAC features, such as the HDMI conduit, the inclusion of an onboard A/D converter intrigued me. Consumer A/D-D/A combos are quite rare.

  Since the A/D has a fixed level, I controlled the level with the analog mixer control and Peak’s digital input control. The DAC playback revealed a detailed, open smooth stereo guitar recording. Not quite as much detail as my $1,800 Benchmark ADC-1, but the Essence HDACC’s A/D capability is as good as numerous pro interfaces I have used — some much more money.

Dub your records
  For all you vinyl fans, the HDACC’s A/D features makes an ideal conduit for dubbing your records. I connected my Clear Audio turntable/Rogue Audio Model 99 Magnum’s phono preamp output to the HDACC’s RCA inputs and dubbed a copy of my Wes MontgomeryFull House audiophile LP using the Macbook Pro and freeware Audacity record/edit two track program, set at 24/192. I then played the recording back through the HDACC. The iconic jazz guitar live album from the early ‘60s was now preserved and able to be played back as many times as I desire without any record wear.
  As you can tell from this review, I really love the HDACC and its versatility. I used it as a multiple digital output router while A/B’ing two other DACs. I fed the HDMI output of the Oppo BDP-95 to the HDACC’s HDMI input, then connected the TOSLink output to one DAC and the SPDIF to the other DAC. With both DAC’s analog outputs level matched, I hooked their outputs to my Coda preamp, which was linked to a Bryston BHA-1 headphone amp. With the fast, source-switching Coda and its remote, I could A/B the DACs receiving the same signal from the HDACC. Pretty slick.
The HDACC configuration gives you the versatility to use the A/D to dub LPs, or other media you own, or use it as a computer interface via the optical port. Or connect to another outboard device via the TOSLink or SPDIF RCA.

  I also used the HDACC A/D to run a back-up recorder in the workstation. As I recorded the main audio (24/96) into the computer via the HDACC A/D through the Mac’s optical input, I routed the HDACC’s SPDIF RCA output to my TASCAM DR-100 Mark II’s portable digital recorder’s digital coax input. With the digital-sync, I was recording music onto the Mac and, thanks to the HDACC, I made a simultaneous backup recording on the TASCAM portable. Fantastic. Plus, the HDACC D/A was also my live-monitor DAC.
  With all you get for $699 retail, no one can really complain about the Essence HDACC. It would be nice to have a level meter meter and adjustable gain for the A/D — and a USB output; a bit status indicator perhaps? But this box is so well priced and capable, I really can’t get too upset over these omissions.

The verdict
  The Essence HDACC quickly became a favorite all-in-one, do-it-all, bang-for-the-buck digital converter/HP amp. Its got that rare DAC HDMI input, and I found numerous uses for the HDACC with my laptop as a standalone DAC and A/D, and as a digital distribution device. And it only costs $699 retail. This box really shines. From hi-res listening to archiving vinyl, to computer recording my guitars in hi-res, and listening to tunes on the go. I could not be more pleased. For $699, you could justify HDACC just for its HDMI input rarity; it is one the few DACs that utilizes HDMI input for audio use with Blu-ray players and computers that are equipped with the popular interface.
  No, it will not best the top-tier DACs in ultimate audio quality, but the sonic character is ESS chip smooth — with nice detail and the feature set is so deep that nothing touches it at 2X-3X the price. Of course, it gets the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award. And I plan to have one permanently in my arsenal of digital converters.

   John Gatski is publisher/owner of the Everything Audio NetworkArticles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio NetworkAny unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.


Eva Yin said...

It didn't support DSD output? Essence HDACC II 4K version support DSD

John Gatski said...

I said in my review it did not support native DSD. The new one is supposed to I am told. Another review got it wrong!

John Gatski