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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Audiophile Amplifier Review!
Essence For Hi Res Audio DPA-440
Class-D Stereo 220-WPC Amplifier

©Everything Audio Network
Brevis...
Price: $999 direct sale from Essence
Likes: good sonics, value, balanced
 Dislikes: unbalanced needs shorting pins
 Wow Factor: top-notch Class-D amp
More info: Essence DPA-440

by John Gatski
  A few months ago, I reviewed the bang-for-the-buck combo DAC/A-D/line preamp from Essence For Hi Res Audio. For $500, this baby features ESS Sabre chip, balanced output, 24/192 upsampling — as well as a plethora of digital connections including HDMI input. After I reviewed the HDACC, Essence President Bob Rapoport asked me if I would do a review of his sub-$1,000 Class D amplifier, the DPA-440.
  Based on my experience with the HDACC, I got a feeling that the amp could be a sleeper. After all, the cold, hard, harsh Class D reputation has slowly given way to some pretty darn good amps; they run cool, use less juice and come in small packages. So I told Bob to send it over.

Features
The made-in-USA, DPA-440 is a Class-D digital amplifier that utilizes a switch-mode power supply and high-current output devices to deliver 220-watts per channel into 4 ohms and and 110 watts per channel into 8 ohms. Its design is not unique, but the well-made, reasonably priced amp, endowed with good parts selection, allows this Class D amp to relay an impressive degree of finesse. In fact, I was astonished how smooth it could be.
  The amp is not overly complicated or a head turner in its appearance. It comes in black or silver finishes. The front panel sports the company moniker and a right-side power switch. The back panel includes balanced and unbalanced RCA inputs, level potentiometers for each channel and five-way binding posts.
  With any preamp, this amp is hi-fi all the way. The Essence amp shows you that as Class-D amps continue to evolve, they sound better and they cost less. Plus, you get a ton of dynamic headroom and the ability to run balanced cable runs.

  A switch selects between unbalanced and balanced inputs, though I found that you need to jumper pin 1 and 3 on the XLR if you run it unbalanced. The jumper properly terminates the XLR to prevent unwanted noise and hum. I have encountered this in various other amps No big deal since I already had jumpers from a Pass Labs amp. (Essence now supplies jumpers for the XLR termination, but it is not mentioned in the manual or on the web site).
  Spec-wise, the DPA-440 is pretty impressive: 20 Hz - 25 kHz bandwidth, greater than 100 dB S/N, 1000 microvolts slew rate, 3.0 dB of dynamic headroom and .003 percent distortion. Input impedance for unbalanced is listed at 30 kohms and 47 kohms for balanced. Essence claims a heft 40 amps peak to peak current. The unit has housed in a 2U-high, half rack configuration, weighing in at a mere 19 pounds. Picking it up and placing it in my test rack was welcome relief from the big-gun, Class A A/B amps I am used to setting up

The setup
  I installed the Essence DPA-440 in my main listening room, connecting the amp to a smorgasbord of speakers including my reference MartinLogan Montis electrostatic, Pass Labs SR-2 three-way towers, Westlake LC 8.1 two way stand speakers, and a pair of the Legacy, two-way, ribbon-driver Studio stand speakers. The preamplifiers included my trusty Coda high-current preamp, the Essence HDACC DAC/preamp, Benchmark DAC2-DX, Oppo HA-1 DAC/preamp using the discrete headphone outputs, and the Rogue Audio Model 99 Magnum for its phono section.
DPA-440 rear panel: unbalanced requires pin shorting on XLRs

  The amp was connected to the speakers via Wireworld Eclipse speaker cables, and the preamp to amp connection was completed with Wireworld Eclipse balanced XLR cables. Sources included Oppo BDP-105, TASCAM DA-3000 high-res recorder/player, ASUS CL572 Android tablet running USB Audio Player Pro (up to 24/384 PCM out to external DAC) and a Clear Audio Emotion turntable with Benz L04 cartridge. The amp, preamp and audio sources were connected to AC via Essential Sound Products Essence II power cables and power strip.
  After a few hours of break-in time, I pressed the DPA-440 into action with the electrostatic ML Montis. I found that with balanced or unbalanced, the amp’s passive attenuator pots allowed ample level when turned fully clockwise to their maximum. I mostly operated the amp with balanced connection. With the turntable setup and the Oppo HA-1 I did go unbalanced, which required me to short pin 1 and 3 on the XLRs with shorting pins. (More on that later).

The audition
  First up was the Anthony Wilson Trio - Our Gang (Groovenote) jazz SACD. This jazz guitar/organ/drums album is a warm, detailed hi-res jazz guitar recording with a balanced dynamic on the drum kit and a rich Hammond B3 organ signature. The DPA-440 presented the jazz trio with good depth to the image, really tight, fast bass and zero edginess on the cymbals that previous generations of Class D amps were accused of. In fact, on this recording, the descriptors were “balanced, neutral, energetic transients.” As a hi-fi amp, it fit right in. The DPA-440 just costs less and burns less energy than conventional Class A or A/B amps. All in all, we were off to a good start.
  Continuing the jazz theme, I played the Warren Bernhardt - So Real SACD (DMP), which has a less rich and thick tone than the Anthony Wilson recording. The So Real album, recorded by Tom Jung in his DMP days, offers more speed on the percussion and piano. Again, I found the DPA-440 fairly balanced with a nice space impression of this SACD, one of the best hi-res recording ever made. No matter which speaker I used, the bass was always immediate without bloom or overhang.
  The DPA-440 is not a colored amp. What you put in is what you get out of it, On most well-recorded recordings that I listened to, the DPA-440 was smooth enough and natural.

  On Pop and Rock music, as with any amp, the better the recording, the better it sounds. The Led Zeppelin 24/96 remaster HD Tracks downloads were aces through the Essence. That bit of recording room reverb on the acoustic guitar intro on Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin IV) came through loud and clear, and John Bonham's highly modulated kick drum sounded great on the Pass SR-2 towers.
  A big complaint about Class-D amplifiers is the sonic “dryness factor. However, with each successive generation, they got better and better. A lot of the Class D criticism today, frankly, is unwarranted. Class D amps are merely passing the original source audio in its accurate state sonic — warts and all. Hi-fi listeners often want amps to be filters to smooth out the rough edges of say, the early days of digital audio recordings, or a harsh DAC. Thus, they choose amps to apply a certain color to their liking. The DPA-440 is not a colored amp. What you put in is what you get out of it, On most well-recorded recordings that I listened to, the DPA-440 was smooth enough and natural.
The Essence DPA-440 also comes in silver

  For example, the amp projected a rich, vibrant violin tone when playing several Heifetz SACDs. Not quite as warm as my Pass Labs X-350.5, but not harsh. My Wes Montgomery - Full House half-speed mastered LP, via a Clear Audio Emotion turntable and Rogue Audio Model 99 phono pre tandem, was smooth, yet energetic as well. That essential sonic character of these recordings is the similar to what I hear from my more expensive separates.
  Sure, there was a degree of edginess when I played some 1980s pop music CDs (that don’t sound great on any amp), which were bit more “glaring” through the Essence, but the majority of the well-recorded discs passed the “ear grit” test.
  For comparison I pulled out an older AudioControl Pantages G1 Class H multichannel amp from the early 2000’s to compare to the DPA-440; the Essence was on par with that amp’s signature, which was (and subsequent generations are still) good-sounding amplifiers with efficient power supplies.
  The DPA-440 is hi-fi enough amp that it gives you a good taste of the preamp signal. Want a quick and accurate tone? I could hear that character in the Coda preamp coming through the Essence amp to the speakers. How about the ultra-smooth sound of the ESS Sabre DAC? I could hear that attribute as well, coming through through the DPA-440’s stable mate: the Essence HDACC DAC/pre.
  If you combine the Essence DPA-440A amplifier with the Stellar Sound Award-winning Essence HDACC DAC/preamp, and you got yourself a very reasonably priced playback system. Just add speakers and a source.

  Complaints? The only quibble I found with the DPA-440 was having to short the XLR pins to termination to get a clean, unbalanced signal. I have encountered other amps that require XLR termination for optimum unbalanced S/N, but those amps did not have a XLR/unbalanced switch. Since this amp has the switch, the assumption is that you flip the switch and either connection mode is ready for action. But for the DPA-440 you must also plug a jumper to short pin 1 and 3 before using it unbalanced, or you will get some noise. It’s a two-step process: you flip the input switch and terminate the XLR.
  Maybe a future revision can eliminate the need for the shorting pins by completing the termination via the switch. For now, just remember to insert the shorting pins if you are running unbalanced. I did the majority of my listening balanced — because a fully balanced circuit usually has better noise specs, but there are many audiophiles who like the convenience and lower-expense of unbalanced.

The verdict
  For its price class, the DPA-440 is an exceptional-performing amp. Sure high-end, much-more expensive amps relay a bit more subtle detail along the width of the image, but this sonic attribute is something you can only hear in direct comparisons. On its own, with any preamp, this amp is hi-fi all the way. The Essence amp shows you that as Class-D amps continue to evolve, they sound better and they cost less. Plus, you get a ton of dynamic headroom and the ability to run balanced cable runs.
  Besides stereo hi-fi listening, I think Essence should push the amp toward multichannel use. With less cost and less heat-inducing power consumption — and the option of balanced operation — three of these amps is a really good option for 5.1 or 6.1. Perhaps in a future review, I will set up a trio of the DPA-440’s in my home cinema room for a full review.
  So far, Essence is batting a 1,000 with EAN — earning another Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award. This time for the DPA-440. You combine the amp with the Stellar Sound Award-winning Essence HDACC DAC/preamp, and you got yourself a very reasonably priced playback system.

 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 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 everything.audio@verizon.net 







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