Disclaimer: Asus Indonesia asked me to do this review. The Fostex HP-A7 and Violectric V800/V200 are the Headfonia Store demo units. You can find the updated impression with the Xonar Essence One Muses edition at the end of the article, just before the pictures gallery.
The desktop DAC/Amp from Asus comes with surprises on a few level. First it was bigger than how I see it in pictures. Rather than the size of say a Dr. DAC DX2, it was close to the footprint of a Burson Conductor (just as wide, slightly less deep). Second, the build was surprisingly beefy for a product with an Asus name on it. Maybe I’m just discriminating against the Taiwanese based maker here, but Asus products don’t usually come with a high quality build (I own an Asus laptop and a tablet). The Xonar Essence One however is an extremely well built product and had they designed the product with a more square-minimalist shape, it could easily pass on as a Musical Fidelity or Cambridge Audio product. The casing is thick and solid and though it doesn’t feature a 10mm thick panel like Burson’s Conductor, doesn’t look at all flimsy next to the likes of the Burson Conductor, Violectric’s V200/V800 combo, or even Bakoon’s SCA-7511Mk3. Third, the DAC quality is (again I didn’t expect it to be this good) very good, competing with the likes of the Fostex HP-A7, the Violectric V800, and the Burson Conductor.
DAC Sound Quality
The highlight of the Xonar is definitely on the DAC quality. Two TI PCM1795 chips are used to handle the D/A conversion, with an AKM 4113 S/PDIF receiver, a CMI6631 USB receiver and an ADI ADSP-21261 DSP chip aiding the job. Windows user need to install an ASIO driver which allows for a bit-perfect transfer (supposedly the driver is very good though I didn’t try it), while Mac users can plug in the DAC directly without needing to install anything (I used a Mac).
I don’t have the Centrance Dacmini around (which is a close competitor in terms of price) so I really can’t talk about technicalities comparison to the Centrance, but one thing I can say is that the Xonar is warmer than the Centrance.
The XEO gained my respect after I did the Fostex HP-A7 vs XEO comparison. The A7 used to be their flagship prior to the release of the mighty A8. The A7 by itself is no slouch and being the HP-A3’s bigger brother, is an extremely good mid-line DAC with the typical Fostex clean and smooth sound (Fostex owners know what I’m talking about). The Xonar however manages to better the A7 in soundstage depth, detail and resolution, while the Fostex gives a cleaner, wider, and smoother sound.
Next up is a comparison to the Burson Conductor DAC and the Violectric V800 DAC. Against these two more expensive units, the Asus certainly has an edge in the DAC resolution, only losing in the amplifier department to the mighty Conductor amp and the Violectric V200. Still, standing at a price significantly less of the stand alone Violectric amp, I really couldn’t complain at the performance of the XEO’s built in amp.
Though the sound wasn’t particularly wide (the Vio was the widest, the Burson being second), the Xonar clearly resolves micro detail more effortlessly, portraying ambience with greater resolution. The Violectric DAC was the smoothest of the three while the Burson DAC was the most articulate. Soundstage depth and layering is the best on the Xonar.
The music is rendered with a good analog tone and without the slightest hint of a digital sound. Even though the Violectric V800 was smoother sounding and has a beefier low end, at the end the Asus sounded more natural and more coherent than the more wide panned-out sound of the Vio. The Burson resolves detail better than the Violectric and is also more articulate on fast-passages, but again the Asus is more effortless in its detail retrieval.
Initially I was bitten by the sound quality of the V800. The wide, laid back and beefy lows provided by the Vio DAC clearly hits my sound preference right. However later on my ears leaned more and more to the sound of the Xonar. It even bested the Fostex HP-A7 DAC though I’m quite a fan of the extremely smooth and clean Fostex house sound. Despite the clean sound, the Fostex is simply out-resolved by the Xonar, and the lack of a proper ambiance reproduction in the Fostex again tilts my preference toward the Asus. With an amp that significantly boosts the low end like the Bakoon, the Xonar makes for a much better DAC than the Vio as I no longer miss the low end body of the Violectric DAC.
To hear all the resolution that the Xonar has, the built in headphone jack is the best output to use as you get the shortest signal path that way. By itself the headphone amp is pretty good and with plenty amount of voltage swing that drives the HE-400 and HE-500 to a good volume level quite effortlessly though quite far from the level of impact of the Violectric, Burson or Bakoon amps. The Xonar also provides a monster op-amp rollable solution with two rollable op-amp for the headphone out, and with a total of 11 rollable op-amps in the whole board this is truly an op-amp modder’s birthday wish.
I tried the Xonar mainly with big headphones (HE-400, HE-500, LCD-2, HD650, and Smeggy’s Thunderpants), however I also wanted to know how it performs with IEMs and so I tried a bunch of popular IEMs with it including the Sennheiser IE800 and the AKG K3003 and was pleased to hear a clean sound with no hiss (even when the case is off!) and a good amount of volume control range.
Features and Connectivity
The availability of S/PDIF and USB digital inputs and both unbalanced and balanced analog outputs make this box super versatile to use. The analog outs are volume controlled through the main volume knob (centre knob), making it a good companion for active speakers both consumer (RCA) and pro grade (XLR). What else can I ask for? Let’s not forget the handy sample rate indicator that confirms the sample rate of the incoming signal. The up sampling button next to the power button intelligently does an even-order multiplication for the up-sampling to either 352.8kHz or 384kHz depending on the rate of the original signal (i.e 44.1 to 352.8 while 96 goes to 384). Just for the record the majority of DACs upsample blindly to either 96kHz, 192kHz or 384kHz with no regard to the original sample rate, while even-order upsampling has often been recommended for better audio quality.
It really surprises me that the Asus was able to perform this well in the comparison with big names like Burson, Fostex, and Violectric. I know that Asus is a much bigger company with a huge amount of engineering know-how, but it’s just that they haven’t been particularly focused to the Hi-Fi segment hence I find it surprising that they were able to achieve that sort of a sound quality with the Xonar Essence One. For the ~$600 price that it’s being offered for, this box is an extremely good value. Sans for the inferior DAC resolution, the Xonar Essence One certainly makes for a more complete one-box DAC/Amp solution than even my highly esteemed Fostex HP-A8 (no balanced out!). We don’t give out star ratings but if we do it’s definitely a full 5 stars.
The performance is there, but the big question is how the market will respond to an audio product with the Asus name on it. Is a strong brand, but one that’s never been associated with high end audio products. Even with a review as positive as this, I’m still crossing my finger if the enthusiasts will pick it up. Maybe they should’ve done what iRiver did, creating a new name for their audiophile product line (Astell & Kern), but who knows for sure? Do you think they should’ve gone with a new brand name for the Xonar Essence One? Let me know in the comments.
— update Asus Xonar Essence One Muses Edition —
The Muses Edition is here and the only thing that tells it apart from the standard version is the black color of the lion graphics on the top of the enclosure. Sound improvements of the Muses edition, however, is not subtle as it clearly trounced the standard edition with its vastly more spacious sound to become perhaps the most spacious sounding DAC I’ve heard in the $1K mark. Along with the more expansive soundstage you also get a flatter frequency response especially to the stock unit. What I didn’t hear is an improved black background and a cleaner sound with less grain: the Muses edition is still guilty of these two offenses. Thanks to Asus Indonesia for providing the sample units.