Pros: Outstanding DAC, high quality volume controls, good design
Cons: Puzzling use of mini-XLR, amplifier not up to the level of the DAC
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at different DACs. I started out with sound cards, eventually moving to external DACs and finally getting the Xonar Essence III. I was never completely happy with the sound I was getting from my other DACs, as I kept looking at what I was going to upgrade to next. With the Essence III though I feel like I’ve arrived at the end. This is the sound I want. My speakers and headphones have never sounded better than they do now.
Before upgrading to the Essence III I had a Xonar Essence One Muses Edition. It’s a great DAC. But going directly from it to the Essence III there was an immediate and obvious increase in quality across the board. First off the build quality is on another level. Sure, the knobs are still plastic, but now they’re backlit by subtle white light. It also comes with a remote which matches the color of the DAC. It looks better in real life than it does in pictures. The choice of color and design makes it feel like a sci-fi prop from the 70s. I love the way it looks.
Functionally the stepped attenuator volume controls don’t click when going between volume levels, so the knobs are completely smooth unlike the Essence One. This means it jumps between volume levels in sudden steps. At first it can feel strange, but it’s something you’ll get used to. Both the master volume and headphone output use stepped attenuators and have perfect volume balance at all volume levels. If you change volume with the remote you hear a whirring motor turning the knob, just like it does on stereo amps. Smaller details during operation have been improved from earlier Asus DACs, such as when it switches between sample rates there’s no longer a stutter to the sound like with the Essence One. This was only a slight annoyance with the Essence One, but that they’ve fixed this with the Essence III is still appreciated. It adds to the overall feeling of quality and attention to detail.
Every DAC I’ve ever owned have had their own “character” to their sound which becomes especially clear when you do direct comparisons with other DACs. It’s in subtle details like how treble artifacts from compression manifest themselves, to the tone and heft of certain instruments. Compared to the Muses Edition the Essence III is both more detailed and less harsh at the same time. I like how the Muses Edition sounds, as it has a thick bass that can make drums sound enormous, while the treble has a nice bite to it. During the entire time I’ve had the Essence One Muses Edition I’ve thought that the midrange seemed just a tiny bit recessed. The Essence III has a somewhat smooth and “analog” character to the sound, but it’s not doing it at the expense of details. It imparts less character of it’s own to the music, and instead seems to present it the way it’s supposed to sound. I feel like it is doing it with a bit of romance, rather than with complete ruthless precision. At this level the amount of difference between gear can feel slight, but to me this is a step up in level from DACs like the Hegel HD10, Essence One Muses Edition and Violectric V800 which I’ve owned in the past. I haven’t heard much other high end gear outside of Nad Master Series and Classé CD players. This is in that tier. I don’t know how it stands in direct comparison to other $2000 gear like the Benchmark DAC2. But I don’t think it’d make a fool of itself.
The headphones I’ve used for the majority of my listening with the Essence III are the Sennheiser HD 800, Audeze LCD-X and AKG K 812. Of these three the HD 800 is easily the most resolving and transparent, which means it’s best for picking out changes in the sound between amps and DACs. The style of sound from the Essence III is perfect for the Sennheiser HD 800. The HD 800 is ruthless at digging out any artifacts in the treble and shoving them in your face. I once tried plugging mine directly to an iPod Touch and it sounded like someone was shoving nails into my ears. The Essence One Muses Edition had on the other hand a peculiar character to the treble. Sometimes it could sound cold and harsh in a bad way, while at other times the style worked brilliantly with the music. The Essence III has none of this cold harsh sound. Instead it’s smooth and incredibly clean. I’ve played some “worst case scenario” music for treble and somehow the music just works with the Essence III like how I imagine the artists intended, unlike the Muses Edition which rendered the music with a thin harsh quality.
It can be hard to tell just why it feels like you’re hearing a higher resolution of sound from a new piece of gear. Is it just because of how elements are balanced, which makes it easier to focus on new things, or is it simply because the gear is more resolving? In some cases like when I compared the HDVD 800 DAC to the Violectric V800 I was switching back and forth, listening to the same few seconds of a song over and over. During that comparison I almost couldn’t believe how bad the HDVD 800 DAC was, as it was clearly turning the sound into an indistinct mush. I didn’t spend the same amount of effort and time comparing gear when I upgraded from the Essence One Muses Edition to the Essence III, but there was a clear step up in perceived resolution and overall clarity of the sound. Things like acoustics of the room the instruments were recorded in, and effects like reverb have more free space between the rest of the sounds in the music. This was immediately obvious over my speakers as well as the headphones. The layers were laid bare with ease, and I was able to peer into the mix and hear the subtleties that made every song unique in more detail. Bringing out the details and making every album “sound unique” is probably one of the most important things to me in high fidelity audio. Quickly jumping between all the studio albums of an artist now brings forward the unique character of each album. I’m now hearing the music itself in better clarity, and the DAC is leaving less of its own sound on the music.
The Essence III isn’t a complete success at everything it sets out to do though. It comes with an on-board headphone amp, and it clearly wasn’t where most of the effort went while designing it. It has one very odd design choice, which is the balanced outputs. It uses mini-XLR connectors, which at first seems ok since it comes with adapters. The adapters though terminate into male XLR jacks. This is the opposite of what you’d want, because if you have a 3 pin XLR cable for your HD 800 headphones it will also terminate into male XLR. So you have to go buy additional female to female XLR adaptors for your cable for it to connect to the Essence III amp. This is probably more effort than it’s worth because of how the amp sounds to begin with. To me it sounds like the Essence III is using the exact same amp as the Essence One. When I compared the amp in the Essence III to the one in the HDVD 800 the most noticeable difference is how the soundstage shrinks in width with the Essence III. The treble is slightly harder as well, though I chalk this up to the fact that the HDVD 800 has a high ohm output and adds some extra warmth to the sound of the HD 800, while I assume the Essence III has a low ohm output with a more linear response. The best combination was using the Essence III as a DAC and the HDVD 800 as the amp.
In other words, like the Essence One it’s the DAC section which is the real star of the show here, and the amp is merely good. I kind of expected this since the Asus marketing material spends most of its time talking about how good the DAC is, while the amp just gets a nod for now having balanced outputs. If you have a decent headphone amp it’ll most likely be better than the one on the Essence III. It can be nice to have one on the DAC in some situations, but I’ve rarely bothered to use it.
The Essence III is about as good as I hoped it would be. I can’t say how it compares to other DACs in the $2000 range as I just haven’t heard them, but compared to everything else I’ve heard like the Violectric V800, Hegel HD10, Essence One Muses Edition & the HDVD 800 DAC it’s definitely better. I can’t make any statements whether if it’s the best of its class or anything like that. All I can say is that I've had mine for 6 months, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon.