Very few of us have an unlimited budget when it comes to building an audio system. Working within a specific limit, the question often arises: How much should be portioned out to each individual component? I’ve seen people give ratios like 40/40/20 for speakers/electronics/cables, and those numbers will be different for each person. But eventually the question always returns to value: at what point does spending more give you so little improvement that it is no longer worth doing? Reaching that point with each portion of your system, but not exceeding it, is a great way to maintain balance. The difficult part is knowing when you have reached that point.
It seems to me that we should be able to reach that point more easily with our source and amplification equipment than with our speakers or headphones. From a measurement standpoint it is possible to create extremely accurate playback and amplification devices for relatively low prices. In contrast, getting true, full range, linear performance from 20Hz to 20kHz at high volume is not something that many speakers can claim. I’m oversimplifying things but the point still stands: we are closer to having a theoretically perfect DAC or amp than we are to having a perfect speaker.
If that is really true, then it is simply a matter of figuring out where the cutoff point is. Respectable DACs can be had for just a few hundred dollars. Should we stop there? What about a thousand dollar DAC? Or do we move higher to a six thousand dollar DAC and quietly scoff at the people who spent twice that? As with many things in this hobby, that question is not easily answered.
The subject of this review is a new DAC that aims hit that mark without going over. The product is called the Invicta from a new company called Resonessence Labs. Based in Canada, the Resonessence team is comprised of engineers who were formerly with ESS Technologies, and were largely responsible for the creation of the well regarded Sabre line of DAC chips. That explains the “Resonessence” name.
Before going any further I’d like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Mark Mallinson and Ken from Resonessence Labs for giving me the opportunity to do this review. Their team is still putting the final touches on the Invicta, but Mark expressed a strong desire to get this prototype out there for people to listen to. He is obviously very confident in the performance of his product. I’m not a professional reviewer, and I made that clear, but he was still willing to let me borrow his $4000 DAC for a month. No deposit or credit card numbers given, just my mailing info and phone number. There’s really nothing stopping me from disappearing with this thing. And possibly even worse, there’s nothing stopping me from trashing the performance of the product if I felt like it for whatever reason. Resonessence was willing to risk their property and their reputation for what might amount to very little benefit: while I might be semi-well known here on HeadFi, I realize that in the grand scheme of things my opinion is pretty insignificant. So once again I applaud Mark and Ken for taking a chance on me for the benefit of the HeadFi community. And just to be clear, I’ve received no compensation of any kind for this review, other than the fun I’ve had messing with the Invicta.
Rather than calling it “merely” a DAC, it seems more appropriate to refer to the Invicta as a playback system. You can load up an SD card with WAV files up to 24-bit/192kHz (AIFF support is coming soon) and listen to them directly through one of the dual independent headphone jacks. So by adding your choice of headphones, the Invicta can be your complete system from start to finish. It can of course still be used as a traditional DAC by pairing it with a transport and/or external headphone amp. It’s nice to have options.
At the heart of the Invicta lies two separate ESS Sabre DACs: the ES9108 Reference for the line outputs and the ES9016 Ultra for the headphone section. I don’t know exactly why the headphone section gets its own chip, but I can’t imagine them throwing it in arbitrarily; there must be some advantage to this dual setup. As I mentioned, the team behind the Invicta is the same team who basically created these Sabre chips. I’ve heard from multiple designers that the Sabre chips are more difficult to work with than most of the competing options, and it stands to reason that if anyone is going to extract maximum performance from them it would be this team. This is what Mark had to say on the matter:
“With our unique understanding of the Sabre DACs we have been able to fine tune their performance to, in some cases, outperform the published specs of the parts themselves. No expense has been spared to optimize the Sabre DACs in Invicta. Many of the tricks and techniques that we have employed are buried in our firmware. It is for others to judge how good of a listening experience the Invicta unit is, but we are confident that there is not a better implementation of the Sabre DAC in a system level product.”
There are already multiple very highly regarded DACs on the market based on the ES9018. Wyred 4 Sound, Eastern Electric, Anedio, Calyx, Audio GD, and several others have all built fantastic DACs using the Sabre Reference chip. And of course there are many excellent non-ESS based options to choose from as well. When I asked him specifically how he felt the Invicta stacks up against the competition, Mark gave me a classy answer:
“We have listened to a number of competing DACs. I don't think that it would be appropriate for me to comment specifically on how I think that they compare to Invicta - there are no doubt some good DACs out there. But as you can imagine, being new into the business, we have spent a lot of time in listening tests to make sure that our offering ranks at the top. You will particularly find this to be the case when you listen on headphones where the Invicta makes up more of the signal path. (By "makes up more of the signal path" I mean that the power amplifier and speakers in a listening room may affect the performance, but in the headphone application it is Resonessence electronics right up to the headphone output, and therefore we have more control of the signal path.)”
Since I only have the Invicta for a 4 week trial and I want to get this review posted in a timely manner, I’m going to focus more on the listening section than the technical side. Under normal circumstances I like to document the design from input to output (to the best of my non-engineer ability). But in this case I have several good reasons for not doing so:
1) Resonessence has already released a very informative document chronicling many of the features and measurements of the Invicta. It is available for download here: http://www.resonessencelabs.com/invicta/InvictaUserGuideILB.pdf and I highly recommend that you check it out. Even if you are not even remotely interested in the Invicta, it is still a great read. There is plenty of interesting information about psychoacoustics, digital audio reproduction, audio measurements, and other topics. It’s a long document but it had tons of great information and it was able to keep me interested all the way through.
2) 6moons.com has already done a detailed review of the Invicta. They apparently received a prototype model, possibly the same one that I currently have, and have written a lengthy article about it. I have intentionally stayed away from it so it would not influence my impressions at all. I’m not commenting on 6moons in either a positive or negative way, I’m just saying the article exists and supposedly has a bunch of information. I’ve already gotten messages and comments from people about the conclusions that were reached during that review, but I’ve tried my best to ignore all that information for the sake of objectivity.
Instead of covering the complete design, I’m just going to touch on a few aspects that I find interesting or relevant to the discussion:
The first thing and most important thing is that the Invicta is very programmable. My demo model is currently missing several features that will be added before the final model is released. Here is an incomplete list of some of those features:
*One key difference is the display section: the demo has lots of basic information but it is somewhat disorganized. The final version will have labels indicating what each button does, more detailed information regarding the track being played from an SD card, and other improvements. There will also be an alternate screen option for when the device is used with the remote from a distance, similar to what the Squeezebox Touch does.
*A remote will be included with the final version.
*Currently the SD card only reads .WAV files. I’m told that the production model will also handle the AIFF format.
*There is currently an unused BNC connector on the rear labeled “SYNC”. It seems likely that at some point a function could be enabled that allows the Invicta to work with an external word clock, but that is just a guess on my part.
*There has been talk of possibly activating the HDMI port to accept audio. The PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport can send audio in that manner, so that would be one logical pairing, but certainly other choices exist.
*Another update in the works is with the USB connection – apparently they are still working on the USB stage to allow full 24/192 playback. For now it is limited to 24/96 and below.
Most of these things are not yet set in stone but the point is that the Invicta is going to continue to improve as time passes. Sending your gear back to the manufacturer for the latest update is a thing of the past when you have a product designed from the outset with expandability in mind. Mark had this to say on the topic:
“Our goal is to enable the user to navigate through files stored on the SD Card via the front panel display and eventually via an external monitor using the remote. Most of the features of Invicta have been designed to be programmable, and this is why it has the Spartan high speed FPGA at its core. For example, the brightness of the LEDs and Display on the front panel can be changed. Currently the brightness of these is set at our factory. For more advanced users we intend to give them access to alter certain settings in the hardware therefore allowing them to 'tweak' the system in a way that will modify their listening experience.”
I think that shows faith in their customers as savvy individuals who can make their own choices if they desire to do so.
Another thing to mention is the headphone output section. In its current state it has a 30 ohm output impedance. This is due to the use of a 30 ohm resistor in the output to 'decouple' the potentially high load capacitance from the amplifier output stage. Knowing that this somewhat high output impedance is not ideal, Resonessence advised me:
“…to avoid the problems of a reactive load (inductance or capacitance present at the headphone itself) distorting the otherwise accurate analog signal, the production units of the Invicta will actually measure the output voltage on the headphone side of this resistance and compensate for any error. Currently, in the preproduction units, this correction mechanism is not implemented.”
As I’ll discuss later, the headphone section in its current state does in fact seem to interact with at least one of my headphones, causing a noticeable change in the sound signature. So I’m glad this is something that is being addressed. Another thing that is possibly in the works is an upgrade to the power levels of the amplification stage. Apparently some early listeners have noted a shortage of power when using very low sensitivity headphones. The current prototype models have the following ratings:
32ohm load: 3.83v peak voltage 230mW RMS
50ohm load: 4.64v peak voltage 215mW RMS
300ohm load: 6.75v peak voltage 76mW RMS
600ohm load: 7.07v peak voltage 42mW RMS
To put that in perspective, it is generally less powerful than most of the desktop headphone amps I’m familiar with: the Matrix M-Stage, Yulong A100, and Burson HA-160 are all significantly more powerful, to say nothing of powerhouses like the Violectric V200 or the Schiit Lyr. Then again, the Invicta is quite a bit more powerful than most portable amps, such as the Leckerton models or the new Just Audio models. An exception would be the latest crop of ultra-powerful portables like the RSA Protector and SR71B or the newer iBasso models with tons of power. I’ll discuss my listening impressions later, but for now I can say that added power can only be a good thing.
Immediately recognized by my PC
Plug and Play only takes about 5 seconds and it is ready to go
Up to 24-bit/96kHz playback for now
The Invicta meets my expectations of how well a $4k device should be built. It isn’t fancy or flashy, but in its own way it exudes confidence that it is a very well built product. Panel gaps are tight, and the front panel has some fairly intricate details that you don’t immediately notice at first glance. The buttons and rotary dial have a great tactile feel to them. The rear RCA outputs are CMC SuperCu, which are the same type used on my $1.5k Analog Design Labs tube amp.
Mark tells me that they use a local fabrication house to manufacture the parts such as the solid aluminum front panel and base plate, and then it all gets hand assembled and tested by Resonessence. The thing that strikes me most about the appearance is that it seems very rugged. My demo model has a few tiny dings here and there, likely due to being shipped back and forth repeatedly, and yet that doesn’t at all detract from the appearance. That would not be the case with some other designs I’ve experienced. It is also virtually immune from fingerprint smudges, which again is something that other competitors are much more susceptible to. Some folks would demand more eye candy to justify spending $4k, but the Invicta fits right in with the tradition of no-nonsense gear like Weiss, Berkeley, etc.
One thing worth mentioning is that the Invicta gets fairly warm when used for extended periods. Not blazingly hot, but definitely warm enough where you want to give it some breathing room. At times I have stacked gear on it, but I probably wouldn’t stack another warm-running amp.
CMC SuperCu RCA jacks
Note the venting directly under the DAC boards
Thick bracing separates the DAC section from the power supply components
Top board contains the main ES9018 chip, bottom board contains the ES9016 for the headphone section
I do not know if the packaging that this demo shipped in is the final design or not. But it certainly could be - a nice minimalist eco-friendly box in understated black. There was an outer box for shipping, then a main box with Resonessence logos, and still another inner box containing the actual Invicta. It had plenty of bracing/padding for protecting its valuable contents, and it looks like it has held up rather well to repeat shipping.
Aside from the Invicta itself, the package includes a basic but thick power cable, a USB cable, and the lengthy user manual.
Pardon the blurry cellphone pics
Here is the equipment I used to evaluate the Invicta:
Source: Marantz SA-1 with Audiomod upgrades, QLS QA350 wav transport, custom music server fronted by a Squeezebox Touch, Lexicon RT20
Amplification: Violectric V200, Luxman P-1u, Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, Darkvoice 337SE, Yulong A100
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 and HD600, Lawton Audio LA7000 Lite, Unique Melody Merlin, Audio Technica W1000, AKG K701, JH Audio JH13, Grado PS1000, 1964 Ears 1964-T, Beyerdynamic DT-990/600, Westone AC2, Ultrasone Edition 8, Custom YHD Orthodynamics (Yamaha YH-1 drivers in a Sennheiser HD600 shell with extensive damping)
DACs (for comparison): Audio GD Reference 7, Yulong D100, Esoteric D70, Wavelength Cosine, Anedio D1, MBL 1511E
I don’t really do fancy cables. I use Ethereal digital cables, Impact Acoustics SonicWave RCA interconnects, Monoprice Premier XLR interconnects, and stock power cables. I did use a few higher end headphone cables – Beat Audio Cronus and Supreme Rose cables for my various custom IEMs. Power conditioning was provided by a Panamax M5400. I didn’t burn in the Invicta because my time with it is limited, and I assume it has plenty of hours on it already since it is a prototype model.
For music I used a wide range of material, much of it high resolution releases from Linn, Chesky, 2L, and others. I also mixed in some standard 16/44.1 tracks, including some of my favorite XRCD releases. I generally buy and store my music in the FLAC format but I obviously had to convert to WAV when I wanted to play it directly from an SD card via the Invicta. I tried to get some listening in through each different input, but honestly I was more concerned with figuring out the overall sound of the DAC as a whole rather than determining if the different inputs had any variation in quality.
These are just the impressions of one guy. I do these reviews for fun, not profit, and I don't claim to be any special authority. Many people have agreed with my assessments of other gear but some have also disagreed, and I totally respect that. We all hear differently on a physical level and we all have different preferences as well, so I think it is almost impossible for one person’s impressions to apply to every other person. As with all my reviews, I hope you enjoy reading them and I hope they help our hobby to some extent, but I don't pretend that they are anything more than my opinion.
From the start I could tell the Invicta was an excellent DAC. Usually when I first plug in a component, I listen fairly casually for a few days to get an idea of what it is capable of, and then adjust the system accordingly. With the Invicta I started with the assumption that it was going to be extremely good, so I only paired it with my best gear, and I got started on more focused listening from day one.
My first impressions were very positive. Everything just sounded right, but more importantly nothing sounded wrong. When judging equipment of such a high caliber I often find it easier to spot the subtle flaws in the presentation rather than the high points. Contrast that with budget gear, where I usually take the opposite approach: I’ll be struck by one or two things that it does really well… for the price. The Invicta has no such limitations. Resolution was ultra high, timbre spot on, dynamics seemingly limitless.
When swapping out a lesser DAC in place of the Invicta, I generally heard the same thing (to varying degrees based on which DAC took its place): an overall flattening of the sound. Images became less defined, and soundstage depth was decreased. With a few exceptions which I’ll discuss later, low level resolution of detail seemed to diminish as well, along with some of the subtleties that capture the “feel” of the recording. The impressive part here is that this happened even in comparison to several more expensive alternatives.
Some musical examples: The Invicta allowed me to clearly discern the tonal differences between the Jose Feliciano and the Jacintha versions of “Light my Fire”. Both are great recordings. Jacintha gives it her signature sultry flow, anchored by congas that have amazingly holographic, out-of-head imaging. Add the killer flute solo by Holly Hoffman (which always makes me think of Ron Burgundy, as childish as that sounds) and it makes for a unique interpretation of a classic song. Unfortunately the track is slightly marred by what sounds like a ground loop hum from a guitar amp. It’s not terrible but I’ve heard some systems accentuate it to the point of annoyance. I’ve also heard systems that were so smooth that they completely glossed over the buzzing sound. The Invicta gets it just right in my opinion, allowing it to be heard clearly in the mix but without drawing too much attention to it. You really feel like you are getting precisely what was intended from the presentation, flaws and all.
Switching to the Jose Feliciano take of the same song, my first impression is that it has less of an “audiophile” sound to it. It’s not as clean and crisp, especially on the top end. But as I listen it becomes clear that it does in fact sound quite good. It captures an equal measure of passion, but with a different focus. This version is all about rhythm and energy, with a livelier pace and great guitar work. Where Jacintha makes you more relaxed, Jose makes you want to move around to the beat. I felt that the Invicta really extracted every bit of information that exists in this recording. I especially like when the vocals get more intense towards the end; lesser equipment seemed to dull the intensity there, as if it was slightly compressed. It doesn’t seem like a huge issue but a back to back comparison will reveal how natural and lifelike the Invicta sounds. This particular version is from an older German import CD I have called “Audio’s Audiophile vol. 9 – Cover Me” which – you guessed it – is comprised of covers. I know other versions of this track exist but this is the best one I’ve heard. Unfortunately this import CD is rare, and although I suspect this same version must appear elsewhere I’m not entirely sure where.
Listening to hi-res material like Livingston Taylor’s 24/96 album “Ink” was a delight. There were just so many examples of brilliant vocals that sounded as if they were there in the room with me. At the same time, the supporting acoustic guitar sounded very precise, with a complete absence of the artificial texture that can sometimes show itself with digital gear. That the vocals and guitar (and everything else) could co-exist and each sound distinct, while the sum total of the performance remained coherent, was very impressive to me. This was micro and macro both being on the same page, to the benefit of the listener.
Sometimes extremely resolving equipment can make lesser recordings stand out for what they are – lesser recordings. This is unavoidable at times. But with the Invicta it didn’t feel too pronounced. I think the key factor behind that is the extremely linear response. DACs that are on the brighter side often end up being the worst offenders: think Benchmark DAC1. In other cases DACs try to smooth things over in an attempt to make poor recordings sound listenable. To achieve their goal and avoid being called analytical, they also reduce their ability to resolve high quality recordings. The Musical Fidelity A3.24 comes to mind. Invicta somehow finds the perfect middle ground here. Example: I am really enjoying the new album “Cannibal Courtship” by Dengue Fever. Despite their progression in songwriting, the Invicta reveals it to be a clear step backwards from their prior album “In the Ley Lines” in terms of recording quality. That album was part of the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound program, so the B&W folks likely had a hand in making it sound so good. But despite being somewhat inferior, the new album is still very much enjoyable through the Invicta. It still sounds detailed and fairly smooth, with only a few tracks seeming a little hot on top. But overall I find the Invicta still makes the best of these types of imperfect recordings. After all, if you only stick to the top notch classical and jazz recordings you miss out on a lot of great music, which is what this hobby is really supposed to be about anyway.
On the technical side, I did think I noticed minor variations in sound quality between the different inputs. Nothing drastic but in the end I think I prefer the SD card playback, then USB, then all the rest. I’m sure given enough time I would discover exactly what these minor variations amounted to, but in this context I chose to spend my limited time comparing to other DACs instead. In the end I could be happy using any of the inputs, so it’s not like any of them were specifically bad.
I did have an issue with USB on one occasion. I had already done a lot of listening over USB without any problems, but a week later I connected the same laptop only to get an odd, stuttering playback. A light on the Invicta indicating “USB underflow” came on, which according to the manual should only happen if you pause or stop your music. The music was playing but it was choppy, and it would drop out every other second or so. This happened in Foobar2000 when using kernel streaming or WASAPI, but NOT with the standard Directsound (DS) option. I ran out of time on that day and frankly I’ve been too disinterested to follow up for a possible solution. I suspect the issue has more to do with my computer than with the Invicta itself, and could likely be fixed if I spent the time working on it. I’ve had similar problems in the past and they were all caused by latency issues associated with certain drivers. It also could be a cable issue or some other interference. But honestly I know that once I started working on that I would not stop until I solved the problem…. And since I don’t normally use that computer for playback, nor do I actually own the Invicta, I’m going to just leave it alone. With the updates for USB coming soon from Resonessence, this is probably irrelevant anyway.
It was interesting to compare the QLS QA350 to the built in SD player. Both play WAV files off SD cards so it was easy to switch back and forth. The QLS should deliver a good low jitter signal via SPDIF, so I was assuming that they should sound identical, but they didn’t. The built in SD card function had more low-frequency weight, slightly more dimensionality to its stereo imaging, and a smoother overall presentation. I don’t have a great explanation for this but I’m pretty sure I heard it.
I spent a lot of time going back and forth between different DACs and the Invicta. I don’t intend this to be a definitive, thorough investigation into the exact differences of each combination. I just want to convey my general impressions in hopes that it gives a reference point to help the reader better understand the Invicta. All of the DACs I mention are very enjoyable; if they were not, I wouldn’t keep them around. So just because I might prefer the Invicta, doesn’t mean the other product is bad.
This is a bit of a lopsided comparison since the Invicta will sell for roughly nine times the price of the Yulong. My intention here is to use the Yulong as a representative of the ~$1k class of DAC. Although it costs half that, it generally plays in the same league as Benchmark, Lavry, and some others in that range, which means it is a very good DAC.
In comparison, the Invicta does just about everything better. Despite the Yulong sounding relatively neutral, the Invicta makes it seem somewhat bright in comparison, no doubt due to the immense low frequency extension that the more expensive unit is capable of. The Invicta seems more wide open, like every instrument has more room to breathe. A bad analogy: the Invicta reminds me of the 9th gen Pioneer Kuro plasma I have in the living room. It’s large, crystal clear, and very lifelike. It was also very expensive. In comparison, the Yulong is more like the entry level 720p Panasonic plasma in my bedroom. It’s an overall smaller presentation, less detailed, with less depth to it… less “real” for lack of a better word. But it’s still very enjoyable, and the price makes it far more accessible. Both offer good approximations of the real experience, with one going much further in that direction. Despite the large quality difference, it could certainly be argued that the improvement is not proportional to the price increase. But that sort of thing is generally true anyway once you move up to the higher levels. Another similarity is that a proper setup is required in order to take full advantage of the nicer model. Neither the Invicta nor the Kuro will truly show their worth unless matched with suitably high quality equipment. Watching upscaled DVDs on the Kuro will minimize the advantages it has over the Panasonic. Using AKG K701s with the Invicta will similarly downplay the strengths of the better unit, since the D100 is already capable of getting those most of the way to their maximum performance. Switch to a Blu-Ray player or Sennheiser HD800s respectively and the gap widens considerably.
The Wavelength has a drastically different sound signature compared to the Invicta. It certainly is lots of fun, but ultimately falls well short on polish and refinement. It usually holds up much better than this just on the strengths that it does have: musicality, sweet midrange, and an overall smooth mellow sound. But the Invicta has a faster attack from top to bottom, produces an airier, more wide open soundstage with greater three-dimensionality, and delivers more solid, distinctly carved images. The Cosine sounds slow, soft, slightly bloated, and generally muddy in comparison. Remove Invicta from the equation and the Cosine eventually starts sounding great. Amazing how your brain can adjust to things like that.
Audio GD Reference 7
This is a comparison I was really interested in hearing. I still have the Ref 7 from the loaner program, until we figure out where it is going next. So I made sure I spent plenty of time comparing the two. I have noticed that the Ref 7 is at its best when fed from a very low jitter source, so I mostly paired it with my heavily modified Marantz SA-1 or with the Squeezebox Touch which both have extremely low jitter. The Ref 7 is also best through its balanced outputs, so I mostly paired it with the Violectric V200 or Luxman P-1u. Those amps both have balanced inputs but standard single ended headphone jacks; not a true balanced configuration but it still makes small difference. The Invicta does feature balanced outputs so a direct comparison was possible.
As expected, the performance difference between these two was not huge. They are both extremely well engineered and executed so it makes sense that they should sound similar. For those that don’t know me and my style, I’m definitely on the conservative side when it comes to describing differences. I find that audio websites and magazines tend to overstate that sort of thing more often than not. That being said, I also think many forum users like to use overly simplistic terms when describing differences. With two devices of this caliber, statements like “much more bass impact” or “rolled off highs” shouldn’t really apply. Unfortunately all that leaves is rather squishy, difficult to define characteristics that end up being more of a “feeling” than an easily quantifiable attribute. But after much listening I was able to find a few areas where I felt the Invicta was distinctly different from the Ref 7, and after even more listening I determined those differences to be in favor of the Invicta.
One of the biggest improvements brought by the Invicta was a more convincingly accurate portrayal of the acoustic space, instrument locations, and overall depth of the recording. This improvement was more evident when using speakers, as I’ll discuss shortly, but even with headphones it was fairly apparent on certain recordings. Once again it has to be stressed – the Ref 7 is NOT bad at all in this regard… it is actually one of the best I’ve ever heard. It’s just that the Invicta is even better. And of course, this is most evident with hi-res recordings that are very well done. Listening to most newer releases in standard Redbook format, I get the impression that the Ref 7 is already extracting every bit of spatial information contained in the track, and therefore the Invicta doesn’t have much advantage.
Another difference was the overall picture painted by the two DACs. The Invicta, like the Anedio D1, manages a perfect harmony of low level details and full scale grandeur. In comparison (again, ONLY in comparison) the Ref 7 strikes me as exceedingly detailed, but it somehow manages to lose a little focus in terms of the overall presentation. I’ve thought about this more since my review of the Ref 7, and I still don’t have any better way to explain it.
Lastly, the Invicta seemed somehow livelier than the Ref 7. Call it more dynamic, call it more present, call it PRaT, call it whatever you want. I don’t mean that it is brighter or anything as concrete as that… it just seems to give a more energetic performance. This was mostly a good thing, but I can see how someone would prefer the slightly more relaxed sound offered by the Ref 7, especially during really extended listening.
One thing to mention is that the Invicta has a Toslink digital output: when playing WAV files from an SD card, the Invicta makes an excellent transport for the Reference 7. The Ref 7 is somewhat sensitive to transport quality, and definitely separates the good from the mediocre. I don’t really know why you would ever want to use these two devices in this configuration, but it certainly sounds great. Interestingly, that digital output only worked when playing music from an SD card. It didn’t pass on SPDIF signals, nor did it send along music from the USB input.
I’ve made prior statements that I couldn’t tell the D70 apart from the Ref 7. Now that I’ve spent a lot more time with both, I have to correct that and say the Ref 7 has a slight edge, specifically in terms of bass weight and ultra deep extension. This just goes to show how difficult it is to get a really good impression of high quality gear. It took me a long time to spot this tiny difference.
With that being said, all the comparisons I mentioned above apply equally for the Invicta versus D70. Again, the D70 still sounds amazing, it just gets outclassed a little. And like the Ref 7, the Invicta also has a small edge with very low frequency reproduction.
With all the other DACs I have floating around this was really the main comparison I was interested in. Despite having a relatively low price, the Anedio has really set the standard in my opinion, and just edges out the MBL 1511E for the title of best DAC I’ve heard (and I’ve heard quite a few). Assuming it has an excellent implementation of the ES9018 DAC chip, I wondered what room (if any) there was for improvement. The Invicta seems like the perfect test for that – if anyone is going to wring every ounce of performance out of this chip it should be the people who created it.
To cut to the chase – in a best case scenario, using the highest quality recordings and associated equipment, the Invicta does in fact show an improvement over the Anedio. It’s not a huge difference but it is noticeable. I’m not really sure what I was expecting. Part of me wanted the Invicta to sound identical to the Anedio: keep the status quo, and not make me consider upgrading. The other part of me remembered that Anedio is focused on affordable audio, the maximization of results for your dollar spent. They readily admit that there are things they could have done, but didn’t, to possibly improve performance. So I knew that an impeccably designed DAC at a much higher price could conceivably surpass the D1.
The difficult part is that any advantage is mostly related to creating a lifelike atmosphere, or sense of space, and that’s really something that headphones (no matter how good) just can not do as well as speakers. I’m not saying they can’t do an amazing job – the Sennheiser HD800, Unique Melody Merlin, and some others have fantastic performance in that area. But by their very nature they have a different presentation than live music really does, and high end speakers seem better suited for capturing the last bit of performance in that aspect. Headphones, on the other hand, seem to have an easier time extracting the tiniest details buried in the music. In that respect the Invicta also seems to have just the smallest advantage, so all is not lost on headphone users.
Listening at night, in a very quiet room, with the best amps I have, on my favorite headphones, and the best source material I could find, I give the Invicta a slight edge when it comes to detail retrieval. To illustrate this: I was listening to the 24/96 version (from HDTracks.com) of the self titled album by The Conga Kings. Both DACs did a great job of capturing the complex groove set forth by Candido Camero, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Patato. Both reproduced the pitch and timbre of their congas in excellent fashion. Both portrayed the proper staging of Patato on the right, Candido in the center, and Giovanni on the left. Where Invicta pulled slightly ahead was in the ability to peel back the rich layers of the performance, exposing more details and the interplay between the three congueros to an extent that I didn’t think was possible short of a live performance. This is the sort of thing that many people might not even notice, but as a drummer I was in awe. They seem to be creating melodies as much as just rhythm and the Invicta brought me a bit deeper into that. The Anedio still sounded incredible, just quite to the same degree.
Moving to the big system with the Linkwitz Orion speakers and playing the same album, those subtle nuances were less obvious, instead making way for the bigger differences in atmosphere I described earlier. The Invicta drew me deeper into the hall at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, with a better sense of ambience and reverberation. There were no fundamental differences in sound as there would have been if I swapped in the Wavelength or another DAC, so these two are definitely from the same family. But the Invicta seems to be the slightly more mature family member.
I listened back and forth repeatedly to see if I could flesh out more differences. The Invicta continued to wow me, and the Anedio, as if playing HORSE (the basketball game), continued to follow closely. It was making all the same trick shots, but seemed just slightly less impressive. I wish I could be more specific but again we are talking about rather small perceptions here, not drastic differences.
You may remember that I ranked the Anedio a small step above the Audio GD Reference 7 when I did that comparison. The gap between the Resonessence and the Anedio is about the same size as the gap between the Anedio and the Audio GD. I wouldn’t fault someone if they said they couldn’t hear any difference between the three of them. They are all great performers and I could happily live with any one of them.
That brings up the question – is the Invicta worth the increased price? It’s an interesting question. You certainly need to factor in the differences in features as well as just cost. The Invicta has some things the Anedio doesn’t: SD card playback, async high resolution USB, more inputs, a more detailed display, balanced outputs, and dual headphone jacks with separate volume controls. In exchange for those features, the Anedio offers subjectively better looks, nearly competitive sound and sells for 1/3 of the price. But that’s not even a proper comparison, because the Anedio D1 is no longer available. An updated version is coming soon with more features, possibly improved sound, and a likely higher price tag. The Audio GD Reference 7 is similarly discontinued; it was briefly replaced by the upgraded Reference 7.1, but that is now discontinued as well due to the difficulty in obtaining the PCM1704UK DAC chips. So this entire discussion is sort of silly – comparing a prototype DAC which hasn’t even launched yet to a pair of currently discontinued models.
I originally stated that the MBL sounds indistinguishable from the Anedio D1. I’m going to eat my words again, because much like the Esoteric D70/Ref 7 comparison I’ve noticed small differences over the many months, in favor of the Anedio. It seems to have an ever-so-slightly smoother top end compared to the mighty MBL. This means that the Invicta is superior to this $8k+ masterpiece that was considered (by me at least) to be the best available just a few years ago. I auditioned many expensive models from Chord, Levinson, and the rest, and at that time I judged the MBL to be my favorite. By implication the Invicta is superior to all of those.
I did get a chance to try the Invicta at the home of a friend. His system consists of a Krell S350 player, Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 pre, Odyssey Khartago Extreme SE monoblocks, and Salk Archos open baffle speakers in a dedicated listening room with good acoustics and DIY treatments. Ever since we compared his new Krell player to the Audio GD Reference 7 and Anedio D1, he has been looking to add a DAC to the setup. He’s a stubborn guy and really wants to make his own discovery rather than buy one of those. Currently he has an Esoteric D07 DAC on loan from a dealer, so we were able to insert the Invicta directly into that setup and compare.
Three of us spent the better part of a day listening and comparing. All three agreed that the Esoteric D07 was completely outclassed by the Invicta. I also prefer my older D70 by a decent margin. I personally think the system even sounded better without the D07, just using the analog outs of the Krell. This was a disappointment to me as I’ve always enjoyed Esoteric gear. The D07 is a visually stunning piece of equipment but for nearly $5000 its sonics were underwhelming. The Invicta was more transparent, with a more full bodied sound, better micro detail, and significantly more expansive soundstage. The Esoteric had very fast transients and an interestingly focused presentation, but that just wasn’t enough. It is going back to the dealer and his quest will continue. He was very impressed with the Invicta but since I’m the one who heard of it first he probably won’t get one.
Of particular interest to HeadFi readers is the integrated headphone amp section. Along with the built in SD card playback, this enables the Invicta to be a complete stand alone system. Just add headphones and you have a compact, very high quality solution.
There are actually 2 headphone jacks. Each can be independently adjusted for volume or even disabled if needed. I couldn’t perceive any differences between the two, and it seemed that the two operate completely separate from each other - turning one side off and on repeatedly was not audible via the other jack. This section is fed by an ES9016 DAC chip, which is theoretically a step down from the main ES9018 that feeds the rear output section. I couldn’t discern any major differences between the two, aside from what can be accounted for by the use of a separate headphone amp. Again, I don’t know why the ES9016 was required, but it doesn’t seem to be a compromise at all.
I mentioned earlier that the amp is not particularly power packed. You’d never know that by listening to most headphones though; in fact if anything it has a bold, dynamic sound signature that makes you think it is very powerful. Of course we should not judge amps solely by their voltage/current ratings, but a thin sound could be one indication that your amp is not delivering enough juice.
The sound signature of the amp section is very enjoyable. Big, bold, powerful sounding, but with plenty of detail as well. It reminds me of the Violectric “house sound” in many ways. They both do very well with bass control and impact, and both have very natural mids. They also both have an inky black background, which helps them have exceptional detail retrieval. There are some distinctions though; the Invicta amp seems to be a little more airy on top, with highs being more forward. The Violectric sound tends towards a smooth, relaxed top end, so the Invicta just has more energy here. Even the upper mids have this same feeling. With certain headphones (Ultrasone Edition 8, 1964-T, Sennheiser HD600) I preferred the Invicta’s presentation, but with many others (HD800, W1000, AC2, LA7000, Merlin) I felt the Violectric V200 was a better match. The Invicta also had a slight edge in terms of soundstage depth, which is not the strongest point of the V200. But at this level soundstage is already very large and realistic, so to me it wasn’t very significant. Some people go nuts over that sort of thing and for them the improvement might be more appreciable.
If I have to find any downsides to the amp section, it would be two things: high output impedance and low overall power. Both of these things will likely be addressed before the production run is released. As it stands I found the low power to factor in during high level listening on the HD800 or Beyerdynamic DT990, as well as listening to my custom Orthodynamics. Those are very hard to drive and the Invicta could only power them to what I’d call medium volumes. This works fine for some music, and not as well for other types. The other potential issue was with the high output impedance. That could mean potential interactions with lower impedance headphones, resulting in unpredictable frequency response variations. I only found one specific instance of this, and that was when using the Unique Melody Merlin. These custom molded in-ear-monitors are a hybrid design using a single dynamic driver for lows and quad balanced armature drivers for mids and highs. They have a nominal impedance of just 12 ohms and a fairly complex 3-way crossover. When I drive them with the Invicta amp section they sound quite good, but do I perceive an easily noticeable boost in the low bass region. This actually ends up sounding very nice, but it could have just as easily sounded bad instead. That’s the downside of impedance mismatching: you never know what might happen. The funny thing about that particular result is that it is actually the “correct” sound. My Merlin is a prototype. The final version, which is just now shipping, happens to have roughly 5 to 6 dB more volume from about 200Hz and below. I think the Invicta is giving me a good approximation of that final sound signature, just by chance. If I happen to get my final version of the Merlin before I send back the Invicta, I suspect it would end up with too much bass. But as I said the impedance issue is definitely being addressed, and Resonessence will hopefully follow through with their idea of increasing power as well.
Those two issues aside, the amp section is very high quality. It certainly competes in many ways with my favorite (and fairly expensive) dedicated amps including the Violectric V200, the Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, and the Luxman P-1u. It is also roughly on par with the excellent on board amp section of the Anedio D1. The D1 seems a little more neutral, while the Invicta is more warm and lively. The Anedio has more power and can push my Orthos a little farther. But overall they are very competitive. The point is that the potential Invicta customer is not just buying a high end DAC, but a top class headphone amp as well. If they released the amp section as a stand-alone product, it could certainly justify a 4 figure price tag.
After spending some time with the Resonessence Invicta, I’ve come to a few conclusions. First is that it is the absolute best DAC I have ever heard, and the price is very reasonable considering its status as a state of the art device. Second is that I’m still undecided whether or not I would actually buy it. I know that sounds contradictory. If it was a few years ago I certainly would have chosen it over my more expensive MBL and Esoteric DACs. And if I didn’t have a bunch of gear already, but was simply interested in a single device that could do it all, I would absolutely jump on the Invicta. And even if I did have my current equipment, but life permitted me to listen with speakers more often, I might still take the plunge on it. But I’m limited to mostly headphone use in the foreseeable future, I’m very happy with my Anedio DAC, and frankly I might get in trouble with the wife if I make another big purchase. So at this point I might just pass on it for a while.
That being said, if someone is in the market for an ultra high quality DAC, I have zero hesitations in recommending the Invicta. If someone was considering the Berkeley Alpha, Weiss DAC202, Ayre QB-9, or Antelope Zodiac Gold, I strongly suggest they try their best to audition the Resonessence Invicta as well. I suspect those are the “competing DACs” that Resonessence has already done comparisons with. I’m not clear if they plan on establishing a dealer network or just selling internet direct, but I know Mark and Ken would be willing to work with serious buyers to make something happen. This DAC absolutely deserves to be heard.
On their website Resonessence uses the line “What if the most technologically advanced design also performed the best in listening tests?” In my admittedly limited experience with it, the Invicta does seem to live up to those claims. With several features scheduled to improve before launch, and the ability to enable even more functionality down the road, I think Resonessence has an absolute winner on their hands. It isn’t cheap, but I highly recommend it if your budget allows.
Edited by project86 - 6/21/11 at 12:04pm