Xonar Essence III First Impressions
I bought an Essence III. I’ve listened for a few hours over both speakers and headphones with it, and so far I’m impressed. Going directly from an Essence One Muses Edition to the Essence III there’s 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 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 or something. 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 makes it feel strange when you turn the knob and it jumps between volume levels in sudden steps. Something you’ll have to 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, such as when the dac switches between sample rates there’s no longer a stutter to the sound like the Essence One has. This was a slight annoyance with the Essence One, but it didn’t bother me too much since I wasn’t jumping between sample rates too often. 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.
So, finally on to the sound. 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 comes across as more neutral, though not excessively so. It has a somewhat smooth and “analog” character to the sound, but it’s not doing it at the expense of details.
This style of sound is perfect for the Sennheiser HD 800, which is the only headphone I’ve had time to use with the Essence III so far. 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 Muses Edition has a peculiar character to the treble. Sometimes it can sound cold and harsh in a bad way, while at other times the style works 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 to it.
I don’t know if it’s because of the increased emphasis on the midrange now compared to the Muses Edition, but details in songs are popping out at me which I hadn’t noticed before. 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. This is what makes the Essence III more detailed. The layers are laid bare with ease, and I’m able to peer into the mix and hear the subtleties that make 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 sound, and the Essence III is doing this better than the Essence One. Quickly jumping between all the studio albums of an artist now brings forward the unique character of each album. So I’m now hearing the music itself in better clarity, and the dac is leaving less of its own sound on the music.
To conclude 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. So I can’t make any statements about if it’s “the best of its class” or anything like that. All I can say for sure is that I feel like I got what I paid for. It’s really good.
EDIT: Made a minor addition to make it more comprehensive.
Edited by TheManko - 12/17/13 at 11:19pm