ASUS Essence III


100+ Head-Fier
Pros: Smooth and organic presentation, decent HPO, very decent DAC, functionality
Cons: plastic knobs, mini-XLR's can be tricky to some people, not a huge fan of the fronr


So yeah, finally I was able to sit down, gather my thoughts and write what's below. Xonar Essence III is a very special product for me. Reason behind this statement is simple: it was able to replace one particular device I was very attached to over last two years or so. For now I won't write down what's the name of brick that had to go, but it had to and that's a fact. Xonar Essence III got me a bit closer to the sound I always liked to hear, cost no object wise. In the long run I'm aiming at AMR DP-777 or Aqua Audio La Scala. Yup, big toys, and they have some things in common, both in terms of sound and build. NOS multibit d/a converters and tubes? It has to be good if you ask me. I've heard stage four Lampizator more than two years ago, and got hooked up. Device internally built like that is my way out, for now I'm fooling myself that having one of those similarily designed bricks I'll be finally able to stop DAC searches and focus on some serious class A monos. Not that NuForce RE9 V3SE I use are bad or something. 
Anyway, Xonar Essence III arrived, and as I wrote, it got me a bit closer to two things I'm really after these days; smoothnes and as much organic presentation as possible. Both are something plainly obvious when multibits and tubes are on the table. I'm into audio long enough to know that's my Holy Grail. Soundwise, smoothness, organic, natural and lifelike presentation is a big thing in my book. And when it comes down to Asus - also novelty. Those aspects of sound were beyond reach in products of that company (and many other as well) thus far. And yes, I've heard each and every DAC and soundcard Asus has in portfolio. I'm not saying that desktop solutions of that particular manufacturer aren't musical. Yet, certain level, or intensity if you will, of sound aspects I've mentioned above are reserved for far more expensive devices. And when I'm talking expensive, I mean Auralic Vega or PS Audio DirectStreamDAC. But that's another story, and another step in delivering me what I want to hear.
My first contact with Essence III model was in December 2013. And it has been with me ever since. Polish Asus folks were kind enough to let me use it when the device wasn't needed. And since very little people are interested in and capable of reviewing that kind of equipment, it was with me almost constantly over last couple months. So I got lots of time to know it, and compare to other devices. Because I don't want to overwhelm you guys with too much of a lecture, I'll try to keep the crucial parts as short as possible.
Two, scratch that, three disclaimers before we go:
1. I hadn't payed for Xonar Essence III, it was delivered to me as a free sample, no journalistic surprises or secrets here. It came directly from Asus HQ.
2. I'm not affiliated with companies mentioned in this article in neither financial, nor personal way. Though, obviously, I know PR people working there, but we get along only on professional level and that's it. To be honest, lady from polish Asus crew helped me to get things done.
3. Sorry about my language skills, I'm aware that they could use some improvement. But I honestly believe that by writing stuff such as this review I'll get better. If you consider yourself as a language purist and are afraid your eyes might fall off, please stop reading here. 
List of music I used is quite vast: Nine Inch Nails, Bat For Lashes, Rebecca Pidgeon, Einsturzende Neubauten, Corvus Corax, The Knife, Fever Ray, early albums of Mike Oldfield, Filter, Wardruna, Pig, Ministry, Michael Goddard/Monteverdi, Dead Can Dance, KMFDM, Jarboe, Muse, David Lynch, Therion and some Chesky's stuff to name a few. No additional details are needed here, but if someone asks about specific tracks, I'll gladly answer. 

Thoughts about build quality

I won't wirte about materials used in Xonar Essence III, as this is commonly known thing. What I can do is to tell you guys what I think about it overall. To make it short, to me Xonar Essence III isn't quite "there" yet. The reasoning is simple: many  devices similarily priced to Asus flagship are a tad better on this particular field. More on that below. I'm almost certain that one or two persons agree with me here, and most of you know what I'm talking about. Metal chasis is nothing wrong, as I don't demand CNC milled aluminum, which is the best possible thing in my eyes btw. But when getting into big league you have to act like a pro, as competition is fierce. There's no room for cutting corners there.
For instance, I don't like plastic knobs in Essence III model. Badly. Even though those are OK in terms of practical use, they feel cheap. I know it's a small detail, but I often use them and it always strikes me that they are what they are. And after those several months of having Xonar Essence III, those got a bit loose. Also, I'm not a huge fan of mini-XLR's. Yes, they do look nice, and yes, they work as they should. But I had to reterminate some of my cables in order to test the brick after all. I've found some XLR to mini-XLR wires inside of the box, but the bigger ends were male, hence no use of them anyway. It's a manufacturer mistake if you'll ask me. I'm aware that this might be quickly reterminated, so this fairly sad story has its end fairly quickly, but for the sake of the facts I needed to share this with you. Another thing that doesn't rock my boat is front plate. From pure aesthetic point of view, and I consider myself as a person who pays attention to slightest details, that kind of finish doesn't go nicely with the rest. But please bear in mind it's one of those subjective things to point out. I don't see them as a flaw of the product. My guess is that Asus devs decided to use brushed aluminum plate just because rest of Essence models have them as well. It's about somewhat visual integrity of whole "family". Yet, In my eyes Xonar Essence III is something way different in comparison to other models Asus has in portfolio. Therefore and in my opinion devs shouldn't stick to previous, less expensive Essence devices so much in terms of presentation. In the end and judging solely by its looks, for me Xonar Essence III doesn't look and isn't externally built like a $1500+ device. $1000-ish? Maybe, but nothing above that. I just don't feel that build quality. Then again, it's a kind of subjective thing to write.    
Some people say that volume bypass in Essence III is awkward, for me it works like a charm. It just gets job done, no surprises here. Also, two volume knobs is a good thing to have purely from usability point of view. At least for me, as I often switch between my speakers and heapdones. Buttons are enjoyably clicky and work as they should. Yet, switching between inputs takes some time, more than usual, and I'd appreciate if it could be faster in the future. Though it's fair to write that I got used to each and every "not so good" apect of Xonar Essence III I've mentioned above. Those things aren't dealbreakers by all means, I live with them every day, sound quality rewards them, but we'll get to that in a moment. Xonar Essence III is also well made under the hood. Clean job so to speak, nice components, some more popular than other, but I have nothing negative to write here. I did some op-amp rolling in the very beginning, but shortly I returned to stock ones, those proved themselves to be that good to my ears. The rest (d/a conversion, capacitors, USB reciever, power supplym, TXCO clocks etc.) is known to you guys so I'll skip that part. 


Right, now it's time to reveal which device Xonar Essence III replaced: NuForce DAC-9. It's noticeably cheaper device, but really, really good soundwise. The price difference between them is in my eyes justified and simple to explain. Asus product has much more complex headphone amplifier, and I believe that's the key here. HPO in DAC-9 is just for the sake of functionality of that device, nothing more. NuForce flagship d/a converter is designed to work as a source mainly, and I'm sure everyone is now aware of that fact. Anyway, when I compared line-outs in DAC-9 and Essence III models, I used the same amplification and device. I connected them to JKSPDIF MK3. Then I used 2x NuForce REF9 V3SE monos and KEF LS50 monitors. Cabling was my all time favourite Forza AudioWorks happy family. Onto the good stuff we go now.
The sound quality of both d/a converters is on similar level overall, but they do some things differently. Essence III model is more polite, organic and smoothest sounding one. DAC-9 is more vigorous device, it presents lows in more punchy way, they go a bit deeper as well. Yet, DAC-9 bass has more rigid texturing and is a bit more hearable in his mid and high sections. I don't like midbass hump, but for KEF's LS50 it works like a charm. Onto mids we go. Both devices have them similar in terms of quantity and texture. But for the second time the biggest difference between the bricks comes into play - Essence III is much more smoother sounding device, more enjoyable in the long run, at least with rest of the setup I use on a daily basis. Detailing and resolution are again on par, amount of high frequencies is also comparable. But then again, Asus device has them more smooth, and audibly more extended. I'm not sure about typical listener, but for me that smoothness and effortless presentation is something I'm after. That's why DAC-9 had to go. And when I look in the past, that brick wasn't considered by me as a harsh, or clinically precise device. DAC-9 in comparison with many products sounds a bit analogue. But Essence III has that kind of presentation on another, obviously higher level. At least to my ears.
Headphone amplifier in Xonar Essence III demanded another approach. I paired this DAC with Audio-GD Phoenix via balanced cabling. To be honest, HD 800 are amplification demanding monsters, but quality is the case here, they need special treatment in order to get maximum possible synergy. Hence use of Phoenix, it's a kind of obvious and not so expensive choice to make when someone owns HD 800. For some people Audio-Gd amp sounds neutral, for me it's a bit dark, and it's most definitly darker than HPO in Xonar Essence III. Phoenix is on some fields better; lows have better dynamics and go deeper for example. Essence III on the other hand has them more round, softer and polite overall. Does this resemble the story with line-outs above to you guys? It should. Phoenix sounds more precise and resolving. Essence III pumps up mids a bit, this device makes them sound fuller, meatier. It's not that its opponent sounds thin, nothing like that. It's just HD 800 will accept any kind of fullnes with open arms, they need it in my opinion. Yes, that meatiness HPO in Essence III offers is connected directly with a bit weaker detailing and resolution. But it sounds musical, and I'm all for it when it comes down to my favourite headphones. Essence III has more highs, but that's kinda obvious thing to write, Phoenix tends to recess them a bit. But both devices are very good on that particular field, nothing sparks, no razorblades near my eardrums what so ever. Let me just say, that in the end I've sold my phoenix. Even though Essence III HPO isn't as good on technical wise, it delivers. At least with HD 800 and headphones alike. I've tried LCD-2 as well, but it wasn't good neither with Phoenix, nor with Essence III HPO. Too big veil there, but that's not a surprise. LCD-2 need special, transparent and painfully punchy treatment to sound good IMO, and Essence III is about smoothness and metiness more than anything else. And this device does it very well.

To sum things up

So yes, considering all things above, in the end I'm more than happy. That's true that Asus could have done some things a bit better. And yes, Xonar Essence III has a hell of a competition on the market these days, real sharks swimming nearby. But one thing I know: do not make mistake of discrediting that device because of its non-audiopphile roots and "parents". Besides in $1000+ price range I believe that it all comes down to sound preferences and synergies more than anything else. And here, my friends, Xonar Essence III shines, especially for me and people equipped similary. I'm HD 800 and LS50 junkie after all. Hence, with Xonar Essence III I have synergy I need to enjoy my music. Although my road is nowere near the end, this device showed me, that I actually can get satisfying smoothness without going madly after excellent Auralic Vega and similarily priced devices. So for now Essence III model works like a charm, and it's a keeper.
If someone asks me for how long it'll stay with me, I have 100% accurate answer already. I'll switch my sources when AMR DP-777SE is available. But let's not forget it's a $5000 brick. It's an obvious step up for me, but it's also three times more expensive than Xonar Essence III. That's the jump I'm going to make, but till then, I'm perfectly happy in the place I'm currently standing. Oh yes, and one fact needs to be brought up. I listen to PS Audio DirectStreamDAC loaner lately and I love this device. Not as much as AMR DP-777 but still it's a very strong feeling between me and this DAC. It's been with me for couple weeks now. I'll have to send it back very soon. In order not to be shocked, I've put into my setup Essence III again. The result? No big deal, that device still delivers. And that particular experience showed me clearly how good it actually is sound wise. Yes, I could go DirectStreamDAC or Vega right away, money is not an issue here. But instead I'm waiting and I'm having a blast with Essence III. Ain't that something?

Bottom line:

If anyone asks me whether he/she should or should not consider Asus flagship seriously having $1500 on hand, I'll just say: "Yes, go for it, try it, you have my blessing". No doubt here. Asus guys learn fast how audiophile market works and what it needs these days, so I'm waiting impatiently for their next big move. They know what they're doing and I'm sure we'll be surprised by them more than once in the future.
Very detailed review dude. Well done. 


Galvanically isolated his brain
Pros: Very natural sounding DAC with a built-in balanced headamp to top it off
Cons: Pricey
Hey guys, so I recently had the opportunity to try the E3 and I thought a review would be in good order as it seems rather clear that Asus are really nailing down the needs of the audiophile niche market with a product that would appear to have gone through quite a lot of thoughts.
First thing first, it shares the same 70's look as the STU but this picture found on google makes obvious that the E3 isn't just a STU with better chips:

Same design but the comparison stops here

Here goes for what's in the box:  
It's good to see that there's a remote control(which is luxury in the audiophile DAC market), XLR to mini-XLR adapters(more on this later) and an IR extension cord so you could extend the IR reception should you not be sitting directly in front of the DAC.
It comes with all the inputs and outputs you would expect from a DAC in this price range: provided better internal pics that I could ever make myself, they're visible at
It's good to see that it's using two low-jitter TCXO clocks for 44.1/48kHz multiples, a 2oz copper PCB for better thermal management and a rather complicated DC servo circuit that will keep DC offset at bay at every stage.
Asus have not picked the usual PCM179x chips from TI this time but went with AD1955 in a true balanced dual-mono topology with separate analog/digital & power boards from start to end, the overkill approach gets things done

A few quotes on AD1955:
What's interesting is highend DAC makers are using the AD1955 like the Lavry Black DA10. Lavry did a lot of analysis of all the chips and picked the AD1955. He has a lot of info on his website forum pages.

It also received the highest grades at the bottom of this DAC chips shoot-out and was considered to be "too analytic":
This is not the first AD1955 based DAC I'm hearing and I can certainly confirm that AD1955 sounds analytic and will ensure that every tiny bit of ambience and sound cues get through, Lavry is known for his uncompromising approach and he also went with AD1955 for a good reason.
All this said, a DAC chip is nothing without post-filtering and Asus chose the ceramic packaged AD827 and Muses02...the name of the latter might make it sound like a downgraded Muses01 but they are actually both of the highest grade the Muses line-up has to offer, the difference being that they use different internal designs:
The MUSES01 is a dual J-FET operational amplifier, and the MUSES02 is a bipolar input dual op amp. Both of these high-quality amplifiers are optimized for high-end and professional audio applications using unique materials, advanced circuitry and layout, and skilled craftsmanship. Applications for these op amps include audio preamplifiers, active filters, and line amplifiers that produce excellent sound.

It's not like bipolar is better or worse than J-FET, it's just that Asus went 02 because it was a better fit for their DAC post-filtering stages.
Finally, the headamp section is using as much as six LME49600TS chips, two of them on the unbalanced output and four of them for balanced operation.
Each of these chips can output up to 250mA, which is a lot more than your usual opamp:
And last but not least, the E3 volume control goes through a remote-controlled relay-based 0.1% tolerance stepped attenuator. That translates into no channel imbalance and no hard-clicking pot with a zillion resistors attached to it(that might age badly down the road), this is the best scenario if you don't want to lose bit-depth resolution by applying volume attenuation in the digital realm.
Asus is one of the very few manufacturers who gladly provide Audio Precision measurements, the crosstalk/dynamic range and THD+N figures are rather self-explanatory:

The E3 comes with a switch to disable volume attenuation on the line-out, should you prefer to attenuate volume in your external receiver/amp:
And there is also a USB Audio Class 1.0/2.0 switch:
In UAC1 mode, the E3 will support 44.1/48/88.2/96kHz@16/24bit without the need for any driver on any OS and UAC2(which will still work driver-free on Linux/MacOS but will require drivers on Windows) will add 176.4/192kHz and DSD64/DSD128 support.
This is the first DSD-capable DAC I'm using and getting DSD to play in foobar was really as easy as the PDF tutorials Asus provide claimed. I brought the E3 to a friend of mine who's a JRiver user and DSD was also a breeze to setup.
So I've been using the E3 daily for a week now:

Using my beloved vintage orthos(most of them being both recabled and rehoused), a highly shielded USB cable and a digital library made of SD/HD PCM and DSD material.
I've heard my good share of $1K/$2K/$3K DAC's by now, and the E3 sure didn't disappoint

It always seems to extract a truckload of details through a both very deep and wide 3D SS without ever sounding harsh, agressive, over-percussive or flabby/laid-back, it's all so natural sounding and satisfying to listen to. Audio is merely an illusion and I believe the goal of a DAC is to sound as natural as possible by coloring the sound as little as possible and the one word that comes to mind when hearing the E3 is truly "natural". The E3 is all about making things sound life-like so it's a perfect fit for any kind of acoustic music, surround movies, jazz, classical, funk, reggae and so on.
Bassy music is a real treat as bass is extremely textured and versatile, no "euphonic" colored high-THD discrete buffer this time. Bass response is not overblown, it won't take over the rest of the spectrum and it really sounds "liquid" and well balanced with the rest of the music. This is where their choice of opamps sounds like a winner all the way.
It should also be noted that all opamps are swappable and I initially thought I would solder a few OPA827's and give them a shot but after more in-depth listening, I really don't see the point.......opamp rolling is usually a good idea when the manufacturer went cheap and provided swappable sockets so you could install more advanced chips by yourself but IIRC Asus said that they voiced the E3 against a few other top performing DAC's and it's not hard to hear that they chose AD827 and Muses02 after extensive listening sessions

And let's not forget to mention the icing on the cake, the balanced headamp

Why balanced? Why would it matter? Well, unbalanced cables will act as RF antennas and it's even more true when most headphones cables aren't shielded due to the extra weight.
Balanced operation will drastically increase noise rejection and that will also mean that both transducers of the headphones will run off their own discrete amplication stage, the ground planes of both channels won't be shared anymore.
There is no standard for balanced headphones termination, two 3-pin XLR connectors used to be the industry's choice but these were heavy and are being more and more replaced by a single 4-pin XLR.
Asus chose to go with two 3-pin mini-XLR connectors and provide XLR to mini-XLR adapters, OTOH if your balanced cable is using a single 4-pin XLR you will need to build your own adapter.
You will also need to do some homework if your headphones are currently unbalanced with a shared ground as you will have to unshare their common ground and solder two mini-XLR connectors instead of a single stereo jack connector:
And here goes with my favorite ortho recabled for balanced operation(the camera flash made the DAC front look grainy for some reason):
I spent a few hours listening to it with the default unbalanced 1/4" jack connection, then I soldered those two mini-XLR connectors and I can certainly confirm that this has increased sound quality by quite a bit(yet again
) and greeted me with a bigger and wider soundstage, a more focused sound and a "thicker" bass response...this was well worth the hassle and I can assure every E3 owner that knitting an adapter of their own or soldering new plugs wouldn't be a waste of their time.
All in all, it seems that after Asus started chasing on the internal PC soundcard market and then the sub-$1K DAC territory, they figured they might as well go hunt in the price-no-object highly demanding audiophile DAC niche market and put their expertise to good use by providing the best of what their know-how would allow them to design...Well, the E3 sure sounds like it to my ears /o/
Be warned that once you'll get to hear the E3 through balanced terminated headphones, you might very well need to resign yourself to the fact that its sound is worth the admission price and that there is no escape...the rabbit hole does go deeper and deeper and...
Asus reps took the pricing of the E3 to the stratosphere compared the the E1. Overall well well written up as always. Thank you


100+ Head-Fier
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.
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I agree the volume control isn't precise enough with 24 steps. It'd need twice or triple that to be perfect. But I assume that would add to the cost. I've also noticed the heat on the underside, but I haven't done anything about it since it wasn't hot enough to feel like a problem. But that's a nice workaround!
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