With all the noise being made by both Sony and Pono you’d be forgiven for thinking that hi-res audio in 2014 was all about soft media. It isn’t. Not everyone has given up on selling physical formats to the consumer and some music fans won’t buy anything but. Since mid-2013 we’ve seen a slow trickle of Blu-Ray ‘Pure Audio’ releases from Universal, Sony and Warner.
Not everyone is ready to landfill his or her existing disc spinner in favour of computer-ised playback either. However, it might surprise you to learn that Blu-ray players come with (output) limitations. Many newer models don’t ship with analogue outputs (see ‘analog sunset’) and those that do might pack output stages that leave a lot to be desired in terms of sound quality. Weak and diluted is how I hear my $100 Laser BLU-BD1000 player when direct connected to an amplifier. It was purchased primarily for its region-free status with both DVD and Blu-ray discs.
Thinking that any external DAC will see you right is to be mistaken. The S/PDIF output on all Blu-ray players is capped at 24bit/48kHz; that’s fine for movie concert soundtracks that don’t exceed the 48kHz sample rate (as we saw in Part 1 of this review) but it’s far from ideal if you’re looking to get into the nooks and crannies of discs that pack 24bit/96kHz or 24bit/192kHz audio. The coaxial output will get down-sampled every time.
Between finishing Part 1 and starting Part 2 the display on the HDACC failed. To Bob Rapoport’s credit a fresh unit was dispatched within 24 hours.
On the front foot of the Essence’s HDACC (US$699) marketing push is its HDMI input.
The ‘Pure Audio’ Blu-ray release of Beck’s Sea Change sells for around US$25 and comes loaded with 24bit/192kHz audio streams in both 5.1 surround and stereo mixes. That’s a step up in resolution (and price) from the HDTracks version, which clocks in at 24bit/88kKz for US$17.98.
As is common with many vinyl LPs sold today, the outer packaging boasts a voucher for a free download of the album contained within. Even with a product so specifically designed for better sound quality, the resulting download remains MP3. Oh, the irony.
To tap the ‘Pure Audio’ disc’s full resolution there is but the one way. The HDACC must de-embed the stereo audio stream over HDMI: the Laser’s HDMI output connected to the HDACC’s HDMI input, the HDACC’s HDMI output to the TV (for video pass through).
The Essence DAC’s single-ended analogue outputs were connected to a REDGUM RGi60 integrated amplifier driving Zu Soul MKII; an impressively dynamic system through which to hear a hi-res version of Beck’s best album to date.
The BIG question immediately sat down for drinks: would a difference between a 24bit/192kHz Blu-ray disc and a 16/44.1 Redbook CD be readily discernible? The Pono player conversation has seen commentators fall divided on the worth of hi-res audio for the average Joe. Audiophiles are a different breed of listener –they bring a keener collective ear to the table. It’s to these folk that Essence’s Bob Rapoport is aiming with the HDACC.
Also stopping by for drinks were a couple of audiophile pals – when the deltas threaten to be small I find it beneficial to have second and third opinions to hand. With different seating positions and different listener priorities, this panel of three bounced between a factory-pressed Blu-ray disc and home-burned (from FLAC) Redbook CD of Sea Change.
Conclusions? The Blu-ray version communicated slightly more finesse, delicacy and texture. The difference between the two formats wasn’t huge but neither was it too small to dismiss. If the Blu-ray disc were to score a (collectively agreed) 9/10, the Redbook CD wasn’t far behind at 8/10. As control, a Spotify stream of the same Beck album was fed into the HDACC’s USB input. It notched up an equally subjective 6/10, with one listener commenting on its comparative two-dimensional soundstaging.
Blu-rayed over HDMI, the silver disc has a slight edge on the USB fed HDTracks download. Maybe. I’m only 90% sure so let’s go with ‘too close to call with certainty’. And if a difference did exist, one couldn’t be certain that it wasn’t attributable to the different transmission protocols (HDMI vs USB) rather than a lower sample rate (192kHz vs. 88kHz).
In the absence of HDMI decoded rivals, the HDACC was compared with the Resonessence Labs Concero HD (US$850) – a USB input standoff with Audirvana+ in charge. Whilst the Concero HD displayed slightly more micro-dynamic illumination and separation, the differences were small, similar in magnitude to that of the earlier jump from Redbook to hi-res Blu-ray. The control DAC, an Audio-gd NFB-3 (2014 version, US$499), bested both rivals in communicating finer details with greater energy and caffeination. The Audio-gd was also better extended at both ends of the frequency spectrum – more air, bigger bass.
That said, the Audio-gd might prove to be too in-yr-face for already highly resolving systems, for which the Essence HDACC (or Resonessence Labs) unit would be preferable.
And then there’s the issue of feature set. A veritable Swiss Army knife, this is where the HDACC pulls away from the competition. Although not a true balanced implementation like the Audio-gd, the Essence offers both singled AND balanced outputs. It’ll also serve as a remote controllable, digital pre-amplifier for those happy to withstand the slight compromises of deep digital attenuation. Some consideration of your matching power amplifier’s input sensitivity will be required here.
The HDACC is far from an exclusive party – all manner of listeners are invited. Adjacent to rear-facing, single-ended outputs we see single-ended inputs for a phono stage or second DAC. On the front panel a 3.5mm input socket for iDevice connection.
Headphone enthusiasts get to tap a quarter inch socket. User-selectable impedance values (16, 32, 64, 200, 300 and 600 Ohms) sees even reference-level models like the Sennheiser HD800 driven to more than adequate levels (and beyond). However, I reckon warmer-sounding headphones work best. Mr Speakers Mad Dog proved a more suitable counterbalance to the HDACC’s super-energetic, sometimes nervy delivery.
You get a LOT of D/A converter for your money with the Essence HDACC. At time of writing it’s one of the keenest priced entry points into the world of third party hi-res Blu-ray decoding. Well worthy of further investigation if you feel your own disc spinner’s DAC and output stage aren’t up to muster and you want to dine in on physical hi-res formats.
‘Pure Audio’ Blu-ray titles are now available from the likes of Supertramp, Genesis, Nirvana, The Velvet Undergound, Tears For Fears, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis.
- Laser BLU-BD1000
- Apple MacMini w/ Audirvana+
- Resonessence Labs Concero HD
- Audio-gd NFB-3 (2014 version)
- REDGUM Rgi60
- Zu Soul MKII
- Mr Speakers Mad Dog
- Sennheiser HD800
- Beck – Sea Change (2002)
Postscript: If only my dealings with Essence CEO Bob Rapoport had been as pleasant as my time with his product. Rapoport’s numerous attempts to corrupt the review process, first by insisting that he approve the review prior to publication and then attempting to hitch his advertising commitments to review coverage, were both met with firm resistance from yours truly:
When Rapoport later requested that I strike a comment from Part 1 – in which I stated that the HDACC isn’t as strong a performer as rivals DACs from Schitt Audio or Resonessence Labs – an even firmer stance was called for:
Alas, Rapoport’s attempts at interfering with DAR’s editorial content didn’t end there. After the review had wrapped, he tried to promote his own product with a comment ‘neath a news story about an ADL/Furutech DAC. Not the worse crime against DAR but given his prior ‘offences’ it necessitated the following email:
Rapoport’s sense of entitlement to unfettered access to news announcements resulted in numerous emails that both cajoled and harassed. My resolve not run the piece therefore stiffened but emails, in which our man in Florida tried to claim an advertiser’s right to editorial support, kept on coming.
In an attempt to deal with the issue man-to-man and offline, I phoned Rapoport one evening. It did not go well. He screamed at me down the line for a full two minutes before I could do nothing but hang up – oh how I wish I’d recorded that call. Unsurprisingly, an email soon went out the door in which I politely but firmly requested that Rapoport never contact me again:
I am aware of Rapoport’s ongoing attempts to besmirch my reputation and integrity both behind the scenes and on his Facebook page. DAR’s legal team is also up to speed.
However, Rapoport is no stranger to legal action: PurePower successfully sued him in 2012 to the tune of over half a million bucks for his attempts to defraud dealers and distributors with counterfeit product. A judgement that was upheld in 2014.
Perhaps this is why Rapoport seems so desperate for positive review and news coverage of his company’s product line?
The Essence HDACC will rate no further mention on DAR. To do so would be to tacitly recommend it – something that I cannot do with a clear conscience. It’s not that it’s a bad unit, it’s just that when you buy a product you also buy into the manufacturer’s world. And in my direct and rather unpleasant experience, Rapoport’s world is built on his failed attempts to strong-arm journalists like yours truly and discredit them when those attempts fail to yield results. That makes Bob Rapoport a bully. For shame.