Features wise, the Essence ‘HD Audio Center’ (HDACC) is a tall glass of water. Let’s dive in. It’s a remote controllable digital pre-amp with balanced and unbalanced outputs. Recalling Mytek’s equally tricked out Stereo192-DSD DAC, the HDACC’s remote drives a menu system that features (among other things) bypassable digital volume attenuation, bypassable sample rate conversion that runs the full gamut from 44.1kHz to 192kHz and headphone impedance values of 16, 32, 64, 200, 300 and 600 Ohms. The mini plastic controller also allows for one-press input selection and volume up/down.
Dropping in, twists of lemon and lime: two analogue inputs (3.5mm jack on the front and 2 x RCA out back) feed an internal A/D converter. This keeps vinyl heads in the picture – terrific. Coaxial and optical digital outputs stretch flexibility still further. Power comes from a 5V DC SMPS, the cable on which is annoyingly short – pretty much my only niggle. In the context of its US$699 sticker price, the Essence HDACC impresses from the outset.
Digital inputs? Three standard issue sockets: coaxial, optical and USB.
As a standalone USB DAC, both the Schiit Bifrost Uber w/ Gen 2 USB and Resonessence Labs Concero HD are a soupçon more satisfying with tone and texture than the Essence…
…then comes the HDACC’s kicker: HDMI. With input and output sockets on the back, the Essence unit waves the HDMI video right on through (to your TV/display) whilst extracting the audio for D/A conversion. Due to bandwidth limitations of coaxial and optical – as well as pesky DRM – the highest resolution possible over S/PDIF is a down-sampled 48kHz. To access the full monty the disc MUST be in the tray and the player connected by HDMI v1.3 or higher — this is the only way to extract full high-resolution audio from Blu-ray discs. The HDACC must first HDCP handshake with the Blu-ray player before it can receive the all-important bitstream feed.
Essence’s Bob Rapoport explains it this way, “The disc has a bunch of soundtracks on it. If you connect via bitstream and choose the DTS MasterHD soundtrack on the disc’s title page audio set-up, all of the low-res versions are included. We pass that signal along on our HDMI output too. However, inside our DAC, we are able to de-embed the uncompressed LPCM 24.96K as 2.0, 5.1, or 7.1 soundtracks, ‘derived’ from the DTS MasterHD soundtrack but not requiring DTS decoding. This is possible because the [Blu-ray] Standards Committee had to consider those who would buy discs and not have access to a Dolby or DTS decoder. In exchange for being approved as options, ensuring their royalty streams, Dolby and DTS are required to allow their content to be output as LPCM files at the highest resolution as long as the security protocols are in place.”
CNET host a solid Blu-ray audio primer here.
My Blu-ray player is a cheapie: an $80 Laser BLU-BD1000, chosen not just for wallet friendliness but because of its multi-region status with both DVD and Blu-ray. Even before we get to talk of hi-resolution audio, it’s worth noting that the Essence DAC presents music in a more relaxed manner than the internal decoder found in my Laser player. Comparatively, the Laser’s analogue output sounds weaker, more diluted; not atypical characteristics of budget D/A converters and pretty much expected for a sub-$100 product. The Laser’s lower bass is mostly MIA, lending it that tipped-up vibe. Not unpleasant per se but it’s the comparative information that we’re interested in here.
The take home? Irrespective of data stream choices, the Essence will likely lend an audio upgrade to most budget Blu-ray hardware solutions. The sound is more open, better separate, more dynamic and more elastic. This alone is justification enough for the Essence DAC. If you’ve a budget disc spinner but don’t want to go all the way to an A/V receiver, holding tight to your existing amplifier, the HDACC provides the missing digital link. If your Blu-ray player is one of the increasing number to feature only an HDMI output (thanks to 2013’s analogue sunset) then again the Essence piece could intercede.
I was hitherto unaware of the substantial number of live concerts and Blu-ray audio discs coming to market. Universal are pushing Blu-ray audio forward with their 24bit/96-192kHz ‘Pure Audio’ releases: Nirvana, Marvin Gaye, Supertramp, John Lennon count among 60+ titles already available for around $20-30 a pop. That’s not much more than your average HDTracks download.
Setup. I first specified ‘bitstream’ output for HDMI in the Laser’s audio options panel. This ensured the player would transmit the original uncompressed 7.1 channel LPCM 24bit/48-96-192kHz to the HDACC over HDMI. The HDACC then ‘de-embeds’ (Rapoport’s word) the left and right front channels from the lossless (multi-channel) bitstream. The HDACC only goes after the front left and right channels for conversion, not the encoded Dolby or DTS surround mix.
To verify proper audio setup between Laser player and Essence DAC I loaded the AIX Records Blu-ray sampler disc that ships with each HDACC. With ‘Bitstream’ already clicked into place for HDMI output all that remained was to select DTS MasterHD in the disc’s ‘audio setup’. Easy peasy. The HDACC’s OLED display confirmed it was seeing a sample rate of 96kHz.
The AIX disc sounds fantastic but it contains ‘audiophile music’ – not really my cup of Joe. I’ve written before about the gulf between audiophile music and the music covered in the likes Mojo, P4K and RA. Audiophiles dig Diana Krall but I prefer Peter Gabriel. Sorry* about that. *not sorry
After quitting Genesis, Peter Gabriel released four somewhat strange solo records during the late 70s and early 80s. They were equal parts murky, sinister and weird, the fourth of which seriously upped the instrumental fireworks on cuts like The Rhytm Of The Heat and San Jacinto. Hit singles seemed to happen more by accident than by design. Would “Games Without Frontiers” have been such an earworm without that whistled hook?
However, I (‘Car’), II (‘Scratch), III (‘Melt’) and IV (‘Security’) weren’t my first exposure to Gabriel; that came from album number five, So. Like Bowie’s Let’s Dance before it, So was Gabriel’s first album aimed squarely at the mainstream. It’s more of a song album than the occasionally soundscape-centric albums that preceded it. It’s more playful too. Then there were the videos. Promos for Sledgehammer and Big Time look somewhat quaint now but at the time they were revelatory. Aardman Studios’ stop-motion techniques helped rocket both singles up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time John Cusack held that boombox aloft in 1989, Peter Gabriel was a superstar.
In the mid-eighties, I almost wore out my first vinyl copy of So. Then, later, the video-documentary POV that captured (some of) the closing night of the So tour in Athens. For me, this show represents the peak of Gabriel’s career before his artistic weirdness fell away and the long, long gaps between albums set in. But POV didn’t enjoy DVD re-issue in the late 90s and my VHS copy still lies languishing in a mate’s basement somewhere in the UK. Instead, it would take until 2013 for the full Live in Athens 1987 show to see the light of day. First in DVD and CD versions as part So‘s 25th Annniversary box set and then later as a standalone Blu-ray release, no doubt bending to fanbase pressure. This concert is (thankfully) dominated by spectacular takes on the older, weirder stuff: “Intruder”, “San Jacinto”, “Family Snapshot”and “No Self Control”. The highlight could easily be “Mercy Street”; it runs with faster pulse and thicker blood than its studio countepart and is much better for it.
I took to comparing the CD — ripped to ALAC, played back into the Essence DAC over USB via a MacMini w/ Audirvana+ — with the Blu-ray disc spun from the Laser BLU-BD1000 over HDMI, also into the Essence DAC. You’d think it might be a close call but it wasn’t. Despite only spilling a 48kHz soundtrack, the Blu-ray take won convincingly with greater sense of ease, more air and considerably more reflexive dynamics; the latter possibly attributable to greater bit depth. On the Blu-ray version, “Intruder” was afforded more space to breathe in and out with its sinister themes. “Lay Your Hands On Me” just kicked plain harder. By contrast, the CD version sounded more tightly compressed and stiffer at the edges. The Blu-ray sounded squishier. Yes, squishier.
The Book of Love is long and boring. And so is Peter Gabriel’s New Blood; a 2011 concert showcasing orchestral revisions of old songs and Scratch My Back covers. Gone is the drama, the nervousness and the intrigue. Gabriel’s early career weirdness now sanitised, New Blood is pretty and it’s nice. And it’s dull. A shame. With Real World’s seemingly consistent commitment to optimal audio quality over the years I’d expected a 96kHz soundtrack…but only 48kHz spilled forth – disappointing.
I tried Morrissey’s 25 Live show. 48kHz too. Ditto Talking Heads Stop Making Sense, easily my favourite musical artefact of all time.
It’s worth stopping and pausing for some comment here as I know every inch of this movie/album. The Blu-ray (and DVD) editions of Stop Making Sense are the only way to hear the full concert movie. They aren’t blighted by the edits and overly-zippy song-to-song transitions of the 1999 Special Edition CD. 48kHz notwithstanding, the Blu-ray here sounded far superior to the ALAC rip of the ’99 CD and I suspect the key might sit with the jump from 16 to 24 bits. Or it could be that a better-sounding master was used for the visual editions than was used for the CD. Either way, the Blu-ray sound served up more textural information than its (distant) Redbook cousin. I noted greater grippiness on Tina Weymouth’s bass plucks that haul us into “Take Me To The River”, more squelch to Bernie Worrel’s funky-ass synth lines that ride atop “Life During Wartime” final vamp. The spits, spurts and micro-twitches of Steve Scale’s percussion showed greater jump factor too. Ditto the rhythmic guitar guitar licks central to Byrne’s herky-jerky (here: funky) artistic vision.
All of these improvements paved the way for a far more engaging listening experience. I’d liken it to moving from a GM-crop plate to pure organic. One word to nail the Blu-ray advantage: IMMERSION, especially with the Peter Gabriel Athens concert – it’s an exceptional recording.
However, I had to ask: if 48kHz also poured from the coaxial socket of my Blu-ray player, would I still need HDMI? The short answer is yes. With New Blood‘s digital audio’s twice fed into the HDACC an A/B stand-off between coaxial and HDMI was easily had. The coaxial connection presented as marginally softer, marginally more recessed in the midrange, marginally splashier with cymbals. HDMI trumped it…just. This suggests HDMI is either less prone to jitter than its S/PDIF cousin OR the Blu-ray player is adding some post-processing before releasing the PCM datastream over coax.
Whether its HDMI being the superior transport protocol OR the greater bit depth of Blu-ray audio OR access to better masters, consider my appetite well and truly whetted. Blu-ray concerts from LCD Soundsystem (Shut Up And Play The Hits) and Neil Young (Journeys) are already on their way from Amazon.com. Taking this investigation deeper into discs that contain 96kHz or 192kHz sample-rated audio streams could be prove even more enlightening. At this stage, I’m liking Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound and Beck’s Sea Change but I’m open to reader suggestions. Hit me up in the comments below.
Stay tuned – part 2 to drop in a month or two. Part 2 can be read here.
- MacMini w/ Audirvana+
- Laser BLU-BD1000
- Clones Audio 25i
- Atohm GT1.0
- Peter Gabriel – Live In Athens 1987 (2013)
- Peter Gabriel – New Blood (2013)
- David Byrne – Ride, Rise, Roar (2012)
- Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense (2009)
- Morrissey – 25 Live (2013)
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