Contenders. The AURALiC Vega and the Resonessence Labs INVICTA Mirus – I’ve spent considerable lounge time with both. Each D/A converter centres on ESS Sabre silicon. The INVICTA Mirus banks a home field advantage with Resonessence Labs founder Mark Mallinson sharing brotherly blood with ESS’ Martin Mallinson.
At this point, your eyeballs are encouraged to take a diversion via last year’s INVICTA Mirus review before continuing here.
Then let us continue…
Both Vega and INVICTA Mirus digital volume controls are lossy but downward attenuation sees the AURALiC’s soundstage width and height collapse a shade earlier than the Resonessence Labs unit. If your power amplifier’s sensitivity won’t permit Vega volume deployment in its upper quartile or the INVICTA Mirus above its 60th percentile, keep your analogue pre-amplifier. If you’re not prepared to trade acoustic mass for transient speed, keep the pre-amp anyway.
On show pony bling, the Chinese unit’s sumptuous 75mm OLED and brushed aluminium casework takes it. That said, over time the latter has shown itself to be less resilient to the rough and tumble of reviewer life; a ding here, a surface blemish there. The INVICTA Mirus’ more utilitarian, tank-like build is for those who play faster and looser with everyday care or for those who travel more than your average Joe.
Picking a winner on sound quality alone is like asking a Beatles boffin to choose between The White Album and Abbey Road. Or asking a Floyd fanatic to pick only one from Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. Like those Brit-rock classics, some listeners will prefer one to the other – what I couldn’t say which with any certainty is which one.
It’s Resonessence Labs’ talents with feature set extension that places its converter higher in the Darko DAC Index than the Vega. That’s even taking into consideration the additional US$1.5K required for the Canadian.
With the INVICTA Mirus returned to Resonessence Labs HQ in Kelowna due to a dropped channel, Mark Mallinson dispatched the original INVICTA by return post (at my request).
The INVICTA first appeared way back in 2011, long before the Mirus. Reversing the iterative development, the INVICTA sees one half of the Mirus’ dual DAC boards, located in its analogue section, swapped out for a headphone board. With the standard INVICTA, one ESS Sabre chip routes its analogue signal rearwards to RCA and XLR outputs, the other to the front-panelled headphone sockets. The resulting measurement upshot being a piddling rise in THD and a trifling fall in dynamic range. Compare the pair here.
At launch the INVICTA sold for US$4K. Four years later, both INVICTA and INVICTA Mirus each go for a grand more. That ain’t no lazy price hike simply to keep pace with the Jones’ or inflationary pressures. In the intervening years, the OSD has been improved and DSD support added to both models. File support has been widened: the SD card reader is now compatible with more formats – FLAC and AIFF being most notable – than the .wav-only restriction seen at launch. The HDMI socket is programmed as an output and the original remote control wand is no more – an Apple remote plays substitute. On the INVICTA, it’s the headphone DAC board that’s seen the most significant upgrade: previously an ESS Sabre 9016, it now runs with an ESS Sabre 9018.
Just like the DAC-only INVICTA Mirus, the INVICTA can decode DSD64, DSD128 and PCM up to 24bit/384kHz.
Popping the lid reminds us of the Team Mallinson’s commitment to physical solidity. The front panel is no sub-chassis cover up either; it’s machine milled to complement the structural integrity of the side-walls and bottom- and top-plates. Vibration minimisation is the name of one game. Resonessence Labs detail the casework’s third-party manufacturing process on their website here.
There’s barely room to breathe on the inside and no doubt the reason behind the INVICTA’s extensive case ventilation.A two-fold approach to segregation keeps electrical noise transfer to a minimum: the internal walls that separate analogue and digital sections serve as a visual reminder of the invisible galvanic isolation that also separates the two.
The INVICTA differs most obviously from its successor by accommodating two quarter-inch holes for dual headphone action out front, each of which can be activated/de-activated via the push-button located above each socket. A long push introduces independent volume adjustment (offset), essential when level matching headphones of differing impedance and sensitivity. These offset levels can also be specified in the settings found within the INVICTA’s menu system. So too can a balanced output configuration (untested here) with A serving as left and B as right.
The optioning of A and B tees up the ball for the INVICTA’s first goal: it’s a terrific headphone review tool. This very unit was used extensively when comparing Dan Clark’s Alpha Dog to its Prime successor late last year. More recently, it was called upon to serve as decoder and amplifier for a standoff between KEF M500 and Master & Dynamic MH40. There’s sufficient juice on tap for more challenging ‘phones too: Beyerdyanmic T1 pose no threat to the INVICTA’s composure when delivering the boisterously dynamic techno of Scuba’s Claustrophobia.
In describing the sonic signature of the INVICTA’s headphone output, I’d opt for words than encircle ‘clean’ and ‘glossy’ in the thesaurus. It deals more in straight talk than the Chord Hugo’s lean towards finesse and delicacy, especially up top. Propulsion and mass are both keener with the Canadian than the Brit, particularly when going head to head over USB. This gap closes when an intermediary USB converter is introduced between computer and Hugo. The Vinnie Rossi headphone module coupled to its in-circuit tube buffer adds more flesh to both.
When it comes to calling out optimal headphone match-ups, the INVICTA’s lapel-grabbing attitude is better suited to the darker MrSpeakers Alpha Prime or the warmer Sennheiser HD650 than it is the already well-lit Beyerdynamic T1.
Flipping it around, a choice of seven filters allow for some degree of flexibility in tuning DAC/amplifier to headphone. A move from ‘Sabre Slow-Roll Off’ to ‘Minimum Phase IIR filter’ proved more agreeable with the T1 in play, whereas moving in the other direction lent some much-needed caffeination to the HD650.
Connecting the INVICTA’s rear-facing XLR outputs to the corresponding inputs on the AURALiC Taurus MKII headphone amplifier exposes the latter as the superior driver; there’s a lower centre of gravity at play that the INVICTA can’t match. The Taurus stirs in more fat whilst that which flows from the INVICTA sounds comparatively skimmed – as one might expect when adding close to US$2000 on third-party headphone amplification.
One might point to this as a simple way to make good the AURALiC Vega’s head-fi shortfall but to do so is to miss the point of the INVICTA’s everything-under-one-roof nature. Inclusivity is part of its DNA. As per the Mirus, it’s the INVICTA’s impressive array of additional features that has Resonessence Labs spying its closest rivals in the rear-view mirror.
Let’s start with the least obvious: out back, dual BNC inputs connote serious commitment to audiophile approval. BNC is essential for maintaining 75 Ohm impedance between server/streamer and DAC (if that’s your thing). Then there’s the reversible fuse holder for switching the INVICTA’s voltage from 110V to 240V without factory intervention. It’s an internationalist!
Up next, the Apple remote hijack. Mytek pulled the same clever stunt with their Stereo-192DSD DAC. The Apple miniature’s ergonomics are far more pleasing than the budget wand that ships with the AURALiC Vega (which is the Chinese DAC’s weak spot) and it’s easily replaced if lost. (Users of Apple TVs will see remote control conflict).
Pushing the INVICTA even further ahead of the peloton is its HDMI output, which outboards on-screen display contents to external monitor or TV. Now listeners no longer need to squint to observe the OLED display from the listening position…
…which brings us to Resonessence Labs’ sucker punch: SD card playback. Like CD burning, it’s the slow food of the digital world. Spend five to ten minutes writing music files to an SD card before settling in for an afternoon’s listening without the need to lasso one’s computer to DAC with a USB cable (which remains an option should you need it). Album artwork is piped via HDMI to the attached screen. Couple of niggles here: as of firmware v6.2.4 there’s no ALAC support and FLAC doesn’t play gaplessly.
With digital file transportation built directly into the device, only a single power socket is required to get up and running with music. And for those who see audiophile-grade power cables as mandatory, only one is required. No need to sweat linear power supplies or mods to one’s PC or Mac either.
Whilst we’re talking digital diet, readers are reminded that whilst reviewing the INVICTA Mirus I was unable to separate SD card sound quality from that of an Antipodes Audio DS server connected via Light Harmonic LightSpeed USB cable. For this review, I returned to an Apple Macbook Air running Audirvana+ and found it slightly wanting; the SD card take was a shade more talented in illuminating the darkest corners of HDTracks’ 24bit/96kHz edition of Lou Reed’s Rock n Roll Animal. An m2Tech hiFace MKII USB converter, modified by Japan’s Aurorasound, closed the gap some (but not entirely).
Those demanding (specification) certainty on ‘best’ when it comes to Resonessence Labs D/A conversion are directed toward the Mirus. Those taking even the most occasional turn with headphones should swing in the other direction.
Without INVICTA and INVICTA Mirus sat side by side here at DAR HQ it’s impossible to know with certainty how the two compare going DAC direct. What I can offer is this: the move from dedicated DAC to headphone harbinger here didn’t dramatically alter the results of the previously-outlined Canada vs China DAC stand off; a clear testament to Resonessence Labs’ engineering prowess. The INVICTA’s slight edge with tonal gloss and wetness over the AURALiC Vega still presents. That’s the same wetness I noted when pitting the Resonessence Labs Concero USB-S/PDIF converter against the Audiophilleo – a quality that’s most likely attributable to the FPGA that marshals data throughout both Concero and INVICTA.
Even as standalone DAC in the company of the PS Audio DirectStream, the INVICTA holds its own. In systems where the DirectStream could sound too subdued or polite – think KEF LS50 driven by buttery EL34 tubes – the Resonessence Labs INVICTA arrives with more overt cymbal shimmer and triangle sparkle. Lower-treble crunch also takes a step forward.
Let’s assume the measurements don’t lie – that the Mirus is the better-sounding of the two INVICTA variants. Whatever is surrendered sonically in separating the talents of the two ESS 9018 chips (that find themselves paralleled in the Mirus) will likely be small potatoes compared to the feature set gains of twin headphone drivers. In this sense, the INVICTA is an even keener value proposition than the already super-impressive INVICTA Mirus. Oh, Canada.
Further information: Resonessence Labs