Asus Xonar Essence One or Why Actually Listening to Gear is Important
Asus Xonar Essence One ($599, $899 Muses Edition)
I have been living for a while with the Asus Xonar Essence One with upgraded MUSES op-amps. This unit differs slightly from a full-blown "Muses Edition" in that it lacks the gain jumper present in the Muses edition. "MUSES" refers to what Asus claims are top of the line op-amps, and as such they are standard in their TOTL rig. It's worth noting that the Xonar Essence of any flavor is an op-amp roller's delight, with many such combinations documented throughout the internets. However, for the purposes of this review, I stuck with the MUSES op-amps that came installed in the unit.
In many ways, the Essence One confounded my sonic expectations. It was disappointing with the phones with which I thought it would mate perfectly and soared with the phones I thought would break its back. This, folks, is why we actually need to listen to this stuff.
Basics first. The Xonar Essence One is made by Asus. You know, the Taiwanese company that makes computers and all sorts of other computerish stuff. Well, they make audio components, too. And these are not el-cheapo devices. They range from $599 – $899 and boast performance to match. We'll see about that.
As some of you know, I have a soft spot in my heart for "Swiss Army Knife" audio gear. The all-in-one, small footprint, amp/DAC with a bunch of features is appealing to me in many ways. As an apartment-dweller, space is always at a premium, and if I can find a piece of kit that will replace several larger components, I am always interested. If not as a main rig, then at least in the bedroom or a secondary location. Further, for those looking to get into the hobby with a quality piece of gear that is quick and easy to buy, Swiss Army Knife audio gear is a good way to go. I often think of the original Benchmark DAC-1 as a bit of a pioneer in this category, which is now quite crowded.
The Xonar Essence is a headphone amp/DAC with 1/4" jack that also has analog outputs (both balanced and unbalanced) to drive an amp or active speakers. Or you can use those outputs to use it as a standalone DAC. The unit accepts USB, TOSLink, and Coax inputs, which choices I welcome. On the front panel, running left to right, we have the power button, upsampling button, input selector, mute (love it), speaker volume, headphone volume, headphone jack. All indicator lights are the ubiquitous bright blue LEDs. (Note to manufacturers: enough with that already.) The Xonar Essence can handle your high-resolution audio files no problem, with bright-ass indicator lights to show you sample rates. The form factor of the Essence One is reminiscent of Headroom's designs. It is a rectangular shape, wider than it is deep, with a bit of a curvature to it, meaning that stacking on top of it probably won't work. Unless it's a true work of art, I'm not a fan of this type of design and this gets minus 5 pretty points.
Regardless, the unit is well built for its price, and easy to open for those of you who want to take advantage of the op-amp rolling that is a feature of the Xonar Essence. As noted, I didn't roll op-amps for this review, opting to stay with the Muses op-amps. However, I did open up the box and switching op-amps appeared to be a rather painless process. Personally, I prefer it when audio manufacturers make the decision for me based on their R&D and expertise. I don't want to have to fine tune an amp/DAC by swapping op-amps and trying all sorts of different combinations. If I'm going to do that, I might as well build my own. DIY is awfully rewarding, you know? Regardless, op-amp rolling is a feature I know will appeal to a significant segment of headphiles, and that's fine, too. Have at it!
So how does it sound? Well, this is where it gets interesting and a bit confusing...