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Asus Xonar Essence One review

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £330
inc VAT

This USB audio device sounds great and is wonderfully upgradeable, but it has a high price


The Essence One comes equipped with four JRC 5532D op-amps at the first stage and two more acting as low-pass filters. The RCA output has a National Semiconductor LM4562NA op-amp, as does each of the pair of balanced XLR outputs, while amplification for the headphone output is provided by a pair of National Semiconductor LME49720NA op-amps.

You must apply a fair amount of force to remove op-amps from their sockets, but more delicacy is involved when fitting new ones. If the legs don’t line up, you may have to bend them carefully into position before placing gentle pressure on the chip to slot it into place. It’s definitely worth applying the suggested upgrade of the OPA2132P and LM4562NA op-amps to the first and second stages respectively. They make for a more detailed and well balanced sound.

Asus hasn’t provided enough extra op-amps to upgrade everything, but you can buy additional ones online for between £2 for a very basic audio-grade chip to around £30 for a JRC MUSES 01 op-amp. There are numerous websites devoted to op-amps and Asus provides a helpful list of upgrade combinations in the manual. The JRC MUSES range is specifically designed for audio use and Asus is such as fan of the op-amps that it’s going to be releasing the Essence One MUSES, which has six MUSES 01 chips at the first and second stages. The MUSES edition of the Xonar Essence One currently costs almost twice as much as the standard Essence One, so it’s definitely one for the dedicated (not to mention well-off) audio hardware enthusiast.

Asus Xonar Essence One

We compared the audio quality of the Xonar Essence One’s preinstalled op-amps with its suggested upgrade and, as a high-quality reference, the MUSES configuration. All three configurations sound great especially when compared to typical motherboard-based sound cards, but we found the initial setup using 5532D op-amps to be a little too bassy, with less of a sense of space than either of the alternative configurations. The Burr-Brown op-amps provided a clearer distinction between bass and low mid-range tones. Percussion sounded clear and precise, with accurate positioning, particularly through headphones, which made it sound as if we were in the room with the band.

You very much get what you pay for with the MUSES 01 op-amps. They produced a beautifully balanced sound, with plenty of space and a great deal of subtlety that was particularly audible on acoustic recordings. However, the extra cost of the MUSES version is hard to justify unless you already have top-of-the range speakers and headphones. It may also prove to be more cost-effective to buy the op-amps separately and carry out upgrades yourself.

The Essence One has a C-Media CM6631 audio processor. This handles USB audio transmission, with an Analog Devices ADSP-21261 processor to handle the upsampling. The DACs are a pair of Texas Instruments Burr-Brown PCM1795 chips, but we’d have expected higher-spec DACs, such as Texas Instruments Burr-Brown PCM5102s in a product at this price.

The ease with which you can upgrade the op-amps will appeal to certain users, but may put others off, while the price is certainly daunting.

The Xonar Essence One is a niche product, crossing the gap between hi-fi DACs and USB sound cards. Support for both USB and S/PDIF audio inputs means you can easily connect a computer to hi-fi separates, while the quality of components rivals that of similarly priced DACs without USB support. It won’t suit everyone, but it’s brilliant at what it does.

If you want to make the jump to high-quality audio but find the Essence One’s pricing prohibitive, the Arcam rPAC is a fantastic DAC that has headphone and RCA outputs.

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