Audio is now more important than ever. From your regular built-in sound cards for the average consumer, to the dedicated bits of hardware that can now be purchased for cleaner audio, there are plenty of options out there. But what if you want the very best? What if money isn’t an issue for you? That’s where the Asus Essence Mark II comes in. It’s high-level audio at a high-level price. But sweet Dolby, does it deliver on that price tag.
Looks do matter
As far as looks go, the Essence Mark II has a “less is more” design ethos. You’ve got your unit, a matte silver finish and enough knobs and switches on the front end in order to get you rolling. It’s a simple, but attractive piece of kit. It’s also reassuringly hefty, and could easily be used to inflict massive blunt force trauma on anyone who tries to rob you of it. We’ll get into more detail soon with the various inputs, but for now…
Technical, I want to get technical
Here’s the description via the box:
- Native Direct-Stream Digital (DSD) support via DSD over PCM (DoP)
- Profound musicality and spacious sound thanks to six MUSES 01 op-amps
- Top-class headphone amplifier drives up to 600ohm-impedance headphones with a dedicated gain jumper
- Ultra-fidelity 120dB signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) with true balanced design
- Jitter-free precision clock via asynchronous USB audio
- Linear power supply with toroidal transformer to ensure clean power to all circuits
- 8X symmetrical upsampling technology restores lossless audio
Which reads rather fancy then. So what does it all mean actually? What it means, is superb audio. The Essence Mark II sounds damn good. It sounds phenomenal. It sounds like R14 000 worth of hardware, making sweet audio love to your ear canals and promising your eardrums diamonds and a honeymoon in the Bahamas.
The DAC is clearly built with some quality hardware, resulting in a crisp and audible sound experience. It’s like going to the movies, and being blasted with Dolby Surround Sound that drowns out the incessant wailing of a baby who has no idea why its parent thought a dark and loud venue would be a good idea for a newborn infant. And that’s thanks to the amplifier, which makes the more ambient noises of films filter through naturally. Every chirp of a bird, every clink of a bullet shell casing hitting the ground and every screech of a tyre could be heard. And it was all in a manner that was non-intrusive.
Testing 1 2 3…
Native DSD support was high on my agenda, resulting in a weekend or two of audio tests, to see if the device did indeed support 2.8MHz DSD through DSD over pulse-code modulation (PCM), known as DoP. For the sake of clarity, here’s a list of the Blu-Ray films I used for the multimedia test of the Essence Mark II, where I focused on big budget flicks and a few smaller audio-heavy movies:
- Pacific Rim
- Iron Man 3
- The Avengers
- Tron: Legacy
- Dredd 3D
- Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
In total, if you’re looking for a device that does particularly detailed soundstage depth and layering, the Essence Mark II will handle that with ease. Music was also a plus on the device, with the results being natural and more in-tune. The ambience once again comes into play, but that just resulted in cleaner audio and music tracks where bass guitars were actually audible, drum solos were filled with all manner of percussion licks and guitar riffs were turned up to 11. For even more clarification and terrible taste in music, here’s a list of the albums I used to test the Essence Mark II at, which were sourced and uncompressed audio files to boot:
- Dethklok – The Doomstar Requiem
- Mass Effect 3 – Original soundtrack
- AC/DC – Back In Black
- Tron Legacy – Daft Punk original soundtrack
- The Offspring – Rise and Fall
- Guns ‘N Roses – Greatest Hits
- Tenacious D – Rize of the Fenix
As a headphone amplifier however, the Essence Mark II is dependent on some decent gear around your head as well. To a point that is. I used two headsets that I could get my hands and head on, for a mid and high-range test. For the mid-level audio test, I plugged in the Gioteck EX-05m while the Razer Kraken 7.1 fulfilled the high-level audio sessions adequately. The audio was better, but unless you’re a keen audiophile, it would be difficult to discern how much better it was than the mid-range Gioteck. Volume control also had a very solid range from soft to loud, with no hiss whatsoever emanating from my headsets.
The built-in amplifier was just superb, thanks to a dedicated gain jumper that delivered between 600 and 16 ohms of independent audio. Throw in the high fidelity audio output which clocks in at 120dB SNR, and the audio was also magnificently balanced. It’s safe to say that any decent surround sound headset, will function rather admirably on the Essence Mark II. Mind you, these were gaming headsets and I unfortunately did not have access to more commercial brands at the time of review. But ye gads, I wish I did just for the sake of a more detailed comparison. I can only imagine a set of Sennheiser headsets getting the most out of this device.
Fiddle with my knobs
The Essence Mark II is also particularly versatile. Despite the need for a separate power supply, it’s portable enough to cart around, while the USB,stereo out and XLR inputs provide enough connection options for either consumer or pro grade speakers. Up-sampling resulted in high-quality even-order multiplication to improve from your usual 44.1/88.2 /176.4kHz inputs to [email protected] and even 48/96/192kHz sources all the way up to [email protected], without compromising on the sample rates which usually leads to jittery audio and laggy transfers. Fortunately, that’s an issue that the Essence Mark II doesn’t have to worry about at all.
For the folks who like to tinker with their device, the Essence Mark II was also easy to just open and fiddle around with. I preferred to just gaze at the innards, but if you’re more adventurous, you can play around with the 11 swappable op-amps. That allows consumers the chance to craft and amplify their analogue signals and fine-tune the performance overall.
Last Updated: October 20, 2014