Asus Xonar Essence III – Review
It brings me joy to see that Asus shows interest in this relatively small market. Why am I saying this?
Well, I have two big reasons:
- Their products in this category are very good so far
- Asus is a very big and popular company and this may help bring more people into this domain. If the market grows, more companies will be interested in it and we shall have more competition between the producers. This kind of competition is always good for the consumer and even for the companies, as it leads for faster progress and sometimes to better prices.
Considering that I’ve already tested Xonar Essence STU and Essence One Muses Edition and I liked them both very much, it was natural to assume I would be very curious about their flagship in this category, the Asus Xonar Essence III .
Looks & Build Quality & Specs
No, this is not the Xonar Essence STU. While it has a very similar design, it is much bigger and it has better build quality. The housing is iron made, compared to STU which was a solid plastic. All the buttons and the knobs are made of plastic but they seem well build and are pleasant to use.
Both volume knobs have a led that lights up to show you which one is active at that moment.
The Essence III is a fully balanced headphone amplifier and DAC. As you can see it has a balanced dual mini xlr output:
The mini xlr outputs are just like the ones you can find on Audeze headphones. The package also includes adapters from 3-pin mini xlr to 3-pin xlr. Unfortunately I am a fan of 4-pin xlr balanced outputs, as they are more ergonomic and unfortunately I didn’t have the possibility of testing the balanced output, because I didn’t have any cable for that.
Overall, I am not very fond of Asus’s choice on the balanced output. I think that the 4-pin xlr would have been the most ergonomic choice. They should at least include an adapter from 3-pin mini xlr to 4 pin xlr in the package.
Bottom line, even if I don’t approve the chosen output method, the Essence 3 is balanced, this being the most important thing, and I am sure you can find the right adapters to get the most out of it.
The backside of the unit has a lot of inputs and outputs, making it very versatile.
The AES input was a very interesting bonus, as I could test Hydra-X with it and the Aes input from Hydra is superior to it’s spdif output.
The aux inputs are very useful too, as you can use Essence 3 just as an amplifier with a better dac.
Of course, you can use it just as DAC as well and it has a helpful switch on the back that lets you use the volume as a fixed value.
If you want to use it just as DAC, I recommend setting the pre-amp volume knob to the maximum and use the VR bypass switch to get the most out of it.
This image from Asus should be very helpful for explaining what every input/output is for:
Let’s get through Essence 3’s specs and see what seems to pop out.
One of the most interesting and important things is that Essence 3 offers is the 24 steps damper that works with both headphone and XLR/RCA outputs. Why are the volume potentiometers so important? Well, the main reason is that the whole signal goes through it, so if it changes/distorts it, we have a problem. This is why Asus chose a very good solution for this, a solution that should eliminate the distortion associated with traditional volume controls. Essence 3 uses a damper with repeaters that are soldered on it’s PCB.
Another cool thing about it is that is that it has a remote control and you can set the volume through it. This is the little motor that helps you do that:
The remote is simplistic but very efficient. You can choose the input and output with it and of course the volume.
Another thing that caught my eye while opening the case to take a look inside it, was the fact that the power supply is enclosed inside another iron enclosure for minimal interference.
Actually, they went even further having separate boards for analog, digital and power circuitry keeping cross-talk out of the discussion. The power board and module are completely shielded by a metal cover to prevent electromagnetic interference.
Multi-rail toroidal transformer
Essence III is powered by a high-quality toroidal transformer that provides clean and consistent power and keeps noise contamination to a minimum. Engineers also fitted the transformer with a unique strip of silicon steel to prevent energy loss by hysteresis, further supporting a smooth supply of power.
Independent power supplies for both left and right channels
Essence III’s power supply’s delivers independent power sources to the left and right channels — minimizing crosstalk interference. It also employs a low-dropout (LDO) regulator that ensures stable power and German-made WIMA® FKP 2 capacitors to reduce ripples.
Essence 3 also has a dual DAC configuration, an AD1955 dac for each channel. This is a multi-bit delta sigma modulator that supports DSD 65/DSD 128 with 123 dB SNR and dynamic range audio quality.
It also uses custom low jitter TXCO Clock source:
High precision TCXO clock sources
Fluctuating temperatures can affect timing, which in turn can impact audio stability — and that’s why Essence III employs custom-designed, pure-gold temperature-compensated crystal oscillators (TCCO/TCXO) provide exceptionally precise timing. These exceptionally high-precision clocks enable Essence III to deliver audio output with fantastic dynamics and ultra-low jitter for unmatched fidelity. Moreover, the dual-clock design supports multiples of 44.1kHz (45.1584MHz) and 48kHz (49.152MHz) independently — ensuring the most precise timing.
We can also find some very good quality op-amps inside Essence 3:
Above and beyond cold facts, we leave the final room to human ears. Our listening panel is comprised of audiophiles, musicians, and audio engineers. Members are selected for their extraordinary acoustic sensitivity as well as wide-ranging music styles preferences. We also apply blind test approach when selecting components and deciding the final sonic characteristics. Hence, premium ceramic AD 827SQ and Japanese-made MUSES 02 operational amplifiers (op-amps) combine to enable Essence III to deliver profoundly rich sound for all types of music – from classical to rock.
As I told you in the upper paragraphs, I love the fact that Essence 3 has an AES / EBU as I managed to test it with hydra from one of its best outputs (aes,i2s) . While with Hydra the sound became a little more detailed and with a fuller/cleaner sound, the usb input from Essence 3 was decently good on it’s own. However, I found the sound with Hydra + AES more on my taste, as Essence 3’s DAC lacks a little in bass, details and energy, and this is exactly what Hydra provided.
The following tests were done mostly for the dac section or amp/dac combo. I will talk just about the amplifier in the end.
The cellos from the beginning showed a deep soundstage and combined with the instruments in the front, it also brought to my attention the very good layering and instrument separation it was capable of. The sound was somehow relaxed and ejoyable but lacked some energy and spark, as the instruments would have benefited from a little more texture and details.
The guitars had good energy on the upper spectrum, and while they did had spark and energy in the plucks, I would have wanted a little more of weight and detail in their movement. Overall the sound was relaxed and took place in a big and opened scene.
The bass had a good punch and energy. Would have liked a little more depth, but overall it was enjoyable on the lower spectrum. The soundstage was tall but not as deep as with conductor for example.
The song was quite enjoyable on Essence 3. The guitars gave a good feeling of space, while the heavy guitars from the front had a good extension and presence. When the humm voice entered the scene it showed essence 3’s layering capabilities. The cymbals are very present and sparkly but sometimes sound a little unnatural. Overall the song was energetic and enjoyable, even if presented in a relaxed way specific of Essence 3.
The guitar from the left channel had a good echoed presence. When the voice entered the scene, it was very pleasant and I found it to have a good texture, even if not very detailed. The heavy guitars were very well placed in the scene and had a very good presence and energy. I also loved the drums which had a very good impact that gave a good vibe to the song.
I was quite impressed by the presentation of this song on Essence 3. The start was full of energy and very pleasantly detailed instruments that were very well layered. Leonard’s voice was clean and was very well placed between the instruments. The bass had a very good and controlled presence.
The bass has a nice punch and good speed but sometimes it lacks some depth.
The treble is extended but sometimes I found it a little unnatural.
Soundstage and layering
I found that the soundstage could sometimes be very enjoyable on essence 3, showing good height and depth with good layering between the instruments. However, the width could be a little larger, as for example I miss that while coming from Conductor to Essence 3.
Essence 3 has an interesting way of reproducing the sound, as it is relaxed but not in a non energetic way, as it knows how to make you tap when it is needed.
The amplification section seems to be better that it’s DAC section. While switching from Conductor to Essence 3 and the other way around, I sometimes found myself preferring the presentation from Essence 3 a little more, as it sometimes seems a little more detailed with HD800 (on some frequencies from the middle of the mids to the treble). While Conductor gave a wider soundstage, Essence 3 presented a taller one. I am sure that on the balanced output the sound would be even better.
Overall, I think that the Essence 3 is a worthy product and if you have a chance to test it, go for it. It has some interesting things that could be what you are looking for. One of the best things I like about it is that it can present the music in a relaxed but still energetic way. Also the layering and soundstage are pretty good, giving a holographic feeling to the sound. The bass could be very enjoyable as well as it can have a good slam and control.
The amplification section seemed pretty good, especially with HD800 which impressed me on a few songs in that combo. Essence 3 could also power LCD-X and make it sing, but I clearly preferred Burson Conductor with it as it gave a clearer sound and with more slam/energy.
Asus entered a pretentious market section with Essence 3, as you can find a lot of other products near that price, products like Chord Hugo, Burson Conductor, Audiobyte Black Dragon, and some separate DAC/AMP combos, products that I think overall to be better, considering the price/performance ratio they are capable of.
However, Essence 3 may still have some features the others don’t, and besides that it gives a relaxed musical flavor that you might enjoy.
- Good design and build quality
- Good components used inside
- Remote control
- Fully balanced inputs/outputs
- It can be used just as DAC and just as AMP
- Relaxed sound signature
- Good soundstage and layering
- Good amplification section
- Would have liked other balanced headphone outputs instead of 2 x mini 3 pin xlr
- The DAC is ok but lacks some details, soundstage width and bass depth