Last year on Hi-Fi Pig Jake raved about Canadian manufacturer Resonessence Labs’ state-of-the-art Invicta DAC, with built-in -everything. At some £3000, the Invicta is for those with deep pockets. The Concero, still manufactured in Canada, is the the Invicta’s baby brother, with a price tag of £599, and three modes of operation – USB DAC, S/PDIF DAC and USB to S/PDIF Bridge. It’s a flexible little box of tricks.
The Concero’s main claim to fame is it shares the much-touted ESS Sabre DAC with the Invicta. Will its audio performance live up to standards set by the company’s other device? With the price difference, this is not the ‘scaled down, DAC only version’ without volume pot, SD card function and HDMI out that Jake looked forward to. It’s a much-simplified device.
I used the Concero with my customised MacBook, Tellurium Q Listen pre-amp, bi-amped Tellurium Q Atom power amps and Royd RR3s. I compared it to my M2Tech Young DAC with Super TeddyReg-based PSU.
When using USB input, the Concero is powered via the USB cable from your computer or server, much like most external disk drives. And Resonessence supplies a small plug-in PSU with USB out to supply the power when the S/PDIF input is used.
Taking the Concero out of the packaging, the first thing that hits you is it’s tiny! You could quite easily use it as the heart of a high quality portable system, plugged into your laptop’s USB port. It’s also nice and solidly built.
Driver-wise, it works straight out of the box with OS X, but you’ll need to install a driver with Windows. The Concero offers USB input up to 24-bit/192kHz and upsamples 44.1kHz and 48kHz files up to three times.
There’s an Apple IR Remote Control to control track selection and play/pause, plus selecting filters on-the-fly. If you already have some Apple devices in your home – I had two Apple computers and a second-generation Apple TV in my listening room – you may find them responding to your Concero’s remote unless you switch off IR on the Apple devices.
I let the Concero settle in with a few tracks played at random before I started listening seriously. My first impressions were that the little box packed a good deal of welly, and sounded pretty well balanced tonally. Nothing to upset the lug ‘oles here, then.
I started off with Grinderman’s Grinderman 2, a good dirty rock recording if ever there was one. I’d stumbled on the Concero’s forte. Talk about a wall of sound! This led me into Little Feat, Hendrix and Van Morrison. Playing Veedon Fleece, I started to find some weaknesses. Swiftly switching to some JJ Cale, I noticed that the vocals weren’t as holographic and focused as usual – Cale was a less tangible presence in the middle of the room.
On the right DAC, a 24/88.2 hi-res ALAC version of Charles Lloyd’s Mirror album on ECM is just breathtaking. Possibly the best recording I’ve heard. It sounded good on the Concero, but the instruments didn’t stand focused within the sound stage, and the low-level detail and nuance that makes this album sound so real were lost somewhere along the way. Don’t get me wrong, Mirror sounded very good, but not great.
I found the better the acoustic recording, the more I felt ill-at-ease with the Concero’s music-making. It lacked the last piece of focus in stereo image. It didn’t present the rasp of a saxophone reed. Snares were one thing, not a collecting of individual noise makers.
Switching to James Blake’s James Blake things were a lot happier. Perhaps missing the last squeeze of nuance, it was still overall ‘right’. Where acoustic music was slightly unsettled (unsettling?), the Concero sounded completely at home with Blake’s electronics.
I bought my M2Tech Young just more than two years ago, expecting it to be squarely trounced by technological advances in the meantime. That hasn’t happened. There are a number of excellent DACs in the £600-£1000 bracket, including the Young, the Audiolab and so on. The Concero is one of them. It brings its own operational simplicity, set of facilities and sonic signature to a popular part of the market.
I think the Concero suffers from cost-cutting PSU-wise. Resonessence seems to have invested in a top-class chipset, but cut back elsewhere with a target price point in mind. I wonder if the Concero’s real role could be as a USB bridge in a high-end set up? I don’t know. I didn’t have a high end DAC to hand, and I didn’t try using the Concero with the Young, partly because I know that the Young is happiest as a USB device, and partly through lack of time.
OK. So I’m not going to jump for joy, but I think the Concero could make a lot of people very happy. For me, the Concero lacks subtlety and analytical abilities when compared to the admittedly more expensive Young/PSU combo. But if your tastes lie in rock and more heavily produced music, that big chunk of weighty presentation may be just what you are looking for.
Author – David Rosam