There’s been a good deal of fuss over the ESS Sabre Dac chip in recent years. Hype that’s certainly justified in my very limited experience, as I’ve been fortunate to own and listen to Eastern Electric’s Minimax Dac and Wyred4sound’s Dac2. Both were excellent products, punching well above their weight in terms of absolute sound quality. Obviously the successful implementation of any chip is dependant on circuit design, the output stage and the power supply but bad reviews of products utilizing ESS chipsets are pretty hard to come by, with glowing reports of Sabre equipped products from Calyx, Audio GD and Oppo easy to find online. So how about a high end digital to analogue converter based on and designed by a team that were involved in the design of this revolutionary chip? Say hello to Resonessence Labs, a Canadian company founded by Mark Mallinson, former Operations Director at ESS Technology. The Invicta is their first product and has reportedly been two years in the making. The products are both designed and hand assembled in Canada, giving the company complete control over the entire process. The unit actually uses two different ESS chips with the ES9108 used for the line output and an ES9016 Ultra chip dedicated to the headphone stage.
Unboxing the Invicta is a pleasure. The stylish triple box packaging is set to one side and I’m holding a neat, no nonsense machined Aluminum unit that measures 280 x 220 x 50mm that clearly means business. It’s jet black. Lovely girl walks through the room and casually states that it looks like Darth Vader’s stereo. The Invicta would look at home in either a high tech studio or an upmarket penthouse. There’s not an inch of wasted space on either the inside or outside of the unit and it has a pleasing weight to it that feels heavier than the listed three kilograms.
It’s a little misleading to describe the Invicta as just a Dac. In truth it’s actually a Dac, a headphone amp and a remote controlled preamplifier. The front panel comprises a multi function jog dial, OLED display screen, operation buttons, dual headphone sockets and, unusually, a SD card slot. A spin ‘round to the back and we find a densely populated rear panel with balanced and single ended outputs, USB, Coaxial, optical and AES/EBU inputs and an HDMI. The Invicta is capable of 24 bit/192kHz playback and I plan to test it with a mixture of redbook and high resolution audio files.
I’d been rather spoiled of late. I’ve been asked to look at some fantastic products and some of them had really made an impact on me. The Invicta retails for £3,500 here in the UK and my thoughts immediately turned to the superb Lampizator Level 4 Dac I’d reviewed a couple of months ago. Would this be able to compete?
A few hours of casual listening suggested that that yes, it might actually. Resonessence Labs burn each unit in for about a hundred hours before shipping (other manufacturers please take note!) and so I was pretty sure I was hearing the Invicta as intended. I primarily listen with integrated amplifiers so the first proper test was to establish how good it was a straight up digital to analogue converter. The usual suspects were downstream – Audio Note’s Oto and AN-es.
To music I know well first and some Erykah Badu. Her first Lp is still my favorite and ‘Other side of the game’ has this fantastic percussive backbone that runs right through the track. The very best components really bring out the differences between each hit, something I really enjoy hearing, The Invicta positively cruises through picking out every nuance – both beautifully detailed and intimate. The bubbling bass of ‘Drama’ rolls out effortlessly and I just leave the whole album playing.
‘Total’ and ‘confidence’ are the first two words I write in my listening notes. The unit seems to be pretty much unflappable. There’s a couple of moments on Red Snappers ‘Making Bones’ long player where the percussion shifts awkwardly and I’ve heard rigs come undone here before. Not today. The Dac steamrollers straight though, keeping everything absolutely where it’s supposed to be. Everything’s ‘weighted’ just right, complete control. I listen to some of Nicolas Jaar’s ‘Space is only noise’ to make sure the imaging and staging pass muster. Again the Invicta is completely solid. The pops and clicks of ‘Etre’ are thrown far outside the speaker cabinets before kicking down into that monumental groove. It sounds massive.
I need to be a bit careful here. Talk of mixing desk looks, unflappable confidence and supreme control could leave readers thinking this was a precision implement, a studio tool. That’s not the whole story. Time spent listening to some Joan Baez and ‘Diamonds and Rust’ show that Mark Mallinson’s team have designed a machine capable of getting right to the very soul of the performance. The rendition is positively dripping with emotion but it’s never overdone or soft. It’s a brilliant balance and a convincing, involving experience.
I wish the Lampizator was still here! I’d love to compare them head to head. I read back through the notes I made then and try to remember exactly how that converter made me feel. My feeling is that the two units actually get to a similar, brilliant place but take different routes. The lampizator is a little more lush, a little more romantic whereas the the Invicta takes the task in hand a touch more seriously. Easy genius versus trailblazing straight A star student.
There’s so much more to talk about. I turn to the Esoteric Audio Research 869 to establish how good the preamp section of the Canadian hot shot is. Switching between the integrated amplifiers pre section and the volume control of the Dac shows the Invicta to be a perfectly capable, if slightly lean option for users wanting to go amp direct. In truth there’s not much to tell them apart. I slightly prefer proceedings in integrated mode but it’s a close call. There’s no obvious loss of detail or punch to the sound but it’s perhaps a little more round, a degree more full.
Then there’s the dual output headphone section. I plug in some AKG 701 headphones and I’m treated to a headamp masterclass. None of the excellence of the standalone Dac performance diminishes when I switch to the dedicated headphone chip and stage. Committed headfi crew could happily get it all in one box. Amplifier with two outputs with independent trim levels, multi input Dac … it’s all here. Headphone listening provides a good opportunity to listen to the different inputs and they all sound superb. I’ve really enjoyed using an iPad as a solid state transport recently and I was delighted to find that the Invicta USB drivers allows hook up through the camera connection kit direct. Hardly the high resolution source that the asynchronous connection was made for but fun nonetheless, especially with the brilliant Spotify app. Whilst we’re talking about solid state sources I ought to mention the SD card input. The review unit shipped with a card loaded with a variety of high definition tunes. This input sounded as good as any other but whilst I understand the benefits of this mechanical noise free option I can’t help but wonder how useful it would actually be. Most enthusiasts using audio files will already have a NAS or laptop full of lossless material and the process of ripping tracks over to SD seems a bit pointless when playback is so good through the other inputs, although the HDMI out to show embedded track artwork is a thoughtful addition.
And I’m out of time. I’ve had the Invicta Dac for nearly three weeks and I have to send it back. It’s been a totally compelling listen and I’m sad to see it go. I’m quite sure there are things I haven’t yet learned about in the comprehensively configurable menu system. It’s a wonderfully flexible bit of kit that emphatically ticks a lot of boxes with thick black marker pen. In pure listening terms I think I’ve enjoyed what it does as much as I enjoyed auditioning the mighty Lampizator that impressed Jerry and I so much and it’s a neater, better built unit. £3,500 is a lot of money for an audio component but consumers are getting so much done so well here I’m struggling to take issue with the price. I didn’t think I’d be saying that three weeks ago. That said I’d love to see a more affordable, scaled down ‘Dac only’ version that did away with the volume pot, the SD card function and maybe the HDMI out so that listeners on a real world budget could get involved. Then Mike Mallinson might well have a bona fide mainstream killer on his very capable hands.
A brilliantly realised product. Resonessence Labs have thrown down the gauntlet to other, more established manufacturers with this release. Audition is absolutely essential if your budget stretches this far. The rest of us should keep a close eye on the website and hope.