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Crystal balling.
It seems likely that the near future will see true change for our industry from giants like Asus. Not only do they enjoy the necessary scale of operations to maximize value and impact, they employ entire engineering teams and vast supply networks to exponentially increase design IQ and parts access beyond the tunnel vision and grasp of the prototypical owner/designer of high-end audio's cottage industry. Mergers like Meridian/Sooloos and Naim/Focal point at the same. Against such trends, how would an $899 product aimed at the first-time audiophile created by a $12 billion/year company perform for a cynical audiophile veteran?

But first the product that would really put Asus on the audiophile map in a big way since DACs today are a dime a dozen: a music-optimized laptop and all-in-one PC. Think outboard linear power supply, linear regulators, organic polymerized capacitors and a dedicated power supply for a SOtM-style USB output module. Think oversized heatsinks and large slow-running fans for noiseless operation. Think ultra-low latency Core i7 processor engine, 16GB of RAM, a small SSD drive for the OS and a 2TB drive for the music library. Think tablet remote with wifi and hardwired connection. Think preinstalled/configured JPlay and J.River software with automated backup protocol and a top-notch ripper program and meta data retrieval engine. Think minimalist OS stripped of all non-music functionality and background processes. In short, a turnkey music-only Asus computer which out of the box comes expertly set up and optimized for music playback, all software and hardware designed and/or selected for just that purpose.

Such a product would revolutionize high-performance PC audio and put an end to overpriced 'audiophile' server efforts currently assembled from off-the-shelf bits which retail for outrageous sums. (I recently turned down a review solicitation for one such $12.000 travesty). With the current evidence of the Muses Edition DAC on hand and the company's enviable track record of computer expertise in the back, isn't Asus perfectly positioned to launch a sub $2.500 screamer of a machine that does audio streaming better than most anything currently available? Now the crystal ball goes silent...

Musings. With the fully loaded Essence One still cheaper—its base version sells for just about half of what the already value-driven Californian demands—Asus outfeature and sonically outclass the new $1.099 NuForce DAC-100. They even outfeature the twice-priced Burson Conductor. On sound Burson represent a different gestalt and league and offer a lot more raw headphone drive though they omit balanced line outputs. NuForce share the same sonic gestalt yet as a pure DAC the luxury Muses opamps create slightly greater color intensity and microdynamic life. In DAC/headphone mode the Asus broadens the same performance gap further to make their machine the superior headfi choice.

iMac, NuForce DAC-100, & Asus converter

FirstWatt SIT1 monos, Aries Cerat Gladius speakers

To use easy generalities, the NuForce/Asus aesthetic is the Beryllium/ceramic driver sound. The Burson gestalt is the soft-dome/textile transducer version. The former celebrates transient exactitude. Think drumming out rhythms with nails on glass, not fleshy finger tips on wood. The other flavor explores tone and textures. Think vintage Sonus faber or core Zu elements. The first maximizes separation and sorting, the second explores connective tissue and tone density. Car terms might talk of speed versus comfort. Musical phrasing juxtaposes staccato/pizzicato and legato/con-arco. Obviously neither approach is exclusive. It's not as though each could only do the one thing but not the other. It's about which direction one observes from. The observed is the same but personal impression or perspective are influenced by position.

Let's get concrete. AudioSolutions' flagship Rhapsody 200 speakers from the last page and again shown at right combine vintage Sonus faber virtues of tone and texture with a far more American than European bass balance and boisterous dynamics. When I explored DAC-direct drive into a pair of British but otherwise stock Ncore 1200 monos with this Lithuanian speaker, I also explored how to shift their final sound into the direction of my usual system with its lighter bass balance, sealed vs. ported bass, Raal ribbon vs. silk-dome tweeter and such. The dual-differential Asus DAC fit these requirements best.

Next came the April Music Eximus DP1, last the Burson. The Essence One moved into the foreground qualities like separation, articulation, incision and focus. The Burson meanwhile doubled up on the speakers' considerable image density and low-down weightiness. In combination this moved the other qualities even more into the background. In the quest for personal perfection, I think of the core system voicing task as very much a room with tons of dimmable light source options. One must experiment with exactly which lights to turn on and at just what intensity and angle.

What sets the Asus converter apart from others sharing its perspective—I'd include my Zodiac Gold/Voltikus combo whose specialty is airiness—is a particular color pop factor. Despite high leading-edge speed, timbres have a certain intensity. This borrows from the other side. Here the NuForce DAC-100 was leaner or paler particularly in headphone mode.

To emphasize the Asus mix, visualize a Beryllium tweeter with ceramic woofer but ScanSpeak paper-cone midrange. I'd call it a modern fast highly resolved sound with just a dose of vintage tone. In the context of my bedside headfi rig which is dominated by Bakoon's fabulous AMP-11R and Audez'e LCD-2 or Beyerdynamic T5p, the DAC passing on digits from an AIFF-loaded 160GB iPod Classic via Cambridge Audio iD100 dock tends to be either the Eximus DP1 or Zodiac Gold. This depends mostly on where else either unit might be needed.

Swapping Gold for Asus (the former's PSU sits on a lower shelf not shown) and plugging in either headphone netted an audible advantage for the Asus. Antelope Audio's headfi socket was paler, whiter and texturally flatter; less interesting, less engaging. April Music's Eximus output meanwhile got more robust and fleshy than the Asus. The Burson walked yet deeper in that direction.

If your tastes find the Audez'e LCD-2—mine are 1st gen—too Zu Druid IV opaque on top, moving those planar cans from Eximus to Muses Edition becomes a mild quickening agent or caffeine injection. If the Sennheiser HD800 with stock leash strike you as too bright and forward, moving them from NuForce to Asus builds out midrange beauty. Moving on to Burson builds out low registers and sets the tonal balance center lower.

If for speaker drive you have fully balanced ultra low-noise amps of Acoustic Imagery Atsah/AURALiC Merak caliber and don't want an intermediary preamp to retain max resolving power, it's a bit (or very!) upsetting just how good the affordable Asus in balanced output mode performs. It can easily sideline and invalidate €10.000 designer preamps. By comparison those become minor bottle not rubber neckers especially with ambient detail and transient impact. The only creature features the Asus deck misses in digital preamp use (given price the 'missing' bit is factual but zero critique) are remote volume control and an associated digital display to confirm exact value. Those might be wish-list items for a forthcoming Asus flagship machine.

Running through various file resolutions natively and player upsampled showed the Asus to keep perfect track. From 44.1kHz - 192kHz, all intermediate steps locked. Possibly confusing was identification. The System Preferences and AudioMidi of OSX 10.8.2 and the equivalent windows of PureMusic and Audirvana alike saw the device as 'Speaker'. Seeing that, some users will assume internal speakers or something other than the actual machine to never recognize the Asus DAC as an active selection choice. I would change that identifier with a firmware update to display 'Asus Xonar Essence One' or 'Asus DAC' and avoid all ambiguity.

PureMusic 1.86 basic setup window

Audirvana preferences window

As the right screen capture above and the one below show, the Asus is copasetic with integer playback, a higher-quality setting in Mac-centric player software not available with all converters. Consider the Xonar Essence One a member of the integer club. The player image also shows that for this round I'd set it from 16/44.1kHz to 176.4kHz upsampling confirmed further by the Essence One's display.

Conclusion. Unknown to me is the sonic upswing between the various Asus versions. It's outright shocking that the very same machine with less costly opamps and no gain jumper starts at $599. That really has got to be the ultimate audiophile starter machine. At $899 as reviewed, the Muses Edition remains fiercely competitive on both features and performance. The only nod at midfi is the somewhat garish super-bright light ring around the power button. Very useful and 100% audiophile approved meanwhile is the incoming sample rate confirmation which even far costlier DACs like Burson's Conductor lack. Further kudos are due the elegantly swooping extrusion and dirt-simple 'disassembly' to get at the socketed opamps for those inveterate rollers.

Headphone drive potency covers all full-size operators except HifiMan's cruel HE-6. The real headphone equivalent to the Asus DAC is AKG's K-702. Costing seriously less than the cream of the cannery crop, it can come uncomfortably close if powered from an appropriately endowed amp. Needless to say the Asus gripped 'em with real conviction within the first quadrant of its volume control and secured a properly saturated color palette (it's here where things can so often go south for the AKG at least to my ears)

Sennheiser HD800, Beyer T1/T5p, HifiMan HE-500 and Audez'e LCD-2 all proved equal game where the Taiwanese converter reached quite beyond its station. Having done no opamp rolling to be in the dark as to the range and detail of swap options, all I can say is that the chosen Jfet-based Muses excel at a very particular combination of wiry gutsiness with an energetic color wheel if that's a proper term.

Now that the Taiwanese giant has proven its commitment and design chops to the audiophile community, I want to formally petition them to next concern themselves not with what follows their DAC—amps, speakers and the lot—but with what precedes it in USB terms: a music-centric computer. The moment this company authors such a beast, I'd be first in line to check it out. In pure self-service mode, let me add a personal request: an iPad-style tablet for access and GUI that can be hardwired via an Ethernet, USB or other cable so that radiation-sensitive users can turn off wireless and still enjoy all the conveniences.

For now big props to Asus and its team of audio engineers for breaking into our domain at prices the average person can afford whilst giving us such a big slice of upscale sonics and comprehensive featurization. Below $1.500 the Asus Xonar Essence One Muses Edition could well be the current 3-in-one DAC, preamp and headphone amp to beat. The competition should certainly take note and pay attention. When it comes to the $599 base version of this model, a Realsization Award would seem nearly predestined. Add active monitors like Ancient Audio's Studio Oslo and Bob could be the wealthy uncle you didn't know you had.