Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Cairn Fog v2.0 as transport; Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC; Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 filter/buffer on the DAC's analog outputs; Eastern Electric MiniMax CDP; Accustic Arts Drive I
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe2 GenII; Eastern Electric MiniMax; Acoustic Reality eAR Pre2 [on review]; Antique Sound Lab MGHead DT/OTL 32 [on review]
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88; Bel Canto eVo 4 GenII; Eastern Electric MiniMax amplifier
Speakers: Avantgarde Acoustic DUO; nOrh SM 6.9, Gallo Acoustic Reference III
Cables: HMS Grand Finale; Analysis Plus Solo Oval and Oval 8; i2digital X-60 and Stereovox HDXV S/PDIF cables; Mapleshade Ebony active S/PDIF interconnect; Furutech Digi. Reference BNC-BNC digital cable; ma recordings BNC/BNC reference digital cable [on review]; Mapleshade Planar power cord with DC bias; Audio Magic Clairvoyant power cords; Crystal Cable Reference complete wire set of interconnects, speaker cables and power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner; 2 x Stealth Audio Cables Indra analogue &Varidig and Varidig6 S/PDIF cables [on review]; Artistic Audio Vacuum Reference S/PDIF [on review]
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature; Walker Audio Velocitor for source components
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $6,999

The Ensemble Dichrono HiDac is the natural mate for the firm's Dirondo transport and an expanded version of the D/A section built into the Dirondo one-box player. The expansion over the latter's converter section occurs in the realm of functionality. The Dichrono is an integral DAC/preamp with one analogue-direct input (no conversion to digital plus auto mute of all digital circuits once this input sees a signal); three digital inputs; and full remote control over phase inversion plus volume via motor-driven pot. An expansion bay for native 192kHz PCM and/or DSD inputs provides non-obsolescence for the future and will then feed the currently unused inputs 4 and 5.

As is the case with its transport sibling, the Dichrono's innards are compartmentalized to shield and isolate specific circuits. Rear panel and socketry are likewise mechanically decoupled from the main chassis which is covered by a well-damped casing whose ventilation slots are cut in the shape of the company's logo. That logo is also picked up by the orange-illuminated frontal power switch. Via the Hi-Res push button, 44.1-48kHz input signals from CD, DAT or digital radio and received via either RCA, BNC or Toslink as inputs 1-3 can be upsampled to 96kHz. When connected to its companion Dirondo Drive, the Dichrono can also receive a 96kHz signal in which case the Hi-Res indicator will illuminate while the DAC's internal upsampling is automatically bypassed.

To learn about the technological advantages of this optional upsampling-by-transport scheme (which thus offers two very different ways to enjoy 96kHz operation from the HiDac), I asked Urs Wagner of Ensemble to provide a brief explanation: "The Dirondo Drive uses software-base asynchronous sample rate conversion which allows computation of the time ratio and amplitude data within the same algorithm. Time is translated into the digital domain to become an abstract value that is no longer a slave of the system master clock. It is now possible to exercise control over both time and amplitude to improve jitter and phase linearity and 'zoom' in on the data to improve apparent internal resolution to 19.5 bits." The Dichrono DAC treats this type of already upsampled RedBook signal as a pure 96kHz DVD-A data stream.

The DAC's digital-out which facilitates recording must be activated via rear panel push button and is otherwise not engaged and out of the circuit. Older discs with de-emphasis encoding are fully compatible. The Dichrono's motherboard offers three different jumper stages to set preamp coupling to DC or AC; variable gain to 6dB/low or 12dB/high for the analog input; and defeat the volume control altogether by selecting fixed gain. The yellow front panel phase indicator automatically lights up when the Dichrono is first powered up and remains lit until the 15-second auto mute period has concluded. During the same stabilization period, the volume control automatically returns to 0, then sets itself at ca. 15%. When the phase indicator extinguishes, the Dichrono is ready for action. The analog input is selected by the front panel button that doubles as a red indicator when this input is selected.

While the Ensemble system remote of the Dirondo Drive makes the Dichrono's less complex 4-button remote redundant, the latter affords prospective buyers with non-Ensemble transports control over Ensemble's DAC, preamp and integrated amp. The upper left button sets the remote for any of these applications and thoughtfully alters the remote's battery indicator LED color from orange to red to green accordingly . In DAC mode, the second button controls phase, in preamp/amp mode, it mutes the outputs. Milled from a solid block of aluminum and finished with rounded and obliquely facetted edges just like the finely grained face plate, this remote uses two paralleled IR emitters for an extra broad coverage beam and a small indicator LED to confirm battery charge with each input command.

Digital signal lock is confirmed by a green indicator. Max output voltage is 3.1Vrms. Dynamic range is claimed to be 114dBA, S/N 116dBA, THD+N distortion -95dB and channel separation 116dB. In analog-input preamp mode, maximum output voltage is 9.8Vrms and S/N ratio becomes 108/102dBA in low/hi 6/12dB gain settings respectively. Overall dimensions are 15.5" x 12.4" x 5.3" WxDxH and weight is 20 lbs.
In true cover-all-bases style, Ensemble designs and contracts for its own proprietary RCA connectors, control knobs and visco-elastic footers; selects the most expensive aluminum alloy fascias that lend themselves to extra-fine graining and non-standard anodizing (the color chosen is a subtle grey); uses non-magnetic screws with counter bolts; treats all metal parts with an anti-corrosion treatment prior to solvent-free satin lacquering; hand-solders all the boards; uses only shielded hookup wire in carefully guided layouts and medical-grade IEC II-type transformers tested to 4000V and with galvanic separation between primary and secondary windings to avoid the need for AC grounding and thereby eliminate a common entry point for AC-distributed noise. In a bow to Bauhaus sensibilities and with a nod to famous designers and architects like Le Corbusier, Ivar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen, the unified aesthetics of the new Ensemble line deliberately eschew he-man primitivism and Rodeo Drive glitz. They concentrate instead on elegant simplicity and clear and clean functionality that's focused on practicality and ease of use, never excess.
Ensemble's Dichrono HiDac is about as full-featured a digital-to-analog converter as one could dream up. Incorporating full preamp functionality allows amp-direct connection to remove one box and one analog cable pair from a prospective system equation. Build quality is utterly uncompromised and the company is famous for launching fully mature products which remain in the lineup unchanged for a very long time. Though the government-salaried civil servant as the sacrosanct pillar of Swiss society no longer enjoys the security of guaranteed lifetime employment -- he's since had to embrace the byproducts of American-style market economies with the concomitant risks of getting fired; ouch -- Ensemble seems to resist such trends by holding on to older values. Founder and CEO Urs Wagner's formal education took place at universities in Iceland, London and Basel and concluded with a Doctor's degree in the science of language and philology. To this day, he avoids e-mail and prefers to handle all correspondence by phone or fax. It's then perhaps not surprising that his components avoid flash and short-lived trendiness. A comprehensive performance review in conjunction with Ensemble's own Dirondo Drive and Accustic Arts' Drive I as well as my personal Zanden Model 5000 DAC will be forthcoming next month. Digital cables by Acoustic Zen, Artistic Audio, Audience, Crystal Cable, Ensemble, i2digital, m.a. recordings, Stealth and Stereovox also will make appearances. Do the jitterbug until then...
Manufacturer's website
US distributor's website