North Star Design Essensio (£825)

A well priced Italian design with an impressive USB implementation.

Among cost-conscious hi-fi enthusiasts, Italy’s North Star Design company has a reputation for making cutting-edge digital audio products that sport sensible price tags. Its latest Essensio DAC is a new entry model in its portfolio that undercuts the price of its existing £1420 USB dac32 by dispensing with balanced outputs and AES/EBU (XLR) digital input sockets. Also missing is the RJ45 socket for I2S interfacing with North Star’s £1750 Model 192 MkII CD transport. And like all the company’s DACs it is simply stereo.

Only one set of single-ended (RCA) outputs is provided for hooking up to an amplifier’s line input. But with no fewer than five S/PDIF inputs – three optical (Toslink) and two electrical (RCA) – plus an asynchronous USB input for computer audio sources, the Essensio can work as a D-to-A converter for your CD transport, satellite or Freeview TV receiver box and what-have-you, with inputs to spare. The only pity is that no remote control is provided.

The high resolution audio capability of DVD-Audio may have failed to catch on a decade ago, but modern digital studio master recordings live on in the form of hi-res file downloads that can be burned to recordable DVD media (if you so wish) or played out from computer HDDs. To cover the numbers, then, the Essensio’s optical inputs will accept data up to 24-bit/96kHz, the coaxial inputs up to 24/192kHz, and the USB input up to a notional 32-bit/192kHz.

Under the bonnet the Essensio up-samples and re-clocks all incoming data to 32-bit/192kHz for internal processing. Separate power supplies are used for the Essensio’s digital and analogue sections, the DACs being 32-bit/192kHz-capable Burr-Brown PCM1795 devices.

Using the Essensio as an outboard DAC for an ageing, Pioneer DV- 868AVi universal disc player gave clear evidence of its capabilities. The Pioneer is certainly not a bad CD player, but it can be ruthlessly unforgiving of harsh recordings. Using the DV-868AVi as a disc transport into one of the Essensio’s coaxial S/PDIF inputs resulted in a richer, ‘thicker’ and more organic sound from all manner of CDs, one that allowed observation of subtle detail but without the sound appearing hyper-detailed or edgy.

Even during raucous passages in rock recordings the Essensio created an impression of clean, low-distortion sound. When Mark Knopfler thrashes his electric guitar vigorously in unison with the majestic, crashing assault on the piano during the coda in ‘Private Investigations’, the North Star held everything together, avoiding strain and subjective compression – where so often the sound can become strident and brittle when listening at high-ish levels.

The Essensio really shows its true colours when playing highresolution digital files via its USB input. A selection of DXD recordings downloaded from Norway’s audiophile 2L record label [Lindberg Lyd,] sounded better than ever when pushed simply from a laptop through the Essensio DAC.

Moreover we have never heard such clear differentiation between 24-bit/96kHz and 24-bit/192kHz files as when comparing a recording of the Allegro from Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D, K218, with Marianne Thorsen and Norway’s Trondheim Soloists. The 96kHz version of the stereo file sounds more than splendid, yet the 192kHz version adds further texture and sweetness to the tonality, and seemingly more air to the sound image. Glorious.

At a shade under a £1000, North Star Design’s Essensio DAC can hardly be considered a casual purchase, but it does deliver highend sound. With good recordings the delivery is polished and refined, and boasts deeply felt, full-bodied, and taut bass. Even the most committed analogue diehard couldn’t fail to be thrilled by the sound of high-resolution files from a computer-based source when decoded by the Essensio.

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Originally published in the Yearbook 2011