Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC
Malcolm J. Gomes
Imagine, if you will, a prize-winning essay written in English, which is then translated into Chinese and then from Chinese to Greek. How accurately do you think the Greek version would capture the essence of the original English version?
Now imagine that the Greek version is translated back into Chinese and the Chinese version is then translated back into English. Now if you compared this English version to the original version, do you think it would match word for word? Not very likely, right?
Things are not so different in the world of digital audio. First the sound waves that are generated at the live performance have to be translated/converted into their analog electrical equivalent via a the right choice of microphone that is properly placed which then feeds a whole host of other electronics components including the mixing console via numerous runs of cables and interconnects.
This analog electrical equivalent has to then be translated into a digital representation of the same signal by using zeros and ones, which are then stored in a digital medium and then replicated for sale to, and use by consumers.
At the consumer level, the zeros and ones are read from the digital medium and fed into a digital to analog converter via circuits or interconnects where it is then translated back into the analog electrical equivalent. This is then fed into preamplifiers and amplifiers, again through interconnects, where a more powerful copy of the signal is made and then fed via cables to a speaker which is mandated with the task of translating or converting the electrical signal into the sound waves that we can hear.
Now with so many links in the chain and so much of processing, from the time the sound waves generated at the live performance is converted into analogous electrical signal, to the time our speakers convert the electrical signals back into sound waves, how similar do you think the sound generated by the speaker would be to the sound generated at the live performance?
Now, into this equation, factor in the incredible ability of the human hearing faculty which has evolved over millions of years to allow us to detect, as sound, variations in air pressure traveling as waves in the air around us. Astonishingly, our eardrums can detect air pressure so tiny, it causes our eardrum to move less than the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Even air pressure movement, as infinitesimal as this, is accurately delivered to and actually registers in our conscious mind as sound.
The dynamic range of human hearing is a true miracle of nature; it is significantly higher than even our range of vision. The difference between the softest and loudest sound that we can hear is 130dB. In plain English, this means that if the softest sound we hear were one unit, the loudest sound would measure around ten trillion units.
Given the incredible sensitivity our auditory faculties, what are the chances that we will not detect the difference in sound waves from the ones generated at the live performance to the ones reproduced by our speakers, after having gone through numerous circuits and so many different stages of processing? This is why, despite very impressive advances in audio technology over the past few decades, we can still, easily detect the differences between a live performance and a reproduction of the same, even with the best, most accurate, most neutral audio components that money can buy. As consumers, unless we make our own recordings from scratch, we have no control over the process up to the time we buy a vinyl record or a digital domain recording in the form of a compact disc or a music file. We do, however, have control over the rest of the process through the audio components, interconnects and cables that we buy and the way we configure them and the acoustics of our listening room, to take care of the process of converting the zeros and ones that comprise the digital signals, back into the sound waves that we hear.
When the compact disc made its debut in the early 1980, it was hyped up as "perfect sound forever". The first few generations of compact disc players were anything but! The sound was etched and mechanical with very obvious glare that resulted in very high listening fatigue. For decades, many audiophiles blamed the ‘inherent limitations’ and ‘flaws’ of the CD system for all the ills that made listening to digital domain music, so far removed from listening to their analog counterparts like the vinyl system, which was so much smoother, more relaxed and so much closer to the live performance.
Over the past decade, a lot more time, effort and resources were poured into strengthening this ‘weak link’ and as a result, we saw the development and introduction of better performing DACs which brought digital domain music a lot closer to their analog counterparts. This phase in the life of digital domain music was helped quite exponentially by the significant increase and accessibility of music files with much higher resolution than the CD system and also by the plunge in the price of hard drives, which made it a lot more affordable to store the much larger music files of high resolution music.
What also fueled the growth of DACs is the growth of computer audio, where audiophiles migrated in droves, from the traditional shiny disc, CD system to storing their music in their computers and dedicated music servers. This put the DAC, especially the models that could handle higher resolution music files than what the CD system offers, at center stage in many audiophiles’ music systems and it suddenly made imminent sense for audiophiles to devote a lot more of their audio budget to a good quality DAC. This in turn motivated many manufacturers to design cost no object DACs that could handle resolutions as high as 24/192 and we saw prices of the best brands and models jump to 5-figure amounts and demand for these mega-buck DACs soar.
Over the past few years, the technology contained in the mega-buck DACs have filtered down to more affordable models and of late, we have seen a plethora of truly high quality DACs at much lower prices than the best DACs of just a few years ago.
There is one common element that many of the best DACs today share; it is a chip that is employed for digital to analog conversion. This highly regarded chip answers to the name ESS Sabre. So when Mark Mallinson, the person that headed up the Group that designed the ESS Sabre chip, decided to strike out on his own and put his smarts to designing a DAC that would squeeze optimum performance from the chip that he and his Group designed, Stereomojo thought that it would be worth investigating.
Mark Mallinson used to be the Operations Director at ESS Technologies till 2009 at which time, he decided to put together his own engineering team and hang out his own shingle in British Columbia, Canada, under the name Resonessence Labs. What makes this enterprise quite unique is that fact that it not just their design engineers, but also their investors who are industry audio experts at DAC and ADC design. Every one of them was at the forefront in the design of the ESS Audio DAC and ADC.
For the past couple of years, Mark and his team gave themselves a very clear mandate; to design and produce a DAC that would not just offer exceptional technical performance, but more importantly, to ensure that it also sets a new industry benchmark for sound quality delivered by a DAC. They wanted their creation to become the preferred choice for not just discerning audiophile but also professional user looking for a state-of-the-art DAC. Over the past two years, Mark and his team have been working on a product they christened Invicta. It is a dual channel DAC. They adopted a no-compromise approach and leveraged to the hilt, their unique understanding of the Sabre DAC chip to extract the maximum performance they could, out of it. Their strategy was to put a premium on careful planning, strict attention to every detail and close supervision at every step; which is why they chose to manufacture the product exclusively within Canada. They ensured that every stage in the development process was scrupulously monitored. They also decided that every production unit would be meticulously hand-assembled at their own engineering facility to ensure that each unit would meet exacting standards of performance and quality.
The fanatical attention to detail was obvious in the fact that the Resonessence Labs delayed shipping the review unit to me a few times just to ensure that they got it right, both on the hardware and software side.
So after all the time, effort and investment, did the Invicta meet the sky-high expectations of its creators? That is what this review is mandated to find out.
The unit arrived in a utilitarian, no-nonsense, triple box package and the first thing that struck me as I unpacked the unit was the compact size and the bulletproof built quality.
The modus operandi for assembly of the chassis is impressive, in that, the front panel is a structurally integrated part of the chassis assembly, not just a cover to hide a stamped steel sub-chassis. Like a well-built luxury car, the manufacturing tolerances are held within .001, which oozes quality and makes the fit and finish of the Invicta very easy on the eyes. The main front panel and chassis base are machined from a solid block of 6061 T6 aluminum, while the internal sheet metal components and fasteners are all manufactured from stainless steel.
It is obvious that the latest high speed Computer Numeric Control machining and Computer Aided Machining technology has been employed to ensure optimum consistency. The permanent markings on the front and rear panels are laser etched. The complex front panel sub-assembly has as many as 27 fasteners. All this attention to detail makes the front panel look like it has been sculpted from a block of solid granite. When manipulating the switches, buttons and knobs, one gets very reassuring tactile feedback; this is a component with bulletproof build quality.
Since Reasonessence Labs continuously run every unit for 100 hours before they ship it, little, if any further burn-in is usually required. However given the lengths to which Reasonessence went to ensure that no stone was unturned, I decided to do the same by giving it a further 45 hours of burn-in time, just to be sure the review was done with a thoroughly burned in unit.
While the unit was burning in, I began perusing through the technical specifications of the Invicta. On paper, the Invicta has the facts and figures that are likely to impress even the most discerning audiophile. Having said that, I have reviewed too many audio components that flattered in specifications, only to deceive via their actual performance, so despite such impressive specs, I always hold a healthy dose of skepticism, till my ears confirm that the specs actually translate into superior sound quality.
The parade of impressive specs begins with a dynamic range that is better than 125 dB complimented by an equally impressive -110dB THD and a bandwidth of 80kHz. The Invicta handles music files with resolutions from 16 to 24 bits and from 44.1k to 192k and all the common modes in between.
The rear panel analog output ports include balanced XLR and the more common RCA. The front panel has two headphone outputs with independent trim levels. Every audiophile whose eyesight is not what it used to be will welcome the relatively large, high resolution OLED front-panel display. This is one of the very few DACs out there, with a display that can actually be read even by the ‘not as young as we used to be’ baby boomers, from the listening position, even if it is over 9 feet away.
The Invicta has an HDMI output that can be connected to a TV monitor to display and help maneuver through your play list.
The processing via USB input is done asynchronously, 2.0 with a Mac and 1.0 via a PC, with the convenience of plug and play (no add-on drivers required). The USB play controls like play, pause etc., are done via the front panel and using the remote control. The Invicta is one of the very few high-end DACs that can handle 24/192 resolution tracks via its USB input all on its own. There are DACs that cost 20% to 50% more, which need the assistance of another component to handle music files with 24/192 resolution via USB. The Invicta is also capable of updating its firmware via its USB connection to the PC or Mac.
One of the unique features of the Invicta, is that it is equipped with a card reader that supports AIFF and WAV files on SD and SDHC cards. An ID3 reader displays the play list on the unit’s OLED display as well as on a TV monitor connected via HDMI. Reasonessense Labs chose the OLED display because, it apparently generates significantly lower noise than other kinds of displays.
According to Reasonessence, there are sonic advantages to using an SD card instead of a USB thumb drive as a source. In a USB interface, the USB host affects the flow control. In other words, its performance will change the detailed operation of the flow control process in the audio DAC.
Since the USB is a serial data source, marshaling or “serializing” of the data into the USB “pipe” is a necessity. In contrast, with an SD Card the data is randomly accessed in a few nano-seconds, which is faster than a USB and the data can be accessed in any order that the controller ‘asks’ for.
This keeps the frequency domain characteristics of the data access process under control and ensures even access with no frequency characteristic in the audio band. Moreover, unlike a USB, an SD Card does not have a line capacitance to charge and discharge. With a USB, the wave front propagating in the controlled environment of the cable presents a significant load to the driver. With an SD Card the charge disturbances are lower. The other inputs offered by Invicta include SPDIF, two BNC, AES/EBU and a Toslink input and output for greater flexibility.
The remote offers comprehensive control of all features including USB Host control, which, for Mac owners, would render an Apple remote control redundant. The volume can be manipulated from -127.5dB to 0.0 dB. A very convenient feature of the Invicta is its ability to save user configurations in its memory. These include display brightness levels, audio amplitudes levels and others.
The unit utilizes galvanic isolation to ensure that all its internal audio components do not interfere with each other and so allowed to operate at their optimum performance levels. This includes the USB cable power, which is galvanically isolated from the rest of the system and from its power supplies. Many of the better DACs have a design where each power supply lifts its potential relative to a common ground, and that common ground is designed to make a uniform boundary condition of zero volts throughout the design.
Resonessence claims that its galvanic isolation design, not only separates power supplies, but separates grounds as well. In their opinion, this prevents any unwanted current flow causing a ground drop. Signals pass over specific isolation devices between these galvanic domains and noise in one domain is prevented from adversely affecting another domain because the return current is in the domain where the noise is generated. They rationalize that this is better than a well-managed ground because there is no ground current to manage.
As I mentioned before, the Invicta utilizes ESS Sabre DACs; an ES9018 partnered with an ES9016 in a 4:1 configuration. To minimize low phase noise, the Invicta has been designed to work without any PLLs at all. The power supply is a screened and customized toroidal analog (non-switching) type that operates in 115/230v modes.
The Invicta is equipped with a digital volume control to allow it to by-pass preamplifiers and be used directly with power amplifiers. Now this may raise a few eyebrows! Why use a digital volume control when conventional wisdom would dictate that, if the design were truly a no-comprise one, an analog volume control would be the logical choice, because we all know that only an analog volume control can reduce the noise and the signal at the same time, so preserving the Signal to Noise ratio.
The rationale that Resonessense provides in being contrarians and using a digital volume control instead of an analog one is that the signal to noise of the Invicta is so high – typically -132dB, that it’s digital volume control will deliver the same performance as a well implemented analog volume control.
Resonessence engineers further defend their choice of a digital volume control with the rationale that an analog volume control would need to have less than -132dB performance relative to full scale before it would better the Invicta digital volume control. They claim that this is easier said than done, because a single 8k resistor has about this much noise, and by the time the output driver is added it would be next to impossible to maintain a -132db noise floor.
The engineers at Resonessence say that they could have made an analog volume control at the -136dB level including the XLR driver amplifier etc., which, they concede, would better their digital volume control by around 4dB. However, this would open a Pandora’s box of other problems like the specter of cross talk, volume level matching, THD control, long-term reliability, lack of remote software control and many other ills; all of which, they claim, were mitigated by their decision to use a very high performance digital control instead.
The same fanatical attention to detail that has obviously gone into the Invicta has also gone into its owners manual. This 64-page document is not just easy to read and follow, it also contains some very interesting notes on audio engineering as well as 22 pages of technical measurements including some useful graphs. In addition, you also get a user guide that gives you a brief overview of the Invicta before you get started.
To begin with I tried connecting the Invicta directly to the power amplifier using balanced interconnects. The sound was extremely clean and relaxed. I then tried going the preamp route and the sound was distinctly more fleshed out and full bodied in comparison, so I decided to go this route for the review. This configuration also had the added advantage of allowing me to do instantaneous AB comparisons with other DACs.
Since the Invicta has a wealth of connectivity, I decided to try out all of them. I connected the Invicta to my Bryston BCD-1, used as a transport, to my Sooloos System and to my iMac via both USB and the optical output. Additionally, I had the option of listening to tracks recorded on an SD card, which has the advantage of completely bypassing the inherently noisy environment of the computer.
Besides the usual ‘audiophile’ sound track staples that, in my opinion, make many systems sound a bit too ‘hi-fi-like’, for my reviews, I prefer to also use tracks that deliver great listening enjoyment in addition to just sounds that help you evaluate a component. I find that these tracks help you go beyond evaluating the sound quality of the component and on to evaluating how well the component helps you establish an emotional connection with the artiste.
Some of these tracks include selections from Cat Stevens, Supertramp, Stacey Kent, Pink Floyd, James Taylor, Allison Krause, Al Di Meola, Rachmaninoff and Mozart. Having reviewed audio components for around 3 decades now, I know many of these tracks like the back of my hand.
According to the literature supplied by Resonessence Labs, the safest level to set on the Invicta when using it with a preamp is -30 dB. I tried this and found that it was too low. I decided to volume match the Invicta to the other DACs I compared it to, and found that -8 dB on the Invicta achieved this objective.
I started off with an SD card with some high-resolution tracks on it. First up was Neil Young’s ‘Old Man’ in 24/192. Neil Young sings this track with a lot of emotion and on good systems this emotion comes through quite powerfully. The Invicta was no exception. It could intimately feel the emotion in Neil’s voice in a way that few DACs have been able to convey. I thought to myself; that is a very encouraging start.
The next step was to compare the same track played through a CD and then through my Sooloos, both in 16/44 resolution, and finally through my iMac in 24/192 resolution. My expectation was that the SD card route would blow everything else away, given that it was totally isolated from the inherently noisy environment of a computer and also because it eliminated all the circuitry and cabling that the other sources were saddled with in getting the signal to the Invicta.
No so. Although the SD Card and iMac routes did have more saturation and sounded a tad fuller, the sound quality of the track played through the CD player and the Sooloos was not far behind. I was surprised as how small the differences were. Could this be because the Invicta was not optimizing high rez files or was it because it is played the lower rez files so well, that the performance gap is not so obvious?
I tried out other tracks at different resolutions and concluded that it was the latter. The Invicta played the lower rez tracks so well; I could detect the gap with the high rez tracks only with instantaneous AB comparisons.
I then went through the whole gamut of staples that are usually used to review audio components including genres like rock, pop, jazz, classical, R & B, new age and acapella followed by drum tracks. I heard all these using the CD players, the SD Card, the Sooloos and the iMac as sources. Here are my conclusions:
The forte of the Invicta is the way it delivers the midrange and the very low level micro details in music. In this regard it is as good as any of the DACs that I have heard. It is able to resolve signals with incredible accuracy and detail while at the same time staying immensely musical and non-fatiguing.
There are many high quality DACs that will give you immense listening pleasure for around an hour; but beyond that, fatigue sets in and you feel like you have had enough. No so with the Invicta. I had listening sessions that exceeded 7 hours at a time and I still felt like keeping the session going.
I guess this is a reflection of the attention to detail that Resonessence Labs showered on the each and every part of the Invicta. All those efforts have been successful in eliminating the course and grainy sound that I have found on lesser DACs. Instead, the sound is as velvety smooth as a baby’s bottom. The subtleties and nuances of each harmonic structure is so delicately rendered, they are not just easy to follow, but are also quite pleasurable to listen to. The timbre is spot on, which brings the sound fairly close to what you hear at a live performance.
One aspect where most DACs are found wanting is in the reproduction of the very soft passages, where details get either drowned out or muddied. Here is where the Invicta really shines. When listening to ‘Walking on the moon’ by the Yuri Honing Trio, the Invicta delivered the very soft passages with micro details that only a handful of DACs I have heard, were able to reproduce. Comparison to an electron microscope would not be inappropriate!
Vocals, both male and female, were rendered with a degree of palpability, that resulted in an almost ‘I can reach out and touch the singer’ kind of realism. This in turn makes it very easy to connect with the emotions of the singer as they serenade you with their seductive voices. This quality also came through with instruments, especially the more expressive ones like the violin and the sax. In ‘Sad Lisa’ by Cat Stevens, the deep sadness conveyed by the violin gave me goose bumps. It was the same when I listened to Antiphone Blues by Arne Domnerus. The Invicta revealed how expressive and nuanced an instrument the sax can be in the hands of a master like Arne.
The piano is a very difficult instrument to reproduce accurately. I played the keyboards for a rock back for many years and I am very familiar with what a piano should sound like. Through the Invicta, piano notes were rendered with such accuracy; I could almost picture the felt lined hammers hitting taut strings. The piano notes higher up the scale were sweet, delicate and tonally accurate. Not totally identical to what you experience when hearing a piano being played at a live performance, but almost as close as some of the mega-priced DACs I have heard.
What I appreciated about the Invicta is that, in the midrange, it is almost totally transparent with little, if any, sound of its own. Rather, it is like admiring a breathtakingly beautiful scenery through a window with glass so clean and clear, it would make very little difference to your appreciation of the view, whether the glass was between you and the scenery, or not.
The Invicta is also on par with some of the best DACs I have heard in terms of portraying transient information, which is portrayed with incredible speed, which together with a scale of dynamic contrast, brings you, quite close to the live performance.
The Invicta’s timing and rhthm was more accurate than most DACs. With rhythmic music, more often than not, I found my head bobbing and my foot tapping as if they had a mind of their own. The sound stage delivered by the Invicta had the depth and breadth that lesser DAC’s just can’t match. On the Supertramp track ‘School’, I could distinctly hear the sound of certain instruments coming from at least 25 feet behind the speakers despite the fact that the speakers were just 7 feet from the back wall of my listening room. I could also hear sounds that seem to come from well beyond the sidewalls. All in all, it delivered a believably holographic sonic image.
The Invicta also delivers headphone performance that compares well with some very pricey dedicated headphone amplifiers I have heard. It is obvious that Resonessence Labs has not spared any effort in this regard, with an obvious eye not just on the professional market but also on the growing popularity of high-end headphone listening amongst audiophiles. When listening through headphones, I got a bit more of the micro details in the music but I lost the 3-D holographic sound stage that my reference speakers created.
When listening to my iMac via USB, the sound was as pretty good. However the Invicta seems to have a special synergy with the iMac’s optical output, where the sound reproduction was incredibly clean and relaxed, although it gives up a little bit of body and saturation when compared to the USB output.
So how does the Invicta compare to other high-end DACs. The first head to head comparison I did was with the Benchmark DAC1 HDR. In comparison to the Invicta, the Benchmark was more precise and analytical. For those of you who follow soccer, the Benchmark was more like the German national team whose hallmark is precise positioning, accurate passing and working to a set plan and strategy. The Invicta is more like the Brazilian team whose samba style is more artistic, flamboyant, fluid and creative.
Both styles are effective and over the past few decades, both Brazil and Germany have been very successful in winning the world cup. However, some fans find the German style more attractive to watch while others prefer the ‘poetry in motion’, Brazilian style.
If the Benchmark scores in terms of accuracy and precision, the Invicta has the upper hand in terms of musicality. For relatively short (around an hour) listening sessions the Benchmark will thrill you but at the cost of higher listening fatigue over longer periods. The Invicta on the other hand is smoother and more musical. I could listen to it for hours and still want more.
Both the Benchmark HDR and the Invicta offer a plethora of features and connectivity including two superior headphone outputs, high quality volume controls, SPDIF (optical and co-axial), asynchronous USB and balanced inputs as well as single ended and balanced outputs. In terms of façade cosmetics and build quality, my vote goes to the Invicta. iMac owners will also like the fact that you can control the play on the iMac via the Invicta’s remote when using the USB output, which the Benchmark lacks. The Invicta also has a digital output and an SD Card reader, which you won’t find on the Benchmark. This works with the USB and SD Card input.
At $1,895, the Benchmark DAC1 HDR is around half the price of the Invicta, so does it offer better value? That depends on what premium you put on the smoother, fuller, less fatiguing sound reproduction of the Invicta and the more solid build quality that it offers. In terms of connectivity, one advantage that the Benchmark HDR has over the Invicta is the analog inputs, which is very useful if you have a tuner or a turntable and would like to run them through the Invicta, eliminating the need for a separate preamplifier.
I also did a head to head between the Invicta and the Neko D100 MK2. In this comparison, the Invicta totally overshadowed the Neko in terms of build quality, features and connectivity. The Neko offers only two SPDIF inputs, one optical and one co-axial, no façade display, no USB input, no remote, no SD Card reader and no volume control. A true plain vanilla DAC in terms of features.
However, the Neko has an ace up its sleeve, which is a fully balanced dual-mono design that utilizes a zero feedback purely passive analog output stage that uses a transformer rather than op amps. It also uses Wolfson WM8804 chips, which buffers and re-clocks the signal for extremely good immunity to jitter.
The Neko uses Jensen output transformers instead of op amps and this provides isolation and gain with an impressively low noise floor. This helps the Neko match the Invicta in midrange reproduction. At $1,495, the Neko is around one-third the price of the Invicta, but if superior dynamics and resolution combined with features like superior asynchronous USB capability, better build quality and comprehensive connectivity are important to you, it could be worth paying more for the Invicta.
I also compared the Invicta to the Bryston BDA-1, which costs $1,995. What I discovered is, when connected to my Sooloos and, surprisingly, even to Bryston’s own BCD-1 CD Player (used as a transport), the Invicta was able to deliver a significantly smoother, more liquid, less fatiguing, more relaxed, more holographic sound stage, better dynamics and superior retrieval of micro and macro details than the Bryston BDA-1.
Unlike the Invicta, the BDA-1 supports only synchronous USB 1.1, which provides support up to 48 kHz. For higher resolution music files you would require you to buy the Bryston BDP-1, which sells for $2,100. This component is fed by a USB equipped hard drive and in turn it feeds the BDA-1. This combination would therefore cost you more than the Invicta does. I have heard good things about the BDA-1 plus BDP-1 combination but have not formally auditioned it yet, so cannot offer any guidance on how it compares to the Invicta.
In terms of overall sound quality, the Invicta compares quite favorably to the original Berkeley Alpha DAC and the Weiss DAC 202. I have auditioned these two DACs at various shows and at friends’ homes, but not having them on hand, I could not do a head to head comparison with the Invicta.
Based on notes I made when I did audition the original Berkeley Alpha DAC ($4,995) and Weiss 202 ($6,670), Invicta would not be embarrassed in their company. The Invicta and the Berkeley are both adept at reproducing startlingly real, effortless and relaxed sound with negligible listening fatigue. The Weiss, on the other hand, delivers a more cohesive sound stage albeit without the ability to separate instruments and voices the way the Berkeley and Invicta can. The Weiss also lacks the dynamics, especially at the low end, and does not convey the emotion in the music with the same finesse as the Berkeley and the Invicta, The Weiss is also a bit behind the curve when it came to bass extension.
In comparison to the Invicta, the DAC 202 has marginally superior smoothness and liquidity with slightly less pronounced digital glare. The Alpha DAC has marginally better dynamic contrast and upper frequency reproduction; a smoother, more open treble reproduction than the Invicta. Both those DACs also offer the option of detecting, whether or not, the signal received by the DAC is a bit perfect version of the original data stream; a feature that the Invicta does not offer.
On the flip side the Invicta has the SD Card reader option, which takes the noisy environment of the computer out of the equation completely, and the HDMI output that allows you to monitor the metadata of tracks in your library and keep tabs on what is currently playing. These Invicta features are rare in the world of high-end DACs.
If you own an iMac and you have deep pockets, it could be worthwhile to check out the Weiss 202 because of its unique and very well implemented Firewire connection. However like the Berkeley, for USB connectivity you need another component, which means you have to spend a whole lot more than you would for the Invicta. With USB based computer audio on the ascendency, this is a factor that is gaining in importance.
I have yet to seriously audition the latest Berkeley Alpha DAC Series 2 with and without the Berkeley Alpha USB, so I cannot tell you how the Invicta would compare. However, a lot of people who own the original Berkeley Alpha DAC 1 are now trading it in for the latest version; I’ve seen the original version sell on Canuck Audio Mart for as little as $2,000.
If you feel tempted to buy the original Berkeley Alpha DAC at around 40% of the original price, do yourself a favour; before you pull the trigger, audition the Invicta. You could find that it not only delivers comparable overall performance, but it is also fully USB input compatible, which could save you the $1,650 that you would need to spend on the Alpha USB, to make the Alpha DAC compatible with USB.
Berkeley stresses that it is important to house the USB to SPDIF circuitry in a separate chassis to optimize its performance. However, the way Resonessense Labs has implemented their USB solution, especially the galvanic isolation they have used, seems to have done an adequate job in isolating the USB circuitry from the rest of the circuits in the DAC.
Even if you can afford the Alpha USB to complement the original Alpha DAC, it would be still advisable to audition Invicta and compare it to that combination. If you find the differences to be negligible, it would behoove you to settle for the Invicta and save a couple of grand in the bargain.
Resonessense Labs are to be commended on making its first product such a deserving contender in DAC market segment, which is currently one of the hottest and most competitive in the high-end audio sphere.
I enjoyed my time with the Invicta and I expect it to create positive waves in the world of audiophilia. Reasonessense Labs has other products in the pipeline, which also sound promising and I look forward to reviewing them.
There are a few changes I would have liked to see in the Invicta. On the ergonomic front it would help to label the Stop/Start and Pause buttons on the remote and on the Select, FF, Rewind and Play buttons on the façade of the unit itself. It would also help to have the option of a fixed output that would take the guesswork out of setting output levels for use with preamps.
Taking a leaf out of the Benchmark playbook and adding an analog input or two, would make the Invicta a more complete unit, especially for people who have a turntable and/or a tuner and would like to save on the cost of a separate preamplifier.
I’m sure customers would also appreciate it, if Resonessence Labs would include a couple of BNC to RCA adaptors in the box with the unit. Like me, I’m sure that most customers would not have BNC cables and, like me, they may need to make a trip to the store to get adaptors, which could be a minor irritant.
My wish list would also include a step down (more affordable) model without the 2-headphone output option, without the SD card reader, without an OLED display, without HDMI output, without the remote controller, without the USB underflow/overflow indicators, without the data rate indicators on the facade, without the volume control and without the digital output option. If Reasonessense Labs could offer such a model with fairly similar sonic attributes as the Invicta and if it could be offered for under $2,000, that could be quite a winner for Resonessence Labs.
If you have set aside a budget of around $5,000 for a DAC, the $3,995 Invicta should be on your shortlist of DACs to audition. In my opinion, its overall performance is comparable to the original Berkeley Alpha DAC, which sold for $4,995 without a USB input.
The fact that Invicta makes even 16/44 resolution sound so very good would make it quite appealing to people whose music collection comprises mainly of CDs and music files with 16/44 resolution.
During the review, I tried the Invicta with both a solid state (Ayre V3) and a tube (Ars Sonum Filarmonia) amp. I preferred the synergy it had with the tube amplifier although it did quite well with the solid-state amp as well.
The audition was done with Merlin Music VSM Master speakers and Cardas Clear Beyond cables and Clear interconnects which are as neutral as they come. It helps a great deal to use the Invicta with speakers and cables that are as neutral as possible. Matched with other neutral components, the Invita will reward you with fatigue-free listening even over long sessions.
If, like me, you have multiple sources (CD player, Computer, Music Server), Invicta’s plethora of inputs is just what you need. The big, bright and sharp OLED display is very welcome, especially since in a world of DACs, even some mega-priced models offer no display or a display with characters so small, you need to be within a foot of the display to read it.
Keep in mind that most of the Invicta’s main rivals offer no USB input or one with only up to 48 kHz capabilities. This will need you to spend around another $1,500 to $2,000 to acquire high-rez, asynchronous USB ability. The Invicta offers this as a standard feature.
When you compare, contrast and evaluate, in your quest to get the best bang for your buck, consider this: If you are a minimalist, you can set up a system that comprises of just the Invicta, a good power amplifier that is matched well to your speaker's sensitivity, an iMac, good cables & interconnects and a good set of speakers and you will be all set to enjoy true high-end sonic performance.
We are happy to present our Maximum Mojo Award to Mark Mallison and the team at Resonessence Labs.
A superior product in performance and features at a very reasonable price.
CD Player - Bryston BCD-1 (SS)
Amp - Ars Sonum Filharmonia (Tube) Ayre V3 (SS)
Speaker Cables - Cardas Clear Beyond
Power Cords - LessLoss Signature
Interconnects - Cardas Clear
Digital - Transparent Reference (digital co-axial), Analysis Plus (Toslink), Transparent Reference (USB)
Stands and Racks
Black Diamond Racing (The Shelf for Sources and LM series)
Black Diamond Racing cones
Shelf placed on bed of pure silicone sand, equipment placed on the shelf via the cones
The gear being evaluated does not receive any of these tweaks or enhancements.
Reference DACs - Neko Audio D-100 Mk2 / Benchmark DAC1 HDR / Bryston BDA-1
Power Conditioner - Isotek Sigma II
Music server - Sooloos 5 complete 3-piece system, iMac (latest) with Amarra 2.3 and Decibel media players
Software - Audiophile CDs from Cheskys, Dorian, MFSL and Sheffield Lab
Hi-rez tracks downloaded from Linn and HD Tracks. MFSL LPs
Listening room – 90% underground, 18’ X 27’ X 8’ with extensive room treatments and solid concrete walls (with drywall over Roxul Safe & Sound) and concrete floor (Berber carpet).
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