Review - Resonessence Labs Invicta Dac

Discussion in 'Hi-Fi Stereo Systems & Separates' started by Steven, Mar 18, 2012.

  1. Steven

    Steven
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    Introductory Notes | Invicta DAC

    Was approached by forum sponsor Custom Cable enquiring if I would be interested in the loan of a Dac to compose a write-up. Which one? [answer] […] […] Replied that there would be two conditions; I would be (a) honest and (b) cannot provide any favours to manufacturers. [Agreed]. But still hesitation on my part. Explained such undertakings are better with companion systems for comparison and unfortunately my Dacmagic and stereo amp are not ideal for that task. [Optimistically provides suggestions] [Steven, that is sold out as soon as it comes off the boat!] [But….] Just over a week later and rabbit out of the hat, two further Dacs sourced!

    For clarity and completeness:

    This is not an official AVForums review. No remuneration has been received; financial or otherwise. The only benefit gained has been the free use of the systems in my own home for just under a week. My opinions are my own only. Perception and personal taste of sound is unique to the individual. It might also not be possible to translate accurately into words what one hears. And huge appreciation to Custom Cable for entrusting several thousand pounds worth of kit to my custody and of course for making it possible.

    • Review Dac: Resonessence Labs Invicta
    • Comparison Dacs: Audiolab M-DAC, Teac UD-H01
    • Source: Invicta built-in SD, iMac with optical and usb out
    • Source Material: Wav, Flac and Lame encoded 320kbps MP3 files / Ultrasone Test CD in Flac
    • Headphone Inventory: Sennheiser HD600 with HD650 cable, Phonak Audéo PFE 232, Shure SE535
    As a renter, I do not have a big speaker system. So testing has been done as a headphone amp only. All the Dacs have been run in. The HD600 is nearly four years young. The two IEM were purchased only very recently *ahem*. There will also not be a single graph below. Firstly because Resonessence have released a comprehensive document that is informative and contains many measurements here. Secondly 6moons has included a technical analysis in their review here. But mainly because I am not going to pretend to understand acoustic science speak.

    [​IMG]
     
  2. Steven

    Steven
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    Build Quality and Packaging

    [​IMG]

    No nonsense triple box packaging employed. Outer box finished in black. Middle box complete with handle, which pokes through the flaps of the outer box. Finally two foam pieces sandwiching the third box holding the Invicta itself. Well protected.

    The Invicta meets expectations for what a £3,500 system should be like. Finished in black metal, in an assured and confident manner without being flashy. A slither under 3kg, it is weighty and feels every inch the machined aluminium Resonessence employ. Very solid and no discernible weak points. An unexpected orientation, it is much deeper than it is wide. In fact a thumbs width deeper than the PS3 Slim. The two headphone outputs are logically on the front. All the line outputs and power socket are on the rear panel. The connections utilised ooze quality.

    Main negative is that after approximately 45 minutes of running the Invicta becomes noticeably warm. Not extremely or worryingly so, but warmer than my hand. Would make me reluctant to stack anything on top of the Invicta. This test would have been timely when it was minus *c outside earlier in the year! In contrast the M-Dac and Teac never got more than lukewarm. The included remote is a basic button affair. Not expecting a touch screen extravagance but does stand out as poor. But then it is per usual in the Hi-Fi world.

    User Interface and SD Playback: Complete Transport System

    An admission. Took one glance at the lengthy user guide and decided to ignore it. C'est la vie. Expended effort rearranging the desk; Dacmagic and amp cast aside. iMac moved back. Test systems lined up in a row. Power cables and connectors plugged in. And nothing. Still nothing. Red glow. Whaaat? Phone call in the morning asking how to switch it on. “Press and hold the dial until red turns into blue” :eek: Thereon plain sailing. All three systems were complete plug and play. No drivers needed on OSX.

    [​IMG]

    The blue OLED display is clear but only two lines. Much easier to navigate on your hdmi display of choice, but does mean having another device switched on. The right side dial quickly becomes your best friend. Rotate with dial to rotate between selections, press in dial to confirm selection. Even though the four face buttons were unmarked, it was quickly worked out what they did.


    [​IMG]


    A unique selling point of the Invicta is the built-in SD card slot. The Invicta is capable of being used as a complete transport. And here we arrive at the use of Wav files – only Wav and AIFF files are supported by the SD feature. Flac is a notable omission, or just anything else really would be gratefully received. Who uses AIFF?

    [​IMG]

    The Invicta's hdmi output compliments SD playback. USB 2.0 is a toggable selection in settings. SD browsing is via an instinctive and logical file tree browsing. Save for momentary pauses to change track, SD playback was uneventful. In testing, apart from a base volume difference, I was unable to determine any further perceivable difference in SD vs usb / optical.

    [​IMG]

    Prepared earlier on bundled SD card, Blue Peter style. Tagging done by MediaMonkey. HDMI output is not essential but a nice extra.
     
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2012
  3. Steven

    Steven
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    Headphone Amplifier Sound Quality

    Who better to get the best out of the ESS Sabre Dac than the team behind it? A logical argument and precisely the premise utilised in the marketing materials. Unfortunately my lack of adequate home speaker set-up meant the ES9108 Reference chip employed for the line outputs was not tested, as Resonessence use a separate ES9016 Ultra for the headphone stage.

    As expected the Invicta drives headphones effortlessly. Volume is adjustable in 0.5 decibel increments. Nice to have that bit of finer control versus the full decibel increments of the M-Dac. The Teac has a standard adjustable volume dial and does not have a display. On average the Invicta required 6-8 db less volume than the M-Dac, dependent on the recording.

    My music preference is biased towards pop (mostly female vocals), RnB, soul, hip-hop and rock. But for the purposes of the review every genre and the kitchen sink was thrown in. As stated in the introduction, this comprised of Wav, Flac and Lame 320kbps MP3 files.

    [​IMG]

    Ignorance is bliss in Hi-Fi and can save you a lot of money. Well my perspective has been well and truly damaged irreparably. Let's just get it out of the way: the Invicta is simply the best headphone source I have listened to. I do not claim to have heard most of the demo material live (Alicia Keys apart). The Invicta just makes music sound right. Balanced yet not ‘neutral'. The presentation definitely is not flat. That would only be boring. No distortion. The Invicta handled everything thrown at it with aplomb. Indeed no detectable bias towards any particular aspect of the sound. Bass, mids and treble were all clearly definable. What is particularly extraordinary is hearing everything given its own space and sense of “air”.

    [​IMG]

    In terms of timbre instruments have never sounded so ‘correct' to these untrained ears. Cymbal reproduction is so perfect. Many systems mask cymbals (mainly due to bass and mid bias), or it is an uncontrolled weak and limp splish-splash. In addition the decay of instrument notes is all present. On so many systems it would not be detectable or again, masked. Not so with the Invicta. Almost like I am feeling the vibrations in person as the note slowly fades.

    How many ways can piano be represented? Apparently in three ways. On the Teac piano notes came across as electronic and having an edge of a ‘twang'. Thick and blocky. The M-Dac was much better and really rather good. But still not matching the realism and decay of the Invicta. Another example could be heard with drumming. The Invicta made the other two sound thumpy (to different degrees) and without that same sensation of the drumstick striking the drumhead skin. On a track featuring what is presumably a xylophone, the clarity, tone and resonation seemed so pitch perfect it was unerring. The M-Dac did not quite reproduce that same fullness. The only instrument in which the M-Dac was not lacking in comparison to the Invicta was a track featuring a flute.

    Most budget Dacs are biased towards bass, as that is the usual consumer preference and in doing so also sacrifice treble definition. Both in terms of bass quantity and bass quality the Invicta excels. Bass extends deeeep, yet is textured without being overwhelming because of the Invicta's separation. The Teac was boomy and muddled in comparison. The M-Dac fared rather better. Bass was impactful and controlled. In fact on some tracks the bass hit harder than the Invicta but in comparison the M-Dac exhibited a slight bluntness and less definition.

    [​IMG]

    My current big thing is for female vocals (just to plug it again). Almost as if Adele was next to me. A fullness and sweetness to the presentation. Female vocals are gorgeous through the Invicta. Keep banging on about the supreme separation and balance of the Invicta. Interestingly it became apparent the M-Dac is pushing vocals and mids forward, or at the least more prominently in its presentation. Adele sounds perfectly damn fine through the M-Dac. It is the overall presentation which makes the Invicta stand out. Take Someone Like You. Such a simple track: just Adele and a piano. The opening left hand chords (A G# F# D) are unmistakably lost and undefined due to the M-Dac's presentation pushing the main right hand chords and the vocal.

    Ultrasone Test CD

    The location, positioning separation and sound stage abilities of the Invicta are perfectly illustrated on the Ultrasone Test CD. On the opening Sileypud track the Teac hopelessly masks so much background detail. The M-Dac makes the brass instrument the focal centrepiece. Only on the Invicta is the wood percussion instruments playing in the background given due recognition.

    Track three is Applause. Odd thing to type but on the Teac some claps sounded wetter and clumped together. On the M-Dac I actually ducked because it was as if the crowd was on top of me walking into the room. With the Invicta the applause was nicely set back and defined.

    The fireworks track was quite revealing. It opens with a small group laughing and joking, with another running around with firecrackers and sparklers. A main firework display can be heard. The M-Dac and Invicta presented the small group in conversation quite similarly or perhaps the same. They differ mainly in the firework display. On the M-Dac you imagine it is in a field whereas the Invicta gives you the impression it is a grander scale over a riverbank. Further only on the Invicta do you get a sense of height and depth. Not the same sensation of fireworks rising into the sky on the M-Dac.

    One track is a marching band where it is noticeable almost like the band walks on top of the mike through the M-Dac. Another track features three groups of singers, to the left, middle and right at different volumes. Invicta makes it so much easier to pick out each group and their respective location.

    Headphone Amp Sound Quality Wrap-up

    Could I buy the Teac? No. Bass biased, but thumpy, uncontrolled and no sublety. Instrument timbre is slightly electronic and without definition. Treble is an afterthought and all detail is hidden. The soundstage is much narrower and smaller than the other two.

    [​IMG]

    Could I buy the M-Dac? Tougher question to answer. It is said it compares very favourably with £1000 systems. If that is so, then it is a fine choice. Something to be explored. For £600 it represents extraordinary value in that context. If you want me to put an arbitrary figure on it, perhaps the M-Dac does 50% but less than 100% of the Invicta's capabilities :) Given the Invicta costs nearly six times as much, the M-Dac is not at all embarassed. In fact the way the M-Dac presents vocals can make some tracks seem more intimate, not that the Invicta comes across as distant at all. Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson on the M-Dac ‘pop out' at you. Very musical. The Invicta gives you that extra depth, sound stage, separation, detail, tonal balance and accuracy; a complete package. Each layer of the music is presented just right; given its own space without intruding out of that space.

    Conclusion

    Feel strange wrapping this up because the Invicta is the first high end Dac I have had dedicated listening time with. It is damned good. Well worth saying again it is the best headphone amp I have listened to. But without comparing it to other high-end rivals, I have to add an asterisk. There is this sense of loss having returned it. At least now I have discovered for myself what is capable in digital music reproduction.

    Flickr galleries for those who have not already clicked through above:
    - Resonessence Labs Invicta - a set on Flickr
    - Audiolab M-Dac - a set on Flickr
    - Teac UD-H01 - a set on Flickr
     
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2012
  4. Badger0-0

    Badger0-0
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    I really like people who don't normally review stuff doing reviews :smashin:

    So, as it seems you've put it very politely, you'd rate it as £2k plus, but not £3.5ks worth?

    Would you pay £2k for it, if you had to save for say 6 months to buy it, is the question :devil:

    That's the thing with me. I've heard some lovely kit, which I'd buy at the drop of a hat, if I didn't have more important stuff to worry about (like when I get even older and wrinklier).
     
  5. Steven

    Steven
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    UK website, although it appears to be mostly the same: Resonessence Labs UK

    The only other systems that had the same instant "wow" impact was the balanced B22 set-up and Stax rig I had the pleasure to sample at the Head-fi meet in Manchester 2009: IMG_3942 | Flickr - Photo Sharing!
    As with most things in life, instant opinions may be a false dawn. Your opinion can go up, down or remain the same.

    My aim in requesting the comparison Dac's was to provide a context against which I could place my developing opinion. But as I have not had sit-down experience with another high-end system, I am honest enough to realise my praise of the Invicta has a caveat attached. Am in no position to rule out the possibility another high-end headphone Dac with the same ESS Sabre chip or rival chip is as 'good' or 'better'.

    It is in the context of that previous sentence only that I do not declare whether the Invicta is "worth" £3,500. Besides in hi-fi, cost is relative. The guy I met in Manchester spent several thousand importing the B22 system from Asia. I spent more on my two new IEM than the M-Dac alone costs (eek!) because commuting five days a week means I will get my monies worth far more than from a home Dac :)
     
  6. Badger0-0

    Badger0-0
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    You ought to consider standing as an MP Steven ;)
     
  7. Somnambulist

    Somnambulist
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    I read Project 86's review of this on Head-Fi and was quite impressed... but given my budget just won't (and probably never will) go that high, the Anedio D2 looks like a good compromise and the same reviewer believes that it comes very, very close to the Invicta.
     
  8. Steven

    Steven
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    For under £1000 (current exchange rates, excl shipping, duties and taxes) it is certainly at an attractive price point given the spec sheet. The initial impressions and reviews should prove interesting
     
  9. Somnambulist

    Somnambulist
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    I didn't see a bad review of it's predecessor, the D1 (bar perhaps it's modest connectivity), with many regarding it as one of the best of the Sabre DACs out there. Project 86 on HF awarded it his reference DAC (i.e. best in the 'price unlimited' category) before he heard the Invicta which has now claimed his top spot, so while the updated model may still fall short compared to this beast, at their level I believe we're dealing with the kind of minute, subtle improvements that take a lot of listening with a high end system to really distinguish.

    I wish I could just settle for the M-DAC, but promises of upgrades etc put me off given by the time you've waited for them all to come out and paid for them, you might as well have got something that was better off the bat anyway - which is what the Anedio seems to do.
     

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