RESONESSENCE Concero HD ($850 USD) and Concero HP ($850 USD). Review by Tim Smith
Wall of Sound Gold Star Award for both products.
Sources: Audiolab M-DAC; Musical Paradise D1 DAC; Marantz SA8003; Marantz CD5004; AIFF files from iMac . Amplification: Musical Paradise MP-301mk2 and mk3, Line Magnetic 518IA, Wyred4Sound SX-1000, and Audio Research LS-17. Speakers: Tekton M-Lore, Harbeth Compact 7 ES3, Magnepan 1.7, Pioneer SP-BS41-LR, Mordaunt Short Carnival 2. Headphones: Beyerdynamic DT880 (600 Ohm); HiFiMan HE400. Headphone amps: Bottlehead Crack; Musical Paradise MP-301. Cables: DH-Labs/Connex, Kimber Kable, Paul Speltz Anti Cables.
Resonessence Labs is on a roll. This Canadian firm is widely viewed as one of the industry’s brightest new stars, and rightly so. At SSI Montreal audio show back in March, I was, like many others, awestruck by the Kelowna, B.C.-based company’s DACs. Every single one of them. They just sounded ‘right.’ In a word, they sounded analog. A few weeks after the show, Resonessence had their Ontario distributor, the High End Audio Exchange, send me four DACs to review. I began my reviews with the entry level–if that’s the correct term–Herus and the flagship Mirus. I now own the Herus and use it regularly with my iPad and my Android phone. Although it ain’t heavy, brother, it’s solid, solid as a rock. Made from high quality aluminum, this thing is built to last. I think this little DAC/head amp can wipe the floor with many competitors costing three times and weighing thirty times as much. At the other end of the spectrum, I had the $5k Mirus in the house for two short weeks and I have been in mourning ever since.
But now, let’s begin with the HD. Here are some of the technical specifications: this diminutive DAC is built around the 32-bit ESS Sabre ES9018-2 DAC.
Don’t be fooled by the small footprint; this thing may walk softly but it carries a big stick, namely, high sample-rate PCM up to DXD rates (352.8kS/s!!!) from the USB 2.0 port. And then there’s the 4x up-sampling filters that accept 44.1kS/s and 48kS/s data streams from USB or S/PDIF and convert them to 176.4kS/s and 192kS/s. The icing on the cake is DSD64 and DSD128. In other words, you are getting state-of-the-art technology for under 1k. There is no need for a bling-bling stack with separate atomic clocks and the like.
Below: The Concero HP
CONCERO HP contains, in Resonessence’s words, “all the proven filters and algorithms of the CONCERO family…and finally it provides a state-of-the-art headphone driver capability.” I have to agree. (More on that later). The HP’s sauce is the same as the HD: ESS Sabre 32-bit DAC operating in both PCM and DSD modes. The HP’s price is the same as the HD’s; as you lose the ability to drive your speakers you gain the ability to drive your headphones. Resonessence boasts exceptionally quiet performance–distortion of <0.0001% and a dynamic range of >112dB. As with the HD, the HP syncs seamlessly to Mac. PC users can download for free the necessary drivers. Press the volume knob and you can cycle through the various up-sampling filters. (I preferred blue to purple). Finally, you can use an Apple remote.
The Concero HP is basically a Concero HD with a headphone section. The two units’ sonic signatures are identical. As for the HP, think of your favorite reasonably-priced but high-end DAC. Perhaps its an Audiolab M-DAC or a Rega or a MHDT Stockholm or a Schiit Gungnir.
The only good CD the Barenaked Ladies ever made: “Snacktime,” a children’s CD. In fact it’s brilliant. Notice the small footprint of the Concero HD. It is truly portable. Try doing that with other DACs of this quality. Other equipment visible on top of my armoir: Mordaunt Short Carnival 2 speakers; Paul Speltz Anti-Cable speaker cables (just three feet long; I use them in near field applications or, in a tight space); Kimber PBJ interconnects; Musical Paradise MP-301 mk2 decked out with NOS RCA 5693 tubes as well as Tube Amp Doctor 6L6s. Now that SED Winged Cs are “NOS,” the two versions of the 6L6 from TAD are, to my ears, the best current production tubes. Sweet! Transport: Marantz CD5003.
And now think of a good headphone amp. It might be a $700 Woo or a Burson unit or a piece of Schiit’s fine offerings. You’ll have to leave home without these devices; they’re simply too big and heavy (Burson) and too awkward (Schiit, with vacuum tubes protruding) to lug about. Now consider that you can have roughly equivalent sound–a world-class DAC and headphone amp–for $850. And you can slip it into your iPad-sized messenger bag or your man purse. You can plug it into the wall or into your computer’s USB port. And like all Resonessence products, the Concero HD/HP imparts a warm, fluid, organic, smooth, rhythmic, toe-tapping, fatigue-free signature to every disc or digital file it meets, from MP3 to DSD. Consider it a portable turntable, phono preamp and cartridge in the palm of your hand. It is made in a rich nation to the highest build-quality standards. I do believe these are the best of times.
If you can get to see Styx (minus Dennis DeYoung), just do it. Or see Dennis solo. I saw Styx just a few months ago. The hitherto diminutive Tommy Shaw has transmogrified into a brash, muscle-bound band leader. And Lawrence But You Can Call Me Larry Gowan is a brilliant performer. Born in Scotland, he has an easier time than the Chicagoland DeYoung with his British accent affectations. Still going strong in their late fifties/early sixties, these guys know how to tear down the house.
“Too Much Time On My Hands” showcases Dennis DeYoung’s brilliant synth playing. Styx may be a guilty pleasure but at least they were (and are) a tight band. If you have not listened to them in thirty years, buy one of their bright CDs and play it through a Concero. You’ll be rewarded with smooth, liquid sound. No digititis. Like a great tube amp, the Concero family makes synthesizer sweet, succulent, swirling and utterly seductive.
The Taming of the Shrill
To my ears, Doug MacLeod’s National guitar sounds shrill in most systems. Perhaps it’s the close miking. With the HP feeding Beyerdynamic DT880s, HiFiMan HE-400s, and Grado GS1000s, the shrill is gone. With the HD, I can crank my Maggies to 11 without causing ear bleed. MacLeod’s poignant mea culpa to his daughter, “The New Panama Limited” (CD: A Little Sin), is detailed, yes, but not bright at all, not even through the HP and Grados. At around 5:10 on this fourteen minute long song, MacLeod makes his National sound like train wheels screeching. The screech goes down smoothly with the Grado GS1000s. So what does this mean? Are Resonessence Labs offerings rolled-off at the top? I cannot see how that could be so. More likely, this is simply the future (digital) catching up with the past (analog).
To see what I mean, try playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” through the HD or HP. The crunchy bite of John Frusciante’s guitar is there in all its splendor. Flea’s bass is dry and taut. It’s not that Resonessence is playing with digits to produce a fatigue-free sound. Rather, Resonessence has reduced jitter to such a negligible factor that even the most diehard analog kid might conceivably admit that digital can be done right. This thought led me to an experiment. I own the CD, SACD, and Analogue Productions LP version of Shelby Lynne’s classic, “Just a Little Lovin.” Frankly the only thing that the LP and SACD had over the redbook CD played through the Resonessence HD was a little bit more of room ambience and sound staging. But we are talking about hair splitting here. Lynne’s husky rendition of “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” is no worse through the HD or HP.
Let’s move on to tone. Wolfgang Muthspiel and Brian Blade’s masterpiece, “Friendly Travelers Live” contains a hauntingly romantic, somewhat syrupy ballad, “Shanghai.” But it’s a tonefest. Through the HD, I could be forgiven for thinking I was spinning vinyl.
Go ahead, ridicule me for liking Hall and Oates (often billed as ‘the most successful duo’ in history!). And now listen to “Sara Smile” through a Resonessence DAC. Joan Oates’ guitar is so sweet. The bass is as deep as the night is dark. You can hear Daryl Hall’s voice echo in the recording studio. If you’re not convinced by my attempt to shower some respect upon this dynamic duo, check out their recent concerts on Youtube, where they have transformed their cheez-doodle 80s ballads into something like jazz-blues standards.
Is it Daryl or Anthony Michael? Note the facial hair trend.
Back to the sublime. How could the HD deal with the bombast of Holst’s “The Planets?” Could it keep up? Could it convey the grandeur of Jupiter? Could it transport me back to Westminster Abbey during Diana’s funeral (on TV, not in person!). Yes, indeed. The HD has got speed. It places the instruments in their proper place. It conveys a sense of space. It renders strings faithfully. Mehta is great but I prefer Davis…..
With the HP and HiFiMans, Wycliff Gordon’s trombone talks and Joe Temperley’s bass clarinet breathes on “Creole Love Call” (Joe Temperley, “Double Duke”, Naxos). The Canadian Jill Barber’s song “The Knot” (CD: For All Time) glows. The slide guitar is like honey. The HD DAC keeps the rhythm with Kool & the Gang on “Too Hot.” The electric piano seems to melt; it is so sweet, so liquid. It inspired me to play Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” This song opens with a swirling, fluid Fender Rhodes. For me, music is rooted in time and place. We audiophiles are the prisoners of our heightened senses. We are moved by the music of our youth. For me, Billy Joel evokes memories not of Coney Island but of the Solid Surf Skateboard Park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, c. 1978-79, where his music was played ad nauseam as I skated with my brother and watched some of Dogtown’s visiting stars struggle to master what later came to be known as the ollie. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Lizz Wright’s chilling rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You.” When I hear great music on the car radio I don’t get that feeling because the cheap Class D amp and Bose-like speakers are destroying the moment. The Resonessence products I have had in my home have always helped me to make that time-space connection to the music.
Through the HD (I didn’t play it through the flagship Mirus) Doug MacLeod’s “Master’s Plan” (CD: “Come to Find”) was the best I have heard it. His resonator guitar was tamed, not bright, as I find it can be with other DACs. On “My Love’s Grown Cold” (CD: A Little Sin), the Concero puts you inside the steel box of his National guitar. The violin on “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (Ryuichi Sakamoto, “1996” CD) is as close to lifelike as redbook digital can get. Woody, long decay, resonant.
Shirley Rumsey burst onto the scene twenty-five years ago only to drop off the face of the earth. She made two classic discs for Naxos. Check them out on Naxos’ online library. Wall of Sound writer Mark Morris has written about this incredible resource here:
A great piece of audio equipment will help you to discover hidden nuances within familiar music. The Resonessence HD and HP did this, time and again. Rumsey’s lute becomes a complex, multi-dimensional instrument with Resonessence DACs.
In sum, most audiophiles would be perfectly content with the Concero HD, and nothing but the Concero HD, in their main rig. It’s that good. Likewise, the Concero HP was so damn good, it reminded me why I must never buy a great headphone amp like a Woo, a Resonessence, or a Cavalli. I am afraid that I would listen so much, I might damage my ears. Be careful when you hook up a Concero HP; the sound is so warm, so fluid, so utterly musical, you should make sure you are listening at safe levels. On Dr. Dre’s “2001 Chronic” CD, the tune “Forgot about Dre” opens with a sort of Pink Floyd helicopter-sound for two or three seconds. With my HiFiMan headphones on, the helicopters seemed to emerge from a black, silent background, from the back left of my head. I turned around expecting to see my eldest son behind me wielding some sort of noisy toy or contraption. That’s the soundstage of the HiFiMan HE-400 through the Concero HP! It can startle you. There is detail galore, but since there is no digititis, you won’t get aural fatigue. Get yourself a free app like Decibel Counter. You have been warned.
Wall of Sound Gold Star Award for both the Concero HD and Concero HP.