SilverStone Ensemble EB01 USB DAC review

SilverStone Ensemble EB01 USB DAC

Computers and audio? PC’s and audiophilia? Good sound reproduction and ugly plastic noisy boxes? Somehow all this doesn’t represent a really overwhelming idea about good sound reproduction. Right? Well things are changing quite rapidly these past few years. On one hand it’s true that some red book cd players are just hitting their real evolutionary peak. On the other, it is time for digital entertainment right here right now.

It took at least a decade to perfect the CD playback medium. Vinyl took much longer, and has continued to evolve. We can say that some analog playback machines are really near technical perfection, but they can also cost as much as a house. And we cannot really talk about sending the red book standard to the graveyard. Universal players from some high end companies are just hitting the market, while only CD playback cousins are staying at the product line or reappearing.

This state of affairs brings us to another interesting phenomena. Combining digital audio and personal computers. While we computer and geek heads were listening and enjoying the music via our Commodore C64s, Amigas, early PC’s and other digital consoles for the past 20 or so years, we can say that real quality digital audio started to emerge from the professional computer audio business only in the past decade. All the Terratec’s and Sound Blaster ever-morphing sound cards developed a new segment that opened the realm of audio sense gratification.

Every reasonably informed audiophile will give you a few quick arguments about the disadvantages of the CD player and turntable. And every computer freak will throw in your face such benefits of computer audio playback as almost no jitter, no rumble, no tracking force. No rumble no humble? ;)

EB 01 Silver And Black Dragon

And now, our little contender for the audio gizmo of the month. It is not pompous but it’s prestigious in his own way. Why did I bother to go over all that computer nostalgia? Why did I even try to bring out some credit for computer audio? Telling you that this audio gizmo is coming from a company that produces top quality PC enclosures might throw make you suspicious. But rest assured. Times are changing. If I had told you a few years ago that top brand computers will be manufactured in China, you would probably think I was nuts. But all that market is evolving into some kind of gigantic business monster. We will see in the future how long it will last and how far it will go.

The first good thing bringing aerobics to facial muscles is its simple and industrial modern look. You cannot expect a Porsche for the price of a Micra, but you will get what you deserve ;). Be surprised: you’ll even get more. I can go all over, up and down to tell you what you are getting for 100 bucks, and that is a steal. For that sum of money, most of you can put your wallet at ease and give your nerves for a tiny t\rest.

Silverstonetek is a well know manufacturer of quality PC boxes. When I came across the news that they made this USB DAC, a few things grabbed my attention. “EB01 uses the Texas Instrument PCM 2702 chip and it has buffer(OP604) as the final analog output. Many more expensive DAC’s are using this chipset. While by some standards not top class, it can compete quite proudly considering the difference in price.”

Operation Mac Wolf Windows...

The EB01 behaves like most USB audio devices. Windows recognizes it by the chip or as USB Speakers in the menu. The system volume control still works, and has to be turned up to max providing line level gain output. Driving Sennheiser HD-650s with a cinch to mini jack adapter (included) is a no-brainer. At full volume, there is too much gain to listen. And sound is really good and transparent considering the price. Once the device is plugged in via USB , my favorite blue power LED glows to show power on. Later, when audio is present, another blue LED is shows play status. EB01 works flawlessly on Windows XP. Windows recognizes it with no problem. You can set volume inside your music application or via the system’s sound output. It shows up in the sound preferences on OSX as a Burr-Brown Japan PCM2702 device.

Music to my ears!

I love to use Carl Craig’s Landcruising to evoke all the raw but masterfully tweaked sounds that cut the sweet treble area and create the fat kicks that focus your attention on special rhythmic attacks.

On Michael Franks’s “This must be paradise” from the excellent bossa nova contemporary Abandoned Garden, there is always a good hint about the rightfulness of the bass. All of you who don’t know this album, run to buy it. It is a trip to the private and intimate emotional universe of Michael and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

For acoustics, I always love to escape to one of the most life-powered female duos on this planet (yes there are others), Indigo Girls. They are like a hammer and nail sticking you with a gritty, raw and direct perception of life. The guitars and heart-felt vocals of Amy Ray will directly pass all of your five senses as direct perception.

EB01 could be what you need to hear. It won’t do the monitoring of many higher-priced sound cards but it will rival X-fi for sound. Trust you ears and also some of inherent parts of the silver dragon. You want your fun? Okay! Your want your music? Okay! You want you money worth? Okay! You will get a sound that can be appreciated for what it offers. So can all be that simple sound-wise in an era that everything screams for sophistication? Yes – dirt cheap and good sounding.

Some of you might attack my enthusiasm for something as small and cheap as EB01. I remember my days when I used to spin my discs on the lowly silver plastic Crown mini hi-fi. Yes it was fun and I enjoyed it. And yes, it’s even cheaper these days and with less plastic and more good sound.

Muscle to my tears...

Thankfully, I had a chance to compare Sileverstonetek EB01 with the Headroom Micro DAC. While Micro DAC is a quite different beast, and ready to rock also on the road via 2 9-volt batteries, there are some similarities. The EB01 is $200 cheaper and it is semi-portable. (Take into consideration that only some laptops will power it up.)

What does this price difference brings in terms of sound quality? It’s noticeable. The sound stage is a bit wider with the Micro DAC, instruments are more defined and its overall gain is hardly matched by the EB01. But the loudness of Headroom’s little gizmo is hard to match with any similar USB device. For some this might be worth shelling out 200 bucks, for others, not. I think that most first time audio enthusiasts, game and DVD lovers and even some audiophiles can happily live with it.

I found it interesting that in the iPod era, people are starting to listen to and love music again. And for some good enough is good enough. As good old Duke would say: “If it sounds good then it’s good!”. These folks just want to listen to good music via good sounding components. But they are not ready, like some of us, to give away a fortune. So hook up the headphones or connect EB to your amplification and got served nicely. There is always time and money to be spent later on. ;)
However, I have to warn laptop owners. On some of your portables, the EB01 USB DAC won’ t work. It needs a powered USB hub or the main USB outputs of your desktop machine. On my iBook it wouldn’t run, nor would it on the new Macbook Pro, while putting it on my desktop machine was no problem. Certain docking stations and laptop USB ports do not supply the full five volts that the DAC requires to operate normally. EB01 designer Tony told me that they will try to solve this inconvenience in the next revision, but it was originally planned as a desktop component.

I would say that for $100 this is a real deal no matter how your audio needs are focussed. Those who are starting with quality playback will get so much more, those who are lacking a good sound-card will smile, the ones who like converting every darn thing they own into audio paraphernalia will love it and DIY geeks will drool to take this beauty apart and mold it ...

As good old Vogons would say: “Resistance is futile!” How is yours today?!

Model: Ensemble EB01 Digital to Analog Converter
Fully Compliant with the USB Specification (500mA)
Accepts: 16-bit Stereo and mono USB Audio Data Streams
Dynamic Range: 100db
SNR: 105dB
THD: 002%
Full-Scale Output: 3.1V
Sampling rates: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz

Matej Isak
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