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Because I assumed that the USB function would be of prime interest to our readers, I used the S/PDIF socket more briefly. I installed the North Star driver from their included CD on a Media player Foobar2000 fitted laptop which allows for up to 32-bit/192kHz file transfer. Alas my media library consists primarily of ripped 16/44.1 CDs with a bit of 24/96 stuff thrown in for good measure. FLAC dominates over a few WAV files. mp3 would require a loupe to find. Software adjustments to get the Essensio up and running took up a mere few minutes. Easy.
Acoustic reference during the audition was Benchmark’s €1.300 DAC1 with USB which lacks the Italians’ remote control but offers XLR outputs in turn. Because North Star’s galvanic isolation and async mode claimed relative cable immunity, I necessarily had to experiment with various USB cables to realize that they did make a difference, albeit of a minor sort. Of three cables tried I had a final favorite but the decisive factor was one of nuance, not half-lap victory. That’s quite common in hifi. It merits personal trials. I’d recommend those to occur between the extremes of ‘just 1s and 0s’ negation and the excess of hand-woven USB cables at ridiculous prices. You’ll likely agree that spending a few euros on a decent cable is a good idea. But that’s subject for another day.
Whilst it’s true that comparably priced digital gear tends to exhibit fewer sonic differences than amps or speakers, the offset between Benchmark and North Star was quite clear though I’d think of it tonally as just a matter of taste. Both seemed essentially neutral. That said I viewed the North Star as the more honest in the frequency extremes. Particularly the very top end was more extended to deserve the audiophile moniker ‘airy’ far more than the Benchmark. The Italian also reached a bit deeper into the bassment. The Benchmark meanwhile was a bit more pressurized and emphatic in the general bass vicinity. This particularly leaked into the upper bass to effect midband perception as seeming a tick warmer and more substantial than the leaner North Star. Some will relate to that as added clarity, others might wish for a few additional rays of sun shine for personal happiness.
The North Star thus seemed even closer to ‘pure high fidelity’ as well as operated across broader bandwidth but in the end it remained a question of taste and what type of music one fancies. For power Pop and Rock—i.e. music which lives and dies on lower mid/upper bass punch—the Benchmark was juicer and more vital. But this difference operated on a niveau akin to like-priced interconnects - appreciable but far from dominant. Anyone wishing to reset a system’s overall tonal balance would have to look elsewhere.
That’s why I found aspects beyond tonal balance rather more relevant to this discussion. I’d focus on what for the money is high resolution; very good stage lighting and concomitant depth layering; and the hardness in the lower octaves. Cake’s "Shadow Stabbing" unraveled not only lower but also edgier better defined bass over the Benchmark. The North Star applied cleaner separation of individual notes to render this e-bass fun better resolved. A tambourine rather occupies the opposite end of the spectrum and here snuck in about halfway into the song. The North Star sounded airier where the Benchmark’s attack was a tad sharper. The North Star located the miniature cymbal ring noticeably farther back in the soundstage where the American placed it closer to the center line between the speakers where the primary action unfolds. The North Star organized the stage layout more generously by granting additional depth for more space between instruments. This felt more open and better structured since sounds arose less densely packed.