Resonessence Labs Concero HP: USB-Powered Tour-De-Force

Editor’s Note: CYMBACAVUM was lucky enough to get a hold of the Resonessence Labs Concero HP; now Mr. T won’t relinquish it. You’ll have to pry it away from his cold, dead hands.

There are audio companies and then there are audio companies. Resonessence Labs is the latter.

You may have heard of Resonessence Labs — they engineer DACs. And when I say, engineer, they do exactly that. They’re a close-knit team of top-flight software coders and electrical engineers who have tooled themselves for a singular purpose — mind-blowing audio performance.

The CONCERO family of products. (Photo courtesy of: Resonessence Labs)
The CONCERO family of products. (Photo courtesy of: Resonessence Labs)

This small company in Kelowna, British Columbia rose to the top of audiophiles’ wishlists in 2011 when they released the Invicta — a meticulously engineered ES9018-based DAC that blew peoples’ hats away, offering a level of resolution and dynamic refinement only found in the uppermost, diamond-encrusted crust of crusts.

They managed to pull off this feat by understanding ESS chips inside and out; Mark Mallinson, head honcho at Resonessence Labs, was a former operations director at ESSTech, and whilst forming Resonessence managed to recruit several members of his former engineering team that help design the ESS Sabre DAC architecture.

In addition, Resonessence remains close to ESSTech, both literally and figuratively, as they’re located in the same area as ESSTech’s Kelowna research & development lab, while Mark’s brother, Martin Mallinson, remains at ESSTech as VP of Research & Development and Chief Scientist.

Obviously, then, there’s no question that Resonessence Labs has the skill and pedigree to make world-class DAC products. Not content with merely making one single, top-of-the-line model, they managed to trickle down technology from the Invicta to the more modestly priced Concero. The original Concero was greatly lauded for its performance and pleasing sound, putting many in the DAC world on notice. Resonessence dared to do better with this summer’s launch of the upgraded Concero line — the line-out Concero HD and the all-in-one DAC and amplifier, the Concero HP.

Because of its close ties with ESSTech, Resonessence Labs managed to design the new models around the all-new ES9018-2M chip, a low power, two-channel chip based off the venerable ES9018 (used in scores of high-end, reference level D/A converters, including their own).

From technical specifications, the ES9018-2M bests (by a considerable margin) the ES9023 of the older Concero, while allowing preservation of an USB-powered form factor, selectable digital filters, and jitter reduction code — putting it on par, in terms of SNR and THD, with the ES9016 (which was actually used as the DAC section for the headphone output of the original Invicta).

The switch to the new chip also gave the Concero HD and HP the ability to readily decode DSD64/128, as well as PCM up to 24-bit, 352.8 kHz (the DXD specification). In terms of format support and bitrate, Resonessence Labs has it covered to the nines.

Exterior/Packaging

Bruce Wayne would be a proud owner of the Concero HP.

Unfortunately, my very first impression (the box) of Resonessence wasn’t the most favorable. Clad in the simplest black cardboard box with two foam inserts, the Concero HP arrived to zero fanfare, pomp, or circumstance — no miniature angels flew out to herald the arrival of true high-resolution music and the lid didn’t illuminate my room with a heavenly swath of light.

Even the instruction manual looked plain, as though it were typeset in Microsoft Word. I had expected a bow-wrapped leather-bound box, injection-molded plastic shock absorption, and at least LaTeX for typesetting of the user manual (they do it for the Invicta, at least). Really, I don’t ask for too much — no need for Adobe InDesign! I had to remind myself that Resonessence Labs was all about the sound and the engineering. They let their products stand for what they are, rather than glitzy packaging. Yes.

Resonessence Labs CONCERO HP
Resonessence Labs CONCERO HP (Front), DSD/DXD-capable, 24-bit / 352.8 kHz DAC & Amplifier

Actually seeing the Concero HP for the first time instantly allayed any of my superficial, elitist fears, however.

The Concero enclosure is CNC par excellence. At the back of the HP, Resonessence proudly emblazons the Canadian maple leaf to great effect. “Fabrique au Canada” is the theme, as the enclosure of the Concero HP (and the entire Resonessence product lineup for that matter) is the subcontracted work of local enclosure developers and CNC millers (Imagination Machine Works and Inspired Precision Machining) that usually reserve their services for much larger projects. In fact, other than the actual design work and final assembly, which are performed in-house, all Resonessence products harness the talents of local specialty workshops — an admirable feat both practical and patriotic.

The chassis of the Concero HP is a matte black, precision affair. Bruce Wayne would be a proud owner of the Concero HP (well, he’d most likely have an Invicta or Mirus, but he’d perhaps gift the HP to Dick Grayson — anyways, er, you get my drift).

Stark and chiseled, all Resonessence products possess quite a bit of familial resemblance. Sans the glowing ring, the rotary knob on the HP appears to be a scaled-down version of the one on the Invicta, and shares with its bigger brother the same beveled front corners that take the predictable regularity out of a pure rectangular shape.

The HP also possesses, apart from the rotary knob and 6.3mm headphone output, the same outward dimensions as the Concero and Concero HD, but the HP and HD actually have reworked innards that allow Resonessence to place the new PCB (also made and assembled locally in British Columbia by a military-grade electronics supplier) in place.

However, just remember that if you’re not into that sort of thing (you know, batarangs and detective work), keep in mind that the overall industrial design isn’t necessarily going to win any Red Dot Design Awards.

It is, nevertheless, one of the most solid-feeling structures I’ve come across in all of audio, and I can imagine the same exact fit and finish applied to the much pricier Invicta or Mirus. Needless to say, the Concero series does not skimp on its exterior finish. The anodized aluminum enclosure feels akin to the plates lining CT scanner rooms, stolidly monolithic. Brush your fingers over the surface of an operational Concero HP, and feel your Pacinian corpuscles underneath the skin pick up on the subtle vibrations of the overbuilt power regulators (though I wouldn’t recommend caressing the unit too much; the satin/matte finish is a bit of a skin oil blotting pad).

Everything about the manufacturing is computer-controlled and tightly-regulated, and thus doesn’t come cheap. A substantial amount of the final cost of the Concero HP definitely goes into the production of this exceptionally-crafted chassis. Of all the different audio products that I’ve seen, no other unit with a similar footprint comes close to the fit and finish that Resonessence Labs demands — this thing is built to last.

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