ESS Technology 32 bit Sabre DAC Chip

by admin on April 17, 2009 · 9 comments

in Digital

by Roy Harris

At the 2008 CES, I visited the ESS Technology room and I heard a demonstration of the Sabre 24 bit DAC chip. I was eager to review this chip after a brief listening session which included several of my reference CDs. I contacted the company to obtain a review sample, i.e., a DAC containing the Sabre chip  but I did not receive the product from the company, during 2008. I received a called from a PR company in December of 2008,  and was invited to visit the ESS Technology room at the 2009 CES  for the introduction of a 32 bit Sabre DAC chip and was also offered an opportunity to review the Sabre DAC chip after January of 2009. I indicated that I would not attend  the 2009 CES but expressed my interest to review the DAC chip.

Since it is not possible to review a DAC chip by itself, the subject of the review is an evaluation DAC, which includes the 32 bit Sabre DAC  chip. The evaluation DAC is offered to engineers and other prospective purchasers of DAC chips to assess the performance of the chip.  There is one company, Twisted Pear Audio  which offers a DAC, named the Buffalo Dac, incorporating the 32 bit  Sabre DAC  chip. Their website is Currently, Samsung, Krell, McIntosh and Peach Tree Audio use the 24 bit Sabre DAC chip in some of their digital products. Visit the ESS Technology  website for more information about the company and the DAC chip.

Technical Considerations

The Sabre DAC chip is the ES 9018, 8 channel, 4 DACs/channel, with upsampling to 864 khz.  There are 3 analog devices model AD 797 op amps per channel. The power supply is a Digikey rectangular linear power supply. Digital inputs include USB and SPDIF. Outputs are single ended and balanced. Signal connectors are nickel- plated brass and ground connectors are tin-plated brass. Data conversion is hyperstream rather than sigma delta. The Dac chip can tolerate a wide range of jitter from digital cables and transports, as jitter has been reduced to levels which are virtually inaudible.

Listening Results

The DAC chip is capable of the highest resolution , in all aspects of expression. In addition, the frequency response was balanced, as I did not notice any significant peaks or dips within the frequency spectrum.

I try to introduce one new source, at each review. In addition to Holly Cole,  Bream and Williams, Sophie Yates and Arthur Fiedler, I included the music of Theolonious Monk.

Consider, the recording,  Theolonious Monk, GENIUS OF MODERN MUSIC, VOL 2,  Bluenote CDP 7 81511., track one. Upon first listening, I perceived a layer of dirt having been removed from a window. The sound of instruments were free of timbral errors. Hence, it was easy to recognize the (material) content of Milt Jackson’s mallets, namely wood. It seemed obvious to me as well, that a professional pianist would be able to identify the source of Monk’s piano with out any difficulty. Listening to another track from this disc, reinforced my impression of accuracy of timbre. I focused upon the saxophones.Differences between tenor and alto sax were apparent. As a result, I was confident in my recognition of each instrument.

The second selection was a guitar duet featuring Julian Bream and John Williams, from the CD, TOGETHER, track one, RCA  09026-61450. Julian Bream was positioned on the left, while John Williams was on the opposite side. The observed spacing between the musicians enabled one,  to note the timbral differences between the two guitars.  The sense of space did not seem to be contrived or artificial, but rather reminded me of a live performance.

Stereo systems can benefit from a periodic stress test as part of an overall assessment paradigm. A suitable source for this purpose is Holly Cole, DON’T SMOKE IN BED, track 1, Alert Z2 81020. Hearing an acoustic bass at the beginning of the track provided some evidence of the neutral nature of the DAC, in that there was a balance between the articulation of the strings and the vibrating wood body. Holly Cole’s enunciation of consonants  strongly suggested close microphone placement. While sibilance was noted, it was neither exaggerated  nor obscured. It’s quality and quantity were consistent with the affect of close microphone placement upon the sound of a female voice.

At this stage in the review, I desired to test for the presence of a sonic signature. As a consequence, I replaced the GE 6sn7 tubes with a pair of Sylvania 6sn7s in the line section of my preamp. I also reversed the polarity of the speaker cables.

The first test was an orchestral CD, Offenbach, “Gaite Parisienne”, conducted by Arthur Fiedler, track 1, XRCD 0224. The string section sounded less focused and more rounded in character than I would expect based upon previous experience. The woodblock was positioned near the wall , while the triangle was located somewhat behind the right speaker. The shimmer of the triangle was slightly defocused and the treble frequencies seemed slightly attenuated..

The last selection , FANDANGO – SCARLATTI IN IBERIA, track 1, Chandos 0635, features Sophie Yates, harpsichord. The perspective of the instrument was that of mid to rear hall. Hence, the percussive quality of the instrument was somewhat deemphasized. Yet the characteristic timbre  was easily recognizable. In addition, there was a softening of the lower treble and a slight reduction in SPL of treble harmonics.


The 32 bit Sabre DAC possesses the attributes of low noise, inaudible jitter, balanced frequency response and neutrality. However, these attributes may be obscured in certain circumstances. For example, after I changed the tubes in my preamp and reversed speaker cable polarity, I noticed a change in presentation. The high resolution and spaciousness I had noticed were no longer apparent. The DAC’s neutrality allowed  a sonic signature of the stereo system, created by the aforementioned changes, to be revealed. Resolution decreased, there was a slight loss of focus and a softening/attenuation in treble response. Thus, the DAC acts as a catalyst to highlight the sonic signature, or lack of one, intrinsic to the other components of a stereo system. If you have voiced your stereo system, excluding your digital hardware, to your satisfaction, introducing this DAC will not affect the sound of the other components.

The sound of this DAC may be improved by replacing the Analog Devices op-amps, connectors, capacitors and hard-wired power cord.

Finally, another possible benefit of using this DAC in a stereo system is listening to poorly recorded discs without running out of your listening room. Many recordings are perceived as of poor recording quality. Listening to such discs may be an unpleasant experience. Actually, there are two variables in play, namely,  recording quality and quality of digital hardware.  Using the Sabre DAC may eliminate hardware-based distortions and render listening to “problem” discs less problematic.

Associated  Equipment

CD Player: Vincent CD S6
Preamp: Mapletree  Ultra 4A SE
Amplifier: VTL Deluxe 120
Speaker: Magnepan 1.6, Quad 57
Interconnect: Aural Thrills  gold, Homemade hybrid Mundorf gold and Synergistic Research
Speaker Cable: Ear to Ear
AC Cords: Soundstring, Ear to Ear, Clarity Audio, Distech, Element Cable
Power Conditioning: PS Audio P 300, PS Audio Noise Harvesters,PS Audio Juice
Bar, Chang, Iso 6400, Nirvana Audio isolation transformer, IDOS, Bob Young line filter
Anti Resonant Devices: Room Tunes, Corner Tunes,  egg crate mattresses, Sound Fusion Sound Boosters, Enacom filters, PS Audio Noise Harvesters

Manufactured by ESS Technology

48401 Fremont Blvd.
Fremont, CA 94538

Telephone (510) 492-1088
Fax (510) 492-1098

ESS Technology website

Source: manufacturer loan

Price USD$450

{ 1 trackback }

ESS 32 Bit Sabre DAC Chip Review on Audiophilia - Daily Audiophile
04.28.09 at 4:12 am

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt 04.17.09 at 1:20 pm

I’m so glad you wrote this review, Roy. I contacted ESS a few weeks ago about using their 32 bit DAC, and here you are reviewing it. It must be fate ;-)

May I ask which cd transport you were using? and how it sounds via usb?


roy harris 04.17.09 at 5:51 pm

hi matt:

i did not use usb input. i used spdif. this is a killer dac. at the price, it is incomparable. make sure when using this dac that the rest of your stereo sysstem is “well beheaved”.

marvin fox 04.17.09 at 7:49 pm

Enjoyed your article very much. Brought back memories of you and me listning to music and discussing timbre and imaging. Thank You

admin 04.18.09 at 9:44 am

“The sound of instruments were free of timbral errors. Hence, it was easy to recognize the (material) content of Milt Jackson’s mallets, namely wood.”

I’m surprised by your suggestion of wooden mallets considering Jackson’s a vibraphonist. It is my understanding that Jackson used cord or yarn mallets for use on his vibes. Wooden mallets are used for xylophone or marimbas. The hard edge of the transient suggests cord rather than yarn mallets were used.

My short audition of the Amazon previews confirms that.

roy harris 04.19.09 at 11:02 am

i was perhaps imprecise in my description. it would seem that yarn and felt would be a padding over wood. i meant to say that the sound of the mallet striking the keys did not suggest felt . i am obviously not a professional musician, and therefore might not have been able to identify the yarn or cord content of the mallet, if in fact, at the time of the recording, 1951, milt jackson was using a yarn or cord mallet.

i meant to report a rather percussive quality to the sound which would indicate felt was not a part of the content of the mallet. depending upon the thickness of the cord or yarn, the quality of the sound might resemble that of wood striking the instrument.

admin 04.19.09 at 11:35 am

Actually, the cord that Milt uses sounds nothing like wood. Wood on the metal of a vibraphone would be interesting, indeed, to say nothing of the damage to the metal.

I’m just giving you a hard time, Roy. Your review, as always, is superb!

Cheers, a

anonymous 02.01.11 at 3:43 am

This method of evaluation by reversing the phase of your loudspeakers intriques me. Any source will potray anomalies in the sound presentation when phase is reversed. In fact, the more accurate that the DAC is the more this phase reversal will become apparent. When the phase is reversed you are hearing the energy of every transient “backwards” - given that the original material was correctly recorded and polarity was kept consistent through the whole production process. I don’t see how this can highlight a signature of the source - please explain…

WE300B 06.05.11 at 12:58 am

Got this same board today from a friend … Guess this has been around for years ! I am quite impress with how well it sounds out-of-box. I am a tube and analogue fanatic, it’s hard to make me happy when it comes to digital/solid state. This is a piece that I am impressed, a couple hundereds of bucks to set it up and it is as good sounding as my $5digits analogue table. This is a basic board, I am sure it will be even better with some creative implement/mind. The digital word is coming to together finally …

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