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SilverStone Ensemble EB01 & EB02 Audio System Review

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Robscix

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SilverStone Ensemble EB01 & EB02 Audio System Review

Featuring
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Manufacturer's Product Page: SilverStone Technology Co., Ltd - Designing Inspiration
Price Compare: EB01, EB02
Part#:
SST-EB01-B (Black)
SST-EB02-B (Black)
SST-EB01-S (Silver)
SST-EB02-S (Silver)
Availability: In stores now
Warranty: 1Year



This is truly an exceptional time to be involved in computer based audio. Never before have there been such quality products offering such high resolution sound fidelity and modern output options to audio lovers. We have many different types of devices available from DAC’s, ADC’s, desktop amplifiers and high resolution soundcards. The available audio components make the area of PC audio greatly entertaining and enjoyable for many people' so much so that here are countless forums and discussions groups dedicated to the task of attaining the ever elusive "perfect" sound. Many companies are now realizing how large this market actually is and they are eagerly jumping in with both feet offering new and exciting product to the end users.

Today in our HWC Audio Labs we have the Ensemble audio system from SilverStone. Their Ensemble audio system is a premium set of audio components consisting of a USB DAC audio source and a Tripath powered discrete amplifier. SilverStone is well known for high quality components in other areas of the PC marketplace but the Ensemble series of audio components marks their first attempt at breaking into the desktop audio segment of the PC peripheral market. The Silverstone EB01 was originally released a few years ago and the EB02 was just announced and displayed at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show so while one is quite new, the other is part of the Old Guard. Nonetheless, the EB02 T-Amplifier is meant to complement the EB01 DAC thus offering users a quality power amplifier section for the EB01 digital to analog converter. Both of these products are available in both Black and Silver so they are sure to go with almost any decor.

In a nutshell, the EB01 plugs into your PC via a USB cable and provides high quality stereo sound which can then be passed through to your desktop speakers. This seems to be a perfect solution for those of you without the place or time to install a stand-alone sound card in your computer. Meanwhile, the EB02 is made to be used in conjunction with the EB01 or can be used as a stand-along amplifier in order to increase the sound quality generated by an external device (MP-3 player, satellite radio, etc). The EB02 also provides outputs so it can be used with literally any home speakers on the market.

The current audio market is full of high quality components and if a company wants to make a name in this market segment they need some serious audio muscle with a solid product that better have serious sound quality. However, $90 for the EB01 and nearly $150 for the EB-02, these units don't come cheap but if they can provide the sound quality they claim to they will be well worth the money. Does the Ensemble audio system have what it takes to make a significant contribution to this market and to their potential audio customers? We are about to find out….

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SKYMTL

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Features & Specifications

Features & Specifications



Ensemble EB01



The SilverStone Ensemble EB01 is a convenient device that can instantly translate your PC’s digital signals into lifelike analog sound suitable for personal high end stereo setups. EB01’s advanced internal circuitry will ensure that any sound effect or music from your CD, DVD, MP3 files, or games will be reproduced in quality as the artist and content creator originally envisioned.

Special Feature

High quality 4-layer PCB with a ground layer to ensure distortion free signals.
Pure sound reproduction with no filter capacitor.
Relay output ensures no popping noise when system turns on or off.
Automatic USB voltage regulator guarantees stable electrical input for EB01.
Analog and digital signals are powered separately for no cross-over effects.
USB powered for less clutter and ease of use.

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Ensemble EB02



The SilverStone Ensemble EB02 is a compact audio amplifier that can be used nearly anywhere and with a wide variety of devices. With its highly polished artistic appearance, it fits perfectly in space limited environment to enhance your sound source. Whether the sounds come from your computer, MP3 player, or stereo, the EB02 will help boost their quality up to home theater standards with tremendous ease of use. For the most discerning users, the ability to use any book shelf speakers (4Ω/8Ω) for speaker output and the tailor-made connectivity to high quality DAC such as SilverStone’s own EB01, makes EB02 the perfect audio accessory for any music loving enthusiast.


Special Feature

Freedom to pair any book shelf speakers (4Ω/8Ω) to your PC
Works with EB01 or other DAC and PC audio source
Class T architecture with single chip solution (TA2021B)
Very high efficiency (~88%) for low power consumption and high output
On/off popping noise suppression
Short circuit and over temperature protection
Wide dynamic range and low distortion

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Robscix

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Packaging / Accessories

Packaging

EB01box.jpg
EB02box.jpg

The Ensemble audio solution is a set of matched audio componentsand thus their packaging shares the same general design considerations from packaging to product. However, as you can see, the EB01's packaging scheme is slightly more dated than that of the EB02's due to its much earlier release. The box of each unit is dark with information clearly marked out and displayed for the potential buyer and there is none of the typical clutter seen on many packages that just bombard you with measurements, obscure numbers and audio standards. The Ensemble packages are extremely crisp, clean and very well laid out designs. Both product boxes have a weighted feel to them and don’t feel cheap when examined up close.

EB01boxinside.jpg
EB02boxinside.jpg

The Ensemble packages have an easily accessible flip top lid, allowing the potential buyer option to view these products more closely as long as any brick and mortar store doesn't shrink-wrap them. Inide of the boxes, both units are covered in plastic and the sit in a tight-fitting nest of Styrofoam, assuring the buyer gets damage free units after the delivery company is done kicking them around.

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02cables.jpg

There are not many accessories that come with these units but Silverstone does provide the needed cables to connect their units to various audio devices and sources. The provided cables aren’t of a cheap grade and they have a weighty, hefty quality to them.

The Silverstone EB01 DAC unit (see left picture above) comes with a quality USB cable and a female 3.5 mm to dual RCA connector for connection to headphones or possibly a desktop PC stereo speaker system.

The Silverstone EB02 amplifier comes with a short set of RCA male to male patch cables for connection to the EB01 DAC or other discreet audio components such as a CD player, MP3 player or anything else you might want to hook it up to. There is also a 3.5mm mini jack to dual RCA cable which can be used to connect the amplifier to external sources such as MP3 players, CD players or a PC soundcard.
 
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Robscix

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External Impressions

External Impressions (EB01)

EB01.jpg
dacin.jpg

It should be noted right off the bat that the design and styling of both Ensemble audio components is very symmetrical since they are intended to be used together (hence the name "Ensemble"). The EB01 Digital to Analog Converter has extremely clean lines and a heavy duty build quality with its milled chassis and hex key construction. Indeed, the look and feel of this component is very much akin to the high-quality SilverStone cases we have come to know and love. The EB01’s I/O section is simplicity in and of itself; the DAC is self powered through your system's USB port and there is a pair color coded stereo RCA outputs for connection to other audio components.

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The front sports blue indicator LED's which are not bright enough to be overly annoying in a card room that show system Power and Play. Basically, the use of the Power LED is self-evident while the Play LED shows when the DAC is receiving audio data from the USB port. At least they are shielded somewhat and not those incredibly bright LED’s that burn into your eyes.


External Impressions (EB02)

EB02.jpg
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The EB02 Amplifier follows the same basic design principles as the EB01 with the milled chassis and hex screw construction. The EB02 is about twice as tall as the EB01 and also features a volume control on the top housing panel. The Rear I/O panel of the EB02 features power input Right and Left stereo inputs and 5 way binding posts for connecting stereo speakers. All the connectors featured on the Ensemble series are gold plated to ensure a solid signal transfer.


The EB02 Desktop amplifier also features a small indicator panel that shows when power is applied and when the system is in an error condition. We are unsure how an analog amplifier can get into a error condition and this indicator never lit up during any of the tests. Not that we really wanted to cause any type of error with the products...


Together at Last

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Once the whole Ensemble system is put together, you get a compact audio station which sports clean lines with simple, understated design concepts. There are not many controls or other distractions on these units which gives the whole setup a distinctly modern look and feel. The entire audio system is streamlined and matches many of today’s desktop PC cases with ease and laptop users can also appreciate the lack of huge bundles of cables.


The Ensemble system spares no expense in build quality and as we can see, these audio components feature rubber vibration isolation and dampening feet. The feet have rubber on both sides of the metal which isolates and prevent any vibrations from transferring from one component to another. These are commonly seen on higher grade audio components that transmit vibrations and units that are sensitive to it such as CD players. The use of these “feet” and other details on the Ensemble system shows that SilverStone has a commitment to building solid audio components.
 
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Robscix

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Electronics Overview

Electronics Overview

EB02- Amplifier: Tripath TA2021B

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This chip amplifier has a very impressive set of specifications and quality amplifiers sporting Tripath amplifier chips are highly sought after. The Tripath TA2021B has a Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) % rating of 0.05% at 13Watts of output power loaded with a 4Ω speaker along with a decent dynamic range of 100db.

These digital switching amplifiers are causing quite the buzz among audio enthusiasts and they are finding their way into many high quality amplifiers. T-Amps have changed the way many audio aficionados view high quality audio and their relatively inexpensive cost coupled excellent specifications and high quality sound have made T-AMP powered units very popular. Tripath powered amplifiers are sometimes referred to as “Class-T” by the DIY audio crowds which is a way of signifying the type of amplifier they are to other audio connoisseurs.

Amplifiers using this “Class-T” technology can usually surpass audio components many times their value and allow many to have quality audio that was previously way out of their price range. These chipsets offer the sound quality of Class AB amplifiers with the high efficiency seen in Class-D amplifiers. With such great efficiency the need for larger passive or active cooling solutions are unnecessary and many audio designers have decided to use inexpensive heatsinks. Note: The heatsink was not removed to prevent damage to the amplifier.

The frequency response of this “Class-T” amplifier is also very impressive as it is extremely linear in nature and would account for much of the T-Amp’s sonic transparency. This Tripath amplifier doesn’t color or alter much of the frequency response in anyway even though there is a roll-off of the bass region starting at about 40hz and the high frequency range but nothing to drastic. After carefully reviewing the components, specifications and auditioning a couple different units based T-Amplifier chipsets, it is easy understand why people are giving them high praise.

TA2021B Specification Sheet


EB01-USB DAC: PCM2702E Digital to Analog Converter

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This Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) has been used in many very popular “audiophile” DAC units. It is a Burr-Brown DAC chip which has very low distortion measurements with a THD+N% of 0.002% (typ 16bit), signal to noise ratio of 105dB (typ) and a dynamic range of 100db. This digital to analog converter also has an 8X over sampling filter to further improve the quality of the device. USB functionality is built into the chip itself and the DAC is self powered by the host system’s USB ports. Burr-Brown is known to make high quality DAC chipsets and their high end DAC chips have been used in expensive designs from companies such as Denon and others.

PCM2702E Specification sheet


EB01-USB DAC: OPA340 Opamp

opa.jpg
THD.jpg

This Opamp is used as a final stage in the EB01 Digital to Analog converter, pulling the signal level up to its final output values. With distortion values of 0.0007% Low noise values and slew rate of 6v/µs this Opamp has found it’s way into many consumer audio designs. This Opamp would be considered generic by the audio crowds and while it will do the job required, there are much better units to use for this position in the circuit. The THD+N vs. Frequency measurement show that this amp has good lower frequency range values but when the frequency approaches higher values the THD+N measurements skew up.

OPA304 Specification sheet
 
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Robscix

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Listening Tests

Listening Tests

We took a systematic approach to testing this audio system so the DAC was tested by itself in a headphone amplifier capacity and afterwards the EB02 amplifier was connected to various sources to gauge the its sonic abilities. Last but not least the Ensemble was tested as a complete audio system. For music we used the latest Winamp 5.53 with a Direct-Sound output plugin, no DSP or output effects were used.


Music

When used as a DAC / headphone amplifier, we used a set of Sennheiser HD595’s for listening testing with the EB01. The EB01 provided crisp, crystal clear audio when tested in this capacity. The sound signature was very laid back and relaxed. The DAC wasn’t fatiguing to the ears when listened to for extended periods of time. All the tested audio showed similar traits in sonic presence, no smearing of the higher registers with excellent definition and articulation. The bass range produced was full without being tubby or "wishy washy". All tested tracks were clearly defined; there was no muddying or smearing in the sonic image. Everything had its own unique place in the mix and there was no washing out of complex sonic scenes.

When we added the EB02 amp to the EB01 DAC and attached a set of Edifier 2-Way bookshelf speakers the sonic traits of the T-Amps came shining through with crystal clear clarity and high transparency. The soundstage just expand amazingly with this amplifier. The bass region produced by the T-Amp was also very balanced without boominess or tubbiness.

This EB02 amplifier isn’t overly powerful but can give very nice range and punch when turned up. The sound staging produced by this T-Amp is truly amazing due to the 3D sonics it produced. The aural imaging is very wide, deep and very high and there is a very large amount of sound produced. The EB02 produced similar results with other tested sources such as an external USB CD player and a small MP3 player. However, there was a noticed compression effect and a noticeable hum when placing you ear next to the speakers when the system was turned to maximum power. We used CD audio, FLAC and High resolution VBR MP3.

Tested Audio:

Ozzy Osbourne: The Essential Collection
Van Halen I&II
Ozzy Osbourne: Live at Budokan (Concert DVD)
Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings
Various Hip Hop and Country Tracks



Movies

We tested a few movies with the ensemble setup and while this audio system is meant for stereo audio playback it still sounded quite good playing a DVD and movie files on the audio bench. The DAC again provided crystal clear audio signals to the HD 595 testing headphones. We should also mention that the EB01 was tested with Dolby Headphone enabled and disabled through the player and while the DH provided virtual surround, we found the DAC provided very good quality front stage imaging without any enhancments.

When the EB02 was connected to the DAC (EB01) and then connected to the test speakers again the soundstage once again expanded quite a bit. The front soundstage was very wide and deep providing an amazing sound-scape for movies. In many instances the dialog was so clear and properly imaged you would bet there was a center channel providing the vocal or center track audio. We were truly impressed with the accuracy and quality of the stereo image.

Tested Movies:
War of the Worlds –Modern
U571
Knight Rider, Modern Pilot
AVP:Requim
Star Wars EP I,II



Gaming

We played a few games with this unit but this audio setup is not a consumer gaming soundcard. There is no gaming options, standards or any settings whatsoever to enhance any type of game play. The Ensemble audio system is really meant for and designed to provide the user with crisp, clear sound production without alterations or any type of DSP effects.

The familiar EB01 DAC and HD595 combination yielded crisp in game sounds and accurate front stage imaging.

Lastly, the EB02 T-Amplifier was added to the mix completing the Ensemble and while we only had stereo soundscape for our test games. The Ensemble again didn't fail to impress with audio quality although the lack of ambiance effects (Reverb) was noticeable.

With this system, Silverstone has a product that can easily provide exceptional audio for games which utilize internal effects engines as the system provides high quality imaging across the stereo soundstage. Thats being said, if you’re looking for a gaming audio device with gaming effects and standards, the Ensemble series is not meant for this task and not right for you.

Tested games:
Prey
COD2
COD4
Bioshock
 
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Robscix

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Modding Options / Conclusion

Modding Options

There are a few modification options available for the Ensemble audio units. The EB01 DAC has some room for some circuitry improvements and the addition of better quality capacitors would be beneficial in most position to clean up the signal further and provide better filtering on the power. A SPST power switch would also be a good modification option for this unit as when your system is powered off the DAC remains powered. Replacing the output OPA304 opamps could also increase the output sound quality.

The EB02 Amplifier can produce better sonic results by replacing the stock coupling capacitors with higher quality audio caps such as Black-Gates, Auri-Caps or Solens. The power supply circuitry filtering could also use higher quality caps, possibly of a larger value could be added or existing units replaced. The addition of a small SPST power switch to the EB02 amplifier would be a good idea as the amplifier stays powered constantly. The indicator LED’s are connected to pin headers so for vanity's sake you could change them to bright RED or yellow to add some custom flare.

Note: We offer these suggestions for those interested, altering your Ensemble audio system is not recommended. Any modifications should not be attempted by novices as you could destroy the unit and you will certainly void your warranty.


Conclusion

Overall we were very impressed with the sound quality produced by the SilverStone Ensemble audio system. This meshes well with the design intent of this product since it was designed to be a total solution for high quality stereo desktop audio for PC or Laptop use. The Ensemble system produced quality audio with good articulate bass, full midrange, shimmering high tones and huge soundstage all without a hint of distortion or noise. Although the individual units are meant to be complimentary to each other they each have features and functions that allow them to be used separately for certain audio tasks. For example, the EB01 DAC can be used to drive your favorite high quality headphones or active (amplified) PC speaker system while he EB02 amplifier can be used to amplify any sound source such as your PC or laptop sound card, MP3 player, CD player or any device with a line-level audio output. This equals incredible flexibility as long as you are perfectly fine with basic stereo sound without any other components such as subs or additional speakers.

On the flip side of the coin, there are a few details we found that weren't quite so hot with this system and needed to be mentioned to give an accurate picture of what this audio system offers to the user. Neither the EB01 DAC nor the EB02 Amplifier has a main power switch. The DAC takes power from the USB port and when connected to the audio review system the DAC remained powered after the system had been shutdown. The EB02 amplifier is also staying powered 100% of the time as it draws it power from an external adapter. We are not sure if this power switch omission was intentional or just an unfortunate oversight but hopefully SilverStone has seen the error of their ways and will revise the designs in future releases or devices.

One main feature we find missing on this is the options for S/PDIF input as the EB01 itself or Ensemble audio system could be utilized in a many more situations since many onboard sound solutions, soundcards and stand alone A/V players utilize S/PIDF audio output. While this may have driven up the cost we feel like it is a missed opportunity to make this product appeal to a broader user base.

The Ensemble audio system is designed for one task which is to output stereo sound. To be honest, it is quite good at this task but it offers little else to the user in the way of features or options. The system or rather the DAC device (EB01) is not meant for gaming and has no support for any modern gaming standards such as EAX or OpenAL. There is no type of virtual surround technologies to improve sound imaging over headphones or two channel speakers that some look for on sound cards and there isn’t even rudimentary timbre controls (Bass, Treble) so nothing has been added to color the output in any way. Many customers want their audio exactly this way which is providing only what they send out to the system while other users will shy away from this type of audio setup since they want additional audio effects and options.

This audio system is meant for a specific type of user and if you’re in the market for a good all-around solution for audio, video and gaming then you may be disappointed with this the Ensemble products. If you are looking for a high quality playback system for 2 channel audio then your should be quite pleased with what Silverstone has to offer.

With concerns to price and performance the currently quoted price for both units is right on target, it is seriously doubtful you would find a better quality USB DAC with such solid build quality for a lower price. The EB02 amplifier is a T-Amp based unit and quality T-Amps with this level of build quality would be close to or above the MSRP. After this review it is quite evident that both units provide pristine stereo audio quality for your hard earned dollars and they give serious audio performance for the prices quoted.

If you have been shopping for a desktop audio solution that provides high quality 2 channel audio with a sleek modern design and solid build, look no further as SilverStone has exactly what you need. If the Ensemble audio system is any hint of the quality of future SilverStone audio products then we are very interested to see what will be next from this company.


PROS
  • Total stereo desktop solution
  • High quality sound
  • Solid build quality
CONS
  • No power switch on EB01 DAC
  • No power switch on EB02 Amp
  • No S/PDIF input on the EB01
  • Targeted to a very specific consumer



Thanks to Silverstone for providing these products for review
 
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