MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV transport & Diamond DAC IV & D/A converter
My apologies for corrupting the well-known statement by French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré (18541912), in which he described his relationship with science and nature. But substituting audiophile for scientist and music for nature, I feel the sentiment expresses what drives many audiophiles to the extremes for which mere mortals often chide us.
We don't just listen to music, we try to get inside itto put the reality of it into our rooms with as much life and impact as when that music was originally created. To do this, we make sacrifices.
I'll go further, and corrupt the old adage of live music being the audiophile standard for accuracy of reproduction: My goal is to clearly hear what went down on the tape or in the digits. If that was intended to document a live musical event, so be it. For live recordings, perhaps the ideal is to hear the equivalent of a live mike feed, where the engineer still makes sonic choices.
However, I recognize that the recording studio, too, is an instrument that is orchestrated by the musicians, producers, and engineers, and the only way to hear what it has contributed is through a sound system. Most modern recordings, for better or worse, never existed in a real space. Therefore, the goal is to accurately reproduce what is in the final mix.
Which is a long way around to stating that my preference is for equipment that doesn't embellish, but that seeks accuracy and to reveal what went into the mix. Having wandered into the their room at Consumer Electronics Shows for several years now, I've sensed that MSB Technology, too, is on the path to that goal, and isn't shy about harnessing extreme technology to reach it.
So when I was offered a chance to hear some of their equipment in my home, I jumped. But first, we had to figure out what I was going to review. John Atkinson and I both admitted to being a bit perplexed by the menu of options MSB offers: There are the Platinum, Signature, and Diamond DACs, each with a half dozen or more options, including outboard power supplies of various grades. There are literally hundreds of permutations, and the prices range from several thousand to tens of thousands of bucks.
MSB DACs are built to order, so MSB's Vince Galbo started putting together a system for Stereophile. The heart of the system reviewed here is the top-of-the-line Diamond DAC IV ($21,995). (Its carton was labeled "Platinum Diamond DAC IV.") MSB upgraded this model with these options: FemtoSecond Galaxy Clock ($9950), Diamond Stepped Attenuator ($2995), Pro I2S input board ($995), USB2.0 384kHz input ($1395), and Diamond Power Base ($5995).
The result is a $43,325 DAC bristling with options. Though I'm primarily a music-server-and-vinyl guy, Galbo insisted on completing the stack with a Platinum Data CD IV CD transport ($3995) and Signature Transport Power Base ($3495). Total system price: $50,815.
All four components in the MSB stack (DAC, transport, two power supplies) have the same basic appearance: a wide, low-slung chassis with a rounded front, and a vertical cylindrical leg at each corner. Along the sides, between the legs, are heatsinks. Each leg is stuffed with antiresonance material to isolate the chassis from the sharp, sturdy brass foot that runs through it. When you stack MSB gear, the pointy foot of the top component fits into an indentation on the top of the leg below it; the bottom component's feet sit on small silver discs (provided) to protect your shelf.
Each component is sturdy and deceptively heavy. I'm guessing the full stack weighed 60 lbs; it was best moved a couple units at a time. If you forget to use the discs under the pointy feet, I'd bet this stack would work its way through your wood shelf in days and probably crack concrete.
With four DAC modules, these things run hot. I measured over 110°F at the right front corner of the DAC as it warmed up on the floor, so was a little apprehensive about putting them inside my cabinet. When I did, the temperature shot up even higher, and started to heat up everything else, so out on top they went. I normally don't power down my equipment, but I made an exception for the MSBs.
The front of the Diamond DAC IV is simplicity itself: from left to right are four small, round buttons for menu or input navigation, then a display, and finally a round volume knob. The display indicates the volume setting, the selected input and output sampling rates (they may not be the same if you're using upsampling), the input source, and choice of filter. For me, this was a perfect combination of information; I never wished for more. The display's brightness is adjustable.
On the rear panel (remember, this was the fully loaded version) are two sets of single-ended and one set of balanced left and right analog outputs, and one set of balanced inputs (for maybe a phono preamp, if you use a DAC IV as your only preamp). To the right of those are one of every type of digital input I've ever seen, including MSB Network (which looks like an Ethernet jack but is used for MSB's PRO I2S interface) for the transport. From L to R these are Aux (set up on the review sample as a USB port), MSB Network, Balanced Digital, Clock In, Coaxial, Optical. To the right of those is an eight-pin DC power jack for connecting with the Diamond Power Base. MSB has told me that the DAC IV hardware is also DSD ready, but that the software isn't yet.
After I'd plugged everything in, it took me 15 minutes to figure out how to turn it all on. Turns out there's a tiny (as in a grain of rice) plastic switch on the back of the power supply that toggles up and turns greenan odd choice of switch for an otherwise robust suite of components. JA later revealed to me that he couldn't figure out how to turn the thing on either, so I don't feel so bad.
Pretty much in the middle of the DAC's top plate is a standard iPod dock. Also on top, toward the rear, the letters MSB are formed by the dozens of small vent holes punched into the metal. The MSB components come in a wide variety of colors and finishesthere's a handy configuration tool on their website to help you choose.
The Platinum Data CD IV transport has a standard plastic disc drawer concealing a DVD-ROM drive on the left, a display on the right, and between them are buttons for Open/Close, Play/Pause, and Skip Back/Forward. MSB also sells a universal transport based on an Oppo player, but the Platinum Data CD's drive will play CDs or wav files (up to 32-bit/384kHz) burned to DVD-R. You can create these yourself, or try the HRx discs from Reference Recordings, or the DVD-Rs available from MA Recordings and others.
The rear of the Platinum Data CD IV has balanced AES/EBU and MSB Network output jacks as well as coax and optical S/PDIF. Next to those was the 12V DC power jack, which connects to the Platinum Power Base. Inside, the transport spins CDs at up to 40 times the real-time rate, then rereads each sector to ensure correct data retrieval. MSB says that if it finds any difference, it assumes that all reads were wrong, and adjusts the spin speed, tracking, and laser focus to better read the bits, as many times as necessary, to get a "perfect" result.