Grace Design m902 Reference D/A headphone amplifier Wes Phillips on the Grace m902
My friend Jeff Wong lent me his Grace Design m902 Reference headphone amplifier for a week's audition, so I connected it to my G5 Macintosh computer and hit Radio DavidByrne.com. I fell in love with that month's playlist, which featured a slab of throbbing funk. I immediately sent John Atkinson and Jon Iverson there, mentioning that I was digging the m902 as well. Back came JA's response: "Write about what you're hearing."
Yikes! But John, I'm not convinced I love the DAC, despite John Marks' rave last June.
"Ditch the USB connection," he said tersely. A TosLink connector was at hand—and went in.
Much better. The murk disappeared, and the bass was quite a bit more solid and seriouser—a good thing when you're listening to funk. It sounded good enough, in fact, that I began listening to uncompressed and lossless files stored on my hard drive. Now that was definitely more like it.
But I get ahead of myself. My first experience of the m902 was of its multifunction volume control. Grace Design has jammed a ton of connectability and functions into a very small package, and the multifunction control does the job, but—a big but—it requires that you scroll through various levels of submenus to do anything other than, well, change the volume. I hated this. The m902's optional remote control ain't optional, in my opinion.
At my computer, I was most impressed with the m902's punch and immediacy, which was enhanced by Grace's version of the Meier crossfeed filter, which added an extremely subtle but crucial amount of warmth to the sound. You probably expected me to say "spatiality," but while the crossfeed circuit does eliminate that hole-in-the-middle headphone sound to a small degree, adding the crossfeed mostly made the sound "better"—maddeningly vague, but so is the effect.
Having achieved "better," I began my safari toward best. I hauled the m902 over to my usual headphone listening station and fed it an S/PDIF coaxial signal from the Musical Fidelity X-RayV3 CD player. I cranked up "New Resolution," from the Heartless Bastards' Stairs and Elevators (CD, Fat Possum 1019). It rocked, as it always does, so I decided to experiment, toggling between the m902's coaxial digital input and stereo analog input. There's a slight volume discrepancy, but the Grace's precise volume gradations helped me make things more equal. I do like the m902's volume control as a volume control. With its sensitivity and accuracy, it reminds me of the Mark Levinson No.320S preamplifier ($8000), which I reviewed for onhi-fi.com in 2004.
The m902's analog inputs had slam and pace, but they also had better sound in the lower midrange—more ease and flow and, yes, to get all audiophile, more "air." The coaxial input sounded flatter and just a tad less rhythmically compelling. Heartless Bastard Kevin Vaughan's drumming didn't have the same galumphing canter through the digital input.
I switched to my Ayre Acoustics C-5xe universal player, with its AES/EBU digital connection and balanced analog inputs. Again, I had to employ the Grace's volume control judiciously to match levels, and again I was less enamored of the digital delivery. I didn't so much dislike the D/A conversion as prefer the analog option.
I also used the Grace as a preamp to drive a Krell KAV-2250 integrated amplifier and a pair of Penaudio Serenade loudspeakers, which was a treat. If you don't have many analog inputs—or if you do have multiple digital sources—you should add the Grace to your must-audition sub-$2000 preamp.
The Grace m902 Reference is pretty miraculous. I really enjoyed it as a headphone amplifier. As a workhorse in a prosumer digital work station, it's hard to beat (although I have not yet read JA's take on its performance relative to the Benchmark DAC-1). It can process hi-rez digital inputs and act as a pretty darn spiffy preamplifier in a high-end hi-fi system. While I didn't love the m902's performance as a CD DAC, both the Ayre C5xe and the Musical Fidelity X-RayV3 are among the best I've heard in their respective premium and budget price brackets, and the Grace may well offer improvements over your current converter(s).
I'd love to keep the Grace m902 Reference, but Jeff is going to want it back. Tomorrow. Dang.—Wes Phillips