MSB Technology Analog DAC D/A converter and Analog Power Base power supply

Back in high-end audio's golden days—for the purposes of this story, the mid- to late 1980s—my audio store, Audio Ecstasy, had a service tech named Tom Hewitt. Were he still with us (and I wish he were), Tom would appreciate the radical case design of the MSB Analog DAC. Tom loved not only to fix things, but to see what happened when things were violently stressed. He tested the limits of component construction.

Tiring of dropping receivers off our building's roof or ramming TVs (tied to the back of a pickup truck) into the shop's brick wall, Tom soon discovered that one of our customers owned a machine shop with an industrial press. Pay dirt. Somewhere there are camcorder cassettes of what transpired, but let's just say that even the best casework was no match for this giant squishing machine. Tom's videos would first show the component being crushed. Then he would gleefully pan to the pressure gauge, as it rose higher and higher. Then back to the metal pancake.

Which brings us to MSB Technology's Analog DAC.

This product's design and shape suggest a typical MSB component that has been squeezed tight in an industrial press, then sanded and buffed to a smooth finish. Call it an audiophile pancake. In fact, it resembles in size and thickness the bigger-than-plate-size blueberry pancakes at Hoover's Beef Palace, just up the road from me in Templeton, California (yes, this is true!). I'll bet Tom would be challenged in trying destroy the Analog DAC, and appreciate how well it's made.

I reviewed MSB's Diamond DAC IV (since renamed the Diamond DAC IV plus) in the October 2012 issue, with Diamond Power Base and other upgrades ($43,325), and it remains the best digital I've heard in my home system. When I spied the new Analog DAC at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, and was told that it's their new, lower-cost product, I was interested before I'd even heard any specifics. And when I did hear those specifics, they were interesting.

Best-case scenario
Let's start with that enclosure. The stealthy-looking Analog DAC ($6995) is CNC-machined from a solid hunk of aircraft-grade aluminum and comes in matte silver or black, with custom colors available for $699. They leave much of the metal in, removing it only where they need to stuff electronics—what's left feels like a solid plank of 7/8"-thick metal. The case is 17.5" wide and 12.5" deep and sports curved sides, with a semicircular bulge at each corner for a little spike foot. Underneath is a hatch to gain access to the main electronics, and there are three slots on the back for the inputs. It looks like something that would fly if tossed like a Frisbee.

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On the back, starting at the left, are the balanced and unbalanced analog outputs and analog input, grouped by channel. MSB recommends using the unbalanced outputs if possible—they claim that the DAC is "fundamentally single-ended." Unless the optional volume control is installed, the single-ended analog inputs are passed directly to the outputs. With the volume control, this input can be either volume controlled or not, depending on the menu settings; MSB suggests that it's ideal for adding a vinyl input, if you're using the Analog DAC as a preamp. This input should be shorted when not in use, as it was during my testing.

To the right of the output/analog input section are three slots for the various digital input options. The five possible choices for the three spots are: Optical and coax S/PDIF inputs (on one input block), XLR balanced AES/EBU input, MSB network input (it looks like an Ethernet jack, so is colored bright green), Pro I2S input, and a 32-bit/384kHz PCM/DSD-compatible USB input. I'll go over the prices of these options later; it can be a bit perplexing. My review sample came with the Optical/Coax, MSB network, and USB options.

To the right of the inputs is a jack for the DC power supply. There are two power-supply options: the linear Basic Desktop supply, with two transformers, is included in the basic price and gets the job done; a more advanced supply, the Analog Power Base, is housed in a case that looks just like the Analog DAC and makes a nice stacking companion (yes, like pancakes). It contains five transformers—for complete isolation of digital processing, clocks, and analog DAC modules—as well as a 12V power trigger for remote operation. On the back of the Power Base are an IEC AC power receptacle, a DC out jack, trigger jacks, and a teeny-tiny power switch that glows red when off, green when on. I'm wise to MSB products, so I quickly found this unmarked switchette and figured how to turn it on without help. I had only the Analog Power Base upgrade on hand for listening, so can't remark on what improvements, if any, it makes over the Basic Desktop supply. The Analog Power Base adds $2995 to the price: total so far, $9990.

Back to the Analog DAC. The front of its case is bare, smooth metal, but on top, at right front, the volume control and input selector sit flush with the surface. The volume selector is puck-sized with the input button a small circular indent in the volume puck and held in by gravity. How do I know about the gravity thing? When I first turned the review sample over to check out the bottom, the heavy volume knob and small input button fell out and bounced on the floor. Oops. Luckily, no dents.

To the left of the volume control is a small grid of pinholes in the aluminum; under these is the white LED display. The large letters and numbers are quite bright and let you know the software version on startup, the input selected, the sample rate, and, as you spin the knob, the volume setting. The interaction between the volume and input selector and the display have a great feel, and there's a very satisfying little clicking sound as you bounce the volume up and down. At the rear of the top panel are the MSB logo, and labels for the outputs in light colored type.

This arrangement, with the volume control on top, worked great when I perched the Meridian Sooloos Control 15 (with its small stand) atop the DAC. However, this might prove problematic with a normal component on top, as I found when I added to the stack the MSB Universal Media Transport plus. With the UMT+ underneath, the feet lined up perfectly, and the volume control was visible again. The one ergonomic issue I had with the Analog DAC's controls was when I switched inputs in low light: I would invariably also tick the volume knob a bit. It took some skill to push the barely visible input switch and not hit the volume by mistake.

Filter King
The Analog DAC includes MSB's Femto Clock technology, as well as 80-bit digital processing and 384kHz ladder DACs. When I asked MSB's Vince Galbo for some details about the digital filter used in the Analog DAC, he said that even though the DAC IV has several filters to choose from, "while everyone wants to play with these [filters in the DAC IV], they all come to the same conclusion, that one of the default filters is the best. So the default filter is the same in the Analog DAC as that DAC IV series default filter." Which means they're using a custom-designed, linear-phase apodizing filter designed for minimal pre-ringing. Galbo explained that this is "MSB's definition of the term apodizing in that it has a stop band that starts before the Nyquist limit of the source's sample rate (for example, 22.05kHz for 'Red Book'), therefore avoiding aliasing caused by the Nyquist limit."

The Grand Total
Let's talk price. The Analog DAC is MSB's "lower-priced" DAC, but of course that's only relative to their pricy products as noted above. The Analog DAC's base price is $6995, which includes one input module, basic remote control, and the Basic Desktop power supply. This is all some folks will need to get up and running.

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You can add the volume control for $995, turning the DAC into a preamp (if you do this, don't forget that it has just that one analog input!). Next, you can add a remote-control upgrade ($85), RS-232 input ($995), or WiFi control ($995). Additional digital inputs cost $995 each (you can add two more). Finally, you can upgrade to the Analog Power Base supply for $2995. The review sample had three inputs, volume control, and Power Base, bringing its total to $11,980. Note: Unlike the other inputs and power supply, which can be upgraded down the line, the volume-control option cannot be added later—it must be ordered with the Analog DAC itself.

First Attempt
I set up the short stack of Analog DAC and Analog Power Base on my cabinet and ran it overnight to settle it in. It didn't get very warm—a balmy 94.5°F was the hottest spot near the display (MSB's Diamond DAC IV ran so hot I couldn't put it in a cabinet)—so I proceeded to set the Sooloos Control 15 on top and fed the MSB via its S/PDIF input. The two products look great together, and the Control 15's smallish base left the Analog DAC's volume control and input switch right where I wanted them.

I cued up a few albums—standard rips from CDs—and settled in for some first-impression listening. Then I cued up some high-definition music. Silence. I restarted the MSB. It powered up, selected the right sample rate (96kHz), and played. No problem. I switched back to a lower sampling rate. No problem. I went to a higher rate and it locked up again.

I e-mailed Vince Galbo, who noted that a dealer had reported the same problem with the Sooloos, as had users of Logitech Transporters. According to Galbo, "some sources do not switch perfectly clean, and the sample-rate transition may contain a bit of noise. Our inputs have a fairly stringent 'window of acceptance,' so to speak." I put the MSB to one side and reviewed some other DACs.

A couple months later, an update to the Analog DAC's firmware became available and I downloaded it from MSB's website. Updating was simple with the Sooloos: I downloaded the WAV file, added it to the Sooloos, and played it through the MSB once. The DAC rebooted, showed the new firmware number on its display, then played a short snippet of music to show that all was well.

You can also update the Analog via MSB's transport, your computer, or by burning the file to a CD. The only requirement, according to MSB, is that playback of the update must be bit-perfect, with no upsampling, volume, or any other filtering added. This update fixed the problem, but there was still one small glitch: Every time the Analog DAC switched to a higher sampling rate, the volume dropped one dB increment. A second update was soon posted and fixed that.

COMPANY INFO
MSB Technology Corporation
625 Main Street
Watsonville, CA 95076
(831) 662-2800
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COMMENTS
iosiP's picture

I would have preferred a comparison between the balanced/unbalanced outputs, and also one between the MSB set to output a fixed level (and using a pre) and the same using a variable level.

I think the main questions the potential buyer faces are if the DAC volume control is good enough to get rid of a good preamp ("good", as in a pre usually included in systems that can take benefit of a $7,000+ DAC) and which trade-off is better if the rest of the system is fully balanced: using the "native" SE outputs or the "artificial" XLR outputs.

Also, since I have never listened to the DACs used for comparison (and even do not know how their price compares to that of the MSB), the only valid information I could gather is from the Measurements page!

Sorry for being candid but I really expected more than a nice rant about Bee Gees and tiny buttons with a green/red glow. 

HeadMania's picture

This is my favorite DAC until now. I've never tested / reviewed another dac to sound as natural and still with an incredible amount of detail within a very holographic / 3d sound presentation.

These being said, I managed to buy one for myself. I have tested the single ended outputs vs the balanced outputs ( with Audio GD Master 9) and I think that the single ended outputs are better overall with more detail, focus, better instrument separation, etc. This is a dac that excels on single ended, as it really is a single ended DAC. The balanced outpus adds some other circuitry that takes away from the transparency of the sound, to transform the single ended to balanced. However, I am not sure that balanced design is better than single ended design. I've heard absolutely superb single ended dacs which sounded much better than some balanced dacs. I think that it depends mostly on the matching and each component in the system.

So the main problem will be with the amplifiers you use, as some of them are of balanced design, and might sound better on balanced inputs than on the single ended ones.

I think the volume output is excellent on it's own. I wouldn't use any other pre-amp, as adding another component in the system would only alter the sound, taking away from it's transparency. I really am against pre-amps, and think that they should only be used to give another flavor to the sound than the default one of your default system. However, I would advise on getting another amp (even dac) that is more suitable to your tastes, and not spend more money on another different component that could take away from the signal's purity.

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