MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV transport & Diamond DAC IV & D/A converter Page 2
I noticed one anomaly: When I played an MA Recordings sampler on DVD-R, the CD IV correctly displayed "24/96," but the DAC IV said "16/96," and sometimes flickered between "8/96" and "16/96." However, the resolutions of 24/88 and 24/176 tracks were always correctly displayed by both units.
Though I knew it wouldn't be compatible, I popped a DVD-Audio disc in the CD IV just to see what would happen. After a few seconds, the display read "Can't Read Disc." I hit Eject and nothing happened. I hit Play, Skip Forward, Eject. Nothing. Eventually, I powered down the transport, then powered it back up and immediately hit Eject. The drawer opened. Okay, lesson learned. From now on I'll stick to CDs and data DVDs.
I could write pages about all the technology stuffed into these boxes. In fact, between the owner's manuals, e-mails, and white papers MSB provided, I had a small reference book on hand. I'll stick to the highlights, but check out www.msbtech.com for more information and photos.
A key component in setting up the digital stream in good order was the FemtoSecond Galaxy Clock included in the DAC IV reviewed. A femtosecond (fs) is one quadrillionthone millionth of one billionthof a second. To put this tiny amount of time in perspective, visible light oscillates with a period of about 2fs, which is, in fact, less time than it takes the guy behind you to honk his horn when the light turns green. MSB claims that there should be less than 0.1 picosecond of jitter.
MSB's digital filters are written in-house and installed on two SHARC DSP chips. MSB says that these are the fastest DSPs available, and run a single-stage, 80-bit, fixed-point FIR filter that results in very fine resolution, which MSB's DAC modules can take full advantage of.
My DAC IV came with four standard MSB filters: Filter 1 is a 32x linear-phase filter. MSB says this is an apodizing filter "using our definition of the term apodizing in that it has a stop band before the Nyquist limit of 22.05kHz for Redbook therefore avoiding aliasing caused by the Nyquist limit." This is the one I settled on for most of my listening. Filter 2, a standard 16x linear-phase filter, is lower in resolution and has "the possible use of taming the worst possible recordings for the digital 'annoyance factor'." Filter 3 is a Lanczos filter originally written for video. Filter 4 is a 32x minimum-phase apodizing filter that "adheres to the more general definition of an apodizing filter since it provides both a stop band before Nyquist and is also minimum phase."
MSB has always championed the use of ladder DACs based on networks of simple passive resistors. Since the accuracy of the resistors in this type of design is key, MSB uses hundreds of expensive, finely tuned, "aerospace-grade" resistors in each DAC module. The Diamond DAC IV contains four custom-made, 26-bit DACs per channel, for 27-bit resolution.
Finally, as a result of MSB's ladder-DAC design, the output voltage and current of the DAC are in excess of what's needed to drive an amplifier directly, so MSB uses a stepped-resistor attenuator as a volume control. Following the stepped attenuator is a single, carefully designed output buffer, to ensure that the impedance at the output jacks remains very low and stable at all volume settings.
Usually, I put a new product in the rack and don't listen too critically for at least a week. But the first track I played from my Meridian Sooloos music server sounded so good that I turned it up and tried another. And another. I tried one of my favorite torture-test albums, Propellerheads' Decksanddrumsandrockandroll (CD, DreamWorks SKG 50031), and was surprised at how smooth its previously harsh upper midrange had become. Detail and bass galore, with pinpoint imaging and depth. I had a goofy smile across my face as I pondered that if the MSB stack sounded this good after only 15 minutes, I was in for a real treat in the coming weeks.
I ran the MSB as a preamp connected directly to my power amps, and also connected to my preamp. Running through the menus with the included remote control, I was able to quickly fine-tune the DAC to my needs. One nice feature of the remote is the ability to set three of its buttons to the functions of your choice, so you don't have to use the menu system to change settings. I set up the remote to switch between filters, polarity, and upsampling, which made comparisons of these settings a snap. With the DAC IV connected to my preamp, I set the MSB to 4dB, to match the levels of the other DACs on hand.
The next day I talked to Michael Fremer, who had a similar MSB stack on loan, also fronted by a Meridian Sooloos Control 15. "It's ironic that I'm starting a new analog website when I've finally found great digital!" he exclaimed. We agreed that our first impressions of the Sooloos-MSB combo were exceedingly positive. MF said that it was the best digital sound he'd heard.
With such a DAC in the house, it was time to call my audio pal Bruce Rowley again. As in previous tests, we quickly settled into a routine: First some general listening, then hours of back-and-forth blind and sighted passes with various DACs and settings.
First up from the Sooloos was David Grisman's Traversata, a 24/88.2 download from HDtracks.com that showcases a stage full of beautifully recorded acoustic instruments playing old-world Italian music. We were trying to determine if we should use the MSB option with which we could upsample everything to 32/384 or 32/352.8. With rock music, we had a tough time hearing any obvious advantage either way, but we agreed that the sound of Traversata was a bit smoother upsampled. We left it on for the rest of our listening, but I can imagine some folks preferring the sound without it. This one was close; Fremer says he doesn't prefer one setting over the other either.
We ran through various tracks to sort out the filter options, starting with a 16/44 reissue of Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis (from the Sooloos again), then moving on to a variety of artists, including Cracker and Syriana (another great HD download available at HDtracks.com). We found the soundstage slightly larger with Filter 3, but overall we preferred Filter 1 for most tracks. We realized that you could easily go crazy trying to optimize the filter setting for each track, so we generally left the DAC IV set to Filter 1 when we moved on to compare DACs. I later found out that this, too, was similar to Mikey's findings. A consensus had begun to emerge.
We also listened to the MSB transport against the Sooloos, and were able to directly compare several high-definition recordings. We plowed through a variety of orchestral tracks from Reference Recordings, as well as other genres in 16/44 and hi-def. With the RR tracks, the lush orchestras and startling dynamics were captivating, and Bruce noted copious amounts of detail and scale. But we were hard-pressed to pick a clear favorite in the battle of discs vs server. I'm beginning to think that a lot of folks seriously underestimate what the Meridian Sooloos can now do as a high-end source.
Later, I tried using the iPod dock (which the MSB remote controls nicely), the USB input, and my Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player. I wasn't able to get the iPad to feed the Diamond DAC IV's USB input using the camera adapter trick that works with my Benchmark DAC1 USB. Just like the Ayre Acoustics QB9, which also fails the iPad test, a warning came up on the iPad telling me there wasn't enough power on the USB connection. I was able to hook up the MSB to a USB port on my Apple laptop, no problem, and it worked via USB without a hitch. Everything that did work sounded both consistent and awesome, with the exception of the Oppo disc player, used as a transport, that couldn't keep up with the MSB transport. This was pretty much in line with my experience of other well-engineered DACs: with good players attached, the various inputs are sonically consistent.
The differences between the Diamond DAC IV and other DACs were much more apparent.
JA had sent me the magazine's loaner sample of the dCS Debussy DAC. I'd warmed it up for a few days and was eager to plug it in while Bruce was here. This time there was no mistaking which was which. The Debussy has lots of detaileverything is therebut, as JA has noted, it's a bit "laid-back." I would suggest that it just lies there. Clearly refined and very polite, it would be the perfect guest for your formal dinner event, and I'm sure has its advocates.
But Bruce noted that the MSB had better-focused imaging, and I felt it brought us a generation or two closer to the original master. I'd just received the new remastering of Paul McCartney's Ram, both on CD and as a 24/96 download from HDtracks.com. And just as with the recent remasters of his first solo album, McCartney, the HD version of Ram by far betters the CD. We listened to "Ram On" and "Heart of the Country" back and forth a dozen times, marveling at the MSB's ability to hang each instrument and voice in space. We avoided the brighter-sounding CD after one listen. Switching gears, we also pulled up a set of remixes of Mono's trip-hop noir classic "Life in Mono," as well as "Bilbao Song," from Gil Evans's Out of the Cool. Same results. Images were better defined and appeared more naturally in space with the MSB compared with the dCS.
After Bruce had gone, I spent the next couple weeks comparing the MSB to the Ayre Acoustics QB9, my reference Benchmark DAC1 USB, and a new DAC that had just arrived for review (to be revealed later). The Benchmark and new DAC were clearly not in the MSB's class, having trouble controlling complex imaging and midrange peakiness as well as the MSB, and were quickly returned to the closet.
The Ayre QB9 presented a different challenge: It could easily handle itself with tough material, but its midrange was just a tad more aggressive than the MSB's. I pulled up Ray LaMontagne's great-sounding second CD, Till the Sun Turns Black, and cued up "You Can Bring Me Flowers." After a few listens, I couldn't ignore my overall preference for the MSB, but this was closer than the dCS. Of course, the Ayre can do only USB.
The MSB stack gave me the best digital sound I've ever heard in my system. I know it's a cliché, but I was digging out music from all corners of my collection, just to hear it "real" before the MSBs had to go back. The best recordings were a sheer pleasure to listen to. I spent many long nights going from track to track, feeling closer to the truth of each recording than I had previously imagined possible.
The differences were more subtle when I compared the Diamond DAC IV with other sources, and I admit to not caring much for discs anymore. You may have other needs, and if they run to discs, I can assure you that MSB's Platinum Data CD IV can hold its own with the latest Sooloos Control 15 hooked into the DAC IV, which is the best digital setup Michael Fremer or I have heard.
The Diamond DAC IV runs hot and it costs a lot, but I'm unashamedly enthusiastic for products from companies like MSB, which push what technology can do in the service of beautiful music, which in turn makes life that much more worth living.