Musical Fidelity V90-DAC D/A processor John Atkinson

John Atkinson reviewed the V90-DAC in August 2014 (Vol.37 No.8):

When I e-mailed Stereophile's writers in January 2014 for their suggested ratings for the latest edition of the magazine's "Recommended Components," also in the April issue, ST recommended a Class A rating for the $299 V90-DAC. But, he added, with perhaps a twinkle in his eye, that this was the best DAC he had heard. I therefore provisionally placed the V90-DAC in Class A+, deciding that I needed to listen to it myself before the next "Recommended Components" appears, in our October 2014 issue.

I auditioned the V90-DAC, powered by its wall wart supply, with the system detailed in my review in the July issue of the Joseph Perspective (see sidebar) using AudioQuest Cheetah single-ended interconnects to hook it up to the Pass Labs XP-30 preamplifier. Comparisons with my current reference D/A processor, the Auralic Vega, which I reviewed last February, were performed with levels matched to within 0.3dB at 1kHz, measured with a Fluke 87 true-RMS voltmeter. It might be thought unfair to compare a $299 DAC with the $3499 Auralic—but the Vega is a true Class A+ performer, and I felt the Musical Fidelity's pretensions worth examining in that context.

The V90-DAC sounded clean and smooth, with, as ST noted, a fatigue-free sound. Its midrange was smooth and detailed, Graham Nash's distinct voice in "I Used to Be a King," from his Songs for Beginners (24-bit/48kHz ALAC file ripped from DVD-A, Atlantic/Rhino R2 35257-2), sounding natural and free from strain. In a 2003 recording of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto engineered by Tony Faulkner and produced by me (ALAC files ripped from CD), the image of the clarinet of Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson (footnote 1) was unambiguously placed just to the left of center in the warm, supportive acoustic of London's Henry Wood Hall, the instrument sounding deliciously real.

The orchestral violins in this recording also sounded natural, with no grainy exaggeration of their high frequencies, a digital coloration that the late Raymond Cooke, founder of KEF, once described to me as akin to the sound of "grains of rice being dropped onto a taut paper sheet." Similarly, Mark Flynn's cymbals in the recording I made when I guested with Attention Screen at Otto's Shrunken Head Tiki Bar & Lounge, in Manhattan, in May 2011, to celebrate my first quarter-century of editing Stereophile, sounded superb: suitably crisp yet still silky. And the V90-DAC again threw an excellent sense of space in this purist 24/96 recording.

However, neither this recording nor the Ginger Baker Trio's version of Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser," from Going Back Home (ALAC file ripped from CD, Atlantic 82652-2), had quite the sense of momentum offered by the more expensive Auralic DAC. The Musical Fidelity sounded rather polite in comparison with the Vega, perhaps because its low frequencies lacked weight. Compared with my decade-old sample of the Benchmark DAC1 ($995), the Musical Fidelity V90-DAC sounded similar in the treble but lacked the bass slam of the American processor. Charlie Haden's double bass in "Straight, No Chaser" was well defined but lacked both power and extension, as did Phil Lesh's electric bass guitar in the Graham Nash track, and my fretless bass in the Attention Screen recording.

I would like to have compared the V90-DAC with its predecessor, the V-DAC II, which we reviewed in the January 2012 issue ($379 when last available), but my review sample was long ago returned to the distributor. The V-DAC II was rated Class B in "Recommended Components," as I found it sounded drier and less controlled than the Halide DAC HD ($495), qualities not offset by the V-DAC II's slightly more extended low frequencies. I no longer have the Halide, but Art Dudley's continued enthusiasm for the DAC HD confirms its Class A rating.

Summing Up
I will have to take on trust ST's judgment that Musical Fidelity's V90-DAC outperforms the V-DACII. But from my own listening and my comparisons with the outstanding Auralic Vega and my workhorse Benchmark DAC1, I think the V90-DAC belongs in high Class B or even low Class A of "Recommended Components"—no disgrace for a digital processor priced at just $299.—John Atkinson



Footnote 1: Although I didn't charge Antony Michaelson for my services as producer and paid my own expenses for this project, including the transatlantic plane fare, I recused myself from reviewing Musical Fidelity products for the following five years, in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety.—John Atkinson
COMPANY INFO
Musical Fidelity Limited
US distributor: Musical Fidelity North America
PO Box 51206
Phoenix, AZ 85076
(480) 297-4053
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COMMENTS
awehns's picture

So what is the difference between fig. 8 and 9?

John Atkinson's picture
awehns wrote:
So what is the difference between fig. 8 and 9?

Both show the waveform of a 1kHz tone at -90.31dBFS. Fig.8 shows the waveform with undithered 16-bit data, fig.9 that with undithered 24-bit data. Despite the lack of dither, the 24-bit waveform resembles a good sinewave, confirming the V90 DAC's excellent resolution.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

audiolab's picture

Fig 8 = 16 bit
Fig 9 = 24 bit
"Linearity error with 16-bit data was very low, at less than ±1dB to –110dB (fig.7), while the V90-DAC's reproduction of an undithered sinewave at exactly –90.31dBFS was excellent, with the three DC voltage levels described by the data well defined (fig.8). With 24-bit data at the same level the result was a well-defined sinewave (fig.9), though both the 16- and 24-bit waveforms were overlaid with intermittent high-frequency noise."

Scorpio69er's picture

"But from my own listening and my comparisons with the outstanding Auralic Vega and my workhorse Benchmark DAC1..."

Without controlled double-blind testing, subjective opinion about alleged sonic differences between DACs (or cables, etc.) is just nonsense.

"Audio as a hobby is dying, largely by its own hand. As far as the real world is concerned, high-end audio lost its credibility during the 1980s, when it flatly refused to submit to the kind of basic honesty controls (double-blind testing, for example) that had legitimized every other serious scientific endeavor since Pascal. [This refusal] is a source of endless derisive amusement among rational people and of perpetual embarrassment for me, because I am associated by so many people with the mess my disciples made of spreading my gospel...Remember those loudspeaker shoot-outs we used to have during our annual writer gatherings in Santa Fe? The frequent occasions when various reviewers would repeatedly choose the same loudspeaker as their favorite (or least-favorite) model? That was all the proof needed that [blind] testing does work, aside from the fact that it's (still) the only honest kind. It also suggested that simple ear training, with DBT confirmation, could have built the kind of listening confidence among talented reviewers that might have made a world of difference in the outcome of high-end audio."
--J.Gordon Holt
http://www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/1107awsi/index.html

John Atkinson's picture
Scorpio69er wrote:
Without controlled double-blind testing, subjective opinion about alleged sonic differences between DACs (or cables, etc.) is just nonsense.

If you feel that way, then why on Earth would you read Stereophile or its website?

Scorpio69er wrote:
J.Gordon Holt: http://www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/1107awsi/index.html

It is fair to point out that the late Gordon Holt almost never practiced what he preached in this interview I conducted before his passing, with respect to double-blind tests. All Gordon's review auditioning was performed under sighted conditions and the only blind tests in which he participated after I replaced him as editor in 1986 were ones that I organized.

Please go peddle your trolls somewhere else.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Scorpio69er's picture

You don't bother much with credibility, do you?

re: "why on Earth would you read Stereophile or its website?"

Perhaps in the vain hope that you guys will, someday, live up to the legacy of JGH.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Further, I was reading Stereophile and corresponding with its writers long before you ever showed up. The issue of subjective testing was questioned and discussed within its (paper) pages. Back then, there was a genuine concern with truth. And there was also a sense of humor about this obsession. You may recall the Bob Carver amp challenge, which Carver won. That was honesty.

re: "the late Gordon Holt almost never practiced what he preached in this interview"

Within the interview, he talked about "those [blind] loudspeaker shoot-outs we used to have during our annual writer gatherings in Santa Fe". He also understood quite well, as he articulated, that "[blind] testing does work, aside from the fact that it's (still) the only honest kind". So JGH understood full well the validity of DBT, and, indeed, had he remained at the helm of Stereophile, that is the direction he would have certainly gone, since he was concerned with honesty and credibility.

re: "Please go peddle your trolls somewhere else."

Oh, I'm so sorry! I didn't realize that this had become the audiophile equivalent of the Rush Limbaugh show!

RUSH: "The earth is flat, by golly -- and that's the truth!"
CALLER: "Ditto, Rush!"

You, sir, can kiss my, er, amp. ☺

John Atkinson's picture
Scorpio69er wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
the late Gordon Holt almost never practiced what he preached in this interview

Within the interview, he talked about "those [blind] loudspeaker shoot-outs we used to have during our annual writer gatherings in Santa Fe."

Yes, and as I wrote above, "the only blind tests in which [Gordon] participated after I replaced him as editor in 1986 were ones that I organized." It is those tests to which Gordon was referring in the text that you are quoting. Despite his advocacy of blind testing in my 2007 interview with him, Gordon performed all his review listening under sighted conditions, just as he had been doing since launching Stereophile in 1962.

Scorpio69er wrote:
had [Gordon Holt] remained at the helm of Stereophile, that is the direction he would have certainly gone.

Gordon worked for Larry Archibald and for me for 17 years since selling Stereophile. In all that time he was free to practice blind tests if he so wished. The fact is that he didn't so wish, even after trying the ABX comparator box. So please stop projecting your fantasies on to Gordon who, sadly, is no longer here to speak for himself.

Scorpio69er wrote:
You, sir, can kiss my, er, amp.

You don't like or appreciate what Stereophile does, please stop reading the magazine.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Scorpio69er's picture

re: "stop projecting your fantasies on to Gordon who, sadly, is no longer here to speak for himself."

So you'll speak for him, since he's no longer here. Yeah. Right. But we are to ignore his own published (right here in Stereophile!) words. That's just me "projecting". Got it.

re: "You don't like or appreciate what Stereophile does, please stop reading the magazine."

Gee, can I get you a crying towel?

What "Stereophile does" is proclaim that various mega-expensive DACs, cables, etc, possess sonic attributes not possessed by standard items (that meet the required specs for the job at hand). But it flat refuses to validate any of its claims with what JGH plainly stated were "the kind of basic honesty controls (double-blind testing, for example) that had legitimized every other serious scientific endeavor since Pascal." Then, your poor feathers are ruffled when questioned about this nonsense. Cry me a river. You recommend gear that cost more than most folks make in a year, but whine when asked to justify it, scientifically. Audio reproduction is, after all, science -- not magic. Oh, that darn icky science stuff!

As noted, I was reading Stereophile before you ever got here, and I'll be reading it -- and holding its feet to the fire -- long after you've gone the way of the eight-track cartridge. After all, someone has to hold up the legacy of JGH around here!

ChrisS's picture

Hey sixtyniner!

Still going on about DBT...when nobody else is?

Where is the Calvary of Truth?

Where are your Minions of Science?

Just you?

Oh, dear.

Must be lonely.

ChrisS's picture

Hey sixtyniner, again!

Did you know you were paying John Atkinson's salary each time you buy a copy of Stereophile?

How comical is that?!

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