Musical Fidelity V90-DAC D/A processor John Atkinson
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 Auralicbut 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.
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