MSB Technology Link D/A converter
Other elegant and expensive DACs with overachieving specs are being offered by the elite of the audio world. Like the dCS Elgar, they sport the fancy pricetags that permit no-holds-barred engineering. Can their blandishments be realized without mortgaging your home? To consider this prospect, I auditioned three interesting new products that will fit into many more budgets, the Arcam Alpha 9 CD player, the California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD player, and the MSB Technologies Link D/A processor.
MSB Technologies Link D/A converter: $349
MSB has been around for years, but with a low profile. They originally marketed, tweaked, and modified CD players, and lately have supplied OEM modifications for laserdisc players, satellite receivers, and DVD players. Within the past year they've applied their accumulated expertise to a new line of home-theater products, including an LD/CD player, a digital switcher (and jitter box), a combination Dolby Digital/DTS processor, and the remarkably low-priced Link (with 24/96 capability).
Considering the price, I was surprised to see a carton the size of family-sized pizza box, and more surprised when I hefted it. Inside I found a full-sized (17" wide) chassis that weighed more than the average CD player or preamp, even without the external power module. Across the front, eight LEDs indicate, from left to right, power (on), input source (optical or coax), and sampling frequency (32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, or 96kHz). The rear bears a DIN socket for the power module, RCA, and TosLink digital-input jacks, RCA left and right analog outputs, and a pair of RCA analog inputs for pass-through when there is no digital signal. The RCAs are substantial and gold-plated. There are no controls; consequently, the "instruction manual" is a single sheet of paper identifying the features and describing something of what's inside.
There I found a scrupulously clean PCB occupying about a third of the available floorspace. (Modifiers and tweakers take note!) It had multiple layers, with separate analog/digital ground planes and voltage regulators. The input receiver is the Crystal CS8414, and the oversampling filter and DAC are both included in the Burr-Brown PCM 1716E. This may not be the top of B-B's current line, but with 8x-oversampling, dynamic range/SN of 106dB, and 96kHz sampling-rate capability, it's formidable. The analog outputs are handled by Motorola MC33078s—fast, low-noise dual op-amp chips, one half of each working as a DC servo for the other half, thus eliminating the need for DC-blocking caps. The analog pass-though is simply a high-quality dual-channel relay.
Why is the Link so heavy? Well, the chassis panels are large and thick, and there's a weighty damping pad on the underside of the top panel. (Are you listening, Arcam?) Why is it so big? MSB has made it standard rack-panel size, and suitable as a base for your transport. They also plan to offer additional upgrades to fill the empty spaces.
I remember the original Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box. At the time, it improved the sound of all the players I had access to. Times have changed, standards have risen, and I have a different crop of players around. I connected the Link to my AA DDS•Pro transport, and we were off and running. The DDS•Pro has been connected to AA's DDE3 since its arrival, but the Link just blew the DDE3 away, even though the Link uses S/PDIF and the DDE3 is fed via the low-jitter I2S interface! Almost every aspect of reproduction was improved over the DDE3, but there was no way to ignore the big changes in the general harmonic richness and the size of the soundstage. In many ways, it recalled the effect of inserting the Camelot Uther v2.0 in the system, but the Link lacked the Uther's extremely detailed yet sweet HF.