MSB Link DAC III D/A converter
I fell in love with the original Link DAC, as was obvious from my review in the January 1999 Stereophile. I said that "the Link redefines entry into high-quality digital sound," as it provided excellent sound and 24-bit/96kHz conversion for the remarkably low price of $349. It is as firmly ensconced in Class C of "Recommended Components" as it is in my weekend system, where it tames the digital signals from my DMX receiver and my trusty old Pioneer PD-7100 CD player.
Since that review appeared, everyone seems to have gotten on the Link bandwagon, even as the price has inched up to a still-remarkable $399 for the Link III. The Link II rearranged the circuit and afforded some opportunities for onsite upgrades. The Link III continues this process by providing for user-installable enhancements, including upsampling (with rates of up to 132kHz!), HDCD decoding ($199), virtual 3D Surround Sound ($149), and, in the near future, the ability to handle 192kHz-sampled signals, one of the standards for DVD-Audio. On paper, this makes the seemingly modest Link III as prodigiously potent as any DAC on the market.
Not content to rest on their technical laurels, MSB has also revealed a deep-set tweako streak. The Full Nelson version—named after Carol Nelson, the MSB sales rep who arranged to get the mod into production—transforms the unpretentious Link III with wholesale component swaps that preempt much of what the cottage-industry modifiers do for a living. The major effort is put into the analog stages, including using 2% Wima PP caps in the output filters, 75-ohm low-inductance Caddock ceramic resistors, and ultra-high-speed AD827 precision op-amps. Signal-path resistors are replaced with Roderstein 1% helical metal-film resistors, and the internal PS rails are upped from 8V to 12V. Finally, an AES/EBU digital input replaces the TosLink of the stock Link III.
The Half Nelson version ($385) includes all of the above enhancements except for the AES/EBU input. Unlike the user-installable options referred to above and below, the Full Nelson and Half Nelson upgrades are done only at the MSB factory.
In addition to the $485 Full Nelson treatment, my review sample of the Link III came supplied with the Upsampling Option, plus, as the icing on the cake, a large and optional external power supply. Although it has the same footprint as the Link III, MSB's $299 P1000 Power Base significantly outweighs the DAC.
A fully tricked-out Full Nelson Link III with P1000 Power Base seems to be as far as MSB's imagination can push the basic circuit. Beyond this, MSB offers full-credit trade-ins of the Link III against their admittedly non-budget, multiple-D/A-processor Gold and Platinum DACs.
The Full Nelson Link III arrived in the now-familiar pizza box looking very much like its predecessors. A new LED on the front indicates the potential for 192kHz sampling, while another, labeled Option, indicates the presence of an HDCD signal (full brightness) or the selection of upsampling (half brightness), if these options are installed. A new toggle switch on the back selects Normal or Upsampling operation, and an XLR connector for AES/EBU input replaces the TosLink jack.
Basic setup and operation are as simple as possible: Connect an input or two, connect the outputs, plug in the power supply of your choice, and power up. There's auto-switching of inputs and no power switch, so the Link III is always ready to go.
My experience of the Link III just out of the box was fine, but MSB insisted that the upsampling daughterboard be returned for a revision. This gave me an early excuse to open the chassis and see that the original Link's clean, compact layout has been retained, with lots of internal space left for other add-ons that MSB might think up. It also confirmed the presence of the fancy parts that are the basis of the Nelson upgrades: Because many of the upgraded parts are larger than the standard ones they replace, the overall appearance of the board is not as tidy as on the No Nelson versions. (My only cavil is at the flying leads for the rear-panel switch.) The daughterboard came back from the factory in a week, was installed without problems.