Bricasti Design M1 D/A converter John Marks December 2014

John Marks returned to the Bricasti M1 in December 2014 (Vol.37 No.12):

In my third report on the Bricasti M1—a Follow-Up in the July 2013 issue—I wrote: "If Stereophile has covered another product that has received as many upgrades in as brief a time as Bricasti's M1 DAC ([$9000]), I missed it." Since then, Bricasti has stayed on their path of "continuous innovation." I think it praiseworthy that all of Bricasti's M1 upgrades have been made available to owners of earlier models at reasonable cost or no cost at all. Not one Bricasti DAC has ever been rendered obsolete by a newer model.

When I told someone with an electronics-engineering background about the M1's many upgrades, he asked, "Why didn't they get it right the first time?" I think there are two valid responses to that.

First, digital audio is a moving target, in terms of both formats and interfaces. Three years ago, there wasn't much demand for DSD-ready DACs because there was a near-total lack of program material in that format available to consumers. (The DoP Open Standard protocol to send DSD data in PCM packets over a USB connection did not appear until 2012.) Three years ago, DXD (352.8kHz PCM) was a professional-only format supported by only one maker of professional gear.

I also suspect that, while it is a commercial necessity for Bricasti to offer DSD playback, such necessity is driven more by audio anxiety (and curiosity) than by anyone's having a huge library of DSD downloads to listen to. The bottom line is that a company must be sure that a new format will not end up in Finland, in The Graveyard of Audio Formats that Never Caught On (be sure to visit the obelisk memorializing the Elcaset). Furthermore, it takes time and money to develop format and interface implementations. So, that addresses why the first-generation Bricasti M1s did not have USB, DSD, or DXD.

As far as tweaky little changes to things like power supplies, I applaud a company that displays a lack of complacency. Bricasti's Brian Zolner is a true audiophile and, in a way, almost a DIY hobbyist. Many amateur loudspeaker designers have learned that a more expensive "boutique" capacitor might not sound as good in a particular crossover design as a less-expensive generic capacitor. In my first report on the M1, in the August 2011 "The Fifth Element" Zolner explained that, after Bricasti had built a working prototype of the DAC, they spent two years in further development. He chuckled as he described having bags full of capacitors and resistors to swap in and out, always making his final choices by listening first, and only then measuring.

Some of the upgrades are counterintuitive. The change from a digital to an analog power supply for housekeeping functions, described in my July 2013 Follow-Up, by conventional wisdom should not have affected the sound: after all, what was being powered was not an audio circuit. However, the difference was clearly audible.

It's not that Bricasti didn't get it right the first time, but that while they began with a great design, they're still willing to push it ahead along the path of continuous improvement (on their website, Bricasti calls this "Continuous Innovation"). And they have the business ethics and the shrewd good sense to treat their customers well.

Since that 2013 Follow-Up, Bricasti has continued to ponder and experiment on power-related details. They've upgraded a critical wiring harness to OCC copper, and, in what Zolner claims is a far more significant change, have replaced the multiple glass-and-wire fuses protecting various circuit stages with a master circuit breaker on the rear panel. The latter came about because, out of curiosity, Zolner removed and bypassed all the fuses in a unit he was experimenting on, and the audible improvement was, he says, dramatic. He suspects that the fuse elements were vibrating, and that, as a result, the music was suffering—but admits that he can't prove this.

The changeover to the master circuit breaker must be done at the factory. That and replacing the wiring harness together cost $150.

The previous change to an analog power supply had resulted in tighter bass and a cleaner sound overall, but listening to these latest power-supply upgrades, the effects were both more subtle in magnitude, and more difficult to characterize. I don't think it was so much a matter of a change in the essential nature of the sound as simply a lowering of the M1's already low noise floor. In the event that John Atkinson measures the upgraded M1, I will be extremely curious to see if there are any differences from his earlier readings.

Although Bricasti has for some time offered a remote control for the M1, only recently did I have a chance to use it. The remote-control kit is a $500 upgrade if bought to be used with an earlier model, but is included in the current price of $9000 for a new unit. Adding remote control requires that the M1's operating software be v.1.06 or higher (the current version is 1.21). The remote measures 4.25" long by 2.25" wide by 0.6" thick, is milled from solid aluminum, and is anodized black to match the M1's case. The remote has a very solid feel; four feet of clear, soft plastic on its back keep it from scratching surfaces.

At the top of the remote are four brushed-metal buttons labeled Input, Filter, Status, and Level (volume). Below those are two buttons, for Up and Down. Pressing the Level button again when Level has already been selected puts the M1 in Mute. The remote can't rouse the M1 from Standby; you must press the front-panel Standby button for that.

The remote works through a separate infrared receiver unit that connects by a 3.5mm TRS cable to the 12V trigger port on the M1's rear panel. This receiver, also milled from aluminum billet, is powered by a plug-in 5V DC transformer. One claimed advantage of the arrangement is that it permits remote control when the M1 itself is not in a line of sight with the listening position. The supplied TRS cable is 3' long. If a longer run is required, such cables are easily available, from sources such as Markertek, in lengths up to 100'. (The claimed maximum operational distance for the remote control is 40'.)

Because Bricasti's remote control works by the receiver's sending a pulse code to the M1's rear-panel 12V trigger jack, the M1 should be controllable by most whole-house automation systems, such as Crestron's. Bricasti will provide its remote-control codes on request, and—as is not the case with the remote handset—use of those codes in a home-automation system will allow the M1 to be remotely awakened from Standby.

The remote control worked. What more can you say, really? I did find it convenient to switch filters and adjust the volume from the listening position. I stayed with Minimum Phase Filter "0" as my default.

Depending on the unit's age, upgrading the M1 to DXD and to DSD64/DSD128, is accomplished by upgrades of its hardware and software, or of only its software, all of which must be done at the factory. In either case, the price is $400 (all prices exclusive of shipping or return shipping). DSD64 via DoP is available on any input; DSD128 via DoP and DXD are available only on USB (because S/PDIF and AES top out at 192kHz).

I used a generic 10' USB printer cable to connect my iMac to the M1's USB port. I used Amarra, Channel D's Pure Music, and JRiver's Media Center to play a selection of DXD and DSD files from "HiRes Download—test bench," Norwegian record label 2L's webpage of free demonstration downloads—as well as DSD files from Channel Classics Records.

To the great surprise of exactly no one, the DSD files sounded great, including a rip that Brian Zolner made for me of the DSD layer of MoFi's fabulous monophonic remastering of Frank Sinatra's classic 1957 weepie, Where Are You? (SACD/CD, Capitol/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CMFSA2109).

What did slightly surprise me was that the DXD file of Tor Espen Aspaas's recording of Beethoven's Piano Sonata 32, Op.111 (SACD/CD, 2L 2L49SACD), which I recommended in December 2009, sounded noticeably more vivid than the DSD file. However, I could have been misled by a level imbalance in favor of the DXD file—or the format conversion from PCM to DSD may have caused some slight degradation.

At the end of the day, music is more important to me than sound quality. I've been listening to the remastering of Joseph Szigeti's epic 1955–56 set of J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (2 mono CDs, Vanguard Classics OVC 8021/2). I recall a review some time ago that gave this set one star while pronouncing it "unlistenable."

I beg to differ. Yes, Szigeti's tone in 1956, nearly 50 years after his debut recording, in 1908, was, to a degree, astringent and grainy; furthermore, unlike the best mono recordings from the 1950s, these definitely sound dated. Leave all that aside. Szigeti's conception of these works, in my opinion, has never been surpassed, and his technique was certainly adequate to convey his ideas and to set up deep spiritual and emotional resonances. Through the M1, these performances were riveting as never before.

In the last analysis, I think the fact that Bricasti's M1 can now play DSD and DXD files is less important than the fact that its playback of plain old "Red Book" 16-bit/44.1kHz audio is so compelling that I, for one, don't feel shortchanged when a good recording is not "high-resolution." Once again, my personal best in digital playback just got better.—John Marks

Erranti's picture

Hi there John,

Thanks for another informative and thorough review. I've turned to computer audio, or as it is also called, desktop audio. This is mainly to economize space and of course money. I have recently acquired a pair of Beyerdynamic T1s to upgrade from my AKG K702s, and I would also like to find a good headphone amplifier that can deliver what it takes to make these 600Ohm babies sound their best. 

I have been doing some online window shopping and research, and I have come across at least 4 very intersting Amps that according to their specs could do a very good job with the T1s, and which have still to be featured at Stereophile. Two of them feature DA converters that also have impressive specs.

The first candidates are German made Violectric V100 and V200, which can be obtained with built-in 16/48 or 24/96 DA converters via USB. Violectric also features a standalone DAC, the V800, which is a very versatile unit with some really serious specs. They are all very fairly priced and fabulously well built, and only with German components and labor.

The second candidate is both a headphone Amp and pre-amplifier. It's Headamp's GS-1, which is also a very well built Amp with great specs and fully manufactured in the US.

The third candidate is the D2 DAC -and also headphone amplifier- by Anedio, which features some really fantastically good and detailed specs.

I have read your reviews of Benchmark Media's USB DAC1 Pre, Grace Design's m903 and CEntrance's Dacmini CX, which are all great products, but I would still love to see any of these other components, which also feature great specs and appear to equal or challenge the DAC 1, m903 and Dacmini CX's performance.

In the case that these components are not within near future review plans, I would still appreciate any impressions you could have on them. Thanks in advance for your help,



Dan Moroboshi's picture

Dear JA,

since you reviewed this wonderful product of audio engineering, Bricasti releases an update extensive to the existing products which includes USB asynchronous interface and digital level control.

I would like to suggest a follow up using this USB interface and maybe measurements on this one.