MSB Technology Analog DAC D/A converter and Analog Power Base power supply Page 2

In his e-mail, Galbo had said this about the updates: "Because the MSB DAC modules are not format specific and can convert any format, now and in the future, such firmware updates make our DACs 'all new' in any way we choose. As an example, late last year we enabled DSD 64x and 128x in all MSB DACs, even though the DAC was never specifically designed for DSD." Cool.

Serious Listening
First things first: I wanted to establish the proper volume setting for listening and all of my comparisons. John Atkinson had recently sent me Benchmark's new, highly regarded DAC2 HGC, which has a volume knob on the front, as well as the ability to operate, via a fixed output level, with a preamp. To make sure I was listening to all DACs at the same level, whether compared through the preamp or connected directly to my amps, I ran the pink-noise track from Stereophile's Test CD 2 (Stereophile STPH004-2) and found that the Analog DAC needed to be set at "–3" to match the DAC2 HGC at fixed output, and the MSB at "–2" to match my older Benchmark DAC1 USB, which was also on hand and is a tad louder than the DAC2 HGC.

That out of the way, I spent over a month using the MSB as my main DAC, driven by the Meridian Sooloos, by computer, or by MSB's own Universal Media Transport plus. I applied the MSB updates mentioned above and commenced serious listening.


I began with the Bee Gees. No, not those albums—I grabbed the ones before disco, when the band was a serious Beatles clone (which qualifies several of their songs for my ever-expanding "Not the Beatles" playlist of Beatles sound-alikes). The first half-dozen or so albums, from 1966 to 1971, were well recorded, packed with great tunes, and most have been reissued with extra tracks.

Starting with the standout song "Massachusetts," from the Horizontal CD, the Analog DAC placed everything in space perfectly, with a nice, rich bottom end and a nonaggressive midrange. One thing I love about good, honest transfers of these older albums is that you get the sound of the minor recording artifacts pretty much intact—back then, they couldn't just edit, filter, and EQ everything to perfection. The result is that, with a DAC like the MSB, you get a sense of someone hitting Play on a big reel of wide-track analog tape, after being fed by live mikes in a room.

Other DACs that have been able to re-create this sense of "thereness" include the MSB's bigger Diamond brother and Ayre Acoustics' original QB-9 (unfortunately equipped only with USB). When I added MSB's Universal Media Transport plus to the mix, that "thereness" notched up a nanotad. I could easily live with the sound from the Sooloos, but the UMT+, via the MSB Pro I2S, put the Analog DAC in the best possible light.

Against the Benchmark
I moved on to some other great, early Bee Gees cuts, and brought the new Benchmark DAC2 HGC out for head-to-head comparisons. From the Bee Gees' 1st (Reprise), from 1967 (actually their third LP, if you count the Australia-only releases), "Holiday" and "To Love Somebody" are semi-lost gems of the era, complete with full orchestral arrangements—when I swapped in the Benchmark DAC2 HGC, everything lost a bit of focus. The top-to-bottom balance felt right, but Barry and Robin Gibb's melancholic voices didn't sound as solid as with the MSB.


A more recent release—Midlake's latest, Antiphon (ATO)—features thick slabs of guitar and fabulous vocal harmonies, but it's a tangled recording. Though it couldn't entirely unravel the mass of sound, the MSB again better separated all the parts and anchored them all down, compared to either Benchmark. The older Benchmark DAC1 USB, in particular, had a tougher time with the album's title track, adding a slight gloss to the voices.

Finally, a guilty pleasure (as if the Bee Gees weren't enough): Lorde's Pure Heroine (CD, Virgin 3751900). I didn't connect with this album at first, but after Corrina had played "Royals" a half-dozen times (and I watched Puddles the Clown's version on YouTube), I wanted to hear it again. And again. Tired of audiophile female-voice lounge-jazz Krall demos? Here's a rich female voice with a subtle electronic backing track that will test your system from top to bottom.

Corrina sat in the sweet spot as I played "Royals" through both DACs (Analog DAC and DAC2 HGC), back and forth, twice. She didn't know which DAC was which, but commented that the second DAC sounded a bit "bigger," the first one "more focused." "I prefer the first one," she finally stated. The first one was the MSB, and she was exactly right. The Benchmark produced a greater sense of ambient space, but Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O'Connor's voice floated more cohesively between the speakers with the MSB. The Benchmark was slightly more ghostlike in this regard.

Conclusion and Au Revoir
I started to write up more musical examples, but realized I was just repeating myself. Every comparison with the DACs mentioned above, and a handful of others that passed through my system in the past several months, yielded the same results: a more focused sound with the MSB, coupled with the ability to match the best qualities of any other DAC in the hot seat. There was simply more there there.

I was sad to have to send another MSB DAC to JA's Brooklyn lab for testing. It notched my system up to a place where almost all digital sources had an organic, natural presence without sacrificing the accuracy and detail present in the best recordings—no small feat. Fully decked out, the price came to a bit under $12,000, which is not cheap by any measure except other MSB products. I'm seriously considering how to swing the basic model with no volume control, one input, and Basic Desktop power supply (can be upgraded later), for $6995. You should too.

MSB Technology Corporation
625 Main Street
Watsonville, CA 95076
(831) 662-2800

iosiP's picture

I would have preferred a comparison between the balanced/unbalanced outputs, and also one between the MSB set to output a fixed level (and using a pre) and the same using a variable level.

I think the main questions the potential buyer faces are if the DAC volume control is good enough to get rid of a good preamp ("good", as in a pre usually included in systems that can take benefit of a $7,000+ DAC) and which trade-off is better if the rest of the system is fully balanced: using the "native" SE outputs or the "artificial" XLR outputs.

Also, since I have never listened to the DACs used for comparison (and even do not know how their price compares to that of the MSB), the only valid information I could gather is from the Measurements page!

Sorry for being candid but I really expected more than a nice rant about Bee Gees and tiny buttons with a green/red glow. 

HeadMania's picture

This is my favorite DAC until now. I've never tested / reviewed another dac to sound as natural and still with an incredible amount of detail within a very holographic / 3d sound presentation.

These being said, I managed to buy one for myself. I have tested the single ended outputs vs the balanced outputs ( with Audio GD Master 9) and I think that the single ended outputs are better overall with more detail, focus, better instrument separation, etc. This is a dac that excels on single ended, as it really is a single ended DAC. The balanced outpus adds some other circuitry that takes away from the transparency of the sound, to transform the single ended to balanced. However, I am not sure that balanced design is better than single ended design. I've heard absolutely superb single ended dacs which sounded much better than some balanced dacs. I think that it depends mostly on the matching and each component in the system.

So the main problem will be with the amplifiers you use, as some of them are of balanced design, and might sound better on balanced inputs than on the single ended ones.

navr's picture

All major amplifier brands moved to balanced designs. Does this mean the buyer must invest in XLR input? And what are the repercussions if not?