MSB Technology Link D/A converter Page 2

Feeding the digital output of the Alpha 9 into the MSB Link resulted in the smallest of differences: the performance with the Link seemed to emulate that of the Arcam Ring-DAC. Listening to the last movement of Shostakovich's Concerto 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings (Lisitsa, Caldwell, Ekaterinburg PO, Audiofon CD 72060), there was a slight reduction in bass potency and a barely discernible narrowing of the soundstage—two areas in which the Alpha 9 excels. Depth was slightly improved, but not to SFCD-1 (or Elgar) standards. HF detail, fore-and-aft placement of the soloists, and balance were similar, but the Alpha 9 was slightly more relaxed and forgiving, despite the forward placement of the trumpet. Also, the Link warmed the lower midrange, this discernible in the lower registers of male and female voice. The Alpha 9 seemed to be slightly better at distinguishing the inner voices in choruses and large ensembles.

Choosing between the Alpha 9 via its own DACs and via the Link came down to a matter of preference for me (and a matter of context for you): Is the Alpha 9's potent bass performance an advantage? With the G-500s, it could be a bit too much (but glorious nonetheless). With the Paradigm Esprits, it was just what the doctor ordered. The Link has a slightly mellower character, but was also a bit less lively in its spatial presentation. This may make it a better fit with smaller speakers. On the other hand, if you have an Alpha 9, why would you even consider hanging a DAC on the output?

The Link may be a more suitable mate for the less exalted Arcam players, and it certainly transformed into a swan the ugly-duckling Pioneer A310 DVD player. I've taken to carrying around the Burmester Demonstration Disc II CD as a convenient evaluation tool, and the A310/Link combination was satisfying on all the tracks, particularly Hans Theesink's gutsy "Call Me" and Paco de Lucia's vibrant "Live in America." Switching to the Chesky 24/96 demo, the A310/Link was streets ahead of the A310 alone in terms of midrange/treble balance and accuracy of human voices, even with the A310's compromised 48kHz digital output. No, it didn't become the equal of the Alpha 9 on CDs, or of the CL-20 on DVDs—but the Link made enough of an improvement to be almost obligatory for A310 owners.

The inexpensive 24/96 Link did a great job with all signals, yet was generally not preferred over the inbuilt DACs of the Arcam and CAL players...This leaves us with a dilemma: Is the word length or the sampling rate the more important parameter?

I believe that the higher sampling rate of the 24/96 discs underlies the "air" in the high frequencies, and the superb delineation of voices in real space, that are characteristic of DVD audio discs with various combinations and permutations of player and DAC. This was apparent on all the players, including the lowly Panasonic 310. In addition, playback at 24 bits via the dCS Elgar was generally indistinguishable from playback at 20 bits directly from the CL-20, and both were substantially better than that from the nominal 24/96 Panasonic. The S/N and dynamic range of the extra 4 bits that the Pioneer and the Elgar were supposed to be giving me were not realized through the analog portions of my system. After all, 24 bits of resolution implies a potential dynamic range of 144dB. If you assume that the music uses all 24 bits, accurate reproduction demands that the electronics have a signal/noise ratio of at least 144dB, and that the speakers have a similarly? linear dynamic range. Not bloody likely.

On the other hand, 96kHz sampling permits truly extended high-frequency response and the implementation of more gentle and distant anti-aliasing filters, but I can't say which of these is the more significant.

On standard "Red Book" CDs, with their limits of 16 bits and 44.1kHz sampling, all the combinations and permutations of player and DAC under test sounded pretty good. The MSB Link improved the performance of the Panasonic, bringing it to the edge of high-end consideration, although both are capable of the same bit rate and sampling frequency. Moving up to the Alpha 9, the CL-20, and the Elgar, my preferences seem to follow the hierarchy of pricing more faithfully than with 24/96 discs. I believe this is simply the result of more dollars buying engineering of lower noise and distortion in the digital and analog portions of the machinery...

The MSB Link, however, is a steal! As happened earlier in the digital age, with the Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box and the Assemblage DAC2, the Link redefines entry into high-quality digital sound and raises the bar for low-cost DACs. Its deficiencies were few, consisting of a little lower-midrange emphasis and a slightly forward presentation. And these were noted going face-to-face with quite pricey equipment. In view of its performance, cost, and compatibility with 24/96 sources, many CD players would benefit from being partnered with it, and every DVD-player deserves to be auditioned with it. No home should be without one.

MSB Technology
14251 Pescadero Road
La Honda, CA 94020
(650) 747-0400