Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC: Review

Having covered off on the fantastic KEF R300 bookshelf speakers and my wonderful Marantz integrated; naturally I wish to discuss how I arrived at my purchase of the Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC/PRE. I must forewarn you that the sum of my gear has played an essential role in ruling out major differences in DAC’s, thus compounding my difficulty in noting any true advancements due to DAC quality and or its internal components (costs being the obvious hurdle beyond a set benchmark)

From March of 2013 to May of 2014, my two channel system has undergone more changes and trials than I have ever taken on before. What started out as a pursuit to try out new loudspeakers turned into a full speaker and DAC swap out. I was looking forward to funding a substantial (to my tastes and finances) upgrade of my loudspeakers while sacrificing my DAC for the short term. I had sold my Monitor Audio RX8’s lickety split, and had also decided to part with my Eastern Electric Minimax Dac Plus. I had modified the EE Dac with Burson dual op amps and Dexa single op amps. There is no doubt that I could argue (or anyone else who has listened to my system), I had the best DAC in my system to date, and that I would be sorely hard pressed to improve upon the sound I was getting without further expenditures and diminishing returns. Inadvertently, and despite myself, this premise turned out wholly false.

In the audiophile world, there are conversations, comparisons and superlatives that belie belief. Furthermore, there are watch words such as system synergy, component matching and impendence tuning which to an outsider must appear ridiculous if not snobbish. After all, going to Costco or Walmart to buy a home theater in a box and DVD player requires no auditions or thought to component optimization. So, without ruining the end result of this article for you, I am a new convert to the belief of synergy, if not so much matching, given that I do not set out to buy matching brands or series.

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As the saying goes, man plans and God laughs, that was never more present when I put my down payment to start the build on my highly anticipated ZU Audio Omen Def’s with Clarity Cap upgrades. Four weeks into the waiting line, my daughter’s dental visit had altered my plans. The more than professional and generous folks at ZU refunded me my down payment and I was off to look for replacements minus dental fees. I had to lop off just over a grand from my budget, which didn’t put me much further than the original expense of my MA RX8’s, the money I made from selling my EE DAC would go toward a replacement. I was still willing to give ground in the DAC department, knowing I could easily change it next year. Therefore, I decided to start at the bottom of the price spectrum, I purchased for the second time a Audioquest Dragonfly while it was on winter clearance for $99 bucks.

For $99, I have absolutely zero complaints, it was head and shoulders above plugging my laptop directly into my Marantz, and actually, I was able to prove to my wife how huge the sound difference was from the EE DAC to no DAC, then to the AQ Dragonfly. Next I purchased a Halide HD USB powered DAC, but the east coast retailer I bought it from never bothered to tell me it would be several weeks before I could get it. By week five I was beyond irritated at having no ETA so I asked for them to send me the same priced HRT HD DAC they offer. The only difference in these bus powered units is the Halide has a nice Wireworld USB cable and decent IC’s built into it. The HRT started off with great promise until it emanated a terrible drop out squeal through my speakers at around the third hour of play. This happened several more times that day. I checked all my applications, made sure everything was talking and on the right settings and restarted my system several times. I think I was able to get a maximum of 5 hours of play before it did it again. The drop out when playing at moderate levels was alarming.

Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC
Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC | Source
Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC
Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC | Source
Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC
Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC | Source

Scouring the internet for clues, I had read that for some the new windows 8 program could cause bus powered anomalies with the USB line if the component depended on these meager 5V. That is too bad, when my system was going, the HRT sounded pretty good for its price point, expectedly punching well above the Dragonfly in terms sonic richness, soundstage and overall presentation. As is with everything in life, timing is multi-directional in benefit. While I wanted to pick up a clearance model Marantz NA7004 USB DAC network player, I missed the last one. What came up next…Music Direct was blowing out Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC’s for $800 of MSRP! What? Immediately I was looking for the catch. I began my usual search to other retailers carrying this item and none of them were offering such a deal. Was it a demo…no, was it refurbished…no. Music Direct offered them in silver or black to boot. Cautiously I pulled the trigger for a black one.

What arrived was very impressive; as my first Musical Fidelity product, the packaging was absolutely terrific at this price point. The top contained a nice little company letter of thanks, a software CD, manual and remote. Everything was pristine, no chance this was a refurb. With my Acer M5 running Windows 8 and JRiver Media v.19, I would need to go to Musical Fidelity’s website to download the latest driver application. No issues to report with the download, everything was running in minutes. This particular unit is different from the base M1 DAC in that it has the fluorescent display and can act as a digital preamp. Other than the aforementioned, the internals looked rather similar, save for the secondary board sporting the XMOS chipset in the SDAC; my skepticism crept back in.

The base M1 DAC retails for $799 and is a bonafide USB DAC with little tricks up its sleeve. The M1 SDAC at an original MSRP of $1,500 is a DAC/Preamp combo, yet one would be very hard pressed to discern where exactly that additional $700 is hiding? In actuality, the SDAC doesn’t have balanced outputs whereas the M1 does, so that at minimum equalizes the difference in the SDAC having a remote function. My modified Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Plus has a very impressive layout under the hood, including separate power supplies for digital and analogue stages. The internal power supply of the SDAC was for a lack of better terms, anemic (pictures supplied). Moreover, there was more discrete circuitry among the Burson and Dexa Op amps I had installed on my EE Minimax (okay maybe that was a low blow) and at a total modified price with Psvane 12UA7 tube, $100 below the retail of the SDAC. But…at $699 for a new clearance price, could I now hold all this against the SDAC?

Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC
Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC | Source

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Okay, I admit I am continuing to learn valuable lessons about audio gear, both in electrical circuitry and synergy. I am at a total loss as to how to compare the MF M1 SDAC against my EE Minimax since I only had the EE Minimax with my MA RX8 loudspeakers. I was very well versed in how that set up sounded, the level of decay, soundstage and depth I could come to expect. Now, with the KEF R300’s and my MF SDAC, I am at a loss to say this is no small improvement. In full disclosure, either these KEF R300 bookshelf’s are so damn good that they not only out play full range loudspeakers of equal cost, but they allow the MF SDAC to out shine the very well regarded and modified Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Plus! Of course I can only say that since I do not have the EE any longer to hook up to my R300’s. My only modification to the MF DAC is a 1.5m ZU audio BOK 11 gauge power cord. I can only rely on saying that synergy must be at work here.

For instance, Michele McLaughlin on her disc titled Out of the Darkness, the song Perseverance reveals both the softness of her right hand key notes as well as the hardness of the lower registers. I’ve never heard the strings bite like this, I can almost hear those hammers in each of their distinct strikes. The grip of the bass decay makes the hairs on my arm stand up. Some notes literally appear to carry on many seconds after first shot. I know that with my old RX8’s and EE Minimax, I had some decay, but it was very quick, hardly three seconds to inaudibility. Not with these boys! Forget talking about Fanfare for a Common Man! Are you kidding me, instrument placement and detail is ever enjoyable. I actually used to shy away from showcasing any large or commanding songs like this when I had listeners over, moreover I was well aware of my systems shortcomings on Classic music. Please let me clarify, given that I had $4K into the front end, those RX8’s couldn't flesh out horns very well, they could play Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4 very well, but add a row of horns and it would get jumbled and sound meshed together. Now, through the KEF’s R300’s, trumpets, french horns and clarinets are distinctive. You want Yo Yo Ma and the Goat Rodeo Sessions? Gut churning Cello, done! Where is all this resolution coming from? What exactly can I attribute it to? I have the same computer source and the same integrated, there is only a $50 price difference from the MA RX8 loudspeakers versus my stand mounted KEF R300’s (save for the stands). There is only a theoretical difference of a $100 dollars from the modified Minimax DAC Plus versus the retail of the MF SDAC. Therefor there should be little sonic difference outside the tradeoff of bookshelf speakers versus towers. For all my head scratching, there is an undeniable 15% more resolution to be had with this combination, prices being equal; this is a huge leap forward in SQ.

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Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC
Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC | Source
4 out of 5 stars from 4 ratings of Musical Fidelity Review

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Once more, for an actual paid price of $699 for the MF SDAC over the $499 HRT HD DAC streamer, the MF has nothing to worry about, the bus powered HRT cannot compete at this level. Price is an important and very subjective issue here. How about the preamp section of the MF working in conjunction with the preamp section of my Marantz integrated? After all, I cannot use the amp direct function of my Marantz and maintain my Subwoofer via the Marantz pre-out. I did fiddle a little bit with 90% volume adjustments one way and then the other. First I turned my Marantz up to just below the cutoff point of my maximum loudness tolerance, then proceeded to use the MF as the preamp via remote. When I switched it the opposite, turning the MF to 90% volume and using the Marantz for gain, I found I did prefer this combination, do not ask me why, there was a bit more nuance relying on the MF at near full gain; it must be adding a smidge of its own character.

Disclosing the other functions that I did not use, the MF comes with a Bluetooth receiver, a little detachable antenna that I did not hook up. I connect my Acer laptop directly to the MF via a one meter Oyaide NEO USB cable. From there Audioquest Colorado’s IC’s plug into the CD inputs of my Marantz integrated. The volume knob on the front center face of the MF can also be pushed in to toggle for inputs/sources. While the MF volume knob is digitally tracked like that of my Marantz, there is no comparison to the smoothness of the Marantz. One good reason for me to rely on the Marantz volume control, which is merely happen stance, is at a listening distance of eleven feet, I cannot read the volume meter on the MF, but I can just barely discern the Marantz.

You my dear reader must take all this with a grain of salt. I am not an audiophile who seeks absolute resolution and detail over musical continuity; if I were I would have found a pair of 101 db speakers and run silver connect wire from an amp with a signal to noise ratio north of 110 db. Nor am I of the mushy, mid-range only crowed. If I were, I would be playing an all tube amp, with all tube preamp to a pair of Harbeth’s (no thank you, not my cup of tea). I want as much as I can get from both camps, being neither too lean nor too bloated. 85% of my music collection are ripped CD’s in either FLAC or APE configuration. The rest come from iTunes or from Classics Online (which are terrific compared to iTunes).

Output
Output impedance 47 ohms
Output, digital 0dB level 2.2V R.M.S. nominal
DAC
DAC circuit 32 bit Delta-Sigma (bit stream) dual differential 64x over-sampling
with asynchronous up sampling on all inputs to 192 kHz
Total correlated jitter <12 picoseconds peak to peak Linearity <±0.1dB down to -96dB Frequency response <2 Hz to 90 kHz typically, -3dB (192 kHz input sample rate)
Channel separation >105dB 20 Hz to 20 kHz
Signal to noise >120dB “A”- wtd.
Total harmonic distortion <0.0012% 10Hz to 20 kHz
ADC 24 bit 96kHz Delta-Sigma (bit stream) 64x over-sampling
Connections
Line level inputs 2 pairs AUIX1, AUX2, line level RCA phono sockets, left and right
Digital inputs 1 XLR AES balanced digital in, 32-192 kbps (16-24 bit stereo PCM)
2 RCA coaxial SPDIF in, 32-192 kbps (16-24 bit stereo PCM)
1 TOSLINK optical in, 32-96 kbps (16-24 bit stereo PCM)
1 USB 2.0 in, type ‘B’ connector for computer/PDA/other “host”
16-24 bits, 32-192 kbps fully asynchronous
(Actual data determined by source file/computer software settings)
Bluetooth receiver Bluetooth specification v2.1 + EDR
aptX® 16 bit 44.1/48 kHz (dependant on connected device)
Carrier frequency 2.402 to 2.480 GHz ISM band
Transmission power -2dBm (min) to +2dBm (max)
Class 2 (up to 30M (90ft) dependant on connected device)
Receiver IF 1.5 MHz centre frequency
Antenna socket type RP-SMA
Antenna input impedance 50 ohms
Line level outputs 1 pair line level RCA (phono sockets), left and right
1 ¼” 6.25mm Stereo headphone Jack
Digital outputs 1 RCA coaxial SPDIF out, 32-192 kbps (16-24 bit stereo PCM)
1 TOSLINK optical out, 32-96 kbps (16-24 bit stereo PCM)
Trigger input 3.5mm (⅛”) mono jack ±4.5 to ±15V DC
Trigger output 3.5mm (⅛”) mono jack +12V DC
Power requirement
Mains voltages 90-250V AC 50/60Hz universal switching power supply
Consumption 10 Watts maximum
Weight
Unit only, unboxed 3.3 kg (7¼ lbs) In shipping carton & inc. accessories 4.8 kg (10½ lbs)
Dimensions
Wide 220 mm (8⅔ ”) High, including feet 100 mm (4 ”) Deep (front to back) including terminals & knob 310 mm (12¼ ”)
Standard accessories
Mains lead 10 Amp IEC
Antenna and detachable base with lead
Personal computer driver CD 192 kHz Asynchronous USB Audio support driver for Windows® XP, Vista and 7.

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