Equipment Reviews – MSB Technology Discrete DAC
Today I have the pleasure of reviewing a new DAC to the Nintronics portfolio from MSB Technologies. Here is my take their entry level DAC.
The system was used at home during the second lockdown via the Michi P5 Pre-Amp and M8 Monobloc Power Amps feeding Marten Mingus Quintet speakers. Cabling was mostly by Jorma. Sources were the Innuos Zenith digital transport / streamer with the matching USB Re-Clocker via the DAC’s USB input and also a CD Transport connected with a digital RCA cable from Nordost.
Technology - MSB Technology products are designed and manufactured in the American Silicon Valley and use their in-house designed Ladder DAC Technology based on their Prime DAC Modules operating in fully balanced mode, in this case using a pair of these DAC Modules. MSB stands for Most Significant Bit and they have been making Ladder DAC’s since 1999. Well executed Ladder DAC’s are expensive to design and manufacture, hence the entry level price for an MSB DAC.
The MSB Discrete DAC also Incorporates in-house designed twin clocks to maximise audio conversion and reduce jitter. One clock is reserved for the 44.1kHz family of signals and one for the 48kHz family or multiples thereof.
This is a complex user customisable modular DAC and as standard comes with a single RCA digital input, twin Toslink optical inputs, a single XLR input and a Word-Sync connection. A single free-standing external power supply feeding both the analogue and digital sides is included as standard. A good quality remote is also included. There are many modules available and the Discrete DAC can accept two at any one time. Probably the two most commonly specified by customers will be the USB and Renderer modules and both were fitted to the unit for this review. XLR analogue only outputs are included as standard with RCA outputs being optional. There are no analogue inputs and no headphone connection. This is a DAC, pure and simple. The case is milled from a single block of aluminium and the rubberised spiked screw in feet are excellent. It is best connected to your pre-amp with the standard balanced XLR analogue outputs.
Going up the MSB range their more expensive DAC’s offer 3 or 4 modular inputs and will accept 4 or 8 DAC Modules.
The DAC is a Roon Endpoint which supports MQA decoding and 32 bit up to 768kHz, 384 via USB and also supports DSD playback.
The review sample came with twin freestanding power supplies and both the USB and Renderer modules were installed.
· Discrete DAC with single Power Supply - £9,950.00
· Additional Power Supply - £1,450.00
· USB Module - £1,980.00
· Renderer Module - £1,950.00
· Other Modules – POA
· Price as tested - £15,330.00
Before going into more detail, it’s safe to say this is a remarkable DAC giving all the audio performance you would expect when making a financial commitment at this level. The manufacturer suggests around 100 hours run in time and at the time of review the DAC had around 60 -70 hours use so it should get a little better as time goes on. I only tried the DAC as a pure DAC and did not try it acting as a pre-amp using the built-in volume control.
Performance via USB input – during all listening sessions Roon was used as a controller/library making play requests to my Innuos Zenith Streamer/Server and USB Reclocker to serve music to the MSB on-board USB Module and then to its DAC for conversion to analogue for output to the external Michi P5 Pre-Amp. No upsampling was used prior to the DAC.
As I have found from previous equipment reviews Streaming is still not quite up with CD in terms of detail, clarity and sheer musical involvement but it is getting closer all the time and no more so than with this DAC rendering the stream from Tidal, Qobuz or from CD’s ripped to the Innuos.
To start I wanted to see how the MSB DAC handled bass and chose a track one of our customers played recently, ‘Confessions’ by “Alesso”, this is dynamic electro-pop at its best and the MSB handled it with aplomb, generating probably the best bass I have heard from my home system.
Moving on to vocals I tried the original recording of ‘Sweet Old World’ from 1992 by Lucinda Williams and it sparkled through the MSB Discrete DAC. Vocals, fiddle and percussion have never sounded better. Guitars and vocal were in the room with me. This DAC is a little brighter and darker than I am used to but not too bright or too dark, just the right balance I found allowing me to hear right into the mix with much more clarity than I am used to. Analogue lovers will fall in love all over again with this DAC.
I listened to ‘Snow’ by “Angus and Julia Stone” and was taken by the immense soundstage and the clarity of vocals and harmonising between them. You would think they were lovers not siblings. ‘You and Your Friend’ from Dire Straits “On Every Street” was dynamic, engrossing and entertaining and as good as I have every heard it at home.
Performance via RCA Digital Input from a CD Transport – The sound became a little more 3 dimensional with slightly more emotional connection with the music. I played ‘Come on Come On’ by Mary-Chapin Carpenter and again there was more separation and involvement when she was joined by Joe Diffie and they were both signing in harmony.
Playing Equinox Infinity by JMJ on CD produced clear punchy bass with outstanding clarity for the entire mix.
One Power Supply or Two – The Discrete DAC comes with one half-width exceptionally well-built DAC that powers both the analogue and digital circuits. I tried this briefly but adding a second power supply (at additional cost) makes for a much better presentation. One power supply feeds the analogue circuits and the other the digital, Interestingly the one powering the analogue side runs much warmer than the digital one. It is possible to run the Discrete DAC from the full width Premier Powerbase designed to run with the more expensive Premier DAC.
If you are lucky enough to purchase this DAC please give it time to settle in your system as it takes time to grow on you. It also takes a good few hours to warm up after switch on, I just left it powered up. I also preferred it set to the high rather than low signal output level.
Whichever source I used I found this to be an exceptional DAC and I now wonder what DAC’s further up the MSB range can add to musical involvement and enjoyment. I could easily live with this DAC at home where it led me to some very long and enjoyable listening sessions. To parody Deep Purple ‘everything sounded better than everything else’. Anyone lucky enough to be in a position to buy this DAC is clearly dedicated to their hobby and they won’t be disappointed. It offers excellent audio performance, and I am sorry to have to return it to the showroom.
I did find a few niggles when using this DAC”
· The Display – Only supports a 3-character display. Sure, you can see it from the bottom of the garden, but it mostly spends it’s time just telling you which input you have selected, which of course you already know having just selected it. It only briefly gives you other data such as 44.1kHz or 96kHz incoming bit rate.
· User Interface – Because the display is so limited it makes the user interface more difficult and I was never really sure whether or not I had selected something or not, almost to a disastrous outcome (see volume control below).
· Renderer Module – Why do some manufactures insist on putting the Ethernet/LAN connection upside down? In my mind the Ethernet terminal should have the release push clip on the top when inserted making it easier to release. This is not normally much of a problem on most equipment but here the Renderer module has a locking bar on the underside that protrudes from the case right below the LAN connection and this makes it impossible to get a finger under it to release the terminal connector. I had to insert a thin bar under it to push the release catch up before it would let me disconnect it. I didn’t try that again.
· Volume Control – I read all the advice about making sure the volume was set low when enabling the DAC’s volume control. I thought I had this right and connected it direct to my power amps and nearly blew the speakers drive units across the room
when it came on at full volume. Clearly this was my fault, but the user interface as described above with just 3 characters makes it difficult to get right. Fortunately, the speakers survived but I didn’t try that again either.
· Case Finish – Our sample is in black, but it doesn’t have a normal brushed aluminium anodised finish. Instead it has a sort of soft matt Nextel type of finish (remember that from the 70’s) which marks easily. Not permanent marks, they can be removed easily, but still not to my liking. Hopefully the silver versions won’t have this problem. The power supply boxes have a much better anodised finished and don’t have this problem.
Notwithstanding any of the above this was the first piece of equipment I have had at home that my wife commented on actually looking and sounding good. Build quality is astounding.
I hope that those of you taking the time to read my lengthy reviews have found it interesting. Please contact us to listen to this and other equipment in our three dedicated listening rooms.
Thanks for listening.
Bob at Team Nintronics – November 2020.