Bricasti Design M1 DAC
Digital Inputs: Asynchronous USB Audio Class 2.0 : Up to 24bit, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz; DSD 64 ; XLR (AES/EBU), BNC (SPDIF/Clock), RCA (SPDIF) all supporting sample rates 44.1, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192 kHz. Toslink optical connector.
Output: 1 Pair RCA (Unbalanced) and 1 Pair XLR Balanced
Dimensions (H x W x D): 2.5 inches X 17 inches X 12 inches
Weight: 12 pounds
Availability: Authorized Dealers
The M1 DAC is built by Bricasti Design, a small private Massachusetts company that was founded in 2004 by Brian Zolner and Casey Dowdell ; both ex-Harman Specially Group employees. Brian previously worked for 20 years with Lexicon where he ultimately became VP of worldwide sales. Casey also worked for Lexicon as a dsp software engineer and helped develop the algorithm for the surround processing Lexicon Logic 7 that was able to distribute multi-channel sound on two-channel media. It should come as no surprise that the first product offered by Bricasti Design was the M7 Stereo Reverb Processor. The M7, introduced in 2007, is now used by many top recording engineers and studios. The M1 DAC was introduced in 2011; its development made possible from the financial success of the M7.
Brian and Casey were able to take advantage of their previous professional relationships formed with the engineers and designers from the Madrigal Labs in New Haven Ct. Madrigal Labs was well known for the Mark Levinson brand of high end audio electronics. Madrigal Labs was closed in 2003 and moved by its owner, Harman International Industries, to the Lexicon facility in Bedford, MA. A small number of the Madrigal Labs employees that left Harman International formed a new development company called Aevee Labs in New Haven, CT. These employees had been very influential in the development of previous Madrigal-Levinson products. Bricasti Design enlisted the talents of these highly experienced designers in the development of the M1 DAC.
While the M1 appeals to the professional market, there is no doubt that this product has its origins rooted in high end audio. All of the case sections of the front, rear, sides, top and bottom panels are milled from solid aluminum blocks by Bricasti’s own CNC milling machines. Even the button caps, knobs and remote are milled in-house. The design of the M1 is reminiscent of the Madrigal Labs Mark Levinson components with its black anodized aluminum / grey colored top and selectors. Brian told me that he wanted the M1 to be rigid with a solid base for a good amount of density to resist vibration and provide thermal stability. He also told me that anodized aluminum has very good thermal characteristics and also provides thermal stability that is very important for the optimal performance of the clocks over time.
The M1 is a dual mono design with 2 completely isolated channels with their own dedicated linear power supply, D/A converter, DDS clocking, and analog circuitry. The analog circuit boards are made from Arlon 25N, a material that is typically used in RF applications as it has very good high frequency dielectric properties. These expensive printed circuit boards are made in San Jose, CA with build out and assembly done by Bricasti in MA. My former preamp, a Levinson No. 32, utilized Arlon circuit boards.
Stereo ADI 1955 D/A converters are employed in a mono configuration with Femto precision clocks used for each channel done directly at each DAC with a technique called DDS (direct digital synthesis) to reduce jitter to extremely low levels. Precise clock synchronization of the left and right boards is handled by a Sharc DSP on the main digital processing board.
The front panel controls work with the same precision as exemplified by the gorgeous case work.
There are six oval selectors on the front panel that allow selection of the status display with a 5 level menu. The input and sample rate, digital over tracking display, internal temperature monitor, and a phase invert control. The rotary knob works with the function selectors to control volume, inputs, and filter selections.
The input selector, besides allowing one to select the appropriate input, also offers an AUTO selection for automatic detection of the input plugged into the DAC.
The Display button allows selection of 3 brightness levels and a sleep or off mode.
The Filter button allows for 9 different types of Linear Phase digital over sampling filters labeled Linear 0-8 with 6 Minimum Phase filters labeled Minimum 0-5. By simply pressing the filter button, the rotary control will allow rapid changes of the filters for easy sonic comparisons. The M1 uses delta sigma 8 X over sampling conversion. 3 DSD filters labeled 0, 1 and 2 are also delivered with the M1
A Digital level control is provided that allows one to eliminate the need for a separate preamp. Pressing the Level control enables one to cut the level in 1 db steps with the rotary control. Press the level again, and the DAC is muted; a third pressing of the Level button un-mutes the DAC.
The Enter button selects values offered in the other menus.
A Standby button reduces power consumption from 24 watts to 6 watts in standby mode. A full power on and off rocker switch is accessible from the rear of the DAC.
The 6 button and rotary control functions are accessible from the solid milled aluminum remote. The response of the remote is very fast allowing rapid sonic comparisons of the different filters. The remote has a separate receiver with its own power supply that connects to the back of the M1.
An Asynchronous USB input that supports up to 24 bit 192kHz as well as DSD support is provided by the M1. The M1 uses the native OSX USB driver and supplies a Windows driver for support up to 192kHz/24 bit playback.
Other digital inputs found on the M1 are XLR; AES/EBU 24 bit Single Wire, BNC: SPDIF/Clock, and RCA: SPDIF all supporting up to 192kHz. A Toslink optical connector is also supplied.
The M1 has both single end and true balanced outputs each separately buffered and isolated. An additional feature for the balanced outputs is a set screw gain adjustment found on the back of the M1 that is adjustable from +8 to +22 dbm.
A Trigger input is available to remotely place the M1 in standby from a preamp or other system controller like the Remote provided.
I did try the volume control by connecting the M1 directly to my Ayre MX-R amps with balanced cables. While I did have good results, I felt the sound was better when the M1 was connected to my Ayre KX-R preamp.
Components and Software Used In This Review
OSX Mavericks 10.91 using Pure Music, Audirvana Plus, and JRiver Media Center 19 for OSX that all have integer capability if this feature is supported by the DAC. I was pleased to see that the Bricasti M1 supported native integer playback using the native OSX USB drivers. Much of my listening was also done with Windows 8.1 Pro 64 running under Boot Camp. JRiver Media Center 19 was combined with the excellent JPlay 5.2. JPlay recently updated their software to the 5.2 version that has proven to be a genuine enhancement over the previous 5.1 version. I used the Alternative 5.2 version for its excellent soundstage and focus as well as its low end definition.
Computer Used: Early 2011 MacBook Pro 2.3 GHz Quad Core i7, 16 GB RAM, Samsung 840 Pro SSD, Boot Camp Windows 8.1 Pro 64, Promise Pegasus Thunderbolt Drive 8TB, GRAID 8TB Thunderbolt Drives. For USB cables, my best results were had with both the Light Harmonic LightSpeed and Synergistic Research Active SE cables. AC cables used with the M1 were the standard AC cable supplied as well as the Synergistic Research Element C.T.S. Digital AC cord. 2 Synergistic Research Tranquility Bases and Thunderbolt Active SE cables all driven by the Transporter Ultra SE. Power conditioning was provided by the Synergistic Research PowerCell 10 SE MK III. Interconnects used with the M1 were the Synergistic Research Tesla Apex LE single end and Revelation Audio Labs Paradise balanced interconnect.
Getting the DAC Setup Spot-on
I have seen numerous comments about DACs at different web sites with conclusions that simply don’t match my experiences. Perhaps differences in physical setup are influencing these results. During this review, I tried a number of isolation bases and isolation devices most of which try to shunt vibration from the component to the base. I have the Synergistic Research Tranquility Base with their MIG feet, Symposium Acoustics Ultra Platform with Rollerblocks with Grade 3 Superballs, and BDR the Source platforms with BDR cones. I was able to get the best sound from the Bricasti M1 with the Synergistic Research Tranquility Base with MIGS underneath the Base and Symposium Rollerblocks with Grade 3 Superballs under the DAC. This setup is a bit rough on the pocketbook given that the MIGS are $150 for a set of 3 and the Rollerblocks with Grade 3 Superballs are $599. But this optimum combination resulted in the most relaxed musically appealing midrange with well-defined bass, largest soundstage, and most open resolving high end. The standard MIG setup with the Tranquility Base was very good and definitely a big improvement over the M1’s stock feet, but the Rollerblocsk with Grade 3 Superballs put the sound over-the-top with my system.
Bricasti Design chose not to use the filters that came with the ADI 1955 D/A converters, but decided that superior sound would result from the use of their own filters. I asked Brian Zolner to comment on the M1’s filter selection:
“When we first released the M1 we started with the more typical linear phase ones. We next implemented the minimum phase, and in hind sight, we should have gone straight for the minimum phase. I now prefer Min 0 which is actually the best performing one with the lowest ripple, greatest amount of attenuation, and most bandwidth, so a real brick wall filter at 44.1. They are all mirrored so Linear #0 has the same spec as Min 0, so you can directly compare the difference of the linear type construction and minimum on all the filters. The manual has a chart to compare them in terms of pass band, stop band and attenuation. “USB Isolation:
I asked Brian if the USB input is isolated from the analog portion of the DAC:
“The USB section is electrically isolated from the computer so any noise from the computer power supply will not enter to the M1’s power. I have found that any improvements made in the PC power supply will improve USB performance as the power source in the PC is typically from a switch mode supply. When I do critical listening I run my laptop off the batteries.”Single Ended Output VS Balanced Output on the M1
Brian was asked if he had a preference for the single ended or balanced output on the M1:
“For the outputs, I don’t have a preference. They measure exactly the same for noise and distortion etc. They are separately buffered so the balanced is a true balanced discreet output buffer and the unbalanced, designed as an unbalanced buffer, so you can drive 2 different devices at the same time. I think it is more about what your amp or preamp has for inputs vs which one might sound better, and of course, interconnects will change things too, so it really hard to say which is better. The balanced has gain adjust which is unique so it can be reference level matched. There is a school of thought that single ended is better but I prefer the concept of balanced lines. With balanced, for best performance, both ends need to be truly balanced and many products are not. I find in all cases that using the M1 as a line pre to be the ideal way to use it. The M1 can drive any amp and yields best transparency of sound and the best very low bass response when driving an amp directly.”DSD Implementation in the M1
Brian’s response to my question concerning DSD implementation in the M1:
“The M1 uses a multi bit delta sigma converter, the ADI 1955, where DSD is converted to a multi bit format to accurately reconstruct the data. But, rather than use the limited prepackaged processing of the 1955 for this process, and as we did with our PCM reconstruction anti-aliasing filters, we do the DSD processing in our ADI Sharc DSP; reconstructed with greater accuracy and implementing our own post filters. As a result, we found an improved sonic performance over the standard ADI implementation in the part.”Sonic Impressions
The selection of the best sounding filter was my first task. I preferred the Minimum Phase filters over the Linear Phase filters. I had reached this conclusion prior to receiving Brian’s preferences. While the Minimum Phase 0 filter sounded very good in my system, I also liked the Minimum Phase 2 as it had a little bigger soundstage. The Minimum Phase filters were more relaxed and natural sounding to me. Remember, there is no absolute best filter and your system’s sound characteristics might just result in different preferences than mine. The Remote control made it easy to go back and forth between different filter selections and finding a system preference.
Stunning Transient Response
The Bricasti Design M1’s most obvious and special characteristic was its stunning reproduction of transient information with PCM files. DSD file reproduction was also very good, but I will have more to comment on this latter. The excellent transient reproduction made the M1 one of the most resolving and detailed DACs I have yet auditioned. Soundstage reproduction was enhanced to the point that listening to many of my old familiar recordings seemed like a totally new experience. Focus of voices and instruments were among the best and, quite frankly, possibly the best I have ever come across. Bass reproduction was not only tight, but very impactful with wonderful dynamic punch and drive. The exceptional macro and micro dynamic qualities of this DAC did not come at the expense of bloom or dimensionality. The Bricasti Design M1 is harmonically rich and reminiscent of the older Levinson amps, but without the darkness or warmth that was characteristic of these amps. Background noise was non-existent with a jet-black sonic background.
The Bricasti made Cassandra Wilson’s New Moon Daughter 24/192 (HDtracks) come to life. This album has a strong deep bass line that can overwhelm the midrange with some loss of focus of Wilson’s voice. The M1 reproduced the bass with a deep visceral grip that was impactful but not overwhelming. Wilson’s voice and the guitar were open and airy sounding.
The Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau Espana (24/192 Acousence Classics from Linn Studio Masters ) was one of the "new experiences" I previously mentioned. The M1 unraveled the orchestral instruments and soundstage better than any other DAC I have used to play this recording. The air and bloom around the instruments was simply wonderful with a rich timbre and texture. Listening to the track "Espana" with the M1 seemed to allow every little instrumental nuance to be revealed without a trace of hardness. The soundstage was richly layered and very life-like with a tube-like bloom and dimensionality.
James Taylor’s One Man Band 16/44.1 sounded terrific with the M1. The cut "Shower the People" has a chorus that was reproduced without image smearing and floated behind James Taylor’s voice. The M1 was able to retain the focus of Taylor’s voice with the concurrent singing of the chorus.
I truly enjoyed listening to DSD files played with the M1. The M1 originally came with one DSD filter that did sound very nice, but I thought was a little polite. Brian then sent me an update that loaded 3 DSD filters into the M1. I felt that 2 of these new filters significantly elevated the DSD performance and made it far more musically engaging. The 0 filter had the most presence and detail. Moving to the 1 filter slightly softened the presence but increased the soundstage width. My general preference was for the number 1 filter. Filter 2 was the smoothest sounding, but less detailed than the other 2 DSD filters.
I asked Brian for a description of the 3 DSD filters:
“In the new line up, filter 0 has no post filter, and this will allow any ultrasonic noise to pass. There are products like early SACD players that do not have a post filter, and some products give the choice of not having one, so I thought this might be a good option to offer as well. There is a belief that the noise would be filtered by other things in the chain, and is in effect benign, but this raises the question of the need to have a post filter or not and the possible negative effects of the filter vs the noise. We created this option to let the user decide. Filter2 is the same as you had before in the first release. The filter starts at 28k (pass band ) and ends (full attenuation or stop band) at 48k, so good attenuation of noise takes place. Technically this is a very good filter for bandwidth and noise removal which is why I chose it for the first release. Filter 1 starts at 32k and ends at 64k, so there is less attenuation of the noise, a gentler one, so a compromise filter.”I played my ripped SACD of the RCA Living Stereo Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra Bolero. Listening to "La Valse" was a real treat with the explosive dynamic reproduction of this recording along with the beautiful golden burnished strings of the orchestra. The warmth and rich tonal palette was portrayed in a very realistic manner with the M1 while retaining the forward presentation of this recording.
Hugh Masekela’s DSD album Hope (dsf files from Acoustic Sounds) was reproduced with great rhythm and drive. Mesekela’s trumpet had the "bite" of the real thing with wonderful presence and focus. DSD playback with its richness of sound made this recording come to life for me.
Jenna Mammina with John R. Burr (dsf files from Blue Coast Records) sounded better to me played through the Bricasti M1 than any other DSD capable DAC I have heard. With filter 1, a slight bit of hardness in Jenna’s voice was eliminated resulting in excellent midrange ease to the sound of her voice.
PCM VS DSD
The Bricasti M1 has made the general differences in sound between well recorded PCM and DSD 64 more obvious to me. While I am an enthusiastic proponent of DSD, I find that most titles are somewhat softer and less defined at the high end when compared to hi-res PCM. The transient detail and ultimate resolution possible with PCM is just not there with DSD 64. But the general lack of hardness and midrange richness of DSD does make it a desirable audiophile format to many listeners. The M1 is able to reproduce well recorded hi-res PCM with detail and a high end finesse that I simply don’t hear with DSD 64. But I found myself often unconsciously preferring to play music from my DSD library, so I would not take my comments on this comparison in any way as a negative pronouncement on DSD.
Comparison of the M1 with the MSB Technology Analog DAC
The Analog DAC/ Analog Power Base has a more laid-back presentation than the Bricasti M1. The soundstage of the Analog DAC is slightly wider and deeper. The Bricasti has a more detailed presentation in PCM with superior resolution of the acoustic space of the recording. This should not come as a big surprise as the voicing of the Analog DAC was specifically designed for a sound that avoided digital hardness. I don’t find the M1 to be a hard or harsh sounding DAC, but I will go out on a limb and say for complex musical programs, the M1 is more revealing with a greater sense of resolution for well recorded PCM material when compared to the Analog DAC. But many will find the sonic purity and liquidity of the Analog DAC to be irresistible.
Both DACs do a very good job with DSD files with the Analog DAC having a larger soundstage with a slightly fuller bass. Both DACs seem to have a similar positioning of voices in the soundstage playing DSD files. The 3 DSD filters of the Bricasti M1 do allow one to fine tune the DSD playback to one’s particular system and sonic taste.
A Top Ranked DAC
The Bricasti Design M1 DAC belongs in my top ranking of DACs that I have had the pleasure to review. Its high level of transparency was easily heard in my system along with its superb transient and resolving capabilities. I now understand why the M1 is used by a number of professional mastering engineers given its revealing qualities. Bricasti Design has paid considerable attention to every design aspect of the M1. The Bricasti Design M1’s capability to deliver a harmonically rich musical experience with the ability to capture subtle nuances of a performance will make this DAC highly desirable to the high end computer audiophile.