Metrum Acoustics Musette
Input: 1x Toslink, 2x Coax S/PDIF, 1x USB
Output: 2x RCA
Dimensions (w x h x d): 190 x 60 x 245 mm
Weight: 2 kg
Availability: Authorized Dealers
Getting A NOS DAC
Let's agree up front that many Non-Oversampling (NOS) DACs do not perform well under certain test parameters. Aperture effect, which amounts to less than linear frequency response at the extremes, and less than ideal jitter performance (as typically measured) being the more egregious problems, on paper. We have to ask ourselves, why would anyone bother making a NOS DAC? The answer is some people really enjoy the way they sound.
Another aspect of the NOS DAC approach means there's no oversampling or digital filter employed. Egads! But that must mean...Think tradeoffs. Ryohei Kusunoki, the person credited for developing the NOS approach, points out that our ears are filters so any HF noise (>20kHz) passing through a NOS DAC unfiltered (as well as the rest of system, let along the air) will fall on deaf ears (not counting any filtering in the analog world taking place in your preamp, amp, and speakers). By tradeoffs, I'm referring to the fact that all digital filters create unwanted results that need to be dealt with so people like Ryohei Kusunoki and Cees Ruijtenberg accept less-than-perfect measured performance primarily in the frequency domain for what they claim to be much better performance in the time domain.
The Metrum Acoustics Musette is a NOS DAC, albeit of a slightly different stripe. One of the more intriguing differences lies in the DAC chips used in the Musette which are of Metrum's own design. Prior products, including the Metrum Hex (see review) used unnamed industrial DAC chips but Cees Ruijtenberg, the man behind Metrum, was looking for more from his new flagship DAC, the Pavane (review forthcoming). He found what he wanted, in part, by designing his own DAC chip. This technology has trickled down to the Musette.
The Musette employs two of the company's Transient R2R ladder Dac One modules, which can handle PCM resolutions up to 24-bit/384kHz (they can go higher, but there's no point at present). The USB receiver comes courtesy of M2TECH's hiFaceTWO that supports up to 384kHz over I²S. I asked Cees if he could tell us a bit more about the rest of the design:
Well it is a very straight forward design. As a matter of fact it is a follow up of the old Octave which was available since early 2010 (both MKI and MKII versions). The only complaint of the Octave was lack of digital inputs so we have added one coaxial extra. Next we have tried to keep the price almost the same (Euro 1033 ex VAT) like the Octave MKII version. Of course we use the Transient DAC modules as used in the Pavane but without any processing like the FPGA forward correction module. Still there is space to add the FPGA but for a different role. We created some algorithms in case of using headphones and gives you the feeling of listening to loudspeakers as it sounds in front of you. For several reasons we haven't launched this item yet as we are not finished with the algorithms and not having any idea about interest for this option. The outputs of the DACs are connected directly to the output and will be shorted for a while during starting up. Further I have spent a lot of time to get a very good separation of both channels which is about 100 dB over the entire frequency range. Due to this layout the noise levels are very low and better than 140 dB related to 2 Volt RMS.For more on Metrum's thoughts on the NOS approach, see their white paper.
Back to the module itself. As you probably know we are NOS believers and very hard to get these type of DACs except the old TDA1541/43. In the past we have used an industrial type of DAC without a FIR filter (Octave and Hex) but was limited in terms of speed. We think that one of the most important factors to get more sound quality is the availability fast electronics besides good linearity. As audio will be delivered in serial format (like I2S) you should create shift registers to feed the R2R ladder as this is a parallel process. So speed is mainly limited by the audio format itself but not due to the ladder as it can handle 10Mhz. The next step is buffering the output of the ladder by using fast electronics. In our case this buffer can handle 200 Mhz. So in case of the new product range the sound is mainly based on the properties of these new modules but can be improved by using balanced configurations or by using the approach as used in the Pavane by splitting the digital domain in two 12 bit ranges. So in case of the Musette it is quite straight forward, the module is directly connected to the output.
Inputs include Toslink, 2x Coax S/PDIF, and USB and finishing up the in's on the unit's backside is the IEC inlet for the included power cord. The Musette offers a single pair of single-ended RCA outputs. The Musette's front panel is very straight forward featuring separate push buttons for each input and the On/Standby button. The on/off switch proper is around back. The aluminum front panel comes in your choice of black or silver while the rest of the chassis is wrapped in black sheet metal. The Musette is relatively small, simple, and sturdy. No fuss, no muss.
The review setup saw the Musette connected via Auditorium 23 RCA's to my Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp driving the DeVore Fidelity Xs. Handling the front end was my MacBookPro running Roon tied to the Musette with an AudioQuest Diamond USB cable. For completists, I also used two Jitterbugs; one in-line with the USB cable and one in series in my Mac's unused USB port.
The Sound Of Music
It all depends on where your priorities lie. If everyone had the same tastes in music reproduction, we'd just need small, medium, and large hi-fi options. My sonic priorities are weighted heavily towards tone, dimension, definition, and liveliness. I want instruments to sound like what they are, clearly reproduced in space, with that spark of life that exists in the details. A seemingly simple task, yet in my experience every DAC delivers a differing mix of these elements with some overdoing things, especially in that last category, while under-doing others. The Metrum Musette hits on four cylinders to my ears.
From the moment I hit play for the very first time through the Musette, I heard a liveliness and incisiveness that caught my full attention. Coming off the Rega DAC-R (see review) when I first plugged the Musette in, the contrast was rather extreme; the DAC-R sounded sleepy in comparison. Truth be told, I ended up staying up very late that first night with the Musette, playing all manner of raucous music, The Birthday Party, Zeppelin, Hendrix, FKA twigs, War and more (and dancing my ass off around the barn). I had a party celebrating the Musette's way with my music.
For lack of a better way to put it, the Metrum Musette sounds like music with no bullshit added. Of course you can get more of the things it does well in other DACs, we'll be listening to Metrum's own more expensive Pavane soon, but it does the things it does very well and as I mentioned these happen to be important things to me. So yea, I really enjoyed listening to the Musette and could and did listen for long periods of time, over time; an ongoing party.
Music is at once delicate and full; if a DAC places too much emphasis on detail, this can come at the expense of body. The overall sound picture gets flatter and less lifelike. I find this to be the most annoying trait for digital reproduction because it also goes hand-in-hand with a lack of tone color. One sonic result is boom and tiss; all bass and treble with the overall sound picture sounding like a thin cutout. Or we go to the other extreme, where everything is dulled down, darkened, and smoky as if we took someone's mistaken ideas about what listening to LPs sound like and made a DAC to mimic bad analog.
Admittedly, things are getting better every day and in the Musette's price class; we have the excellent Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC (see review) and the PS Audio NuWave DSD DAC (review coming soon), to name just two very good performing DACs I have on hand. If we jump back to the first sentence of this section, "It all depends on where your priorities lie.", we get the answer to our question—which of these DACs is best?
On just the facts side, the Musette is a PCM-only DAC whereas the Mytek and PS Audio can handle DSD without converting it to 24/176.4 PCM (which you need to do in your media player software for the Musette). The Mytek adds a headphone output, digital and analog volume control, and a number of user-selectable digital filters. Both the Mytek and PS Audio offer balanced output. On the inside, things could not be more different in terms of the manner in which D is converter to A in these three fine sounding DACs.
If I were to whittle down the Musette's sound to one recognizable shape, I'd say direct. Listening to your music, any music, through the Musette has a lovely immediacy, a directness, which I find to be very musically engaging. The Mytek sounds in comparison more detailed, more resolute, and I'd imagine some listeners may find these qualities to veer away from their sense of natural. In my experience, system context and personal preference will sway these factors from good to not so good to great to bad. The more expensive Auralic Vega (see review) adds more air and dimension to the Musette's presentation, as well as a bit more resolution (and DSD capabilities). Again, I can see some people preferring the Musette's way with music finding that any more detail and resolution will distract from the qualities they are more interested in.
In the end we're talking about balance. Imagine a slider control, a kind of sophisticated EQ, that includes values like immediacy, detail, resolution, tone, space, etc. For my ears, Metrum has dialed the Musette in to the—music sounds like music—setting.
The NOS Thing
I also know some listeners simply like, love?, the NOS approach, in theory. Simple, direct, no nonsense. The Metrum Musette delivers this theory in music. Bravo!
Also in-use during the Musette review: Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC, PS Audio NuWave DSD DAC, Auralic Vega