MSB Technology The Analog DAC
Input: Asynchronous USB Audio Class 2.0 384 kHz / 32, DSD 64 and 128 ; XLR connector for S/PDIF AES/EBU, Pro I2s for Signature Data CD transport, MSB Network for Data CD and UMT, Optical-Toslink and Coax Inputs The $6,995 price comes with 1 input. The others are provided as modules at an additional cost. The unit tested had USB, MSB Network ($995), S/PDIF Coax / Toslink ($995), Volume Control ($995) Total Price for The Analog DAC tested: $9980
Output: RCA (single-ended) or XLR Balanced
Dimensions: (H x W x D): 1” plus feet X 17.5” X 13” MSB Desktop Power Supply: (H x W x D: 2.25” X 6.5” X 9”
Weight: 28 pounds
Availability: Authorized Dealers
Price: $6,995 including dual toroid low noise power supply and one input of choice, plus upgraded inputs and optional Analog Power Base.
Platinum Data CD IV Transport
Device Type: Transport using MSB Network for CDs and Disc with WAV files up to 384kHz.
Input: Disc transport
Output: MSB Network up 32/384kHz, XLR connector for S/PDIF AES/EBU. S/PDIF Optical and Coax
Dimensions (H x W x D): 2” plus feet X 17.5” X 12” Plus External Power Supply (H x W x D): 1.5” X 2.25” X 5”
Weight: 18 pounds
Availability: Authorized Dealers
General Description of The Analog DAC
The Analog DAC is MSB Technology’s newest DAC model that was designed to offer audiophiles a DAC that is analog-like in sound quality, but without the limitations of dynamics and distortion. As it just so happens, The Analog DAC is the least expensive of the DACs offered by MSB Technology, but offers a number of features found in their more expensive models.
MSB Technology was founded in 1986 with a primary focus on high end audio products. The company also offers contract research and product development. The MSB Technology products are designed and built in-house in California and with help from a team of specialized local California vendors. The DAC modules used in MSB Technology DACs are not off-the-shelf products, but are custom built discrete ladder 32-bit 384kHz DACs built with the highest precision resistors made in the world today according to MSB. The resistor network used in MSB ladder DAC modules is faster than 5 MHz and has a noise floor of 160db. The digital filters used are in-house and have an 80-bit resolution. Data is reclocked with the Femto 140 Second Clock Technology found in the more expensive DAC IV plus line.
This extremely low jitter is optimized in The Analog DAC to offer time performance similar to the basic three models of the DAC IV plus line, but not what the DAC IV plus can do with the Galaxy Femtosecond Clock upgrade. It is this optimization of jitter reduction combined with the high precision DAC modules, optimized digital filters, and other proprietary processes that result in less digital hardness and loss of focus that helps to create an analog-type natural sound. But if comparing The Analog DAC with the DAC IV plus series with the optional Galaxy Clock, a higher degree of accuracy and precision can be achieved than that achieved with The Analog DAC.
The ladder DAC modules used in The Analog DAC are specifically made for this model, and are closer to the modules used in the Signature Platinum DAC IV plus. But the big difference between The Analog DAC and the DAC IV plus line is that there are only 2 modules in the Analog DAC. The DAC IV plus line offers 4 modules that allow natively balanced outputs. The Analog DAC does have balanced outputs, but these may not be as good sounding as the single end outputs as a result of this cost-cutting design decision. It should also be pointed out that The Analog DAC motherboard components cannot be upgraded like the DAC IV plus models but MSB points out that the DAC modules, Femto Clock technology and firmware platform, already provide extreme precision trickled down from the Platinum IV Plus series. Like the DAC IV Plus series, the Analog DAC was designed to be firmware upgradable providing a “new DAC” with every firmware upgrade. The all important digital inputs can be upgraded for future protocols or formats that might include something like USB 3 or Thunderbolt.
The beautiful sleek aluminum case contributes to the analog-like sound by being milled from solid aluminum plate with the actual DAC components potted into the plate for perfect temperature uniformity, long life, and excellent noise isolation.
The Desktop Power Supply that comes with The Analog DAC is not an inexpensive switching supply, but a pretty hefty linear power supply built with 2 transformers and four stages of regulation.
A high quality analog stepped attenuator is offered as a $995 upgrade for volume control that eliminates the need for a preamp in most systems. The volume control offers a display that shows the input and the sample rate / DSD, as well as a central button for input selection.
The Analog DAC comes with a choice of one input with additional inputs that can be purchased at the time of the order or at a later date. The volume control must be purchased at the time the DAC is built and cannot be added later on. The USB Module is the newest of MSB Technology’s USB Modules that can handle 32-bit 384kHz music and is opto-isolated to eliminate computer noise from contaminating the DAC. This USB Module will output native DSD 64x and 128x files using the DSD over PCM protocol (DoP). All of the S/PIDF inputs that can be purchased are capable of handling 384kHz 24-bit. The proprietary MSB Network input can handle 384kHz / 32-bit.
A remote is provided that controls volume, mute, and input switching. An optional aluminum remote is available that also adds control of phase, reclocking on or off, and display on or off.
Finally, there is an option for a system controller via RS-232 or Direct access via the internet. The Wi-Fi internet access module upgrade at $995 offers control features with an iPad/iPhone/iPod app. This feature set offers:
- Volume Control
- Input switching
- Phase invert
- Reclocking on/off (for use with video)
- Display brightness
- Digital filter selection
- Ground connect (default is isolated)
- Technical settings such as level and dither
An Early 2011 MacBook Pro (Mtn. Lion) 2.3GHz i7 Quad Core; 16 GB RAM, Samsung 840 Pro 256GB SSD for the OS; Promise Pegasus Thunderbolt Drive and GRAID Thunderbolt Drive for the music library; Synergistic Research Thunderbolt Active SE cable with Galileo MPC. Synergistic Research Tranquility Base with Galileo MPC for the computer.
A Synergistic Research Tranquility Base / MIG feet with Galileo MPC was used as a base for The Analog DAC. I also tested the DAC without the base.
USB Cables: Audioquest Diamond, Synergistic Research USB Active SE, and Wireworld Platinum Starlight.
Music Software: Audirvana Plus and Pure Music with OSX 10.83. Windows 8 with JRiver Media Center 18 and JPlay 5.1.
Platinum Data CD IV Transport
Vince Galbo, national sales manager at MSB Technology, sent this transport with The Analog DAC, as he felt that the Platinum Data CD IV Transport may outperform my computer-based music solution. MSB prefers that customers evaluate an MSB DAC using one of their own known sources like the Data CD Transport. Unlike the expensive CD/SACD/DVD-A single read in real time transports utilized in other players, the Platinum Data CD IV Transport uses a user replaceable optical ROM reader with the data read from the disc in a bit-perfect condition. This drive is used like the drive in your computer; it will read the disc multiple times as necessary to get an accurate read and sends this data to an intelligent buffer memory. The stored musical data from the transport is then played back to the DAC with perfect timing and extremely low jitter using the MSB proprietary clocking technology and MSB Network connection.
The Platinum Data CD IV Transport not only reads CDs, but also high resolution audio .WAV files up to 384 kHz / 32-bit from CDs and DVDs like the HRx Reference Recordings discs.
First Sonic Impressions of the Analog DAC with the Platinum CD IV Transport
I began listening to CD quality files with Audirvana Plus in Direct Mode / Integer. I put on Fourplay Reach for the Sky and was quite impressed with the sound. The Analog DAC is very neutral sounding with excellent control of the bass. Images are placed slightly back into the soundstage which is quite wide and deep. The sound is very relaxed and does not add presence or brightness to the sound. The DAC is very dynamic with good impact to the bass. I then played Reference Recordings HRx Eije Oue Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances 176.4/24. The soundstage was very wide and deep. In fact, this DAC has some of the best depth I have heard: similar to the Light Harmonic Da Vinci DAC I reviewed this year (see review). The Analog DAC did a marvelous job in recreating the acoustic space of this recording.
Now it was time to listen to the same recordings with the Platinum CD IV Transport. To my surprise, the sound was clearer and better focused with the CD IV and the soundstage opened up in width and depth. I couldn’t believe the differences I was hearing. The Rachmaninoff HRx recording was simply amazing with the huge soundstage and enhanced depth I was hearing. But also the focus and imaging within the acoustic space was better defined. My computer transport sounded a little blurred and not as fast with a slight thickening of the bass. The soundstage reproduced by my computer simply did not compare to the CD IV. This really bugged me and set me on the path to see if I could improve the sound of my computer transport.
I began listening to the 3 high quality USB cables I had and found that I could get closer to the CD IV sound with the Synergistic Research Active USB cable with the Silver Enigma Tuning Circuit and the Galileo MPC. I then added the Synergistic Research Tranquility Base with Galileo MPC, and things improved again. I changed to Silver Enigma Tuning Circuit on the Synergistic Research Thunderbolt Active SE cable with the Galileo MPC for the Promise Pegasus Drive. I turned off the infrared remote, OSX auto update feature in Mtn. Lion, as well as the Bluetooth and Spotlight for the Pegasus. After all of this, I was closer to the sound of the CD IV, but still not there.
During my evaluation of The Analog DAC, Apple released the Mountain Lion 10.83 update that now supported Boot Camp for Windows 8. I installed Windows 8 Pro 64 bit and JRiver Media Center 18 for Windows. I then began playing with the program JPlay 5.1. After much fussing with the JPlay settings and Windows JPlay registry settings, I hit pay dirt. I was now very close to the CD IV sound.
Listening with Windows 8 Pro 64 bit / JRiver Media Center 18 / JPlay 5.1
MSB Technology claims that The Analog DAC converts digital music data with such a high degree of precision that the previously well-known digital harshness is now revealed to be just an artifact of poor digital conversion. The company feels that the truthful musical information relative to the densest harmonics has always been there including 16/44.1 Redbook recordings. I decided to play The Classic Records DAD of the soundtrack Glory (96/24). The opening track has a boys’ choir that on the peaks can be hard sounding. The Analog DAC sailed through this track without harshness or glare. The only other DAC I have heard that had as little digital glare or hardness was the far more expensive Light Harmonic Da Vinci.
Playing more complex orchestral/ choral pieces resulted in the same lack of grain and digital irritation. The massive sounding Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with Antoni Wit; Warsaw Philharmonic and Choir 96/24 played with good definition and resolution of the complex panoply of different vocal choirs and orchestra.
Wycliffe Gordon’s Dreams of New Orleans 192/24 is a Chesky Binaural+ recording of a New Orleans style jazz band that would be a good test to see if The Analog DAC smoothed things out too much and robbed the brass of their natural characteristic loudness and bite. The Analog DAC played this recording with outstanding dynamic reproduction of the band with no softening or compression of the brass sound.
One of my long-time favorite LPs is the Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall: 1963. I have the original Vanguard pressing and numerous reissues including the Classic Records 45-rpm series release. I remember that there was a slight brightness to some of the singers in the original vinyl. I wanted to see how the Classic Records DAD 96/24 compared to the 45-rpm with The Analog DAC. More specifically, I wanted to see if The Analog DAC reproduced this slight brightness or did it over-smooth the sound. The Analog DAC reproduced the massive soundstage with excellent reproduction of the acoustics of the hall. The singers were well focused in the black acoustic space, and yes, the original tonality was not glossed-over by the Analog DAC. The Analog DAC did a magnificent job reproducing Pete Seeger singing along with the audience in "Ramblin’ Boy". The magic of the 45 rpm record was also found in the 96/24 files played with The Analog DAC.
What really got my attention was when I played Carol Kidd Tell Me Once Again (Linn Records) 192/24. Carol sings with a nylon string guitar played by Nigel Clark in this recording. Not only was the background dead silent, but the detail and intimacy of the guitar and voice were stunning. What really made my head spin was that MSB Technology has DACs that offer even more detail and resolution, albeit at a higher price of admission.
Native DSD Playback
The Analog DAC supports the playback of native DSD 64 and 128 files over USB. As you might have guessed, I was a rabid record collector in another life. I have the complete vinyl RCA Living Stereo collection in my Vault. I remember a wonderful recording LSC 1984 of Munch with the BSO titled Bolero. This 1958 recording had a superb high end that was closely miked and somewhat reminiscent of the early Mercury Living Presence recordings. The dynamics of this recording are considerable and should be played back without sounding hard or strident. I was interested to see how The Analog DAC would handle the ripped SACD of this recording in native DSD 64 playback.
The Analog DAC not only captured the excellent dynamics and large acoustic space of the original LP, but also the slight brightness of the original. The Analog DAC seemed totally relaxed with this recording while remaining true to the original sound. The DAC did not color over the slight brightness of the original LP. The sound was rich with great detail and quite transparent given the age of this recording.
I have listened to the Blue Coast Collection from Blue Coast Records many times, but have never heard it sound as good playing the native DSD files as I have with The Analog DAC. The outstanding naturalness and you-are-there quality of this recording really caught my attention. There was absolutely no hardness to the sound.
The Volume Control
I tested The Analog DAC volume control with a single ended input to my amps. The volume control used on the Analog DAC is extremely high quality and did sound very good. My amps prefer a balanced input, so I don’t have an absolute finding for you, but I don’t think many audiophiles will find fault with this feature save for those that have the best preamps.
The Analog Power Base
MSB Technology offers an upgrade to the excellent Desktop Power Supply. The Analog Power Base is a $2,995 upgrade that I hope to evaluate in the near future when it is available for review.
For those of us that have enjoyed this hobby over many years, there are a few products that come along in one’s audiophile life that leave a lasting impression on the listener. The Analog DAC is one of those products. It not only reproduces music with excellent detail and focus, but is one of the most natural sounding DACs I have ever heard. This DAC purges the digital artifacts that create listening fatigue and loss of interest in the music. While auditioning the Analog DAC, I also listened to other DACs at my house. In each case, I missed the beautiful bloom and ease that the Analog DAC puts out in spades. The soundstage was one of the best I have heard as was the ability of this DAC to unravel complex musical passages. Dynamic changes were well reproduced with a variety of music. I think that those of you that enjoy acoustic music, be it classical, jazz, or vocal, will simply love The Analog DAC. I know that I did.