Musical Fidelity M1 DAC (the newer one)
Input: (2) S/PDIF (Coax, Toslink), Async USB, AES Balanced
Output: (1) pair RCA, (1) pair XLR Balanced
Dimensions: 220mm W x 100mm H x 200mm D (8 /23" x 4" x 12")
Weight: 3.4kg (7 1/2 lbs)
Availability: Online and through Authorized Dealers
Price: $749.00 black, $819.00 silver
Code Name: M1 DAC-A (for Asynchronous)
The Musical Fidelity M1 DAC under review today is not the same Musical Fidelity M1 DAC that's been around since June/July 2010. This one is new and improved as of a November 2011 street date namely adding an Asynchronous USB input capable of handling 24-bit/96kHz data and adding $50 to its price tag (the old M1 DAC's adaptive USB input was limited to 16/48). There are also some minor changes to the choke-filtered power supply but for those users who skip the USB input, the M1 DAC is very nearly its old self. For those people looking for a 24/96 Async USB DAC, this M1 may as well be all new.
The M1 DAC is also of the upsampling variety meaning it takes every incoming signal and converts it to 24-bit/192kHz using a Texas Instruments Burr-Brown SRC4392 sample rate converter before handing off to a pair of Texas Instruments Burr-Brown DSD1796 D/A chips in dual-differential mode. While upsampling is nothing new, I thought it worth a brief explanation so I sent John R. Quick of Tempo Distribution, the exclusive North American importer for Musical Fidelity and others, an email asking for a brief executive overview of their reasons for upsampling:
The process of translating an analog waveform into digital data and then back again causes unwanted images, or copies if you will, of the original analog waveform to appear that are shifted up in frequency. The true technical term for these artifacts are Nyquist images, but for simplicity sake we might broadly call this a distortion, or noise. All digital conversion suffers this- both in ADC and DAC processes, and upsampling is one tool that’s used to minimize its ill effects.
The upsampling process uses buffers and mathematical processes to step the incoming signal up to a higher sample frequency, thus shifting the noise to a frequency that is much higher than that of the audio band, and therefore easier to filter without doing as much damage to the original signal.
In addition there is another feature utilized in this process by Musical Fidelity, and that is reclocking of the data. Because the data is being temporarily put into a buffer and re-packeted during the upsampling process, it can be (and in the M1DAC’s case, is) slaved to a more accurate master clock source inside the DAC, thereby ensuring there is virtually no jitter imparted to the signal from the input buffer to the DAC chipset itself.
At the end of the day, and everywhere else, for the music listener what really matters is the practical outcome, i.e. how does it sound. But before we get there let's cover the rest of the nuts and bolts. The font-panel of the M1 DAC shows the incoming sample rate through a series of blue LEDs; 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz and 192kHz (those familiar with the old version of the M1 DAC will notice the absence of the 32kHz LED indicator and my guess is no one will miss it). No I didn't miss another one—176.4kHz has been left out and the reason being the graphic designer felt it superfluous. I'm kidding. According to Musical Fidelity the M1 DAC can handle 176.4kHz data but I was unable to verify this because a) I used the USB input which is limited to 24/96 and b) I also used the Toslink output of my MacBook Pro which is itself limited to 24/96 as is the M1 DAC's TosLink input. The only way to pass sample rates higher than 96kHz into the M1 DAC is via its Balanced or Coax inputs.
There's also a set of vertically stacked blue LEDs over a push button switch that allows you to select your input and the corresponding LED lights up when it syncs with an incoming signal. To finish off the front panel, there's a matching push button power switch and an "“UPSAMPLING at 192kHz" indicator that lights green when in-use which is all the time its passing a signal.
Around back you'll see all of the inputs and outputs as well as an IEC receptacle so you could, in theory, try different power cords with the M1 DAC if you are so inclined. I wasn't so my listening is based on the stock power cord. Overall I like the look and feel of the M1 DAC and would say that it looks and sounds all of its $749 price tag and then some. In fact I had to remind myself throughout my listening sessions that the M1 DAC did not cost more. Which doesn't necessarily mean much since you may have a different internal price to performance scale. Mine was pretty much consistently pegged at "Wow, this a lot of goodness for the money".
No Shimmying Sherlock, An Aside
I feel compelled to point out that this new Async USB version of the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC follows hot on the heels of the original and you can see from the photo of the rear-end view of the review sample that its production date is "JUL 2011". Which makes me wonder - if I had purchased an M1 DAC prior to November of 2011 and I was interested in Async USB at 24/96 instead of adaptive-mode USB at 16/44 - if I wouldn't feel somewhat neglected by this no-named upgrade (queue music from High Plains Drifter).
And now back to our regularly scheduled program.
Those Things I Heard
The Musical Fidelity M1 DAC is easy to listen to and just as easy to like. I'd characterize its overall presentation as being on the taught ("toight like a tiger" for Goldmember fans) and resolute side. I'd also suggest that this perception varies somewhat depending on the input: Toslink seems to favor attack or edges over harmonic density whereas USB adds back some weight with less edge. Overall, music is presented in a convincingly portrayed stage with a very distinct separation of sonic elements regardless of size or complexity of source material. The M1s ability to unravel musical complexities is a pleasure to partake in and perhaps one of its most compelling features. Things sound clean, lively and as snappy as the music demands. There's never a sense of sonic grunge or a lack of dynamic rigor. Music moves.
Just for fun, I played a few CDs through my old Oppo OPVD971H player both direct to the Leben CS-300XS as well as through its coax output into and out of the M1 DAC. The Oppo solo made everything sound smaller. Solo piano sounded nearly toy-like as compared to every input/output version presented by the M1 DAC. Using the Oppo's Coax output through the M1 DAC returned more body (and soul) to the music but it still sounded a bit sloppy as compared to the ripped versions. I also listened to the Coax input with files sourced from my MacBook Pro using the Musical Fidelity V-Link and while I do not see this added device and expense as a realistic option, it did serve to show that I again preferred ripped music to spinning disc.
My preferences in terms of listening to the M1 DAC were very nearly a toss-up between USB and Toslink the latter having a slightly more appealing edge while the former added a bit more weight and resonance. I bet some would describe the Toslink input as being more accurate. I wouldn't necessarily since the presentation that grabs you most is by my definition the most accurate.
In terms of other presentations, I compared the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC to the Wavelength Proton 24/96 USB DAC ($900). The Wavelength Proton added more perceived body overall and a larger sense of scale and drama which also came with a slight darkening of the overall sonic picture. The M1 DAC sounds more incisive and snappy in comparison, especially via Toslink, and which presentation one prefers is a question of personal preference and system synergy. At least as far as I'm concerned. If I had to point out an aspect of the M1's performance that veered from my sonic wish list, I'd say that there was something about the way it handled some upper frequency information via that Toslink input that struck me as a bit forced.
In particular I was listening to Marie-Luise Hinrichs supremely lovely piano rendition of Padre Antonio Soler's Sonatas [EMI Classics 7243 5 56940 2 7] and I noticed that the further up her right hand played, the more mechanical the piano's notes sounded. By mechanical I mean that the notes clanked a bit more than I imagined I should be hearing. Nearly like the upper registers were coming from a harpsichord instead of a piano. Through the USB input as well as the Wavelength Proton, Ms. Hinrich's keyboard was more of-a-piece. I mention this albeit subtle difference because it highlights and perhaps exaggerates the character of the M1's Toslink input in that it tends to emphasize incisiveness which can impart a spotlit quality to some upper frequency information and a leaner feel to music overall.
The Bigger (Better) Picture
That said, I can very well imagine some listeners being enthralled, yes enthralled, by the M1s sense of clarity, speed and focus. Especially for those listeners who revel in large-scale complex music, I would say this hyper-clean approach imparts a heady feel to music, an intellectual verve if you will. Besides you have the option available to listen to Toslink, USB, Coax, or Balanced inputs with the M1 DAC depending on your source(s). So if I step back from this Toslink focus, I'm left with a wonderfully musical-sounding DAC and one that offered many hours of pure enjoyment.
And with its array of input options, an M1 owner can connect to a number of devices. In my case I could see running the Oppo through the coax input, my MacBook Pro via TosLink or USB (depending on my mood), and my iPad in-the-ready via the Apple Camera Connection Kit/USB input. The M1 DAC also improved the performance of the playGo Wireless USB DAC and the Logitech Squeezebox Touch by replacing their internal DACs while in residence. I also like the way the M1 looks, I find its build-quality satisfying and it performed perfectly and without a hitch during its stay. All of this adds up to one appealing and musically rewarding proposition in my book and while the perception of value is purely subjective, I will say that the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC packs a lot of performance into its price.
Another M1 DAC Review
I thought it would be useful to provide a link to Sam Tellig's review of the M1 DAC in Stereophile even though this review is of the older model (with the exact same name). The performance of the S/PDIF inputs should still be relevant and the review includes measurements by John Atkinson as well as this quote, "It may be affordably priced, but in almost all ways, Musical Fidelity's M1DAC offers performance that is close to the state of the art."
Musical Fidelity M1 DAC Sam Tellig, Stereophile (July 2011)