The MSB Technology Premium Quad USB2 Module for the Analog DAC

Premium Quad USB2 Module
Device Type: USB Input Module for the Analog DAC
File Support: Asynchronous PCM up to 384 kHz / 32, DSD 64, 128, and 256 (Windows Only for DSD 256)
DSD Formats: DoP transmission and native DSD bitstreams up to 256x
Price: $1595; a $600 upgrade if purchasing with the Analog DAC and selected as the primary input

The Analog DAC
Device Type: Digital to Analog Converter
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
Price: $7995 plus upgraded inputs

The Analog Power Base
Device Type: Power Supply for the Analog DAC Dimensions (H x W x D): 1” plus feet X 17.5” X 13” Weight: 16 pounds
Price: $2995 with upgraded power connector

Availability: Authorized Dealers
Website: www.msbtech.com

The MSB Technology Premium Quad USB2 Module is a new USB input module for the Analog DAC that represents a substantial improvement in the application of USB technology for this highly respected DAC. Both Michael Lavorgna and I have previously reviewed the Analog DAC (see Steve's review and Michael's follow-up) and found it to be an excellent sounding DAC that was characterized by a relaxed natural sound. At the time of my review of the Analog DAC in 2013, MSB sent me the Platinum Data CD IV Transport to be used in the evaluation of the Analog DAC. MSB Technology felt that this transport connected to the MSB Network input module had superior sound to the USB Basic 384 input module and would better demonstrate the capabilities of the Analog DAC. Although I could get somewhat close to the sound of the Platinum Data CD IV Transport with numerous hardware tweaks and software programs, I still found the Transport to be better sounding than using the USB Basic 384 module.

The Analog DAC and Analog Power Base
Before discussing the Premium Quad USB2 module, I thought it would be a good idea to provide some background on the Analog DAC and its upgrade Analog Power Base power supply for those not familiar with these products. The Analog DAC is MSB Technology’s entry level DAC in a family of DAC products that go all the way up to the $89,950 Select DAC. At a base recommended price of $6995 that includes one input and a separate desktop power supply, this DAC would be considered top-of-the line for most DAC manufacturers. Some highlights of the Analog DAC design are:

  • 2 custom built discrete ladder 32 bit 384 kHz DACs built with expensive high precision resistors.
  • Data is reclocked with Femto Clock Technology.
  • A beautiful sleek aluminum case that 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.
  • A Desktop Power Supply that is not an inexpensive switching supply, but a liner power supply built with 2 transformers and four stages of regulation.
MSB Technology offers an upgrade power supply called the Analog Power Base that offers features that include:
  • A linear power supply that utilizes 5 transformers for complete isolation of the digital processing, the clocks and the analog DAC modules.
  • The Analog Power Base is housed in a CNC milled aluminum case that is similar in appearance to The Analog DAC and allows it to be placed beneath the DAC.

Features of the Premium Quad USB2 Module
The Premium Quad USB2 input module is not a minor upgrade to the USB2 Basic 384 module, but rather a complete redesign of their USB input module to not only include DSD 256 performance and native DSD bitstream playback capability, but to improve the over-all performance of this USB input. Superior shielding and isolation of the USB input from the analog portion of the DAC has been employed for lower noise operation. The case of the Premium Quad USB2 is made of metal and quite substantial compared to the USB Basic 384 module.

DSD Playback
The Premium Quad USB2 module can play DSD files in two ways with the DoP format or the native DSD stream directly. The DoP standard requires the server to pack the DSD data into a standard WAV file that is sent to the DAC. The DAC unpacks the file and plays the native DSD stream. The DoP method works well and sounds quite good as it is employed by many DAC manufacturers. The problem with DoP is that it demands significant performance overhead that can degrade the over-all sound of DSD playback. One of my professional designer friends feels that DoP “sucks the life out of the music.” While this comment might be considered to be a little extreme, it is not that far from the truth. True native DSD bitstream playback provides a more direct method of processing DSD files without the increase in computer overhead that can degrade overall performance. While the USB Basic 384 module only supports DoP, the Premium Quad USB2 supports both DoP and native DSD playback.

DSD 256 or quad rate DSD is only supported in native DSD playback with the Premium Quad USB2. The DoP method would require support for PCM at 705.6 kHz and 768 kHz. Sampling rates this high would be a challenge for the USB audio interfaces and not necessarily ideal for the particular DAC chip or module employed.

Native DSD 256 playback will require the use of the Windows operating system (MSB is working on a Mac solution for DSD 256 according to the company). While DoP is supported by both Windows and OSX, only the Windows operating system supports native DSD 256 playback for the Premium Quad USB2 module.

Components used in this evaluation
The computer used was an Asus G501 JW running Windows 8.1. This laptop possesses an Intel Core i7 4720HQ 2.6 GHz Processor with 16GB RAM, and a very fast PCI Express x4 SSD. The G501 JW computer also has a Thunderbolt port. The computer was placed on a Synergistic Research Tranquility Base grounded with the Synergistic Research High Definition Ground Cable / Grounding Block as was the computer. Two 8 TB GRAID Thunderbolt Drives were connected; one for PCM and the other for DSD files. The GRAID Thunderbolt drives were powered by HDPlex linear power supplies. An iFi Micro iUSBPower was also driven with an HDPlex linear power supply. A Synergistic Research Galileo LE USB cable was used. One component that has made a significant contribution to the performance of my system is the Shunyata Research Hydra DPC-6 v2 Power Center. This product effectively firewalls high frequency digital noise from contaminating the rest of the system. The Asus G501 JW, iUSB Power, and the hard drives were plugged into the DPC-6. The Analog DAC was plugged into a Shunyata Research Triton v2 Power Center / Hydra Typhon .

Software included the latest version of Roon that supports Native DSD playback and Foobar2000. Fidelizer Pro 6.8 was also used in my listening evaluations.

MSB Q&A
I presented 3 questions to Vince Galbo, National Sales Manager of MSB Technology, which I would like to share with you:

Is it correct to assume that the Premium Quad USB2 is a totally new design compared to the USB2 Basic 384?
Yes the Quad DSD USB is a totally new design meant to overcome the difficulties of USB as communication protocol. The Universal Media Transport and Pro I2S technology trickled down to the Quad USB with the Femto clock “requesting” bits rather than “sending” bits from the playback memory. The playback memory lives in the Quad DSD USB module itself.

I notice that the DAC V requires the Pro I2S Input Option for the Quad Rate DSD USB2 input. Does the Analog DAC have a variant of this?
The universal motherboard connectors in the DAC IV and DAC V provide direct access to the MSB motherboard data buss allowing plug in boards like the “Pro I2S” daughter boards to talk directly to the MSB DAC engine. In the spirit of MSB’s maximum future upgradeability policy, these daughter boards can be designed to be virtually anything we desire. So when future formats, data speeds and connections (like Thunderbolt, or USB 4, or?), come along, we can design for a plug in option. The Analog DAC uses a similar scheme with the equivalent of the Pro I2S board directly inside the input module allowing a simple direct path to the MSB DAC engine yet maintaining maximum future flexibility and upgradeability.

Do you feel that the Premium Quad USB2 matches the sound of the Platinum Data CD IV when the Analog DAC has the Network Module installed?
The Premium Quad USB2 was designed to be better than the Data CD. While the Data CD has the Gen 2 MSB network that clocks the playback memory and “sends” the data paced by the memory’s clock, the Quad USB now employs the “Pro I2S” scheme whereby the data sitting in the playback memory inside Quad USB module is “requested” by the ultra-precise Femto clock in the Analog DAC. Therefore MSB’s Pro I2S connection process developed for the UMT Plus is mimicked inside the Analog DAC for the simplest and shortest possible paths and allowing one master clock for all processes including the source.

While MSB designed the Quad USB to be future proof being able to run quadruple DSD, it is important to understand that its core goal is to make USB among the “ultimate” in the customer’s source choices. The real question is this: If we have a transport, a laptop with USB, and an off- the-shelf music server over digital coax all playing the exact same bit perfect file, why do they sound so wildly different? The answer is what we have always known; noise and jitter. But just a few years ago even our own company had no respect for just how low we would have to get these numbers to make all sources sound like analog. USB was not designed for audio. It is a complicated 2 directional protocol designed to transfer data in packets which works well for computer use. Mitigating the difficulties of this process to pass high quality audio, MSB strongly feels we have finally made USB viable as a top level audio source.

Initial Sonic Impressions of the Premium Quad USB2
As I listened to the Premium Quad USB2 / Analog DAC, I soon realized that sonically this was no small modification of the previous USB2 Basic 384. What I heard with the new module was a substantial improvement in sound quality relative to the older unit. The sound of the Premium Quad USB2 was more open sounding without the slight darkness heard with the USB2 Basic 384 module. Transient detail was better rendered with a greater sense of extension at the high end. The midrange of the Premium Quad was far more transparent and revealing compared to the older module with slightly more presence. Also enhanced was the background silence that allowed micro dynamic detail to emerge with greater clarity. I found the sound staging capabilities of the Premium Quad to truly excel. Thanks to the greater silence, orchestral details stood out in a superior front-to-back depth stage that simply seemed more natural than what I was hearing with the USB2 Basic 384. I felt that the older module had a more distant sound with a slight veil overlaying the music. While the bass attack of the former module was quite good, the new module seemed to be better defined and controlled. Quite frankly, after extended listening with the Premium Quad, I felt that I had evaluated a different higher quality DAC.

The Music Emerged With Enhanced Detail and Presence
James Taylor’s new release Before This World (24/96) provided an excellent example of the enhanced detail and presence to the sound I heard with the Premium Quad USB2. This title was Taylor’s first release of new material since 2002. HDtracks indicated that the hi-res version of Before This World was mastered with less peak limiting resulting in a greater dynamic range than that of the CD version.

The relaxed sound of the Analog DAC allowed Taylor’s new album to have a very natural, non-digital quality, but with excellent detail and focus. Yo-Yo Ma’s cello on "You And I Again" and "Before This World” emerged from a black silent background with a wonderful resonant sound. Background vocalists were presented in a large soundstage that was very complementary to Taylor’s front and centered sound.

But if one really wants to listen to a true audiophile reference recording, you have to experience Doug MacLeod’s Exactly Like This (24/176.4). I feel that this new release is one of Reference Recording’s finest sounding recordings. Listening to this wonderful title with the Premium Quad USB2 really showed off the capabilities of the Analog DAC. The musical presentation was relaxed sounding with every inflection and nuance of the performance emerging with excellent image solidity. There was wonderful body and dynamic solidity to the bass. MacLeod’s vocals and guitar playing had a quality that was characterized by harmonically rich tonal naturalness.

If one enjoys orchestral music, I would check out Michael Tilson Thomas / San Francisco Symphony performing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (24/192). Listening to the Analog DAC with the Premium Quad USB2 resulted in a soundstage of great bloom and dimensionality. This recording was made live in PCM 24 bit / 192 kHz and captured the natural timbres and complex textures of the orchestra. The reproduction of the strings emerged from a richly layered soundstage without glare or hardness.

Direct Native DSD Bitstreams
Listening to DSD recordings in the native format sans DoP was a big improvement over the older module’s DoP only support. The Premium Quad USB2 allowed native DSD to have a more open and dynamic quality to the music. The midrange beauty of DSD was very evident with native DSD playback. While DSD 64 recordings often present gorgeous midrange qualities, they seem to lack the high end dynamics and ultimate resolution of well recorded hi-res PCM. The new module allowed more of the subtle micro dynamic qualities of the music to be heard compared to what I was hearing with the former module with the DoP method. I also felt that the former module, using the DoP method of playback, sounded somewhat compressed with less bloom and high end air compared to the native DSD playback with the Premium Quad USB2.

The new module allows one to experience the excellent sound quality that DSD is capable of. For those that argue that only PCM delivers the highest quality sound, they really need to take the time to listen to what MSB Technology DACs are capable of in DSD playback quality.

Brook Miller’s Stockfisch DSD 64 recording Familiar sounded absolutely stunning with the Premium Quad USB2 in native playback. Brook’s voice emerged from a black-velvet background with excellent resolution and transparency. The guitar was extremely life-like in this recording with an intimate focus to the sound.

DSD 256
While there aren’t a large number of DSD 256 titles to listen to, Native DSD offers a number of well recorded titles to enjoy. One title that I particularly liked was Yarlung Records / Merging Technologies Te Amo, Argentina. This recording highlights the cello playing of Antonio Lysy. Te Amo, Argentina is an analog recording made with minimalist recording techniques.

This DSD 256 recording captured the clarity of tone and the rich sonority of the cello. The recording sounded very real reproducing the venue acoustics of the Broad Stage 449 seat concert hall. DSD 256 displayed the ultimate potential of DSD recording not really heard on DSD 64 recordings. The Premium Quad USB2 handled this title flawlessly.

A Major Improvement to an Excellent DAC
Without a doubt, the Premium Quad USB2 module for the Analog DAC is an outstanding upgrade with superior performance that will make present owners feel that they have purchased a new DAC. Not only does PCM playback quality benefit, but listening to DSD in native bitstream will reveal just what is possible with DSD sound reproduction; especially DSD 256. MSB Technology has succeeded in elevating the sound quality of USB audio to new performance heights that has been a pure joy to experience.


Associated Equipment

COMMENTS
Vade Forrester's picture

Very nice review, Steven. Do you use the Roon DSD Playback Strategy setting called "Initial dCS method" to produce the native DSD output to the DAC?

Vade Forrester

Steven Plaskin's picture
Thanks Vade. I am using the MSB ASIO driver with the "Native" playback strategy in Roon.
Vade Forrester's picture

Guess I'd have to have the MSB driver installed to see that option. It doesn't show up for my DAC.

Vade

Steven Plaskin's picture
The older USB MSB module, using the same Windows ASIO driver, does not support Native DSD.
X