I am rather spoiled by MSB Technology’s Signature DAC IV Plus, my personal reference digital-to-analogue converter. This unit ticks all of the boxes for anyone who is contemplating an investment of serious dollars in a digital source. Specifically, it is upgradeable with respect to both hardware (clocks, input/output interfaces, DAC resolution, DSP, etc) and software (firmware updates, digital filters, etc); its capabilities far exceed any currently available commercial software format; it does not use the same old me-too, off-the-shelf chipset technology; and perhaps most importantly, it invites a connection with digital music on the same deep emotional level that I previously believed was the sole domain of a properly designed and implemented front end for the playback of vinyl records. That’s right, I was a hard core analogue/vinyl nut!
Imagine my surprise then, when MSB Technology created a new digital-to-analogue converter at a more affordable price point and had the audacity to call it The Analog DAC. What we have here is a product which offers up a huge slice of the DAC IV Plus range’s cutting edge performance, typified by a total lack of grain and digital artefacts allied to unparalleled resolution, harmonic fidelity and truth of timbre, in a totally unassuming physical form factor. The chassis is, in fact, CNC machined from a single billet of aluminium which acts as a heat sink for the heavy-duty digital processing inside.
So what concessions have been made in order to keep the price to a minimum? Unlike the DAC IV Plus range, all of which feature truly balanced architectures with two discrete sign-magnitude ladder DAC modules per channel, The Analog DAC is a single ended design with just one 25-bit DAC module per channel. The Analog DAC also gives up some ultimate flexibility with respect to its much more costly bigger brothers within the MSB Technology family; it features swappable input modules but one cannot change out the clock, DAC modules, or add more DSP processing power. This is a small price to pay for most users, especially considering that The Analog DAC retains the femtosecond clock technology of the DAC IV Plus range. Standard equipment are both RCA and XLR outputs as well as an analogue RCA input (perfect for use as a home theatre by-pass or for controlling the volume of a phono preamplifier with the optional stepped attenuators – more about these below).
MSB Technology are often criticised for their bewildering array of available options when it comes to ordering one of their products from the menu. Based on our extensive personal experience with The Analog DAC, we suggest the following configurations to suit different users and some common scenarios.
For those who are ready to embrace the future, i.e. one without optical discs, we suggest that you connect your Mac Mini or other computer music server/source to the Analog DAC via the USB interface, but not just any old USB interface. MSB Technology’s Signature USB 2.0 input module is capable of accepting PCM data of up t0 384 kHz and 24 bits as well as pure DSD (64x and 128x). With The Analog DAC forming the heart of your system it would be logical to add the optional analogue volume control modules (comprising a network of discrete resistors with 1 dB steps). It may be difficult for some to imagine that any stepped attenuator could possibly be superior to an active linestage preamplifier but hearing is believing, the transparency to the source is spectacular. In this case, less really is more.
For those who prefer to continue to collect and handle optical disc media (CDs, SACDs, etc), we suggest that you connect your existing transport (or CD player if it has a suitable digital output) to The Analog DAC. In this case, you would specify either the optical/SPDIF input module or the balanced AES/EBU module when ordering your Analog DAC. Again, we strongly recommend the optional stepped volume control modules for maximum musical transparency.
What about power? It has long been fashionable for high end audio manufacturers to locate the power supply in a separate chassis from the main chassis containing the delicate low-level electronics. MSB Technology are firm adherents to this concept and thus, every Analog DAC includes an external “desktop” power supply. Please do NOT mistake this for a wall-wart plug pack, this is a serious piece of kit housed in a sturdy aluminium enclosure and containing fully linear supplies with two transformers, one for digital processing and the other for the analogue circuits.
For those who really want to push the envelope there is an optional full-sized power chassis, called the Analog Power Base, which promises an even lower noise floor. If you are also considering an investment in one of MSB Technology’s optical disc transports such as the Signature Data CD IV or Universal Media Transport Plus we strongly recommend the Platinum Power Base since this contains the necessary 12 volt power supply for the transport as well as peerless dedicated supplies for the analogue and digital sections of any connected MSB DAC. In this case, your choice of input module for The Analog DAC would logically be the proprietary MSB Technology PRO-I2S interface which is capable of transmitting a full 32 bits of PCM data at 384 kHz, in addition to bi-directional slaving of the femtosecond clock in the DAC to the transport, for the lowest possible jitter.
So what does this slice of state-of-the-art digital heaven cost?
We are pleased to report that, despite recent significant losses of the Australian dollar against the US currency (sliding from around 103 US cents to around 91 cents, a loss of 12%), we have maintained our parity pricing model for the MSB Technology Analog DAC. In its home market (yes, it is 100% designed and built in the USA), The Analog DAC starts at 6,995 US dollars. Here in Australia, this same product starts at 6,995 Australian dollars (including GST)!! This price includes the input module of your choice as discussed above. The volume control option adds 995 Australian dollars and I defy anyone to find a better sounding active linestage preamp for ten times this figure.
I have raved on in this article and no doubt my passion and enthusiasm for The Analog DAC is plain to see. However, I don’t want anyone to take my word for any of this. Pick up the phone or shoot us an email to discuss your specific digital needs. You never know, it may be the first step towards an invitation to come along for a listen in the home of one of our Audio Fidelity representatives in Victoria, New South Wales, or Queensland. Alternatively, we may be able to bring The Analog DAC to you for an audition in your own home/system.