07 July, 2011

Review: Musical Fidelity M1 DAC

Review: Musical Fidelity M1 DAC

Revised and expanded July 16, 2011

While I am quite settled into my SET world and don't look much beyond in terms of amplification, I have retained quite an interest in digital products. One of the heartening things these days is that good digital products can be had quite on the cheap, and there is no better example than the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC.

This very reasonably priced (even more so in HK) and well-equipped DAC has been widely and glowingly reviewed (a good one from HiFi World; see also HiFi News, TAS). Of course, that alone does not arouse my curiosity. Think of the rave-reviewed Benchmark DAC1, which has always left me cold (non-involving sound), and it costs quite a bit more than the MF. More extravagantly, I think of dCS, which always seem to sound "good" but fail to draw me into the performance (interestingly, the HiFi World review compared the M1 to a dCS, albeit subtly).

Neither does the name MF previously mean much to me in digital products. Many years ago I had their Tubalog DAC for a while, but soon sold it because of its lack of details-the tubes were just buffers in the worst sense, ones that robbed details (much like their gimmicky X-10). Since then, I have heard quite a few of their CDPs, like X-Ray and A3, and none of them impressed me too much.

Neither am I necessarily a convert of upsampling, having heard just too many clinical sounding and expensive products. But I am not against it either, as I know if well implemented the result can be very good (an example is the Quad CDP-2, which is a very good sounding unit that like the M1 upsamples to 192kHz).

So what exactly drew me to the M1? I'd guess it was a combination of the following: (1) the wordings used in some of the reviews, much more detailed and "sincere" than the generic "rave" review; (2) The features, including balanced input and output; (3) great measurements across the board.

I bought a second-hand sample and was delighted from the start. I used it in the following system:

CD: Audio Research CD2 as transport-Gotham XLR digital cable
Digital Switching Station: Genesis Digital Lens.
DAC1: Audio Note DAC-2 (old version; PCM-63) connected with Gotham coaxial digital cable
DAC2: Musical Fidelity M1 connected by Gotham XLR digital cable
SACD: Marantz DV-6001 analogue out
Preamp: Kondo M7
Amp: Elekit 2300 or Wavac MD-300B (Ongaku is too hot in the summer)
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Canterbury

Since many of the cited reviews were very well written, and in great details, I'd not write much except to note a few of my impressions.

Most of all, I was impressed by the superbly clean, well-delineated and coherent sound, which does not highlight anything and impressively maintains composure even at loud level. Perhaps since I use tubed equipment, I found nothing etching or over-bright at all.

Comparison with the analogue out of the ARC CD2 (older Delta-Sigma unit using CDM12) reveals the ARC to be very slightly fuller in the midrange, but less well delineated (though it is no slouch in this area). Hence the M1 may not be for those who wants a very rich midrange or upfront sound in the vocals, although it is by no means recessed. With the M1, instruments, including vocals, have excellent presence, but always in a natural way. Aside from the XLR input, I also tested the RCA input, which worked equally well with the Marantz multi-player, raising the CD playback to a level almost comparable to the ARC as transport. Although the M1 has excellent measured performance, I still marginally prefer feeding it indirectly through my Genesis Digital Lens, which theoretically removes jitter originating from the transport, and which I use as a versatile switchboard. Last, but not the least, (unlike things like Benchmark) the M1 has a very good sense of the music's flow, good PRAT if you will.

In very big pieces perhaps the M1 loses a little ground to the AN DAC2 (as well as my Sony CDP/DAC R1) but its performance is still way above average, remarkable for something at this price. And all this with the RCA analogue out, as I have not even tested its XLR out! Neither have I used its USB in (may not be as great; see TAS review cited above). Maybe that's for another day.

The M1 is a wonderful product. Use it with a good transport, or even with a DVD player (which usually serves quite well in this regard) and the sound will beat many, if not most, of those way over-priced, so-called high-end CD players (particularly those from Germany). A bargain.

Addendum (July 16, 2100): M1 DAC vs V-DAC
There is a question on the internet regarding how different the M1 DAC is from the same company's much cheaper and compact V-DAC, which similarly has garnered much praise and did well against rivals costing much more in group tests.

The best info is from a Japanese site, where you can see the internals of both. Aside from the obvious difference of power supply (the V-DAC uses a wall-mart), as the author noted (Babelfish translation), the DAC section is very similar (pics of the DAC section are 180 degrees from each other) but I think the analogue output seems better in the M1.

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