“Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.” Johannes Brahms
"It is my belief that music is great if, at some moment, the listener catches 'a glimpse of eternity through the window of time'... This, to my mind, is the only true justification for art. All else is of secondary importance." — Einojuhani Rautavaara
Before even getting into the whole “hot” topic of vultures dealings let me refer to other Über products, industries and most importantly followers. Utterly expensive spirits, cigars, sports cars, paintings are unlike in high-end audio, not a subject of constant critics from those who cannot afford them.
Presently, state of the art comes with price. Hefty one I know, sadly not always (or almost mandatory) justified. Still… Some of the products do carry a “burden” of mighty R & D, funds and time being invested into their creation. Top fliers like MSB Select DAC 2 are not magical, one day magic wonder carvings of some alchemist. In MSB case, three decades of constant evolution assured their steady pace of innovation and push forward mentality. Yes, minority of people are capable of affording such gems, but in the grander picture these gentleman might carry a different torch then they are usually associated with. Select few, surprise-surprise comes as supporters of the broader public. What!?
Like in other industries, a lot of state of the art features and solutions are coming to a wider public in due time as trickled down technology solutions, being implemented to much more affordable products. A sobering reality…
Let us reflect military high-tech for a minute. Ether we like it or not, being pacifists, anti military corporation establishment activist, industrial revolution critics etc.. Every day contemporary tech manifestations like internet, mobile phones, communications etc. are “side” products of military giants. Big devil corporation’s devices are embraced even by the most passionate critics. Hmmm… I’m not comparing military industry to high-end audio, but making a point. In the long run we do benefit from something that might not be our raison d'être and in our particular situation money is not coming from tax payers pockets…
Like with some others high tech products, true to its high-end given name, MSB Select DAC 2 represents technologically profound intake and result of a lifetime pursue for perfection. I for sure, like many of you out there would love if this extravagant machines would hit us with much lower price tag, but the reality is what it is.
On that note. Even far crazier priced high-end audio products are hauling in our niche industry, firmly falling into the expensive jewelry category rather then trademark high-end audio.
Digital audio is changing rapidly. To fast to handle one can say. While one can feel much safer with investment in reference preamplifier and power amplifier on the digital front things are changing to quickly. Logically it surely feels more sane to not bet on one horse at such fierce digital race.
Is there a solution? One of the things that act as a strong advocate for device like MSB Select DAC 2 is modularity. This changes a game. Select, like even their lover end models offer a true modular structure. This means easier future upgrades and safer investment. Easy and cleverly designed locking system at the back side of the DAC offers instantly exchangeable modules, that can bring different inputs, outputs, renderer input etc.
And second thing? The company! Considering investing into a brand, with team of almost twenty people, doing what they do best for almost thirty years surely gives more confidence in the long run. Larry is/was always the driving force behind the company, but MSB got also a life of their own. With two Larry’s sons being fully and proudly engaged in the company this gives completely different longevity even if Larry retires.
At present global affairs and especially in our beloved high-end industry people are planning their purchasing differently, by more rethinking, monitoring and evaluation. They want their investments to be safer, worthy of given money, ready to be serviced for a long time and keeping the value over time. Delusion? It shouldn’t be!
I’ve had a luxury to hear and try quite some of top tiers. Its always impossible to do a complete, full scale ground zero testing, comparing and evaluating, but I’ve “forced” my self to get out and try to listen to what I’ve felt it was worthy of the sin and what I could stress out critically. I wouldn’t call it a disastrous quest. Let me me rather stick the disappointed label on to it.
Moving from subjectiveness to objectiveness.
What struck me from my first encounter with MSB Select DAC 2 was sense of ultimate timing, absence of any signature sound, submarine like depths, enormous sense of space and instant ability to lock into the music. On my path I’ve encountered on some attributes that pointed toward something special, yet never under one “roof”.
MSB Select DAC 2 refreshingly comes with vivid presentation, absence of technology imprint (or what usually happens specific brand imprint), filters sonic DNA etc. Its by far most fatigue free DAC I’ve had pleasure to listen. Comment like this are coming from the guy who few years back didn’t even want to lurk back into the digital universe for many obvious reasons.
So, what happened along the way!? Vincent Brien’s Totaldac and Stavros Danos’s Aries Cerat Kassandra DAC’s changed my mind with a huge impact due to their approach digital conversion and technology used. On the other side of ladder DAC fence only Nagra HD DAC managed to get my guards down, but this has to do with Nagra’s electronic wizard Philippe Chambon little secrets in play. More about this in different, upcoming article…
MSB Select DAC 2 explores the uncharted realms of abstract thinking and dealings where one forgets about mathematical equations, formulas and all technical paraphernalia and simply immerse into the music.
At this level of operation and sound reproduction one must deliberately avoid typical dogmas and astray ways of established dogmas. Select brings the sound without colourations. It surely wont suit the followers of the saturated sound. I’m not talking merely about the tubish golden era warm sound, but any scent of coloration added in the signal path to address certain personal quest for sound. Yes, this can be attached to both solid state and tube designs these days. Generally, ultimate quest for sound perfection should embarks technology that follows no signature sound regardless of circuits implemented.
In any given ladder DAC the sonic outcome is directly connected to the precision of the ladder as R-2R converts the digital stream direct to voltage. Eight DAC’s in Select DAC 2 ensure enough voltage for the proper gain and absence of Opamps. There is no output buffer, no amplifier stage and zero active circuitry. You can even drive headphones like Sennheiser HD 800 directly from the XLR outputs. By such approach horizon of feather like lightness, natural sense of atmosphere and stressless music reproduction is taking
Getting these ladder resistors laser trimmed and expecting the miracle is an utopian dream. Picking the best ones up with selected tolerance and avoiding to destroy them suddenly translates into $$$$. Heavenly transparency comes with price…
Envision the task of transferring the flow of the water. There are two ways to conway such flow in digital world. Delta Sigma acts like a little measuring cup distributing the water. There is huge amount of the water needed to be transferred via the cups and such endeavors is always under or over shooting.
On the other side ladder DAC comes with whole range of measuring cups ready to be used at any time. You can decided which size of the jugs is right for certain momentum. Standard ladder DACs by default always fills jugs starting empty, at the place where music is at full level, but with sign magnitude ladder DAC you start half full, at the place were music is quiet can adjust the transfer of the water and chose appropriate jug. Thins analogy-process can be very accurate for each bit and at any time largest cups can be used when larger energy flow transfer is needed. For example with the large Kodo drum. At such occasion bigger jug can transmit needed energy in much more optimized way then other processes.
In theory this translates to analog like process that is instantly adaptable, reacting more on the level of minute change of the music’s pace, rhythm and speed, rather then working constantly with the larger frequent flow of smaller package transfers.
Delta sigma is by nature fast switching device. If you don't filtered it's just a multiple processing hash. On the other side ladder DAC operates at voltage change and it doesn't require any type of filtering, translating to much more vivid and fluent rendition of the music. See link for details here.
Ladder DACs requires a precise resistor to be accurate. That why makes it much more expensive solution and the sole reason why Phillips moved away from ladder DACs.
There is a lot of philosophizing in the digital audio world with very little practical sonic results. Sadly even with some if not most old “players”. For Larry the most important thing is factuality and real world accomplishing of the elaborated and contemplated ideas. Without objectifying and materialization of even most wildest ideas and out of the box thinking all seems like a dream.
Femto 32 is the MSB’s lowest jitter clock and one of the brand's most important breakthroughs. Effect of the jitter is directly connected with the clarity and harshness and one can heart the difference instantly. Most interestingly and intriguingly, the refinement of the Femto32 clock resulted with a sudden change of gain level. On the white paper this shouldn't happen, but the lower phase noise gave to the ear the effect of sounding 2 db quieter. The lower jitter resulted in the extended headroom, dynamic range and most importantly in the absence of the listening fatigue that affects directly un-disturbed listening.
There are a lot of confusions regarding the clock and jitter. It's hard to understand the real science and tech behind with every company claiming of manufacturing their Femto clock. In reality most of them are just using the Femto clock designed for some other application and different industry.
MSB clock is actually running on audio frequency and not on 10 mhz (rubidium clock etc.) as the clocks designed for satellites and other equipment. There are two clocks being active and running on t the correct multiple of 44 and 48 kHz, namely at 22.5792 and 24.576 MHz.
On the upper plane of state of the art digital audio second biggest requirement is the integration of the clock with the DAC. This usually introduces many other problems and timing wise one femto seconds at the starting path morphs into one pico second once it reaches the DAC, consequently showing not so little audible shift in the performance.
Those two principles mentioned above eliminates 90 percent of the typical industry claims. MSB was the first company that manufactured Femto second clock and its the company best kept secret. MSB was also first company that embraced discrete sign magnitude ladder DAC back in 2000.
Select DAC manifested exemplary gradients of the sound, with impressive flow, that I’v yet to encounter in digital. Same goes for non fatigue, stressless aural composition.
I’m prone to sense any tension in higher spectrum. Event a tint of brittle hubris instantly spotted via cymbals, rides, and other percussive instruments for some reason pushes my inner ear to start ringing like a hell. Imprint of real world metallic instrument and their tension is deeply written in my DNA, going back to my time of vocal/orchestra ensemble concerts.
Luckily, or stressfully I’m not fooled even by best so called digital filters. Its not a matter of ego tripping, more of a heavy burden to carry around, especially visiting different systems, audio shows and events. People sadly embraced unnatural, squashed and distorted sound as reference. In real world metallic instruments do get loud, but in the way of rising amplitude and not by imposing hiss, brittle character and screaming sound.
MSB Select DAD 2 reflect analog sound in the way its supposed to sound. Not by embracing typical false attributes mirroring impressionist painting. It comes as an avid rendition of reality that is not easily effaced.
Ultra high end reproduction demands an juxtaposition of opposites in order to create believe scale of reality. On the upper echelon of audio affairs performance should leave something to the listener. That's what separates ultra high end audio from hifi or to often appraised high-end. Select DAC professes music for what it is avoiding digital Ad nauseam too often connected to even most regarded digital machines.
By default we might still strive to understand mechanics of the ultimate performance. As a human beings we want/need to be in complete control. As long as clear establishment of musical emotions act with life like motion, we don’t always need to understand all the logics. Its actually impossible to do so.
Harmonic structure, rhythmic revolt and emergence of a subtextual musical rendering encapsulated my enthusiasm and I’m not trying to keep it bottled. Profound tension should be mandatory on the ultimate plane. Without experiencing compulsory sublimely ecstatic interaction and call-response exchange with music on an earthly plane, natural sense of motion will always be far away from the revelatory impact.
Select DAC 2 profound, insistent and cathartic ability to evoke incantations harmonics, so far unheard level of focus and atmospheric anchor points is so far beyond anything else experienced by yours truly in digital realms.
BATTLE OF THE OPAMPS
Select DAC started as a battle of the Opamp. Larry wanted to explore ability to drive power amplifiers directly without the Opamps and that led to the prolonged researched. After all calculations and explorations they did the math and concluded that 8 DAC’s per channel would provide enough gain, that could server the variety of power amplifiers directly with no output drivers, output stage or opamps involved with the output stage.
After years of R & D they MSB team was ready to start the all new challenging project with completely new proprietary architecture. There were many high expectations and with the rising demand of DSD this was a mandatory addition. MSB engineers went back to the drawing board and put their efforts into developing new and unique hybrid DAC module that was dynamically reconfigurable to do the best possible job with DSD and do the best possible job with PCM. There is no compromise with ether music format andDSD module integrates directly within the Select ECO system.
After developing ground base for the Select DAC next step was materialization of the DAC running on the lowest possible jitter. This was not easy task and everything needed to be revisioned and upgraded. New DSPs with faster speeds were implemented and the select DAC was treated from the ground up as RF device rather then typical DAC. MSB forward thinking was always about refining all the little details and creating a seamless synergy between all parts and modules. By cleansing up the menus and simplifying the operations in Select DAC it was possible to finally focus on cleanest and simplest possible signal path.
New input modules offered much better isolation and pushed the performance of each format. The module format also makes the DAC future proof. Each of this modules has I2S connector and only one module is active at the time. By rediscovering some of the old technologies and adding some new approaches MSB moved few steps further.
Select sports two power inputs for both the analog and digital sides. Power supply comes in dedicated chassis and this can be upgraded with additional mono power supply for even greater performance.
As Select DAC is completely modular, output modules can be both balanced or single ended. All of the modules are interchangeable and can be optimized to work in the best possible way. Larry’s philosophy always follows the simplistic, yet highly refined approach avoiding the unnecessarily features being there just for sake of it.
For example, stepping further into the realms of complex digital audio world… Every DAC on the market comes with SPDIF receiver with its own clock. This adds it's additional noise and jitter to the internal clock and in most of the DACs clock is usually running all the time, producing amount of noise and jitter that shouldn’t really be there. Which brings us to the hearth of the matter…
My reference gear was selected step by step, during countless hours of listening, comparing and is based on the actual performance rather then marketing mumbo jumbo and self proclaimed industry throne positioning. I’ve chosen to pursue Mono & Stereo venture with different pace, where little to non compromises are being be made.
People always look upon your choices and even more importantly on your actions. If music is truly such s precious, transcendental thing then ultimate quest carries the weight of utopian space travel. For me, musical universe comes as unique, rewarding and in almost still unattainable good, going beyonds mortal compassion and holding sacred place on the throne of divinity.
In the era where’re were pushed to take an idea of constant future hunts and pleasure delaying, reality check of right here, right now comes as mandatory logical process.
The problem!? My last week experience with Ubiq Audio power amplifier prototypes blew my preconception up in pieces. Synergy and magnitude of sonic outcome still lingers via perplexed daily contemplation.
I’m still trying to fathom and this insurmountable impact and I’ve incentivize myself to find a proper langue without loosing facts with ungrateful task conveying the exact conclusion into words. Too much, to easily is lost in translation.
Being struck with the unrivaled, life/feather like consonance of Select’s macro/micro scale and overarching narrative kept me dumb struck.
Stay tuned for part two…
Text: Matej Isak