MSB TECHNOLOGY REFERENCE DAC REVIEW PART ONE

Upon the release of the mighty (also my reference component) Select DAC II many owners of the Diamond DAC IV DAC were wondering, when the worthy successor, that will incorporate the trickled down technology from the flagship Select DAC will appear.

And last year MSB Technology finally released the Reference DAC. This ignited the non surprising interest of both MSB Technology fans and digital audio aficionados across the world. As you'll read on The Reference DAC is more then just a worthy successor, but a product that marks something very special and pins the Reference DAC on the permanent MSB Technology heritage time table.


Before the emails starts coming in again let me assure you... The owners of the flagship Select DAC need not to worry. Yes, the Reference DAC uses same proprietary technology, but its trickled down to an extend, that keeps Select DAC safely up in its own upper echelon realms.

The Reference DAC is fully compatible with all of the Select DAC modules. This allows MSB Technology easier developing of the new universal modules for both platforms with a future proof concept, that will make and keep the owners of the both DACs happy for years to come. 


The modularity, future expanding ability, as well as easy upgrading of the software was one of the major attributes in my decision to purchase my Select DAC. Digital Audio is changing so fast and so rapidly, that one can too quickly fall behind with all the new, exciting and upcoming feature. And if we're considering the prices for the top tier DACs, many would triple check the sanity of such premium purchase. 


As far as future proofing goes, the MSB Technology already proven their up to date track record with the introduction of MQA QUAD USB module as well as with the renderer module. The new Render is in the works and will allow full Roon support with direct ethernet connection for the simplest and straight foward operation. More on that soon, but rest assured, that Daniel and Jonathan Gullman will deliver something that is worthy of waiting.

THE STRUCTURE


Most of you will want to know all the details associated with the new MSB Technology Reference DAC. Here are the highlights and main features, that makes its a true gem, special and so different...

Four Hybrid DACs


The Reference DAC is equipped with MSB’s new Hybrid DAC technology.  Originated in the Select DAC, MSB has pushed the technology further, making it more compact and robust and above all – affordable. Unlike the Select’s eight-module design, the Reference DAC only needs four modules to anchor eight high-powered channels for an unrivaled output. The Hybrid module can be reconfigured to accommodate PCM or native DSD, ensuring to take a challenge for the most dynamic DAC on the market.

Simplicity


Smooth chassis lines. Few controls. Focused modularity. High-end quality. As MSB Technology set out to create a new level of digital-to-analog conversion, the design statement ensured the best usability and quality. "The resulting product has set a new, previously undiscovered reference in the listening experience."

A display for the listening chair

Designed with an easy-to-read display, our discrete LED installation is both stunning and practical. Our display is big enough that you can stay seated in your chair. No standing necessary – sit back and become immersed.
Designed in-house from the ground up, the display is assembled in its own CNC pocket in the uni-body, separate from the DAC. Along with targeted electrical isolation, the LED display is refreshed in between data points to reduce noise interference.

The Dual Powerbase
You can’t underestimate the importance of a clean power supply. A re-imagined design paired with the DAC reduces the noise floor even further. Referenc DAC comes with a single supply for the digital side of the DAC, along with an isolated supply for the analog side, yielding an unprecedented level of performance.

The Mono Powerbase


Upgraded with two dedicated power supplies, it provides increased isolation and electrical performance for both the digital and the analog power. With the increased space, each Mono Powerbase possesses a much lower electrical noise design.

Completely modular
The MSB Technology modular design encourages innovation. The DAC modules, clock, input and output modules are all user-replaceable. As these technologies changes, MSB Technology will update your DAC to keep it current and operational.

Engaging with the Future


MSB is constantly developing new input modules for every application and technology. With the release of MQA, MSB has prepared a new module and a streamlined software update. This augments the DAC with the most up to date technologies. Put simply, your DAC is ready for the future.

The last preamp you will ever need
Upgrading from the Base Output Module delivers a cutting edge constant impedance passive volume control preamp. Using this remarkable preamp will reduce system complexity and ultimately improve the audio quality of the entire system.It’s a remarkable feat of electrical design that sets a new benchmark in the industry. The output modules are individually tuned for maximum quality balance or single-ended audio.

Even without the upgraded preamp module, the DAC still has built in volume control.

Expand your analog audio
With sideways expansion, the preamp can accommodate additional analog inputs, isolated sub outputs, and extra analog outputs.

CNC Billet chassis
Starting with an 65lb plate of ‘Kaiser Select Precision Plate’, material is machined in MSB own in-house CNC shop. After more than four hours of machining, 60% of the aluminum is removed, resulting in a 18lb finished product. The integration of our CNC shop allows for design optimization to create the best possible product. MSB Technology use the high quality premium ‘Select’ metal, giving us the best anodized finishes on the market.

Anodized Finishes


Available in matte silver and matte black anodized finishes. Replaceable foot guards are included to protect the chassis from damage. Any standard M6X1 foot can be installed.

THE INNER PATH


The hardest thing for any high-end audio DAC is to deliver the music in wholesome, harmonic way. There are quite a few high-performing DACs out there, but the transcoding of the music for what it truly is, was and will never be an easy task.


"Ears become the back door of truth and the front door of deception" - (Baltasar Gracian) 

The above quote describes the initial highly ecstatic impact of the most of so called high-end audio DACs. This particular d(effect) materialises quite easily into a factual reality after few listening. There is an underlaying and lingering phenomena that could be described with multiple names. For some it comes as a subtle breeze. For me, as a ladder DAC fan with constant exposure of this particular approach, the differences are not either small or subtle. They're of constitutional degree...


And this is where the Reference DAC differs. It allows the entrance into the prolonged listings, where time and space loose its forte and music ignites its mighty interactive potency.

So far this was a highly distinguished occupancy of the analog mediums. Yet, this too often mystified domain is finally making its breakthrough onto the digital side.


Classical music represent a pinnacle reference when it comes to the music reproduction. Especially the complex passages and the complexity of the orchestral formation challenges any audio front end. The MSB Technology Reference DAC possess a unique ability to render the overload of the notes in veritable way,  beyond anything typical.


The Reference DAC delivers extraordinary and wholesome orchestral scenic sense, but also share the same potency when it comes to the rendition of solo instruments and the blending of the two.

Take any Midori, James Ehnes, Michael Rabin, Shlomo Mintz or Ossy Renardy's saltato and staccato momentums and you'll instantly understand, why I'm talking about something extra ordinary.

The Reference DAC is not focusing at either harmonic tail or dynamic edge of the violin note. It goes beyond both focusing and avoids both warm and utterly brittle traits...

SUM UP


The MSB Technology, under the baton of Daniel and Jonathan Gullman managed to deliver a mighty performer, that will change many paradigms connected with the digital audio.


Yes, there is a hefty entry price into the upper echelon of the MSB Technology DACs. Reference DAC surely won't be for everyone... Still, there is a surprisingly big enough market for this kind of digital audio gems. And based on what've seen over at social media, its not as small and niche as you might think.

As with the Select DAC, the Reference DAC delivers familiar lightness and natural flow with one of the-kind-density. There is something very different in the way Reference DACs four modules (eight high-powered channels) delivers both raw and feather like energy. Music's energy is distributed without the felling of parcelization, that is too often associated even with other top tier DACs. The Reference DAC intimately follows the sound consistency, closely reflecting the phenomena of the real music impact.

 MSB Technology Reference DAC knobs coming off the CNC. The unique detents and double bearings gives a smooth and quality feel to every DAC. 

The above mentioned density and dynamic stress free rendition might be closely connected with the Reference DAC's 145dBAFS (20Hz to 20kHz) dynamic range... Yes, I know. This is the topic, that can quickly sparkle more than just warmed up discussion. Still, even even in pro-audio you'll quickly found, that 120dB are quoted as the starting point of the undistorted sonic delivery....

The upgraded (from basic) constant impedance (1dB steps) passive volume control preamplifier is capable of driving the power amplifiers directly without the need of an amplifier. Yes, I agree. We've all heard this strong statements before. While yours truly had his own reservation previously, even with the Select DAC taking the role of pure preamplifier, I've finally found a matching amps, that truly highlight the Reference DAC (and Select) remarkable internal preamp. But more on that in due time. The most important thing is, that after numerous testings I'm really starting to appreciate this unique feature "passive" volume control feature, that allows truly ultra high-end performance in the absence of the outboard ultra-high-end-preamplifier. We all know, that worthy contenders briefly starts with the 20k+ price sticker. Take this in consideration and suddenly many of the audiophiles and music lovers will look at the given price from very different perspective.


The Reference DAC deliver the same DNA revelatory impact as its bigger brother, the Select DAC. The grander insights into the music's inner mechanics are on the level of its own as the Reference DAC has the ability to decipher and unmask impressive level of informations. These are usually well hidden inside the original digital audio file. The magic lies within MSB cutting edge ladder DACs and with the implementation on all the proprietary MSB Technology in-house technologies. MSB Technology is secretive for a reason when it comes to the implementation of their own solutions and IP. They've invested enormous time and effort over the three decades to gain their unique position in the digital audio. The very leading edge has its own rules to follow and momentum to keep...

As the MSB Select DAC, the Reference DAS is a vertex of science and art. When it comes to the music such juxtaposition seems too far out, yet Reference DAC expertly blends them both.

Let me start the 2018 awarding with something very special. The MSB Technology Reference DAC! Even before the final review, there is no doubt, that MSB Technology deserves a special highlighting. For what it represent technically and musically, I'm wholeheartedly already giving out the Mono & Stereo Upper Echelon Award!

Stay tuned for the part two, where'll sum up my impressions and expand on the exact reference music albums and tracks. 

Matej Isak

PRICE


Includes:

Optical and Coaxial Input Module
Base Output Module
Femto 140 Clock
Dual Powerbase
Stock Colors: Silver and Black
Custom colors available with extended manufacturing time and a custom color charge.
MSRP $39,500.00

For all the options check their official pricing here.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS


Supported Formats (Input dependent) 44.1kHz to 3,072kHz PCM up to 32 bits
1xDSD, 2xDSD, 4xDSD, 8xDSD
Supports DSD via DoP on all inputs
Digital Inputs 4x Advanced isolated input module slots
XLR Analog Inputs* 100kΩ Balanced
12Vrms Maximum
Isolated when not selected
XLR Analog Outputs 3.57Vrms Maximum (Digital Input)
12Vrms Maximum (Analog Input)
150Ω Balanced
Galvanically isolated
Preamp Output Module Volume Control* Purely passive constant impedance analog attenuation
1dB steps
Base Output Volume Control 1dB steps
Dynamic Range
(20Hz to 20kHz) 143dBFS
145dBAFS
Display Custom discrete LED audio clock synchronous display
Adjustable brightness and auto-off feature
Controls Isolated RS-232
IR Remote
Knob + 3 Buttons

*Optional Preamp Output Module required

Chassis Dimensions

Width: 17.5 in (444 mm)
Depth: 17.5 in (444 mm)
Chassis Height (Without Feet): 2.2 in (79 mm)
Stack height: 2.85 in (92 mm)
Weight: 25 lbs (11 kg)
Shipping Dimensions
Width: 25 in (635 mm)
Depth: 25 in (625 mm)
Height: 10 in (254 mm)
Weight: 50 lbs (24 kg)

Included Accessories

User Manual
Metal Remote Control
4X Spiked Feet

Reference DAC Dual Power Base

Technical Specifications

AC Voltage 100V (Fixed)
120/240V (Auto switching)
Power Consumption 90 Watts with fully configured Reference DAC
Less than 2W standby

Chassis Dimensions

Width: 17.5 in (444 mm)
Depth: 17.5 in (444 mm)
Chassis Height (Without Feet): 2.2 in (79 mm)
Stack height: 2.85 in (92 mm)
Weight: 45 lbs (20 kg)
Shipping Dimensions
Width: 25 in (625 mm)
Depth: 25 in (625 mm)
Height: 10 in (254 mm)
Weight: 65 lbs (29 kg)

Included Accessories

2X Power Cables
Ground Cable
IEC Power Cord
4X Spiked Feet

CONTACT


MSB Technology Corp
625 Main St.
Watsonville CA, 95076
USA

Sales contact:

National Sales Manager, Vince Galbo.
Phone: (716) 688-3527
European Sales Manager, Frank Vermeylen.
Phone: +32 472 42 5775
Factory Contact (for vendors):
Phone: (831) 662-2800

Email: Form