As I read through “headphone pairings” threads on headphone sites I’m often surprised by how two excellent products when connected together can be perceived as a major mismatch by listeners. This was certainly not the case with the Grace m9XX. Here’s an example of the m9XX’s wide-ranging compatibility: The AudioQuest NightHawk and Sennheiser HD 700 are two radically different-sounding headphones. The NightHawk has a dark character while the HD 700s are bright and vibrant, yet both sounded as neutral and uncolored as I’ve ever heard them sound through the m9XX. It’s not as if the m9XX minimizes or reduces their intrinsic sonic personalities, yet the most sonically pernicious aspects of their innate characters were minimized. With the m9XX, the NightHawks weren’t overly dark and the HD 700 wasn’t peaky or lacking in dynamic control.
One of the headphone pairings that offered the most sonic value was when I connected the AKG K553 headphones to the m9XX. This relatively inexpensive over-ear closed design ($199 street) can sound somewhat matter-of-fact with many amplifiers, but with the m9XX they had a dollop of extra dynamic verve and their bass extended lower than I’d heard before. Another headphone that proved to be a nicely balanced pairing with the m9XX was the Oppo PM-3 ($399 street). Once more, the m9XX brought out the PM-3’s strengths, especially in soundstaging and image placement.
As a DAC/preamplifier, especially for a nearfield desktop system, the m9XX performed beautifully once a solution was found for its paucity of outputs. I used a splitter to give me the two pair of RCA single-ended outputs I needed to connect both my subwoofer and power amplifier. Since it was a nearfield system, interconnects were only one meter long. I also tried driving two 25-foot runs and I heard no audible fidelity losses at the frequency extremes. If you need to drive an even longer run of cable you might want to check with Grace first. Of course you can always resort to “subwoofer plan B” and connect a second pair of speaker cables from the outputs of your power amplifier to your subwoofer’s “high-level” or “speaker level” inputs. The disadvantage to this is that you need both the extra set of speaker cables and have to pass the subwoofer’s signal through your power amplifier. Unfortunately this method allows the amp’s colorations and noise to be added the original signal.
Sonically the Grace m9XX performed with flying colors when used as a DAC/pre. The well-controlled and extended bass that I heard through headphones was readily apparent when auditioned in a nearfield or room-based system. The m9XX’s unfatiguing upper-frequency presentation made listening through my all-solid-state and Class D amplification system a very natural and relaxed affair. My only quibble is that if you have built a system that is already soft and forgiving the m9XX might be too much of a good thing. However, if you want a neutral, revealing, but still listenable DAC, the m9XX checks all the right boxes.
Does the Grace m9XX have any competition? Does Rihanna wear short skirts? However, nothing in its price range has the ergonomic elegance and simplicity of the m9XX. It reminds me of the Aurender Flow, but at half the size and price. If I could stretch my budget an extra $200, I’d still be tempted by the Audeze Deckard due to its analog input. But currently I’d say the Grace m9XX is a major contender for best-buy top honors at its price point.
Digital audio, especially with DACs, has its own particular version of Moore’s law—every two years the price halves or the capabilities double. Two years ago you had to spend at least $1000 to get the sonic performance and features included in the $499 Grace m9XX. So, why not wait another two years and get m9XX’s capabilities for $250? Because, silly rabbit, you’d be forced to spend two more years without experiencing the sonic and ergonomic elegance of the Grace m9XX.
The m9XX is U.S.-made and its build-quality is such that Grace Design offers a five-year warranty in an age when most manufacturers’ guarantees for similar products are only good for a year at most.
Simply stated, the m9XX DAC/pre is something special—so special that it deserves to turn up on a lot of savvy audiophiles’ desktops.
Specs & Pricing
THD+N: 1kHz, 22Hz-22kHz BW, @1.0V out, no load <0.002%; @1.0V out, 32-ohm load <0.010%
Frequency response: 0.5Hz–45.9kHz (96kHz input)
Dynamic range: 112dB (20-22kHz)
Output impedance: 0.08 ohm (headphone) 47.5 ohms (line)
Power consumption: 8.0W (high-power mode); 2.5W (low-power mode)
Dimensions: 4" x 1.8" x 5.25"
Price: $799 ($499 street)
4689 Ute Highway
Longmont, CO 80503