MSB Reference DAC and Transport

The Knock on the Door

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters
MSB Technology Reference DAC
MSB Reference DAC and Transport

As I’ve said, this trompe l’oreille trick hasn’t ever happened to me as regularly or as convincingly with other digital sources, even though I confess that my hands-on experience with top-rank digital gear has been limited to a dCS stack I reviewed some years ago and an older-gen Berkeley Alpha DAC (not counting the stuff I hear on a fairly regular basis at trade shows). To be frank, when it comes to digital sources, I ain’t no Robert Harley. Still, I know real when I hear it, and with the Reference DAC/Transport I heard it to an extent I wouldn’t have thought possible the day before this MSB gear arrived—and I heard it on CD, SACD, hi-res streaming, and (par excellence) MQA streaming.

So what the hell is MSB doing right?

Well, on a technical level MSB has been making (and improving) its own high-precision ladder DACs for 19 years. In the Reference (and other) models, it now uses what it calls a “hybrid” version of this ladder DAC—a true balanced design, automatically switchable and optimized for PCM and DSD “with zero compromises for each format.” In PCM mode these ladders become extreme-precision multibit DACs. In DSD mode they become a huge number of single-bit DACs, all doing the exact same parallel processing for the “ultimate in DSD reproduction.” This proprietary hybrid DAC design allows for processing speeds of up to 6MHz for PCM and 50MHz for DSD, ensuring lower noise floors than have “ever before been achieved in audio reproduction.” The lower the noise floor, MSB says, the better the dynamics and the better the “musical delicacy and overall resolution.”

Of course, you hear a lot of these “never-before-achieved” claims from manufacturers of digital gear and are often left wondering what such engineering boasts have to do with the sonic end results. But as I just noted vis-à-vis the Harry Connick, Jr. CD, the resolution and dynamic range of the MSB Reference DAC really were audibly superior—and (in spite of what digital doesn’t do as well as vinyl) the MSB Reference DAC/Transport really did sound more natural and realistic. Moreover, this resolution applied equally to the silences among notes and within concert halls and recording studios, which, for once, didn’t sound like dead air but had the slight texture that even the quietest quiet has. I assume that this has something to do with the MSB gear’s own noise floor, which is (or must be) lower than that of the recording environment, making instruments sound as if they’re playing in real space rather than outer space.

Not only does MSB make its own ladder DACs; since 2011 it has also been making its own Femto Clock, optimized for and switchable between 44.1kHz and 48kHz and their direct multiples. (“Femto” in  this context means femtosecond, which is a second multiplied by a factor of 10-15.) Since all formats, including DSD, are based on one of these two frequencies (and their multiples), no cross-conversion is needed.

As you probably know, the goal of a digital clock is to keep timing variations (jitter) as close to zero as possible. To understand the difference between​ clock accuracy​ and ​jitter, MSB draws an analogy to soldiers on the march: The ​speed​ at which the soldiers march is the sample rate of the clock; the ​distance​ ​between them from moment to moment is jitter. “If you imagine the soldiers bunched up here and stretched out there, you start to get a picture of how jitter affects the analog result,” says MSB. Even worse, in the real world, clock jitter has a shaky chaotic component, so harmonics get scattered in time and smeared. The lower the jitter, MSB contends, the lower the harshness we hear and the better the micro-details, micro-dynamics, overall definition, and soundstaging.

Once again, these are the sorts of claims that virtually everyone in the digital world has been making since the dawn of Perfect Sound Forever. But, as was the case with its ladder DAC, MSB’s Femto Clock does seem to be doing something very like what the company says it is doing—lowering “harshness” (one of the very things that makes digital sound “digital”) and improving micro-detail, micro-dynamics, overall definition, and soundstaging. What is more, the MSB clock (in combination with the ladder DAC) seems to be doing these things in a mutually beneficial way, changing not individual attributes one by one but the entire gestalt of the presentation all at once. Indeed, the notion that something a bit “chaotic” (to use MSB’s word) has been made orderly is one way to explain why the MSB DAC and Transport sound so real. With the noise floor lowered (and most of the “digital” sound of digital sources eliminated), with focus made so lifelike and immediate, with timbre made so neutral and natural, with ultra-fine dynamic gradations (like Connick’s light fingersnaps and Marsalis’ blowing into the mouth of his sax as he holds a note at the end of “Nightingale”) made so clear and unmistakably present, it really is as if things that were not timed quite correctly (like a voice track on which the actor’s voice lurches a bit ahead of or lags a bit behind the movement of his lips) have suddenly been made perfectly coincident.

Everything else about the MSB Reference DAC has been designed to preserve the virtues of resolution, timing, and lowest possible noise. The motherboards in the DACs are optimized for keeping jitter as low as possible from the clock to the ladder DAC. The core digital engine is format-independent and completely upgradeable. The processing card is built by MSB—an enormous project in miniaturization, incorporating thousands of lines of software code. Input modules can be installed or removed with the flip of a lever. And the constant-impedance, passive analog volume control is exceptional, even by the standard of this exceptional piece of engineering. 

I’ll let MSB explain its preamp module (and if you hear an echo of MBL’s LASA 2.0 White Paper it’s because, well, great minds think alike): “It has been MSB’s dream for many years to allow its ladder DACs to drive interconnects and amplifiers directly. By definition, a conventional preamp takes in the audio-industry standard signal and boosts it up to full volume for the sole purpose of turning it down again! MSB’s ladder DACs put out full volume, so no such gain is needed. The signal of the hybrid DACs only needs to be attenuated (turned down), and this is accomplished using MSB’s preamp module with its newly invented passive attenuator—a constant-impedance, passive volume control with no active circuitry in the analog path.”

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