This “minimum parts” preamplifying scheme, which eliminates the need for a costly, separate, signal-degrading component full of active circuits (and a costly signal-degrading interconnect to hook the DAC to the pre), is claimed to produce “extraordinary overall clarity.” And, boy, does it ever! And not just with digital signals. (I’m not sure I’ve heard better analog reproduction than what I get using the MSB’s passive analog attenuator, Lloyd Walker’s extraordinary phonostage, the Constellation Hercules II Stereo amplifier, Magico M3 loudspeakers with or without a pair of QSubs, and Lloyd’s Proscenium V turntable with Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge.)
The Reference DAC’s level of clarity is kind of magical. I don’t think there is a CD or SACD (and I got a million of ’em, folks) that hasn’t benefitted from the MSB’s astoundingly lifelike resolution, neutrality, immediacy, and dynamic range—and almost complete elimination of the customary digital artifacts. You just hear more of what’s been played and recorded. Moreover, with the best source material (which I will come to in a moment) the speakers also disappear more completely. Now, this disappearing act is due in no small part to Holger Stein’s, Ben Piazza’s, and Ted Denney’s wonderful room treatment systems (which I use in combination) and to Magico’s superb M3 speakers (and their fabulously low-in-noise enclosures). But it is also due to the MSB DAC, which, when all is just so, “floats” instruments and voices in front of, behind, between, and far to the sides of the Magicos, escaping the bonds of sonic gravity in a way I’ve never heard before save via Radialstrahlers (which aren’t as neutral). For instance, there isn’t an instrument in the septet of violin, doublebass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion in Pentatone’s wonderful SACD of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat that isn’t perfectly present in its own space in what seems like an unbounded (by room or loudspeaker or electronics) soundstage. On streamed MQA material (via Roon and Tidal), there isn’t one of the newly recorded backup vocalists potted into the late, incomparably great Aretha Franklin’s “Don’t Play That Song” (from A Brand New Me [Rhino/Atlantic]) who isn’t completely individuated and fully “there” in her own, cushioned-with-air space (which sounds a little different than the other spaces on the recording, as it should since it is a fresh addition).
As long as we’re talking about streaming and MQA, let me take a moment to voice an amateur opinion. A lot of folks (including some who make DACs) seem to think that MQA is a bamboozle of sorts—a new compression scheme in sheep’s clothing. All I can say is that if it is a compression scheme, it’s the best one of all time. Not that every MQA track is a winner. Just like any other medium, there are better and worse; everything depends on how the music was originally (or subsequently with analog sources) recorded and sampled. But try one of the better examples—say Tom Waits’ Heart of Saturday Night, which happens to be an analog master—and judge for yourself. The son of a gun certainly sounds goosebump “real” to me.
Interestingly, for a medium that is not long on depth of image (though it’s great on depth of field), MQA at its best does seem to add more of a third dimension to vocalists and instrumentalists than any other digital format. Of course, it does this without adding analog-like body, so you get an image that is more rounded but not solidly filled in, like a halftone of a continuous-tone photograph.
Let me say this as well—though it has nothing to do with the MSB Reference DAC and Transport—the notion that streaming is the trouble-free future of digital audio is almost laughable. Oh, the future part is correct. Streaming sounds better (or can), particularly select higher-res streaming, and even more particularly select higher-res MQA streaming. It’s the trouble-free part that is absurd. Unless its drive belt snaps or the stylus of the cartridge that is mounted on its tonearm falls off, a turntable never stops making music. Roon/Tidal streaming, on the other hand, is entirely dependent on your home’s Wi-Fi network, which, at least in my house, can give up the ghost if you look at it funny. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to re-boot my home and Roon modems (and not always with success when it comes to reestablishing a connection). Indeed, after weeks of on-again/off-again music, I felt compelled to upgrade my entire Wi-Fi system with higher-speed modems and higher-speed service. So far, that’s been an improvement (though an ongoing costly one), but I still kinda hold my breath whenever I head upstairs to listen to MQA on the MSB gear. One thing that can be said for physical media like CDs or SACDs is that they don’t frequently stop playing because the connection between the disc and the laser goes south. There is this, as well. While not quite as good sonically, CD/SACD doesn’t sound a whole lot worse than streamed sources—don’t forget what the MSB was capable of doing with a lowly 1990 Harry Connick, Jr. Red Book CD.
Well, that’s my tale, folks. The guy who railed against digital is now listening happily to same. Oh, I don’t take back my diatribe. Most digital does still sound like digital. It’s just that, in some of the most critical ways, the Reference DAC and Transport don’t. The MSB is not one of those beautifying DACs that smears over detail with a thick coat of even-order harmonics. It is not one of those purely analytical DACs that sounds the way clothing feels fresh from the dry cleaner. It is just a realistically neutral, astonishingly detailed, very dynamic source component that leaves less of an impression on soundstage and system that anything else digital I’ve tried out (or heard at any length at shows). There is a good reason why I cannot recommend MSB’s DAC and its Transport highly enough, and why I will now be using both as references.
It’s a little scary to think that the Reference is MSB’s penultimate product, that there is another DAC above it (The Select), which supposedly outdoes it in every way. I’d have to hear that to believe it. But in the nonce the Reference DAC and Transport have set a new standard of realism from digital sources (both physical media and streaming) chez Valin. If you’ve got the dough, you’d be silly not to give these exceptional components a long, long listen. They may not be as fool-you realistic as that knock on the door I heard while watching a movie, but for a digital skeptic like me they are the knock on the door I’ve been waiting for.
Specs & Pricing
MSB Reference DAC
Base inputs: SPDIF module (optical and coaxial inputs)
Base output: Base output module (XLR/RCA)
Base clock: Femto 140
Base power supply: Dual Reference Powerbase
Available options: Preamp output module, $6000; Femto 77 clock, $4995; Femto 33 clock, $14,905; Pro ISL module, $990 (includes cable); Quad-rate MQA USB module, $1590; Renderer V2 module, $1950; Dual I2S module, $990; RCA analog input, $990; Isolated XLR analog output, $1590; Isolated XLR sub output, $1590; Isolated RCA analog output, $1590
Base price: $39,500
MSB Reference Transport
Cable: IEC power cable
Remote: Transport remote
Options: Reference Transport Powerbase, $11,500 (includes Dual-Link cable)
JV’s Reference System
Loudspeakers: Magico M Project, Magico M3, Avantgarde Acoustics Zero 1, MartinLogan CLX, MBL 101 E MK. II, Magnepan 1.7 and 30.7
Subwoofers: JL Audio Gotham (pair), Magico QSub 15 (pair)
Linestage preamps: Soulution 725, Constellation Altair II, Siltech SAGA System C1, Air Tight ATE-2001 Reference
Phonostage preamps: Walker Audio Proscenium V, Soulution 755, Constellation Perseus, Audio Consulting Silver Rock Toroidal
Power amplifiers: Soulution 711, Constellation Hercules II Stereo, Air Tight 3211, Air Tight ATM-2001, Zanden Audio Systems Model 9600, Siltech SAGA System V1/P1, Odyssey Audio Stratos, Voxativ Integrated 805
Analog sources: Acoustic Signature Invictus Jr./T-9000, Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V, TW Acustic Black Knight/TW Raven 10.5, AMG Viella 12
Tape deck: United Home Audio Ultimate 1 OPS
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Air Tight Opus 1, Ortofon MC Anna, Ortofon MC A90
Digital sources: MSB Reference DAC, Berkeley Alpha DAC 2
Cables and interconnects: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power cords: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power conditioners: AudioQuest Niagara 5000 (two), Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Technical Brain
Support systems: Critical Mass Systems MAXXUM and QXK equipment racks and amp stands
Room treatments: Stein Music H2 Harmonizer system, Synergistic Research UEF Acoustic Panels/Atmosphere XL4/UEF Acoustic Dot system, Synergistic Research ART system, Shakti Hallographs (6), Zanden Acoustic panels, A/V Room Services Metu acoustic panels and traps, ASC Tube Traps
Accessories: Symposium Isis and Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks and Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment and amp stands, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional Sonic record cleaner, Synergistic Research RED Quantum fuses, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses