Introduction to the Audiolab M-DAC Digital-to-Analog Converter
As the compact disc continues its rapid spin into obsolescence, the digital to analogue converter (DAC) has stepped up to become an pretty much indispensible part of any serious home audio system. And these days, there is no shortage of quality DACs in almost every price range. At around $1000, the market is particularly crowded, featuring highly-regarded models from Rega, Wyred 4 Sound, Benchmark, and Peachtree. DACs can offer serious value for money because unlike a CD player, they hold the possibility of improving the sound of all digital sources, including CD, DVD, MP3 and other digital audio files, Apple TV, and even video games, all with a single component and some digital cables. This is, of course, a double-edged sword—because a DAC’s footprint in a system can be so large, any flaws become a sonic signature of the system.
On its website, respected British manufacturer Audiolab proclaims the M-DAC is the follow-up to the 8000 DAC, introduced all the way back in 1992. I have gathered that DACs were quite popular in that era because CD players had not become all that good yet. With the market now awash in quality DACs, I guess it is safe to say we are in a DAC renaissance.
AUDIOLAB M-DAC DIGITAL-TO-ANALOG CONVERTER SPECIFICATIONS
Design of the Audiolab M-DAC Digital to Analog Converter
Like many DACs these days, the M-DAC is physically compact and lightweight. The outside casework, available in silver or black, features what feels like a thin, rubber-like coating. The M-DAC also includes a full function, wand-like remote control, which I found to work from a variety of room positions from which other remotes often struggle. The remote also wears the rubber-like coating and features unusually springy buttons. Also of note is the M-DAC’s OLED display, which is large enough to display a wealth of information and clear enough to be read from across the room. The front panel also features a Class-A headphone amplifier and a large multi-function knob (it turns as well as clicks). Because the M-DAC has two modes, DAC and digital preamplifier, the knob functions as a volume control as well as menu navigation.
The M-DAC includes the standard connections around back, two coaxial and two optical inputs, one of each of those for output, and a USB input. The USB input is the audiophile-approved asynchronous type, which basically just means the DAC’s master clock isn’t synchronized directly to the computer’s clock, but instead, is controlled by the DAC’s clock, which pulls the data as needed, thus eliminating jitter. The M-DAC, like many of its similarly-priced competitors, limits the USB input to 24/96kHz, which means it seemingly cannot take full advantage of the highest resolution material currently available such as HD Tracks’ 176.4kHz/24-bit version of Michael Jackson’s 1982 magnum opus, Thriller. The optical inputs are also limited to 24/96kHz. Through USB or optical, the M-DAC decodes 176.4KHz or 192KHz material at exactly half the frequency, 88.2kHz or 96kHz respectively. As usual, however, you do get full 24/192kHz through the coaxial inputs. The M-DAC’s Class-A output stage offers a choice between fully balanced or single-ended. For purposes of my evaluation, only the singled-ended outputs were used.
Setup of the Audiolab M-DAC Digital-to-Analog Converter
I connected the M-DAC using my reference cables, which include a mix of DH Labs signal cables and Synergistic Research signal and power cables. My current system is built around a pair of Focal Micro Utopia BEs and the Naim Nait XS-2 integrated amplifier. The various source components are listed at the end of this review. If you can’t wait, go ahead, there’s no shame in that.
The M-DAC had already been broken in for 48 hours by the nice folks at Planet of Sound, Audiolab’s North American distributor, but dead cold out of the box, it sounded slightly shrill and flat. After about 25 minutes, the sound became a lot more pleasant and the over-emphasis on high frequencies started to dissipate. At the same time, it was readily apparent that the strength of the M-DAC lay in its resolving power. John Westlake, the M-DAC’s designer, chose the 32-bit Sabre 9018 chip from ESS and as with designs from, for example, Wyred 4 Sound, a properly implemented Sabre DAC is capable of scalpel-like precision and breathtaking dynamics. Audiolab reports the dynamic range of the M-DAC equals or exceeds 115dB and 121dB through the single-ended and balanced outputs, respectively. One very cool aspect of the M-DAC you notice right away is the ability to display embedded information from a CD such as the track number and time. I had never seen this feature before. It is always nice to be surprised by thoughtful design touches such as this, which add to the perceived value of the component.
All DACs employ some kind of digital filter and the M-DAC has seven to choose from, including “Sharp Rolloff,” “Slow Rolloff,” “Minimum Phase,” “Optimal Spectrum,” and three variations of “Optimal Transient.” You can cycle through the filters via remote, so you can experiment to your heart’s content while material is playing. Audiolab’s excellent manual for the M-DAC gives brief descriptions of the various filters. Based on those descriptions, I figured Optimal Transient (best PRaT) or Optimal Spectrum (most organic) would work best. I messed around with the other filters a bit, but to be honest, I lost interest pretty quickly in all the switching back and forth stuff and instead focused on comparing Optimal Transient and Optimal Spectrum in hopes I could settle on a reference. I decided what I would do was listen for a few days with one, then a few days with the other. I would sometimes switch from one to the other and repeat a song, but as I did not find huge differences between the two, I ultimately settled on Optimal Transient because it seemed vocals had slightly more body and texture with that filter.
The Audiolab M-DAC Digital-to-Analog Converter In Use
As I started to write this review, I began thinking about using themes for the music selections I use in my reviews. I do not mean themes in the sense of genres like Jazz, Rock, or Classical, for example. This thought occurred to me after I noticed I was writing about no fewer than five cover songs in this review. I suppose this could have been the inaugural review implementing a theme, but because I was knocked to the ground by how amazing a WAV file of a Cure song sounded through the M-DAC, I will have to plan and implement a theme next time.
I listen to a lot of Cat Power when I am evaluating equipment. In the back of my mind, this has started to concern me because I am reminded of the few years I attended CES during which I heard the same female jazz vocalists in almost every high-end audio room. Am I just using Cat Power as a reviewing tool and will I one day loathe her as I began to loathe Diana Krall? Thankfully, I’m not there yet because Cat Power continues to release strong records like Sun [Matador Records] (2012) and has never recorded a song as annoying as “Peel Me a Grape.”
Anyway, as I started listening to another Cat Power song, “I Love You (Me Either),” Cat Power & Karen Elson, Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, [Verve Fontana] (2006), I was reminded why I love this woman’s voice. You really can’t blame Cat Power for these smarmy lyrics because this is a cover of 1967’s “Je t’aime… Moi Non-Plus,” by OG (original gangster: someone who has been around) French bad boy Serge Gainsbourg. Serge had written the song for and recorded it with his then-lover, Brigitte Bardot, but they broke up so he, being the sensitive guy he was, recorded it two years later with his then-chérie, Jane Birkin. Jane Birkin’s apparent lapse in self-respect has been overshadowed by being the inspiration for the eponymous $10K Hermès handbag. Thanks Google.
I won’t mince words here—listening to this song makes a strong case that the M-DAC is pretty much without fault. Karen Elson’s sweet (some would say sickeningly so), slow, spoken word begins “I love you, I love you, yes, I love you.” In the middle of that, the song’s tight bass line begins and Cat Power rides it in: “meeeee either.” Back to Karen: “Oh my love, skin to skin . . .” Cat Power: “Like the surge of a wave . . .” You get the idea—they like each other a little bit. These two also take turns showing some vocal range—there’s even some falsetto in there for good measure. Yes, women can do falsetto. Both vocals sound utterly natural, lots of breathing, lots of air, and all the other sounds and sound effects swirl about. Atmospheric is a great description. The M-DAC does the kaleidoscope of sound thing like a champ and sorts it all out. It’s no small feat—while showing you all the details and hanging them distinctly in space for you to admire, the M-DAC remains musical. Have you ever looked out into a clear sky and seen really bright stars, dim stars, and everything in between? That variation, which creates depth, is the same thing the M-DAC does with sound. Very impressive stuff. Remember Inglourious Basterds—what Hans Landa said to Monsieur LaPadite’s after his glass of milk—bravo.
For whatever reason, when I was listening to “I Love You (Me Either),” I recalled Cat Power’s ad for Cingular (pre-AT&T) and I was curious what the M-DAC could possibly do for a YouTube video mirrored from my laptop to my plasma through Apple TV. You see, old Serge’s song was a nice lossless WAV file over USB through the amazing Audirvana Plus (a once-you-have-it-you-will-wonder-how-you-ever-lived-without-it piece of software if there ever was one), so I had every expectation that it would sound very good, but wireless audio from a YouTube video? It’s fair to say I had no expectations. I’m not sure how long ago this commercial was made, but it features a Motorola Razor, so I’m guessing around 2005. In the commercial, Cat Power does a cover of the Nerve’s “Hanging on the Telephone” and with due respect to Blondie’s version, it’s brilliant. As far as I know, Cat Power never released it, but voilà, YouTube + Apple AirPlay mirroring + Apple TV. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEk1rp96gZw. The fact that I even get to play this through my stereo is pretty awesome and I guess that’s largely congratulations to Apple, but I also love that I get to use the talents of a $900 DAC to play back an old television commercial just to hear some music I like. It didn’t sound amazing, of course, but it sounded surprisingly good and more importantly, it brought a great big smile to my face. That commercial should have been longer.
I’ll take my teenage death anthems sparse, dark, and moody, please: “Terry” Anika, Anika [Stones Throw] (2010). Portishead alum Geoff Barrow’s distinctive production sets the mood immediately with this, the album’s opening song, a remake of 17-year-old Terry Ripley’s 1964 tragedy-soaked tribute to lost love. Anika sounds dead inside. I know that’s a terribly overused phrase these days, but compared to the original, whose upbeat nature can, I suppose, be blamed on the early 1960s mandate that all young females sound slightly giddy, Anika strikes the more appropriate tone. I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but the story of a teenage boy crashing and dying on a motorcycle after a fight with his girlfriend about her cheating should not sound giddy. Here, the M-DAC excels at Barrow’s atmospherics, conjuring up fog, empty streets, and stoplights. The texture with which the Audiolab shows vocals here is intoxicating. I could literally listen to this song five times in a row. The M-DAC owns vocals, reproducing human voices without sounding reproduced at all.
My interest in vinyl led me to revisit one of the only Cure albums I ever really liked, Three Imaginary Boys [Rhino/Elektra] (1979). Annoyingly, I have ordered this record twice and both times have had the extremely frustrating experience of opening the package only to find it did not ship, despite being told it was in stock. I’m glaring at you Oldies.com. Just kidding. I love surprises. Anyway, a deluxe remastered edition was released in 2004 on CD and while I have heard some awful things WEA has done in the mastering studio, this sounds quite good to me. As the legend goes, Robert Smith wrote “10:15 Saturday Night” when he was 16 years old just sitting at home, “waiting for the telephone to ring.” It’s a song about monotony—he watches water “drip drip drip drip drip” from a faucet in the kitchen sink. I’ve always loved the garage-band feel of this album, which is quite a contrast to some of the Cure’s more melodramatic stuff. Just over two minutes into the song, the clean bass arpeggio moves into a jangled, mangled outburst of guitar. The song then gets quiet again, Robert Smith exhales, mumbles something under his breath, and more bass arpeggio. It’s a great sequence. The M-DAC brings the bass guitar right into the room and shows the electric guitar at its raw and unpleasant best. It’s unpleasant because it’s supposed to be. The guitar releases every ounce of frustration of being 16 and sitting at home at 10:15 on a Saturday night.
“Trust in Me” and “You’re Lost Little Girl,” both appear on Through the Looking Glass, the 1990 covers album by Siouxsie and the Banshees. “Trust in Me” was an original song in Disney’s 1967 animated feature, The Jungle Book. I have not seen this movie, so I don’t know what it’s about, but the scene in which this song appears involves a snake hypnotizing a boy so that he can eat him. In the movie, music is very faint in the background, making the song play out more like an acapella. Siouxsie Sioux takes a quite different approach, as you might expect, her being queen of the goths and all. The string arrangement on her track is really something to behold. Harp features most prominently and in combination with the very low bass, ethereal vocals, volume swells, and syncopation, it’s a very dream-like, you guessed it, hypnotic experience. The M-DAC heroically articulates the attack of all the different strings and does not skimp on their decay either. “You’re Lost Little Girl,” is a cover of The Doors song and surprisingly, Siouxise sounds a bit less dour than Jim Morrison here. While the recording is certainly good, I would not put it in the gee-whiz, audiophile catnip category. Artistically, it’s not much of a departure from The Doors version, which makes it miles less interesting than “Trust in Me.” You won’t care though because her version plays perfectly to the M-DAC’s strengths, featuring a dense, chaotic, funhouse of sounds. The pleasure here is not in the dissection of details, but in the fun you get listening to a really cool, simple little song. The M-DAC did not get in the way of this and often, that’s much easier said than done.
The Audiolab makes for a tough comparison with the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2. Both DACs use the Sabre 9018 chip, excel at resolution, and have similar features. The DAC-2 costs $600 more than the M-DAC and looks it and offers full 24/192kHz through the USB input, but it does not include a headphone amplifier or the filtering options of the M-DAC. It came as a shock to me, but while the M-DAC was in place, I never really missed the DAC-2, a component I rank as all-time truly special. So I put the DAC-2 back in the system and just listened to it. I did not try and deconstruct the music; I just listened. Over several weeks, I went through my iTunes library, watched a lot of movies, including the surprisingly good Moneyball (listen for the bass after the home run clears the fence in the record winning streak game), and I could swear the DAC-2 had a slightly less edgy presentation. It seemed there was something sweeter or more pleasant about the DAC-2’s treble, but with all the resolution I could ever want. I was not at all convinced this was entirely the case, however, so back in went the M-DAC. I listened to more music and I could not identify any harshness or actually, anything negative at all. So I put the DAC-2 back in and nothing jumped out at me upon the switch. The two components sound very much alike. In the end, what I did notice with the DAC-2 was that it seemed to make the speakers disappear just a bit more, making the sound in front of me seem less localized at the speakers themselves. With the DAC-2, sounds were hung in the space in front of, to the side, and behind the speakers more consistently and more convincingly. With the M-DAC, this just seemed to happen less often and less completely. Ultimately, the two share a similar mix of charms and while noticeable, the differences are very small. High praise for the M-DAC.
Conclusions about the Audiolab M-DAC Digital-to-Analog Converter
To me, a DAC should be all about natural resolution and transparency because those qualities get you thinking and feeling about the material played through them. To be great, a component should not have any readily-identifiable flaws. The M-DAC is a great DAC and considering its price, it also just happens to be one of the greatest bargains currently available in all of audio. Bravo, Audiolab.
Focal JM Lab Micro Utopia BE, Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2, Oppo DV-980H, Clearaudio Concept Turntable (Concept MM cartridge), Musical Surroundings Phonomena II phono pre-amplifier, Apple TV, XBOX 360, signal cables by DH Labs and Synergistic Research, power cables and power conditioning by Synergistic Research, and computer playback software by Audirvana.