Product Review - MSB Technology Gold Link DAC III with P1000 Powerbase - January, 2002

Arvind Kohli

 DAC Specifications: MFR:  DC - 22 kHz S/N:  125 dB THD+N:  100 dB Dynamic Range:  130 dB Channel Separation:  110 dB Size:  1 3/4" H x 17" W x 14" D Weight:  20 Pounds MSRP:  \$1,895 USA P1000 Powerbase Specifications: Size:  1 3/4" H x 17" W x 14" D Weight:  21 Pounds MSRP:  \$399 USA

 MSB Technology: http://www.msbtech.com

Introduction

I want to start with a little audio analogy, so bear with me. This is a point that many audiophiles I talk to agree upon, and here is my attempt to summarize it: The audiophile pursuit is like sliding down a hyperbola trying to get to the asymptote.

Well, if you don't remember, no sweat, only your high school math teacher will be disappointed. A hyperbola is a geometric line that curves towards a straight line called the asymptote (diagram shown below). Theoretically, the hyperbola touches the asymptote at infinity, but in reality they never meet. They just keep getting closer. I think of the asymptote as the audiophile ideal of being able to recreate the original sound event. Our equipment, room, and recordings are the hyperbola trying to meet the ideal. I think there will always be a measurable difference between the real event and the reproduction, but we may be able to get it to the point where the human ear may not be able to tell the difference.

Every once in a while, when listening to music, I repeat a passage in disbelief because it sounds so very real. But for the vast majority of the time, my ears are simply being pleasured. They are not being fooled. I find one can make large jumps towards the asymptote when one moves from entry-level to mid-fi gear, or pop to audiophile recordings. But once you have better recordings and a moderate setup, you start to find it difficult to achieve big improvements anymore. You get to a point where spending considerable money yields a small to zero noticeable improvement. But it is the cumulative effect of all these refinements that bring us closer to the asymptote.

This is where refined components like outboard DACs, power conditioners, and interconnects come into play. Refinements in these components cost a lot more than the stock units supplied, and the improvement is modest in terms of absolute audibility. Think of it as the last mile in the marathon to audio nirvana, miniscule as a proportion of the total distance but exhaustive in terms of what it takes to accomplish. However, many audiophiles are willing to spend big bucks for that last mile, and that is what makes high-performance audio/video an interesting industry.

Company profile

MSB Technology was founded in 1987 as a partnership between Larry Gullman and Mark S. Brasfield. The two met at SRI (Menlo Park, California) where they both worked. These were still the early days of the CD player, and the early players on the market had mediocre-sounding DACs. Mark Brasfield was tinkering with after market improvements to those units, and when Larry joined forces with him, they launched their first product, a modified Philips CD player. They named the company MSB as an acronym for the engineering term ‘Most Significant Bit', but it also happened to be Mark's initials.

The Philips mod was received well by reviewers and launched MSB on its way to success. Larry later bought out Mark's interest in the company and is currently the sole owner. He still credits Mark for the basic design philosophy of the company; short signal paths, and fast power supplies. Larry also credits Mark for his tireless work with the initial products, and testing the sonic impact on each change in components.

MSB's design facilities are located in the Redwood forests in La Honda, California. Only the Platinum products are made there. All other products are assembled in Taiwan, at a facility exclusively contracted by MSB. Larry was very insistent on this arrangement with an offshore contractor, to ensure quality control and complete focus of their attention. This would yield the best of both worlds, low offshore assembly costs and quality standards of the design facility.

With refreshing honesty from a manufacturer, Larry admitted that a lot of ‘luck' is involved in the design phase. Given the design philosophy of the company, there still are infinite combinations of component choices and layouts. The design process at MSB involves a lot of listening sessions at a nearby church, known as ‘ the church in the Redwoods'. Each listening session sets off another round of changes in layout/components. Sometimes several rounds may not yield any significant breakthrough, and in some cases there is very rapid progress when listening sessions yield concrete results. This is the ‘luck' he was referring to. In the case of the Gold Link, this process took a full year. The MSB team also relies on a guitarist on their staff to compare live performances and recordings, to evaluate prototype designs for their fidelity.

Product Introduction

At one point sales were soft, and MSB was losing a sales manager. This paused them to take a hard look at the cost and process of introducing products to the market. This crisis led them to conceive of the first Link DAC. It was to be a budget product, with all the money on the inside and a sparse amount for cosmetics, advertising, and sales force. It was an instant success; they sold over 10,000 units and made MSB a household name with audiophiles. To this day those DACs are commonly traded on the used market, a testament to the consumer's recognition of the value of the upgrade ability and price/performance ratio of that model.

The Gold and Platinum models are designed to audiophile standards. The Platinum is completely constructed in the La Honda facility, and the DAC is designed and built in-house. The output of this DAC feeds straight to the jacks, with no other components (op amps) in the path. These hand made ladder-style DACs use resistors that switch in and out depending on the bits, and they generate 10 volts, so there is no need for an op amp. The Gold version, reviewed here, uses Burr-Brown 1716 DAC chips and Linear Technology 1364 op amps.

As far as Larry is concerned, the Gold absolutely must be used with the optional P1000 outboard power supply. The benefits are claimed to be in a more stable image and improved bass response. I think this would be especially so if your preamp has a low input impedance (e.g., 10 kOhms).

Setup

The DAC and the Powerbase are exactly the same size and neither unit really gets very hot, so they can be easily stacked together.

Burn-in was recommended at 100 hours so I ran the unit for 5 days straight before doing any serious listening. I did not notice any change before or after this period, but was not really looking for any either. MSB has listened to these products for thousands of hours, so they know what is best for their DACs. I did as I was instructed.

I had the analog outputs of the Gold Link III, the Panasonic A320, and the vintage Kenwood feed into the preamp with identical interconnects. My intent was to explore the difference, if any, between the outboard DAC and the one built into the DVD and CD players. Mind you the Panasonic A320 is no slouch in terms of its onboard DAC, so refer to our reviews of the preceding model the Panasonic A310 during last year's DVD benchmark tests. Also keep in mind that DAC technology has vastly improved over the past 10 years, and benefits of the technological advances have trickled down to budget players as well. So, outboard DACs have their work cut out for them, if they are going to attempt sounding better than what comes built-into most DVD players of today.

My primary listening room is 16' by 16' by 8'. For casual listening, the speakers were placed so that there were 70” between the tweeters, and 128” from the tweeters to the listening position. For critical listening sessions, all three points were about 70” from each other, and well away from room boundaries.

The Outside

The outside of the Gold Link is a slim sheet metal case that looks unobtrusive and clean. I am glad that they decided to be cost conscious on the outside, because I really don't care to pay a ton of money for something I am going to put in a rack. It is amazing what cosmetics can cost by the way. I once inquired about a brushed aluminum faceplate for an amp and gagged at the \$250 USD the service center quoted. Some of the big name products can have front plates running close to \$1,000 for the machining. The P1000 power supply is cased in a matching finish and profile, so they can be stacked. The P1000 can be used for any MSB product (other than Platinum), and they all have the same finish and profile. Smart way to do business.

The front of the DAC also sports several LEDs to indicate power, inputs, sampling rate, and options. Frankly, I found these to be too bright and even annoying in a dark room. The front also did not have any controls. I wish the upsampling toggle on the back were moved to the front for easy comparison. But in normal use I do not see why anyone would want to turn the option off. And, after you have done the comparison of upsampling vs. no upsampling, you don't need the toggle anyway, so what the heck. Leave it on the back.

The rear panel is furnished with one set of analog audio inputs for pass through. The also is a pair of RCA outputs. The digital inputs include a balanced AES/EBU, coax, and optical Toslink.

The power connection is compatible with the supplied wall wart supply or the optional P1000 power supply (wall warts convert 120V AC to low voltage DC).

Technicals

The Gold Link III can be thought of an upgraded version of the Link DAC III.  It includes the upsampling, MSB network connections, balanced inputs, along with upgraded capacitors, resistors, and op amps (photo of inside chassis shown below), which brings the price of the base model Link up to \$995. The Gold goes a couple of steps further and is designed with two DACs per channel, each with its own power supply. The theoretical advantage of multiple DACs per channel is a lower noise floor and thus a higher dynamic range, which MSB claims is an impressive 130 dB.

The Gold is furnished with its balanced input sharing AES/EBU and a proprietary MSB network connection. I really do not like manufacturers designing proprietary connections that are not compatible with products from other manufacturers. It is often a way of trying to make sure you only buy their products. In this case, however, it is the only way you can get a 192k signal into the DAC. As a consumer I would be happier if all connectors were able to accept the 192k signal, but Larry pointed out that only the balanced connector could handle the bandwidth. DVD manufacturers are not allowed to have 192k outputs, due to the restrictions on their licenses. MSB offers a 192k upsampling and output as an aftermarket upgrade to any CD/DVD player. This would include an MSB network balanced digital output that would then feed into the MSB DAC's balanced input jack. Hence, the need for the proprietary connection. However, this really only refers to the electronic interface. The AES/EBU jack itself is standard, and you can use any balanced cable you prefer.

The Gold Link will output 2V RMS at 0 dB and up to 4V RMS at max output. With such generous output you can use a passive preamp (my personal preference) with no reservations about the signal being too weak to drive the power amp. The Gold Link also boasts very impressive specs of 130 dB of dynamic range, 125 dB S/N ratio, >110 dB of channel separation and upsampling at rates of 96 kHz or 132 kHz. The factory preset is at 96k, but you can open the case and change the jumpers to set it at 132k. I did not bother, but I think this would appeal to those who also overclock the processors on their PCs.

The P1000 power supply (photo of inside chassis shown below) is an impressive monster in itself. It sports 27,200 microfarads of capacitance that is comparable to what you would find in a high-end 100 wpc stereo power amp. The abundant reserves of power ensures the DAC can deliver the peak signals without running out of current, although the stock unit is fully capable of meeting all power needs of the DAC itself. At this level of performance, you do not want to skimp on the power supply, and the P1000 is engineered to satisfy even the most critical tech-head.

The Sound

The Gold Link III did bring me closer to the asymptote. At first, I was having a difficult time being able to tell the difference between the analog output of my DVD player and the Gold Link III. But once I locked in on the difference, there is no mistaking it. Keep in mind these differences are subtle and will be more apparent with high performance systems and good recordings. These differences were very obvious when compared to the analog output of my vintage Kenwood CD changer, and modestly so when compared to my Panasonic A320.

One of the recordings I noticed a huge improvement in, is Happy-Go-Lucky local (The Oscar Peterson Trio, "Night Train", Verve, 314 521 440-2). It is a remastered version of the 1962 recording. The cymbals on this album were recorded point blank and sound very hot as a result, so your ears will beg for mercy. The Gold Link III was able to tone down the sizzle without losing finesse, and in fact, actually increased the audible detail. I could now separate the layers of harmonics made by the cymbals instead of it all sounding like a lump of harsh noise, as it did with the Panasonic A320. This discovery perhaps was my happiest, since it makes many of my older jazz recordings more enjoyable. I think it is a shame that those recordings could never be done again. But at least we will have remastered versions that eke out as much as is possible from the master tapes, and equipment like the Gold Link III that makes the recordings more enjoyable.

But the real potential of the Gold Link III was revealed with newer, better recordings that have been made with attention to the quality of recording components and simplicity of setup. One of my favorite such tracks is Yesterdays (Dave Brubeck, Night Shift, Telarc, CD-83351). There is a great amount of detail in the resonance of the grand piano, and there literally are layers and layers of sound, as each note and its reflections slowly decay, and additional notes and reflection are layered on top. With the Gold Link III, it was easy to feel the size and resonance of what must have been a grand piano. Each note and every resonance was cleanly separated giving me a sense of the beauty of the instrument and the genius playing it.

The MSB Gold Link III also distinguished itself from the built-in DAC on the Panasonic A320 in terms of dynamics. On Locomotive (Thelonius Monk; "Straight, No Chaser"; Columbia-Legacy; CK 64886), at about 0:52 into the song the ‘blat' from the tenor sax should kick you in the pants. Imaging of the sax should place Charlie Rouse a couple of feet inside and behind the right speaker. This was one of those rare cases where I had to open my eyes to make sure Mr. Rouse had indeed not materialized in my living room. It sounded as if he was, and the image was rock solid. I had no doubts about exactly where he would have been standing.

Conclusion

The rationale for buying an outboard DAC is not a very obvious one, and will only appeal to those seeking the very best they possibly can extract from their digital recordings with little regard for cost. This is a purchase for those who are single-mindedly in the pursuit of the best possible sound, and feel that every incremental increase in quality is worth pursuing. The MSB Gold Link III delivers on that quest and certainly justifies the concept of an outboard DAC for those seeking the last mile of fidelity today.

Associated Equipment:
Speakers: Dynaudio Contour 1.1; Triangle Titus XS; Monitor Audio GR10, Totem Model 1 Signature, Silverline SR15
Amplifiers: Bryston 4B Pro; Krell KAV 250a; NAD 317 (Integrated)
Preamplifiers: PS Audio IV
Digital Source: Panasonic A320; Kenwood
Power Conditioner: PS Audio P300
Connectors: Self-designed.

- Arvind Kohli -