Written by Jeff Fritz from www.soundstageultra.com
So there I was, listening to the MSB Technology S202 stereo power amplifier ($29,500, all prices USD) paired with my own MSB Discrete DAC ($9950 base price, $21,380 as configured) through Magico A5 loudspeakers ($24,800/pair). I marveled at the system’s resolution and quietness—“blacker” backgrounds I’d never heard. The sound of this system was so good, so right—so everything—I kept thinking that if I were an audiophile who didn’t have to review gear for a living and I owned such a system, where could I go from here? Would I need to “go” anywhere at all? I was so impressed by the sound that I wrote about it in my last month’s “Opinion” for SoundStage! Ultra, “Building a Supersystem Around Magico Speakers and MSB Technology Electronics.” I could have just stopped chasing better sound and been thrilled with that setup for the long haul.
But even audiophiles who aren’t reviewers are usually more restless than that, at least in terms of their systems. If there’s no upgrade in sight, how do Jane and Joe Audiophile interact with the hobby outside their listening rooms? I’ve been as guilty as anyone: Over the years, I’ve almost always had my eyes and ears on something new that promises even higher fidelity to the sound of my recordings.
But there I was, listening to a system I could be completely happy with—and not just for the price. That MSB-Magico rig didn’t just make great sound, it made me feel great while I was listening to my music. This type of contentment with an audio system doesn’t come along very often.
But, of course . . .
. . . already lurking in a corner of my listening room was a box, and in that box was something that would upset my newly built, finely tuned apple cart: MSB Technology’s Premier DAC (base price $24,950). I should never have opened that box.
The Premier premieres
For those of you unfamiliar with their product line, the Premier sits directly above the Discrete in MSB Technology’s hierarchy of DACs. It might be hard to fathom that the Discrete, at over 20 grand with the options on my unit, is an entry-level model. MSB doesn’t make low-cost DACs.
At its base price of $24,950, the Premier includes the Premier Powerbase power supply, which has the same dimensions and weight as the Premier itself: 17″W x 2″H x 12″D and 18 pounds. The Premier has several inputs: AES/EBU (XLR), two optical (TosLink), and one coaxial (RCA). It also has a word-sync output (BNC). The Premier’s digital clock is MSB’s own Femto 93, and the buyer can order a Premier with single-ended (RCA) or balanced (XLR) outputs. There are also two input slots that that buyer can configure to add optional modules; for instance, the Pro ISL ($990), for use with the Pro USB-to-Pro ISL adapter ($990), to provide USB input; and the MSB Renderer V2 ($1950). The base model itself provides full functionality, however. The integral volume control ensures that, in an all-digital system, a separate preamplifier won’t be needed.
Unlike most DAC makers, MSB uses no off-the-shelf DAC chips, but instead makes their own converters. Each of the four Prime DACs at the heart of the Premier is a fully balanced, discrete, ladder DAC. I asked Vince Galbo, MSB’s sales manager, to briefly describe ladder DACs:
The purpose of a DAC is to convert a digital code into a precise voltage which is the actual analog signal. MSB’s over 20 years of experience in [the]design and manufacture of discrete ladder DACs has resulted in the proprietary and novel Prime and Hybrid discrete DAC modules, used in all MSB DACs. MSB’s ladder DACs use precision-reconfigurable networks of resistors and switches to precisely convert your digital files into music. These are not your average simple ladder DACs, but an extraordinary core digital engine—a general-purpose toolbox of ultraprecision components. They can be configured to natively convert any existing formats, and any foreseeable formats that do not exist yet. The ultraprecise resistor elements can be configured as a direct-conversion DAC that is ideal for PCM conversion at nearly any sample rate and bit depth, or as a native DSD converter revealing an extraordinary SACD-DSD presentation for the finest DSD sound. The accurate signal is fully balanced from the point of conversion. The modules do not require any buffering with transistors, etc., because of the high voltage and current produced by these ladder converters. MSB produces these DAC modules completely in-house, using our state-of-the-art SMT [surface-mount technology] production line, and each and every module is fully inspected and tested to ensure the consistent quality of every DAC we produce. Finally, each module is installed into its own individual CNC-machined case, which shields the sensitive electronics from external interference and ensures optimal thermal performance. The care and feeding of these DAC modules is provided by super-low-noise, high-current power supplies, ultra-low-jitter Femto clocks, and custom digital filter algorithms developed in-house by MSB over the last two decades.
I asked Galbo how the Premier differs from the Discrete:
Once a single high-precision DAC module is built, it is advantageous to stack another identical module “on top” to do the exact same parallel processing running the same data with the same clock. This drops the noise floor further and allows summing of the outputs, to make an even more robust low-impedance output. Parallel processing of these multiple DACs is one of the additional features of the next level of MSB DAC models. The Discrete DAC has two Prime DAC modules (a fully balanced DAC inside each module), and the Premier DAC has four Prime DAC modules. Compared to the Discrete DAC, the Premier DAC also has a higher-performance Femto 93 clock. The Discrete DAC includes a Discrete power supply designed and built in-house to high quality standards, whereas the Premier DAC features the Premier Power Base. The Premier Power Base includes the best parts and design culled from the Select and Reference DACs, including the best transformers, custom precision power supplies, and numerous other top-quality parts.
For years I’ve used DACs with built-in volume controls fed directly into my power amp(s), but I’ve never found one that performed at anywhere near the level of MSB’s. I asked Galbo to explain why the Premier’s volume control worked so well when connected to MSB’s S202 power amp:
It is necessary to talk about preamps here. Most preamps use amplification from transistors, op-amps, or tubes to increase the industry-standard line-level signal in order to simply . . . turn it down again! MSB DAC modules put out full volume right from the point of conversion, so no gain is needed between the DAC and the amplifier. At that point we only need to attenuate (turn down the volume), which, in the pursuit of absolute purity and clarity, is infinitely easier than creating absolutely defect-free gain. MSB has eliminated all active devices from the point of conversion in the DAC module to the input connector of the amplifier. We have developed a constant low-impedance volume control that has a constant impedance at all volume levels. Amplifiers expect this sort of robust low-impedance output, seeing it as a source equal to the best preamplifiers available. Eliminating any sort of gain devices after the high-purity signal from the DAC module allows a level of sheer clarity across the spectrum that is surprising when heard for the first time.
The Premier’s volume control operates over a range from 0 to 106 in 1dB increments. The XLR outputs provide a maximum of 3.5V RMS output. The Premier will support resolutions up to DSDx8 and 32-bit/768kHz PCM, and all inputs accept DSD over PCM (DoP). Specifically, the optical (TosLink) and coaxial (RCA) module, and the AES/EBU module (XLR), work at resolutions of up to 24/192 and DSDx1 via DoP. The MSB Renderer V2 works at resolutions of up to 32/768 and DSDx4, and the Pro USB input up to 24/768 and DSDx8.
The Premier Powerbase’s and Premier’s identical cases are designed to be stacked. Each comes with Viton-tipped stainless-steel feet that won’t mark the unit under it. The DAC and Powerbase are connected with two dual-link power cables (provided).
A remote-control handset of machined aluminum is included, and I found it terrific in use: The volume is adjusted via a central wheel that’s a cinch to operate with the thumb of the hand holding the remote. Power on/off and input selection are also included, among other functions.
The front panel of the milled-from-solid-aluminum Premier (available in silver or black) features a tasteful display that tells you the current volume level, bit depth and sample rate, and the input selected. The Premier’s display comprises 560 discrete LEDs compared to the Discrete’s 119. The intensity of brightness can be adjusted in the menu system.
My last question to Galbo was about the Premier’s ability to adapt to the future. Here’s what he said:
Because the DAC modules can convert any format, things like format recognition (current and future), digital filters, and virtually all other operations can be upgraded by a free firmware upgrade downloaded from the MSB website and played like a song in your media player. New input modules can be created to accommodate any incoming signal or connection. The combination of firmware upgradeability and the plug-in input modules ensure a degree of future-readiness so that your MSB DAC will not go obsolete for many years to come.
I connected the MSB Technology Premier DAC directly to my review sample of MSB’s S202 stereo power amplifier, making sure to follow MSB’s recommendation to set the S202’s input impedance and the Premier’s output impedance both to 75 ohms. I also used the Premier with my Boulder Amplifiers 2060 stereo power amp. Three pairs of loudspeakers ended up being hooked up to the Premier during its stay with me: Estelon X Diamond Mk IIs, Magico A5s, and Vimberg Tondas. All interconnects, speaker cables, and power conditioning were by Shunyata Research. My sole source component was an Apple MacBook Air laptop computer running Roon, Audirvana, and the Qobuz streaming service. The Premier sat atop its Premier Powerbase power supply, which rested on an SGR Audio Model III Symphony rack.
A new sound
As editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! publications, I’ve cast a critical eye at my fair share of audio reviews. When I don’t understand what a writer has written, I try to figure it out. Sometimes I have to ask the writer to explain, but often—knowing the writer and the context in which something was written—I can eventually puzzle out the intended meaning. I then try to make it clearer for the next person: you, the reader.
One thing that crops up again and again are harsh remarks about “the sound of digital audio.” Many high-end reviewers, both for SoundStage! and other magazines, have mentioned what they consider to be the generally poor sound of digital, though it’s not always easy to grasp what they mean. Whether they write of “digital glare,” “listening fatigue,” or “digital nasties,” many audio writers are critical of what they hear from digital sources, and make those criticisms in a variety of sometimes vague ways.
I’m not that guy. Sure, I’ve described sound in vague language that needed to be clarified by an editor(s). But I’ve always been generally good with digital sound. I’ve heard DACs whose sound hasn’t appealed to me, but rarely has anything been outright uncomfortable to listen to. I’m fortunate in having had, over many years, a long string of capable DACs in my systems. Companies such as Auralic, dCS, Esoteric, Hegel Music Systems, and Soulution, have offered great-sounding DACs over a wide range of prices, and I’m lucky to have lived with and written about them. That’s not to say that all those DACs have sounded the same, or even similar, but on the scale of sound quality, all have ended up somewhere between Very Good and Great.
As the sound quality of DACs improves, what I usually hear is more resolution—I hear deeper into the music with better DACs, and this makes me want to listen more, and with more intentionality.
That’s not exactly what happened when I inserted the MSB Technology Premier DAC in my system. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I preceded my listening to the MSB Premier with MSB’s entry-level DAC, the Discrete, in my system. The Discrete, when paired with either my Boulder Amplifiers 2060 or, especially, MSB’s own S202 stereo power amp, produced the best sound I’d heard in my current room. The Discrete produced the “blackest” backgrounds, cast the most holographic soundstages, and revealed more inner detail than any other DAC I’ve heard. I love this DAC. That the Discrete breathes such rarified air made me wonder just how much of an improvement—if any—the Premier could make.
In many areas, it didn’t make a difference. After all, silence is silence, and silence wasn’t more silent to my ears through the Premier than through the Discrete. In short, the Premier, too, was dead silent in my system, but I was used to that. It produced a “black” background from which the music emerged—images popped, creating in my room a spookily clear atmosphere I felt I could walk through and around. But so did the Discrete. With the Premier, I heard no tonal aberrations anywhere in the audioband—given a great recording, music sounded as natural as could be. And the Discrete did exactly the same thing.
But as I put more and more listening miles on the Premier, I came to prefer it to the Discrete, and by a not-small margin. Why?
As I hinted in the third paragraph of this section, I’ll need an editor to help me make this point clear.
The short answer is that the Premier was more enjoyable to listen to than any other DAC I’ve heard—including the Discrete. As I type this, I’m listening to Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax’s Hope Amid Tears: new recordings of Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Sony Classical/Qobuz). I was gobsmacked by the dynamic range of Ma’s cello, as reproduced by the Premier. The music soared, emerging from the Magico A5s with magnificent dynamic gradations that made the experience of hearing them so exciting I could hardly believe my ears. I know the words ease and effortlessness are vague descriptors of sound, but what I heard from the MSB Premier was both of those and more. There was no harshness or glare or artificiality—as we all agree, the absence of these qualities is the baseline of great digital sound—but what I heard throughout all 153 minutes of this three-CD set transcended those qualities to give me a listening experience even more pleasurable. My brain seemed to have to work less to enjoy the music. This meant that, with the MSB Premier, I wanted to listen to more music, and for longer periods of time, than I have with any other digital front end I’ve had in my home.
As I listened to the playful Rondo: Allegro of the Cello Sonata No.2 in G Minor, Op.52 No.2, I couldn’t help but imagine the delight that must have been on the faces of Ma and Ax as they played. The sound was spirited, unconstrained by any notion of ones and zeros—although the term analog didn’t come to mind either. As the music builds in intensity from 2:33 to 2:50, I heard beautifully portrayed, effortless scaling of intensity and volume; multifaceted, tangible texture; and tone that was colorful and vibrant. In my estimation, the sound was perfect.
Next up was Soundgarden’s classic “Black Hole Sun,” a Chris Cornell song I’ve loved for over 25 years, this time sung by Norah Jones on her most recent album, . . . ’Til We Meet Again (24/96 FLAC, Blue Note/Qobuz). (Aside: I saw Soundgarden at Lollapalooza in 1992 a couple of years before this song appeared on an album, but unfortunately missed Lollapalooza in 1996 and 2010, the only other years Soundgarden appeared on that tour.) Although I’ve listened to this track numerous times since the release of the Jones album, this time was different: It was a lot better. Immediately I had a greater sense of the acoustic space around the image of Jones’s voice, including more palpability—a realism—to the crowd noise, and more presence from her piano. When her voice enters at 0:51, my listening room sounded as live as I’ve ever heard it. Talk about addictive sound—this was the closest I’ve heard a stereo come to fully reproducing the sound of a concert venue in my home. The Premier did that consistently: It got me closer to the performance, more in the presence of the performer(s).
As reproduced by the Premier, the Norah Jones track was full of other surprises. Not only could I hear deep into her singing, her inhalations and exhalations more audible than I’d ever heard them, but her piano’s tone was more detectable—vivid, even—than ever. Her notes starting at 3:27 sounded and felt so weighty, so dramatic, that I had to listen many times before I felt I’d heard everything this sound had to offer. It was amazing. The experience of hearing this track prompted me to listen to more and more live recordings—and to varying degrees, depending on the track, I experienced more and more of the same: an intimate sense of being there, wherever there was.
Vs. others, vs. MSB
MSB Technology’s Premier DAC beats other DACs I’ve heard in the classic audiophile attributes we all know and that reviewers write about all the time. I’m confident when I say that, with an MSB DAC, you’ll hear more of the music your recordings already contain. The extreme quietness of the electronics meant that more recorded detail was revealed. These newly revealed details were not only of the sounds of performers’ instruments and voices—I also often heard additional details of reverberation, and of random crowd and venue noises. The higher noise floors of other DACs typically obscure these details; the Premier easily revealed them.
But in my experience, all of the above can be attributed to all MSB DACs. So where, exactly, did the Premier separate itself from the Discrete? The easiest way to put it is: It was just that much more engaging to listen to than the Discrete. I wanted to listen more, for longer, because I relished my listening sessions even more with the Premier. Another example: When I listened to Jerry Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony’s Crown Imperial, with pipe organist Mary Johnson (24/176.4 WAV, Reference HR-112), a recording engineered by Keith O. Johnson, it had never sounded more captivating, more full of the sparkle of life, than through the Premier. I listened to the entire album. It was immensely rewarding, from start to finish.
MSB Technology’s Discrete DAC was the best DAC I’d heard in my system—until the MSB Premier showed up. The Premier is a super-high-resolution, completely silent, utterly dynamic component that lets music flow through it less hindered than through anything else I’ve heard. In terms of sound quality, it’s the best digital front end I’ve had in my system. Combine that sound quality with flawless build quality, glitch-free operation, and user-selectable modular architecture, and you have not only a winning formula for a great product, you have what in my experience is the best, most complete DAC you can buy.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers: Estelon X Diamond Mk II, Magico A5, Vimberg Tonda
- Amplifier: Boulder Amplifiers 2060, MSB Technology S202
- DAC-preamplifiers: MSB Technology Discrete
- Source: Apple MacBook Air laptop computer running Audirvana, Roon, Qobuz
- Interconnects, speaker cables, power cords: Shunyata Research: Alpha USB link, Delta IC balanced interconnects, Alpha SP speaker cables, Venom NR-V10 power cords
- Power conditioner: Shunyata Research Hydra Alpha A12
- Rack: SGR Audio Model III Symphony
MSB Technology Premier Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $24,950 USD (base price).
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
MSB Technology Corp.
15 Brennan Street
Watsonville, CA 95076
Phone: (831) 662-2800