Monday, 18 March 2013

Musical Fidelity M6 DAC - Review

Just received this from the local dealer LTB Enterprise....First demo impression in the shop...the sound was smoooottthhh...

Watch this space for the review...



Its a been a week now...and I was facing the challenge to start the write up....because I was enjoying this DAC a little bit too much. I must say sorry to my Clearaudio TT for neglecting her for awhile...

I am ready to start the write up now while I wait for my own black unit to arrive as I have just confirmed to purchase this DAC yesterday :). And you want to know why I decided to upgrade from my M1 DAC which was already sounded good to me. Read on my good readers....

BUILT

The unboxing reveals the usual classy and elegant packaging of an M6 series kit, comes complete with a black velvet bag, a pair of white gloves and cleaning cloth. It is advisable to use the gloves to set up the unit. Look at the fingerprint smudge if you dont.

The sample unit I received had a serial number of 4.... ie this is the 4th unit produced by MF. The dealer has the 3rd unit. I wonder who has number 1 and 2?






The width of the unit compliments my M6i amp but the DAC is actually slimmer in height.

The unit is relatively heavy for a DAC, weighing at 10.8 kg. The overall built is of high quality and aesthatically looks good too. The remote control is of the similar remote of the M6i and can control my M1 CDT. Sadly, the DAC remote cannot control the M6i amp and vice versa.

The fascia is well designed with a very clear blue LCD display and digital input, de-emphaziser, filter, power, standby soft buttons.

Power cord is a bog standard UK 3 pin, so good news to all those who likes power cord tweaks.

Now, the digital inputs and outputs connections are gold plated and firmly fitted to ensure good connection with your chosen interconnects.

It also comes with an antenna plus extension cable for its bluetooth capability and also USB192 driver CDROM.

SPECS AND FEATURES

This is one well equipped DAC that covers different type of input. Anthony Michaelson went with a topography of recent years which is to limit up to 192kHz rather than the push for higher upsampling resolution. It consists of two 24 bit DACs arranged in a fully differential balanced dual mono topography.

This DAC also allows a complete bypass of digital signal if one wish to connect to a digital recorder.


This unit comes with the following inputs and outputs:

INPUTS

1. 2 x coaxial
2. 1 x USB B asynchronous compatible with Windows, Apple and Linux OS
3. 1 x optical
4. 1 x AES Balanced
5. 1 x Bluetooth with AptX and can store up 16 pairings.
6. 1 x 3.5 mm mono jack trigger in

NOTE: All inputs accepts native 24 bit 192kHz signal except for optical (96 kHz) and Bluetooth (48 kHz)

OUTPUTS

1. 1 x coaxial
2. 1 x AES Balanced
3. 1 x optical
4. 1 pair of RCA
5. 1 pair of XLR balanced
6. 1 x 3.5 mm mono jack trigger out

NOTE: All outputs allows native 24 bit 192kHz signal except for optical (96 kHz). Bluetooth signal is upsampled to 96kHz.

There is a FIXED/VOLUME MATCH switch at the rear part. If volume match is chosen, user can adjust the output signal of each digital input in the range of 0 to +10 dB.

The LED display can also be dimmed and shut off completely.

The FILTER function allows gradual or sharp roll off digital filter characteristics.

Ther DE-EMPHASIS function allows control of the source that contains pre-emphasized digital audio. ??????.... Yes....have no clue what this means. Quoted from the manual.

THE SET UP

1. MF M1 CDT connected with Siltech AES balanced Interconnect and QED Coaxial Interconnect
2. Sony MDJA20ES connected with QED optical cable
3. ASUS Window Vista laptop, using WMP and iTunes connected with Noops USB A-B cable
4. iPhone 5 and Blackberry Z10
5. The M6 DAC connected to M6i amp using Siltech XLR balanced interconnect and Siltech RCA interconnect
6. ProAc D18 speakers biamped by M6i and M1 PWR amp with Siltech 330L Anniversary speaker cable

THE MUSIC

1. Janet Seidl - Till There Was You (CD)
2. Andrea Bocelli - Time To Say Goodbye, Dare To Live, Vivo Per Lei, Because We Believe (CD, 192 kHz FLAC)
3. Foo Fighters - My Hero (CD, MP3 320 kbps/48 kHz)
4. The Eagles - Hotel California (CD, 192 kHz FLAC)
5. Bad Religion - American Jesus, Kerosene (CD)
6. Etta James - At Last (MP3 320 kbps/48 kHz on iPhone5 and BBZ10)
7. Kevin Kline - La Mer (MP3 320 kbps/48 kHz on iPhone5 and BBZ10)
8. Earth, Wind and Fire - In The Stone, September (MD)

THE SESSION

I didn't start the review with the traditional notepad opened and start to jotdown every single experience I have demo-ing this DAC. I was quite mesmerized by the first 15 minutes of listening to it in the dealer's shop. Heck, and that was mainly via bluetooth from my iPhone5. We were going from one track to another. But playing Etta James and Kevin Kline reveals that this DAC is not just another DAC that MF decided to come with.

CD REPLAY

When I brought it home, the first track to go in was Janet Seidl - Till There Was You played via AES connection. The immediate change from my M1 DAC was the elevation of the overall musical ambience from her vocals and ukelele. Its like the spectrum has elevated; the mids and highs were giving a different level of clarity. Further listening reveals a more involving experience. The low end was not to impressive at this moment. Switch to Coaxial connection, the overall ambience was taken down a notch. That didnt help to bring up the low end spectrum.

Not wanting to say the DAC was now overly smooth, I switched to Foo Fighters - My Hero via AES. YES, YES AND YES. This is when I start to realise that the bass was actually extended as well. It was further dispersed but still well controlled. Again, it was like the DAC amplifying things to a hier volume but instead of distortation, it injects a certain enhancement which I believe is the upsampling quality done by the unit. Switching to Coaxial, again the experience was taken down a notch but that didnt take away the involving experience. This was again one of those moments that made me want to jump onto my drums and start drum-aoke along with the Foos.

Playing an old not so good recording of Bad Religion famous album Recipe for Hate from 1993, the DAC actually makes it enjoyable to listen to older recordings. The punk rock music sounds more alive and 'recent'. Again, I think the DAC has elevated the overal presentation of music.

Mellowing down the rock side, I switched to The Eagles with their live version of Hotel California. The string workson this track was so defined that even my 6 year old son who sings along Gangnam style, went 'Wow, dad....I like this guitar sound!' And when the drums kicked in, my my my it further confirms that I may have been missing a fuller bass compared to M1 DAC. It may not be to everyone's liking on the bass side but I like the way the DAC extends the low end further but still maintaining the overall smooth sounding character.

COMPUTER AUDIO SYSTEM - USB INPUT

While listening to this track, I started to boot up my ASUS laptop to compare the CD to the 192 kHz FLAC version. Connected to the DAC via a 5m Noops USB A-B cable, the laptop immediately detected the DAC and prompted for the driver to be installed. Loaded the CD-ROM, and followed the step by step installation instruction. 2 minutes and done. Unfortunately, after that, it can no longer detect the DAC. :(. Reading up the manual, it says to use a cable less than 5 m long. Hhhhmmm...so went through my cable bag and found a 1.5 m USB cable...voila...now it can detect. Not really sure why as the 5 m cable worked OK with the M1 DAC and when connected directly to M6i USB input.

Putting on the FLAC version of Hotel California reveals a relatively similar experience but with a little bit more emphasize on the mids and highs. This has made the song sound more tonally balanced as the low end is now not as overwhelming as the CD version. Still have the extension that I want though. The DAC also displays the incoming signal from laptop.


Just to ensure it was not a mind trick (or is it ear trick?), I stopped listening to this DAC for a few days. And resumed the session with more of my favourite tracks.

Now, I never miss playing Andrea Bocelli in all my reviews. So, up next was a string of his FLAC tracks. It reveals how good his recordings are. Not only the music, but the mixing of the tracks itself. Time To Say Goodbye sounded even more airy and powerful with the vocals sounded so refined. The soundstaging was elevated to a level where it made the sound as if I am in a concert hall but without the echoes. It was really refreshing and alive.

Ok, at this stage I am convinced that the M6 DAC when it comes to CD and CAS replay, its above the entry level M1 DAC. Dont get me wrong, I think M1 DAC is still the best DAC around its price range. But this M6 DAC even sounds more refined than the M6 CD player which I tested a few months back. Now, I was told that the M6 DAC uses a different DAC topography than the M6 CD player.

And in general, AES and Coaxial gives the similar characteristics but the AES has this extra kick as it injects a little bit more refinement, smoothness and extension across the musical spectrum.

BLUETOOTH APT-X

This is what really impresses me; the Bluetooth module. Connecting my iPhone 5 and the new BBZ10 takes about 5 seconds. I am a little bit puzzled now on this. My music files are MP3 320 kbps/48 kHz on both phones but from the iPhone 5, the DAC shows that the signal feeding into the DAC is 44.1 kHz. But from the Z10, it shows as 48 kHz. Not that it made a different in the sound but just curious why.

The way of the volume is controlled is also different. With iPhone 5, the volume on the phone is still active and I had to balance between that and the volume on the amp. On BBZ10, the digital volume on the phone is deactivated, so I only had to adjust the volume on the amp. Weird to me. But I prefer the setup of the latter.

The sound of Etta James and Kevin Kline was really mesmerizing. And the phones are not even Apt-X enabled. If the DAC is connected to an Apt-X enabled device, it will display an Apt-X icon on the LED display. Connectivity was also stable with no dropouts throughout the 1 hour session with various other music. It was difficult to distinguished between Bluetooth quality and the CAS version of the same song. However, the clarity and liveliness is not as per CD replay. But comparing to my BRIK BT Stage and also QED uPlay, they are miles away from this gem.

MINIDISK REPLAY - OPTICAL

I do have quite a healthy collection of MD albums and also recorded ones. And as this format has been forgotten, it starts to become quite difficult to keep up with CAS and DAC technology. My SONY ES player was the king in her MD reigning days and even with its built in DAC, it was sufficient to deliver good quality music alongside portability of the format. But now, only an external DAC will do more justice to do this format.

Playing Earth, Wind and Fire through the optical input did inject more life and made them sounded less digital. However, the flatness is still there due to the compressed data on the MD. However, the presentation and soundstaging did improve and made me feel like dancing (and that is something no sane people would want to see :)). The sound although flat, did have that sense of authority in delivering the low end of the music.

OTHER FEATURES

I did play around with the filter settings and de-emphasize function. Eeeerrr.... didnt hear any changes when switching between fast and slow roll off. So, I didnt bother to really test it.

CONCLUSION

The good: This unit reenforces MF leadership as one of the earlier companies to adopt stand alone DAC units. It is a very refined unit and matches well with theerest of my MF set up. It compliments well with a basic CAS and also other digital sources. It did make me wanting to get serious into CAS again.

Would be even better: If MF starts to keep up with the fast paced DAC development in the industry...there are more and more companies going into 32 bit and 384 kHz and also DSD decoding. Especially at this price range.

Am I buying it? Eeeerrr YES. Waiting for the black unit to arrive.

The M6 DAC can be purchased from LTB Enterprise, Subang Jaya. Call Tony for further enquiries: 0193388577.

The RRP in Malaysia is RM 11,000....and in the UK is GBP 2,000

And here are samples of how it sounds:







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