Matrix M-Stage DAC
Disclaimer: I received the M-Stage DAC directly from Matrix Technologies.
Here is a new choice for you seeking a desktop DAC. At $300, the M-Stage DAC competes directly with other popular $300 DACs like the HRT Music Streamer II+ and the Centrance Dacport LX. The sound quality is good, and without going to deep little details about the sound, I’d just say that it gives a sound reminiscent to the HRT Music Streamer II+. Warm, analog, spacious, grainy, with good three dimensionality. The M-Stage’s weightier bass section is personally very addictive for me so I do favor it quite a bit more than the HRT. Little differences, but MS2+ feels more airy and spacious, though overall soundstage depth is better on the M-Stage DAC. So if you’ve been a fan of the MS2+, the M-Stage should be a good fit as well. If you’re looking for a cleaner, grainless sound of the Dacport LX, then this may not be your cup of tea.
So, for the sake of comparison, we’ve established that the M-Stage is roughly comparable, or say mostly equal to the HRT MS2+. The price is $49 cheaper than the HRT MS2+ (going by Amazon.com’s prices), but how strong of an advantage is $49 is for a $300 product?
Going by the factor of convenience, I’d definitely go for the MS2+. It’s plug and play straight from the USB hub, no additional need of a power cable. The form factor counts too, the MS2+ is smaller, takes up less space on the desk. The M-Stage on the other hand is bigger, heavier, and require a separate power cable.
I was doing a Google Search for the MS2+, as I wanted to check what the current street price of the MS2+ is. Accidentally, I found this question from Head-Fi on the search result (the link outlined in red):
And seriously, that IS the added value for the M-Stage DAC. The MS2+ is a hugely popular DAC with a likable sound signature, but in one hand the simplicity of it is somehow a double edged sword as some people need S/PDIF connections (I’ve asked Kevin Halverson if he has plans to add S/PDIF input for the Music Streamers, and his answer was no — he’d like to maintain the focus on what the product was designed for). Archaic as it may be, people still have a need for S/PDIF (such as using it in tandem with a CD Player) and that’s probably the M-Stage’s biggest selling point.
I can write a long winded review that ends at some 1,500 words, but basically this short few paragraphs is what matters. One thing I need to add is the filter selector switch on the M-Stage DAC which gives you a choice between Sharp and Slow (Mute is not really a real filter). Sharp gives you shorter, more precise transients which works better for fast music (most noticeable on complex bass passages). Slow gives longer decays that works better for slow music. The filters are quite efficient and I switch around between the two quite often.
At the end of the day, how good of a DAC is this? Pretty solid performance. I’ve used the M-Stage with both the RSA Dark Star and the Burson Soloist, going from my Ipod + CLAS as the source (using the CLAS’ S/PDIF out), as well as my Onkyo ND-S1 dock. With a high end amp the class of the Dark Star, I really don’t see the M-Stage holding the entire system back. Music is very enjoyable and analog. Not a clean technicalities monster like the KingRex, or the Centrance Dacmini, but I enjoy the slightly grainy analog sound.