Owning a balanced system has been high on the list of headphone enthusiasts, and one of the first things that deter people from going fully balanced has been the cost associated with good balanced sources. Not many sub-$1,000 CD Players come with balanced analog outputs, and popular balanced DACs like the Lavry DA11 and the Benchmark DAC1 USB is upwards of $1,000. Good DACs have always been expensive, and $1,000 often is considered as entry level. Yet the technology has been getting cheaper and cheaper, and suddenly we find an abundance of good DACs for a computer or headphone system in the $100-$300 price range. They certainly won’t compete with a high end offering from dCS or the other big boys, but it’s quite enough to provide most headphone users with a great sound quality for their headphone system.
Enter the Matrix Mini-i Balanced DAC. A relatively good looking DAC from Chinese manufacturer Matrix that sells in eBay for $330. It does look a lot like the Bel Canto products, so much that I found a short review on coolfungadget’s eBay shop comparing the Matrix Mini-i to a Bel Canto DAC-3 that sells for about $2,500. Well, looking good has always been an advantage, and the Matrix Mini certainly has that edge. But aside from the little known Matrix name, and the Bel Canto design, how does the Mini-i actually perform for the price range?
The Matrix packs an abundance of features into the $340 package. Dual AD1955 D/A chip, digital volume control, digital LCD display, balanced and unbalanced outputs, independent system clock, S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and USB inputs, as well as a built-in headphone amplifier. Even without knowing anything about the sound, I would not mind paying $340 for the Mini-i.
Design and build quality is certainly very good, as the Bel Canto design with the large display panel looks very attractive, and is actually fairly well executed by Matrix. The volume control is a 90 steps digital control, and the volume knob has a very subtle, yet tactile, micro-click that feels more refined than the DACT attenuator on my Beta22. Every click on the knob changes the volume by 1dB increments as indicated in the display panel.
The volume knob also functions as a push button to function as an input selector between the four inputs available in the Mini-i: BNC (or Coax with the supplied adapter), Toslink, AES/EBU, and USB. The display panel is monochrome, and while the resolution won’t support any graphics or image displays, it actually feels very at home in the hi-fi circle, as a lot of high end sources come with monochrome displays not far from the quality found in the Mini-i. The display itself does a great job in the Mini-i, displaying information related to the functions of the DAC:
1. The current active input
2. Sample rate
3. Volume level
4. Time display information
The time display information (#4) is actually quite interesting as I don’t see it implemented in other DACs. When you connect it with a CD Player that supports the Q-sub code protocol, the Matrix will display the time information on the CD that’s playing in the hours-minutes-seconds format, just like what you often found in CD-players.
Operational is very easy and intuitive as it only requires you to push the button for the appropriate input that you want to use, and other than that you rotate the knob to control the volume. With the LED display panel, the Matrix Mini-i has the best user interface among all the other sub $500 DACs I’ve come across. By default the volume knob will change the volume on both the headphone out and the line out, and if you press and hold the volume knob while turning on the Matrix, you will have the option to turn off the volume control for the line out, although that also disables the headphone out.
The Matrix Mini-i is equipped with two Analog Devices AD1955 D/A chips that support up to 24 bit and 192kHz through its S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs, though USB input is limited to 24 bit and 48kHz. There is also a coaxial output that will pass-through the digital signal, including AC-3 and DTS outs. Two OPA2134 is placed at the output of the AD1955, and a TPA6120 is used for the internal headphone amplifier.