The Meier Stagedac DAC and the Concerto amplifier are two of the latest stand alone desktop amplifier and DAC box from Meier Audio. Let’s take a look at how they perform.
The Stagedac starts with some fairly common components: a WM8741 D/A converter, a WM8804 S/PDIF receiver, and a PCM2704 USB receiver. Meier does claim some fancy supporting components like Nichicon buffer caps, Vishay caps in the signal path, and an LM6171 opamps biased into class-A using LM334 current sources (I guess that’s the output stage?). Though S/PDIF input goes as high as 24/192, the USB section is only limited to 16/48 — certainly substandard in today’s age of 24/96 even on entry level DACs.
While the performance of the Stagedac is quite respectable — clear sound, plenty of details, good articulation, et cetera, and yet, as a whole product I am not sure that the Stagedac has what it takes to be competitive in today’s DAC market. Perhaps the first weak point is the USB receiver that remains to be limited in the 16/48 realm (due to the PCM2704 receiver chip used). These days, I can get a ~$100 USB Dac like the Audinst or the HRT Music Streamer II that does 24/96 over USB, and every newer DAC introduced in the market seems to bring even higher numbers to the table, including the 32-bit Fostex HP-A3 that I’m also writing a review on.
The other factor is products from the competition. Take the CEntrance DACmini, which happens to share a very similar, colorless sound presentation to the Stagedac. Comparing the two DACs side by side, I actually prefer the CEntrance DACmini’s equally transparent and colorless rendition of the sound. The Meier can come out to be slightly more detailed of the two, but on my ears it sounded as if the details were forced to be visible, and the result is a sound that is not as natural as the DACmini’s. Though instrument separation is clearer on the Meier, the decay seems abruptly cut off and again I very much prefer the DACmini’s version. So, we’re talking about two DACs with a very close performance and sound signature here. The Meier comes out to be the more mechanical sounding one, and the DACmini to be the more natural sounding and the one that I’d go for. But even overlooking the slight difference in sound, at roughly the same ~$700 price point, the DACmini happens to throw in a fairly potent headphone amplifier into the mix as well as offering 24/96 over USB. Obviously it’s quite clear that while the Stagedac is a good performing DAC, it would need to give a lot more for $700 in order to stand out in today’s DAC landscape.
The Stagedac comes with two digital filters which are the Pulse Response and Over Sampling. I tried long and hard to differentiate the effects of those digital filters, but I really can’t get a good grasp of how they alter the sound. I can say that they alter the sound, but on the other hand I also think that I may just be hearing placebo, and I definitely can’t pass a double blind test on those switches. The more obvious switch is the crossfeed switch, where you can adjust the intensity and the delay of the crossfeed, as well as the tonal balance switch which gives you a more choice of linear sound to a more colored sound (more bass heavy sound). Nice features, but I don’t think they’re really that significant in the overall picture.
The Meier Concerto has a sound signature that mimics the sound signature of the Stagedac: relatively colorless, a hint of dryness, good detail though again I am getting a similar impression that details are intentionally pushed out to the listeners. I can understand if it’s trying to be a technical sounding amp, and while its performance are quite respectable, I don’t think it has enough technical points to justify the $700 price tag. For instance, the soundstage are quite mediocre and even sub-par for a $700 desktop amplifier. The articulation is good and the pace is among the fastest I’ve heard, but the sound is rather mechanical sounding as a whole and each notes seem to be forcefully separated to achieve the articulation, rather than a natural blending of tones. And while the pace is quite fast, the bass punch is relatively weak (compared to a Burson, for instance) hence overall PRaT is not too happening. Overall, the sound is quite dry and articulate, much like the AD797 op-amps that the Concerto is based on. And like the Stagedac, while the overall sound quality is quite respectable, I think ultimately you can find other amplifiers that offer “more” sound for the price.
What’s more, if I take the Concerto and the Stagedac, combined together — that would give me a sound that is more or less close to what I hear if I were listening to the DACmini’s headphone out — but with the added advantage of the DACmini being priced at half the price of Meier’s two box set up, and is also simpler to use since it’s a one box solution (and 24/96 over USB too!). As you can see the competition is very tough these days.
I do feel quite bad for writing a relatively negative article like this since the Concerto was kindly loaned to me by Jaben Indonesia and the Stagedac by my good friend Rudi. It’s a pressure you get as a reviewer. It would’ve been nice if I can write glowing, enthusiastic reviews of these products, but if I did that then I am not being truthful to the readers. So here it is, the review presented in a “what I really heard” format.
Big thanks to Alvon at Jaben Indonesia and Rudi for the product loaners.
Gears used for review
- Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, Hifiman HE-500
- Amplifiers: Eddie Current Zana Deux, Burson HA-160D, Meier Audio Concerto, Graham Slee Solo, Schiit Asgard
- Source: CEC TL51XZ, Bryston BDA-1 DAC, Meier Stagedac, Centrance DACmini, HRT Music Streamer II+