For this review, I have been listening through the Matrix Mini-i through mainly two different set-ups. First I compared the Mini-i with the Audiotrak Dr. DAC2 DX for its single ended DAC functions, while sending the line out signal to the TPA6120 balanced amp (which takes single ended signal and create a balanced out through a phase splitter), and finally to the Sennheiser HD800. For the balanced comparisom, I compared the Mini-i to the Cambridge Audio DacMagic, with the AMB Labs Beta22 amplifier to the balanced HD800.
I’ve also been using the Onkyo ND-S1 dock due to the convenience it provides over old-fashioned CD players, so most of this review was done using the Onkyo transport. I did spend some time testing the USB input of the Matrix Mini using the MacPro computer as the transport. I didn’t use any high-res material on the MacPro due to the 16/48 limitation of the Mini-i on USB. Likewise the files on the Ipod Classic are mostly 16/44.1 WAV and ALAC files.
The Matrix Mini-i is considerably bigger when compared to the Dr. DAC2 DX. Both DAC units have a very good build quality, although the Matrix does come up looking more mature than the Dr. DAC2 DX. Looking at the specifications, the Dr. DAC2 DX has the advantage of 24/96 support over USB, where the Mini-i is limited to 16/48. On the other hand, the Mini-i does provide balanced analog out, while the Dr. DAC2 DX doesn’t. The Dr. DAC2 DX does come with a few other bells and whistles, such as analog line in, op-amp rolling, dual headphone jack, so both DACs do have their own plus and minuses when it comes to features.
I have written a review comparing the Dr. DAC2 DX with other DACs, and if you’ve read the review (this link will take you there), you should be able to have a rough idea of where the Dr. DAC2 DX stands in terms of audio performance. I feel that the Dr. DAC2 DX is a terrific DAC unit for the price, and I would put the Dr. DAC2 DX roughly in the same performance level as the HeadAmp Pico, the Dr. DAC Prime, and the AMB Labs Gamma2. The HeadAmp Pico and the AMB Labs Gamma2 are two highly regarded DACs in the $200-$300 range, and if the Matrix Mini-i is able to match the Dr. DAC2 DX’s performance, then it’ll also stand a chance to compete with the Pico and the Gamma2.
The first thing that stands out between the two DACs is that the Mini-i doesn’t nearly have as much detail as the Dr. DAC2 DX. Whenever I am listening to the Dr. DAC2 DX, it’s quite apparent that the detail retrieval is superior. On the other hand, the Mini-i wins in having a more analog-like sound. Those are the bottom line of the two DACs and it’ll remain the basic sonic character of each of them throughout the review.
The Dr. DAC2 DX is quite a neutral sounding DAC with a slightly warm sound. The combination is very ideal as you get both a warm flavoring while still remaining quite neutral in sound. But when compared to the Mini-i, the Dr. DAC2 DX does sound less analog sounding. I don’t really want to use the word “digital-sounding”, because that tends to have negative tone these days, but the Dr. DAC2 DX does sound closer to that description when put next to the Mini-i. The Mini-i has a fuller midrange and low end body than the Dr. DAC2 DX, although the Dr. DAC2 DX is nowhere near being “thin”, and this gives a very strong analog feel on the Mini-i. The Mini-i with the thicker midrange, does lack clarity in that area when compared to the Dr. DAC2 DX, and so it’s a give and take.
Soundstage wise, the Dr. DAC2 DX has a wide soundstage that betters the Mini-i’s. But the Mini-i does have better depth in the soundstage, and a more real positioning where vocal and guitar plucks takes a forward and intimate positioning that’s quite separate from the background. On the Dr. DAC2 DX, the sound is flatter in depth, and it definitely is not as three dimensional as the Mini-i.
Between the two, it’s very clear that these are two different DACs for people looking for a different kind of a sound. The Dr. DAC2 DX is wonderfully detailed with good clarity and a wide soundstage, but the Mini-i strives for a more analog sound while sacrificing some things like detail. In this case, I can say that the Mini-i is less neutral than the Dr. DAC2 DX, but that may not be a bad thing if you like the colorations. Vocals more often will sound better on the Mini-i’s fuller midrange body. Rock and instruments also have more grunt and more midbass thump on the Mini-i. And although the Mini-i is less detailed than the Dr. DAC2 DX, the detail level is still acceptable, and on a system that tends to sound bright, the Mini-i will balance out the sound better than the Dr. DAC2 DX.