Matrix Mini-i Balanced DAC

Balance set up with the AMB Labs Beta22.

 

I managed to get a hold of a Cambridge DacMagic upsampling DAC with a balanced out to compare with the Mini-i.

The DacMagic is a pure DAC box with no headphone amplifier that sells for about $400. It comes with two sets of S/PDIF inputs (toslink and coaxial), a USB digital input, and digital out via S/PDIF with Dolby Digital or DTS signal pass-through. Just like the Mini-i, the DacMagic has both unbalanced and balanced analog out.

The Cambridge DacMagic has a permanent upsampling feature in which it takes any digital signal in the range of 16-24 bits, and 32-96kHz sample rates, and upsample it to 24/192 through an Adaptive Time Filtering upsampling process through the use of a 32bit Texas Instruments DSP processsor. The D/A chip in use is the popular Wolfson WM8740 in dual configuration, one for each stereo channel. I have seen a lot of implementation of the WM8740 chips, and I have to say that the DacMagic is one of the better sounding ones. Cambridge Audio must be doing something right, because the sound coming out of the DacMagic is very refined, highly detailed, and yet smooth and non fatiquing.

It also has three different digital filter modes, linear, minimum, and steep. The digital filter modes changes the music presentation of the DacMagic depending on the setting. Linear gives the most open and airy sound that I find to be very suitable for classical. The minimum phase setting has more presence and is more engaging than the linear setting, though losing a little of the open and airy sound. Finally, the steep setting is even a more extreme version of the minimum setting, but I did find that it’s not as refined as the linear and the minimum phase settings. I find the minimum phase setting to give a good balance between the linear and the steep phase, and it’s the setting that I enjoy and I use the most during this comparison.

I received the DacMagic a few weeks after I have the Matrix in my possession. When I first listened to the DacMagic, I was totally blown away by the level of refinement, detail, and the wide soundstage of the DacMagic. Clearly, the DacMagic wins in technicalities to the Mini-i. In a way, the advantages of the DacMagic are very similar to the Dr. DAC2 DX: better detail, wider soundstage, but I find the DacMagic to be even better in doing what the Dr. DAC2 DX does best. For $400, I don’t think I’ve heard a better treble. It’s very detailed and very smooth, yet the smoothness doesn’t take away the crispness out of the music.

But sometimes you have enough dose of the technicalities, and you want a more musical sound, and that’s where the Mini-i stands out. After a long listening session with the DacMagic, I went back to hook up the Mini-i to the Beta22 & HD800 set up. And suddenly, I’m hearing a more engaging and exciting sound that I didn’t hear on the DacMagic. The Mini-i is definitely strong with analog sound and musicality. Over and over again, listening to different sources, the musicality of the Mini-i stuck on my head. It’s kind of similar to the Pico DAC, except that it offers a lot more features than the simplistic Pico.

On the Mini-i, bottom end body is more pronounced, and vocals have more presence and are more intimate. One thing that I keep on hearing on the Mini-i is how it’s able to really put a distinct distance between the forward vocals to the instruments in the background. The depth on the soundstage is the best between the three, though it’s not as wide as the other two.

The choice is like a comparison between a Grado HP1000 to a Sennheiser HD800. The Senn clearly have better technicalities, but people still love the HP1000 because it has a very analog sound, a punchy midbass, and easily will win as the more musical sounding of the two. So, the choice between the two DACs will depend on the system that you use and your musical preferences. The Beta22 and HD800 set up is a fairly neutral set up, and the Mini-i was able to adds a little punch and flavoring to make the music more engaging. If you already have a highly musical set up, with a good tube amp and say a Grado HF2, then I would recommend you to go with the DacMagic as it will give you better resolution and detail that the Mini-i doesn’t.

Just for fun, I hooked the CEC TL51XZ which is a $1,600 CD Player with dual PCM1796 D/A chips. I thought some of you might want to know how the DACs compare to a good CD player. On first listen, the CEC clearly belongs to a superior league than either the DacMagic or the Mini-i. The CEC’s presentation is analog sounding, similar to the Mini-i, but it does a much better job in giving an actual feel of the music. Ambiance, imaging, tonality, is much much superior on the CEC. It also seems to fully fill up the big soundstage of the HD800 with musical information, making the experience very real and more speaker-like, whereas the DAC boxes only fill up a part of that big soundstage. So, yes, the Mini-i and the DacMagic are great DACs, but it’s not really up there yet.

Back to the Mini-i, I really haven’t talked about the headphone amplifier much. The built in headphone amplifier actually does a decent job if you don’t own any other amplifier to power your cans. It has plenty of gain, where -27dB is very loud on the HD800, and likewise -13dB for the power hungry Hifiman HE5LE. Despite the high gain, I can’t notice any hiss or noise using the Superlux HD381 IEMs even at maximum volume (0dB). Pretty impressive indeed, but at the end of the day, it’s really nothing to brag about, because I do find that a good separate amplifier like the Audiotrak ImAmp to do a better job of amplifying the HD800 and the HE5LE (I really should review the ImAmp after this). The amplifier would be terrific to power IEMs because you get the short signal path from the DAC unit, but I won’t rely on it to power big full size cans on a daily basis. Still, for $340 with all the functionality included, you can’t really ask for a better value.

For $340, the Matrix Mini-i will be a great, affordable upgrade to your current system. It even challenges a lot of more expensive DACs in terms of musicality. As a bonus, it even comes with a built-in headphone amplifier so you can sell of that mid-fi amp you’ve been listening to and start saving up for something bigger. *grin* And finally, the Mini-i opens up the door to having a fully balanced desktop headphone system. Superb, indeed.


This review was made possible by the support of coolfungadget.

 

System used for review:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 with APureSound cable
Amplifiers: TPA6120 Amplifier, AMB Labs Beta22 Balanced Amplifier
Source: Matrix Mini-i, Cambridge Audio DacMagic, Audiotrak Dr. DAC2 DX
Transport: MacPro, Ipod Classic & Onkyo ND-S1 Dock.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

65 Comments

  • Reply May 19, 2010

    Earfonia

    Oops sorry, Pico DAC has no headphone out 🙂 so just between the AudioTrak DR.DAC2 DX, Matrix Mini-i Balanced DAC 😀

    • Reply May 19, 2010

      Mike

      Hi, Bram. Both the Audiotrak and the Matrix are superb with different flavors. If you want something more neutral, go with the Audiotrak. If you want a more engaging sound, go with the Matrix. It all depends on the music and the headphone that you’re using.

      • Reply May 20, 2010

        Earfonia

        Thanks Mike! Thinking to get the Audiotrak, since the Op-Amp is rollable, we have some degree of freedom to change the sound signature 😀

        • Reply May 20, 2010

          Mike

          Yep. That is right. You can always use an opamp with some midrange flavoring to get a sweeter sounding sound. 😀

  • Reply May 20, 2010

    CoolFunGadget

    Thanks for the nice review! Now this DAC is on sale for $323 only at http://coolfungadget.com/.

  • Reply May 20, 2010

    Earfonia

    As always, excellent review Mike! :thumbs up:

    So for under $400, which one you will choose for general music listening, without additional headphone amplifier, the AudioTrak DR.DAC2 DX, Matrix Mini-i Balanced DAC, or Pico DAC?

    Or maybe I shouldn't ask that question at all 😀

  • Reply May 21, 2010

    Burgunder

    Too bad the review wasn’t just a bit more positive then I would have bought one right away. BUt now I will probably wait until the end of the summer before I upgrade from the µDAC/EF2 combo that I’m using now.

    • Reply May 21, 2010

      Mike

      The uDAC & EF2 combo should be a good one. 🙂

  • Reply May 21, 2010

    Burgunder

    Yes it's a nice combo and I'm using it right now a long with a pair of AKG K400s' and Ornette Coleman. But a some point I want to upgrade the DAC.

  • Reply May 22, 2010

    Alfon

    Great review mike 🙂

    but can you add more a bit about the comparison between this $400 DAC with maybe $1k DAC (like grace/davry)?

    • Reply May 22, 2010

      Mike

      Just a short comparison based on memory. The Lavry DA11 is far superior in technicalities. It is one of the best when it comes to creating a superb imaging. Even the HD650's fuzzy imaging suddenly becomes quite sharp when plugged in to the Lavry. The sonic signature, however, is very deep into its professional roots for monitoring use. Hence you won't find the more musical flavoring of the Matrix Mini-i, whjch is clearly a more audiophile-centric DAC.

      The Grace's DAC is also a monitoring DAC in sound signature. Its DAC section is not as good as the Lavry, but it has a more refined headphone amplifier section.

  • Reply May 22, 2010

    BassMonster

    How's the synergy between the Edition 8 and the Matrix headphone out?

    • Reply May 22, 2010

      Mike

      The Ed.8 is quite versatile in its sound. I think the Matrix will help to give a fuller midrange on the Edition 8, so that can be good. Anyway, for the Edition 8, a lot of the sinergy factor depends on your music. Vocal heavy? Pop? Rock? Electronica? They would require different set ups.

  • Reply May 24, 2010

    Scrivs

    What exactly is your opinion on the Mini-i's headphone amp on its own?

    I know that you've told me before that the Dr. DAC2 DX's amp gives a rather neutral sound and that the mini-i has a slight boost on the lower end, but I'm still having doubts…

    Because I've read several times on other forums that the mini's amp is actuall a bit mediocre and that most of the people that own the mini-i eventually move on to a seperate amp that is just slightly better than what the mini-i has to offer…

    This is what keeps me from buying the mini-i at the moment, because what I'm looking for is a good DAC that also comes with a headphone amp that suites my headphone (Ultrasone 780) well and that would last me for whatever time to come.

    Ofcourse I will be moving on to a better setup eventually, but I dont want to have to buy a seperate headphone amp on top of the mini-i DAC because the mini-i's amp just doesnt quite does it for me…

    Or do you think otherwise?

    • Reply May 24, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Kevin, I think the built-in amp on the Matrix Mini-i is fine for your purposes. It is true that a separate amplifier can always be better. Even the Lavry DA11, and the Benchmark DAC1, both costing over $1000 is quite "limited" in their headphone amp, once you start bringing in a separate amplifier equipment. So there is no point trying to find a DAC with a top-grade headphone amp section, cause they don't exist.

      Having said that, the Matrix's amp is great and I think you would be enjoying it with the HFI-780.

  • Reply May 30, 2010

    Bill B

    Mike,

    Nice review! How do you feel the Matrix compares to something like the Little Dot DACII? I'm looking for an all-in-one solution with an optical input to feed AIFF files via an airport express for a bedside rig with a pair of Sennheiser HD600.

    Bill

    • Reply May 31, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Bill, I honestly have never auditioned the Little Dot DACII, but just by reading the specs, I think it should be fairly comparable to the Matrix.

  • Reply May 30, 2010

    John R

    Mike,

    I'm in the market for $300-400 DAC and have read your reviews with much interest. I'm actually looking not just to hook up to my headphones (low impedance Grado SR-225s which can be driven without much trouble), but also to my hifi system (Aragon powering Vandy 3A Sigs).

    I'd love to read your thoughts on other DACs in the price range such as the Beresford Caiman if possible for you to get a copy to review.

    • Reply May 31, 2010

      Mike

      Hi John, I will try to look into the Beresford. I can't promise anything though. Thanks for the suggestion. 🙂

  • Reply June 16, 2010

    Mampus

    Mike, have you tried the Matrix with BNC connection? 😀

    • Reply June 16, 2010

      Mike

      Yap. There is no RCA coax, so you have to use the RCA to BNC adaptor.

  • Reply June 16, 2010

    Puk

    The subject of this article was .. what?
    came here to read something about the mini-i, but it seems that you prefer to write about other stuff.

    but a good read 😉

    • Reply June 16, 2010

      Mike

      Hmmm… I need to polish up my writing skills.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Reply June 18, 2010

    Oid

    Mike,

    Great review. I was just wondering if you've tried connecting the i-Mini to a Mac?

    I am trying to find out whether or not it's possible to adjust left/right balance when the i-Mini is connected through USB to the Mac, using the Sound control panel …

    Some DACs can do this, some can't. Any ideas?

    • Reply June 19, 2010

      Mike

      Whoa, I really didn't try doing individual left/right controls via the Mac, but I did use the Mini-i connected via USB to the MacPro.

  • Reply July 25, 2010

    David

    Quick question, so which one has the better headphone amplifier, the matrix or the dr.dac2 dx. I know the dr.dac has two headphone jacks, but in terms of quality which one do you think is better?

    • Reply July 26, 2010

      Mike

      They're roughly about the same quality. External headphone amps would be better, but they're also fine if you want a minimal set up.

      • Reply July 27, 2010

        David

        Thanks Mike, any amps that you recommend? I think you said the Im Amp sounded better than both of these, although I'm not a fan of the battery/portable features.

  • Reply August 6, 2010

    Zorlac

    Does the display properly show every supported sample rate? (i.e. 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 96kHz, etc.)

    • Reply August 6, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Michael,
      I don’t think I tested every sample rate, but I think it works fine between 44.1, 48, and 96.

  • Reply November 23, 2010

    gabriele

    hi my name is gabriele from florence, italy.
    now i tell you my experience with this dac,
    i have a little mastering dream(it’s like i love to call it) http://www.myspace.com/cele_nogravity
    i read some fantastic rewiews about the mini -i, so i bought it.
    when it arrived, i immediately understood that the unit was built very well, but the problem was that it played much less than my apogee rosetta 200, linx two and lucid 88192 converters( about -6 db).
    the sound quality was good, but the volume comparison was impossible.
    if i played a 0 db signal inside the mini-i from my wavelab software, I saw in my metering sistem more or less -6db.
    i asked to the seller if the unit had consumer setting also on the two xlr connections, but the answer were not just sufficiently
    i wrote a lot of mail to the seller where i explained the problem, but the only solution was send it to him and take the total refund.
    have you some similar experience or not?
    gabriele

    • Reply November 23, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Gabriele, that's quite unfortunate. Different DACs seem to have different output levels, and I've sort of accept that as a fact of life.

  • Reply April 23, 2011

    Brandon

    Which has the better DAC and is more neutral, the Yulong D100 or this?

    • Reply April 25, 2011

      Anonymous

      Sorry havent heard the Yulong, but the Matrix is darkish and is not exactly neutral. The Dacmagic is more neutral.

  • Reply May 2, 2011

    Elie Hendriks

    If you would have the time, it would be awesome to also have a review of the Matrix Cube, and maybe a comparison to the Mini-i. I think CoolFunGadget also has these on his webshop.

  • Reply June 20, 2011

    kurniawan

    Hi Mike, i have a quick question, based on just DAC, which one do you think is better? the mini-i or audinst ?

    • Reply June 20, 2011

      Anonymous

      Mini-i should be better. Dual AD1955s if I remember correctly.

  • Reply June 27, 2011

    Guest

    Any chance of comparing the Mini-i to the Yulong U100 or Matrix Cube? Which would be better to match with an HD598 or HD650?

    • Reply June 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      No plans for now but the HD598 and the HD650 is very nice with the
      Yulong U100. Make sure that you are using Windows though as the U100
      doesn’t work properly with a Mac.

      • Reply June 29, 2011

        Guest

        Just to clarify, I don’t have either yet. I could get the HD650+Yulong U100, but I’m really not comfortable dropping $400+ only to see a “HD658” come along 6 months later. So I’m considering getting a HD598 and using the extra cash to get a better DAC/amp box to prepare for an eventual HP upgrade.

        So I guess it boils down to: Are the Matrix Mini-i or Cube better than the Yulong U100? This is for Classical, so soundstage, imaging and tonality are paramount.

        Thanks.

        • Reply June 29, 2011

          Anonymous

          I have never done a direct A-B so I can’t say.

          Sorry

  • Reply August 4, 2011

    Harry Trieu

    Are there any stores in the US that sells the Mini-i?  Or are my only options the Chinese stores on eBay?

    • Reply August 4, 2011

      Anonymous

      Tam’s audio is based in China, I think, but they sell to US customers.
      http://tamaudio.com/store/

      • Reply August 4, 2011

        Harry Trieu

        Thanks!  How reputable is this store?  Any experience buying from them?

        • Reply August 5, 2011

          Anonymous

          They should be pretty reputable. I think they are a sponsor in Head-Fi, and they’ve sent me demo units in the past as well.

  • Reply August 13, 2011

    Asperg

    Mike!
    Thx for great review. Is there any chance to use mini with senn 650 ? Yulong U100 would be my 1st choice, but i need more in/outputs 
    Or should i buy better HP amp, like darkvoice 336SE

    • Reply August 15, 2011

      Anonymous

      Yes you can use the Mini-i with the HD-650.. but I think the synergy is better with the Yulong.

  • Reply October 7, 2011

    Andr4000

    Anybody knows why Mini-i doesn’t support 24bit via usb?
    Windows install  driver 16bit 44.1khz,48khz. In Mini-i ‘s manual it support 16-24bit up to 48khz.

  • Reply October 13, 2011

    Matt

    Hey Mike, great site with informative reviews!
    Since you mentioned the volume knob also adjusts the balanced XLR output, is it possible to directly connect a balanced HD 650 to this input (without an amplifier)?
    Thanks in Advance

    • Reply October 13, 2011

      Anonymous

      You can, but it’s not designed that way so you will lose bass impact and perhaps a little of the top frequencies.

      • Reply October 13, 2011

        Matt

        Thanks for the prompt reply, so the headphone out would give a better sound quality in this situation?

        • Reply October 13, 2011

          Anonymous

          Yes.

  • Reply October 30, 2011

    Michael T

    Hi Mike. Bit of a newbie question, but how can I integrate this to my home theatre system? I use a Yamaha AVR, which hooks up HDMI to my PS3, then another HDMI to my LED TV, with the AVR as the video switcher. I’m interested in the Matrix mini-i but I am unsure how to use this for headphone listening. Of course I still intend to use my loudspeakers when its not so late at night. The sound is ok from my Ultrasone Pro 2900 straight to AVR, but I want an amp to make it really shine.

    • Reply October 31, 2011

      Anonymous

      Hi Michael,
      You can connect the PS3 to the Matrix through the digital out (Optical) of the PS3: http://www.letsgomobile.org/images/reviews/0016/playstation-ps3-2B.jpg
      Into the digital input (Optical) on the Matrix Mini-i.

      Using one of these cables (or similar):
      http://amzn.to/vhFz6b

      • Reply October 31, 2011

        Michael T

        Thanks Mike. Will I be utilising both DAC and Amp when I run it via Optical on the PS3? Or will the DAC be utilised from the AVR?

        • Reply October 31, 2011

          Anonymous

          You would be using the Mini-i’s DAC on that configuration.

          And yes both the AVR and the Mini-i should be able to run simultaneously that way too.

  • Reply November 28, 2011

    Elie Imelda Rik

    Do you think this would match up good with a Grado RS1i?

  • Reply January 12, 2012

    Stas Ka

    Hey Mike, 
    I have Westone 3, Westone UM3x.
     I am thinking about  Dr Dac2, Matrix Mini i. Which would be better to match with these IEMs?

  • Reply August 23, 2012

    bjhess

    Darn, I’m curious if anyone has the Pronto hex codes for this device. I have a Logitech remote which code replace my lost Matrix remote, but no codes to pass to Logitech support. 🙁

  • Reply March 26, 2013

    disqus_obgrXlKbUX

    I like the style of this device. Is there a DAC like this that has an integrated RMS/peak sound level meter with LEQ on the display?

    • Reply March 26, 2013

      Mike

      Sorry not that I know

  • Reply August 17, 2013

    Mischa

    Great review, just like all the others 🙂 (I mean that. The reviews and comments really helped me out numerous of times). I have been rocking this machine with HS80M speakers and the SRH-840. Last month I moved out (student) and these speakers sound absolutely horrendous here. So I’m selling them and there is a HifiMan HE-400 on the way(hooray).

    Do you, from your experience, think that the Matrix Mini I’s headphone amplifier is ‘good’ enough for the HE-400? Would I benefit a lot from an O2 or Magni, with the Matrix as DAC. Perhaps you have other suggestions. Balanced outputs maybe?

    The information about the Mini I’s headphone amp seems a bit 🙁 on the internet..

    • Reply August 19, 2013

      Mike

      Hi Mischa,
      I really don’t have a clue how well the Mini-I will drive the HE-400, Sorry.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.