The Mini-I Pro is driven by the ESS Saber 9016 chip. This chip supports files up to 24/384 and also can process DSD and DXD files.
Rant time again! I downloaded a DXD WAV file just to make sure the Pro could handle the file as advertised (it did). It was a solo violin sonata by Bela Bartok which lasts for 4 minutes. Did it sound any better to me than something expertly recorded and played back at 16/44.1 CD quality? No, it didn’t. What that 4 minute file did do, however, is take up 125mb MORE than Gustav Mahler’s 100 MINUTE LONG 3rd symphony ripped in FLAC. Do they think I am made of hard drive space? To what end? If you hear this difference, and you feel that these massive files bring with them gains in sound quality, that’s great. Knock yourselves out. I’ll be abstaining. I should also say that this little mini rant has nothing to do with Matrix Audio. They just happen to be the products I am review at this moment. Decoding DSD files seems to be something that a lot of DACs are wearing as a badge of honor these days. Back to the Mini-I Pro…
If DSD support was the only advantage the Mini-I Pro brought, it wouldn’t be worth it. Fortunately, this isn’t the case. Pro here, has a more neutral signature. The sound is less warm, but still quite musical. The treble is much more prominent here than on the regular model (a plus for some, a minus for others), but I didn’t find it to be overly bright. Compared to the Dacport LX, long my reference for its wonderful price/awesome ratio, the Mini-I Pro is larger of sound stage and manages to be even cleaner than the LX. Its midrange even seems to jump forth a little more. And if that’s where the comparison ended, the Pro would be the obvious victor, but there is more, however. There is a slight softness to the sound that prevents the definition of the instruments being quite as sharp as they are on the LX. Then there is the bass. With the bigger mids and brighter treble, the bass on the Mini-I Pro seems like it is tucked behind the midrange at times. It certainly isn’t bass anemic, but it just doesn’t quite have the presence I would like. The Dacport LX, on the other hand, balances the bass better with the other frequencies, and the bass also seems to dig a little deeper on the LX, although that could be a side effect of the better bass presence. I should also be noted that the Mini-I Pro has two more options in its pre-startup menu than the basic Mini-I. If using DSD files, it gives you the option to set the high frequency cutoff at 50k, 60k or 70k. With PCM files, it gives you the option of setting the high frequency roll off at either fast or slow. I would recommend slow, especially with classical as it takes the edge off the treble.
I don’t want to be all frowns though. The Mini-I Pro is still very musical and an excellent DAC. It just isn’t balanced quite how I would like it to be. If you could take the LX’s bass and definition and mix it with the Pro’s larger, cleaner sound… well, that would be a DAC I would love to hear.
So, the DACs are pretty decent, but how are those amps they come with? Like the best review anticlimax, the answer is… fine. They are clean, reasonably spacious, neutral, however lacking in impact. Basically, they are good enough that, should you buy one of these DACs, it will do until you can afford a higher-end amp. The better question is, how would these fair if I was looking for an all-in-one unit to keep by my computer? As I was writing this, I was listening to music using ALO’s The Island, and I found that, on its own, I preferred it to either of the Mini-I models. Granted, you will get a little more detail out of the Mini-I Pro, but the Island gives you a punchier amp section and better PRaT. If you know you are going to be upgrading to something like the Soloist SL or a Bottlehead Crack in the near future, than the Mini-I or Mini-I Pro would be the way to go. However, if it is an all-in-one solution you seek, I would look elsewhere.
The Mini-I and the Mini-I Pro are both very nice units. They have extremely good build quality, great features and solid sound quality. If I feel slightly disappointed in the Pro, it is only because I think it is so close to what I would consider a perfect sounding DAC. Still, all things considered, for $380 for the Mini-I or $520 for the Mini-I Pro, they can make a solid investment. If either of these products sound like they would be the perfect fit into your sound system, I wouldn’t hesitate in giving them a try.