Disclaimer: The Matrix M-Stage HPA-3U was sent to us free of charge for the purpose of this review, I have no idea if Dave has to return it. Lieven
The M-Stage ReLoaded (see what I did there)
So, back into the Matrix again with their redesigned M-Stage-HPA-3U. Mike (remember him?) reviewed an earlier M-Stage model here. I generally agree with his take on it, so it would be worth reading up on first. Matrix actually released two M-Stage amps recently: the HPA-3U and the balanced HPA-3B. This review only covers the 3U. So, anyway, what is the HPA-3U all about?
Before I really answer that question, I need to get all nonlinear on you, dear readers. Usually, I would talk about the build and look of the unit, move onto the sound, maybe offer a comparison or two, and then get to the extras features (if any) of the unit in question. Today, I have to start with the extras, in this case, the built-in DAC. “It will do fine until you can afford a better DAC, but it isn’t anything special” is what I figured on writing. I mean, these built-in DACs aren’t usually anything special, right. What experience does Matrix have with DACs anyway? What’s that you say? Mike liked their M-Stage DAC a while back? Well, true, and he thought the DAC that came with the Matrix Mini Portable was very good. And whoever did the reviews of the Matrix Mini-I DACs felt quite favorable about both of them… and that was me… Yep, I’m a moron. I don’t know why I didn’t expect this DAC to be good. I certainly should have. Despite having a Bifrost Uber (very good DAC) at my disposal at the time, I used built-in DAC for most of my listening. It just fit so well with the sound of the amp. The Bifrost threw out a wide sound, with more treble presence and a hair more detail. The smoother treble of the Matrix DAC just played better with the amp section. This DACs width isn’t the greatest, but it has surprisingly good depth. It is fairly clean with pretty good detail. Both the Bifrost and Concero HD and what not are better DACs, but the synergy going on here can’t be denied, and musicality is always my bottom line. It will do up to 24/192, and can do DSD over DoP, if DSD is your thing.
Now, we can talk about the amps sound. Of course, any talk of the sound of this amp has to start with the bass. It’s big, bold and beautiful. If you have a headphone that you think needs just that little something extra down below, this amp might be just the ticket. The M-Stage reminded me just how hard the HD650 can hit. Yet, connected to this amp, the bass never bled into the mids, or made the sound feel unnaturally dark. It doesn’t go out of its way to impart its will on the headphones connected to it. When throwing the Grado SR80s on there, they sounded like Grados. The SR80s bass is on the lean side, and still is connected to the M-Stage. Impact is really good. I would call the bass body as being just a little more than neutral, but not to the point that I find it intrusive.
The midrange follows suit with the bass in offering a full bodied experience. The mids sit slightly forward and there is definitely some warmth to them. Both male and female vocals are given their proper place in the music, and don’t get buried among the body of the instruments (unless it was recorded that way. In that case, there is nothing you can do about that. That’s my biggest issue with the album Bleed like Me. The voices are mixed too far back). The sound is smooth, and uhhh… very enjoyable. No issues so far with the sound.
But here comes the treble (see what I did there)! The upper frequencies are pretty well extended, with some nice sparkle and air to them. With the HD650 anyway. This amp is an excellent pairing with the classic Sennheiser: hard hitting bass, full midrange and extended treble that mixes nicely with the rolled off upper frequencies of the HD650. When I plugged in the Grado SR80e, things almost went too far. It threatened to get screechy. It never quite crossed that line, but it was close.
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