A friend of mine doesn’t believe in the law of diminishing returns. As you spend more, your dollar or pound gets you more, but at a diminishing level. He is in pursuit of the perfect HiFi always – the continual upgrade path. So the price to performance value judgement doesn’t mean much to him. I’m often on that journey too and I don’t mind paying for reducing returns, but not everyone does. So I understand both perspectives. And to review HiFi you have to consider more than your own view. “A little bit more than an ‘ot dog” then.
As William Blake said, ‘The Path of Excess Leads to the Tower of Wisdom’, or was that the electronic recording artist Enigma who had that stamped on their MCMXC a.D album cover? It sounds like an alcohol inspired statement. But whatever, you could adopt this mantra to the consideration, is say an extra £700 worth spending on a product when the performance *might* be only ‘slightly better’? If it is much better to you personally, then of course you’ll go for it. If not – then why would you bother? So it’s about value, and value is to different people, different.
But within the spectrum of value judgements lie common threads as to what is value and it’s to this end I have a £700 difference thing going on here…. A £1200/$1500 Chord Qutest DAC versus this £500/$640 Musical Fidelity MX-DAC. Admittedly I have no comparable priced DAC at the moment.
The MX-DAC from Musical Fidelity is not new but it’s their entry level stand alone DAC in the range. Using a Burr Brown DAC chip, it’s a half width design which will be particularly nice for small HiFi set-ups and desk based systems. Maybe connected to a headphone rig.
What is great about this box of tricks is that it has both balanced and line out analogue connections which is odd and unusual at the price. In HiFi terms the equivalent of heated seats in a 1982 Vauxhall Chevette perhaps. You can inject all your digital audio needs into it with asynchronous USB 2.0, two optical / toslink inputs, and two coaxial RCA connections. That’s into the MX-DAC of course!
At the front is a simple sliding on/off switch, sample rate indicators for Hi-Res and DSD formats and a filter button to promote slight nuanced changes in audio, as is commonly used.
As a 32bit upsampling design it doesn’t deal with the gargantuan sampling rates common to new DACs nowadays. It’s a ‘24/192’ DAC, but let’s be frank, who actually owns a lot of downloadable Hi-Res content beyond CD collection quality and even if so, is having a DAC to ‘only’ 24/192 really a disadvantage? I always emphasise the quality of digital audio is mostly DAC dependent and not format dependent. A change in DAC can more than make up for different formats and sampling frequencies.
Listening, the MX-DAC is impressionable with a wide soundstage as a stand out trait. I’m using it with single ended RCA outputs to my pre amp. Everything has stayed the same except a swap out from the Chord Qutest.
Initially I get a sense the treble is nice and sparkly, but not bright, which is pleasing as this DAC makes much of cymbals and other instruments or sampled sounds that stand centre stage in a recording. Its nice and balanced and neutral as a DAC, like the Chord. So unlike the UK election choices, its on centre ground to something like a Mytek Brooklyn which can be airy with treble. Fine if you demand it in your system, but not so if you want all round neutrality to tie in with many systems that stand up similarly.
Like the remaining remnants of tomato ketchup leaving the bottle, bass is thick and fast and overall this DAC is nicely balanced with bass and treble, if perhaps not as thick and enveloping as the Qutest. It’s also got dynamics on side.
Playing devils advocate, it does give some cricket-esque raspiness in treble on say an intake of a vocalists breath *on some recordings* and *in my system* (note two qualifications). But the more I listened, I found this hardly of any issue, simply because the MX-DAC shows up bad digital recordings more than the Qutest does, which I’m used too, and some other DACs I’ve tried, notably a smoother M2Tech Young Mk3 (admitedly more expensive). Also too that most of this bad quality on audio recordings is usually recording dependent with neutral DACs like this. It’s largely the way artists like Diana Krall have their vocals pitched up to stand out. Gladly she doesn’t get much airtime in my set up anyway.
There is an impression that the DAC is not £700 cheaper than the Qutest but maybe only a few hundred. This comes from its even handedness in balance and the fact it does everything about as good as Marks and Spencer’s food department, and there are no significantly adverse sonic traits. Bolstered by the fact I’m comparing these two DACs in a pretty decent system of sources, speakers and amps. So what in partnering with HiFi of a similar price to this Musical Fidelity? Well I’m sure it would probably make my point even more for me.
It can’t match the Qutest for its all out affronting projection and roundedness in how it copes with bass, sound-staging and all out ‘in your faceness’. But then you wouldn’t expect it to at a lower price, but that’s not the point….
I hear you shouting that DACs at different price levels aren’t comparable. Well yes and no. Yes because I’ll just say they aren’t, for reasons you might be thinking, but no because this study in diminishing returns shows you what great products like the MX-DAC achieve for your wonga.
Drawing what might be perceived as negatives to a more expensive product is not a negative by any stretch at all, because of the small percentage differences involved. In fact a great positive of the MX-DAC and making my points nicely too. And this is why the MX-DAC is accomplished because it strikes a balance very well over affordability and performance with the immutable diminishing returns of higher priced DACs, the subject of many a HiFi denier.
From a DAC like the MX-DAC, you’ve even got cash left over to add a streamer like the great Allo DigiOne Signature I looked at with the Allo Shanti dual linear PSU. In a good mid range headphone system an argument could be maintained that a DAC like the Qutest is overkill. Principally due to the directness of the audio vibrating your auditory ossicles, but more so because this Musical Fidelity does all you need in such a system.
As an argument in point for why this component makes sense, have a think about this…..Instead of considering something like the new half width Cyrus One Cast, why not try the Cyrus One at under half the price and a matched width MX-DAC, then add on a cheap streamer like the Google Chromecast Audio. I’d eat my hat if this combination isn’t a better proposition. And whilst it’s not an all in one, maybe a tempter to go with separates on a premise of improved audio quality. I know what I’d be trying….
If I wanted a mid range DAC in a mid range HiFi or headphone system which appeals to neutrality, isn’t bright, nor too smooth, and does everything well, this would be a DAC to shortlist. Even in more expensive set ups it is no slouch by any means and it copes very admirably.
The MX-DAC is the best neutral and relatively affordable DAC that I’ve had so far. A REAL contender for DAC of 2019 perhaps. Like a Netflix documentary series, you’ll have to watch the film to find out……
Bang on Musical Fidelity!
- Output Voltage : 2V (RCA) / 4V (XLR)
- Weight : 1.9kg (unpacked)
- Dimensions : 220 x 53 x 215mm (WxHxD)
- Digital Inputs : 2 RCA SPDIF / 2 Toslink / Optical, USB (up to 24/192). DSD 64/128
- Analogue Outputs : 1 x line level RCA (single ended), 1 x XLR (balanced)
- DAC Type : PCM1795 32 bit / 192khz Delta Sigma
£500/c$640 at current ROE
PMC twenty5 23 speakers, Cyrus DAC XP Signature pre with PSX-R power supply, Cyrus Mono X200 signature power amps, Innuos Zenith mark 2 server, IsoTek Aquarius power conditioner, Allo DigiOne Signature streamer with Allo Shanti linear PSU. Chord Qutest DAC.