CES 2013: MSB goes Analog — sort of

MSB has been not-so-quietly making inroads as making, perhaps, the most technologically advanced — and best sounding — DACs you can buy today. The Diamond DAC, which can run over $40,000 when configured with all of its options, has always struck me as extraordinarily refined with no listener fatigue whatever, but that price point is like Mount Everest — I just can’t see myself ever being willing to make the assault.

Which is why their new Analog DAC ($7,000) is so interesting. Like the Diamond, the Analog is upgradeable — a volume control and an external power supply are added-cost options, as are additional inputs, beyond the default of one (your choice). Fully kitted out, the Analog DAC will still run you about $13,000, which is hardly pocket change, but compared with the Diamond IV, it’s a freakin’ bargain.

Standard in the Analog is a scaled-down version of MSB’s famous “Femto Clock”, used for vanishingly low jitter numbers. More features:

  • 80 bit Digital processing
  • 384 kHz Discrete Ladder DACs
  • Optional Analog Volume Control
  • Separate Analog Power Supplies
  • Modular Inputs With Advanced High Resolution I2S Technology
  • Internet Controllable From Your Mobile Device

A word abut this new aesthetic — I’m a fan. The look of the higher-performing Diamond is really not my cuppa, though I understand it has its enthusiasts. Bollux — the Analog DAC is elegant and entirely luscious is shape and styling and if you disagree, you are wrong. The volume control, a feature I find unnecessary in a DAC but some of you reckless types do like to run “DAC direct”, is perhaps the slickest implementation I’ve yet seen; it’s almost invisible, unless the light catches the dial just-so, and the “screen” being built-in to the top-plate is a stroke of design genius. Of course, seeing that from a distance is impossible and it does make placement in a rack problematic, but whatever. It’s very cool — it deserves to be on the top of your rack, anyway, with that design.

With luck, one of these gems will find its way into my sweaty paws sometime soon.

Last but not least, I found this discussion of the Analog DAC as compared with its significantly up-market stable mates. Worth a read if you’re wondering where to fall.

How does this DAC compare with the DAC IV?

This is the first question I am usually asked. The answer is not simple. Its like comparing a Mini and a Prius. Both are very good at doing what they were designed for, but they are designed with a different goal in mind.

So lets start at the beginning. When a DAC reproduces a digital sample there are two independent components. The precision of the analog level and the precision of the placement in time. The DAC precision determines the exact voltage created. The jitter of the clock determines the precision of the placement of that sample. The graph shows that shifting the reproduced audio signal in time or amplitude creates an error that effects the sound BASED on the nature of the signal. Test tones are not important here, we are talking about music. So the perceived change in the music is defined by the nature of the music and the type of error introduced.

So in my perception, and in simple terms, the amplitude precision provides the realism of the instrument and voice. It contributes directly to accurate harmonic structure. Jitter on the other hand primarily contributes to the ‘digital harshness’ effect and focus. Jitter for me takes the pleasure out of the music and creates fatigue over time. For me its deadly. In single bit, Delta Sigma DAC, you find yourself trading off resolution and harshness. You just don’t get both. The only way to control harshness is to filter detail.

The Ladder DAC gives you an opportunity to adjust both parameters independently. The DAC IV family provides three levels of DAC precision, all of which are as good as or exceed the Analog DAC precision. But the Analog DAC provides time performance superior to the basic three models of DAC IV, but not what the DAC IV can do with the Galaxy Femtosecond Clock installed. The Analog DAC is optimized for time stability on a budget.

So you will love the natural sound of the Analog DAC. You will love the lack of digital harshness. You will think you are listening to an analog source. But when you compare with the DAC IV with Galaxy Clock you will realize that you are missing precision and absolute accuracy.

Depending on your budget and listening priority, the Analog DAC may be perfect for you or the DAC IV may be perfect. Also remember that the DAC IV offers years of upgrades and improvements, and the Analog DAC does not. Again, the value of that depends on your lifestyle and priorities. So if the DAC IV is out of your budget, and you are considering ANY other Delta Sigma DAC, than you must give the Analog DAC an audition before deciding.