Bricasti M1 Review: Balancing Head and Heart

Perks of the trade

Looking at the Bricasti M1 reminds me of one of the coolest perks of reviewing high-end audio equipment: I get to hear lots of different types of gear in the comfort and familiarity of my own listening room. I love mixing and matching different pieces, trying to get the best out of each component that I evaluate. Even so, there are very few “aha” moments in this game for me; much of the gear I get to review is very good, indeed, and a lot of it seems to be converging to a common level of audio excellence. For as much as we love to use terms such as “gobsmacked” and “jaw-dropping” in our reviews, the truth is that we are often gauging, evaluating, and describing to you, dear reader, fairly small differences among similar components. Mountains and molehills, everywhere.

So, what do we mean by “good”?

I can think of maybe three or four real instances in my own listening environment where I swapped one component in for another and heard such a major difference that I had to re-evaluate what I thought was possible with my audio system. Two of these involved digital front ends.

The first was a long-ago incident in which I switched out an old, no-name compact disc player for a mid-priced Adcom model in an otherwise non-noteworthy system appropriate to a graduate student at the time. A whole new world that I had never experienced before seemingly opened up to me — like when Dorothy was so rudely transitioned from blah old black-and-white Kansas to the Technicolor world of Oz. I heard for the first time the real effects of imaging and soundstage, as well as a truly defined extension on both ends of the audio spectrum. It was this event that really got me hooked on high-end audio such that I knew there would be no going back.

The other digitally-inspired event involved the converter that is the subject of this review: the Bricasti Design M1 Stereo Digital-to-Audio Converter.

Bricasti M1 Classic DAC

I’ll give you the short version of the story, if that’s possible. Editor Scot Hull had handed me a carton containing the Bricasti M1 Classic DAC from a pile of boxes that makes up the staging area in his basement. It was almost an afterthought, it seemed, as he had already rustled up several other pieces of gear for me to take home and evaluate. “Give me a quick report on how this measures up to what you’ve been using,” he suggested, with something of a sly grin.

I figured things would be different, as the Bricasti design-wise is about as far away as one can get from my beloved old-school non-oversampling, non-upsampling, tube-rectified Border Patrol SE DAC (reviewed here), with its “positively ancient” (but oh-so-delicious) Philips DAC chip.

I’ll not soon forget the set-up I was listening to at the time. I was running in the new First Watt SIT-3 amplifier (review here) driving my pair of Omega Audio Super Alnico Monitors. The preamp was my trusty Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL 2.0 (review here), itself driven by the Border Patrol DAC. The sound was quite good I thought: dimensional and pleasingly lush. In went the Bricasti, out went the Border Patrol, and down went my jaw.

Let me flash forward for just a moment: it’s not that one setup sounded “better” than the other; that’s important to note and I’ll come back to it. But the difference I heard was one of the most obviously perceptible swaps I’ve experienced in my home listening room, and that’s odd. No mountain-out-of-a-mole-hill, here. How could just swapping out a DAC make so much difference in the system’s sound? I just sat and wondered as I listened.

No, the “straight out of the box” sound wasn’t perfect: the midrange was kind of ragged, and the treble was somewhat etched, but I had to admit that there was a lot going on that I hadn’t been hearing with the tube-based Border Patrol unit. I wasn’t sure of the history of the Bricasti M1 DAC I now had in my system, but it definitely benefitted from some run-in [Editor’s note: most DACs tend to “settle” over time just by being powered up — it’s really just best to leave them on, if at all possible].

Over the next four or five days, the Bricasti M1 settled right down, with its sound becoming progressively smoother and more fleshed out. What was merely good before was becoming great across the whole of the audible spectrum, top to bottom.

Audiophiles and pro-audio DACs?

I’d tend to classify the Bricasti M1 as “accurate”, if nothing else.

Bricasti, you see, has a foot in both the consumer Hi-Fi and pro audio worlds. It seems that the M1 is a crossover product, used by both audiophiles and mastering engineers. I tend to like good pro DACs. If you think about it, these instruments need to be both accurate and non-fatiguing. If you’re an audio engineer, you have to sit and listen to the thing all day long. It’s your job. The device had better sound good. And that’s exactly what the M1 is to me: very, very accurate and non-fatiguing at the same time. I hear gobs of detail and resolution, but never in that irritating “in your face” sort of way that plagues lesser DACs. Somehow the Bricasti strikes that difficult tight-rope act of providing just the right amount of detail while still remaining “laid back” in its overall presentation.

As a point of personal comparison, I’ve never really been able to fully bond with the Benchmark Media DAC products (though I think their AHB2 amplifier is filled with sonic superlatives). I’ve had several versions of this converter in my system, and I even owned one for a couple of years. They do low-level detail retrieval and bass extension/definition exceptionally well, but the “involvement” factor for me has always seemed sort of AWOL. I was chatting with a mastering engineer recently who was familiar with the Benchmark DACs. He described them as having a “smiley face” tonal signature: tipped up in the bass and treble, while recessed and grayed out in the mids. My own experience jives with this observation.

In contrast, I’d say that my Border Patrol DAC might have a “sad face” sort of equalization curve. It’s a tad rolled off at both frequency extremes, but mightily colorful, fleshy, and extraordinarily present in the all-important midrange. It’s a highly expressive and very “human” sort of hi-fi buddy, and that’s why it will remain an integral digital option in my system for a long time to come.

The Bricasti M1, however, tends to straddle that nearly perfect via media between the Benchmark and Border Patrol ways of doing things. I’d guess based on my listening trials in an otherwise neutral system that the M1 has an exceptionally flat frequency response across the spectrum while remaining highly linear in its ability to retrieve low-level detail.

It’s OK if you find this sort of response curve boring, as there are plenty of good DACs such as the Benchmark or Border Patrol options that may better fit your preferences or integrate more readily into your own system.

Expensive … worth it

At a pricey $9,000, the Bricasti M1 “Classic” is Bricasti’s lowest priced DAC option. If you want to put down more dinero, you can upgrade to the Special Edition, or even the Gold Edition, which I think Scot has.

I’m sure they’re even better, but I’m perfectly happy, even giddy, with the “cheap” option. And it’s a work of art, inside and out. The casework is machined from a solid billet of aluminum and has a really nice sort of vintage Mark Levinson look to it. The thing just exudes class in an elegant, yet business-like sort of way. On the inside, the M1 is fully dual-mono from front to back, even utilizing two stereo delta-sigma oversampling DAC chips in a mono configuration, one per channel. A separate remote control/sensor option is now standard, and I found it to be nicely convenient, if not essential (I’m not much of a remote guy). Well, OK, maybe close to essential, as I found myself using it a lot.

In the time the Bricasti M1 DAC has spent with me, I’ve placed it into about every possible amp/preamp/speaker combination I can think of, and it’s performed beautifully in all of them. By the end, I’d settled on a very simple, yet effective setup, with the M1 directly driving the Pass Labs X250.8 amp in balanced mode, with the amp then powering my revealing ATC SCM 100 passive studio monitors. Volume adjustment happens via the M1’s precision built-in digital volume control.

Sometimes the simplest solution is actually the best solution.

Filtered or Unfiltered?

The Bricasti M1 is simple in its setup and operation, yet somewhat complex in its user options.

It’s been around in one form or another since 2010, but has been constantly improved and updated in terms of both hardware and firmware. For instance, my unit has a total of 15 digital filter options to choose from, with funny names like “Linear 4” and “Minimum 0”.

I felt like an addled old man trying to make a menu selection at the local delicatessen when confronted by such a range of choices. LIke the selection at the deli, they all proved quite tasty! How to choose just one was the problem. I found myself surfing filters like my wife surfs channels on TV before I settled on “Linear 4” as my favorite.

Why it was my favorite I can’t exactly tell you; maybe it’s just where I ended up when I finally got tired of surfing. Anyway, the differences between the filters were subtle, yet audible, especially when comparing “Minimal” anything against “Linear” anything. “Minimal” seemed more relaxed and fleshed out, whereas “Linear” felt more energetic, straight-up, and robust.

What was said

While naturally laid-back, the M1 shows forth its precision like a velvet fist. As complex harmonics engulf me, I’m brought back to the forefront by the precise imaging ushered forth by the DAC.

Even with my big ATC speakers, instrumental or vocal images are crisp and well-defined, as opposed to bloated and hazy. For example, listening to Tord Gustavsen’s album What Was Said(ECM, 24/96 FLAC file streamed via Qobuz) was a truly sublime experience. Simin Tander’s expressive voice was tossed out in full relief against a background of piano, percussion, or synthesizer, occupying its very own carved-out three-dimensional volume in space. Further, the Bricasti M1 Classic DAC had no issues with capturing and reproducing the intricate tonal inflections of Tander’s voice in a convincingly realistic manner.

Recorded female voice is quite a thing when done right, and this bad boy does it right!

So, there you have it

What more is there to say? The Bricasti M1 “Classic” Stereo DAC seems to me to be reference class in its ability to convey dynamics, definition, detail retrieval, and most importantly, emotion. I crave detail, especially in digital components, but never at the expense of feeling, and to that end, the M1 has a real sense of both head and heart.

At $9,000, the M1 will be for many prohibitively expensive. That said, is it worth the cost of admission? Or could it even be considered a bargain for those who can play in that sandbox? Given that there are a fair number of “reference” DACs out there that cost just as much, or even a lot more, I can’t imagine any that could walk that far out ahead of the Bricasti M1 Classic in any given area of performance. It just does everything at least very well, if not exquisitely well. Therefore, I’d actually answer “yes” to both questions just posed. I’ve learned my lesson: the front end, whether digital or analog, matters… a lot. It’s probably no coincidence that at least two of my most seminal audio learning experiences have come from swapping one digital front end for another.

In the end, my beloved Border Patrol SE DAC (God bless it) isn’t going anywhere. I still love it. However, if a Bricasti M1 were to find its way into the fold here in the Lizard Lounge, let’s just say I wouldn’t toss it out for eating crackers.

Very highly recommended, indeed.

Bricasti M1 DAC: US Retail $9,000

See also: Bricasti M28 Stereo Amplifier Review.