Before I start, I should just confess that the Bricasti M1 Limited Edition (aka, The Golden Gun*) has been my personal DAC reference for the past two years. It is, quite simply, the best-sounding all-around digital converter that I’ve had in-house.
To anyone who says otherwise — it’s pistols at dawn.
As you may or may not recall, computer audio is how I
got into this mess got started with this website in the first place. My first stand-alone digital converter was a heavily-modded PS Audio DAC from Cullen Circuits, and I vividly remember “trouncing all comers” with that dandy little box. Good times.
The intervening 10 years have seen a revolution in the world of digital converters. It’s really not hard to spend ten-to-fifty times as much as I spent on my old DAC, and doing so will land you in a world of glory — sound quality has really gone WAY UP.
I have no doubt that some readers can and will join the lofty ranks of the Gilded Few when it comes to digital bliss, and will happily chase the cutting edge over and past the $100k mark. Good on ‘em. But I can’t really see myself as the kind of guy that will drop that on a digital front end. Take that back — I wish I was that kind of guy. Happily, my (if only slightly) more modest solution with the Bricasti M1LE will give even the most eye-wateringly priced system a run for its money, and bonus: IT’S LITERALLY BEEN DIPPED IN GOLD.
Cue “evil laugh”.
I have quite a few DSD files that I’ve collected over the years and even more high-resolution PCM files. Both of those collections are dwarfed by the “Redbook” collection that resulted in ripping a thousand CDs, however, and even that collection is humbled by what a $20-25/month Tidal or Qobuz subscription yields. For my needs – again, I’m a reviewer (“Ours is the lonliest profession, Mr. Bond”*), so YMMV – I wanted/needed a converter that could handle all the latest and greatest file types with aplomb and grace and serve up audio delectables enticing enough to permit all-day play — and sound astonishly great as it did so.
The Bricasti M1 Limited Edition was that DAC.
I should probably mention that I have two preferred uses for this DAC.
- The first is as a stand-alone preamplifier. I hook the DAC up via its balanced outputs into a pair of M28SE monoblocks (also from Bricasti, reviewed here) and drive my Tidal Audio Piano G2 loudspeakers to ear-popping levels of clarity, breathtaking immediacy and natural musicality.
- The second use-case is with a stand-alone, external, preamplifier, usually tied to a BorderPatrol Control Unit, paired with that company’s matching tube amplifier, and a rotating set of speakers.
I’m a reviewer. Things change around here, a lot. So, flexibility is kinda key — especially for gear that’s gonna stick around.
As to the sound, I’ve described the sound the M1LE as “neutral” in the past, and yes, this is a bit of a cheat. But as John says in his review:
The Bricasti … 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.
I’ll disagree with John a bit — the BorderPatrol DAC isn’t lush — the old Elise DAC from Gill Audio was lush. The Lampizat0r Gen3/L4? Lush. The Benchmark? Yes, that’s clearly LEAN. From my experience, I’d locate the BorderPatrol closer to the Lampi, but still in the middle — and the Bricasti just to the lean-side of that, right on the axis. Not odd, for a DAC from a company with a pro-audio pedigree.
To clarify (along a slightly different audiophile axis), the M1LE does not tend to “err” to either side of my imagined spectrum of “new-school” (emphasis on dynamic range and detail-retrieval) vs “old-school” (emphasis on tone/timbre). That is, it’s a DAC that gets timbre and emotion right and still serves up oodles of detail in a non-fatiguing whole. In fact, the M1LE straddles this distinction so well that it is the only component that “travels” between my two systems. The sound is clear, holographic, and extended, from the farthest treble stratosphere down to the innermost subterranean bass depths. It clearly bettered the bass from my old Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2 and the emotional connection from every LampizatOr DAC I’ve ever had in-house. To be fair, the M1LE is also three times as expensive as any of those, but so it goes.
Also interestingly, the newest versions of the M1 now ship with network capacity – that is, they can be an endpoint in the streaming world, and yes, it’s an endpoint that supports Roon. For those that do have a “legacy” M1 and therefore do not have this Ethernet jack, my understanding is that all M1 DACs can be retrofitted with it. Don’t want to bother? An external M5 network device is also available.
Down the Line
But this does bring up another evolution from Bricasti — the M1 “lineup”, a product range that has grown somewhat over recent years. Here’s the quick sketch.
M1 Limited Edition
This is the version I have in for review. It’s the King-of-the-Hill version. It looks a bit different from the “Classic” (as described below), and the included remote control comes with gold-plated buttons (an elegant and subtle touch).
From designer Brian Zolner:
The gold [for the fascia and side panels] started as a cosmetic project for the Asian market, so besides the gold plating of the chassis parts, and to help differentiate it from the standard M1, we made changes in the power supplies and internal wiring by removing some connectors and using better capacitors. We then made a new larger foot that included the StillPoints so they would be embedded and look like a part of the product design. There have been only a limited number made and they are a custom order. We feel it’s the best sounding, and one might attribute at least part of that to the gold chassis parts.
M1 Special Edition
From Brian Zolner:
When we showed the M1 LE to the market, well, some people just don’t like the look of all that gold so they asked if they could have it in standard black and clear anodized finish. That became the M1 SE or Special Edition … and it sounds different.
From the manual:
The M1 digtal to analog converter is a dual mono design; there are 2 completely isolated channels, a left and right, each with its own dedicated linear power supply, D/A converter, DDS clocking, and analog circuitry. This design insures that analog cross talk is virtually non existent, that the necessary power requirements for each channel are well met and isolated from each other and the digital processing is isolated, having its own power supply. With our twin DAC design, the dynamic range for each channel is optimized by using the stereo ADI 1955 D/A converter in a mono configuration, plus clocking is for each channel done directly at each DAC with a technique called DDS (direct digital synthesis) which takes clock induced jitter to immeasurable levels.
From Brian Zolner:
We still make the “standard” M1 — we call it “the Classic”, and it comes with normal feet and wiring.
Using the Bricasti M1LE
In use, the M1 (of any stripe) can be accessed by a host of digital connections. Typically, I used the USB connection but I know that it is typically demoed with it’s Ethernet connection. I’ve also used the AES (with an Aurender W20) and the BNC S/PDIF (with a Bel Canto CD3t). My personal preference is for the USB because, 1) it’s convenient, and 2) because it is the only interface (other than the Ethernet) that lets me play DSD files (via DoP). Case closed, as far as I was concerned — but I will note that performance seems to depend more on the quality of the upstream “transport” (good transport, good sound, &c) than with the interface chosen. My fiddling with my primo transport, the $18k Aurender W20, didn’t yield anything shockingly obvious when switching between its overbuilt USB output and its similarly overbuilt AES output, so I stopped bothering and focused just on the USB.
Side note: I had some chance to play with the filter settings on the DAC, opting for the minimum-phase filter set as I find them more natural-sounding. There are six of these filters, which mostly vary by the placement and slope of the pass/stopband. My preference was for “Min0”, which also happens to be the most sophisticated (and most complex) of the set. This filter is also, interestingly, one of the only two default filters for the new “entry level” M3 converter and the decidedly not entry-level M12 and M21. Here on the M1, the filters are fun to play with — and while all of them do add a bit of control or smoothness or focus, they also do so at the expense of frequency extension. The Min0 filter, by contrast, is the most open and most extended-sounding of the group, hence became and stayed the default.
The best sound I got out of the Bricasti M1LE was via the balanced outputs directly into the M28SE amps, sans preamplifier. This is, by no surprise, the way that the DAC is usually shown at audio shows. The resulting sound quality of that system was by far the most transparent (i.e., clearest and cleanest) that I’ve had in-house. Played through my Tidal Audio Piano G2 loudspeakers, I had the mesmerizing experience of falling into the music. The better the recording, the eerier the experience. With the Matthias Landaeus Trio Opening, which is one of the best and best-sounding recordings I’ve heard from the MA Recordings catalog, the illusion was breathtakingly crisp. Leading edges >>popped<< out of nowhere, and the decays lingered like the shiver of a finger played across the back of my neck by a not necessarily friendly ghost. I mean it: “weird and otherworldly” was just the start.
I have a Reference Recording release, Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s not high-resolution, just a standard “Redbook” CD with the usual 44.1kHz sampling. Nothing special, in that regard, and yet it sounds incredible when played directly off the hard drive of the W20. I’m not a cymbal-freak, but the wild brassy brassiness of the opening sequence in “Fanfare” is crazy. There is a shimmer, a metallic shhh-zing when it is “right” — the totality of the sharpness of the strike, the “warble” of the action, and the fragile ache of the decay. I’ve listened to this one fragment of the overall song so many times, through so many systems, that I now kinda hate the whole album. But the point — there is a sound that these big brass platters make, a sound that I heard at the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the Frederick Youth Orchestra, and at Music & Arts. What? What else do you do when your kid is shopping for violins? The point — the Bricasti gets it. The timbre is just so. Just about every DAC I compared it to, on this one fragment of real music, couldn’t quite do what the Bricasti did. I have no idea how hard this is to “get right”, but the decision-tree in “correct rendering” seems to have too many branches. Brassy or steely. The strike was abrupt, soft or missing. Or the “warble” was sibilant or flat or absent. Or the decay was muted or lost. After a clearly absurd number of play-throughs, it has become apparent that the amount of variance any given system might show is just baffling. The only other DAC that came close to the presentation of the Bricasti, so far, has been the BorderPatrol Analog DAC SE, but in In head-to-head comparisons between the Bricasti M1 Limited Edition and the BorderPatrol, the M1LE was both more extended and more “planted” (better extension, better control). Of course, it is a tad more expensive.
Another data point, following the trend of Great Overplayed Music: “Roadhouses & Automobiles” by Chris Jones. This track is an audio show chestnut, and as such, has seen the repeat button a few million too many times. But-but-but. Even with its lifetime play completely exhausted, I have to admit that the Stockfisch Records version of this album is just brilliant. The noise floor is embarrassingly low, and the detail in the song is completely uncanny. When I first latched on to it, I was amazed by the crickets. Yes, crickets. I used to play the track through, just listening for when the crickets came in. I even named this “The Cricket Test”. A system that couldn’t reveal the crickets, well … that was sad. But it was only later, with ever more revealing systems, when I clearly heard the birds. A system that sorted out both the crickets and the birds on that track, well … silly as it sounds, if a system could do that, that system could do anything — it would be magic. That system was the Bricasti M1LE, with Bricasti amps, and Tidal loudspeakers. Magic.
Interestingly, the difference between the M1 Classic and the M1LE was more pronounced than I had expected. Both DACs have a beguiling sense of ease to them — reality flows out of my system with either Bricasti at the head — but the 50% more-expensive Limited Edition has a knack for liquidity that I would not have credited had I not heard it. It’s hard to explain. It seems that it plays clearer at lower volumes than its less-expensive stablemate, and presents with a hair more clarity. Brian Zolner just smiles when I say this. He says that, aside from the small architectural changes (a different resistor, a different wiring path, and a few other tweaks), the density of the panels really does seem to matter. 40-microns of gold plating isn’t a lot, but it’s a lot more than the usual with electroplating and, like it or not, the result is a significantly denser chassis — and the overall sound (immeasurable as this apparently is) is just better. And not exactly by hairs, either. Somebody call Mulder and Scully, because I can’t explain it.
Bricasti M1 Limited Edition
In terms of performance, the Bricasti M1 Limited Edition is a Titan. It movie terms*, it is a weapon nonpareil. Given its eerie transparency and deftness with detail, coupled with its easy engagement and natural way with sound, the M1LE is a weapon that easily bridges the sometimes contrasting ideals in high-end audio. As such, it is unique among my references in that it freely travels between systems, regardless of the design ambitions or guiding principles behind the gear that I’ve been lucky enough to audition. The Bricasti makes beautiful music and every system I’ve stuck it in just sounds better. To not put too fine a point on it: my home system, with a Bricasti M1 Limited Edition sitting at the heart of an all-digital playback system, has never sounded better.
For now, the Limited Edition is the end of the line for the M1 platform. The Pinnacle. In the Bricasti lineup, however, the Bricasti M1 Limited Edition is more of an evolution than a revolution, a refinement rather than a new direction — for that, there is Bricasti’s new “Platinum Series”. And in that new Platinum lineup is a treat for those of us still nursing our analog playback fetishes — the new Model 12 (M12) Dual Mono Source Controller. This preamplifier builds on the M1 Special Edition (same as the Limited, but without all the luscious gold), but adds to it a native-DSD processing path and a completely separate fully analog volume attenuator and analog inputs (completely bypassing the three (!) digital conversion paths). An in-room demo at AXPONA 2016, was extremely convincing — a review will be forthcoming. The M12 is different from the M21 (another new model) in that the M21 is a DAC-first design riffing on the M12, but unlike the M12, it comes with no analog inputs. And lastly, just for clarity and for those going down-market, the just-announced M3 has become the entry point in the “Classic” Line.
The point with all of these options (and putting aside all of the amplifier options also available from Bricasti — including the M28SE, reviewed here) is to put the user in the drivers’ seat. Me? I like options. But the sound quality of my system with the Bricasti M1 Limited Edition in place has been a high water mark in my reviewing career, and I find that a position unlikely to be matched easily or soon.
Very highly recommended.*
*[Even if the movie I’m riffing on, The Man with the Golden Gun, is not. I’m a Bond fan, but the Roger Moore years were a blight. Not necessarily his fault, to be fair, but it hardly matters. Anyway, I just like equating a legendary DAC with a legendary weapon — “I only need one, Mr. Bond”. It fits. The obvious alternative was Goldfinger, a villain who dips random things in gold and whose tag line was “I expect you to die, Mr. Bond!” Either way, I think Brian Zolner ought to be laughing all the way to the bank — these golden guns of his are just outstanding.]
The Bricasti M1LE retails for $15,000.
For more information, see Bricasti Design at: http://bricasti.com.