It’s good to be king, or so they say. For me, that’s precisely the vibe that exudes from the Bricasti M12 Platinum Edition Source Controller. With a name like that, this august device seems more than comfortable mantled in royal attire. It wears well.
For the record, I’ve been a fan of Bricasti gear since I first laid ears on the Classic M1 DAC, which I got to review a year or so ago. I really liked it, and I told Scot Hull as much. Long story short, that unit became mine, and since then it has undergone an update to Special Edition status, complete with the internal local area networking (LAN) card option. What used to be “really great” is now awesome. The Bricasti M1 SE is my current reference DAC and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.
A friend of mine, whenever he visits my listening room, likes to say that I live amongst an embarrassment of audio riches. I’d have to agree. My ears have been truly blessed with excellent music and a superb collection of gear. Even if most of the goods must come and then go on a merry-go-round schedule (such is the life of an audio reviewer…), I am truly fortunate. So, when the opportunity presented itself to spend a good, long time with the Bricasti M12, I felt that my ship had arrived.
A “Source Controller” you say? What’s that?
When I first laid eyes on this Bricasti beauty, I’ll admit that I asked this very question.
To me, the term “source controller” sniffs of something doing preamp duty, as in allowing the user to switch among multiple audio sources and control volume levels with scalpel-like precision. Alright, that makes sense, but for the asking price there must be more to the box than just that. And there is…. Much, much more.
You, the audio consumer, can acquire the Bricasti M12 in two versions. Unlike the M1, which can be had in any number of configurations, the M12 is available only in Standard ($16,000) and Platinum ($19,000) versions. As far as I can tell, the functionality between the two is identical. It’s the finish that sets them apart.
That platinum coating isn’t just for aesthetic effect either. The Bricasti folks claim that noble metal finishes on their products actually affect how they sound. The gold or platinum coatings are said to make the digital products sound more mellow and dimensional compared to the stock black anodized finish. Sound effects aside, I can attest that the mirror-like platinum finish is stunning to behold. It takes typical Bricasti classiness to a new level altogether.
OK, so it’s pretty. But what’s under the bonnet?
Let’s get one thing straight. The Bricasti M12 Platinum is damned expensive. For a DAC/preamp, $19,000 is stupid money for a plebeian dude such as myself. But I can imagine that there are plenty of courtly audiophiles out there who might afford it, and for those folks, I’d recommend some serious consideration. There’s a lot of audio value and cutting edge technology behind that pretty face just begging to strut its stuff.
What we have here is really a state-of-the-art line-level preamplifier that happens to come with two (yes, two!) sophisticated on-board DACs. One of these is a native delta-sigma PCM decoding DAC, appointed in typical Bricasti overkill perfectionism. This DAC can handle all sorts of digital file types with resolutions up to 384 kHz with 24-bit resolution. This is the DAC section that got the brunt of the use from me. The second independent DAC section is specifically for decoding DSD files. This DAC does its job in a unique way: its conversion is native single-bit, with no conversion to PCM, as is typically done with other DSD converters. I would have to assume that this approach is sonically purer, as the less a digital signal is messed with, the cleaner it should sound.
As for the preamplifier section, the Bricasti M12 boasts a fully analog output, level adjusted in 1-dB steps across a range of 90 dB utilizing a ladder resistor network. Bricasti claims that dumping the analog voltage output of the DAC directly onto the volume control leads to the cleanest, most sophisticated sound possible. Long live short signal runs!
Yet another feature that comes standard with both versions of the M12 is the local area network interface card, otherwise referred to simply as the LAN. An option on the M1 DAC, it can also be had in a separate box offered by Bricasti, the M5 Network Player. From my standpoint, this networking solution was perhaps the most groundbreaking part of an otherwise cutting-edge digital product, as I’ll elaborate upon a bit later. Briefly, the interface card takes the musical bitstream via a router directly from an external hard drive or streaming service (think Tidal or Qobuz) and directly to the DAC. No external processing, no noisy computer, no pesky USB interfacing, just uncompromising audio purity.
Need versatile preamp-like interfacing? No problem here with the M12. Analog outputs are both single-ended and balanced, as are the extra set of analog inputs for a phono stage, tape deck, etc. All of the standard digital interfacing inputs are present, including USB, optical Toslink, AES/EBU, and coaxial, as well as the aforementioned LAN card. All controls are accessible via front panel buttons and volume knob, but I preferred to work with the well-engineered remote.
Build quality is superb, both inside and out, as I have come to expect from all Bricasti products.
Setup with the Bricasti M12
Since the Bricasti M12 is technically a line-level preamplifier with a built-in DAC section, that’s how I used it. Digital input was either through the USB port on my Mac Mini or directly into the LAN card via my router using CAT-6 cabling. Digital sources were either music files stored on an external hard drive or streaming audio, mainly supplied by Qobuz. I was able to utilize both the single-ended RCA and balanced outputs of the M12, depending on which amplifier I was directly feeding. To this end, I got more than satisfactory results using both First Watt F7 (single-ended only — reviewed here) and Pass Labs X250.8 (balanced — reviewed here) stereo amps. Doing speaker duty was my pair of trusty ATC SCM100 passive studio monitors.
Some initial impressions
The Bricasti M12 had taken up residence in my main system for a couple of months when Bricasti’s head guy, Brian Zolner, asked if I would be willing to return the unit for some upgrades. Apparently, the M12 I had had made the rounds prior to me. As my updated M1 had since arrived to take its place temporarily, I was happy to comply.
My listening impressions refer entirely to the updated version, which I am certain performed at a higher level than it had before.
As with my M1 DAC, the M12 presented itself with a hefty emphasis on tonal honesty, laser-focused resolution, and inherent musicality. These are traits I value highly in any audio component. You could easily pin me as a “resolution/detail” guy, and I would readily admit as much. However, this resolving power must remain in the ultimate service of the music, as opposed to distracting from it. I have come to count on Bricasti to somehow get this balance between detailed presentation and satisfying musicality just right. So far, I have not been disappointed.
Much of my initial listening was done using the M12’s USB input in conjunction with my Mac Mini tasked as a music server. As a USB DAC, the M12 performed impeccably, or at least as well as I’d ever heard such a DAC perform. Readily on hand were clarity, a bit of roundness on leading-edge corners, and an inviting sense of tonal texturing. The USB interface was more than dandy, but…
Listening with the Local Area Network (LAN) card
This one, at least for me, turned out to be something of a game-changer.
Recall that our M12 has that local area networking card as a standard option, something you have to pay extra for on Bricasti’s other DACs. I ignored it at first, as it seemed like it would be something of a pain in the arse to set up and use, at least based on the little bit of reading I’d done. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a go shortly after my M12 came back from the factory in its upgraded form.
I was initially a bit bummed that I couldn’t use the LAN card with my normal Mac Mini music interfaces, such as Pure Music, or native Tidal or Qobuz. I found out that I’d need another music player, such as JRiver, Audirvana, or Roon. I’d played around with Roon before and found it a bit kludgy for my own needs (I’m kind of a minimalist regarding such things…). I, therefore, decided to give JRiver and Audirvana a go, and ended up settling on Audirvana due to its ease of use and navigation. Plus, it automatically integrated Tidal and Qobuz playback, which was a nice plus.
I initially had some issues getting my network router to recognize the LAN card, but persistent help from Bricasti’s tech development folks got me on track lickety-split. Color me impressed with the level of customer service I got!
In a nutshell, the actual setup was pretty simple. All I had to do was hard-wire with CAT-6 cabling, via the router, my Mac Mini, external hard drive, and the LAN card, which was already installed in the M12.
Advantages? According to Bricasti, it’s a noise floor improvement. All of the processing is done at the card, right up next to the DAC: short signal paths at the point of conversion, and all that jazz. My Mac Mini serves only to control and route the bitstream, with no signal processing occurring there. Further, the signal is shuttled along passively, with no power leg routing dirty voltage alongside the pristine musical bits, as via USB.
Is the M12 really better?
Brian Zolner really wanted me to try out the LAN card option, as he intimated that he, as well as many customers, find it to be the best sounding interfacing option, and by far. I was intrigued by the possibilities. But, was it all to be just more audiophile balderdash and snake oil… Or the real deal?
It didn’t take me long to find out once I got the whole operation up and running.
Undoubtedly, USB can be a very sweet-sounding interface (quite literally), and the Bricasti folks really make the most of it. It sounds good… In fact, very, very good. It’s accurate, dimensional, and has a good sense of spatial bloom.
Performance over the LAN was revelatory. Brian was right; I could immediately hear a “cleaning up” of the sound, both in terms of tonal presentation and soundstage accuracy. Tonally, compared to the USB option, things got a little bit leaner, but presumably more accurate. I found it much easier to hear into the musical performance as opposed to being engulfed by it. The overall experience was more analytical as opposed to purely emotional, seeing as some of the artificial sweetener of the USB interface was removed. I don’t mean to imply that the musical experience lacked passion — it did not. Rather, I found myself more easily drawn into the experience as layers of artifacts seemingly were magically lifted. It’s that old audio analogy of “lifting of the veils” to which my mind kept returning.
I’d mentioned improvements in the spatial presentation via soundstage and imaging also. With the new clarity of tone, I found myself hearing spatial cues I’d missed before. I could hear deeper into the three-dimensional space of the music. It’s not as if the overall stage had widened or deepened appreciably; but rather that I could hear minute events more accurately and precisely within it.
A few musical specifics
An artist I came across some time ago using Qobuz’s “Discover” option is Jamie Saft and his quartet, which heap up a good dose of modern jazz played with special sauce: these guys really cook. On top of that, the sessions I’ve come across from Saft are especially well recorded and produced. One I’ve been listening to a lot lately is Hidden Corners (streamed via Qobuz, 24/44.1 Hz). Lots of great sax work, as well as prodigious bass, come together to make a highly satisfying session. Listening along with the Bricasti M12 shows the strengths of the unit: laser-like resolution to get through the most complicated passages (and there are plenty), all coupled with a degree of tonal honesty that would prove hard to top. I’m able to discern spatial cues such as the nearly evanescent ride cymbal wafting in space just left of center within the prodigious sound stage. Oh, and that inner detail! The minute tonal inflections of the cymbal are portrayed as I’ve not heard before. I can easily see why Bricasti Design is also a world leader in the pro audio recording/mastering/producing arenas. If it’s in the recording, you’re gonna hear it!
Another fun recording I’ve been enjoying of late was suggested by my 21-year-old son. I like polling my young adult kids about their listening preferences, as they occasionally come up with some hidden and unexpected jewels. It pays to listen to your kids, folks! I’d like to think their eclectic selections come from years of hearing the Old Man working away in the listening room.
The selection in question is an older (say, 1972 or so) eclectic jazz album by Italian composer Oscar Rocci called Pop Paraphrenia (streamed via Qobuz, 24/44.1 kHz). This stuff is hard to classify. It’s sort of a clever hybrid of cheesy Burt Bacarach (think “Casino Royale”) meets Pharoah Sanders meets the Funky Meters, with a bit of straight-ahead thrown in for good measure. It’s cool stuff, ranging from funkadelic to liltingly beautiful, to acid. It’s also the mainstay album of my kid’s playlist titled “Selections for Lounging Gentlemen.”
While not exactly an audiophile recording, Pop Paraphrenia is nonetheless somewhat addicting. Again, the Bricasti M12 helps bring this older recording alive in all of its early ‘70s glory. I can easily make out production warts and collywobbles, but the music remains convincingly alive and fresh. The M12 does an excellent job of bringing out the fun of this outing without casting an excessively analytical shadow upon it that kills the mood. And yeah, the kid’s right… These tunes throw down some serious funk in the Lizard Lounge.
The Bricasti M12
So yeah, the Bricasti M12 Platinum Edition is nutty expensive. But… If you’ve got that kind of long green, it’s about as state-of-the-art as digital conversion gets these days. You also get a killer great-sounding preamp as part of the deal. Figuring how much separate top-of-the-line preamps and DACs go for these days, perhaps the M12 could be a great deal. And the build quality and attention to detail, both in design and execution really is second to none. If you buy an M12, you will get what you pay for.
As for me, the M12 has become such an integral part of my system that saying good-bye will be like parting ways with a close friend. I’ll miss it. However, I’m blessed to have my Special Edition Bricasti M1 ready to fill the void. I’m a lucky guy. Lucky indeed.
Thank you Brian, and thank you Bricasti Design! It’s been a great trip.
Read more at Bricasti Design (website). As reviewed: USA MSRP $20,000 w/LAN upgrade, included.