Matrix Audio Element M2 Hi-Res Music Streamer | REVIEW

matrix audio element

“The reviewing of DACs is a difficult matter,
     It’s not just another internet adage;
You might think me daft as a high-pass subwoofer;
When I tell you, each DAC must have its own special bridge ….”
—adapted from The Naming of Cats by T. S. Eliot

The first time I tried a streaming DAC like the Matrix Audio Element M2 as an integrated component, it was a Simaudio MOON Neo 280D. It felt like I was finally playing a digital turntable instead of shoving discs into a slot and hoping for the best. Direct laptop-to-DAC results notwithstanding (I am an Audirvana Studio development partner), I just felt like I could magically pick almost anything in my collection through this beautiful tablet UX and the music would just play in high fidelity.

I could even adjust the volume with the MiND App back then. If I had not ripped something or just wanted to try it at—roughly—full CD fidelity, I ask TIDAL and it obeys. Why would I not want to do that?

Words by Andy Schaub, Images Courtesy of Moon Audio

So, in that spirit, I am discussing DACs here that have internal network bridges for RJ/E or Wi-Fi input (and control), the DAC section itself, and an analog section that allows a modicum of control such that said DAC might function as a digital-only line stage (“preamplifier”). I do acknowledge the lovely existence of NAS-like front ends from Aurender and Melco (maybe more), hybrid bridge/DAC arrangements like I used to have with a Sonore microRendu, SGC power supply, and Ayre QB-9 DSD under Roon—and that’s great, too—plus the Big Boy components from dCS, etc. and the Baby Boom DACs from Bluesound et al.

It’s true, loading a CD in a professional, top-loading CD player feels a lot like cueing up a track on my JRT Rossini (“solid”), but the former lacks finesse. I just remember sitting in my little apartment with a friend from college ordering takeout on my iPad. I had some music playing. He asked if I had any Grateful Dead. I said no, but I could get it. So I searched TIDAL for “American Beauty,” found it post haste, then loaded it up followed by a “live Dead” album that just played while we ate German sausages and baked beans. No marijuana was consumed; we had a blast.

Thus, the two full streaming DACs I have had in my system as my own are the Simaudio MOON Neo 280D and the Ayre QX-5 Twenty, quite a reference that I sold as a necessity during the deep, dark days of the pandemic.

matrix audio element

Matrix Audio Element M2 Set-Up

As I have rebuilt the system from mostly Audio Note to the just-more-fun Rega and ELAC gear
(keeping my Transrotor Rossini and extinct Jelco 750DB with a Hana EH in tow), I have now been using a complete but ultimately less ultra-utopian digital solution (a long Kimber USB cable going into an Ayre QB-9 DSD then a Rega Brio and ELAC Debut 6.2 first gens); and I like it. Still I am open to discoveries; in walk Drew Baird. Drew kindly loaned me a new Matrix Audio Element M2 Hi-Res Music Streamer, a full three-part DAC, as it were.

Upon arrival, I unboxed the $3,099 Matrix Audio Element M2, put in next to my QB-9 DSD on a middle shelf, plugged in a wide, purple, WireWorld power cable, an AudioQuest Vodka RJ/E cable connected to a network switch, the same Kimber USB cable that had been plugged into the Ayre, and a long TOSLINK cable going to my Sony HDTV. I would not say that the basic configuration of the M2 was simple, but it wasn’t too complex either as I largely just followed the enclosed “cue cards” (no real user manual) and watched a few YouTube videos from Matrix Audio or Moon Audio.

Given my decision to bypass Roon and work directly with the MA application for Apple iOS, I did
download the MA App. Via the enclosed cue cards, I used the “Settings” menu to display a QR code that, when scanned by the MA App on my iPhone, negotiated its way to the device, did a handshake, and added the Matrix Audio Element M2 to my list of controlled things. It took a lot of effort to find how you link to a NAS. It actually is in the App. It’s pretty easy. Sadly, I only found the explanation in an old What Hi-Fi article for a related product and only on YouTube from Matrix Audio directly but all in, presumably, Cantonese.

Here’s what you do: You go to the MA App, click on “Library,” then scroll very far right until you see “Files.” Tap on Files, enter an IP address plus a user name and password (like I did for my Melco N1A in another room), then watch your album titles and cover art propagate to the App. That works great; but I would have liked a full user manual or at least a complete set of configuration videos in English (in my case). Still, the beat goes on.

In terms of settings, I put the Matrix Audio Element M2 into direct mode so the volume control was fixed at a nominal 2V output (via RCAs). It does have balanced outputs (yay), plus COAX, TOSLINK (optical), USB, Ethernet, and HDMI inputs. It also comes with a very nice headphone amp. You can think of it as a digital preamp (AKA hub, to borrow from Ayre) in that you can use the volume control to adjust the output. It’s in “Settings”, and comes that way by default. It also comes in a mode where it choices between the line and headphone outs automatically, but I found that feature added some noise, so I choose to set the output manually to headphones or line.

music streamer

Matrix Audio Element M2 Sound

My overall impression of the sound of the Matrix Audio Element M2 was one of coherence and deep-bass wallop, but with a sense of congestion in the upper midrange. Over the first few hours that I streamed from my NAS, and a little from TIDAL, the sound improved greatly in terms of smaller-scale dynamics, and the midrange did loosen up quite a bit. I used the following titles, in various forms, to play in full length as the M2 burned in:

John Scofield, Simply Put ~ Made the tight rhythm and pacing of the M2 clear.
David Bowie, David Bowie (aka Space Oddity) ~ Helped to reveal the M2’s early midrange clutter that eventually fades but which some streamers never have at all.
Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out ~ Showed off the M2’s dynamics handsomely.
Jordi Savall, Tobias Hume: Musicall Humors ~ Yes, the M2 is capable of beautiful refinement, perhaps a bit too much (more forward than bright).
Luciana Souza, The New Bossa Nova ~ Elegant, ample bass is not a problem for the M2.

The Matrix Audio Element M2 never sounded quite as transparent as the QX-5 Twenty, as elegant as the Neo 280D, or as sonically unctuous as the QB-9 DSD, but I really liked listening to music through it because, after a while, it drew more attention to the music than to itself. So it would be welcome as a fourth in stature, i.e., “close to as good as it gets in one way or another”.

I tried playing a few tracks from my laptop to the Matrix Audio Element M2 via the same Kimber Hero USB cable that I use for the QB-9 DSD. I used Audirvana Studio. I played Simon and Garfunkel’s PSRT (“Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme”) in 24/192 PCM. Because of the source material or some oddly anachronistic attribute of the M2’s gain stage (???), it sounded strangely similar to my Dad’s 1966 Jensen loudspeaker/Harman Kardon Citation vacuum tube/Garrard record changer system, but more modern and so much better.

I streamed Autumn Leaves by Jacintha on Groovenote directly from my Melco NAS to the M2 at
24/176.4 PCM. I have heard this album on vinyl (double 45 RPM) and on tape (two tack R2R at
15 ips on a Jcorder 1520) on my system. The download, played through the Matrix Audio Element M2, had the same prodigious bass as the vinyl album and much of the detail (and relative silence) of the tape, but it was a “third thing” sonically. It’s hard to explain except to say I felt a bit like I was in the London Underground with the deep male voice that says “mind the gap” over the PA, a bit like listening to “Big Science” by Laurie Anderson in an old movie theater in the Midwest. It gave me little goosebumps, just like the Ayre.

Having said that, there was some restraint on the upper midrange and treble, but I was having a great time with this neat little silver box. It did lack the ultimate “you are there” mid-bass authenticity of the QB-9 DSD, but it was physically elegant and unobtrusive. It worked mostly without a hitch, and the overall user experience was vastly superior to most reference-level streamers. Think Mercedes Roadster over Lexus SUV. Think ragtop, not crossover.

moon audio

A Record Player

What I mean is that I felt the same things I did back in my Dad’s living room with “PSRT” on the Garrard, but with truly clearer sound, not “I never knew Paul Simon had a cold during that take…what album are we playing?” kind of sound, just more natural. However, it did sound—a bit—like a background music streamer for a PASS INT-25 with Maggie LRSs. It’s not a gigantic iPod touch with an AQ Dragonfly Cobalt but, in a way, it could be, and that’s just really cool.

I also liked the smaller form factor, the overall look and feel of the M2, and the fact that it had
physical weight. I did not need a VPI Magic Brick just to keep it from moving when I plugged in a
cable. I also adored the touchscreen display. I really think every streaming DAC above a certain price point should have such a display rather than running the album title through a scrolling, ticker-tape-like matrix of tiny red or blue LEDs.

Maybe that’s why the Matrix Audio Element M2 felt that much closer to a “record player” in that it did what it needed to do and left nothing out that might spoil my enjoyment of it as an objet d’audiophile. Yes, it’s very shapely. Think of a B&O 4002 that sounds like an LP12 and Grace F9E, i.e., lifestyle meets high-end. Think Wadia. No, it’s not going to replace an Audio Note CDT Four and DAC 4.1x Balanced Signature with a Pallas digital cable (all for Redbook CD alone), but, for that much coin you could have the M2 and a second-hand Lotus Emira or maybe a very good time in Vegas, to paraphrase Slim Pickens.

The MA App does have integrated internet radio, mostly stations ending in .fm or, on occasion, something starting out like, “KQE# Public FM 89.2 Y@da.” You can browse by country or genre; but, in truth, there aren’t that many preconfigured stations and no real search interface that I can find. The sound is decent, depending on the feed, and it’s fun to hear the jazz they play in Copenhagen at midnight. It just doesn’t rival my old Magnum Dynalab 807T high-resolution, triode-amplified, upsampling internet (plus DAB and terrestrial FM) tuner.

Nothing beats high bitrates or well-received terrestrial FM for “streaming” (plus 6922 sound), but
you do need at least one radio station out there. I browsed a lot of tunes. After I had finished listening to Internet FM, I went Spotify on AppleTV, played Aja by Steely Dan, and had a similar ease-of-use/ease-of-sound experience as with the M2, but with lesser overall sound quality. The experience of the M2 objet d’audiophile being enjoyable, satisfying, and sonically rewarding made it hard not to both like and admire. I still have very fond, pre-pandemic memories of streaming jazz from my NAS, using an Ayre QX-5 Twenty with Roon, driving an Audio Note UK OTO Phono Signature with their AN-E / SEC Silver Signature loudspeakers with lots of upgrades and silver cables.

The closest I’ve come to that listening experience with my Brio and ELACs is using the Matrix Audio Element M2 with no Roon at all. It’s not quite as transparent, but it’s very satisfying and the sound is quite tasteful and discrete. I really have nothing bad to say except that I imagine M2s will be hard to get someday soon for very good reasons. I almost kept the review sample for myself but am moving, so.

andy schaub

Matrix Audio Element M2 Conclusions

I rarely quantity my subjective impression; but I did add up some numbers and all three DACs
score very well. It’s not a shootout and it’s all just my opinion.

I really liked it. Had it been a bit less expensive, I might have bought it for my new place but I see they make other steaming DACs, so who knows? I liked that it had a kind of classic lifestyle look/ sound but with more modern dynamics, resolution, and a bit less endangered Rosewood. 🙂 I liked the screen.

So I’ll summarize by saying that Matrix Audio Element M2 is a very wonderful product that brings a lost experience back to me in a unique way, a time of great mirth and musical enjoyment with my father and friends. To quote Peter Frampton, “Let’s do it again!”

[Editor’s note: We’d like to introduce Andy Schaub, the newest PTA writer, and his review of the Matrix Audio Element M2 streamer. Andy has worked for such audio publications as Positive Feedback, Audiophile Review, and Copper.]

matrix audio element

matrix audio element