Matrix X-Sabre Pro DAC Review - Stream of Consciousness

Discussion in 'Digital: DACs, USB converters, decrapifiers' started by purr1n, Mar 19, 2019.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Matrix X-Sabre Pro DAC Review - Stream of Consciousness

    Prove me wrong, I've always said this. Despite my not favoring the ESS Sabre sound, the original X-Sabre was always the DAC that I recommended to others who asked. The OG X-Sabre not only equaled but in some cases massively outperformed the more expensive ESS Sabre based units (Benchmark, AG-D, Ressosonance, Mytek, etc.), with the added benefit of heroic construction (more on this later).

    I've been hearing a lot of good things about the latest ESS Sabre 9038 chip correcting a lot of the flaws of the older TOTL 9018? chips. At worst, the old Sabre sound could be described as having glaring and sharp highs, lows without any texture or pitch differentiation, and flat soundstage. Many of you know that with some exceptions, I was not exactly enamored with the sound of ESS Sabre based DACs. Could the Matrix X-Sabre Pro be the one to change that?

    Absolutely.

    I appreciate members' offers of various 9038 based DACs, but the one I really wanted to get my hands on was the Matrix X-Sabre Pro. This was based on my experience with the original X-Sabre and other Matrix products. I wanted to go with someone that I trusted (and sorry, A-GD was not a brand that I trusted) so that I did not waste my time.

    FWIW, I placed the X-Sabre Pro along with the Schiit Gungnir A2 Multibit on the volume matched blind test rig. Speakers were JBL 4698b with Eddie Current Studio Junior 300B prototype. The X-Sabre Pro outputs were actually a little hotter than the Gungnir's. This is something to keep in mind: make sure your amp's inputs will accept a hot signal. Impressions were actually blind per this: https://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/dac-blind-test-series.7518/ with the identity of the DACs revealed later.

    [​IMG]

    I took down notes on A or B DAC, although I would have to say that I was fairly obvious after some back and forth which DAC was which. The bottom line is that I wanted to continue listening to the X-Sabre Pro. You guys know that if I don't turn away in disgust after the first 15 seconds, it's at least got some merit. And that if I continue to want to listen, it's definitely worthy. What matters most is how a piece of gear connects emotionally and makes you not want to walk away or zone out to play Clash of Clans on my phone.

    OK, now check these pictures out!

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Yes, that's right. Now you guys know exactly why I refused members' offered AGD, Guzzard, etc loaners. Matrix is the only one crazy enough to fricking machine a chassis out of a solid block of aluminum. Do you guys know how much that would cost in the USA? Or even China? Not cheap. I am absolutely convinced this makes a difference in sound. Anyone who has played with overpriced www.orfas.org audiophile audio bricks, stones, feet, will understand how much these things matter. BTW, the power transformer is properly isolated with rubber discs top and bottom. No DIY efforts to install pieces of cardboard are necessary (this is an inside SBAF joke).

    To be continued...

    P.S. Thanks to Matrix (USA reps?) and @ChaChaRealSmooth in making this happen. This is an example of asking what you can do for SBAF rather than what SBAF can do for you.
     
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  2. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    I will get to the point.

    This might be best ESS Sabre DAC that I have heard, probably on par with the TOTL McIntosh stuff (although I would be comparing to older McIntosh gear and from memory many years ago). The X-Sabre Pro competes with the likes of the well-regarded DACs I've recently evaluated in a group: Dangerous Source Convert-2, Crane Song Solaris, Schiit Gungnir "A2" Multibit. All these DACs have different presentations: individual strengths and weaknesses. But I definitely believe that the X-Sabre Pro belongs here among the good DACs.

    Before I dive into the nuances of the sound, I'm going nitpick on two things:
    1. This model supports MQA. It is technically the Matrix X-Sabre Pro MQA. The MQA model comes at a $300 premium over the non-MQA model, and I don't know if the non-MQA model is sold anymore. This makes me both sad and kind of mad. I have absolutely no MQA material. And even if I did, I would rather have the true hires material, not the lossy encoded MQA file. MQA is for better or worse a dead format, dreamed up by British wankers, Lords or wannabe Lords, intent on world domination of high-end audio formats, who failed at it.
    2. The way to get into the advanced settings isn't easy. One needs to hold the standby button down for a few seconds until the screen goes blank... and then wait a few seconds more for the blank screen to go into advanced settings mode. The instruction manual isn't very clear on this. This also requires one to shut down the DAC to make changes to filters, etc. instead of being able to do this on the fly.
    It should be noted that I am running the X-Sabre pro from my CD transports. In every instance of every DAC evaluation, the CD transports have offered better sound quality compared to USB, although it should be said that XMOS USB is pretty good sounding. So big disclaimer here: YMMV and my experience may differ from yours because I still run old school spinners.

    To be continued... (hungry, getting lunch)
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2019
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  3. ChaChaRealSmooth

    ChaChaRealSmooth SBAF Gearmaster

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    The USA Matrix reps are the ones who helped make this happen (really big thanks to Arthur in particular; he's the rep I've talked to).

    I did take a listen to this DAC when it arrived and while I won't say too much of what I thought yet (not very experienced), I was deeply impressed. It may or may not be the very best D/S DAC I've ever heard, and definitely the best Sabre DAC. Granted, I have not heard the Crane Song Solaris, or Convert-2, among others, but I did hear the old X-Sabre.

    P.S. Funny story, I asked for a X-SPDIF 2 and it turned into a X-Sabre Pro.
     
  4. Mr.Sneis

    Mr.Sneis Friend

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    Matrix Audio has always had very legit chassis-work. Looks like a nice unit but can't tell much from the bottom of the pcb other than it is likely a ton of surface mount components on the other side.
     
  5. hifiandrun

    hifiandrun Almost "Made"

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    Thanks Marv for the review. The review solved a D/S dac puzzle for me. I listened to a cheap Sabre 9038 DAC last year and felt it sounded pleasing to listen to. The cheap DAC had a somewhat "sedative" feeling, thus I could have long listening sessions without ear-bleeding nor headache. The sedative didn't mean lacking of macro dynamic. It was a big relief to me because I couldn't bear the 9018 DAC I had, thus for a while, I thought all D/S dac were hopeless. But once I switched back to the Gungnir Multibit, the obvious difference was that the Gungnir Multibit sounded alive. I instantly wake up by the music from the Gungnir Multibit. I guess that the 9038 get me calm and settled whereas the Schiit MB DACs get me involved. Both could lead to long listening session but with different mood. Now I am curious to compare a well designed 9038 DAC with the Gungnir Multibit to see if the difference stay true.
    PS: The AKM 4497 to me was too much digital processing to a point that the sound was unreal. I am thinking to get a Modi 3 (AKM 4490) to see if it was the implementation or not.
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2019
  6. rlow

    rlow A happy woofer

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    So is this going to be on loaner? If so, very interested. The build quality, wow. Would love to finally hear a good Sabre implementation.
     
  7. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Does anyone know what those chips marked OVII TI55CLZZ are? Looks like there are discrete transistors at the outputs at the top of the board.

    [​IMG]

    I continue to be amazeballed by the chassis. Sections milled out to make room for the caps and XLR connectors.
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2019
  8. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    I love these interactive streams of consciousness reviews. Your comments are good leadoff.

    The Matrix X-Sabre Pro is hardly sedate sounding. I'm betting less attention to PCB layout, power supply, other components may have led the cheap Sabre 9038 DAC to sound that way. The X-Sabre Pro is thoroughly a modern S-D DAC through and through that is executed well. This is not a classic R2R sound nor a reborn R2R sound. See here for a definition: https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...-incorrect-audio-blog.7261/page-2#post-249652.

    In many ways, the X-Sabre Pro reminds me of the "vivid color" Dangerous Music Convert-2 DAC, the incisive lines, the dynamics, the clean presentation. To those who were turned off by the by almost exaggerated dynamics of the Convert-2, the X-Sabre Pro doesn't go to that extent. It backs off a little bit and has a little bit more nuance and resolution. My preferred settings with the X-Sabre Pro are as follows:
    • SYNC (not ASYNC): I presume this uses the word clock embedded in the SPDIF from the source (CD transport in my case) rather than the internal clocks on an internal data buffer.
    • MODE 4 FILTER: Slow-rolloff linear phase. Although sometimes I like mode 3: fast rolloff linear phase.
    With the above settings, the X-Sabre has the most "meat" on its bones. I'm trying to get back that little bit of tone density, that fullness, of the classic R2R sound. With ASYNC and MODE 1 fast rolloff minimum phase (which I believe are defaults, the transients and highs do get a bit glarey and hard sounding, but just barely. You guys know how I absolutely cannot stand even moderate levels of this say on the RMI-AD1 headphone outputs. With default settings, I found the X-Sabre listenable, but not preferred. Take things with a grain of salt for now. I really need more time to assess the filters (but I am pretty sure on the SYNC).

    The tonal balance is extended. The bass has a ton of slam, the highs seem just right and not slightly overemphasized like on the Crane Song Solaris. The Schiit Gungnir "A2" sounds cool in comparison - having less midbass than the X-Sabre, but also being extended both in the highs and lows. The Gungnir does seem to have more air, but this could be the result of it reproducing more plankton, and the Schiit mega-combo-burrito filter separating sounds into more layers. How things turn out will really depend upon the recording. On a recording with mostly vocals, say Joni Mitchell's Blue, the Gungnir will exhibit more fullness despite being an overall cooler sounding DAC because of its multi-bit "tone density". However, anything from Random Access Memories is going to sound mid-bassier and warmer on the X-Sabre Pro, except for the part where Giorgio Moroder just has spoken vocals. I think you guys get what I mean. In that respect, the X-Sabre Pro is a lot like the Soekris DAC1421, although I have to say that with the above settings (ASYNC and MODE 4 slow linear phase), the differences in the tone density are not huge.

    In terms of dynamics and transients, the Convert-2 is the leader here, but the X-Sabre Pro is close. The Gungnir trails both by a small bit in terms of overall bass heft (all three of these have a powerful low end); however, transient attacks throughout the entire audio band are softer on the Gungnir with the exception of the deep bass where Gungnir is marginally tighter and on par with Convert-2. The Gungnir is just wee bit soft, more rounded and delicate, the Convert-2 might be just right, X-Sabre is energetic, a wee bit over (depending upon filter). The lows are fully textured and articulate, unlike many Sabre based DACs based on the older ESS chips. The X-Sabre Pro is super clean sounding. I know some members thought this with the Soekris DAC1421, but I still heard the slightest amount of veil (and the same with Convert-2). The X-Sabre Pro sounds superbly clean, but I would like more time on more recordings and different gear to say so definitively. If you guys have heard YG speakers, the X-Sabre Pro is the DAC that has that kind of sound. Very modern and very hi-fi.

    As far as staging, I am impressed. Ultimately the Gungnir wins out in terms of layering and depth localization, but the X-Sabre gets rather close and almost pulls off that holographic thing. I had to do a double take to make out the differences. The soundstage is just a little bit pushed back compared to the Gungnir, like on the Convert-2, but unlike the Convert-2, the stage is normal, has a very stable center, and doesn't do the wrap around thing around on the sides (this is a matter of taste, but as a speaker listener, I dislike Convert-2's wide wraparound stage). I'm glad ESS sorted out things for the 9038 and that Matrix designed a DAC that took advantage of its capabilities.
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2019
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  9. Clemmaster

    Clemmaster Friend

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    Great write up Marv, keep 'em coming!

    It would be interesting to see how source-dependent the sound is. The Convert-2 and Schiit Gungnir Multibit/Yggdrasil have great input stages that make them less source-dependent than most DACs from ~5 years ago (which, as you said, generally sucked).
     
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  10. bengo

    bengo Friend

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    Level-matching is very important in blind comparisons... stomach contents, blood alcohol, etc.
     
  11. neogeosnk

    neogeosnk Friend

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    @purr1n try turning off dithering/Jitter Reducer and using Sync mode. Might also want to put it back to filter 1, because it does bring up the mid bass. Those settings to me sound better than the Yggdrasil A2 in most cases.
     
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  12. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    The Convert-2 uses the XMOS solution which may be the exact same thing used on the X-Sabre Pro. The board photos and specs throughout the Internet are there. Someone can do the sleuthing. I never felt the XMOS was a bad sounding solution, even back in the day, and certainly better than the Gen 2 and 3 when compared during their respective time periods. After dicking around with super high-end solutions USB to SPDIF, I simply went back to physical media. (Note that I do not recommend that everyone drop USB and go with CD transports. Most readily obtainable CD transports suck and are worse than the better USB solutions).
     
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  13. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    These are my current settings:
    1. Jitter Reducer: OFF
    2. SYNC
    3. Dither: ON
    4. Filter: MOD 3 (sharp rolloff linear phase)
    I tried Filter 1 (sharp minimum phase). It's too bloomy for my setup (300B tube amp and big JBL4698) and the highs annoy the heck outta me. I feel Filter 1 sounds disjointed. I'm actually trying to emulate the Gungnir A2's tonal balance and timbre.

    Remember, I immensely dislike minimize phase filters, unless a super early rolloff and super wide transition band with minimal attenuation in the stop-band is used.

    P.S. I turned dither back on.
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2019
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  14. Elnrik

    Elnrik Super Friendly

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    Any chance of impressions via USB input for us poor schmucks who don't use spinners?
     
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  15. ChaChaRealSmooth

    ChaChaRealSmooth SBAF Gearmaster

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    For what it's worth, I felt that the USB was as good if not better than SPDIF on my rig with asynchronous mode (ASYNC). The SYNC was worse on my rig, probably because the optical is poo and I'm stuck with only USB 3.1 ports.

    This is out of a desktop PC fyi.

    Also, the Wyrd + X-Sabre was interesting in SYNC mode. Wish I had more time to explore that.
     
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  16. Broberto

    Broberto Acquaintance

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    One other upgrade included in the +$300 MQA version is a bump up to latest XMOS XU216 interface (versus the XMOS XU208 that is being used in the older X-Sabre Pro and in most XMOS implementations currently on the market)

    Haven't seen any impressions on the XU216, but theoretically should be on the better end of the USB-spectrum so I'm also curious to hear your thoughts via USB if you get the chance
     
  17. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Based on my experience with XMOS (Convert-2), magic 8 ball says it will be very good. I mean, the DAC has 1000 different combinations from the filters, clocks, PLL, jitter killing circuit (which also kills other things), dithering, etc. to tune to your liking, and most of the combinations do sound pretty good. It's not at all like the Sabre DACs from 7-8 years ago where one setting sounded like ass, and another sounded like a different kind of ass that covered up how assy the other setting sounded like.

    This is solid DAC. Any advantages from my modded Marantz or uber Theta Data III (from the 90s) are going to carry forth consistently regardless of DAC used. The corollary to this that the above comparative impressions are going to be consistent across the board at an 85%+ consistency rate if not more. In other words, don't stress about it. Good DACs don't suddenly turn into poo going from a good CD transport or converter to a decent USB implementation.

    The only exception to this was the A-GD Master 7. The USB on that thing sucked balls, but then again, that was some super cheap super weirdo USB receiver they used, and they did finally get it to sound OK after 3 or 4 or 7 firmware updates.
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2019
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  18. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    This is the MQA version. I believe this might go on a limited loaner. I'll defer to others because they will be better equipped to handle USB-to-USB apples-to-apples comparisons. My reference DACs have the USB cards ripped out. When I'm not running the CD transports, I might be running something given to me by John Connor. Already said too much, I don't want the Time Lords coming after me.
     
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  19. rlow

    rlow A happy woofer

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    Do you think this will end up being better for more extended listening sessions than the Convert? Or still potential for fatigue?

    The Gungnir Multibit A2 to me has the most forward sound of any of the Schiit DACs I’ve owned. Yggdrasil A2 has the furthest back, and I prefer this - soundstage coming from behind the speakers is just damn cool, and I’ve only recently experienced this in a really prominent way with with the combo of Yggdrasil A2 and my current speakers. And I love it. Do you think the Matrix would be even more set back than Yggdrasil?
     
  20. ChaChaRealSmooth

    ChaChaRealSmooth SBAF Gearmaster

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    The USB implementation is very good. Honestly, the Wyrd decrap of USB only offered a slightly different sound (not necessarily better).

    From what I can infer from Marv's thoughts and my experience, if you have quality USB, use the SYNC mode. The ASYNC mode works great if your USB is poo (like mine). Other people who take a listen to this can correct me/share their experience here (I'd be really interested to know what settings you all use).

    Personally I didn't feel the jitter circuit was worth using in my system. It seemed to make the sound less engaging, although I couldn't put my finger on why that is.

    Can be potentially fatiguing. If you want sound to just relax I wouldn't pick this. Although when I found settings I liked I simply found it engaging.

    It's quite forward in presentation. Not as in-your-face as a Gungnir MB, but still right up close.
     
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