Matrix X-Sabre Pro DAC Review - Stream of Consciousness

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

  1. MrTie

    MrTie Friend

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    meep.jpg
    My system:

    Software: JRiver Media Center
    Source: Asus Essence ST SPDIF out
    Correction: MiniDSP DDRC-22D Dirac Live
    DAC/Pre: Antelope Zodiac+ & Teddy Pardo LPSU
    Speakers: Adam S3a + Adam Sub-P
    Room: W16.5’x L14’x H9.5’
    Treatments: 4 GIK244 panels at first reflections.
    Position: On desk 3.5’ equilateral triangle

    TLDR Summary:

    The X Sabre Pro is a realistically priced option for certain tastes/systems and has exceptional build quality for a sub $2000 DAC. It sounds clean, uncompressed, modern-normal, has a silent background, is less harmonically rich than some, presents a wide sound stage but is shallow in depth, it will also tear apart a recording warts & all and as a result can make some tracks sound less natural/pleasing. It’s the least offensive Sabre DAC I have ever heard.

    XSP Settings:
    Dither On
    Jitter Off
    Filter 3
    AES Input
    +0.0 fixed output

    Test Tracks:

    Comparison done between the X Sabre and Antelope Zodiac+ a 1792a chip pro-sumer DAC from the early 2010s which retailed for around $2500. Differences between DACs to my ear are always quite subtle things, so grain of salt on all this, my system, my ears, my preferences, etc. I won't bother translating my thoughts on every single track.

    testlist.jpg


    Steely Dan-Aja-Deacon Blues:
    Wider stage width on the XSP, hard pan cut up effects on this track more forward/obvious, sounds a bit flat/boring, leaner mids upper mid bass through the XSP. Cymbal air is however is wonderfully nuanced.

    Radiohead-In Rainbows-Weird Fishes/Arpeggi:
    On XSP bass slam and "meatiness" significantly less, staging wrap well out past the speaker edges on certain effects. Extremely clean sounding on this track. Personal preference would prefer a bit more thick/richness.

    Tool-AEnima-Eulogy:
    Here the recording plays to the XSP strengths, the cleaner/leaner presentation allows for the track to come through with less "mud' so to speak. The decay and reverb on the intro are really beautiful on the XSP.

    Other Thoughts:

    First I want to thank Matrix & SBAF for the opportunity to give their very cool DAC a listen. Also I think it might help as a visual to show how some other DAC reference compares to me in general gross sonic warm to bright for the community,

    "Bifrost Multibit...Lampizator G4...GumbyA1....DAC1541(Red Filter)..Zodiac...XSP..YggyA1.....Benchmark DAC2"

    Last words? A beautifully built normal sounding Sabre DAC for clean freaks who like their Gin neat but of good quality.
     
    Last edited: May 3, 2019
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  2. ChaChaRealSmooth

    ChaChaRealSmooth SBAF Gearmaster

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    The loaner unit honestly impressed me so much I ended up buying my own despite my original reservations about its potential synergy with my current system. Having owned the Gungnir MB in the past (and loved every second of it that didn't involve waiting for it to warm-up), I seriously considered just buying another Gungnir and calling it good, but perhaps my brain just wanted something different. Either way, the X-Sabre Pro MQA (going to abbreviate it XSP from hereon out) now sits on my desk, fits perfectly, and looks quite good in black.

    20190504_013336.jpg

    Now since I have my own, I've just been listening to my music enjoying myself, and thought I'd share some observations about it from a more personal point of view. These next observations are going to be more about the XSP in my headphone system as a whole, and not so much about the DAC in and of itself.

    The XSP is surprisingly not that harsh towards crap recordings. A good portion of my music is streamed online because I don't own the CDs to rip FLAC files. Unlike what I expected, the XSP did not make mincemeat of the recordings.

    Now, this could be the fact that most of my listening right now is done using a Liquid Platinum (connected via balanced; more on this chain later in the post), or maybe because my transport is shitty USB from a PC (remember, in my PC the optical is actually worse than the USB). The XSP lets you know the recording sucks, but honestly it doesn't take away too much from the overall experience.

    Onto the chain, I originally said in an earlier post that I felt the Liquid Platinum and XSP might be kind of a strange/slightly un-synergistic pairing. This is due to the Liquid Platinum's more polite and slightly laid-back nature vs the XSP's thoroughly modern, square, and clean presentation. Now that I've had more time, I'm not really sure if this is an antagonistic pairing. It seems like the synergy here is more or less covering for each others' weaknesses vs emphasizing the strengths; the LP adds some more body and fullness to the sound and slightly rounds out the transients, while the XSP adds clarity, speed, and depth of stage. The net effect is actually pretty nice, since the Platinum slightly rounds the XSP's tendency to be overly enthusiastic about transient attacks and is clear enough to still convey the XSP's strength of clean lines, dynamics, and resolution.

    I also plugged my Magni 3 into the RCA outputs out of curiosity. I did experiment a little, and yes, if you have an amp plugged into the balanced and another amp connected into the SE out both will play. As far as I can tell there is no degradation/penalty in sound quality for doing so.

    Funny enough, the Magni 3 actually has pretty good synergy with the XSP! Might seem kind of like madness to pair a budget-oriented amp with this high-end DAC, but the Magni 3 does a pretty good job in conveying the XSP's strengths. I don't overall like the pairing as much as with the Liquid Platinum, but it's worth mentioning that the Magni 3 + XSP does sound more "athletic." This reinforces my earlier thought that the XSP paired with a dynamic and athletic amp would make quite a fun, explosive combo, although this sound definitely will NOT be for everyone.

    This being said, the XSP definitely benefits from downstream gear that commits few sins of omission. I think it's like the Yggdrasil A2 in this respect; although it might not be as demanding as the Yggdrasil in this respect. The Liquid Platinum commits fewer sins of omission than the Magni 3, and it's really apparent with even brief A/B testing.

    I don't recommend the Wyrd with this; it is interesting and does seem to take a little off the forwardness and attack, but it comes at the expense of some of the XSP's excellent technicalities; not a trade-off that's worth it in my book. This may differ if you have a better USB transport, but at this level you're probably better off getting a good AES transport (pulled from Marv's observations from transports).

    If there's anything that someone wants me to investigate with the XSP, let me know and if it's within my power I'll try it out and report back here.

    Edit: Not sure why I didn't mention this, but the first time around, I didn't mess around with the remote too much. Honestly, the remote feels well-made and is nice to hold. It's totally unnecessary in my setup since everything is within easy reach, but I'm going to use it because it's there dammit. I can see how it would be of use to speaker listeners though; don't have to get up to turn XSP on/off and to change inputs.

    Edit 2: Got curious today and plugged both the SE out and Balanced out to the Liquid Platinum to see if they sound different. Seems to sound the same regardless of output. I didn't even have to adjust the volume knob on the LP, although I'm not sure if that's due to the LP in and of itself.

    Edit 3: This was mentioned earlier in the thread, but it's worth mentioning that the XSP doesn't seem to require any warmup. It sounds exactly the same from startup to a few days on. Due to this, I just turn it off when I'm not using it. I imagine this characteristic makes it easy to bring to meets and such since it doesn't need to be plugged into a UPS and kept on.

    Edit 4: Definitely not sure why I never mentioned this (thanks @Elnrik for the reminder). Downloading the Windows drivers from the Matrix site is totally necessary if running out of PC. Makes the most of the X-Sabre Pro, especially if using USB like I am.
     
    Last edited: May 18, 2019
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  3. Elnrik

    Elnrik Super Friendly

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    Initial impression of this is good.

    Getting to the filters is a pain, as already noted.

    Windows 10 loaded stock drivers fine, and they work fine. Disconnected device, installed drivers from Matrix site, reconnected device, and again... All fine. Have a matrix control icon thingy in task bar now. Mostly harmless.

    AISO from Jriver Media Center works fine. DSD works fine. MQA... Ahhh, finally a DAC with native processing of MQA for a real test of MQA. Set Tidal to passthrough of MQA and volume, and direct to device settings. Loaded several songs of both Master and HiFi into playlist for quick comparisons. Tom Petty, Gary Clark Jr, Fleetwood Mac amongst others selected for trial. MQA confirmed to suck. Imaging hazy, depth shallow, loudness fucked with on every track. Tone seems on par with Redbook. Fuck MQA.

    Overall, sounds good. A little more aggressive sounding than Gungnir Multibit, but not to the amount expected after reading others thoughts in this thread. Beth Hart's "Fire on the Floor" track still not sending me reeling from tizzy-unresolving-Saber-hash-butchering-her-high-notes kind of sound found on other Saber DACs. That's a good sign.

    Currently on filter 1, will cycle through them to see which I like most.

    Fin

    (Edit)
    Audio chain as follows:
    PC > Sonnet Allegro Pro USB 3.0 PCIe card > AudioQuest Evergreen USB cable > Matrix SaberX pro mqa > pyst XLR > ECP DSHA-3F > YFS silver/copper hybrid balanced cable > Cocobolo ZMF Auteur > earz.

    Matrix settings: DAC mode > DSD filter 47kHz > jitter reducer off > Async mode.

    Pics or it didn't happen:
    IMG_20190516_232143.jpg

    In the pic above, it is taking DSD and converting to PCM before sending it to the DAC. Here are the Jriver Media Center settings for DSD so that it switches between PCM and DSD instead of transcoding everything:
    Bitstreaming: Yes (DSD)

    IMG_20190516_233138.jpg

    IMG_20190516_233106.jpg

    Really Fin now, honest.
     
    Last edited: May 16, 2019
  4. Clemmaster

    Clemmaster Friend

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  5. Elnrik

    Elnrik Super Friendly

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    Small update. Having the Matrix on Auto input selection seems to not re-detect USB after my PC was turned off and I came back to it the next day. I had to manually select the input to get sound to come out. I almost shat a kitten, thinking it was broken. Not sure how well implemented the Auto input switching feature has been done.
     
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  6. ufospls2

    ufospls2 Friend

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  7. Elnrik

    Elnrik Super Friendly

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    $1200-ish.
     
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  8. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Probably scam. Gear gets suddenly popular with a set of good reviews or mention of SBAF.

    There used to several each of the JBL 4698 and 4345, in varying condition in the USA. No more.
     
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  9. elmoe

    elmoe Friend

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  10. SoupRKnowva

    SoupRKnowva Official SBAF South Korean Ambassador - Friend

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  11. elmoe

    elmoe Friend

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    Doubt its a scam then, that HF member has been around for awhile
     
  12. allegro

    allegro Friend

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    Carmantom has a positive trader history of 18 at HF he must just not like the DAC. I haven't read anything that would convince me to buy a Matrix XSP over a new Gungnir or Yggdrasil, especially with Unisom USB coming this year (hopefully.) Buying Yggdrasil ended my upgradeitis.
     
  13. elmoe

    elmoe Friend

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    Yeah I think audiogon/usaudiomart require you to post pictures with a piece of paper with your username/date/website name you're posting on if you don't have much feedback yet.
     
  14. Elnrik

    Elnrik Super Friendly

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    Ok, my final impressions continued from here.

    It's a solid DAC. It sounds good. I think it's on par with the Gungnir Multibit in some areas, but trades in some naturalness for a little more aggressive sound and a staging that is different - perhaps not as good overall, but mostly just different.

    I prefer the Gungnir Multibit.

    I think if you absolutely had to have a DAC that did DSD and MQA, this would be on my short list. Since I do not need or desire either (especially MQA), the extra cost puts it into the not-worth-it category. That's not to say it's largely overpriced. It probably isn't, despite the premium that MQA royalties doubtlessly tack on to the bottom line.

    It's well made. Has a ton of good features. Can be used as a DAC + Pre with remote, which the Gungnir Multibit can't. It's just that those are all things I learned I don't need or want, so for my use case the value isn't there.

    If they had a non-MQA version that sounded exactly like this one for a little bit more than the Gungnir Multibit, I'd be recommending it to plenty of people. But they don't, and the cost of their non-MQA version is still unjustifiably more than the Gungnir Multibit.

    I want to like this DAC. Hell, I do like this DAC. It just misses in enough areas that I can't recommended it for use cases like mine - people looking solely for a better DAC than the Gungnir Multibit.

    I guess I'll have to give Yggdrasil a shot.
     
    Last edited: May 19, 2019
  15. Nanekiu

    Nanekiu Rando

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    Hmm I'm actually looking for a new DAC for monitoring usage, my choice seemed to have landed on either this DAC or the RME-ADI2 DAC, I'm mostly looking to use it with the USB as it's convenient, Has anyone heard both, would the USB input in the RME be better etc, or is the implementation overall better in the matrix pro?
     
  16. GoodEnoughGear

    GoodEnoughGear Evil Dr. Shultz‎

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    They do have a non-MQA version, it's just $1699 vs 1249 for Gungnir Multibit.
     
  17. neogeosnk

    neogeosnk Friend

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    Matrix usb is better than both the Gungnir Gen 5 and the slightly better than the RME-ADI2 usb implementation. The non-Mqa version has an OK usb implementation from what I read (not tested).
     
  18. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    I've tried multiple sources (not straight USB yet though, just good SPDIF), all sorts of option combos on this DAC, different amps and headphones, and yet I generally just hear it as fairly bland and boring.

    Transients are a bit soft and slow. They bleed into each other. Dynamic swings suffer as such. The background sounds grey from things bleeding into each other.

    It's resolving and refined, no doubt. I can pick out all the little elements and nuances in music. But the magic is lost when there's a feeling of compression from both directions.

    Layering is well defined and clean, but the stage as a whole sounds underwhelming and 2D. It's not claustrophobic or too forward... nothing like that...but doesn't feel like it's trying to sound real at all. It's just kinda there without actually being there.

    Tone is good. Very good, actually. Neutral, maybe even tastefully warm, and extended both ways. Timbre is generally good but lacks bite when needed. It's not engaging when I need it to be. And yet occasionally there is very minor sibilance despite this.

    It's not that the DAC is bad. It's good enough. But it has the personality of flat packs you just loaded in your car from the Ikea warehouse. It has no magic or groove!

    I still have an old Wolfson DAC from Audio GD, the NFB 3.2. Maybe it's just a surprisingly good DAC, from when Audio GD was decent, but it's a fuckin' lively little monster compared to the X-Sabre Pro without really giving up much technical ground either.

    I'll see if USB changes my mind on this somehow, but I feel like you're all playing tricks on me or yourselves on this one.

    Are the SE outputs on this shit or something? I don't have an amp with XLR in to test.
     
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  19. ChaChaRealSmooth

    ChaChaRealSmooth SBAF Gearmaster

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    I didn't find that it sounded any different SE to XLR. Tested this using a Liquid Platinum (which doesn't seem to change audibly from using a XLR source or SE source).

    I think @purr1n said somewhere that it's very much for people who like gin straight, and I agree with this assessment. I'm curious as to how the assessments seem to differ so much (I certainly didn't hear it as soft/slow, but then again, I have a really shit source).

    Edit (update): Yeah, I tried XLR and SE through a Liquid Platinum with a Verite. No difference that I can hear.
     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2019
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  20. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    I did a whole lot more listening and an even deeper dive comparing the X-Sabre Pro against other DACs and experimenting with its available options. I even played around with USB on it, which isn't half bad, actually. It's a bit less dynamic, sharp, and full sounding than a good SPDIF source, but only slightly.

    Hands Does Some Handsy Inner Exploration

    Part of the problem is that I relied too much on the settings other folks consistently seemed to pick. Not to say any of you have bad tastes or bad hearing, not at all (well, maybe), but there are a ton of variables to consider with audio perception, tastes, music selection, gear, bowel movement cycles, and so on.

    So, I felt compelled to not play around with things like dithering, jitter reduction, sync, and rather go off what everyone else seemed to like. With how busy I was preparing for, and now happily dealing with, a newborn in the family, I haven't had much time lately to go into audio nervosa-land.

    When I just really felt like I had to be misunderstanding or missing something with the DAC, I remembered how I've always been stubborn in my listening ways. And, so, I really, truly dug into all the DAC settings to see if I could find a combo that worked best for me.

    Picking Noses and DAC Settings

    I tried the settings y'all seem to like, and still find myself a bit confused at the disconnect between what you all and I heard...But, nevertheless, I found some settings that work best for my tastes and will explain my rationale for each:

    Dither - Off - Enabling dither seemed to cause a minor reduction in transient sharpness, liveliness, and overall dynamics. It even seemed to negatively affect 24/96 material, which really shouldn't need much in the way of dither...

    Filter - 2 (Slow roll-off, minimum phase) - This was a hard one. Believe it or not, my ears have started to age like bad cheese, and I am comfortable with most forms of oversampling these days.

    The two slow roll-off filters can be a bit too dark on the top end. However, I tended to like them more because they added some heft to the sound, but more importantly, had a snappier, faster, more dynamic feel to them. More of that toe-tapping shit, the groove I want.

    All the other filters, while more neutral sounding (not even bright at all, mind you), just seemed to smear transients together too much. Too soft, too compressed dynamically. Kind of hazy and grey sounding.

    Jitter Reducer - Off - Turning it on kills the soul of the music. Kind of like turning on dither. Or using the fast roll-off filters.

    DAC Mode - Async - For USB and good SPDIF, Async seemed clearer, faster, sharper, and livelier than sync mode. Maybe my SPDIF cables are shitty or something. No idea! :)

    The above seemed to wake the DAC up. Sure, a few years back, I was noticeably more sensitive to treble and oversampling. I still am to some extent. But I think a lot of people mistake my desire for a bold, lively, but very nuanced and technical sound for wanting a warmer sound. (Sometimes, yeah, "bold" to me can also be "thicc," but I like a bit of thicc myself.)

    That said, here's how I felt about the X-Sabre Pro with those settings.

    I Heard DAC Things And Typed Them Up

    The X-Sabre Pro is still a little bit compressed dynamically, in a sense. It does a great job hitting hard, and cleanly, with the biggest dynamic peaks. But the problem is it seems like the bottom part of the dynamic "floor," the dynamic trough, sits too high.

    So, it's not that the background itself is grey, but that the DAC can't settle fast enough in between the notes.

    If this is what real plankton sounds like, I want to continue living in the audio world equivalent of using a limited RGB range on a full range video signal.

    Micro-dynamics, swing, groove, rhythm, whatever you want to call it, suffer because of this. It's like if I equated dynamics to a human arm, the X-Sabre Pro can punch you in the gut pretty hard, but can't ever put it's arm at its side for some reason. And it looks kind of weird doing it, because they're a rather attractive individual otherwise.

    As such, it never truly captures the soul of music. It's this sort of hovering, hazy feeling that keeps it from giving you the full up and down beat of music.

    The slow roll-off filters help this to some extent. They settle faster, but at the expense of softening the treble components used in dynamic attacks. The fast roll-off filters help with the latter (not enough) but are too smeared. It's like you can't win with the DAC.

    Staging I have come to appreciate more. It's fairly wide and has good depth. Nothing sounds congested or claustrophobic. Not too forward and not too far back. Layering as well has a nice front-to-back gradient as well.

    The only real downside is all the little elements on the stage sound a bit 2D compared to a good multibit DAC. And it lacks some of the brilliance that makes live music captivating. But that's a minor nitpick.

    Those are the only things I can really gripe about. It is a very well behaved, mature sounding DAC. Big, but not what I'd call totally bold. A bit too polite, not bouncy enough.

    Tone is still excellent, being mostly neutral, yet slightly warm. Good low-end extension and presence without ever sounding bloated, woolly, etc. Timbre is great, minus some of the softness or smear I mentioned in certain situations. It's a straight shooter but lacks character depth and development. It's more disappointing given the price and how it almost gets everything right.

    DAC Comparison-ish Notes and Ramblings

    I think my initial impressions were slanted too much because I compared the X-Sabre Pro against this old, janky, Wolfson-based, Audio-GD DAC (NFB-3.2, was cheap many years ago). I've had this Audio-GD DAC for many years but kept it shelved up until the last week or so. I don't think I ever really appreciated it as much as I should have and stashed it away under the assumption there was no way it was particularly worthwhile.

    Funny how revisiting "classics" can open your eyes. Once I went back and compared this dinky Audio-GD DAC to all my other gear...Holy shit, it's actually really good sounding, at least when you feed it a good SPDIF source.

    I've been migrating some gear to another room as my wife and baby allow me time to do so, and it's all I had ready when listening to the X-Sabre Pro. To find that a cheap Audio-GD DAC seemed to best the X-Sabre Pro, at least in the ways I find engaging, made me initially think that the XSP was not so great.

    Well, once I had time to bring up anything else I had on hand, like the Modi Multibit and Airist R2R, it was pretty apparent that the XSP is a rather decent big boy DAC for big boys and girls.

    The XSP definitely sounds bigger than the cheaper DACs. Less congestion, tighter low-end, better clarity, more control, less timbre issues (not grating or strained in any way, for example). From an overall standpoint, there are less trade offs to worry about like you'd find in a cheaper DAC, as you'd hope.

    But what it still lacks, even compared to those, is being able to capture the rhythm and soul of music. Yeah, it can hit harder, but the dynamic troughs are pushed too far up. Sure, the cheaper DACs kind of have the opposite problem, but they nonetheless seem a little more truthful about conveying music in that sense, even when the cheaper DACs are mindlessly drooling their way through mid-fi purgatory vices.

    The cheaper DACs, being multibit, also give instruments, vocals, and effects a more 3D feel individually despite having smaller and/or less layered stages. The Modi Multibit in particular sounds claustrophobic in comparison, but does have the benefit of making bass guitar sound pretty damn good even if the low-end is kind of tubby overall. The Airist R2R is more akin to the XSP in its staging, but sits further back and doesn't have a ton of layering to the sound.

    I think that more or less sums up what you get with the XSP relative to cheaper DACs. It will sound bigger, more refined, more mature, and is more or less just very agreeable to listen to. But it's too restrained, in my opinion.

    Then again, a lot of this captures my general feeling towards D/S DACs. There are obvious exceptions, but they are too often dynamically polite, either from the troughs or the peaks, even if they do everything else rather well.

    An Ode to Wolfson (And Old Audio-GD)

    The Wolfson-based Audio-GD DAC is just, well, surprising in general. Hits almost as hard as the XSP on peaks, settles into dynamic troughs fast as hell, has really clean transients, surprisingly sharp, clear, but smooth highs, almost captures that weird 3D nature of multibit DACs (live music on this was much more enjoyable than on XSP), has a black background...And I can change between 9 filters, ranging from 2X to 8X oversampling, without turning the DAC off.

    Interestingly, the linear-phase filters on the Wolfson DAC sound fastest, whereas the linear-phase filters on the XSP seemed a bit more smeared. I wanted to emphasize that before anyone claims I'm just looking at impulse response plots and basing my hearing on that!

    The tone is a bit weirder on the A-GD DAC, being a bit more U-shaped in some ways, but that's not quite the best way to describe it. It's more forward and narrower than the XSP, but not to the extent of the Modi Multibit. Timbre is good, being liquid or bitey when needed. And it seems pretty good at making everything, including low-level details, sound tangible.

    Conclusion

    Reviewing the XSP against the A-GD wildcard DAC felt like the time I walked out of a restaurant in the airport, to check my flight status on the monitor at the opposite end of the hallway, and got blindsided by an electric golf cart shuttling people from gate to gate.

    See visual diagram for reference:

    xsp diagram.png
     
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2019
    Psalmanazar, Koka, Joshvar and 14 others like this.

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