Audiolab M-DAC Digital to Analog Converter


Setup of the Audiolab M-DAC Digital-to-Analog Converter

I connected the M-DAC using my reference cables, which include a mix of DH Labs signal cables and Synergistic Research signal and power cables. My current system is built around a pair of Focal Micro Utopia BEs and the Naim Nait XS-2 integrated amplifier. The various source components are listed at the end of this review. If you can't wait, go ahead, there's no shame in that.

The M-DAC had already been broken in for 48 hours by the nice folks at Planet of Sound, Audiolab's North American distributor, but dead cold out of the box, it sounded slightly shrill and flat. After about 25 minutes, the sound became a lot more pleasant and the over-emphasis on high frequencies started to dissipate. At the same time, it was readily apparent that the strength of the M-DAC lay in its resolving power. John Westlake, the M-DAC's designer, chose the 32-bit Sabre 9018 chip from ESS and as with designs from, for example, Wyred 4 Sound, a properly implemented Sabre DAC is capable of scalpel-like precision and breathtaking dynamics. Audiolab reports the dynamic range of the M-DAC equals or exceeds 115dB and 121dB through the single-ended and balanced outputs, respectively. One very cool aspect of the M-DAC you notice right away is the ability to display embedded information from a CD such as the track number and time. I had never seen this feature before. It is always nice to be surprised by thoughtful design touches such as this, which add to the perceived value of the component.

All DACs employ some kind of digital filter and the M-DAC has seven to choose from, including "Sharp Rolloff," "Slow Rolloff," "Minimum Phase," "Optimal Spectrum," and three variations of "Optimal Transient." You can cycle through the filters via remote, so you can experiment to your heart's content while material is playing. Audiolab's excellent manual for the M-DAC gives brief descriptions of the various filters. Based on those descriptions, I figured Optimal Transient (best PRaT) or Optimal Spectrum (most organic) would work best. I messed around with the other filters a bit, but to be honest, I lost interest pretty quickly in all the switching back and forth stuff and instead focused on comparing Optimal Transient and Optimal Spectrum in hopes I could settle on a reference. I decided what I would do was listen for a few days with one, then a few days with the other. I would sometimes switch from one to the other and repeat a song, but as I did not find huge differences between the two, I ultimately settled on Optimal Transient because it seemed vocals had slightly more body and texture with that filter.