Matrix X-Sabre DAC

Matrix is a Chinese brand that made its name with the astonishingly affordable and excellent M-Stage headphone amplifier. After making a few products which were seen as “clones” of other brands’ offerings it seems Matrix wanted to make the point that they create great products in their own right, not just copies of other people’s gear. The X-Sabre is where they make their stand.

Overview

The X-Sabre is a flagship, dedicated DAC built around the insanely popular ES9018 SABRE DAC chip which also lends the “Sabre” moniker to the product. The X-Sabre has no amp or pre-amp just turns data into audio signal – nothing else. At a retail price of around AUD $1300 it’s pricey, but is it worth the dollars?

  • Inputs:  Coaxial, AES, USB (no optical)
  • Sample rates:  44.1 kHz – 192 kHz (Coaxial and AES), up to 384 kHz (DXD) or 5.6448 MHz (DSD) via USB
  • Outputs:  RCA / XLR (balanced)
  • Output Voltages:  2.2Vrms (RCA) / 6.8Vrms (XLR)

To read this full review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content.

 

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Chord SilverPlus USB Cable

I need to start this review with a strong disclaimer.

Having read a lot of different views and applied my own limited knowledge to the topic, I really didn’t expect an “upgraded” USB cable to have any impact on the sound output by a DAC. According to much of what I’d read, the USB data stream is checked at both ends so data can’t be lost or added. I don’t know if that’s accurate and I’m not about to get into the science of digital audio. The reason I’m sharing this is because people often read cable reviews and cry “placebo!” so it’s important that you understand my expectations going in – I expected nothing and, therefore, the placebo effect would produce nothing.

Introduction

Head-Fi0040This all began when I was shown a group test conducted by Hi-Fi News (UK) in which they compared a bunch of USB cables of different values using a combination of blind testing and objective data. It’s in their July 2013 magazine, but I couldn’t find it online at all. The review included reviews of cables ranging from 18 – 139 pounds and found a wide range of performance that didn’t always reflect the price of the cable.

It just so happened that the top rated cable in the “reasonably priced” bracket was available at one of my local stores, The Noisy Motel. I decided that I would enjoy a nicer looking and feeling cable if nothing else so I spent $75 expecting a cosmetic upgrade and with an open mind to the chance of improved audio, but no expectations. The results surprised me!

Cable Design

Having bought the Chord SilverPlus mostly as an upgrade in look and feel, I really liked the design. It’s not flashy, but it looks and feels solid.

Head-Fi0042The insulation is a flexible white plastic material which is soft to touch and looks neat and clean. The plugs on the cable are finished in a slightly textured white plastic with aqua coloured inserts. Finally, the contacts are all gold plated with white plastic inserts.

All-in-all the cable looks and feels nice, but not crazy expensive or extravagant.

On the inside (according to the available information) is a series of heavily silver-plated copper conductors insulated in a high frequency shield and then insulated by gas foamed polyethelene. I’d explain what that means, but I have no idea myself! The part I do understand is the silver-plated copper so I can briefly discuss the fact that I generally shy away from plated cables in analogue interconnects because I find the plating actually interferes with the coherence of the sound so I was slightly worried that the SilverPlus was either going to do nothing for the sound or actually disappoint me rather than impress me.

Results – The Sound

I was completely amazed when I connected the SilverPlus to my Vaio laptop and then to my Audio-gd NFB-5.2. The sound completely changed for the better!

I completed a comparison test using the Beyerdynamic T1s connected directly to the headphone output of the NFB-5.2. There are 2 key features of the T1 sound that are key to this review:

  1. They are amazingly resolving of textures and fine detail in the recordings
  2. They can sound harsh with certain sources (and to me the NFB-5.2 has a slightly brash / harsh top-end)

Head-Fi0041It was a pretty simple comparison using a generic USB cable which was probably supplied with a printer and the Chord SilverPlus USB. Very simply, I played a track via the generic cable (Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” 24-bit / 192kHz) and then the same track via the SilverPlus with no change to volume and using the same USB socket.

With the generic cable the sound was good, but the NFB-5.2 did have a little harshness in the top-end. When I changed over to the SilverPlus I started to notice some really interesting things. My first impression was that the midrange was pulled back ever-so-slightly. What I noticed next was that details in the higher frequencies became more prominent and yet in now way “in-my-face”. It was like there was more detail, but it was also smoother at the same time.

I also felt like there was more “space” in the recording when played via the Chord USB. There seemed to be better definition of the placement of each instrument and a clearer boundary or space between each distinct sound.

I believe the sensation of reduced mid-range was actually that the Chord cable did a better job of delivering balanced energy across the whole frequency range. As the track continued, the vocals and mids were clear and present and there was plenty of texture and detail, but it was in perfect balance with the treble and bass.

Overall, the addition of the Chord SilverPlus made the sound from the NFB-5.2 / Beyerdynamic T1 combo smooth, balanced and yet incredibly detailed. It revealed extra sounds and details in the recording that I simply didn’t hear on with the generic cable. For $75 – $130 (depending on cable length) the Chord SilverPlus is actually a really worthwhile upgrade to a computer audio system. I’m surprised to be saying that, but it’s true!

Final Point

The cable pictured here is the 75cm version. Be aware that 75cm is not as long as you might think. It’s worth going to the 1.5m cable if you want some flexibility in your setup. The 75cm version requires your computer to be pretty close to the DAC and won’t allow for a lot of play. If you’re like me and use a laptop (and rearrange your desk from time-to-time or move your laptop and DAC to other rooms for various reasons), the 1.5m cable provides plenty of flexibility while still being short enough to not have heaps of slack in a desktop setup.

Audioquest DragonFly

If you’re like me and primarily use a laptop computer, you’ll know the trials of extracting great sound from your computer. In my case, the onboard sound is actually quite good, but it’s not exceptional and I like exceptional.

At home, the sound processing is handled by my Audio-gd NFB-5.2. On the road I used to use the Creative X-Fi HD USB, but as good as the X-Fi is, I had a couple of needs that it couldn’t quite meet. Firstly, it required a separate lead to connect so I ended up with boxes and cables everywhere. Secondly, it struggled to effectively drive my low-impedance IEMs like the Shure SE535 LEs and now my Unique Melody Miracles (review coming soon).

After much hunting, I finally found a DAC that I thought would meet all my needs. Does it? Read on to find out…

Overview

The DragonFly is a DAC and headphone amp created in the form factor of a full-size USB thumb drive. That means it is about 3-4cm long, around 1cm thick, and about 1.5cm wide. At that size I wouldn’t have expected particularly strong performance, but other reviews I read suggested otherwise.

The DF’s general specs are very competitive:

  • Sample rates:  44.1kHz – 96kHz
  • Minimum HP impedance:  12 ohms
  • Maximum power:  150mW

I was excited to see the 12 ohm minimum rating for the headphone impedance as it suggested that my 15.9 ohm UM Miracles would pair well with the Dragonfly. We’ll get to that shortly…

Design

DF with lightThe design of the DragonFly is simply brilliant. It’s tiny, requires no USB cables, feels solid and high quality, and works flawlessly in general terms. I was particularly pleased to note that it’s small enough to not obscure adjacent USB ports.The chassis of the dragonfly is coated in a nice soft-touch black paint and overall it feels very high quality.

A fun (and useful) feature of the DragonFly is its LED indicator light. The indicator lights up in different colours depending on the status of the sound feed and the sample rate being used. It’s red when there is no activity and then turns to green (44.1kHz), blue (48kHz), Yellow (88.2kHz), or magenta (96kHz). It’s kind of fun to see the light change between different tracks at different sample rates and it’s useful to see if your settings are correct (i.e. if you play a high sample rate track and the light stays green, you know you’re settings are causing the system to down-sample your music).

If I had to find one fault with the design of the DragonFly it’d be the separate cap. So far I’ve kept hold of it, but I can see it being lost far too easily and wonder if it would have been possible to have it somehow stay attached to the body of the DragonFly (e.g. with a short string so it hangs free when not in use, but doesn’t get lost). It’s a tiny gripe, but it would prevent having to be quite so careful to place the cap in the bag every time I uncork the DAC.

Functionality

The DragonFly works without any special drivers which is a nice plus in my eyes. I’ve tried it with ASIO4ALL and with WASAPI and it works perfectly with both. I’ve settled on WASAPI because it’s easier in my setup, but there is no significant difference I could find between the 2. Regardless of the output drivers, the DF also handles all supported sample rates equally well with no hiccups.

DF PackagingAnother nice piece of functionality with the DF is that it’s happy driving moderate impedance IEMs like the Re272s and V-Sonic GR07s as well as high impedance cans like the HD650s, but it can also be paired with a separate amp using the DF’s 3.5mm jack as a line-out. To do this, Audioquest recommend turning the computer / DF volume to full, but I’ve found it can be used perfectly well as a variable line-out.

When pairing with amplifiers like the Tralucent T1, which has very high gain, the variable output of the DF is a godsend. You can reign in the volume on the DF so you can use a better range of attenuation on the amplifier’s volume pot.

In terms of functionality, there’s really nothing lacking in the DragonFly – it does what it does flawlessly in terms of straight-forward functionality.

Sound Quality

Where the rubber meets the road… a DAC and amp is only ever as good as it sounds and the DragonFly sounds very good, but perhaps not as exceptional as I’d hoped. I think my expectations were a touch unfair though so read on and I’ll explain in full.

In terms of basic sound quality, the DragonFly is excellent. It creates plenty of space in the soundstage, good placement of the sound image and nice response across all frequencies without any hint of colouration.

I’ve tested it with a number of devices including:

  • IEMs ranging from 15.9 ohms to 50 ohms
  • Headphones ranging from 32 ohms to 300 ohms
  • Active speakers
  • Portable amplifier

In all but one case, the DragonFly sounded great. Perhaps not quite as good as the Audio-gd NFB-5.2, but that’s to be expected when comparing a USB powered device to a mains powered device.

Line-Out Performance

The DragonFly works extremely well as a simple DAC with line-out. The sound provided to active speakers or a separate amplifier is clean, spacious and sweet. Being able to use the computer’s volume control as a variable line-out is a definite bonus too.

Headphone Performance

The output power of the DragonFly is simply amazing! The Creative X-Fi HD USB was just able to drive the 75 ohm Utrasone HFI-680s to a good listening level, but was underwhelming with the Sennheiser HD650s. The DragonFly manages to drive the HD650s to full listening volumes while still having plenty of room to spare in the volume adjustment range.

Of course, it doesn’t have quite the dynamics of a mains powered desktop amp, but you can’t expect that from USB power. As it stands, it’s the best USB powered device I’ve heard when driving power-hungry headphones.

IEM Performance

If you thought there was a “but” coming, you’re unfortunately right. The DragonFly maintains sweet sound on the 20 ohm Re272s and 50 ohm GR07s, but sounds a bit harsh with the 15.9 ohm Unique Melody Miracles.

DF BoxI expected better performance at low impedance due to the 12 ohm minimum rating published on the DragonFly’s box, but while it probably can handle 12 ohms, it won’t be with optimum sound quality.

I found a massive jump in sound quality by feeding the DragonFly’s line-out into the Tralucent T1 amp* before passing it onto the Miracles. You’d expect some improvement with a dedicated amplifier, but this jump was too great to be the amp’s prowess alone. To my ears, the DragonFly just doesn’t pair well with loads below about 20 ohms. That’s a shame to be sure, but given the distinct lack of a USB DAC/amp with 16 ohm prowess (from what I’ve seen and heard so far), I have resigned myself to using the DragonFly with the T1 if I want to listen to the Miracles from my laptop. For everything else, a direct connection to the DragonFly provides outstanding quality sound for a USB device.

* Obviously, the power of an amplifier isn’t required for low impedance IEMs like the Miracles, but a good amplifier will offer better control over the transducers in a low impedance IEM setup and will therefore provide better, smoother sound.

Interestingly, measurements conducted by Stereophile.com show the DragonFly has very low output impedance (around 0.65 ohms) which would normally indicate a good match with devices in the 16 ohm range so I am not entirely sure why the DragonFly doesn’t excel with the Miracles.

Summary

All-in-all the DragonFly is a brilliant piece of kit. For it’s size it is unbelievably powerful and sounds fantastic. It offers all of the processing features of more expensive desktop DACs (except support for 192kHz sample rates which few if any USB devices offer) at a relatively low price and with incredible portability.

At around $200-250 depending on your location, the DragonFly is fantastic value and its portability and compact design make it a winner in my book. It won’t outperform top-end DACs or separate, dedicated amps, but it’s the combination of size, functionality and very good performance that makes this a worthwhile purchase.

Perhaps don’t buy it to directly drive low impedance IEMs, but do buy it to connect to higher impedance ear / headphones, active speakers, and amplifiers.