M2Tech, Italy

Feature

M2Tech, Italy
Tuesday, September 28, 2021

With its extreme architectural subsidence and renaissance squares Pisa is not the first place you might look for a modern electronics company but it’s the city that Marco Manunta (above right) and his partner Nadia Marino started M2Tech in 2007, and it remains their home. Marco is an engineer with a greater understanding of digital audio technology than most, so much so that he works for other Italian audio companies developing technology of this kind as well as running M2Tech. He first got involved with the audio industry when Audio Analogue got started twenty years ago, there he worked as a freelance designer, creating digital circuits for their DACs and CD players. Marco’s first company was North Star Design where he worked with a partner and built a DAC that garnered a good reputation at home and abroad. Marco subsequently did a variety of jobs including contributing to Italian audio magazines and working on the video monitoring system for the railway network in Florence but he didn’t stop tinkering.

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M2Tech components old and new plus Nakamichi 700 ZXL and RX-303 cassette decks from Marco's collection

In 2009 he received a commission to build an interface to go between a PC and a DAC for Pierre Bolduc of Italian magazine Audiophile Sound, this was in the early days of computer audio when there were few if any digital to analogue converters that had USB inputs. This worked so well that it became the HiFace, the first M2Tech product, this is a USB to SPDIF coaxial converter that was the first asynchronous example of its type on the market and remains in production today in Mk2 form. The HiFace made a good impression on the market and Marco has sold over 24,000 to date, a number that reflects the quality of the converter and the growth of computer audio in the past decade. 

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The original HiFace in white with the Mk2 in black and the discontinued HiFace DAC in orange

The next product that Marco brought to market was the Young DAC, which was one of the first converters to offer 32-bit/384kHz PCM at a time when 24/192 was considered state of the art. It was inevitably met with mixed reviews with some wondering what the point of such high data rates was in an era when very little material was available at anything above 24/96. Today of course 32/384 is the standard capability of most audiophile DACs and we appreciate that the headroom provided by this approach is beneficial regardless of the format being played. Today the Young DAC is on the way to its MkIV form but remains similar in appearance and size to the original, M2Tech components tend not to be very large because the power supplies are always separate, however design and execution is first class.

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M2Tech Vaughan DAC 

Almost the entire Rockstars series of which the Young DAC was the first fits on top of a Pioneer DVD player in the factory dem room but each element contains tech that is usually found in larger and more pricey components. The Nash phono stage was M2Tech’s first analogue product and has unusually high gain of 65dB for the MM input and further 30dB for MC, most MC stages offer 65dB at best. Marco chose this approach because it provides an output from the phono stage which matches that of other components and means you don’t get big differences in volume between digital and analogue sources, he also claims it delivers very low noise. Vinyl enthusiasts in Japan are apparently very keen on the Joplin MkIII analogue to digital converter, this was created so that enthusiasts could rip their vinyl to both PCM and DSD, the latter is unique to my knowledge and uses an I2S connection to a compatible DAC.

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Prototypes including two versions of the Morrison DAC/streamer/ADC/amplifier and a variation on the Young MkII between them

Marco’s right hand man at M2Tech is software engineer and golden ear owner Fabio Elia (top left), the pair worked together at Audio Analogue but now create not only the M2Tech products but also design circuitry for third parties. They are currently finalising the Stills network streamer which will be DAC free but has two USB and an I2S output alongside legacy connections. Fabio is turning the webserver based control software of this MPD server into an app and the finalised streamer should be on the market by the end of the year.

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The M2Tech demo room complete with prototype Larson monoblocks under tape recorder and turntable

Like many companies in the audio field M2tech has been hit by the chip shortage caused by a fire at the Asahi Kasei (AK) factory in late 2019, a situation exacerbated by the increase in demand from e-cars, TVs, PCs and even hi-fi that the pandemic gave rise to. Apparently chip brokers are able to charge eight times as much as they used to for many silicon chips. M2Tech had only just finished R&D on the AK based Young DAC MkIV when this happened and the first batch was made with this chip (a small amount of stock still remains), they had to switch to an ESS Sabre chip in order to continue production, a situation that inevitably required a lot of new development and tuning work to make the ESS based version sound same as the AKM based one. Marco is also working on a ladder or R2R DAC, a discrete non chip based approach that gives the designer a lot more flexibility but is difficult to get true 24-bit performance with. Which is not something you’ll hear from any company with an R2R DAC already on the market. 

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The current Rockstars range including two Young DACs, Marley MkII headphone amp (bottom left) and the Nash phono stage (bottom right)

M2Tech are near to the finishing line with the Class A Larson monoblocks that are in the demo room, these are unusually compact for their type but this is partly because the power supplies are outboard with the majority of the casework being cooling fins. They have a non-symmetrical 20 Watt output stage based around bipolar transistors and will have outer casework in the form of a clamshell wrap when they get to production. At present M2Tech offer the 60W Crosby Class D stereo power amplifier which is based on ICEpower modules for which Marco has designed a high current driver to provide an even input impedance for the partnering preamplifier. Bridged to mono the Crosby is good for 180W.

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Vintage 4-track tapes

Possibly the most out there M2Tech product is the Mitchell active crossover, not least because so few companies outside of the loudspeaker world make such a thing. This contains six filters which can be configured via a PC and combined in pretty well any way you like. An arrangement that allows all pass time alignment, two and a half way operation among many options, and where you can store configurations for comparison. If you are looking to convert your speakers to active operation you could have hours of fun with this.

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A vintage Scan-Dyna 1400 turntable complete with Ortofon arm and orange switches

The M2Tech listening room is not limited to their own products, the sources include an Italian New Horizon suspended turntable, a vintage Scandyna 1400 turntable with Ortofon arm from the ‘70s and a magnificent Studer A807 reel to reel tape recorder. Marco has a lot of vintage 4-track tapes and a few more recent releases on two-track 15IPS full size reels, one of which is Monty Alexander’s Live at the Montreux Festival which made it clear that tape remains the format to beat and provides a reference point for Marco to aim for with his own products. The speakers in this system are Audel Magika Mk2 standmounts and Magneplanar LRS, most of the listening was done with the Audels which image spectacularly well but we also used the Maggies for a bit and enjoyed their relatively relaxed presentation.

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We plan to review a few of the M2Tech products over the coming year and will be looking forward to the new Young MkIV DAC and Stills streamer in particular. This company is clearly technologically advanced and imaginative in its approach to the ways in which audio circuits can be developed, Marco Manunta has a stronger grasp of audio engineering than most owners of small scale companies and one suspects that if he had a partner who was a business expert the brand would be better known. Hopefully this situation will improve in time as it’s clear that M2Tech has a lot to offer the open minded audio enthusiast.
Jason Kennedy