The original Metrum Octave was a rather special DAC. It came in two boxes, had minimal features and sounded remarkable, in fact truly superb and competed with products at twice its £729 Price. It had only one shortcoming and that was the absence of a USB input, largely because it was developed before this input became so popular. Metrum put a USB input on their big converter the Hex and that is a stunning piece of kit as René revealed in his review*, but it’s expensive and there was clearly a market for an Octave with USB. This has come to pass with the Octave MkII, which comes in a single box and continues the NOS (non-oversampling) DAC architecture that put this brand on the map. There is a button for the HD USB input on the front panel but it’s actually a £100 optional extra, so SPDIF users can get the MkII for a mere £799.
It has Toslink optical and BNC coaxial inputs as well as the USB and these sit alongside good quality RCA phono outputs. Unusually for a relatively compact converter it doesn’t run from a wall-wart but has an onboard power supply, which is a good sign in the reliability stakes, it also means you can experiment with power cables. The BNC connection is a bit of a pain because so few sources have this connector and few cable companies make coax cables with different plugs (at either end) although many will do this as a custom job. BNC is however a true 75 Ohm connection and therefore the least compromised means of sending an electrical S/PDIF digital signal. I have a Chord Sarum TA digital coax lead with a BNC at the send end and another with RCAs at both ends. I also have a Naim Unitiserve with a BNC output and a Roksan digital cable with these plugs at both ends so that was put into service for my first forays with this DAC.
The result was extremely gratifying from the off with Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters (24/96) sounding as slick and high res as it could be, with loads of space and no shortage of polish. Tina Turner’s voice on Edith and the Kingpin is nothing like Joni Mitchell’s (who wrote the songs on the album) but smoky, sultry and full of character. Cymbals shimmer behind it sounding crisp, vibrant and very professional. Everything is held together by spot-on timing, a quality that’s also apparent on Antonio Forcione’s version of Take Five with Sabrina Sciuba. This isn’t as sumptuous and expansive a recording as the Hancock but the converter reveals the effortless brilliance of the guitar playing with little difficulty. John Fahey’s playing on the other hand is bright and jangly when he plays Sunny Side of the Ocean on On Air, the guitar has pace, vitality and a very strong presence.
Trentmøller’s more recent piece Filur: You and I (Trentmøller Chronicles) starts with an inhalation of breath (possibly not just breath) that introduces a crisp, crackling and electric atmosphere The Octave delivering all the space and vibrance of the recording even at sensible volume levels. Gregory Porter is spine tingling thanks to a degree of transparency rarely encountered at this price, the DAC has a lightness of touch that makes you wonder where the ‘mechanics’ have gone, it just doesn’t sound. It’s a very hard piece of kit to turn off in truth.
The key to its appeal lies in excellent timing combined with fine imaging skills, not many digital components can do both of these things well but those that do make your music collection significantly more engaging and exciting. It means that the majority of recordings sound good as well, not just the hi res ones or the ones where great efforts have been put into sound quality. This is genuinely useful if your tastes are catholic or include Frank Zappa’s early works, I really enjoyed Uncle Remus (Apostrophe) with its clattery electric piano and superb backing vocals, the Octave cuts through the grunge and gets to the meat of the matter. This album does however have a grungey sound which indicates that the Octave MkII is not as revealing of fine detail as some, in this respect it has similarities to DACs from Rega and Naim where musical coherence is the ultimate goal rather than maximum detail resolution.
Using it with a disc player, the Pioneer 565A universal player (which is gaining a bit of a cult following on account of its low price and ability to play SACD and DVD-A), it lacked the scale of the Unitiserve but delivered lots of character and dynamic range. In many respects the Zappa sounded a bit more like it should if you get my drift, I suspect that having the Sarum TA coax in place helped here even if it was the wrong way round. I know that digital cables are slightly controversial and directionality likewise but unfortunately both are clearly audible on a revealing system. Uncle Remus regained his grunginess, the filth factor is important because it’s undoubtedly on the vinyl and helps to give the album its feel and character. Shostakovich’s Gadfly is somewhat cleaner and was delivered with all its majesty and pomp.
While the mighty MSB Signature DAC IV Plus was in residence I took the opportunity to compare it with the Octave, as you do. The considerably cheaper DAC sounded coarser but more vivacious, which in practise made it rather more engaging to be honest. You don’t get the immense detail levels that the MSB is capable of but you do get more definite timing and thrill power. I also contrasted it with the Longdog VDT1 (impression here) which has similar qualities to the Octave but more charm thanks to its tube complement, the latter is more muscular and has a lower noise floor as well as more detail but loses out to the sweetness of the glass. Again the Longdog is a significantly more expensive converter.
The more I listen to the Octave MkII the more I enjoy it. By combining excellent timing with high resolution it manages to convey the energy, pace and scale of the music in a way that few converters at this price level can match. The last time I went to use it with computer however I hit a problem, I’d changed the Mac’s OS to Mavericks and discovered that the HiFace driver required for the Octave is not compatible with Apple’s latest software. It being a third party piece of software means that Metrum and many other DAC makers have been left in an awkward position. Looking at the forums I see that M2Tech is working on a Mavericks compatible version of HiFace, so fingers crossed that it happens sooner rather than later.
I was able to use the USB input extensively prior to the ‘upgrade’ and can report that results with a PC are very close and in some respects superior to those with coax. The sound is smoother and more analogue like for a start and detail levels are higher, so notes are more rounded and complete. It’s not quite as well timed nor substantial as a good digital source.
The Octave MkII is a very fine DAC and among the very best in the sub £1,000 arena, what it lacks in bells and whistles it more than makes up for with the ability to communicate the essence and energy of the music.