It’s been a while since I lived with an MSB DAC, but I have very happy memories of those occasions when one was left in my care in the past. The company has always been at the leading edge of digital technology with several firsts to its name and some very ambitious products in its range, of these the Discrete DAC is the least expensive. If you look at the price at the bottom of this page it will give you some idea of the altitude that MSB’s engineer/owners Jonathan and Daniel Gullman work at, it’s rarified ground.
The first thing that hits you about the Discrete is its design and build quality which is sleek but substantial and superbly finished, with a nice display that shows input, sample rate and volume level. The case is of the hewn from solid aluminium billet variety so beloved of the American high end, it certainly gives this MSB a solidity and rigidity that helps to offset the price and, for that matter, tune out vibration at certain frequencies. As well as the inputs that come as part of the package (coaxial, opticals and AES/EBU balanced) there are two slots on the rear that accept modules (blue and yellow inputs on the image below) for a wide range of digital inputs including ethernet, USB and dual I2S. There is also what MSB calls the Pro USB inline converter which converts a USB input to to Pro ISL, a proprietary connection that offers complete electrical isolation and works at up to 32-bit/768kHz, 8x DSD (DSD512) and allows up to a kilometre of lossless transmission. Both the USB and Renderer (ethernet) modules offer MQA decoding with the latter connection being good for up to 4x DSD, it also makes the Discrete into a Roon Endpoint, which is probably the slickest way to get music files from a server to this DAC.
Photo by Arthur Vermeylen
The other aspect of modularity is with power supplies, in its basic form the Discrete comes with an external supply in a smaller but equally well executed aluminium case. On the back of the DAC are two PSU inputs and in order to run it with a single supply a two into one adaptor is required, you can see where this is going. What’s less obvious is that there are three levels of power supply, one or two Discrete supplies or a Premier Powerbase which has a chassis that’s almost identical to the converter itself and sits beneath it. I got to hear single and double Discrete supplies with this MSB, the second one being an £1,450 upgrade. One minor inconvenience with the external power supply is that it has a relatively short connecting cable, this was probably a sound quality choice but does mean you need space on a shelf above or below the DAC itself.
Output on balanced XLR only is not the most convenient of options if you don’t have a balanced preamplifier but then again the volume control on the Discrete means it can connect directly to a power amp – if you can live without analogue inputs. And the remote handset is very nice so you’ll want to use that option, a scroll wheel gives fine adjustement of level and multiple IR transmitting eyes mean you barely need to point it at the DAC. The display reveals the sample rate of the incoming signal initially then switches to volume level, it also helps you scroll through the inputs but there are no filter options as is sometimes the case. MSB specialise in R2R ladder DACs made with discrete components. These are generally considered to be superior to the chip based DACs found in more affordable (and some pricey) converters and give the manufacturer considerably greater scope to tune and refine the sound produced.
I connected the Discrete to an Innuos Zenith SE server with some Vertere HB USB cable and used iPeng to tell the server what to send over the wire. This combination produces an extremely revealing, calm and controlled version of events that is significantly more neutral than usual. It’s quite a restrained sound compared to many DACs, it doesn’t emphasise rhythms or amp up dynamics but it does let a lot of music through in a coherent manner. It’s also transparent to immediacy in the recording. the snap of snare drum on Alfa Mist’s ‘Keep On’ is particularly strong with good depth of reverb. The chaotic ending to Ryley Walker’s ‘Sullen Mind’ opens up and coalesces into a sound that makes more sense than usual, while his song ‘Roundabout’ is melodically fabulous with very real if slightly larger than life vocals in a full scale soundstage.
Shifting to a different USB cable from CAD the presentation gains a bit more weight and relaxes but loses some of its three dimensionality, it seems more neutral than the Vertere and yet maintains the engaging quality that was there before. Low level detail is very well served, ‘Pitter Patter’ from Bugge Wesseltoft’s Rymdenhas fabulous texture on the double bass and lovely weigh to the kick drum. Lou Reed’s deep tones on ‘The Raven’ are steeped in harmonics and the voice is placed in perfect proportion to the music. It’s the sort of sound that encourages higher listening levels than usual, which usually means that distortion levels are lower than normal. Putting on King Crimson’s ‘Easy Money’ required a winding up the volume level (which goes up to 106) in an attempt to emulate the results I had heard from vinyl week earlier, it’s not quite in that league sadly but a hi res version of the track would undoubtedly get it closer.
The MSB doesn’t seem like a timing oriented DAC but Joni Mitchell’s ‘All I Want’ reveals that it’s very sensitive to the tempo of the playing and the interplay of voice and guitars. The Discrete reveals this to be a more sophisticated track than it often seems, even in terms of recording quality. To assess the coax input a Naim NDX 2 streamer came into play, and rather than delivering the expected increase in timing coherence this source produced phenomenal separation on Dylan’s ‘Vision’s of Johanna’ and many other tracks.
The Discrete makes a good case for the benefits of DSD, or it did with the tracks I tried at least. Shelby Lynne’s ‘Just a Little Loving’ sounding more relaxed on DSD128 compared to 24/192 PCM, and two times DSD delivering greater depth of image and a quite dramatic increase in low level resolution over DSD64. In the interest of seeing if things had moved on with MQA I also played a few tracks from Tidal’s Master series that are packed in this wrapper, but this format remains strong on detail but weak on musical engagement as was originally the case. I also tried a different support system to the pointed metal feet in plastic inserts that come as standard and allows MSB units to be stacked. I used three soft pucks with a honeycomb pattern instead of four spikes, and this notably improves low level resolution even with the Discrete on an isolated rack.
Photo by Arthur Vermeylen
Doubling up Discrete power supplies gobbles up another mains outlet but does result in a more real, in the room sound especially with Nathan Salsburg’s acoustic guitar playing on his album Third. It’s a slightly ‘hot’ recording but sounds truly beautiful (even via Tidal). Conjure’s ‘Skydiving’ from the Zenith SE server is effortless with excellent guitar and drum tone making the whole band sound uncannily real. I had the big ATC SCM100SE actives in the system by this point which always help the sense of realism.
What makes a big difference in file streaming systems is the introduction of a dedicated network streamer between server and DAC, and when an Auralic Aries G1 turned up this proved to be the case once more. It brought higher resolution of fine detail and improved timing, a combination that enhanced musicality quite clearly. ‘All I Want’ sounds more sophisticated than it often does and with far less of the distortion that appears to come from the recording. It’s a superb song with a fabulous instrumental ending that sounds very good indeed with this streamer/DAC pairing.
The MSB Discrete is an extremely revealing and even handed converter, it exposes the colorations in other DACs with ease and reflects the fine detail of each recording without breaking a sweat. It could be more engaging but that is essentially because it has so little of its own character, put on an emotionally charged recording and you know all about it, just don’t expect this DAC to add a little gloss in an attempt to make everything sound great. The Discrete is a genuine high fidelity DAC and a fabulously built one to boot, add in the modular input flexibility and you have a pretty stunning product with excellent future proofing.