Musical Fidelity has three small and attractive boxes in its MX-series: MX-HPA headphone amplifier; a MX-VYNL phono stage and the MX-DAC digital to analogue converter. All three are fully balanced, a speciality you would not expect at the price. It means you could combine the MX-series with costly high end products that often use full balanced circuits for lower noise. Which is exactly what I did, connecting the MX-DAC to my streaming source and pre-power amplifiers in my big system.
The MX-DAC has two RCA coax and two optical inputs, all capable of handling 24 bit/192kHz PCM data. The USB input handles the same rates for PCM and also DSD64 and DSD128 data streams. The output is single ended on RCA and balanced on XLR. For PCM the data rate is always up sampled to 24/192 format, with DSD it’s left in native form. The DAC chip is set internally to either DSD or PCM mode using a control signal. Musical Fidelity claims that all incoming data is processed in the DSD domain, but neither the SRC4392 sample rate converter nor the PCM1795 DAC chip changes PCM to DSD, so my guess is that it would have been correct to state that PCM and DSD are processed within the same converter, but only as is. Musical Fidelity is clearly keen to ride the current DSD marketing wave, although I doubt DSD will ever reach the mass market since success depends on music industry support, and PCM rules in the studio. The front panel offers an on/off switch, two filter settings and an input switch. A green LED is used for signal ‘lock’ indication, all other LEDs are blue showing power on, incoming sample rate, digital filter setting, chosen input and DSD mode. The casework in combination with the display is very attractive and all you could wish for is an upgrade for the power supply, available from third parties only and therefore not included in the review, and maybe a AES/EBU digital input.
With the MX-DAC in the system the sound of a grand piano does not leave much to be desired. Schubert’s ‘Piano Sonata No. 20’ in high res format by Martin Helmchen (Pentatone) is one of life’s pleasures. The piano has rich notes, with long decay in a stereo image that’s wide enough to make it believable without overdoing it and creating a giant piano. The grandeur of the instrument may not be fully met in terms of power, but dynamics are still good and both loud and soft passages are enjoyable from start to finish. Another high res recording made by Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra is Mozart’s ‘Piano Concerto KV466’. This 24-bit ALAC file is a real beauty with a solo piano slightly to the left in the orchestra setting. Again piano sounds not only fine but lifelike too, you can easily beam yourself down in front of the orchestra, close to the stage since the MX-DAC does not sound distant. Imagine the orchestra maybe 10 feet behind the piano and the piano 15 feet from your ears. The MX-DAC is good enough to let you imagine the scale of the performance, even height sounds correct. Getting sound to escape from the speaker cabinets is maybe not the strongest point of the MX-DAC, but remember my system is very revealing and demands a lot from every component. As long as most of the musicians sit between the loudspeakers it is not a problem at all. The stereo image reaches from left to right, extending either side of the speakers.
Face the music
Changing over to the late Natalie Cole singing ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’, with a big band behind her keeping the tempo up. It’s not an easy part to reproduce, a big band can become harsh or even irritating, but not with the MX-DAC which separates the instruments from the stage and makes room for the music to spread out in front of me. A slower piece is ‘What A Diff’rence A Day Makes’, on her record Stardust from 1996, with deep bass on the recording that is nicely detailed. When I switch over to my own Metrum Acoustics Pavane DAC the bass is less heavy, the stage wider, the voice comes further forward etc, but going back to the MX-DAC is easier than you might expect considering the £3,000 plus price gap. With the Helge Lien Trio and their album Hello Troll, the opening song again has good bass definition, it’s easy to follow and keeps the rhythm steady. Drums are positioned in the back while the piano is in front of me, it makes for very engaging music. The stereo image is especially good, better than most DACs in this price range that I have reviewed over the last couple of years.
Finally I turn to Sting playing ‘Fragile’ and ‘Englishman In New York’, timeless music to put your mind at ease if the system sounds fine. Little instruments appear in the room with a guitar as the foundation. In another track the drums and bass keep you awake and make your feet move. A beautiful song like ‘Winter’ by Tori Amos sounds even better and very intimate. A nice distance is kept between the performers and the listener, enough to make sure music is not tiresome, but close enough to be part of the experience. The MX-DAC delivers what is on the recording and is never been disappointing, no matter what genre I play. Tori gets more and more incisive with ‘Winter’ before Yello takes her place with electronic beats. ‘The Expert’ hits my ears and wakes my neighbours from their midday nap. So it must be a joke that the next track is named ‘You Better Hide’ (neighbours). Heidi Happy singing her part on this piece, standing clear from the ‘band’ and the artificial yet effective music Boris Blank puts down.
No matter what you throw at the MX-DAC, it seems to love it all. From classical to electronic albums I have constantly enjoyed my collection of files, sometimes ripped from CD’s, sometimes bought as high resolution files. It is easy to say it cannot match a far more expensive product, but it is not hard to find this DAC’s strong points. The stereo imaging is very, very good, throwing the stage wide open, making room for each artist or musician to play his or her part. The next positive benchmark is the tonal balance over the frequency range, this makes all kinds of music enjoyable and engaging. And the number of inputs is enough to build a digital system around. For some the DSD option is a must, not for me since 99% of my music is simply not available in the DSD format. The same goes for USB, I need my laptop for typing reviews and prefer to use a dedicated digital music player. But if you want it, the MX-DAC will deliver with pleasure. Combining the MX-DAC with a better power supply will probably add to your listening enjoyment, but it’s not essential, more of an upgrade from a fine product to an even better one. The MX-DAC served my music well and that’s exactly what it was made for.