When I reviewed MSB’s last Platinum transport and DAC, the mkIII iteration of these components, I spent a paragraph bewailing the gulf between their appearance and their sonic capability. It used to be acceptable to make butt ugly kit that sounded great but those days are behind us, a fact that MSB Technology seems to have woken up to with its latest Platinum IV range. In most respects the build is commensurate with the price and sound quality although when you get up to the top level Diamond DAC IV which is fifty per cent more expensive than the Signature you might want a more fancy box.
But as Peter Bartlett of Cyrus pointed out when I complained that his latest five grand a pair monoblocks didn’t look any better than his five hundred pound offering, what do you want to pay for; a case or an amplifier? His argument is that by spreading the cost of tooling for the Cyrus magnesium chassis over so many products you minimise the cost per unit. MSB is not a big numbers operation but it’s easy to see that if it started to use casework like that found on dCS products its prices would be in the same league, possibly higher. dCS is arguably the British equivalent of MSB, both are technology driven and produce a small range of very high end components, the difference being that MSB makes a broader range of products at a lower price. A situation achieved to some extent by its clear disdain for marketing, you only have to look up some of MSB’s clips on YouTube to realise that this company is into technology before all else. The people talking to camera are clearly engineers who understand digital onions better than most, they are not very glamorous and while clearly enthusiastic about their work largely avoid hyperbole.
MSB’s DAC technology of choice is the ladder DAC, a multi-bit discrete design that uses multiple resistors to achieve its aim. The company built the first 24-bit ladder DAC in 2000 and the converters in its current range are a refinement of that design. The quality of the resistors is fundamental to the sound of the DAC and this is one of key differences between the three DAC modules available for the Platinum DAC. But these modules have not changed for Mk IV, what has changed is the casework and the electronic architecture. One issue was that the expansion capability of DAC III had been outgrown, so DAC IV has two “massive” DSPs and a pair of expansion ports for future upgrades. The clock has been moved so that it is physically closer to the converters which has reduced both noise and jitter, and it has two new digital inputs one or both of which can be USB2 connections if desired. My sample didn’t have this option but it’s worth noting that the standard DAC IV accepts signals up to 192kHz and the Signature DAC’s USB accepts signals up to 384kHz. Given that all the others I’ve come across can’t cope with more than 96kHz this is pretty astounding, but MSB seems to like big numbers. The company provides information on how to set up PCs and Macs to give maximum resolution and even supplies test signals so that you can establish precisely what’s coming into the DAC. Its LCD display usefully tells you the sample rate and bit depth of incoming signals.
Both transport and DAC require an external power supply, an inline supply comes as standard but for full effect a Power Base in the same casework as the DAC is available. These come in different levels to match the DAC modules so we had the Signature supply which runs both transport and DAC but you can upgrade to a Diamond PSU for £800.
One option that I got to use is the optional volume control, a passive one which now operates in 1dB steps for fine level control, this combined with five digital and a one analogue input means that you don’t necessarily need a separate preamp. Should you have one already there is an analogue bypass feature so that it can run through the DAC to the power amp(s). Having one volume control for analogue and another for digital will likely confuse secondary users however. Specs wise the DAC IV upsamples multiples of 44.1kHz to 352.8kHz and multiples of 48kHz to 384kHz, both at 32-bit resolution.
The final option which needs mentioning is the latest incarnation of MSB’s iLink iPod dock which is now part of the DAC itself rather than being a separate cradle. MSB was the first to offer direct digital output from an iPod but needed to modify each player, this latest iteration works with any current iPod in standard form because Apple has changed its design to allow an S/PDIF output.
The Data CD IV transport comes in a matching case with the dangerous heat sinking fins and feet that isolate and damp the chassis. It may not be obvious but each Iso-rack leg contains a material much like Sorbothane to damp resonance, these legs also allow you to stack transport, DAC and power supply. As the name suggests this is not merely a CD transport, it will play high resolution WAV files burnt onto a DVD as well as Reference Records’ HRX discs (24/176.4). MSB shows you how to burn hi-res WAVs using iTunes, all you need is the hi-res material itself and this is now available to download from a number of audiophile labels.
The Data CD has all the usual digital outputs alongside MSB’s proprietary transmission interface, MSB Network, which runs through RJ45 connectors in XLR sockets. This will transmit up to 32-bit/384kHz, and while this is pie in the sky resolution for most of us it provides pretty comprehensive future proofing. HD Tracks offers quite a few 88.2k and 96k albums including examples by artists including the Kinks, John Coltrane and Johnny Cash alongside a good selection of classical titles. These are FLACs which it might be better/easier to stream to the DAC IV via USB than converting to WAV but that’s a comparison worth making.
But what you might ask does all this technology do for the humble CD, the one format that we can get pretty much anything we want to hear on. A staggering amount is the short answer, this is an uncannily revealing player that exposes the vast differences between recordings like no other digital source I’ve encountered. It is also a rather useful if minimal preamplifier with one of the least intuitive interfaces in the game. Fortunately its auto sensing feature means that you don’t have to manually change between inputs but accessing things like single-ended or balanced output, changing filters and the like can be challenging if you don’t have the manual to hand.
But there is really not much need to change things once its set-up, the only bit that needs changing is the disc and, so long as the rather flimsy plastic drawer doesn’t grate, that’s straight forward. Apparently a computer drive was chosen for its ability to read data discs and MSB listened to as many as it could in a quest to find the best sounding example. According to MSB’s Jonathan Gullman “The other drives we evaluated with a nicer feeling drawer didn't have a close enough sound to the drive we selected to justify changing. Also, by using a stock drive it allows us to switch to a different drive if a better sounding one comes out in the future.”
You can’t help but enjoy the way this pairing unearths previously hidden details on pretty much everything you spin, Kristin Schafer’s collection of Schubert lieder Winterreise always sounds good but now it sounds really alive and dynamic. The singer is in the room as is the pianist and they bring the acoustic of the original venue with them, not only this but they bring the music with them. All too many high resolution digital sources fall at this crucial hurdle but the MSB system has a flow to it that is engrossing, the charm and titillation of the material being presented in full effect.
As ever the rest of the system has to be up to the job and the better it is the more you will hear, I had the pleasure of using these components with Valvet and Gamut amplification connected via Townshend DCT cable to PMC Fact 8 loudspeakers. A system that allowed the sound to expand out from the speakers and fill the room to tremendous effect. And a system that lets you hear that the MSB system presents more of the note envelope than most, a situation that makes for tremendously vivid music thanks to an abundance of detail that the system corals into a cohesive whole.
Using an iPod Shuffle in place of the Data drive does a pretty impressive job as well, one that comes surprisingly close considering the usual expectations of such devices. It’s not as detailed nor dynamic as the transport proper but delivers a better result than you have any right to expect of an iPod. Another bonus is that the MSB handset controls the iPod. My own third gen iPod Touch proved less happy, emitting low level noises along with the music. I sent it back to Apple’s Service Centre but they weren’t able to replicate the issue, which suggests that they don’t have a digital dock of any form and thus have no idea of how good their products are. Someone sell Steve Jobs a Platinum DAC IV forthwith!
I thought I had better check that the Data IV transport itself wasn’t making the iPod sound great by virtue of being not so great, the overall sound suggests it is but could that be the DAC alone. It would seem not, using another player as a transport revealed a soft focussed, small scale sound that was coarse by comparison, it wasn’t disastrous but clearly a step down. Going back to the MSB drive brought back harmonics, image solidity and vibrancy of tone.
I very much enjoyed the way you can follow individual instruments within a mix, all decent sources allow this to some extent but here the extent was considerably greater than usual. The texture of the bass guitar on Steely Dan’s Boston Rag for instance is obvious as is the somewhat compressed nature of the latest remastering of the album (Countdown to Ecstasy), there always seems to be a little squeezing involved with a remaster, however restricted the original. What is also inspiring is the way that the tune still takes the lead, while it’s easy to separate things out this doesn’t get in the way of the musical message and you can forget about detail and just enjoy the experience. Better recordings are rather obvious, Antonio Forcione’s efforts on the Naim label being a good example, here the lows were velvety in their sumptuousness and the tabla really pops out of the speakers.
I discovered when moving over to an alternative power amp that the way you set-up output on the DAC IV can make the difference between operation and none. The SE and bal setting has to match the power amp – which may be single ended even though it has an XLR input. Both the Valvet and Gamut D200 amps have XLR inputs but only the latter is actually balanced.
The DAC IV volume control works rather well with an analogue input as well, it lets an awful lot through, majoring on scale and transparency to the recording’s subtleties and dynamics. While not quite in the league of a serious analogue preamp it’s close enough and could easily usurp what you already have if multiple inputs are not required.
I have enjoyed the capabilities of quite a few very good disc spinners in recent times and some of them have been extremely engaging, the Rega Isis and EMM Labs’s two-boxer being the best examples. However, neither of these manage to illuminate the dynamic, spatial and textural differences between recordings to the same degree as the MSB stack. Whether the MSBs have the same degree of engagement would take a comparison but that really depends on what you are looking for in a digital source. The MSB’s timing is extremely good but it’s not the main emphasis as it is with the Rega for instance, and I suspect that in the long term the breadth of ability on offer here will bring you as much if not more musical pleasure. With the right disc it might even get you closer to audio nirvana, it’s certainly the most resolute digital source I’ve heard. And it’s not even the company’s best DAC!
SPECS & PRICING
Platinum Signature DAC IV
Inputs: Coaxial (RCA and BNC), Toslink, Balanced AES/EBU, MSB Network (32 bit) and Balanced Analog input (<600 ohms) (All 384 kHz)
RCA Outputs: 3.6V RMS (10V pp)
Balanced Outputs: 7.5V RMS (20V pp)
Output Impedance: 50 ohms at 0 dB
Optional Volume Control: 1 dB Stepped Attenuator with 1/2 or 1/4dB steps selectable (+9 to -69 dB)
Sampling Frequency: 1.5 MHz up to 3 MHz
Digital Filter: 32x Digital Filter by MSB Technology
Platinum Data CD IV
Outputs: Coaxial, Toslink, Balanced AES/EBU and MSB Network (384kHz)
Sampling Frequency: up to 384 kHz
Control Features: Remote, Display Dim Mode
Upgrade Options: 384 kHz Upsampling
Platinum Signature DAC IV & Signature PSU: £14,000
Volume control: £1,850
Platinum Data CD IV: £3,200
020 8462 1379