The audacity of the MSB guys! A year ago they came to market with a 24/96 DAC for $349. How could they do that when 20-bit 44.1kHz DACs were selling for four figures and beyond? MSBs 24/96 Link DAC is very thin, very sturdy and so large that almost any component you already own could sit on top of it if necessary. The Link DAC is heavy, and I needed to know why and how a $349 DAC, let alone, 24/96 DAC, could be this heavy and still cost only $349. The chassis is a two-piece affair made of very thick steel and painted with a nice-looking charcoal metallic paint. Id estimate that 90% of the weight of the Link DAC (less power-supply AC cord) is from the steel chassis.
Opening the chassis I found another surprise: emptiness. Inside the chassis of the Link DAC is more empty space than used space. But nobody is trying to fool the consumer with the large-chassis/small-innards trick. No, it just so happens that its cheaper for MSB to keep using the same chassis for every product rather than to make a cut-down version just for the Link DAC. You, the Link DAC owner, benefit from lower product pricing, and MBS benefits from lower development and production costs. Everybody is happy.
The front panel of the Link DAC is well adorned
with its source and sampling-rate indicators. Around back youll find single coax and
TosLink digital inputs, a pair of analog outputs, a pair of analog pass-throughs, and a
multi-pin power plug for connection of the external power
Take that you puny poser!
My first test of the Link DAC was a severe one. I employed it as an external DAC paired with California Audio Labs $2995 CL-25 CD/DVD player (the CL-20 is the same DVD-based disc player for $2495 minus the component and RGB video outputs). The CAL CL-25 and CL-20 have internal 24-bit/96kHz DACs with CALs own audio board, which includes HDCD decoding. The massive power supply for the audio board in the CAL players literally dwarfs anything in the $349 MSB Link. In listening tests, the CAL player was definitely better-sounding in any way you would care to describe. It would be fair to say that the MSB Link does nothing as well as the CAL CL-25.
BUT (large but) the MSB Link was still pretty darn good-sounding. The Link DAC is not completely blown away by the CAL player, quite a feat at the Link DACs price. The top three octaves were the most noticeably different from the CAL players; they were easy to listen to but lacked the refinement and detail present in the CL-25 player. Down into the midrange and bass, things were closer. The Link DAC pulled up a little short in the deepest bass, but did fine above that. The tonality of the Link DAC was surprisingly close to that of the CAL player on every disc. Yet the CAL throws a larger soundstage and sounds more engaging. The digital cable used for this evaluation was the take-no-prisoners Cardas Lightning at $269/meter, the best-sounding of the crop of digi-cords I had available. There was quite a difference in sound with lesser digital interconnects; they mostly didnt sound very good compared to the Cardas Lightning.
This review sample of the CAL CL-25 was enabled for 24/96 output through the digital out, so I tested the performance of the Link DAC in this mode as well. The Link DAC clearly revealed the superior sound of 24/96 discs. However, I would not suggest that people buy the Link DAC only to gain access to playing these discs. The Link DAC really shines on 16/44.1 CD discs, which is where all or almost all of your digital music library is anyway, and that is the right reason for owning it. Think of the 24/96 playback capability as a nice perk.
Poser to paragon
Moving on to a more realistic application for the Link DAC, as an outboard DAC for the moderately priced Panasonic DVD A-310 (list price $695, street price under $600 or under $475 for persistent shoppers). Imagine my surprise when I learned that a supposedly lame Japanese mass-market DVD player with a switching power supply (the evilness makes me shiver) sounded better than most conventional digital front-ends I had experienced up to that time!
My first impression was that the Link DAC simply killed the DVD A-310. However, 24 hours of continuously playing the DVD A-310 improved the sound enough to make the comparison quite a bit closer. But the Link DAC remained the winner. The primary areas of improvement over the DVD A-310 are: dynamics, size of soundstage, detail, bass power, transparency and richness. The Link DAC was consistently one or two steps up the sonic ladder compared to the DVD A-310.
One of my favorite listening references is John Hartford, a national treasure I have seen perform live a number of times in venues so small that the sound system becomes almost irrelevant. I know his voice, his fiddle and his banjo tone. None of Hartfords recordings are reference-quality unfortunately, but they arent bad either. This time I selected Down on the River [Flying Fish 70514]. The difference in banjo tone was immediately noticeable, and the MSB got it right while the DVD player made the banjo sound hollow. There was a slight nasality to Hartfords voice via the DVD player, which was completely missing (and correct) with the Link DAC. The DVD player clumped the sound in between the speakers, giving the sound more of a mono feeling, while the Link DAC spread out the sound and even extended it beyond the edges of the speakers. Hartfords fiddle was soft and sweet via the DVD player, but it was more open and swinging with the Link DAC.
Another favorite reference is Beau Jocques atomic zydeco. If you want to assess boogie factor, this is the CD for you: Git It, Beau Jocque [Rounder CD2134]. It was recorded live at Slims Y-Ki-Ki Lounge in Opelousas and at Harrys Lounge in Breaux Bridge. You can almost visualize the venues just from their names and locations. Beau Jocques zydeco is not the polite fare you are probably used to hearing; this is seriously driving music. The DVD player was thick, cloudy and slow compared to the Link DAC. The accordion lost its top end and sounded too warm until the MSB was switched in. When there was some kick drum used, the DVD player sounded thick and dead while the Link DAC was richer and less thuddy-sounding.
Like many (but not all) commercial DVD players, the Panasonic player has limited bandwidth on the digital output; it can do up to 48kHz and thats it. Even so, 24/96 discs played on the DVD A-310 still sounded better through the Link DAC at 48kHz than they did using the DVD A-310s internal 24/96 DACs, which do get used to their fullest when you dont use the digital out. Interestingly, if you have a DVD player with a digital output that is limited to 48kHz, MSB sells a modification (factory-installed only) to permit the digital interface in those players to pass 24/96. Contact MSB for details.
Digital cables were still very critical in this showdown. I had three cables all costing less than $100/meter, and all of those made it difficult to select the Link DAC over the internal DACs in the modified DVD A-310. The Cardas Lightning was so much better that it was almost spooky. Then I remembered that MSB had also sent an inexpensive optical cable. I hadnt even looked at it closely, assuming that it was inferior because it was TosLink, and Id never heard any DAC/transport combination sound good via TosLink in the past. Well, theres a first time for everything. This TosLink cable, or more likely MSB's implementation of TosLink in the Link DAC, sounded the most like the Cardas Lightning, but it was not quite as detailed and open-sounding. It was easy to live with; it had no trace of harshness, and it didnt wimp out on male vocals like two of the less costly coaxial digital cables. There is more than a $200 difference in price between one- or two-meter TosLink cable and the Cardas Lightning, yet the audible difference is nowhere near that large. Every once in a while you stumble into something that really surprises you; this was my surprise for the past few months.
Bring me your tired, your weak
The final trial for the Link DAC was as an external DAC for a few older mass-market CD players with 16- to 20-bit DACs or single-bit DACs of some flavor. This list included models from Adcom, Harman Kardon, Yamaha and Technics -- none of them anything special sonically. In this duty, the MSB Link was even more of a clear winner, improving the sound of each CD player in every way, and the improvement was more dramatic than what you hear when using the Panasonic DVD player: more clarity, more purity of tone, more of the heart of the music. If you have an older CD player, you should definitely have a listen to it with the Link DAC.
And in conclusion
The MSB Link is a no-brainer upgrade for anyone with a CD player or older DAC/transport who is looking for better sound. If you have a DVD player, proceed cautiously. Some of the very best DVD players might just equal the performance of the Link DAC. The Panasonic DVD A-310 is usually recognized as one of the better-sounding mid-priced DVD players, yet even with some small mods and isolation/damping platforms underneath, the Link DAC still sounded better. Lets just say that for a lot of DVD players, the Link DAC will be an upgrade, especially those selling for $900 or less suggested retail price. If you already have a high-end CD player or DVD-based disc player or DAC/transport, the Link DAC is probably no threat to your superior (and far more costly) instrument.
All in all, you get more than fair-for-the-money sound quality from the Link DAC. You wont go out and decimate the state of the art, although the performance improvement with older CD players (and older DACs) and for lower-cost DVD players is so obvious that nobody will waffle over whether to keep the Link DAC or not. MSBs $349 Link DAC is a heck of a great value.
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