Early in my audiophiledom, I inadvertently stumbled upon the fact that DAC chips can have different sonic signatures when I bought a Yulong SABRE DA8. The DA8 was based around the then-state of the art ESS9018 SABRE chip. I’d read nothing but good things about SABRE chips prior to my purchase. But upon inserting the DA8 into my modest system, I immediately was disappointed.
When rendered by the DA8, everything seemed to have an artificial sheen. Electric bass guitar, in particular, often sounded far too close to a synth bass through the DA8. Digging into some threads about the DA8, I realized that I was hearing what some have dubbed the (in)famous “SABRE glare.”
Since then, I’ve heard other SABRE-based DACs with even worse glare, but also a few that have avoided it. Overall, though, I’ve been cautious about SABRE-based DACs. You know what they say about first impressions.
It’s with this caution that I approached the Matrix X-SABRE Pro (MQA) DAC (U.S MSRP $1,999).
The first thing that struck me about the Matrix was its build. Machined from a solid piece of aluminum, the Matrix is solid and beautiful. It feels like a luxury product and has a distinct Apple-esque flare to its design.
The rear of the X-SABRE Pro (XSP) is clearly laid out, with XLR and RCA analog outputs and AES, RCA coaxial, TOSLINK optical, I2S, and USB digital inputs. The bottom of the XSP features a simple voltage switch, eliminating region confusion with used purchases.
After setting up the X-SABRE Pro (XSP), the average user will have little need to fiddle with back or underside of the unit, since all of the DAC’s controls are located along the front in a recessed, oblong touch LCD panel. From left to right, the XSP features power, input auto scan, USB, I2S, volume up, volume down, optical, coax and AES buttons. These functions also can be accessed from the XSP’s remote. Like the unit itself, it’s sleek and sturdy. Easy access to the XSP’s volume control on both the unit itself and the remote makes it an excellent candidate for those looking for a DAC/preamp for use with a power amp.
In the center of the oblong touch panel is a small, round screen that displays which input is currently in use, the current file’s format and sample rate, and the unit’s volume.
More advanced controls can be accessed by pressing the XSP’s power button for two seconds. This puts the XSP into setup mode, which allows the user to set the unit to preamp mode (volume control) or DAC mode (fixed output), turn dither on or off, select from seven PCM filters, select the DSD cutoff frequency, turn the jitter reducer on or off, and select between synchronous or asynchronous clock settings for the ES9038PRO chip, among other features.
While I don’t have much use for MQA as a format, I opted for the MQA-equipped version of the SABRE Pro because it uses the XMOS XU216 chip for its USB input, while the non-MQA version of the SABRE Pro uses the U6 XMOS.
While I’ve played with all of the XSP’s inputs and settings over the months I’ve had it, the USB input was used for most of the listening in this review, along with the fast roll-off linear filter, dither on, and jitter reducer off. Most of my use has featured the XSP in DAC (fixed output) mode, feeding an either the Schiit Ragnarok integrated amplifier or the Monoprice Monolith THX 887 headphone amplifier 1. However, I also tried the XSP into a power amp and had no qualms with its preamp volume control.
My first thought after firing up the X-SABRE Pro and running through some of my go-to audition tracks was “Wow, this isn’t yesterday’s SABRE DAC!”
The XSP presents itself as simultaneously clean and tonally rich. The sound of an acoustic guitar, for example, comes across just a bit like a multibit DAC on the XSP without the resolution sacrifice and high-end roll-off that comes with many multibit implementations. Overall, I’d call the XSP a neutral, shading to warm, sounding DAC. There’s nary a hit of glare or shrillness in the XSP’s presentation. In other words, it’s a delta-sigma DAC that multibit fans should try out. (Didn’t I say it doesn’t sound like yesterday’s SABRE?)
I decided to pit the XSP against the previously reviewed RME ADI-2 DAC FS (U.S. MSRP $1,099). While the Matrix is significantly pricier than the RME, both are “perfect” measuring DACs. I level-matched the RME and the Matrix as close as possible, giving the former the .2 dB volume edge and, therefore, perhaps a slight advantage.
The first album up was the 2012 hi-res remaster of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. On the album’s emotional, apocalyptic opener, “Five Years,” the skin of Mick “Woody” Woodmansey’s kick drum comes across as more three-dimensional through the Matrix, suggesting that it has the edge in microdetail over the RME. Mick Ronson’s ominously sluggish autoharp chords seem to emerge further left and right on the XSP, in line with what seems to be a slightly wider stage from the SABRE.
Turning to one of my favorite system audition albums, Van Morrison’s unreleased songs collection, The Philosopher’s Stone, I put on “I Have Finally Come to Realise,” a wonderful tune cut live-in-studio at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, in 1975. With John Blakey’s opening guitar strums, the strings are easier to distinguish individually on the SABRE, whereas they blend together more on RME. Through the XSP, it’s easier to pick out the string articulation on David Hayes’s electric bass, and there’s more front-to-back depth on Bernie Krause’s Moog. Finally, much less room sound is evident on Van’s voice through the RME. As a result, the SABRE creates a better sense of space than the RME.
Moving on to the hi-res edition of Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, it was much easier to hear bleed from instrumental parts removed from the final mix — early staccato distorted guitar strums on “Hell Is Chrome” and a blistering guitar solo at the beginning of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” — through the SABRE than through the RME, a fact that reinforced my sense that the XSP simply bests the RME in detail retrieval.
Through a range of material, amplifiers, and speakers/headphones, my overall takeaway was that XSP provides a soundstage that was both wider and deeper than the ADI-2’s. The XSP may trade a slight bit of bass slam to the ADI-2 for better bass texture. But the biggest difference is the XSP’s greater clarity, exhibited by its superior macro- and, especially, micro-detail compared to the ADI-2. I often had the urge to reach over and turn up the ADI, despite the fact that I gave it the slight volume edge against the SABRE. The XSP simply resolved the recordings better.
To make things even more interesting, I pitted the X-SABRE PRO against the Schiit Yggdrasil (U.S. MSRP $2,399) and ran through much of the same music. With the Yggdrasil, the XSP was up against a DAC that’s both pricier and features a multibit architecture. In this comparison, some differences were apparent, but it was more difficult to declare an overall winner.
The Yggdrasil presents a significantly deeper soundstage than the XSP and an altogether more realistic timbre, though the Yggdrasil’s edge in the latter is much smaller than in the former. The XSP, in contrast, seems to pull ever-so-slightly more detail out of some recordings than the Yggdrasil. I’d hazard to stay that there are other differences between the Matrix and the Schiit when it comes to bass slam (advantage Schiit), left-to-right staging (advantage Matrix), macro-dynamics (advantage Schiit), and other characteristics, but no hands-down winner emerges. Overall, they’re both superb, balanced DACs. Whereas the XSP emerged as the clear winner against the RME, the choice of XSP or Yggdrasil is more one of tradeoffs and individual taste.
In short, the Matrix X-SABRE Pro (MQA) is a remarkable DAC that should be considered by anyone in the market for a serious, resolving (and seriously resolving) audiophile DAC.
1. Most speaker listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer. Headphone listening included Focal Utopia, Sennheiser HD800S, MrSpeakers Ether 2, and ZMF Verité open and closed.
- Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro (MQA) ($1,999)
- Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro (MQA) Product Page
- Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro (MQA) User Manual (4MB PDF)
- Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro (MQA) USB Drivers (2.4MB ZIP)
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.