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    JoshM

    Matrix X-SABRE Pro (MQA) DAC Review

    mqa_hardware_intro.pngEarly 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).

     

     

    xsp_mqa_pre.jpgThe 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. 

     

    xsp_mqa_6.pngWhile 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 “perfectmeasuring 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. 

     

     

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    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.

     

     

     

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    Product Information:

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    About the Author

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    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.



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    Hi Josh. You may want to compare this DAC with the Yggy with the Unison USB installed. We added it last night and it is an improvement in detail, tone and dynamics. Not a ton but enough to make a nice improvement. Cheers.

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    Since this DAC measures as state of the art and Josh says it also sounds really good, it seems like a good buy at it's price point. You'd probably have to spend a lot more to beat it in a significant way.

    I'm actually thinking of buying it's little brother, the Element i, which has a streamer built in.

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    Thank you very much for the review. I have this DAC, too and additionally the X-SPDIF 2 and the Element H. The predecessor X-Sabre was my very first DSD-ready DAC years ago. I am pretty happy with the X-Sabre Pro (MQA) also with its volume control but I would like to try it with a "right" preamp. Interesting that you have the Ragnarok. I plan to replace my semi-broken Freya (the first version) by a Freya + (or a Denafrips Hestia? 🤔).

     

    Btw, there is a newer USB driver from January 2020 https://www.matrix-digi.com/drivers/Matrix_Audio_All_Driver.rar

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    9 hours ago, JoeWhip said:

    Hi Josh. You may want to compare this DAC with the Yggy with the Unison USB installed. We added it last night and it is an improvement in detail, tone and dynamics. Not a ton but enough to make a nice improvement. Cheers.

     

    I'm interested in the Unison based on what I've read. But I'm also happy with the Gen 5 and have various USB->SPDIF converter options. So I might wait until my Yggy's warranty lapses and then upgrade to the Unison to get the warranty refresh.

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    Amazing review. Thank you very much! My Matrix X-Sabre has been running flawlessly since 2014. Great piece of metal.

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    3 hours ago, JoshM said:

    From the No Good Deeds... category, the folks at ASR are mad that, in the context of my rave review of the Matrix, I suggested that the hated (by them) Yggrasil may be better in some areas than the Matrix. 

    The Yggy was measured there several times and did really badly (https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-schiit-yggdrasil-v2-dac.3607/)

    so even if they haven't heard it, the people there get offended if anyone likes it. To them it proves you are lacking listening skills and are fooled by expectation bias. Because you must have tin ears if you like such a poorly measuring unit. Of course, they probably also couldn't "hear the measurements" in a non-sighted test. 

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    The new flavor of the month at AS is Soncoz.  They have two models - one priced < $500, the other about half that amount.  Both models measure more of less 'perfectly' and use the 9038 Sabre chip.  People are falling over themselves to order based on Amir's lab results. 

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    I own all three DACs in your article.

    My ranking differs to yours. I have the RME on first place. RME has a feature I need: DSD direct.

    When used with HQ Player the RME ADI 2 Dac with DSD direct makes the first place.

    The Yggdrasil is my oldest DAC and my emotional favorite. It has the sound signature I am used to since many years.

    Drawback for me is the limitation to PCM 192.

    The Matrix is my newest purchase for SACD and DSD playback up to 512 without HQP. Plus it decodes MQA.

    First impressions are very good, but too new for final judgement. Might replace the Yggdrasil.

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    I am fascinated by this DAC. First because the casing is like and MSB DAC. I'm Audio-antsy with my DAC(Wyred 4 Sound DAC 2v2SE) and my brain can't get past the Audio Science rating of best of all DAC's they've tested. Lest we forget the Audeze LCD-4 debacle which is still believe is the "emperor has no clothes" syndrome: That is more $$=BETTER. That being said I'd LOVE to listen to a DCS Bartok.

    Of course the only way is to buy one and find out for myself!

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    23 hours ago, firedog said:

    I think this place is AS and Amir's site is ASR.....

     

    You are correct of - thanks for clarification

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    15 hours ago, Ralf11 said:

    it's been 3 hours - did you buy them both yet?

    I just read what I typed. Of course I worded it wrong. Only the Matrix is on the list. Still on the fence. An audio buddy of mine tells me that I do this every two years or so and I always am disappointed with the results. Unfortunately I’m not listening to him.

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    On 2/5/2020 at 8:31 AM, JoshM said:

    Amir is the outlier. (I've also measured that on mine, and it doesn't exist, FWIW.)


    I had never saw that thread, interesting read for sure. 
     

    People REALLY need to think for themselves and do their own do diligence.  Every forum has “that” group but the asr site is just disturbing on so many levels.  I’m sure a lot of intelligent and good individuals exists there (as well as the reverse) but man the extreme level is off the charts.  
     

    Not sure what the draw is, but like anything else / any hobby, some just have to feel like they have to belong and follow - at any cost.  
     

    It’s just audio!!  Interesting psychology study.  Sorry I digress 

     

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    On 2/6/2020 at 5:55 PM, Foggie said:


    I had never saw that thread, interesting read for sure. 
     

    People REALLY need to think for themselves and do their own do diligence.  Every forum has “that” group but the asr site is just disturbing on so many levels.  I’m sure a lot of intelligent and good individuals exists there (as well as the reverse) but man the extreme level is off the charts.  
     

    Not sure what the draw is, but like anything else / any hobby, some just have to feel like they have to belong and follow - at any cost.  
     

    It’s just audio!!  Interesting psychology study.  Sorry I digress 

     

     

    same can be said for this forum.. lets just be happy there are different flavours.

     

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    23 minutes ago, MPA1 said:

     

    same can be said for this forum.. lets just be happy there are different flavours.

     

    Thus my statement "Every Forum"  Don't read too much into it

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