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Article: Grace Design m920 Review


Brian

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After owning the PS Audio PWD II for six months, most recently running firmware version 2.4.6 (which is the best I tried), I wanted to move to a dac/preamp solution that would include analog inputs for my phono preamp as well as headphone outputs, and perhaps DSD capability. My search led to the Grace m920, which I purchased through Paul Allen at Sweetwater.

My initial impressions, formed over the last week, follow – I am using the Grace m920 with Dynaudio Gemini speakers, with their superb D260 tweeter, the Bob Latino M-125 140 wpc KT-120 based tube monoblocks, and driven by an Airport Express via toslink streaming Qobuz and my computer-based files at 16/44 and 24/192.. Great care has been taken with my speaker placement for smooth response and optimal soundstage and imaging. My headphones are Sennheiser HD-600s.

Physical impressions:

The Grace m920 is at once finished like fine jewelry and has a very cool, high tech appearance. The gleaming stainless steel matches my Bob Latino M-125 power amps very well, while the top and bottom plates have an Apple Mac like finish. Very impressive, and clearly conveys its professional heritage. Knobs and controls are all solid and convey quality.

Operational impressions:

While not a large unit, the input and output flexibility is superb, and the volume knob controlled menuing system is very extensive and well thought out. Separate level control over headphone and line level outputs (there are two) means great flexibility and ease of use. Also, three filter settings are available (linear phase – fast rolloff, linear phase – slow rolloff and minimum phase – fast rolloff). Online firmware updates are available from Grace for Windows computers, and I understand an OS/X version is in development. In addition to Grace’s optional remote, an Apple remote can be used with the m920. I didn’t miss the PWD’s touchscreen, in fact preferred the bright (but dimmable) display on the Grace for use with the remote from 12’ away. The S-lock system was engaged about 50-60% of the time, understandable given the moderate jitter of the Airport Express. The Grace also has a secondary PLL system that further reduces jitter. The Grace m920 uses the new Sabre 9018-2M 32/384 plus DSD chip, and I believe the m920’s volume control is implemented in the analog domain.

Sonic impressions:

These impressions are generally in comparison to the PWD II, which I preferred to the NAD M51, the BMC Puredac and the Oppo BDP-105 which I’ve had in my system over the past year, among others.

I listen primarily to well-recorded acoustic jazz, and since I play jazz guitar I feel that I have a good reference for what real instruments should sound like.

In other DACs, I found the Sabre 9018 to be a bit “tizzy” in the high end, with mids suppressed in comparison. Not so with the Grace m920. Using the Linear Phase – slow filter, which sounded best in my system, cymbals were clear, metallic and smooth (vs dry and sandpapery). Great air around instruments, and completely non-fatiguing. Very little sibilance on female vocalists, with just the right mix of detail and musicality in my system.

The Grace m920 has plenty of drive, with great dynamics, especially in the bass, which is extended and articulate – I could easily focus on the harmonics in Ray Brown or Ron Carter’s string bass, for example.

The soundstage was wide and deep, with great image stability. Many jaw dropping moments as I stared in wonder at a 3-D, visual representation of instruments in space. I believe this reflects the very close channel matching – within .05db at all frequencies, extended frequency response and Grace’s attention to power supply and analog output stage design.

The m920 includes a crossfeed circuit that provides a sophisticated signal mix to enhance the headphone listening experience. This is described further on their site, and I found works very well.

In summary, I’m very happy with all aspects of the Grace m920, and take pride in owning a component of this overall quality.

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"Sub $1k DACs are really pushing the limits of their category and making it even harder for the $1,500+ grouping to justify its price range."

 

For those of us that are searching in this category, could you provide examples. I currently have a Parasound ZDac that I am looking to replace and would like to be pointed in the right direction. Thank you for a very informative review.

 

"The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought", Sir Thomas Beecham. 

 

 

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Okay...I'll add my completely non-constructive criticism: at first glance I thought I was looking at a CB radio from the 80's. Snarky comments aside, thanks for a nice review.

Music: Mostly classical with some jazz and 70's, 80's and 90's rock. It's mostly ripped CD's, but I have quite a few DSF files ripped from SACD's and some hi res downloads, too.

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"Sub $1k DACs are really pushing the limits of their category and making it even harder for the $1,500+ grouping to justify its price range."

 

For those of us that are searching in this category, could you provide examples. I currently have a Parasound ZDac that I am looking to replace and would like to be pointed in the right direction. Thank you for a very informative review.

 

In that range, look at the Emotive DC-1 ($500) or the Dangerous Source. Both have excellent reviews over at a headphone site.

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Brian,

 

Thanks for the objective and pragmatic review of the m920. We appreciate product reviews when the reviewer really used and got to know the equipment and formed an educated opinion, which you clearly did.

 

I thought I might expound on the price point issue a little. Certainly there are many many choices for headphone amp/DACs these days. Since we released the m902 in 2002, the landscape has become well populated with products up and down the price spectrum. Clearly there is a lot of focus on the $1000 price range right now, where there are many solid offerings that, on paper, deliver the same features as more expensive units.

 

But as you properly acknowledged, Grace Design is primarily a pro audio company, which denotes some important distinctions when it comes to price. While consumer oriented companies have to maintain a parts cost ratio around 1/6th of the retail price, pro audio margins are considerably lower at 1/3 to 1/4 of retail. So while the m920 is sitting in the sort of awkward range of $1500, it in fact represents a much higher value than similarly or slightly lower priced options which are consumer only. If it the m920 were being sold through consumer hi-fi channels with standard markup, it would be in the $3200 msrp range. Simply put, a dollar to dollar component and build comparison between the m920 and the current crop of $1000 devices would reveal a dramatic difference in quality and value.

 

What do we mean by quality and value? Many things, which aren't always up front in the marketing materials or feature set comparisons.

 

What we design and build comes from a heritage of high-end pro audio performance. These are tools that are designed to be used day in and day out for decades. Pro customers rely on our equipment to not only provide superior / trustworthy sonic performance but with bombproof reliability under mission critical conditions (recording the Metropolitan Opera or the Grammy's, where equipment failure is not an option). We have products that have been in service since 1993 and are likely good to go for the next 20 years. Statistics will predict that problems can arise, and when they do pride ourselves on our fast, courteous customer service. We still service every model of microphone preamplifier, monitor controller, and headphone amplifier that we have ever made. The 5 year transferable warranty on the m920 is just the beginning of our commitment. Add to this that everything is still made by us in Lyons, CO, and the slightly higher price of the m920 starts to seem trivial. m902 customers are truly getting a much greater value than the price difference might belie.

 

So what does this mean for the educated, discerning hi-fi enthusiast? Possibly it's not mission critical that their headphone amp / DAC work flawlessly for 20 years. But I think given the choice between that kind of staid, proven quality and not, the little extra money for the m920 might just seem trivial.

Cheers,

Michael

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Brian

Not saying your conclusions are wrong. But not mentioning any of the so called better performers in the price range lessens the usefulness of the review to any reader. Add to that the fact that computer audiophile doesn't have any such dac/amps on its "Cash List" makes the review even less useful.

Poor reviewing technique IMO.

Frank

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Michael, why should one choose your m920 over Benchmark DAC2 HGC? Thanks :)

 

Since I have not had the opportunity to spend time listening to a Benchmark I can only remark on features and capabilities. (although I may throw in a little design philosophy)

I am confident that the Benchmark is an outstanding sonic performer. John Siau is a very capable designer and Benchmark has a long history of building quality gear.

 

Here are a few things that come to mind where I see the significant differences between the DAC2-HGC and the m920:

 

Galvanically isolated USB port. This is a really important feature!

The m920's USB streaming section is completely ground isolated from the rest of the DAC. The USB streaming controller is powered by the host computer and it transfers the audio data through high speed isolators.

Computers can have incredibly noisy grounds due to the myriad of switching power supplies (main supplies and board level), oscillators, video drivers, disk drives, Ethernet ports, etc... You do not want to connect your computer ground to your audio system ground as this can cause all sorts of anomalies in analog and digital audio circuits. Clocks require incredibly low noise grounds and power supplies to maintain low jitter performance. Letting computer system noise in to your DAC can dramatically reduce your clocking performance.

Oh, the SPDIF and AES3 inputs are galvanically isolated as well.

 

Balanced inputs. The m920 has precision differential receivers for balanced analog input. As well, the m920 has balanced and unbalanced line outputs that have independent volume control. Each output has a calibration setting of +/-9.5dB so you can match sound levels between different speaker systems and headphones.

 

Exclusive output mode, i.e. headphones off when listening to speakers and vice-versa is available though the setup menu. Removing the top cover is not required.

 

Balance control. The m920 allows for 6db of left-right balance control in .5dB steps. Also, mono is available from the setup menu.

 

Programmable power up volume levels.

 

Ability to use our IR remote control, the Apple remote, or the Logitech Harmony remote.

 

Ability to choose between fast, slow, and minimum phase digital filters.

 

No ASRC. The m920 operates the ESS Saber DAC with its built in Asynchronous Sample Rate Converter *bypassed*. Instead of relying on an ASRC to remove jitter we use a two stage crystal based phase lock loop. This is "old school" these days because of the expense and difficulty in implementation but we believe in leaving the audio data alone.

 

...so there is my biased opinion of why you should buy the m920!

I don't think you would expect anything else. We believe in our gear because we design, build, and use it every day!

Cheers,

Michael

 

-edit-

Oh, and if you have a need for DXD (384kHz) or DSD 128x playback the m920 supports those formats on the USB interface.

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Thanks for your informative answer. I have no doubts that M920 is a very capable performer in its own right. Still, if I may add a couple of points. Why did you opt for USB Mini-B input terminal as opposed to the more common B type? Don't you think the Mini-B input and its design (the protruding screws) could be a little wobbly and in addition may limit the use of certain audiophile USB cables? The same goes for the balanced outputs which are close to each other and cannot be used with certain XLR to TRS adapters. Overall, maybe your unit is more suited to professionals than DAC2 HGC which has for example 2 toslink inputs allowing for simultaneous connection of, say, your HDTV and an Airport Express - for streaming music. Do you think 1.2 Ohm output impedance of the headphone amp is low enough, is it all about the implementation? And one more. Why do you sell the remotes separately?

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From an earlier post from Dreaming Jester, for perspective:

 

OK. Let's discuss another aspect of the DAC2 design philosophy. Some users (in fact most of them) are not very happy with the excessively bright blue LEDs, annoying, according to some, especially in the dark. No dimmer, no switching off. Now, I wonder why the engineers didn't go with more subtle LEDs of different colours like soothing green, amber (like on Airport Express). I personally perceive green LEDs (like on Bryston and other gear) as more 'refined' and 'high-end(ish)' although I suspect Benchmark engineers might have had a good reason to use exactly these particular LEDs. Maybe sth to do with the pro environment, better daylight visibility, visibility from a distance, anything else? Any comments?

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  • 1 month later...

"Online firmware updates are available from Grace for Windows computers, and I understand an OS/X version is in development."

 

Help me understand, please. Not trying to put words in your mouth, could you clarify the status...Native USB functionality works with Macs, but an OS X utility to update the unit's firmware is still under development, so you can't update firmware from a Mac at this time? That's a question.

 

Thank you

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Hi, An OSX app to perform firmware updates on m920 and m905 is available now. You can find it on our web site gracedesign.com

thanks

 

"Online firmware updates are available from Grace for Windows computers, and I understand an OS/X version is in development."

 

Help me understand, please. Not trying to put words in your mouth, could you clarify the status...Native USB functionality works with Macs, but an OS X utility to update the unit's firmware is still under development, so you can't update firmware from a Mac at this time? That's a question.

 

Thank you

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  • 4 weeks later...
  • 10 months later...
Nice review. Two years later waiting for a price drop. So you're saying cut the price in half to compete and it's right in there?

 

Not sure who you're asking, but I think worth every penny of $1,895, and a screaming deal when Massdrop offers at $1,395 periodically.

 

No guarantees they'll be offered at that price again.

 

I continue to be very happy with mine.

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Thanks. I am not criticizing the M920 in any way or what you get for the money. I was just responding to all the review focus on the unit competing with sub 1k units. I believe it is probably worth the asking price also based on all the good reviews. Thanks for the Massdrop suggestion. Apparently it is gone already.

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