This review first appeared in the December 2012 issue of hi-end hifi magazine High Fidelity of Poland. You can also read it in its original Polish version here. We publish its English translation in a mutual syndication arrangement with publisher Wojciech Pacula. As is customary for our own articles, the writer’s signature at review’s end shows an e-mail address should you have questions or wish to send feedback. All images contained in this review are the property of High Fidelity or M2Tech.
Reviewer: Wojciech Pacula
CD player: Ancient Audio Lektor Air V-edition
Phono preamplifier: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC
Cartridges: Miyajima Laboratory Shilabe & Kansui
Preamplifier: Ayon Audio Polaris III Signature with Regenerator power supply
Power amplifier: Soulution 710
Integrated amplifier/headphone amplifier: Leben CS300 XS Custom
Loudspeakers: Harbeth M40.1 Domestic + Acoustic Revive custom speaker stand
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, AKG K701, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro 600Ω vintage, HifiMan HE6
Interconnects: CD/preamp Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, preamp/power amp Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo
Speaker cable: Tara Labs Omega Onyx
Power cables (all equipment): Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300
Power strip: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate
Stand: Base IV custom under all components
Resonance control: Finite Elemente Ceraball under CD player, Audio Revive RAF-48 platform under CD player and preamplifier, Pro Audio Bono PAB SE platform under Leben CS300 XS
Review component retail in Poland: 26.000zł
For about a year now, emails from manufacturers or distributors about new products invariably contain the PC abbreviation in at least one paragraph. This personal computer reference is a sign of the times. Without it gone would be the Internet as there would be nothing to connect. Without the Internet gone would be 6moons and High Fidelity. That would hurt at least me dearly. The computer is a calculating machine with memory and executing instructions embedded in software. As it turned out, it’s a very versatile machine indeed. Can anyone today imagine typesetting newspapers, magazines or books without one? Or sound recording and processing for that matter? A great majority of contemporary music recordings employ computer workstations and hard drives.
Ditto remastering where the best systems usually run Cedar’s audio plug-ins. Recently the computer has also become an important audio source, a sort of player. There are those who believe that it is the only way to high-end performance or to replace vinyl with next-gen digital media that preserve all the advantages of analogue with all the additional advantages of digital. Japan with its predilection toward merging the ultra-conservative with the ultra-modern or downright futuristic is a perfect example. In most their systems we will come across a turntable or two with multiple cartridges adjacent to an audio file player which is nothing but a highly specialized computer or laptop. They even have their own fantastic magazine Net Audio dedicated exclusively to audio files and various methods of their reproduction.
Keeping that in mind, one should not be surprised by the veritable glut of devices which hifi publications refer to broadly as PC audio. It’s a sign of the times and we can’t do anything about it even if we associate the computer with something hard to manage and thus far from relaxing which ought to be the feeling associated with listening to music at home. A solid number of experienced audio companies having made their name with classic hifi (some of which now is considered vintage or legacy) are grappling with this new reality. Some enjoy more success than others but each one tries desperately to include in their product something related to the PC – a USB port in most cases. Not that it usually does much good.
It won’t appeal to the traditional audiophile as it is just an extra DAC inside an integrated amplifier or preamplifier or money spent needlessly on such a port in a DAC. Neither does it appeal to modern techno maniacs from whom the only relevant thing is the most technologically advanced product sans any compromise. For them the real leaders here are the companies on the very edge of the technological shock, the companies that bring about real change. Italian M2Tech is one of those.
Run by Nadia Marino, the company is fairly young and was founded with one goal: to improve the transfer of USB signal and its conversion to the classic S/PDIF protocol ‘understood’ by existing DACs. Their hiFace was a tiny plug which connected to the computer’s USB port with an RCA socket on the other side. A typical D/D converter or what is now called a USB bridge, it was one of the first to process 24-bit 192kHz signal. One won’t find the word asynchronous in its description but it does appear in the manual. M2Tech wasn’t first to implement that for consumer hifi. The distinction goes to Gordon Rankin as the author of the first consumer USB converter, the Wavelength Audio Crimson. Introduced in 2004, it featured asynchronous signal transmission between computer and converter. The software written by Gordon and stored on a Texas Instruments TAS1020 controller became available under the trade name Streamlength and has since been implemented by a number of audio manufacturers to good effect.
But Gordon is still only half a digital man so to speak. His first love are vacuum tubes and his beloved children SET amplifiers. M2Tech is nothing of the kind. This company is one of the most active advocates of computers as high-end sources. All their digital-to-analogue converters past the advent of the hiFace were designed foremost with USB reception in mind. There are naturally all the other digital inputs present as well. Today’s model sports two of each optical ST, Toslink, coax on RCA and BNC and AES/EBU. All are 24/192kHz capable.
However, on the very first page of the DAC’s manual—the machine was introduced in May 2012 and presented for the first time during the High End Munich show—we read about 32-bit/384kHz compliance. This was made possible due to technical advances some of which we already came across in my Young converter review from the same firm while others are new. So the Vaughan accepts 32-bit 384kHz signal but directly only over two inputs: I²S on an Ethernet RJ45 port and USB. That’s not all though. All twinned connectors can be configured mono whereby each socket only receives one channel. This bypasses conventional limitations in digital receivers and has for years been used by dCS, Chord Electronics and Esoteric. Using dual-channel links we now can send 24-bit 384kHz signal across all interfaces except Toslink. The Vaughan does not accept DSD over USB however.
The press feeds on preferably dichotomous differences which can be emphasized, turned inside out, vivisected and after everybody is finally bored, casually negated. The press including our audiophile variant needs constant fuel to carry across a very basic message that’s primarily based on left/right, up/down, hot/cold polarity and opposition. It may sound cynical because it relies on the needs and habits of readers to not always be pure and noble. That’s reality though. If it provides a meaningful way to get across something extra to leave a better impression—or even any at all—I am all for it though.
Source: Compact disc transport, 16/44.1 PCM, RCA input: The opposition that sprang to mind after connecting the Vaughan to my system was cold/warm. If we consider the Mark Levinson N°.512 warm, the DAC under review must be cold. Compared to the Levinson its tonal balance clearly is shifted up. This characterization by contrast would probably survive every audition and each intermittent change of opinion since it remained in place to the very end of my review. The only issue with any such statement is that it says precious little about the device itself. It obscures the truth in the same manner that calling the Levinson warm distorts the perceived image. That’s because once we call something cold, it often gets associated with more negative connotations like clinical and devoid of emotions to be dismissive from the start.
That’s why I must begin with the explanation that the Vaughan does not sound cold per se. Here common terminology fails us. Listening for example to Frank Sinatra and Count Basie’s Might As Well Sing or other great singers like Chris Connor, Judy Garland, Brenda Lee or even the latest Random Trip from Nowe Nagrania i.e. club and trance music, I could point at no single aspect that was overemphasized. Vocals were incredibly precise, well placed in space and within the musical continuum. I will go further yet and say that all of these vocals had very nice timbres and were exquisitely differentiated. The emotions associated with singing so important with the above vocalists were easy to read and pleasant to experience.
Precision then played the most important role in this presentation. It’s key to this sound. It may also lurk behind the cold description because any artificial warmth, withdrawal or smoothing would create a pleasant sound which I don’t mind. But one then must be aware that something will always lack by way of a constant interpretation whose goal of a peacefully relaxing mood involves actual data loss. If that’s what we’re after, the Vaughan will immediately drop from our shopping list as the question becomes a plain why bother?
The Italian converter occupies its very own place without ready-made labels. To integrate it within one’s system undoubtedly requires a different set of compromises. The term no-compromise audio by the way is an empty expression with no reference in reality. It only exists in the creative minds of PR people working for manufacturers and distributors or in some dark corners of the minds of sadly moronic audio journalists. The Vaughan sounds incredibly fast and clear. Its dynamics are far above par and on the level of rather pricier CD players if not beyond. Differentiation across all dynamic hues is top-shelf. The Levinson for instance is an absolutely brilliant player yet invariably presents recordings in a similar vein – outstanding but nonetheless too similar. The Vaughan never plays the same thing twice unless we repeat the same album. The compromise mentioned above simply requires taking a stand on personal requirements about how tangible image outlines should be. The Vaughan’s sound is rather distanced because it would be impossible to express its sort of dynamics whilst throwing images at the listener. That would only work at low playback level. These dynamics only work if we cast everything well behind the speakers’ base line and slightly reduce lower midrange saturation. Then we get exactly what the Vaughan delivers.
And that again is the main reason why one could use the warm/cold descriptive tactic. This DAC seems to pull the music away from the listener rather than push it forward. The minimal upward shift of the tonal center which slightly lightens the lowest bass (the mid and upper bass are fantastically rendered) plus a very gentle withdrawal of the midrange all add up to a presentation which, lacking imagination, one might call cold. Or even bright. If you’re read me for a while, you’ll of course realize the fallacy therein. But it remains a potent misdirection regardless.
Source: audio file player, 16/44.1 – 24/192 WAV/FLAC, RCA input. To be honest there’s not much to add. The sound was better than from CD whilst having a very similar signature. Changing resolution improved stage depth and image size. Dynamics increased well beyond CD but only by comparison to hi-res material does one finally know the reason. I won’t go on here as M2Tech’s obvious pride and joy is the USB input.
Source: laptop, 16/44.1 – 24/192 WAV/FLAC, USB input. Do you frequently tire of all the hype surrounding computer audio? I do. There are so many problems to overcome and still so much can go wrong where picking up a CD, powering up a CD player and pressing ‘play’ seems real bliss. And that’s not all. I’m under the impression that a great number of D/A converters with USB trying to catch up don’t show even a shadow of what the computer could theoretically provide as a digital source especially with high-resolution signal. The mere presence of a USB input really signifies nothing at all and the Vaughan mercilessly reminds us of it.
It is one of the very few USB-enabled DACs which fully deserve the title. I had no doubt whatsoever as to the proper positioning of the coaxial and USB inputs based on the performance with even standard 16/44.1 Redbook material on WAV and FLAC files. The clear and outright winner was USB. Based on the usual descriptions of CDs played on high-quality separate transports, it’s easy to conclude that such a transport remains a worthy device. It is only after we plug the Vaughan into a laptop with a decent software player (for me invariably JPlay) that we fully appreciate the efforts of the engineers who created the Vaughan. No doubt about it, the USB input is its sole raison d’être.
The sound via USB has a lower tonal center of gravity and superior saturation. Images are bigger and more tangible, the latter due to a denser lower midrange. The low bass however remains attenuated and not as well controlled as with my Ancient Audio reference player. As there is not much vital info below 60Hz, it should not bother us too much. Everything above is another story altogether. Without the usual hairsplitting, it must be said that this sound is very ‘alive’.
Listening to select songs and entire albums including hi-res material, I swear that I often had goose bumps to bodily react in a similar fashion as I do to vinyl. Still not the same, the depth, saturation and dynamics nonetheless formed the impression that a CD spun in an equally priced CD player sounded shallow, boring and dead. Naturally silver discs played on a truly first-rate player can rock but the Vaughan showed still more particularly with hi-rez source material.
This came from superb differentiation of what distinguishes various albums and makes them different—their mood, production values, recorded venue details—without invoking vivisection mode. I would nearly venture to say that the sound over USB had warm-ish traits. Obviously this merely seemed so. The upper treble remained forward but the general calmness and control of the midrange produced exactly such an effect.
That said the top end was very crystallized as had become evident early on. It simply stayed clear of the particularly irritating range of sibilants to not negatively impact the listening experience. Only with the most demanding of material like David Sylvian’s or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s voices this effect became indirectly audible as a hardening of ‘t’ consonants. With all other material it simply added up to an effect of stronger performer auras and more evidence of recorded background noise.
But these minutiae aren’t important. The core takeaway from this review should be that computer playback can befantastic. Starting the review with a legacy CD transport didn’t quite convince not because anything was wrong but because I had a slightly different memory from the Warsaw audio show 2012. Once I listened to USB the memory was suddenly matched and I had to reconcile that the music at the show had played from a computer slightly hidden behind the right and emphatically old-school widebander Bodnar Audio speaker. Here I had to forget the means and mechanics of reproduction with their associated myths and preconceptions and simply focus on the sound which filled up the space between the speakers.
Headphone amplifier. All commercial reading materials on the Vaughan describe it as a 32/384 digital-to-analog converter. There is no mention however of as essential a functional component as the headphone amplifier. Yet after disassembling the unit I saw that it was no after-thought addition but a full-fledged circuit based on discrete output transistors assembled on a separate large PCB. The only component this board shares with the main circuit is the digital volume control. Hence I approached this review chapter with curiosity and heard how the 6.3mm output is a decent solution with a very detailed dynamic sound. In this application I simply missed bass and midrange saturation so my audition focused on the AKG K701 and HiFiMan HE-300 headphones. The Sennheiser HD800 emphasized the advantages heard earlier as well as flat frequency response but also quickly revealed the weakness of the headphone port – lack of dry muscular bass and leanness in the midrange. This feature/function isn’t on par with the Vaughan’s perfect converter. Ditto preamp (amp-direct) mode which I’d treat as a useful interim rather than final solution.
Conclusion. For any declared flagship product manufacturers always throw behind it the fullness of their know-how and experience. After all their reputation is on the line. If the sound doesn’t meet a customer’s expectation, excuses like “they specialize in mainstream electronics and high-end is just a side project for fun” won’t do. It could well ruin a company’s image. I’ve already seen a few times how that can end – by vacating the market place altogether. After auditioning the Vaughan, learning about its technical objectives and how they were implemented, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that these people know what a high-resolution audio file is and are fully capable of extracting it from their USB input. For while I haven’t yet heard this device in its presumably top form—with 32-bit/384kHz files for which I lack gear that provides such a signal even though I do have some DXD recordings—one already hears with files ripped from ordinary CDs that it is exceptional and significantly better than the analog line-out from a dedicated CD transport or average-quality file player even if the latter runs 24/192 files.
I’ve heard something like it only a few times before like with the Musica Ibuki Series Sekigahara Japan DAC. This rarity explains why this experience was so moving now. The Vaughan shows what computer audio is capable of if done properly. It becomes a completely new experience. It is no coincidence that the Japanese go crazy over turntables, SACD players and computer audio including stationary file players. Over years of experience with products from their hands I’ve learnt that I can’t ignore even their most bizarre ideas because sooner or later I mature enough to understand them. The folks from M2Tech probably realized it much earlier than others: USB is the gateway to a whole new world and they just opened it wide.
Design. The Vaughan is a digital-to-analog converter with integral digital volume control to transform into a potential preamp and headphone amp. The unit is very large, larger even than the Mark Levinson N°.512 SACD player which it replaced on an Acoustic Revive RAF-48H anti-vibration platform. The enclosure is made of thick aluminum panels. The curved front panel of perforated metal conceals a very large red dot-matrix display. On the right side sits a large chromed volume knob and 6.3mm headphone jack. On the left are two buttons. One activates the menu and the knob then navigates through it, the other exits the menu or enables standby. If we want to completely disconnect from the mains we use a mechanical switch located next to the IEC power inlet on the rear. The display can be dimmed in six steps or set to automatic mode to light up only if we change a setting, for example alter volume. I think it could remain lit for a bit longer. The display indicates selected input and the sampling frequency of the input signal. Turning the volume knob shows the current level in dB or relative. The menu also displays battery level, channel balance and absolute phase. Missing is indication of bit depth.
The rear is packed with 13 digital inputs: 1 x USB B, 1 x I²S on RJ45, 2 x S/PDIF coax, 2 x S/PDIF 75Ω BNC, 2 x AES/EBU XLR, 2 x Toslink, 2 x ST. Apart from Toslink (24/96 kHz), all others accept 24/192 signal. The twinned sockets can also be used in a dual-cable setup to then transfer up to 384kHz (192kHz for Toslink). Only I²S and USB handle 32/384 via single cable. An external reference clock may be slaved to a BNC input. The I²S connector is galvanically isolated, the other inputs sport matching transformers. Analog outputs are on XLR and RCA. All socketry appears to be very solid.
The Vaughan is actually several M2Tech devices in a single case even though it’s not a combo kit. All circuit and sub systems were custom designed and built for this model. In the center well removed from other circuits sits a switch-mode power supply inside a perforated metal cage. It contains a mains filter to prevent ultrasonic noise from being leaked back into the mains which could adversely affect other components. This power supply doesn’t communicate with or connect to any audio circuit but merely charges the LiPo battery in the neighbouring compartment.
That’s because the Vaughan is fully battery-operated. Its main circuit mounts to a large frontal PCB. The lower row of sockets solder directly to it, the upper row uses an auxiliary board. I’d thus use the former just to be sure. The signal path from the buffered inputs first encounters a Burr Brown DIX 41921 digital receiver from where it is sent to a powerful Xilinx Spartan-6 DSP chip which implements in-house coded upsampling and digital filtering firmware. It seems that here also resides the digital volume control. As we read in the company materials, the input signal is processed with 64-bit precision so there is no concern about resolution decimation. The next step is the actual D/A conversion via eight Burr-Brown PCM1975 stereo DACs hence eight converters per channel. Such paralleling is used successfully by many companies like Accuphase and T+A. It helps to minimize quantization errors, noise and distortion. Interestingly here this arrangement has been maximized since the ICs don’t connect to each other. Each is a complete stereo system with its own I/V conversion. In the output stage we find IT OPA2211 opamps. The entire audio circuit is surface mounted featuring quality passive parts like Wima polypropylene capacitors and resembles what we have seen in the Young simply multiplied.
The headphone amplifier mounts on a separate board attached to the rear panel. There is a quad-chip Analog Devices AD8674 on its input and the output is based on a pair of transistors in push-pull mode. The transistors mount to an aluminum plate which in turn bolts to the rear panel. It is worth mentioning the beautifully designed clock circuits, one each for the 44.1 and 48kHz sampling-frequency families and the DSP chip on the USB input which implements the custom asynchronous 32/384 reception.