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  1. #1
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    MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    I like to buy new things - cars, motorcycles and Hi-Fi. Almost without exception (and no matter how much I yearned for the acquisition) once acquired I begin thinking “what’s next?” Not this time…
    I really enjoyed owning the MSB Premier DAC and felt that it was at the top of my comfort level for expense. I did however find the move to the Reference was not as expensive as the list price represents, which I will explain later.
    As I age, I want less complexity, less boxes, less things to go wrong, but I want to do it without sonic compromise. In an effort to do so I tried the MSB Premier DAC direct to my MSB S202 amp removing my beloved VAC Signature Mk II SE preamp. It sounded different, but I won’t say it sounded better and chose to leave the VAC preamp in place. The Premier features a volume control hybrid blend of analog and digital not a pure analog preamp with inputs and I really needed an additional input if I was to take the VAC preamp out, so it was an easy decision to leave it in at that time. Being a frequent visitor of my local Hi-Fi store and having been in homes where the MSB Select DAC was in use I knew the preamp module of the Reference / Select DAC had great promise, but I was not convinced the once $6,000.00 optional MSB module could compete with a $20,000.00 separate component. Having great faith from previous experience with MSB and my local dealer and hearing at length explanations for the advantages I would experience, I decided to pull the trigger. My hopes that everything they said about the preamp module would hold true in my home allowing me to remove and sell my VAC Preamp, expensive interconnects and power cord thereby somewhat mitigating the additional cost for the Reference DAC.
    I didn’t write this review right away because I wanted to make sure that my out-of-the-box excitement was genuine but I did want to write because some of what I read here on Audio Shark helped shape my expectations.
    After waiting several weeks for the Reference DAC to be built and shipped, my shiny (not really shiny but a matte black) new DAC and power supply arrived. The flight cases are no longer offered so after opening the cardboard boxes I was surprised at the heft of both the DAC and the power supply. The Premier DAC and power supply were beefy but these required another layer of effort to lift - I’d say a weight not common for most DACs. I pulled the MSB Renderer V2 out of the Premier DAC and installed it into the Reference. After placing the Reference DAC into my rack and powering it up, I expected at least some complication with operation, but no worries - everything was immediate…zero issues - in fact ROON saw it as the Renderer sitting in the Reference and it was immediately ready to play sweet music. I loved the MSB Premier DAC and frankly didn’t think any sonic improvement would that noticeable -that’s another misconception on my part. As I said in my opening comments, the main reason I was attracted to the upgrade was the potential to eliminate the extra box (preamp). The only way I could eliminate the external preamp was to have the preamp inputs and volume control built into the DAC, which the Premier did not have and in my application the additional inputs were needed for Home Theater Bypass.


    Again, I was highly skeptical that bypass mode would be perfectly implemented as every other preamp I’ve owned had some compromise when used in that application. Some Preamps do better than others, my VAC being one of them - in 2 channel the VAC was dead quiet, but in Home Theater Bypass if you put your ear next to the speaker, it produced a slight level of noise that wasn’t there in stereo.
    The Home Theater Bypass mode in the Reference was not only as quiet as the DAC being powered off, I swear the movies sound better. Maybe it’s a product of the background being absolute black? The Bypass mode also gets better as it is auto switching based on active source. When I stop playing ROON and turn on the video it automatically switches inputs and vice versa. I don’t know if I just got use to it or if the Reference user interface is easier to use but it really seems more intuitive than the Premier. The remote control being the same as the Premier is just nice to hold and works perfectly.
    I had read that some Reference owners had jettisoned their uber expensive preamps once they tried the internal Reference preamp - again, I was highly skeptical. The MSB module was originally a $6,000.00 option, how could that possibly compete with dedicated preamps costing $20,000.00 or more? It did and it took me just 10 minutes to conclude the external preamp was to be sold. I sometimes listen early in the morning before my wife gets out of bed necessitating the need for low volume. The DAC/ Pre loses or gains nothing at any volume. No frequency is compromised. It just is louder or quieter. I’ve not quite ever experienced that level of consistency. My opening statement of “not as expensive as the list price represents” now unfolds as I will recover some of my expense by selling my preamp, interconnects and an expensive power cord. I didn’t speak much to how it sounded but I really can’t offer anything that hasn’t been written in professional reviews - it’s simply stunning. The modular design allows for the unknown future digital developments so yes, this is the last stop on my upgrade train (I’m not going to tell my wife about the need to upgrade my second system now – lol!).
    System #1................................................ System #2

    ROON Nucleus + server ...............................SME 20/3A
    MSB Reference DAC / V2 Renderer ...............SME V arm
    VAC Signature MkII SE Preamp .....................Dynavector TE Kaitora Rua
    MSB S202 Stereo Amp.................. ..... Sutherland current gain phono stage, Phono loco
    Wilson Audio Sasha II................................ Stenheim Alumime Three
    REL G1 Mk II (pair) Subs............................ Bricasti M1 SE DAC
    Transparent Audio Gen 5 Reference........... T+A PA3000HV Integrated

    [

  2. #2
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Great review Bill. The premier to REF is the biggest jump in performance in the line IMO. If I wasn’t going NAIM crazy, the REF is what I was going to buy for myself. No doubt the Select is better, but the REF is the sweet spot.

    You know what amazes me? We have so many talented writers like yourself and countless others, that I’m convinced you all should be part-time
    reviewers. Maybe I should create the Audioshark Reviewer Pool and manufacturers can line up products for you guys to review instead of them all waiting in line for the same three or four guys.

    I think with Soundstage (Jeff is my favorite), Tone, Positive Feedback, mono & stereo and many others, there is so much talent out there, it’s amazing. Bill, you could easily be doing reviews! Well done and congrats!


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk Pro
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  3. #3

    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Bill’s writing is so much easier to follow and understand than many, I mean many, reviewers out there. I enjoy this piece immensely.

  4. #4

    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Bill, you have given me MSB envy, again. Took me right back to my days of owning & comparing my MSB stack years ago. Thanks.

  5. #5
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    congrats Bill, the MSB Reference dac is a winner.

    what level of preamp might it require to surpass the internal passive pre in my MSB Select II?

    my $50k darTZeel NHB-18NS preamp does marginally improve things over the MSB passive in my particular system. but the dart pre also has the advantage of synergy with the 50 ohm 'zeel' interface in my darTZeel 468 monoblocks. and i view my dart pre as a bargain in the context of cost no object preamps. it's the best pre i have heard. as a frame of reference Michael Fremer has used the dart pre as his reference for 15 years like me. it's a standard setter.

    i would not hesitate for a second to use the internal pre of the Select II if i were to go digital only. it's a world class preamp for sure. and it does allow the MSB dacs to become more affordable in a system building context. you can count on the internal pre not limiting performance. and MSB modularity allows you to add a phono stage or RTR deck and use the internal pre with other sources.

  6. #6
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Bill ,

    Congrats on the upgrade, sounds like a winner ..! Curiously, when was the last time you changed toobs on your VAC pre amp ..?




    Regards
    * An Audiophile is only as old as his tweeters ..!!

  7. #7
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Hi Bill,

    Congrats on the MSB Reference DAC! It is one of the most lifelike sounding DACs on the market. As far as the question of whether or not to use an external preamp versus just the passive internal preamp module, it is mostly a question of amp synergy. The MSB S202 amp is specifically designed to run directly from the Reference DAC through the passive preamp module to the amplifier. Unlikely that any external preamp in this circumstance could improve on your sound quality.

    Enjoy,
    Ken
    "No summit worth climbing is easily attained."
    --------------------------------------------
    Source: MSB Select II DAC with Two Mono Powerbases and Femto 33 Clock; Renderer V2 Digital Input Module and Roon Nucleus Plus; MSB UMT V Signature Transport
    Amps: Vandersteen M7-HPA Mono Amps; MSB M204 Mono Amps
    Speakers: Vandersteen Model 7 Mk2
    Power: Two AudioQuest Niagara 5000’s with AudioQuest Dragon and Hurricane Power Cords

  8. #8
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Congratulations Bill! The Reference is a terrific and world class DAC.
    _______________

    Mike

  9. #9
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Quote Originally Posted by Mike View Post
    Great review Bill. The premier to REF is the biggest jump in performance in the line IMO. If I wasn’t going NAIM crazy, the REF is what I was going to buy for myself. No doubt the Select is better, but the REF is the sweet spot.

    You know what amazes me? We have so many talented writers like yourself and countless others, that I’m convinced you all should be part-time
    reviewers. Maybe I should create the Audioshark Reviewer Pool and manufacturers can line up products for you guys to review instead of them all waiting in line for the same three or four guys.

    I think with Soundstage (Jeff is my favorite), Tone, Positive Feedback, mono & stereo and many others, there is so much talent out there, it’s amazing. Bill, you could easily be doing reviews! Well done and congrats!


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk Pro
    Mike,
    Thanks for the compliment. My wife might not like me reviewing. When I bring HiFi home for demo many have a way of staying.....I maintain a healthy stack of HiFi magazines that I enjoy and reference in my quest but I also find forums like Audioshark invaluable . There are a lot of smart experience based contributors here that sometimes I wished had expanded their remarks but what I do gather here helps immensely . So yes ,owner /user (mini) reviews help. Looking forward to AXPONA 2021 , hope to see you there ?
    System #1................................................ System #2

    ROON Nucleus + server ...............................SME 20/3A
    MSB Reference DAC / V2 Renderer ...............SME V arm
    VAC Signature MkII SE Preamp .....................Dynavector TE Kaitora Rua
    MSB S202 Stereo Amp.................. ..... Sutherland current gain phono stage, Phono loco
    Wilson Audio Sasha II................................ Stenheim Alumime Three
    REL G1 Mk II (pair) Subs............................ Bricasti M1 SE DAC
    Transparent Audio Gen 5 Reference........... T+A PA3000HV Integrated

    [

  10. #10
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Quote Originally Posted by Alpinist View Post
    Hi Bill,

    Congrats on the MSB Reference DAC! It is one of the most lifelike sounding DACs on the market. As far as the question of whether or not to use an external preamp versus just the passive internal preamp module, it is mostly a question of amp synergy. The MSB S202 amp is specifically designed to run directly from the Reference DAC through the passive preamp module to the amplifier. Unlikely that any external preamp in this circumstance could improve on your sound quality.

    Enjoy,
    Ken
    Thanks Ken. Your previous comments helped me set expectations for which I am appreciative of. You are one of the knowledgeable experience based contributors I referred to. Yes the engineered synergy was also a driving factor in my decision to trade up. It's been in the system over a month and I am still shocked everyday .
    System #1................................................ System #2

    ROON Nucleus + server ...............................SME 20/3A
    MSB Reference DAC / V2 Renderer ...............SME V arm
    VAC Signature MkII SE Preamp .....................Dynavector TE Kaitora Rua
    MSB S202 Stereo Amp.................. ..... Sutherland current gain phono stage, Phono loco
    Wilson Audio Sasha II................................ Stenheim Alumime Three
    REL G1 Mk II (pair) Subs............................ Bricasti M1 SE DAC
    Transparent Audio Gen 5 Reference........... T+A PA3000HV Integrated

    [

  11. #11
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Quote Originally Posted by a.wayne View Post
    Bill ,

    Congrats on the upgrade, sounds like a winner ..! Curiously, when was the last time you changed toobs on your VAC pre amp ..?




    Regards
    That's a valid question. Fairly fresh NOS stock tested ,matched and purchased from Vintage Tube services. Please do not misunderstand me. My VAC Signature Mk II SE preamp was very close to my heart. I am assuming the Reference DAC with designed synergy to their S202 Amp matching input impedance had a great deal to do with my experience. Otherwise I had planned my marriage to the VAC a long one. My local dealer visits often as we make adjustments and try things. I told him Saturday my system is so good now I don't even want to blow on it.
    System #1................................................ System #2

    ROON Nucleus + server ...............................SME 20/3A
    MSB Reference DAC / V2 Renderer ...............SME V arm
    VAC Signature MkII SE Preamp .....................Dynavector TE Kaitora Rua
    MSB S202 Stereo Amp.................. ..... Sutherland current gain phono stage, Phono loco
    Wilson Audio Sasha II................................ Stenheim Alumime Three
    REL G1 Mk II (pair) Subs............................ Bricasti M1 SE DAC
    Transparent Audio Gen 5 Reference........... T+A PA3000HV Integrated

    [

  12. #12
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Bill ,

    Thanks for the response , i was only curious to know if you were comparing a VAC on full cylinders, again congrats on the upgrade and yes i would expect some synergy between an all MSB vs a VAC outsider..




    Regards
    * An Audiophile is only as old as his tweeters ..!!

  13. #13

    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    I am an infrequent poster but regular reader. I am exploring options of bringing MSB into my system and had a few questions that some of you may be able to help me with….

    Between a Premier + S500 or Reference + S202 amp which would be better choice? I dont “need” the extra watts of the S500 as speakers are not a tough load but general experience suggests they are always nice to have.

    Also, what are regarded as the key options to have with either the Premier or Reference? I am digital only front end. Use Roon server but Squeezelite as player (better sound quality IMO). Mainly streaming but also growing library of files on SSD.

    Appreciate any inputs. And apologies if this is off topic but the OP experience seems really pertinent.

    Thanks!



    Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk

  14. #14
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    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Quote Originally Posted by R S View Post
    I am an infrequent poster but regular reader. I am exploring options of bringing MSB into my system and had a few questions that some of you may be able to help me with….

    Between a Premier + S500 or Reference + S202 amp which would be better choice? I dont “need” the extra watts of the S500 as speakers are not a tough load but general experience suggests they are always nice to have.

    Also, what are regarded as the key options to have with either the Premier or Reference? I am digital only front end. Use Roon server but Squeezelite as player (better sound quality IMO). Mainly streaming but also growing library of files on SSD.

    Appreciate any inputs. And apologies if this is off topic but the OP experience seems really pertinent.

    Thanks!



    Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk
    RS,
    As stated earlier I had the s202 and Premier combo. It was extremely good but when I replaced the Premier with the Reference using the Reference internal preamp it changed my life. For the first time in my entire Audio journey I didn't soon after a change say " What's next ?" Now with months of ownership I just sit and listen and for the first time not think how do I get that last 5% out of my system ? Mike said S202 compatibility depends on speaker load and size of room and that of course is true . Wilson Sasha II are not an easy load and my room is 17.5' X 9' x 36' ,the S202 never leaves me wanting. I work with a local dealer who brought the S202 to my house for demo. It took 10 minutes for me to retrieve my checkbook , it was a similar experience with the Reference DAC. If you PM me I would be happy to have a phone call and go into more detail.
    System #1................................................ System #2

    ROON Nucleus + server ...............................SME 20/3A
    MSB Reference DAC / V2 Renderer ...............SME V arm
    VAC Signature MkII SE Preamp .....................Dynavector TE Kaitora Rua
    MSB S202 Stereo Amp.................. ..... Sutherland current gain phono stage, Phono loco
    Wilson Audio Sasha II................................ Stenheim Alumime Three
    REL G1 Mk II (pair) Subs............................ Bricasti M1 SE DAC
    Transparent Audio Gen 5 Reference........... T+A PA3000HV Integrated

    [

  15. #15

    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Appreciate the feedback. Thanks so much!!!


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk

  16. #16

    Re: MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

    Quote Originally Posted by Billt1 View Post
    RS,
    As stated earlier I had the s202 and Premier combo. It was extremely good but when I replaced the Premier with the Reference using the Reference internal preamp it changed my life. For the first time in my entire Audio journey I didn't soon after a change say " What's next ?" Now with months of ownership I just sit and listen and for the first time not think how do I get that last 5% out of my system ? Mike said S202 compatibility depends on speaker load and size of room and that of course is true . Wilson Sasha II are not an easy load and my room is 17.5' X 9' x 36' ,the S202 never leaves me wanting. I work with a local dealer who brought the S202 to my house for demo. It took 10 minutes for me to retrieve my checkbook , it was a similar experience with the Reference DAC. If you PM me I would be happy to have a phone call and go into more detail.
    PM sent.


    Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk

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MSB Reference DAC Mini Review

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