I recently finalized my (hopefully) endgame system, and I realized that while my favorite headphones and to some extent my favorite amp were prominently featured on many forums and review sites, my favorite DAC, the MSB Premier, wasn’t. I think this has to do with two things: pricing and brand perception. On the issue of pricing, there’s no getting around that MSB makes expensive gear. Even their lowest end DAC is pricier than most DACs in this forum. But I feel that the value proposition is there, when one takes into account the quality of the equipment, and its future upgradability (more on that later). As for perception, I think a lot of folks who buy MSB gear tend to be more into speakers than headphones, both for questions of cost and the fact that a lot of audio shows display their gear with loudspeakers and not headphones.
That said, I believe that their DACs are just as good for HPs as they are for speakers, for reasons I’ll get to in a second. So I thought I’d write this review to explain why I think this DAC is worthy of consideration in the high end segment, and to hopefully get people to try them out.
About the Premier DAC
In MSB’s lineup, the Premier DAC is above the Discrete (entry level) and below the Reference and the Select (highest tier). The DACs have a lot of similarities, and differ mostly in the amount and quality of integrated DAC modules, as well as other hardware differences (power, clock etc). The Premier used to have optional extras such as an upgraded clock (Femto 93) and an upgraded PSU (Powerbase) which are now included in the base package. I feel this is a smart move on MSB’s behalf, as both do great things to improve sound quality in the DAC and I would honestly not value the Premier as highly if I didn’t have them. The DAC itself houses four Prime DAC modules (two more than the Discrete), whereas the Reference has four Hybrid DAC modules and the Select has eight. I’m sure the higher end DACs have sound qualities that more than justify their price but in use case I felt the Premier with the Powerbase and upgraded clock hit the sweet spot.
Another great thing about the DAC is the input/output modules and their upgradability. There are about six different input modules for the DAC, I have the following four: Balanced XLR Module (AES/EBU), Network Renderer V2, MSB ProISL w/ ProUSB and Optical/Coaxial Module (S/Pdif). Of those I mostly use the Network Renderer for its flawless Roon interaction, as well as the ProUSB which, by using a fiber patch between the USB port and the DAC, results in the clearest, most engaging sound out of all the modules. And as for outputs, these can also be swapped out, I actually did that when I got the DAC, switching from Balanced to SE, since that is what my amp takes. The whole process of swapping modules is extremely easy too, just pull a lever, take the module out, put the new one in, and voila, you are done.
For me this is a major selling point, and probably one of the most important reasons I went with this over other DACs in the same price bracket. I feel like MSB will support this DAC long after other companies have stopped upgrading theirs, as a matter of fact they have already released their Digital Director, an external box that takes all the existing inputs and then connects via a single fiber cable to the DAC. I’ve heard it brings the already amazing sound to new heights, but haven’t had a chance to try it out yet. Hopefully one day…
Ok so the most important part of this review: how does it sound? Well, other than to say, perfect, it’s a little tricky to answer this question. The reason being, as with everything in audio, listening impressions can be highly subjective and I feel this goes double for DACs. See, when switching to a new pair of HPs, speakers or even an amp, differences can and should be clearly audible, with easy to articulate sound changes from one to the other. However when it comes to DACs, and especially very high end DACs like the Premier, differences are definitely there, but they’re more about different flavors than just good/bad. Kinda like when reaching a certain level of quality in wine, it’s more about people’s preferences than a wine being better than another.
That said, there are some definite sonic traits this DAC has that I have not heard in others, and I’ve had plenty of great ones (see comparison section below). First and foremost, is the complete absence of any, and I mean any, digital aspect to the sound. Most DACs achieve some of their resolution and highly detailed textures by digitally enhancing sound, and, even when done properly, it’s something that is always present once you notice it. The Premier, while being the most detailed and resolving DACs I’ve tried, also presents the music in such a natural, organic flow, that it really does feel like listening to good vinyl.
The other aspect I really enjoy is not just the size of the soundstage but how the DAC fills that soundstage with music. I’ve had DACs with slightly larger soundstage, but they achieved this by having a lot of “dead air” in that stage, by which I mean that there is so much silence between certain instruments that things start sounding artificial and not like a real recording. Alternately, I’ve had DACs that had incredible precision in the placement of instruments, but they did that by minimizing the stage space and making everything sound smaller than it should. The Premier manages to have a very wide soundstage that contains each instrument in its correct place, with just the right amount of air between each one.
Finally, a third aspect that struck me when I first got the Premier, was the effortlessness in the way it plays back music, which makes for a very fatigue-free listening experience. I’ve been able to listen to this DAC way longer than I have most of my previous DACs, and the amount of detail, texture, timbre and resolution is never overwhelming but rather simply present, making me feel like I’m listening to the all the audio information present in my source and nothing more.
All those attributes therefore make for a very enjoyable and musical experience. There might be better sounding DACs out there for a lot more money, but for my personal preferences, I’ve found the one that never makes me wish I could upgrade to something better.
Here is some things I tried this DAC with:
My all time favorite headphone, for the simple reason that I’ve never found another pair of headphones that does all things so well. Throw at it any genre, any complex piece of music, any piece of equipment upstream, and it will all take it in stride. But the thing that is well documented about these is that they need a really good chain to shine. They will sound ok on lesser gear but will truly come into their own with top end stuff. And in that respect, the MSB DAC is a match made in heaven. It gave me the best soundstage, mids and bass I’ve ever had with the Susvara, and the refined, fatigue-free music playback of the Premier marries perfectly with the romantic, musical personality of the Susvara.
Much as I love the Susvara, I wanted a pair of closed backs for the times quiet is needed. The Stealth are highly rated for closed backs, but like most of them they have some compromises that are required. In the case of the Stealth, the bass and tonality can sound off on most DACs and amps, and it’s also a pair of HPs that scales very well with higher end gear. In the case of the Premier, I never felt the DAC was lacking in the way it was driving the Stealth, and it really allowed it to exceed in technical reproduction and bass level. So with this DAC I can finally use it as a worthy complement to the Susvara.
I had the pleasure of demoing these at a friend’s house, where I brought my DAC for a listening session. What can I say, the hype around these is real, and it wasn’t for me being fully invested in planars, it would be a difficult choice between these and the Susvaras for my favorite HPs. Again the Premier paired beautifully and I never felt it was holding back these hard to drive, demanding cans.
Spatial Audio X3
These are open baffle speakers and they sound phenomenal, but are very DAC-dependent. Especially in my listening space, which is rather small and completely untreated, they need a very solid DAC to overcome the physical limitations of the space. My previous DACs would not acquit themselves well in that regard, but the Premier passes the test effortlessly. Thanks to the X3s I am able to hear what this DAC can do with a nice pair of speakers, and it’s made me want to get: A. a bigger listening room, and B. even better speakers. One day, one day…
Just as the Susvaras are my favorite headphones and the Premier is my best DAC, the AIC10 is, for me, the ultimate amp. It’s so versatile, well thought out, and most of all it’s always musical, impactful and impressive when playing music. To say it pairs well with the Premier would be an understatement, it’s just a marriage made in heaven when the two of them are used together. So many of their respective qualities complement each other so well, from the way the play music in the most enjoyable way possible, to their clever design and ease of use, and more importantly I feel that the philosophies guiding the engineers of both brands are very similar: give the listener what they want and need, and nothing more.
How does this DAC compare to other DACs I’ve had the pleasure of owning?
Holo Spring 3/May
My first pair of “big boy” DACs. They are definitely amazing for what they achieve given their respective price points. They share an overall similar sound style to the MSB, in that they emphasize timbre, transients and fine details over impact and hitting the listener on the head with sound. Where the MSB comes ahead though is that it’s able to do all these things in a more coherent and pleasant way. The Spring and especially the May were impressive at first listen, but the more I used them the more I realized there were limits to their sonic prowess. Whereas I never get that feeling with the Premier, the music just flows in a completely natural and “correct” way, without ever feeling it’s missing anything
This is the DAC I had before the Premier. It was an amazing value, in that it is a DAC/Preamp/Roon streamer/headphone amp all in one beautiful box. However when comparing it to the MSB I realized it’s a little bit too much of a jack of all trades. Each part of it is good, but none of them are great. Also as I mentioned the soundstage was massive but in a somewhat artificial way, with some gaps in the frequencies. And then the Roon streamer, while good, was not in the same league as the USB input. Whereas on the MSB, the USB input is slightly better, but the network renderer is right behind it in sound quality. So, just like the Holo DACs, the Esoteric does a lot of things right, but the MSB does them all better.
So, in case this wasn’t clear enough through the review, I love this DAC to bits. It fulfills its most basic role, playing music well, to a better degree than any other DAC I’ve owned. But if this was its only positive attribute, it would just be another great DAC, period, However, I feel it has so many great aspects that go beyond simple music reproduction, and those are the things that really make it my favorite DAC ever. The modularity for one. It means I only pay for what I need when I need it. Also the upgradability. I feel it will be a while before I outgrow this DAC. And even then, MSB takes the stress of that away, since they offer full retail value when trading in for new DACs. The simplicity, user friendliness, build quality, rock solid performance, refined aesthetics, excellent remote and more all contribute to the great pleasure I always have when using this DAC. And one final plus is the awesome customer service MSB has provided every step of the way. They’ve been patient, accommodating, generous with their knowledge and time, and you can feel when dealing with them that they really care about their products, their customers and the overall satisfaction associated with the brand.
So yes, this is not a cheap DAC by any means. It’s by far the most expensive piece of equipment in my chain. But when taking into account all the things I just outlined, and the pure enjoyment I get out of using it, I would say the expense is more than justified. I doubt I will change DACs for a very very long time. But when I do, you can be sure it will be for another gem from MSB.
Slave to the sound: MSB Premier w/Network Renderer V2 + Pro USB / MSB Powerbase / Riviera AIC-10 SE / Wywires Diamond RCA / PS Audio P12 / Puritan Ultimate Power Cables / Nordost Blue Heaven Power Cables / ELAC Reference Sensible Speaker Cables / Spatial Audio X3 speakers / Hifiman Susvara / DCA Stealth / Salamander Archetype 5 Stand