Pros: Great options and features at this price point
Cons: Can be a little flat
Matrix Quattro Dac and Amp Impressions
If you just want to hear what I thought about the Matrix combo, jump down about five or six paragraphs! This first part may be a bit extraneous for many readers…
First off, major thanks to @project86 for his generosity in lending out some gear for us Head-Fi’ers to try, but more importantly because this sort of program produces honest feedback on products. We’ve got no “horses” in this race! This may be self-evident for an internet forum, but it allows readers to calibrate themselves to different writers. Everyone here has music preferences, levels of experience, and general biases. These are pretty easy to pick up from previous posts and preferences in gear. This allows me to better understand which reviewers I relate to and has really helped me pick gear that I have a better chance of liking.
I lean towards the more “euphonic”, choosing tubes/vinyl over “incredibly resolving” gear. I enjoy mixing up my selection of headphones- but when push comes to shove I will usually grab something full and potentially darker sounding…say the LCD-2. Musically, I’m all over the place. My youth was filled with listening to punk. Even a poorly-recorded, live “7Seconds” recording will get me rocking out and re-living a live show I was able to catch. Punk was the music that gave me a charge while growing up, but now I find my favorites are blues and alternative (think R.E.M., The Decembrists, Bloc Party). I told you I was all over the place! I have been exploring classical recordings, but I am very much a newcomer to understanding the genre and I never use it when evaluating gear (except for some brief sampling).
As for experience with DACs, I would put myself in the “somewhat-limited” camp. I have spent more time with my Stello DA100 than any other DAC, closely followed by the Cambridge DacMagic. I also have an AlgoRhythm Solo, a Pico DAC/Amp and a HeadRoom Micro DAC, all of which I have used extensively. I’ve been lucky enough to sample @CEE TEE’s Benchmark for several extended periods, so I am pretty familiar with it. Anything else, or high-end, I have only sampled in meet conditions. I’ll also say that I find hearing differences in DACs very subtle and I have to concentrate carefully to hear them.
I was able to resist reading the others impressions before writing my own in an attempt to stay unbiased. Well…the one exception was a little bit of @purrin’s “6Moons Google translator”- it was just too good not to read.
With the exception of portable equipment, I spent over a month listening almost exclusively to vinyl before I had the chance to listen to the Matrix. I am sure this had some influence on my “somewhat critical“ initial impressions…
@CEE TEE was kind enough to leave his Benchmark with me when he delivered the Matrix combo. It seemed the perfect DAC to make some comparisons to, if only because of the similarities in appearance.
I started by feeding the Matrix DAC and separate Amp (DAC/Amp connected with balanced XLR cables) by the optical output from my iMac and listening to some headphones from the single-ended output. I cued up some tracks to just get a good feeling for what I thought of the sound.
Out of the box, what stood out was that it was a bit “flat”. Music was a bit dull, lacking dynamics, and a little edgy. Switching to the DACs built-in amp didn’t do much, except to further recess some of the vocals and mids. Wait- maybe it was a bit more of the bass being a little overdone (or uncontrolled) that was pushing things into the background? While listening to some Van Morrison, I decided to try some balanced headphones from the amp. I did notice some better dynamics and the mids came back towards me, improving things. I then spent the rest of the night just sampling everything. Like many things, the Matrix grew on me. Though I noticed that there was separation between instruments, there was little else to the “soundstage”. It was as if everything was close mic’d and sent back through the board with little thought around how it was put together. I struggled to get any kind of “live room” feeling from recordings that normally give it to me (like Van’s Caravan). I also felt a little fatigued after the first long listen, but I was also convinced that this was good-sounding gear.
With more time, I acclimated to the “Matrix sound”. As the week progressed I felt the DACs built-in headphone amp gave up enough to the separate Amp that I spent much more time listening to the separate amp with the DAC. I would say the same for the balanced outputs. Everything just sounded “a little more fun and dynamic” from the balanced outputs. I really started to enjoy the set up, and as a complete balanced combination I was fairly pleased. While I don’t think I could see myself with the DAC alone, I could live quite happily with the combination of Matrix DAC/Amp. While not having the same power delivery as my vintage receiver, I found that the amp drove my LCD-2 and HE5-LE well. Either headphone with this combination would be a great set-up for your digital collection. With the wide range of inputs, you have great source options.
Next up: Combining the DAC when listening to an amp I was intimately familiar with. I paired it with my WA6SE. To my surprise, the Matrix was bass-biased. I was expecting it to be treble-tilted. In spite of this bass-bias, I still felt the Matrix sounded a bit “thin” and ended up more in the the DacMagic/Benchmark camp, the later two because they seem “cold”. The Stello DA100 comes across warmer, fuller, and more “musical” to my ears. Yes, I am splitting some hairs here... The Matrix sounded pretty darned good. Pairing it with the right tubes, this is a DAC I could live with. Switching between different DACs with the Woo proved that differences were subtle and difficult to pick up. The Matrix’ bass (at first) seemed stronger than the Stello DA100, but after some careful listening I felt the Matrix DAC was a still a bit overdone and lacked control. While the Benchmark often seems “treble-tilted” to me (even lacking in low-end), it never sounds like it loses control. For me the Benchmark does highly resolving well.
Speaking of control…the Matrix seemed like it was sometimes overwhelmed with really fast and complex music. It was not a glaring problem, but did become apparent with some tracks such as Fugazi’s Appreggiator.
The last session I had with the Matrix gear was a head-to-head with the Benchmark DAC1. We selected just a few tracks and went between the built-in amp of both DACs, then used the Matrix amp with both DACs. One particular track, “June Hymn” by the Decembrists, really made one thing stick out to me. The matrix seemed to separate Colin’s and Jenny’s vocals but just didn’t deliver the pitch changes from the singers, especially Jenny’s background track. While subtle, I continually felt that the subtle pitch control was lost with the Matrix. In a later test, I found that the Stello DA100 actually seemed to reduce the separation between singers, but presented all of the subtle pitch changes in the singers voices, which I prefer between attributes.
Both the Benchmark and Matrix DACs tended to provide a slightly “grating” presentation to the high-end of the Decemberist vocals, which I don’t get at all with the DA100/WA6SE combo. The Matrix definitely bested the Benchmark on low-end quantity, but always by giving up some control at the same time. (When I felt like I needed a little more low-end with the Benchmark, bassier headphones like the Denon D7000 always delivered).
I really feel like I’ve been a bit critical of the Quattro. This is some pretty sweet gear. It’s well-built with an amazing set of options at this price point. I enjoyed listening to it and I’d have no problem recommending it to someone who was interested in it. As a stand-alone DAC, I prefer the Benchmark, but by the slightest margin.
The separate Matrix amp is pretty good, made better when feeding my balanced headphones. Single-ended, I felt like it was OK, but the improvements in dynamics and fullness from the balanced outputs had me really enjoying this amp. I liked it enough to think about how good it might be as a small footprint, complete balanced set-up at the office…
I left out a lot of details about individual impressions with different headphones, tracks selected, etc... but if there are any questions I'm happy to answer what I can!