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Matrix M-Stage amp review: simple, cheap, and excellent.

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INTRO

First off I have to admit: I’m becoming a huge fan of headphone amps. In spite of having several high end options to choose from, I’ve always enjoyed the simplicity of listening directly from the headphone jack of a great sounding player. I realize that amplification is almost a necessity to make certain headphones really shine. My solution to that has simply been to use those demanding cans less frequently. My position on this was not logical and I really have no idea how I decided upon it. I think it had to do with the fact that I like to move around to different rooms and still have my music with me. If I was going to sit down and really listen properly, I’d usually opt for my full size speaker setup. Now that I’ve moved and my reference speaker system doesn’t fit in my new place, I find myself relying on headphones for serious listening, and thus am enjoying headphone amps quite a bit more. Portable use is where I draw the line, due mostly to the fact that background noise mitigates any benefit an amp may have given me. I suppose this position may change at some point as well.

In any case, the item in question is the Matrix M-Stage headphone amplifier. The seller is Jeffrey Tam who sells under the Ebay name “Coolfungadget”. Several of his products have already been favorably reviewed around here, such as the Matrix Mini-I, the Zero, and the Aune. Mr. Tam is a Shanghai based distributer of these items rather than a manufacturer, and several other sources also sell some of the same things. The M-Stage seems to be exclusive to Mr. Tam as of this writing. One thing that separates this seller from the rest is his communication: emails answered within a day or so, in perfect English, from a very pleasant person. He is truly a pleasure to deal with; if only all overseas vendors were this good.

The M-stage is a fairly basic headphone amp. It features 2 sets of RCA inputs on the rear, which are selectable via a switch on the front panel. It also has a line out which enables the unit to be used as a pre-amp. Aside from the input selection switch, the front panel features a single ¼” headphone jack and volume control knob. A power switch is located on the rear, just next to the IEC power cable receptacle. It really is a very simple design. The only somewhat unique feature is the pair of gain selectors on the bottom. Users can easily switch from 0, 10, 18, or 20 dB of gain, independent for each channel, with the simple flip of a few dip switches.

The seller describes the design of the M-Stage as being a fully discrete Pure Class A design. It appears that the left and right channels share the same power supply and then things break down to a dual mono design from there, although of course they share the same PCB. It uses high quality parts such as Nichicon KG capacitors, a smooth ALPS potentiometer, a Burr/Brown OPA2134, etc. The power supply appears very robust, featuring a large toroidal transformer, and could easily justify being moved to a separate case if the designer so desired. I personally appreciate that it is all in one unit, which takes up less room on a rack, but that’s just personal preference. Because of this large power section, the M-Stage ends up being deceptively deep. From the front it appears to be your basic small (but not tiny) amp along the lines of the Headroom Desktop series. In reality the M-Stage is nearly twice as deep as that, measuring over a foot deep when you count the front knob and rear RCA jacks.

The price is $249.95 which includes free shipping to most locations. All prices in this review are MSRP just to keep things simple. Since some of my gear is older, and also considering our current market has $399 Triple Fi IEMs selling new for $99, listing MSRP is the only way to keep it fair. Prices change over time so some of these might be a bit off but it gets the general idea across.


TEST GEAR

I tried my best to use a variety of different equipment in this review. Sources included a Sansa Fuze 8GB ($130) played through a modified Griffin Power Dock (similar units available on Ebay for $65), a Samsung BD-P1200 ($800), a Toshiba HD-A30 ($400) with a custom Gamma2 DAC ($375 if you have it built, mine has a few minor mods), and a Marantz SA-1 ($7500 plus Audiomod upgrades for another $2200). Headphones used included Audio Technica AQ88 (Japan only but roughly $25), heavily modded JVC RX-700 ($60 plus maybe $20 for mods), Equation Audio RP21 ($99), Ultimate Ears Super Fi 3 Studio ($99), AKG K240DF (unknown price…. maybe $100?), LiveWires Trips ($350), Ultimate Ears UE-Hybrid ($800), and Sennheiser HD800 ($1400). I compared it to a Creek OBH-21 ($375), Eddie Current ECSS ($430), Graham Slee Solo (from 2004, not one of the newer editions, $1000 with PSU1 power supply), DarkVoice 337SE ($900), and a Luxman P-1u ($3000).

To keep things polite, I’ll simply say that I don’t believe in high end cables making a difference. With that in mind I simply used a robust 14AWG power cable (originally from a 58” Panasonic Plasma) and my usual SonicWave interconnects. I apologize if that invalidates this review for you.

PACKAGE

The package took roughly 6 days to arrive at my house from the day it was shipped. There was a slight delay before that because the seller had to get me the 110V version in black. I’m not sure if he keeps a stock of certain models or if he always has to order them. Either way, like the Ebay listing says, it should arrive within 15 days or less.

As you'll see in the pictures, the package is relatively simple. The amp sits inside the sturdy cardboard box, and is held tight by various pieces of foam. The packing is not the best I’ve ever seen, but it certainly got the job done, as mine arrived with absolutely zero blemishes or imperfections.

One thing to note is that the amp doesn’t come with anything. It is simply the amp itself. There is no user manual, nor even a basic power cable. This would seem like a downside, but I actually didn’t mind at all; the amp is extremely self explanatory with very few options. As for the power cord, I believe we all have a few lying around, so why add cost by including another? If needed, one could easily purchase a basic PC power cable at a local shop for $5 or so.


BUILD QUALITY

The M-Stage is built like a tank. The case appears to be solid steel, and the thick face plate is brushed aluminum. The face matches very well with most Marantz gear. The volume knob is also made of aluminum and has a very nice feel to it. When powered on, there is a bright blue LED light that might be too bright for some people. I might take a black sharpie to mine as it does bother me sometimes.

Panel gaps are fairly tight, although not the tightest I’ve seen. The logo and printing on the front is an interesting font and seems to be of a high quality. The whole thing looks and feels like it would command a much higher price than what the seller is asking. It certainly does not feel out of place when lined up with several other amps ranging from $500 to $3000.

My most sensitive headphones seem to be my LiveWire Trips. They pick up faint buzzing and hiss on pretty much every amp I have ever used them with. On the best amps it is almost imperceptible, but it is always there when the volume is cranked to 100%. The M-Stage proved to be no different. Using the zero gain setting, I could just barely hear a very quiet hum at 100%. As I switched to the higher gains, it became slightly louder but even at a gain of 20 it was only intrusive at insane volume levels with no music playing. I wish the M-Stage was completely silent even under the most extreme circumstances, but even the $3000 Luxman can’t make that claim. Note that it never bothered me in real world listening situations. The program material would easily damage my hearing before the hum ever became loud enough to be an issue. Also note that aside from the LiveWires, the hum was only ever detectable using other sensitive IEMs at high volumes and gain settings, and never appeared when using full size cans.

Being a pure Class A design, I was unsure what the heat situation would be. I’m happy to report that the M-Stage runs very cool. It is actually among the coolest of any amp I have ever dealt with. After leaving it playing for an entire night, I touched it to find it merely….. not cold. This being winter, my house gets a bit chilly during the night, so normally the metal chassis would be cold to the touch. After about 12 hours of heavy playing it barely managed to warm itself up to lukewarm. On a different day I let it burn in* in my living room with the fireplace going. Even with the room warm, the M-Stage only seemed slightly warmer than the ambient temp.

*I like to do burn in on my new gear. I don’t believe the sound will change (until I’m shown some evidence of exactly how that could happen) but I know from experience that if an item is going to fail, I will likely do so early on. I give my gear a solid workout to make sure it can last the first week, and if it makes it that far it will usually give me years of reliable service. If not, the return is easy to handle at that stage.

PICTURES

Sorry but I'm still terrible at photography and my camera is not the best either. I plan on doing something about that soon, but for now this is the best I could do. You should see the shots that I decided not to post..... even worse than these!


The package



The protection, doesn't look like much but worked very well



Sealed plastic layer to prevent scratches



Full view. Please ignore any smudges that might appear in any of these photos. Apparently finger oils show up in pictures a lot more than in real life, as does lint, dust, and scratches in the furniture.



Front left



Front right



Direct front



Side



Rear



Inside overhead view, note the great workmanship and massive power transformer



Nichicon Caps



Burr/Brown OPA2134



Alps



Listening with Fuze, modded Power Dock and LiveWires Trips


Tried a cheap player that features a nice Cirrus Logic DAC. Too much noise, likely cheap power supply issue.



You've heard of the "audiophile" Playstation 1? The Dreamcast has a pretty decent Burr/Brown DAC so I thought I'd give it a listen. It actually sounds quit nice.



With Samsung BD-P1200. It hasn't aged well as a Blu-Ray player but it has an excellent analog section. I've been meaning to crack the case and see what it is packing but haven't had a chance.



Perched majestically atop the Pinnacle BDC-1200, for which it served as an excellent pre-amp.



Mint MAC1700 with superb tube based tuner. Notice how the M-Stage is NOT sitting on top? You just don't stack things on vintage wood, especially when it has vents for cooling.



On top of the Toshiba HD-A30 transport, surrounded by a gamma1 and gamma2 custom DACs. That's Bret McKenzie noodling on the guitar, pardon the flash.



With the gamma2 and a decent transport, the M-Stage is excellent!



Ready for a night of listening with the RX700, RP21, SF3, Trips, and UE-Hybrids.





MUSIC

I’ve been listening to quite a wide variety of music lately. I will list a few of the artists and albums that got the most play during this review just to give you a general idea of my musical preferences. There were plenty more as well so rest assured if there was a particular genre that this amp was not great at handling, I would have heard it. Most of these were redbook CD or flac files, with a few SACDs and other formats mixed in. They range from reference quality to fairly mediocre.

The Temper Trap – Conditions
Frank Sinatra – Nice n Easy
The Snake the Cross the Crown – Mander Salis
The Ohio Players – Fire
As Tall As Lions – You Can’t Take It With You
Russian Circles – Enter
Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra – Miles of Styles
Craig’s Brother – Lost at Sea
Nils Petter Molvaer – Khmer
500 Days of Summer – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
David Bazan – Curse Your Branches
Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
Ernie Watts – Unity (XCRD)
XRCD Classical Sampler (XRCD)
FIM Audiophile Reference IV (SACD)
Legends of Jazz Showcase (Blu-Ray)
Queen Rock Montreal & Live Aid (HD DVD)


SOUND

Now for the most important part of this review; how does the thing sound? In a word: Excellent. It is very dynamic and full-bodied but still well balanced. It does not seem to impart any sonic signature but rather gives you an open window into the music. This is my kind of amp.

Many amps of all price ranges seem to be glorified equalizers; they give a big bass boost, or roll off the highs a bit to tame sibilance, or pump the mids in the name of musicality. Obviously there is a market for that since many of these amps sell quite well. I’ve always found that approach to be a bit short sighted as it limits you to using only a certain model or brand or type of headphones. I’d rather not have one amp for my Grados, another amp for my Sennheisers, etc. If I felt the headphones deficient in some way I would use a quality EQ to fix that area, or simply stop using those headphones. That’s not to say that some amps don’t have their particular strong points, but if it is too unbalanced then I am not interested.

Rather than try to summarize everything here, I’ll try to point out specific things as I go. Hopefully that gives you a better picture of what this amp is capable of.

COMPARISONS

First off I’ll state that I actually like all of these amps. I’ve owned others that have not lasted, but these are all keepers for one reason or another. Some are clearly not the best but they all have their charm. Note that I am not judging them on their feature sets but purely on sound.

M-Stage vs Creek OBH21

I figured this would be a good start as the price is somewhat similar. The Creek is fairly old but unless we are talking about cutting edge designs, nothing is really new in the world of amps, be they solid state or tube. The Creek is basically on the level of a well designed Cmoy. It has decent bass, an acceptable soundstage, and does well with medium impedance cans. It does not really excel in any area, and can not handle difficult headphones.

The M-Stage clearly outclassed the Creek in every single area. Better definition, less strident top end, more dynamics, and much larger soundstage. The M-Stage also did very well with the 600ohm AKG K240DF and the 300ohm Sennheiser HD800, while the Creek simply did not have enough juice to properly energize them. Again, the Creek sounded fine until the M-Stage was introduced as a comparison.

M-Stage vs Eddie Current ECSS

I have to admit that I did not have any of my Grado cans available during the listening portion of this review. My brother is using the PS-1000 (they technically belong to him so I can’t complain), my dad is borrowing my RS-1, and I simply can’t find my SR-325. I hope they turn up. The reason I mention this is because the ECSS is well suited to Grados, although not at the expense of other cans. I hope I can update my impressions with Grados one of these days.

Once again, the M-Stage outclassed the competition. The ECSS has nice full bass and is fairly balanced overall. But it also has a distinct lack of soundstage width and airiness. The M-Stage is significantly more detailed, and that clarity enabled me to hear micro details that were simply glossed over by the ECSS. The AKGs and the HD800s again proved to be too difficult of a load, with the ECSS not providing near enough power to extract the dynamics that the M-Stage could. I did not prefer the ECSS no matter which of my test headphones I was using.

Another issue is that my ECSS has a bit of hiss. Unlike the M-Stage, the ECSS hiss is loud enough to be intrusive even when using full size cans, and even at moderate levels. In fact my hiss seems loudest at medium volume, and then nearly goes away if I turn the volume up high enough. I’m not sure if I just have bad example or if this is a genuine issue with the ECSS.

M-Stage vs Graham Slee Solo

The solo is one of my favorite solid state amps. It has plenty of detail and is very dynamic. It was also quite a bit more expensive than the M-Stage so I didn’t think it would be a close race between them. I was wrong.

They actually end up sounding very close to each other. The Solo seems to have a slight edge in dynamics, mostly due to the extra bass. Note that the M-Stage also has excellent bass but it is just not quite as prominent as the Solo. As much as I hate audiophile lingo, I’d have to say that the Solo has more of a warm, forward sound while the M-Stage is more detailed and transparent. M-Stage still wins in the soundstage arena although the margin of victory is very thin. The M-Stage seems particularly well mated with the HD800, in fact it performs nearly on par with the Luxman (more on that later). The Solo on the other hand is very impressive with the Ultimate Ears UE-Hybrid. It has plenty of warmth, huge bass and amazing dynamics which are exactly what the UE-Hybrid calls for, making for a visceral experience. Build quality is about equal although again I prefer the one box design of the M-Stage.

These 2 amps are actually far more similar than they are different. Both do an excellent job of powering even my most difficult headphones. Both have a very pleasing sound signature, full of detail and plenty of drive. In the end it comes down to what type of sound you prefer, or perhaps what you might be in the mood for that day. Do you want the slightly warm and forward Solo with its extreme dynamics and big bass? Or are you in the mood for the incredibly fast, detailed and transparent M-stage with its tighter but more subdued bass performance? Both amps are clear winners in my book, but of course when considering price to performance ratio, the M-Stage is off the charts. I still feel the Solo is a good buy and would certainly recommend it for its strengths.

M-Stage vs DarkVoice 337SE

I’ve never really thought about it until now but I guess I have to admit to being more of a solid state guy than a tube guy. I realize this when I think of all the wonderful tube amps that I’ve owned over the years. They are fun to tinker with (and even just to look at), and sound great for a while, but I always end up getting bored with them. The DarkVoice is the only one I’ve managed to hang on to for a while, and it also happens to have more of a solid state type of sound compared to the stereotypical “tubey” sound that some people adore. I still feel that it adds a tiny bit of midrange sweetness to the listening experience, but it does so in such a way that is fun and rarely intrusive. Overall this is one of my favorite amps of all time.

The M-Stage once again held its own in the face of very tough competition. As amazing as the soundstage and imaging are on the 337SE, the M-Stage doesn’t fall far behind. It is only the depth of soundstage that is slightly inferior to the 337SE. Oddly enough the effect is that the M-Stage feels a bit more “holographic” due to the fact that it draws attention to the width of the soundstage. It may sound like I am giving the 337SE the edge here but I actually prefer the M-Stage with certain music and headphones. It seems to give a more focused, determined feel to the music, whereas the 337SE is better described as beautiful or ethereal. After a lot of careful back and forth listening (and even more careful level matching, both between the 2 amps as well as between the individual channels on the 337SE) I finally conclude that both amps are legitimate in their own unique ways of presenting things.

Bass is about equal between them, as are the sparkly highs. The mids feel just a bit warmer and more surreal on the DarkVoice which can be very addicting. On the other hand, with certain headphones the combination of ridiculously large soundstage and the slight bloom to the mids just take me right out of the experience. It really does seem to vary with my mood, and once again it is never as noticeable until you start doing head to head tests. If I had to choose just one amp to live with I would be very happy with either of these, but if I could have only the 2 of them that would be even better. They really contrast well with each other. Of course the M-stage is an insane value but the 337SE is no slouch either. You could easily re-badge it and insert it into the lineup of any number of well known Hi-Fi brands such as Conrad Johnson, Manley, Mark Levinson, Cary, etc, and people would swear it belonged there at 2, 3, 4 times the price or more.

M-Stage vs Luxman P-1u

This is a very odd comparison as the Luxman is over 10 times the price of the M-stage, but why not have some fun with it? As expected, the Luxman wins this comparison in pretty much every category there is. In defense of the little M-Stage, it truly puts up a good fight and the differences end up coming down to those last few bits of high end realism that are easily missed upon casual listening. It’s not like switching from a Sennheiser HD201 to an HD 600, but rather more like starting at the HD600 and then upgrading to the HD800. Both are great but the more expensive model is just in a higher league.

The Luxman is nearly silent. It is the quietest amp I have ever heard, with background noise or hiss being only faintly audible at 100% volume with no music playing. As mentioned previously, the M-Stage is very quiet overall but subjectively noisy in comparison.

There are no glaring shortcomings obvious on the M-Stage compared to the Luxman. It is more a case of being outperformed in every area by a small but significant margin. With lower end or mid level headphones they sound basically identical. Once into the high end category (which I define as the UE-Hybrids, the Trips, and the HD800s for this comparison) the differences become more clear. It’s hard to describe, but the Luxman sounds both more delicate yet more powerful. Super musical and engaging, yet not colored in any way. The channel separation is the best I have ever heard. It also seems to have an enormous soundstage while somehow avoiding the slightly unreal feel that the DarkVoice occasionally suffers from. The M-Stage also trails behind in overall resolution and specifically instrument separation. While the M-Stage let me quite clearly pick out separate strings, the Luxman did the same while putting even more space between them.

Overall the M-Stage does everything the Luxman does, just not as well. If the Luxman is graded with an A+ in every category, the M-Stage gets around a B-. The exception is with the HD800s. The M-Stage is very close to being equal to the Luxman when using the HD800s, lacking just a tiny bit of control in the lower register as well as having slightly inferior attack and decay, again mostly noticeable on strings. To come so close with such a low price is truly remarkable and if I hadn’t heard it myself I probably wouldn’t believe it.

HEADPHONES

Audio Technica AQ88
These are my wife’s workout headphones that I also use sometimes. They sound decent, like a toned down version of a Koss KSC75. They have pretty nice detailed highs that aren’t fatiguing. The bass and lower midrange is extremely recessed. They are far more comfortable to my wife and me than the Koss clip-ons which is why we use them.

Some people claim amazing improvements to nearly any headphone when properly amped. I don’t believe that to be true and the AQ88s back me up on that. The M-Stage is unable to extract any further performance from these little guys.

JVC RX-700
These were decent cans in stock form at MSRP. They were even better at the reduced prices for which they were widely available. But when modified they really take off. Mine have the felt ring removed and hole-punched, lots of Dynamat Extreme applied, Poly-fil stuffing inserted, foam earpad spacing applied, and even a bit of Blu-Tack and rubber shelf liner damping used for good measure. I’ve messed around with the mods until I thought they were just right for me.

Surprisingly these cheap JVCs are excellent sounding. They remind me of many of my favorite classic Sennheisers (specifically the classic HD540) but with a closed design, so obviously much smaller soundstage. The bass is punchy and goes fairly deep but no longer overpowers the rest of the spectrum. Without proper power the back them up the soundstage collapses even further and the balance is out of whack. A good amp is a must to extract their full potential.

The M-Stage does a great job with these. Before the mods the bass was out of control, and with the Creek amp it still seems a bit flabby. Once you step up to the ECSS and above things settle in and become just right. The Solo actually makes the bass slightly more full but keeps it nice and controlled so it is not an issue. The M-Stage does an excellent job of extracting what little soundstage is possible from these cans. It drives them with authority and makes them perform in a much higher league than their modest price would suggest. They still don’t hit the lowest lows or the highest highs, and they still have a few other weaknesses, but overall I’m very pleased with them.

Ultimate Ears Super Fi 3 Studio
A classic design and an old favorite of mine. They don’t really do anything particularly great but are good all around performers. I think the key to why I like them is their inoffensive sound. Many newer sub $100 in ear monitors do various things quite a bit better than these do, but they usually also involve some sort of glaring weakness which ruins the experience for me. Examples include deeper bass at the expense of mid-bass smear, or crisper highs with extra sibilance. The SF3s are very forgiving. When they can’t do something well, they just play that frequency quieter so the listener doesn’t notice. Their strongest feature is in the ever important mid range section, and while some newer contenders do improve on these, I still enjoy them for what they are.

The M-Stage helps improve the SF3 in exactly the areas where they need help the most. They still never reach subterranean bass levels like some of my more expensive IEMs, but they definitely dig deeper with a good amp like this. If I didn’t know better I’d think I had accidentally grabbed their bigger sibling, the dual driver Super Fi 5 Pro. It is not just bass quantity that shows an improvement but texture and clarity as well. Nils Petter Molvaer’s eclectic album Khmer features some huge bass, of both the natural and the synthesized variety. Listening unamped basically deprives you of 75% of it; like a layer of wool blankets covering an actual bass drum. Something is there, but it isn’t pleasant. Plug the M-Stage into the audio chain and things start looking up. The wool layers are removed and the sound shines through as it should. High frequencies also gain some much needed energy as they are no longer drowned out by the mids. The overall result is quite pleasing. I’m not saying that these turn into reference level IEMs but it is not until you switch to a high end unit that you start to notice what you were missing, even after the improvement. Objectively the bass is still a little lean and there is room for improvement with regards to imaging and instrument separation.

Equation Audio RP-21
These were a huge flavor of the month some time ago. I tried them then, enjoyed them, then sold them and moved on. Of all the types of headphones in existence, the sealed back variety is probably my least favorite design in general. I own some very expensive models from Sony and Audio Technica that seem able to overcome the inherent limitations of the sealed design, but there aren’t a lot of modestly priced models out there that I enjoy. Recently a need for a sealed design presented itself, and the circumstances were such that I didn’t feel comfortable using one of my more expensive models for fear of damage. So I decided to pick up the RP-21s again and see if they were good enough.

These headphones are much better even than I remember them being. They are easily driven through a lower power source like a DAP or a soundcard, but with a proper amp (or even an integrated receiver) they scale fairly well. I actually think I might like these better than my Beyerdynamic DT990.

I find the M-Stage to help bring out the highs a bit which is a welcome improvement to one of the only weak points the Equations have. Highs do stay smooth and detailed without coming across as harsh, and the overall sound is more balanced. The bass remains excellent without bleeding into the lower midrange spectrum. Using the M-Stage, the dynamic contrast is on par with some of the best headphones I have. Listening to classical music is a joy on this setup. They do lack a bit of airiness but that’s the price paid for isolation.

For their small price, the M-Stage and the Equations deliver massive amounts of musical enjoyment. Pair them with any decent source and you have a budget setup to be reckoned with.

AKG K240DF
These are some of my old favorites from back in the day. I’ve owned several others from the K240 series but these have been my favorites. If you are not familiar, these are 600ohm headphones so you absolutely must have enough power to drive them. Plugging them into the average AVR or integrated will result in decent enough (fairly dull) sound. Switch to a high quality amp and they are transformed into a completely different headphone, and are better in every single way.

The M-Stage, with its easily adjustable gain, is just what the doctor ordered for these difficult AKGs. I spent most of my time listening with the 18dB setting engaged. The 10dB setting would actually work well enough 90% of the time, and the 20dB setting would only come in to play on a few very quiet recordings. I am glad that the options exist and that they are so easily switched.

I haven’t heard a lot of good reports on these AKGs and I’m not quite sure why. To me these are near reference quality. They have an excellent flat frequency response, a wide open yet precise soundstage, and amazing transient clarity. The bass is a tiny bit reserved but very tight and accurate, in the vain of the Etymotic ER4S. They really are highly underrated. I suspect the reason for this is that many amps are not up to the task of extracting their full potential, so perhaps people have not heard these perform at their best. As I mentioned before, the Creek and Eddie Current amps just didn’t measure up with these. The M-Stage is the only low priced amp I have that can do the job, the other candidates approaching or surpassing the $1,000 mark. I’m not saying there aren’t other budget amps capable of driving these but I have not had the pleasure of hearing one.

As with the Equations, the M-Stage/AKG combination performs astonishingly well at a reasonable price. I understand there is a newer release of these dubbed the MKII edition and assuming nothing has changed significantly I can highly recommend them. Just be aware that unlike the Equations, you will not be able to take them on the go without employing an amp. And even then it had better be a very good amp or you will not get the full experience.

LiveWires Trips
Some of you may have read my previous review on these. If not the link is in my signature and I encourage you to check it out. I was, and still am, of the opinion that the Trips are some of the finest custom in ear monitors available at any price. The best part is that the price is significantly lower than that of competing customs. Why more people don’t own these is beyond me but I’m certainly glad I do.

I mentioned in my Trips review that they performed so well straight out of my Sansa Fuze that not much was gained by adding an amp. I have to explain that statement a bit now and eat a bit of my hat. At the time I was using a borrowed iMod paired with a Ray Samuels SR-71 amp and indeed I did not find that combo to beat the Fuze. I am not all that familiar with the iMod sound so I also tried the SR-71 with the Fuze via the stock Griffin Power Dock, also with no improvement. This was enough to convince me that the Trips do not benefit much from amping. Since then I have discovered that the Griffin Power Dock, in stock form, is a significant bottleneck. I then modified mine bypassing things like the cheap capacitors and SMD resistors and adding some high end capacitors of my own. Through this setup I can tell that A) the stock Power Dock was holding me back, and B) I’m not the biggest fan of the RSA SR-71. I was wrong and I apologize for that. On the other hand, the Fuze still does an amazing job for what it is.

The Trips sound exactly like the Westone ES3X for anyone who has heard those. They are extremely clear and neutral but still full bodied and fun. If they have one area where they deviate from a ruler flat response, it would be the mid range section, which has just the slightest bit of extra energy. There is no smearing into the higher or lower registers so it maintains great clarity while adding a bit of fun to the sound. For me they are a perfect compromise between clinical and musical.

If the Trips have a weakness, it is that they are extremely revealing of the source. They do not help bad recordings sound better and they will only be as good as the other components in the audio chain. The area where this manifests itself most often is in the highs; they become somewhat harsh and sibilant at higher volume levels unless you use good amplification.

Using the M-Stage, the Trips perform exceedingly well. Those highs are completely free of sibilance but are still very extended and sparkly. The imaging is spot on; it’s hard to believe something deep inside your ear canal can create such a realistic representation of instrument placement. The best part is that the M-Stage does not add to the already powerful mids. I’ve found that the DarkVoice (and likely most other tube amps) add just a touch too much coloration there for my tastes. Bass with the M-Stage is authoritative, deep, and very clear. An example is on the track Tricotism from the excellent XRCD release of Ernie Watts’ album Unity. Roughly 20 seconds into the song there is an amazing section where Eddie Gomez on acoustic bass and Steve Swallow on electric bass both solo and play off each other for a while. While this section (and indeed the whole album) sounds good enough on the Equations, and excellent on the UE-Hybrids and HD800s, I think the Trips nail it better than any of them. They really carve out a space between each note and allow the listener to somehow completely focus on both instruments at the same time. The M-Stage matches with the Trips better than all the others save for the Luxman, which as usual is similar yet better.

Ultimate Ears UE-Hybrid
These are just fun sounding customs. The dynamic driver for the low end just plain does things differently than the balanced armature(s) that are usually employed in customs. Bass is amazingly full and almost overwhelming at times. It is not as fast or refined as the Trips or the HD800 but it mostly makes up for that with brute force. It’s like having a huge smiley face EQ built in to every song.

These are fairly demanding IEMs in that they sound reasonable but unremarkable when powered by a lesser amp or straight from a portable. Plug them in to something with some juice though and you are rewarded with earth shattering bass, adequate mids and fairly pleasing upper frequencies. The bass gains some control, especially on the top end near the crossover point, which goes a long way towards making these more suitable for all around use instead of just basshead music.

The M-Stage does a great job with these but I have to say the Solo is the star of this particular show. Even the Luxman has a hard time competing with the great sound that the Solo puts out. Think of the biggest, baddest speakers you have ever heard (and enjoyed) at very high volume levels. That is what the Solo/UE-Hybrid combination sounds like. The M-Stage though does a very good job at keeping the bass tight and not letting the rest get buried.

Sennheiser HD800
What can I say about these that has not already been said? Soundstage as big as any headphone I own, lush, vivid mids, and realism rivaled only by electrostatic setups.
I concede that they walk the fine between being exceptionally detailed and just plain being bright. Everyone’s ears are different and for me these get more use than all the other top dynamic cans I own.

The M-Stage is at its best with the HD800. Extremely natural, very detailed but still smooth and refined. The Solo, while making the bass a bit more full, does so at the expense of midbass clarity. The DarkVoice, while otherwise exceptional, seems to bring out a bit too much of that contentious top end sizzle. The Creek and the Eddie Current just don’t drive them hard enough; they sound decent enough but you might as well be listening to an HD600 because the detail just isn’t there. The M-Stage actually sounds just about identical with the Luxman; both are dynamic, tonally neutral, very fast, and exceedingly detailed. Both seem to have the top end under control (at least to my ears) to the point where they are not harsh but still retain all the sparkle and clarity that I appreciate. I struggle a bit to believe that a $250 amp could perform as well as one costing over 10 times that price. Despite my doubts, the only difference I can find was the previously mentioned background noise. I wouldn’t refer to it as a “blacker background” though; we are talking about deliberately cranking the volume all the way up in a deliberate search for hiss, something that would never present itself during normal use.

PRE-AMP

Since the unit has 2 inputs and an output, it might come in handy for someone wanting to build a high quality minimalist loudspeaker based setup. I gathered a few components I had laying around and assembled a decent system comprised of a Sony SCD-CD595 SACD player, a McIntosh MAC1700 hybrid integrated (just using the tube tuner for FM jazz stations), the M-Stage, a Teac A-L700P Tripath based amp, and a pair of Pinnacle BDC 1200 speakers. I don’t have another small pre-amp to swap in and compare, but from what I can tell the M-Stage is a highly competent pre. And why wouldn’t it be? Just like when used with headphones, the M-Stage seemed very detailed and transparent. I’ve heard the Pinnacles become bright when paired with a fairly cheap AVR, but in this setup they were perfect. I can’t say if that was because of the M-Stage or the excellent Tripath power. It was very convenient to be able to switch between SACD and FM. I wish I had time to swap more things in and out, but I wanted to at least try it out to see if there were any issues for some reason. I liked this setup so much that I kept it for about a week longer than my wife wanted me to…. It almost got me in trouble.


CONCLUSION

The Matrix M-Stage is a staggering value at $250 shipped. It looks, feels, and certainly sounds like a much higher priced unit. I cannot think of anything that competes at this price point. Of course I don’t claim to be familiar with all products in existence so there could very well be other options that sound as good, but I am not aware of them. One thing I am aware of is the fact that in recent years these audio companies from Asia are giving us more and more value for our money. I speculate that they pay less for labor and expect much smaller margins in order to get the prices so low. Whatever they are doing it is working.

At this level of audio quality, the headphone amp becomes less important than other items in the audio chain. Whether using the Graham Slee Solo, The Matrix M-Stage, or the DarkVoice 337SE, differences in CD players or external DACs become far more of an issue. I had previously thought that one had to approach $1000+ before achieving that level of transparency from a headphone amp (or else one had to build their own which is always an excellent value and a fun project). The Matrix M-Stage, for me, is a game changing product. Much like the way my LiveWires Trips perform on the level of competitors costing over $1k, and my custom Gamma2 DAC performs on the level of other DACs costing several thousand dollars, so too does the M-Stage elevate itself among its peers.

Technology marches on. My old Audio Alchemy DAC that cost a fair sum and was high end in its day is now routinely outperformed by numerous budget DACs costing a fraction of the price. I paid nearly $7,000 for a 42” Fujitsu plasma display back in 2002. One can now find a Panasonic 42” plasma which is far superior in every way for well under $1,000. And some of the best values in the audio world are now coming from relatively small companies such as Head Direct, Oppo, SoundMagic, DarkVoice, etc.

All I can say is that I highly recommend the Matrix M-Stage. The seller is excellent to deal with and the product is unbelievably good. I don’t just mean good for the price either; just good period. I would have been pleased with its performance at 3-4 times the price. For me, the fact that it is so cheap transforms it from a great option to a must buy. If you saw a Graham Slee Solo (any iteration) or a DarkVoice 337SE selling used for $250 shipped, you would likely jump at the chance to buy it. If they were selling new for that price, there would be a huge line of Head-Fiers trying to secure their spot to make a purchase. The Matrix Audio M-Stage is very much in the same league as those, and is easily available from an excellent seller. If you are just not into details, then the M-Stage is probably not for you. But even if you are a die hard tube lover, this might be the perfect way to explore the other side of the fence without a big monetary commitment.






TWIST ENDING?

I’ve deliberately steered clear of mentioning this until now, but I feel my review would be incomplete without it. The Matrix Audio M-Stage appears to be a clone of the Lehmann Black Cube Linear. Maybe clone is too strong of a word; perhaps I should say it appears to be highly inspired by the BCL. Look at my pictures above, and the pictures of the M-Stage on the Ebay store. Now go find the Lehmann Linear website and look at those pictures. They appear very similar.

I did not know about this fact until after the unit was already on its way to me. The seller eventually mentioned that it is “inspired by” the Linear, and has since updated the Ebay listing to mention that they sound the same. I honestly had never heard of the Lehmann Linear so I deliberately stayed away from reading about it so I could be more objective. I’m writing this last part after finishing my main review. I’ve now looked up reviews of the Linear and have found it described as sounding exactly like what I find the M-Stage to sound like. The major difference is that the M-Stage has only 1 headphone jack on front, but adds 2 inputs in the rear where the Linear has just 1. There are a few differences for the internal components too. The M-Stage uses Nichicon KG Gold Tune 4700uf 50v caps while the Linear uses Vishay 4700uf 40v caps. Other than that they both appear to use nearly identical componentry. This would explain why the M-Stage performs so well, especially with the HD800. I have read that Sennheiser used the Linear during development of the HD800, and there are plenty of pictures from events where the Linear and HD800 are paired together at a Sennheiser booth. The M-Stage seems to capture that same magic (or synergy if that term means anything to you). This confirms to me that the M-Stage is very well done.

There has been a supposed copy of the Lehman Linear in the past. It was called the Yulong HEF188. From what little I can find it did not sound at all like the genuine Linear and looking at internal pictures I can see why. It appears that they used much cheaper components and simplified or eliminated many areas of the design. In the case of the M-Stage it appears that everything is at least of equal if not higher quality than the original.

Whether or not this is an issue is totally up to you. For some, this may be the last bit of info needed to convince them to make a purchase. Who wouldn’t want to buy a product that sells new from $800 to $1200 (prices vary quite a bit for some reason) for just $250? For others it will be unsavory and they will not want to support that sort of thing. Indeed the ethics of the situation are a bit blurry and each person has to decide for themselves. The Lehman Linear is at least a 5 year old design (which again doesn’t mean it is inferior in any way), and the places I find selling it online seem to be either special order only or out of stock. I’m not sure if it is actively being made anymore, although I know the version featuring USB is still popular as is its newer little brother the Rhinelander. Clones, copies, re-badges, and products heavily inspired by others are common place in the audio world. The choice is up to you.

This is a simple amp. There is no crossfeed, no built in DAC or USB input, no separate level adjustments for each channel, and only a single headphone jack. The simplicity may well disqualify it for certain applications. But taken from a price to performance ratio standpoint, I think it is without equal.

I hope this has been a helpful review. I tried to be more brief than my LiveWires review but apparently once I start talking/typing it’s hard for me to stop! So I apologize about that. I also apologize again for my terrible pictures. I promise to purchase a new camera soon (likely a Nikon D-SLR) and really invest the time to learn to use it. I’ll try my best to stick around and answer any questions that people have. Thanks for reading this!
post #2 of 4903
Great review.
post #3 of 4903
Agreed, great review. You said you have a pair of DT990s? I'd be curious about your opinion of this amp paired with them, if you indeed do have them. I'm looking to get an amp for mine, and while I was planning on going the tube route, this looks pretty attractive too.
post #4 of 4903
Really like your review, thanks.
post #5 of 4903
Excellent review! One of the best I've read on Head-Fi. Thorough, thoughtful, fair, objective, coherent. I really like the way you provide enough details to support or explain observations. I especially like your writing style. Clear, careful, honest. I also like the wide range of gear that you bring into the mix.

Perhaps the toughest hurdle in any review is to get beyond the cost/prestige lens that automatically assigns value to equipment based on pricetag and reputation. I don't see any of that bias here. This objectivity, alone, makes this review remarkable.

Well done. And thanks.
post #6 of 4903
Excellent write up! Thanks for all the information.
post #7 of 4903

Hmmm...

Seems from the ruff finish its build like a Russian Tank.
post #8 of 4903
Great review in an easy to read style. Well done!
post #9 of 4903
I know there are those who look down on a clone but in this economy....Go! China! IF I didn't just buy a LD MK VII+, I would jump on this right away. I bought the Matrix Mini-i from Jeffrey Tan (coolfungadget) a while back and I can still say that it is best piece of audio gear I have.
post #10 of 4903
excellent...now I gotta consider this as a potential purchase...
post #11 of 4903
Thread Starter 
Thanks for the comments everyone, I appreciate it. Writing a review is hard work so it's nice to hear that my work is helpful and/or enjoyable.

As for the question about the Beyerdynamic DT990s: I do own a pair, and I have used them a bit with the M-Stage. It seemed to do a very good job although I didn't critically compare different amps. Note that my 990s are the 600ohm version, which is very different from the other 2 versions. But in my case, I find the M-Stage to give them excellent bass authority, smooth clear mids, and fairly extended but still relatively relaxed highs. Excellent dynamics. I guess you could say that they retain their characteristic sound signature, which is what I usually want an amp to do. You definately don't want an amp that smooths or recesses the treble energy with the 600ohm DT990s.

Hope that helps.
post #12 of 4903
Thank you for your response to my DT990 question, project86. That does indeed help me make a decision. I was going to buy the LDMKIII amp, but I think I'm actually going to order this tonight.
post #13 of 4903
I think clone is a fair call. Most of the clones have really skimped on parts whereas this one doesn't appear to have done that.

EDIT: LMAO, from an ebay listing - "Sounds just like the Lehmann Linear"...... Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm I wonder why..... xD
post #14 of 4903
Excellent review, that amp is pretty beautiful, too.
Now to wait and see if anyone has heard this thing with some k701's...
post #15 of 4903
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stein View Post
Excellent review, that amp is pretty beautiful, too.
Now to wait and see if anyone has heard this thing with some k701's...
Is it safe to assume that it's almost the same as the LBC + 701?
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