Matrix Audio first made waves with the Mini-I DAC, which became well respected for its great sound, extensive feature set, and reasonable price. My first experience with the brand was with their next product, the M-Stage headphone amp, which ended up being a very well done clone of the high end Lehmann Black Cube Linear amp. The M-Stage has become quite popular and remains one of my favorite amps at any price. In what has become a massive thread about the M-Stage, many people began asking if a matching DAC was going to be released. We were told that it was in fact being worked on but had a ways to go before coming to market. As details about the new DAC emerged, we learned that it was to be called the Matrix Cube, and it wasn’t exactly what people had been expecting. I decided to pull the trigger on the Cube anyways and see for myself if Matrix Audio could go 3 for 3.
Part of the initial “disappointment” over the Cube seemed to stem from people’s expectations. I think people wanted something that had the same rather unique form factor as the M-Stage, and could therefore be stacked together as a matched pair. I think people also expected a standalone DAC which would pair with the M-Stage to maximize performance for the price. What the Cube ended up being was a compact unit, slightly smaller than the Mini-I, with a built in headphone amp section. At $299, it is priced very similarly to the Mini-I, which I think also confused people because it isn’t clear if it is an upgrade, downgrade, or sidegrade from the Mini-I. I personally don’t care one bit if the components match at all, I don’t mind a built in amp if it is of decent quality, and I’m evaluating the Cube purely on its own merits.
The Cube does seem similar to the Mini-I at first glance. But when you start examining the details, the Cube is actually a very different product. It does away with the balanced outputs and digital display of the Mini-I, and in exchange ads asynchronous sample rate conversion. It has a different DAC chip, a different USB receiver, and different input options. Aside from both being from the same company, these two really aren’t any more similar than any random pair of small form factor DACs on the market would be.
I got my Cube from Jeffrey Tam aka Coolfungadget, who has earned himself a well-deserved reputation for excellent service and support. As usual he shipped fast and packed the item well. I notice that several other sellers also have the Cube, generally priced around the same $300 mark. You might save a few dollars by purchasing from someone else, but you would be taking a bit of a chance, whereas buying from Jeffrey gets you guaranteed top notch service; I just can’t recommend him enough.
The Matrix Cube is pretty versatile for such a small device. It features a suite of inputs including toslink, BNC (which doubles as coaxial by using the included adaptor), USB, and analog. The analog input allows you to use the Cube like a regular headphone amp, and came in very helpful to have during my evaluation; I used it a lot to switch back and forth between an external DAC and the built in DAC section of the Cube for easy comparison. I also found it handy when playing DVD-A and SACD titles, since most players won’t output a digital signal due to copy protection. I used the player as transport and the Cube as a DAC for regular CDs, and then used the player’s stereo analog outputs and the Cube as just an amp for the high resolution discs. There is also a coaxial digital output for easy pass through of signals; if the ASRC function is switched off, the signal will pass through untouched, which is useful for sending surround sound signals out to a surround receiver. Note that the Cube does not act as a pre-amplifier; the analog outputs operate at a fixed volume level and are not adjustable, so it would need to be paired with a traditional pre-amp or headphone amp unless you are using the onboard amp feature.
The front panel features simple switched controls to select the input source; either optical, BNC/coaxial, or USB. Next to that, a switch allows the user to enable or disable the upsampling feature. Lastly we find a switch labeled “Amplifier” which allows access to the external analog inputs for monitoring. Aside from those 3 switches, the large volume knob is the only other control on the front panel, since the power switch is found on the rear. The only other things of note on the front panel are LED lights indicating power, signal lock, and ASRC activation, and the ¼” headphone jack.
In this picture, it appears there are rought edges. That is caused by the flash, and the real thing looks and feels fine.
Inside the Cube we find a neat and fairly simple layout. There is a relatively large shielded torroidal power supply similar to that seen in the Mini-I. A C-Media CM108 chip is used as a USB receiver which then sends the signal in I2S form to a Texas Instruments SRC4382 asynchronous sample rate converter. The SRC4382 is a versatile chip, as it also doubles as a high quality digital audio receiver in addition to its ASRC duties. A precision TCXO system clock helps keep jitter in check as the signal goes out to the excellent Wolfson WM8740 DAC. Due to a limitation of the CM108 receiver, the USB input only accepts up to 16 bit/48kHz audio. The other inputs can accept up to 24 bit/192kHz. When the ASRC function is engaged via the front panel switch, incoming signals are upconverted. Word lengths are always padded to 24 bit and sample rate is increased depending on incoming frequency: 44.1kHz and 88.2kHz signals get increased to 176.4kHz, while 48kHz and 96kHz get increased to 192kHz. When upsampling is deactivated, the signal gets processed at its native rate. I did connect the coaxial output to my Yulong D100 and was able to confirm via the Yulong’s display that this sample rate conversion is taking place just as advertised.
Other internal components include the seemingly ubiquitous Burr Brown OPA2134 op-amp used for the I/V stage and LPF, a National Semiconductor LM833 op-amp for the headphone output, as well as some fairly beefy Nichicon FMW series capacitors. All capacitors in the unit are from Nichicon, Wima, or Jamicon. The point here is that the Cube keeps up the Matrix tradition of using a thoughtful layout with short signal paths and reasonable quality components. They might not be absolute high end boutique type parts, but they are good and are implemented well enough to be very effective.
Here is the "sparkle" finish I was referring to
SRC4382 and CM108
Wima, Nichicon, and the lone Jamicon (in blue)
The appearance of the Cube is an interesting juxtaposition between elegance and ruggedness. The silver of the case is very eye catching; it initially looks like a dull matte finish, but when it catches the light in a certain way it has a bit of a sparkle to it. I tried to capture this in my pictures but it looks better in real life. The top of the case has the word “MATRIX” deeply carved into it and looks very classy. I’ve not seen a Mini-I in person to see how that case looks, but judging from pictures it is somewhat similar, with the Cube having more of the sparkly texture and less visible screws.
You’d never tell from looking at pictures, but the front faceplate seems to be made of glass, with cutouts for the switches to protrude through. It’s a very simple but classy look that belies the budget price of the Cube.
Fit and finish are impeccable on my unit. Panel gaps are evenly spaced and fairly tight, switches and volume knob have a nice feel to them, and the whole thing seems very solid. Taking it apart and putting it back together revealed that all screw holes lined up
perfectly, unlike the Maverick Audio TubeMagic A1 that I recently reviewed. I’m certainly willing to sacrifice a few little issues for sound quality (as in the case with the Maverick A1 which I love), but of course it is even better when a budget product shows no sign whatsoever of its low price.
Hard to tell, but this is the glass insert that makes up the front panel
My Cube shipped in a well packaged box and arrived in excellent condition. I also ordered a headphone stand from Tam’s Audio, so I got a larger external box than I would have if I only ordered the Cube. Still, after 2 very successfully shipped packages from this seller, I have full confidence that he doesn’t cut corners here.
The Matrix Cube package seems somewhat more commercial than many of the recent budget purchases I’ve made. The box has Matrix logos printed on it, and there is an actual manual inside which is written well enough to be useful. Also included in the box are a power cable (appropriate for the country where the buyer resides of course), a BNC to coaxial adapter, and a CD containing drivers for the C-Media chipset. The unit itself is plug and play on basically any operating system, but the driver adds features beyond the basic functionality, such as something called “Xear” virtual 3D processing and a 10-band EQ.
I reviewed the Matrix Cube using most of my usual gear: Sources were a Rotel RDV-1092 player, a QLS QA350 solid state transport, or a Dell Mini music server running Foobar2000 in WASAPI mode. Headphone amps used include Matrix’s own M-Stage, a Maverick Audio TubeMagic A1, a Creek OBH-21, a Darkvoice 337SE, and a Musical Fidelity V-CAN. Headphones used were Sennheiser HD600, AKG K702, LiveWires Trips, Grado RS-1, Kenwood KH-K1000, Monster Turbine Copper Edition, and JVC RX700. Comparisons were done with other DACs including the Audinst HUD-mx1, Yulong D100, Musical Fidelity V-DAC, and Musical Fidelity M1.
I used a very wide variety of musical selections, ranging from metal to folk, classical to hip hop, and everything in between. The majority of it was standard 16/44.1 CD quality, either from the disc itself or in FLAC or WAV format. I did however listen to some of my favorite high resolution tracks, including some from HD Tracks, Chesky, Linn, and 2L Records. These are mostly 24/96 tracks, so the USB input on the Cube could not accept them without a downconversion. There are 2 ways around this limitation: first was to insert the Audinst HUD-mx1 in the chain to convert USB to toslink, which the Cube will happily accept in high resolution. The other option is to burn the tracks to DVD as a D.A.D. disc, which also preserves the high resolution and sent via toslink or coaxial output from the transport. Both methods sounded equally excellent, but it would of course be more convenient if the Cube did not have such a limitation via the USB input.
I burned in the Cube for several hundred hours before trying it out. I didn’t intend to do it that long, but I got ill and was out for almost a week with no time to listen. All cables are my usual Impact Acoustics, Blue Jeans, and Ethereal; just basic no nonsense quality cables.
I started out listening to the Cube as a DAC only, and I immediately liked what I heard. It had a very quiet background, with a near total absence of any hiss or digital noise. It conveyed a sense of realism that I’ve come to associate with better DACs, usually those costing more than the Cube. Frequency response was very good at both ends of the spectrum, and there was a nice smoothness to it without seeming too boring or analytical. This balance between being musical and dynamic without being overly colored was very pleasing to hear, especially at this price point.
Often times when a company makes a budget DAC they try to voice it to sound as transparent as possible, but it ends up sounding thin or boring. As listeners we tend to perceive this as a lack of deep bass impact, or poor “PRaT”. I know that a neutral, transparent sound can actually sound excellent, as heard on the Yulong D100, Benchmark DAC1, etc. But there are also many examples were it comes off as too dry and uninvolving. This problem is not exclusive to low price DACs either; I find the Neko Audio D100 to be guilty of this as well, and it is not a budget DAC at all. In any case, it seems to be an easy mistake to make, and one that I’m glad the Cube has avoided.
On the flip side, I am not interested in boosting any part of the sound too much. Sometimes excessive coloration can be a good option when working on a limited budget, in an attempt to cover up a shortcoming. And if we are talking about headphones, coloration can be loads of fun; consider the Denon D7000, Headphile Terminator, Sennheiser IE8, Audio Technica L3000, etc. All are considered “fun” headphones and all have a fairly heavy boost, mainly centered at the low end. This is great to have in a headphone if it is to your preference, but certainly not something you want to overdo on a source component. The Cube does not make this mistake either.
The overall spectrum is nicely balanced. Bass is deep and impactful, and does not bleed over into the mids but retains a nice sense of control. I did notice that there was slightly less energy at the very lowest extremes as compared to a higher end DAC like the Yulong D100 or Wavelength Cosine. This was only really noticeable when directly comparing to a DAC of a higher class; on its own the Cube has great bass.
Mids are what I would call smooth and creamy. They do show a good amount of detail, but that doesn’t seem to be the priority. Instead, the Cube seems to focus on a more involving sound that is very non-fatiguing. So while the mids might not initially jump out and announce their superiority, I found them to be very enjoyable, especially during long listening sessions. This aspect is key for me as I definitely prefer to sit and listen for a while. Some gear that initially stands out as being excellent during a short demo can turn very grating in the long term. For this reason, I feel that you really need to put some time in with a product before making any kind of meaningful judgment on it. It can be fun to go to a meet or an audio shop to demo something for 15 minutes, and that can be a good indicator as to whether or not you might be interested in a more long term trial. But by it self that is just not enough time to make any definitive conclusion.
Highs on the Cube seem to extend well and there is a nice airy feel to them. Cymbals have a realistic shimmer but don’t overdo it. This is another area where the Cube strikes a great balance between detail and smoothness, and the result is very pleasing. Once again if we compare to reference class components, there is that last bit of extension and musical realism missing, but that is to be expected at this price. The Cube gets you most of the way there and doesn’t commit any serious offenses along the way.
The soundstage of the Cube is one of my favorite aspects. It has a very spacious feel to it, with a defined width and depth that is practically three dimensional. For me this is probably the single biggest standout feature of the entire product. I’ve heard a few people mention that sound stage was not the greatest strength of the Matrix Mini-I, so perhaps this was a deliberate focus on the part of the Cube’s designers. I suspect it might be a result of the ASRC function, because when I disable that option the sound shifts to a more intimate presentation. Whatever is causing it, I’m certainly enjoying it, and I have to say I’ve not heard a soundstage this expansive and accurate ever produced by a DAC of this price.
One concern I had was with the USB implementation. I had been hoping that it would accept 24/96 signals and not be an inferior option like the usual TI PCM270x based USB sections that a lot of products seem to add as an afterthought. I was a bit disappointed when I saw that it had the C-Media CM108 chip. I don’t know how the CM108 stacks up against the PCM270x, but my only prior experience with it was in the Cambridge DacMagic where I felt the USB option was noticeably inferior to the SPDIF options. I’m happy to say that the USB input here sounds indistinguishable from the other inputs. I’ve heard reliable sources who felt the same thing about the Valab products that use the CM108 chip. In both cases the CM108 simply decodes the USB info and sends it out in I2S form, and I’m not sure what the DacMagic does differently that causes the degradation. Perhaps there is some sort of I2S to SPDIF conversion in the chain that causes the trouble, but that would be pure speculation on my part. I’ve also heard that the CM108 has fairly high jitter compared to some other chips. If this is true, perhaps it is the ASRC process in the Cube that is taking care of that problem, enabling the USB input to sound identical to the toslink and coaxial. I don’t know and frankly I’m just glad it works so well. I do still wish for 24/96 capability though.
So far I’ve been discussing the sound of the Cube operating purely as a DAC. The headphone amp, like the DAC section, is not reference quality but is still quite good. It has a similarly even balance between detail and musicality, perhaps leaning more towards the fun side of the spectrum. The presentation is rich, with a virtually silent background, good dynamics, and an overall smooth sound that pairs well with almost any headphone you use. I found it especially good with IEMs, where it seemed to perform at an even higher level than with bigger cans.
The only headphone that I found didn’t mate as well with the Cube was the Beyerdynamic DT-880/250. I felt it brought out (or perhaps failed to tame is a better wording) the high end in a way that I didn’t really care for. It wasn’t exactly sibilance but seemed halfway there. Granted I wouldn’t be the first person to complain of the 880 having fairly sharp highs, and I prefer to pair them with an ultra smooth tube amp, but even other solid state amps like the Matrix M-Stage do not exhibit this sharpness. This was odd because other potentially bright cans like the AKG K702 and Grado RS-1 did not bother me in this way at all, but instead had a very rich and smooth top end that I really enjoyed.
Other than that I felt that the built in amp performed very admirably with all the cans I tried. It had plenty of power to drive the 300ohm Sennheiser HD600, and sounded equally dynamic with a 32ohm Grado RS-1. I felt it performed better than the built in amp of the Audinst HUD-mx1 except when driving 600ohm headphones (which the Cube isn’t rated for and the mx1 is), and it was noticeably superior to the Creek OBH-21. I even found the Cube amp to be better than the Musical Fidelity V-CAN if the V-CAN was used with the stock wall wart. When the V-PSU power supply was added, the V-CAN was virtually indistinguishable from the Cube amp with most headphones.
One area where the Cube amp did slightly pull away from the V-CAN/V-PSU combo was when using IEMs. The Musical Fidelity offering couldn’t quite match the completely black background offered by the Cube, nor did it allow access to some of the musical layering that the Cube brought out. The V-CAN was a touch too forceful and aggressive for my taste, while the Cube had enough subtlety. In addition, the Cube offered a much better experience with regards to volume control; the knob is significantly larger while at the same time far less sensitive to tiny changes, resulting in more precision. With the V-CAN I often struggled between too quiet and too loud, which seemed only a centimeter apart when using a sensitive IEM like the LiveWires Trips.
Being a part of a budget DAC/amp combo, the amp of course has its limits. It doesn’t compete with Matrix’s own M-Stage stand alone amp, nor does it keep up with the integrated amp in the Yulong D100. But at this price level I am very pleased with its performance.
The Cube seemed to work well with whatever headphone amp I paired it with, and it was detailed enough that it allowed me to pick out the differences between the budget amps and the higher end amps. With that being said, I compared it directly to several other DACs to see how it held up.
The Audinst is one of my favorite budget USB DACs. It has a very even handed transparent presentation. The Cube is slightly more energetic, specifically in the bass region, but it has similar levels of detail. Because of this, the Audinst can occasionally come across as being more forward, and the Cube sounds warmer and more laid back. The Cube also improves on what is already a large soundstage from the Audinst. The differences are not night and day but they do exist.
When using the built in headphone amps the difference is more obvious. The Audinst wins by default with 600ohm headphones like the AKG K240DF, since the Cube is only rated to 300ohms. Other than that the Audinst, while good in its own right, can’t compete with the amp of the Cube. The Cube has better control, more realistic transients, and a certain richness that the Audinst amp can’t match. This might be related to the more robust power supply in the Cube, and I’ve heard of people getting better performance from the Audinst by using an aftermarket power supply instead of just USB power, but I haven’t tried that myself. Overall I still feel like the Audinst is a very viable option for someone on a budget who knows they won’t be using any of the extra features that the Cube offers. On the other hand, the $120 difference between the 2 products does buy you a lot of features and a sound quality increase as well.
First off I have to say that I don’t actually own a DacMagic, nor have I ever had one in my own system. But I have a friend who loves his and I’ve spent a good amount of time with it, so I feel like I’m familiar enough with it to compare.
The DacMagic, like the Benchmark DAC1, has become somewhat of the standard of the DAC world, against which others can be judged. Many discussions of DACs priced over $200 or so seem to include the inevitable comparison to the Cambridge unit, and often time we hear of how the other DAC “blows the DacMagic away” or something similar. While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I personally have heard some things that I just don’t agree with. Claims of the entry level Valab DAC, the Beresford TC-7520, the Maverick Audio D1, etc all “blowing away” the DacMagic don’t line up with what I’ve heard. All of those units have their benefits, and I can see how someone would prefer one over the other, but none of them stood out to me as being easily better than the DacMagic.
I won’t claim the Matrix Cube blows away the Cambridge DacMagic either. What I will say is that I prefer the Cube for a number of reasons. First, the Cube manages to match or exceed what I consider to be the strengths of the DacMagic, which are detail, soundstage, and airy highs. Second, the USB input on the Cube does not sound any worse than the other inputs, which is not the case on the DacMagic in my experience. Third and perhaps most important is the value factor, which is obvious when we consider the built in headphone amp and significantly lower price of the Cube. I wouldn’t fault someone for preferring the sound of the DacMagic, but in my case the Cube is a clear winner.
Musical Fidelity V-DAC with V-PSU
The V-DAC is another one of those that many feel “blows away” the DacMagic. I see them as similar in quality but with a very different focus. The V-DAC has a much more musical presentation. It is smoother and has more of a focus on the mids as opposed to the highs. The Cube seems to split the difference, taking the best traits of the V-DAC and combining them with the best traits of the DacMagic. There isn’t really any area where I feel the V-DAC excels over the Cube, so I judge the Matrix product to be superior. Also note that I am referring to the V-DAC with upgraded V-PSU which I feel is necessary to extract the full performance of the unit. This subsequently detracts from the low price appeal as the combined price is $550, which brings up a host of higher end competition compared to the original $299 price of just the DAC alone. In fairness, there are other lower priced power supply upgrades available if you are willing to look around a bit, and I’ve even heard that some of them outperform the V-PSU at a fraction of the cost. Still, unless someone really prefers the slightly darker sound of the V-DAC, I can’t think of a good reason why the Cube shouldn’t be considered the better buy.
Musical Fidelity M1
I’ll come right out and admit that this DAC was a big disappointment to me. I didn’t find much info about it as it was just recently released, so I picked up a demo unit from my local dealer to try it out. I initially thought it sounded just acceptable for the price, until I heard the V-DAC/V-PSU combo which essentially sounds the same for $150 less. I didn’t crack the case open so I can’t confirm this, but it sounds to me like Musical Fidelity just took the guts of the V-DAC, integrated the better power supply, added a balanced option, and threw it in a nice case for a higher price. I guess it makes sense on a certain level since the V-DAC/V-PSU combo does sound good but the barebones appearance was likely off-putting to a certain demographic. Still, I expected a bit more of an upgrade to the sound, and it feels like Musical Fidelity took the easy way out on this one.
All of my observations from above comparing the Cube to the V-DAC still stand when comparing the Cube to the M1. Unless someone had a bunch of matching Musical Fidelity M-series gear and they were very concerned about aesthetics, I don’t see why anyone would choose the M1 over the Cube or for that matter over Musical Fidelity’s own V series components. I liked the older X series products, and I respect the V series for what it is, but I can’t say that I’m in love with the new M series so far, and the M1 does nothing to change that.
Going into this review, I had assumed the Matrix Cube would sound similar to the Cambridge Audio DacMagic. They both use a form of sample rate conversion, both use the same Wolfson WM8740 DAC chip, and both rely on the same C-Media CM108 USB receiver. Once again I am reminded that good audio gear is not merely the sum of its parts, but that the design and implementation makes a huge difference. I’ve been reminded of this time and time again, and I’ll have to try my best not to make assumptions in the future.
To my ears, the Cube combines the best aspects of the Cambridge Audio DacMagic and the Musical Fidelity V-DAC/V-PSU combo. It is detailed, has good frequency extension on both ends, and has very smooth non-fatiguing mids that I can enjoy all day. In addition, the headphone amp section is surprisingly good, and I appreciate the thoughtful inclusion of analog inputs. It looks nice, is well built, and the price is more than competitive.
So is this little Matrix Cube a “giant killer”? I’d say yes and no….. To me, a great example of a “giant killer” is the Matrix M-Stage amp. In my humble opinion it simply outclasses all kinds of competition, even those costing significantly more. I have yet to encounter another solid state amp anywhere near the same price that can compete with it. Using this definition, the Cube is not quite on the same level. On the other hand the Cube, at a mere $299, compares favorably with several competitors costing up to twice as much, and that’s not even counting the fact that the Cube has a nice amp section as well. So perhaps we should leave the giants out of it and just say the Cube performs well above what one would expect from its modest price.
As for weakness, there are few. My chief complaint is a common one, involving the limitation of the USB input to 16-bit/48kHz audio. I realize that high res music is somewhat rare in the grand scheme of things, but I happen to have a decent collection of it. Since SACD and DVD-A is generally copy protected; the most common type of high res audio that would be sent to a DAC would be in the form of a digital download on a computer. The most common connection to that computer is USB. Frustratingly, that is usually the one connection that won’t accept high res signals. Aside from that limitation, the Cube gives me very little to complain about. As an item built to hit a certain price point, of course it doesn’t offer top quality performance in absolute terms. There is room for improvement in every area, and it certainly is possible to get more by spending more. But I’ve yet to hear anything that offers this much for $299.
I wish I had a Matrix Mini-I on hand to figure out how it compares to the Cube. I don’t know if Matrix plans on discontinuing that model or if they consider them different enough to continue offering both at a similar price point. All I can say is that based on what I’ve read, the Cube may be a slightly better sounding choice if the user doesn’t need the balanced option or the pr-amp function. I really can’t see anyone being disappointed in the Cube, and I’m intrigued to see what Matrix offers next. So far it appears they are 3 for 3.