My review will primarily contain information on how the XDA-1 sounds in comparison to the Matrix Mini-I that I’ve owned over the past year or so.
For those of you that love to read about DAC’s – here is a review of the Matrix Mini-I http://www.headphonista.com/matrix-mini-i/ in comparison to the Dac Magic and a few others.
Obviously all of my thoughts and impressions are purely subjective as I don’t have any way to measure objectively these 2 dacs.
PC > M2Tech Hiface BNC > BNC - Coax adapter (NO cable) > DAC > Monoprice XLR > Emotiva XPA-1 > Canare 4S11 > Wharfedale OpusII-3
Installing was a synch – simply plugged in my balanced cables and 1 coaxial / 1 optical. The coaxial is coming from my M2Tech Hiface USB > S/PDIF adapter with low jitter clocks. As I prefer this over USB out from my music server for reasons I won’t get into for this review. I do NOT use any Coax Cable at all, but a small 6” extension for USB and then a male to male adapter to go into the DAC, I’ve found that no cable improves resolution (no reflections etc)
Initial Impressions (non SQ related)
There are a few things outside of SQ I want to just praise about the XDA-1 in comparison to the matrix mini-i. First and foremost – the main reason why I decided to purchase the XDA-1 – the remote control! I don’t use a preamp so having a direct plug into the power amplifier requires any DAC I decide to purchase to have a built in preamp. So the matrix was great, what wasn’t so great was the need to have to get up from my listening chair any time I wanted to adjust volume. I know it’s so simple, but this small gesture really pushed me to get the XDA-1.
A few other small things worth noting is the XDA-1 will auto mute non PCM signals, unlike the matrix that would send a nice dolby sound of BRRRR into my speakers when my TV Set top box first powered on. This caused me to always turn off the amps then turn on the STB then turn the amps back on – annoying! So kudos to emotiva for some smart circuitry. The other thing was it mutes when changing inputs, another thing the matrix failed to do – so I would get a nice pop sound, once again, I had to place amps in standby change inputs then repower on amps. So clearly the XDA-1 wins in this regards.
Due to the power gain of the XPA-1 amplifiers the volume gain on the XDA-1 is horrendous. At the lowest setting of .5 it’s loud enough to enjoy as decent background music and still have a conversation, but by my standards, I’d like the option of going slightly lower in volume without it muting completely.
However, I’m sure this is an issue that emotiva will be hearing about in just about every XDA-1 review. If they ever decide to make an XDA-2, I would hope this issue would be resolved. I’d also like to suggest going with a passive output stage, something similar to the Neko Dac – I think the high gain of the amps would go great with a non active output stage, but that’s just my opinion.
Initial Impressions (SQ)
Now for the fun part of the review, sound quality impressions. To be completely frank, when I first started playing music out of the XDA-1, I was completely and utterly underwhelmed. It really seemed like a down grade in SQ. Bloated lows, smudged mid range, cold and muffled sounding. It really just sucked to be completely honest (IMO). However, being experienced with DACS I knew enough to know that every DAC I’ve ever had just needs time to go through a few power cycles and get some hours on them to settle down.
So, I decided to just turn the amps off and left the PC / TV on for a few days and let the XDA-1 just do it’s thing. I’m now at about 200 hours of burn-in and I decide to give it another go, mostly everything changed – for the better.
So I turn it up and play some favorite tracks I know inside and out.
The bass settled down a little but it was still much more prominent than the matrix. I would say this is the most noticeable difference between the two. If you like bass a lot, then this DAC is for you. I think headphone users will benefit from a DAC like this to get that extra punch that may be missing in some open headphones.
The strength of the matrix mini-I really lies in it’s musicality and warmth. It’s weakness is in the details, and the XDA-1 made that very clear. The details presented out of the XDA-1 were clearly more resolute and made it easier to hear those subtle nuances. The added resolution helped vocals to sound more life like and real – which is always a plus.
I would still say that the mid-range is slightly (and I mean slightly) congested compared to the matrix – but the extra burn-in time really cleared it up, so I am hoping another couple hundred hours will help. Usually about 500 hours is when DAC’s will take their final SQ.
Another area where I wasn’t expecting the XDA-1 to excel at was soundstage. But man did it deliver. It simply crushed the matrix in soundstage. Picking out locations of instruments on tracks that had the information was simply easier. The imaging was also better on the XDA-1 in width. I was very impressed with this area of the XDA-1.
In comparison to the matrix the XDA-1 is much more ‘cold’, however I really can’t say if it’s perfectly NEUTRAL either, but it’s def. not warm. The XDA-1 is more on the analytical side of the spectrum, but not overly so, like my old EMU0404 was.
The XDA-1 had so much more bass than the matrix, that I had to pull my speakers further away from the wall because it simply was too boomy. Doing this did help to take down the boom. I do suspect that my 10” woofer and XPA-1’s didn’t help. This made me wonder why they would match a DAC that’s this bass heavy with an amp that’s already considered to be a strong performer in the bass department.
The musicality of the matrix mini-I was its strong suite and the XDA-1 in comparison holds its own and is still plenty musical for me. It still involves a level of the emotion and makes it enjoyable to listen to over an extended period of time. Plus the added fun of hearing more details while retaining a good measure of the musicality makes this DAC a keeper for me.
So – good job emotiva, overall it’s a great value. There are some areas that need better attention to detail, such as the volume attenuation and maybe take the bass down a notch or two or three :) However, the areas that the XDA-1 excelled in they really knocked it out of the park. The soundstage / imaging / details, not to mention the non SQ related issues that plagued the matrix (Muting issues or lack therof) – it’s really a great balanced DAC overall.
Looking forward to the $500 XDA-2 :P (yes please bring it)
I will add more impressions, especially regarding the midrange (since I have 75mm mid range domes – it’s quite easy to detect) over time.
Edited by soulrider4ever - 12/16/10 at 8:07am