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Full Review of the MSB Link DAC II

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 
Introduction
I thought I should post a review for my latest toy, an MSB Link DAC II. It is fully burned in and is being fed by an Audiophile 2496 though an Acoustic Research coax cable (yeah big diff) and is feeding an MG Head DT to a Beyer DT831 thruogh a ratshack gold cable (which will soon die...). I bought it used for $175 with 2 years of use on it (so yes it better be fully burned in). Oh, and for those who don't know, this is a unit that converts digital signals into analog ones.

Construction
I knew this thing was big from reading the specs, but when I saw the UPS guy struggling, oh man... Lugged the thing in and opened it up. Huge black steel box sitting on the table weighing, according to MSB, 18 pds and 17" x 14" x 1.75". It has an optical input, coaxial input, analog outputs (obviosly), and an analog pass through of gold RCA jacks. It also has this "digital" power supply... it doesn't use a standard power cord but rather this proprieatary one, I'm not too sure about it. The unit has LEDs in the front to tell you what is happening. It also has holes (vents I suppose) at the top in the shape of "MSB"... which I don't think really needs to be there, and would be better if it wasn't (so I don't accidentally spill liquids in there).

I also had to make some room on my desk to accomodate it making it far away from my amp... good thing I have a 12' interconnect... Oh yeah and it is rack mountable too.

Even though this beast is rugged, I kinda sorta flayed the screw so now I can't open it easily ... I'll have to get the upgrades for this DAC eventually...

Here's a pic of the Link DAC II:


Sound
The first thing I noticed when I plugged the DAC into my system besides the slight increase in volume is oodles of detail!. These things make that music sound sooo detailed, much more dynamics and information being processed to my ears. For example, if I listen to a brass instrument (horn) on my Audiophile's DAC, I get the sound of the instrument, but with the Link DAC I can hear all of it, the edges, the crispness of the instrument's highs and lows... everything is well defined in acoustic space.

Voices too, are nicely detailed, the dynamics of voices are greatly increased. I suppose this means that transients are increased. I can make out words in songs that I could never tell before... voices are more luscious and warmer with more body. Breaths are more obvious and detailed, the DAC seems to improve such tonal characteristics. Voices are more realistic and they seem to originate right in front of you.. but...

However, and yes, not all good things are perfect... The sound of voices seem to be physically 'higher'... lets say for a certain voice I hear it on the plane of my nose which I feel is normal. With the DAC it sounds as if the voice has been lifted to the plane of my eyes - which seems like it is being brighter.

Which leads to the highs. Yes, the one most thing I am so careful of, the highs, especially with my DT831s.

The highs are detailed and extended, though not really harsh. They are smoothened so it isn't that bad with my DT831s, I can still listen the highs without my ears being pierced that much (that or I have adapted). Cymbals and any high frequency sounds seem more realistic and detailed, overall it is pretty good. To solve this brightness problem that really hasn't changed with the DAC, I have just ordered the parts so I can build a simple adapter for my DT831s, I'll post comments of it once I create it.

Going down the spectrum to the midrange, I find that it is a touch warmer in the mid to lower midrange. Going back to the voices, I feel that the voice while being slightly brighter, as I mentioned before, sounds mellower at the same time.

Going down to the low frequencies... Now, I thought my DT831s could produce some very low bass. Truth was, I had no idea that I was not even hearing low bass The bass is extended so I can hear those deeper notes more clearly. I don't find much improvement in the tightness or impact of the bass, just bass extension, depth, and (everyone shout out!) detail.

On the flip side, occasionaly in some pieces of music, the sounds can sound a little congesting so I have to turn the volume down. Another complaint is that certain voices, especially sss's, sound a little harsh. Again, it may be the brightness of my DT831s; I'll have to experiment once I create that adapter.

Conclusion
Overall, I really enjoy the sound of my MSB Link DAC II... for $175, wow I really did get my money's worth. It is far better than any other DAC I have in the house (pcdp, ap2496, onkyo 575x). I definetely would recommend it for those searching to improve their sound from a low-mid quality source *cough* Computer *cough*. I think (once I figure out how to open the dac) I'll eventaully get the 96khz upsampling upgrade... but for now, I need to get some cables. And a cdp... yes, and a REAL cdp (that is, once Vertigo_1 tells me how his dio and denon compare).
post #2 of 5
Thanks for the review, i may consider a separate DAC as a temporary band-aid for my junky JVC CDP.

Question: when you ultimately do prepare to buy the CDP will you be seeking to use it as a transport only and continue to use the MSB? The answer is probably an 'it depends' right? I was just curious.
post #3 of 5
Thread Starter 
Well, yes it does depend, on how good the DAC in the cdp is... I won't be using my MSB on something like a Cal Alpha but I would one something like a Denon DCM370... however I am still wondering how soundcards compare to cdps as transports.

More than likely, I'll probably not have a cdp for a long time, and once I can afford a really good one, I'll get a really good one... but by then I'll probably go SACD or something. If a soundcard isn't that much worse than a cdp for transports, then I'll probably get a better dac and a cheap transport.
post #4 of 5
Thanks chych. This review may just tip the scales between me getting this and the Creek obh-14 DAC.
post #5 of 5
I've had a LinkIII for a few years and it's one of the best values in all of audio that I've come across. I paid somewhere around $400, maybe slightly less, but it's worth every penny. I have used it in about four different settings and in every case it's made the music more enjoyable to listen to. There are plenty of adjectives I could throw out to describe, and I have at other forums, but it's not necessary and, frankly, the best way to sum up this box is by saying that it makes listening to music more enjoyable.

My main loudspeaker system consists of very high end, very accurate equipment, but it's just not as much fun to listen to as my LinkIII associated (headphone) setup. You might think that I'm one of those who just can't listen to accuracy because it's too hard to process so much stimuli, but that's not it. I love hearing 'everything' that's possible to hear from a CD, and the Krell stuff gives you that, but the LinkIII gives you the warmth without sacrificing the clarity and articulation. Typically you lose the definition when you bring in the warmth, but this box has found a way to give you both. Is the warmth true to the music or is it artificial? Well, almost certainly it's artificial, but I don't care - it's only a minor boost and it's FUN to listen to. I've used the $10,000 DACs and there's clearly a difference, but at $9600 less it's a STEAL. (Oops, I didn't want this to be lengthy).

OK, one last thing about the LinkIII. I'm relatively new to the high-end headphone game and I've only had my HD600s for about 1 week. If I hadn't heard such an amazing recommendation from a friend on another forum I wouldn't even have them at all. But in three days I've taken the stock 600s and added Clou Blues, a Creek OBH-11, Kimber Silver Streaks, and bounced this all around to different configurations throughout my house. Largely because of posts here I just did a bunch of homework and made the upgrades so I could be done with them and start listening to the music. IT IS ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC, AFTER ALL. What I noticed after a couple days is that I didn't enjoy listening to music. I bought all these things to make the listening experience better, but had actually managed to make it worse. During most of this testing I was using a Sony CA8ES as the source (a very nice sounding CD player). Then I remember having been through this entire thing when I upgraded my loudspeaker system. Back then I started the ball rolling and ended up replacing almost everything in my setup... except the Sony CA8ES. I was noticing then, too, that it just wasn't as much fun to listen to music as it once had been. Then I figured out that I was starting to use gear that was so good at revealing the true sound of a recording that it was amplifying the flaws in the lower-level gear that the sound was passing through. My older equipment wasn't clean enought to force other flaws into the spotlight. Since about the only thing left from the 'old system' was the Sony, and I knew it made for a good transport, I decided to look around for a DAC and thought the best candidate was the LinkIII. From day one it was some of the most fun I've had listening to my cd collection.

When I made the upgrade to all the new Krell stuff the Link was put in the basement. Then when this problem with the HD600s came up I thought to give it a try, and suddenly I enjoyed listening to all my favorites again.

I could easily have blamed something else for this, probably would'a blamed the Creek, but I figured out that it was the fact that the bar had been raised by all the other upgrades above where the Sony's analog outs could reach. It's just not good enough on it's own. Voila!

---

associated heaphone listening equip.

Macintosh G4 -or- Sony CA8ES cd player (G4 has Digidesign PCI card that gets wordclock reference from Apogee Rosetta) ----> MSB LinkIII (Link has both optical and coax digital inputs which lets me use either the G4 or the Sony cd player) ----> Kimber Silver Streak ----> Creek OBH-11 -----> Senn HD600/Clou Blue
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