Hi again, I would like to Thank Cao, Matrix Audio and Kevin from Signature Systems for giving me the opportunity to review the Element i. But before anything I want to mention something that took me aback.
It’s easy to get caught up online and become detached, following Matrix Audio reaching out to me china began suffering with the coronavirus and so they unfortunately have been impacted. So I want to wish them all the best and hope they all stay safe.
Along with my written review, please find a video review. Hopefully this is useful to someone.
For those of you who want to see just the major points please find them below, for more detailed thoughts please continue on.
- Class Leading DAC, highly detailed but most discernible in the bass.
- Premium build and materials
- Venting, stays cool and consumes a max of 20W.
- Multiple Power Modes, Remote Control and Software Control.
- Low output impedance (0.6Ohms) and very low noise headphone amplifier. Sounds great at all volumes.
- Lossless streaming over the network and from attached usb storage devices.
- Range of Digital Inputs and Analog Outputs.
- Neutral frequency response, uncoloured sound from file to output.
- Output controls and filter adjustments.
- Wireless connection strength.
- Lower than competitors for headphone output power.
- App Crashes, No Qobuz support yet.
- Top lines of text can become hidden even at acute angles.
What's in the Box
So let's go over what's included in the box and how the product is presented when delivered to your door. A neat black cardboard box, printed with a pattern and some minor branding. Not splashed in marketing nonsense.
Moving on inside. We see the product is protected by some reasonably dense foam, that's cut to fit and gives everything a place. You will see we get a colour matching remote by coincendence as this is the same remote included with the silver Element M and Element X. Included is a USB cable and the external wall wart style switch mode power supply that's multi voltage and comes with changeable plugs. Not my favourite type here, prefer internal power supplies with standard IEC connections and usable servicable fuses. But these are pretty common place. The power supply is upgradable to a linear power if that interest you.
Build, Design and IO
Fit and finish of product is very good and it's clear it's a premium product. An aluminum build including the remote. The screen is glass and not plastic. Volume pot/dial is very smooth and notched, so you feel every increment. Does not slip like my Burson Playmate. There's venting across the sides of the device, allowing hot air to escape. The devices sports a stealth like appearance following industrial design trends, a silver accent line stripes across the top of the device and 4 isolating feet hold it up.
My only complaint with the build was at certain angles the very top line of text can become difficult to see due to the display being slightly recessed behind it's window.
The Inputs and outputs of the device are plentiful, with balanced XLRs and RCAs. A range of digital inputs including I²S and so you have the option to use an external interface for USB or optical that outputs an I²S connection through HDMI. There's 2 USB hosts slots for allowing you to connect up two storage devices, once you connect them the app starts indexing the files you have on those drives and makes them searchable along with cover art. This process was super quick and easy. In the video I show the app and setting this up, check the timestamps for it's location.
Sound and Comparisons
So far my experience of DACs and headphone amplifiers has always been combo devices, I started off with a Sabaj DA3 about 2 years ago. This always sounded a bit shrill and did not have the power to boot. In the beginning I had a lot of problems with the XMOS usb interface, this has been improved upon but still makes it way into products with them including the Element I. Though over USB element I has been the most seamless yet and does not crap out when changing between PCM and DSD audio.
I then went to a Matrix Audio HPA-2C which warmed up the sound signature and smoothed everything out, well it rolled of the high frequencies really. But on sensitive IEMs was rather noisy and did not pair well due to the high output impedance but still sounds great on my headphones and provides a more relaxed listening experience. I recently got to try and review the Burson Playmate which fixed my power complaints with the previous ESS dac the DA3, it provides a flat frequency response with the option to roll off those high frequencies through the menu's. Using this really depends on the headphones as well.
Now trying out the Element i, it's the definitely the best I've heard so far. There's a noticable increase in detail which I found most discernible in the bass. The noise floor is minimal and so should pair well with sensitive IEMs. The output power is reasonable but not class leading here but it's dac is.
I've really enjoyed using the Element i. The sound is superbly detailed and the feature set is great. When you look into it's nearest competitors you will see for the price point the Element i is offering more than most. I think the Mytek Brooklyn bridge is the nearest, which features the same DAC and similar capabilities but at 3 times the cost.
One thing I liked was not feeling tied to a computer when wanting to listen to music, I placed the device nearer to my bed than computer and so could adopt a more relaxed position but still listen in high fidelity. Though it was annoying when the app crashed, but for the most part it's reliable and being able to power it up or down through said app is convenient.
DLNA Streaming and Roon
I know some users will be interested in DLNA streaming or Roon integration. DLNA streaming provides a workaround to playback from services like Qobuz without using the App. On android I used BubbleUPnP, the process is very simple just download the app login to the supported services and you will see the device, since it acts a DLNA renderer. On apple you can also use Air Play. You could also setup a DLNA server on a dedicated computer and create a more besoke setup. So with these protocols supported it enables Element i to be able to operate as a Roon end.
Key Features and Specification
For those of you really only interested in the specification and key features, please see a list of the key features and specifcations of the device below.
9028 Pro DAC
- Balanced XLR Line outputs (4.0VRMS) fixed or variable for use with active monitors or headamp with independent volume control.
- SNR: >=127dB
- Class leading dacs, implementation and measurements. Only surpassed by more matrix audio models or very expensive/unavailable equipment.
- DSD512/PCM 768 over IIS
- Jitter Eliminator and DPLL.
- PCM and DSD signal filters
- DSD256 and PCM384 over usb.
- XU216 only found on element X, XU208 very prevalent in industry.
- Powerful dual core SoC handles day to day running of the amplifier.
- Enables lossless wifi streaming, roon endpoint and integration with a range of music services. MA app facilitates interaction and easy setup.
- Playback from USB storage, does indexing.
- Single Ended output only, however for headphones use the only benefit of balanced output is to deliver more power. Advantages of balanced cables are negligible for headphones due to cable length and load.
- SNR: >=111dB (Above Average below latest offerings from Geshelli, Schiit and THX.)
- 1.3W @ 32Ohms Above Average power output, below latest offerings.
- 0.6Ohm output impedance, class leading suitable for use with high sensitivity IEMs such as campfire audio.
- Built from discrete components.
- Multi Voltage External Switch Mode Power Supply outputting 12V
- Element M upgrades this and features an internal linear power supply.
- Included Aluminum Remote with all buttons mapped correctly. Mobile app as alternative control and ability to add music sources/services.
- Clear oled display, fits the whole window and is centered. Displays useful information such as source, connection, sample rate, levels and filters. Can't display track information.