Pros: Great options and features at this price point
Cons: Can be a little flat
Matrix Quattro Dac and Amp Impressions
If you just want to hear what I thought about the Matrix combo, jump down about five or six paragraphs! This first part may be a bit extraneous for many readers…
First off, major thanks to @project86 for his generosity in lending out some gear for us Head-Fi’ers to try, but more importantly because this sort of program produces honest feedback on products. We’ve got no “horses” in this race! This may be self-evident for an internet forum, but it allows readers to calibrate themselves to different writers. Everyone here has music preferences, levels of experience, and general biases. These are pretty easy to pick up from previous posts and preferences in gear. This allows me to better understand which reviewers I relate to and has really helped me pick gear that I have a better chance of liking.
I lean towards the more “euphonic”, choosing tubes/vinyl over “incredibly resolving” gear. I enjoy mixing up my selection of headphones- but when push comes to shove I will usually grab something full and potentially darker sounding…say the LCD-2. Musically, I’m all over the place. My youth was filled with listening to punk. Even a poorly-recorded, live “7Seconds” recording will get me rocking out and re-living a live show I was able to catch. Punk was the music that gave me a charge while growing up, but now I find my favorites are blues and alternative (think R.E.M., The Decembrists, Bloc Party). I told you I was all over the place! I have been exploring classical recordings, but I am very much a newcomer to understanding the genre and I never use it when evaluating gear (except for some brief sampling).
As for experience with DACs, I would put myself in the “somewhat-limited” camp. I have spent more time with my Stello DA100 than any other DAC, closely followed by the Cambridge DacMagic. I also have an AlgoRhythm Solo, a Pico DAC/Amp and a HeadRoom Micro DAC, all of which I have used extensively. I’ve been lucky enough to sample @CEE TEE’s Benchmark for several extended periods, so I am pretty familiar with it. Anything else, or high-end, I have only sampled in meet conditions. I’ll also say that I find hearing differences in DACs very subtle and I have to concentrate carefully to hear them.
I was able to resist reading the others impressions before writing my own in an attempt to stay unbiased. Well…the one exception was a little bit of @purrin’s “6Moons Google translator”- it was just too good not to read.
With the exception of portable equipment, I spent over a month listening almost exclusively to vinyl before I had the chance to listen to the Matrix. I am sure this had some influence on my “somewhat critical“ initial impressions…
@CEE TEE was kind enough to leave his Benchmark with me when he delivered the Matrix combo. It seemed the perfect DAC to make some comparisons to, if only because of the similarities in appearance.
I started by feeding the Matrix DAC and separate Amp (DAC/Amp connected with balanced XLR cables) by the optical output from my iMac and listening to some headphones from the single-ended output. I cued up some tracks to just get a good feeling for what I thought of the sound.
Out of the box, what stood out was that it was a bit “flat”. Music was a bit dull, lacking dynamics, and a little edgy. Switching to the DACs built-in amp didn’t do much, except to further recess some of the vocals and mids. Wait- maybe it was a bit more of the bass being a little overdone (or uncontrolled) that was pushing things into the background? While listening to some Van Morrison, I decided to try some balanced headphones from the amp. I did notice some better dynamics and the mids came back towards me, improving things. I then spent the rest of the night just sampling everything. Like many things, the Matrix grew on me. Though I noticed that there was separation between instruments, there was little else to the “soundstage”. It was as if everything was close mic’d and sent back through the board with little thought around how it was put together. I struggled to get any kind of “live room” feeling from recordings that normally give it to me (like Van’s Caravan). I also felt a little fatigued after the first long listen, but I was also convinced that this was good-sounding gear.
With more time, I acclimated to the “Matrix sound”. As the week progressed I felt the DACs built-in headphone amp gave up enough to the separate Amp that I spent much more time listening to the separate amp with the DAC. I would say the same for the balanced outputs. Everything just sounded “a little more fun and dynamic” from the balanced outputs. I really started to enjoy the set up, and as a complete balanced combination I was fairly pleased. While I don’t think I could see myself with the DAC alone, I could live quite happily with the combination of Matrix DAC/Amp. While not having the same power delivery as my vintage receiver, I found that the amp drove my LCD-2 and HE5-LE well. Either headphone with this combination would be a great set-up for your digital collection. With the wide range of inputs, you have great source options.
Next up: Combining the DAC when listening to an amp I was intimately familiar with. I paired it with my WA6SE. To my surprise, the Matrix was bass-biased. I was expecting it to be treble-tilted. In spite of this bass-bias, I still felt the Matrix sounded a bit “thin” and ended up more in the the DacMagic/Benchmark camp, the later two because they seem “cold”. The Stello DA100 comes across warmer, fuller, and more “musical” to my ears. Yes, I am splitting some hairs here... The Matrix sounded pretty darned good. Pairing it with the right tubes, this is a DAC I could live with. Switching between different DACs with the Woo proved that differences were subtle and difficult to pick up. The Matrix’ bass (at first) seemed stronger than the Stello DA100, but after some careful listening I felt the Matrix DAC was a still a bit overdone and lacked control. While the Benchmark often seems “treble-tilted” to me (even lacking in low-end), it never sounds like it loses control. For me the Benchmark does highly resolving well.
Speaking of control…the Matrix seemed like it was sometimes overwhelmed with really fast and complex music. It was not a glaring problem, but did become apparent with some tracks such as Fugazi’s Appreggiator.
The last session I had with the Matrix gear was a head-to-head with the Benchmark DAC1. We selected just a few tracks and went between the built-in amp of both DACs, then used the Matrix amp with both DACs. One particular track, “June Hymn” by the Decembrists, really made one thing stick out to me. The matrix seemed to separate Colin’s and Jenny’s vocals but just didn’t deliver the pitch changes from the singers, especially Jenny’s background track. While subtle, I continually felt that the subtle pitch control was lost with the Matrix. In a later test, I found that the Stello DA100 actually seemed to reduce the separation between singers, but presented all of the subtle pitch changes in the singers voices, which I prefer between attributes.
Both the Benchmark and Matrix DACs tended to provide a slightly “grating” presentation to the high-end of the Decemberist vocals, which I don’t get at all with the DA100/WA6SE combo. The Matrix definitely bested the Benchmark on low-end quantity, but always by giving up some control at the same time. (When I felt like I needed a little more low-end with the Benchmark, bassier headphones like the Denon D7000 always delivered).
I really feel like I’ve been a bit critical of the Quattro. This is some pretty sweet gear. It’s well-built with an amazing set of options at this price point. I enjoyed listening to it and I’d have no problem recommending it to someone who was interested in it. As a stand-alone DAC, I prefer the Benchmark, but by the slightest margin.
The separate Matrix amp is pretty good, made better when feeding my balanced headphones. Single-ended, I felt like it was OK, but the improvements in dynamics and fullness from the balanced outputs had me really enjoying this amp. I liked it enough to think about how good it might be as a small footprint, complete balanced set-up at the office…
I left out a lot of details about individual impressions with different headphones, tracks selected, etc... but if there are any questions I'm happy to answer what I can!
If you look at my profile, you'll see that I've got mainly mid-fi sources, so this was my first chance to have an extended listen to higher end gear. I did most of my critical listening with three headphones, modified Grado SR80s, Beyerdynamic DT880/250s, and Grado HF-2. I did try them with customs one evening, with unsatisfactory results I'll go into below. I listened to them as a combo, only, usb out with foobar2000.
I don't have a set list of tracks that I use to test gear. Generally I'll come up with a list of things that I'm currently listening to and try to make sure that a range of genres are represented. Partly I do this because I'm just lazy and don't have the patience to listen and relisten. (Not to mention that it's not my idea of fun). Partly I think it's a good idea to throw a range of different music at equipment, music I know well, music I just got, music that's well recorded, music that's crappily recorded. This provides a more reasonable test for a music lover, imo. It gives me a better idea of how equipment will affect the usual, rather than critical listening experience.
Detail and accuracy: On live recordings, the details that allow you to place the instruments in space are all there. On 21st century chamber music - yMusic's Beautiful Mechanical, the timbre of the instruments (strings, bassoon) is accurate. You can even hear the bow bounce on the strings. And bass-heavy tracks also do fine. I've been listening to The Roots, Undun lately and even with the slightly bass-shy Beyers, there's sufficient thump for me, with all the details intact.
One surprising thing for me is how forgiving this set up is for poor recordings. I've got a 112 bit copy of Pearl Jam's "Better Man" that I must have torrented at least ten years ago when I still did that sort of thing. It's completely listenable. But this pairing really shines with well-recorded acoustic music. I'd start a session with the intention of doing some critical listening and just get lost in the music because it sounded so good.
Weird treble sizzle/snap on some recordings and with some headphones. I heard this the most with the Beyers and the SR80s. It's hard to explain, but on some hand claps, guitar riffs, there's this added edge that I hesitate to call sibilance because it's less of a hiss than an extended snap.
It's not completely silent. To be truthful, it's about dead silent with full sized headphones. But I heard an audible hum when I plugged my UM customs in. To be honest, I don't think customs are made for desktop setups, so this probably wouldn't be an issue for most people. The hum's not noticeable once the music is turned up to a comfortable level.
One unexpected discovery, this set up really brings out the difference in the different phones. It's not like I hadn't noticed it before (why have different phones if you don't, right?) But their different strengths and weaknesses, really stand out with the Quattro.
I found this DAC kind of meh. $699 (currently on $669 special) is sort of no-mans land is terms of DACs. It's admirable that Matrix put out something at this price point - especially balanced outputs. In terms of my expectations at $699, I wouldn't expect the utmost resolution, but I would at least want something that doesn't do anything terribly wrong.
The impressions below are from the balanced outputs (I think it's fair that this review focus on that, after all, this is a balanced out DAC.) The amp used was an Eddie Current Balancing Act with 7N7 NU tall bottle driver and EML solid-plate 300Bs. Headphones were HD800. Interface was USB from PC with J River.
Tonally, this DAC is fairly neutral and doesn't have anything wonky in the FR. That is good. However this DAC makes too many mistakes (and the extent of these mistakes are signficant, not minor.):
1. Lacks macro-dynamics. Very serious problem. Can't capture the roar of large symphonic works. (major)
2. Flat sounding - not able to pull of those little instantaneous dynamic contrasts which bring immediacy to reproduced sounds. (moderate)
3. Muddy bass. (major)
4. Slow sounding with poor transient speed or late transients. (moderate)
5. Lacks air. (minor)
6. Treble harshness / glare (minor)
7. Lacks deepest bass (can be overlooked at price)
You are better off with an AMB Gamma 2 (used or built by MisterX) or Schitt Bifrost. If you want to spend $50 more, get the upcoming Schitt balanced DAC (if you need balanced). These three DACs I just mentioned aren't perfect either, but they don't do so many things so wrong to such a large extent.
I really like Tam at tamaudio (I loved the Matrix M-stage amp), but I just can't recommend this to any of my friends if they were looking for a ~$700 DAC.
Two Stars = Needs Improvement (I never give A grades / five stars to equipment.)
Two and Half Stars for the SE output (which does sound better than the balanced outs.)