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Massdrop x Grace Design SDAC - a budget beast

Discussion in 'Dedicated Source Components' started by project86, Sep 1, 2017.
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  1. project86 Contributor

    In "traditional" high-end circles, it's not uncommon for amps, preamps, or other components in the $1k-2k range to be considered "budget" gear. I suppose it's a matter of perspective - if your total system cost is 6 figures, anything under $5,000 is relatively small potatoes.

    In the headphone world, things are not quite as extreme.... yet. We still have good examples of reasonably high performance gear in the low hundreds-of-dollars range. It doesn't take thousands to get a pretty solid component - with careful shopping, $300-500 can get you a very satisfying headphone, IEM, or headphone amplifier. DACs are a little more tricky but it can still be done.

    What if your budget is even less? Is there a point at which it really isn't worth bothering, where the best advice is simply "save more money"? This is a tough question and there's no universal answer.

    I'm always glad to see really high value components come to market, which help raise the standards of entry-level gear. Or, in other cases, they lower that barrier for cost of entry. Either way, the more of this stuff on the market, the better. There is plenty of budget gear available on eBay for really low prices but a lot of it is junk.... with the very occasional exception. Those types of "here today, gone tomorrow" designs are hard to keep track of as well, and rarely have any support if you have an issue. I prefer dealing with real companies who know what they are doing and stand behind their product.


    To that end - Massdrop has a new DAC about to launch which is worth getting excited for. At a mere $79.99, it might be tempting to dismiss this thing as yet another import of questionable providence. That is, until you get the rest of the scoop. The device in question is the Grace Design SDAC. The S is for "Standard", as in, "setting a new one".

    Yes, you read that right. A DAC from Grace Design for a penny less than $80.

    In one of the promo pages they sent over, Massdrop mentioned how Grace Design products appear in home studios as well as places like the scoring stage at Skywalker Sound. I attended a recording session at that very location recently and I happened to snap a pic of a Grace microphone preamp in action. So yes, Grace Design is trusted by experts who can choose any equipment they like regardless of price.

    (see that rack on the right side?)

    (let's take a closer look)

    Massdrop worked with Grace on the M9XX which was a Massdrop exclusive for a while, but eventually saw widespread release as the Grace M900. This time around, the SDAC is a Massdrop exclusive, and will only ever be available through them. The project was born when suppliers either jacked up pricing, or refused to sell modules all together, for Massdrop's popular ODAC. Massdrop then decided to approach Grace Design to come up with a replacement product that could meet customer demand, and possibly even outperform the original open-source ODAC.

    The resulting product is the SDAC - a small, simple device which values function over form, and sounds quite good in the process. Not many bells and whistles here... basic (but sturdy) black aluminum enclosure, microUSB input, RCA and 1/8" outputs, and that's pretty much it. Power comes via the microUSB, and that 1/8" output is useful when pairing with the O2 amplifier. Massdrop still does O2 amps on a regular basis and the SDAC enclosure matches their O2 for easy stacking.


    This little device has gone through multiple revisions and upgrades before arriving at the final design. I have an earlier prototype here and it sounded damn good. I was ready to give it my blessing as being "done", a great value for the asking price.... then Grace and Massdrop went in and made some big changes for even better results. Despite its size and price, this thing is the real deal.


    The heart of this thing is an AKM AK4552 DAC, which is part of AKM's "Velvet" line. An XMOS U208 handles incoming USB data. The SDAC is limited to 96kHz, same as the ODAC, which means it doesn't require any drivers - Windows, Mac, or Linux, the SDAC is plug and play.

    I'm still working on my thoughts regarding sound quality, but for now I'll just say this - I have no trouble using the little SDAC with my Pass Labs HPA-1. Despite the Pass being over 40 times more expensive, and acting as an extreme sonic scalpel which often shows the flaws of lesser sources... the SDAC comes across as very listenable. It's clean and neutral, with great imaging, and a tight low end which extends surprisingly deep. The standout trait thus far is the unforced treble - a spot where digital nasties often make their presence known in budget designs. This treble is extended yet smooth, with very little grain, and practically zero harshness to be found. I've got far more expensive DACs that don't pull this off.

    Link to the drop HERE. Looks like it goes live on 9/5. I don't know how many will be available but I get the impression this will be plentiful, or at least not majorly limited as some drops can be.



    Last edited: Sep 1, 2017
    wje, ozrainmaker, volly and 1 other person like this.
  2. Muinarc
    It's 'lil !! I approve of more small DACs for the desktop.
    Mshenay likes this.
  3. project86 Contributor
    Post updated with the proper info.
  4. mindbomb
    I wish they would state 0dbfs 20-20khz thd less than .004% or something like that in addition to the odac thd format of 3 frequencies at -0.15dbfs. Dac looks pretty good though. They achieved 19 bits a weighted dynamic range, pretty impressive for sub $100. Also love the xmos controller.
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2017
  5. project86 Contributor
    I have to guess that was done for comparative purposes. As this is an ODAC "replacement" of sorts, they probably want to show people, using the same format, that it performs equally (or better) in objective terms.
  6. thewind32
    Can both outputs be used simultaneously? Or will one be disabled?
  7. PeteMtl
    Can it use an iOS device as a source (audio data and power)?
  8. feanorean
    I'm getting to be a little suspect of Massdrops new sales strategies. Their pairings with big names in the audio business, while cool at first (HD6XX) now just seem like a way to leverage interest and sales. Their use of known reviewers (all respect to project86) and head-fi as sales platforms to tout their gear and the current release schedules, which are clearly known to a select few but not the general buyers, well it seems to me like a hype machine build get suck buyers in for fear of missing out on limited time drops.

    Why don't Massdrop release their schedule for upcoming collaborations and allow them to be reviewed more widely in advance going on sale. I call into question the timing of release of some reviews at critical points during live drops to gain extra sales. Before they grow too commercial I urge Massdrop to remember their roots and generally be more transparent with their processes going forward.
    Zoide, forestitalia and starman93 like this.
  9. project86 Contributor
    I will test both of these when I have a chance. Not sure I know where my iPad CCK is hiding at the moment though.

    No offense taken, I get where you are coming from. The thing is, Massdrop seems to have ideas about products that should exist, but don't. So they try to make that happen - either by refreshing an existing product at a major discount (HD6XX, K7XX) or commissioning a whole new design (SDAC), or maybe just tweaking an old favorite (Fostex THX00). It seems to me the interest happens because they are filling a hole in the market. If Sennheiser and AKG and Fostex already sold their versions of those headphones at or near the Massdrop pricing, well.... there wouldn't be anything left for Massdrop to do.

    As for using reviewers like me as a sales platform.... I get lots of stuff sent over for potential review. A huge portion gets sent back without a single word written - it's just not interesting or worthy of discussion. The remaining gear is further whittled down until I have just a few items that I want to actually cover. If something makes it to an actual review from me, it's because I found it superior to the competition, or a great value, or somehow unique and worth talking about. That's all. I have no obligation to write about anything if I don't want to. And keep in mind - I get paid to write for InnerFidelity and Digital Audio Review, while my coverage here is just for fun. So if something appears here, that generally means I'm pretty enthusiastic about it. That is the case with the SDAC.

    I feel you on the idea of being more open about new stuff though. I do think it would be problematic for them to be too open, as things are constantly changing... what if they announce something that ends up changing or not coming out at all? People get surprisingly upset about that stuff. But you're right, they could at least give some hints or clue people in on things that are pretty much finalized. Remember, they are pretty new at this too, and probably open to change as they grow.
  10. TimSchirmer
  11. JVal
    I can't see why you'd want this+o2 over magni2/modi2 uber stack. similar pricing if you get b stock
  12. feanorean
    Many Thanks @project86 for taking the time to respond to my comments. I do feel more reassured to hear from a reviewer that they genuinely enjoy and endorse the products they review. Don't get me wrong I love what Massdrop do and offer many thanks to them for giving us the opportunity to get hold of some truly awesome gear. I just wish I could afford to buy all of the awesome products they are working on.
    volly likes this.
  13. TWerk
    Just another manufacturer trying to stick their feet in the game. Throw a cheap AF DAC chip into an ugly black box and sell it at 79 bucks. Profit. Everyone else is doing it, why not them too?

    But plenty of people will probably buy it cuz it says "Grace Design" on it. Yeah, and like others have said, they have a strategy in place to generate lots of hype, sending it to all these reviewers proclaiming how wonderful it sounds and clear etc. At some point, even as a dumb consumer, you hopefully see through the pattern.

    Sell it for 30 bucks and you have some innovation there since then you are creating something that hasn't been there. Give the audio community a real deal on it. Not enough margin for you though, huh?

    It's been done already folks. Time to move on...

    The Best Part?

    Your "velvet line" AK4552 chip costs less than 4 dollars to buy. 80 dollars isn't fooling me, and shouldn't fool others.

    Last edited: Sep 3, 2017
    gtdaqua and CarlosUnchained like this.
  14. Pharmaboy
    This post--specifically, this response to another post--is fascinating on multiple levels:
    1 - That the author of this post (well known here & in audio circles--I've learned much from him) would feel the need to respond in this manner
    2 - That he would do so with such restraint and grace
    3 - And that the audio item occasioning this exchange (Grace SDAC) is so self-evidently intriguing, timely, and worthy of attention that it's surprising (at least to me) to see coverage of it challenged at all on a business/motivation level.

    Honestly, this seems to arise primarily from the oddly controversial, divisive effect Massdrop has on this and other audio communities. Contempt for Massdrop can be found everywhere...one needn't look too hard. Yet I, at least, have learned nearly as much about headphone audio from Massdrop (by reading & info-searching triggered by their drops) as I have from Head-Fi.org. Both are essentials in my evolving knowledge.

    Getting back to the "restraint and grace" thing: in another thread on Head-Fi, recently I had occasion to either explain myself or not (I chose to articulate my motives/methods for some sonic comparisons I'd posted). Responding to criticisms, particularly those suggestive of one's motives or finances, is unforgiving: easy to do badly, very hard to do even moderately well.

    This reply is a model of dispassionate, informative self-explaining IMHO.
    Cheffy likes this.
  15. PopZeus
    Not to get political but I dunno, maybe consider labor costs? I'm okay with a $80 DAC (with $30 in parts) that sounds great if it is very well made and the technicians aren't getting paid 6¢ an hour to make it. Also, consumers are eating that free shipping on some level.
    Zoide likes this.
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