Musial Fidelity M6 - Outboard DAC (Part 1)

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Always ready to try something new, Musical Fidelity has added Bluetooth to make this new DAC’s abilities truly all-embracing. So will it shake your digital world?

There’s long been discussion about who was really the first to get a separate hi-fi digital-to-analogue converter on the market. Arcam claims the honor, with its original Black Box appearing in February 1989, but almost as quick off the mark was Antony Michaelson’s company, Musical Fidelity.

Before that, in the early days of CD, player had only offered a take-it-or-leave it analogue output for connection to your amplifier’s line inputs. Then along came S/PDIF, a digital connection protocol that allowed players to provide a user-accessible digital output.

Musial Fidelity M6

Musial Fidelity M6

This in turn gave some of the Japanese manufactures the chance to promote a new kind of component, the ‘digital amplifier’. This wasn’t a digital amplifier in the modern sense, but simply a conventional amp with a digital-to-analogue converter added in the same box, so that it could handle the digital signal from the CD transport. With Digital Audio Tape (DAT) on the horizon, the majors seemed to be envisaging a brave new world of digital stacking systems.

All shapes and sizes

That idea proved to be shorter-lived than DAR itself, but the fact that you could now get a digital signal out of a CD player gave the smaller specialist manufacturers a chance to get involved, with separate DACs of all shapes and size. Later though, as various advances in D/A conversion technology began to appear in Cd players anyway, outboard DACs lost their appeal and all but disappeared from the market, except at the high end.

But the renaissance of the separate DAC came, of course, with the burgeoning digital sources of the internet generation, which brings us to the latest offering from Musical Fidelity, a luxurious Hi-Fi DAC which sets out to cover all the possible bases. It’s really designed to be a comprehensive processor for all digital sources, with almost every possible input/output option.

Both the power supply regulation, 24-bit/ 192 kHz DAC and analogue output stage are screened in their own enclosures. Popular SMOS solution is used for MF’s USB input

Both the power supply regulation, 24-bit/ 192 kHz DAC and analogue output stage are screened in their own enclosures. Popular SMOS solution is used for MF’s USB input

First and foremost, it will find a home in audiophile systems that look to the future with high-resolution audio. But to complete the M6’s capabilities, Musical Fidelity has also included Bluetooth. This is a great convenience feature because it means that you can play music files wireless from any recent Bluetooth-enabled phone or other device, without involving your main home computer wireless network.

Bluetooth is supposed to give a wireless range of up to 30 meters, and its reliability, bandwidth and achievable audio quality have all improved since its inception. Current Bluetooth devices use the APTX codec instead of the earlier SBS lossy compression, and this has perhaps encouraged hi-fi manufacturers to take it more seriously.

Chord Electronics seems to have been first in the field with its Chordette Peach, a multi-input Bluetooth-equipped DAC, while at the other end of the price scale Cambridge Audio offers the little BT100 Bluetooth adapter, which works with existing Cambridge products. Meanwhile, Arcam has announced its rBlink Bluetooth DAC for around $225. Claims for Bluetooth audio quality vary, with Cambridge cautiously speaking of ‘almost CD-quality reproduction’ while Chord refers to ‘CD like transfer of music’. Arcam just mentions ‘high quality music replay’.

A heartland product

Antony Michaelson became enthused about Bluetooth through using the Soundmatters FoxL portable products, so much so that MF became its UK distributor. But the M6 DAC is very much a Hi-Fi system product for enthusiasts, and its $3,000 price point puts it, as Michaelson says, right in Musical Fidelity’s heartland.

By contrast with the proverbial black boxes of yore, and with many simpler DACs of today, the M6 is full-sized, fully-featured and comes complete with a remote handset. This can also control a Musical Fidelity CD player, which accounts for 23 of its 37 buttons, while the other 14 are dedicated to the M6 DAC, duplicating the neat array of controls on the M6’s solid alloy fascia.

Here, six round buttons provide input selection, providing AES/EBU, Optical, and two Coaxial digital inputs, as well as USB and Bluetooth. The other two buttons are De-Emph, which enables or disables automatic de-emphasis of source material that requires it, and Filter, which gives a choice of two digital filter characteristics. The two arrow-shaped buttons can be used to trim the signal level up or down for each source to match their output volume levels.

As for the display, this gives a straightforward two-line indication of the chosen source, although when USB is selected, the display will read ‘192’ whatever the sample frequency of the incoming signal, because all data is up sampled to 192 kHz.

Input switching and other functions are available on the front panel as well as on the remote. Display brightness (two levels or off) is controllable form the remote handset only

At the back, you will find an impressive plethora of socketry. There are optical, coaxial and AES/EBU balanced digital inputs as well as the USB port and a connector for the supplied Bluetooth receiving aerial. There are balanced (XLR) analogue outputs as well as the usual unbalanced Phono sockets, and also AES balanced and optical digital outputs. A toggle switch nestling between the analogue output sockets either enables the Volume Matching function or keeps the output Fixed, the setting being indicated in the display. Finally, there are trigger inputs and outputs for standby switching, if using a complete Musical Fidelity system.

Setting up and using the M6 is truly painless at least, it was for me as a Mac user. In the excellently clear instruction manual, the section ‘USB Setup’ starts with one almost superfluous page for Mac OS X and one page for Linux, followed, naturally, by 20-odd pages for Windows users.

Bluetooth set-up is simple too, as all you need to do is to ‘pair’, your transmitting device with the M6 DAC as the receiver, entering the M6’s password if asked. The M6 automatically uses APTX if the transmitting device is using it, as indeed all Apple products have done since the launch of Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6).

Seamless listening

It was fascinating to compare the options offered by the M6. I started with Gwyneth Herbert’s Clangers And Mash (Naim naimcd137) and her perky ‘Perfect Fit (Original Version)’. Playing the CD itself with a Rega Apollo player used as a transport, it didn’t take very long to conclude that in this mode the M6 was indeed a very fine-sounding DAC. It was neutral and transparent, giving a sound that was always satisfyingly detailed and impeccably smooth, especially when compared, for example, with the Apollo’s own analogue output, which has a slightly bright edge by comparison.

Playing the same music from an uncompressed AIFF file via the USB input, the M6 displayed most of the same virtues, giving a seamlessly listenable performance. Finally, listening to the same track via the Bluetooth wireless link, I had to admit that the music came over nearly as well, with not much identifiable loss. In fact, it could sometimes actually sound even smoother and less stressed than with the USB connection.

After that, I just went straight through a whole bunch of old favorites, switching between USB and Bluetooth inputs and very often just ending up listening happily and wirelessly. On Ry Cooder’s Bop Till You Drop (Warner Bros 7599-27398-2) the M6 gave a well-sorted view of Cooder’s combination of quirky vocals and ringing guitars over a rock-solid rhythm section, if sounding just a little soft round the edges via Bluetooth.

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