If there is one product that has captured the public imagination in recent years, it is this. Like the Dual CS505 turntable, NAD 3020 integrated amplifier and Mission 760 loudspeakers before it, here is an ‘affordable audiophile’ product that sounds far better than it has a right too, and costs rather less than it should…
The M-DAC – which launched in 2012 – was the simple expedient of putting much of the circuitry of Audiolab’s excellent-at-the-price John Westlake-designed 8200 CD player into a separate, half-width box. This would be good enough in itself, but corners weren’t cut; the box was beautifully finished aluminium alloy, and the display was a high quality fine-pitch dot-matrix OLED type. It even had a level meter function to satisfy the retro brigade!
Inside, it was one of the first of its generation to use the 32-bit ESS Sabre 9018 DAC chip, in multiple formation, which runs at up to 24/192 resolution and sports seven adjustable digital filter settings for fine tuning the sound to your own taste. Triple cascaded jitter attenuation stages keep jitter to an absolute minimum, and there’s a high-current, high-linearity Class A analogue output stage. It uses a large, offboard switched mode power supply which can be usefully upgraded by the MCRU linear power supply – it brings a significant smoothing out and opening up of the sound.
Operationally it is superb, with a good spread of digital inputs and outputs – including two coaxial, two optical and an asynchronous USB in, as well as matching digital outputs and a choice of balanced and unbalanced analogue outputs. There’s also a handy analogue volume control and an amplifier circuit for the front panel mounted 6.3mm headphone socket. The unit can be set to give either a fixed or variable output, so can work as a DAC or a digital preamplifier.
For the money, sound quality is exceptional. It’s not the greatest DAC in the world, but is good enough to worry DACs at twice the price, and has a distinctively feisty and musical sound – a bit like the DAC equivalent of a traditional Naim power amp. It is fast, propulsive, revealing, incisive and pulls you right into the mix, giving you a front row seat. Never a smooth, lazy performer, the M-DAC is a seat-of-the-pants listen, whether it’s a 16-bit, 44.1kHz CD source or a 24/96 FLAC file via USB that you’re playing.
Tonally it’s not hard or aggressive though; there’s no sense of it being sandpapery like an old Philips TDA1541-based CD player, even though it shares the latter’s general gumption and brio. It is smooth and even, but you’d never call it warm. If anything the wee Audiolab is a bit dry sounding; tonal colour seems to be stripped out a little, lacking the rich, verdant bloom of Chord’s classic DAC64 for example, or indeed a high end dCS Debussy. The M-DAC amazes at the price, and a good way beyond – yet it’s not some rough old clunker of a machine. Instead it is sophisticated and modern, and it’s only when you start spending twice as much on Chord’s Hugo that the Audiolab gets found out as something that isn’t amazing and near-perfect after all.
Designer John Westlake has now parted company with Audiolab, but continues to support it with firmware upgrades via a Wiki page and his Lakewest Audio site. Here you’ll see he’s working on a complete internal refit using new components and circuitry; the MDAC2 should be fun. In the meantime, the original M-DAC continues to offer an awful lot of sound per pound and will surely be a future classic.