Musical Fidelity M1 DAC Review & Upgrades

The Musical Fidelity M1 DAC shares some of the same DNA as the awesome Tri-Vista 21. Come along as I upgrade this DAC and discover just how good she can sound.

Think of the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC as the little DAC that could. For its very modest asking price when released, you got a lotta DAC for the money. You get even more on the used market now, and the changes I’ve made to this one really elevate its performance.

Design & Features

The M1 DAC has, at its heart, the TI / Burr Brown DSD1796  DAC chip. The DSD1796 is a high-spec chip, with excellent signal to noise performance and very low distortion. It’s not as good as the DSD1792 found in the Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21 DAC and others. Both are current production, the DSD1792 is still the second most expensive audio DAC chip TI sells. In qualities of 1000+, the DSD1796 retails for around $3USD a piece though, vs $12USD each for the DSD1796, reducing manufacturing costs considerably.

The M1 DAC I modified

The M1 DAC uses a switched-mode power supply, not “switch-mode” as many mistakenly call them. A switched-mode power supply, or SMPS, is cheaper to make than a linear power supply and better suited to standby operation and multi-voltage environments, but also noiser.

Usefully, the M1 DAC has four digital inputs – coaxial, TOSlink, AES/EBU and USB. These toggle with a tactile push button on the front panel. Fit and finish are very good.

Inside the M1 DAC: 1. Mains input and filters 2. Rectification, filtering, switching, more filtering 3. Oscillator and sample rate conversion 4. Digital to analog conversion 5. Current to voltage conversion, output buffering and muting. The USB input sits between 1 and 5.

Versions

There are two versions of the M1 DAC. The first sold to the end of 2010 and has the nicest internal layout. Its limitation is the USB input which only accepts data at up to 16/48kHz. The second version, from January 2011, has an improved USB input accepting data at up to 24/96kHz. The layout of the output buffer is more cramped, but MF may have cleaned up the grounds, because the second version measured slightly quieter in Stereophile’s testing.

Specifications, courtesy of Musical Fidelity

Performance
  • Jitter: <12 picoseconds peak to peak
  • THD(+ noise): <0.0025% 10Hz to 20 kHz
  • Frequency Response: +0, –1dB, 5Hz to 100 kHz
Inputs
  • XLR AES balanced digital input
  • RCA coaxial connector SPDIF 32-192 kbps (16-24 bit stereo PCM)
  • TOSLINK optical connector 32-96 kbps (16-24 bit stereo PCM)
  • USB type ‘B’ connector for computer/PDA – 16-24 bits, 32-96 kbps (Determined by source file/computer settings)
Outputs
  • Line level RCA (single-ended)
  • Line level XLR (balanced)
General
  • Dimensions – WxHxD (mm): 220 x 100 x 300
  • Weight (unpacked / packed): 3.4 kg / 4.1 kg

Reviews

The M1 DAC was generally well received. Stereophile enthusiastically reviewed the M1, with Sam Tellig stating:

“What I mainly heard from the M1 DAC was nothing: an absence of artifacts, if you want to get fancy. There was no fudging of detail, no smearing of transients. Purity of tone was exceptional—and this remained true when I took the M1 DAC upstairs to play with its brother, the M1 HPA headphone amp. So addictive is this DAC that I can’t bear to replace it with another…”

As Stereophile’s test engineer John Atkinson said himself, after putting the M1 DAC on the test bench:

“It may be affordably priced, but in almost all ways, Musical Fidelity’s M1DAC offers performance that is close to the state of the art.”

Liquid Audio Upgrades

The M1 DAC sounds good out of the box, dead quiet, smooth and grain-free. But it’s also somewhat dull and I wanted to see what I could do for this little DAC, with some modest, carefully implemented improvements.

I planned a series of upgrades, similar in spirit to those from nearly 10 years ago which I developed for the TriVista 21 DAC, and more recently this TriVista 21 DAC. As usual, I focussed on the power supplies, DAC and signal path, utilizing better quality parts and greater attention to bypassing and decoupling.

Let’s take a look, and don’t forget to check out this video summary, on my YouTube channel!

Before…
The main board, removed from the chassis. This board is very nicely made, but populated with the usual cheap Jamicon caps, film caps and ceramics. It’s easy to work on though.
In this image, we see: several local power supply regulators like REG2; IC3 – the DSD1796 DAC chip; IC5 – the weakest link here in my opinion, the quad op amp; IC7 and 107 – the JRC5532DD output buffer op amps. The black capacitors next to them are the output coupling caps. These are an obvious target for improvement.
Typical MF, loads of Jamicon caps, certainly not the worst in the world, but these can be easily improved.
After…
The Jamicons are gone, replaced with Panasonic FM, low ESR, high temp, high ripple current parts.
I replaced all the electrolytic, film and ceramic caps in the critical digital and analog signal areas. Here you can see a range of Elna SILMIC, Nichicon Fine Gold and WIMA film capacitors.
Regulators, operational firmware and lots of nice caps. Elna SILMIC caps are a premium grade capacitor, specifically designed for critical areas like DAC chip local filtering, as used for here. Each WIMA replaces a ceramic decoupling or bypass cap. MF did great design work, but the accountants got in the way and made them cheap out in production.
Note the component installation, something I’m very particular about. Leads should be as short as possible, and I like everything to be straight, aligned and aesthetically perfect. I’m anal about this stuff, but that’s why I do this work! The plan always is that if someone opened this, they would have no way to know it was ever improved, except for the superb parts quality!
The low-quality output coupling capacitors had to go. I’ve replaced them with these green Nichicon MUSE bipolar caps for audio. I’ve enhanced these with WIMA polypropylene film bypass capacitors, under the board for the best performance.
Here are those WIMA bypass capacitors. These improve the high frequency and distortion performance of the MUSE coupling capacitors.
Another shot of those pretty MUSE bipolar audio grade capacitors. Note the cream ERO rail decoupling caps around each JRC5532DD op amp. The 5532 has been around a long time, but is a technically superb op amp.
Me trying to be fancy and show all the digital and analog signal improvements, with replaced parts in the background.
Note the 60 or so parts I’ve replaced in this M1 DAC. I’ve also added a few more not visible here. The yellow mains suppression X2 cap was completely dead. I replaced it with a premium Kemet part.
The finished M1 DAC. The end result was very pleasing, the DAC sounding much nicer than stock.

Further Improvement

Is there room for further upgrades? Of course, but for me the art lies in finding the balance between price and performance. This is a budget DAC and I was looking for the good bang for the buck, and to work within its limitations.

In this case I hit most of the low hanging fruit, without getting tweaky or silly. I largely ignored the USB input for example. There are also some design limitations with the M1 that would require surgery to circumvent, the non-discrete output buffer is one example. Discrete op amps might help, but for me that’s probably a bridge too far.

Performance

So, how does she sound..? Fantastic. The upgrades have given her more air, more oomph and a more relaxed and musical sound. The DAC sounds less dull, more involving and is definitely a big step up from stock.

One thing I would suggest however, is to utilise the balanced outputs wherever possible. Balanced signal transmission is technically superior and sonically it beats the single ended output, with better bass performance. You get the added benefits, with proper balanced equipment, of lower noise, better bass and negligible impact with longer cable runs.

The Bottom Line

You may want to buy an M1 DAC and enjoy it, as is. Go for it, they sound great out of the box, very capable. Alternatively, you may already have one and be looking to improve its performance. This is well worth it and you’ll end up with a very strong performer, much better than standard. Either way, I can definitely recommend the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC as a high-performance, budget DAC option.

Musical Fidelity M1 DAC

8.2

Chassis / Build-Quality

7.5/10

Features

8.5/10

Sound Quality - standard

7.0/10

Sound Quality - upgraded

8.5/10

Bang-Per-Buck

9.5/10

Pros

  • Very well built
  • Lots of inputs
  • Balanced outputs
  • Solid performer, excellent upgraded
  • Great value

Cons

  • Limited initial USB spec
  • Op-amp output buffer
  • Cheap passive components
  • No physical power switch

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