The Musical Fidelity M1 DAC shares some of the same DNA as the awesome Tri-Vista 21 tube DAC. Come along as I upgrade this M1 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, you got and get a lotta DAC for the money. Excellent technical performance, good looks and smooth sound make the M1 DAC a winner, especially now on the used market. The changes I’ve designed here elevate its performance to the next level.
UPDATE – Jan 2019 – The M1 DAC is for sale!
UPDATE – Jan 2019 – SOLD!
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 chips are current production (in 2018) and 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 uses a switched-mode power supply, not “switch-mode” as they are mistakenly called. A switched-mode power supply or SMPS is cheaper to make than a linear power supply. They are also better suited to standby operation and multi-voltage usage, but alas, they are also noisier.
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 and the DAC feels very solid and well-built, which it is.
There are two versions of the M1 DAC. The first was produced until the end of 2010 and has the cleanest internal layout. Its limitation is the USB input, which only accepts data at up to 16/48kHz. Many won’t care about this, I for one.
The second version, produced 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
- Jitter: <12 picoseconds peak to peak
- THD(+ noise): <0.0025% 10Hz to 20 kHz
- Frequency Response: +0, –1dB, 5Hz to 100 kHz
- 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)
- Line-level RCA (single-ended)
- Line level XLR (balanced)
- Dimensions – WxHxD (mm): 220 x 100 x 300
- Weight (unpacked/packed): 3.4 kg / 4.1 kg
The M1 DAC was generally well-received at the time of release. 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 M1 DAC 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, lacking air and resolution and I wanted to see what I could do for this little DAC in terms of some modest, carefully implemented improvements.
I planned a series of upgrades, similar in spirit to those I developed for the Tri-Vista 21 DAC, and more recently this Tri-Vista 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!
It’s worth taking a look at everything before we start, to see what Musical Fidelity did and where improvements can be made.
Now, let’s look at how I improved things for the M1 DAC.
Is there room for further improvement? Of course, but I believe the art lies in finding the balance between price and performance. This is a budget DAC and I’ve hopefully created the best bang for the buck improvements one might reasonably make to an M1. The DAC has limitations, most notably in terms of the output buffer. Not much can be done here, other than to focus on the coupling capacitors as I’ve done and possibly change the quad op-amp for something better.
Realistically, the amount of work and quality of parts I’ve used in these modifications take this M1 DAC to its limit. I would not suggest doing any more, because returns will be limited. I hit all of the low hanging fruit, without overreaching. Some design limitations of the M1 such as that non-discrete output buffer I mentioned would require surgery to circumvent. Discrete op amps might help, but for me, that’s probably a bridge too far.
So, how does my modified Musical Fidelity M1 DAC sound after all my hard work? Fantastic! The upgrades have given her what I hoped they would – more air, more oomph and a more relaxed, musical sound. The DAC sounds less dull, more involving, resolves more detail now and is a big step up from stock.
I suggest utilising the balanced outputs wherever possible. Balanced signal transmission is technically superior and sonically beats the single-ended output, with obviously better bass performance. With balanced equipment, you get the added benefits of lower noise and negligible impact of longer cable runs.
The Bottom Line
If you want to buy an M1 DAC and enjoy it as is, go for it. They sound great out of the box, very capable for the money, which usually isn’t much. Alternatively, you may already own one and be looking to improve its performance. This is worth considering and, if done right, you’ll end up with a strong performer, definitely better than standard.
The M1 is no giant killer like the PS Audio NuWave DSD is, but I can definitely recommend the little Musical Fidelity DAC as a high-performance, budget DAC, with a strong performance for the money and a solid upgrade path, should you wish to take it.
Designing, testing and writing about upgrades like this one takes time, energy and lots of nice parts! If you have an M1 DAC and you’d like me to improve its performance for you, I’d be happy to. Alternatively, if you’ve enjoyed this article and are contemplating borrowing ideas I’ve developed here, consider making a small donation which you can do on my home or contact pages. Think of it as a thank you, donations help me design, test and write about more great projects like this one.
Musical Fidelity M1 DAC$350 - $750 AUD
Chassis / Build-Quality8.0/10
Sound Quality - standard7.0/10
Sound Quality - upgraded8.0/10
- Balanced outputs
- Solid performance improves with upgrades
- Great value
- Limited USB spec in first Rev
- Op-amp output buffer
- Cheap passive components
- No physical power switch