The first thing an audiophile might notice when
viewing the M2Tech Vaughan in real life rather than in a photo is not only the
Vaughan's attractive Italian cabinet design heritage, but its size. At nearly 18
inches wide and deep, and about four inches tall it is the largest DAC that has
graced my system. At twenty pounds, it is also the heaviest. When learning of
the features that are packed inside the Vaughan it makes sense that it is so
large. The Vaughan is a hybrid powered unit, that is, it can be powered by its
internal fully automated LiPo (Lithium Polymer) battery as well as AC from a
wall receptacle. The battery alone cannot be responsible for its large cabinet,
as these batteries are relatively small, at least compared to some others. The
battery, I assume, is at least partially responsible for the excellent sound I
got from the Vaughan.
Recently, there has been some discussion among audiophiles as to why all DACs are not powered by batteries. A battery would seem to be perfect for some, if not all front-end audio components, delivering great sounding DC power to a DAC without all the inconsistencies and noise that comes from the wall socket. I don't know how M2Tech did it (although it might be reflected in the price of the unit), but they have seemed to have sidestepped the greatest deterrent to using battery power, DCR (Direct Current Resistance, and thanks to PS Audio's Paul McGowan for this tidbit). One would assume that batteries would not have the unrestricted current that is needed to drive DAC circuits in a way that would result in the high-quality sound that audiophiles demand. A battery powering the Vaughan disproves this premise.
This DAC has an impressive array of inputs on its rear panel, including USB, I2S, two S/PDIF via RCA coax, two S/PDIF via 75 Ohm BNC, two AES/EBU via XLR, optical TosLink, optical ST, plus an external clock input via a BNC jack. It also has both unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR outputs, and sports a headphone jack on its front panel with a standard 0.25" jack, rather than the all too common mini-plug. The Vaughan is able to convert signals up to 384kHz/32-bit not only from its coax (S/PDIF), I2S, and AES/EBU inputs, but also from its USB input. The Vaughan contains two custom oscillators with "ultra-low jitter, low phase noise, high stability" oscillators. It has four DAC's per channel used in mono mode, which are, in M2Techs words, "driven in a time shifting fashion to allow for an implicit low pass anti-alias filter at the analog buffer's inputs which uses no capacitors or other passive components".
Added to all the features listed above, the Vaughan can also be used as a digital preamplifier, connecting one's digital sources directly to one's power amp, its volume, balance, and phase(!) not only controlled via the Vaughan's front panel, but on its weighty remote. The Vaughan appearance is as a larger sibling of the Joplin ADC, the LED readout gleaming through the curved black grille that is the front panel. The thick aluminum cabinet is embossed with the M2Tech logo on the top of the cabinet. On the front panel are only a large silver-colored volume/selector knob, two much smaller menu/select and escape/standby/off buttons on the left, and the headphone input on the right, next to the large, silky smooth operating volume/selector knob.
With so many audiophiles feeding their digital
music to the USB input of their DAC, M2Tech states in their literature that it
would be a shame to not take full advantage of the sonic powerhouse that the
Vaughan aspires to be when using its USB input. Therefore, M2Tech feels that the
standard audio drivers available on the market, such as those that are included
in the Windows operating system, should be circumvented by installing and using
M2Tech's proprietary drivers that maintain the file's inherent quality. This is
especially true in regards to its resolution. Microsoft and ASIO drivers are
much more comfortable running at 96kHz or less. Using the Vaughan in combination
with the free, open source playback program Foobar 2000 with its output device
set to Kernel Streaming (KS) enables the Vaughan to playback files as high as
384kHz/32-bit without having to be submitted to the data processors in a PC or
MAC's audio mixer when processing the data from one's hard-drive.
It is these standard resolution files that I
listened to most often when I had this M2Tech DAC in my system. Of course I put
the Vaughan through its paces with high-resolution files. Thankfully, it
seems as if more high-rez files are being offered to the public every day. I've
downloaded more than my share. Just in the past week I've listened to
96kHz/24-bit files of John Coltrane's Love
Supreme and the great Jacqueline du Pre playing Elgar's Cello
Concerto, 176.4kHz/24-bit files of the Minnesota Orchestra performing
Satie and Tchaikovsky, some second-tier European orchestras reading
Britten and Dvorak, and more. But again, this week I've also been playing so
many standard Red Book "CD quality" files I've lost count. These are what I've
been amassing since the 1980s. And even though I love my vinyl, these silver
discs still arrive in the mail almost daily, and I'm lucky enough to live near
quite a few brick and mortar music retailers.
On the rare occasion when I spin a disc it is on an Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition universal player, usually to decode the audio portion of DVDs through the Vaughan's S/PDIF input, but sometimes I listen to a SACD through its analog outs. The speakers are, as usual, the Sound Lab DynaStat electrostatic hybrid augmented with a Velodyne HGS-15b sub. All the hardware sits on an Arcici Suspense equipment rack, except the PS Audio Power Plant AC regenerators powering the front end, and a Chang Lightspeed conditioning the power for the speakers and the subwoofer. All the equipment is connected to two dedicated AC lines fitted with Virtual Dynamics wall receptacles. The medium-sized listening room is treated with Echobuster acoustic treatment panels, and where the panels do not cover the walls they are lined with LPs, and CD jewel boxes that are used to hold the inserts that I reference once in a while, and of course the physical CDs, just in case (a pun, again).
After a while, when playing back the signal of everything I fed it, regardless of its resolution the sound of digital through the Vaughan became the new normal in my listening room. I jotted down in my listening notes, "I could get used to this". I think it is worth mentioning that the greatest change between the digital sound I was accustomed to before and after the Vaughan showed up at my doorstep was not only the amount of detail of each instrument, but the detail of the surroundings of these instruments. Along with the increase in the detail of the ambient space was the spaciousness of the soundstage that appeared between, slightly in-front of, beyond the sides, and to the rear of the speakers. Regardless of their type of design, compared to other speakers my resident Sound Labs are hardly soundstage champs. But when the right ancillary gear comes along, be that a great power or source component, they can bring out the best in what soundstage abilities are contained within these speakers, especially in regards to the depth of the soundfield.
Ok, I admit it, I've heard this kind of soundstage before from these speakers, but only when spinning vinyl. When playing the high resolution file of Elgar's Cello Concerto that I mentioned above, I could "see" Jacqueline du Pre's cello in front of the orchestra – not by picturing her instrument as recorded by a spot microphone and then the mixed at a higher volume – but by physically placing itself in front of the rest of the orchestra. I should clarify this statement by saying: but by physically placing itself in front of the front of the instruments that were in the front of the orchestra, because the orchestra itself is now heard as a complex layering of the instruments under conductor John Barbirolli's stewardship. The empty auditorium's acoustic is heard as clearly as the instruments, but its dimensions not that clearly defined because this recording sounds as if one is listening from about ten feet in front of the podium. The environs are heard almost as a separate entity, an aura surrounding the musicians on the stage. For an EMI recording that is good sounding, but not the best that's ever been released from this wonderful era, one can only hope that this isn't the last high-resolution EMI classical recording that sees the light of day.
One would hope that the soundstage wasn't the only sonic improvement in the system's sound when using the M2Tech Vaughan. It wasn't. I suppose the best analogy I can think of is akin to changing a turntable from an affordable Rega to a top-tier Basis model. So, in my system when I would switch out a relatively affordable unit such as the Benchmark DAC1USB or the Wadia 121 to the M2Tech Vaughan, the physical size of the DAC wasn't the only thing that was larger, but so was its the sound. I like to call this the whomp-factor, where not only does the low-end go deeper, but the entire sound is much more weighty, and real sounding. It is more lifelike because when hearing live music the impact is not only visceral, but emotional. When listening through speakers that might not have an exceptionally deep bass response, the music is still able to enter one's psyche. This explanation might seem a bit obtuse, but in reality it isn't because the main goals in assembling a system should not only be to recreate the recorded event as accurately, but realistically in one's listening room as possible. The M2Tech Vaughan aides in attaining this goal through its reproduction of the recorded even by decoding the digital signal and somehow presenting it with the emotional impact that the artist or artists intended.
In addition, the Vaughan's frequencies in the mids and treble match the prowess of its bass with presenting the sound with an extraordinary level of transparency and realism. And remember, I am speaking not only of higher than standard Red Book resolution here, but every recording that was mastered correctly in the first place, and amazingly, even some that were not. One of my favorite rock recordings from the early seventies is T. Rex's Tanxalbum. I feel strange speaking of a digital converter's midrange being so uncolored, but the M2Tech Vaughan's midrange is super-transparent, and vocals were the beneficiaries. On the tune that on the LP version starts off side 2, "Mad Donna", it starts by a young female who exclaims in French, loosely translated, "Women are crazy for T. Rex!". I've heard this track and her introduction countless times before, but this time when her voice entered I nearly spilled my beverage as it startled me from my listening seat. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but for that split-second as my brain interpreted this digital signal as the real thing, all bets were off.
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