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March 2013
Superior Audio Equipment Review
Enjoy the Music.com 20/20 Award
M2Tech Vaughan Digital-To-Analog Converter
The Vaughn presents the sound with an extraordinary level of transparency and realism.

Review By Tom Lyle

 

M2Tech Vaughan Digital-To-Analog Converter (DAC)  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".

M2Tech Vaughan Digital-To-Analog ConverterAdded 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.

 

Curve
I'd be lying if I said the M2Tech Vaughan was a breeze to set up and operate. Although the learning curve wasn't too steep, I wouldn't go as far as saying that the menu navigation was intuitive, whether controlled by its front panel or the remote. The set-up was more challenging. This is certainly not the most expensive DAC on the market, but $8000 is still a nice chunk of change, and at anywhere near this price level (not to mention its complex functionality) I'd assume that one's dealer will get a customer's Vaughan up and running.  After a while using this DAC became less cumbersome, especially if I didn't change the menu settings. That last sentence wasn't meant to be disparaging, it's just that I had the computer crash a few times when not first stopping Foobar prior to changing the Vaughan's input selection via the menu, so I needed a bit of guidance during times such as this.  And as I explained in the review of M2Tech's Joplin analog-to-digital converter, dealing with M2Tech's less than personable distributor TEAC/Tascam support representatives was a bit frustrating. I've had more fun speaking to the account department of my mobile provider. In their defense, though, they do provide support for not only M2Tech, but also for TEAC, TASCAM, and Esoteric products, and the owners of the M2Tech Vaughan would most likely turn to their dealer for any help well before they pick up the phone to call M2Tech support. For me, that luxury was not an option.

 

Sufficient
M2Tech Vaughan Digital-To-Analog ConverterI hope that my technical explanations of the M2Tech Vaughan's use and sound are sufficient, and that I make clear that this machine is a powerhouse of an audio component. Not only is this digital converter/digital preamplifier the one that has provided the music that came forth from my server the one with ability to process the highest resolution digital signal, but the one that could process the standard 44.1kHz/16-bit that populates the majority of space on my hard-drives in the most sonically sophisticated manor, and transfer this ensuing well-bred analog signal to either my preamplifier or power amplifier resulting in some of the best digital sound that I have ever heard coming from my speakers. I didn't realize what this DAC sold for until very near the end of the review period. Until then I assumed, given not only its superior fit and finish but its sound quality, that it sold for between ten and twelve thousand dollars.

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.

 

Plethora
And although the Vaughan has a plethora of inputs, the majority of my listening was through its USB input, and I suspect most users of this DAC will end up using it this way, too. This is not the future of digital listening, it is the present. At least in my listening room, and anecdotal evidence suggests, there is a good chance that if digital playback is not via USB in your listening room it will be shortly. It is more than obvious that the sound quality from a hard-drive beats real-time spinning of CDs by quite a bit (sorry), and I suspect that solid-state drives will be the next step once their prices reduce and their capacity increases. My external hard-drives loaded with FLAC files are connected to a 3.20 GHz Dell Studio XPS PC with 8G RAM running Windows 7. A run of  DH Labs USB cable connects the computer to the DAC, and when it not connected directly to the power amp, the DAC's balanced outputs are connected with MIT interconnects to a Balanced Audio Technologies (BAT) preamp, which in turn is connected to a Pass Laboratories X350.5 power amp with MIT cabling.

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.

 

Experience
I'll spend a brief time mentioning my experience using the M2Tech Vaughan as a digital preamp, forgoing my reference tube preamplifier and connecting the Vaughan directly to the power amplifier via its balanced outputs. First of all, holding off describing its sound for a moment, using the Vaughan's front panel volume control was a pleasure. So much so that I hid the remote behind the unit, thus forcing me to walk from my listening position to operate its volume control. When laying out this kind of money on an audio component it is nice to be rewarded with a tactile pleasure such as this. Call me an equipment geek if you must, but every time I use this volume control I feel as though I have arrived in high-end nirvana. Sweet! I suppose, though, one might be more interested in how the Vaughan sounds when used as a preamplifier. In a word: Very nice. Ok, that's two words. I still preferred using my tube preamplifier above all, as the midrange of my electrostatic panels are unforgivably revealing. Suspension of disbelief, such as during the cute (I assume) female's introduction to the T. Rex song didn't happen nearly as often. The sound of the Vaughan when used as a preamp sounds great, but like great digital. Please, I'm not intending to be overly critical, because when I use the Vaughan in this manor with my second system along with tube power amps and smaller dynamic speakers with a midrange (and treble) that is much less analytical I preferred, by quite a large margin, the sound when using the Vaughan as a preamp over any stand-alone analog preamplifier I used in its place. Plus, I was able to use the Vaughan's marvelous volume control.

 

Configured
M2Tech Vaughan Digital-To-Analog ConverterThe same can kind of be said for the Vaughan's headphone output. It sounds very nice. I didn't read much about how the headphone output is configured, but it was as if I was listening to a very nice headphone output of a digital device, such as a CD player. But I imagine that this headphone output would be the envy of just about any CD player out there, as I have never heard one with this high a level of sound quality. Yet it can't compare to my rather inexpensive (less than $500) Headroom headphone amp. This outboard amp has a tiny power supply, and tiny everything else to be honest, yet its sound is not only huge but very listenable in every other respect. The Vaughan's headphone output, in comparison, is still very good sounding, and in areas such as detail and especially bass response, is better. Its treble isn't as naturally sparkling, but it might not be fair comparing it to an outboard amp, even if it is one as affordable as the Headroom. Plus, the Vaughan's front panel jack is a heck of a lot more convenient.

 

Able
If one is able to consider a DAC in the M2Tech Vaughan's price range, I can't think of many others that I would recommend over it, even many that cost more. I was quite surprised when I learned of the Vaughan's price -- I assumed it would be more expensive. Still, it might be missing a few features that some might expect at this price and this point in time, perhaps an analog input, or maybe the ability to decode native DSD files. Though once any sane audiophile hears the Vaughan I am confident that all will be forgiven. I have heard other DACs, even some that cost less, that sound a bit more "analog", perhaps because the Vaughan leans slightly toward the analytical, but nary a one that rises to this class while retaining its practically incomparable overall sound quality, input flexibility, and ultra high-resolution decoding abilities. In these regards the M2Tech Vaughan recommends itself. I feel extremely lucky that I had the opportunity to use and hear it in my listening room.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Stereo digital to analog converter
Digital Input
     USB B type female, I2S RJ45, two S/PDIF RCA female,
     two S/PDIF 75 Ohms BNC female, two AES/EBU XLR female,
     two optical TosLink, two optical ST, one external clock 75 Ohms BNC
Analog Output: Two RCA female, two XLR male, one 6.35mm stereo jack (headphones)
Standard Input: USB 2.0 and S/PDIF
Sampling Frequency: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8, and 384 kHz
Resolution: 16 to 32 bit
Output Level: 2.7Vrms (RCA), 5.4Vrms (XLR), 6.5Vrms (headphones)
Output Impedance: 600 Ohms (XLR), 0,5 Ohm (RCA), 10 Ohms (headphones)
THD + Noise: -114dB (@ 1kHz, 20 Hz to 20 kHz, A-weighted)
SNR: 128dB (@ 1kHz, 20 Hz to 20 kHz, A-weighted)
Battery Duration: Four hours
Dimensions: approximately 18" x 3.5" x 18" (DxHxW)
Price: $7999

 

Company Information
M2Tech
Via Mario Giuntini, 63
56023 Navacchio di Cascina (PI)
Italy

E-mail: info@m2tech.biz
Website: www.m2tech.biz

 

United States Distributor Information: 
TEAC America, Inc.
7733 Telegraph Road
Montebello, CA 90640

Voice: (323) 726-0303
E-mail: custserv@teac.com
Website: www.teac.com

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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