I will start this review of the Bricasti Design Model 1 USB DAC by taking out all of the suspense. The M1 is one of the best DACs available on the market at any price. In fact, when used in the right system it is actually a bargain, since it allows you to eliminate a preamp. It also gives tweakers a huge range of filter options that adjust the sound. Finally, it’s a great looking piece of equipment that you’ll be proud to feature on your equipment stand. The M1 is so good that there is no need for a long review – there’s simply nothing in the way of a weakness. Any DAC that’s “better” is not better because of a shortcoming in the M1. Now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the details.
Brian Walsh of Essential Audio, a dealership based in Barrington, IL, a Chicago suburb, recently redid his listening/demo room and invited me over, not only to check out the new digs, but also to specifically to listen to the most recent iteration of the Bricasti Design M1 DAC. My first thought upon laying my eyes on the M1 was “Wow – this looks like a classically elegant Mark Levinson design.” Indeed, it turns out that the folks who founded the company previously work for Lexicon and Mark Levinson. The music coming out of the system was even more beautiful than the Bricasti itself, so I plopped down into the main listening chair and started listening to music both loaded on Brian’s Aurender server and streaming from Tidal Audio.
It took only a few minutes for me to confirm that I wanted to take the Bricasti M1 home to audition in my own system. For what turned out to be only the first of more than a dozen times, I had two predominant and intertwined thoughts: a. “Wow – this is a really, really detailed DAC!” and b) “But I don’t like super detailed DACs because I think they sound artificial, so why am I loving this??!” But I get ahead of myself…
Features and Functionality
Volume Control. I never saw or heard the initial version of the Bricasti M1, which I understand has been improved since the original was introduced. This version has USB input and a volume control, which is a key feature for a system like mine, where I often run without a preamp. As a result, one of my first actions was to evaluate the performance of the volume control. It just took a few pieces of music to determine that the volume control was very good at all normal listening ranges, which covers roughly 65 to 120dB. The dicey range for many digital volume controls is the range below 40dB, so I proceeded to turn the volume down and listen to a variety of music. I got out my trusty Radio Shack decibel meter to ensure I was really playing at or below 40dB. I got down under 25dB and couldn’t readily discern any loss of fidelity, so I proceeded to my ultimate test: direct comparison between having the Pass Labs XP-30 three-piece pre-amplification system in the equipment chain and taking it out of the chain. In my experience the Pass XP-30 is the most resolving preamp capable of delivering at very low levels – levels where you have to really be attentive to even hear the music in a dead quiet environment. Only when I got below 18dB did I feel like I was noticing a loss of detail, and even then I wasn’t quite sure. Since I never listen at such low volume levels, and I don’t know of anyone else who does, this was not a practical concern for me. Moreover, even at those very low levels I had to really listen to detect any loss in fidelity. Whatever Bricasti did to achieve it, the M1’s digital volume control is excellent. Note also that output gain is adjustable by setscrews from the back panel.
Sample Rates. I recently had an experience with a Wadia PowerDac Mini which highlighted for me an issue which bothers me about some DACS: they don’t lock on to all sample rates. Sometimes they don’t read all sample rates, which is the case with my MBL 1611F, which doesn’t read anything above 96kHz, thus forcing me to downsample my 176 and 192kHz files. Sometimes they won’t lock on to a signal that deviates slightly for the standard 44.1, 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192kHz sample rates, which was the problem with the PowerDac Mini, which did not like a 95.7 signal. I had no such problems with the Bricasti M1. I didn’t have any 352.8 or DSD files to play, but I had pretty much everything else, and the Bricasti M1 locked on quickly and without any issues. The display shows the sample rate that is being inputted, and even if the signal was a bit off the M1 played the file without problems.
Inputs. I also tried the AES/EBU, coaxial and USB inputs to see if there was a difference in audio quality. I couldn’t really say that any particular input was better than another. I got excellent sound out of each connection, and you will love this DAC whether you use a transport with SPDIF outputs, a computer with USB, or a computer with a USB to SPDIF converter. It does not have a way to use dual AES/EBU cables or an external clock, but the sound is so good I couldn’t imagine a need to consider such a setup. The earlier version had a BNC input that could also accommodate an external clock, but that has been removed.
Remote. The remote worked flawlessly and can control every function, including volume, which is a necessity whenever you run computer audio with files that are encoded at different volume levels.
Dual Mono Design. The Bricasti M1 is a true dual-mono design. I’m a big believer in the efficacy of such designs, as it has proven itself in several dual-mono products that have come through my systems over the years. The separation also does beyond separating the power, but includes dedicated DAC circuits per channel. Really nice!
Filter Options. There are 15 digital reconstruction filters, six of which are minimum phase and nine of which are linear phase. As I understand it, the advantage to minimum phase filters – appodizing filters is the absence of pre-ringing; post-ringing is obscured by the signal itself. Linear-phase filters are the more typical filter used in digital components, and they affect the frequency range in an even-handed manner, with minimal differences between bass and treble. This gives you the option to tweak to your heart’s content. In my case I found after 15-20 minutes that there were just 2 or 3 filters that I liked better than the others, all of which were minimum phase filters. My ultimate preference turned out to be Minimum 0, though Minimum 2 was very close. Let your ears be your guide and don’t agonize too much over which filter is “best”.
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