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Bricasti Design Model 1 Series II D/A Converter and M5 Network Player Review

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When I was in Jamaica this past September on our church construction ministry trip, I was told repeatedly about the wonderful Jablum Blue Mountain Coffee, so I bought some. I was anticipating an extravagant coffee drinking experience. As I assessed it in the store, I thought the packaging of the 16 oz. bags with a burlap bag over the typical sealed bag was overdone, a waste. Regardless, as I might never return to the country, I bought 3 of them in case I really liked it and would savor drinking it for a long while.

What a disappointment! To my tastebuds, it’s worse than the value container of medium blend coffee I buy at Walmart. The Walmart Donut Shop Coffee seems less watery and more robust tasting, having more character, and it does not have large pieces of ground up leaves in it. It makes me wonder if the leaves of the Jablum coffee are being used as filler. I did a cursory search on the internet to see if coffee makers might use leaves as filler but did not see any mention of it.

I regret spending money on the Jablum Blue Mountain Coffee. I do not appreciate it when I splurge and get no tangible benefit. I do not recommend Jablum Blue Mountain Coffee. It’s so poor that I threw out the contents of the opened bag. Unwilling to throw out the unopened bags, I put them with our seasonal food bank collection. Perhaps someone will think it tastes great, as it is nearly on a par with McDonald’s coffee.

I have tasted coffee from many countries in Central and South America. Some are dry and bitter while others are sweeter and robust. I am not so captivated by coffee that I must chase down a particular country’s brand, but I do have some experience with international coffees. Similarly, some audio equipment strikes my ears as being dry and bitter, while others are sweeter and robust. I am an avid audiophile, and I will chase down gear that enthralls my ears. It’s one reason I have reviewed for 14 years, to access and potentially own the equipment that is most beautiful-sounding and engaging.

As one can get streaming DACs for well under $1K, the M1S2 is not a budget component but an extravagant one. It is not meant to be cheap, nor to sound cheap. As with any brand that seeks to be at the top of quality lists, it is not for the financially faint of heart. You need to determine what lengths you will go to for HiFi. If you treat it like I treat coffee, then there are other budget options better suited to you. If you seek an extravagant experience without a price-no-object expectation, this review will guide you to consider the M1S2 carefully.


What can footers and a remote tell us?

The larger audiophile companies that have been around for decades turn out polished pieces that have high aesthetic appeal and usually impressive sound, if they are not compared to state-of-the-art products. Upper-end gear is usually thoroughly well-made and robust in sound and build. Should the audiophile be concerned that a high-end manufacturer might try to fool the public by putting inexpensive parts and a humdrum design into a massive case? Not usually. In most cases, pardon the pun, the manufacturer shooting for top honors is relentlessly refining the design and seeking a highly aesthetically appealing experience across the board. Bricasti strikes me as this last type of manufacturer, and one reason why is the remote control.

The remote control communicates a few things about a manufacturer. Essentially, if a cheap remote is good enough, then it leads me to ask what else the manufacturer thinks is good enough. Conversely, if the maker is concerned that everything the audiophile touches is of high quality, then I think it is a safe bet that the goal of high quality is carried through the entire design. Have I found exceptions in 14 years of reviewing? Not typically. Most often, the outlier components to the high side have fine remote controls. I took note when I removed the M1S2’s remote, which features a cast case and the same buttons that are found on the component. It appears to have been fabricated according to the same design parameters as the DAC, which tells me that Bricasti means business. The other telltale sign of excellence is the integrated purpose-built isolation footers on Bricasti components. This also speaks of attention to detail and pursuit of high-end sound. Manufacturers who are cutting corners do not typically include a machined case for a remote, and specialized, machined isolation footers.

But alas, the M1S2 does not feature a 10” digital display for visually oriented audiophiles. How can it be a serious product if it doesn’t pander to this visually oriented society? The video doesn’t matter to the ears. As a serious audiophile, I am not stressed about screens, at least not on audio components. A tablet or phone controlling the music does just fine, thank you. I would rather have a company push for perfection in the sound than spend my money on a screen I don’t need. The company providing a big front display is not directly helping my agenda to push the sound to the limit. I need a tablet anyway, so why should I spend additional for a display that I likely will not use? Aurender’s A20 (analogue) and N20 (digital) Output Network Players offer a feature to turn off the screen and streamline the internal operation for optimum sound quality. The M1S2 is purpose-built with an easily visible, generously-sized digital display with adjustable dimming to give optimal sound quality.

The M1S2 is not meant to stimulate the visual cortex for hours on end. It’s tidy, perhaps stark to some eyes, but not garish because of the softer appearing powdered black and silver finish and rounded edges of the cabinet. I must say it; looking down from above onto the sandwiched construction of the M1S2, with the thick black aluminum slabs flanking the lighter colored midsection it evokes thoughts of a fat Oreo cookie. I like Oreo cookies and I like that notion about the M1S2. Thankfully, it is not visible from the listening chair, or else like staring at meter, it would captivate my mind. The generously sized black and gray display is a welcome departure from tacky blue or red LEDs. The display is dimmable, allowing the M1S2 to be utterly discrete. I like the Bricasti’s fortified but refined aesthetic. The company’s website lists three colors, Black, Argento, and Platinum, the latter of which carries a $3K upcharge. I looked in vain for an image of an Argento Bricasti DAC but it seems either ultra-rare or nonexistent.


Particulars of the M1S2 used in this review

The version of the M1S2 in this review incorporates the Bricasti M5 Network Player functionality. It is a $1,000 option for the M1S2, and I can hardly think of a good reason to not include it. It can receive streaming music from services such as Qobuz and Tidal and play them back using Audirvāna Studio or Roon. I used both for this review and they resided on my Apple desktop upstairs. I controlled the music in the room with each of the app for tablet or phone. The streaming version of the M1S2 is an integrated component, which raises the question whether it can perform on a level of separate dedicated streamers and DACs. One of my goals in this review was to determine whether the M1S2 alone could outperform the combination of the Aurender N20 streamer and the M1S2 as a DAC. I also intended to find out whether the M1S2 could hold its own against the N20 with a selection of other DACS.


Bricasti M1S2 as a DAC

As a DAC, the M1S2 sports the usual suite of inputs; Network (Ethernet), USB, Toslink, SPDF (coaxial and BNC), and AES. It has both RCA and XLR outputs, a feature I look for in any streaming source because I often build more complex systems that require use of both XLR and RCA outputs simultaneously. An audiophile can be hamstrung in equipment choices and system setup if the digital source does not support both single ended and balanced outputs. The rocker primary power switch on the back has an accompanying reset button. The politely placed brushed silver oval buttons across the bottom of the unit’s façade beneath the smallish display indicate Input, Filter, Status, Level, Display, and Enter. These are offset by the larger VOLUME knob, which is also used for selecting the settings. All of these functions are duplicated on the hardware remote control. I adore the enormous LED digits and appreciate that the display can be dimmed and the background color changed.

As aforesaid, the RCA and XLR outputs are critical for some novel configurations of systems, such as passively bi-amping appropriate speakers or adding subwoofers. One of my favorite system configurations uses Audio Sensibility silver Y-Cables on the RCA outputs of the preamp or DAC to send (per channel) both a 3m run of Iconoclast Generation 2 RCA Ohno Continuous Cast Copper Interconnects to my Perlisten Audio D212s Subwoofers, and a 1m RCA Iconoclast Interconnect as an input to the Legacy Audio i.V4 Ultra Amplifier. Further, I often use Audio Sensibility’s XLR Y-Cables to split a DAC’s balanced outputs. That allows me to add two more channels of the Legacy i.V4 Amplifiers (the output of the amp’s RCA and XLR inputs are the same) to achieve passive tri-amping of my Legacy Audio Whisper speakers!

I won’t go into the details here, but the coup de gras involves splitting the 1M RCA input yet again at the amp, allowing for a total of 4 channels of amplification per side. The astounding Aspen Acoustics Grand Aspen Speaker uses all eight channels of the pair of Legacy i.V4 Ultra Amplifiers at 610 Watts per channel — one might say my systems have impact! The other two speakers used in this review, which I passively bi-amp, were the Kingsound King III electrostatic speakers and the PureAudioProject Trio15 10” Coaxial Speakers. I attempt to use the Perlisten D212s Subwoofers with all speakers except for initial assessment of reviewed speakers.

As the digital source and speakers were rotated during the review period, the Legacy amp(s) and Iconoclast Cables suitable for each setup remained constant. Had I also worked in other amplifiers, it would have confounded easy comparison between other DACs and the M1S2 with or without the Aurender N20. It should be noted that if the reader generally finds the character of the M1S2 in this review to their liking but wonders if the DAC would be tonally warm or ripe enough for their taste, I do not hesitate to recommend it in conjunction with more ripe sounding amps, such as the previously reviewed Moscode 402 Au, VAC Phi 200, Einstein Audio The Light in the Dark, AVM Ovation SA 6.2, Spread Spectrum Technologies Son of Ampzilla II, or Wells Audio Akasha. I do not believe these amps would have superior resolution to the Legacy i.V4 Ultra, but they likely would bring a more chocolatey, or syrupy, and plump sound.


DAC-centric system

Which is better to use in building a system for digital sound, a separate streamer with a DAC and Preamp, or a streaming preamplifier like the N20 with a dedicated DAC, or an integrated streaming DAC like the M1S2? To answer that question, I determined to build the systems with the equipment on hand and compare. Theoretical advantages often do not materialize in actual system building while hidden benefits are discovered. As I work toward a new digital front end, I would explore, ideally, several system options:

  • Streamer + DAC + Preamplifier + Amplifier
  • Streamer + Integrated DAC + Amplifier
  • Streamer + DAC + Integrated Amplifier
  • Streaming DAC + Amplifier
  • Streaming Integrated Amplifier
  • Integrated DAC + Integrated Amplifier (possible redundancy of attenuation)


The three configurations of systems I used during this review period were the first, second, and fourth. The best results were between the pairing of the N20 with the M1S2s DAC or the M1S2 as an integrated DAC (streamer/DAC/attenuation).

It seems that high end audio systems still defy simplicity, as there are many variables regarding the files themselves, the genres of equipment used to build a digital playback system, and the quality of the components, cables, and speakers. A saving grace of digital playback is that once the selection of music service(s), music management software, and hardware have been established, the routine of listening is less time-consuming than with other media. If a person wishes, they may set up a system that literally requires pressing one button to prepare the system for music playback and another to access the music management software.

The varied system configurations above assume passive speakers, but several of the system configurations allow for use of active speakers, further streamlining the system but not assuring better overall sound quality. Systems must be compared to determine which method and equipment yields superior sound.


Comparison of systems

Let’s start with a few comments regarding the silver disc. Once the reader stops rolling their eyes, fix your gaze on this fact; I find that when I play back my CDs from the Musical Fidelity M1CDT CD Transport (discontinued) using a length of Iconoclast’s 4×4 Generation 2 XLR Interconnect as the digital link, the M1S2 rendered them superior to the same tracks streamed, played back on either Audirvāna or Roon from either Tidal or Qobuz. I leveled the playing field in comparing DACs by isolating the source to the CD transport, thus eliminating the other variables involved in streaming sources. That I used CD playback with the M1S2 should not dissuade persons who might be considering it for streaming. The M1S2 is consistent in its excellence, elevating both CD and streaming audio.

A word of explanation for those who are concerned that I used an XLR interconnect in place of a digital AES cable. Digital cables are designed to convey the digital signal and are often considered to be universally superior because they are designed for that purpose. Years ago, I was curious whether the design of such cables conferred a universal superiority over interconnects. I conducted comparisons between digital cables and interconnects acting as digital links across several sets of components and was surprised to learn that there was no universal superiority of digital cables as digital links, but that with any given set of components an analog interconnect might yield better sound. Frankly, some of the digital links were awful, muddy sounding and occluded. I concluded that the audiophile is not assured of having optimized their system simply because a digital link is used.

Further, prior to reviewing I spent considerable time comparing entire sets of cables from different manufacturers. Audiophiles and even reviewers disdain the intent of cable manufacturers to use their cables in sets. With disregard to the intent and design of cable manufacturers, ad hoc collections of cables are used and the audiophile or reviewer presumes to discuss the sound of the cables! I consider this to be an egregious violation of proper system building. I have arrived at my reference set of cables through direct comparison of sets of cables and I review them accordingly.

As regards the Iconoclast XLR acting as an AES cable, I am being consistent in use of it along with the entire set of Iconoclast’s other products. Having used it as a digital link for many products, I find its performance to be superb. If Iconoclast made an AES cable, I would have tried it. I am using the next best thing, a consistently excellent XLR cable. Might a random AES cable outperform it? Perhaps, or it might underperform it, based on my previous comparisons in system building.

I am open to continued comparison of digital cables versus interconnects, and I suspect the outcome would be like my system building of years prior, that the best cable, AES or XLR, would be system dependent. Regardless, I am content to use an uncommon, holistically consistent methodology regarding cables. If someone wishes to dismiss my results because I have not used an AES cable, I will ask two questions. Have they compared multiple digital links to interconnects across multiple systems to determine whether in their use digital cables are universally superior as digital links? Have they vetted the system’s cables by comparison of entire sets as manufacturers intend? I feel that my system building methodology regarding cables is more consistent than inconsistent, and I do not wish to enter extended debate about it.

I have shared this partially so that audiophiles realize they have freedom to try every available option in discovery of the best performance of any given system. Hobbyists are often constrained by perceived wisdom and may have a better outcome at their fingertips. Before I started reviewing nearly a decade and a half ago, I learned to question the assumptions, and even purportedly inviolable design considerations, and build systems to find the best sound. Having said that, am I suggesting that audiophiles simply use an XLR cable in place of an AES cable? No, I am not suggesting that. Comparisons must be conducted, and with any given system I would compare all the cables available, both AES and XLR, because no manufacturer, reviewer, or hobbyist, not even myself, could tell the outcome until the comparison is done.

At some point I may revisit digital links. It would be a delicate situation if I was to find once again that with some components a digital cable was outperformed by an interconnect! Audiophilia can be a minefield!

Speaking of comparisons, I did comparisons of Alan Parsons Project’s Eye in the Sky and David Benoit’s The Best of David Benoit 1987-1995, both of which were more highly resolved and more engaging played back through the Musical Fidelity transport and the M1S2 than streamed through the M1S2. I resolved to play the entire disc and found myself enjoying the experience much as one might enjoy album playback — no skipping, jumping, or switching horses midstream. Perhaps CD therapy would be good for us audiophiles who jump from artist to artist, track to track. Listening habits do not determine system sound quality, but they can impact one’s moods. Obviously, this applies to those who still have a CD collection. If you put it into deep storage, you may enjoy retrieving it, finding a suitable CD player with digital output or a transport, and setting up a digital equivalent to a turntable.

Do not be fooled to think that this means CD playback with any DAC will surpass that of the streaming quality of the M1S2. Only direct comparison will tell in any theoretical matchup, but the streaming audio of the M1S2 is superior to the three other DACs referred to in this review with the Musical Fidelity transport. This is somewhat of a moot point considering that my music “collection” now includes thousands of online tracks that have outgrown the number of CDs. Streaming audio has become the de facto medium and I turn to it most of the time I sit down to listen. The streaming quality of the M1S2 is so good that I am not motivated to return to only CD playback.


With the Aurender N20

In my quest to find a premium digital source for streaming and file playback, one question I sought to answer in this review was how the M1S2 fares as a DAC in conjunction with a streamer of commensurate quality, such as the Aurender N20. Would an exceptional result require the use of a premium dedicated streamer? Aurender graciously allowed extended use of the N20 to include the review of the M1S2. That allowed assessment of the M1S2’s functionality as a DAC partnered with a streamer that could not be accused of dragging down its performance. The three DACs primarily used in assessing the N20 in its own review were, in order of cost and general sound quality improvement, the Eastern Electric Minimax Tube DAC Supreme, the Exogal Comet with PLUS Power Supply, and the COS Engineering D1 DAC+ Pre-Amplifier (the most current version of this integrated DAC is named the D1 DAC). I also used these DACs in comparison to the M1S2 as a DAC.

In use with the Aurender N20, the M1S2 brought a deeper, richer character and fullness than the other three. With the N20, the M1S2 was surprisingly warm tonally and caused the Legacy iV4 Ultra Amplifiers to have terrific impact. Especially in the bass, the output was so great that I had to dial back the Perlisten subwoofers -2.0 dB The midrange was slightly emphasized in a fashion that reminded me of the succulent Pathos Classic One MkIII Integrated Amplifier. Years ago, one of my favorite listening experiences emphasizing midrange was while using a pair of the Pathos integrated amps running mono. The N20 with the M1S2 took me back to that most agreeable, supple sound and with more refinement. The plump midrange created by the M1S2 was beyond even the COS Engineering D1 DAC, which for years has been my most warm and tube-like sounding DAC. A bonus was that the M1S2 was also the most revealing, resolving DAC I have used.

The M1S2 as a DAC did not sacrifice warmth to achieve the additional resolution. It did not have the wooly, overly warm character of tube electronics, but at no time did I feel it was etched or brittle. It matched particularly well with the Legacy Audio i.V4 Ultra Amplifiers, which are highly resolving. Especially with the Eastern Electric or Exogal DACs, I have at times needed to adjust the frequency spectrum through interconnects or power cords to either soften the treble or bring up the bass response. No such adjustments were necessary for the M1S2 regardless of the speakers used. It suggests that the Bricasti is an exceptionally well-balanced DAC tonally, even as it is highly revealing.


The M1S2 as an independent digital front end

Employing the full functionality of the M1S2 (Network Player/DAC/attenuation) allows it to be an independent digital front end. One of the confounding variables in a simple comparison presents itself at this point. Aurender products use their proprietary Conductor app to play music from streaming services such as Qobuz or Tidal. While the M1S2 also can accommodate these music sources, Bricasti has partnered with Audirvāna as the music playback software and Roon is an alternative. My thanks to Audirvāna for granting me a subscription to assess the M1S2 as a streaming DAC.

A note about the user-friendliness of Roon versus Audirvāna; the latter is not as polished as the former. Roon offers the user the option of looking at lyrics and is generally more intuitive. Audirvāna has more selectable features in its digital engine, which appeals to persons who have knowledge and wish to optimize playback. It seems the team at Audirvāna are in an upgrade cycle to improve the software’s user friendliness. I believe three software upgrades were done during the review and they improved Audirvāna quite a bit. While Roon has some features that those who enjoy the metadata might enjoy, I found that by the third update, the quality of the music playback on Audirvāna was superior.

Between the music available on Tidal and Qobuz and the benefits of Roon and Audirvāna, I felt all four were worthy of use. With any given system I switched between the music services and the playback media. I suggest that at a minimum you seek trials of these resources for your system, and you may find yourself wishing to maintain all of them.

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