Sabre – Dac Story
Boy, has this one been a long time coming. I went back through my emails, and Arthur Powers, the distributor for Matrix in the US, first mentioned this DAC was coming on April 6th, 2016. At first, Matrix was just going to basically redesign the old X-Sabre (unheard by me) and use the same DAC chip, the Sabre 9018s. Hearing that ESS was about to unveil a new TOTL DAC chip (the 9028pro), they decided to wait for that. Well, ESS had some issues with that chip, and obviously they aren’t going to ship faulty chips out, so that delayed things for about 6 months. (I believe it was around this time that I first heard about the DAC). Some cool stuff happened during those 6 months, but that is a story for another review. Some time goes by and I inquire about it. I am told things are looking good, and I should have one in a couple weeks. Another month then flies by, and I again ask Arthur what the status is on the new X-Sabre. Now, he tells me, it turns out, ESS was going to release an even more high-end chip, the 9038pro, and Matrix decided it wanted to use that chip, which also meant they had to redesign part of the X-Sabre Pro to make it work. So, here I am in 2017, and after all these delays, I finally am holding the (really damn heavy) Matrix X-Sabre Pro in my hot little hands. I was excited, but nervous. On one hand, I have yet to hear a Matrix product that wasn’t well made and musical, but on the other, the Matrix X-Sabre Pro is selling for $1700. That is $600 more than the old X-Sabre, and the most expensive thing I have reviewed for Headfonia. Was it worth the wait? Is the price justified? Inquiring minds want to know.
Well, one thing is for sure, they built the f&$k out of this thing. This thing is solid. They say it is precision machined aluminum, and weights around 8 pounds. I say they carved it out of a block of lead and painted it silver; they can also paint the lead black if that is your preferred color. I like the look of the black better, but I got sent the silver model (life is hard, I know). Color notwithstanding, I am really digging the sleek style they got going on with the Pro here. Although well built, I thought both the M-Stage 3u and (especially) the Quattro II were pretty ugly looking. As has been well documented on this site, I usually couldn’t care less about the look a piece of audio equipment has, but has prices start to climb, I have trouble accepting any compromise, even if it is about something as superfluous as style. They are definitely going for a sleek, modern look as opposed to the… we will call it “clunky chic” of the Quattro II. I am happy to see they have polished up their look.
Unlike their Mini and Quattro line, the Matrix X-Sabre Pro is a stand-alone DAC. However, it does pack quite a bit of functionality into its large, heavy frame. Looking at the front of the unit, smack dab in the middle is a screen, that during playback tells you what input is selected, they type of signal (DSD, PCM) and the bitrate and frequency. It also is used to display the Pro’s menu. To the right and left of the screen are touch screens that can be used to do all sorts of things. On the far right is the power button. Tap it to turn on the unit. Tap it again to mute the output. Hold it down to turn off the unit. Besides that you have input select buttons, and volume control. Volume control, you ask? Yes, the Pro also works as a preamp, so, should you choose, you can adjust the strength of the signal you are sending out. There is also a menu that you can access by holding the power button down for a few seconds after the unit is turned off. Here you have the options of selecting a straight line out or using the preamp, choosing between 7 different filters, synchronous or asynchronous USB output, whether the touchscreen makes noise, and more. The Matrix X-Sabre Pro can handle any format you can throw at it up to DSD512. For outputs, the PRO has both balanced and unbalanced. For inputs, it has USB, coaxial, optical, AES, and, instead of my oft-requested second AES input, they offer an I2S port. What is an I2S port, you ask? That was the question I had for Arthur when I first received the Pro.
This was his response:
I2S is what it used internally by all DAC chips. Basically a USB converter chip converts the USB signal to I2S. However, for external connections there are no set standards yet. The most used at the moment is the PS Audio standard and that is what the Matrix X-Sabre Pro conforms to. All external I2S connections adopted the use of an HDMI cable but the wiring is different for different manufacturers. Even though they use a HDMI cable it is not a HDMI signal, nor compatible with HDMI in any way. So you cannot plug it into your computer directly. You would ironically need an external converter (USB to I2S) or a music server that outputs native I2S (in the PS Audio standard) to utilize this input.
Honestly it’s of little use to most people and very confusing to just about everyone! There are some external XMOS converters for USB to I2S that can be used. Seems kind of stupid since there is already a XMOS USB converter chip in the X-Sabre Pro. The only advantage other the perhaps isolation and a separate power supply is that the USB input on the X-Sabre Pro is limited to DSD 512 but the ES9038Pro DAC chip is capable of DSD 1024. The only way to make use of this insane DSD rate would be to use an external converter that uses the newer XMOS 208 series chip capable outputting I2S DSD @ 1024.
Perhaps this new input will be better used in the future. That’s basically the idea to make the unit future proof and support all formats no matter how crazy they might seem today.
So, there that is. Maybe in several years’ time, the Matrix X-Sabre Pro will be one of the only DACs still in use due to this forward thinking inclusion, or maybe not. We will just have to wait and see. What can be said safely is that the Matrix X-Sabre Pro is packed with both features and functionality. A list of all features and specs can be found here, but none of this will matter if the Pro can’t bring the sound quality. So, does it? Oh, you bet it does!
You might assume that a DAC having a Sabre chip will have a more reference tuned sound, and in the case of the X-Sabre Pro, you would be correct in that assumption. As has been proven many times now, neutral doesn’t in any way mean unmusical. The X-Sabre Pro is very musical. The flat frequency response gives every sound its due. It doesn’t lack anywhere. The sound blew me away when I first heard it, but a lot of things sound awesome at first, and then go sour once the honeymoon period is over. If anything, my appreciation for the Pro only increased as time went on. Layering and texture are terrific across the board, and it should surprise no one that the instrument separation is also first rate. The depth and especially the width are really startling. The Pro really throws out a terrific soundstage. Despite doing so well in technical performance, the X-Sabre Pro still has an organic, natural sound. Nothing sounds harsh, or metallic, or forced. While it goes without saying that the Pro is a great match for some of my well recorded classical music, what I am finding amusing is how much fun I am having going through my collection of rock or pop music. I wouldn’t have thought that they would have benefited as much from the step up in the DAC, but some really have. One song in particular, Teaching Little Fingers to Play by Garbage, via the Pro, a V100 and the HE-560, has turned into a real ethereal experience for me. Shirley Manson’s voice front and center, while the electronic instrumental sound envelops my head. I am giddy just thinking about it. Looking back at the other Matrix DACs I have reviewed in the past that utilized Sabre chips, some minor complaints I had was in being a little lacking in the bass, or lacking that last word in micro detail. I am happy to say that the X-Sabre Pro has none of these issues.
I had been using as my reference DAC, the Lake People RS 06 (the sonic equivalent of the Violectric V850 which retails at a similar price to the X-Sabre Pro at $1659.95). It is a wonderful sounding DAC, and I was prepared to really put my ear to the grindstone and see what subtle differences I could find between the two. After five seconds of listening to the X-Sabre Pro, I leaned back, put my feet up on the table and said, “That was easy”! The size of the soundstage created by the Pro in relation to the RS 06 really took me aback. This makes me want to get an HD800 and see what the two can do together. This is one area where the Pro clearly betters the RS 06. The Matrix is definitely more forward and energetic than the RS 06 with more apparent detail. Its treble isn’t as laid back. That is how you would describe the biggest difference between these two excellent DACs. The RS 06 (or V850) is smooth and laid back, without sacrificing detail, while the X-Sabre Pro is more “reference” tuned an energetic without sacrificing musicality. I could see people having different preferences as to which of these they would prefer; The RS 06 has such an easy sound signature to love. For me, however, the greater energy, larger soundstage and slightly better technical performance has me going with the X-Sabre Pro, all the way.
I hope Matrix will forgive me for this next part, but I feel the need for some self-reflection. I have been writing for Headfonia for about 4 years now. It has been a wonderful experience. That feeling of being a kid in a candy store has yet to wear off. Reviewing the X-Sabre Pro, and raving about it like I have, is making me wonder how I might have changed since I started here. I am thinking back to a review I did my first year of the Neko Audio D100. It was a dual review I did with Mike (the prince of darkness). Mike loved its dark sound, while I wasn’t too happy with it. I took special issue with the price ($1499). I said, when looking at its price tag, “my thought isn’t, “OMG, this is going to be the most awesome thing ever!” I am thinking,” this better make gold come flowing out of my headphones if they expect me to pay this much money for a freaking DAC!” I am well aware that the law of diminishing returns applies heavily when the price starts to really climb, but I find that to be unacceptable. If I am paying $1500 for a DAC, I expect to hear $1500 worth of sound.” Tough words! And I don’t find myself disagreeing with that, either. Now, it should be said that, in terms of build quality, features and functionality, the X-Sabre Pro is leagues beyond the D100. Still, it doesn’t sound twice as good as the RS 06, or five times as good as the EL DAC (review forthcoming), etc. So, what’s changed? My perspective.
There are two kinds of people in this situation. First, you have the people who would never spend that kind of money on one piece of headphone gear. You are looking for a product to have a high price/performance ratio. Why pay $2000, you say, when you can get 90% of the way there for $500. You are willing to save up to have a really nice system at your disposal, but you have limits. The second kind is the “all-in” audiophile. You want the best sound possible, and you will do what it takes to achieve that. It is more than a hobby; it is a way of life. I suppose there is a third type of person who thinks those earbuds that come with the ipod are just jim dandy, but they don’t really factor in here.
I am finding myself sandwiched rather oddly between the two groups. Personally speaking, I fall into group one. I like high value products, and am bound by the fact that my wife and kids might just want to eat this week. The fact is, were I not able to keep my review unit of the X-Sabre Pro, it would never be in my collection. It isn’t that I wouldn’t want it, but it is simply a financial reality. One the other side, I am a critic, and I have to be open all walks of audiophilia. The Matrix X-Sabre Pro is not meant for the average Joe headphone enthusiast, and I have to acknowledge that the Pro sounds phenomenal, and that, under $1700, I have not heard its equal. So, intrepid reader, you and you alone know if the Matrix X-Sabre Pro is something you would like. If, you are looking for a no compromise sound, I will just leave this here: http://matrix-digi-usa.com/x-sabre_pro