M2Tech Young DAC

This review by Malcolm Steward first appeared in HiFiCritic (UK)  and  the Hi-Fi Journal around October 2011

M2Tech Young DAC

The M2Tech Young is a 32-bit 384kHz Asynchronous USB DAC – or convertitore digitale/analogico as the Italians rather more romantically refer to such devices. It is a compact unit – albeit with a rather striking minimalist design – which people will either love or loathe. The main body of the case is a 5cm tall and 20cm square natural aluminium sleeve with an M2TECH logo machined into the top panel. Inset into the fascia is a black-painted metal mesh through which protrude two controls: an on/off button and a source selector that cycles though the inputs. Between these there is a large, red dot-matrix display that illuminates to indicate which input is selected and then, when a signal is present, it shows the relevant sampling frequency. This has all the subtlety of Las Vegas and I consider it could usefully be improved with an off switch or a dimming facility but neither is present.

At the rear of the unit there is an unremarkable black panel housing all the input and output (RCA) connections along with the power socket, which is fed by a wall-wart connector. Whenever I see one of these, my immediate reaction is to wonder whether, and by how much, the unit would benefit by being used with a more substantial power supply. M2Tech gives specifications for adventurers who wish to try an ‘alien’ supply but naturally warns about your warranty being void if you do. I understand that the UK importer offers high performance alternatives to the standard supply, which, by repute, are probably worthy of investigation. M2Tech, however, recently showed me a prototype of an upgraded official PSU that will be released soon. My only other negative concern about the construction is the use of adhesive rubber feet, which may be appropriate on a cheap DAC, such as the Cambridge DACMagic, but is hardly fitting on a convertitore with an RRP of £977.95.

Five inputs include AES/EBU through an XLR connector, S/PDIF through BNC, S/PDIF through RCA, TOSlink, and USB2. The Young will handle sampling frequencies of 44.1kHz, 48k, 88.2k, 96k, 176.4k, and192k through all its inputs, except that its TOSlink input will accept nothing greater than 96kHz. The 352.8k and 384k resolutions are only available though the USB connection. In terms of resolution all the inputs will accept16 to 24-bit signals with just the USB being able to accommodate 32-bit.

The USB input is asynchronous (receiving only music data and generating its own clock stream) and was developed from the technology used in the well known and widely respected M2Tech hiFace USB to S/PDIF converter. This has been further enhanced to allow for the higher sampling rates the Young provides. You will need appropriate driver software to implement these speeds and currently there are drivers on M2Tech’s website for Windows 7, Vista, XP, 2003 and OSX Snow Leopard. So Linux masochists might have to look elsewhere or don their coding hats.

The custom digital oversampling filter, which is separate from the DAC chip, uses a programmable logic device, a Xilinx Spartan family FPGA, to implement minimum-phase filtering and low pre-echo in order to optimize the sound quality. The digital filter in the 32-bit Burr-Brown 1795 DAC chip is bypassed to allow for 768kHz internal operation to deliver an exceptionally low noise floor, and the output stage and buffer use high grade, class-A biased, low-noise op-amps.

I listened to the Young in my regular Naim active DBL system, where it was fed predominantly by a Naim HDX SSD hard disk player (with music stored on NAS) and a Chord Company, BNC-to-BNC, Sarum Digital interconnect. I also used music stored on an Acer laptop connected with a Furutech GT2 USB cable.

I fully intended to test the Young with 32-bit 384 kHz recordings but a search for them proved fruitless and, indeed, frustrating with lots of ‘16 bits are all anyone needs’ and ‘what is the point of high resolutions?’ type forum comments appearing from recording engineers and internet ‘experts’ quoting Nyquist. The highest resolution files I could find were 24-bit 352.8 khz – works of Britten, Haydn and Pink Floyd – and a host of 24-bit 192kHz Studio Master recordings from Linn Records in FLAC format, with whose quality I am already well familiar. These recordings can sound breathtaking through an appropriate renderer and DAC combination but can overwhelm lesser equipment so I used them along with more ‘mundane’ 24-bit/96kHz, 24-bit/88.2kHz, and 16-bit/44.1kHz  files.

M2Tech suggests a run-in time of at least 100 hours before you can expect the DAC to function at its best, and I was happy to comply with this instruction. The sound and presentation of the Young seemed free from the artefacts that make less capable DACs sound so obviously digital (and that is not a compliment).The Young had a vividly fluent and fluid quality to the way it portrayed music. It sounded simultaneously easy-going yet exquisitely dynamic. Leading edges were distinctly marked but there was no hardness or exaggeration about the way they were presented. The claimed low noise floor was readily appreciable from the outset.

An overall sense of naturalness pervaded the proceedings: nowhere more so than in the splendid 24-bit/192kHz recording Natsukashii by the Helge Lien Trio. The piano, bass and drums lucidly came to life through the Young. The piano had visceral texture and glorious tonality, and it displayed thoroughly realistic note shape with superb decay. Bass had more power and substance than I had heard before on this recording: at points it sounded like the rumble of distant thunder yet its LF was neither overblown nor sloppy. Meanwhile, the percussion exhibited phenomenal delicacy and realism, with the quietest of strikes still having a precisely etched, detailed character. This confirmed M2Tech’s claims for an ultra low noise floor. The only area in which it lost out to a DAC costing more than twice as much was it lacked the extreme finesse of the more expensive unit. Given its price, however, and the clean pair of heels it showed to many popular competitors, it almost seems churlish to bring up this minor transgression.

Playing a 24-bit/352.8kHz recording of Britten’s Boisterous Bourre, I was impressed with the way the Young presented the music with great insight into the way the arrangement worked and how the various instrumental lines inter-related and combined to such effect. All the instruments exhibited such complete tonality and fine detailing, making their lines supremely easy to follow and distinguish from those of other players. The overall portrayal was vivid and animated. Bass instruments had credible body and substance while the violins positively glistened, although not in any artificial sense. All round, the portrayal of the Young was both musically persuasive and cosmetically alluring.

On another 24/352.8 recording, this time a string quartet by Haydn, the music had a delightful vigour and again the interplay between the instruments was lucidly portrayed. Notes had splendid ADSR envelopes and sparkling dynamics. The recording displayed a wholly natural verve and vigour. Once more, vibrant tonal colour and beautiful texture brought the music to life, as did the recreation of the ambience of the recording venue. There was a truly authentic solidity and palpable substance to the sound of all the instruments: the result was a truly credible and captivating portrayal of the quartet.

The 24/192 Linn recording of William Carter playing baroque guitar, Fernando Sor – Early Works, clearly demonstrated the ability of the DAC to differentiate subtle dynamic contrasts. Quietly plucked strings were still clearly audible beneath those that were more robustly played. There was, again, a radiant texture to the guitar: it was easy to hear exactly how his fingers were fretting and plucking its gut strings. There was also a fine recreation of the recorded acoustic, and the music had credible vitality but was certainly not too forward or overbearing.

While the Young presents a very powerful case for music at higher resolutions, making the best 24-bit recordings sound considerably superior to 16-bit, it regularly appeared to get more out of 16-bit than other DACs. For example, it made the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You” extraordinarily musically persuasive as well as being cosmetically highly communicative. The presentation had true substance and authority.

In summary, the Young is an exceptional performer that truly punches above its weight. Even if you currently have no interest in high resolution music, it would be a big  mistake to leave this little gem off your list of DACs to audition.

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