The M-Stage ReLoaded (see what I did there)
So, back into the Matrix again with their redesigned M-Stage-HPA-3U. Mike (remember him?) reviewed an earlier M-Stage model here. I generally agree with his take on it, so it would be worth reading up on first. Matrix actually released two M-Stage amps recently: the HPA-3U and the balanced HPA-3B. This review only covers the 3U. So, anyway, what is the HPA-3U all about?
Before I really answer that question, I need to get all nonlinear on you, dear readers. Usually, I would talk about the build and look of the unit, move onto the sound, maybe offer a comparison or two, and then get to the extras features (if any) of the unit in question. Today, I have to start with the extras, in this case, the built-in DAC. “It will do fine until you can afford a better DAC, but it isn’t anything special” is what I figured on writing. I mean, these built-in DACs aren’t usually anything special, right. What experience does Matrix have with DACs anyway? What’s that you say? Mike liked their M-Stage DAC a while back? Well, true, and he thought the DAC that came with the Matrix Mini Portable was very good. And whoever did the reviews of the Matrix Mini-I DACs felt quite favorable about both of them… and that was me… Yep, I’m a moron. I don’t know why I didn’t expect this DAC to be good. I certainly should have. Despite having a Bifrost Uber (very good DAC) at my disposal at the time, I used built-in DAC for most of my listening. It just fit so well with the sound of the amp. The Bifrost threw out a wide sound, with more treble presence and a hair more detail. The smoother treble of the Matrix DAC just played better with the amp section. This DACs width isn’t the greatest, but it has surprisingly good depth. It is fairly clean with pretty good detail. Both the Bifrost and Concero HD and what not are better DACs, but the synergy going on here can’t be denied, and musicality is always my bottom line. It will do up to 24/192, and can do DSD over DoP, if DSD is your thing.
Now, we can talk about the amps sound. Of course, any talk of the sound of this amp has to start with the bass. It’s big, bold and beautiful. If you have a headphone that you think needs just that little something extra down below, this amp might be just the ticket. The M-Stage reminded me just how hard the HD650 can hit. Yet, connected to this amp, the bass never bled into the mids, or made the sound feel unnaturally dark. It doesn’t go out of its way to impart its will on the headphones connected to it. When throwing the Grado SR80s on there, they sounded like Grados. The SR80s bass is on the lean side, and still is connected to the M-Stage. Impact is really good. I would call the bass body as being just a little more than neutral, but not to the point that I find it intrusive.
The midrange follows suit with the bass in offering a full bodied experience. The mids sit slightly forward and there is definitely some warmth to them. Both male and female vocals are given their proper place in the music, and don’t get buried among the body of the instruments (unless it was recorded that way. In that case, there is nothing you can do about that. That’s my biggest issue with the album Bleed like Me. The voices are mixed too far back). The sound is smooth, and uhhh… very enjoyable. No issues so far with the sound.
But here comes the treble (see what I did there)! The upper frequencies are pretty well extended, with some nice sparkle and air to them. With the HD650 anyway. This amp is an excellent pairing with the classic Sennheiser: hard hitting bass, full midrange and extended treble that mixes nicely with the rolled off upper frequencies of the HD650. When I plugged in the Grado SR80e, things almost went too far. It threatened to get screechy. It never quite crossed that line, but it was close.
There is all with the built-in DAC. With the Bifrost, that line got crossed. Even with the HD650, the third movement of Shostakovich’s Sixth symphony had moments that made me wince. Again I say, with the built-in DAC, this is a very nice amp and the treble can be very nice. If you are using another DAC, this is where you might need to be careful. I should say though, my ears are a little more sensitive to treble than some.
Soundstage performance is pretty sold. Much like the DAC, the width is only fair, but the depth of the sound is good. It has a nice three dimensionality, which isn’t to be taken for granted. There is a little bit of grain to the sound, not an issue with the HD650 which has grain itself, but it is there. Clarity is pretty good for the price point, but this isn’t the most transparent amp on the market.
Now, I happen to have a M-Stage HPA2 with me here, and there is definitely a family sound resemblance between the HP3 and its older brother, but the difference are quite telling. The HPA2 is warmer and darker. It has more body in the mids and bass, and is much more rolled off in the treble. It makes the HPA3 sound a lot more neutral. Although, leaner in the bass and mids, the HPA3 still has plenty of body, and offers a bit more detail and clarity. The treble is a pick your poison type of situation, I prefer the HPA3, since I can always use the built-in source, or even a little EQ if I need to bring the treble under control a bit more. The older HPA2 has an output impedance of 5Ohms, which makes it a poor fit for more Custom IEMs. The HPA3 has a headphone out of 0.2Ohms which means it shouldn’t have an impedance mismatch with anything ever. With the new Alclair Curve IEM, the noise floor was noticeable with the volume at 0, but it wasn’t noticeable with music playing, so this amp should be an option with all but the most sensitive IEMs.
As far as the build goes, while I can’t claim to love the styling, it is built pretty solid, and at this price point, that’s what matters. The front panel switches, which control the input (RCA inputs or USB input), and the gain (5, 10, 20), and the volume knob don’t look very high end, but they are functional and again, feel solid. Now that I look at it, if you squint, and imagine docks on both sides of the amp, it kind of looks like a battlestar. The Battlestar M-Stage doesn’t have a bad ring to it. It also comes with a power cable and a USB cable (not something to take for granted), so you can get started right away.
Overall, I am a pretty big fan of this amp, but, besides possibly screechy treble, I do have a few other minor issues to point out. First, I don’t like the fact that there isn’t an option to buy it without the DAC. Now yes, I really like the DAC, but if someone already has one (and they think it a good match), it would be nice if they could say a few bucks and get the amp sans the DAC. You can buy the HPA3B, which removes the DAC and adds balanced inputs and headphone out, but it costs the same, so no money is saved. It might be the way to go if you see yourself using a balanced connection. The other point is that this is an entry level amp. It is a very good one, but it is still just that. Bumping up the G109s by the Lake People brings a blacker background, more detail and clarity, and treble that never turns harsh. While, at $420, the M-Stage HPA3 is $200 less than the G109, $420 is getting to the edge of what I would consider to be an entry level price. If you are looking for a nice entry level amp, I can make this recommendation fairly easily. If you already have something, like the HPA2, for example, and are looking for an upgrade, I would say save up your money for a G109 or V100 or Soloist SL or something else that is a clear step up. The HPA3 is better than the HPA2, but not by a great margin.
All of this naysaying aside, the M-Stage HPA3 is a very nice, very musical entry level solid state amplifier. It can power just about anything you can throw at them, and make good music with them too. Having reviewed three matrix products now, consider me a fan.
In the USA, the M-Stage can be purchased at http://matrix-digi-usa.com/