Matrix X-SABRE Pro Review by

2017-06-23 11:05Reviews

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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen

Sources: 27" iMac with 5K Retina display, 4GHz quad-core engine with 4.4GHz turbo boost, 3TB Fusion Drive, 16GB SDRAM, OSX Yosemite, PureMusic 3.01, Tidal & Qobuz lossless streaming, COS Engineering D1 & H1, AURALiC Vega, Aqua Hifi Formula, Fore Audio DAISy 1, Apple iPod Classic 160GB (AIFF), Astell& Kern AK100 modified by Red Wine Audio, Cambridge Audio iD100, Pro-Ject Dock Box S Digital, Pure i20, Questyle QP1R; Bakoon DAC-21 [on review]

Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Wyred4Sound STP-SE MkII, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVC module), COS Engineering D1

Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1, F5, F6, F7; Bakoon AMP-12R; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund Job 225; Aura Note Premier;

Wyred4Sound mINT; Nord Acoustics One SE Up NC500MB; Linnenberg Audio Allegro

Loudspeakers: Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; soundkaos Wave 40; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence; Audio Physic Avanti [on review]

Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Arkana Research XLR/RCA and speaker cables [on loan]; Sablon Audio Petit Corona power cords [on loan], Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo

Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all components, 5m cords to amp/s + sub

Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]

Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators

Room: Rectangular 5.5 x 15m open floor plan with two-storey gabled ceiling, wood-sleeved steel trusses and stone-over-concrete flooring

Review component retail: £1'699


For every sabre, there's a tooth. For Matrix Audio's Sabre-X Pro DSD, that pointy fang is the ESS Lab ES9038 Pro chip. It's the Canadian supplier's latest 8-channel IC with on-chip digital attenuator and spit-polished specs. To play with PS Audio-type I²S transports, that parallel not serial interface even appears on an HDMI port though it's not standard HDMI protocol. Do not plug your Oppo video feed into it. Else your little tiger will draw blood.

As a milled-from-solid affair, Mister X only needs screws for the bottom plate and connectors. Otherwise it's full-on "mono, man!" Monolithic. Before you call it a trifle, consider the £1'700 ask. Where Ayre, Jeff Rowland & Co. offer such constructions, they tend to demand loads more. Where the Matrix plays, it's usually bent sheet metal. Add a tell-all central display to confirm menu choices, then format, sample rate, source and volume during play. Add touch-sensitive controls behind the tempered glass strip. It's crystal that this model takes looking sharp serious. A sabre tooth in an Armani suit?


The DSD suffix signifies DoP protocol up to DSD512 over all inputs, not merely USB. To hit the stratosphere of 45.158MHz aka DSD1024 requires the I²S port. Ditto DSD native (or otherwise via ASIO). PCM maxes out at 32bit/768kHz. So the Matrix is the consummate number's warrior, dresser, math geek and buzzword-compliant marketeer. We get three low-jitter Crystek clocks, seven selectable PCM filters, a Noratel toroid and Neutrik socketry. To drive inefficient active speakers, there's even a +18dB gain mode.


In geek mode, Mr. X delivers >-151dB crosstalk and >134dB S/N ratio over its 4.5Vrms XLR. That's still >-143dB and >-129dB on 2.25Vrms RCA. A global switch on the belly digests 115/230VAC. If you relocate to another power grid, the Pro converts. Based out of Shaanxi/China, Matrix Electronic Technology Co. Ltd. are a busy OEM/ODM. That makes them designers and/or makers of contract gear which other companies rebrand as their own. Like many ghostwriting outfits, they must have grown desirous of getting proper credit and recognition for their work. Hence their own brand Matrix Audio for which the X-Pro DSD is the present flagship. To spare Western customers the insecurities of dealing directly with China, Elite Audio UK have taken on distribution on this side of the pond. Timing is good. Matrix have secured European CE, RoHS, US FCC and Korean KCC certifications to roar globally. DACs are popular. DSD is fashionable. What to say about value-priced Far Eastern imports with impeccable European backup? They stretch your discretionary euro, pound or krone and take all worries out of the deal. Study the manual for the works. This is quite the comprehensive package.


In the gleaming metallic flesh, the Matrix was très petite; ¾ width, ¾ depth, barely one rack space tall. 'M' for munchkin not Matrix? Getting at the innards meant undoing eight bottom panel bolts, four screws on the mother board, three rear-panel retainer rings for the RCA jacks and six matching fixing screws for the XLR. Now I could dislodge the upside-down board and flip it over for a look-see.


This spotted the Xilinx Spartan processor, Microchip PIC18F67J50 controller chip/RAM buffer, 216kHz AKM4113VF digital receiver, XMOS 6U6U5 USB transceiver, Crystek clocks, Sabre chip obscured beneath a stamp-sized heat sink, 5 x 25V/3'300F Nichicon caps, pulse transformers on each of the AES/EBU and coaxial inputs, trim pots for the left/right channel voltage reference and sundry OVII T155I parts in the output buffer.


Matrix clearly had execution, design, styling and finishing down to a capital 'T'.

Even the metal-face remote followed suit with large easily identified buttons for the inputs, ± volume, mute and power. Having just returned from the Munich HighEnd 2017 show a few days prior to when X touched down by DPD courier, I was still in rehab from overkill bling for the 0.1 percenters. Inspecting the Matrix became an Xcellent reminder that life in the trenches of sanity continues if one just knows where to look. Huzzah!


Once plugged into wall power, the power symbol on the display goes red. After five seconds, it extinguishes. Pressing it now goes out of standby, with first the white logo appearing in the central eye, then the other commands. Each manual touch on a control strip elicited a brief chirp. Manual volume navigation thus occurred one chirp at a time. By remote, a longer press starts to whiz through the numbers. Those cover 0.5dB steps down to -50dB, 1dB steps from -50 to -65dB, 5dB steps to -110dB and one final 10dB step to -120dB. Beside the attenuation figure, the eye also shows a circumferential volume marker for those born during the analog knob era. 'Auto' mode searches for an active input, saying 'connecting...' until there's actual live bait on the line. The only micro blips on the negativity radar were a lack of included CR2032 coin battery—thankfully our last Ikea visit had stacked up and the remote went active momentarily—and no owner's manual to figure out how to enter 'menu'. The quick start guide made no mention of it so I downloaded the full PDF instead.


This explained that X remembers the last input and volume setting out of standby; that during play, the touch-screen power button becomes the mute button; and that held for two seconds when off, it opens the menu. Thereafter the ± vol commands step through the menu and the power button becomes the selector. Exploring this, one learns that the 'beep' confirmation can be turned off which I did. No more chirping. To exit the menu, one follows through to the last screen, then selects 'exit'. Nothing much to it really.

Did I already say that X was small but beautiful? Okay, moving on. For reasons unknown, it and our usual double-header red KingRex USB cable weren't compadre. I had sound but garbled as though behind water. Swapping in the included USB cable with woven silver shield and ferrite clamp cured that. In PCfi, one learns to take such mysteries in stride. Elite's Mark Cargill confirmed that in their shoppe, they'd had similar weirdnesses with some earlier AudioQuest USB cables. To not review in limbo, I set up AURALiC's original Vega. Selling for $3'300 at the time, it runs an older Sabre chip with custom digital filters; and a class A output buffer modeled on the famous Neve recording console. Cosmetically, my eyes felt that the half-priced Matrix ate the Vega's lunch. Segueing into sonics, either connected balanced to the Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II fully balanced preamp to bypass the lossy on-chip digital attenuator. From there the signal moved via XLR to our new Linnenberg Allegro monos. Those drove our usual Albedo Audio Aptica speakers suspended atop Hifistay's gyro-tension footers. Digital transport duties fell to either a Soundaware SD card reader via AES/EBU; or our music iMac via USB and the most current versions of PureMusic or Audirvana handling signal routing.


In certain light-deprived cul-de-sacs of audiophile 'knowledge', Sabre chips sound bright, steely and thin. If converter chips made any sound of their own, such statements could, perhaps, be made. But since they categorically do not—they at least need a power supply, I/V and output stage—other variables redress whatever their own balance might be. More open-eared listeners have long since grasped that Sabre-toothed DACs from various vendors do not sound alike. Often the margin of difference is unexpected. Still, this belief that chip identification predicts sonics is so deeply engrained that many makers no longer publish whether their silicon sand comes from the Sahara, a Baja beach or the Mongolian desert - well, AKM, ESS, TI, Wolfson & Bros. Being sabre'd, the Matrix will have its work cut out in those dark judgmental alleys. Most of course will approach it without any preconceived ideas. As a very well-regarded deck, the Vega almost universally had reviewers agree on its nearly Technicolour tonal intensity; very much contrary to biased notions. Though recently superceded by the Vega G2, the original's popularity and widespread coverage still made it a very good reference for the upstarting Matrix challenger. Plus, it was the only competitor in-house not priced from 4 to 10 times higher.

On sound, the Vega played aural elder as its higher sticker should have. The Matrix was more matte and muted. This meant lesser shorter ambiance. To visualize the difference, see two identical marble sculptures. Their pedestals sit in water. The lighting is such that the water barely factors. Now imagine that on one sculpture, some slightly coloured oil begins to seep down to disperse into the water behind and around it. Suddenly the oily coloured traces on its surface make the water visible. That's ambiance. Translated into three dimensions to not just float on the water but light up the whole area behind the sculpture, they illustrate how sonic ambiance spreads out behind/around recorded musicians. This atmospheric cloud becomes audible space. It's slightly more than a completely silent empty nothing we'd not hear. It's very fine reflections; miniature echoes or acoustic/artificial reverb. Those place the main sounds into spatial context; and create subtle haloes around individual tones.


With its slightly dimmer treble, the Matrix's "colour traces on the water" weren't as visible and didn't travel as far. The same milder overtone content also reduced the Vega's tonal gloss. In the low end, the Vega exhibited slightly more weight and mass, possibly reflecting a more substantial output stage. On the flip side, what by contrast were slightly softer frequency extremes for the X meant that subjectively, its midband felt just a tad richer and warmer. Reduced ambient recovery also made the overall feel slightly more distant because inherent energy was a bit dulled. If this reads quite different to how I described the Resonessence Veritas which introduced the 9038 Pro to the world at large... indeed. Implementation trumps parts identity. This includes older vs. newer chip given how the presumably technically inferior 9018 of the Vega actually acted more lit up and energetic. Papa Shakespeare keeps reminding Hifi Horatio of that famous Hamlet line and the things our science dreams of between heaven and earth. In audio, little need be as it seems though being exactly as it seems happens just as often. In this instance, the X Sabre refuses to slot in line with popular expectations. It proved to be a gentler mellower beast, an ideal mate perhaps for those cost-effective class D amps in its price class which veer into the opposite.

Big-picture readers always demand maximum context. They won't be surprised that our equally ESS'd Fore Audio DAIsY1 with tube buffer and a +€6K sticker when new (the firm has apparently closed its doors since) went considerably farther on in-room presence, intensity and projection power. Likewise for the €13'800 Aqua Hifi Formula. Diminishing returns and the iron-clad mandate for quality-matched ancillaries to insure that no component chokes remain key. To make full hay from a Formula calibre DAC means amps, preamp, speakers, cables and conditioners of equal ambition. That's like cashing out a fancy car; or paying down on a small house. Past admitting the obvious—that the Matrix couldn't possibly be the end-all of D/A converters—we'll stop looking in the wrong direction. Instead we'll play to its temperament and size class by reshuffling ancillaries for maximum joy. Out with the ultra-quick 1MHz Linnenberg Allegro monos and premium-resolution 'passive' Wyred preamp. In with the April Music HP100 MkII and S100 MkII. Those are two Stello-r components at $1'200/ea., from South Korea's very gifted designer Simon Lee when he was still with that company. Tada. By spending way less money but applying discernment about component matching, the overall sonic quality actually went up. Instantly there was more body, juiciness and a far fatter slice of the lush life.


Soundaware SD card reader, Matrix Sabre X, April Music Stello HP100 MkII, April Music Stello S100 MkII , Albedo Audio Aptica

If you're still unclear on how that could possibly be, consider your system in terms of salty, sweet, sour, pungent and bitter. You've swapped around until, to your palate, the final stew had just the right amount of each. If your DAC was in charge of sweet but the new DAC is salty... obviously things will be too salty. To arrive back at your ideal mix—or another that's just as intrinsically right and compelling but different—means changing out more components. If they're of the right flavour, something far costlier but of the wrong flavour will tank. That's speaking in simplified generalities. Still, the core mechanism is a fact. Suffice to say that the Stello twins of preamp/amp with their warmer denser character dovetailed far better than the spare €6'000 they replaced. In this new company which on price was far more likely to be repeated in the real world, the Matrix went much farther down the rabbit hole. Anyone thinking bright, steely and flat again (yawn!) would have found himself discombobulated and watching the wrong movie. This show was voluptuous, meandering not rushing, well enunciated not prickly, here not there and, dare one say it, pretty.


I had no upshifted sibilants, no onset of glassiness on challenging power vocals, no brittleness on bright productions with their strangulated everything-loud dynamic range. Rather than mellow but distanced, the sound was chewy, properly tensioned and present. You might say that the Matrix now was meant to be primarily responsible for transparency and resolution because other aspects important to these particular Accuton speakers were taken care of by the revised now darker denser amplification. With the ultra-lucid Wyred/Linnenberg combo, more of that burden fell on the source. Here our far pricier converters with output stages the size of the entire Matrix really do recoup their considerable investment. But in the final constellation shown above, I wanted for nothing. Everything simply clicked. It's too easy to screw up component matching and pronounce bad judgment. Hifi needs just a bit more sensitivity. With the Matrix, it meant looking inside not outside its price class.

Following such intro not outrospection, I ended up on my desktop, tapping its Win7/64 HP workstation with the Sabre-X rather than the Gordon Rankin-designed 24/96 DAC built into the Swiss Eversound Essence active boxes. As a steep 768kHz deck, the Matrix needed a driver, here the typical Thesycon downloaded from the Matrix website in a jiffy. Rebooted, the HP shook paws with the X and Tidal started streaming to it. Comparing out and in—handling conversion outside or inside the speakers—netted a clear victory for my stylish Xman. Though a big 30" monitor between speakers should annihilate any depth perspective, there was no doubt that the Matrix penetrated it in front of my very eyes. It set the apparent soundstage about half a metre behind it. That covered new ground vis-à-vis the Essence DAC.

With the speaker's analog volume and full-size RCA inputs, the X factor was, again, a slightly gentler grip on transients, less fizz on high and, particularly noted on vocals, a subtle but becoming emphasis. Unlike the Canadian Veritas, the Chinese 9038 Pro converter's take on resolution was more enfolded than out-standing. I sensed that its designers were more holistic than dissective. They clearly weren't into sizzly highs and deep-fried attacks with extra crispy edging. The only proviso for taking the right pill into this matrix is that full fleshiness will depend on whatever you team the Sabre-X up with. That aspect isn't top priority with our slick looker from Shaanxi.


Circling the wagons. Extrapolating from my auditions, I'd call the Matrix Sabre-X Pro DSD voiced slightly soft at the extremes, with a concomitant tendency to feel a bit distanced, i.e. very much not in yer face. However, this is no bodybuilding fat-packing component. If desired, those attributes should be handled elsewhere. The X's primary virtue is high though not extreme resolution; exactly what you'd hope for from a source meant to pass on uncorrupted data. Onboard volume control is digital, hence lossy if used beyond small trim. Still, such losses could be less than obscurations introduced by an inferior preamp and added cables. It depends on how much signal cut you need. Filter changes are very subtle. Endless upsampling is seriously less relevant than using files with higher bit depth like 44.1kHz/24-bit. My handful of DSD files collected purely for test purposes worked as they should. My library is six Nines Redbook. For this punter then, DSD is just three meaningless letters. But if you differ, be assured that the Matrix digests DSD as promised. If you'd always wanted an AURALiC Vega but couldn't foot the bill, for about half the dosh, the prettier Matrix in the posher chassis gets you there in a sonically slightly mellower less glossy fashion. In today's inflationary climate, that adds up. No wonder team Matrix wanted open credit for this design, not see it disappear rebadged under a different marque as they do for their usual OEM/ODM contracts. Their Sabre-X Pro DSD is a lovely value with fully mature functionality and user interface, build quality well beyond its sticker and sound which despite the number's madness of 768kHz is more integral than analytical, more soft than incisive. Xcellent!