Mini-i Pro 3 Review by Soundnews.net - Third Time's a Charm
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I have a pretty long history of reviewing Matrix Audio gear. My first ever review was for their beautiful New Mini-i that I’ve done in the July of 2014. I felt in love with its form factor, with its smooth clean lines and with its beautiful OLED screen. It borrowed some design cues from Bel Canto line of DACs and it also reminded me a bit of Primare i32 integrated amplifier that was driving a pair of Dynaudio Contour S1.4 in the living room.
A year later I was rocking a balanced headphone amplifier from them, called M-Stage HPA-3B that is still going strong and is being used by a few close friends of mine. That was the first time when I’ve tested Noratel audio-grade transformers in a device that costs less than $500. I was hooked to balanced drive and to its class-A working principle that was adding a lot of body and emotions into my music. Even at that time I knew that good sound was running through their veins, those guys were very serious about it, part selection was top-notch and it delivered good sonics at an affordable price.
They earned my total respect in 2017, when I’ve tested their X-Sabre PRO DAC that obliterated DACs costing 3 to 4 times its price. It is still my top recommendation if you are hunting for a TOTL DAC that would be disappearing from your acoustic chain. It was the first ESS 9038 PRO based DAC that I have tested and weirdly enough it is still among the best I’ve tried up to this point. I couldn’t sleep at night after testing that one, so just before Christmas I went and bought one for myself.
In 2019, Matrix Audio were already hinting at something Big on their social media, leaving only subliminal messages and some sneaky photos. Element line was revealed in the following months, my curiosity levels skyrocketed above the clouds, I was eager to test their pimped-out Element X, that besides being a DAC, also offered a balanced headphone amp section, a top-of-the-line preamplifier, an internal music player controlled by a simple Matrix Audio (MA) remote app, they also included a fully-fledged wireless streamer that would forever change the way I’m listening to music. Curiosity struck hard and again after my review dropped, I couldn’t sleep at night without owning it. It proved to be the best sounding D/S DAC siting on an iron throne together with X-Sabre Pro, which I still had at that time. I couldn’t hold still, I wasn’t myself those days, so I’ve bought the review sample and that was the best decision I’ve made. It is still my top D/S DAC and besides it’s headphone amp section that is good but not great, everything else performs at a very high level.
In 2020, they again started sending promo materials, I was informed that a mini version of my Element X was in the works and that it should cost less than $1000. No way I’ve said! I’ve sent an email asking immediately: Noratel transformers? Best femto-second clocks in existence? Full MQA capability? Balanced headphone drive? Roon ready? They replied that there is even more! Bluetooth capability with the best codec support, AirPlay 2 support and it would use a colorful high-resolution display.
Mini-i 3 line was revealed soon after that, the regular Mini-i 3 goes for $749 and for an additional $150 you will be getting the PRO version that uses the best commercial femto-second clocks on the market, the famous CCHD-950 of Crystek (that is also being used in the Element X) and it adds MQA and Wi-Fi capabilities. PRO version landed on my table and I’m genuinely excited to test this small feature packed device. As usual, I will be conducting an objective and comprehensive review in a headphone and speaker-based setup and I’ll be comparing it to its bigger sibling Element X later on, so let’s get it started.
For a device of this caliber, unboxing experience is simply fabulous. Obviously, it came double boxed and the product box is pretty much the same that is coming with Element X. It’s matte-black, it’s super thick and it’s stuffed with an unhealthy amount of black foam for a nice protection.
Instead of plastic remotes that you’ll find with any DAC coming from Asia at any price point, Matrix Audio included a metal remote with rubber buttons. It feels premium and light years ahead of any other remote I’ve seen with a DAC thus far; it is definitely a big plus in my book. In the package you can also find a USB Type-C cable – suggesting that it should also work nicely with smart devices, there is a power cable too. A Warranty Certificate and a Quick Start Guide is already common practice, but seeing a Roon trial code for 60 days was unexpected and that was a very pleasant surprise indeed. Both Mini-i 3 models are not Roon Ready certified yet, but when that happens and you could use them as Roon endpoints, which will be extremely cool to have in such a small package. Since it doesn’t have a user manual in the box, I strongly recommend downloading it from here (https://www.matrix-digi.com/pdf/mini-i_Pro_3_mini-i_3_Manual_EN.pdf) and if you are using a Windows machine with it, please download its USB drivers from here (https://www.matrix-digi.com/drivers/Matrix_Audio_All_Driver.zip) and install them before using.
Design and Build Quality
I always believed that Matrix Audio is having one of the best-looking DACs. From X-Sabre line to Element line and then to Mini-i, all their devices are clean looking with smooth lines, made only from premium materials, with a huge attention even to the smallest details and Mini-i Pro 3 feels exactly the same. I do think it is one of the nicest looking digital sources I’ve put my hands on. It has a full metal roll-cage or a unibody that is entirely wrapping it, making it look clean, yet elegant and beautiful. It has only a single panel attached and that is the back-panel.
I personally like matte-black and matte-silver finishes that are powder coated to help against scratches and accidental drops. Their bright logo on top is a really nice touch and that MQA and Roon Ready sticker is showing how proud they are about this one.
Its huge 3.3” LCD screen on the front panel sitting behind a thick sheet of glass is without a doubt the best screen I’ve experienced in digital audio and I wish my Element X had it as well. It’s very bright, it’s colorful, it has great viewing angles – a thing I can’t say about Audiobyte Hydravox, it is a high-resolution screen and it will show a lot of important information. When music is streamed via AirPlay 2 and soon via Roon, it will even load the cover image of that album and will show some additional information. I stood there and stared at its screen for a few minutes while streaming via AirPlay 2, it’s beautiful and I wish more DAC manufacturers would make their digital sources smarter and modern looking. I can’t say a single bad word about its build quality, it is built at very high standards, it looks small and cute, but it’s heavier than it might look. It has pretty much the same dimensions with a Topping D90/D90 MQA, but at 1.7 kg (3.75 lbs.) it feels considerably heavier. I am pretty sure that a nice toroidal transformer is sitting in there and that thought alone makes me excited.
I see ventilation holes on its left and right, meaning that a powerful output stage is dissipating a lot of heat, that is already a very good sign. Under the unit, some tall rubber feet are located in small cutouts in the metal case, these are not glued in random places, but put in their exact positions. No matter where I look, I see attention to the smallest details and a lot of care.
Case in point, every single DAC that has some sort of Bluetooth capabilities or a Wireless streamer via Wi-Fi will have some ugly wireless antennas sticking out from its back plate. Matrix thought even about this and instead of ruining its Feng-shui and perfect looks, they attached its antenna horizontally instead of vertically, you will never see it, these guys are surely crazy about looks.
Controls & I/O
A big portion of its face plate is surrounded by a glass sheet, under it they hid its infrared sensor and of course that huge and beautiful LCD screen. On the left you can see two headphone outputs; one is a 6.35 mm (1/4”) single-ended output and one is a balanced 4.4mm output. They couldn’t add a 4-pin XLR jack mostly because there isn’t enough space on its front panel, I have no issues with it as I believe 4.4mm is the future of headphone drive – there is plenty of surface area so that resistance wouldn’t be an issue and it’s sturdy and good looking too. On the left you have a rock-solid volume wheel that is not wobbling at all, it is going in steps so it works as a stepped attenuator - it doubles as a menu navigator too, it’s very easy to use and you can access all its features with it.
On the back, you’ll find five digital inputs: USB type-C, Optical, Coaxial, Ethernet (LAN) and it wouldn’t be a Matrix Audio device without an I2S input, right? It has an RCA input, meaning that you can use it as a preamplifier or headphone amplifier only, which is pretty neat and there is your typical RCA and XLR balanced output. Both can be volume controlled or fixed meaning that you can use it as a pure DAC or as a DAC + Preamp combo. On the right there is a minuscule button with an “i” below it, that is your secret menu button that will open an interesting UI with a lot of settings to play with. Let’s check it out.
This is by far the most complex and well-thought user menu I’ve seen in a DAC, Element X and HydraVox are nowhere near it when it comes to graphical user interface and options to choose from. Matrix Audio really nailed this time around everything that has to do with user interface.
Gently pushing the “i” button on the back will reveal a very straightforward and easy to understand menu where you can select the following:
Filter Settings – 7 Filters to choose form, the most amazing part? Is that every filter will show a Frequency Response graph next to it, it’s very detailed one too. Even if you don’t know what Fast-Roll-Off Linear or BrickWall filter are standing for, the frequency response next to them will explain where is that roll-off happening. You can choose for a super extended FR that goes up to 22 kHz or can you choose for a gentle roll-off that stops at 20 kHz, it’s up to you to decide.
LineOut Mode – Fixed or Adjustable volume on its analog outputs. If you will be using it as a pure DAC device, leave it at Fixed
Line In Gain – 3 positions (- 6 dB, 0 dB and + 6 dB) you will be controlling the gain of the RCA input so it could better match with your powered speakers or with your power amplifier
PLL – High, Normal or Low, you will be controlling the bandwidth of the crystal clock, if you are using a really old PC or a laptop that are adding pops and stutters in your music, you can try the High position to increase the bandwidth.
Bluetooth – Let’s you disconnect from connected devices or forget paired devices IIS (I2S) Config: Let’s you choose between 4 different pin configurations, thumbs up for implementing this!
Remote – you can set the address code of the remote to prevent misoperation
Background – lets you choose from 5 background images, some of them are really cool.
Standby – you can enable a 5 or 10 minute standby timer in case it doesn’t detect an incoming signal. You can also disable standby mode
Network – lets you connect it via LAN or Wi-Fi to your Network. It’s recommended to connect it to your internet, even if you are not streaming, it will help with wireless firmware updates
Language – English or Chinese
Info – Shows your exact model, serial number, Firmware version and you LAN or WLAN MAC addresses
Load Default – Self explanatory
Firmware Update – if it is already connected to your internet connection wired or wirelessly, it will automatically search for an update and install it by itself and reboot, very convenient
Exit – Self explanatory
After you exit that menu, a simple press on the volume knob will reveal a slightly different menu with 7 options: Line Input, Coaxial, Optical, IIS LVDS, USB Audio, Bluetooth and Streaming – you will be selecting its main input.
I must say, this is by far the most complete user-menu I’ve seen, it is beautiful looking, everything is well explained in there, graphics are nice and it seems to have a very user-friendly OS.
Tech Inside Mini-i 3 Pro
At the heart of its digital processing, stays a powerful ESS 9038Q2M DAC chip that can natively decode PCM files up to 24-bit 768 kHz, including MQA Studio files and DSD 22.4 MHz content.
The regular Mini-i 3 gets a SiTime SiT8103 crystal oscillator and the PRO version gets a much better and a whole more expensive femto-second clock – the famous Crystek CCHD-950 that you can find only in high-end digital sources.
It also adopts a powerful headphone amp section; it is fully balanced too and it is even slightly more powerful in low to mid-impedance compared to the Element X. It will provide up to 1.9 Watts in 33 Ohms on its balanced output and up to ~1.3 Watts on its unbalanced 6.35mm output. More about that really soon.
Matrix developed a custom MA Player Lite chip that will be controlling its wireless features. First of all, it is AirPlay 2 compatible, so if you own Apple smart devices, you can stream all your music via third party apps like Tidal, Qubuz, Apple Music and so on directly to it, without any data loss. AirPlay 2 is as lossless music streaming as it can get. This unit is not yet Roon Ready certified, final approval will be coming shortly, but once it has a green light, connecting it wirelessly or via LAN to your Roon Core and then streaming anything to it should be an easy thing to do, which is beyond awesome to have at such an affordable price point.
The Bluetooth part is also impressive, it has the latest version 5.0 and it supports all major audio codecs as AAC, SBC, AptX, AptX-HD and LDAC for up to 990 kB/s data transfer. It’s antenna on the back works as a wireless booster so the operating distance is somewhere between 10 and 15 meters, depending on how many walls are between it and the sender.
Mini-i Pro 3 also includes a full-MQA decoder, it can play them natively and MQA logo would appear on its screen if such content is being played. I’m not sure which XMOS chipset they used; I’ll go with a wild guess that it’s XU-216 (2000 Mips) that works better compared to XU-208 when it comes to MQA playback.
It’s very important to mention, that Matrix used an audio-grade toroidal transformer from Noratel, its power supply was greatly improved compared to its predecessors, both the maximum power and the noise levels are beyond its previous generations and I’m very glad to witness that.
All in all, Mini-i Pro 3 which I’ll call the little one from now on, does indeed look on the inside like a mini version of the Element X, part selection is impressive, they used only the best components like one of the best transformers, crystal clocks, audio grade capacitors and a very capable DAC chipset, I expect great things coming out of it. My ears are itching, so what are we waiting for? Let’s try some tunes.
I. Preliminary Impressions
Matrix Audio left me traces and clear signs when I’ve opened its case, it might look like a simple circuit board to you with some unknown components, but to me that looked like find the bloody con game. Their part selection is very good down to the smallest details, everything seems to be well-balanced inside. Take the digital section as a good example, ESS 9038 DAC chipset is known to be linear and super extended in the frequency response, add a wrong crystal clock or a super analytical output stage and the tonal balance could be completely ruined. Crystek clocks that are staying in the Pro version are extremely precise and accurate, but they also add a layer of liquidity and smoothness. I’ve experienced them first hard somewhere in 2014 in the Audiobyte Hydra X+ S/PDIF interface that was adding warmth, naturalness and good timing even to obsolete sounding DACs. With the little one, I’m experiencing one of the best digital chipsets and the best crystal oscillators at less than $1000, which was unobtanium material just a few years ago.
When I’m reviewing high-performance audio components, it’s a race for cons and not for the pros. After a certain point price wise, there is little to complain about and it’s more about the system matching than anything else. Nowadays, even $500 sources are sounding a lot better than $3000 sources of the past. Lessons have been learned, implementations improved, chips are becoming better by the day, crystal oscillators a lot more precise, operational amplifiers are getting better and better, yet there are things that will never change, like a good power supply implementation, power filtering and storing.
Without messing with you too much, I will simply say that Mini-i Pro 3 is the closest D/S DAC I’ve heard that approaches dangerously close to the performance of my trusty $3000 Element X. I’m hearing extreme details down to the lowest and highest octaves. Bass is deep, controlled, it punches hard in the chest and raises hair on my hands. Midrange is linear and seems not too inviting, nor too dry sounding, trebles are extremely detailed, very outlined and textured, yet without jumping to the bright side. This is pretty much the definition of linearity or neutrality in my book, it simply disappears from the acoustic chain and lets your speakers, headphones and amplifiers do all the coloring and music painting. This is not a lush, super warm sounding digital creature, not at all my friends, this will not sugar-coat your music, it will not color it in any way. I consider that it is only by a hair warmer and more natural sounding to my absolute linearity curve. That Noratel audio-grade transformer and those Crystek clocks added an absolute black-background, a perfect timing and some smoothness and naturalness in this one, but not a lot of that as it happened with SMSL SU-9, Burson Conductor 3X Performance or Audio-GD D38.
Their main designer is obsessed with transparency and cleanness, exactly as I am. When the man behind Matrix Audio is listening to all its creations via an ultra-revealing setup like Genelec The Ones studio monitors, you know who you are dealing with. Cao Wei is not flowery about audio terms, he’s an audio engineer at heart, it’s a numbers game for him and all that can be felt with his creations.
I can feel and hear all the thinking that went behind this product, the little one is indeed a transparent and detailed sounding unit above anything else, then its dead-silent between passages, add some smoothness and liquidity and that is pretty much the sound of the Matrix Mini-i Pro 3 in a nutshell and as I have expected it is indeed a Mini version of the Element X at less than a third of its price.
II. Headphone Amp section
Before going deep into its headphone amp section, it’s important to know that for an immaculate damping factor with your headphones, their impedance should be at least 8 times higher than that of your amplifier, this is called the “rule of eights”.
The little one has a higher impedance than usual on both its headphone jacks, its somewhere around 11 Ohms on 6.35mm jack and 22 Ohms on the 4.4mm balanced jack.
It means that a headphone with an impedance of at least 88 Ohms should be used for the best results. Of course, it doesn’t mean lower impedance ones will not sound good, it’s just that the damping factor will be decreased and the diaphragm control could be slightly affected.
The story repeats itself on its 4.4 balanced output, a headphone with at least 176 Ohms should be used for the best results. I presume that Matrix Audio increased the HP impedance so that the headphone amp circuit will never be overdriven into clipping, but this is just a wild guess and not a fact.
When I’ve tested the Element X, I’ve mentioned that it could indeed drive most headphones without a slightest problem. Matrix Audio is using almost the same circuit, it is slightly tweaked for a better compatibility with its digital section. In terms of sheer power, the newest generation offers about double the power compared to its predecessor and about triple the power compared to the first generation Mini-i Pro. All my desktop headphones are wired with 4-pin XLR jacks or with 6.35mm jacks, so I will be unable to test the balanced 4.4mm output with them. I do have 4.4mm cables with my IEMs thought, so it will be testing it with sensitive loads.
With headphones like Fostex TH909, Kennerton Magni, Gjallarhorn, Erzetich Mania and Phobos I was at about -15 dB for some very loud tunes. Since +18 dB is the maximum volume via headphones, I had about 33 dB left on the volume wheel, the headroom that was left on tap was simply huge. The little guy was able to drive them close to their maximum potential, I wouldn’t use external headphone amplifiers with such headphones. Something like a Sennheiser Momentum 2 or Meze 99 Classics needed even less than that, so of course all portable headphones would be driven to their maximum potential. I was surprised that all of them sounded punchy and alive, transient response wasn’t that bad at all, it was only by a hair smoother sounding compared to a dedicated headphone amplifier with a very low output impedance.
The interesting part is that heavy weight headphones as Hifiman Arya, Audeze LCD-4 and to a lesser degree Kennerton Wodan were driven decently at about -1 or 0 dB for the same sound pressure level (SPL) of 90 dB. It was able to drive them at very loud levels even from its single ended output. Considering that the balanced output is even more powerful, I’m pretty sure that it would drive them even better. Do note that 0 dB is not the maximum volume, it still can go higher up to +18 dB, but past unity gain of 0 dB, the sound is breaking a bit and appears as less refined and polished. Audeze LCD-4 and Hifiman Arya weren’t driven to their fullest and for headphones of such caliber I would personally use an external balanced headphone amplifier, something like a Topping A90 or Flux Lab Acoustics FA-10/FA-12 would make them better. Nonetheless, I was impressed by its headphone output, it could easily drive your dynamic headphones be them at 300 or 600 Ohms, just make sure to use the balanced 4.4mm output and you’re all set.
With sensitive IEMs like FiiO FA9, FH7 and Meze Rai Penta, volume wise I was at about -25 dB on the SE output and -32 on the balanced output, obviously there is too much power for multi-driver IEMs and it has able to drive them all with flying colors. Weirdly enough, the damping factor with such tiny drivers was not affected at all, they all sounded snappy and very engaging.
In the end, all headphones except for Hifiman Susvara, Arya and Audeze LCD-4 were driven close to their maximum and as expected, with top-flight headphones, an external headphone amplifier is recommended to further elevate their performance.
III. Noise Floor
For this task I am going to use its XLR and RCA outputs on the back connected to a Benchmark HPA4 Pre/Headphone amp which is simply noiseless, I’ll try it in a loudspeaker and headphone-based setup. Separately, I will also test the noise floor of its headphone outputs.
Going full power to 4.1V via its XLR output, I was unable to spot any disturbing noises in my music whatsoever. I even approached my speakers very closely and all I’ve heard was a complete silence between passages. Its analog outputs are incredibly clean, gremlins are not living in its case, it’s good to know that it is simply perfect in here.
Its headphone outputs are a slightly different story. FiiO FA9 in their high sensitivity mode (16 Ohms and 113 dB per 1mW) is my personal noise sniffer, or noise seeker, it is really good at showing the noise floor of any source and amplifier. On both its HP outputs and at any volume position, there is a very faint hissing, feels mostly like white noise. No matter the volume level or the headphone jack, it has the same low-level humming.
Going full power doesn’t increase that noise and once I am listening to music, I can’t spot it anymore. There are very few noiseless headphone amplifiers in existence and I’m yet to hear a DAC + Pre + Headphone amp combo that is dead-silent on its HP out. Do note that combos like Burson Conductor 3X Performance or Audio-GD D38 are considerably noisier in here.
IV. Transient Response
I am going to use its XLR outputs on the back bypassing its volume control and I’ll connect it to a dedicated Pre/Headphone amp combo so I could hear everything it is capable of. This is where its power filtering and good power delivery it’s showing all its muscles and sincerely, I didn’t expect anything else than a lightning fast rendition of my music and some visceral punches when electronica started playing. My jaw wasn’t on the floor as it happened with Element X, because I knew what to expect. It was able to keep up even with the most demanding and crowded music I know. Dynamics were going up and down, it was pressing the gas pedal most of the time, the slam was also great, it felt only by a hair less impactful and powerful compared to its bigger brother. It still offers a very enjoyable listen and if you care about good dynamics and a good slam, then the little one got you covered.
Starting with the 1-minute mark on Spitfire by Infected Mushroom (Tidal / Spotify) – it was like having an audiophile beating in plain sight, especially via some Fostex TH909 I’ve felt a huge spike of energy that stomped my body. At some point in this track, some machine-gun like bass notes started firing left and right. Put this this song on an R2R DAC and you’ll understand why there is still a need for D/S DACs on the market, like this one is. I do believe that transient response is close to perfect in this one. Sometimes I’d wish a stronger slam in my chest, but considering I’m comparing it with a device 3.3 times more expensive, I’m more than pleased with the outcome.
Timing issues that some cheaper DACs are having, like weird ringing in the treble or some muddiness when music is becoming crowded are not present in here. Music will sound mellow or lightning fast depending on the music and no matter the song, a lack of contour and texture will not happen with the little one.
V. Resolution & Transparency
Digital section of this unit seems to be well made, so much so that I needed half a day to compare it with Element X, mostly because with less than perfect recordings, I couldn’t differentiate one or the other. Mind you, I was with a Hifiman Susvara on my head, that are pretty much the definition of ultimate transparency and detail.
No matter the song I’ve tried, it was able to unclutter and untangle my music, it was pushing all the macro and micro-details on the foreground. I’ve easily spotted the tiniest details in my music, all that was rendered clear, defined and I didn’t even need to close my eyes to focus on all that. Even bad mastered music like old rock sounded impressively clean and defined. The little guy, Benchmark HPA4 and Hifiman Susvara are making an extremely good team, it is a linear and neutral audio system, yet I was able to enjoy every second of my music. When transparency is experienced at a very high level, words like clinical, boring or bright would never happen, because nothing is standing in the way of the audio signal.
Mini-i Pro 3 is not using the PRO version of the ESS 9038, but the implementation around its Q2M chipset is world-class, they basically squeezed the best it could possibly offer. When it comes to details, the little fellow is easily on the same level with a Topping D90, Aune S8, Gustard A22 and it is slightly above devices like Soncoz SGD1, SMSL SU-9, Burson Conductor 3XP, Audio-GD D38 and considerably higher than any entry level and mid-level DACs I’ve tested of late.
Tracks like Karma Police by Radiohead (Tidal / Spotify) is no longer a game of how many hidden sounds your DAC can play, because it puts everything in front of you and you decide to focus on all that or to relax and enjoy its performance. I’m very glad that the smallest details came forward to play with my music.
VI. Soundstage & Depth
Soundstage size is often times directly influenced by the power filtering, output stage and transparency a DAC is having. I see that after a few hours of use, it gets quite hot on top, I can only presume its output stage works in full Class-A. As for its transparency, it is difficult hearing additional sounds when you already have everything in front of you. Add a better channel crosstalk via its XLR outputs and you might get a general idea about its soundstaging capabilities.
The little one, will be increasing and decreasing the soundstage size depending on the recordings. It sounded wide open with notes flying sky-high with excellent mastered music, sometimes cozy and intimate with old jazz and even up-front with some modern rock. In this regard I could easily place it at the same level with nicer sounding D/S DACs that were champions in here. It’s important say that it never sounded closed-in and claustrophobic like Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ and Benchmark DAC3 did for me in their stock form. It is only by a hair less expanded, less airy so to speak compared to the absolute best, Element X is still by a notch wider and more open sounding, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the price difference.
When I moved it in the living room driving directly a power amplifier like KECES S300 followed by some Buchardt S400 loudspeakers, it was the moment of its glory, it truly shined as a DAC + Pre combo. I’m not really sure what is at play here, a lot of naturalness rushed it, timing was perfect, smoothness was present as well, dynamics very sky high. There weren’t afterthoughts that something is missing in here. Its preamp section is actually very good and, in this regard, it worked better than a SMSL SU-9, Soncoz SGD1 and Aune S8. Most probably it’s stepped attenuator is not killing a lot of dynamics and details as it happens with regular volume pots.
Live records like Delicate Sounds of Thunder by Pink Floyd (Tidal / Spotify) sounded massive, huge and enveloping not only with speakers but also with headphones. My whole room was immediately filled with sounds coming from multiple angles. Even from the first song, it was clear to me that the little guy is very much capable of drawing a colossal picture in from of the listener. Depth was also amazing, I wouldn’t go with a cliché that sounds were coming from behind the wall, but in all fairness, everything sounded damn deep with a ton of air between each and every note.
On the other hand, some cozy rock albums as The Strokes – Is This It (Tidal / Spotify) sounded visceral and impactful, close and personal with little to no soundstage at all and yet so freaking enjoyable and toe tapping. It was recorded in a small room and that can be immediately felt. With Mini-i Pro 3 I’ve experienced huge enveloping sounds, but also on-stage and cozy performances, it seems to change depending on the music.
VII. Frequency Response
Even without any kind of burn-in it was clear to me that people behind this product wanted to offer a complete package, with close to zero compromises, even the frequency response wasn’t overlooked at all. Its feels pretty much the same in here compared to my reference DAC.
Both sub-bass and mid-bass sections felt very clean, detailed and very well made. There was driver movement in the 20 Hz region, it was able to provide as much bass as I’ve wanted. It was punchy, fast, it reached the lowest octaves. It was able to sustain longer notes of double-bass really nicely and with faster electronica everything sounded precise, executed fast and in a very detailed manner. It has both the speed and the slam of the bass, it was by a notch shier compared to the best of the best, the slam is still good, but sometimes I wanted a bit more body hits and toe taps.
Midrange feels exactly the same, it’s clean, defined, super detailed and straight as a line. Smoothness and naturalness are still present in here, voices are rendered naturally, string instruments have a nice life-like vibration and ringing, in the same time it never goes overboard to the warm or bright camp. It is neither of those, it is as linear and neutral as it can get, it approached my linearity curve and tries to disappear from your acoustic chain. If you are hunting for warmth and a lot of smoothness, I’m going to disappoint that the little one is not like that, it will let that task to be finished by your speakers or headphones.
Treble feels complete from the lowest to the highest registers, there is plenty of driver movement even past top octave and if you are searching for perfect double-drums, for clear and defined cymbals then you came to the right party. I’m liking a whole lot of music, ranging from something that will put you to sleep, to music that will scare away your neighbors and I do believe a linear and extended frequency response is simply mandatory to render all that. Overall, Mini-i Pro 3 has an extended frequency response, I didn’t feel any potholes or rises in here, nothing stood out particularly, yet everything was rendered in perfect doses, it has a nice tonal balance that should mate well with a lot of audio gear.
VIII. Wireless streaming & Bluetooth Experience
The little one is Roon Ready certified and it is AirPlay 2 enabled but first you will need to connect it to your home network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. I’m not a Roon user yet, so most of my listening was done via an iPhone with a Tidal Hi-Fi subscription. Just make sure that both devices are connected to the same wireless network and you can stream any audio content from your iDevice to the Matrix unit, including Youtube videos, music stored on your device or via third party streaming services as Apple Music, Google Music, Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz and others. I am an avid Tidal Hi-Fi user, so most of my listening was done via this streaming service. You just need to tap on the AirPlay icon, select the Mini-i Pro 3 from the list and that is basically it. As long as both devices are connected to the same network, you will be streaming bit-perfect music, with no degradation in the sound quality at all. I did actually find it slightly better sounding this way, because all the issues of the USB connection, like the cable, USB protocol and the OS of your computer are being bypassed. It works really nicely this way, it sounds slightly clearer and smoother, not a whole lot better, but there is a difference. The cool part is that you can see the cover album that is being played on its screen, the sample rate and the volume. I’m not sure how it behaves via Roon, but via AirPlay 2, I was unable to stream MQA content. If I would stream such files, it would play the regular 16-bit lossless version and not the high-resolution MQA version. There were several glitches than I’ve encountered via AirPlay few weeks ago like some mild stuttering and freezing, but in the last 3 weeks its firmware was updated twice that completely solved my issues. My current firmware version is C113B4 that solved my stuttering and the wrong Wi-Fi password error. You can also use your Android device to stream music content via Bluetooth. All the latest Android devices are coming with Bluetooth 5.0 and they should support all the latest Bluetooth codecs. Mini-i Pro 3 is supporting all the best codecs as AptX-HD and LDAC and it worked nicely with my Android smartphone. It behaved exactly as all the other DACs with Bluetooth antennas attached on their backs. The signal strength was strong in a 4-room apartment, if I wouldn’t go the balcony, I would never lose the Bluetooth signal even with several concrete walls between us. I’ve used the same Tidal Hi-Fi streaming and I didn’t encounter any issues at all. As expected, the sound via Bluetooth was by a hair less detailed and less outlined, it felt smoother, more relaxed, with some lost microdetails here and there. In the end, it has some powerful wireless capabilities that I didn’t see yet in any other device at this price point. Seriously now, there aren’t such devices with full Roon support and AirPlay 2 enabled even at double its price.
IX. A Glitch in the Matrix
Matrix Audio Mini-i Pro 3 ($899) VS Matrix Audio Element X ($2999)
There is nothing to complain about both devices in terms of build quality. They both scream beautiful craftsmanship, attention to the smallest details. These are some of the nicer looking DACs, with clean smooth lines, I find very attractive and there is nothing more to say. The user interface is a lot simpler on the Mini-i, it is like a smartphone is living inside that unit. Its big 3.3” LCD screen and that user-friendly interface are adding a lot of value. It looks like a modern piece of kit and I really wish I could update the Element X with the same GUI and bright LCD screen, that would be surely amazing.
In terms of features Element X is a lot more advanced and let me explain you why. It is of course a DAC, a much nicer Preamplifier and it is configurable with up to +10 dB of pure analog gain. It doesn’t have Bluetooth capabilities, but it is AirPlay and DLNA enabled and then it has a full-blown streamer inside via a MA app that can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play Store. Via MA app you can use your Tidal Hi-Fi or Qobuz subscription and stream music directly to it. It is also Roon Ready certified and it can connect directly to your NAS drive. It can also play music from USB storage devices like a MicroSD card or a USB drive through MA player. So far, Element X is the most complete DAC + Preamp + Headphone amp + Full Blown streamer I’ve experienced thus far. Except for its headphone output that is good but not great, everything else is flagship material.
Before my listening tests, I have volume matched both units by using a MiniDSP EARS system and a Benchmark HPA4 that can individually control every analog input, including their signal strength. I used the same power cables; USB cables and I have set the listening volume to 85 dB.
When it come to music playback you won’t believe how close both devices performed, they do carry the same tonality, they want to impress a lot more with their technical aspects. Everything from transient response, detail retrieval, stage size, depth and frequency response is rendered at a very high level, but there were still a few differences.
The biggest ones were in the slam department, detail retrieval, soundstage and depth. Element X is still having the most impressive transient response I’ve heard in a DAC with a delta-sigma modulator, with the right music it hits you like a train. It can be a gentle giant, it can be your easy rider, it can slow down and increase its pace in an instant. There is some very powerful processing inside and that can be felt immediately. Mini-i Pro 3 felt by a hair less impactful, less punchy and less engaging, but only with some particular music and with a top of the line acoustic chain. The difference wasn’t that big, the little one is still slamming nicely, having a nice pace, rhythm and timing, but it isn’t there with the best.
Same can be said about their detail retrieval. I needed several songs, few strong drinks and a lot of gear swaps before I could differentiate one from the other. Element X is so far the most detailed sounding DAC I’ve listened to. I didn’t try the best DACs out there yet, but I think I know a thing or two about digital audio and so far, Element X is my weapon of choice when it comes to details and transparency. Mini-i Pro 3 is running behind it and it’s not that far off. Matrix team managed to extract the most out of that ES9038Q2M (low-power version) and it indeed sounded very close to it. Easily on the same level with top DACs I’ve tried several weeks ago.
Third difference was heard in the soundstage department with both speakers and headphones. The channel crosstalk via XLR on the Element X is nowhere to be found, siting at -145 dB you could easily blow your eardrums and channel crosstalk would still not happen. With headphones channel crosstalk is more important than you might thing, I’ve explained several times that in a speaker setup that is less important as you can hear with your left ear what your right speaker is playing, but with headphones you really don’t want that. With open-back headphones when I was moving to the Element X, the distance between the most left and the most right sound would be bigger, like I would sit in a bigger room and all the musicians would stay farther away from each other. Element X was always wide and open, deep and airy sounding. Mini-i Pro 3 was again following its steps but it didn’t manage to catch up. Everything was slightly smaller, closer to the listener and there would be less air between passages. Everything else was more or less the less, their tonality was slightly different by not by much. Element X would have more naturalness and weightier note delivery and Mini-I would be more ethereal and less textured.
In a speaker setup, the superior preamp section of the Element X again said the last words, it was ballsier, more controlled, more natural sounding, it sounded like high-end audio and Mini-i more like an entry to the high-end audio. Close…but not on the same level. There were cases with some power amplifiers where I couldn’t differentiate the Element X from a dedicated preamp like the $3000 Benchmark HPA4 and that says a lot about its preamp section.
Performance wise, David didn’t win the battle versus the mighty Goliath, but it won the value battle as it’s much easier on the pocket.
I don’t know how, it wasn’t a goal of mine, but I’m just finishing my 13-th page, I still wanted to cover its MQA capabilities but this review already reads like a book so I’ll just stop here.
Matrix Audio is a manufacturer that I am very fond of, because they are making some of the finest digital converters at affordable prices. I still consider their X-Sabre Pro as one of the best ESS-Sabre DAC in existence and their Element X is easily the most complete and feature packed all-in-one device. I knew a day would come when they would start trickling down technology and putting it in smaller and more affordable units. Everything is in here: MQA, Balanced headphone drive, balanced outputs, great preamplifier section, Bluetooth capability, AirPlay 2 and a full-fledged streamer via Roon in a small elegant metal box. Can you really ask for more? I’m yet to experience such a full-featured device that costs less than a grand, everything was nailed down perfectly. I can complain only about its headphone amp section that has a higher impedance and a low intensity noise with IEMs, but everything else performs at a very high standard.
The philosophy behind this unit is well-known to me, these guys are more about linearity, about perfect measurements, about technical details, about being straight as line in the frequency response than about flowery audio terms.
The regular Mini-3 at $749 is an amazing value that is hard to beat. However, the DACMan is strongly recommending the PRO version at $899 that is adding a much better crystal oscillator, a full MQA decoder and Wi-Fi capabilities, it is a much better device from any point of view.
I’m more than happy to award it our highest Golden Award for great digital design, must-have features, beautiful looks and small form factor at a price that wouldn’t land a critical hit on your wallet. Congratulations to the team and l look forward in testing their next digital creatures!
- Beautiful craftsmanship, amazing build-quality
- Linear and very extended in the frequency response
- Very high transparency, impressive resolution
- Open wide sounding, very good depth performance
- 3D sounding with a precises pin-point location of the notes
- Presses on the gas pedal, very fast sounding
- Good slam in the chest, great rendition of the low-end
- Noise-free on its RCA and XLR outputs
- Great preamp section!
- A true definition of an all-in-one device (seriously, it’s a 7-in-1)
- Roon Ready and AirPlay 2 are some of its nicest features
- Future proof
- An amazing value
- High-impedance on its headphone outs, slight hum with sensitive IEMs