Mass Fidelity Relay Bluetooth DAC Review

Bluetooth just got a great new friend

by Ed Selley
SRP: £199.00

What is the Mass Fidelity Relay?

One of the more indefinable aspects of how we perceive a product and often an important part of whether it will be a success or not is how it feels - either in the hand or how it sits, looks and generally behaves. The success of Apple over the last decade owes as much to an understanding of feel as it does the mastering of technological concepts. Simple design, high quality materials and a general perception of money well spent is not a cast iron guarantee of success but it certainly won’t do you any harm.

In the AV industry, a ‘high-end’ feel is something that can be tricky to achieve on any budget. There are some rather contradictory requirements that need to be fulfilled. We seem to love simplicity and like watches, AV equipment frequently does less the more it costs but we require bombproof build and immensely solid controls. Some brands have achieved this effortlessly - Primare, Audio Research and Meridian are brands that seem to have the balance of features, operability and general feel down to an art. You will note that none of these brands are ones that routinely crop up in Argos. A HiFi feel doesn’t come cheap.

At least it doesn’t usually come cheap. Every now and again, something crops up at a more terrestrial price but has the same sense of quality and attention to detail that we’re looking for. Recently products that have achieved this include the Aedle VK-1, the Sennheiser IE800 and the Elipson Planet L. They simply feel a little more than the sum of their parts. Now there might be another product to join that list. Mass Fidelity is a new company and it only makes two products. The Relay is a Bluetooth DAC that looks like it offers an impressive spec on top of an equally impressive build quality but are these enough to make it stand out from the pack?

What does the Relay do?

Mass Fidelity Relay
At a time when many pieces of equipment are striving to do more and more in terms of functionality the Relay is almost determinedly simple. It has a single input that supports Apt-X and SBC Bluetooth and that’s it. No additional digital inputs, no loop through, one input and one (ish - as we shall see) output and that’s your lot. Such single mindedness is unusual although not unheard of. Arcam’s excellent rBlink performs the same role as the Relay and is similarly sparse. Equally Musical Fidelty’s V90 Blu which is ostensibly similar takes a more bells and whistles approach.

The way that the Relay goes about handling the decoding of a Bluetooth signal suggests that simple functionality or not, a fair amount of time has been lavished on it. The signal is handled by a combination of a Burr Brown PCM 5102 DAC and Cirrus Logic processor. Mass Fidelity hails the PCM 5102 as a ‘high-end’ model which is probably overdoing it a little as it crops up in quite a few products that cost similar amounts of money - not least the functionally similar Arcam rBlink but it is nonetheless a very capable bit of kit and unlikely to be fazed by a Bluetooth signal.

The signal itself is likely to be a good one though. Mass Fidelity has expended a fair amount of time and effort on the reception end of the Relay and the high gain aerial, low loss connector and logical internal layout all that should avoid noise and interference all look rather promising. Detailed measurements sadly remain outside the scope of an audio review for AVForums (unless you all want to kickstarter me some gear) but the distance measurement for reception between an iPad3 (which is the only device that has been in use since I started testing Bluetooth units) was the end of my garden which is pretty impressive considering two walls at least partially block the line of sight.
Mass Fidelity Relay
All of this diligent technology is then encased in a truly lovely piece of casework. The Relay is made of machined aluminium and while it isn’t terribly big but it is a wonderful thing to look at and hold. It feels solid, exactingly made and looks incredibly elegant. What I find interesting about the Relay is that as the only other Mass Fidelity product looks nothing like it, there are no economies of scale in the manner that Arcam and Musical Fidelity can benefit from with their range equipment. That they’ve built if for the price they have and to the standards they have is quite an achievement. The good news doesn’t end there either. There’s apparently enough left in the kitty for you to receive both a nice quality RCA-RCA and RCA-3.5mm interconnect in the box too.

Around the back the Relay is almost as simple as the rest of the chassis and this initially suggests that Mass Fidelity has made something of an error of judgement. As well as the aerial connection, a recessed section houses a pair of RCA connecters and that is it. As these connectors are red and white and function as an analogue output, it looks initially like Mass Fidelity has dropped a ball and omitted a digital output that the key competition is fitted with. Further proof that someone has spent a fair bit of time on the Relay can be found when you learn that pushing the Power/Pair button on the rear of the unit for five seconds. This switches the analogue output to a coaxial one (meaning that you actually get two of them). This is not something I think comes as part of the standard functionality of the DAC chip suggesting that some clever engineering is at work here.

Any downsides to the Relay?

To paraphrase Alanis Morrisette to the point of incomprehensibility, two SP/Dif outputs when all you need is an optical isn’t much use and the very minimalist nature of the Relay does mean it will either do what you want or be completely pointless. If it does do what you want, the only real gripe I have is that as with so many pieces of minimalist equipment, rather too little information is made available via the single LED light. There is no way of ascertaining that you have an Apt-X connection for example, you have to take it as an article of faith.
Mass Fidelity Relay
All of this diligent technology is encased in a truly lovely piece of casework.

How was the Relay tested?

The Mass Fidelity spent the majority of time connected via RCA to a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp into Neat Momentum 4i speakers but was also tested via coaxial into an Arcam airDAC to allow for tests against AirPlay and was then also tested into the digital inputs of a Naim ND5XS streamer and XP5 XS power supply. Bluetooth sources were a Motorola Moto X 2014, Lenovo T530 ThinkPad and iPad 3. Material used included FLAC, Tidal and Spotify as well as YouTube and general listening material.

How does the Relay sound with Apt-X sources?

Mass Fidelity Relay
I’ve prattled on at length about my fondness for Bluetooth many times before so I’ll avoid doing so again. What I will say is that I still think many people don’t appreciate quite how good it can be. A little time around the Relay and a decent Apt-X Bluetooth source therefore might be rather revelatory. Connection to all test devices was completely painless and unless you wonder out of the prodigious range absolutely stable. As such, like the Arcam rBlink it only takes a few minutes to forget you are listening to Bluetooth at all and judge the Relay on its musical performance.

And that musical performance is extremely good and given the similar nature of their decoding not unlike Arcam’s rBlink in some ways but there are some intriguing differences. The first is that the Relay really is staggeringly quiet in terms of noise floor. There really does seem to be no interference at all on the signal and this gives small scale music like Nick Drake’s wonderful Five Leaves Left a wonderful realism and intimacy even at low listening levels. This is helped by a presentation that is slightly on the warm side of neutral and this gives voices and instruments a richness that is never overblown but gives the Relay an inviting and almost cossetting way of making music. This never comes at the expense of believability though. With Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell’s absolutely wonderful Ballad of the Broken Seas, the depth and detail to Lanagan’s voice and its relationship to Cambell’s almost ephemeral one is simply perfect.
Mass Fidelity Relay
When you pick the tempo up and move to the bonkers but rather wonderful Gov’t Mule’s Dark Side of the Mule, the Relay is able to render the increase in scale very easily but never seems as happy to simply go for it as the Arcam is. The whole nature of timing is as intangible as to be witchcraft but the Relay never fully kicks back and goes for it. If timing isn’t a big thing for you (and for many people it isn’t), you are likely to be totally unconcerned by this and even as someone who does find it a listening point, matters aren’t catastrophic.

This is largely because the rest of the Relay’s performance is seriously good. If the last few years have been about anything in budget audio it has been how affordable digital products have gone form good to great. So it is here with powerful bass that has depth and detail in spades and a complete absence of harshness or aggression. This is a seriously accomplished product.

How does the Relay sound with SBC and other codecs?

None of the basic traits of the Mass Fidelity are significantly altered when you use it with non Apt-X capable devices. The iPad 3 is able to produce some convincing sounds but some of the frequency extension and clarity is lost even when using the same TIDAL files as the Moto did (the files are of course being throttled to make it over SBC). The Relay is ultimately a fairly forgiving piece of equipment and manages to sound perfectly respectable with compressed material but if you’ve heard it run over Apt-X, the likelihood is you won’t be too interested in using it this way.
Mass Fidelity Relay
This is a seriously accomplished product.

How does the Relay sound via the digital output?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Relay sounds exactly like the equipment it is connected to - if a digital source sounds radically different with the same basic feed going into it, there is something basically wrong with it. What's good news is that this entirely custom method of securing a digital output seems to be entirely bombproof in practice. I’ve tried the Relay into a variety of devices and I’ve not had dropouts or interruptions at any stage. If you have a coaxial input to connect the Relay to (and decoding that is a step-up from its capable on board hardware), then it should work well.

Verdict

Pros

  • Rich and involving sound
  • Superb build quality
  • Excellent Bluetooth implementation

Cons

  • No optical output
  • Slightly left/right presentation
  • Unpairs too quickly

Mass Fidelity Relay Bluetooth DAC Review

Bluetooth is making slow but steady gains as a credible Hi-Fi source. If you have heard lossless formats streamed via Apt-X, you will know full well that the performance is well and truly up to snuff. We have already reviewed two extremely capable Bluetooth DACs for AVForums from brands with rather more cache than Mass Fidelity, so why would you seek out the Canadian over them? The main reason why the Relay warrants inclusion on any shortlist is that it feels rather more bespoke than its competition. This little DAC feels and behaves like something rather more high-end than the reasonable asking price would have you believe. There is a sense that Mass Fidelity has a point to prove and the Relay is their way of trying to make it. This is a great little DAC that offers superb Bluetooth performance and exceptional stability. If you want to make a go of Bluetooth as a hifi format, why not do it with a little slice of class?
Highly Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Connectivity

.
.
.
7

Ease of Use

.
.
8

Features

.
.
.
7

Audio Performance

.
9

Value for Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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