The wave of new DACs hitting the market shows no signs of abating and a category that hovered on the edge of extinction a few years ago, is now one of the healthiest in the industry. At the same time, the role of the DAC has changed considerably. I suspect (although numbers are very hard to come by for this) that the number of new DACs going anywhere near a CD player in 2013 is very small indeed. Instead, the rise of computer audio has ensured that USB is now the all-important connection for a DAC.
Computer audio is something that has evolved from being a fringe interest of a few technically adept souls to the de-facto listening method of large swathes of the population. On the face of it, this is totally logical, the computer is the means of buying, storing or playing back music. Anything from Vista onwards is perfectly able to handle high res audio and suitable software is plentiful and available from £0 upwards. That you can enjoy AVForums and look at videos of cats at the same time is a further bonus. The role of the DAC has therefore become as much about being an interface as it is decoding.
Into this busy but challenging market steps Micromega. This French brand has been reinvigorated of late by the return of the company’s founder Daniel Schar to designing duties. Until recently, the company’s digital offerings have been centred around CD players and an innovative integrated amplifier with streaming built in. Now it has taken this expertise and condensed it into the titchy £260 MyDac. Can this little slice of Gallic ingenuity stand out from the crowd?
The MyDac is notionally fairly conventional. It is a three input design and comes fitted with a choice of coaxial, optical and USB inputs. These are then decoded and outputted to a pair of RCA phono outputs. So far so normal but this bald description doesn’t do justice to how unusual the MyDac is under the skin. Indeed the skin isn’t especially normal either. The MyDAC is made entirely out of plastic which sounds mildly alarming until you actually handle it and find the reasons behind it. The Micromega feels rather pleasant to the touch as Micromega has selected a soft touch plastic that - and I really do mean this in a nice way - is slightly reminiscent of high quality child’s toy. The reason for this slightly unusual material is that helps to reduce interference on the DAC board and gives Micromega an internal environment they have complete control over.
The internals also have their fair share of unusual decisions as well. Like the (rather more expensive) Asus Xonar Essence One I reviewed recently, the MyDac has two digital clocks. One of these handles CD multiples - 44.1, 88.2 and 176.4kHz while the other handles PCM rates - 48, 96 and 192kHz. This is an impressive achievement at the price point and if the Xonar is anything to go by does have some performance benefits. This clocked signal is fed to a Cirrus Logic CS4351 DAC which, like a few new designs, generates a 2v output without the need for a separate output stage.
This has two knock-on effects on the design of the MyDAC. With the DAC Chip as efficient as it is, the Micromega is really very energy efficient indeed. In standby, the MyDac needs half a watt and when switched on, it only increases to 2.4v which is staggeringly efficient. As a result, the power supply can be built into the DAC chassis and unusually, the MyDac doesn’t need a wall wart power supply to function which generally makes for a neater nest of cables behind your system (and no oversize block in your mains gantry).
The USB input of the Micromega is capable of the two important tickboxes for products of this nature. It is capable of receiving a 192kHz signal and can be made to function as an asynchronous connection for improved jitter management. Like most of the competition, the Micromega can function without a driver with sample rates up to 24/96 and if you are a Mac owner, all the way up to 24/192. A free driver on the Micromega Website can be downloaded for 24/192 handling with Windows and for ASIO type connections to compatible software. A nice touch is that the ‘USB mode’ setting for the Micromega is a two position switch on the rear panel rather than a Megadrivesque multiple button push.
This is a fairly comprehensive spec and there isn’t much that the competition offers at this price the Micromega doesn’t. Slightly more money brings functions like volume controls, adjustable filters, headphone sockets and digital outputs but none of these are absolutely necessary for successful computer listening and would greatly affect the complexity of the unit and with it the price.
Aesthetically, the Micromega is distinctive but unlikely to ruffle any feathers. The MyDac is available in black and white finishes and has a single major control on the front panel on the form of a horizontal twist control, a little reminiscent of a vintage FM tuner. This can be moved left or right to cycle through the inputs and put the MyDac in standby. The inputs show that they have been selected by a single white LED that flashes until a connection is made where it will lock. The lights are fairly close together that means in low light, there is some bleed from one to the other but nothing too serious. The build quality of the Micromega is perfectly acceptable for the price. It feels light because it is but it is also very well assembled and doesn’t feel that it is likely to come apart any time soon.
I used the Micromega mainly with my Lenovo ThinkPad running Win7 and Songbird as a source. To test the ASIO connection it was given to my wife and tested with Ableton Live and Kontact which I have found to be a sterner test of an ASIO setup than music replay is. Partnering electronics included a Cambridge Audio 751R AV receiver - which has a fairly impressive USB connection of its own - a Naim Supernait integrated amp and an Audio Analogue Verdi Cento (used during the ASIO tests). Speakers included Mordaunt Short Mezzo 1’s, SVS Ultra Towers and Audio Note AN-K’s. Music used included lossless and high res FLAC and compressed material including Spotify and Internet Radio.
One statement I have uttered more than once is that the price of good digital has been decreasing all the time and recently you have been able to buy products for not a lot of money that produce a sound better than you might ever expect at the price. That being said, there are some areas where the last few percentage points of quality are earned where affordable digital has to give ground to more expensive offerings. As a product distributed in the UK by Absolute Sounds - a company that boasts some of the most pre-eminent brands going in its portfolio - the little Micromega is not here to offer an alternative to a Metronome at one hundred times the price. That being said, the Micromega manages to make these design compromises as limited as possible.
The most impressive part of the Micromega’s performance is that it manages to sound lively and compelling with a wide variety of music. There is an agility to the performance that means that the Micromega is always fun to listen to. This is slightly more subtle than just the MyDac timing well (although it is pretty good in this regard) and is more about the way that it has a very slight forwardness to it. This could potentially be a problem with less recorded material but the Micromega is sufficiently controlled and refined that only very compressed or otherwise compromised recordings will upset it. Give it something good like the latest effort from Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood, rather splendidly titled Black Pudding and the Micromega rewards with a performance that is genuinely entertaining.
The handling of voices and instruments is also extremely likeable. There is an impressive realism to the performance that is partly explained by the soundstage. Depth with stereo is effectively an illusion but the Micromega manages it better than a number of more expensive products. With a group of performers, there is a real sense of their relationship to one another and this allows for the suspension of disbelief in a way that less expensive products can struggle to achieve. The soundstage is flexible too. With a small group of performers, it is intimate and contained. When you give it something big, this soundstage expands beyond the confines of the speakers but retains the impressive positioning and placement.
Using the MyDac with high res material keeps most of the same basic traits that the Micromega shows with standard lossless files. The improvement in performance is useful (although I still can’t say with absolute certainty if this is down to the extra bandwidth or the additional care that generally goes into higher res material. One area where the Micromega does have an advantage over the same signals played via the USB of the 751R is that the separate clock for the 44.1kHz multiples does seem to give 88.2kHz material (at present, I still don’t have any 176.4kHz material) a performance boost over a DAC set up mainly for the PCM multiples. At the same time 24/96 and 24/192 material is equally good.
Performance over the other digital inputs - as tested with a Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 and a Naim ND5 XS - is extremely consistent with the performance of the USB input. The MyDac had no issue securing a lock with the various different sampling rates. Quite how many users will ever use an input other than the USB connection is open to question but the performance of the two other inputs is extremely good and they are clearly not afterthoughts. Not having direct access to each input is a slight irritant but really not the end of the world at the price.
The downsides of the MyDac are commendably limited by comparison. The bass response is actually impressively deep but the fine detail that the (vastly more expensive) Naim ND5 XS can find in the same recordings is not as present and bass that has slight tonal shifts can come across as a single note on the Micromega. It is worth nothing that there isn’t anything at the price that springs to mind that is decisively better but by the time you do the next big jump to products at the £500 point, there is better bass (and some useful extra facilities available), albeit at a considerable price rise.
The other potential problem is the slightly forward presentation of the Micromega won’t flatter poor or edgy recordings and if you listen to very compressed music, the MyDac will let you know in no uncertain terms. Spotify was fine but Internet Radio could sound rather thin. If you are going to spend £260 on a DAC to boost your audio performance, I would hope that you would be choosing audio that was at the least uncompressed (it isn’t as if storage is hugely costly these days either) but if your music taste extends to early 90’s grunge music recorded on cheap equipment at maximum volume level, this probably isn’t the product for you. For me, the performance with something moderately well recorded and up is worth the trade-off but everyone will have a different judgement on this.
- Lively and revealing sound quality
- Easy to use
- Extremely energy efficient
- Won't flatter poor or compressed material
- Feels a little lightweight (in part because it is!)
- Some models for a little more money have more facilities
Micromega MyDac Digital to Analogue Convertor Review
Some reviews of the MyDac in other places have found themselves becoming a little excitable at certain points in the review. One or two have gone so far as to band around terms like ‘revolutionary.’ After some time with the Micromega, I don’t think this is a term that is suitable for the MyDac. There is nothing in the functionality or technology on offer here that we haven’t seen before in some form. If nothing else, I don’t want to make promises that this little DAC simply won’t be able to deliver if you choose to buy one.
With the provisos out of the way, there is a great deal to like about the Micromega though. While the technology has been seen before, combining all of it into a compact, affordable, energy efficient product that is built in the EU but still manages to cost £260 is a genuine achievement. The MyDac is an entertaining performer with real talent in many areas and the way it goes about making music is genuinely likeable in a way that some of the slightly more matter-of-fact products at the price can struggle with. If you are looking for a sensibly priced partner to your computer that offers a little bit of design and sonic flair for a sensible outlay, the MyDac comes highly recommended.
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