Manufacturer: Mark Findlay Audio - Australia
Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: May, 2010
About the time that I was part-way through reviewing the Harmony DA9, I received a sample of the Mark Findlay Audio DAC. I hadn't heard of this DAC prior to being offered one for review but there is a comprehensive description of the product on their web site. In fact I was quite impressed with the information given that was in stark contrast to say something like the Harmony DAC. Of course designers are not obliged to tell us what is inside their product, and it is understandable why they don't. But for those of us interested in the design, it is a bonus to see exactly how something like a DAC is put together, and how it differs from comparable products.
The MF-DAC is offered as a kit, presumably to keep down costs, and avoid the regulations that govern finished electronics products. But it is not a kit of components. Instead the purchaser can choose from various finished modules. For instance you can buy only the stuffed PCB, and add your own external power supply and case. Or one of the other options that best suits your needs. Putting one together is really only a matter of connecting wires from the PCB to switches and sockets and shouldn't take very long to complete even for a novice.
The MF-DAC is comparatively small, fitting as it does into a Hammond style aluminium case, and utilizing an external power supply. The front panel sports an elegant on/off switch with an integrated LED, and switches for the source selection, and filter selection. The rear panel has a pair of RCA sockets for two SPDIF connections (I would like to have seen at least one of those as my preferred BNC type), a TOSLINK socket, a power connector socket, and a pair of RCA output sockets. Yes, it's amazing how much you can get onto such a small panel! The MF certainly won't take up too much space. But for me, the Hammond style case is more practical than aesthetic in its merits although the quality of the finish, particularly the front and rear panels is very good, with the text being engraved into the metal (rather than using silk-screen or transfers). Of course, such a small and lightweight enclosure is at the mercy of the various cables plugged into it (more so when it is sitting atop of a mounting system of cones or spikes etc) and I found it beneficial to place a hefty weight on top of the case to keep it stable.
As I said, the Mark Findlay web site carries copious amounts of detail about the design of their DAC and I won't repeat it all here. On paper at least, the important specifications look good with an SNR (a-weighted) of 120db, and output noise measured at 1.85 microvolts. Another good sign is the power supply design with separate regulators for each important part of the DAC and output circuits. The important bits are the Wolfson Microelectronic's WM8741 DAC chip, and the WM8804 chip (receiver) that is used to decode the SPDIF data stream. The external power supply unit offered with the MF-DAC is a switched mode type that offers compact size and the characteristic of not sagging under load, a quality that usually guarantees nice taught bass. The output stage avoids the use of any capacitors in the signal path, and there are several filters included. All in all, a quite sophisticated design, particularly when compared to a simple NOS DAC.
I wasn't sure if the review sample was new, or had been burned in, and when I put it in the system in place of the Harmony DA9, it sounded a little bit undynamic and 'shut in'. In fact, it was a brand new DAC, and as the hours passed, things changed quite dramatically. The sound became more open and the bass became more prominent. What did strike me very early on with the MF-DAC was the incredibly beautiful tone that it had, particularly with the strings. Violins, cellos, guitars, piano, all had a rich tone that really enabled the sound to accurately portray these instruments as instruments, rather than just the sound that they made.
Bass was very firm and precise. Listening to Massive Attack the bass lines were probably as tight as I have ever heard them. The bass doesn't quite match the tunefulness of the Harmony DA9, but it is still very good. Where the MF-DAC beat the DA9 was in the mid-range with that glorious tone, and a slightly smoother presentation of vocals. The top end was likewise well controlled and precise. The MF-DAC doesn't provoke a 'WOW' reaction when you hear it, rather, over a time it beguiles you with a very balanced and capable performance where you come to appreciate what it is doing to provide an accurate musical presentation. It certainly grew on me over the weeks that I listened to it, and there was nothing about it that I didn't like.
Sound stage was large but not as large (or deep) as with the my DacKit or Monica 3 DACs (both of which are modified), imaging was crisp, and timing was spot on. But overall, the presentation of the MF-DAC is more musical than hi-fi, and very enjoyable to listen to. I would describe the sound of this DAC as mature and refined.
The question most people ask about hi-fi equipment these days concerns the price, or more precisely, how does it stack up against the competition? Supplied as it is in kit form, some may baulk at the price of the complete kit. Comparing the PCB module, it only marginally betters the DiyParadise Monica3 kit (complete with Mojo) but costs 270 € compared to 110 € for the M3. That may not be the best example because some folk just don't like NOS DACs, and would prefer something like the MF-DAC anyway. I happen to like both genres and if I was buying either of these DACs for myself, the price would be a very big factor. I appreciate that there are dealers involved with the marketing of the MF-DAC, and that their margins will inevitably inflate the price to the customer.
On the other hand, if we compare the performance with the Harmony DA9, the price looks a lot better, and I would have a very hard time deciding which of the two I would choose. If I was forced to make a decision, I would probably just go with the MF-DAC for that glorious tone.
There are three filter options with the MF-DAC: minimum, steep, and linear. The effects of each one are mainly subjective and I honestly couldn't say that I preferred one over another so I mainly left the switch pointing to minimum for the bulk of the audition. But the choice does provide the listener with some degree of tuning the sound to their liking (or their system). There is also the option of providing signal inversion with this DAC.
So summing up, the MF-DAC is a very capable DAC. One that grows on you over time, and one that truly offers a very musical listening experience where it does just about everything 'right' without any particular attribute standing out. If NOS DAC's are not for you, then the MF-DAC should be high on your short-list of DACs to audition.
© Copyright 2010 Nick Whetstone - www.tnt-audio.com