Review written by Grover Neville
Matrix Audio’s X-Sabre Pro MQA is a fascinating little DAC. It is unabashedly one of the more expensive ESS Sabre chip implementations on the personal audio market, and doesn’t shy away from being a bit by-the-book. At this price there are high-end R2R DACs, custom coded-FPGAs and other devices such as the RME ADI-2 DAC FS which has recently switched over to using the ESS Sabre chips.
I generally am of the opinion that with most DACs the output stage makes up the majority of the sound, with the digital conversion stage having some very subtle characteristics. Sabre chips however have long had a reputation for being a bit bright or piercing in the top end, and I was curious to see the Matrix’s flagship take on the rather expensive 9038PRO chip, especially since there seemed to be some forum buzz about it.
The features of the X-Sabre pro are flexible but fairly standard for modern personal audio converters. There’s fixed and variable output modes - something I find quite handy, especially if you want a preamp or run sensitive tube amps - a few filters to select from and a small but functional remote. Inputs include the standard optical, coaxial and USB but also AES via XLR and i2S inputs viad HDMI style cable. I suspect most buyers won’t have those, but it’s nice to have them included just for flexibility. Outputs are via XLR and RCA, and that pretty much sums up the unit.
It’s smaller than I expected after having viewed pictures online, measuring about half as wide and 2/3rds as deep as my Gungnir multibit. This is a trim, even dainty desktop converter. The external finish is a semi-matte black and the overall design is sleek and quite pleasing. The X-Sabre Pro doesn’t draw attention to itself.
In a certain sense, my description of the looks mirrors my impression of the sound. This is a DAC that does not draw attention to itself, and it reminds me of my very first experiences hearing high end mastering converters from Merging, Weiss and Prism - not the consumer units mind you, but the mastering converters. When you first hit play the experience is almost disappointing. There’s this underwhelming sense that you aren’t hearing anything particularly at all.
There is no sparkly treble shimmer, no punchy gutsy bass, not even a wide or holographically 3D sound like the Dangerous Convert-2 . Instead you’re greeted with something that has very little texture of its own. And herein is the key to DACs that attempt to be as clean and neutral as possible - they aren’t supposed to have a sound.
Instead, that texturelessness and almost dry, smooth and wall of sound is the DAC presenting a picture of most of modern digital music. That is to say, it’s limited to within an inch of its life by hardworking mastering engineers. Stream or play flac of some of your favorite recordings and you might be a little disappointed by how easily all the unflattering dynamic brickwalling is exposed.
However, put on some un-limited tunes, which includes most classical and some jazz and bluegrass, and you’ll be greeted with a totally unhyped picture of the recording. So it is with the X-Sabre Pro, which is easier to define by what it does not do than what it does. It does not particularly color the sound in any tonal way, nor does it change the sense of dynamics. It also doesn’t have the total lack of coloration that the very best DACs I’ve heard have, it is ever so slightly more exciting than that.
The flagship pro audio converters I mentioned above are almost boring at first, until you work with them every day and realize they have such an absence of texture or anything annoying that you can simply focus on the music. The X-Sabre is quite close to this ultra clean approach, but it does have a hint of character which manifests itself as a slight openness and extra dollop of detail on the top end. Switching filters alters this characteristic to various degrees but never quite changes the fundamental sound.
Unlike other Sabre implementations of years past, the extra detail on top does not sound harsh or edgy, and the X-Sabre was never fatiguing even after long listening sessions, but it did draw my attention just that little bit more to the high-end because of the exceptional detail it presented. I have to make it clear here that my ear wasn’t drawn to the treble quality of the X-Sabre Pro, but rather to the treble of the recorded files I was listening to. One of the reasons this coloration didn’t bother me much was because the treble of the unit itself didn’t have much discernible color.
If I were looking for a DAC of the clean and clear variety and wanted some of hyper textureless sound of Weiss, Merging or the high-end Prismsound units, the X-Sabre Pro would likely be a great and much more affordable choice. Personally, I enjoy DACs with more obvious colorations, and there are so many great Sabre DACs at lower prices, that I suspect the X-Sabre may be a difficult value proposition for those on a tight budget.
I compared the RME ADI-2 DAC FS to the X-Sabre Pro and the differences between the units, with all settings being as close as possible, was vanishingly small. The RME by comparison boasts a much larger featureset, and what little extra refinement and neutrality the X-Sabre had over the RME is in my mind far outweighed by the included headamp and powerful RME EQ. If you’re looking for a converter in the $2,000 range and you must have a Sabre chip, I don’t know if you can do much better than the X-Sabre Pro. But if you’re looking below that budget, the competition gets pretty stiff.
Buy the Matrix X Sabre Pro at Headphones.com for the best available price.