MSB Premier/Powerbase Modular DAC

hfnoutstandingTraditional 'resistor ladder' DACs are rarely seen these days but California-based MSB has made the technology its own and elevated performance to an entirely new level

Despite persistent rumours of the standalone DAC's demise, the industry continues to provide us with converters with capabilities far in excess of any digital sources commonly available. MSB's DACs fall into this category, and given the sheer brilliance of the Premier we're reviewing here, it's hard to fathom that this isn't even the top rung of the MSB family, coming in below the flagship Select and the Reference, and above the Discrete. That said, the bare-bones version is £19,500. Ulp.

Our photographs reveal the detail of the combination up for review, but here I must preface my report with a recital of names and numbers. Why? Because a major part of the unit's appeal is the way you, the customer, can tailor it to specific needs. I realise that MSB is not the only manufacturer to employ a modular architecture; I am merely emphasising its presence, not least because module swapping – should you purchase more modules than the unit can host at once – is so swift and intuitive that I had a hard time to resist just playing with them. I loved fiddling with the unit's swing out locking lever system. Very cool.

On The Menu...
This approach to the user defining the Premier's capabilities addresses both one's audio system's requirements and one's finances, if that even matters at this level. As with the apocryphal remark about Rolls-Royces, and if you have to ask the fuel consumption… but whatever your predispositions, the Premier can accommodate your precise needs should you be, say, a CD-only user, or one who adores streaming, or – more likely – an omnivore audiophile with myriad sources.


By my count, the Premier can handle one double-width module, which in our set-up contained the XLR line outputs and the two feeds from the separate Powerbase PSU, plus four single-width modules. You can, of course, just get by with the double module and one choice of input, and add others later, as funds or needs determine. When you see the options, you'll be forgiven if it recalls a menu in a restaurant that suggests choosing something from Columns A, B and C.

The brochure fortunately tells you which modules each of the four models handle; the Premier and Discrete do not accept analogue inputs, and there's no matching transport in the range. But what remains is comprehensive.

For £19,500 the 'base level' MSB Premier DAC includes the standard Premier Clock module, the Digital coaxial/Toslink/ input module (with a Word Clock on BNC), choice of RCA or XLR analogue output modules, and the MSB Remote. Optional extras include the Premier Powerbase PSU (£7500), the double fibre optic Pro ISL link module (£990), Pro USB/ISL adaptor (£990) and Renderer (network) streaming module (£1950) – just under £31,000. But, as Paul Benge of the company's UK distributor HiFiTraders told me, 'You don't have to have the Powerbase, as the Premier DAC comes with a small Discrete power supply to which you can add another Discrete PSU for £1500, if you can't stretch to £7500'.


Now the fun begins, and you will soon see why purchasing this is more than a matter of ticking boxes. I was reminded of the choices presented to me when specifying my first Mac, or the options lists when buying a new car, and it will be incumbent on your retailer to assist you. I can imagine profligate audiophiles buying the lot, but some of the modules are so esoteric as to beg their raisons d'être. In addition to what was tested, and also already mentioned as options, there's a Quad rate, non-MQA DSD USB input module (£990), the same with MQA (£1590), the Dual Pro I2S input module (£990), and by way of upgrade, the Femto 93 clock (£4950 if ordered with the Premier), which I would heartily recommend. Let's call it circa-£40k for the complete set.

Royal Flush
MSB doesn't seem to have put a foot wrong, save for the IR remote. This alloy handset is a bit of a nightmare because MSB chose to be clever and engrave it with almost-recognisable, yet non-intuitive icons that, power on/off aside, look more like the cuneiform on the Rosetta Stone than self-explanatory images which make most remote controls second nature. I had less trouble the first time I was faced with a Toto toilet in Tokyo, with no English labelling and only symbols to explain where the water jets were aimed.

But the remote is a must because the fascia sports only three buttons, also with barely legible labels. Let's just say they do not present the most user-friendly way of navigating the complexities of the menu system. Throughout this review, then, please keep in mind that we are talking about a DAC that almost deliberately, nay, wilfully taunts the user with the irony of its near-Bauhaus, clutter-free front panel, dominated by a perfectly-legible dot-matrix display, yet it lacks anything approaching instinctive ergonomics.

Luckily, I was shown how to operate it by the distributor, and I suspect that – like dealing with an upgrade to one's computer or tablet operating system – familiarity will swiftly compensate for MSB's hostile interface. Someone at the factory is, at this very moment of reading, writing me off as a techno-moron, but I am an audiophile of 51 years' standing and I cannot name one product that comes close to the MSB remote's abstruse commands.

sqnote Dac To The Future
Set-up, somewhat surprisingly, was swift, with a feed from the Audio Research REF CD9 SE as a disc transport, as well as a new MacBook for digital delivery via assorted sources. And here I must address the thorny topic of digital cables. Sorry to say this – oh, you don't know how much it pains me! – but the resolution and transparency of this DAC proved so truly exceptional that cable changes were immediately discernible and qualitative. I get the argument that you really shouldn't be able to hear differences between digital cables, eg, 75ohm coax equals 75ohm coax, but they were vivid enough to silence naysayers and validate cable junkies.

MSB Technology Corp
California, USA
Supplied by: Hi-Fi Traders Ltd, Guestling, UK
020 3714 7236