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Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC & Streamer Review

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Ethernet/Wifi wireless streamer. It was kindly sent to me by the company and costs US $990.

The Element i embodies the beautiful design language of other (newer) Matrix Audio products:

Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Review.jpg

The menus and settings are controlled using two buttons and rotary encoder. There is a headphone out but I did not get a chance to test it yet. Will do as a follow up (edit: now added to the review).

The back panel shows the usual suspects:

Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Back Panel Connections Inputs Outputs Review.jpg

Unlike other Matrix Audio products I have tested, the Element i uses an external switching adapter. It is about twice the size of a phone charger.

Both wired Ethernet and Wifi are there as is my favorite, Roon player streaming protocol. Roon however complains that the implementation is not certified. I had no trouble using it but I encourage Matrix Audio to get the certification.

For my testing I focused on USB Input and XLR balanced line outputs. I had previous tested the Element i as part of my review of EtherRegen switch.

DAC Audio Measurements
As noted, here is our dashboard using USB input and XLR output:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Measurement.png


Output voltage is 4 volts which is the nominal value I like to see. Distortion is down below -120 dB which makes it absolutely inaudible. SINAD is lower because it also adds noise to the distortion. Performance is quite respectable in this regard landing squarely in the middle of our top quadrant of all DACs tested:
Best streaming USB Audio DAC.png


Dynamic range is exceptional:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Dynamic Range Measurement.png


32-tone signal resembling "music" shows superbly low distortion products:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Multitone Measurement.png


There are three different levels of jitter reduction in Element i:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Jitter Measurement.png


Default is "Normal" which allows a tiny bit of low frequency jitter (in blue). It is utterly inaudible but setting it to LOW gets rid of that. Likely not an issue with USB bus but if you use other serial digital inputs, low setting may not allow the unit to lock on incoming data. Or take too long to latch onto its sample rate. For this reason, there is the other extreme which is "HIGH." Note that Low/high here refers to bandwidth the PLL (phase locked loop). The higher the bandwith, the better/faster the ability of the unit to lock on input. But it also allows more jitter in.

There is also a global setting for "Jitter Eliminator" which I assume is the asynchronous sample rate converter in ESS DACs:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Jitter Eliminator ESS Asynchronous Resampler ...png


I suggest leaving it on.

IMD vs level shows very low level of noise and distortion:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon IMD Measurement.png


Thd+N (distortion+noise) across frequency range and much wider bandwidth than the dashboard shows one clean implementation:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Distortion vs Frequency Measurement.png


There is almost no rise with frequency which is a hallmark of an excellent implementation.

EDIT: missed linearity test in the original review:
IQaudio PI-DAC Pro Pi Audio Streamer Linearity Audio Review.png


It doesn't get better than this. Likely would be good another 10 dB lower.

Thermal Stability
Prior to performing the above test and while the unit had just powered on, I measured THD+N across 10+ minutes:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Thermal Stability Measurement.png


As you see, there is no temperature dependent effect. Performance is rock solid from start to finish. So no need to leave the unit on, or worrying that as it gets warmer, performance gets worse or better.

Headphone Amplifier Audio Measurements
Let's start with power into 300 ohms:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Headphone Power into 300 Ohm Measurement.png


I like to see 100 milliwatts into this load. Element i sails past this delivering 247 milliwatts. This should enable it to drive just about any high impedance headphone.

Noise is initially higher than reference Topping DX3 Pro due to lack of low gain setting. As demands of power increases, the Element i has lower distortion than Topping DX3 Pro and as a result, beats it on both power and distortion.

Going the other extreme with 33 ohm load we get:
Matrix Audio Element i USB DAC and Streamer Roon Headphone Power into 33 Ohm Measurement.png


A secondary source of distortion kicks in keeping the Element i from beating DX3 Pro on distortion. But it does sail past it with higher output power.

I don't usually compare DAC+headphone amp combos with headphone amp-only devices but for sake of argument, I did just that:
Best Headphone DAC.png


Given the fact that the DAC in Element i has SINAD of 113 dB, it can't do much better than this. So likely the amp would rate around 113 dB SINAD so pretty close to state of the art.

Output impedance is very low (good):
Best Headphone Amplifier Output Impedance.png


Headphone Listening Tests
I will make this brief: performance with both Mrspeaker's Ether CX and Sennheiser HD-650 was excellent. Lots of power, lots of dynamics, great bass, etc.

Conclusions
With some companies DNA of good engineering runs in their blood and such is the case with Matrix Audio. Every aspect of the Element i oozes with quality from the case work to measured performance and thermal stability. If you need a streamer and want to be done with it, the Element i is it.

It is my pleasure to strongly recommend the Matrix Audio Element i DAC and Streamer.

--------
As always, questions, comments, corrections, etc. are welcome.

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#3
It's good to see that the ES9028PRO converter chip doesn't have the thermal instability of the ES9038PRO.
 
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amirm

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Thread Starter #6

Joachim Herbert

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#7
Awesome. Missing two festures, though: Digital output plus digital (dithered) volume control to drive active speakers with digital input.

Also: does it ROON? Would make a great endpoint.
 
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amirm

amirm

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No measurement of the headphone out?
No. Didn't realize it had headphone out until I was typing the review. :) Will measure tomorrow and post.
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #9
Also: does it ROON? Would make a great endpoint.
Of course. I noted that in the EtherRegen review and showed measurements. I also made a comment in this review that it is not certified but works well.
 
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#15
Just a quick question,
what is the difference between a USB DAC & Streamer and a normal DAC.
nice piece of equipment though
 

Matias

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#17
Just a quick question,
what is the difference between a USB DAC & Streamer and a normal DAC.
nice piece of equipment though
A streamer shows up on your home network as an end point for another computer to send music to it. A streamer also connects to the internet so that you can play streaming music services directly through it.

A regular dac only has digital inputs and relies on a computer or dedicated streamer box for those functions.
 
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Matias

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#18
Stunning combination of features, measured performance, looks and value. I also consider this a top recommendation.
 

Cahudson42

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#20
MA is repeatedly hitting a hole-in-ones lately. Their pricing however, remains out of reach for many people.
This was precisely my reaction as well - pricing. When you look at alternates, is it worth $1000? The DAC performance, while excellent, is not class-leading. 113db vs. 110db for an $120 LG V20 Quad DAC 'streamer'. Is 3db worth $900? Amir hasn't measured the HP amp yet but we know excellent choices there for $100. For 'streaming'? Again. Cellphones and BubbleUnPN, the $120 V20 as an endpoint, $25 LG Rebel 4 'tracfone' to access your Tidal whatever-- $30 Fire7" tablets to do the same thing if you use Amazon Music HD and Alexa streaming capabilities.. A limited 2.4g wifi only apparently..

I can buy a pretty good pair of HP for $1k. A decent as701 power amp. A pair of Maggie LRS with money left over..2 WXA-50s...

No, it's not a ripoff/PS Audio style - but given all the alternates we have, IMO it's 'value for money' at maybe $400. Not $1000..
 
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