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Review and Measurements of Grace Design Balanced DAC

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the Massdrop Grace Design Standard Balanced DAC. It was announced a long time ago and finally became available last week at which time, I purchased it. It costs US $150. The initial quantity of 472 got sold in two days so you have to wait if you want to buy it.

The Balanced DAC enclosure is similar if not identical to the classic "O2" DACs:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC Audio Review.jpg

There is a switch for USB input versus optical/coax. The business end is the rear:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC back panel Audio Review.png

A pair of XLR balanced connectors is the reason for anticipation for this DAC. I think it is the cheapest brand name DAC with balanced output at this price.

For my testing I used USB. There is that combo 3.5 mm coax/toslink which I don't like as I seem to never find my special cable for that. However, it is better to have it than not.

Despite the name, there is also unbalanced output but it too is 3.5 mm jack. These adapters are readily available so not an issue. If you are buying this DAC though, I hope you will be using its balanced output anyway.

XLR cables are massive and heavy. The sticky feet on the Balanced DAC help it stay put but they can do so much. If you let the balanced cable lay on the desk some, then it won't tip over the unit.

Overall, the feel is a "solid budget" product. You won't have to apologize for its looks or feel.

DAC Audio Measurements
Let's through our dashboard measurements at the XLR output and see what happens:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC Audio Measurements.png


Output is a bit higher than required at 4.3 volts (a good thing). That unfortunately costs the unit 2 dB in SINAD (signal over noise and distortion). But even where it is, this competent performance:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC SINAD Audio Measurements.png



We are in "green" bucket of DACs which is comforting. The closest competitor to the Balanced DAC is the SMSL SU-8. As you see on the graph, they land right next to each other.

EDIT: Someone with better eyes than me noticed that the SMSL SU-8 I highlighted above was the first revision which had problems. The updated "V2" is much better and lands in blue region with 9 dB better performance.

The spectrum of distortions shows a third harmonic at -102 dB which sets the THD+N value by itself, indicating distortion is dominant than noise.

Testing unbalanced output shows the same performance:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC Unbalanced Audio Measurements.png


Speaking of noise, we can see it being very low:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC Dynamic Range Audio Measurements.png


This is well above dynamic range of 16 bit music at 96 dB so you are good there.

Let's drill into distortion using intermodulation test:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC IMD Audio Measurements.png


Our more expensive Topping DX3 Pro DAC and Headphone amplifier is a tough benchmark to unseat. It shows that here with less distortion and noise but the gap is small.

Perhaps a more interesting comparison is against the SMSL SU-8:
Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC IMD vs SMSL SU-8 Audio Measurements.png


The SMSL SU-8 uses the ESS DAC chip without IMD fix so it has that bulging hump/increase in distortion which the Grace Design Balanced DAC due to its use of AKM chip doesn't. The winner is hard to declare though as the Balanced DAC wins in the mid-levels but then has rising distortion at levels greater than -10 dBFS (digital signal). The rising distortion may be due to having to live with just the USB power versus SU-8 which is mains operated.

Jitter spectrum is not perfect but is darn good anyway:
Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC jitter Audio Measurements.png


Multitone test at 192 kHz sampling shows the typical amount of intermodulation distortion between tones as we could predict from THD graph earlier:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC Multitone Audio Measurements.png


Linearity is very good although it does get uncertain little bit more than I like:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC linearity Audio Measurements.png


Frequency response is ruler flat as it should be in any competent design:
Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC Frequency Response Audio Measurements.png


Finally white noise shows good selection of the only filter available:
Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC Reconstruction Filter Response Audio Measurements.png


Attenuation is weak at 22.05 kHz but as is typical, it becomes really good at around 24 kHz. Look to SMSL SU-8 if you want to mess around with the filter types. For me, this is fine.

Since some of you like this test, here is the intermodulation test of 19+20 kHz tones:

Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC 19 and 20 kHz IMD Audio Measurements.png


As far as distortion products, it is the same as what we saw in FFT as far as distortion products. Ultrasonic components are nicely reduced by the reconstruction filter.

I wanted to show you the value of balanced output with this zoomed in spectrum of 1 kHz tone:
Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC 1 kHz FFT Audio Measurements.png


And making the point of how there is no mains noise whatsoever at 60 Hz and harmonics. Alas, I switched to unbalanced output (not show) and got the same perfect response! This will vary on your system though so you may indeed benefit from balanced output. By using the PC power over USB, and not introducing yet another power supply in the chain, chances of mains leakage is reduced and hence (one of) the reason unbalanced was also good.

Conclusions
Massdrop and Grace Design set out to design a competent balanced output DAC for the lowest price possible and they have achieved that. Until now, our budget recommendation for balanced DAC was the aforementioned SMSL SU-8. The SU-8 is much more functional with remote control, display, multiple filters, etc and with better measured performance. But if saving $50 to $100 matters, now you have a second choice in the form of Balanced DAC.

It is comforting to see companies designing even budget products with attention to design.

No, this is no dragon slayer DAC. Our top performing DACs pull ahead by as much as 20 dB which is huge. Fortunately your ears and ability to hear non-linear distortion is far lower so you can buy this DAC and enjoy wonderful fidelity.

I am happy to recommend the Massdrop Grace Design Balanced DAC for budget audiophiles. It does what it set out to do.

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

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PuX

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#6
can you try powering it with a usb charger and feeding signal via spdif? the spdif adapter should be included in the box.

honestly don't expect the result to be any different, but who knows.
 
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#7
Amir,

thanks for the review. This sits right on top of my THX AAA 789 quite nicely and I'll probably replace my SU8 with it as there is less cabling as well as less fiddling to do. Drivers installed automatically in windows 7 using the usb1.0 option, i'm sure the Windows 10 connectivity is better.
 

amirm

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#8
FYI, someone noticed that I made a mistake and highlighted performance of SMSL SU-8 instead of the much nicer V2 of that DAC. I corrected that in the review. The IMD graph though was from V2 and shows the better performance of SU-8 at max level.
 

JohnYang1997

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#10
I low key don't see why comparison to su-8 when there is d50s.

And tho it doesn't compete very well with mid rangers, it's a blameless design that's for sure.

The paring with 789 is meaningless. The performance of the balanced and unbalanced output are the same and 789 sums the balanced input. There is no benefit rather than a 6db gain of signal level.

Overall, there may be some benefits from balanced signal which there isn't shown here. It has no more value than unbalanced only alternatives like sdac original, magni3, ol dac.
 
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JohnYang1997

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#12
I still can’t get over how good the DX3 Pro is..

Can anyone beat this all-in-one’s performance/features to price ratio?
Well theoretically speaking. Someone can remove some features of dx3pro and make it cheaper. And the performance(measurements) isn't really that amazing tbh. Just competent and no flaws.
Sadly the new v2 has broken the goodness. The tpa6120 in the output stage imply 10ohm of output impedance which is not ideal(there is a mod that could be done posted on dx3 thread).
 

trl

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#13
Thanks a lot @amirm . I was looking for a balanced DAC to feed my JBL305p mkII.
I wouldn't dare to pair my monitors with a DAC that is missing the volume control (no matter it's analog or digital). There will always be somebody that will mess with the computer's volume, so...kinda risky I'd say. If not, then Windows will update the audio drivers over night and who knows what volume setting you may get in the morning. :)

Of course, there's always a cheap preamp like the Schiit SYS to help. :)
 

AresHarvest

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#14
Can anyone beat this all-in-one’s performance/features to price ratio?
Not yet, apparently. If a competitor could match it blow-for-blow AND provide a 6.35 mm output instead of the 3.5, then...

I wouldn't dare to pair my monitors with a DAC that is missing the volume control (no matter it's analog or digital).
Having a passive monitor controller on hand is always nice. They're inexpensive and (usually) transparent, and we all like a big volume knob. That's what I use (NOS McONE-B) to toggle between my powered monitors and my headphone amp, and to control level of the speakers. I gain-matched my main headphones against my speakers, so I can switch between the two and they sound equally loud to me. I just have to leave the headphone amp gain knob alone unless I switch to a different pair of headphones.
 

JohnYang1997

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#15
I wouldn't dare to pair my monitors with a DAC that is missing the volume control (no matter it's analog or digital). There will always be somebody that will mess with the computer's volume, so...kinda risky I'd say. If not, then Windows will update the audio drivers over night and who know what volume setting you may get in the morning. :)

Of course, there's always a cheap preamp like the Schiit SYS to help. :)
Yeah that's real risky. For such use I would say get a cheap audio interface like focusrite.
 

daftcombo

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#16
Yeah that's real risky. For such use I would say get a cheap audio interface like focusrite.
@trl and @JohnYang1997 you are both right.
A USB1.0 like this is handy though, Focusrite uses 2.0 AFAIK. USB1.0 can be used on old computers and office computers you don't have admin rights for.

Of course, there's always a cheap preamp like the Schiit SYS to help.
The SYS uses RCA I think.
 
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JohnYang1997

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#17
@trl and @JohnYang1997 you are both right.
A USB1.0 like this is handy though, Focusrite uses 2.0 AFAIK. USB1.0 can be used on old computers and office computers you don't have admin rights for.


The SYS uses RCA I think.
If you use very low fixed volume at the back of the speakers I see it's ok. But the gain is usually very high the operation range is very minimal. It's hard to adjust both channel to equal. I'm using my hs7 at 9 o'clock. But they can still be very loud with 2V input.
 

amirm

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#18

Snafu

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#20
If You still have TotalDAC, could You please listen it vs Grace DAC at your speaker system. I'm not asking any blind testing but if there are audible differences how are they. Thanks again.
 
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