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The MSB Cascade and the art of over engineering

Punter

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The Cambridge definition of overengineering is “to create, design, or build something to be more complicated or perform more actions than is necessary or helpful”. I would add to this “to over-specify and over-build” in the case of the MSB Cascade DAC system.
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The stack of three units that comprise the Cascade system consist of:
  1. The Digital Director. The top unit in the stack is intended to be a source switcher for the DAC unit. MSB has equipped it with its supposedly proprietary fibre-optic output they call “Cascade Link” plus a BNC word clock input, an RCA and Toslink connector for S/PDIF out. The unit has the capability of being fitted with optional input modules covering AES/EBU, USB, I2S, Ethernet and Pro ISL.
  2. The Analog Converter. This unit contains a block of R2R Ladder DAC modules along with a “Femto Clock” unit to provide a clock signal to the DAC units. As far as interfaces go, it has two stereo channels of unbalanced RCA inputs, two stereo channels of XLR balanced inputs and the Cascade Link input. Output from the DAC is via two balanced XLR connectors.
  3. The Powerbase. This unit is the DC power supply for the Analog converter only. The Digital Director has to do with a filthy, raw mains power feed. Internally, the unit has four toroidal transformers, three conventionally laminated cores and one encapsulated low-power unit. An abundance of smoothing capacitors and voltage regulators, full wave bridges and all the other things that go with a linear DC power supply.

The enclosures for all of these component devices have been milled from solid aluminium on CNC machines. Overall, the fit and finish on the units is first class and would be very aesthetically impressive in the flesh. The construction of the enclosures would also ensure a hefty weight per unit which is essential when fishing for the “high-end” clients.
MSB-The-Reference-DAC-Unibody-940px.jpg

The over engineering undertaken with this equipment serves only one purpose, that is to convince the buyer that they are getting a peerless, high quality product. A product where the manufacturer has dedicated themselves to creating devices that exceed the requirements of any format to ensure that the output is as pure, faithful and pristine as it is possible to have it. One of the persistent themes of the marketing copy is the care with which the equipment treats the “fragile” analog audio signal.

“The moment an analog signal is created, it becomes vulnerable to irreversible degradation. To combat this, we have designed our analog stages to minimally affect the fragile analog signals they create.”

Lets have a look at the internals of the equipment to get an understanding of how MSB have created the perception of ultimate accuracy and faithfulness.
10202005-Premier-Director-Subassembly-Gallery-650px-Rev-2.jpg

The Digital Director acts as the interface between the audio source and the DAC. What MSB have done is to give the customer a range of input modules for various formats but ultimately, the Digital Director renders everything to S/PDIF to feed to the DAC. This is accomplished with a pair of Analog devices ADSP-21565 digital signal processors. This is how MSB can claim to not use “brute force” D to A in their setup. It's also why the Digital Director ships with the S/PDIF module fitted as standard. The optional input modules slot into the chassis at the rear with space for three if you don't count the standard S/PDIF module.
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The other major component visible on the pcb is an Actel ProASIC3 FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) . To a large extent, all the functionality of the unit will be run from this chip. FPGA programming is known to have a certain “black magic” aspect to it but this far down the track, if you can’t find some pre-written modules to do the things you want then you’re not really trying. I’m not saying that MSB has just thrown this set of equipment together with little effort, quite the contrary, the workmanship and obvious skill that has brought these units together is impressive. The fact that they appear to keep practically all of their design and manufacturing in house including circuit board assembly is well beyond the commitment of many manufacturers in the “high-end” segment of the market.

Moving on to the DAC. Now it should be observed at this point that MSB is shooting for the audiophile client and in this era, making a big deal out of the analog form of music reproduction is crucial to convincing the target audience that you “really understand”. Subsequently, all of the various sources that have been rendered into S/PDIF are fed into what is known as an R2R Ladder DAC. Personally I was unfamiliar with these until I began researching this post. Put simply, an R2R DAC converts S/PDIF into an analog voltage via the use of a shift register and a collection of resistors. When I started to look into this I couldn’t get my head around how one would produce a stereo analog waveform this way but it does work. Here’s a schematic.
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Interestingly, a stereo output is derived from simple odd and even numbers, with left being even and odd being right so in an eight bit signal 00110100 would be a component of the left channel and 00110101 would be an identical component of the right channel. The numerical value of the incoming bit determines its analog voltage which is presented to the input of an OP Amp. As a shift register is involved, a clock has to be provided and this means that it must be able to be adjusted for different digital bit rates.
1090033-Cascade-DAC-Femto-33-650px-Rev2.jpg

In MSB’s case, they have gone all out and created a crystal oscillator in its own temperature controlled enclosure or "oven". This type of setup is usually found in sensitive scientific instruments but when you’re out to prove that your equipment is specified far above anyone else's, this is the type of thing that you include. The clock is apparently Femto second accurate meaning 10⁻¹⁵ or 1⁄1 000 000 000 000 000 of a second, one quadrillionth, or one millionth of one billionth, of a second. So not even Hans Beekhuyzen will be able to detect any jitter.
1090032-Cascade-DAC-DAC-Modules-650px-Rev3.jpg

The DAC’s themselves are housed in their own CNC milled enclosures and have balanced audio outputs.

At the bottom of the stack is the “PowerBase” and considering the fact that it only provides power to the DAC unit, is thoroughly overspecified. I would be surprised if the DAC would draw more than about 1-2 amps, which means that the linear supplies would be absolutely idling. However, the name of the game here is overkill and thus we have another marketing moment where it can be stated that the supplies are so pure and ripple free that they provide the most pristine DC power to the DAC as is humanly possible.
1090036-Cascade-DAC-Powerbase-Internals-900px.jpg

Debate has raged on the “Extreme Snake Oil” thread over whether or not the MSB Cascade is “Snake-Oil” and I will assert that it is not. The reason for this is that the equipment is extremely well made and a good deal of skilled work has gone into its creation. The equipment is also manufactured in the USA and not a collection of jellybean parts from China. The equipment also performs to the specification stated and the marketing team has resisted making any magical claims for the system (that’s a reviewers job!).

The final question to ask is if it represents value for money. The answer to that is a resounding “NO!”. At $95,000 USD, not even the silly CNC enclosures can justify the asking price and it’s doubtful that most people could detect any difference between this unit and another DAC that was reasonably specified. My guess is that every time MSB sell one of these sets, they would be clearing an easy 60 to 70K in profit. While there is a decent chunk of labour and knowledge involved in the design and manufacturing, this unit has many off-the-shelf parts which are available at a relatively modest cost, the ADSP-21565 data converters are $52 USD for example. I think there is little to no proprietary technology in this equipment. The "Cascade Link" could be MADI or another fibre optic protocol and it would take someone with real knowledge and the appropriate test equipment to find out. I’m not dismissing the cost of “bringing it all together” but those expenses would be recouped with relatively small numbers of sales IMHO.

Useful links.
MSB Cascade factory page
The workings of an R2R DAC
Analog Devices ADSP-21565 Datasheet
 
Very ironic they call that one box the Digital Director. One of the last reasonably priced things they made before abandoning bang for the buck products and switching to Ultra High End was the MSB Audio Director Digitizer. It in essence was a good ADC with multiple inputs. They made a Pro version too.

 
And it's ugly. And only 2ch.
Remember Chord, dCS, Esoteric (uh uh uh), Wadia...
 
The last I checked the MSB R2R DACs never were good measuring.
 
Perhaps stating the obvious, they are not overengineered, they are overpriced only.
Your definition of overengineering and mine obviously don't align :)
 
They add unnecessary components (like separate power supplies). So it's not engineering. No way. It's sabotage.
 
And it's ugly. And only 2ch.
Remember Chord, dCS, Esoteric (uh uh uh), Wadia...
Overpriced, check
Over-engineered, check
But not Ugly, not to me anyways, not compared to below (for instance)
1720609619428.png
 
The form serves the function, there the twisted, curved boxes with totally useless spikes (!) cost more than what is inside and not even WBT sockets with basic XLRs (Neutrik? These are the cheaper in any case) for this extravagant price. What you present next is a pale imitation of Dan D'Agostino products.
 
Overpriced, check
Over-engineered, check
But not Ugly, not to me anyways, not compared to below (for instance)
View attachment 380140
But everything is less ugly than Wadax, Wadax is the reigning world champion of ugly and I don’t see anything to beat it, unless Wadax can dream up something even more hideous.
Keith
 
I had the MSB Select DAC (the Cascade predesessor) at home for a couple of weeks on loan. It was the best DAC I have heard at that point, and I have heard (and owned) more than a few heavy weight contenders. The only drawback was that it was soo bloody expensive (and the fact I was not able to afford it).

You may question the way it is engineered (or overengineered), but as long as you don't have personal experience with the product, the whole discussion is moot.
 
Its absolutely dripping in snake oil ffs.

Best DAC you've ever heard or a farm in rural Portugal.

Aaah....ok sorry, let me try the dac first :facepalm:
 
It was the best DAC I have heard at that point, and I have heard (and owned) more than a few heavy weight contenders.
Have you ever done a scientific, level-matched blind ABX test?

It's suspicious that you didn't say how it's "better". And, please use scientific/engineering terminology (noise, distortion, frequency response).
 
You may question the way it is engineered (or overengineered), but as long as you don't have personal experience with the product, the whole discussion is moot.

About 10 years ago, I had a shootout between the 2 box MSB DAC (can't remember its name), a Playback Designs MPS-5, and a Merging NADAC. I owned the last two DAC's. I could barely tell the difference.

Some time last year I had the opportunity to watch a friend measure the MSB with his E1DA. We were all pretty excited because there are no known published measurements of the MSB. The SINAD was pretty underwhelming. About -105dB from memory. The Playback Designs was even worse, it was about -98dB. And the Merging was -118dB.

Earlier this year, I was asked to DSP another system. I brought my RME Fireface UC along. I told my friend that it's a state of the art DAC, don't be fooled by its humble appearance. So we did a shootout between his MSB (another 2 box DAC) and the RME. I cheated and set the RME to "high output" just to mess with him a little. Want to guess which DAC won? ;)

So yes, I have had personal experience with several MSB's. They perform as well as any other DAC. I don't think they sound any better, or any worse. They are certainly beautiful, and if they had the functionality I needed at a more reasonable price I would certainly own one. I am willing to pay a bit extra for build quality and nice looks. But not that much extra.
 
Did I miss something, or does it actually lack a three-phase motor/generator to isolate the unit from line noise?
 
fascinating and well-sounding devices: well-sounding, however, like many others on the market today...

performance in 2024 in electronics and digital is within everyone's reach.

No charm, that still has a separate cost...if you can afford it, why not!!

Probably if I could I would buy one, but I would gladly give up the 3 frames: my motto is....the system must be as simple as possible.
That digital apparatus has the same number of components as my entire system!;)
 
Your definition of overengineering and mine obviously don't align :)
How long is a piece of string?
To some, anything more than an E1DA is over-engineering! For these people, say, a Mojo2 is way over-engineered.
But any Chord DAC, pales into nothingness compared to these boxes.
 
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