Musical Paradise MP-DI DAC Review by Tim Smith
$480 plus $25 shipping in North America
WALL OF SOUND GOLD STAR AWARD for unrivalled quality at its price point.
The Musical Paradise MP-D1 DAC is one of audio’s best bargains. It is a giant-killer, a slayer of bling DACs, and probably 90% as good as most DACs in the $1,500 to $3,000 range. To my ears it is better than at least a few DACs I have heard in that price range. The D-1 is quite possibly the best $505 investment ($480 plus $25 shipping in North America) you can make today for your digital front end. It is yet another brilliant design from Mr. Garry Huang of Edmonton, Alberta, the owner and holder of the keys to Musical Paradise.
If you read this website you know I am a big fan of Musical Paradise. I have never met Garry Huang and I have no financial interest in his firm. Like many others, I discovered his products in audiophile internet chat forums. I bought my first product from Garry three years ago. Today I own three of Garry’s amplifiers and at one time I owned four. I have had the Musical Paradise DAC for eleven months. Time and again it has amazed me. At first, I could not believe my ears: was I really getting better sound than I did from my $1800 Naim CD player? Yes I was. Could it really compete with that Naim house sound—PraT and all that? Yes indeed.
And so on and so forth, as the MP-D1 wiped the floor with every other digital source in the house except my Marantz SACD players. It took me several months to admit to myself that there was no good reason to keep pricier but inferior (or not significantly superior) sounding products I owned, so I sold them. Other than the pieces of Schiit I have heard, I am unaware of better-valued products sold and serviced in North America.
Musical Paradise is an unusual company in that some of its products ship from Canada but now most ship from China straight to the consumer. But you have access to service, should you need it, in Edmonton. Garry will make any repairs himself. This reduces the risk of purchasing direct from China—ever priced the shipping costs of a 60 pound amplifier sent via airmail to the Middle Kingdom? In any case, having owned so many MP products I can attest to their rock-solid construction so it’s unlikely you’ll need to worry about warranty issues. This DAC is built like a tank, tipping the scales at 6 kg or 13 pounds. It has serious iron and primo parts. The casework is smart. True, the blue LED is painfully bright but I simply printed a small blue dot on my cheap $80 printer, put a bit of adhesive on one side, and placed it over the blue LED. Problem solved. The dot is 90% dimmer and perfectly visible.
As I said, the MP-D1 DAC has kicked several more expensive DACs out of my house. That includes the wonderful Audiolab M-DAC, which is twice as expensive, and is also one of audio’s better buys. To my ears, the MP-D1 is just as good sounding if not as versatile (the M-DAC has a headphone amp and can function as a digital preamp). The Audiolab may have slightly more speed and slightly deeper bass but it does not impart a vinyl-like sense of ease and warmth to the music, even with its self-styled ‘analog sounding filter.’ Others might well prefer the Audiolab type of sound and they would not be wrong. At this level of quality, it’s a matter of personal taste. To my ears, the Musical Paradise wins by a whisker.
The Musical Paradise D-1 DAC sits below my turntable. It is not out of place paired with more expensive gear.
The MP-D1 has USB, S/PDIF and Toslink inputs. The MP-D1’s USB section uses the XMOS 500 MIPS with an XS1-L1 processor. This DAC syncs seamlessly with Apple OSX 10.6.4 and higher and with Linux—simply plug and play. My iMac recognized the MP-D1 right away. With a quick driver installation, it syncs with Windows XP/Vista and higher. The D-1’s USB is asynchronous, supporting up to 24 bit/192khz. The two other inputs go to 24/96. The MP-D1 employs the eminently musical AKM AK4399 chip with a claimed 123dB dynamic range.
All of this would count for very little without a robust power supply. Your $480 buys you two EI transformers made of Japanese Z11/M6 silicon cores with six separate windings. Digital and analog are kept separate. The result is a low noise floor and supreme musicality. Huang’s stated goal of “achiev(ing) the most analog sound in the digital world” has been realized. I can listen to this DAC for hours upon hours with no fatigue. It reproduces violins in all their rich and woody timbres like no other budget DAC I know. There is never any ear-piercing stridency.
I am unaware of another DAC available for $505 (including shipping) built to such high standards. You get discrete parts and no op-amps. There is no negative feedback loop. The MP-D1 is Class A all the way, with two 5670-style tubes used in the output stage and not as mere buffers. And how do Vishay Dale resistors, Wima Rubycon and Nichicon caps sound? Let’s not forget oxygen free copper wire. And to top it off, 24k gold plated input and output terminals.
Behold the build quality. And the majestic Western Electric 396a.
The D-1 is a tube-roller’s delight. From the stock 6N3 (which are perfectly good) to the overrated JAN GE 5670, to the much better Tung Sol 2C51 and Western Electric 396A, you can tailor the tube to your taste. Currently I have the D-1 tricked out with a pair of Western Electric 396a. I also like Amperex 5670s. The WE 396a tube gives an incredible sense of speed and power even as it retains all the warmth tube-heads crave. Think of this DAC as a Burson with tubes and several hundred dollars cheaper. The D-1 sounds very similar to the Burson HA-160D I used to own, but I prefer the MP because it imparts a greater sense of holography and it is richer in the midrange.
When I recently had a contractor in the house to give me an estimate for some renovations, I couldn’t help but note the Lee-Press-On nails on his right hand. I asked him what instrument he played—Scruggs-style banjo? No, just guitar. That reminded him that he had left an old Martin-style guitar in his car and it was a cold morning. He brought the guitar into the house to warm it up. When he saw my sound system he was intrigued so I spun Tony Rice’s classic CD, “Unit of Measure.” Next the contractor grabbed his guitar and did some fine flatpicking himself. We were both amazed at how realistic my system sounded. I was using a Marantz CD-5004 as transport into the Musical Paradise DAC. Amplification was the Coincident Turbo SE, a brilliant 845 tube-based beast I have on review for another site. My Harbeth Compact 7s soaked the room with bloom. We stood in awe. Everything was spot on—the harmonics, the undertones, everything. Ten years ago you’d have to spend $5,000 to $10,000 for sound this good.
It’s a cliché that tubed DACs will give up a bit of grunt in an effort to blunt redbook cd’s sharp edges. This is not the case with the MP. I don’t think the MP-D1 lacks for anything in the bass. From Jaco’s Pistorius’ fretless Fender on Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever” to Geddy’s Lee’s crunchy Rickenbacker of his early Rush recordings, this DAC digs deep and stays dry. There is no wooliness or bass bloom; it’s crisp and clean, fast and lean. I demo’d the MP against my Audiolab M-DAC for several hours in order to assure myself that I would not lose anything significant in selling the M-DAC. The D-1 has speed and it can boogie with the fastest music, from disco to techno. For the price, the D-1 is flawless.
I own an amp worth over ten times this DAC and goodness knows I have too much equipment. When something really grabs a hold of me, I usually buy it. But I don’t have any urge to upgrade from the Musical Paradise MP-D1. It is my ‘reference’ DAC. The most recent high-end DAC to have graced my listening room is the $5,000 Resonessence Labs Mirus. It’s a great DAC, among the best I have ever heard. Again, I’m happy staying with the MP D-1. It’s that good.
So how precisely does it sound? Quite simply, almost like vinyl, with a huge soundstage and ravishing timbres and tonal colors. There is never any stridency to the music. Even the worst recorded 70s rock is listenable through this DAC. I cannot imagine playing jazz guitar without the D-1. The D-1 excels with all acoustic music including banjo. Chris Coole and Arnie Naiman’s wonderful disc “Five Strings Attached With No Backing” sounds like live music using the D-1 with one of the two 845-based amps in my house at the moment. On a cheap system banjo can sound thin and brittle, even tinny. With the D-1 one can hear that wonderful Cluck of Coole, that distinct twang that’s one part metal string, one part calf skin, one part tonewood, one part recording room. The detail this little thing can scrape up is remarkable but it is never tiring.
The D-1 imparts a sense of fullness to every digital file it meets. It has air and it does a fine job separating instruments and making sense of complex orchestral maneuvers. To my ears, the D-1 has no obvious flaws. I have just placed an order for a second D-1 because I don’t want to risk being without this DAC in the long run, should it ever be discontinued.
Three cheers and one gold star to Garry Huang, the man with the plan to make world-class audio available to the average earner.
WALL OF SOUND GOLD STAR AWARD for unrivalled quality at its price point.