Review samples kindly supplied by Ohm Audio
Retail price Bricasti M1 in the Netherlands 9900 euro
Retail price Bricasti M1 SE in the Netherlands 11900.00 euro
The Bricasti M1 Classic has a distinctive and purposeful design, quite unlike other brands in the industry. Although… its looks do remind of classic Mark Levinson products, and this visual resemblance is no coincidence it seems. Bricasti’s co-founders Casey Dowdell and Brian Zolner both worked at Lexicon before Harman International closed these operations. Additionally, some of the hardware engineering is contracted to AeVee Labs, which is a company founded by Bob Gorry, who used to be Chief Engineer at Madrigal Audio Labs. This could explain the exterior looks as well as the Arlon circuit boards, which used to be exclusive to Mark Levinson “S” products. The large, easily readable display also reminds of the old Levinson classics. As I have my equipment racks almost 7 meters away it is not often that I can read audio component’s displays, and I most welcome this feature! Comparisons aside though, the M1’s technology and implementation are quite different from the old classics and the M1 is very much a unique and above all, modern product.
Early M1 units had no USB input, but thankfully, my unit does. Another difference between early units and my unit is in the power supply section. Early units had linear power supplies (toroidal transformers) for the left and right analog output stages, but a switched supply for the digital section. My unit has linear supplies for all three sections.
The final difference (that I am aware of) is that infrared remote control used to be an option at extra cost but is now included. The remote control itself is nicely solid and tactile and works with an outboard IR receiver box that is powered from a wall wart power supply and connects to the M1 via a mini-jack cable.
There is now also the option to fit a Network connection to allow the M1 to function as a DLNA Network Endpoint and Roon compatibility is apparently in the works. I for one feel that Roon is the best thing that has happened for streaming audio, so this is really good news. Best of all: all these options can be retrofitted to existing M1 units.
The M1 DAC is a dual mono design with two completely isolated channels that have their own dedicated linear power supply with extensive voltage regulation, D/A converter, clocking and analog output stage. Stereo ADI 1955 D/A converters are employed in a mono configuration (which Bricasti refer to as a twin DAC design) with separate high precision clocks for each DAC (which Bricasti refer to as Direct Digital Synthesis, DDS) to reduce jitter to extremely low levels. Clock synchronization of the left and right channel boards is maintained using a Sharc DSP on the main processing board. Each of the two balanced output stages consists of four high slew rate AD843s Op-amps, followed by two discrete transistor output buffers, one balanced and one unbalanced.
Digital inputs available are AES/EBU, Coaxial, Optical, and USB2. I always wonder why manufacturers do add multiple coaxial digital inputs, but always only one USB input. Surely these days people would be well served by this. For example, one would be able to connect a music server such as an Aurender as well as a UPnP or Roon streaming endpoint. This is not a complaint at the address of Bricasti though, as I know of no DA converter that has more than 1 USB input. I just wanted to mention this in the hopes that someone picks up on this. Maybe Bricasti could be the first;-)
Analog outputs are available in balanced XLR and unbalanced Cinch. The XLR outputs have a small back-lit level trim control right next to them, which is enabled by moving an internal jumper. Using the variable setting, the output level is adjustable from +8 to +22dBm (1.95–9.75V). With the jumper left in place, the default output level is +14dBm (3.9V), and this is how I used it.
The M1 also includes Bricasti’s proprietary filter technology, offering no less than 15 filters to choose from. 6 Linear Phase and 9 Minimum Phase options allow the user to tweak to sound to their personal preference. These filters can also be selected very swiftly via the remote control.
The XLR output level can be adjusted using a led-lit trimpot next to each channel’s connectors.
Most listening was done using my main system consisting of Jeff Rowland Corus/PSU preamp, Jeff Rowland model 6 power amps and Apogee Acoustics Diva speakers, but the M1 was listened to using several other audio setups.
As chance would have it, a very nice pair of Marten Mingus Quintet speakers were also over for review along with a Jeff Rowland model 625 S2 poweramp, so I thankfully used this system to further assess the M1’s sound, in this case without an extra preamp, so also utilising the M1’s digital volume control.
On the same day that the Martens went back to HVP Audio, listening buddy Jan decided to pick up a pair of Sonus Faber Amati Anniversario speakers, which he was happy to leave with me for a while. It’s funny: I left with Martens to return the same day with Sonus Fabers, and so these speakers were also used with my main setup to further assess the Bricasti’s sound.
Finally, my smaller Apogee setup was used. This system consists of newly refurbished Apogee Dueatta Signature speakers, newly overhauled Jeff Rowland Coherence II preamp and a pair of VAIC Reference 520 SE Triode power amplifiers and alternatively with the Jeff Rowland model 625 S2 power amp that was on loan from HVP. To top it off, I also connected a pair of Dali Ikon 6 speakers to the VAICs and this turned out to work surprisingly well.
The main source was the Aurender N10 music server and secondary source a Roon install streaming to an AudioAanZee Reference Flow music server running Euphony Drive, both using mostly red book CD quality WAV files. The Aurender was connected using both coaxial digital via a Belden RG59 coaxial cable and USB via an AudioQuest Diamond USB cable. The M1 was already used for a long time by Ohm Audio, and I gave it almost 2 more weeks of continuous play, to make sure it was awake. Interestingly, its sound changed only very little between very first listen and final listen, maybe it was just a tiny bit smoother, but I’m really not sure. For comparisons, I used the Wadia 521 and Esoteric D-07 DACs, and the Exogal Comet was also used briefly.
Best combination: Cardas Clear and Furutech Alpha + FI-28/FI-38 connectors. What also worked very well was the Black Rhodium Concerto interlink.
Power Cables and Interlinks
First power cable tried was a Furutech Alpha 3 with FI-28/FI-38 connectors. This was such a good match that I did not try any other cables in the main setup. In the other setups, however, I also used Belden and even a standard power cable. All worked very well. As interlinks, I used Cardas Clear, Cardas Hexlink and Black Rhodium Concerto, all XLR. The Cardas Clear best helped the Bricasti bring out its refinement and micro detailing while the Concerto enhanced the Bricasti’s liveliness and sounded unbridledly enthusiastic but at the cost of a little refinement. The Bricasti was happy with all the combinations I tried, so the choice will come down to personal preference.
The Artesania racks have built-in support that bypasses a component’s feet. There is room for experimentation here though, for example using Finite Elemente Universal Ceraballs or Stillpoints. The classic M1 as I reviewed it has aluminum feet with a thin rubber layer (another item reminiscent of the Levinsons), which works perfectly well when I used it with the other setups. Using universal Ceraballs proved to extract a little extra transient attack and articulation, which worked very in my main system when used with the Divas. This provides tweaking perspective for people with shelved racks but also paves the way to consider the M1 Special Edition, which among other upgrades employs specially designed Stillpoint feet.
The manual states that the M1’s sound is intended to be transparent and revealing and fully dynamic, and I can confirm that I do indeed hear these qualities in the M1 DAC, but it does so many things so very well, and there really is a lot more to say! But first I need to explain the context and the influence of the filters.
Although the M1’s quality is always evident no matter which filter is chosen, the 15 filters make it possible to adjust the DAC to sound anywhere between “cleaner and more articulate” and “smoother and more relaxed”. The decision which filter to use is very much a personal matter as well as a case of system synergy, tightening up relaxed systems or smoothing analytic sounding systems. For example, I found that Linear 3 makes for the most immediate and articulate bass with the liveliest midrange, while Minimum 2 provided the deepest soundstage imaging along with less peaky transients and more relaxed dynamics but no loss of pace.
While bass tightness and -drive is a personal fetish and something that my main system likes, I’m sure that not everyone feels this way, nor do all systems need an extra nudge in this area. In generic, I found that the Linear filters sound dimensionally flatter than any of the Minimum filters. For their more impressive dimensionality coupled with their more natural flow, I suspect that many people will prefer the Minimum Phase filters. Although I am a bit divided between the two, I tend to keep coming back to Linear 3 and Minimum 4. Your mileage may vary. As it is very easy and very quick to cycle up and down through the available options, I’d encourage just to experiment with this.
No matter which filter is selected though, the M1 has superb resolution, and some of the cleanest, most grain-free reproductions that I have heard in a long time. It’s not just about technical perfection though, the heart wants, too. In this regard, the M1 also delivers hugely, with a harmonically rich presentation, but without darkness, added cream or any wooliness as often happens with other smooth sounding audio components. The M1’s resolution and transparency is reminiscent of what I heard from the dCS Delius/Purcell, P8 in the past, and the Elgar a little while ago, but the M1 sounds much more natural at the same time and has more impactful dynamics and more drive.
Of all its inputs I exclusively used the Coaxial and USB options and compared the two. I’m happy to report that the observed differences are very much conform what I usually hear using the Aurender source: a tighter, more precise sound via USB and a more sonorous, more free sound via coaxial.
The M1’s bass reproduction really is one of the best I have heard in this setup: quick, agile yet forceful, the bass is super-nimble and very easy to follow yet never thin, and it also has great impact.
The M1’s midrange is spot on neutral and although the DAC is indeed superbly transparent and non-colored, the DAC allows the full tonal palette of the recording to shine through entirely intact. There is no thinning of timbre or lessening of emotion for that matter. CD’s which I know to sound rich using other DAC’s, come through entirely velvety smooth through the M1. In addition, there is this “emotionally swaying” lyrical “singing” quality to the sound, a difficult to define aspect that I also hear in many Jeff Rowland components. So, in spite of its analytical qualities, the M1 is definitely highly musically engaging.
The M1 is loaded with LEDs, and these are clearly visible through the ventilation slits.
Direct to amplifiers
The M1 has a high precision volume control built in. It operates in the digital domain but I cannot detect any lessening of resolution even at very low positions. Used direct it sounds more direct than via a preamp of course, but contrary to many other DACs used this way, and that includes all Wadias I tried, the M1 does not become overly dry, and importantly it retains treble fluidity and air. I’ve listened to the M1 like this in all the aforementioned systems. While I keep preferring a preamp in my main system, this is not just any preamp that we’re talking about (Jeff Rowland Corus + PSU), the M1 fared very well on its own in all the other setups. You might well conclude that my main system is the odd one out, and more likely than not, the M1 will perform without a preamp very well in many system combinations. Without a preamp, the sound is more honest and more direct. It does become comparatively dry if the preamp in question is a luxuriously rich sounding Jeff Rowland Coherence II, but in itself, I would not call the M1 dry. Rather it is honest, but definitely not ruthlessly so. In fact, its fluid yet well-textured sound is perhaps what makes it so universally applicable. Especially with the Martens, the Bricasti sounded best when used directly into the Rowland 625 S2 power amp.
Many DACs sound different with DSD than they do with PCM. Most sound better with DSD (so far notably Delta/Sigma designs), some sound better with PCM (so far mostly Multi-Bit designs that convert DSD to PCM) and on the rare occasion DACs sound uniformly good with both formats. The Bricasti falls in the latter category. Although DSD clearly showcases its higher resolution and typically more fluid sound over red book PCM, the Bricasti’s overall character, or rather, lack thereof, remains consistent. There are 3 filters to choose from when playing DSD but I must confess that the differences were too small to be meaningful to me. After some flipping through, I just left the DAC on filter 0. Content with the DSD results, I continued using my familiar 44/16 recordings.
As mentioned, the M1 also sounds harmonically rich, but it is not a creaminess layered on top as could be said is done with the Levinson 390S CD player. The M1 is more articulate, faster and more open and transparent. While on the Levinson subject, you can also draw parallels with the 360S DAC, which from memory is a really great DAC, but more mechanical sounding than the 390S, and in spite of its multi-bit DACs, less “outgoing” and enthusiastic than the M1.
The Wadia 521 has been part of my system for a while now, and that is because it just matches very well. Although at first listen the Wadia seems to be even more powerful than the Bricasti in the midbass and lower midrange, the Wadia is quite unique for these aspects, and quite possibly not entirely neutral. Some might call this coloration. Also, when listening closer, although highly engaging, the Wadia’s initially more imposing sound is definitely less refined and articulate throughout the entire frequency range. Especially when using USB, the M1 certainly presents the music with more nuance and lets you hear deeper into the mix. With complex music, the M1 keeps even the most silent sounds clearly audible, whereas they tend to sink into the mix sooner with the Wadia.
The Wadia has no USB input so the comparison is fairer when also selecting SPDIF on the Bricasti. This (theoretically less ideal) input creates a delivery that is closer in presentation to the Wadia, but at a slight loss in bass tightness and overall focus compared to its USB input. On balance, I think I prefer the USB input for its superior tightness and transparency.
I need to be clear on this: although I have a tendency to go on about the Wadia being such a good match in my system, this brand’s delivery is quite deviant from the norm, and as such this is only a good yardstick for people who also own a classic Wadia DAC or CD player. These things are very personal anyway and depend on the system used. My main system is admittedly a little lazy and can do with some extra butt-kicking.
Importantly, while the Wadia 521 sounds more ballsy, the M1 does not sound dynamically compressed, as many other modern DACs do in my opinion. For sure, switching back to the Wadia after having listened to the M1 for some time makes the Wadia’s lesser areas quite evident.
Lastly I compared the M1 to the Esoteric D-07 DAC. This is an older product, but it is newer than the Wadia 521, and unlike the more classic multibit Wadia, the Esoteric employs Delta/Sigma conversion, just like the Bricasti. Especially because the general consensus seems to be that there is a fundamental difference between these conversion types, I place special emphasis on this.
The Apogee Duetta Signatures are very fine speakers, but they don’t combine well with the VAIC Reference 520 Single Ended Triode amps. For this review, they were used in combination with a Jeff Rowland model 625 S2 power amp.
The Esoteric is a very different animal than the Bricasti, with a highly energetic, bold and concentrated sound, somewhat like the classic Wadia delivery, and like the Wadia, it comes across as being quite detailed and dynamic. In this sense, it does not sound stereotypically Delta/Sigma. Compared to the M1 however, the D-07 is revealed to sound a bit congested and a little bombastic rather than truly dynamic and the perceived detail is not resolution but a certain focus that is often interpreted as detail. The Bricasti, on the other hand, is master of nuance, detail and dynamic differentiation, but being a gentleman, it will never shout, and so this quality was not appreciated fully until it was used in the other audio setups.
The VAIC amps worked well with the Sonus Faber Amatis and worked wonders with the Dali Ikons.
The interesting thing is that the Bricasti threads a very fine balance and prevents sounding like either of the stereotypical DAC deliveries. Conversely, the Esoteric is quite happy to impose its own character on the sound, and this character has to fit the system in which it is used. It works very well in my main system but rather less well in the Marten/Dali/Sonus Faber setups. The Bricasti M1 on the other hand just works absolutely splendidly where-ever I tried it. It is much like a chameleon, which after all I think is precisely what one should expect from a reference audio component.
System matching is perhaps the most important aspect of audio. Listening to the Bricasti in the other audio systems, my earlier notions about Wadia versus Bricasti turn out to be very relative indeed. Especially when the Sonus Faber Amati Anniversario speakers were connected in my main system, the Bricasti turned in a performance that was nothing short of stellar. As observed before, all the audiophile parameters were ticked, but this time the DAC also delivered large dynamic swings with thunderous impact and I think I mentioned this before but it really has bass to die for. One could argue that the Amatis are incredible speakers and I would not argue that, but the same uniformly excellent performance was heard using the affordable Dali Ikon 6 speakers as well as the Apogee Duetta Signature speakers. With these dynamic speakers (rather than dipole ribbons) the Bricasti was actually a much better match than the Wadia. In these cases, the Wadia’s bolder presentation worked against it, making for a slightly square-ish presentation in the upper midrange and treble. More and more it becomes evident that the Apogees really like bold sounding DACs such as Wadia, while dynamic speakers prefer gentler and more refined sounding DACs, such as the Bricasti.
The smaller Apogee Duettas are inherently drier, and more spritely performers than the more even-handed Divas but especially when using the Dalis or the Sonus Fabers, the sound was actually much more dynamic than it normally is using the Wadia in my main setup with the Divas. How’s that for perspective?
For almost 3 weeks, I used the Bricasti in all these variations, and not once did I hunger for more impact, or more of anything, I just cannot find fault with its presentation. If that sounds like faint praise then please let me stress that it is absolutely to its credit that it works so uniformly well. It is truly a perfect reviewers tool and I really dread the moment when it has to leave my system again.
The M1 throws a superb balance between technical excellence, emotional engagement, and refinement. It provides quite possibly the very best sound in its price class and should be considered a true reference standard.
The M1 deserves serious consideration from anyone considering getting a new DAC, even if the idea was to spend double the M1’s retail price. It really is that good.
Update July 2017: thanks to a royal trade-in deal from Ohm Audio I was able to permanently add the M1 to my system. It has now taken the place of the Wadia 521 as the primary DAC in use.