A couple of units that @Andrew and @taronlissimore brought with them, and left with me while they were doing some local work after the meet were the Focal Arche and the Matrix Element:X.
This is a highly multi-functional unit. In addition to being both a high-end DAC and powerful headphone amplifier, it is also a streamer, music-player (with the ability to play from a local SD card) and digital pre-amp, with AirPlay and DLNA support and, though it’s not mentioned on the web-site or in the product details it shows up as a “Roon Ready” device.
At a high level, and with just a few post-meet hours listening, I would say this is a contender for “best ESS 9038-based DAC” I’ve heard. I’d need more time with it to be sure, and some other specific units on hand to do back-to-back comparison with, but it is definitely in that ball park and warrants spending the time to delve into and compare properly.
I would characterize it as being a classic example of the clean, detailed, reference-type, sound. And in this case I mean that in an entirely positive way. The detail is real, not the “exaggerated” or “over-sharpened” effect that all-too-often accompanies ESS based DACs. Tonality is pure. Delivery is effortless. It is deft, and nimble, but can still slam hard, while delivering a tuneful, energetic bass-line. It isn’t clinical or sterile, but it is not obviously editorializing anything, either, and it definitely isn’t euphonic in any way.
Either as a pure DAC, or as a DAC/amp it’s performance is excellent. For the high-fidelity minded, it’s easy to see this as a TOTL all-in-one solution. In fact, in terms of raw technicalities, I can’t really argue against it in that role either. VERY nice piece.
So the sound is good … but there is, unfortunately, a downside - namely there is an unfortunate amount of “dipshit” going on here.
For one thing, if you want to run this via it’s built-in WiFi interface you will have to have an Android device. You cannot, at this point, configure the WiFi on the device, nor with an iOS device, nor a PC/Mac.
It says it supports AirPlay. Well, yes, it does, as long as you run it on a wired network. But you cannot configure it for WiFi without an Android device! WTF?!
To it’s credit, dropping it on my network via a cable I had to go digging for, it showed up immediately within my Linn-centric DLNA client/server environment. And it also showed up as an available, if uncertified, “Roon Ready” end-point. And it did, in fact, operate just fine for the few hours I played with it in Roon mode. Even to the point that it was both indicating it was in “Roon Ready” mode and fully decoding MQA sent via Roon.
This is a very promising unit … but not something I can consider as a personal streamer/AOI (be nice for the bed-side) until Matrix have a way to configure it for WiFi (etc.) via iOS or some kind of web-interface.
We’ll see where that stands a month from now … but I don’t buy on futures, so it won’t be coming back into my hands until it is fully manageable from iOS as well as Android.
But … on a sound and feature basis otherwise … it’s an impressive piece and is well worth checking out.
Man, was I disappointed to learn this wasn’t a joint venture with NAIM when it was first announced. That’s not meant to be uncharitable to Micromega, but as a Brit the former is always going to carry way more gravitas than the latter.
Features are minimal, but interesting. Selectable gain levels, selectable phase, analog and digital inputs, and balanced and single pre-outs and headphone outputs. The pure-class A amplifier stage (and you can tell it really is class-A just from the warmth emanating from the box) can operate in traditional voltage-drive or in a “hybrid” mode, and perhaps most interestingly has pre-sets for the entire line of Focal headphones.
The unit is a bit bigger than I expected, and lighter than you’d think when you pick it up. I’m undecided about the (removable) built-in headphone stand. On one hand it’s actually quite useful … on the other it is a bit odd to look at. Though the curve of it PERFECTLY fits Focal’s own line of headphones.
Well, compared to the Matrix Element:X the first word that comes to mind is “rich”. Rich enough it makes the Matrix unit sound a bit lean. There’s some underlying AKM “Velvet Sound” going on here, which will be apparent to anyone that is familiar with it, but the richness exhibited here is more than just some extra presence in the lowest registers.
It’s a VERY pleasant and engaging sound, and that remains true whether using a Focal headphone (I tried the Clear, Stellia and Utopia, both on their pre-sets and with the unit just in “Voltage” mode … and while they’re audibly different if you pay attention, I didn’t have a clear preference for either the specific settings or the general with any particular can) or other headphones.
I have been pretty much primed to dislike this thing, or at least seriously question its price-point, since it was announced. And the truth is, I don’t. At all. On either count.
At a high-level I’d say this is comparable to the DAC section of an RME ADI-2 DAC fs combined with a truly proper headphone amplifier that’s been voiced for some extra tonal weight and density.
It does a great job of extracting and relaying details, timbre is natural above the lower-bass registers (where things like double-bass take on a bit more “mass” than they perhaps should), and the “richness” doesn’t detract from it’s speed or impact at ALL (this thing hits pretty hard).
Playing with the just the analog in/out chain, I’m not even sure where I’d place the amp section. On par or probably ahead of the Pro iCAN I think, in SS mode. A bit richer than the Azure, but with a similar projection of stage and layering. Definitely more engaging than the current-darling THX AAA 789, and highly resolving both in terms of raw detail and micro-dynamic resolution.
The Matrix is notably purer sounding and perhaps a little more technically adept … but this is just much more fun. And the amp-stage on this runs rings around the Element:X.
If the Arche had a built-in WiFi Roon end-point I’d put this next to the bed, hang my Stellia off it, and call it good. As it is, I might just stick something like a microRendu on it and do just that anyway.