Musical Fidelity V90 DAC Review 
Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps
Written by Andre Marc   
Monday, 03 February 2014

I'm no stranger to Britain's Musical Fidelity, having reviewed a number of their budget minded and mid tier products over the past few years. A few of the items that have come through my systems include the V-DAC II, V-Link 192, M1 CLiC, and the M1 CDT. All offered remarkable sound, even without considering their affordable prices. The V-DAC II and M1 CDT disc transport remain in my systems currently.

Musical Fidelity’s founder and principal is known for updating the lines pretty consistently. On the plus side of that, the company seems to add improvements and offer higher levels of performance for slight premiums, and sometimes without price increases. The company also has a reputation for making very well constructed components, with legacy products being enjoyed for decades by long time customers. Musical Fidelity has also shown itself to be front-runners, being one of the first companies to produce outboard DACs and SACD players.

Recently, the V-DAC, V-Link, and M1 series of digital products have been very successful. Musical Fidelity also introduced an upper end reference product called the M6 DAC, along with several CD players with digital inputs. In keeping with tradition, the company's products are built to last, based on the samples I have seen from the M6 and M8 series. By the way, other changes abound, with Musical Fidelity hiring industry veteran Randy Bingham to a full time position as their North American representative -- Mr. Bingham is very knowledgeable and is especially passionate about music -- and the push to open up new avenues to music lovers with new Bluetooth devices and affordable products.

Circling back to the entry level, Musical Fidelity now offers the V90 series. The series includes a phono stage, an integrated amplifier, a headphone amp, and the subject of this review, the $299 V90 DAC. The V90 is different in design and execution than the highly acclaimed, now discontinued V-DAC II. According to Musical Fidelity, "the engineering team looked carefully at the requirements of modern music sources to ensure the V90 delivered the perfect balance of technical performance, sleek and attractive looks and outright musical enjoyment. The heart of the V90-DAC is its 32 bit DAC circuit. Delivering a remarkable low jitter of just 12 picoseconds and a signal to noise ratio better than -117dB the V90-DAC offers a technical performance only usually found in much more expensive products."

The V90 differs under the hood from the previous V series in the use of a 32 DAC chip, an additional TosLink input, and a slightly better measured signal to noise ratio. It handles 192 Khz natively on the coaxial input, and 96 Khz on both the TosLink and asynchronous USB inputs. All incoming data is upsampled to 192 Khz, and the USB input is compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems. Drivers are required for use with Windows.

On the outside, the V90 differs quite a bit from the V-DAC series. While the dimensions of the two DACs are quite similar, the V90 is a bit wider. The chassis layout is different as well, but remains nice and sturdy. All digital, analog, and power connections are on the back panel. The front panel has an input toggle switch and a power switch. The unit is supplied with a 12V wal wart power supply, and is compatible with a variety of external supplies as well, which makes it upgradeable. Overall, the look and feel of the V90 is first class.


Set Up & Listening

The V90 DAC took residence in the exact same spot my V-DAC II normally lives, decoding FLAC streams from a Squeezebox Touch via both optical and coaxial connections for comparison. My Squeezebox Touch has the Triode Applet installed, which defeats the analog outputs, and allows for 192 Khz resolution. Cables were Kimber, for optical, and DH Labs, for coaxial.

I started off with a slew of Gene Clark and Jesse Winchester remasters, both artists being recorded naturally. These singer songwriters mined similar territories, but with distinctly unique approaches. Gene Clark’s cosmopolitan country rock shined bright on such as albums as Roadmaster, and the experimental No Other. The V90 rendered these recordings magnificently, and much better than it had any right to at this price point. Winchester’s 1970 self title debut, and his recent Love Filling Station, show off his stunning songwriting and pure as honey vocals. The V90 bordered on miraculous here, without a hint of any digital edge or glare.

A little context is required. The V90 is was inserted into an extremely revealing system, consisting of the amazingly transparent Genesis G7c monitors driven, with Transparent cables, by the very neutral McIntosh MA6000 integrated amplifier. There was simply no place to hide for the V90 if had any obvious shortcomings. I later cycled in additional amplifiers and gear, like the Rogue Sphinx, Clones Audio M25i, and my Harbeth Compact 7ES3 speakers.

Musical Fidelity V90-DAC rear

An eclectic mix of music filled out the rest of my V90 listening sessions. Tuareg masters Tinariwen’s Aman Iman: Water is Life, is very well recorded, with a mix of acoustic and electric instruments, and the band’s modal chants and percussion interlocking gracefully. The V90 did a marvelous job painting a seamless, coherent picture of this album. Conversely, the unit did not hide the rather hazy sounding production on Bruce Springsteen’s superb new offering, High Hopes. The album is an interesting mix of covers -- and older, unreleased songs -- and it works. However, the Pro Tools glaze that permeates the recording was not glossed over by the V90.

The astonishing new album by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Give The People What They Want, on the other hand, is an analog-sounding recording, mimicking classic, early soul records. Jones’s vocals have never been stronger, and the horns, and other embellishments, sounded simply breathtaking via the V90. (The 24 bit, 88 Khz download is a real treat.) That an entry-level DAC could provide such a transportive experience with sublime music was yet another reminder that now is truly a great time in the hobby for the entry level. Let’s remember this DAC was dropped into a system costing around $14,000.
 
Another very well recorded collection is the recent tribute to British folk rock icon John Martyn, Johnny Boy Would Love This. Performers ranging from the Swell Season, Lisa Hannigan, David Gray, Beck, and others provide excellent interpretations of Martyn’s songs. And through the V90, these performances really made me sit up, and demanded my full attention.



High resolution material sounded equally superb and, in most cases, better. The 192 Khz remasters of America’s classic Warner Brothers catalog is simply stunning, tracks like “Tin Man” and “Sandman” sounded punchy and detailed. The 96 Khz remasters of Nick Drake’s three albums are a triumph and a definite step up from the ten-year-old CD remasters, which are quite good themselves. The V90 handled all sample rates up to 192 Khz with no issues via coaxial input, and up to 96 Khz with no issues via optical and USB.  

Getting to the nuts and bolts, all the inputs on the V90 performed equally well, sonically. I normally use an optical connection with my Squeezebox, but for 192 Khz albums, I switched over to coaxial. The USB input also sounded excellent, with a Jriver Media Center 19 equipped HP laptop. The layout of the V90 made it easier to set up than the V-DAC II, with all connections on the back panel.

So how does the new DAC compare to the now discontinued V-DAC II? After extended listening I feel the V90 offers a tad bit more refinement, a slightly larger soundstage, and a slightly sweeter treble. The V-DAC II did not have any notable shortcomings in these parameters, but the V90 just adds a bit more goodness in those areas. The differences were not massive, but clearly perceptible. Pretty neat since the V90 actually costs $50 less than what the V-DAC II sold for.

Musical Fidelity V90-DAC

Conclusion

The V90 DAC is simply a product where listening tells you what you need to know, regardless of what type of DAC chip is used, or claimed measurements. It sounded amazingly true to real life with vocals, which was in overall keeping with my feeling that the V90 exhibited a clean and transparent midrange. The V90 is going to appeal to folks who want a DAC that gets everything right for what is genuinely an unbeatable price.

Look for more reviews here from the V90 series. Companies like Musical Fidelity are providing entry-level audiophiles with a wealth of products to choose from, regardless of preference for digital, vinyl, or even Bluetooth wireless. Stay tuned.


Specifications



Musical Fidelity V90 DAC: $299

Musical Fidelity North America:
Randy Bingham
Tel: (480) 297 4053
Email: randy@musicalfidelity.com


Inputs
●    1x RCA coaxial connector SPDIF 32-192 kbps (16-24 bit stereo PCM)
●    2x TOSLINK optical connector 32-96 kbps (16-24 bit stereo PCM)
●    1x USB type 'B' connector - Asynchronous data stream at up to 24-bit/96kHz (Determined by source file/computer settings)

Outputs
●    1x line level RCA (phono)

General
●    Dimensions - WxHxD (mm): 170 x 47 x 102
●    Weight (unpacked / packed): 600g / 1.1 kg

Supplied Accessories
●    1x 12v 500mA DC power supply


Review System 1


CD Transport: Marantz SA-14S1 SACD player
Server: Squeezebox Touch
DAC:  SIM Neo 308D, Marantz NA-11S1
Headphone Amp: Pro-Ject Head Box II
Headphones: Grado SR60
Preamp: Channel Islands Audio PLC-1 MkII
Amplifier: Audio Research VS55,
Speaker: Thiel CS2.4
Cables:  Stager Silver Solids, Darwin Ascension (IC), Transparent  MM2 Super (IC), Transparent Plus (Speaker) Acoustic Zen Tsunami II (AC),Transparent (AC).Shunyata Venom (AC) Element Cable Red Storm (Digital AC), DH Labs TosLink, DH Labs AES/EBU, Audioquest, Forest, WireWorld Ultraviolet, DH Labs USB(USB) DH Labs (USB)
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner, Salamander rack

Review System 2


CD Player: Marantz CD5003
Music Server: Squeezebox Touch via Ethernet to, Oppo BDP-105
MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate external drives.
DAC: Musical Fidelity V-DAC II
Integrated Amplifier: McIntosh  MA6600, Rogue Sphinx, Clones Audio M25i
Tape Deck: Revox A77
Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3, Genesis G7c
Cables: Darwin Cables Silver IC, Kimber Hero HB,  DH Labs White Lightning (IC),QED Transparent MusicWave (Speaker),PS Audio (AC), Mojo Audio (AC), DH Labs TosLink, Audioquest Forest USB, Wireworld Ultraviolet USB
Accessories:Cable Pro Noisetrapper, Sound Anchors Stands, Wiremold, KECES XPS






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