October 2000MSB Technology Link DAC III with Half Nelson Parts Upgrade, 24/96 Upsampling Option, and P1000 Power Base
by Roger Kanno
The MSB Link DAC as reviewed by Doug Blackburn in July 1999 received a Reviewers' Choice recommendation -- and for good reason. At a current list price of $399, it offers a significant improvement in sound over most comparatively priced CD and DVD players. Doug also reviewed the Link DAC with the Channel Islands Audio modifications and the Monolithic Sound HC-2 power supply in September of 1999 and concluded that these upgrades were "virtual must haves" for Link DAC owners, offering "clear and obvious improvements" that were especially noticeable with 24/96 software. MSB now offers their own upgrades for the latest version of the Link, the Link DAC III. The upgrades consist of: the Full Nelson and Half Nelson parts upgrades (factory installed), 24/96 upsampling option (user installable), HDCD option (user installable), and P1000 Power Base outboard power supply.
For this review, MSB supplied a Link DAC III with the Half Nelson parts upgrade, the 24/96 upsampling option, and a P1000 Power Base. Although the upsampling and HDCD options are specifically designed for the new Link DAC III, they can be retrofitted to the previous version of the Link, as can both "Nelson" part upgrades.
Will the real Link DAC III please step forward
So how do you tell which version of the Link DAC you have? Well, unless you purchased your Link after January of 2000, you probably have version II or possibly even version I. The Link III can be identified by its two additional indicator lights on the front panel. One of them is marked "Option" and the other is an additional frequency-lock indicator for 192kHz. The Link II and I are identical except for a small hole containing a rubber plug on the back of the unit near the power input that is used to install the option switch. This is only present on version II.
So what do you do if you don't have version III of the Link DAC? Well, the good news is that both the upsampling and HDCD options can be retrofitted to the Link II with what appears to be some fairly simple soldering, or you can get the fine folks at MSB to install them for you for $50 each plus $20 for return shipping. Additionally, the "Nelson" upgrades can also be installed in the Link II if you return the DAC to the factory.
MSB is also offering a trade-in option for current Link I and II owners. These range in value from $100 for the return of a Link I or II with the purchase of just the Link III all the way up to $400 for the return of a Link I or II with the purchase of the Link III with a "Nelson" upgrade, either of the HDCD or upsampling options, and the P1000 power supply. See MSBs website, specifically www.msbtech.com/upgradeoptions.html, for complete details.
MSB states that all versions of the Link DAC are identical except for the headers required for the mounting of the upgrade boards. Therefore, a stock Link DAC I or II should sound the same as a stock Link DAC III. I will not belabor the point that the stock Link sounds very good. In its basic form, the Link provides a sound that is eminently listenable with good transparency and detail, but with a richness and warmth that is very inviting. At a retail price of $399, it is an incredible value.
À la carte
The "Nelson" parts upgrade comes in two forms and is named both for the wrestling hold and Carol Nelson of MSB, who suggested the idea of marketing this modification first done by someone at MSB as a personal project. The Full Nelson, as it is called, consists of a high-quality parts upgrade and an AES/EBU digital input that replaces the TosLink input. The Half Nelson is the same thing, but without the AES/EBU input. The parts used in these upgrades consist of Wima polypropelene capacitors, Caddock ceramic resistors, Roederstein helical metal-film resistors, and Analog Devices op amps. The power-supply rails are also increased from 8 to 12 volts. The "Nelson" upgrades are only available as factory-installed options and cost $385 for the Half Nelson and $485 for the Full Nelson.
The 24/96 upsampling option is available either factory installed or as a user-installable kit. This upgrade enables the DAC to approximate a full 24-bit/96kHz signal from 16/44.1 CDs by increasing the apparent word length and sampling frequency. This type of dithering to add bits has been used successfully in outboard devices from Audio Alchemy, Camelot, Genesis, and Assemblage and is now included in many current DACS and CD players. MSB claims that the upsampling option also significantly reduces jitter. It is priced at $199.
The P1000 Power Base can be used to upgrade the performance of virtually any MSB product. It replaces the wall-wart power supply that is supplied with the Link DAC and other MSB products. The P1000 is housed in the same metal case as the Link and comes with a removable IEC power cord. It is designed to be placed directly underneath the Link, and the supplied umbilical cord is so short that it leaves few other options for placement. The P1000 contains a large toroidal transformer and utilizes something called Stabilow[TM] technology that is claimed to provide stable, high-current power. The P1000 also provides some line filtering and surge protection and sells for $299.
Although my upgraded Link did not feature it, a user-installable HDCD option is available from MSB for $199.
The full meal deal
To put it simply, the sound of the MSB Link DAC III with the Half Nelson parts upgrade, upsampling option, and P1000 Power Base was excellent. The signature sound of the stock Link was still there -- good resolution, solid bass, and a warmth that makes music extremely engaging. However, the addition of the upgrades took these strengths of the Link III and further improved on them, taking the DAC to another level of performance. Each of the three upgrades provided incremental improvements to the sound of the Link III, but it was as a combination where they worked together with an incredible synergy.
When I powered the stock Link III with the P1000 power supply, detail and dynamics seemed to increase, but at the cost of the smoothness and the listenability of the original sound. Bass was now enhanced, but was sometimes a bit lumpy and disjointed, and there was a slight edginess to the sound brought about by the added detail. Conversely, when the Half Nelson parts upgrade was powered by the standard power supply, the sound was exceedingly smooth and rich, but it lacked the drive and dynamics provided by the P1000 power supply. MSB recommends that the P1000 power supply be used to power all of the upgrades and options, and I would tend to agree with this. Dusty Vawter also recommended that his Channel Islands mods to the Link be powered by the optional Monolithic power supply and Doug Blackburn concurred with this, believing that the two should be considered as a pair.
When the Half Nelson was combined with the P1000 power supply, the merits of both were multiplied rather than merely added together. This combination proved very satisfying, and I lived with this configuration for a couple of weeks during the time that the upsampling board had to be returned to MSB for modifications. The early-production board that I received caused the Link III to have difficulty in locking onto the signal from some transports, especially when a 24/96 signal was present. However, this problem was quickly rectified and the board returned to me. During the time that the upsampling option was unavailable, the Half Nelson/P1000 upgraded Link III provided me with many hours of listening bliss. The powerful sound was relaxed and never forced or strained. Everything had a certain sense of ease to it that made the music accessible and involving in a way that was very special. Because of this, I was in no hurry to get the upsampling option returned to me. When it did arrive, I installed it (a very trivial process) and sat back to see if my listening pleasure would be further enhanced. Although the improvements were not as significant as those brought about by the Half Nelson or the P1000 Power Base, the upsampling option still managed to improve the sound of this already excellent combination. The improvements were mostly in the form of an increased sense of air and space around instruments and just a touch more detail. Also included with the upsampling option is a higher-speed oscillator chip that increases the upsampling to 132.3kHz. Replacing the standard 96kHz chip with the higher-speed chip resulted in similar but even more subtle improvements to the sound.
It tastes kind of like chicken
The powered Infinity Composition Prelude speakers that I use feature a powered woofer in a very small enclosure and are rated down to 35Hz. While their bass is quite good, with the addition of the upgraded Link III, it was reproduced with a tightness and articulation that I did not think possible with these speakers. The improvement was so great that it seemed as if the amplifier had been upgraded rather than the digital source. Robbie Robertsons Music For the Native American [Capitol C2 724382829522] not only had bass that was articulate and solid, but extremely visceral in the way that it hits you squarely in the chest. The three stand-up basses of Ray Brown, John Clayton, Jr., and Christian McBride on Super Bass [Telarc CD-83393] were easily discernible, each with a slightly different pitch and each played with a different style. With lesser digital rigs, the three basses tend to blend together as one.
While the stock Link tends to sound a little forward, which gives it a punchy, immediate character, the upgraded Link III was more laid-back in comparison. Jewels Spirit [Atlantic CD 82950], which can sometimes sound slightly etched, was now satisfactorily smooth, but not at the expense of transparency or detail. Jewel's voice and acoustic guitar still had the right amount of bite, but everything was just more relaxed and balanced. Don Henleys vocals on his new album Inside Job [Warner CDW 47083] imaged precisely between my speakers, with every nuance of his quivering, whiney voice intact.
Doug Blackburn found that the CIA/Monolithic mods to the Link uncovered previously unnoticed subtleties of 24-bit/96kHz software, and the same was true of the MSB upgrades. The stock Link does a good job with 24/96-encoded music, enhancing resolution and imaging, and deepening the soundstage over that of standard CDs, but it was not as smooth as I would have liked, and I found the sound to be a bit thin overall. With the upgrades installed, 24/96 DVDs through the Link III sounded smoother, fuller, and more coherent from left to right, front to back, and throughout the entire frequency range.
The Glory Soundtrack [Classic DAD 1008] was reproduced with the best sense of a full orchestra that I have encountered in a recording. Kettle drums, which often overwhelm recordings with their deep and prolonged bass, were reproduced with control and uniformity. The string sections and chorus were slightly hazy, though not in a bad way, but as they often are in real life when many instruments or voices are massed together. Cymbals were also reproduced with a shimmering decay that was remarkably real and sustained.
Livingston Taylors vocals and acoustic guitar on Ink [Chesky CHDVD179] were sometimes startling because of their incredible dynamics. The bongos on "Isnt She Lovely" came from way, way, way back in the soundstage, and the guitar had just the right amount of twang to the strings and resonance in the body of the instrument. The noise floor was so low that Taylors vocals and percussion, such as brushes, seemed to come out of complete darkness.
Apples and oranges and even more expensive apples
There was simply no comparison between the stock Link DAC and the MSB-upgraded Link DAC III. I preferred the sound of the upgraded Link III by a wide margin. The improvements can be summed up as an increase in resolution and transparency, but with a smoother, more coherent sound. The sound was, for lack of a better term, more tube- or vinyl-like with its increased depth and warm sound, but not at the expense of detail. While the upgraded Link III easily surpasses the performance of the stock Link, it also costs more than three times as much! The price of the Half Nelson upgrade alone is nearly the price of the Link DAC III itself and the total cost of the three upgrades is a whopping $883. Granted, 900 or so clams is not considered to be a lot of money in the crazy world of high-end audio, but for many potential buyers, the added $883 for the upgrades will greatly diminish the Link DACs original appeal, which is its incredible price-to-performance ratio.
At this price point the upgraded Link faces stiff competition from other 24/96 DACs from Bel Canto, Assemblage, Birdland, Perpetual Technologies and others. The Link III does have the advantage of being able to be upgraded piece by piece (as does the Assemblage) with an initial investment of only $399 and the addition of each of the upgrades as finances permit. However, the parts upgrade from Channel Islands Audio is less than half the price of the MSB Half Nelson Upgrade, and the Monolithic Sound HC-2 power supply is also slightly cheaper than the MSB P1000. Although it is more expensive, the MSB upgrade does feature the option of an AES/EBU digital input, and I think the P1000 Power Base looks quite handsome placed underneath the Link III. Having not heard the CIA/Monolithic modded Link, I cannot comment on its performance. However, judging by Doug Blackburns review, it appears to offer excellent value at a price of only $458 for the pair.
Although the MSB upgraded Link DAC III is a tad expensive, especially when compared to the stock Link, I was nonetheless captivated by its sound. Additionally, the MSB products appear to be well designed and well built, and they are handsome in an industrial sort of way. The Half Nelson parts upgrade and the P1000 Power Base work especially well together (the two most expensive upgrades -- wouldnt you know it!) providing a sound that is at once powerful and relaxed, but with plenty of low-level resolution, resulting in a musical-yet-accurate presentation. The 24/96 upsampling option also improves the sound by adding detail and air, but not to the same degree as the other two upgrades. The upsampling option is still a worthwhile purchase at $199, but I would definitely consider getting the power supply and parts upgrades first.
There is no doubt that Link DAC III in its standard form is a very good digital-to-analog converter, and at a list price of $399 it can be considered one of the best deals in audio. It is the perfect upgrade for inexpensive CD or DVD players in entry level or even some mid-priced systems. However, if you want a digital front-end for a system that is a little more extravagant, the upgraded Link III will get you most of the way there and for a reasonable amount of money.
Copyright © 2000 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved