Musician is a relatively new brand that has quickly built a reputation for producing high-performing R2R DACs at reasonable prices, and Draco comes with the most reasonable price tag yet. Most of the technology has trickled down from the more expensive Musician Pegasus that got high scores here at iiWi reviews. Now the question remains – is Draco a good affordable alternative, or has it sacrificed too much?
Build and Features
Just like its bigger brother, Musician Draco uses thick aluminium for the front plate. Some savings were made by using thinner metal sheets for the top cover and sides. But make no mistake, this is still a high-quality all-metal build we’re talking about. The front panel is simple with only a few buttons and several red LED indicators. Moving to the back, we can see another cost-saving measure – a gilded IEC power socket sourced from Furutech is gone, and a generic-looking one took its place. That was to be expected however, I don’t think there’s much budget for boutique parts once we go below one thousand dollars price.
Opening the unit reveals some differences to Pegasus, but we can still see a big toroidal transformer that’s part of a linear power supply. If you’re a HiFi enthusiast, you’re probably already familiar with how clean and stable power influences the sound fidelity of any audio product. I won’t get into more construction details since that’s not the focus of any of my reviews, but it’s good to know the attention to detail that Musician has put into this model is high. The cherry on top would probably be using the 0.005% high-precision resistors in the R2R D/A conversion network, which is something that the competition simply doesn’t offer at this price point.
Draco is using FPGA to handle digital signal processing and provide support for up to PCM1536 and DSD1024 on USB and I2S inputs. The rest of the inputs, meaning coaxial SPDIF, optical TOSLINK, and AES/EBU will top at PCM192 and DSD64 (DoP) which is still plenty for most real-life usage scenarios. After signal processing, true balanced 24BIT R2R + 6BIT DSD (32 steps FIR Filters) is used to convert the digital signal into an analog one and output it to either single-ended RCAs or balanced XLR connectors in the back.
For all its impressive specs and build quality, Draco is as spartan when it comes to the additional goodies as it gets. There is no remote control, nor any type of volume attenuation that would enable you to use it as a preamp too. What you can do is choose between oversampling (OS) and non-oversampling (NOS) modes of operation. But more on this in the sound section.
OS and NOS modes
So let’s start with that OS/NOS mode choice. I’ll just say that the difference between the two is not as prominent as I’ve noticed it to be with some other R2R models. NOS will provide a slightly softer, warmer, but hazier sound. Engaging the OS will clear things out and bring the overall clarity and tone separation closer to what a good Delta Sigma DACs can do. This time around I prefer NOS slightly, as OS was just a bit too analytical for my taste. But you might feel differently depending on your taste and the rest of your system, so try both for yourself and then retry it after putting several hundred of working hours into the DAC.
It doesn’t take much time to appreciate what Musician Draco brings to the sound when connected to my main stereo setup. As you would expect from a good R2R DAC, Draco sounds quite spacious. The soundstage is wide and filled with neatly arranged musicians and singers. The depth of the soundstage is not as prominent as with some more expensive R2R models. That said, all tones are securely positioned inside the soundstage and well separated from each other. But wide soundstage is something that resistor ladder DACs usually do very well, so let’s move to the more troublesome traits like clarity, clean edges, and quick transients. Well, I’m happy to inform you that Draco does all of these with flying colors, but let’s start from the bottom. The bassline is quick and tidy, with a good attack when it is required. Moving to the midrange, we’re talking about a very revealing and clear presentation. Edges of tones are carved out with precision, and inner tone texture is readily revealed. Thankfully, good tone density and rich tone timbre are present and accounted for. Well-extended highs come as a cherry on top, adding a breadth of air to all tones. All of these qualities mixed together result in a natural, airy, and effortlessly revealing sound signature.
As I mentioned above, this is not a slow or sluggish-sounding DAC. When a fast-paced song is put on, it will follow the rhythm without any trouble. Now add dynamic and lively delivery to the mix, and you quickly get a foot-tapping experience. There is no overly soft, hazy, and bloomy sound that some lesser R2R designs can exhibit. You won’t find a slow and bloated bassline here, or any sort of artificially added grain in the midrange, etc. No, Musician Draco is simply a mighty good-sounding DAC without any obvious sonic flaw, and its limits can only be observed through a direct comparison with the best of the competition.
Musician Pegasus – Is the first and most logical comparison to make in my mind. Even though Pegasus is a pricer model, I firmly believe in making vertical comparisons so the buyers know what to expect for their money. When it comes to features, these two models are identical. Pegasus does feel more premium with thick aluminium all around, but the Draco is a well-constructed product on its own too. So everything boils down to the sound. While resolution and detail retrieval are on a very similar level, there are some differences between these two DACs. For starters, Pegasus has a slightly fuller and warmer bassline, whereas Draco leans towards quick and tight a bit more. Both DACs are capable of creating wide and airy soundstages, but Pegasus has a slightly more pronounced depth perspective. In a sense, Draco is closer to what you would expect to hear from a good Delta Sigma DAC, while Pegasus is closer to what we came to expect from a good R2R DAC.
In the end, these two DACs are more alike than they are different, but I have to say that Pegasus sounds slightly better and more natural to my ears.
Chord Mojo 2 – Costs roughly the same but it has a completely different form factor. It’s a small and mobile device at its core, and it can run from the internal battery or external power supply. That comes with fewer connectivity options but also with an added headphone output – which is not present on Draco. Mojo 2 also boasts decent EQ settings. All of the differences aside, Mojo 2 is often used as a DAC in a typical room HiFi setup and it performs that duty very well. When compared directly to Draco, Mojo 2 sounds fuller and warmer in the midrange and with a richer tone and timbre. Draco is tonally a bit leaner sounding but it punches back with better dynamics. Play some lively pop or electronic music and you’ll notice that Draco simply sounds more dynamically alive, more explosive. Mojo 2 sounds somewhat soft and mellow next to it.
It’s tough to choose a better one here. I preferred Mojo 2 for some low-key music genres like country or some late-night jazz. But moving to pop, rock, or electronica shifted my preference towards the Draco. If you also use your HiFi for movies, Draco and its higher dynamics are preferable there too.
Topping D70 Pro Sabre – I will not get into different features because you can easily see all of that from yourself. To put it briefly, the D70 Pro Sabre is much more feature-rich. But let’s move to sonic differences. Topping D70 Pro Sabre sounds cleaner, and all tones sound as if coming from a darker background – a vacuum almost. Draco is a very clear-sounding DAC itself too, but simply not as clear as the D70 Pro Sabre. But Draco punches back with an airier presentation, slightly richer tone timbre, and more inner tone texture. Draco can create an ever so slightly wider soundstage too, but it can not match that background darkness that Topping pulls off. When it comes to dynamics, Topping D70 Pro Sabre sounds more alive and more willing to quickly go from very silent to very loud parts of the song.
As you can see, both of these DACs have strong traits and there is no definitive winner. If you’re more about acoustic music and natural tone timbre, go with Draco. If you’re more about absolute clarity and speed, go with the D70 Pro Sabre.
In the end, I just quickly wanted to mention Topping E70 velvet and SMSL SU-9 Pro. Neither of these can fully match Draco’s resolution and dynamics. Both sound a bit slower, less airy and wide and a touch less dynamic. The difference is not huge by any means, but it’s just enough to put Draco on top and justify the hike in its price.
Musician Draco can’t fully match Pegasus, but at its price tag, it doesn’t really have to. What’s more important here is that Draco is a very competitive DAC below one thousand dollars. It sits just in between fast and precise Topping D70 Pro Sabre and tonally rich but dynamically mellow Chord Mojo 2. One might even say that Draco strikes the greatest balance of them all.
At the moment of writing this review, Musician Draco is not the latest news on the market, but overlooking it in the sub-1000 category would be a great mistake.
|MUSICIAN DRACO – CHARACTERISTICS|
Product type: DAC R2R