Musical Fidelity V90-DAC Digital-to-Analog Converter Review

A sub-$300 DAC that does it all? Almost.

Musical Fidelity V90-DAC front
Brent Butterworth

Seems like every couple of years, digital-to-analog converters go through a revolution. A couple of years ago they all added USB. At the year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, we saw more and more DACs -- even one for less than $400 -- adding Direct Stream Digital (DSD) high-resolution playback. What's next? Maybe HDMI. With so much change going on, you can make a good case for just buying something good and affordable rather than spending a fortune chasing every new feature. That's where the V90-DAC comes in.

Musical Fidelity built the $299 V90-DAC as part of its V90 line, a trio of low-cost, no-frills components designed for audiophiles who are willing to spend a little extra for something good but aren't eager to spend every last dollar for state-of-the-art.

The back panel has four digital inputs: asynchronous USB, coaxial RCA, and two Toslink optical.  Outputs are on stereo RCA jacks. The front panel has just power and input switches.

So what's missing? Two things. One, the USB input accepts digital signals up to 24-bit/96-kilohertz resolution; it won't accept 192-kilohertz high-res audio, but a lot of DACs in this price range won't. You can do 24/192 through the coax input, but if you're pulling those files off a computer, you'll need a USB-to-coax adapter. The V90-DAC does upsample everything to 24/192, though. And if you have 24/192 files on your computer, it'll still play them, but the computer will downconvert them to 24/96. Also, the V90-DAC doesn't have a headphone jack, which is a feature you may or may not want, but it's found on a lot of DACs these days.

Features

• Asynchronous USB, coax RCA and 2 Toslink inputs
• Stereo RCA output
• Accepts signals up to 24/192 resolution through coax
• Accepts signals up to 24/96 resolution through USB
• Dimensions: 1.9 x 6.7 x 4 in / 47 x 170 x 102 mm
• Weight: 1.3 lb / 0.6 kg

Setup / Ergonomics

Nothing much worth noting here. Plug in the included wall-wart power supply, hook up all your digital stuff, connect the V90-DAC to your preamp or receiver, and have at it. The HP, IBM and Toshiba laptop computers I used with the V90-DAC recognized it quickly.

I liked the simplicity of having an input selector switch instead of the button many DACs use to scroll through the inputs. But I wish the V90-DAC had a front USB input to make it easier to connect my laptop.

Performance

For a few weeks, I used the V90-DAC on its own as the main digital source in my system, connecting it to my Panasonic Blu-ray player and the Toshiba laptop I use for most of my music playback. I used my Krell S-300i integrated amp and two sets of speakers: my Revel Performa3 F206s and some B&W CM10s.

When I put the V90-DAC in place of the Firestone Audio ILTW USB-only DAC (which doesn't seem to be available any longer but which I think cost about $399), I can't say I noticed any particular change in sonic character. But the system did sound really good.

I noticed all the usual fine details I look for when testing audio electronics were there. The tinkling, restless percussion instruments in Holly Cole's "Train Song" skittered across the room, running far to the left of the left speaker and far to the right of the right speaker. The castanets in The Coryells' "Sentenza del Cuore: Allegro" appeared to come from about 25 feet behind the speakers. Just as it's all supposed to.

So for a while, I just left the V90-DAC in my system, enjoying whatever I played through it, from vibraphonist Gary Burton's Guided Tour CD to Pacific Rim streamed from Vudu to random TV shows streamed off Amazon Instant Video.

Yep, the V90-DAC sounded fine, but how fine? To find out, I set up a blind test, using my custom-built blind testing switcher. I compared the V90-DAC to the Firestone Audio ILTW and Simaudio's Moon 100D DAC. (originally $649, now $399). I also compared the V90-DAC to the analog output of the Panasonic Blu-ray player. All of these tests were blind -- I knew only that I was playing DAC #1, #2 or #3, and only later figured out which one was which. All of the levels were matched to 0.1 dB using the switcher's level controls.

All of the standalone DACs sounded good. For the first couple of tunes I played, I couldn't hear an appreciable difference when switching from one to the next. (This was using 16-bit/44.1-kilohertz files ripped from CD.) But after a couple of cuts, I started to notice that one of them sounded smoother in the midrange, with less of a lispy or rough quality in the voices. Another sounded very similar but just a tad less smooth in the mids The third was considerably less smooth; to my ears, it seemed to give the voices a slightly crude quality, somewhat deficient in detail and "air."

So which one was which? Turns out the V90-DAC beat the 100D by just a bit, while both of them sounded better than the ILTW.

Compared to the onboard DAC in the Panasonic Blu-ray player -- which, I have to say, wasn't bad at all -- the V90-DAC delivered more detail, especially in the treble and upper midrange, making the Blu-ray player's DAC sound a little dull in comparison even when I used the more lively sounding B&W speakers.

Before I conclude, I have to point out that differences among well-made digital-to-analog converters are seldom dramatic, but they're there, and if sound is really important to you, I think it's worth investing a little money to upgrade from the DAC built into your computer, CD, DVD or Blu-ray player to a good, low-cost DAC like the V90-DAC.

I'll also note that if you have any ideas about using a V90-DAC with an A/V receiver, I'd recommend you forget them. Although there are some A/V receivers with a true analog bypass feature, most digitize all of the analog audio signals coming into them. You're better off connecting your source device directly to the receiver through a digital connection than you would be by converting the signal to analog with the V90-DAC then converting it back to digital again inside the receiver.

Measurements

I also took the chance to run a few quick lab measurements on the V90-DAC, using my Audio Precision System One Dual Domain analyzer. Here's the results. Unless noted, all measurements were taken at 1 kHz.

Frequency response: -0.05 dB @ 20 Hz, -0.30 dB @ 20 kHz
Signal-to-noise ratio: -112.8 dB unweighted
Crosstalk: -99.9 dB L-R and R-L
Max output: 2.15 volts RMS
THD + noise, max output: 0.008%

None of these results is quite as good as the manufacturer specs, but close enough considering that I don't do a lot of externally sourced audio measurements and I don't have the latest and greatest equipment for it.

Final Take

The V90-DAC is a very nice-sounding DAC for its price, a great way to get real audiophile-quality stereo sound from a mass-market Blu-ray player, a satellite receiver or cable box, or a laptop computer.

If you're using, say, the headphone output of your computer to connect to your stereo system, or if you're using a DVD or Blu-ray player to play CDs, I'd recommend the V90-DAC as an easy, low-cost, great-sounding way to upgrade your system.