Musician pegasus r2r dac Audio Technology
⌈ The Chinese company MUSICIAN Audio Technology was set up in 2020. Its research and development team consists of a group of enthusiasts with over 20 years of experience in the audio industry. Its main aim are discreet balanced D/A R2R converters, balanced headphone amplifiers, balanced amplifiers, balanced preamplifiers, headphones, passive loudspeakers and other audio products. (www.musician-audio.com; date of access: 17.06.2020). We are testing its first product: the PEGASUS digital-to-analog converter.⌋
he emergence of a new audio company is always a big event. Something new and sometimes unique is born then, something that has a chance to have an impact on our industry and change the way we perceive the world of sounds. Almost all of the new companies will quickly collapse – I do not know the statistics, but I am saying this based on my experience. So, few of them will celebrate their 5th anniversary. The audio industry is very difficult to survive in. Not only do ideas matter here, but also the way they are implemented and financed, as well as the ability to explore the meanders of an audiophile soul. Even all of this is often not enough.
We are witnessing the birth of such an ultra-audiophile company. MUSICIAN Audio Technology was set up this year by Mr Zhai in the Chinese city of Guangzhai in Baiyun district, in order to change people’s attitude to products from China. The aim is to, as it is stated in an email that I was sent, show the world that China is, on the one hand, the center for technological innovations and on the other one, a country inhabited by people who love music.
The company declaration that I quoted at the beginning mentions a whole range of products: from D/A converters to headphones and loudspeakers. However, these are just plans for the time being. At the moment, the company offers one device: the tested digital-to-analog converter PEGASUS. It was created by the company’s own R&D department consisting of a “group of software, hardware and structural engineers”.
When I asked Mr Zhai about the most important technology that characterizes his company’s first product, he pointed out the circuit design without hesitation – it is the so-called R2R DAC, i.e. a converter consisting of discreet resistors that are switched using a control DSP circuit including the company’s own software (2R2 is short for R-2R Ladder).
R2R | A classic choice made by engineers who design digital-to-analog converters are integrated circuits, most often produced by ESS Technology, Burr-Brown (Texas Instruments), AKM or Wolfson Microelectronics. It is a proven method and one may achieve incredibly good results with these circuits, as in the SACD Ayon Audio CD-35 HF Edition player, or the Gryphon Ethos CD player. However, there are companies which think that only circuits they make themselves, where resistors are not packed in a small chip, but are “discreet” (separate) and manually selected, ensure the highest quality.
Among the iconic companies that prefer this vision of the world, there are, first and foremost, the British dCS with its own 5-bit circuit called the Ring DAC (at 3 MHz sampling frequency) and the American MSB Technology. As for smaller businesses that are equally important in terms of sound, there is also the French firm Total DAC.
There are also inexpensive versions of this technology, like in the DiDiT DAC212SEII converter, or the Polish Acuhorn R2R file player which uses ready-made Soekris Engineering modules. Generally speaking, however, these are usually expensive, so the Musician company’s proposal is especially interesting, the more that apart from its own R2R circuit, the firm also offers a few other equally interesting solutions.
FIFO | The first one consists in adapting the architecture of first-in first-out (FIFO) cache memory (a second generation adaptive technology) to the company’s own needs. In this configuration, audio signal first gets to high-speed RAM, i.e. the buffer. Data is clocked in it by a clock generated using a stable quartz oscillator and converted into IIS, then sent to the D/A conversion circuit.
In this way, independently of what jitter level is generated by the signal source or transmission line and digital audio receiver circuit, at the very end its level is defined by the quartz oscillator in the Pegasus converter. In this device, it is powered using an independent regulated PSU. This solution resembles another one that we know from Chord Electronics D/A converters.
DSD | PCM and DSD signal conversion is usually carried out by the same circuits. Thanks to the “discreet” architecture in Pegasus, it can be done separately for each signal type. So, PCM and DSD have their own separate “paths” generated by the converter software. For PCM, it is a multi-bit circuit: 32 bits or 24 bits, according to company materials, while for DSD it is a 5-bit circuit.
I/U conversion | The Musician company has also developed its own I/U converters (current-voltage: current signal is obtained from the converter and it needs to be translated into voltage signal, “understandable” for a classic preamplifier or amplifier). The company also offers its own output filters. As Mr Zhai says, both are characterized by a very low phase shift and a high signal-to-noise ratio.
| THE PEGASUS
The Pegasus is the only product that the Musician company offers, while the dedicated website now contains very little data. There is some basic information there, but some of it has only been published on the websites of the official distributors, e.g. Amazon. So, I will tell you what I have managed to gather, also using information that has been sent to me directly by the company.
It is a digital-to-analog converter based on a discreet R2R circuit. It is reflected in the device’s full name: “Pegasus R2R DAC”. The DAC features five digital inputs: RCA, Toslink and AES/BU, accepting PCM signal up to 24 bits and 192 kHz, as well as USB and IIS inputs. The latter are much more universal, as they can be used to send PCM signal up to 24 bits and as much as 1536 kHz; while DSD signal may even take on the form of DSD1024.
Such a broad choice of input signal is possible thanks to the fact that the Musician company’s engineers have written the code of input signal receivers themselves, including the USB input. They used a circuit based on the advanced MCU-AMR STM32F446 microcontroller for the purpose. The D/A circuit is made on separate resistors that are controlled by a large DSP circuit with the company’s own software. Signals for PCM and DSD are decoded separately: the converter for PCM has a resolution of 32 bits, while for DSD: 5 bits.
The front panel of the device features a NOS button. It is an indicator which informs us about signal oversampling. I was informed via email that when oversampling (OS) is on, the diode is not illuminated, while “high-frequency details are much richer, especially when input signal is characterized by a low bit rate (44,1/ 48 kHz)”. So, turning the NOS button on and diode illumination mean that signal is transmitted without oversampling. It is a unique solution that we have almost always obtained with Philips TDA1541/1543 converters.
The device has a solid aluminum housing whose front clearly resembles NuPrime devices. I think it would be worth hiring a designer who would come up with something unique and original for the company. The DAC stands on three aluminum cones with rubber shims.
| THE WAY WE LISTENED
The Musician Pegasus converter was placed on the upper shelf of the Finite Elemente Pagode Edition stand, on its own feet. I put the passive EMI/RFI Verictum X Block filter on its upper panel. Power was supplied using the Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version cable.
As I see it, it is a converter which focuses on the USB input. So, I performed part of the listening session with the Silent Angel Rhein Z1 file transport and it was a very good combination. However, I devoted the main part of the listening session to comparing the sound of CDs played by the Ayon Audio CVD-35 HF Edition player which also performed the function of transport with signal sent to the Pegasus through the digital RCA Acrolink MEXCEL 7N-DA6300II interconnect. I think that it is the most demanding test and if a device passes it, it will deal with high-resolution files even more successfully.
| THE LISTENING SESSION
Recordings used for the test (a selec- tion)
- Frank Sinatra, Nice’N’Easy, Capitol Records/Universal Music LLC (Japan) UICY-15883, CD (1960/2020)
- Jean-Michel Jarre, Oxygene, Dreyfus/Mobile Fidelity UDCD 613, gold-CD (1976/1994)
- Kylie Minogue, Step Back In Time (The Definitive Collection), Parlophone | BMG BMGCAT385DCDX/4050538484182, 2 x CD (2019)
- Merl Saunders, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn, Bill Vitt, Live At Keystone. Vol. 1, Fantasy Records FCD 7701-2, CD (1973/1988)
- Modern Jazz Quartet, Reunion at Budokan 1981, Warner Pioneer Corporation 251 210-2, CD (1981/1984)
- Santana, Supernatural, Arista | BMG 07822 19080 2, CD (1999)
- Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio, Midnight Sugar, Three Blind Mice/Impex Records IMP8308, Gold HDCD (1974/2004)
I have got used to two types of sound that are currently being promoted by constructors. Their working names might be “warm” and “technical”. The Pegasus is yet different. Tonally, it is a completely different device than my Ayon Audio player and it also differs from the Mytek Brooklyn Bridge. However, if we want to make some comparisons, it is closer to the latter than to the former one, but only if we think in a stereotypical way and just tackle the surface of the problem. Anyway, I just needed a few seconds with Modern Jazz Quartet music from the album Reunion in Budokan 1981 and everything was clear: it is a converter which puts a lot of energy into the upper part of the range, mostly into treble.
When compared to the Pegasus, the Ayon sounds dark, while the Mytek – smoothened. The thing is that the Pegasus converter does not “emphasize” the treble, it is not this level, as we are much higher in the hierarchy of description. The tested DAC does not brighten the sound up, but, as I said before, shows the high energy of the upper midrange and treble. To tell you the truth, I had not expected that, as most D/A converters working with a discreet circuit (such as the one that is used in the Pegasus) warm the sound up. dCS devices featuring a few-bit circuit are an exception here.
The tested converter sounds incredibly catchy and open. For a few seconds, having listened to the Ayon player, I was afraid it would be a failure, as the change was so strong and clear. I started the listening session with an album that is particularly sensitive in this respect. The Modern Jazz Quartet concert that I am talking about was recorded using a multi-track, reel-to-reel digital Mitsubishi X-800 tape recorder – it was state-of-the-art technology at that time – and analog-mixed onto another digital tape recorder, the X-80. So, we are talking about the following audio signal path: digital 44.1 kHz → analog → digital 50.4 kHz (DAD) and 16 bits, as well as early digital technology.
The album is a little bright, with an excellent sound of the percussion cymbals in terms of their speed and openness. So, I was afraid that the Pegasus would make it too bright – but no. Everything was clearer than with the Ayon and Mytek devices, but not bright. It is never too late to learn something new, even when it comes to such inexpensive products as the tested DAC. I learnt that D/A converters representative of this price range may sound very clear, but also with wonderfully balanced sound, simply classy.
The device is incredibly fast and dynamic. So, when it reproduced the sound of the vibraphone, an amazingly sonorous instrument that is saturated with harmonics, played by Milt Jackson, I got the impression of being together within one space with the musician, just like while playing Frank Sinatra’s album Nice’n’Easy in an excellent version released on the 60th anniversary of its premiere. In this case, the vocal was much smaller than with the reference player and it was also shown from a larger perspective. When I changed the devices quickly, the difference was clear. However, when I listened to the tested DAC for a longer time, the disproportion would disappear to a large extent.
The difference resulted from the CLARITY of sound that is not so… clear in a short comparison. I have already written about the fact that the sound is brighter and clearer. We also already know that it is neither brightened up, nor hardened, as it is not harsh or tiring. Clarity is also something else – putting it simply, individual instruments could be beautifully heard in the orchestra that was accompanying Sinatra, while the trombone solo in How deep is the ocean is a true, real, three-dimensional trombone.
One of the features of the device is also SMOOTHNESS. The fact that we obtain classy sound when there is so much information must be connected with smoothness – or at least this is the way I see it. That is why the sound of the Pegasus is so pleasant and “enters” so well. Apart from that, it is great with both digital and analog recordings, as well as offers great SPACE.
That is why I spent a longer while listening to Jean-Michel Jarre’s album Oxygene (Mobile Fidelity, 1994). Wow! This is what I call space! When I was listening to the Sinatra’s album, I could already hear that the device can differentiate the depth (front-back), but now the sound was also distributed within a panorama. This is “broad” sound in the sense that even though it has clear frames, it is not blurred at the edges, as the frames are broad, while the sound almost surrounds us.
| FROM OUR COLLECTION
Jean-Michel Jarre | Oxygène
Dreyfus/Mobile Fidelity UDCD 613
Oxygène is the most well-known album of the French musician and composer. Although many people think that this is how his adventure with music started, it is only his third album, while the earlier ones were soundtracks (Jean-Michel is the son of a famous composer specializing in film music, Maurice Jarre). The album was released in December 1976 by the French Disques Dreyfus record label. It defined Jarre’s “sound” through analog synthesizers, as well as a digital one and many different electronic instruments and effects. It initially received negative reviews, while today it constitutes an icon of electronic music.
The musician returned to it three more times: in 1997, when its sequel entitled Oxygène 7–13 was released, in 2007, when the material was recorded again and released under the title Oxygène (New Master Recording) and, finally, in 2016, when the third part of the trilogy, entitled Oxygène 3 was released. None of them is as good as the original.
discogs.com mentions 293 versions of Oxygène. The ones that really matter are just the first analog and digital releases, as well as the Mobile fidelity version on a 180 g LP and a gold CD. All the remaining ones are characterized by significantly compressed, quite bright sound and simply sound bad. The MoFi version that we listened to this time was released in 1994 (UDCD 613) and pressed on a golden disc – Mobile Fidelity called such discs ULTRADISC II.
The material was remastered from original “master” tapes using the company’s own technology called The GAIN System. It was developed by MoFi in 1993 and consisted of a special DAC which did not use digital filters, ensuring full 16-bit resolution and frequency response of up to 22 kHz, an amplifier circuit with low jitter and also a decimation circuit changing 352.8 kHz signal sampling to 44.1 kHz. The decimation was made using an algorithm which minimizes phase and time errors.
Oxygène listened to from this CD sounds incredibly good. If we know the composer’s music from new releases, we will initially be surprised with how quiet the material sounds and by the fact that it seems “colorless”. It is an illusion that consists in “shifting” our reception of music to an ultra-detailed and maximally compressed mode – as such music now surrounds us. It is actually unmistakably soft and full of information, and space is simply unbelievable with it. It is the only version that may compete with the original analog release of 1976. ♦
There was one more thing that was also clearly audible with Jarre’s album – something that you need to take into account while thinking about your system. The Pegasus is not a device that pumps bass up. On the one hand, it plays bass clearly and precisely, with very nice tone colors. On the other hand, there is no clear “downward shift” in it, it is not saturated at the very bottom. So, when it comes to tonal balance, sound is shifted upwards. It is not a problem, fault or error, but a feature – one that is important in the context of our preferences, the music we play, etc.
At the very end, I used the DAC to listen to a few albums to which the term “sound quality” does not seem to apply. Both Carlos Santana’s Supernatural, a multi-platinum record of 1999, and the collection of Kylie Minogue’s greatest hits that was released 20 years later, are incredibly compressed recordings. Anyway, the Pegasus played them like a true professional.
It did not pretend that there is some space or dynamics, but it played them in a nice or even “distinguished” way. With Santana’s album, it mainly showed the midrange, as there is nothing else, while with Minogue’s album - the extremities of the range, as midrange is withdrawn there. However, it was cool and emotionally engaging sound, on the condition, of course, that we like such music (I do…).
NOS, or not NOS… | The difference between the mode with oversampling and without oversampling may not be big, but I really quickly established that the NOS diode should be on. Why? Well, sound becomes more noble then. When the diode is off, music is structurally simpler, while sound is a little more overt. With the NOS, the foreground is a bit further away, while the depth is much better. In terms of tone color, there is not much difference between the two modes, perhaps without the NOS the upper midrange is a little more “sandy”. However, as I have already said, this is not the point.
The Pegasus digital-to-analog converter is a unique device. It is excellently designed, looks really nice and is extremely versatile in terms of functionality. At the same time, it sounds refined and nice: goodbye sharpening, welcome information! Its tonal balance is shifted towards the midrange and treble, there is no low, hovering bass. That is why it will not fit every system – a thing typical for the audio domain. But wherever it suits an owner’s preferences, it will be a real star.
When it comes to the quality to price ratio, the design of the device might cause a lot of audio manufacturers from the so-called “West” to have a heart attack. Only China can do something like this. Starting from the housing, through the intellectual worth, to the components, everything in the Pegasus is top quality.
The housing | The whole housing has been made from thick aluminum flat bars attached to one another using aluminum bolts. It is important, as aluminum is a non-magnetic material, which prevents eddy currents from emerging in it, affecting useful signal. To cut a long story short – this metal is most often a better choice in audio than sheet steel, even though it is much more expensive. The front panel is especially thick, due to its diamond-like shape. We know it from NuPrime/NuForce devices. The device stands on three feet in the form of quite broad cones with rubber shims at the ends. The housing may be silver or black.
The front and back | There are red micro LEDs on the front panel, informing us about the status of the device. The LEDs on the left show the selected input – one of five, while the ones on the right show input signal frequency and type (PCM or DSD). In the middle, there is a standby switch, an input change button (the options are displayed one after another) and one that turns oversampling OFF. It is important – when the NOS diode is on, it means that signal is converted without oversampling (NOS = Non-OverSampling).
At the back there are very nice sockets – all the RCA and XLR inputs and outputs have been bought from the Swiss company Neutrik, while the IEC socket – from the Japanese company Furutech (!). Such attention to detail is mainly characteristic for small, passion-driven companies.
The inside | The whole inside is occupied by a printed circuit board with a PSU and audio circuits. As Mr Zhai wrote me in an email, the glass fiber board has a two-layer structure – one is the ground plane and the other one – the signal plane, which “not only guarantees the highest degree of signal integrity, but also effectively protects signal from clock impulse interference, thus significantly improving the signal-to-noise ratio”.
The PSU | The PSU is very complex. It is based on a large toroidal transformer with resin inside, which minimizes vibrations. The transformer has five secondary windings, so there is a separate PSU for each of the sections. There are precise linear power regulators and high-capacity electrolytic capacitors.
Apart from them, we also have high-quality capacitors with silver plating here, originally designed to be used with high-frequency signals. They are characterized by long life and not only ensure high sound quality, but also reliability and long product lifespan”. As Mr Zhai says, the capacitors selected for this device have been tested and compared during listening sessions many times, in order to “make it possible for the client to listen to music with high-quality sound”.
Right next to them there is a small Mean Well impulse amplifier module. It is a single-circuit amp which operates in the standby mode. It stops working after power is turned on and “the whole machine is powered by a line amplifier”. At the back, next to the inputs, there is a set of DSP circuits, including a large Altera chip from the Cyclone IV series. Next to it there is a nice local quartz oscillator.
The converter | The power supply lines in the middle of the PCB divide the inside into two parts. There are the PSU and input circuits on one side, and the proper digital-to-analog converter on the other side. At its very beginning there are additional voltage stabilizing circuits and a bank of capacitors that dampen mains ripple, bypassed with polypropylene Wima capacitors. In this way, the linearity of the large capacitors is improved.
Behind them, there is another large circuit, another Altera Cyclone IV with two more clocks (for 44.1 and 48 kHz multiplied by a suitable factor). It controls switching a few dozen SMD resistors. There are transistors on the output, also SMD ones.
It is really a very nice circuit built with passion and based on profound knowledge. What attracts our attention are the company’s own solutions – the basis of the circuit is the software of input circuit chips, filters and of the converter. ■
Technical specifications (according to the manufacturer)
USB | PCM – 16-24/44.1-1536 kHz & DSD DSD64-DSD1024
I2S | PCM – 16-24/44.1-1536 kHz & DSD DSD64-DSD1024
RCA/Toslink/AES-EBU: PCM 16-24/44.1-192
Output voltage/output impedance:
RCA – 2.2 Vrms | 625 Ω
XLR – 4.4 Vrms | 1250 Ω
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 60 kHz
S/N: 123dB (weighted A)
Dynamics: >120 dB
Power consumption: ≤20 W
Colors: silver or black
Dimensions (W x H x D): 280 x 250 x 50 mm
Weight: 3.9 kg
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