CanJam SoCal 2019: S.M.S.L. and Matrix Audio

Two companies that were part of the large Shenzen Audio booth were S.M.S.L. and Matrix Audio.

The Matrix audio booth was showing a handful of all-in-one streaming, DAC and headphone amp models, as well as their flagship X-Sabre Pro. The Matrix models are mostly in the over $1,000 USD range, but looking at their feature sets it’s easy to see why. The Element M is $1,799 USD but combines a high-end ESS Sabre chip, a discrete headphone amplifier that puts out over one Watt at 32 Ohms, a streamer and control app, one gigantic pile of digital inputs and outputs, DSD capability, and the list goes on.

I sat down to take a listen on a pair of Audeze LCD-XCs and was very pleasantly surprised. The literature claims this amp, despite being only one watt, contains a “high-quiescent current state” output stage which makes for an “intriguing mellow sound performance.” In any case, I found the usually hungry Audeze’s driven excellently at all volumes, and the sound was indeed somewhat mellow and smooth, with a rounding off of transients that I found rather pleasing. It did not sacrifice in dynamics or clarity though, and certainly wasn’t warm or bloated sounding. A pretty neat balance that was still mostly neutral.

also listened to the Element X, which is the flagship streamer, preamp and headphone amp unit. This one has a digitally controlled stepped-attenuator volume control, a TI LME49600 balanced analog stage, which will support a single balanced headphone or two single-ended headphones. It uses a slightly higher-spec ESS chip, a slightly different USB implementation and has a few other upgrades and other features on top of the Element M model. The Element X sells for $2,999, which again, seems pricey until you consider the functionality – an all-in-one streamer and music control device, DAC, preamp and headphone amp.

It’s totally feasible to me that a high-end amp and DAC could each cost between $1,000 and $1,500, and a decent streamer or computer with software could be another few hundred, so the pricing on this unit seems in line with that kind of a setup. The sound of this unit had familiar resemblance to the Element M, but traded some of the mellowness for a slightly faster, more open and clear sound.

The final unit I listened to was the X-Sabre Pro hooked up to a Matrix headamp I unfortunately didn’t catch the details on. The level of resolution on offer here was very impressive. The specs on the X-Sabre are pretty impressive, notably the implementation of selectable filters, adjustable digital gain, and support for just about every digital format imaginable, from DSD1024 to DXD, 32-bit PCM, sample rates up to 768khz, and everything below. There’s a slightly more expensive version with MQA support as well. ESS Sabre implementations have a reputation for being bright or harsh, but either they’ve refined their chipsets or Matrix audio has done a phenomenal job in their implementation, because all of the Matrix products, but the X-Sabre particularly, were incredibly smooth and even in their presentation. I felt no indication of harshness or artificiality that could lead to listening fatigue during my time with the products. They didn’t have the warmth of some of the R2R or other ‘Multibit’ DACs, nor the holographic smoothness of Chord DACs, but had their own sound, which I would describe as a kind of relaxed clarity. Definitely worth checking these out if you like the convenience of all-in-one units. And don’t be fooled by the fact that these are made in China – the level of fit and finish on all the Matrix gear was flawless as far as I could tell, and some of the most understated and elegant equipment I saw at the show.

Next I moved on to S.M.S.L., who sell equipment that is at a much less expensive price point than Matrix. Their product range, which is quite extensive, seems to go from about $50 USD to around $250 USD. I listened to the Sanskrit, M300 and SAP9 headamp and thought the sound quality was actually fairly good, at least with lower-powered headphones and IEMS. It isn’t the most exciting gear to listen to, but it doesn’t have many faults and does a few things really well. I felt it represented a decent value for the money, and certainly caught my ear more than some of the other inexpensive gear at the show. The build quality felt better-than-average as well.

Browsing the S.M.S.L. catalogue, they seem to have a pretty wide variety of gear for very reasonable prices, small tube amps, a huge variety of DACs from simple to feature-laden, mobile and desktop amps, basically if it’s inexpensive, they make it. Be sure to check out both Matrix and S.M.S.L. websites – the Matrix website especially is entertaining and well-written.

It was quite fun getting to know some of the brands from China that we don’t see as often in North America, and it was even more exciting to hear how good some of them sounded. Lots of cool gear at both ends of the price spectrum. Up Next: Tubes!

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