Matrix is a Chinese brand that made its name with the astonishingly affordable and excellent M-Stage headphone amplifier. After making a few products which were seen as “clones” of other brands’ offerings it seems Matrix wanted to make the point that they create great products in their own right, not just copies of other people’s gear. The X-Sabre is where they make their stand.
The X-Sabre is a flagship, dedicated DAC built around the insanely popular ES9018 SABRE DAC chip which also lends the “Sabre” moniker to the product. The X-Sabre has no amp or pre-amp just turns data into audio signal – nothing else. At a retail price of around AUD $1300 it’s pricey, but is it worth the dollars?
- Inputs: Coaxial, AES, USB (no optical)
- Sample rates: 44.1 kHz – 192 kHz (Coaxial and AES), up to 384 kHz (DXD) or 5.6448 MHz (DSD) via USB
- Outputs: RCA / XLR (balanced)
- Output Voltages: 2.2Vrms (RCA) / 6.8Vrms (XLR)
Design & Build Quality
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this DAC is its design and build quality, but that’s not to diminish the quality of everything else it does.
The X-Sabre is made out of a single block of aluminium which is machine cut to house each individual component of the DAC. The image to the right shows a rendered image of the X-Sabre chassis and it’s certainly a marvelous piece of engineering which looks and feels every bit the quality of its price tag and position in Matrix’s line-up.
The X-Sabre is finished with a simple anodising which is hard-wearing, looks great and feels great too. The front panel has 8 small, white LEDs which tell you when the signal is locked (i.e. synced), whether is a PCM (FLAC, MP3, etc.) or DSD signal, and what bit-rate it’s decoding using. It’s a really simple display that I love because it’s subtle, informative and clean. Matrix also got the LED brightness just right. They are easy to see in any situation, but don’t light up the room or attract unnecessary attention away from the computer monitor, etc.
Finishing the front panel are 2 simple silver toggle switches – one for power on / off and the other for input source (USB, Coaxial, or AES). At first I wasn’t a fan of the toggle switches, but I’ve come to once again admire their simplicity and clean functionality.
On the back of the X-Sabre things are equally simple, but refined. From left to right (in the image to the right) there are a pair of XLR output sockets on either side of the high quality, gold RCA output sockets. The inputs then consist of a 3-pin XLR AES socket, a gold coaxial socket and a USB B socket.
It’s worth mentioning that the sheathes of the RCA sockets can be pulled off. One day while switching RCA cables, the RCA plug was tight enough to take the gold sheath straight out of the X-Sabre case. I was convinced I’d just broken my brand new DAC, but thankfully the sheaths can be pushed back on so if that happens to you don’t worry!
Connectivity & Compatibility
As always with DACs, the coaxial connection just plugs in and works – no fiddling required. I can’t comment on the AES connection because I have no devices that use it. The USB is obviously where connectivity and compatibility comes into question.
I’ve used the X-Sabre with a Mac and with PC. With Mac it is literally plug and play with Aurvana working flawlessly with MP3, FLAC, DXD and DSD.
Using the X-Sabre with PC is a little bit more fiddly, but not by much. Matrix are kind enough to provide all the drivers you need on a little (32Mb) USB stick in the box. The instructions are nice and clear and the process is quick and simple so it can be all set up in less than 5 minutes.
Once set up, the X-Sabre works seamlessly with Foobar, Media Monkey, and JRiver although Foobar and JRiver appear to be required for DSD playback if that’s something you’re interested in. For my purposes, FLAC and DXD (or uber-FLAC as I think of it) work perfectly via all players. I’ve also found that there are absolutely no issues switching between sample rates and file types with all playback starting instantly and switching smoothly. I also found that the X-Sabre works with ASIO, WASAPI, and every other sound output method I’ve tried, but WASAPI and ASIO are preferrable with ASIO getting a slight nod according to all the discussions I’ve had. However I don’t hear a difference between ASIO or WASAPI via any player software I’ve tried.
Prior to the X-Sabre I was using the very good Audio-gd NFB-5.2 and I’d struggled to find a DAC that was a significant upgrade over its sound quality, but the X-Sabre is clearly miles ahead (as it should be at around 3x the price).
The sound quality from the X-Sabre is a little challenging to describe because the X-Sabre isn’t particularly coloured and that’s a good thing.
Out of the box, the highs are a little edgy and dry, but that settled down after a few hours and the true sound of the X-Sabre shone through. In style, the X-Sabre’s presentation would be described as accurate but musical I think. It’s not warm by any stretch, but it also steers clear of being cold or analytical which suits me because I listen to the music for enjoyment, not critical analysis.
Despite being musical in its presentation, the X-Sabre produces oodles of detail and nuance throughout the music so don’t take the “musical” description as meaning smoothed over or thick sounding. The sound is clean, precise and incredibly detailed, but without any harsh leading edges or cold, dry timbre. Instruments sound natural and real, are well defined in the stage and come together in a coherent overall presentation.
I don’t personally find the X-Sabre to add emphasis in any frequencies so it’s a great addition to a system if you’re looking to let your amps, speakers, or headphones do the voicing of your music. It’s all personal taste, but I personally think the DAC should be as transparent as possible and I believe the X-Sabre achieves this perfectly. To me, even being overly cold and analytical is a way of influencing the sound so the X-Sabre strikes the perfect balance of neutral, pure musicality.
For a device of this price, the X-Sabre doesn’t disappoint in any way at all. At $1300, it would be easy to find flaws and faults to spur on the bitter pangs of buyer’s remorse, but once I discovered the gold RCA sheaths can be reattached, any hesitations or worries I had soon disappeared. This is a top end DAC with top end functionality, build quality and sound. There is absolutely nothing to take away from it.
It might be an issue for some that it comes without any cables, but if you’re anything like me, you have so many cables lying around that this is a welcome decision from Matrix and allows you to use higher quality USB and power cables without wasting the cheap ones normally provided.
The X-Sabre has brought a significant upgrade to the sound in my headphone and speaker setups. It has paired beautifully with both of the amps I have tried (Bottlehead Crack and Bottlehead S.E.X. – review coming soon) and with all the headphones I’ve tried. To me that’s the sign of a DAC doing what it should – providing great sound with detail and energy, but without bringing any sound colouration.
It may seem expensive to some people, but this DAC is truly worth it’s price tag and is an undeniable upgrade from the DACs I have heard in the mid-level $400-800 range.
If you’re in Australia, contact Billy at The Noisy Motel to get yours. He was very helpful and informative as I tried to decide on my big purchase and I can’t recommend him and his products enough!
I’m looking forward to also trying the Matrix Quattro amp soon as a fully balanced amp to pair with the X-Sabre. Stay tuned and subscribe if you want to know when the review is ready.