• Grace Design m920 Review

    The wild world of DACs continues to expand with a new update from the pro-leaning company Grace Design. The m903 was released just 3 years previous but already it seems like a (product) lifetime ago. The newest bible-sized, DAC/headphone amplifier is called the m920 “High Resolution Monitoring System” and still shares many of the same external design elements from its predecessor. The internals have had some renovating of course, and the price moved $100 north from $1,895 to $1,995. As of September of this year the m903 is permanently discontinued so older models aren’t kept around for purchase like the Benchmark DAC 1 series or a previous generation iPad.

    As with the pro friendly Benchmark company, the Grace maintains the same desktop-friendly size and dual headphone outputs design. The front panel even echoes some of the same led indicator lights. Small and sturdy, I really find myself enjoying this form factor. The shape fits very nicely on my desk next to the computer without taking up too much excess space. The back panel holds some curious choices as far as standard audiophile connections go. The balanced outputs are actually pair of ¼” TRS connectors instead of 3 pin XLR, which is especially unusual considering the unit offers XLR balanced inputs to the amplifier. Perhaps there wasn’t enough room to fit two pairs of XLRs and still have room for the coaxial/optical/AES3/USB digital inputs as well as the unbalanced in/out. I personally would have traded the XLR balanced inputs for an output of the same type and added another unbalanced output, but that’s just my preference. In application the all-in-one box still makes a strong case with a wide array of setup and rig options, both on the desk and the rack.

    I spent an unusually long time with the m920, delegating almost equal parts loudspeaker to headphone listening. Early integrations into my speaker rig included both USB and optical feeds to the amplifier. The results were steady. The Grace requires a bit more finessing than some during initial setup. The SE line out had to be manually changed to a fixed, otherwise full volume had to be manually adjusted, something that would have to be redone every time the unit was powered off. There was no “memory” of the previous power down level, however you can adjust the startup level to your preference if you program it into the units two digit display. The LED display complements the resolution indicator lights in communicating the various options for the DAC. While displays may seem like a very ancillary appendage for an audio device, their implementation varies quite a bit from product to product. DACs especially can range from full multi-pixel readouts to simply nothing at all. Both executions eventually get the job done just fine, but from my experience the guys that venture over from the pro side seem to let the user interface slide in priority just a little. With the indicator-light only interface of the Benchmark series, I found the experience a bit cumbersome. Holding down a button for an option as well as having to remember unmarked functions of buttons proved to be a bit of a nuisance at first, although would no doubt become easier with repeated use. So at first I was impressed to see the addition of the 2-digit screen. In the end however, the Grace did suffer from some of the drawbacks of so many options with only a binary on/off interface. The menu for the display consists of nearly 50 menus and sub menus that either have to be directly entered or passed over to correctly navigate. First time users will want to keep the included cheat sheet handy the first few times around. There is an option to control the m920 from a standard Apple remote; the menu even offers a pairing option. Out of the box the Grace picked up the signal intended for Apple TV and started changing parameters. This can be somewhat of a mixed blessing if it catches you off guard, many of the options can be switched around from the now random selections of your Apple product navigation. It’s a small thing really, but just one to keep in mind if your house happens to take part in the Apple ecosystem. A specific pairing of an Apple remote to the m920 should remedy most of these initial setup growing pains. The Grace is also compatible with the Logitech Harmony Hub for control via iOS or Android platforms.

    Feature-wise the M920 is up to spec. Updates from the m903 include 64x and 128x DSD playback and a new M-Series SABRE dac chipset called the ES9018-2M to carry out all the decoding responsibilities. The secret menu also houses a few extras including full mono mode and three PCM filters as well as a DSD digital response filter. Two headphone outputs are still a nice add as is the x-feed function. While some crossfeed effects can muddle up the fidelity, Grace’s take on it did a fine job of recreating a small virtual “speaker” effect. Listening to Cat Steven’s 24/96 Tea for Tillerman album the end result felt as though the soundstage altogether was pushed ever so slightly forward, with less hard panning left to right. Headphone output was substantial for most headphones including the Audeze LCD-3; another +9.5 dB can be added from the internal menu system.

    The sound through the line level outs was highly resolving and substantially articulate. Vocal recreations from audiophile tracks like Diana Krall’s Glad Rag Doll contained the all the information a listener would need to recreate a full sense of depth and realism. Likewise not much fault could be found in the overall frequency response and extension on both ends. Bass impact was well delegated at the proper portions and didn’t tread lightly when called upon. Overall the DAC section performs very well, and is pushing up against performance levels that cost much more just a few years ago. Comparisons to the more costly Auralic VEGA Dac ($3,499) though the unit’s analog inputs to the internal headphone amplifier revealed even more top end extension and breathable “air” around the upper mid range and treble regions from the VEGA, but at nearly twice the cost. Alone in a room the m920 still leans towards the analytical over a more organic approach. That’s not to say it isn’t musical, just a bit more tannins than the collective mean. Its delivery feels more bit for bit without the artificial sweeteners that can congregate around many audiophile oriented products.

    Isolating the headphone amplifier section for comparison via the analog outputs offered up a bit more insight to the overall sound of the aggregated combo. As with the digital section, no frequency abnormalities could be detected across the spectrum. Bass and vocals were proportionally represented with no additional veil or spike in the treble. The title track from Dire Straights Brothers in Arms lays a conglomeration of 70’s synth sounds as the backdrop for the song from which the vocal and guitar licks lay upon. While the full entity here can outpace many lower priced items, dedicated headphone amplifiers like the Questyle CMA 800R allowed for more separation between the two competing sonic associations.

    If we were rating the m920 four years ago, it could be plausible that it would earn a 9 out of 10 for the digital section and a 6 for the headphone amplifier. But digital products in this field are evolving quite fast, and for the better. Even with the use of a newer SABRE chip, the Grace we have here falls just short of the mark in terms of total summed output when directly compared to today’s extremely tight competition. Sub $1k DACs are really pushing the limits of their category and making it even harder for the $1,500+ grouping to justify its price range. For its part the m920 includes a vast array of inputs, outputs and adjustments from its pro roots that are very rare for the latter category. Its DAC section is highly refined, accurate and nearly surgical in its translation of a digital source. On its own the unit could make a lot of listeners very happy, but the tightly wound category in which it swims trips the well-intentioned unit into the “must audition” column with its competition. The Grace m920 could very well still be your favorite, or possibly even a bargain if you tend to browse in higher price points.


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    Product Information:

    • Product - Grace Design m920
    • Price - $1,995
    • Product Page - Link

    Associated Equipment:

    About The Author

    Brian Hunter
    I’m a recovering musician turned audio reviewer. I currently manage and write reviews for Audio-Head.com and freelance with several other publications. I love tech and the tools of music, especially the ones involved in reproduction. After I finished my undergrad degree in business I went to the local community college and got one in photography, which was way more fun. I like it when people have unbridled enthusiasm for something and I have the utmost respect for individuals who try to create, even more for those who are good at it.

    Comments 26 Comments
    1. boatheelmusic's Avatar
      boatheelmusic -
      After owning the PS Audio PWD II for six months, most recently running firmware version 2.4.6 (which is the best I tried), I wanted to move to a dac/preamp solution that would include analog inputs for my phono preamp as well as headphone outputs, and perhaps DSD capability. My search led to the Grace m920, which I purchased through Paul Allen at Sweetwater.
      My initial impressions, formed over the last week, follow – I am using the Grace m920 with Dynaudio Gemini speakers, with their superb D260 tweeter, the Bob Latino M-125 140 wpc KT-120 based tube monoblocks, and driven by an Airport Express via toslink streaming Qobuz and my computer-based files at 16/44 and 24/192.. Great care has been taken with my speaker placement for smooth response and optimal soundstage and imaging. My headphones are Sennheiser HD-600s.
      Physical impressions:
      The Grace m920 is at once finished like fine jewelry and has a very cool, high tech appearance. The gleaming stainless steel matches my Bob Latino M-125 power amps very well, while the top and bottom plates have an Apple Mac like finish. Very impressive, and clearly conveys its professional heritage. Knobs and controls are all solid and convey quality.
      Operational impressions:
      While not a large unit, the input and output flexibility is superb, and the volume knob controlled menuing system is very extensive and well thought out. Separate level control over headphone and line level outputs (there are two) means great flexibility and ease of use. Also, three filter settings are available (linear phase – fast rolloff, linear phase – slow rolloff and minimum phase – fast rolloff). Online firmware updates are available from Grace for Windows computers, and I understand an OS/X version is in development. In addition to Grace’s optional remote, an Apple remote can be used with the m920. I didn’t miss the PWD’s touchscreen, in fact preferred the bright (but dimmable) display on the Grace for use with the remote from 12’ away. The S-lock system was engaged about 50-60% of the time, understandable given the moderate jitter of the Airport Express. The Grace also has a secondary PLL system that further reduces jitter. The Grace m920 uses the new Sabre 9018-2M 32/384 plus DSD chip, and I believe the m920’s volume control is implemented in the analog domain.
      Sonic impressions:
      These impressions are generally in comparison to the PWD II, which I preferred to the NAD M51, the BMC Puredac and the Oppo BDP-105 which I’ve had in my system over the past year, among others.
      I listen primarily to well-recorded acoustic jazz, and since I play jazz guitar I feel that I have a good reference for what real instruments should sound like.
      In other DACs, I found the Sabre 9018 to be a bit “tizzy” in the high end, with mids suppressed in comparison. Not so with the Grace m920. Using the Linear Phase – slow filter, which sounded best in my system, cymbals were clear, metallic and smooth (vs dry and sandpapery). Great air around instruments, and completely non-fatiguing. Very little sibilance on female vocalists, with just the right mix of detail and musicality in my system.
      The Grace m920 has plenty of drive, with great dynamics, especially in the bass, which is extended and articulate – I could easily focus on the harmonics in Ray Brown or Ron Carter’s string bass, for example.
      The soundstage was wide and deep, with great image stability. Many jaw dropping moments as I stared in wonder at a 3-D, visual representation of instruments in space. I believe this reflects the very close channel matching – within .05db at all frequencies, extended frequency response and Grace’s attention to power supply and analog output stage design.
      The m920 includes a crossfeed circuit that provides a sophisticated signal mix to enhance the headphone listening experience. This is described further on their site, and I found works very well.
      In summary, I’m very happy with all aspects of the Grace m920, and take pride in owning a component of this overall quality.
    1. rodrigaj's Avatar
      rodrigaj -
      "Sub $1k DACs are really pushing the limits of their category and making it even harder for the $1,500+ grouping to justify its price range."

      For those of us that are searching in this category, could you provide examples. I currently have a Parasound ZDac that I am looking to replace and would like to be pointed in the right direction. Thank you for a very informative review.
    1. AvilleAudio's Avatar
      AvilleAudio -
      Okay...I'll add my completely non-constructive criticism: at first glance I thought I was looking at a CB radio from the 80's. Snarky comments aside, thanks for a nice review.
    1. boatheelmusic's Avatar
      boatheelmusic -
      Quote Originally Posted by rodrigaj View Post
      "Sub $1k DACs are really pushing the limits of their category and making it even harder for the $1,500+ grouping to justify its price range."

      For those of us that are searching in this category, could you provide examples. I currently have a Parasound ZDac that I am looking to replace and would like to be pointed in the right direction. Thank you for a very informative review.
      In that range, look at the Emotive DC-1 ($500) or the Dangerous Source. Both have excellent reviews over at a headphone site.
    1. Dreaming Jester's Avatar
      Dreaming Jester -
      I think a comparison to its direct competitor - Benchmark DAC2 HGC, would have been useful. Thanks anyway!
    1. kurb1980's Avatar
      kurb1980 -
      +1 the design and specs look nearly identical to the Benchmark DAC2.
    1. boatheelmusic's Avatar
      boatheelmusic -
      Agree - who will step up to do this compare?
    1. bobflood's Avatar
      bobflood -
      Memo to Grace Design: Hire an Industrial Designer. Who would want to look at this in a home environment.
    1. boatheelmusic's Avatar
      boatheelmusic -
      My wife, for one......and that's all I need!
    1. GraceDesign's Avatar
      GraceDesign -

      Thanks for the objective and pragmatic review of the m920. We appreciate product reviews when the reviewer really used and got to know the equipment and formed an educated opinion, which you clearly did.

      I thought I might expound on the price point issue a little. Certainly there are many many choices for headphone amp/DACs these days. Since we released the m902 in 2002, the landscape has become well populated with products up and down the price spectrum. Clearly there is a lot of focus on the $1000 price range right now, where there are many solid offerings that, on paper, deliver the same features as more expensive units.

      But as you properly acknowledged, Grace Design is primarily a pro audio company, which denotes some important distinctions when it comes to price. While consumer oriented companies have to maintain a parts cost ratio around 1/6th of the retail price, pro audio margins are considerably lower at 1/3 to 1/4 of retail. So while the m920 is sitting in the sort of awkward range of $1500, it in fact represents a much higher value than similarly or slightly lower priced options which are consumer only. If it the m920 were being sold through consumer hi-fi channels with standard markup, it would be in the $3200 msrp range. Simply put, a dollar to dollar component and build comparison between the m920 and the current crop of $1000 devices would reveal a dramatic difference in quality and value.

      What do we mean by quality and value? Many things, which aren't always up front in the marketing materials or feature set comparisons.

      What we design and build comes from a heritage of high-end pro audio performance. These are tools that are designed to be used day in and day out for decades. Pro customers rely on our equipment to not only provide superior / trustworthy sonic performance but with bombproof reliability under mission critical conditions (recording the Metropolitan Opera or the Grammy's, where equipment failure is not an option). We have products that have been in service since 1993 and are likely good to go for the next 20 years. Statistics will predict that problems can arise, and when they do pride ourselves on our fast, courteous customer service. We still service every model of microphone preamplifier, monitor controller, and headphone amplifier that we have ever made. The 5 year transferable warranty on the m920 is just the beginning of our commitment. Add to this that everything is still made by us in Lyons, CO, and the slightly higher price of the m920 starts to seem trivial. m902 customers are truly getting a much greater value than the price difference might belie.

      So what does this mean for the educated, discerning hi-fi enthusiast? Possibly it's not mission critical that their headphone amp / DAC work flawlessly for 20 years. But I think given the choice between that kind of staid, proven quality and not, the little extra money for the m920 might just seem trivial.
    1. XP9433's Avatar
      XP9433 -
      Not saying your conclusions are wrong. But not mentioning any of the so called better performers in the price range lessens the usefulness of the review to any reader. Add to that the fact that computer audiophile doesn't have any such dac/amps on its "Cash List" makes the review even less useful.
      Poor reviewing technique IMO.
    1. Dreaming Jester's Avatar
      Dreaming Jester -
      Michael, why should one choose your m920 over Benchmark DAC2 HGC? Thanks
    1. GraceDesign's Avatar
      GraceDesign -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dreaming Jester View Post
      Michael, why should one choose your m920 over Benchmark DAC2 HGC? Thanks
      Since I have not had the opportunity to spend time listening to a Benchmark I can only remark on features and capabilities. (although I may throw in a little design philosophy)
      I am confident that the Benchmark is an outstanding sonic performer. John Siau is a very capable designer and Benchmark has a long history of building quality gear.

      Here are a few things that come to mind where I see the significant differences between the DAC2-HGC and the m920:

      Galvanically isolated USB port. This is a really important feature!
      The m920's USB streaming section is completely ground isolated from the rest of the DAC. The USB streaming controller is powered by the host computer and it transfers the audio data through high speed isolators.
      Computers can have incredibly noisy grounds due to the myriad of switching power supplies (main supplies and board level), oscillators, video drivers, disk drives, Ethernet ports, etc... You do not want to connect your computer ground to your audio system ground as this can cause all sorts of anomalies in analog and digital audio circuits. Clocks require incredibly low noise grounds and power supplies to maintain low jitter performance. Letting computer system noise in to your DAC can dramatically reduce your clocking performance.
      Oh, the SPDIF and AES3 inputs are galvanically isolated as well.

      Balanced inputs. The m920 has precision differential receivers for balanced analog input. As well, the m920 has balanced and unbalanced line outputs that have independent volume control. Each output has a calibration setting of +/-9.5dB so you can match sound levels between different speaker systems and headphones.

      Exclusive output mode, i.e. headphones off when listening to speakers and vice-versa is available though the setup menu. Removing the top cover is not required.

      Balance control. The m920 allows for 6db of left-right balance control in .5dB steps. Also, mono is available from the setup menu.

      Programmable power up volume levels.

      Ability to use our IR remote control, the Apple remote, or the Logitech Harmony remote.

      Ability to choose between fast, slow, and minimum phase digital filters.

      No ASRC. The m920 operates the ESS Saber DAC with its built in Asynchronous Sample Rate Converter *bypassed*. Instead of relying on an ASRC to remove jitter we use a two stage crystal based phase lock loop. This is "old school" these days because of the expense and difficulty in implementation but we believe in leaving the audio data alone.

      ...so there is my biased opinion of why you should buy the m920!
      I don't think you would expect anything else. We believe in our gear because we design, build, and use it every day!

      Oh, and if you have a need for DXD (384kHz) or DSD 128x playback the m920 supports those formats on the USB interface.
    1. Dreaming Jester's Avatar
      Dreaming Jester -
      Thanks for your informative answer. I have no doubts that M920 is a very capable performer in its own right. Still, if I may add a couple of points. Why did you opt for USB Mini-B input terminal as opposed to the more common B type? Don't you think the Mini-B input and its design (the protruding screws) could be a little wobbly and in addition may limit the use of certain audiophile USB cables? The same goes for the balanced outputs which are close to each other and cannot be used with certain XLR to TRS adapters. Overall, maybe your unit is more suited to professionals than DAC2 HGC which has for example 2 toslink inputs allowing for simultaneous connection of, say, your HDTV and an Airport Express - for streaming music. Do you think 1.2 Ohm output impedance of the headphone amp is low enough, is it all about the implementation? And one more. Why do you sell the remotes separately?
    1. boatheelmusic's Avatar
      boatheelmusic -
      From an earlier post from Dreaming Jester, for perspective:

      OK. Let's discuss another aspect of the DAC2 design philosophy. Some users (in fact most of them) are not very happy with the excessively bright blue LEDs, annoying, according to some, especially in the dark. No dimmer, no switching off. Now, I wonder why the engineers didn't go with more subtle LEDs of different colours like soothing green, amber (like on Airport Express). I personally perceive green LEDs (like on Bryston and other gear) as more 'refined' and 'high-end(ish)' although I suspect Benchmark engineers might have had a good reason to use exactly these particular LEDs. Maybe sth to do with the pro environment, better daylight visibility, visibility from a distance, anything else? Any comments?
    1. Claudius2k's Avatar
      Claudius2k -
      "Online firmware updates are available from Grace for Windows computers, and I understand an OS/X version is in development."

      Help me understand, please. Not trying to put words in your mouth, could you clarify the status...Native USB functionality works with Macs, but an OS X utility to update the unit's firmware is still under development, so you can't update firmware from a Mac at this time? That's a question.

      Thank you
    1. C_Roberts's Avatar
      C_Roberts -
      Hi, An OSX app to perform firmware updates on m920 and m905 is available now. You can find it on our web site gracedesign.com

      Quote Originally Posted by Claudius2k View Post
      "Online firmware updates are available from Grace for Windows computers, and I understand an OS/X version is in development."

      Help me understand, please. Not trying to put words in your mouth, could you clarify the status...Native USB functionality works with Macs, but an OS X utility to update the unit's firmware is still under development, so you can't update firmware from a Mac at this time? That's a question.

      Thank you
    1. One and a half's Avatar
      One and a half -
      Still quite happy with the m920 with either the Audeze LCD3, T100, and even the Sennheiser Momentum. Recommended very highly.

      If anything to improve, if future Grace Designs could come close(r) to the Phonitor 2 as far as cross feeds are presented, that would be great.
    1. boatheelmusic's Avatar
      boatheelmusic -
      Grace m920 Award:

      Grace Design Newsletter February 2015
    1. boatheelmusic's Avatar
      boatheelmusic -
      Now on Massdrop, get 'em while they're hot!: