By Brian •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.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
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 - Grace Design m920
- Price - $1,995
- Product Page - Link
- Source: MacBook Air
- DAC: AudioQuest Dragonfly (original version)
- Headphones: Audeze LCD-3, Audeze LCD-XC, Sennheiser HD650, Sennheiser Momentum, JHAudio JH16
- Amplifier: The Calyx Integrated
- Loudspeakers: Zu Soul MkII
- Playback Software: Audirvana Plus
- Cables: AudioQuest Victoria, Zu Mission RCA Mk.II-B
About The Author
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.0
- Product - Grace Design m920