"I was curious to see Soundaware's range-topping MR1 fully balanced portable player. Its full-size XLR outputs via external block with 'Saw-link' umbilical easily welcome it into a high-end stationary context. And I really do like the concept of a battery-powered SD-card transport/DAC without moving parts but with a quality screen, intuitive OS and scalable memory. Nothing is easier than swapping out SD cards. Naturally the rise of smartphones with better DAC chips like LG's sees competition for costly DAP aka digital audio players heat up to possibly render dedicated players redundant soon. Quality headphones with the necessary sensitivity ratings to plug straight into a cellphone are here already to hasten this perhaps inevitable progress. But for now, expensive super DAPs including those from Astell&Kern or Questyle should still have their day in the sun."
That's what I had written for my intro to the show report of Munich HighEnd 2018 where temps were to be 33C° for a few days of real sun. If Soundaware were there, I'd simply proved soundly unaware of their presence. I had to book my own private audition with PR contact Lesley Liu once I'd returned to Eire. She was keen to also have me look at their D300Ref digital transport and desktop A300 music player with headfi plus P1 preamp. We quickly hatched a plan for a triptych of reviews. The MR1 would bundle with the P1 for today's assignment.
The next photo montage pretty much spells out the MR1's multi-tasking talents.
Two micro SD card slots each support up to 256GB of music data. 3.5mm balanced and single-ended outputs with up to ±8V of voltage swing handle various headphones. A combo 3.5mm line/coax 0.5V output routes signal to an external DAC, preamp, integrated or powered/active speaker. A mini 2.6Vrms HDMI port leashes to the extension box for fully balanced analog outputs and native I2S/DSD digital signal. The mini USB port triple-tasks at charging, bi-directional data transfer and to output digital 192kHz/DSD128 signal. The flat battery inside the "aviation-grade" aluminium shell can be replaced. Wireless connectivity is via mobile phone apps, WiFi, DLNA and Bluetooth APTX/CSR. Wireless tunes in the car are thus part of the package and wired would be via the 3.5mm analog out and your car's AUX in. In AirPlay mode, the MR1's volume control overrides Apple's bit-stripping default.
Under the hood one would find dual Galaxy femto clocks at 22.5792/24.576MHz to handle the 44.1/48kHz families of sample rates, an XMOS USB transceiver, proprietary FPGA signal processing, a fully balanced headphone amp with 0.0008% of THD and three gain modes which may be assigned independently to line and digital outputs. The motherboard sports six gold-plated layers of which two layers handle the ground lines "for lowest crosstalk". For ICs, there's an Ingenic Jun Zheng JZ4775 master processor, an AXP202 power management IC, Samsung memory, a Wolfson WM8804S digital input receiver, twin Cirrus Logic CS4398 DACs, a BurrBrown PGA4311 volume controller, sundry regulators and OPA1612 opamps. The enclosure and assembly are OEM'd from the Foxconn Cooperative whose dedicated factory for Apple is very famous. The optional expansion pack includes the external block, one each Saw-Link digital and analog cable, one 4-pole 3.5mm to 4-pin XLR cable, one 4-pole 3.5mm to coax cable and a reddish brown leather pouch for the deck.
The R&D for the MR1 led Soundaware to improve upon the IC-based headphone outputs of their previous desktop units. This has netted the fully balanced fully discrete P1 with "premium parts like high-end Talema transformers, Alps precision potentiometer, German coupling caps, four ultra low-noise high-current regulators and Nichicon FG and Muse caps for 30'000μF of filter capacitance." Preamp mode appropriates that filter bank to itself by disabling the power supply to the headphone amp. Headphone mode shuts down the pre-out buffer to save power. For connectivity 'round back, there are hi-impedance 4Vrms single-ended and 6Vrms balanced input plus a mini HDMI to interface with the MR1. The class A outputs on RXA/XLR with current sources are capable of swinging nearly ±30V whilst the linear power supply is rated for 60V/4A. A separate USB output provides linear power for connected devices like the MR1 and a 2-step gain switch works on all inputs. The front sports 6.3mm and 4-pin XLR headphone ports, an input selector with separate confirmation LEDs, the volume knob and a pre/headphone mode toggle. Headphones during R&D were all HifiMans including Susvara, AKG's infamous K-1000 plus K701 through K812, Sennheiser's HD800/S, Focal's Utopia and Beyerdynamic's 2nd-gen T1. Balanced power output at 0% and 1% THD thus is a stout 6.0/6.35wpc@30Ω, 5.7/6.2@45, 4.8/6.2@100, 1.6/3.2@300 and 0.8/1.7wpc@600Ω respectively. In SE mode, it's down to 3.1/4.3wpc@30Ω, 2.6/3.9@45, 1.4/2.6@100, 0.4/0.9@300 and 0.2/0.4wpc@600Ω. Soundaware's sonic reference during development of the P1 was the Accuphase C290V. After four core circuit versions and twenty subsequent prototypes for various fine-tuning tweaks, they finally felt that they had exceeded their goal. Being unfamiliar with the Accuphase, I couldn't comment on that aspect. Colour options for the P1 are blue and gray. Dimensions are 22 x 20 x 5.5cm WxDxH, weight is 4kg. Built-in protection monitors DC, temperature and output shorts. SN/R on the pre-outs is given as an ambitious 126dB with dynamic range of 121dB. In headphone mode, the published S/NR is a colossal 128dB.
Soundaware's mini-to-4-pin XLR balanced link equals instant plug'n'play with any big headphone you have terminated accordingly.
In the wild outdoors of the gym, tube or sidewalk, most would obviously don less showy IEMs. Still, a more compact €249 over-ear Meze could still make for a viable walkabout buddy. A big costly planar should probably stay home to not tempt mischief or dings. In its leatherette pouch, the champagne-colour MR1 version cuts quite a figure as any accessorized fashionista's stylish accompaniment right next to that Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy. That it requires a committed listener to discard those smartphones as music players and carry a second piece of kit goes without saying. So does the obvious fact that name recognition for Soundaware won't ever equal those smartphone giants. But then who wears their sports coat with the label out?
To illustrate a few stationary hookups, there's obvious employment as a battery-powered digital transport without moving parts feeding your DAC via S/PDIF coax. Unlike PCs with their switching power supplies, energy-intense big screens and massively paralleled computing threads, this player does music and naught else. It takes no pictures or calls. To sing sweetly, it wants no audiophile intercessor like a USB decrappifier; no linear aftermarket power supply; no 3rd-party software player like PureMusic to shut down redundant threads or parts of the OS. It's a headless horseman—no keyboard, no external monitor—but needs no WiFi tablet to access its contents like most of the costly audiophile servers do.
Readers familiar with our household's WiFi aversion won't be surprised that I didn't explore the MR1's talents on that score; nor its Bluetooth chops. For the right streaming clients of course, these will be major attractions so be assured that the owner's manual devotes many pages to those operational modes. Readers familiar with my blasé attitude about DSD won't be surprised that I didn't use such files. I barely own any and certainly none I care to listen to. As to native I2S output, I'd have loved to try that but didn't have a DAC with matching HDMI-carried input like a Denafrips on hand. Because the MR1's DAC and FPGA circuits are identical to that of their flagship A300, this player inherits its firmware update routine. For that you'll download the most current version from the Soundaware website, load it to your SD card's root directory, insert that card into the left slot, then run it by selecting 'upgrade firmware' in the menu. .aiff album art and gapless play are two items that might/should benefit from such future upgrades.
To the average punter, probably the question about the MR1 will be, why upgrade a smartphone if one's favoured walkabout can is already perfectly powered? To find out, I used a Meze 99 Neo as a standard mobile beater, Final's Sonorous X as a high-efficiency cost-no-issue version. My stand-in for a popular smartphone was a 2017 Samsung Galaxy A5. In no time flat, the answer was that seemingly perfect drive lives on a very different page from just going loud enough. Over the Samsung, the Romanian headphone went plenty loud but also did so sounding fuzzy, opaque, gemütlich, warm, a bit bloated and quite indistinct. It was utterly inoffensive but looked at the music through thick out-of-focus glasses; or hit tune town in rubbery galoshes.
Whether the fault lay with Samsung's headphone amp or DAC or how it split the bill between them was immaterial. Material was that over the MR1, the same tunes regained all their familiar distinctiveness and fine detail, dusted off the cobwebs, locked in perfect focus for contrast sharpness and rolled out the third dimension of spatial depth. With it, there came a properly layered perspective. By contrast, the Samsung was foggy, monochromatic and water-colour bleeding around the edges. This delta of difference was profound. Not only would an average pedestrian stopped on the street have heard it; she/he'd have been able to describe it clearly and liably been flabbergasted by just how much better the Soundaware was. Being the more linear far more resolved precision tool, with the Sonorous X the delta's severity shrank. It was still clearly present but with the Final, already the Samsung managed to extract more raw data for a more illuminated more insightful presentation. That it was coarser, flatter, less refined and of a narrower colour palette than the MR1 was obvious. That the smartphone's sound had significantly bettered was just as obvious. The upshot was simple. At this degree of fiscal disparaty—between a €250 Samsung phone and a purpose-designed €1'586 DAP—out the window were fairness and equivocation. The Soundaware slaughtered the smartphone. Whether a sound-optimized LG phone might get a lot closer I don't know. I don't drive a 'phones for phones' bumper sticker. This segues into the next MR1 question. If it makes those headphones whose Ω and sensitivity are well within the grasp of ordinary smartphones sound this much better, just how far does its own grasp extend?
Pushing right to the front of that hardcore line were HifiMan's Susvara. They stood in for other heavies like the HE-6 stablemates or AKG's infamous K-1000 of years gone by. In fully balanced drive with hi-gain+boost, I had plenty of extra throttle on the gas. With our stationary kit from the previous page as reference, not only did the MR1 get these inefficient planars sufficiently loud, it did so at undeniably premium quality. It really should drive most anything properly. Though I'd not advocate taking Susvara beyond the confines of your own backyard, the point is that the MR1 accommodates your most serious big cans inside the house. Meanwhile its portable nature means that you can go roam the wide outdoors with your Campfire Audio IEM or whatever your favourite in-ears might be. Such extreme cross pollination just isn't the case for smartphones. Clock one core fact for the MR1's raison d'être.
Generational contrast: M1 Pro vs. MR1. To suss out whatever audible advances Soundaware might have crafted between models, I returned to Final's flagship X. It's our highest resolution ultra-sensitive dynamic reference. Before calling out sonics, I admit to more fancying the older unit's purely physical buttons without touch-screen intervention; and its full metallic jacket without the MR1's crazily smudge-prone glass. Just as I frown on mirror-gloss black speakers, I don't get this genre's fascination with skin-oil deposits. It's why Soundaware include a cleaning cloth. On sound, the Esther M1 Pro was voiced slightly warmer, fruitier and saturated. Think mild 2nd-order tube plug-in. It meant feeling a tad more relaxed or leisurely; and not being quite as keen on ambient recovery. However, on as friendly a load as the Sonorous, this small difference wouldn't warrant a change. It's once we look at the MR1's stiffer power reserves which up the number of compadre headphone options, its balanced drive and the expanded functionality including SAW-Link that a different audience enters the picture. The MR1 says hello to apps beyond traditional DAP with their emphasis on 'portable'. Now such a player double/triple-teams at getting fully integrated and embedded into a home hifi. Its hardware minimalism and the multi-tasking which is inherent in such a proposition should mostly aim outside traditional audiophile circles. Before we explore just how serious that might get and whilst still on my desktop, let's loop the P1 into the discussion. With a direct analog SAW-Link connection, it would output 2 x RCA to the active Eversound speakers which bracket my computer monitor. Comparators would be the same files on my HP workstation streamed digitally into the speakers via USB.
Making perfect sense however was running the MR1's line-out in pure mode. This would compare battery-powered SD card server with Soundaware's own DAC to SMPS-powered Hewlett-Packard PC streaming USB into a Gordon Rankin-designed converter inside the white Eversound boxes. Syncing up player and JRiver Media Center then merely required switching inputs on the speakers and adjusting volume because the MR1's signal was higher.
Sonically, the Soundaware had the edge. The computer stream was grainier. Popular lingo would say 'noisier' whilst knowingly pointing at using a PC as music source. The USB stream was slightly greyish by contrast, too. Particularly on quality recordings, the sense of recorded space—real hall ambiance or faux studio reverb—was greater with the analog connection from the MR1. These weren't crass improvements. They were on the order of upgrading a DAC to the next model up in a catalogue; which is likely exactly what I did.
Moving into the big rig was next to go SAW-Link balanced into our usual Wyred4Sound STP-SE2 preamp. How grown up would the MR1 act around far costlier hardware? Would it make for a viable folder-tree based file server? Or would it be badly outclassed because its small battery couldn't match the far bigger power supplies in our Aqua Hifi converter?
Big versus small. In one corner, a 32GB RAM 27" Retina display iMac with 3TB FusionDrive and the most current version of PureMusic streaming USB into the Aqua Hifi Formula DAC via a red KingRex double-header cable. ~€17'000 for the lot. In the other corner, an MR1 on the Belden dock with the SAW-Link extension block. Call it €3'000 with a very nice set of 1-metre XLR links. In either case, the signal ended up fully balanced in the Wyred preamp. From there it passed still fully balanced onto the luxo ￡32'000/pr WestminsterLab Unum monos which drove the €18'000 ?quo Audio Stilla in a review system already set up and playing for the svelte Dutch 3-ways. Entry-level hardware? Not. On pure coin then, team Soundaware found themselves in entirely the wrong company. Which precisely was the purpose of this exercise. It's not something the average dealer would demonstrate for all the obvious reasons.
Proper perspective sees that the target audience for the MR1's SAW-Link functionality won't play in quite this ancillary hardware league; and that it will almost certainly avail itself of the deck's USB DAC and WiFi/Bluetooth streaming capabilities. That puts Spotify & Co. in charge of navigation and content grab to instantly update the user interface for mass consumption of millions of titles. For car use meanwhile, shuffle mode through one or all folders should be perfectly sufficient. In our car, a vintage 160GB iPod still serves that purpose.
Native mating. To properly exploit the P1, I mated it to Simon Lee's April Music Stello S100MkII amplifier with XLR inputs. Because the provided SAW-Link cable was far too short to use our Belden dock and make the P1's input, the MR1 laid flat across its top whilst a mini USB cable provided linear juice off the P1's power port. Speakers were our usual Albedo Audio Aptica. In this context, the P1 gave a spunkier more dynamic less warm reading than April Music's own €1'500 headfi/pre piece and added fabulous balanced Susvara drive with gain to spare. A toggle flick on the Soundaware's front shuttles between preamp and headphone modes. In this connection, SAW-Link was balanced analog sans usual XLR cables.
Ideally perhaps, Soundaware would restyle their current SAW-Link block into an actual dock. That would eliminate the unsightly frontal USB cable whilst evolving the MR1 into home erectus for a better display view. But that's a small niggle. So is the P1's strange grey/blue colour option which won't match the silver/champagne MR1 choices. Clearly meant to go together, none of the pairings will look it. Sonically of course, the high-gain P1's very robust output was a perfect fit, turning the slightly lite version of the DAP in server mode into a dynamically mature tonally weighty affair. To me the MR1/P1 combo really was a perfect native match all around, including price.
Closing out in minimalist mobile mode, a Campfire Audio IEM slipped into the MR1's single-ended port because Ken Ball's balanced leash proved to have the wrong plug. Ideal SPL now sat at ca. 3/4th on lo-gain's dial and were blissfully noise-free. For this millivolt task rather than big-rig hernias, the DAP's output played it full fat: intense, with strong colour pop and massive detail.
After my various games of musical chairs which still missed I2S and native DSD mode plus WiFi and Bluetooth, I was left in no doubt. Soundaware's MR1 belonged into the same luxury league where Astell&Kern's and Questyle's best strut their stuff. It won't matter to those who phone it all in. Leave them be. The MR1 should matter to minted audiophiles with serious big headphones, with a smaller secondary speaker system perhaps who also do music in the car, hotel and gym but want just one deck to do it all. It's in such multi-kulti schemes where Soundaware's MR1 shines brightest. Now you tap all of its considerable talents and IQ to question why you'd want anything more. It's a real renaissance affair. If you're still building that secondary hifi system from a blank sheet, consider the P1, too. It's a perfect companion preamp sans remote but with a truly ballistic 4-pin XLR headfi port. In stationary mode, that let's the MR1 focus on streaming and DACing. Happy days!