You’ve heard the old saying “Never judge a book by its cover”? That’s exactly what I did on a recent trip to Mytek Digital. Located in the New York City borough of Brooklyn — Greenpoint to be exact — Mytek HQ resides on a typical urban street behind a crumbling brown facade that looks to be a homeless shelter or an abandoned warehouse. Perhaps a house of ill repute during the grisly 1970s.
Greenpoint is home to many WWII Polish veterans, evidenced by its many bakeries, bars and restaurants serving traditional Polish fare. Brooklyn’s greatly despised hipster can also be seen satisfying his sweet tooth at Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop, downing a brew at Warsaw, or buying used LPs at Academy Records. Greenpoint is a diverse place bursting with history. Contrary to my suspicions, Mytek Digital occupies a 150 year old former church (holy listening rites) and one time lumber yard (wood is good).
Once inside the slightly spooky three-story structure, Mytek founder and principal designer Michal Jurewicz led me into his tiny workshop full of new DACs, old DACs, carcasses and remains of DACs, wires, and various measuring devices confirmed by their tiny green screens and squiggly lines. I’ve arrived to pick up a Mytek Manhattan DAC (US$4995), higher-end sibling to Mytek’s long-standing and immensely popular Stereo192-DSD DAC.
“Follow me,” Michal says. We walk down a hallway, through a doorway, past an upright piano into a spacious professional recording studio (one of two) complete with isolation booths, Soundcraft recording console, guitar amps, towering Duntech Sovereigns and Lipinski L-707 speakers, Nelson Pass and Lipinski monoblock amplifiers, Raven Audio integrated amplifier, VPI turntable with Ortofon Black M/C and Ortofon Red M/M carts and an Ampex ATR 102 ½” reel-to-reel mastering deck. The lights are low, the air is crisp. Steely Dan’s Gaucho is playing through the massive Duntechs, the music emitting an ease and smoothness I’d not noticed before. “Drive west on Sunset to the sea, turn that jungle music down….”
“The studio is used primarily for all kinds of experiments, listening or recording to assess the impact of various elements on sound quality,” Michal explains. “That’s primarily why we have it — our R&D is always design and testing on bench first, followed by rigorous listening tests involving comparisons with competing products. Then the piece goes back to the bench and then it’s listened to again until we are happy with the sound. We also use the studio to demo pieces to various guests here. We do some experimental transfers (for example, capturing the most from analog tape, etc). We do not do commercial recording here as this is a difficult business approach because of low recording budgets today. Occasionally we have guest musicians in when we may record something resulting both in science and actual recording.”
Manufactured in Poland with design and testing in Greenpoint, Mytek’s Manhattan DAC builds on Mytek’s popular Stereo192-DSD DAC – of which 3000 have been sold worldwide – by adding a healthy feature set that once dialed in, confirms the Manhattan’s price performance at its US$4995 asking. It comes with a quite literal ‘money back guarantee’. Building on their pro audio roots, Mytek’s DACs offer the kind of robust performance and tight specifications required in New York City’s finest recording studios, where, not coincidentally, Michal Jurewicz spent 20 years designing converters which led to Mytek’s development of the DSD Studio Master Recorder for Sony’s SACD project. The Manhattan DAC functions as a quad-DSD capable, up-sampling, extremely customizable DAC that is also a full-function preamp with headphone amp and (optional US$1000) MC/MM phono board (more on which later).
The Manhattan’s industrial look and svelte aluminum casing is a triumph of cosmetics, putting the utilitarian contingent of audio design to shame. The Manhattan’s “sculpted” surface feels lovely, though the mirror effect and satiny finish did make locating front panel control buttons (by touch alone) difficult. The first review unit was eventually replaced by a new design with easier-to-locate buttons. Like staring into a bank vault looking for a wrench? Something like that.
The Manhattan DAC offers conversion rates up to 32bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 over USB 2.0 (USB 1.1 to PCM 96kHz) via an ESS Sabre Reference 9018 DAC chipset. The DAC can up-sample on the fly to DSD256 (firmware upgrade required) or PCM to 24bit/192kHz. Internally, there are two large 60 amp power supplies, one for the digital and analog sections. Femto clock technology comes in claiming jitter reduction below 1ps. The headphone amp is a high current “Hi-Fi dual mono” design with user-friendly 0.25 Ohm impedance rating.
The Manhattan’s front panel includes buttons for power on/off, a “go to menu” button, function “1” and “2” buttons (including input selection), and a volume/menu “Rotary Encoder Knob.” Depressing the knob creates further assignable options. Two quarter inch headphone input jacks peak out to the right. Each is driven independently. The top jack is in phase, while the bottom jack is out of phase. Single-ended headphones are instantly connected, while balanced ’phones require a 4-pin XLR adapter. While operational the Manahattan’s large, well-lit display shows volume, sample rate and word length. The display’s brightness level is also user-adjustable.
Round back the Manhattan’s inputs include FireWire 400/800, S/PDIF, USB 1.1 and 2.0, Toslink, balanced, optional SACD optical input, and SDIF DSD L/R ins. Analog outs include RCA and balanced options. Four rubber feet and four isolation spikes as well as an Apple Remote (thankfully), USB 2.0 cable, FireWire cable and power cord are included. Also available: Mytek Metropolis USB cable ($199), Mytek Metropolis FW400/800 cable ($199), and Mytek Metropolis RCA cables ($99). I used both the stock and alternate Mytek USB cables for this review.
Setup. As noted, the Manhattan DAC is a customizer’s dream, or nightmare, depending on how enjoyable you find diving deep into an array of sometimes confusing menu options. Without manufacturer guidance (aka the instruction manual), you could push buttons, twirl and/or push the big knob until you either lose all hope, go bonkers, or find success.
“Menu is accessed by pressing the left triangular button,” states the manual under “Menu Operation.” “Once in the Menu, turning the rotary encoder cycles through the options while pressing the right triangular button advances the selection. Pressing the left triangular button again backs the selection one level until you exit the menu.” You get the drift. Luckily, the Apple remote makes all of this much easier to navigate.
Anyone familiar with setting up a computer or a new OS should have little difficulty understanding the Manhattan’s menu options and once completed, accessing its myriad functions via Apple remote makes the listening experience all the more enjoyable.
Available assignable functions include upsampling, filtering, and volume adjustments. All PCM data can be upsampled to 32-bit/192kHz. There are multiple filter options for both PCM and DSD, including “slow” and “sharp” filters for PCM, and a cutoff frequency of 50, 60 to 70 kHz for DSD. The analog/digital volume control option was particularly useful for dialing in preferences for specific recordings. Unhappy with the sound of a ‘90s era digital recording? The digital/analog volume option solved that bugaboo, enabling subtle signal alterations of each recording. Switching between the two options was fun and beneficial, recording after recording. One function button offers further access to options including mute, phase inversion, mono, and many variations seemingly meant for pro recording environments.
The final cog in getting the Manhattan DAC up to speed required downloading the required drivers from the Mytek website. Once completed I fired up my rig of Apple Mac Book, Western Digital T3 drive, Kuzma Stogi/Stabi turntable, Shindo Allegro and Haut Brian pre and power amps and DeVore Fidelity O/93s loudspeakers all connected via Shindo and Auditorium 23 cabling with source electronics plugged into a Mapleshade Clearview Double Helix II Power Strip. I rip to Apple Lossless files and play ’em back via Audirvana software.
French duo Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend is blissed-out, slightly sinister electronica from early this century; an album that has lost none of its ability to thrill. Liquid electronic textures surf on top of impactful drum programming but alonogside vocalist Jean-Benoît Dunckel’s oddly feminine vocals. It’s a high-end audio fiend’s delight, Air stacking layer upon layer of vocal tracks as if competing with 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love.”
“How Does It Make You Feel” is internally spacious and the Manhattan resolved its retro-fitted space-age vibe without sounding clinical, as if the Manhattan were listening to the music as intently as the listener, careful to balance maintain proper balance along the frequency spectrum.
On one hand, this DAC is a cold-blooded scientist, dissecting digital information with impartiality. On the other, while superbly resolving this beautifully recorded Air cut, it made the most of bad recordings, no matter their origin.
Feeling nostalgic, I played Andy Williams’ early 60s hit “Moon River,” and although individual instruments sounded very small and distant within the soundstage and Williams’ voice had a weird, other-worldly quality (‘50s era echo chambers most likely) the sound still proved enchanting.
Back to Air: “How Does It Make You Feel” is (ironically) airless, an intergalactic love song acknowledging the vacuum between planets. Drums sound fortified yet restrained while bass guitar loomed ominously as if seeping up ghostly from the floorboards of the tenement building in which I live.
However, the primary draw card of this track is its multi-layered vocals, rising and filling the soundstage with a cast of a hundred voices. This is music as cotton, floating, suspended in space, like a giant Pink Floyd-enabled womb. The Manhattan retrieved each delicate layer of sound quite beautifully.
The option to alter the sound slightly via a choice of digital or analog attenuation allowed wiggle room for tweaking source material of differing genre and quality. Newfangled digital recordings often benefitted from the smoothing and texturally rounding effects of the analog option while the digital volume control created an at times tighter, less bass-heavy effect which I found useful for sorting out some modern classical recordings. Often this volume method toggle was made on a ‘tune by tune’ basis.
Andy Stott’s Luxury Problems was released in 2014 but has a timeless sound that could be ‘70s in intent and early 2000s in form and delivery. Purely electronic in contrast to Air’s hybrid world, Luxury Problem’s “Numb” combines stunted electronic sounds with little decay, creating an immediate soundstage that is as spooky as it is dry. Stott prefers looping sounds that slowly morph and shift into something else, musical transmogrification the overall effect.
To dig further into “Numb,” a detached female vocal loop chants “touch”, those loops stacking and growing wider, every fine gradation easily discernible as they rise and swarm to create a gaseous apparition. Within the suspended cloud, motors kick in and then immediately desist – parts of a ship controlled by some faceless overlord.
The Manhattan creates a dark vision from Stott’s dry ingredients, neither editorializing nor enhancing. Importantly, the spaces between the notes are as well lit as the notes themselves. This is something our publisher refers to as “deep illumination” — a perfect descriptor for something I’ve rarely encountered in the DAC world. The Manhattan’s lack of coloration communicates a feeling of purity that is startling, especially if a loved-up romantic delivery is your usual speed.
Annie Lennox’s “Why” (from 1992s Diva) is all twinkling keyboards and vocal layers but with an immense bottom end. Strong on resolving the album’s lush production, the Manhattan allowed Lennox’s drama-infused vocal delivery to really cut through. Here I briefly engaged the up-sampling function via the remote but it made music sound overly strenuous, as if being squeezed and narrowed. I didn’t return to up-sampling.
The Manhattan is incredibly precise without ever putting music under the knife. Surgical in delivery it is not. Better to think of it as truth-teller with no agenda of its own. A little like a good pre-amplifier. I could create a track-by-track scorecard compiling the varying degrees to which the Manhattan was able to render synthetic low end but when reproducing acoustic bass notes the differences were just as impressive. And when I turned up the wick the Manhattan simply gave more. More of the rattling dynamics of Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”.
Living in New York City, and as a former jazz drummer and current vinyl collector, I have spent $1000s buying early pressings from Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, FMP, Ogun, and New Jazz. I play jazz all hours of the day and night and enjoy having friends over to just plain blast it.
Art Taylor’s hard bop vehicle “Dacor” from the 1959 New Jazz release Taylor’s Tenors, it has me in a spin. I don’t know if it is a good transfer or a bad transfer. The mix is odd, tenor saxophones blow in and out of the left and right channels like disembodied spirits. The sound is neither tube-like nor “digital,” neither fuzzy nor clean. But when the track opens with Taylor’s drum solo, panned hard to the right, it’s utterly captivating. From this drum solo the Manhattan extracted the full Monty: the drum head strikes, the decay of the toms, the cymbal attack, the sound of the set echoing in the left channel. It’s as complete a drum sound — though compact and small due to its 50s origin — as I’ve heard from any digital file. The energy of the track just comes bursting on through. Rudy Van Gelder large and in charge! The Manhattan brought its now familiarly pristine A-game.
However, with Sonny Rollins classic Impulse! album Alfie, the digital take was easily bested by my vinyl setup in terms of emotional impact and soundstage depth.
Cassandra Wilson’s 2003 Blue Note release Glamoured – it is the big enchilada, proving that a superb recording delivered in a PCM wrapper can almost challenge its DSD counterpart. Wilson’s voice is a thing of nature: a sexy, emotional, breathy, dark, musky, riveting, erotic instrument. On the Sting-penned “Fragile”, Wilson’s band rises to match her level of proficiency with an exotic arrangement of percolating hand drums and percussion, resonant guitars and a fat bass drum that nails your guts to the wall. “Fragile”’s soundstage is enormous here, extending beyond the DeVore Fidelity O/93s for the first time in during this DAC’s review period.
The Manhattan repeatedly revealed fine gradations in each recording I fed it, its ability to resolve micro/macro information up and down the frequency range was – again – most impressive. I could almost call out each console and software effect. The Manhattan allowed me to witness the musical expression, dynamics and tone present (to varying to degrees) in each recording.
Bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, who passed in 2005, possessed one of the most iconic, identifiable and pure upright bass sounds ever. His tone was the European compliment to American bassist Charlie Haden, the Missourian a folk and bluegrass bassist turned free jazz exemplar. The Osted born Pedersen also had a unique ability to interpret Danish songs and folk melodies, but where Haden’s sound was rambling, rustic and dark, Pedersen played with a delightfully pure upper register tone that made his solos sing.
Pedersen’s 1996 release Those Who Were features the bassist in various configurations including a bass-guitar duet on “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” Hearing Pedersen’s fingers plucking strings, sliding over frets, and running chords is simply joyous. Dynamic string pops are counterbalanced by the bass’s nutty, woody character. The track is a revelation of how beautiful the upright bass can sound, the Manhattan seemingly reveling in Pedersen’s rhythmic and tonal glory. Again, this track gives DSD playback a run for its money in terms of weight, dynamics, tonal quality, and an immense soundstage full of emotion.
DSD files from Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Holly Cole, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Shelby Lynne were fresh arrivals to my hard drive. Ella and Louis Armstrong’s “Moonlight in Vermont” is the kind of performance with which legendary status is etched into history. Here again the Manhattan comes on with certainty – Fitzgerald’s vocal the honey to complement Armstrong’s rye-bread growl and here sounds more revealing and involving than your average 16bit/44.1kHz file. This level of DSD playback performance points to one possible future for digital music reproduction, as long as this (soft) format can make a more convincing argument for broader uptake than did the SACD.
Even though 16bit/44.1kHz PCM is home to the vast majority of music, the Manhattan’s delivery of DSD64 material left me gobsmacked. This is another universe compared to standard Redbook. The Manhattan’s ability to delineate extremely minute differences in quality from one rip to another finds it capable of laying bare the good, the bad, and the ugly – but beautifully. Top drawer recordings like Cassandra Wilson’s Glamoured, Annie Lennox’s Diva or Roulette Count Basie stand in stark contrast to poorer recordings or transfers like 1960s-era Blue Notes by Wayne Shorter and Stanley Turrentine (which I still love). But then again, Lee Morgan’s Sonic Boom, a more recent CD release than the original CD releases from Shorter and Turrentine, properly benefits from better converters like the Manhattan.
The Manhattan is one helluva resolving beast, one that wouldn’t be out of place in the finest recording studios in the world. Its feature set is almost without parallel, especially at its price. The new phono stage holds promise for those who wish to combine digital and analog in one box; a win for lovers of fancy power cables. The Mytek Manhattan DAC is a sterling product, top to bottom. From the Bronx to the Battery, just like the great city itself, the Mytek Manhattan is a marvel.
Mytek Manhatan DAC: Ken Micallef is a New York City based freelance writer contributing to such publications as Downbeat, Modern Drummer, Electronic Musician, Bass Player, and AutoDesk’s Line//Shape//Space. Micallef began his audio reviewing career at Soundstage.com, graduated to (and learned much from) Srajan Ebaen’s 6Moons.com, and currently contributes to Positive-Feedback.com as well as DAR. Ken resides on the top floor of a Civil War era Greenwich Village building where he has been known to drop enormous water balloons on drunken tourists.
Further information: Mytek Digital
Post-script: New to the Manhattan DAC in 2015 is an optional MM/MC phono board [Ed – as teased in Sept 2014 in New York]. It arrives with adjustable gain (43dB – 60dB), resistor load settings (8, 10, 47, 100k) and RIAA curve (standard and RIAA+), all configurable from the DAC’s front panel or Apple remote. Note: this prototype phono stage arrived during the final stretch of the review process and saw only a few hours’ burn-in before listening proper began.
Sonically speaking, the Manhattan phono stage’s most appealing qualities are its powerful demeanor and highly resolving nature. As per digital files, I noted strong information retrieval from the Kuzma Stabi/Stogi armed with a Denon DL 103 cartridge. From Eddie Lockjaw Davis on Fireworks Prestige to the latest Hank Mobley Music Matters reissue, the phono stage presented music a nicely fleshed out midrange and deep bass with similar bloom to that of my Shindo Allegro phono stage; not a tubey, bosomy low end you understand but one with grip and deep tonality. I didn’t care for the Mytek phono board’s treble quite as much. It sounded too tight and orderly compared to the wide-open resolution of the Shindo.