Hi-fi and head-fi are a lot like that old soccer cliché: a game of two halves. On the one side, I’ve been known to chain together nearly a dozen individual components for my digital frontend. That count includes a music server, separate network bridge, USB to SPDIF converter, external re-clocker, and of course the DAC itself – plus separate linear power supplies for each device. The idea is to leave no stone unturned in the quest for maximum sonic enjoyment. It’s a spectacular jumble of gear, particularly when you factor in the unavoidable mess of cables. The resulting sound is magnificent but I admit a setup like this is not for the faint of heart.
The other side to that story is my deep-rooted love of simplified playback solutions. That could manifest in the form of active speakers which eliminate the usual outboard amplification, or D/A converters with built-in headphone outputs, or even modern integrated amplifiers which pack in additional features such as DACs, streamers, room corrections and phono stages.
The Matrix Audio Element i (US$1149) slots squarely into that latter category: abundant functionality in a manageable package, capable of running an entire (headphone-based) system all by itself. Here we find simplicity; no need for additional boxes or cable clutter. It delivers clean, incisive sound straight out of the box whilst remaining open to further upgrades or system expansion down the line.
What Is It?
The Element i is the smallest, most affordable model in Matrix Audio’s Element series of all-in-one machines. It offers most of the same functionality as its more expensive siblings, but with a few areas trimmed back to save us some coin. It could best be summed up as a DAC with integrated headphone stage and preamplifier functionality, plus network streaming capabilities, all shoehorned into a compact yet nicely-built package.
The Element i ticks all the basic boxes that I might expect from a modern DAC unit. Digital inputs come in the usual array of USB, coaxial, and optical formats, plus I2S over HDMI – complete with four software-selectable profiles for maximum compatibility. Analog outputs include RCA and balanced XLR, along with a front-panel 6.35mm headphone jack. While the higher models in the Element line offer balanced headphone drive and additional digital inputs, I suspect the connectivity of the Element i will be more than adequate for the majority of users.
And then there’s its streaming integration. We’ve seen a steady push towards adding headphone outputs and preamplification capabilities to DACs over the last decade or so, and I’ve always felt adding the network streaming aspect seemed like the next logical step. Frankly, I’m surprised that it hasn’t become more common. Switching to a non-networked DAC after using the Element i feels a bit clunky and old-fashioned. There’s certainly still a place for dedicated network streaming devices like the exceptional Stack Audio Link II that I recently covered, and that feels more appropriate when building a separates system with DAC, headphone amplifier et al occupying their own boxes. But if the focus is on streamlining, saving space, or just reducing one’s expenditure, a network-capable DAC feels like the more sensible approach.
Despite being the baby of the Element line, the i is still a very capable machine: dual-core ARM9 processor, ESS Sabre ES9028 Pro DAC, dual low phase noise oscillators, XMOS USB input handling up to 384kHz PCM or quad-rate DSD, your choice of Ethernet or wireless connectivity, and a fairly potent headphone stage able to push over 1300mW into 33 Ohm loads. The Matrix is Roon Ready but also supports AirPlay, Spotify Connect, and DLNA. Matrix lets us stream from a NAS as well as play files directly from a USB storage device. It truly does fit a variety of use cases.
The dedicated MA Remote app controls the DLNA-driven action. This lets us access our music files (either on local storage or via network share) and also supports streaming from Tidal or Qobuz. The experience is reminiscent of BubbleUPnP: perfectly adequate if not quite earth-shattering. MA Remote also has a mode that aims to emulate a typical hardware remote, covering the usual bases like volume control, input selection, etc. For those who prefer a more tactile experience, an actual hardware remote is also included, but MA Remote is still needed for initial setup and music selection.
Alternatively, we can use Roon to stream music to the Element i — an ideal one-box Roon endpoint, handling everything from network bridging to D-to-A conversion to headphone amplification (or preamplification when using active speakers). True, you will need a Roon server somewhere on the network, but that task is easily accomplished by a spare laptop, NUC, or even a reasonably powerful NAS. This kind of setup keeps any general-purpose computing device in the other room where it belongs.
Since the main draw of the Element i is its ability to function as a true all-in-one system, that’s exactly how I used it. My Asustor NAS served as Roon Server as I streamed a selection of favorite tracks from my own library as well as Qobuz and Tidal. Monitoring was done via the integrated headphone output, feeding the Campfire Audio Cascade (US$799) or an older example of Audeze’s LCD-2 (US$999). I also used several of my favorite custom in-ear monitors: the 64 Audio A18t (US$2999) and the Radioso triple hybrid from Korean firm AME Customs (US$1600). Connections were made via Audio Art cables, with balanced power coming from an Equi=Core 1800 conditioner.
The Matrix Element i’s sound is built around insight and nuance. A sense of neutral clarity prevails, with exemplary detail retrieval but also just enough tonal richness to sidestep a high pixel count’s analysis. It’s a matter-of-fact presentation that couldn’t be described as cold, flat, two-dimensional, thin or overly jazzed with transients. A front-row seat it is not.
Thankfully, the Matrix Element i does indeed do it right. It digs deep, unearthing subtle nuances on everything from Opeth’s Ghost Reveries to Midnight Love by Marvin Gaye. Brush work and cymbals are rendered in a particularly convincing manner, and I love the feeling of “projection” for both male and female vocals – there’s a sense of energy and immediacy that makes the experience feel lifelike. The unique flavors of my favorite vocal artists are well represented across the board: familiar figures like Alison Krauss and Freddie Mercury, but also Adam Turla (Murder By Death), Chhom Nimol (Dengue Fever), and Arleigh Kincheloe (Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds), all beautifully presented with their distinctive over/tones.
I rotated through numerous headphones and settled on the Audeze LCD-2 and Campfire Audio Cascade as being my favorite full-sized pairings. The Cascade is full-bodied and rather easy to drive, yet demands a firm grip lest the low-end start to sound a bit overcooked. The Element i keeps it in line, allowing the listener to freely explore deep bass without distraction. Meanwhile my beloved pair of Audeze’s classic LCD-2 (from 2013) manages to sound more balanced from a frequency-response perspective, yet tonally richer and more full-bodied overall. Those large planar magnetic drivers are significantly less sensitive than the beryllium PVD dynamic design used in the Cascade, yet the Element i’s headphone amplifier proves worthy of the task. Here, the volume wheel is turned a little more but headroom is plentiful, and spun to full tilt would cause hearing damage. Both headphones end up with an open, natural sound whilst remaining true to their respective characters.
Scaling down to in-ear monitors, the Element i proves equally effective across a wide range of impedance and sensitivity ratings. The AME Radioso is relatively difficult to drive for its class, rated at 95dB/mW with a nominal impedance of 21 ohms. Compared to my other in-ear designs, it demands more stout amplification to allow its mixed array of dynamic, armature, and electrostatic drivers to properly harmonize. Meanwhile, the flagship A18t from 64 Audio is rated at 111dB/mW with a nominal impedance of just 9 ohms. This presents a different problem altogether – background hiss, hum, and various other gremlins all become accentuated, often revealing issues in gear we might otherwise find to be well-behaved. Thankfully the Element i sound remains free of undesirables, leaving us with the same inky black background heard from the less sensitive AME monitors. Once again, the volume control gives us a usable range that keeps both models playing in their comfort zone. The end result here is that both sets of in-ear monitors are able to shine without any editorializing from the upstream equipment.
Does the Element i end up being all things to all headphones? Not quite. I find that I don’t particularly enjoy it with Sennheiser’s picky HD800 series. Yes, the Matrix machine gives a straight-forward, honest portrayal of the HD800 sound. But that isn’t really what I’m looking for these days. Over the years I’ve become accustomed to gear that brings out the brilliance of Sennheiser’s classic flagship while minimizing some of its more obvious faults in the top end. That means tube amplification or warmer solid-state gear that can take the edge and etch out of the HD800’s peakiness while simultaneously enriching its cooler tonality. The Element i does neither — and as such the HD800 pairing is not to my taste. The slightly more forgiving HD800S is more enjoyable but still not an ideal match – I find the more relaxed Sennheiser HD6XX family far more engaging when driven by the Matrix. Similar results occur with Focal’s headphones, where the lively character of the Elex and Celestee models fit my preferences better than the comparably drier Elegia. That said, the Element i drives them all well enough to where each would be a viable choice if one enjoys their respective presentations.
Splitting the System
I’ve already mentioned that the Element i makes the most sense as an all-in-one device. That’s how I tend to use it, and that’s where I think it has the most appeal. But it also gives me an opportunity to dig deeper into the performance of each aspect of its design. I hit the Matrix with all sorts of add-ons, upgrades, and direct comparisons to see where it landed.
As a traditional, stand-alone DAC, the Element i seems very much in line with the highly-regarded RME ADI-2 DAC family. I call it a “family” as there have been several variations and upgrades over the years, all of which I’ve owned or extensively auditioned. I no longer have any of them on hand for direct comparison, and I don’t plan on splitting hairs regarding the subtle changes from one ADI-2 revision to the next. My point here is that the Element i does achieve a similarly clean, clear presentation which to my ears does not veer into overly-analytical territory. The RMEs give us quality D-to-A conversion, at similar pricing, with a comparable array of inputs and highly capable onboard headphone amplifiers. We then come down to one key distinction for each unit: Matrix with its integrated streaming platform and RME with its EQ flexibility. I’d wager they’d be hard to split on sound quality alone so I’d base a buying decision on which of those features was more useful to you.
For another interesting comparison, we pit the Element i against a Benchmark DAC3 B (US$1699). This is the bare-bones version of Benchmark’s device, sans headphone amplifier or preamplification capabilities. As such, both units act in pure-DAC mode, with the Matrix accomplishing this by setting output to fixed mode and thus perfectly matching the 2Vrms output of the Benchmark unit. Audio Art RCA cables leashed both DACs to a Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier, allowing for quick A/B switching.
As with the RME comparison, both of these DACs are more alike than different, and both can rightly claim a generally “neutral” sound. But with the resolving power of the Pass amplifier extracting more subtle details, I do hear the unique character of each DAC shine through. The Benchmark has a more lit-up, sprightly feel, drawing attention to the upper registers and away from the rhythmic foundations of the music. My preference tends to be for the comparably brawnier Matrix presentation, though certain (already warmer) headphones like the Meze Empyrean or Audeze LCD-2 respond better to the Benchmark. Meanwhile, using a brighter-sounding headphone like the Kennerton Audio Thekk, the Benchmark’s top-end can feel a bit edgy, with a sort of “steel wool” characteristic that begins to chafe during long-term listening sessions. Nurse?! The Matrix plays it smoother, more liquid, whilst not sacrificing articulation or extension.
Just for giggles, I gave the Element i some absurdly difficult competition in the form of a Violectric V590. The V590 is significantly larger, has no streaming smarts and sells for nearly four times the price. That bigger money brings analog inputs for full preamplifier functionality, balanced headphone drive with significantly more power, a fully analog, relay-based volume control (the Element i uses a digital solution), and a massive linear power supply featuring dual shielded toroidal transformers. By all accounts, the V590 should sound better and it certainly does. But the difference is, with some music, less dramatic than one might expect.
The V590 does make nearly every headphone I throw at it sound sublime. In particular, it excels with difficult low-sensitivity designs (like those from HiFiMAN) or picky pairings (Sennheiser HD800/S, Focal Utopia). Yet when dealing with the less challenging loads presented by the aforementioned Audeze, Campfire, 64 Audio and AME Customs, the delta between the Matrix and Violectric shrinks to something much smaller.
My point here is that when complementary pairings are nailed down, we hit a high point in the cost-to-performance ratio. Going further means spending (sometimes) considerably more money for (mostly) ever-smaller gains. In the case of juicing the Element i with an outboard amplifier, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. Better to find a headphone that plays nicely with the Element i’s internal amplifier. From Matrix’s own spec sheet: 1320mW into 33 Ohms, 248mW into 300 Ohms or 124mW into 600 Ohms. It sounds very capable, it drives most headphones well and doesn’t suffer compressed staging or treble-trouble.
And those with the itch to go external might be better served by going in a completely different sonic direction. My personal preferences are for the Feliks Audio Echo or the Cayin HA-1A mk2 – both tube amplifiers with three-digit pricing and warm, inviting characteristics that depart rather drastically from the integrated Matrix amplifier. Using either of these lets me choose what I want based on current mood/music/headphone pairing, with the integrated headphone stage offering neutral, factual reproduction and the external tube device imparting a pleasing euphonic glow. Best of both worlds? That’s for you to decide.
Let’s briefly touch on power supply upgrades. The Element i uses an external switch-mode power supply for cost savings, whilst Matrix’s more expensive models all have internal linear PSUs. Checking the specs on the rear panel, it seems the Element i needs a 12V supply capable of delivering 1.67A. That’s not at all exotic or unusual. This gives us many aftermarket options from which to choose.
I brought out the ever-useful Wyred4Sound PS-1 modular PSU, set it to 12V, and was treated to a minor-to-moderate increase in dynamics and musical ease. Nothing drastic or completely transformative but a higher quality power supply allows for a little more space around the notes and, therefore, a better sense of space. The tonal balance did not shift but at the same time, I felt an increase in low-end authority and fluidity. This was more easily heard via in-ear monitors, as they tend to be more resolving than their full-sized counterparts. The Wyred4Sound PS-1 sells for US$499 in basic form, making it nearly half the cost of the Element i itself. Worth it? Again, that’s for you to decide.
My favorite part about the Matrix Element i is its balance. I’m not speaking strictly of its clean, well-rounded sound signature (though I do quite enjoy that) but rather the way it manages to handle everything it does to the same high standard. These days it’s easy to find extra features tacked on to more traditional designs – headphone outputs on a DAC, digital inputs on an integrated amplifier, etc. Yet so often one or more of these aspects get treated as a sort of afterthought or “bonus feature”, handy in a pinch but not up to the same caliber as the main event. Those might be fine for casual use but folks searching for a true one-box solution will find themselves disappointed. Not so with the Element i – every aspect is equally well-implemented.
For some, a device like this might be a matter of simplicity, the shedding of various single-function devices along with corresponding cable mess. For others, it might be the appeal of having all aspects work in harmony, by design, rather than throwing a bunch of individual components together and hoping for a complementary result. Whatever the reasoning, Matrix has a worthwhile solution in their Element i device. It may be the baby of the Element family but the performance is such that many users won’t need anything more. And if they do, there’s always the option of upgrading to an external power supply.
High performance now, with the ability to grow in the future? Sounds good to me.
Further information: Matrix