When it comes to audio components I prefer the designs of a knowledgeable person who follows their own path. A man, in this business it’s usually a man, who builds a design from scratch, using a love for music, technical knowledge and a commitment to excellence as the main tools. A man like Cees Ruijtenberg; founder, owner and designer at Dutch company Metrum Acoustics. Years ago, when he had just finished building his first digital to analogue converter, I met Cees Ruijtenberg for the first time. He had offered to bring his DAC over so I could hear it in my own system, we had a very pleasant listening session, followed by a long talk; he told me of the loudspeakers he had built in the past and about the time and energy he had spent designing and building his first DAC. Although I liked the sound of that DAC, what impressed me even more was the fact that he had not used off-the-shelf DAC chips like most DAC designers do. Instead of using chips from PCM, Wolfson, Burr Brown etc his search for the best sounding DAC chip led him to a ‘secret’ industrial chip. The DAC became a worldwide success and the rest, as they say, is history. Several other models followed and in the meantime he developed R2R decoders and sealed them inside his Transient modules. These modules were first used in the company’s flagship DAC, the Pavane, but I knew it would only be a matter of time before other DACs with Transient technology would follow. The second DAC with Transient modules was the entry level Musette model that replaced the Octave MKII. While the Pavane has eight Transient modules in dual mono configuration, the Musette has a total of two; one for each channel.
And now, to complete the line-up, the third DAC has arrived. The Menuet closes the gap between the Pavane and the Musette. It uses the same 320mm wide chassis as the Hex DAC it replaces. However, this time, to avoid internal vibration, the electronics are built in a well-damped sub-chassis. Like the Pavane and Musette, it is a non-oversampling DAC. Forward (FPGA) corrected to overcome the switching noise that undermines the linearity of ladder DACs at low levels. To make a long and complicated story short simpler; it processes both MSB (most significant bits) and LSB (least significant bits) in the same top half of the converter. To do this, the level of the LSB has to be increased prior to conversion. Thereafter 12-bits are sent to each DAC module. In this way the low level or LSBs have the same signal-to-noise profile as the MSBs. The levels are corrected in the analogue stage in order to get the full 24-bit depth with maximum linearity. Inside the Menuet there are two Transient modules per channel in differential mode, giving it a total of four modules.
Seen from a distance, the Menuet could well be taken for a HEX DAC. When you come closer you see the word Menuet in the lower right corner of the aluminium front. With the five small black push buttons on the front you can choose input from USB, AES/EBU, optical, coax RCA and coax BNC. A blue LED above each button will indicate the input in use. When it blinks insistently there is no data at the selected input. As there is no remote control, selecting an input has to be done by hand on the Menuet itself. On the back are the inputs, the XLR (balanced) and RCA (single ended) outputs and the mains inlet for the supplied power cord. In the box you will also find a USB cable, an RCA/BNC adaptor and a 2 GB USB Flash Drive with music recorded by the Dutch company STS Digital.
In my reference system the Menuet took the place of a NAD M51 DAC. Normally the M51 gets music from a NAD M50 music vault, using the HDMI input as this is the best sounding connection between the two NAD components. As the Menuet has no HDMI input I had to choose between the two remaining digital outputs of the M50; RCA and XLR. Trying both I ended up preferring the XLR connection because of a more pleasing sound and a slightly wider stereo image. I did try the USB input with my laptop, if only briefly. It confirmed earlier experiences with other DACs where I found that the USB connection was less engaging, less dynamic and overall less musical than the coax. That is, if I use the laptop as a source. With the right high quality source and connection, I know USB can sound as good as coax. Unfortunately I did not have one at hand. As always the interconnect between the DAC and the Music First Audio Classic V2 passive preamp was balanced as well. As was the connection with the Pass Labs X260.5 mono amplifiers, because they too sound best this way.
I know from experience that it pays to give a new DAC a good warm-up. So, to be on the safe side the Menuet was on standby continuously for a week. Eventually I started to play some music through it and instantly recognised the most important characteristic of Metrum Acoustics non-oversampling DACs; they really know how to transmit the emotional message of the music. This was very clear when I played a CD by Dutch cello player Quirine Viersen, daughter of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra cellist Yke Viersen, who plays the three cello suites that Benjamin Britten composed for his Russian friend and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich towards the end of his life. The natural fullness and deepness of tone, the fully explored timbre, the rhythmic timing and deeper meaning of the musical message were conveyed in a most convincing and captivating way. After this solo concert of an acoustic instrument I chose a male voice; the Munich born tenor Jonas Kaufmann is in my view one of the best contemporary Wagner interpreters. I chose a recording made in the Berlin Funkhaus studio; ‘In Fernem Land’ from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin and enjoyed the ecstatic performance of this great tenor. Through the Menuet the voice was extremely fast and accurate and positioned flawlessly. A realistic recording of a full scale symphonic orchestra was heard when I decided to play ‘Arcana’ from the album The Complete Works of Edgar Varèse, performed by Ricardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. It’s a vivid piece and one of Varèse’s most approachable. The exciting rhythmic displacements and beautiful tonal colours came through splendidly. To conclude with one final example from my listening sessions I give you the beautiful singing voice of Cristina Branco performing ‘Bichinhos Distraidos’. Her moving, crystal-clear voice, and the acoustic instruments that accompanied her were delineated sharply in front of a deeply saturated black background.
The dilligent reader might have noticed that the above music samples are all in the 16/44.1 digital format. One of my first observations was that the Menuet treats these tracks very well, especially when they were well recorded. Yet ‘real’ high resolution downloads sounded even better. I am not saying anything new when I note that quite a lot of ‘old’ CD recordings can sound very good, but the Menuet is more capable than most in revealing this. One other thing the observant reader may have noticed is that the music tracks I described only covered a few music styles. However, this does not mean that the Menuet has a preference for these styles. On the contrary, anything I threw at it during the three week workout was delivered to the Harbeth SHL 5 Plus loudspeakers in the most musically fulfilling way. To put it in one sentence; If I were in the market for a new DAC at this price point, the Menuet would be on the top of my ‘must hear’ list.
Type: Non oversampling DAC. Forward (FPGA) corrected, 2 DACs per channel in differential mode.
Power: max. 30 VA via 2 separated toroidal transformers.
Mains voltage: 110/115V AC 220/230V AC 60/50Hz.
Inputs: 1x optical, 2x coaxial (1x BNC and 1x RCA). AES/EBU and USB.
Outputs: 2x RCA Neutrik cinch connectors. 2x XLR balanced output.
Output voltages: RCA: 2 Volts RMS. XLR: 4 Volts RMS.
Frequency response: 1Hz – 20 kHz – 1 dB. 44.1 kHz sampling. 1Hz – 65 kHz – 1 dB. 192 and 384 kHz (USB).
Distortion: 0.01 % THD.
S/N Ratio: -145 dB related to 2 Volts RMS.
Output impedance: RCA 100 Ohm. XLR 200 Ohm.
Sampling rate: Optical 44.1 – 96 kHz sampling rate. Coax and AES/EBU: 44.1 – 192 kHz. USB 44.1 – 384 kHz
Dimensions: 320 x 85 x 320 mm.
Weight: 6 kg.
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