Metrum Acoustics Adagio DAC Digital Preamplifier Review
For this review I am working with Elite Audio UK who are the UK distributor and exclusive retailer for Metrum Acoustics products please contact them for more details.
A High End R2R DAC with more
I have looked at a lot of DACs in the last few years, based around different technologies and designs and I can say straight away I haven’t had sound quality like this in my listening room for some time.
Metrum Acoustics are a Netherlands based HiFi manufacturer with an interesting portfolio of products which now has become a little more interesting still. The Adagio is one of two flagship products that are very similar, the Adagio is essentially a Pavanne which is Metrums flagship DAC an FPGA corrected non oversampling R2R resistor ladder DAC. The Adagio is exactly the same DAC as the Pavanne but it differs by having a built in preamplifier where Metrum have been clever to take the volume control straight from the DAC chips to keep the sound quality from reducing by adding the volume control circuit.
This is interesting because it forces Audiophiles to make a tough choice, do you need a preamplifier built into your DAC or will it be useful at some point bearing in mind there are no analogue inputs only digital so you cannot connect a turntable for example?
The DAC only Pavanne costs £4799 + £99 if you would like an I2S board fitted. The DAC with Preamplifier Adagio costs £5299 + £99 again for the I2S board. You can look at this in a few ways you can get a digital source preamplifier for essentially £500 and that’s one less box to worry about and buy. Or you can save £500 which is not in inconsequential sum of money if you don’t need the preamplifier, you can just buy the Pavanne.
Making Big Decisions
Now I think comes the even more important decision for audiophiles Metrum DAC’s are based around their Transient R2R chip technology and a couple of months ago I reviewed their mid tier Onyx DAC and the Onyx uses four Transient DAC chip modules running in parallel with two for each of the left and right channels with a single toroidal transformer. The Onyx costs £2399 and it’s a very good sounding DAC as you can see from my review.
Looking inside of the Adagio you can see it uses eight transient DAC chips so four for each left and right channels on two separated circuit boards, three toroidal transformers and more so yes the Pavanne and Adagio cost more than double that of the Onyx but you are getting almost double the component parts.
There is No school like the Old School
The Adagio does feel quite old fashioned to me, its large and heavy and styled rugged a world away from a lot of modern DAC designs. Even the big slab of glass on the top that reminds me of the Meridian 500 series components from back in the day that everyone loved including me and I don’t say old fashioned critically its just something that I noticed, that feeling that you get. The buttons and how clunky they are and the mechanical volume control that physically moves with the remote control and even its resistance when you turn it by hands feels old fashioned but that does fill you with that old fashioned build quality confidence.
One thing I am not keen on and this is a minor criticism when you change the volume with the remote I think all the DAC LED’s illuminate including some around the volume control. I think it would be cooler if just the LED’s around the volume control illuminated.
The big question for Audiophiles is do you want Transient DAC2 modules installed in the Adagio or the new Transient DAC3 modules instead. This is not necessarily a decision you need to make straight away, at the time of writing this review as the Adagio is still available to buy the DAC2 chips in it and you can upgrade the chips at home later but naturally you might want to go for the latest and greatest straight away but that does increase the price. The DAC only Pavanne with the Transient 3 modules costs £5999 and the Adagio with the Transient 3 chips costs £6499
To do the upgrade yourself eight chips are required that are sold individually for £239 each, its therefore an upgrade cost of £1912 or a £700 saving to buy the latest and greatest new. The chips are sold separately because you can upgrade other Metrum DACs and each needs a different number. But is it worth it the upgrade are the DAC3 chips £1200 or £2k give or take better than the DAC2 considering that in real world terms that’s essentially almost a whole other Onyx DAC more hold that thought
A quick look at the rear of the Adagio you can see it’s a simple and easy product to use. There are various digital inputs and then single ended and balanced outputs. On the front you press which input you want to use the remote control to cycle through them. The remote is all metal and nice enough but its very small and easily lost down the side of the sofa so watch out for that.
Before we talk about sound quality I want to quickly mention something that might catch out a lot of new Adagio owners, when you first turn it on you will get no sound and will start scratching your head wondering what you did wrong or broke in the process. When you power the Adagio on from no electricity it comes on muted and you need to adjust the volume with the remote control to unmute it. This is listed in the instruction manual written in red but who ever looks at them, maybe this heads up might save you a few important tufts of hair.
I started the review using the Adagio with the Transient DAC 2 modules firstly solely as a DAC and then later as a DAC and preamplifier. Interestingly Metrum sum up the sound of the Adagio as a DAC perfectly on their website with the phrase
“more weight, body and tonal richness; A more natural sense of the space in the recording. Or to put it more plainly, it fleshes out your music more”
That is the first thing you notice, all of a sudden the speakers you were listening to that felt very much like a subwoofer would help them all of sudden don’t sound like they need one nearly as much. There is that much difference in the fullness of sound the Adagio has. Its not only the bass that changes all of a sudden vocals that didn’t sound as full and sultry as you might want now sound deep, rich and very tonally satisfying. The overall sound of the system is more grand, more solid more immersive and it pulls you in for a deeper listen. This kind of sound character can be very addictive so watch that and I think the Adagio will make quite a few other lesser expensive R2R DAC’s sound a bit wimpy by comparison.
At the same time transients are delivered a little softer and quite a bit smoother than I expected especially after spending some time with the Onyx which as a DAC sounded like a middle ground between an R2R DAC and a chip DAC because it was smooth and musical but not too smooth it still had some sharper bite to it. I assumed the Adagio would be like this but its not, its a much smoother sounding DAC overall you might say its a little bit of an old fashioned kind of sound. I think this could divide Audiophiles opinion probably based on their system and music preferences because the big full saturated sound is a definite win and a sign of a higher end DAC in my opinion but some Audiophiles might miss the sharper accuracy type sound of some competitors. I found myself missing it a little hence the reason I am mentioning it.
Using the Adagio as a DAC and preamplifier into the excellent Electrompaniet AW250R stereo power amplifier seemed to improve the clarity of the sound by a small amount which filled me with confidence Metrum have done a very good job with the preamplification circuit and nothing was lost the big sound now got even bigger with this amplifiers big power and grand scale of sound. I also tweaked a few things in my system to try and eek out a little bit more clarity and overall I was very satisfied with the Adagios sound but I definitely still craved a touch more clarity to cut through this big rich sound.
That’s when I installed the Transient DAC3 modules and the process took me about 10 minutes, it really is easy process of removing a few screws, removing the DAC2 chips by gently pulling them out. You repeat the process in reverse to install the new DAC3 chips paying attention to their orientation as they are orientated upside down or the right way up maybe compared to the DAC 2 chips, you simply just line up the white dots.
The included instructions from Metrum say the new DAC 3 chips can take up to a month to fully optimise their sound quality, I didn’t have that long but I let the Adagio play solidly for about 48 hours before I did any critical listening.
I started where I left off using the Adagio as a DAC & preamplifier into the Electrompaniet AW250R power amp and I was really loving what I was hearing, the tonality and fullness of sound was still there but overall the sound was most composed, more precise and organised, there was better timing and music was more engaging and enjoyable to listen to as a result. This combination with the Audio Physic Avanti 35 speakers was sounding fantastic and I could have happily lived with this setup and pretty much called it a day. Music still had a softer and more rounded transient delivery than I am used to but I wasn’t craving more resolution any more I could just sit and listen to the music for what it is, I was being pulled deeper into it and the big bass I was loving was now even more well pronounced.
Then I went back to how I started using the Adagio purely as a DAC with a different integrated amplifier and I could hear where the DAC3 chips had again improved the clarity and timing but the system as a whole was not clicking on the same level, it was a noticeable step down in scale and other things
There is a few things to take from this firstly the Electrocompaniet AW250R is a great amplifier that pairs amazingly well with the Adagio and Avanti 35 speakers. The DAC3 are a no brainer upgrade overall over the DAC2, however how much benefit you will get from this upgrade might be affected by other factors such as your amplifier quality. While an amplifier upgrade might cost you a lot more than doing the DAC upgrade, it might make sense to do that first depending on where you are with your system and sound.
The Adagio is a very interesting DAC & Preamplifier that will be brilliant for a lot of audiophiles as it can sound really impressive with this big full saturated tonally rich totally engrossing and relaxing to listen to sound and with the right power amplifier and obviously speakers its a very easy sound to love and become addicted to. I think the omission of some analogue inputs is a shame as it rules the Adagio out for turntable users which means its more suited to modern HiFi users that in 2021 probably stream 99% of their music from the cloud, yet its also a little old fashioned feeling as a product and that is a kind of paradox when you think about it. But for me I have one music source I would happily use the Adagio as a DAC and Preamplifier and be very happy in doing so.
An Essential Audition Award is granted in recognition of a products high performance but with a certain uniqueness that makes auditioning even more essential.
For the full Specification of the Metrum Acoustics Adagio
See the website here