Musician Audio Aquarius Flagship DAC REVIEW
This is a review summary written by Terry Ellis February 2022
For the full review please see my YouTube video review linked here
A Flagship DAC
It was only a few years ago that the DAC market felt a very limited place, on my radar there were units built into amplifiers and stand alone units from Chord Electronics available in the UK at my budget anyway. Today in 2022 Audiophiles are spoilt for good DAC choice, in fact some are so stand out for their performance for very reasonable money so when a DAC is released with a premium price tag such as with the Musician Audio Aquarius it needs to be exceptional to justify its cost when there are so many big bang for buck competitor offerings. I had very high expectations coming into this review knowing the Aquarius is Musicians current flagship DAC offering and following my two good previous experiences with their significantly more affordable Draco and Pegasus DAC’s. There is a very big step up in price to the Aquarius which costs $3199 and over $2000 more than the very good Pegasus, is it exceptional enough to justify the extra.
A good spec, I think.
Musician Audio don’t publish lots product information on their website, in fact I find their DAC’s hard to research, fully understand and then explain the technical differences between the models. I think that is partly because of the similarities between them and because some of the differences are hidden in plain sight. One stand out specification with the Aquarius is the use of 0.005% precision resistors, there is no mention of this with the Pegasus and Draco. It also stands out compared to the Denafrips Pontus II DAC I had here for review at the same time, this DAC has 0.01% resistors and costs a lot less $1800 so it seems there is a significant price increase for the extra precision resistors which is not surprising given the number of resistors used in an R2R DAC.
I think you can also hear the benefit of the more precise resistors as the Aquarius sounds exactly that, precise, accurate, clean and clear with excellent timing. It delivers music with a very open, see-through deep sound stage, with precisely organised and defined layering from left to right and front to back making it easy to track all the musical elements even in more complex music. The HiFi system I was fortunate to be using for this review really helped with being able to hear and appreciate this, the TAD CE1 speakers (supported by a pair of REL S5/10 subwoofers) and Kinki Studio EX M1+ integrated amplifier are both neutral in sound signature and transparent, especially the TAD. Listening to music through the Aquarius sounds just like that, it sounds neutral and like you are listening through the system to the sound, a very 3-dimensional sound at that, always very impressive.
There is good energy and drive to the music too, the Aquarius is not a mellow sounding DAC like the Pegasus, its presentation is sharp, snappy and very immediate and the timing is really very good. Vocals are delivered cleanly with a nice edge definition that is a touch pleasingly rounded and they occupy the centre of the sound stage with great focus and poise always commanding your attention when called for.
If I had one complaint with the Aquarius sound it would be with the bass and I have to be careful because the Aquarius bass is tight, tuneful, articulate and very good in a lot of ways except I found it to sound leaner than I am used to. Not deep bass lean, there is loads of pleasing deep bass, I am referring to the upper bass, the presence bass, the impact bass is not as strong or bold as I am used to. Comparing to the Denafrips Pontus II and Chord Hugo TT 2 showed me this because both of those DACs presented music with the bolder character I expected but its not a huge night and day difference but it is a noticeable one in an A/B comparison. I actually think this difference in sound is likely intentional as part of the Aquarius intended sound profile, the leaner upper bass region does allow for the very open sound stage to be present in a lot of music so for some audiophiles this sonic trait will likely be a positive especially if their system is a little heavy weight or thinking sounding already. There is also a part of me thinking the leaner more open transparent sound is likely a more “accurate” sound but my personal preference is always for a bit more bass rather than less.
Changing the sound
It is possible to change the sound profile of the Aquarius by changing the digital filter to either Slow or Sharp and this is easy to do using the front buttons and only takes a second. I can see a lot of audiophiles preferring the slow option because there is more solidity to the music presentation, its a bit thicker so vocals do sound more bold as does the bass some, however for me it was at the expense of some of the DAC’s main strengths and that is clarity and transparency. Slow seems to put something between me the listener and the music so I preferred sharp for the most clear sound.
You can also change the sound by choosing to disable the DAC’s oversampling and again you get a thicker, bolder sound its also more lively and immediate as a positive but edgy and a little shouty as a negative so I can see most audiophiles preferring the oversampling but its nice to have the choice for both of these. Interestingly the oversampling didn’t seem to soften the sound too much as I experienced with the Pegasus so it seems like a more transparent oversample so more positives and less negatives which is great.
One connection missing.
I have always been impressed with the Musician products for their connections quality and overall build quality in the main. Its nice to see Furutech IEC power sockets and Neutrik balanced connections being used. The Aquarius feels well made and nice and solid with a good amount of weight and plugging in and out different cables lot of times all the connections felt solid and reassuring. Visually its very similar to the Pegasus, slim line in profile but much wider and possibly deeper too.
I like the choice of digital input connections that are offered here, especially two i2S inputs, this could be really useful to some audiophiles however I would prefer to see a BNC digital coaxial input on a DAC at this price level rather than a RCA based one. However from my testing the i2s input is the best one to use for sound quality and file support and I linked from the Singxer SU6 as the digital bridge between the Aquarius and my music server.
I enjoyed my time with the Aquarius, it was great to spend time listening to a HiFi system with this type of clarity and “see through” onto the music type of sound stage. I was very impressed with the always open sounding music delivery but did find myself missing some bass presence in some music, but not all of it.
The Aquarius is a very serious amount of money and I don’t think will be for every HiFi system, I think audiophiles who struggle with their system sounding too lean could prefer an alternative DAC that would enlarge and embolden their sound more but for other audiophiles who’s system and room maybe have a strong overly bold character already well then the Aquarius could be an excellent DAC for that system.
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 Musician Audio Aquarius DAC
See the website here