The Matrix mini-i 3 Pro: a great DAC...
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Hi all! Welcome back to The Neighborhood! Today we’re taking a look at the Matrix Audio mini-i Pro 3; in for review thanks to Apos Audio! I have an affiliate link with Apos, so if you’re thinking about picking up a mini-I Pro 3 or anything else that they sell, try to make sure to use my affiliate link before you do so, it really helps the channel with all tis numerous operating costs, and helps me to deliver quality reviews like this to you. Alternatively, you can support the channel fiscally on Patreon. There’s only 1 tier for a $1.50 a month, and it gets you access to the scripts for these reviews first! But, hey I really appreciate all my subscribers, so thank you everyone for all your support! Anyways… back to the mini-I Pro 3… Is it worth its rather large price tag at just over $1000? Let’s get InToit!
So, the mini-I Pro 3 by Matrix Audio is an expensive device, but in its defense, its built pretty well, and has a lot of thoughtful features in consideration of the user who would make a purchase such as this. First off, its constructed of solid metal chassis, that does get somewhat warm to the touch with extended use. At 9 inches wide, 2 inches heigh, and 7-and-a-half inches deep, its not he largest box, but they certainly included a number of inputs and outputs.
Input-wise, there is coaxial, optical, IIS-LVDS, USB-C, Bluetooth, ethernet, and it has Wi-Fi capability. The latter two of which are important when using the mini as a streamer; such as with Roon, as the mini is Roon capable and Roon Certified. There’s also an unbalanced RCA input for the device if you wish to by-pass the DAC.
Output-wise, there’s an unbalanced RCA and a balanced, dual 3-pin XLR output from the back of the device, and a 4.4mm and 3.5mm headphone output from the front of the device. The front of the device also has a black, aluminum volume, which appears to be digitally stepped, but the star of the show is 3.3’’, 24-bit, color LCD display; which displays device settings, track information, and even an image of the album. The screen on the front was a joy to use, and it may sound somewhat simple, but it actually brought a smile to my face to see the album covers pop up on my favorite tracks. While I wasn’t in love with the touch and feel of the volume wheel, unlike the Burson Playmate 2 that I also recently reviewed, one can bypass the pre-amp on this unit using the “i” button on the back of the unit to access an additional menu and toggle the “Lineout Mode” between fixed and variable. The “I” button is awkwardly placed, and it would have been nice to be able to access its menu with the remote, but unfortunately this was not possible.
Speaking of which, the unit also comes with a remote, which lets you power on the device or send it to standby, toggle between the inputs, raise, lower, or mute the volume, or toggle between the DAC’s various equalization filters. Unfortunately, the range of the remote is rather limited (about 10 feet or so), and there seems to be no way to turn one of the filters off, or at least no way that I could discover, as I could only select between them. I’m not sure if this is a function of the Matrix implementation or the ES9038Q2M chipset that this DAC utilizes? Speaking of the chipset, it’s capable of DSD 512, PCM 768kHz, and 24 bits over USB and 32 bits over IIS LVDS.
So, the sound… The sound of this thing was actually somewhat variable- sounding surprisingly different between its headphone amp and its DAC output. And let me go ahead and say to start with that the DAC in this thing performed solidly as a source in most cases; supplying a great, analog sounding signal and showing excellent synergy with a variety of headphone and speaker amps alike. But, while I enjoyed the general performance of the mini’s DAC portion of this device most universally, the mini’s headphone amp was not as consistently pleasing in conjunction with all of the headphones I tested. So, let’s start by talking about the sound of the of the headphone amp first, and then circle back to talk a bit more about the DAC’s output performance itself by focusing on how it sounded with a variety of speakers.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. In most cases, I found the headphone output to underperform for the price of this piece. In a number of cases, there was a less-than-desirable glare, a certain, brittle thinness, and mild forwardness and harshness; especially in the upper midrange specifically. Dynamic headphones like the HD6XX and the HD560s from Sennheiser accentuated these short-comings. Headphones like the Sennheiser 58X and Beyerdynamic DT 177X GO were better, but somewhat muddy on the low-end and grainy throughout. Other headphones, like the HIFIMAN HE4XX and E-MU Teaks felt flat, sterile, and uncharacteristically unemotional. There was also not enough power to handle my 600 Ohm DT 880 Special Editions, as these came across as muted, thin, and ghostlike.
One way to frame the unit’s dichotomy would be to say that the headphone amp sounded most like other Saber chips I have heard (with tendency towards some glare, here or there, and an overly forward character at times), while the DAC output generally did not sound that way (sounding politely rounded and analog in contrast). For example, in testing the Meze Empyrean (with either headphone output), the sound wasn’t bad per say, but it was pretty lackluster compared to what these cans are capable of. Yet, in using the mini-i 3 Pro as a pure balanced line-out to the THX AA 789 to power the very same headphones, they became much more alive and engaging. But the 789 was a pretty great match for the mini’s presentation in general.
Still, other cans sounded pretty good off the internal amp itself, such as the HIFIMAN Deva, the Mr. Speakers Ether CX, the Dan Clark Audio Aeon Open X, and even the notoriously hard to drive Argons. But, in the cases of all these planar magnetics the headphone amp was driven to the top-end of its capacity, even in balanced operation- being pushed to around -15db or even closer towards a top output of 00dB. Even the notoriously easy-to-drive E-MU Teak had to be driven to around -30dB in single-ended operation to produce sufficient sound.
Still, I did adore the performance of the Matrix with the HIFIMAN Ananda. The Ananda has a slight early mid-range reduction, which the Saber in the mini-i 3 Pro seemed to compensate for; quite well in fact. The Ananda was also easily driven off the 4.4mm output in balanced operation, and was a good tonal match for the Matrix in that it smoothed over a number of its deficiencies.
To summarize its performance with headphones, specifically as an all-in-one amplifier, it struggled with dynamics more so than it did planars, but seemed to lack power and headroom in general- producing varied levels of synergy with a variety of devices; ranging from poor to mediocre, from lackluster to good enough; but still often lacked a special, defining character as a headphone amplifier overall. So I wouldn’t expect this to be a “one stop shop” for headphones at least.
On the other hand, it did perform more consistently with In-Ear Monitors, as they were seemingly less influenced by confounds from the amplifier section of the Matrix. For instance, although I did get some mild background noise (from both the balanced and unbalanced outputs with more sensitive IEMs), such as the ZSX and the new TinHIFI T5; this noise was not observable when music was playing, and each of these earphones sounded great on the Matrix, in the end. For example, the bass of the T5 is where it excels with over its predecessors, and the mini-i 3 Pro delivered one of the best low-end thumps with the T5 that I have heard yet in its testing. Interestingly, the T5 tends to be a bit more forward in certain areas of its presentation on most sources that I have considered thus far, but, uniquely, the presentation with the mini-i 3 Pro was nice and even in comparison to these other sources. The new KBEAR Neon, sounded quite full and uniform with the Matrix as well, and was well-distributed throughout its frequency response too, even for a single BA.
I’m also lucky enough to have two protypes for Blon’s upcoming IEM, the Prometheus, into the channel for review as well. The black variant of this IEM is likely the most detailed and technically proficient IEM that Blon has produced to date, so I hope that they go with version that version for mass distribution. Nevertheless, it sounded phenomenal when ran off the mini-i 3 Pro- yielding excellent results for detailing, tonality, and peripheral imaging. So, despite not having a 3.5mm or 2.5mm output to make IEM use easier, I did find this Matrix to be more reliable with IEM use than with headphones.
With speakers, the presentation was slightly airy, mildly dry, moderately cool, and with a delicately soft, rounded edge to its notes. Furthermore, note weight was somewhat lean, but note separation was well-defined. To my ears, the overall presentation almost had a DSD flavor to it. The best general description that I could come up with for the sound of the Matrix mini-i 3 Pro would be “polite, but analog.” Across speakers tested, the low-end presentation was rather tight, well-controlled, and quick to resolve. Global transients seemed to resolve almost too quickly, and this was most notable in the lowest regions of the frequency response. For example, sub-bass presentation was sufficient in terms of extension, but the sub-bass in general was less forward, and seemed to shore itself up rather hurriedly. Nevertheless, the DAC output itself was soothing to the ear, pleasant overall, and the farthest thing from harsh. In the course of my testing, I did notice that the balanced output was ever-so-slightly more resolving and detailed in contrast the unbalanced output, but the unbalanced output at least kept up with other single-ended DACs that I had in for comparison, such as the iDSD Signature and the Burson Playmate 2.
I first test the mini in my main 2 channel set-up using it as the balanced DAC and Preamp feeding a Gold Note PA-10 in low dampening mode hooked up to a set of Gershman Acoustics Studio II Bookshelves. Next the mini spent some time in my home theater set-up as an unbalanced line out with my set of vintage Theil CS1.2 tower speakers driven in stereo by my Onkyo TX-RZ900 assisted by a HSU VTF-2 MK5 and Definitive Technology SuperCube I. And lastly, I took a seat with the mini at my desk in an open, nearfield listening environment with a very special set of Cessaro Mini Wagners, provided to the channel by Gestalt Audio Design, assisted by a SuperCube II, and amplified by a PS Audio Sprout 100.
With my Gershman Acoustics the presentation was notably tight, but also well rounded and enjoyable for most music. If anything was lacking, it was some lower sub-bass distribution, which I referenced earlier and was consistent across all my testing of the mini-i 3 Pro globally. Even with the assistance of my HSU and Def Tech Super Cube subwoofers with my Theils the low-end was notably withdrawn somewhat from what I’ve come to expect in that system. The Theils also revealed some mild thinness to note weights with the Matrix. Still the general presentation was otherwise proper and soothing to my ears, like a perfectly stiffened whipped cream.
Yet, the Matrix surprised me the most in nearfield use with the Cessar Mini Wagners at my desk. Without giving too much away about these Cessaros (as I have yet to give them a full review themselves), let’s just say the Mini Wagners have a healthy dose of treble, and initially I half expected the mini-i 3 Pro might be a bit too thin in its distribution of sound or, perhaps, overly accentuate an already airy speaker; but, in the end, it actually took to the Mini Wagners quite well. The mildly restricted top-end of the Matrix impacted the horn of the Mini Wagners just enough to ensure the Matrix’s polite presentation, and the speedy resolve of the low-end of the Matrix was less noticeable in nearfield environment. Rather than being overly airy, the Mini Wagners took on a pleasant raspy quality, which I especially enjoyed with vocals. The mid-hump from the Matrix’s Saber chip also pushed forward the midrange presentation with this speaker just enough to enhance blending in an otherwise lively speaker.
So, in summary, the Matrix mini-i 3 Pro DAC/Amp combination unit is generally a better DAC than it is an amp, at least where headphones are concerned. While the headphone amp component did work well with most IEMs and some headphones, it could not be universally applied to produce great sound in my testing across the board. It not only lacked power (even in balanced operation), but was also rather “picky” with the headphones that I used to evaluate it with. For example, it did not drive the Meze Empyrean well without assistance from the THX AA 789, but was a synergistic match for the HIFIMAN Ananda. It was also a good match with the Cessaro Mini Wagner Speakers at my desk in a nearfield listening environment, and was surprisingly well-controlled with this speaker. On one hand, this Matrix appears to be made for nearfield listening- the screen is too small to be viewed with enjoyment from a distance, the range of the remote was rather limited, and its overly tidy transient reproduction showed less of an influence in a nearfield environment. On the other hand, I’d be hard pressed to think of a better pure DAC for the Matrix’s price, especially in balanced operation, as with balanced operation this thing, took it a step beyond it’s single-ended performance. The mini isn’t as well extended in either direction, nor is its transient reproduction as natural sounding as a RME ADI-2, but it is also more polite and universally pleasing across setups in my experience between the two DACs; producing a somewhat different sound, but also a nice analog feel. Additionally, the ADI-2 also does not come with all the additional functionality and versatility that this thing possesses, such as ethernet and other streaming capabilities, Roon certification, an LCD display, a balanced headphone output, MQA decoding, and other features that the Matrix mini-i Pro incorporates, which are sure to be attractive to the right buyer. So, while the headphone amp component of the Matrix may not justify its price, it’s DAC and streamer functionality surely does. The overall sound is unmistakably Saber, but also uniquely analog, especially as a pure DAC. It is slightly airy, with a speedy transient reproduction, and a polite and pleasing presentation overall, which is sure to appeal to many as a value at its price-point, given not only its sound, but also its versatility.
*Matrix Provided by Apos Audio (affiliate link)https://apos.audio/?sca_ref=654128.h9mNwPZr9M:
*Gold Note PA-10, DS-10, and PSU-10 EVO Power Supply available at: https://gestalt.audio/
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