Monday, 6 July 2015

ProJect MaiA Review – the shrunken integrated amp / DAC



I like to listen to music most of the time, sometimes its in the background, sometimes it makes a car journey more tolerable, sometimes I’m in the audience and sometimes I sit in front of the main hifi and just focus on listening.  Listening to the artists’ works, sometimes carried away, sometimes confused, sometimes just enjoying the flow, sometimes trying to “get” the message in the lyrics.

And sometimes, I’m away from home (quite frequently, actually).  When travelling by train or plane, I use an iPod or FiiO X3 and earbuds or phones and occasionally I have room in my suitcase for a Logitech Purefi Anywhere 2 for the hotel room.

But when travelling by car, I can take something a little more substantial to the hotel room, and have a large camera case that currently contains a pair of tiny but well made Tangent Evo speakers (no relationship to Evolution Audio, the dealer mentioned in this thread), a Trends TA 10.1 integrated t-amp and the necessary speaker and interconnects to fit to an old-style 30-pin 160GB iPod Classic or anything with a 3.5mm output (such as the FiiO or a phone).  I also carry a work laptop, sometimes used for iPlayer / other catch up services, but not currently for music.  It’s a decent listen and I prefer to listen to music through speakers rather than being tied to a device or location by a device and headphone cables.  Last thing at night, some chill tunes on a 30 minute timer on the iPod often help me get off to sleep in a strange location / room – speakers are far better for this than the need to take off headphones as I drop off to sleep.

Now that the laptop and the phone are part of the entertainment package, something with better connectivity would be useful.  In steps a HiFi Wigwam post from Evolution Audio announcing the Pro-Ject MaiA integrated amp, with analogue, digital (up to 24bit/192kHz), Bluetooth and phono (turntable) inputs.  It probably makes the toast too.  Given that Evo Audio offer a 10 day sale or return service, I thought I’d give it a go.
Now the Trends TA10.1 amp has done very well for me in this system for probably around 5 or 6 years.  Its small, runs cool, its light and has been very robust.  In the camera bag it nestles quite well wrapped in a soft wool scarf, nicely wedged between the speakers – keeping everything tightly packed but not scratching each other.  It does a decent enough job too – way better than most high street “midi” or “mini” systems.  Limitations?  Well, power, but that doesn’t matter in an hotel room when volume is necessarily limited.  Inputs? Yep – there’s only one pair of line level RCA sockets.  Remote control?  Nope.


Unboxing

Evo Audio had shipped the Pro-Ject box, wrapped in a couple of layers of bubble wrap, inside another cardboard box, along with the receipt and an Evo Audio branded pen.  Delivered in reasonable time, it even managed to survive the Hermes courier system undamaged.  Opening the Pro-Ject box revealed the amp, in a plastic bag, contained by “waffle” sponge padding on all 6 sides.  The mains cable, PSU with captive DC output lead and remote control were in a separate sub-box, with no padding around these components.  There is an 8 page instruction leaflet that’s low on content and quality, but is sufficient to get you up and running.  Clearly, the budget needed some corners to be cut, but this is a good place to do so.  The amp itself is very slim (only about 35mm high), around 200mm deep and 210mm wide,  It feels substantial though – the folded steel case and flat alu front panel are decent quality and its very well screwed together.  It gives a good first impression.  Four small rubber feet protect surfaces and help to keep the amp steady on that surface.

Around the back, there are a pair of phono sockets and a binding post for a turntable (yep, there’s and RIAA phono stage crammed in there), 2x pairs of phono sockets for line level inputs, 1x 3.5mm line level input, 1x coax RCA digital input, 2x optical digital inputs and a USB socket (for a PC, rather than an iPod or similar).  Outputs are volume controlled line level 3.5mm, and a pair of small combined binding posts and 4mm banana sockets (which are crammed close together at one end of the panel).  There’s an input for connecting the PSU’s DC cable too.  A lot going on, but clearly labelled, straight forward etc.  I used plastic shrouded 4mm bananas for speaker connections – it’s what I had already, but Paul from Evo advised this type of connection as metal bananas and bare wires are a bit risky with such closely packed connectors.  Generally, those who hoped to use in-your-face mega chunky interconnects / RCAs will be a bit disappointed, and needing to shell out for something more practical.  Bluetooth pairing was straightforward with my Android Samsung phone (Lollipop OS version).

image from ProJect Audio
image from custom-cable.co.uk


Control

Across the front there is a soft touch power on/off (tiny blue LED indicator), headphone socket, rotary volume control and a row of tiny blue LEDs indicating which source is selected – these are flanked left and right by cursor keys that move the source selection across the row of options.  Clear, simple.  The credit card sized remote gives volume control, source selection, power on/off and the ability to activate Bluetooth pairing.  Its responsive enough, but is necessarily light in weight and functional rather than a pleasure to use.  The main rotary volume control on the amp itself is a little stiff (maybe it will loosen slightly with use – hopefully not too much), but is very smooth and not so stiff that it causes the box to move on a desk.

System

For my first try with the amp (it was on 10 days sale or return remember), I used the following equipment which seems appropriate to the type of use I will put the amp to, and perhaps others will too:


  • FiiO X3 (internal DAC line out and digital coax output)
  • £8 3.5mm to 2x phono interconnect from Amazon (decent build quality, nice tight gold plated connections)
  • 99.99 OFC copper pretty standard speaker cables from Maplin – roughly 42 strand and fitted with soldered on “Shark” 4mm gold plated banana plugs
  • Tangent Evo bookshelf speakers (the ones I would intend to use the amp with) and Mission 773e floorstanders (to better expose differences between line and digital inputs)
  • Music included “Tears Run Dry” by Malia and Boris Blank; “Gaia” by James Taylor; “King” by Tuung; “Rise” by Samantha James; “Doors Unlocked and Open” by Death Cab For Cutie

Listening

I left the amp playing to itself at low volume for about 2 hours – using the FiiO line out and the Evos, just to make sure it was at least warmed through, if not exactly “burnt in”, if that’s necessary at all – its not something I’ve tested so far and won’t be bothering as it seems a bit of an overkill for this kind of product.

Kicking off with the TA10.1 amp, I reminded myself of its capabilities.  Its fast, a touch on the bright side (but not excessively so), and its best listened to at medium volumes – it gets harsh quite quickly as the volume is cranked up, but is a rather dull affair at the lower volume levels.  So about right for the job really, and good value at £110 about 5 years ago.  It has been reviewed in some quarters as a “giant killer” and paired with very exotic speakers on some web sites.  It is astonishingly good for its size and price, but that’s all.  A healthy NAD 3120 from the 1980s shows it a clean pair of heels in terms of musical enjoyment and information extraction, if not exactly neutrality.  Lets just say the TA is great for what it is and is very neutral (with the exception of that slight uplift in the higher frequencies).  But its also rather “grey” to listen to – it doesn’t have much verve or life to it.

Swapping over to the MaiA and it was initially difficult to try and get a perceptually similar volume level.  And that’s because it has a greater perceived (or real, who knows?) dynamic range – the quieter bits are that much quieter than the Trends, but equally, the louder bits are that much louder too.  It better shows through the subtleties the artist has put into the emphasis or de-emphasis of a phrase.  Nice.  So a quick switch back and forth helps to work out where to position each volume control to get as close as I could to something like equality.  Next thing to notice is what appears to be a flatter response – its easy to note that it has less emphasis at the top end, but it is still a touch bright.  Its showing the splashy nature of the FiiO’s DAC well too – this is something I noted when working out which system to go with at Scalford this year – the FiiO’s top end is pretty unruly on the internal DAC.

The MaiA manages somewhat better separation of instruments too – its not epically etching them out, but they are easier to distinguish, as is the location in the image and the stability of that image.  A welcome improvement over the TA.  What of the bass – well, there seems to be a little more of that with the Pro-Ject, and its worth having with the tiny little Tangent speakers.  Music bounces along with a reasonable sense of pace and rhythm.  Its not the last word in refinement, but you can tell the intention is to provide a bit of fun with the music.

DAC

What of the internal DAC?  Well, in this appraisal, I only had the FiiO to hand to compare, but that’s OK, because that’s what I’ll be mostly listening to.  Comparing the FiiO’s internal DAC and line out to the MaiA’s internal DAC again gave some volume control setting challenges.  I didn’t use any equipment to sort this, just a number of back to back comparisons to get a feel for where the control needed to be set.  This comparison did reveal one thing very quickly indeed – the MaiA has a much better controlled and smoother sounding DAC in comparison with the X3.  But it doesn’t image or separate the instruments any better, and has a tendency to suppress female vocals a touch.  Rhythm and pace are still good, with bass perhaps a touch more fulsome than with the X3.  I think it’s a bit swings and roundabouts really, but with the Tangent Evos being a lightweight sounding speaker, the better controlled top end and weightier bottom notes won out for me.  You might come to a different conclusion, so it’s a preferences thing rather than anything clear cut.
Proper Speakers

And what of the performance with the Mission 773e?  These were used at Scalford to reasonably good effect in 2014 and whilst not the last word in lower end speaker technology, they’re effective and enjoyable to listen to.  Normally they are fed by an SBT / MF V-DAC1 / MF V-PSU2 and a Cyrus 6 integrated amp when they’re pretty fast, boogie well and deliver a good performance.  On the MaiA, however, it was quickly noted that all wasn’t what it could be.  That fuller lower end, which worked so well when working with the little Tangents, became somewhat unruly, fat and a bit woolly.  Not great.  The effect was the same with the FiiO’s DAC back in action – slightly less noticeable, but still not really something I’d want to spend a long time listening to.  And the splashiness was back too.

£400

So all this tech and connectivity, squeezed into a small box comes at a very reasonable price.  It would be good to compare this amp with a NAD D3020, and that might be on the agenda at some point in the future.  It fits my use case for it very well, brings a useful increase in sound quality and a massive step up in connectivity and usability.  When the 10 day trial is over, it won’t be going back to the helpful team at Evolution Audio – it already has its place in the camera bag.

So to use this in a kitchen / bedroom / study or as a semi-portable system with a small set of (not too good at lots of bass) budget bookshelf speakers, I would say this amp is a success.  For me, that’s where it does a great job, just don’t expect it to cope as a main system centre piece with a pair of full range speakers.

One final thought – if all that modern connectivity, compact size and sensible pricing gets it into a good number of student bedsits, perhaps a TT connected to some of them, it might well be the way to generate a new set of audio enthusiasts.  Lets just hope they don’t get underwhelmed and miss out on the capabilities of this amp by feeding it a load of compressed MP3 junk data!

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