MyST 1866 Wireless DAC and headphone amp for your iPhone

Last month, Musica Acoustics had me photograph their new MyST 1866, a portable DAC unit from MyCroft that Dimitri was very excited about. The lad is almost always lost for words about cool new things, so I patted him on the shoulder and took the unit to my office. I shot the thing. I turned it on and off. I listened to it. Then I emailed Dimitri and threatened a review.

A DAC like no other
The MyST 1866 isn’t like any other amp/DAC combo out there. Some of the usual stuff got stuffed in: line output, USB input, and a good headphone out. Today, most portable ‘DAC’ units merely convert USB digital signals to analogue. If you’ve got something smaller than a netbook, or if you have a dedicated DAC like the AlgoRythm Solo or Venturecraft Unit 4.0, you’re stuck.

The 1866 is different. There are NO analogue inputs, so you can’t just connect your iPhone/iPod/iPad LOD and have at it. Instead, the following inputs bristle from the back: USB, coaxial (3,5mm mono or stereo jack), and toslink (optical). Somewhere in the front is an antenna, and get this, a Bluetooth receiver.

Yes, Bluetooth.

It does sound a bit gimmicky, and it probably is, but let me explain it this way: with Bluetooth input, you no longer need cables to connect your iPhone/iPod touch to your amp/DAC. Evidently, the unit I photographed is a prototype. Its edges are rough, its rear case doesn’t fit flush with a USB cable so the thing comes unplugged from a computer with the slightest nudge. I’ve been told this will be fixed. It had better.

Why?

Because this unit is damn fine sounding and unique. If it weren’t for the aluminium, it would look like an excited Twinkie. But the real deal here (honestly) is that you can forgo the cables. Bluetooth isn’t just a gimmick.

I tested this out on the train for many hours. Typically, to enjoy a portable amp and my music, I have to strap my iPhone to an amp with ALO’s rubber bands, or broccoli elastics. It’s not hard, but after 1,5 hours of nudging and old men fondling my bump, it gets hard to keep an amp AND an iPhone up. The MyST 1866 makes things easier because it can stay in the pocket while your iPhone stays in your hand. Headphones, then, plug into the MyST, and you look less the geek, and more ready to defend yourself from concupiscent gaffers.

At least, that is the theory anyway.

Currently, the prototype allows about 20cm of distance between your iPhone and it before its Bluetooth signal gives out. In other words, an 1866 in your pocket will mean that your iPhone will have to stay near your junk, which isn’t comfortable. The problem, it seems, is that the prototype’s antenna isn’t finished. I’ve been told that the new version will have better antenna with a stronger signal. Good.

I don’t have much information apart from that. Spec list is brief: AD1866 16-bit DAC, 24-bit receiver, and some other stuff. Musica Acoustics have this written:

Digital input is received by a 24/192 chip and decoded by the famous AD1866 multi bit DAC. The circuit is laid out in an R2R ladder for the utmost in precision and sound quality. It doesn’t get better than this. This is the world’s first 4-source portable digital-to-analogue-converter to combine optical, coaxial and USB with bluetooth.

I’m no engineer, but countless hours slaving over potential purchases and simple hobby research has led me to the conclusion that R2R ladders can be more accurate in DACs than some other resistor implementations – and I’m all for that. How that pans out in the end, however, isn’t at the DAC’s sole behest.

In actual use
Apart from the short distances with which Bluetooth can be used to connect to a computer, iPhone, iPod touch, or Android device, things are mostly peachy. Of course, that pesky back plate keeps USB from jacking in securely, but if you are at a desk, and actually listening to a pair of headphones, that isn’t a bother. Still, MyST MUST move the back plate back. There is no excuse for USB jacks to fall out.

Coaxial and toslink connections work flawlessly. Selecting any input source is easy: just click the button on the front panel. A light will flash under the input source until connected. The only other controls are volume pot and the stubby on/off switch.

Devices I’ve used with it are:

  • MacBook Pro
  • iPhone 4/s (bluetooth)
  • iPod touch 4G (bluetooth)
  • iPad 1G (bluetooth)
  • iPhone and AlgoRythm SOLO (via coaxial RCA to 3,5mm)
  • Colorfly C4 Pro (via coaxial RCA to 3,5mm)
  • iBasso DX100 (via coaxial 3,5mm to 3,5mm)
With the exception of some strange phase errors on the Colorfly C4, and the aforementioned bluetooth antenna difficulties, each input worked flawlessly. Flawlessly. I’ve never used such a compact device that does everything. I was impressed from first listen and still am impressed. Unfortunately, I can confirm that the iPad will NOT work with the 1866 if used via camera connection kit. The 1866 uses too much voltage. If you are keen to use it in USB mode with your iPad, you will need either an external battery-powered USB hub, or a mains-powered USB hub. That, or spring opt for Bluetooth or spring for an AlgoRythm SOLO.
Many of you may wonder about the choice of 3,5mm mono/stereo jack to carry the coaxial signal. Don’t. It’s great. If you’re sick of expensive aftermarket cables, coax may be your ticket for small and relatively inexpensive ICs. You can even use an analogue cable if you want. Yup, that 3,5mm you’re using to connect your Fiio to your Cowon player will work. Some cables will work better than others, of course, and a real coaxial cable will be better than a typical 3,5mm stereo cable, but the difference isn’t as night and day as you’d guess.
I spent 15$ on parts to make my own 3,5mm-3,5mm coax cable for the 1866, but my ALO mini-mini works almost as well. So does my cheapo from Jaben. Go figure.
Battery
USB or not, DAC-laden amps really suck down battery. The 1866 is no different. I reckon my best streak was about 8 hours, but on average, 7 or so was what I managed to get. That’s not bad at all, but it’s not groundbreaking. My SOLO gets about the same battery life, and my DX100 is no better. Using Bluetooth or plugging your iPod/iPhone/iPad into a SOLO will drain the source battery faster, too. It’s just one of those tradeoffs you get with discreet external components. Assessing its worth to you is your job.

Signal quality
Frenchbat of Headfi said it best “the tracking is flawless” (or something like that). The 1866′s internal gain is set low enough that sensitive earphones can be used without turning the volume up too far to achieve balance between left/right channels. There is some volume mismatch between channels, but it is remedied quickly. If you are using Bluetooth input, you can adjust output level from the iPhone to further balance the signal. If you are using the 1866 with a computer or an Apple Airport Express-type device, you can adjust output levels from software. None of my sources allow that luxury via coaxial.

Similarly, the noise floor is rather low. It’s not completely silent, but it’s in line with or below the vast majority of amps out there. For reference, an iPhone 4s has less noise, an ALO The National has more. Suffice it to say that most IEM users, unless they are using extremely sensitive earphones such as the Shure SE530/5, will probably enjoy the relatively silent background of the 1866.

What keen-eared music lovers will discover is a sound that is softer, more relaxing than some DAC units. That may come from the AD1866, which seems to have a low-pass filter applied in its extreme high frequencies. Of course, to really hear its effects, you earphones have to be capable of hitting highs, and your music has to have information in the highs to be rolled off.

The MyST 1866 passed the Frenchbat test, which, I assure you, isn’t chicken soup. In the same day, I saw him tear through another amp that I was keen on, but we found common ground in the Vorzuge amps, though he wasn’t as keen as I am on the ALO The National. Ho hum.

Output impedance
I’ve not tested this yet, and will probably refrain until I have a production model in my hand (if that happens). What I can say is this: if your earphones drop down below 8Ω at any place when playing back music, the MyST will lose some resolution. It’s nothing like what the Graham Slee Voyager suffers, but it may be audible under some circumstances and with certain earphones.

My reference low Ω beast, the Earsonics SM2, did a small number on the MyST 1866′s frequency response, but it is a beast. With the FitEar To Go! 334, you might also hear a difference, that being small reductions in bass, a slight smear in upper mids, and more compression in soundstage versus, say, an iBasso DX100. With an iPhone 4s, the difference is less pronounced.

Moving to the likes of an Audio Technica CK10 or Grado GR8 or similar high Ω earphone and you won’t hear the differences. The 1866 runs those earphones fine. Headphones are almost all equal. I’ve encountered no headphone that isn’t fully driven by the 1866. That said, output voltage isn’t as high as some desktop amps. The National will best it for delivering fidelity at extreme volumes.

The internal amp is obviously geared towards portable headphones and higher Ω earphones, though it sounds great through low Ω earphones as well. If you’re absolutely set to make a stack, the MyST 1866 has a good line out that is entirely separated from the analogue amp stage.

Pricing
When Dimitri asked me to photograph this amp, he was unsure of pricing. I was told it might be around 600$. A few years ago 600$ seemed incredible. Today, many portable units tip the scales around that price. The MyST, which has even more functionality, and evidently is made by hand in an aircraft assembly plant, is considerably more expensive. Dimitri’s webpage shows a pre-order price of 899$ and a full retail price of 999$. Yikes says me.

In Japan, that translates to something like 85.000 yen. Even at that price, the MyST 1866 generated a LOT of interest at the headphone festival. I have a feeling that international portable audiophiles are comparative misers to their Japanese counterparts. Partly this could be because we spend (you, not me) less time on the train, packed in with hundreds of other bodies and grabby old men. Japanese audiophiles spend everything on their portable systems. I’ve seen a number of FitEar To Go! 334 out in the wild. And even an AKG K3003. Both earphones tip the scales at over 1300$. Amazing.

You will know if the MyST 1866 is for you or not. The truth about me is that as much as I appreciate its innovative technology and Twinkie good looks, I’m just not its market. But, the tech idiot in me loves it. And, the smooth, soft, and powerful sound is something I like, especially paired with my GR8 and DT880. To each her own.

I’m quite sure that Musica Acoustics will be joined by other dealers soon enough as this product – as a technological wonder, and an audiophile machine - is exciting. One thing I’m quite sure of is that this is probably the most expensive portable audiophile unit of any kind to connect to an iPhone. If nothing else, that should generate a LOT of interest.

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

  • Frenchbat

    Thanks for the review Shigzeo.

    I’ve heard the russians are ahead when it comes to DAC implementation, and I have a hunch this is what we are seeing here. A lot of things could still be improved, as I said on head-fi, but there’s already a solid base here.

    Now I’m not that picky, but I sure know what I’m looking for. That other amp you’ve talked about just wasn’t my cup of tea. But the more, the merrier, isn’t it ?

  • http://twitter.com/shigzeo shigzeo

    @Frenchbat – I reckon you are right about the Russians. While the 1866 looks like a Twinkie, it really is full of amazing functionality. Everyone I’ve met has said that the Bluetooth connectivity doesn’t sound like Bluetooth, and I agree.

    Evidently it is 2,1, so not even uncompressed. I have no idea how far the signal is compressed, but not a single person in loud or quiet environments has been able to discern that it was bluetooth. Interesting.

  • Frenchbat

    @twitter-51339029:disqus
    The Bluetooth is interesting, that’s for sure. But I wouldn’t look further than casual listening (aka the practical side). For serious listening, USB and Coax, for max compatibility, should be the reference. Optical can’t hurt by being there, but it’s an obsolete interface imho.

  • In ear Headphones

    There are various in ear headphones available for the iphone which provides us the pleasant experience of sound and makes you relaxed and feel like you are having a great musical experience.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003810196744 Michael Goncalves

    What ARE you doing, Demetre–the Blue Tooth is a waste of money!!!
    We are in the midst of a PARADIGM SHIFT. NOBODY listens to iPODS any more as Jobs had profitized [note pun!]. My 160GB Classic iPod has been religated to the trunk of my car and even then, I rarely use it [all my tunes on my phone are from YOU TUBE (or Flash Files). Rather than converting them all to MP3 files (a real pain) or MP4 files (which my stone cold Alpine Ida X001 can't recognize), I play my iPhone 4S through Alpine's proprietary LINE OUT cable (no conversion AND I get to watch the video if I'm stationary & bored!!!).
    HERE'S WHAT YOU SHOULD HAVE DONE!!! EVERYONE on campus are walking around with their Iphones/smart phones in their pockets and their $150.00 throw-away Headphones on their throats like Pzkpfw VI (a) Tiger Tank Commanders used to do.
    Smart Phones & Grandpa boxes {Laptops) were never designed with audio in mind---you use a LAPTOP/iPAD to surf & turf (type) and a Smart Phone to surf & smurf (talk).
    Well, Smart Phones have become the new GRANDPA Boxes (Laptops) and people are pushing the limit of the Smart Phone's ability to reproduce music through high end headphones.
    Don't you just LOVE AMERICANS?!!! GIve an American ANY TECHNOLOGY and within 10 minutes they'll be pissing and moaning how it can't do what they want it to do. Marketing will then go back to Engineering throwing a HISSY-FIT because people are bad mouthing their product.
    The engineers will look at Marketing and go "Hey, you know, if we did this tweak...HEY!!! H-E-Y!!! Hey, uh, here's my letter of Resignation---I'll be issuing my IPO in three weeks!!!
    Again, Smart Phones SUCK when it comes to sound because they were NEVER INTENDED to reproduce Great Sound. To do that, you need a SEPARATE, Dedicated, OUTBOARD DAC and you need a SEPARATE POWER SOURCE.
    There are a SHIT-LOAD of new fangled OUTBOARD DACs and OUTBOARD POWER SUPPLIES (now called HEADPHONE AMPS) which people are jacking into and getting SUPERIOR SOUND from their TIGER TANK HEADPHONES that are connected to their iPhones/SmartPhones.
    Problem is, there are perhaps ONE, maybe TWO units that pull DIGITAL STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE (iPhone) as opposed to being simply an Analogue LINE OUT device with amplification & Jitter control!!! [I'm having a senior moment...I just forget the name of the $700.00 portable Headphone Amp/DAC that uses a 30pin connector to digital source iPhone music files...damn it, I just fawned over it!!!]. That is what you need to do, Demetre!!!
    MOST PEOPLE who bought the iPHONE 4S bought the lousy 16GB version (poor feckers!!!) for $199.00 add another $100.00 for cans and these people will be pushing $300.00ish for their phone-cans combo. They won’t go for an AMP that costs 2x the cost of their Smart Phone!!!
    What you need to do is slapp in a Saber 32 bit DAC, give her some CLEAN power (Liion rechargeable) keep the footprint thin (the size & shape of the iPhone 4S) and give her a 30 pin direct digital access to iTune files on the phone!!! THAT’S IT!!! AND YOU NEED TO PRICE IT AT $199.00 as an impulse buy!!! Remember, JOBS could have forced people to pay $500.00 for the iPhone 4S and a HANDFUL of Apple Freaks would have paid that. At $199.00 an iPhone—Apple overtook EXXON as the world’s richest company!!! WE NEED DIGITAL FOR THE MASSES—NOT THIS ANAL(logue) LINE OUT shit!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003810196744 Michael Goncalves

    I’m starting to hate them Russians as bad as I did when they were Communists!!! All my tubes are now from Russia (no more NOS matched tubes are left these days!!! The rest of my house is from China. H-E-Y!!! People keep telling me how America WON WWII and all I see around me are BMWs, MERCEDES, TOYOTAs and HONDAS. People keep telling me how we WON the COLD WAR!!! Everything now days are made in Communist China and now the best DACs are Russian made. Its as if we lost to the Nazis the Commies and the Japanese!!! I hate it when I think—it makes my head hurt!!!

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