Made In The USA: Grace Design 9XX Massdrop Edition (Short Notice)

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I’ve spent the past two days driving the new BMW M2 back-to-back with everything from a factory-prototype BMW 1M Coupe to a perfect E30 M3 and a Fiesta ST. In other words, I’ve been on the move constantly. But I wanted to share something else with you, maybe a little bit before I should, because there’s a limited amount of time for you to take advantage of what I think is a pretty neat deal.


Over the past year, I’ve shared all sorts of USA-made items with you, from towels to motorcycle gloves to titanium wallets to boots. Today, however, marks the first time we’ve discussed a piece of audio equipment that’s made in the United States. Grace Design builds professional audio equipment in Colorado. Most of it is aimed at recording engineers and professional musicians. Recently, however, they partnered with the Massdrop group-buying service to offer a consumer-grade device that does just one thing and does it exceptionally well.

That one thing is actually two things; the Grace Design M9xx is a DAC and headphone amp in a single sleek box. What’s a DAC? Well, it’s a way for you to convert digital files to analog music. When you listen to an MP3 or a CD or a FLAC file on your computer or your phone or your iWhatever, there’s a DAC involved. However, that DAC is typically a really tiny and cheap chip tucked on the side of a circuit board somewhere. I guarantee you that your laptop or phone or tablet doesn’t have the highest possible grade of DAC built in for the same reason that the free toys that come in a Happy Meal tend to not be heirloom-quality items. It’s free, so how can you complain?

The M9xx is designed to rectify that. It takes the digital audio file via USB and carefully creates a higher-quality audio signal than your computer can be bothered to create. It then sends that audio signal to the other half of the M9xx, a top-notch headphone amp. Yes, your laptop can also run your headphones. If, however, you have a really nice set of “cans” chance are that the sound won’t be that great. Good headphones take a lot of power to run. Even the Sennheiser HD280s that I use on a daily basis sound better when you give them enough clean power.

The difference between listening to a set of “Beats” or Skullcandy headphones powered by your phone or laptop and what you get from true high-quality ‘phones plugged into an M9xx is immediately noticeable. The M9xx also has a variety of features that are meant to reduce the ear and mind fatigue that occurs when you listen to headphones for extended periods of time.

Last week I asked Grace Design if I could borrow an M9xx for evaluation, and they were kind enough to send one along. I’d like to tell you that I’ve had the chance to listen extensively to the M9xx. The truth is that I’ve been on the road with just a set of Grado SR125e headphones available. My ears are also heavily fatigued from hours of driving at 100+ mph with the windows down. But even so, I’m already convinced by the obvious build quality and feature set of the M9xx. So I’m going to buy this evaluation unit and give it a detailed listen at home in the upcoming weeks.

The problem is that if you want to join me in the ranks of M9xx owners you don’t have a lot of time. The $499 group buy for the M9xx ends in just one day. So you’ll have to act fast. I don’t believe you’ll regret it if you do. Not only will you have a high-quality DAC/amp that has gotten rave reviews from existing owners, you’ll own a piece of American-made audio equipment. The Massdrop buy is limited to 250 units; as I write this, 197 are already spoken for. Clearly, I’m not the only person who is excited about this!

14 Replies to “Made In The USA: Grace Design 9XX Massdrop Edition (Short Notice)”

  1. rpn453

    Low quality DACs are the reason people think 192+ kb/s MP3 sounds bad. They’re particularly bad in phones and tablets.

    I have a Vantec USB device like this that I use with my laptop for external audio connections. Nowhere near as pretty or expensive as this one, but it sounds just as good as the Creative SB sound card in my desktop, so good enough for me.

    Reply
    • rwb

      Not to be a nitpick, but a good DAC probably won’t make your MP3s sound much better unless the old one was truly awful and actually introducing significant noise and distortion. If anything, having high-quality conversion and analog components could exacerbate the flaws of an imperfect source file because while a nice DAC can shape the timbre a little bit, you’re not getting back what’s lost, and it will be a more accurate representation of this.

      For a long time I had some SR60s (dorkishly modified,) for which I actually tested and returned a Headroom amplifier. I don’t know if it had a problem, but it seemed to overdrive the extremely low-impedance Grados into distortion. The Grace amp section should help the Sennheisers quite a bit, but I don’t know if it will do anything huge for the SR125es.

      Reply
      • jz78817

        DACs have been a solved problem for decades. people who think otherwise usually do so because they went to an external DAC which coincidentally solved the actual problem they were having e.g. noise, excess capacitance rolling off the high end, etc. you can get an excellent DAC chip for $2 in quantity, but it’s up to you to implement it properly.

        Reply
        • John Marks

          If it is the case for some people that “DACs have been a solved problem for decades,” that’s only because such people are not critical listeners.

          Which is fine!

          If you use music as a soothing noise in the background that accompanies other activities such as socializing, housework, or reading, then you really don’t need anything more than a Sonos Play:5.

          However, as far as critical listening goes, you really don’t know what you are talking about. The top DACs out there (dCS, MSB, Mytek, Bricasti, and any others in that quality tier) have continued to improve of the recent past few years. If all you really need is a $500 one-box solution, those improvements are not relevant to your real life. But those improvements certainly are relevant to the real lives of professionals such as Bob Ludwig, Alan Silverman, and Mark Wilder.

          John Marks
          Music-Industry Professional since 1982
          Columnist and senior contributing editor, Stereophile magazine, 2001-2015

          Reply
          • jz78817

            I like how you people always argue from the same script:

            1) Insult the other person’s intelligence,
            2) magnify your own abilities,
            3) wave your supposed credentials around, and finally
            4) strategic namedropping.

        • rpn453

          Maybe I’m including some internal implementation process in my definition of the DACs, but somehow smartphones manage to take a perfectly good 192 – 320 kb/s MP3 and turn all the high frequencies into noise that sounds just like the digital compression of a low quality MP3. That is not analog distortion. I don’t know where that’s happening if not within the actual DAC chip, but it is happening somewhere in the conversion process.

          Run the same MP3 file through USB and let the receiver or head unit do the conversion and it sounds fine. Output the same MP3 file from a different source – including most portable digital music players – through the same analog connection and it sounds fine. What could the problem be, if not the DAC? We’ve tried a variety of different music playing software and it all sounds equally terrible off smartphones.

          Reply
      • rpn453

        I am talking about truly awful DACs here. Like the ones on every smartphone or tablet that I or any of my friends have ever owned or tried with an analog connection.

        My old laptop is particularly bad because the Realtek audio driver has a glitch where it outputs the same sound to the headphone jack as the built-in speakers, so all the bass is filtered out. I haven’t noticed any obvious issues with other laptops that have fully functional drivers.

        Reply
    • niclas

      They sound bad at least partly for the same reason as most modern CDs sound bad, and “digitally remastered” CDs are nearly always worse than the original. Everything is louder than everything else. The guitar is always equally loud, no matter if it’s played gently or with bleeding fingers. You can hear from the voice the vocalist sings louder, but the volume stays the same. Every bang on the drums is the same volume. It’s tiring, and quickly starts feeling just like noise. I’d take a well mixed 192kbit MP3 over a poorly mixed “CD quality” file any day.

      Reply
      • rpn453

        Yes, it’s a shame that so many good albums are unlistenable due to loudness compression.

        I’ll go even further and say that those albums would probably sound better in a well produced 128 kb/s file than they currently do in CD quality format. They’re that bad!

        Reply
        • niclas

          Not unlistenable, just a lot less enjoyable than it should be. It’s distracting. Why not make a record as good as it can be? Why spend ages in the studio making a perfect record if you’re just going to squeeze it through the Loud-O-Matic 4000?

          I’m sure you could produce a lossy compressed file that sounds better than the cd If you started with the unmolested master, but then you might as well just make a good record.

          Reply
          • John Marks

            Hi. To take up your second point first; what Apple “Mastered for iTunes” is, is a lossily data-compressed file that does sound better than CD Quality, because Mastered for iTunes is a 24-bit download, and that gives more detail and dynamic range than a CD can–but only if you master from an original that is better than CD quality. And many early all-digital recordings are not. But many are, especially those done on non-standard systems like Soundstream, 3M, and Mitsubishi.

            As to the first point, even on remasters of venerable material, in some cases it reportedly the original artist himself who wanted a dynamically compressed, “louder” sound.

            One theory is that an important cause of The Loudness Wars was when independent “song promotors” (whose independence was perhaps a way to shield labels from liability in the event of payola) began sending around compilation CDRs of all the songs they were pushing that month, and the loudest songs seemed to get picked for airplay more often.

            John Marks
            Thee Mahn Eetaly called, “Thee Golden Ears”

  2. JDN

    Listening to good headphones on a good dac/amp is the gateway drug to having yet another thing to spend a good chunk of money on.

    I’ve had a dac/amp from Headroom (based in Montana I think) for about 10 years – but when I went to buy another one for work a few years ago they’d unfortunately stopped making them due to competition from companies like Fiio.

    Reply
  3. Ronnie Schreiber

    I think it’s about time for a Made in America post about Grado.

    I wish I could use my Stax SR-30 electret headphones from when I had money to spend on such things but my loudspeakers are bi-wired so I’d need another amp to drive the headphones. I couldn’t afford the electrostatic Stax phones but the SR-30s were a big bang for the buck choice back then.

    Oh, wait, I do have another amp. I scavenged a little integrated tube amp (two EL84 power tubes) out of an early 1960s vintage small RCA console stereo left abandoned in the basement of my son’s apartment building. I’ll get some speaker terminals (the amp just has solderless spade connectors on the output) and try it out later. Somewhere, perhaps lost in the divorce, is a 25 foot Stax extension cable.

    Reply

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