Graham Slee Majestic DAC Review
Thanks to Graham Slee for the loan.
First impressions: As this is the loaner unit from their loaner programme the box is nothing too fancy. Cardboard and well used. Inside we have the little manual, it’s a curious little document. Tells you how to set it up, even how to get it hooked up to computer and how to get the best out of it. It feels like the sort of touch you get only from a small company. Its friendly, I like it, there is something with a kinda of homely feel to it.
Hooking it up, for me it’s going to be all about the USB connection. It has 3 coax and 3 optical inputs so clearly it’s intended to be the hub of a variety of sources. It says it has 8 inputs, so that’s 3 coax, 3 optical, 1 USB and that makes the last one the analogue which I’m going to hazard a guess is one for a record player. Therefore I take that the Majestic is expected to be the heart of your entire Hi-Fi setup. It’s not so much aimed at me I feel as I’m going to hook it up to my computer, because my computer is pretty much my entire range of sources. No cd player, no record player, no streamer, no, errr radio, no minidisc player. Okay, I can’t think of any other things but you get the idea.
So, seeing it’s just a DAC how to assess the performance of the Majestic and not anything else? Well for me in the strictest sense it will be impossible. As the Majestic is only a DAC and nothing more the closest comparable I have kicking bout will be the E7/E9 combo. Running a USB cable into to the back of the E9 that utilises the DAC in the E7 and then has phono outs running to the Solo Ultra Linear. Conveniently for my purposes the Solo has two phono inputs. So I can with relative ease, keep my HD600’s plugged in to the Solo, have both the Majestic and the E7/E9 hooked up to the computer and simply swap back and forth the “Default” audio out on the computer while I flick between inputs 1 and 2 on the Solo. Clever no?
So what exactly are we working with in them both? The Majestic is “Wolfson professional high-end WM8804/WM8741 stereo chipset.” I’m familiar with the 8741 but not so much the 8804. According to Google it would seem that the 8804 is the spdif to electrical converter. That makes sense. So it leaves the WM8741 as the audio bit, which let’s face it is the bit we actually care about. It is known as being the successor to the WM8740 which, surprise surprise is what we find in the E7/E9 combo. There is a bit of difference in the numbers between the two, unsurprisingly the later model is “better” or so say the numbers anyway. However it’s not a product that’s about the numbers. Having chatted with Graham he is of the same opinion as myself, using xyz components means nothing, the only thing that actually matters is how it all sounds.
Sound Quality: Ahh, here we are at the heart of the matter and let me tell you, it’s been a slog. Spending days flicking back and forth, comparing nuanced little details in a track and then swapping over and playing back again, and again and then again then just once more to be sure. Oh my does that get old, fast. So does the Majestic sound good? Why yes indeed good sir, it does sound good. Nay, very good, very very good indeed. While I do dislike saying it has a xyz component therefore….. there is a reason that things that have a Wolfson DAC in them tend to make a point of telling you it has a Wolfson DAC inside. Trust, me it’s not just trying to play up to my liking Wolfson as being a local company, just along the road from me. They make stuff that people like. They make stuff that has a particular flavour and without making things myself to confirm it’s the actual DAC doing it, or it’s how people that use Wolfson DAC’s choose to tune things, they are warm. They have that Wolfson’y lush, smooth rich etc etc etc, you know the sound I mean. It’s sometimes called organic, analogue, valve like etc etc etc, again you know what I mean.
The Majestic has that sound. It’s all about the smoothly fluidic flowing audio goodness. You know you and you’ll probably know by the time you’re considering spending £1700 on a dedicated DAC if you like that flavour or if you like a more clinical and clean sound. It also matters what you pair it up to as I always like to pair contrasting flavours together, warm on warm on warm I find too warm, oppressive and saturated. Likewise cold on cold on cold can be ear shattering. Pairings as ever can be the key to getting the best out of a component. So I happen to have it feeding into a Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear. Which I’m pretty much going to call the Solo from here on in. They both being the “best” that Mr Slee and co can spit out pair up rather well, shock horror, I mean who saw that coming?
Flicking ever back and forth the differences between the Majestic and the E7/E9 begin to become more clear. There isn’t as a vast a gulf as I might have liked to see given the price differential. The Majestic I would hand as being better but it wasn’t something I could instantly pluck out as obvious. The differences were subtle. The Majestic was always the larger sounding and felt more effortlessly relaxed. When pushed it always retained the same poise and control but the E7/E9 began to show that it was trying its little heart out. It was getting acoustically close but it felt much less nonchalant about it. The Majestic was in a sense sitting with an air of majesty to its performance. It felt like it belonged and could handle everything with careless ease.
Tonally the mids and bass both felt a hair more broad but otherwise in terms of quantity and style were very much the same. Highs, I felt the impact edges were ever so slightly more rounded but it wasn’t something that leapt out at me. All over the Majestic was that hint better and more refined but I can’t help feeling that it wasn’t screaming wow this is so much better.
The Majestic being just a DAC, only a DAC means it needs to feed into an amp. For me this is a little unusual as most headphone specific equipment has the DAC and amp all in one. This begins to highlight that the Majestic isn’t a “headphone” piece of equipment, it’s rather more than that. The Majestic wants to be the heart and DAC for your entire audio set up. It wants to be the DAC that you feed everything into so that all your components start on the same page. That way you can a have a Denon streamer, a Sony SACD player, a whatever record player, a Panasonic minidisc player, you get the idea. You use the Majestic as the DAC for them all so they all start in the same place and you can tailor your set up to perfectly compliment that start point. Rather than trying to do it for 5 starting points.
Build: The thing is all aluminium. I dare say if needs be you could bludgeon someone with it. Switches and dials too feel solid and of substance. The bits on the back too are all firm and sturdy.
Connectivity: It’s got more connections than I’d ever use. First off we have my fav option, the USB input. Then next to it, it has 3 digital optical inputs and above them 3 digital coaxial inputs. The power supply input. Then the curious one, an analogue line in. Then its analogue line out for hooking up to an amp and then next to that it also has balanced outputs. So basically the thing has everything that you could want for seriously high end equipment being hooked up to it.
Interface: For something labelled as a DAC it sure has a lot of knobs and switches if you ask me. On the left we have the USB switch, it turns on USB selection. Next to that is the mute switch, guess what it does. Then we have a big dial for selecting which of the non USB digital inputs is engaged. Pretty obvious how it works. Then we get a switch that selects digital or allows the analogue connection on the back to be in use. Lastly we have the output level selector.
Aesthetics: It’s pretty. Fairly non-descript a visual style that says more functional rather than having been intentionally styled to any particular design language. Given I just happen to be a bit of a fan of the bare metal, functional aesthetic it’s pretty much exactly what I like.
Value: Well there is no getting away from the fact that it is expensive. If you have a £50’000 Hi-Fi and you want to level every component, to have a unified DAC for then feeding into your amp, then I can see a place for it. Compared to some components it’s very reasonably priced. However, me, I’m a headphone guy mostly so that it can act as DAC for a whole array of components it’s all a bit wasted on me. That it’s even capable of an analogue input (basically meaning a record player) to some is an epic boon. I’m not ever going to be using records. For me all those inputs are wasted, I’m just never going to make use of them. Well, never say never but you get the idea. This is a product for guys with a kick ass Hi-Fi set up with an assortment of components that all have different signatures. If that’s you, sure it is really useful to be able to customise everything to match that one DAC signature. I’m the kinda guy that essentially uses my computer as my one and only source so it’s all a bit lost on me.
Conclusion: If you look at the Majestic just as a headphone DAC then it’s expensive as hell and you get only a moderate improvement on some pretty cheap bits. Living in the UK and in Edinburgh no less, I live in, globally speaking, a very small flat. Homes in the UK are small, and being in Edinburgh, it’s practically all flats. That means no blasting speakers out at American levels, here everyone has neighbours and unless you want everyone to hate you, you have to act with a little decorum. So I’m pretty much a headphone guy. Sure I have some speakers but what I use most are situated within arm’s reach on my desk. If I’m listening to music you can bet I’m sat at my desk, on the computer. For me any other source just seems utterly superfluous.
The Majestic isn’t meant for people like me.
While I have enjoyed the Majestic, it’s a very, very nice device but it is so over kill for what I would use it for. If it had only USB and maybe, possibly an optical in too. Then I’m sure you would be able to not only make it smaller but greatly reduce the bill of materials and therefore make it a cheaper device. As it stands it’s wildly overkill for little old me. It’s meant as a beginning for an entire Hi-Fi set up, you know for the sort of people who have turntables that look more like works of art than an audio component, or rather for people that have a turntable full stop. When you take a look at the Majestic in those terms, it suddenly becomes a bargain priced component that’s hyper focused on providing you the absolute best audio quality it can.