Dan Worth plugs the £900 MUTEC MC-3+ Smart Clock USB into a couple of his systems with some interesting results. 

MUTEC products are installed in cutting edge broadcast and television stations, well-respected recording and mastering studios as well as renowned musical theatres, opera houses and universities all over the world. The new line of audiophile consumer products takes their experience from the broadcast and pro audio world into the listening room at home to provide a level of audio performance generally only found in the professional world where the bang for buck is far greater.

Company Background

It was the year 1989 – the first Love Parade draws a crowd of about 150 ravers to Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm laying the foundation for years of techno revolution to follow. The very same year Christian Peters, CEO of MUTEC GmbH, registered his business for the first time with the city of Berlin. Together with a classmate of the time, an audio engineer at the former Teldec studios in Berlin, he was musing about an appropriate name for the newly conceived company in his home’s party room. From the start it was clear to them both that the brand name should symbolise the liaison between music and technology. So the name and its maiden spelling came to be: Mu-Tech.

In the 90s, as part of a re-design of the brand logo, the company name MUTEC was established to be more appealing to a global audience.

The first product was handcrafted by Christian Peters in his dad’s workshop around the end of 1989. It was a 2 MB flash memory expansion card for the venerable AKAI S1000 sampler, a product Mr. Peters had just been able to afford thanks to several summer jobs. Since the sampler had four slots for memory expansions Mr. Peters and his father built more cards for himself and also started to offer them to DJ and musician friends for purchase.

This sparked the idea of selling these expansion cards to studios in Berlin and the surrounding area. As the young business made a name for itself the first distribution contacts and an expansion of the product portfolio were soon to follow. The success of the memory cards led to a bigger scale, automated production by a Siemens owned contract manufacturer. Later in the 1990s MUTEC became an exclusive supplier of memory expansions for all European AKAI distributors.

When the company registered as a limited liability company in 2001, Mr. Peters began designing the first audio and video clock generators, format converters and sample rate converters with the help of an extended team of skilled developers. It’s these products that MUTEC are still widely known for around the world.

Currently MUTEC is focusing on the HiFi market where the MC-3+USB Smart Clock USB with its unique audio re-clocking and USB isolator capabilities has gained an excellent reputation and is a product which is right up my street due to the nature of the systems I run.. MUTEC is furthermore about to release a range of products specifically designed to meet the demands of audiophile customers. Even so, MUTEC continues to provide support and develop new products for professional audio applications and mastering studios.

Company Philosophy

“The symbiosis of music and technology is the foundation for the beginning of the company and still today this concept is at the core of every product made by MUTEC. Technical know-how, transparency, and exceptional audio quality are our highest priorities. Instead of overpriced, esoteric mumbo-jumbo with questionable results we focus on real, reproducible, and measurable solutions to achieve the utmost sound quality.“

Hands down one of the most encourage-able comments I’ve heard from a company in years. MUTEC are definitely a company after my own heart, combining technology and music with a realistic price tag that the world of Hifi should take strong heed of!

It’s Mr. Peter’s personal mission to source the highest quality components within a given product budget, since those components directly affect audio performance. He continues to push the boundaries up to the limits of financial viability to get the best sound quality possible for the money.

Signal Processing and Jitter Control 

In A to D and D to A conversion, the digital signal needs to be clocked accurately to prevent distortion. Digital audio is made up of amplitude values of a signal at different points in time (known as samples). Samples are taken many times a second, and need to occur at regular intervals (44.1 kHz is the sample rate used in commercial CD audio). If this does not happen, the amplitude of the signal will not be recorded or played back at the correct time and so distortion will be introduced into the signal. When the clock is not consistent in its timing, the resulting distortion is known as ‘Jitter’. If the clock frequency changes, it is known as ‘Drift’.

Firstly, without getting too technical I’ll explain why we need a word clock. Digital audio, as we know, is made up of 1s and 0s, or ‘bits’. These bits are grouped into sample words. The word size for common digital audio is 16bits, 24bits and 32bits and even 64bits. When talking about 24bit audio, we mean data with sample words of 24 registers for bits. When these sample words start and end at the same exact time on several devices, we have ‘word sync’. Which is what we want, synchronising all clocks in the digital chain.

When using multiple digital audio devices they must use the same size word and travel at the same speed (sample rate). So what would happen if you send a signal at a clock of 48kHz into a device working at 44.1? The receiving digital device may well just not lock or you might find one of the devices explode into an intensely loud cascade of white noise, which I’m sure people have encountered via computer audio, I know I have on many occasions using my Mac, which requires accessing of the ‘Audio Midi Setup’ to choose the correct clock rate for the material and accompanying DAC/clock.

If the clocks are very close, but not perfectly, synchronised then this is when we get “jitter”.  Jitter may be subtle or extreme.  At it’s extreme, there will be distortion that almost sounds like ring modulation or an intense tapping/popping sound. Sometimes you will hear the rhythmic pulsing of soft white noise bursts happening about a second apart. As the rates get closer this is more like loud popping and crackling noises in the audio which still makes the sound unlistenable  As the rates get even closer, you might hear only a few microscopic barely audible ticks now and again. Many of us may actually have systems plagued with Jitter but because the artefacts are so far apart we tend to ignore them like one would ignore the occasional vanilla record pop and click. Actually, you can have a perfect lock without clicks and pops, but still have quite a lot of Jitter. These subtle timing errors usually affect spatial resolution and staging, as well as the depth of the sound field.

Adding a Word Clock

Clocking between devices can be carried out in a few different ways. Devices can be connected using a BNC cable connected to the “Word Clock In/Out” of the device. Other connector types can be used such as RCA in this way as well. Devices can be connected in daisy chain configuration where a BNC T piece is used to split the clock signal but this is more so for professional studio use.

When using AES, S/PDIF or ADAT, the clock signal is encoded into the data stream so there is not necessarily a need for a BNC cable to provide a clock signal. The type of connectors used to clock depends on the equipment being used in the setup. This is the most common way for the Hifi enthusiast to integrate a clock into their system.

For the purposes of this review the MUTEC MC-3+USB will be used as a reclocker or SPDIF converter and again the most common way of implementing the clock is via the USB input from a computer or streaming device. The idea is that the dirtiest power from the computer fed across the USB +v/-v rails is isolated from the DAC, the MUTEC will re-clock and reduce the amount of jitter associated with the computers noisy clocks and reprocess the signal into either RCA, XLR or Optical outputs which as mentioned before carry the clock word length and sample rate in order to lock the DAC to a precise size, ensuring a stable signal.

So now you have a stable lock and music is without pops and clicks the only other option is to determine which cable sounds the best for your tastes and DAC implementation, I suggest AES/EBU, then RCA coaxial, then optical as a last resort, the reason being is simply down to the favoured sound quality over many years of testing the cable and connection types.

The Physical Unit

The MUTEC MC-3+ Smart Clock USB has a solid steel case with a 4 mm aluminium front panel which is available in black or silver. The fitted feet have recesses for included rubber rings which adjust the sound subtly. If your a fan of Xmas then the front fascia of the MUTEC will please you. There are led status lights for each and every bit depth and sample rate, along with PCM and DSD designations, the lights are bright and after a while of me using the unit, becoming familiar with its settings and syncing it with my DAC I soon found a spot where it could live in behind other equipment to hide the front panel lighting. Note: Optionally, you can also turn off a LEDs except for Power and Lock with a key command. The MC-3+USB has a single USB input for computer or streamer connectivity, along with optical, BNC and AES/EBU inputs. Outputs to AES/EBU, RCA coaxial and optical SPDIF variants are available. There are also 4 BNC Word Clock outputs. I would have liked to have a HDMI output for direct I2s coupling to my DAC but I’m sure that the innovative MUTEC will look into this in future products, other than that the MUTEC is as feature rich and informative as I and other consumers will require.

The Sound

My main passive system has two digital sources, a Melco N1/a and a Modified Mac Mini. I already use a clock from digital whizz kids Rockna – the Audiobyte Hydra Z and accompanied ZPM power supply, which I enjoy very much, having concluded very early in its demonstration period to be a crucial part of my setup and replacing a former model from the company. Unlike the Hydra the MUTEC doesn’t have the ability to use an external linear based power supply to clean things up even further. The Hydra doesn’t have a front panel dressed in a techni-coloured dream coat, you could argue that the front panel is extremely informative where the Hydra has absolutely no indication to what’s going on and it costs £300 more.

The MUTEC doesn’t have I2s over HDMI. What it does have though is a host of digital inputs all selectable via the front panel, rather than the Hydra’s single USB input and a preferred by many no doubt simple one box solution. Both have multiple clock outputs to sync multiple devices or multi room systems, the MUTEC however is the only one of the two that has the standard 5v Word Clock output, the Hydra uses the older 3.3v which I’ve found isn’t compatible with much I’ve tried it with unfortunately.

In short the MC-3+USB sounds cleaner and more transparent than the Hydra Z, the Hydra Z is a little softer sounding, not having the level of absolute precision of the MUTEC. I preferred the Hydra with the Mytek Brooklyn DAC due to its own clean nature and the MUTEC is the perfect companion to my main systems DiDiT 212SE DAC, bringing welcomed sonic benefits to either DAC.

The best way to describe the sound of the MC-3+USB in the system is stable. The soundstage goes from a slight ghostly blur to a solid, accurate and clear image. Leading edges of symbols, plucked strings and drum strikes are much more accurate and realistic in tone and timbre. The outer boundaries of the soundstage too have more prominence in their appreciation. Notes are more easily discernible and micro details become clearly defined rather than a lesser defined smear in the darkness, overall giving better structure, three dimensional and presence to a performance. This, all truly audible even with my already very clean and well worked out system.

When listening to vocals, the differences come with more natural and effortless power, better expression of the upper mids allowing for clearer toning of extreme highs from females and the same dignified approach to the lower end of a males voice. Overall positioning in general of the vocal is more focused, stable and organic.

Extra transparency and background darkness throughout the frequency range achieved by the MC-3+ produces increased separation especially noticeable in the high regions gives a larger performance and allows for more inner detail to come through without swamping the soundstage or becoming confusing or exhausting, even with it’s cleaner presentation. The MUTEC really allows the listener to explore recordings in more depth, digging really deep into the mix and extracting the finer rifts and tempos to make for a more complex performance, sometimes finding flaws in the music which are masked prior, but in most circumstances proves to be very interesting and adds a new dimension during listening sessions from time to time.

If you’re the kind of person who likes tweaking your system, with different cabling, supports, positioning and other magic trinkets you will undoubtedly love the MC-3+USB. Adding one to any system – as well as giving large improvements in detail and timing, also allows for other smaller tweaks elsewhere in the system to become more prevalent due to a greater level of transparency in the source signal. Similar to having great tyres and suspension on a car, allowing the driver to communicate with the road and other performance tweaks more intelligently.

Listening to the music and not just the equipment is a phrase used by many these days as high-end Hifi does have a tendency to lean further towards the exploitation of detail and dynamics, which can often lead to a starker and less involving rendition of the recording. The MC-3+ Smart Clock USB from MUTEC has the ability to extract information on a nano level and does an incredible job of maintaining musical flow and natural dynamics. The passion in the music is reflected by MUTEC’s passion for building equipment that can steadily walk the tight rope between accuracy and emotion and listening g to live performances from the likes of Sting, Candy Dulfer and Fink reflect this statement.

Every live performance I listened to really opened up a window into a deep soundstage that clearly defined spacial awareness of each band member along with clear placement of the crowd. Each applause was separate to the stage and even stage height was more defined than without a master clock in play. Acoustics and reverbs dependant on venue were so well perceived that late night intimate listening gave that ‘transported to the concert’ feeling, which again adds to the enthusiasm for the music and our own emotional connection with it and our systems.

In theory, good digital should always be better than by nil but in practice it’s really not true, however as technology develops and companies such as MUTEC keep pushing the boundaries producing equipment with love and honesty at their core maybe digital will find its way into the hearts of more enthusiasts.

My Active Systems

I have two active systems also at home, one is a pair of Focal CMS50 which sit on the desk and are ran via a Mac Mini connected to a Mytek Brooklyn DAC as the only source and the other comprises of Focal CMS40’s with the CMS Sub, this system also has a Samsung 55” curved screen, a Virgin Media TiVo Box, an Innuos Zenith MK2 streamer and an Amazon Fire TV, all into an Audiolab M-DAC.

Adding the clock to the first of these systems (desk) allowed me to use a BNC cable to lock the Word Clock direct to the Mytek Brooklyn DAC, produces results that were quite honestly as respectful, transforming and as enjoyable as the passive system. The lock was initiated instantaneously after cable connection was made. This system is reflective of a small home studio system and with modifications to the Mac and running AmarraRemote Symphony it is more so a playback system really, although can easily be changed with software to a mixing system, none the less even with upgraded linear supplies and exp naive cabling and unlit mains setup this system was taken to a new level of detail retrieval and overall performance with the MC-3+USB in the chain.

The second system warranted a clock ideally which could decode and re-clock a range of inputs to cover all the sources used in this setup and fortunately the MUTEC can. Now I couldn’t connect all devices directly at first until I borrowed a non-expensive D to D converter as there are just way too many opticals involved in this setup. Although this setup allowed for access to the high-precision clock employed by MUTEC in the MC-3+USB my direct connections to USB and optical were producing a superior sonic performance than using the digital to digital  converter. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the clock was able to produce an unsuspected rich and well balanced sound across a real glass optical and into the M-DAC, although USB and the AES and electrical SPDIF inputs along with USB still attained a sound which is superior.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that MUTEC’s MC-3+USB is and was an instrumental part of the audio chain in all the systems I implemented it. Although each system is of good pedigree the extra abilities of the precision clock added a new level of detail and timing that simply cannot be overlooked when building any quality digital system.

Conclusion 

Adding a MUTEC MC-3+ Smart Clock USB to your music source will improve a system substantially, in fact it will enhance the sonic performance of the majority of systems and sources to a quite substantial degree.

The stability of the system pertaining to phase control and timing will allow a system to sound more effortless and controlled, with a greater sense of realism and believability within the newly structured soundstage.

An MC-3+USB will extract a whole heap more detail from the recorded material and present it in a manner which retains musicality. It’s compatible with a whole range of streamers and works without issue on Windows or Mac and will support any source with any variant of SPDIF output.

Take your standard source to new heights or your high-end source to the next level.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality – Solid, strong and sturdy

Sound Quality – Detailed with fantastic timing/imaging and strong musicality

Value For Money – Very strong performance and features with a fair price tag

Pros

Loads of inputs and outputs

Incredibly low jitter

Excellent imaging and timing

Clean, grainless sound

Black background

Large increase in detail

Musical

Cons

Front panel lights will offend some

No I2s over HDMI

Price: £900 give or take dependant on retailer

Dan Worth

You must be logged in to leave a reply.