Review: Matrix Audio X-Sabre 3

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

A slenderly proportioned, beautifully built digital unit with full network capability that can play high-resolution audio in an entirely compelling fashion

As if we needed any more convincing that the network audio age means products can be presented in a huge range of forms, the sleek X‑Sabre 3 from Chinese company Matrix Audio is compact enough to fit in anywhere, yet still crams in wide-ranging flexibility, not to mention a superb level of performance. Based in Shaanxi in the north of China, some 12 hours’ drive southwest of Beijing, the company has been built on a wide range of digital devices, including digital-to-analogue converters, headphone amplifiers and network products, and has a range starting with the compact but feature-rich Element series and topping out with the X‑Sabre models, named for their use of the widely adopted DAC solution of the same name from chip manufacturer ESS.

The diversity of the line-up and the sharing of technology across the range mean even the flagship X‑Sabre 3 we have here is a relatively reasonable £3250 – hardly loose change, agreed, but pitching it against some of the established players in this market. Immaculately built in solid aluminium casework and finished in black or silver, the unit is around two-thirds of standard hi-fi width at 31cm but stands just over 4cm tall, with its bevelled fascia – containing touch controls and a small but very readable circular display – giving it a stylish if somewhat enigmatic look. Until you power it up and it springs to life, it’s a little tricky to work out exactly what it is!

When it does reveal its abilities, we discover that it is both a digital-to-analogue converter, with a good choice of inputs, and a complete streaming solution, with both Wi‑Fi and Ethernet connectivity to access online music services and music stored on the local network. What’s more, it offers the choice of fixed- and variable-level analogue outputs on both unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR sockets, enabling it to be connected into a conventional hi-fi amplifier or directly to a power amp or active speakers.

Follow the latter route, and you could have a very compact digital music system: the little X‑Sabre 3 could even be hidden away, controlled using the company’s well-considered MA Remote app on a smartphone or tablet, or via a Roon system running on an external Roon Core device. For those wanting to keep things traditional, there’s a remote handset provided with the unit, and the display is readable enough to make this practical, at least when you’re relatively close to the X‑Sabre 3, as well as showing miniature cover art should you wish. However, ‘driving’ the Matrix Audio using the app or via Roon gives the smoothest experience.

As well as its network connectivity, there’s also a USB Type B input for use with a computer, which will see the X‑Sabre 3 as an audio output device, as well as optical and coaxial digital ins and what looks like an HDMI input. This last isn’t, however, for TV sound, as is the case with some other DACs, but is used to receive data in the I2S‑LVDS format from suitable digital sources such as Matrix Audio’s own X‑SPDIF 2 USB interface.

While the optical and coaxial inputs are limited to 192kHz/24bit files as a maximum, the USB, network and I2S‑LVDS connections work all the way up to 768kHz/32bit and native DSD512/22.4MHz, as well as offering standard MQA and MQA Studio Stream decoding to service the X‑Sabre 3’s Tidal Connect capability. Other streaming options include Spotify Connect, while it’s also possible to play music direct from a suitable device using Apple AirPlay 2.


Though this unit looks rather like previous X‑Sabre models, albeit slightly slimmed down from their already sleek dimensions, almost everything here is new, starting with the all-aluminium chassis, finished with a glass top-plate, from which all the internal circuitry hangs in an ‘upside down’ configuration. The digital-to-analogue conversion uses ESS’s ES9038PRO chipset, with a Crystek CCHD‑950 clock source, and offers a range of user-selectable digital filter options, which are part of the DAC’s specification. You can use these to tune the sound, but my advice would be to find the setting you like, and then stick with it – otherwise it could be case of too much playing with filters and not enough playing of music.

The USB input offers a choice of synchronous or asynchronous working, the former disabling the X‑Sabre 3’s master clock and slaving the DAC to the clock in the sensing device – ie your computer. I found this gave a rather ‘messier’ sound when compared to asynchronous working, but then again there seemed to be no advantage to any direct computer connection over using the Matrix Audio’s own network streaming capability – which, thanks to the fine MA Remote app and the Roon implementation, is simple, slick and seamless.

However you play music into or via the X‑Sabre 3, though, what’s immediately apparent is the freshness and openness of the presentation, built on a foundation of rich, deep but tightly controlled bass. Whether with large-scale orchestral recordings or smaller ensembles such as Trío Arriaga on its ‘Elegie’ programme of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich for Eudora, there’s a superb sense of presence and vitality to the sound, not to mention a fine handling of instrumental timbres. This is especially so when one can listen in the format of the original recording, in this case DSD256, which gives a remarkable sense of the performance happening before the listener.

There’s nothing in the slightest bit mechanical or ‘technical’ about the way the X‑Sabre 3 delivers music: whether with the fine detail of the recent Collegium Vocale Gent/Herreweghe recording of Monteverdi madrigals (PHI, 7/22), which is treated to stunning detail and a wonderful feeling of space, or cellist Marc Coppey’s Saint-Saëns (Audite), this player delivers ruthless focus allied to fine fluidity and expression. That ensures it’s as easy to enjoy as it is rewarding, making even the high-speed Dausgaard/Swedish Chamber Orchestra performance of Brahms’s First Symphony (BIS, 4/13) thrilling rather than breathless, thanks to the way the resolution here manages to keep pace with tempos that are brisk – to say the very least! – in this ‘small-scale’ performance.

Exciting, too, is the way the Matrix Audio manages to bring out all the light and shade of a performance, as is clear with Steven Osborne’s recording of Rachmaninov’s Moments musicaux (Hyperion, 6/22): the weight of the piano is beautifully resolved, from the finest detail to its monumental impact when required, giving excellent insight into scoring, performance and recording.

Matrix Audio may not be as well known a name as some of the more prominent players in the streaming market but on the showing of the X‑Sabre 3, all that should change. This is not just a stylish alternative but a very serious contender for anyone wanting to base their listening around streamed/network audio.

Matrix Audio X-Sabre 3

Type Network player/DAC

Price £3250

Inputs USB Type B, optical/coaxial digital, I2S-LVDS on HDMI port, AirPlay 2

Outputs RCA/XLR fixed or variable level

Networking Wi-Fi/Ethernet

File formats played Up to 768KHz/32bit and DSD512/22.4MHz, depending on input

Accessories supplied Remote handset

Dimensions (W×H×D) 31×4.3×21.8cm

Find out more


There’s no shortage of network audio hardware out there, and alternatives to the X-Sabre 3 exist at all kinds of price levels.

iFi Audio Zen Stream

For example, you could build a very simple streaming front end by using the little Zen Stream unit from iFi Audio, partnered with the same company’s Zen DAC: despite their compact dimensions and very affordable pricing, they’re capable of impressive performance. See more at

Arcam ST60

If you like your network player to look much more like conventional hi-fi, Arcam’s ST60 could be just the thing. Controlled by the company’s MusicLife app, it offers a simple way into streaming and a rich, smooth presentation of everything from network audio files to Radio 3 via internet radio. More details at

Naim NDX 2

Naim has been making network audio products for a long time now, launching its original NaimUniti back in 2009, and all that expertise is in evidence in high-end players such as the NDX 2, which draws heavily on the technology of the flagship ND 555 to deliver a stunning sound with both online services and network-stored music. It can even be upgraded later with an external power supply. More information at

Gramophone Print

  • Print Edition

From £6.87 / month


Gramophone Digital Club

  • Digital Edition
  • Digital Archive
  • Reviews Database
  • Events & Offers

From £9.20 / month


Gramophone Reviews

  • Reviews Database

From £6.87 / month


Gramophone Digital Edition

  • Digital Edition
  • Digital Archive

From £6.87 / month



If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.