As I’ve said a number of times, we all have our biases and blind spots, and the biggest for me is that the more I weigh the pros and cons of vinyl, the more I love my all-digital hi-fi system. As such, there are a number of revered audiophile brands I don’t get to interact with much.
Needless to say, Pro-Ject is one of those brands. The company is so revered for its turntables—high-value and high-end alike—that it’s easy to overlook its extensive line of DACs, streamers, preamps, power amps, and indeed, integrated amplifiers like the new MaiA DS3 ($1599, all prices USD). But a recent nudge from SoundStage! editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz reminded me that the company definitely deserves some love here on Access.
MaiA, by the way, stands for “My audio integrated Amplifier,” and it’s that sort of thing that allows you to figure out what a hi-fi product in Pro-Ject’s “Box Design” range does at a glance. Its preamps are all called “Pre Box something-or-other.” Its headphone amps are all “Head Box this-or-that.” From there, you look at the next few letters to figure out if a product belongs to the flagship RS line, the more value-engineered S line, or the more balanced DS line to which the MaiA DS3 belongs.
You can see from the packaging that Pro-Ject doesn’t do a lot of chest-beating either way. In fact, the most boastful thing about the packaging is the little “Made in Europe” sticker just above the product sticker. And I think there’s a good reason the product designation is a sticker instead of being printed on the box, but we’ll get to that in a sec.
Open the top of the box and there are two instruction manuals—one in English and the other in German. There’s also a CD with no label and whose purpose is therefore a bit of a mystery. Further documentation, perhaps? Test tracks? Who knows?
What’s clear, though, is that the contents beneath it are well-protected thanks to a thick layer of what looks like expanded polyethylene padding. There’s also what appears to be an accessories box-within-a-box tucked into the end there, and that seems like an appropriate place to continue with our exploration of the packaging and presentation of the MaiA DS3.
Nothing terribly surprising here, but a few observations: Firstly, the MaiA DS3’s power supply looks like a chonk. Secondly, the remote control comes in its own separate packaging, which makes more sense when you consider that it’s a universal remote—also sold separately—designed to operate all of the products within the Box Design lineup. The company also sells a premium remote designed for its DS/DS2 and RS/RS2 products, but I’m not sure that one will work for the MaiA DS3. Probably, but I’ve yet to see confirmation on that.
There’s also a little black antenna included in the package that points toward the unit’s Bluetooth connectivity.
With the accessories box emptied out and put back in its spot, and with that top layer of expanded polyethylene padding removed, we get our first look at the MaiA DS3. The thing that first stood out to me here, though, wasn’t the amp itself, although it is notably itty-bitty for an amp that’s specified to deliver 80Wpc into 8 ohms (or 140Wpc into 4 ohms).
What grabbed my attention first was that the cutouts in the expanded polyethylene don’t exactly match the features of the MaiA DS3. There are notches and such that don’t match the knobs and switches of the integrated amplifier.
What I quickly realized, though, is that if you look at all of the Box Design offerings whose bodies measure 8.11″ wide by 2.78″ tall by 7.6″ deep (without the doobly-doo), this cutout looks like it would fit all of them. That big chunk cut out near the top, for example, looks to me like it would perfectly fit the larger and more offset volume knob of the company’s Stream Box RS.
Why harp on something so seemingly insignificant? It’s simply the fact that this is one method by which manufacturers can value-engineer their products. I haven’t researched it enough to know how many different sizes of Pro-Ject Box Design products there are, but let’s say there are two for the sake of argument. By making the cutouts universal and—as I pointed out above—using stickers instead of printing the designations on the boxes, Pro-Ject only has to order, effectively, two different sizes of container. Need to ship a big product? Grab a bigger box and slap the appropriate sticker on it. Need to ship a little’un? Well, you get the point. That’s a really smart cost-savings measure, and I can only assume Pro-Ject is passing some of those savings along to the consumer.
With the MaiA DS3 out of its protective container, it’s hard not to appreciate the simple elegance of its design. Its controls are well laid-out and self-explanatory (well, except perhaps for that +6dB button, although I’m guessing it’s a universal gain boost); its fasteners aren’t hidden, but neither are they obtrusive; and overall, it’s just a clean and unfettered aesthetic that I quite dig. The only thing missing for me is a bit of organic, or perhaps even retro, window dressing.
As luck would have it, Pro-Ject just happened to sneak a little bonus window dressing of exactly that sort into the package with my review unit. Its DS2/DS3 Wooden Side Panels sell for $129 per pair and come in your choice of eucalyptus, rosewood, or walnut. Each has four little magnets designed to stick to the screws in the sides of Box Design products, and as you can see from the label on the inside, each side panel has chirality.
You might also notice the fine print below the orientation instructions, warning you to remove the panels before moving the gear. There’s a reason for that. Unlike the magnets that hold the side panels onto the Cambridge Audio Evo 150, the ones on the Pro-Ject gear are relatively gentle. By that I mean if you let your finger get between the amp and the side panel when the latter snaps into place, you’re not going to draw back a nub. On the other hand, if you move the amp more than a couple of inches without removing the side panels first, they do sort of perform their best fainting-goat impersonation.
Flipping the amp around, we get our first real look at the packed rear panel. I’m also continuing my tradition of including a 56mm speed cube (in this case, the GAN 12 MagLev UV 3x3) for scale. Look how weensy those binding posts are!
The thing is, though, they’re fully functional, and will accept full-sized banana plugs just fine. I probably wouldn’t try a bare-wire connection with anything thicker than 16AWG speaker wire, but good banana plugs are so cheap these days that there’s really no good reason to use bare wire. Or, hell, maybe even some flexible pin connectors. You get the point.
You can also see an overview of the I/O here, including the phono stage (with a selectable MM/MC switch just above), three line-level stereo RCA inputs, two optical digital ins and one coaxial digital in, a Type-B USB-DAC input, 12V trigger in and out, the aforementioned BT antenna, and both variable and fixed stereo RCA outputs. There’s also a subwoofer out (unfortunately labeled “sup out” here), but I’m not sure yet if that engages any sort of crossover, or if there’s a way to turn on a high-pass filter for the speaker-level outs if you employ a sub. I’ll test that out in the course of my full review.
Spinning the unit around for a more direct view of the back panel, you can also get a better sense of the size of the integrated amp relative to its own external power supply. I really only point that out to let you know that you’ll need to find room for the power supply in your gear rack or stand. There’s roughly three feet of cable between the power brick and the amp itself, so you might have room to tuck it behind your rack on the floor.
I have to say, I’m eager to dig into this one. I’m nearly two years into my ongoing project to review as many integrated amps as possible, in an attempt to map out the value space in this category and help you figure out what you get for your money. I thought I’d be getting a little burned out by now, but amps like the MaiA DS3 are proving there’s so much diversity in this category that it’s frankly a bit difficult to get bored. How this one measures up to similarly priced competition, though, remains to be seen. Keep your eyes peeled for my in-depth evaluation, coming soon.
. . . Dennis Burger