EMM Labs DA2 Reference DAC Computer Audiophile 06/2018

EMM Labs DA2 Reference DAC and PRE Stereo Preamplifier Review

Cris Connaker
Computer Audiophile

The EMM Labs DA2 is a hard DAC to pin down. In a good way. Many DACs present a readily apparent color or signature that's identifiable from a mile away. I've often listened to other DACs and said to myself, there's the touch of bass bloat or the upsampling signature I remember. When listening to the EMM Labs DA2 I haven't been able to home in on anything specific that stands out across all or a majority of recordings. At times I think I hear a character trait through the DA2, but quickly referencing the sound against other top level DACs gives me more clarity and assurance that my initial perceptions can be slightly off.

Let me explain this a bit further. When listening to the EMM Labs DA2 reference DAC I'd think to myself that the sound was a bit more laid back than what I'm used to hearing. Then I'd switch inputs on the EMM Labs PRE to listen through another DAC, and I'd hear music that sounded even more laid back. The opposite was also true with music that sounded a bit more in my face or up front. When one has the ability to compare and contrast top tier DACs, it's much easier put sonic characteristics into perspective. What initially sounds bright, may be somewhat mild compared to the reproduction through another converter. Granted these differences are likely the stuff only music lovers and audiophiles would notice, but little nuances are incredibly important to many of us. It's the fine details that often matter most when it comes to the highest levels of performance.

The system I used for part this review was unlike anything I've setup in recent memory. Sure I compare DACs and preamps and digital to digital converters but not like this. Using the EMM Labs PRE preamplifier as the center of the system, I connected the EMM Labs DA2, dCS Rossini, and Berkeley Audio Design RS2 MQA DACs to balanced inputs 1, 2 and 3 respectively. I also labeled each input via the PRE's front panel configuration menu to make certain I didn't mistakenly attribute the sound of one DAC to another. Sources for these DACs included the Sonore Signature Rendu SE, dCS Network Bridge, Aurender W20, and the Rossini's own Ethernet input. When comparing the sound of the DACs with minimal time between audio samples, I setup a Roon zone group that enabled me to send the same music to all three units simultaneously. I rotated digital interfaces between the DACs when possible and I configured the Aurender W20 to send dual AES audio to the dCS Rossini and to receive external word clock from the Rossini that was set in master clock mode.

Ed Meitner has masterfully designed analog and digital audio products for for both the professional and high end consumer markets for decades. The DA2 DAC and PRE preamplifier represent Ed / EMM's highest digital and preampfification achievements to date. 

The DA2 has little in common with the EMM Labs DAC2X I reviewed and C.A.S.H Listed several years ago. At the time the DAC2X was one of the best DACs I'd yet heard in my system. The DA2 is in another league and should be given "franchise product" status. It's a component to build one's system around just as Lebron James is a player to build a team around. Perhaps more apropos would be to call the DA2 to the Maurice Richard of EMM components. (I'd love to mention Al MacInnis or Lanny McDonald given EMM Labs is based in Calgary, but that's a story for another day).

The first thing I noticed about the DA2 upon unboxing it was the machined aluminum chassis. This DAC is not only 10 pounds heavier than the DAC2X, it looks and feels like a product in a completely different category. Inside the DA2 features an exclusive aerospace grade ceramic circuit board, new analog stages, the MCLK2 proprietary custom clock, and the world's first 16xDSD proprietary discrete dual differential D-to-A converters (MDAC2™). 

Those unlearned in Digital Signal Processing (DSP) may think EMM's MDAT2™ 16xDSD digital audio translator signal processing is one of those HiFi hocus pocus futures that "must be better" because it's double the DAC2X's 8xDSD technology. To that I say, give it a listen, look at the math, and consider the fact that thousands of audiophiles the world over have been using external applications to DSP their music from 1x, 2x, 4x PCM to DSD64, DSD128, and DSD512. EMM's MDAT2™ removes the need for any configuration or external application and processes the audio at DSD1024.

Note: This has zero to do with the native resolution of the recording. In fact, obtaining a recording at DSD1024 doesn't make any sense. It's all about processing the signal and filtering inside the DAC.

The EMM Labs PRE is the best preamplifier Ed Meitner has ever created. It's only fitting that the PRE pairs perfectly with the DA2 fit & finish and overall quality of music reproduction. Not only that, but the DA2 requires a preamp for volume control, making this pair a terrific match. The PRE features everything one wold expect from a reference level product including fully discrete dual-balanced signal paths, class A circuitry, and precision software-based analog volume control. Volume control is critically important whether its in a DAC or preamplifier. There's no such thing as a perfect volume control, but EMM has managed to deliver something stellar with the PRE.

During this review I used the balanced XLR inputs and output of the PRE exclusively. This preamp doesn't have a ton of bells and whistles, but its focus is clearly on reference level two channel performance.

The Listening

Oh the tone of Gary Karr's double bass!

The EMM Labs DA2 / PRE combination really shined when reproducing Gary Karr's Bass Virtuoso album (HDAD 24 bit / 192 kHz). The tone of Gary's double bass sounded incredible. When I talk about tone I'm talking about the overall sound of the instrument not the fine details. This double bass had magic to it, like it was jumping out through my speakers. Not in a forward presentation type of way, but in a realistic musical way. As if it was three dimensional. The instrument had unmistakeable tonal color that was allowed to come through because of a lack of color imposed by the DA2 DAC.

With respect to fine details, the DA2 reproduced everything that was available on this recording from the lat 1950s and early 1960s. Tape artifacts can be heard throughout the album, but it's of little consequence other than to signify that everything is being reproduced. Listening to nearly every track on the album one can hear everything that goes into playing the double bass. From Gary's fingers controlling the strings on top to the tiny screeches of the bow, it's all laid bare for the ears and brain to process.

Listening to Dixie Chicks' Let Him Fly, a 16/44.1 recording with a huge dynamic range score of 19, I was very impressed with the DA2. The DAC's level of detail and presence in the soundstage was fantastic. The DA2 didn't seem to make errors of commission or omission, and fell directly in the middle of the Berkeley and dCS. For example, listening through the Berkeley Natalie Maines' voice on this track was about a foot further back than where it was presented through the DA2. The Rossini was about six inches forward of the DA2 in reproducing the vocals and instruments. There's no way for me to know which one is more accurate on this recording, it's all a matter of taste. Other details throughout this track were presented with more weight through the dCS Rossini and much less weight through the Alpha DAC RS2 MQA. I hate to call the DA2 middle of the road because that implies ordinary or fair-to-middling, when in fact this DAC is extraordinary.

 


You're buying those speakers to listening to Pink Floyd? Hell yeah I am. That's a paraphrase of a conversation I had with a HiFi dealer when I purchased my first pair of Martin Logan ReQuest loudspeakers back in the late 1990s. It's 2018 and I'm still listening to Pink Floyd, but on much better speakers through a much better system of components. I pulled out the 24/96 version of Pink Floyd's 1975 original stereo mix of Wish You Were Here for this review. This is likely my favorite Pink Floyd album. Through the album the same differences with respect to weight, soundstage, and detail could be heard between the three DACs connected to the EMM Labs PRE. The DA2 presented the title track with wonderful detail and terrific oomph in the bottom end.

Backing up one track to Have a Cigar, I thoroughly enjoyed the DA2's reproduction of Nick Mason's drum performance. This is something I previously hadn't noticed as I was enamored by the keyboard and guitars that are more in one's face. Mason's drums on Cigar take a back seat in presence but are sonically superb through the DA2. Through a lesser DAC Mason's drum kit could easily be jumbled into a larger sound without nuance and delineation between kick, snare, and cymbals.

My favorite Shelby Lynne album is Tears, Lies and Alibis, released in 2010. The EMM Labs DA2 lets Shelby's home recording come through with all its imperfections. This is what's great about both he recording and the DAC. I want to hear the imperfections and colors, they are what makes music real to me. This album was recorded to a Studer 24 track tape machine at 30 ips in Shelby's house. She sang into a Telefunken 251 and mic'd her guitar with a Neumann KM81. This is so far from a crisp, possibly sterile, digital recording and the reproduced sound through the DA2 / PRE combination was also so far from crisp and sterile. 

Track number 3, Like a Fool is a wonderful sounding gem featuring Shelby's vocals up front with sparkles of instruments in the background. Mixed by Al Schmitt at Capitol Studios, this track just sucks the listener into the story, so long as the reproduction equipment doesn't stand in the way. Through the DA2 I heard Shelby's voice in all its lush glory, no doubt enhanced by the Telefunken tube microphone. Sure the sound isn't as good as when I sat a few feet from her performing this track at a small club in Minneapolis, but that was a once in an lifetime experience. The experience of playing, and replaying, this track and entire album when I want as loud as I want through the EMM Labs DA2 was 100% sublime.

 

Conclusion

Ed Meitner and Emm Labs are legendary in both professional and consumer high end audio. One doesn't become legendary without providing legendary products and experiences to customers for decades. That's what EMM Labs has done and continues to do with its flagship DA2 and PRE. The world's first 16xDSD signal processing along with a handful of other propriety features and legendary sound quality put the DA2 DAC on the top of the EMM Labs mountain and in a class with only a couple components in all of HiFi. Sonically the DA2 has a transparency and a soundstage that delivers on the promise of high end audio. Reproducing music with all its warts when warts are present and in all its glory for those rare recordings that really shine. The DA2 and PRE are in rarefied air no doubt at $25,000 a piece, but the best of anything is never inexpensive.

Note: The DA2 is the second DAC from Ed Meitner and the team at EMM Labs to make the C.A.S.H. List, and the PRE is the first preamplifier on the list. 

Superphonica Note:

To learn a bit more about EMM Labs, purchase certified pre-owned components directly from the company, or sell your existing components to upgrade to the DA2 or PRE, visit the EMM Labs brand boutique on Superphonica1.

Associated Music:

Computer Audiophile 100 Playlist
Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist

Associated Equipment:

Source: Roon ROCK, MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS High Sierra)
DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA, dCS Rossini
D-to-D Converter: dCS Network Bridge, Sonore Signature Rendu SE, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
Remote Control Software: Roon Remote
Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro
Playback Software: Roon, JRiver
Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables, 512 Engineering Speaker Cables
USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka, Wire World Starlight and Chroma
Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti IniFi Switch 8-150W, Ubiquiti UniFi USG Router, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload