Meitner Audio MA-1 DAC
Computer Audiophile 9/2011
Passionate, intelligent, and humble are words that come to mind when I think about Meitner Audio. Several conversations with the Meitner team gave me a very good feeling inside. It's always nice to talk to people who know their stuff, but don't feel the need to stand on a soapbox and tell it to the world. The Meitner team, lead by Ed Meitner, is passionate about very well engineered products that sound good. At Meitner the engineers have ears. This team with a remarkable history of audio innovation at EMM Labs has created a new brand in its effort to produce high quality components without the prices demanded by the no-holds-barred EMM products. The first product to carry the Meitner Audio name is the $7,000 MA-1 Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). Vivid and very detailed with lush yet tight bass and wonderful transients are the hallmarks of the MA-1. Capable of receiving 24 bit / 192 kHz audio on all six digital inputs, including asynchronous USB, the MA-1 is a must for the audition list of those in the market for a new DAC.
Ed Meitner has long been a digital audio pioneer who is well known for his work with SACD and DSD. Mention the name Meitner or EMM Labslink to a Recording or Mastering Engineer and it receives instant recognition. Audiophiles financially fortunate enough to own an EMM Labs DAC have a near unanimous fondness for Ed's components. In fact while texting a record executive and fellow audiophile at Sony Music last week I mentioned the upcoming Meitner MA-1 review. The response I received was, "Can't wait to hear more about it, Ed is a genius." It's clear that Ed Meitner and EMM Labs have transcended the traditional boundaries between professional and consumer audio. Ed's newest endeavor in the consumer world of high end audio is launching the Meitner Audio brand. The brand will offer high quality components at less expensive prices than its parent EMM Labs. The EMM products retain all the bells and whistles while the Meitner Audio products are built with the same engineering prowess but lower cost components. If ever there was a poster child for trickle down technology it's Meitner Audio. The new brand will enable audiophiles with champagne taste and imported beer budgets to experience much of what EMM Labs has been offering for years. The Meitner Audio MA-1 DAC a "first" product that many companies could only dream of matching.
Meitner Audio MA-1 DAC
The Meitner Audio MA-1 is no run-of-the-mill digital to analog converter. The MA-1 has no off-the-shelf DA converter chips rather it has custom discrete 128fs-DSD balanced DACs. The DAC features custom DSP & jitter management, DC coupled discrete Class A balanced output circuitry, and a high isolation synchronous switching power supply. Switching power supplies can and do offer stellar performance in the hands of a good engineering team. The frequency of this switching power supply is locked to the audio clock in one of Meitner's many fanatical design elements that improve performance. The*digital inputs of*MA-1 actually function more like an oscilloscope probe in some respects, because it "samples" the inputs at a very high speed and then decodes the data with an algorithm. According to Meitner Audio the DAC itself achieves picosecond jitter using a single sub-picosecond nanotechnology-based master clock that switches between the 44.1 kHz (44.1, 88.2, 176.4) and 48 kHz (48, 96, 192) time bases. The two frequencies are never active at the same time, further reducing jitter. Other approaches used by competing manufacturers include dual crystal oscillators each operating at either 44.1k or 48k time bases, or a single crystal oscillator operating at both frequencies combined with a PLL (Phase Lock Loop) to synthesize the correct clock rate based on the incoming data stream. Many readers have strong opinions about these clocking schemes. Some opinions are based on theories of what should work best while others are based on what sounds best in a given component. There's no right or wrong answer, but I highly recommend listening to a DAC rather than ruling it in or out based on a clocking scheme or technology alone.
The Meitner Audio MA-1 supports sampling rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192kHz at word lengths up to 24 bits through all 6 digital inputs (AES/EBU, 2 x S/PDIF RCA (electrical), 2 x TosLink (optical), and asynchronous USB. The USB input uses an XMOS 500 MHz receiving chip. The MA-1 complies with the USB Class 2 audio standard, not to be confused with USB 2.0. The major blemish in Meitner's MA-1's USB implementation is a lack of galvanic isolation between the computer and the DAC. Other DACs in this class have used transformer-coupling of the input or high speed optical isolators to achieve complete isolation. This lack of galvanic isolation does have a negative sonic impact that I'll cover later in this review.
Some pertinent acronyms discussed in the user Manual include MFAST and MDAT. According to Meitner Audio MFAST is an asynchronous technology that stands for Meitner Frequency Acquisition System. MFAST acquires the digital signal from any input and buffers it to reduce jitter. This asynchronously decouples the input from output. MDAT is the Meitner Digital Audio Translator. This is responsible for up sampling the audio to 5.6 MHz / 128fs, double the SACD DSD rate of 2.8 MHz / 64fs.
The aforementioned MA-1 User Manual is lean, to the point, and accurate. This may sound like a given with all high end audio products, but when it comes to computer based audio all bets are off. For example the Esoteric D-07 DAClink I unfavorably reviewed in October 2010. The D-07 manual was incomplete and directed DAC owners to configure their computers to output un-bit-perfect audio streams. The MA-1 manual explains to readers that Class 2 USB Audio devices are natively supported in Mac OS X 10.5.7 and higher as well as on Linux with ALSA 1.0.23 and higher. It's really nice to see a manufacturer telling users to select the Kernal (sic), ASIO, or WASAPI driver from within their music playback application. The alternative can be using the sonically disastrous Windows DirectSound. Meitner recommends using the ASIO drivers on Windows PCs for lower latency. Discussing the TosLink inputs the manual stresses the importance of a proper digital cable and digital source device when using sample rates of 176.4 and 192. Several Computer Audiophile readers have run into an issue (other DACs) only to find out the TosLink cable can make or break big resolution playback. Seemingly little details like this separate the men from the boys.
The solidly built 16 lbs. Meitner Audio MA-1 has no volume control, thus requiring a preamp in the audio chain. The included MA-1 remote control is as simple as it gets enabling input selection and nothing more. I'm willing to bet most users have a single digital source in their main system. They will use the remote one time then put it away for safekeeping.
Computer Audiophile Review Configurations
During the MA-1 review period I used several different music servers in an effort to determine sonic differences, if any, between inputs and sensitivity to the source digital signal. Here are the main systems used in my listening room.
C.A.P.S. v2.0 server via USB running Windows 7 64-bit, J River Media Center 16, 64 GB SSD, SOtM SATA power filter, and SOtM tX-USB internal PCI to USB converter.
Aurender S10 Music Server via S/PDIF (RCA) & AES/EBU with 64GB SSD cache, OCXO clocking, FPGA re-clocking, linear and switching PSUs.
Mac Pro (3,1) server via USB running OS X Lion 10.7.1 (11B26), iTunes 10.4.1 (10) 64-bit, Pure Music 1.82, 10 GB RAM, 2 x 2.8 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon CPUs, and ATi Radeon HD 2600 video card.
MacBook Pro (5,5) via USB running OS X Lion 10.7.1 (11B26), iTunes 10.4.1 (10) 64-bit, Amarra 2.3 (4300) full version, 128 GB SSD, 4 GB RAM, 2.26 GHz Intel Core Duo CPU, and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M video card.
C.A.P.S. v1.0 server via AES/EBU running Windows 7 32-bit, 60 GB SSD, 2 GB RAM, Merging Technologies Mykerinos with AES daughter card, Merging Technologies Pyramix 7.0 SP3 and Emotion Media Server 1.0.1 Beta 1.
Thecus N5200B Pro and Synology DS411slim NAS drives were used for music storage and playback of 50% of the music. The other 50% was stored on local drives. Music file formats were AIFF, WAV, and uncompressed FLAC.
When I first received the MA-1 I had problems playing 176.4 kHz and 192 kHz content from the Aurender S10link via AES and S/PDIF (RCA) and from my Pyramix machine via AES. I couldn't get the MA-1 to lock in the correct sample rate, experienced near constant dropouts, and heard scratchy noises throughout a track. I sent the MA-1 back to Meitner Audio for an update. Upon the DAC's return I could successfully play 176.4 kHz and 192 kHz content from my Pyramixlink machine via AES, and from the Aurender S10 via S/PDIF (RCA). The issue with 4x sample rates from the Aurender S10 to the MA-1 via AES remains unsolved. Aurender and Meitner engineers are currently discussing possible causes and solutions.
Windows XP/Vista/7 does not support the USB Class 2 audio standard. A device driver / software was installed on my C.A.P.S. v2.0link server to support both the 176.4 kHz and 192 kHz sample rates via USB. The software used was version 1.29.0 of the Thesycon USB Audio Class 2.0 driver for Windows. This driver performed flawlessly throughout the review period. After the Thesycon software is installed the USB Audio Class Driver Control Panel is placed in the Windows system tray and set to automatically launch at startup. This 32-bit control panel app consumes between 1.5 MB and 6.5 MB and is unnecessary for audio playback. Simply deleting the shortcut from the Windows startup folder will stop the app from automatically starting when Windows starts.
For Your Listening Pleasure …
The Meitner MA-1 DAC was unequivocally the most enjoyable DAC I've had the opportunity to review in recent memory. This DAC simply sucked me in for more and longer listening sessions than most components I've had in my system. In fact I took a break from writing this review to listen to Boz Scaggs' Speak Lowlink album via USB from the C.A.P.S. v2.0 server. Honestly, I had the urge to listen to more music while I still have the MA-1 in my system. Speak Low contains wonderful bass lines throughout most tracks. Played through the MA-1this album sounds vivacious and vivid. The tracks She Was Too Good To Me and Save Your Love For Me offer stellar examples of rich tight bass that is appropriately prominent in the soundstage. The MA-1 reproduces Boz's voice as a wonderfully realistic illusion, an instrument all by itself hanging perfectly between my TAD CR1 Compact Reference loudspeakers. Moving on to Boz's Fade Into Light album and the lead track Lowdown as also pure listening pleasure. This unplugged version of Boz's hit Lowdown has a slow tempo, the usual terrific backing vocals of Lisa Frazier and Kathy Merrick, and the great sax of Norbert Stachel (Aerosmith, Tower of Power, Roger Waters). Lowdown Unplugged has exquisite detail with vibrance in the sax and bass that's do die for through the Meitner Audio MA-1.
Switching gears to my favorite symphonic piece of music, I had a blast listening to Britten's Orchestra performed by the Kansas City Symphony. I used the Reference Recording's HRx 24/176.4 versionlink of this album to test high resolution audio over USB and the MA-1's transient response. Track 6 Passacaglia caused a 30 minute non-musical detour while I attempted to track down the reason I heard several music dropouts during playback. The answer fortunately had nothing to do with the MA-1 and everything to do with a J River Media Center feature. Passacaglia has a dynamic range score of 19link according to the Pleasurize Music Foundation'slink TT Dynamic Range Meter. This track's incredible dynamic range (large dB disparity between the quiet and loud parts of the track) fools JRMC into thinking there is no music during certain parts of the track. When the JRMC option Do not play silence (leading and trailing) is enabled JRMC skips the first 30 seconds of the track and skips intermittent segments of the track when the music is very quiet. Once I figured this little issue out I was back in my listening chair with what felt like the entire Kansas City Orchestra in my lap. The beginning of Passacaglia was intricately detailed when played through the MA-1 even at very low volume. Between the five and six minute mark of Passacaglia are some awesome musical peaks that enabled the MA-1 to prove it has the right transient chops to compete with other DACs such as the Weiss DAC202, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, and even the dCS Debussy. In fact the Meitner Audio MA-1 sounds closer to the Debussy than any DAC I've previously heard. I suspect this has something to do with both DACs up sampling techniques that process audio in MHz instead of the typical kHz range of frequencies. The endless but very controlled and rich deep bass is eternally exciting. Nearly six minutes into Passacaglia I felt as if my woofers could end up in my lap any second. Certainly that statement was in jest but what an enjoyable experience listening to such dynamic music through the MA-1.
At the 2011 California Audio Show I finally remembered to pick up some Bravura Recordslink demonstration tracks from Bill Schnee. These tracks are recorded live to two track at 24/192 and are frequently featured in the TAD suite at RMAF and CES. One track in particular features a drum solo on a small jazz drum kit. I believe the drummer is Simon Philips. A man with a sick amount of musical talent. This four minute clip of music is truly astounding when played through a highly capable audio system. The Meitner MA-1 did not disappoint in any respect. The drums came through as good as I've ever heard them in my room. I would use the terms incredibly accurate but as I wasn't present during the recording session it would be purely conjecture.
One of my favorite new purchases is Jack Johnson's album Brushfire Fairytales remastered in 2011 and available for downloadlink at 16 bit / 48 kHz. Listening to tracks such as The News, Inaudible Melodies, and Middle Man via the Meitner MA-1's AES interface and the Aurender S10 server I was positive I new the shape, color, and type of wood used for Jack Johnson's guitar. The vibrant illusion created by this DAC was almost palpable. This was also the case listening to Ray LaMontagne's Are We Really Through and This Love Is Over from the God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise album. Vivid and detailed is the best way to describe this experience. When the lights are off it's easy to slip into the illusion of sitting in Ray's home in Massachusetts where the Grammy nominated (Best Engineering Non-classical) album was recorded. The vocals are so textured and relay so much emotion through the MA-1 that listening with repeat enabled was a common occurrence during the review period.
Early on in the review period, before I inquired about the intricate technical details of the MA-1, I used my Mac Pro workstation for playback through its USB interface. Immediately I notice something wrong with the sound. Every track, well recorded or not, sounded dull and the higher frequencies seemed completely cut off. The music was unappealing and could not hold my attention long enough to finish an entire track. I switched between all sample rates, playback applications, USB ports and USB cables in an unsuccessful effort to determine the cause of this subpar sound. I new what the MA-1 was capable of as I'd been listening through the Aurender S10 server via AES and S/PDIF (RCA) for weeks. I'd been thrilled with the sound up to this point. After too much dissatisfaction with the sound quality I switched to my C.A.P.S. v2.0 server with an SOtM tX-USB internal PCI to USB converter and SOtM SATA filter. The SOtM SATA filter has individual 12v, 5v, and 3,3v RF noise filters in addition to ripple noise filters. The SOtM tX-USB PCI to USB card in the C.A.P.S. v2.0 server has its own power line noise filter, individual ultra low noise regulators to power up to two attached USB devices, onboard ultra low jitter clock, onboard PCI host controller, and separate power connector. The tX-USB has an easily accessed manual switch that enables/disables sending power over the USB cable to the DAC. The MA-1 does require USB bus power for the USB input to function. As quickly as I noticed something wrong with the previous configuration I noticed how right this setup sounded with incredible details and no digital edge. Running the Meitner Audio MA-1 via USB from the C.A.P.S. v2.0 server was every bit as good as the Aurender S10 via AES if not slightly better in the bass regions. Attack and transients were simply stunning using the Meitner recommend ASIO driver and J River Media Center. Comparing this async USB setup to the Aurender's S/PDIF (RCA) output was no contest as the C.A.P.S. v2.0 server surpassed it in sound quality. Lacking a BNC output may be an Achilles heel for the Aurender S10 if an electrical S/PDIF connection is required. Switching to the C.A.P.S. v2.0 server provided a solution, but I was not entirely sure I new the cause of the problem. I had a hunch it was due to lack of galvanic isolation on the USB input. A lack of such isolation would provide the USB connected computer a direct electrical connection to the DAC's sensitive internal components. I didn't truly know if Meitner had isolated the USB input as I hadn't asked about all the technical details at this point. I followed up with the Meitner Audio team. I was told the MA-1 USB input is not isolated and this was very likely the cause of the sound quality issue I heard when using my Mac Pro workstation with its noisy power supply, spinning drives, video card, and generally noisy internal environment. The Meitner team is very learned in computer technology. We discussed the Mac Pro and how much better many of the newer computers may be when paired with the MA-1. This is because many companies are using laptop type motherboards and power supplies whether the computer is a laptop or desktop. in fact the C.A.P.S. v2.0 server is much closer to a laptop than desktop when considering the internal components. My subsequent results when using a MacBook Pro laptop fit snugly with this explanation. Using a MacBook Pro with Amarra 2.3 and iTunes the sound quality was pretty close to the C.A.P.S. v2.0 server and Aurender S10.
Recapping my experience with the Meitner Audio MA-1, I preferred the sound quality with the C.A.P.S. v2.0 server via asynchronous USB slightly better than through the Aurender S10 via AES. However I could easily live with the sonics delivered by either source through the MA-1. Without both C.A.P.S. v2.0 and Aurender S10 sources in one's home for extended periods of time the sonic differences may not even be noticeable on many systems. Comparing the Meitner Audio MA-1 to DACs such as the Weiss DAC202, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, and dCS Debussy reveals what will be a less than a satisfactory answer for readers seeking what Regis Philbin called THE final answer. The DAC202 and Alpha are in one camp while the MA-1 and Debussy are in another camp. Neither twosome is unequivocally the winner of any DAC shootout. Chances are good that listeners will like one camp better than the other. Compared to the MA-1 and Debussy the DAC202 and Alpha sound pretty laid back with a touch more transparency and a skosh less dynamics and vivid bass slam.
By now it's a foregone conclusion that the Meitner Audio MA-1 has easily made the Computer Audiophile Suggested Hardware List (C.A.S.H. List)link. Ed Meitner's new Meitner Audio brand is off to a great start with its MA-1 Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). Trickle down technology has enabled Meitner Audio to offer excellent performance at lower prices than the flagship EMM Labs components. The MA-1 with its host of 24/192 capable digital inputs including asynchronous USB is an incredibly enjoyable DAC. Encompassing custom discrete 128fs-DSD balanced DACs, a single non-crystal master clock with sub-picosecond jitter, and Meitner's MFAST and MDAT technologies the nano-tech based MA-1 is not simply assembled by Meitner Audio. Rather the MA-1 was designed from the ground up using technologies that don't come standard with off-the-shelf DACs. The result is a texture rich, exquisitely detailed DAC with wonderfully controlled bass. Despite its unisolated USB input the MA-1 DAC is still on the top of the digital hill with products from Weiss, Berkeley Audio Design, and dCS. I would happily live with the Meitner Audio MA-1 DAC in my system. In fact I have for a couple months. The MA-1 was one of the most enjoyable products I've reviewed in recent memory.
Source: Aurender S10, C.A.P.S. v2.0 Server, Mac Pro, MacBook Pro
Remote Control Software: Aurender iPad App, Remote, BitRemote
Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 4, iPad, MacBook Air
Playback Software OS X Lion 10.7.1: iTunes 10.4.1 (10), Amarra 2.3, Pure Music 1.82, BitPerfect 0.30
Playback Software Windows 7: J River Media Center 16
DAC: Audio research DAC8, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 1
Preamp: Audio Research LS27
Amplifier: Bel Canto Design ref1000m
Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
Cables: AudioQuest Redwood Loudspeaker Cable, AudioQuest Niagara Balanced XLR Analog Interconnects, Mogami W3173 Heavy Duty AES 110 ?, AudioQuest NRG-100 Power Cables , Wire World Silver Starlight USB Cable, Kimber Select KS2020 S/PSIF Coax Cable