Meitner MA-2 Integrated Playback System

enjoythemusic.com 12/2013

Jules Coleman

Ed Meitner and EMM Labs have been at the forefront of innovation in digital for the past twenty years. EMM Labs has gained a well-deserved reputation for extraordinary, natural, musically persuasive performance as well as versatility. In fact their reputation is based as much on aesthetic sensibility as technological know-how. This is a rare combination. Rarer still is the fact that Meitner has resisted all temptations at self-promotion. He has let his equipment speak for itself. In fact, he has let the various testimonials from reviewers, professional users, audiophiles and music lovers do the talking. I have never run across a person who has listened in a sustained way to any of Meitner's EMM Lab components who has found them wanting in the least. Well-conceived, well made, technologically advanced, versatile and easy to use: that's the EMM signature... and more! If there is a distinctive musical characteristic of Meitner's designs it is that they are able to bring all their technological advances to the service of music.

For many of us who have focused our listening on analog, the terms ‘digital' and ‘music' do not represent a natural partnership. There is no need to relive the false promise of perfect sound forever. For all we know, even early CD did provide perfect sound; what it did not provide was music, which only goes to show that the difference between sound and music may be even greater than we had previously imagined.

Meitner MA-2 Integrated Playback UnitBut there is no denying that digital playback has improved in the last 30 years – substantially so. Still, there is no denying that there are distracting features of digital playback that have kept it from being as musically convincing as it might otherwise be. For me, these have fallen into two categories: the unavoidable emphasis on the leading edge of instruments and the blackness of background. The black background gives one the sense that the musical event is taking place in a space of infinite darkness. I find that distracting and unrealistic. Musical events take place in rooms; and rooms are filled with air and air has weight, dirt, dust and more. They are real spaces, not empty spaces.

Beyond that the darkness naturally leads to an emphasis on the leading edge. They are not rounded off by competing with the dirt and weight of the air; and to my ear this is unrealistic – and distracting. I have never doubted that digital files and recordings were capable of capturing all of the significant information in a live performance. My problem has always been the same one that has concerned me about audio systems from the outset. A successful audio system has to integrate the information in ways that give the listener access to underlying event: that create intellectual insights and emotional experiences in the right way.

My previous experience with digital is that for the most part it presents the music as if it were a police report: flat, full, undifferentiated – without insight or access to important facts about the composer, performer or their aesthetic judgments and interpretations.

Reimyo CD Player

In my previous experience with CD players, I had made what I now realize was a mistake. I thought that the best CD players would be those that most closely emulated the sound of analog. I also had a particular conception of what that meant: richer, warmer, more full bodied, harmonically more developed – and so on. The net effect of being committed to this vision is that I came to adore the Reimyo CD player for the simple reason that it did not sound like digital.

That was a mistake on my part. There was nothing wrong with the Reimyo. In fact, it is quite a good CD player; and an even better transport. But the quality of a CD player does not depend on its sounding like a turntable. The truth is that digital sources and analog sources don't sound the same. They are different sources and have distinctive characters. But done correctly both can contribute significantly to providing the listener with the right kind of insight and emotional experience appropriate to the original performance. This has been a major revelation for me; and I owe it entirely to the last few months I have spent with the Meitner MA-2 integrated playback system. It is a great digital source .

Meitner MA-2

Meitner MA-2 Integrated Playback SystemThe Meitner MA-2 is an extremely versatile player. It is capable of playing standard redbook CD. It upsamples digital audio to 5.6MHz which is double the SACD standard and can support 44.1 to 192 kHz through all of its digital inputs, including USB. It has four such inputs. It can also stream DSD over USB. It is a technically superior product at the affordable price of 11,000.

You can read more about the Meitner's technical specifications and options on the website. The real question is how does it sound? I had read a review of the Meitner MA-2 and he focused on everything but CD playback. That made my choice easy. I would focus instead on CD playback. In this regard, the Meitner excelled and constitutes a genuine achievement quite apart from its other virtues. I listened for hundreds of hours to all manner of CDs: rock, jazz, pop, classical, world music (my least favorite), opera. I even listened to the audio version of my brother's recent audio book, Gun Church.

Let us start with the latter. Some of you may remember that the original British LS35A design loudspeakers – including the Rogers – were designed around the human voice. I wanted to hear what the human voice sounded like in my system. The Meitner MA-2 served as my main source for the past four months. The remainder of the system included (primarily) Pass Labs top of the line preamplifier separates each with its own dedicated power supply, the Merrill VERITAS monoblock amplifier and the fabulous Soundlab Majestic 845 electrostatic speakers.

In my system, the human voice – entirely on its own – was terrifically convincing. I know the audio version of my brother's book extremely well. I know the actors, their voices, and more importantly what they were trying to convey in the reading. The Meitner presented the experience so convincingly, the story came to life and I found myself feeling that I was listening to a stage performance far more than a book reading.

This was merely the beginning, however. CD playback of Histoire de Soldat was the best I had experienced. Through the Meitner MA-2, Marianne Faithful was fragile, wounded and weary. Listening to Charles Lloyd's post 2001 elegy moved me to tears. Leonard Cohen's, "Tower of Song" captured the irony and the vision of the song. And when I listened to Warren Zevon's, "Keep Me in Your Heart" from album The Wind I realized it was the song I wanted my own memorial service to close out with.

Meitner MA-2 Integrated Playback SystemNo, the Meitner MA-2 does not sound like analog. It is not an analog system. It is a music playback system. It doesn't sound like digital either. It really doesn't have a sound – at least not one that calls attention to itself. It performs the most important task any component in audio system should. It provides access to anything you would want to know or feel or experience about the original recording. It feeds the mind, the soul and the heart of the listener.

It doesn't do this by calling attention to its transparency or resolution, to its speed or its neutrality. It does this by presenting all of the significant musical values – tone, timbre, dynamic consistency, coherence in a fully resolved, integrated whole. It represents a masterful achievement in digital sources, bringing the very best of what EMM Labs has to offer to the music loving audiophile at a price point many are willing to pay.

I am sure there are CD playback systems that are somewhat more fine-grained in their detail, slightly more resolute, fast or whatever. But one would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying musical source – CD or otherwise – at anything like its price. If you are in the market for a CD player or high resolution digital audio player, and like me, you listen to music to learn something. Perhaps about art, the artists, music, musicians, editors, mixers, remasters, and most of all yourself... the place where music fills in your life and your place in the world, I recommend you begin your search with the Meitner MA-2. You will probably find no reason to look or listen further.

Specifications

Type: Digital to Analog Converter/CD Player
Advanced slot-loading transport for Red Book CD playback
Analog Outputs (Stereo): Balanced (XLR) and Unbalanced (RCA)
Output Voltage: XLR outputs 4.6Vrms and RCA 2.3Vrms
Output impedance: 300 Ohms balanced XLR and 150 Ohms unbalanced RCA
Sampling Rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192kHz at 24 bits
Digital Inputs: USB, AES/EBU, optical TosLink S/PDIF, and coax S/PDIF
DSD streaming over USB (DoP 1.0 specification)
MFAST asynchronous technology for instant signal acquisition, jitter-free performance
MDAT signal processing technology:
Provides 2x DSD upsampling for PCM playback
MDAC discrete dual differential D-to-A conversion circuit
MCLK high-purity master clock that establishes new benchmarks in jitter performance
Multifunction infrared remote control
USB service port for future software upgrades
RS232 serial port for wired remote control
Dimensions: 435 x 400 x 140 (WxDxH in mm)
Weight: 19.8 lbs.
Price: $11,000