Enjoy the music 08/2018
On Amazon.com one can purchase a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) with three digital inputs and a volume control for $30. Leave out the volume control and limit yourself to only one digital input and you can purchase a DAC for $14. So, why the heck would anyone, even an audiophile, pay more than $2000 for a DAC? And while we're at it, why would an audiophile purchase this EMM Labs DA2 for $25,000? There's really no answer to this other than sound quality, of course, and as proof of this, audiophiles do purchase DACs for over $2000, which is how much my affordable reference, Benchmark Media's DAC3HGC costs, and audiophiles have paid $25,000 for the subject of this review, the EMM Labs DA2.
So, when faced with the question, "What is the best high-end DAC made today?", the answer will likely start a debate among audiophiles, as there's more than one answer to that question. But, there is no doubt that EMM Labs' converters will be mentioned quite a few times. Why? Because not only has EMM Labs' Ed Meitner been there since the beginning of the implementation of the SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc, just in case you've forgotten) but also because he's one of the world's leading experts in digital converter design. EMM Labs is, in fact, the DSD reference of the recording industry -- almost every new SACD in production is made with an EMM Labs DSD converter. EMM Labs decided to build this technology into their own brand of high-end converters so that audiophiles can use this technology in their home systems. EMM Labs says that their DA2 was designed "from the ground up" and includes the first true, fully discrete DSD1024 / 16x DSD converter that is built in-house.
EMM Labs' DA2 also includes Ed Meitner's "latest generation" analog stages, and has all the digital inputs one could desire, including support for DSD, 2x DSD and DXD (352 and 384kHz PCM) via USB, processing and up-conversion all incoming audio, PCM and DSD, before sending it to its new 16x DSD DACs. The DA2 also uses Meitner's proprietary hardware galvanic isolation for its USB interface. This physically isolates its USB interface from source power systems, which tend to be quite noisy. The DA2 also uses EMM Labs' enhanced MFAST technology for "instant signal acquisition" and claims to be completely jitter-free, which is mostly due to EMM's "next generation" MCLK2 proprietary "custom-built, super accurate" clock, which was revised to work with its new 16x DSD DACs. That's why.
The rather large EMM Labs DA2 measures about 17" wide by 16" deep by 6" high. It is also quite heavy, weighing in at about 40 pounds. Its size and weight are due to many factors, among them EMM's isolation scheme mentioned above, and an overbuilt, extremely capable power supply and analog stages. My sample was finished in silver and dark gray, but 24K gold or nickel-plated finishes are also available. I placed this serious piece of audiophile kit on a Pangea equipment rack next to my Arcici Suspense rack that held most of my other gear. Even though I felt that the DA2 deserved to be located on something much better than an affordable equipment rack, but the Arcici was already filled with other components.
To compensate, under the DA2 I placed a set of German Acoustic isolation cones. In the past these metal alloy and wood cones improved the sound of many different types of equipment, I used them under many different types of components before I acquired my Arcici rack. I listened to the DA2 for quite a while with the cones supporting it, then removed the cones for a few days, then placed them back under the converter. I concluded that they did absolutely nothing to change the DA2's sound, for better or worse. After that experiment, I didn't feel as bad that the it was supported by a less accomplished rack than my Arcici. It's obvious that EMM Labs cut no corners when designing and constructing the interior and exterior of the DA2's cabinet.
Connecting the DA2 to my system was simple. At first, I tried running the DA2's Kimber Kable PK10 power cable directly to the wall receptacle, and then near the end of the review period to a PS Audio DirectStream PS20 Power Plant AC regenerator (review forthcoming). I heard a more than a slight improvement when I chose to connect the power cable to the PS Audio unit, which provides a perfect 120-volt, 60 Hz sine wave. Throughout the DA2's stay, most of the time I used as a digital source my computer-based music server, its USB output linked to the DA2's USB input using Furutech USB cable. I also have an OPPO universal disc player when playing the very occasional silver (or gold) disc, but only the non-SACD output of the transport was hooked up to the DA2's coax S/PDIF input. I connected the DA2 to several line stages, including the Nagra Classic Preamp I recently reviewed, plus my reference Mark Levinson No 523, and also the Merrill Audio Christine Reference Preamplifier.
For most of the review period the line stages were connected to McIntosh MC611 monoblocks that were in my system for review, but after I returned them to the manufacturer I used my reference Pass Laboratories X350.5, which is a solid-state amp that has 350 Watts per channel on board. At the tail end of the review the new Merrill Audio Element 118 monoblocks (review forthcoming). Speakers were my reference Sound Lab Majestic 545 full-range electrostatics, augmented by a pair of Velodyne 1250 Watt 15" subwoofers. All interconnects were either single ended RCA or balanced XLR cables made by Accusound (review forthcoming), speaker cable was either the extravagant Westlake Audio, and late in the review, a review sample of a 12-foot run of Accusound speaker cable.
The AC power in my dedicated listening room consists of two direct lines that are connected directly to our home's circuit panel box. On the walls behind and to the sides of speakers are absorptive acoustic treatment panels, and behind my listening seat are a pair of reflective acoustic treatment panels. The floor of the listening room is covered with a tan-colored industrial-grade carpet which further absorbs any stray sound waves that might be lingering about. As an aside, I once read on an internet forum that the clothes that one wears might even affect the sound of one's system in some way, as some audiophile purists say that everything affects the sound of a system. I'd investigate their claims, but I'm too busy listening to and enjoying music.
I've discovered that when it comes to digital-to-analog converters, the law of diminishing returns is conditionally enforced. I don't mean that one cannot hear much difference between DACs, but that if judged on sound quality alone, the difference between my affordable reference Benchmark DAC and the subject of this review would likely not be monumental if connected to a system that could not appreciate the difference. That's one of the reasons I took the time to outline the contents of my reference system in detail. It might be more information than most might need, but when considering the sound quality of a DAC, the differences in sound quality between them becomes much more noticeable as the quality of the associated gear increases, and it is then that some of the differences between DAC's become quite significant. There are certainly better systems out there than the one that I used for this review, but it is good enough to appreciate the EMM Labs DA2's sound. That being said, I enjoyed every second that the EMM Labs DA2 was in my system.
Judging digital components are sometimes very different than judging the sound quality of just about any other type of high-end component. This is true especially when one starts getting into the nuances of their sound quality. There is no doubt that the EMM Labs DA2 sounds fabulous, and this is likely due to many factors. High on this list is at the heart of the way EMM Labs converts a digital signal to analog. I've discovered that in the lower priced DACs the mass-market DAC chip being used might be the only factor in determining its sound quality. The name of the game is to use the most up-to-date chip a manufacturer can purchase, but the result is that the DACs in this class sound very similar since they are all using the same type of chip. EMM Labs isn't satisfied with building a DAC in this way, and instead designs their method of digital conversion in-house, a method that the makers of lover priced DACs do not have the means (or expertise) to do. And in doing this, and in addition to other things that might be even more costly, EMM Lab's design and manufacturing techniques result in DACs that deliver state-of-the-art sound.
When playing files from my server, regardless if they were DSD (SACD) files or the more common "CD quality" tracks, what came through my speakers was a sound that I could sit down and listen to with my full time and attention. I'm not trying to sound snobbish, but in my listening room I usually spin vinyl when I want to sit in the sweet spot and enjoy music, and digital is for listening to off-axis for at least some of the time, when multi-tasking, or for playing in my portable devices. This isn't a hard and fast rule, since I often listen to digital when sitting down and listening, usually when playing a DSD file. But with the EMM Labs DA2 in my system all this became moot, since when playing back music, I often forget which source was delivering the music, digital or analog. The EMM Labs DA2 is that good.
I recently acquired Frank Zappa's The Roxy Performances, which includes all four Roxy shows in Los Angeles in December of 1973. Most of what is on these discs have been previously released on past live albums. But all this material was remixed and remastered for this 7 CD set, and all of it sound much, much better than on their previously released counterparts. One might think that I should discuss how the EMM Labs DA2 sounded when playing DSD files. I will. But most of my digital listening is via plain vanilla CD files, because that's the type of digital I've been accumulating since the introduction of the CD in the 1980s. Granted, some of those early CDs sounded like crap, but thankfully rather than becoming an early adopter, I gradually lowered myself into the CD waters. And so, I only have a few files from digital's bad old days, and many of those that remain will soon be replaced by remastered CDs or higher resolution files. Still, the majority of the music stored on my hard-drives are 16-bit, 44.1 kHz files. The good news is that the EMM Labs DAC made these "CD quality" files sound fabulous.
Even though in their literature EMM Labs states how they are able to make these files sound so good, I've read so much literature from high-end audio manufactures that are filled with audiophile hyperbole I've just about become immune to it. My skepticism turned to glee as my favorite era of Frank Zappa came alive in my listening room. These recordings aren't the easiest to reproduce in a life-like manner. His band was quite large, including two drummers, the incredible Chester Thompson, and Zappa regular Ralph Humphrey. I'm pretty sure it is Mr. Thompson that was relegated to the left speaker, Humphrey to the right. Floating in between the speakers were the witty stylings of Frank Zappa's, his volume levels regulated by a high-quality compressor/limiter, and behind him and spread throughout the relatively vast soundstage was his big band, including the very talented Ruth Underwood on percussion, which included her complex marimba and xylophone playing that is unmatched in this genre, and on full display throughout Zappa's complex, convoluted jazz/rock/unclassifiable fusion. A few different types of keyboards and synths were played by the brilliant George Duke, saxophone and flute by Zappa mainstay Napoleon Murphy Brock, and of course there's the trombone and bass team of brothers Tom and Bruce Fowler.
The Holy Grail of sound reproduction is not being able to determine the difference between live and recorded sound. We haven't gotten there yet. And to put all the blame for not being able to achieve this because of the EMM Lab's contribution to my system makes no sense. Yet I'm not taking much of a risk by proclaiming the DA2's sound quality as the best DAC I have ever heard. There are no sonic nits to pick, nor do I have any suggestions as to how the sound quality DA2 could be improved, short of the Holy Grail I spoke of. The sound of the DA2 was enveloping, though I am not attempting to imply that the EMM Lab's sound had a forward character. Not at all. It was just that the DA2 let the rest of my equipment perform at its best, and when the music sounded good, it sounded very good, and when everything sounded good and the music locked into place I felt as if there must be some sort of psychoacoustic effect that allowed my brain to be able to follow everything going on during these recorded performances that came forth through my speakers, which made me feel as if I was being enveloped in the sound of the music. All this with basic, off-the-shelf, 16-bit 44.1 kHz files that were burned from compact discs. Go figure.
Later in the review period I played an album of another contemporary large ensemble, even though this time "contemporary" meant ten years prior to when the Zappa set was recorded. It was the album recorded by Charles Mingus' band, the one that he assembled for the recording of The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady originally released on Impulse Records in 1963. But this time out I listened to an SACD version released by Analogue Productions in 2011, playing the DSD files via my music server. The EMM Labs DA2 managed to do it again, that is, to silence my inner dialog while I became entranced in the music, easily following all the members of Mingus' ensemble that were part of the sonic picture that formed in the front portion of my listening room. This was an enthralling listening experience, even though the band was reproduced in an odd way – Mingus was panned hard to the left speaker, and all the other instruments in the band emanated from either the left or right channel, except for the drums which were recorded in stereo and filled the rear and top of the soundstage.
Through my large speakers the soundstage took the shape of a humongous arch, the stanchions of this structure were made of the piano and horns on either side, which held the top of the arch so high it seemed as if I would be able to walk under it, which was composed of the drums, which sounded as if they were recorded from microphones placed from above. Regardless of this uniquely shaped soundstage, it projected an extremely clear sonic picture of what went down in that sound studio during the recording of this album. It was as if I could "see" the band playing with my mind's ears. During solos, especially when Charles Mingus' piano was featured, it enabled me to hear the ambience, which was made up from the air of the studio, and this made it so I could perceive the room's dimensions despite the way the band was arranged in front of me.
This was a weird listening experience, since the all of the instruments other than the drums were coming from either speaker, without much center-fill to ground me. I've heard this album many times, through some very decent analog and digital sources, although the EMM Labs DA2 ability to reproduce this recording in such a non-digital and even non-analog way made this the best I've ever heard it. There were many characteristics of the DA2 that made it the best I've ever heard it, and there is hardly enough space here to describe all the audiophile qualities that this component possessed.
To my ears, it was the treble that the DA2 was able to reproduce that stood out during this particular listening session and that too was the finest I've ever heard from a digital source. No, this SACD of course didn't have a 20 kHz ceiling imposed by the Nyquist frequency that prevents the treble of "normal" CDs of having any ultrasonic extension, but I've heard this through many other DSD capable DACs in the past. Although, this time it was different, because the treble didn't sound like it was being reproduced from an SACD file, it sounded like it was simply being reproduced. Period. And of course, the audible frequencies were reproduced with the utmost in realism and extension, and all the other things us audiophiles like to talk about in the high-end when we hear the best components, such as the ultimate soundstage, imaging, transient response, etc., but now all these things hardly mattered, as the DA2 became an invisible component simply doing its job. I've dreamed of the day when digital would sound as good as was promised back in the day. It's here. Finally.
High-End Hi-Res Audio
There are a few other brands and models of digital-to-analog converters besides the EMM Labs DA2 that one could be consider if looking for a DAC to match with one's fine high-end system. Perhaps one or more of them might sound as good, or better than the DA2. Or maybe not. In my system the EMM Labs DA2 sounded sublime, mostly because it became a transparent link between the music that was digitally encoded and my ears. I've heard good digital before hearing the EMM Labs converter was in my system, but from now on this is the DAC that I'm going to have to compare to any others that I review -- or consider for purchase (even if it's scary to think that EMM Labs continues its research and development and may someday introduce improvements to this DAC. And so, I've decided in this case it's best to live in the now). Yes, the DA2 is a bit pricey. But occasionally, you get what you pay for. If you have the means, consider donating to a cause you believe in, and then purchase the EMM Labs DA2. It comes with my highest recommendation.
Type: Two-channel Hi-Res Audio digital to analog converter
Two-Channel D/A conversions:
From PCM (44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz) to analog
From PCM 352DXD and 384DXD to analog via USB
From DSD and 2xDSD to analog via USB
From DSD to analog via EMM Optilink (SACD/CD playback)
Supported digital input formats:
Two coax S/PDIF
Two optical TosLink S/PDIF
USB Audio Analog outputs and impedances:
Balanced on XLR (300 Ohm)
Unbalanced on RCA (150 Ohm) Output levels:
XLR outputs: 5V (+16dBu)
RCA outputs: 2.5V (+10dBu)
System control via Infrared remote and serial R232 ports
Dimensions: 17.25 x 15.75 x 6.33 (WxDxH)
Weight: 38 lbs.