EMM Labs DA2 Reference Digital-to-Analog Converter SoundStage 07/2017

Doug Schneider,
SoundStage 07/2017

Edmund Meitner’s experience in audio long predates EMM Labs, the company he founded in 1998. Briefly, in the 1970s and early ’80s, Meitner designed audio signal generators and a distortion analyzer for Amber Electro Design, and was also the chief audio designer at Olive Electrodynamics, for a team that developed the world’s first automated multitrack recording console. Every time I measure speakers at Canada’s National Research Council, I see an Amber analyzer he helped create, still in use in the lab adjoining the NRC’s anechoic chamber.

Meitner’s first shot at consumer audio was with Meitner Audio, which he founded in 1982, and where he developed the PA-6 preamplifier, STR-50 stereo amplifier, MTR-100 mono amplifier, and CD-3 CD player. I remember these products well -- they were true high-end hi-fi components in small, compact cases, and were all reasonably priced. Ed Meitner was designing affordable lifestyle products before most others had thought much about it.

In 1987, with Kurien Jacob, Meitner cofounded Museatex Audio, and folded updated Meitner models into the Museatex product line. Melior, a lower-priced subbrand that included speakers, was under the Museatex umbrella. At Museatex, Meitner became renowned for his skill in designing high-end CD players and DACs, and registered several patents for the technologies he invented there. It was also where he began working with single-bit converters, starting with the Melior Bitstream DAC and then the Museatex IDAT-44, both released in the early ’90s.

In 1993, Museatex and other brands became parts of a/d/s/ Technologies, where Meitner became chief designer. Toward the latter part of the ’90s, he was drafted by Sony and Philips to be part of their Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) project, which resulted in Direct Stream Digital (DSD) and, indirectly, EMM Labs. In 1998, Meitner, through his new company, created for Sony and Philips true one-bit analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters and, eventually, the Sonoma DSD audio workstation. (Direct Stream Digital and DSD are Sony and Philips’s trade names for one-bit processing, aka pulse density modulation.) Meitner then went on to develop numerous professional and consumer audio electronics for EMM Labs, and in 2007, under the EMM banner, revived Meitner Audio to produce a line of lower-priced products.

All of that only scratches the surface of Meitner’s substantial body of work, but it gives some context for the product reviewed here: the EMM Labs DA2 Reference DAC ($25,000 USD). The most expensive DAC Meitner has designed to date, the DA2 Reference is claimed to represent all that he has learned about converting digital signals to analog. Given Meitner’s résumé, I expected a lot from it.

Description

Measuring 17.2”W x 6.34”H x 15.75”D and weighing almost 38 pounds, the DA2 Reference is big and heavy for a DAC, much of its heft accounted for by its solidly built aluminum case -- the top and sides are each about 1/4” thick, the faceplate about 1/2” thick, and the bottom varies in thickness from 1/4” at the edges to 3/8” around the circuit boards. Rapping a knuckle anywhere on the case produces a dull thuck, never a metallic ring. It’s a sturdy beast, finished extremely well -- the metal on all sides of my review sample was perfectly finished -- and attractively styled. In fact, it’s the best-looking DAC I’ve had in my system; surprising, because I usually like less bulky components.

A lot of the DA2 Reference’s visual appeal is in its clean-looking front panel, which is divided into thirds. The leftmost third is the same silvery-white as the top and sides, with a Standby/Power-Save button near the bottom-left corner for day-to-day powering on, and the EMM Labs logo engraved at top left. The rightmost third is the same silvery-white, with only “DA2” engraved at bottom right.

The middle section, in a contrasting dark gray finish called Titanium (standard), or real 24K gold or nickel plating for $5000 more (that price also extends the warranty by two years, for a total of seven years), is where the action is. There’s a backlit LCD display toward the top, “meitnerdesign” engraved toward the bottom, and between them, five rectangular pushbuttons, their labels showing on the bottommost part of the screen: from left, Mute, Polarity, Menu, and two Inputs. Within Menu, it’s possible to adjust the display’s contrast and brightness; the two Input buttons can be assigned to two specific inputs, or used as left and right buttons to toggle through all the inputs.

The case’s generous size made it possible for EMM to give each of the DA2 Reference’s many rear-panel connectors lots of space. At top left is a row of seven digital inputs, from left to right: one AES/EBU (XLR), two coax (RCA), two optical (TosLink), one USB, and one EMM OptiLink (for connection to an EMM Labs transport). All inputs can handle PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz. Additionally, the USB link, which is compatible with Windows, OS X, and Linux, will support PCM at 352.8 (i.e., DXD) and 384, as well as DSD64 and DSD128. Technically, the EMM OptiLink input can handle even higher resolutions and more channels than the USB input, but the connecting device must be able to provide those signals.

To the right of the digital inputs are what EMM calls the System inputs: an RS-232 communication port, a USB connector for firmware updates, and a Reset button to reinstate the factory-default firmware and settings. Toward the bottom left are pairs of single-ended and balanced outputs. To the far right are a main Power switch and an IEC-compatible power inlet for the supplied power cord, which, unlike with most DACs, is a Kimber Kable cord custom-made for EMM Labs.

While I admire the DA2 casework’s look and build, and applaud its ample inputs, it’s what’s inside this DAC that most matters: the various Meitner innovations over the years that distinguish it from its competitors. For example, most DACs use off-the-shelf chips to convert digital signals to analog, often using the standard digital filter(s) already built into the chip. Not so with Meitner’s DACs.

At the heart of the DA2 are Meitner-designed and -manufactured MDAC2 DACs, newly designed for this model. These discrete, single-bit designs run at extremely high speed -- 16 times that of single-rate DSD (2.8224MHz), aka DSD1024. According to EMM Labs, the DA2 is the first consumer converter to operate at so high a sample rate.

The main reason that Ed Meitner prefers single-bit to multibit DACs is that the former are inherently linear. In a single-bit converter, any value is made up by adding or subtracting the same small value many times. That value is set by a single resistor. In contrast, multibit converters build up values by adding different combinations of smaller values, those values set by combinations of resistors. No matter how close the manufacturing tolerances of those resistors, it’s impossible to get the multiple resistors in exact ratios to each other -- the resulting signal level will always be just a bit off. Ed Meitner believes that the superior linearity of single-bit designs is audible. However, single-bit processing isn’t without challenges of its own.

One of the main criticisms of plain ol’ DSD, the digital format for the Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD), is the ultrasonic noise that results from high-speed switching and must be removed by a filter.

With standard DSD, special noise-shaping techniques were developed to move the noise higher in frequency, but that was never enough to silence those who felt that the noise and the necessary filters were still too close to the audioband. However, we now have two times, four times -- and, with the DA2 Reference, sixteen times DSD’s original sample rate. With each multiple of the sampling frequency, the ultrasonic noise generated is higher in frequency and farther above the audioband, and thus less harmful to the sound frequencies humans can actually hear.

In addition to its custom DACs, the DA2 has other proprietary features, including: “hardware galvanic isolation for its USB interface,” claimed to “further isolate its USB interface from noisy source power systems”; MFAST, a “high-speed asynchronous jitter removal technology”; MCLK2, a “custom-built, super-accurate clock” that, Meitner says, has been designed specifically for Meitner’s new high-speed DACs; and MDAT2, a digital signal processor that “performs real-time transient detection, processing, and up-conversion of all incoming audio, PCM and DSD, before sending it to the new 16xDSD DACs.” The DSP is implemented with a built-in field-programmable gate array (FPGA). As in all Meitner designs, the digital clock is placed right beside the DACs, where it matters most.

The power supply occupies its own subenclosure inside the case, running from front to back on the left. It includes power-factor correction, for optimal operating efficiency and to optimize the transfer of energy to the circuitry. Attached to the upper part of the inner side of the rear panel is a board that contains all of the circuitry for the rear inputs.

Recessed slightly into the thick baseplate and toward the middle are the main digital circuit board, to which cables run from the inputs board and the main display board; behind the digital board is the DAC board, on which are installed such things as the DACs, clock, and analog outputs. Whereas the input, display, and main digital boards are blue, the DAC board is cream colored -- it’s made of ceramic, for optimal signal transfer.

System

For my most critical listening, I connected the DA2 Reference to my Samsung laptop, running Windows 10, with an AudioQuest Diamond USB link. Software players used were Roon, JRiver Media Center 21, and Tidal streaming service’s desktop app. Music files were delivered from my NAS device or streamed from Tidal. Speakers were KEF Blade Twos at first, followed by KEF Reference 3s.

Amplifiers were the Blue Circle Audio BC204 stereo or JE Audio VM60 mono amps, the speakers connected to them with Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L cables. Most of the time I used a Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P preamplifier that’s been in my system a couple of years now, and with which I’m most familiar -- but I also used the DA2 with an EMM Labs Pre2 preamp they’d sent along with the DA2 Reference. For both preamps, I always used Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Standard Diamond balanced interconnects.

Sound

Although the DA2 Reference is the first Meitner-designed DAC for which I’ve written a full review, in November 2013 I had the original Meitner Audio MA-1 ($7000) and EMM Labs DAC2X ($15,500) DACs in my system, and blogged about my experiences with them on SoundStage! Global. (Recently, at High End 2017 in Munich, new versions of each model were released; I haven’t yet heard them, so keep that in mind as you read what follows.) The MA-1 was good but didn’t blow me away -- I thought it sounded as good as but not significantly better than the best DACs of similar price at that time.

The DAC2X was a different story. Although there were no differences in tonal balance between it and the MA-1 -- both displayed utter neutrality across the audioband, as any good converter should -- the DAC2X unveiled much more detail, resulting in my being able to hear more musical nuances in every recording I played through it. This translated into wider soundstages, and better image specificity on those stages.

I also found its extreme highs to be subtly smoother and cleaner than the MA-1’s. Finally, the DAC2X sounded more present than the MA-1, though not in a richer, bloomier way. Instead, there was more there there -- music sounded grander, more alive, more majestic through the DAC2X. What might have accounted for that was its higher resolution.

Bringing the DA2 Reference into my system resulted in changes of as great a magnitude as when the DAC2X followed the MA-1. The first thing that popped up was the DA2’s reproduction of high frequencies -- it sounded not only a bit different from what I recall of the DAC2X, but from any other DAC I’ve heard. The DA2’s highs were extended and effortless, but also softer in a way that I’d never experienced before. This was musically enjoyable, but at first it had me wondering what was going on.

 

Because the DAC2X was already gone, the first thing I did was compare the DA2 with two other DACs I had on hand -- the Aqua-Acoustic Quality Formula ($14,000) and the Hegel Music Systems HD30 ($4800) -- to make sure the DA2 wasn’t rolling off the highs, which would account for this softness. Doing so revealed that, in comparison to these DACs, the highs weren’t being rolled off in any way I could hear -- the levels seemed the same. However, I did notice that the DA2’s highs were subtly cleaner than the HD30’s. That didn’t surprise me, given the huge difference in price, but the DA2 was quite a bit cleaner and less splashy than the Formula’s highs -- and that was more surprising, as the Formula is expensive. I also found the DA2’s top end to sound a little more delicate and refined than the Formula’s and HD30’s, as well as more detailed, which was particularly noticeable with brushed cymbals -- they sounded cleaner and more distinct through the DA2. I chalk up the DA2’s softness to its producing the cleanest, most detailed highs I’ve heard from any digital source.

Just as noticeable was the exceptional amount of detail the DA2 could reveal -- more than I remember from the DAC2X. This not only meant unveiling more musical details, but also, as with the DAC2X vs. MA-1, more precise imaging and even bigger soundstages. That increased resolution also revealed more “air” around musicians. In all, the DA2 made possible the deepest “looks” into recorded music that I’ve ever experienced.

For example, “Everest,” from Ani DiFranco’s Up Up Up Up Up Up (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Righteous Babe), was not only noteworthy for how precisely her voice was positioned toward the left side of the stage (where it should be, because it was mixed this way), but for the amount of space I easily heard around her voice -- more than I’d ever heard before. Greg Keelor’s powerful singing in “No Landing (Lucknow),” from his Gone (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Music Canada), soared from a tight spot at the center of the stage, its wide dynamic swings completely unrestrained (both of the KEF models I was using are capable of playback at lifelike levels). Yet it wasn’t only about being loud and clear -- all of Keelor’s subtle inflections and phrasings were revealed as if I’d trained a microscope on them. Without question, this was the best I’d heard these longtime reference recordings sound.

Alicia Keys’s Vault Playlist, Vol.1 (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA/Tidal) was released in April, and I’ve since added track 1, “No One (Acoustic),” to my stock of reference recordings. Featuring only Keys’s voice accompanied by acoustic guitar, it’s a beautiful, spare, acoustic remake of a song from her As I Am (2007). However, from what I heard through the DA2, the track includes plenty of modern recording trickery, such as digital processing, to make her voice sound lively and surrounded by an inordinate amount of space -- the plentiful reverb doesn’t sound like the reflections in a real room, as in DiFranco’s and Keelor’s recordings, but like an electronic effect. As a result, Keys’s voice didn’t sound nearly as authentic through the DA2 as did DiFranco’s and Keelor’s. However, I was very much taken with how cleanly and openly the DA2 reproduced Keys’s singing, how unrestrained and dynamic, and how well focused it was at the center of the stage -- I felt I could reach out and touch her. Which made it as riveting to listen to as the DiFranco and Keelor tracks.

Recordings with even bigger stages were just as noteworthy. I’ve long loved the sound of the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA), and now I have an even deeper understanding of where and how that album was recorded. I’ve talked about it many times with its producer and engineer, Peter J. Moore, and last April I visited the Church of the Holy Trinity, in downtown Toronto, to film the beginning of our new video series, Encore. For all but one of the album’s 12 tracks, the band was positioned in a circle, about 20’ from the church’s rear and side walls, which are mostly bare and thus extremely reflective, producing lots of natural reverb. As we stood where the band had set up 30 years before, Moore stomped on the floor at the precise spot where the drums had been, to let me hear the “sound” of this space. At home, listening to this recording through the DA2, I was enthralled when the apparent space re-created in my listening room sounded as wide and deep as the church itself had. This degree of accuracy of reproduced sound was uncanny.

Moore told me that Trinity’s first track, the a cappella “Mining for Gold,” was recorded toward the front of the church, where the surfaces are still hard but there are more nooks and crannies, so it’s not nearly as reverberant as the rest. What I could hear on this track through the DA2 more distinctly than with any other digital source were the small tinkling sounds amid the deep roar that the water-based heating system was making as Margo Timmins sang. Because Moore could do nothing about this -- the track was recorded in early December -- he decided to “embrace the heating system,” as he put it, and make it part of the music. In fact, he told me, he asked the janitor to crank the heater way up when Timmins was singing, so that it would make as much noise as possible. The tinkling sounds were the metal pipes expanding as they rapidly heated, and the character of the roar was startling -- it didn’t sound any weightier than I’ve heard it through other great DACs, but there was better definition of the textures through the DA2. Like the dead-accurate reproduction of space in my room, I chalk up the superior bass textures to the DA2’s exceptional resolving capabilities throughout the audioband.

Macy Gray’s latest album, Stripped (24/192 FLAC, Chesky), is like Trinity in that it was recorded in a church using minimal miking, and in just two days: April 7 and 8, 2016. (Most of Trinity was recorded on November 27, 1987, and “Mining for Gold” a week later.) The big difference is that Stripped was recorded binaurally, a technique to create a much more natural-sounding soundstage through headphones. Through speakers, Gray’s voice is still centered, but the instruments around her are spread way too far to left and right -- the soundstage is unnaturally wide. Even so, it was amazing to hear it through the DA2 and witness such depth and overall space, and the tonal accuracy of Gray’s voice and the surrounding instruments. The simplicity of the recording technique, coupled with the DA2’s total transparency, made it sound as if I were present at the recording session -- from recording to playback, it was as accurate as reproduced sound gets.

Comparisons

Since the EMM Labs DAC2X was gone from my system by the time the DA2 arrived, I couldn’t compare them directly -- nonetheless, I feel that the DA2 was a considerable improvement. However, I also had on hand four very good DACs; these made for some interesting comparisons, not least because I’ve been using two of them as references in my system.

In 2012, when I reviewed Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 650D transport-DAC ($9000, discontinued), I was impressed by how well it struck a balance between musicality and detail -- it could unveil a wealth of recorded information while sounding super-smooth, and laid out soundstages with great width and awesome depth. However, the 650D is showing its age; it can’t compare with the DA2, even when the optional 820S external power supply is added ($9000), which ups its resolution a bit. The DA2 reproduced considerably more detail, yet sounded every bit as smooth without glossing over any rough edges. That doesn’t mean that the 650D is bad. Far from it -- five years ago, I considered it to be a reference-caliber digital source. But it has since passed the torch to more modern designs, some of which cost less (such as the PS Audio DirectStream Junior and Hegel HD30), some more: e.g., the original EMM Labs DAC2X, and now the DA2 Reference.

The Hegel HD30 is a shockingly good DAC for $4800, with high resolution and an overall cleanness of sound that exceed the 650D’s and very closely approach those of the DA2 Reference. The HD30 is extremely revealing, with very clean, incisive sound that lets me hear deeply into recordings -- and if you require only digital inputs (it has no analog inputs), its volume control lets it function as a preamp. Where it can’t match the DA2, or what I recall of the DAC2X, is in soundstage width and depth and overall presence of sound -- the more there that was there with the DA2. This was particularly noticeable with piano recordings, such as the Largo of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.3, from Ólafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott’s The Chopin Project (16/44.1 FLAC, Universal Music/Tidal). The thunderous keystrokes that open the work didn’t sound quite as grand through the HD30 as through the DA2. Voices, too -- Greg Keelor’s, Margo Timmins’s, Ani DiFranco’s, you name it -- lacked a hint of body through the HD30 that they had through the DA2.

Unlike the single-bit DA2, Aqua-Acoustic Quality’s Formula DAC ($14,000) has bespoke multibit DACs -- a proprietary design of discrete resistors that the company calls Optologic. And, unlike every other DAC I had here, the Formula uses no digital filters and applies no over- or upsampling, which makes it something of a technological throwback to the earliest CD players.

The Formula boasted some impressive sonic qualities in my system, including an incisive, lively sound that helped make music sound dynamic, made images “pop” with immediacy and palpability, and matched the DA2’s dynamic prowess and laser-like image specificity. But in terms of soundstage width and, especially, depth, the DA2 handily outperformed the Formula, and packed those stages more full of musical “air” and information -- in short, more detail came through the DA2.

There were other things. When I played some poor recordings through the Formula, such as Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” from Buckley’s Grace, released in 1994 (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia), the Aqua-Acoustic DAC revealed the recording’s obvious flaws as well as some limitations of its own. Like so many CDs of its era, Grace has a metallic, glary sound, and some dynamic peaks are clipped or lopped off because they ran out of digital bits. With such recordings the Formula sounded far more ragged and unrefined than the DA2 or any of my other DACs, with an off-putting sharpness and edge in the highs. When it hit those clipped portions, the Formula’s sound turned nasty -- I could hear small static-like pops, as if the DAC itself was distorting, something I’ve heard from no DAC I’ve reviewed. But the DA2 revealed that the clips and glary, metallic quality are problems in the recording itself -- it didn’t exacerbate them as the Formula did, and it certainly didn’t produce any static-like pops. The Formula’s shortcoming in playing such clipped material also reared its head with the Rolling Stones’ Blue & Lonesome (16/44.1 FLAC, Polydor/Tidal) -- those pops were occasionally audible. Although the Formula has positive qualities, the DA2 was unquestionably the better DAC.

Finally, there was PS Audio’s DirectStream Junior ($3999), which has a similar topology to the DA2: FPGA-based processing engine, discrete single-bit DACs, etc. The DirectStream Junior also has a volume control (but no analog inputs), which means that, like the HD30, it can be used as a preamp.

Although Philip Beaudette reviewed the DirectStream Junior, it spent time at my house before and after he did his listening. I heard it at length, and was impressed with what it offers for the money: a neutral tonal balance, incredibly smooth sound overall, very clean highs, an admirably wide soundstage with recordings that include such information, and great image specificity.

But while the DA2 Reference and the DirectStream Junior are cut from the same technical and sonic cloth, when push came to shove, the DA2 was on another level: higher resolution throughout the audioband, deeper soundstages, sharper image focus, and senses of musical freedom and openness and dynamics that were readily revealed with powerhouse vocals. The DA2 was like the DirectStream Junior on powerful steroids -- it took everything the Junior does to an extreme of quality and refinement. Like the Hegel HD30, the DirectStream Junior is a great DAC for the money; the DA2 Reference is a great DAC, period.

Conclusion

EMM Labs’ DA2 Reference is exceptional: Rather than strike a balance between musicality and detail, it provides both without limitation or compromise. At $25,000, the DA2 Reference isn’t cheap, but its sound is faultless. I don’t have a single complaint about it, and am tempted to call it the best DAC in the world. But I can’t, if only because I haven’t actually heard every DAC made. So I’ll draw the obvious conclusion and say only that, as of now, I’ve heard nothing better. After 40 years in the game, Ed Meitner has proven with the DA2 Reference not only that he knows a thing or two about digital playback, but that he’s still at the top of his game.

. . . Doug Schneider