• emm Labs DAC2X Follow Up



    My love affair with Ed Meitner designed products began a bit over four years ago when I received a review sample of the Meitner Audio MA-1 DAC in the Summer of 2011. After living with the MA-1 for a couple months I wrote, “The MA-1 was one of the most enjoyable products I've reviewed in recent memory (link).” One year later Ed’s team stepped me up to the major leagues by sending me the emm Labs DAC2X for review. The DAC2X contributed greatly to one heck of a Summer listening to my HiFi. At that time I concluded it was, “Unequivocally the best DAC I've heard in my system (link).” In the years between that review and today, emm Labs has been hard at work making the DAC2X even better. In fact, at recent trade shows Shahin from emm Labs has implored me to send my DAC2X back to the factory in Calgary so the team could updated it to current production specs. He suggested the updates Ed had been working on were incredible. Of course a representative of any company is going to tell a member of the press that the newest product is not-to-be missed. Thus, I held on to my appropriate amount of skepticism as I sent the DAC2X across the Canadian border for updates. After a few weeks I received two packages from emm Labs. The newest version of the DAC2X arrived with its brother, the PRE2-SE preamplifier. Keep in mind that the DAC2X has a fixed analog output and requires a preamplifier between it and the power amps. I enthusiastically placed the new emm pair in my system with Pass Labs XA160.5 monoblock amplifiers and TAD CR1 loudspeakers, all connected via Wire World Platinum Eclipse / Starlight 7 cables. What I heard emanating from my speakers was nothing short of fantastic. Shahin from emm Labs was correct in using the adjective incredible to describe Ed Meitner’s ingenious updates to the DAC2X.



    The Updates (Technically)

    Over the course of my communications with the emm Labs team I purposely didn’t pay much attention to the technical details of the DAC2X updates. I wanted to get the DAC in here and spend some time listening before before learning. I figured that if I knew exactly what was done to the DAC I may experience confirmation bias and expect to hear a certain sound. My listening impressions later in this article were developed and written before learning anything about this update. For all I knew, the update could have had a major impact on bass extension, and I could have espoused the virtues of it’s new top end extension. I simply felt it would be more interesting and in-a-way kosher to do things in this manner, without seeds of information pre-planted in my head.

    Shortly before publishing this article I reached out to Shahin and Greg from emm Labs and asked them for some details on the updates in general and the updates to my specific unit. What follows is a snippet from Shahin’s email and it surprised even me.


    “Your DAC2X was quite old from beta days prior to production. We were quite surprised to say the least! I guess you got the first set of demo DAC2Xs. Greg basically overhauled the unit back up to current production levels.

    Digital, analog and power supply boards were completely updated and/or replaced to current production levels. Mainly improved jitter with the digital and analog updates plus improved power supply regulation with regards to the power supply upgrades.

    Firmware - Latest version of the MDAT2 firmware was installed and here we elaborate with the attached MDAT picture plus:



    EMM Labs and Meitner Audio MDAT2 DSP Update Details:

    MDAT is our high performance multi-award winning DSP engine. It takes all digital audio (PCM and DSD) and does real-time transient filtering and up-conversion to 2xDSD (5.6Mhz/6.1Mhz) before being sent to Ed`s proprietary custom made 2xDSD (5.6Mhz/6.1Mhz) DACs (MDAC modules) for conversion to analog.

    Please see attached MDAT.JPG diagram attached (below article).

    With MDAT processing, there is no pre and post ringing (please see MDAT.JPG diagram), which is why MDAT unlike any other processing technology is unique in its ability to preserve the phase, frequency and dynamic integrity of the waveform.

    More than a year in development and testing, in MDAT2 we have built an improved new DSP engine with:

    . Increased sonic detail from all digital audio streams (PCM and DSD) using new high-resolution algorithms
    . Time and frequency response filters that are greatly optimized with its new 4th-order modulator
    . A new signal processing engine that is built for very high-precision audio up-sampling (2xDSD up-conversion)
    . A new more accurate 2xDSD up-sampling algorithm

    Think of it as supercharging your DAC! Accuracy, transparency, soundstage, low level detail all greatly improved and refined. All these improvements providing the listener with a more immersive experience and bringing further all music to life. The best thing is..you will receive this new MDAT2 engine for free!

    Currently the MDAT2 firmware update is only available through our authorized dealer and distributor network. Please contact your local dealer/distributor to receive the MDAT2 firmware update.

    Thanks Chris...I will be sending you prelim info on the DA2 in a separate email! This will debut at RMAF. We did show a prototype in HK with finalized metalwork so I will send those pics as well.”



    The Updates (Sonically)

    Technically the aforementioned updates are significant, but more importantly is how significantly the updates improve sound quality through the emm Labs DAC2X. The updates are nothing short of incredible. The sound I hear through my system now is so much better than when I had the pre-update version of the DAC2X. Over the years I’ve heard my fair share of updated products, whether it’s a running production update or a MK II update etc… All updates must be judged individually. Some updates are so minor I can’t believe manufacturer’s get away with charging customers for little more than a name change. Such is not the case with the emm Labs update performed on my DAC2X. It’s a completely different DAC and all the changes are for the better.

    Note: I’m Switzerland when it comes to DSD and PCM, despite countless manufacturers in my ear espousing the pros or cons of each technology. I look at DSD and PCM from the consumer’s perspective. If DSD or PCM sounds good, then I want it. I think the technical arguments for and against DSD and PCM are interesting, but for the most part I could care less when it comes to enjoying my favorite music.

    I’m sure many readers will relate when I say, throughout my life, whenever I’ve added a new component to my system I get giddy with excitement and must play “all” my music again just to hear it through the new component. I’ve been listening to a ton of my music lately just to hear how it sounds through the DAC2X. The cliche of hearing things one has never heard before or hearing tracks like one has never heard them rings true for me. Especially when it comes to DSD playback. For example, listening to Beck’s Sea Change album in DSD through the DAC2X was a completely new experience. On the opening track, The Golden Age, I not only heard more but everything sounded as if it was in focus like never before. The glockenspiel, beginning at about 20 seconds into the track and continuing off and on throughout, sounds incredibly real. The sound of the mallet hitting each bar is almost weird and too realistic. Listening to this track over and over brought up memories of grade school when we’d play the glockenspiel in music class. It’s a strange feeling, but in a 100% good sense. Realism is something I crave in a HiFi system and the updated DAC2X delivers delightfully.

    My favorite version of John Hiatt’s album Bring The Family is the DSD release. I have the album in PCM at 16/44.1 and 24/96, but the DSD is the version I enjoy most. When playing this album, I enjoy the music even more and listen even longer than any time previous to receiving the updated DAC2X. My favorite track on the album is Learning How To Love You. Through the updated DAC2X both John’s voice and the acoustic guitar sound awesomely intimate. Call me dumb, but I never notice the backing vocal harmony sang by Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder on this track before listening through the updated 2X. Little things like this make listening to my favorite music even more enjoyable and take me further away from the happenings of everyday life. The ability of the updated DAC2X to mentally transport me somewhere other than where my brain is physically located is uncanny.

    Note: Fans of the Hootie & The Blowfish debut album Cracked Rear View may not know the album was named after the following lyric from John Hiatt’s Learning How To Love You.

    There was a life that I was living
    In some cracked rear view
    Where no future was given
    To a heart untrue


    The updated DAC2X may provide the best DSD playback I can remember hearing in my system, but it also shines with PCM as well. Listening to the Atlantic Records 50 Years: The Gold Anniversary album at 16/44.1 (this album has some of the best sounding remastered versions of all the tracks contained therein, highly recommended) was just as immersive as listening to all my DSD content. Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay sounds absolutely wonderful through the updated 2X. There is a closeness one feels with Otis listening to this track. His voice sounds organic, humble, and honest because of this virtual connection one can make through such realistic reproduction. Also on this album is a terrific version of Silent All These Years by Tori Amos. Tori’s voice reproduced through the updated 2X sounds so detailed but at the same time one doesn’t lose the flow of the song by concentrating so much on the vocal. Said another way, I wasn’t so overwhelmed with detail that I forgot about the rest of the track and the fact that the entire track is greater than the sum of its parts.



    Wrap Up


    The updated emm Labs DAC2X is much better than the DAC2X I reviewed and loved back in 2012. Both for technical reasons and sonic reasons the 2X is like a new DAC when compared to the previous iteration. The technically sound MDAT2 DSP and hardware updates enabled me to hear a much more focussed version of my music than previously available in the same DAC. I noticed improved soundstage, clarity, and detail without losing a note of musicality. The updated emm Labs DAC2X is a digital to analog converter capable of satisfying the most demanding PCM and DSD music lovers. (Even more) Highly recommended.




    Product Information:
    • Product - emm Labs DAC2X
    • Price - $15,500
    • Product Page - Link






    Where To Buy:

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    Comments 28 Comments
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Finally you gave MDAT2 a listen! I knew you would like it.
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Could you do a comparison to other DACs please?
    1. Jud's Avatar
      Jud -
      Bring The Family is an absolute classic. Have the vinyl and a download (I think 44.1); mulling DSD (download or SACD, Chris?).
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jud View Post
      Bring The Family is an absolute classic. Have the vinyl and a download (I think 44.1); mulling DSD (download or SACD, Chris?).
      SACD rip :~)
    1. bobflood's Avatar
      bobflood -
      Great review Chris.

      I wish you would stick to this type of journalism and not put up these pieces that get 150 people who will never agree on anything screaming and calling each other names. We have CNN and Fox for that. I know it drives site visits up but in the long run I think they will go down due to shear fatigue. Just my two cents worth and I know that is all it's worth but I have wanted to say it for some time. I found myself avoiding this and other audio web sites for long periods and I finally realized why.

      Thanks,,

      Bob
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jud View Post
      Bring The Family is an absolute classic. Have the vinyl and a download (I think 44.1); mulling DSD (download or SACD, Chris?).
      Is this available for download? SACD is pricey!
    1. Jud's Avatar
      Jud -
      Quote Originally Posted by miguelito View Post
      Is this available for download? SACD is pricey!
      Got my PCM d/l from Pono, don't recall the resolution. Might be available elsewhere.
    1. ChrisG's Avatar
      ChrisG -
      I know you don't do them, but I agree that comparisons would make for a better review.

      For example, while this update may make this DAC sound better than the original release, how does it compare to your Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference which, if I remember correctly, you called "a DAC for the ages". Especially relevant since these DACs retail for the same amount.

      BTW, for folks that want to get their EMM updated, what is the cost? I don't remember seeing this in your review.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by ChrisG View Post
      BTW, for folks that want to get their EMM updated, what is the cost? I don't remember seeing this in your review.
      From the article, "The best thing is..you will receive this new MDAT2 engine for free!"
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Quote Originally Posted by The Computer Audiophile View Post
      From the article, "The best thing is..you will receive this new MDAT2 engine for free!"
      The firmware update is free of cost itself for DAC2X/XDS1v2/MA-1 owners, but you might need your dealer to do it for you. The hardware updates cannot be free - but you shouldn't expect them to be.
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jud View Post
      Got my PCM d/l from Pono, don't recall the resolution. Might be available elsewhere.
      I like this album. Found a good price for the SACD on ebay so bought it.
    1. input username here's Avatar
      input username here -
      Quote Originally Posted by ChrisG View Post
      I know you don't do them, but I agree that comparisons would make for a better review. For example [...] how does it compare to your Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference which, if I remember correctly, you called "a DAC for the ages". Especially relevant since these DACs retail for the same amount.
      I second that. I appreciate that when you (Chris) want to say something you say it clearly: "[this] is without question the best DAC I've heard anywhere... I've never heard detail, delicacy, and transparency with my favorite music like I have when listening through this DAC" (BADA RS) or "[it was] unequivocally the best DAC I've heard in my system" (DAC 2X).

      But other times readers are forced to read between the lines to try and ferret out your meaning--often times by what you don't say. In this case, since you did not repeat that the updated DAC 2X was, again, "unequivocally" the best you've heard, I must surmise that it is not and that the BADA still wears that crown. But, also, maybe not? It's hard to say. I can also sometimes be frustrating (not CA or the reviews in general, both of which I like and respect a lot, just that one thing).

      I trust my own ears more than any reviewer's for that to which I (and I alone) will enjoy listening--I have never bought something based on a review alone. That said, given that you have had more experience listening to more different gear than I ever will, your opinions and comparisons still are/would be very valuable. Even if you said I liked that x did this thing better than y but y did this other thing better and I value that more, it would not only help us get a handle on the gear, but also your listening priorities, which helps us to better read your (future) reviews.

      So, even if you you purposely didn't and don't want to do a EMM vs. BADA for the DAC championship, at least you might give us some comparative impressions? Thank you.
    1. audio.bill's Avatar
      audio.bill -
      +1
    1. rossb's Avatar
      rossb -
      The comments on the MDAT2 firmware are interesting. I recently updated my MA1 to the latest firmware, and found that it did make a big difference, but that I preferred the previous firmware. The MDAT2 firmware clearly produced a bigger, dynamic, more detailed, more three dimensional image. However, it also sounded brighter, harsher, tonally bleached and strangely lifeless. After living with it for a week, I rolled back to the late 2013 firmware (pre-MDAT2) and immediately found it preferable. While some of the accentuated 3D imaging had gone, the sound was once again tonally rich and colourful, and had the rich, organic sound that had disappeared with the new firmware.

      I seem to be in the minority here, since others seem to have reported only improvements. But if I hadn't been able to roll back the firmware my MA1 would soon have been in the "for sale" section.
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Quote Originally Posted by rossb View Post
      The comments on the MDAT2 firmware are interesting. I recently updated my MA1 to the latest firmware, and found that it did make a big difference, but that I preferred the previous firmware. The MDAT2 firmware clearly produced a bigger, dynamic, more detailed, more three dimensional image. However, it also sounded brighter, harsher, tonally bleached and strangely lifeless. After living with it for a week, I rolled back to the late 2013 firmware (pre-MDAT2) and immediately found it preferable. While some of the accentuated 3D imaging had gone, the sound was once again tonally rich and colourful, and had the rich, organic sound that had disappeared with the new firmware.

      I seem to be in the minority here, since others seem to have reported only improvements. But if I hadn't been able to roll back the firmware my MA1 would soon have been in the "for sale" section.
      I have an XDS1v2 (DAC2x with a transport built in basically). I do agree with your comments on MDAT2 except the brightness and harshness. If anything I would say the sound is more nuanced with more inner detail. But I gather that this depends on your whole setup, mine is not particularly bright to start with. MDAT2 has been fantastic in my personal experience.
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Quote Originally Posted by input username here View Post
      So, even if you you purposely didn't and don't want to do a EMM vs. BADA for the DAC championship, at least you might give us some comparative impressions? Thank you.
      +1. I have great admiration for Steve Rochlin bc he doesn't hold back comments like this. Just check his Sony NW-ZX2 review... But I get that could put you at odds, and out of the "send stuff to this guy" lists.
    1. fand1's Avatar
      fand1 -
      Quote Originally Posted by miguelito View Post
      Could you do a comparison to other DACs please?

      Unfortunate Chris does not do comparisons in his reviews which is a shame as it undermines their usefulness for prospective purchasers. Given that he has a Berkley Audio Design DAC which is at a similar price range, I'm sure a comparison would have been easy.
    1. brw's Avatar
      brw -
      Chris must have a revenue shortfall. Heard he took in a Canadian 'boarder' named Meitner.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by brw View Post
      Chris must have a revenue shortfall. Heard he took in a Canadian 'boarder' named Meitner.
      Ha! I love it.

      Fixed :~)
    1. simmobb2's Avatar
      simmobb2 -
      Quote Originally Posted by miguelito View Post
      Is this available for download? SACD is pricey!
      The DAC's a tad 'pricey' too. ;-)