EMM Labs DAC2X Review
German novelist Berthold Auerbach once said, "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." That quote rings true for many audiophiles as they sit down for an evening listening session after a tough week. That quote is also apropos for millions of iPod users riding noisy trains home from work each day. The power of music reproduced through the best and worst audio systems can't be denied. Our favorite songs are just as powerful through an AM radio, iPod, or bank breaking high end system. Or are they? The short answer is no. Our favorites songs are more powerful and bring out more emotion when we feel closer to the music or artists creating the music. I found this out the easy way. Over the last couple months I've had the pleasure of using the new EMM Labs DAC2X digital to analog converter. Listening to my favorite music through this DAC was unlike anything I've heard in my listening room. The same tunes I've played hundreds times were somehow different. The songs were much more emotionally powerful as I heard artists exhale after each verse and felt the raw energy of a symphony orchestra like never before through my system. The illusion of sitting in the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra's pit or sitting on stage while Dave Mathews and Tim Reynolds play Christmas Song was more realistic than I've ever experienced from my listening chair. The EMM Labs DAC2X has the ability to transport me from my home in Minnesota to any music venue in the world better than any DAC I've heard to date in my system. This DAC not only earned a spot on the C.A.S.H. List but is the front runner for CA Product of the Year 2012. It's unequivocally the best DAC I've heard in my system.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
Close But Not Really
The EMM Labs DAC2X physically looks like the Meitner Audio MA-1 (Review ) both inside and out. In fact both DACs share some features such as the XMOS USB receiving chip and support of PCM and DSD playback over USB. Both DACs even have the same screen printing on the circuit boards. This really threw me for a loop when I opened the DAC2X for internal photography. I saw what looked to me, and every other armchair audio engineer, like a sheep in wolf's clothing or an MA-1 in a DAC2X chassis. A call to EMM Labs removed my suspicion of a PCB board error or even worse an attempt to pull a Lexicon move on consumers and sell the same hardware in a more expensive chassis. Greg at EMM Labs explained the major differences between the two units. A major difference is the use of many proprietary and specially made components just like the flagship disc spinner XDS1. These components are hand selected and matched for optimum performance. In addition the DAC2X contains standard EMM Labs technologies such as MFAST, MDAT and hand built 5.6 Mhz proprietary discrete dual differential D-to-A converters.
What separates the DAC2X from the MA-1 and many other DACs is EMM’s proprietary ceramic PCB which is difficult to manufacture and to populate thus greatly increases the overall costs. These multi-layer ceramic circuit boards appear like any old PCB from the top but when viewed from the edge it's easier to notice the differences. The ceramic PCBs in the DAC2X spread heat better than traditional boards and quickly bring the temperature to a uniform level after the unit is powered. The red colored ceramic analog board contains the DAC chips and clocking circuitry under metal covers. These grounded covers do more than simply look nice. For example, the clock cover protects the sensitive analog circuits on the board from the digital clock circuitry and protect the clock form the rest of the DAC.
The DAC2X also has a higher quality power supply than the MA-1. The X Power System v3.1 in the "2X" has better filtering and better isolation. Upon close visual and physical inspection the DAC2X's 26.5 lbs. all machined aluminum chassis, and even remote control, is much nicer than the MA-1. Rapping the top of the DAC2X with a pen or small nondestructive tool reveals a pretty dead chassis. Underneath the top cover of the DAC2X is what EMM Labs calls its Charge Management Technology. This plate full of copper circles stabilizes the electric field and further dampens the chassis against resonance. EMM Labs admits the charge management plate is controversial but insists its own listening tests, and Ed Meitner's decades of design experience, suggest the plate contributes to the sound quality of the DAC.
The DAC2X has two USB inputs. One is for software and firmware updates. EMM Labs is capable of releasing new features (hint, hint) for the DAC2X that are installable via this USB port. The other USB port is high speed class 2 audio compliant. EMM Labs wisely selected the XMOS USB receiving chip that works without software / driver installation on both Linux and Mac OS X platforms. Connecting the DAC to a Windows computer requires the somewhat standard Thesycon driver that in my experience works very well. This high speed USB input accepts PCM audio up through 24 bit / 192 kHz and pure DSD audio at 1 bit / 2.8224 MHz using the newly created DoP v1.0 standard. The DAC2X's USB high speed USB input is not galvanically isolated. This isolation is not mandatory to achieve great sound but it can be beneficial in many situations. Users requiring isolation can use products like the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB that converts USB to AES or S/PDIF while providing excellent isolation from noisy computers and music servers.
Note1: Shortly after reviewing the SOtM sMS-1000 music server (Link ) *my unit was updated to support pure DSD over USB playback using DoP v1.0. I tested this with the DAC2X. Playback was flawless without any special drivers to install for the DAC.
Note2: Current owners of the DAC2 can upgrade their existing units to the DAC2X at an additional cost.
Where No DAC Has Gone Before
Readers of Computer Audiophile know that I don't wax on too much about sound quality and subjective listening impressions. I give my opinion and share a few listening experiences then wrap it up. Like it or not that's just my style. This review is a bit different. The EMM Labs DAC2X left such an impression on me I want to share much of what I heard during the review period. The DAC2X was like an addictive drug in my system. I always wanted more and thought about the music I could be listening to while I was busy doing other things. This DAC brought me so close to the music and evoked such emotion when the music called for it that I seriously wanted to delay writing this review indefinitely. That's no joke. The following subjective listening impressions sound a bit like I was listening to the equipment or a HiFi demonstration and looking for details rather than enjoying the music. Nothing is further from the truth. My impressions below detail why the DAC2X is so enjoyable, so emotional, and brought me closer to the music and further from reality than every before in my listening room.
Artist A.A. Bondy's track World Without End features him on an acoustic guitar and vocals. With the lights in my room out, the track felt personal. I felt like I was back at a party in college where there was always one or two people with a guitar sitting in the corner picking and singing. Bondy's vocals came through so pure through the DAC2X. Playing Antonio Forcione & Sabina Sciubba's Meet Me In London at 24 bit / 192 kHz really let the DAC2X shine. Sabina's vocal sounded silky smooth while Antonio's guitar was appropriately sharp. This was most apparent on the track Take Five. Sabina's smooth vocal eased from the left channel while the prickly rhythm guitar emanated from the right channel. This rhythm guitar sounded so fabulous I could hear the wood body vibrate beautifully. When the lead guitar entered the illusory sonic picture it was dead center and sounded stunning. Every pluck of a guitar string was distinct with transient starts and stops that didn't memorialize the sonic event.
The EMM Labs DAC2X reproduced male vocals and acoustic guitar better than any DAC in recent memory in my system or otherwise. Ben Harper's Welcome to the Cruel World isn't the best example of a rangy vocalist but through the DAC2X I heard tiny changes in Ben's voice from syllable to syllable. Even better than the vocal was the decay of the acoustic guitar in the background while Ben ominously sings, "Welcome to the cruel world, hope you find your way." This isn't the most "audiophile" song but it's an emotional gem when played through such a transparent system. Continuing the male vocal trend I opted for pure DSD playback of Keith Greeninger and Dayan Kai's Looking for a Home from the first Blue Coast Collection. The details that could be heard on Keith's words were wonderful. After the last word of each verse I could hear what I would call a breath trail. Like Keith was pouring out his emotions and everything he had when singing the track. The illusion of Keith and Dayan sitting on stools in front of me performing this track made me giggle. Seriously. Another pure DSD release I used was Keb' Mo's self titled album. The track Every Morning was very realistic sounding with a touch of raspiness in the vocal. Comparing this to the PCM 16 bit / 44.1 version I immediately heard a very compressed vocal via PCM playback. The center image was very tight but the vocal sounded weird compared to the DSD version. I'm not sure there is a "right" version but I've never heard this track sound better than playing the pure DSD version through the DAC2X.
One of my all time favorite albums is Chet Baker's Chet. The track Alone Together can be good on any system but stunning through the best components. There's no doubt I've never heard this track sound this good. As Chet nears the end of some notes one can hear excellent detail in the small changes of the notes. The changes are so delicate but so clear through the DAC2X. Depending on Chet's physical and mental state at the time of recording he may have ran out of breath toward the end of the notes. Throughout the track one can hear excellent air around the cymbal in the right channel. In addition to this, as each note of Chet's trumpet fades a terrific decay can be heard from the left to right channel as it crosses from microphone to microphone during the recording. Similar to the album Chet is John Coltrane's Standard Coltrane. Don't Take Your Love From Me is a nearly ten minute lush track that, to paraphrase Berthold Auerbach's aforementioned quote, truly washes away the dust of each day. The sound quality of this track with its horn on the left and bass & drums on the left was really great. Each of Paul Chamber's bass notes was terrifically clear as John wailed away on the smooth tenor sax though the opposing channel. Similarly stunning was Joe Morello's drum solo about 2:30 into Dave Brubeck's Take Five. Through the DAC2X the drums sounded so real from the left channel with the decay drifting to the right channel. Meanwhile Eugene Wright's impressive bass plucking can be heard in the center of the sonic image. The DAC2X reproduces the bass notes without bloat or added unnatural vividness.
The DAC2X's ability to transport a listener to a concert venue is terrific. Listening to Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds play Christmas Song live from Luther College gave me a sense of being at the live show. The illusion was really good for a pop record. A sense of ambiance and spaciousness at the venue could be felt during as people coughed during the track. The DAC2X brought out the most in this recording. Looking at it like the "2X" brought out more flaws only decreases one's enjoyment of the listening experience. I elected to sit back and enjoy this performance. To misquote English poet Robert Graves. "A remarkable thing about Shakespeare Diana Krall is that she is really very good in spite of all the people who say she is very good." The sense of being at the actual venue was even better on Diana Krall's Live in Paris album. The emotion in her voice during A Case of You was very clear. I could sense the pride she has for her home country of Canada when she sang, "On the back of a cartoon coaster, In the blue TV screen light. I drew a map of Canada, Ohhhhhh Canada." The detailed, delicate, yet powerful sound quality brought this track to the next sonic and emotional level. Another female vocal I enjoy very much is Christina Aguilera's Save Me From Myself off her double album Back to Basics. XTina's very close mic'd vocal sounded incredible. I noticed for the first time how much of a role the violin plays throughout this track. Now I hear the violin throughout the entire track on all DACs but it was the DAC2X that enabled me to notice this seemingly obvious detail.
Moving to R&B and Hip-Hop I listened to the twelve minute version of Isaac Hayes' Walk On By at 24 bit / 96 kHz. Standing out immediately in this track was the electric guitar. Each note was delineated from the next in a crisp fashion. It was also impossible not to be affected by Isaac's emotional and soulful vocal. Most listeners would never guess Walk On By is a Burt Bacharach song as Isaac sings it with convincing soul. One of my favorite Hip-Hop albums is the new Kanye West / Jay-Z album Watch The Throne. The best track on the album is Ni**as In Paris. I've heard this track sound ear splitting on some systems with sloppy bass and eardrum piercing highs. I'm not sure if there's a "real" instrument played on the entire track, but I really don't care. Good music is good music. Through the DAC2X the massive bass on the track was extremely controlled and as powerful as I've heard. Vocals remained clear even with massive sound effects bouncing around in the background.
Please pass the Grey Poupon and queue the classical music. Only kidding but the juxtaposition between the previous and next tracks couldn't be better. Two classical albums I like more every time I hear are the 24 bit / 176.4 kHz HRx versions of Crown Imperial and Britten's Orchestra from Reference recordings. Crown Imperial's Niagara Falls was a stunning listen through the EMM Labs DAC2X. Each time a percussionist struck a bell I felt like a metallurgist listening for identifiable characteristics of the bells' composition. The bells were so crystal clear I could visualize them in a space way beyond my speakers. When I need to hear stunning dynamics and transients I always turn to Passacaglia from the "Britten" release. Through the DAC2X I heard amazing clarity and detail during the most complex parts of the track.
Throughout the entire review period nothing made a bigger or more memorable impression on me than listening to Ottmar Liebert's One Guitar at 24 bit / 96 kHz. I've never heard a better reproduction of this album than through the EMM Labs DAC2X. Period. The air around the entire recording space is stupendous. I'm willing to bet some CA readers can identify what material this floor is made of and how large the room is after listening to this album through a great system and the DAC2X. The decay of each guitar note is unsurpassed by neither the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC with Alpha USB nor the dCS Debussy. The difference in decay reproduction was easily and immediately identifiable when comparing all three DACs. Another major difference between the Alpha/Alpha combo and the DAC2X is reproduction of the upper midrange and higher frequencies. The Alpha/Alpha combo can sound a skosh thin up top compared to an appropriately fuller sounding DAC2X. Comparing the Debussy to the DAC2X the first and largest sonic difference I heard was the in the lower midrange and bass frequencies about 600 Hz and below. The Debussy appeared to emphasize the lower frequencies or even play guitar and bass notes lower than I thought sounded correct. Granted I was not present at any recordings and don't know what's more accurate. On the other hand the EMM Labs DAC2X reproduced this lower midrange and bass extremely well. I consider the DAC2X the most "up-the-middle" DAC I've heard in my system. It isn't bass heavy or thin on top or anything other than neutral. I've previously discussed the sounds of the Alpha DAC and Weiss DACs as being on one side and the dCS DACs as being on another side. Both have different sounds that attract most users to one or the other. The EMM Labs DAC2X is a DAC that's smack in the middle of these two groups. The "2X" doesn't borrow the best of each DAC rather it's a different animal that beats to it's own drum.
The EMM Labs DAC2X is the most detailed, neutral, and transparent DAC I've heard in my system. A better power supply, ceramic circuit boards, and well damped chassis are the foundation that elevates the DAC2X well beyond the capabilities of the Meitner Audio MA-1 and many of its competitors. At $15,500 the DAC2X should perform better and it clearly does in all areas. No DAC has brought out so much emotion or brought me closer to my favorite music that the DAC2X. This wonderful hobby is first and foremost about music and its reproduction. Well engineered components that reproduce our favorite music are only tools. These tools are built to be invisible or disappear as soon as the play button is clicked. The DAC2X produces the best musical illusion and performs a better disappearing act than all other DACs I've heard in my listening room and many other rooms. To remove any doubt I will state with emphasis, the EMM Labs DAC2X is unequivocally the best DAC I've heard in my system.
- Product - EMM Labs DAC2X digital to analog converter
- Price - $15,500
- EMM Labs - Link
- Product Brochure - Link (1.2MB PDF)
- A.A. Bondy - American Hearts
- Antonio Forcione & Sabina Sciubba - Meet Me In London (24 bit / 192 kHz download)
- Ben Harper - Welcome to the Cruel World
- Keith Greeninger and Dayan Kai - Blue Coast Collection 1 (DSD Version)
- Keb' Mo' - Keb' Mo'
- Chet Baker - Chet (Original Analogue Productions version out of print)
- John Coltrane - Standard Coltrane (Original Analogue Productions version out of print)
- Dave Brubeck - Time Out (Sony K2HD Version)
- Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds - Live At Luther College
- Diana Krall - Live In Paris
- Christina Aguilera - Back To Basics
- Isaac Hayes - Hot Buttered Soul (24 bit / 96 kHz download)
- Kanye West / Jay-Z - Watch The Throne
- Dallas Wind Symphony - Crown Imperial (24 bit / 176.4 kHz HRx version)
- Dallas Wind Symphony - Crown Imperial (24 bit / 96 kHz download)
- Kansas City Symphony - Britten's Orchestra (24 bit / 176.4 kHz HRx version)
- Kansas City Symphony - Britten's Orchestra (24 bit / 88.2 kHz download)
- Ottmar Liebert - One Guitar (24 bit / 96 kHz download)
- Source: MacBook Pro, C.A.P.S. v2.0 Server, Aurender W10
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2, dCS Debussy
- DtoD: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB, Musical Fidelity V-Link 192
- Preamp: Spectral Audio DMC-30SS Series 2
- Amplifier: Spectral Audio DMA-260
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Apple Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 4, iPad (3rd Generation)
- Playback Software Windows 7: J River Media Center 17
- Playback Software Mac OS X 10.7.4 : iTunes, Pure Music v1.86, Audirvana Plus, Amarra, Fidelia (Advanced)
- Cables: Spectral Audio MH-770 Ultralinear CVTerminator Series II Loudspeaker Cable, Spectral Audio MI-350 Ultralinear CVTerminator Series II Analog Interconnects (RCA), Mogami W3173 Heavy Duty AES 110, ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables, Wire World Silver Starlight USB Cable, AudioQuest Diamond USB Cable
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Micro Connectors Augmented Cat6A Ethernet Cable, Apple AirPort Extreme, Cisco RVS4000 Router, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service
- Camera: Lumix GH2
- Lens: Lumix G 20mm / F1.7 ASPH.
- Product - EMM Labs DAC2X digital to analog converter