There are few people in the audio world with a reputation like Ed Meitner’s. He made turntables without platters, he made digital converters that were used by recording engineers for Sony, Philips, and Telarc. He pioneered and championed the Direct Stream Digital format, and he was the engineer that identified jitter as a fundamental problem in digital audio. So, it’s little wonder that the company that carries his flag in domestic audio – EMM Labs – makes some of the best digital audio equipment in the business. Meitner’s most recent technological boost was the world’s first 16xDSD digital converter, which first appeared on the company’s DA2 converter, and now on the latest flagship DAC from the brand, the DV2. Were it just a converter, that alone would mark it out as something special, but the DV2 also adds things to the mix to take it to another level.
In a way, we are living in a time of great digital wonders. A portable, low-cost decoder today is capable of playing with precision files the likes of which would require a monumental decoding engine when this century was new. That can make people complacent, make them dismissive, and spark an audio arms race of bigger and better specifications, without necessarily caring as to how those specifications end up performing in the real world. Fortunately for EMM Labs, the idea of ‘specs without performance’ has never been on the list of priorities; instead, the company has developed a commanding reputation for building high-performance products in sound and specification alike. Naturally with that link to DSD, Meitner and EMM Labs alike are in a way forever associated with SACD and DSD related formats, but deep down this is the kind of DAC you could use with practically any file type and get good sound.
However, while most brands are just about coming to terms with 4xDSD or at best 8xDSD, EMM Labs already has that covered and has upped the ante to a 16xDSD decoder first seen in the DA2 processor. While many will point out the almost total absence of anything apart from a few test-tones that reach to 1024fs, that’s not the point. The point is all recorded music is well below peak cruising altitude for the DV2. It can take digits in its stride; almost all the digits you can think of in the real world; 24bit, 192kHz PCM? A walk in the park, 384kHz DXD? The DV2 can do it standing on its, er, head. MQA? It can do that while balancing plates and juggling kittens. OK, so the addition of 32bit, 384kHz PCM is missing from the line-up, but, like 16xDSD, the format itself is all but unavailable in the real world.
Of course, the first to produce a 16xDSD playback option means you can’t fall back on the standard-issue chipsets, and instead EMM Labs has gone fully discrete, and dual-differential, with its MDAC2 single-bit D/A converter block, and its matching MDAT2 (short for Meitner Digital Audio Translator) custom DSP. When it comes to digital, ‘rolling your own’ does have distinct advantages in reducing non-linearities and the processing power of up-conversion. In particular, EMM Labs claim the custom DSP delivers ground-breaking “real-time transient detection.”
Staying with the acronyms, the USB input features the latest iteration of the company’s MFAST (Meitner Frequency Acquisition System Technology, possibly a bit of a backronym there), which combines hardware galvanic isolation and high-speed asynchronous jitter removal. It also features MCLK2 (OK, less ‘acronym’, more ‘shorthand’), which is a master clock to further attenuate jitter. While there are no filter options open to the user, the MDAT2 algorithm adaptively switches filtering methods in real time according to the type of sounds being played-back, acting to preserve clean analogue-style transients without pre-ringing or post-ringing. Polarity inversion is available and is performed in the digital domain.
There are a range of digital inputs, including coaxial, TOSlink, AES/EBU, and EMM’s own Optilink to connect to disc-playing transports in the EMM line-up. However, USB is the most flexible of the inputs on the DV2, as the Type B input can support PCM conversion up to DXD (352.8 and 384kHz sampling rates), DSD up to DSDx2 (DSD128), and full MQA unfolding and rendering via USB 2.0. The others are only capable of DSD64 and 24 bit, 192kHz PCM replay. There is also a separate USB port for upgrades.
At a quick glance, the DV2’s VControl is not that big a deal, until you scratch deeper. Most volume controls on DACs are either some kind of volume control in the analogue domain or have used re-quantisation (‘bit-chopping’) to attenuate the signal in the digital domain. Somehow, and EMM Labs is not telling, its VControl attenuates the signal in the digital domain without re-quantisation, thereby making it possibly one of the least sonically deleterious and “completely transparent at any volume setting and has wide attenuation range”, according to EMM’s literature.
As you might expect from a high-performance, high-cost converter, the DV2 is built to a very high standard. The case looks more like a high-end integrated amplifier (with its display screen) and the electronic components – all of a suitably high grade – all sit on aerospace-grade, ceramic circuit boards. It has both balanced and single-ended analogue outputs.
A product built to this standard must set itself a high bar, and the EMM Labs DV2 doesn’t disappoint! Unlike almost every high-end digital product I’ve encountered irrespective of cost, the EMM Labs DV2 is one of the most ‘tuneful’ and ‘soulful’ digital devices I’ve heard to date. Music isn’t deconstructed and exposed as it can be on top-end digital replay; it’s played with calm authority, and a sense of smooth and satisfying coherence. Strangely, I think this is digital that sounds most like reel-to-reel, in all the right ways; that effortless sense of ‘air’ and ‘rightness’ a good open-reel can do so well is reproduced here in digital form.
The unfatiguing nature of this DAC makes writing about it difficult in the extreme, as you start with good intentions and find yourself taken by the music. Again. So, you play a track on an album – the opening title track from Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race For Space [Test Card] and the next thing you know, you’ve just played three PSB albums in a row and made absolutely no notes. Then you do the same thing with Tasmin Little playing the Elgar Violin Concerto [Chandos SACD]; pretty soon you find yourself working your way through to Bax and Finzi and you’re lost in music again.
Eventually, you begin to force yourself away from enjoying the music and start to focus on the performance. It has some of the best bass in the business but doesn’t shout about it. My torture Trentemøller track ‘Chameleon’ [The Last Resort, Poker Flat] serves up gut-pummelling bass lines at times, and the DV2 played them with speed, precision, and majestic depth. Where this becomes most noticeable is when the music gets complex, as it can tend to shut down the sound; you get good bass or good stereo; rarely get both at the same time to the same extent. The DV2 ticks this box perfectly. In fact, soundstage space – which should be a function of other parts of the system if conventions are to be believed – was the most highlighted improvement it brings to a system. There was a sense of true three-dimensionality to the sound even of the Rolling Stones [Stripped, Polydor], which is often just a tight bolus of sound. Of course, you need a good system to show just how much the DV2 is giving you!
One of the things I have most come to dislike about high-end digital replay is how musically uncompromising it has become. Anything with compression, or anything not beautifully manicured and massaged, tends to be highlighted through many top-end digital systems. While this is mostly a good thing – we want to know what’s on our recordings – the DV2 shows that musical insight need not come with a ‘bad recording’ filter. The EMM Labs DV2 is notionally no more or less uncompromising than its top-end rivals, and it doesn’t sugar-coat bad discs. However, it makes those angular, hard-edged, and overly compressed recordings that make up a lot of modern musical output a lot more palatable.
It’s tough to say this given the price tag, but what the EMM Labs DV2 represents is the least-expensive way into top-tier high-end audio. Its rivals aren’t those excellent players and DACs in the £20,000-£30,000 range; it’s a £50,000 DAC that forgot to uprate its price tag. And, as many current DACs go for a sound that seems ‘etched’ next to the EMM Labs, its rival group gets smaller year-on-year. The DV2 is more than just another clever DAC; it’s one of the easiest sounding digital devices you’ll ever hear. It should be on the shopping list of all high-enders!
Digital inputs: EMM Optilink (CD/SACD), AES/EBU, 2× S/PDIF Coax, 2× S/PDIF, TOSlink, USB
Stereo analogue outputs: XLR and RCA
Output Impedance: 300 ohms balanced (XLR), 150 ohms unbalanced (RCA)
Output Levels (High/Low): XLR outputs: 7.0/5.0V (+19.1/16.2dBu), RCA outputs: 3.5/2.5V (+13.1/10.2dBu)
Formats supported: PCM up to 24bit/192kHz and DSD, USB also supports 2xDSD, DXD (352/384kHz), and MQA
Dimensions (W×D×H): 438 × 400 × 161mm
Manufactured by: EMM Labs
Distributed by: Midland Audio Xchange
Tel: +44(0)1562 731100
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