EMM Labs DV2 D/A processor

For years, I've attended audio shows at which the Canadian company EMM Labs, either on its own or in conjunction with Kimber Kable and IsoMike, has displayed some of the grandest, most impressive-sounding multichannel systems I've ever heard. When everything was aligned properly, as it was at the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the sound was breathtaking.

When Shahin Al Rashid, EMM Labs' extremely knowledgeable and longtime director of sales, offered for review the just-released DV2 digital-to-analog converter ($30,000), the dogs and I eagerly welcomed him to our home in Port Townsend, Washington. The model was so new—the review sample's serial number is 10001—that Al Rashid's guidance took the place of an owner's manual; not until well into the listening period did two drafts of that long-promised document appear.

As soon as I heard the DV2, I knew I wanted to speak with company founder Ed Meitner about its design, and his work in digital audio. Although I've never met Meitner, I've long heard about the man who, in 1971, was part of the team that developed the first fully automated recording-studio console, and later, as he told me when we eventually spoke by phone, "discovered that there is a jitter problem in digital audio." After founding EMM Labs almost two decades ago, Meitner developed the A-to-D and D-to-A DSD converters that are still used to create many SACDs. You can read my conversation with Meitner, along with his son Amadeus and EMM's long-time managing engineer, Mariusz Pawlicki, here.

Technology
Building on the technology used in EMM Labs' former flagship, the DA2 ($25,000), which lacks a volume control and is described by the manufacturer as a "pure" DAC, the DV2 is the first processor to include EMM's new VControl, a high-resolution volume-control system. In the manual, EMM claims that the VControl "is completely transparent at any volume setting and has wide attenuation range."

The DV2's USB Type B input is its most versatile, enabling 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. All other inputs—including AES/EBU, two coaxial and two TosLink S/PDIF, and the proprietary EMM Optilink, which supports CD and SACD playback from EMM transports—are limited to 24-bit/192kHz PCM and DSD64.

The DV2 also includes these technologies and devices, the first four proprietary: MDAC2 16xDSD, discrete, dual-differential DACs (two dual-mono sets); MDAT2, the latest, 16xDSD generation of the Meitner Digital Audio Translator signal-processing technology; an updated version of their Meitner Frequency Acquisition System Technology (MFAST), for instant signal acquisition and "jitter-free" performance; an MCLK2 master clock; a new, galvanically isolated USB interface; a separate USB port for software upgrades; and aerospace-grade, ceramic circuit boards. Polarity inversion is performed in the digital domain.

The DV2 offers no choice of digital filters—its digital signal processing (DSP) changes the filter settings in real time, according to changes (transients) in the audio waveform (footnote 1)—no automatic upsampling, and no option to add an outboard clock (which Ed Meitner doesn't believe in). "The clock needs to be as close as possible to the DAC to minimize jitter," Al Rashid explained by e-mail. "In the DV2 and in fact in all our products, our reference clock sits right next to both L and R DAC modules. Our philosophy has always been that the system we create always has to be very, very simple and straightforward, because digital is not meant to be complicated. Digital is supposed to make your life simpler, not more difficult."

Try telling that to some of the companies whose products I've reviewed.

Smiling amid multiple setup options
Happily, setup and use were virtually hassle-free. This is the kind of product I love.

To free up the top shelf of my Grand Prix Audio Monaco rack for the DV2, which is 17.25" wide by 6.34" high by 15.75" deep and weighs 37.9 lb, I removed my dCS Paganini transport and relied solely on file playback during the listening period. After easily positioning the DV2, I faced a CNC-machined aluminum case whose simple front panel is dominated by a large, dimmable OLED screen that displays, in large characters easily read from 12' away, polarity, input choice, sample rate, and volume level. Virtually every playback option can be controlled by the DV2's lightweight infrared remote-control handset, also machined from aluminum.

Below the display screen are five buttons: Mute; Units, which determines whether the volume level will be displayed in arbitrary numbers (0–100) or in dB (–80 to 0); Menu (contrast, brightness, volume presets, input assignments, global reset); and two buttons to which specific inputs can be assigned. If you want to remain seated while listening, you can quickly cycle through the input choices using the remote. During all my time with the handset, the only glitch I experienced was when I began to increase the volume: occasionally, the display would switch from dB to arbitrary numbers, and the volume level would considerably decrease. I'd like to think this happened because my finger had slipped, but after examining all of the remote's buttons near the volume controls, it's not clear how any slip could have caused the disruption.

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On the rear panel are seven digital inputs: AES/EBU, Coax 1 and 2 (Coax 2 is designated PDAI, an initialism derived from EMM's legacy products), TosLink 1 and 2, USB Audio, and EMM Optilink (for use with an EMM SACD/CD transport). In addition to serial remote RS-232, Service USB, and a reset toggle button, none of which I touched, there are also balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) analog line outputs, and a Low/Hi output gain-level toggle switch that adjusts the volume starting point by 1.5dB, and has no effect on resolution or transparency. There's an IEC receptacle for a 15-amp power cord, as well as an on/off switch that works in conjunction with the recessed On/Standby button on the front panel.

Because my reference Dan D'Agostino Progression monoblocks have only balanced XLR inputs, the choice of analog line outputs was a done deal. Al Rashid had already set the level output to Low, which delivered appropriate sound levels to my system.

The choice of digital inputs was a bit more complex. As noted above, the DV2's coax inputs are limited to PCM 24/192 and DSD64; only the USB Audio input can handle PCM sample rates up to 24/384, DSD128, and MQA decoding and rendering. When I mentioned to Al Rashid that I feel coax inputs often deliver better sound than USB, he replied that Meitner's MFAST system, along with the DV2's galvanic isolation, eliminates jitter from all the DV2's inputs, including USB. Thus, he claimed, sound from the USB input was uncompromised.

Given my equipment configuration, I initially foresaw two methods of getting signals into the DV2: 1) play music from USB sticks plugged into my Roon-equipped NUC, send those signals via Ethernet through the dCS Network Bridge, and then, because the Network Bridge lacks a USB output, to the DV2 via AES/EBU or coaxial S/PDIF; or 2) take full advantage of the DV2's D/A conversion by sending signals from my Roon-equipped NUC via Ethernet to a computer, then use Roon Bridge on the computer to send signals to the DV2 via USB. (I used the latter method for my review of CH Precision's I1 Universal integrated amplifier in the February 2019 issue.)

The latter choice—the only one that would fully test the DV2's abilities—made for the third DAC I've reviewed within the last year that dictated my using a sonically compromised computer as a source component. I have two MacBook Pros: a 2011 unit equipped with solid-state drive (SSD) and genuine USB and Ethernet ports, and a 2017 SSD unit whose three available USB-C ports aren't good for much without USB and Ethernet adapters. When a comparison of their sonic outputs revealed that the newer laptop delivered better sound despite its adapters, I turned off as many of its auto update, search, and virus-scan options as possible. While that may have improved the sound a bit, a few comparisons of the MacBook Pro with the dCS Network Bridge revealed that nothing sent from the MacBook Pro via USB sounded anywhere near as full and rich in colors as signals that bypassed the computer entirely and relied solely on the Network Bridge's coax outputs.

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Realizing that, regardless of the claimed jitter-free superiority of EMM Labs' USB input, my USB source was compromised, I wrote John Atkinson to ask how I might get a better-sounding music server to replace the MacBook Pro. Turned out he still had the review sample of the Aurender N10 music server. He sent it to me right away.

But I had no free shelf available for the N10. At first I placed it atop the DV2, separated from it by three Stein Super Natural supports. (I used another set of Super Naturals under the dCS Network Bridge, to ensure a fair sonic comparison.) More than 10 days later, when I realized I wouldn't be using my dCS Scarlatti clock in my review system, I removed it from the rack and gave the EMM DV2 and Aurender N10 each a shelf of its own. Before and after listens made it abundantly clear that the DV2 sounded best sitting by its lonesome on a shelf with nothing stacked atop it. Most of the listening notes that follow were taken with this optimal setup.

While the Aurender N10 didn't prove entirely hassle-free, it certainly delivered more color-saturated sound via USB than did the MacBook Pro.



Footnote 1: Ed Meitner first developed the idea of using an adaptive reconstruction filter in the Meitner IDAT, which we reviewed in March 1993.—John Atkinson
COMPANY INFO
EMM Labs Inc.
115-5065 13th Street SE
Calgary, Alberta T2G 5M8,
Canada
(403) 225-4161
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

"If the DV2 is music to your ears" & "if it's within your price range" then don't hesitate to audition.

Wouldn't an Audition be the first thing needed to determine if it's Music to your ears?, of course it's within owning, why else bother looking at it?

EMM Labs needs a John Darko type of explainer. ( of course they fully understand that fact )

Tony in Michigan

Ortofan's picture

... spend $30,000 on this device when a Benchmark DAC3 HGC provides "state-of-the-art" performance for a mere $2,195.
https://www.stereophile.com/content/benchmark-dac3-hgc-da-preamplifier-headphone-amplifier-measurements

tonykaz's picture

Every DAC out there is State of the Art,
every gear out there should be auditioned,
every gear can take your breath away,
every gear is transparent
every gear delivers only slight variations in performance,
every gear should be considered if budget....

Every review seems to contain the same Conditional Endorsements.

Well, Mr.Ortofan, does your Benchmark DAC3 HGC do SACD?

Tony in Michigan

Ortofan's picture

... convert DSD data, then the answer is yes.

tonykaz's picture

I suppose there are some folks that invested in SACD & DSD technology enhanced Format Music recordings.

Being an "Early Adopter" is a pricy experience, isn't it?

I auditioned DACs back in 2015 without noticing any significant musical differences. I used Sennheiser HD600 Headphones which are finer transducers that any Loudspeaker I've every experienced.

For my RedBook needs, DACs sound rather similar with AB comparisons.

Tube Rolling is far more interesting and musically fulfilling.

Matching Loudspeaker Transducers & Amps can bring scintillating thrills.

I certainly will "Audition "more DACs "IF" I can hear some important difference, I just haven't heard anything wonderful, yet!

Tony in Michigan

ps. I'm still having a hard time understanding or justifying any gear beyond Schiit or PS Audio price levels. Is there anyone out there that can justify $100,000 Plus price levels for a Home Audio System?

MZKM's picture

Every DAC is not transparent, especially many that do MQA, as every one I’ve seen uses the same filter for PCM, which degrades PCM performance, which may be one reason why people say they hear an improvement with MQA, as the DAC they are using to test likely isn’t doing PCM justice.

tonykaz's picture

Is MQA still being promoted ?

It seemed like Format Attrition had already set in.

So, I hadn't considered a possible degradation from that "intentional" cause.

Thanks for straightening it out.

Tony in Michigan

andy yuen's picture

Hi JVS

Thank you for your great write-up. I owned an EMM Labs DA2 and an EMM Labs TSDX transport and I found the DA2 sounded best thru the EMM OptiLink, playing SACDs. Can you test that option and let us know the results?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Hi Andy,

Thanks for the strokes.

Stereophile's policy is to review only piece of equipment at a time, and to keep everything else constant in our reference systems. Otherwise, we can never tell for certain what is creating the sound we're hearing. Without the EMM OptiLink or an EMM transport, I'm afraid I cannot perform this comparison.

jason

ejlif's picture

but how can the sound of the EMM DAC here even be considered when you have so many variables and factors involved? I have been following your reviews of hi end DACs and considering one for myself partly on your reviews. You add a server you aren't even familiar with just for the review? The server alone was mentioned by JA as having a major influence on the sound and that is just added as an unfamiliar component to you as well as the Bridge. I mean we aren't getting a review of the DAC when you say that it takes the 8K server and DCS bridge to get it sounding great. I am very interested in your opinion of how these upper tier DACs compare to each other but when one is being used with one server and another with another I don't see how any kind of objective comparison can be made. Am I missing something here? I mean no disrespect this DAC/server/renderer/ROON/network stuff has definitely got me intrigued. I just don't understand why you would jump from ROON NuC to the Aurdender doesn't that alone play a major role in the sound?

Thanks, Ryan

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I sense no disrespect, and appreciate your comment. Your concerns are valid. Please note:

1. The dCS Network Bridge has been reviewed by me—the review is online—and is an integral part of my system. There is nothing unfamiliar about it at all to me. It is the most transparent way to get files into a DAC that I have available to me. It's a really wonderful product that I use virtually every time I'm in my music room (which is almost every day).

2. Roon has been my preferred music software for quite some time. I've compared its sound on computer to Audirvana Plus - I've given up on Amarra because its search engine stinks - and Roon trumps it easily. You can't play back files through Roon and feed them directly into the EMM Labs DV2 without using a computer, music server, or bridge such as the dCS Network Bridge.

3. I have reviewed the Aurender A10, and was thus familiar with Aurender's software and basic sound. The N10 has better sound than my MacBook Pro. It has been reviewed by us. It made absolute sense to use it. In fact, I have written a follow-up about the N10's sound.

4. I experimented with three different ways of getting files into the DV2: computer, music server, and bridge. Trust me (or don't trust me), there was a lot of listening involved in this review. I ended up with pages and pages of notes, and hauled lots of equipment back and forth. Contemplating the cable changes alone might have been enough to send someone into a tailspin.

I spent a huge amount of time with the DV2, which is now with me on loan to use in future reviews because I think it sounds so good. Because my best source for feeding it files is the Network Bridge, which doesn't have a USB out, I limit my files to 192 PCM or DSD64, and forego playing MQA. I can listen to / review the rest using the Rossini v2.0 DAC. (My follow-up that discusses Rossini v2.0 will appear in a later issue of the magazine.)

If you ever get to the PNW, search me out. I've had members of the Pacific Northwest Audio Society here on multiple occasions, and have now become audiophile buddies with several PNWAS members. It's a good thing.

Thanks, Ryan.

andy yuen's picture

Hi JVS

Many thanks for responding. Can you request for an EMM transport or an EMM streamer to test the EMM DAC? Using another manufacturer network streamer to test the DV2 may not be the best option because of synergy issue, etc.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks for reading my reviews and valuing my opinion.

All my reviews are assigned by Stereophile's new editor, Jim Austin. He can certainly contemplate a review of EMM's CD/SACD transport, which I'd be happy to undertake.

EMM Labs does not have a streamer available, as far as I can tell.

Yes, each company uses a different protocol. CH Precision and dCS (amongst others) use or are contemplating using dual AES for hi-rez files, and base their products on that protocol; others use USB. There are also two different ethernet protocols. Each protocol has its advantages. Some products are Roon Endpoints, while others are not. Some products decode MQA, but not all. And some companies use proprietary links which only work within their family of products. Life is not simple.

We all do what we can do, in the best way we know how. Well, at least some of us. I certainly strive to.

andy yuen's picture

Hi JVS

I think you have not heard the full capabilities of the DAC section of the DV2 until you used the optilink connected to an EMM transport (playing well recorded SACDs) and a EMM Pre Reference preamp or any world class preamp!

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