Less than a year old, EMM Labs is already introducing products that raise the bar for excellence in the digital musical world of zeros and ones. Headed by one of the great minds in the audio (both digital and analog) industry, Ed Meitner is destined to make a change (for the better) in the way we record and reproduce music.
The objective of a good A-to-D or D-to-A converter is to be as transparent as possible. Neither the conversion from analog to digital nor the trip back to analog from digital should add any coloration or artifacts of any kind. This is not an easy task, considering the fact that an analog circuit alone can and, more often than not, does change things sonically.
It has always been a mystery to me why relatively simple hi-fi preamplifiers with line inputs and line outputs color things as much as they do. Only recently have operational amplifiers come up to the standards of discrete designs. Discrete, however, has become a bit of a buzzword – perceived by some as better just because it is discrete. Unfortunately, the most widely used op-amps are pretty crummy.
The best digital conversion in the world cannot be realized if the analog is not done right. The analog sections of the Meitner converters use a combination of monolithic and discrete parts. The op-amps are surrounded with discrete circuitry, making sure these chips are optimized at all times and are not asked to do something they cannot do well. Zero feedback, discrete Class A power drivers feed the A-to-D modulator as well as the analog output of the D-to-A.
Direct Stream DigitalDSD (Direct Stream Digital) is a 1-bit scheme that is a direct representation of the analog input without the decimation filters inherent in PCM. The sampling frequency is 64 times the rate of Compact Disc (64 x 44,100); this works out to 2,822,400 Hz. The CD uses 16 bits for each sample so the bit-rate is 16 x 44,100 or 705,600, which is one-fourth the data of DSD.
About 18 months ago Meitner built the prototype DSD D-to-A converter. After giving it a first listen, it became obvious he was onto something good. Some earlier projects I recorded with the Sony DSD machine sounded more like what I remembered coming out of the mixer in the studio when played back through the Meitner DSD DAC. A few months later, Meitner sent me an A-to-D converter just prior to a new recording project and the results were once again closer to the real thing. Since then, Meitner has been refining and tweaking both the A-to-D and the D-to-A and now they are real products.
The first production A2D was sent to me last week and I used it on a mastering project. Both A2D and D2A boxes cost $3,800. Sounding even better than the prototypes, this A-to-D is at the highest level of any converter I have heard thus far. I have heard more coloration in a piece of wire than the complete A-to-D and D-to-A conversion process of the Meitner boxes.
The A2D has XLR balanced analog inputs with 20-turn trimpots to adjust input sensitivity over a 12 dB range – good resolution. The DSD output appears on three BNC connectors (left channel, right channel and word clock) in a modified SDIF-2 format (Sony Digital Interface). Even with PCM, this format is the choice of many engineers keeping data and clock information separate. A 24-bit AES/EBU output is also provided, and it just happens to be a great-sounding PCM converter.
I did a direct comparison of two popular 24-bit converters with a live jazz quartet as the input. The Meitner converter sounded closer to the bus than the two 24-bit A-to-Ds but not as close as the DSD output, which sounded almost identical to the bus.
The PCM output can also be used to connect a high-resolution digital meter, such as the Mytek DDD-603, which is what I use. Two red clip LEDs on the A2D turn on precisely with the over indicator of the Mytek meter. Unlike PCM, the overload characteristic of DSD behaves more like analog, with a softer saturation flavor. The A2D accepts a 1 FS (44.1kHz) or 64 FS (2.8224 MHz) external word clock or work on its own low jitter internal clock.
The D2A also has 20-turn trimpots to adjust both the balanced and unbalanced outputs over a 12 dB range. Three BNC connectors are used again for the DSD inputs. A single switch on the back of the unit adjusts for absolute polarity. The D2A also has a 24-bit output, which really comes in handy. It can be used to make PCM transfers or backups from DSD masters as well as drive a digital meter on playback. The PLL (phase lock loop) circuits in both the A2D and D2A are optimized for extremely low jitter.
Both units are built with the highest quality parts and are beautifully put together. The generic-looking boxes are not going to win any aesthetic design awards, but we are talking ears here, not eyes.
No bells, whistles or fancy packaging – just the most transparent conversion from analog to digital and from digital back to analog.
Contact: EMM Labs at 403-225-4161.