EMM Labs DV2 Integrated Digital-To-Analog Converter
It's many years since I've owned a standalone DAC. When your CD Player is from EMM Labs it not only contains a world class DAC, but that DAC keeps improving sonically with regular free firmware updates. On top of that, EMM Labs has updated the XDS1 CD Player to V2 and now V3 with new physical components for a reasonable update charge. Without doubt today's XDS1 V3 shows remarkable improvements over the initial model I first reviewed in 2010. But this new DV2 DAC ($30,000) costs more than a new XDS1 ($25,000) even without a transport section. It is the finest DAC EMM Labs has ever made, adding a variable output, MQA support and other refinements to the otherwise similar DA2 ($25,000).
EMM Labs knows one or two things about DACs and Ed Meitner has been refining his DAC circuitry continuously for decades. He is a firm non-believer in commercial DAC chips. He rolls his own discrete circuitry and implements part of his DAC design in powerful FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays), as do his competitors. I'm going to use the same format I introduced in my 2010 review of the revolutionary XDS1 to explain how the DV2 works.
The Power Supply
The power supply is claimed to be substantially impervious to the imperfections on the input power line. It reaches 95% efficiency, contributing to the cool running of the unit. I can confirm that the unit runs cool, like the XDS1 which I am using in this review as a transport only. To achieve the desired quality, the transformers are custom wound. A high voltage rail is created from the input line, and lower voltages are derived from this high voltage line rather than directly from the input. This isolates the low voltage power feeds from phenomena present on the line. Switching frequencies are synched to the high precision audio clock, since experiments have shown that this approach minimizes jitter (timing inaccuracies). All the low voltage feeds are very tightly regulated to ensure optimal performance in the signal path. A good proportion of the cost and the performance of the DV2 and its sister components can be directly attributed to this remarkable power supply.
Digital Input Circuitry
The Hi-Res Audio DAC
In most other high end DACs, the user gets a choice of noise shaping algorithms. For example, in Esoteric's D-02 DAC, the user is offered the choice of four digital filters for PCM input signals – two short delays and two Finite Impulse Response options (plus off for no filtering). The user is asked to select between a flat frequency response with timing errors, or an accurate time aligned signal with an uneven frequency response. These options are not offered or needed in EMM Labs DACs because they use MDAT2 (Meitner Digital Audio Translator) DSP processing to examine the input signal in real time and choose the optimal method instantaneously. MDAT2 can eliminate pre-ringing and post ringing and respond almost perfectly to sudden transients. That maintains the frequency response and the timing – Bingo! MDAT2 also provides all the required upconversion for the D/A section. These technologies are not new in the DA2 and DV2, but they work faster and more accurately than ever before.
By using discrete components Ed Meitner claims to have eliminated the non-linearities that plague every mass market chip created to date. The DAC design is dual differential, fully discrete and of course, unique to EMM Labs and Meitner Audio, the more affordable branch of the family.
Variable Output – Vcontrol
But recently the engineers found a better way to implement this normal / high sensitivity switch in software rather than through the mechanical switch, and they claim that this new method improves the sound. Previously the output section worked at two different voltages as you moved the switch. It wasn't really optimized for either. By moving this adjustment inside the DAC, they were able to make the gain adjustment at a different point in the circuitry, which would then run only at one voltage and could therefore be optimized for that one (higher) voltage. This change is being made for all current production units, and earlier models can be factory upgraded to the new technology without charge. So I sent the unit off for upgrade during the review period, and I will be reporting on my findings below.
Users who direct the output of the DV2 to a preamplifier should set the volume control to 100 and adjust the high / normal switch through the menu system to suit the sensitivity of the rest of their system. Adjusting the switch does not reduce the resolution available when the volume is set to max, or at any particular volume setting in fact.
Ed Meitner's Contribution
This process of refinement never stops. Much of it can be shared with owners through new USB uploads which change the microcode in the DAC, and these changes are offered at no charge. Less frequently the unit needs to go back to the factory for update – I have experienced this process twice in the last eight years with my XDS1. And this process may be a chargeable event. But at least you don't need to buy a new DAC when digital standards evolve, which they will over time. EMM Labs, and certain other highly respected companies are your partners for the long term. You will need to satisfy yourself on that score if you are making a serious investment.
What System Did I Play It With?
Power amplification was primarily through the big Soulution 511 Stereo am, but I did try a prototype of the new Yamaha M5000 Stereo Power amp, and I logged a lot of time with the new Copland CTA408 Integrated amp. I was fortunate to have the $25,000 EMM Labs PRE on hand to see how the direct connection to a power amp compared to using a fine preamp to control volume, and also to see how much better, if at all, the new DAC is than the XDS1's fine internal DAC section.
How Does It Sound?
I have a recording of Dame Myra Hess (piano) with Pablo Casals (cello) and Isaac Stern (violin) performing the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 from the Prades Festival in July 1952. I brought in two friends of mine, both concert pianists, to listen to this and a number of other tracks. Despite the creakiness of the recording, they marveled at the sonority and at the quality of the performance itself – often very slow but never sagging. This is the name of the game – to hear instruments with all their color and weight emerging intact after almost 70 years. No stereo of course, but we were enthralled. From the same Pablo Casals Edition, we listened in awe to Casals lead Schubert's great C Major String Quintet, perhaps the greatest piece of classical music ever written. We were supposed to listen to just the first couple of minutes of the slow movement as the hour was late, but we were transfixed, listening in silence to the whole movement. For the record, the discs I played were Sony Classical SMK 58994 and 58992. They are not easy to get your hands on, but well worth the effort.
I trust my physical reaction to music more than my analytical skills in evaluating that experience. On the best recordings, the DV2 captivated me in the way a live performance does. The DV2 (in the right company) has full detail and presence, no digital edge, and reveals all the depth and emotion in the recording. It brings renewed faith into this hobby of ours – musical reproduction in the home. In more modern recordings, the DV2 extracts considerably more realism than my previous reference, the XDS1, and that's saying a lot. There are other DACs which dig down into the lowest octaves without bloat, that can resolve the midrange to wonderful effect, but the high frequencies which contain the many overtones of the various instruments and voices we listen to, which in turn give us the tonal quality, those have always been compromised by filters and other limitations in the digital chain.
A reviewer, including this one, may tell you that a particular component, or combination of components will send him or her back to their collection to enjoy it afresh. While certainly the case here, I will go further. In many cases I had not understood quite how outstanding my discs were. To hear Dylan's Ain't Talkin', Rubenstein's performance of Chopin Sonata No. 1, Rachel Podger's Bach Sonatas, the Bill Evans Trio playing Autumn Leaves, this is to experience great music without all the usual filters and impediments – tone and dynamics just as they should be.
There is no one type of music to highlight here – the DV2 is revealing and comfortable in every genre. I am always disappointed in a component when its great on female vocals but can't handle classical piano – a common occurrence. Or great for rock, weak on acoustic guitar. It tells you a lot about the impulse response, the frequency response across the bandwidth, and the dynamic range and articulation of the component, and what it tells you is unwelcome news.
How Could It Be Improved?
Ergonomically the remote is not as full functioned as I would wish. For example the DV2 offers 3 preset volume levels you can customize – A, B and C – there should be dedicated buttons for this on the remote. There are also no power on/off buttons for the unit or a transport, and it's not a learning remote. The unit offers no control over balance, and no headphone output. The display panel is way better than the display on the XDS1, especially in well-lit rooms. And you can control the brightness and contrast. But somehow the background goes grey instead of black as you increase brightness and I never found an ideal balance. And there is only one OptiLink input – I would prefer two (EMM transport and EMM streamer). These are nice to have but not deal breakers. The biggest limitation is the maximum output level of 7 volts. Some dedicated preamps offer higher maximum output levels which may better suit some power amp / speaker combinations. Maybe we'll see a three way output sensitivity switch in the future.
Who Is It For?
If you are also running analog, you will need a preamp or integrated amp so this digital volume control may not have the appeal it has to me, since you will already have a volume control. You may be better off saving $5000 by buying the DA2. So, this is for digital-only guys like me. Is the volume control here as good as a top rate analog volume control? Not in terms of range – you can go both louder and softer on some preamps which incorporate a gain stage and the steps may also be finer. But in terms of quality, if the range and granularity on offer here suits you, this one is pretty much perfect. In practice, I could not differentiate between the sound coming through the EMM Labs PRE Reference Preamplifier into the Soulution 511 Power Amp and the sound of the DV2 going directly into that power amp.
There are competitors to the DV2. dCS, Chord, Esoteric, MSB, Berkeley, and others all have or are working on statement DACs, and most now offer a variable output implemented digitally. I've been very impressed with the new implementations I've heard. Some are much more expensive than the DV2, and may have optional external clocks that can raise the price significantly. But I've heard nothing that sounds more like the music I hear in the best performance spaces. More impressive, yes, but more realistic, no.
The DV2's DAC section is also a major step up from the DAC circuitry included in the latest version of the EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD Player, which has been my reference until now. EMM Labs' DV2 volume control enables me to remove the preamp from my system, to control the whole system from a single remote, and I am now enjoying the best sound I've ever had. In this space, for all its $30,000 price tag, the DV2 is a strong value. What's not to like?
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