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Gryphon Diablo 300

Select ComponentEd Meitner, founder and chief designer of EMM Labs, has an impeccable digital pedigree that dates back to the 1970s. He has not only published groundbreaking research concerning the causes and cures of jitter, he also has designed and manufactured a series of digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters, adaptive filters, and disc transports that have often advanced the state of the art of digital music reproduction.

EMM Labs DAC2XAn example is the Meitner IDAT DAC of 1992, made by the now-defunct Museatex. Among other innovations, it contained a low-jitter custom data receiver, a unique DSP-based system that analyzed the digital signal and routed it to one of several different filters, and a then-unheard-of eight DAC chips.

Ed Meitner also has done some impressive work relating to SACD technology. Introduced in 1999, the Super Audio Compact Disc has to this day never won mass acceptance. In fact, on a number of occasions, its creators, Sony and Philips Electronics, appeared to be on the verge of pulling the plug on it. Very early in SACD’s history, the DVD Forum, an association of hardware manufacturers, software firms, and content providers involved in the design and production of DVDs, rejected its adoption. Not surprisingly, many Forum members were reluctant to adopt a technology controlled by Sony and Philips. But many also disliked SACD’s sound quality, at least as it then existed.

However, at least one Sony executive believed in the format, and convinced the company to commission Meitner to design converters for PCM as well as 1-bit DSD-based recording studios. The converters that Meitner developed, higher quality than the converters then in use, sounded so good that Sony and Philips ordered a large number of them and were persuaded to continue supporting the SACD format.

It is therefore no surprise that I jumped on the opportunity to review EMM Labs’ DAC2X stereo digital-to-analog converter ($15,500 USD). As many audiophiles know, it’s one of the hottest digital tickets on the market. While waiting for the review sample to arrive, I heard from Sanjay Patel, founder and CEO of Ciamara, a company that not only retails gear for a number of high-end audio manufacturers, but also designs and manufacturers its own high-end speakers and electronics. Patel told me that he’d recently gotten in the DAC2X. When I mentioned that a sample was on its way to me, he insisted on coming over to help me set it up.

He didn’t have to ask twice. Since EMM told me that the sample would arrive fully broken in, I powered it up to keep it warm while awaiting Patel’s visit.

Features: Look but don’t touch

The DAC2X supports up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution on all of its PCM inputs, including USB. Since it can receive a DSD-encoded bitstream via USB, it can also be used to play DSD files. It can be used to play SACDs from any EMM Labs SACD transport via the company’s proprietary Optilink digital optical interface. Moreover, the DAC2X upsamples all digital audio to 5.6MHz DSD, which is twice the sampling rate of SACD. Supported digital input formats are AES/EBU, S/PDIF, USB, and Optilink.

At a time when some DACs are no larger or heavier than a USB stick, the DAC2X has a precision-machined aluminum chassis measuring 17"W x 3.6"H x 15.6"D and weighing 26.4 pounds. Except on its rear, where the presence of connectors helps to limit resonances, the chassis walls are 0.25" thick. The relatively unadorned front panel announces the DAC2X’s limited functionality, and thus its seriousness of purpose. There’s nothing here that’s not strictly related to a single mission: the conversion of digital signals to analog. This means that the DAC2X’s front panel does not have a volume control. What it does have are a standby/power-save button and several LED clock-control indicators. Another LED lets you know that the DAC2X has detected a valid signal at the selected digital input. Two other LEDs display the sampling frequency.

The front panel’s remaining buttons are for polarity inversion, mute, and digital input selection. There is also a mysterious Alt button, to be used for some future, as yet unspecified function.

EMM Labs DAC2X 

On the rear panel are a main power switch, a female IEC power connector, input connectors for the digital inputs, and stereo analog line output connectors (fully differential balanced XLR and single-ended RCA). Four S/PDIF inputs are provided: two each for coaxial and TosLink. There are also two USB inputs: a high-speed Class 2 for audio signals, and one for software and firmware updates.

The DAC2X subjects a digital signal to a number of proprietary technologies, many of them developed for EMM’s flagship XDS1 SACD/CD player. To start, EMM states that the DAC2X’s proprietary high-speed, asynchronous Meitner Frequency Acquisition System (MFAST) circuitry captures the data almost instantaneously as it is presented by the source. Unlike phase-locked loop (PLL) circuits, therefore, MFAST is able to use the DAC2X’s internal clock rather than the source component’s clock, which typically has a high level of jitter.

Once captured by the DAC2X, the signal, whether DSD or PCM, is automatically upsampled to 5.6MHz and filtered by a Meitner Digital Audio Translator (MDAT) algorithm. This constantly examines the signal, and almost instantly adapts to any changes in the transients. EMM states that, because the MDAT filter doesn’t provide a fixed response, there are none of the pre- or post-ringing artifacts that typically manifest as spurious “rings” before and after a sharp transient.

The DAC2X also contains large, very expensive, proprietary, aerospace-grade composite-laminate PCB boards. These multilayer boards have a low dielectric constant, and spread heat evenly and obstruct resonances. According to EMM, they come very close to the performance obtained with point-to-point wiring, which is difficult or impossible to use in digital circuits. Unlike tube-based analog circuits, for instance, which might have fewer than 100 connection points, digital circuits can have tens of thousands of such points.

On the DAC2X’s analog board are its 1-bit, sigma-delta, fully balanced, differential MDAC conversion modules. These modules are not the off-the-shelf integrated chips used in virtually all other DACs, but are hand-built by EMM Labs using individual transistors, resistors, and capacitors.

Also on the analog board is the DAC2X’s master clock. This circuit produces less than 1 picosecond of jitter. Unlike in most other DACs, whose clocks are located in the digital circuitry, the DAC2X’s clock is placed next to the DAC modules. This keeps the clock’s circuit paths very short, thereby, per EMM, further reducing jitter and other waveform distortions.

The DAC modules and clock are protected by grounded metal covers that isolate these critical parts from the rest of the circuitry. Under the DAC2X’s top cover lies what EMM calls a Charge Management Plate. Consisting of a group of copper dots arranged above the ground plane, this is designed to, when charged, stabilize the electrical field around the DAC2X’s audio circuits. According to EMM, it provides an environment not unlike that found inside vacuum tubes, which have extremely stable electrical field gradients due to their high supply voltages.

Finally, EMM states that the DAC2X’s proprietary, highly isolated X Power System v3.1 power supply synchronizes its operating frequency (or resonant mode) to that of every other electrical system on the chassis, thereby almost completely eliminating noise. EMM says that its extremely green power-delivery system outperforms typical switch-mode and linear power supplies.

Speaking of power, the DAC2X comes with a power cord made for EMM Labs by Kimber Kable. While this cord is not Kimber’s top model, it’s a big step up from the molded cords that accompany most components. While it’s not something I would ultimately mate with the DAC2X, its inclusion is a nice gesture.

The DAC2X is operated via its front panel, its own infrared remote control, or RS232 transmission. The remote is elegant and impressive. Resembling the controls included with many Bryston models, it’s precision-machined from a solid block of aluminum; it’s heavy and feels indestructible.

The DAC2X’s five-year warranty covers parts and labor. At a time when many high-end manufacturers provide warranties of only one to three years, EMM Labs deserves props for doing the right thing.

Setup: Easy like Sunday morning

Sanjay Patel and I first connected the DAC2X to my Esoteric K-03 SACD/CD player via a Synergistic Research Tesla D-3 coaxial interconnect (the K-03 lacks an AES/EBU output). A few seconds later, we linked the DAC2X to my Esoteric C-03 preamplifier with a pair of Synergistic’s Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver interconnects. After powering the DAC2X with the stock Kimber power cord, which I ultimately replaced, with great success, with a Synergistic Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver cord, we were playing “Red Book” CDs. Total setup time: about 90 seconds.

But this configuration, however unexpectedly simple, was imperfect -- we couldn’t pass along to the DAC2X a DSD bitstream from SACDs. Due to copyright restrictions, this type of signal can’t be sent via S/PDIF, either coaxial or optical. However, as mentioned above, it can be sent from an EMM Labs disc transport via Optilink, or from an audio server via USB.

Playing digital files was just as easy as CDs. My primary digital source component is a five-year-old Apple MacBook Pro running the latest version of Amarra’s music-player software. I’ve upgraded the MacBook to 4GB of RAM and a Western Digital external hard drive.

Due to the DAC2X’s use of the XMOS USB receiving chip, all of the drivers it needs are contained in the Linux and Mac OS X operating systems; nothing additional need be downloaded. However, if you’re using Windows, you must install the USB driver contained on the provided CD-ROM.

After connecting the DAC2X to my MacBook via a Synergistic Research Active SE USB cable, we were in business, albeit with predictably mediocre results. Patel was, to say the least, not happy with my MacBook. He felt that it was too old, had insufficient memory, and was laden with too much data and software to produce the quality of sound worthy of the DAC2X. The only solution, he said, was for him to bring a music server to my home.

A few weeks later, he arrived with a Weiss MAN301 Music Archive Network player. At a retail price of about $12,300, including optional internal DAC, this was certainly more like something the average buyer of a DAC2X would use with it than my admittedly overburdened MacBook.

We used the Synergistic D3 coaxial cable to connect the Weiss to the DAC2X. Although we also experimented with an AES/EBU cable, Patel and I agreed that any differences in the sounds of the two cables were extremely minor. To celebrate the Weiss’s arrival, we threw in a Synergistic Active FireWire 800 cable to connect it to my external hard drive.

Performance: Music lessons

With the DAC2X now comfortably sandwiched between the Weiss server and my Esoteric C-03 preamp, it became apparent that the EMM Labs demanded a highly resolving and transparent source. If you buy a DAC2X, don’t skimp, as I did, by using it with an old laptop. You’ll need to spring for something that at least approaches the impressive capabilities of the Weiss.

Starting off with several albums featuring female singers, such as Aretha Franklin’s Aretha Sings the Blues (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Columbia), revealed that the DAC2X was neutral in tone, with a signature midrange quality that was nothing short of ravishing. In “Drinking Again,” Franklin’s voice was wonderfully warm and rich. More generally, voices, strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion whose sounds fell within 150-400Hz all sounded natural, not overhyped to convey fake analog warmth.

But the DAC2X had two signature strengths, the second its rendition of leading edges. Fed the Isao Suzuki Trio’s “My One and Only Love,” from The TMB Sounds! (CD, LIM UHD 048), the DAC2X seemed to fully and precisely capture the mid-frequency attack transients created when Suzuki’s bow dug into his cello’s strings. Moreover, unlike many DACs, the DAC2X did not overharden these sounds.

Treble tones were afforded similar treatment. In “Anxiety/Taurian Matador,” from Billy Cobham’s Spectrum (24/192 AIFF, Atlantic), cymbal attacks were uncommonly crisp, but not overly articulated or imbued with too much sheen.

And while some DACs emphasize transparency and leading edge at the expense of texture and midrange body, that wasn’t the case here. No matter what the instrument -- voice, strings, or percussion -- the sound was anything but thin or devoid of complex surface characteristics.

At the tail ends of notes, high-end digital components are now expected to render cymbal decays with no noticeable truncation. However, with “Anxiety/Taurian Matador” the DAC2X combined this ability with an ear-opening rendition of the instrument’s self-destructing metallic haze. I haven’t heard many DACs that are that transparent, delicate, and airy.

The DAC2X was eerily quiet. The horns that open “Come On, Come Over,” from Jaco Pastorius (16/44.1 AIFF, Epic), jumped from a black background with a speed and solidity that caught me completely off guard.

EMM Labs DAC2X

But audiophile benchmarks aside, the DAC2X revealed things about music that no other digital music machine has. If you think your run-of-the-mill DAC performs at this level, think again.

In the acoustic version of “Killer,” from Seal’s Best: 1991-2004 (CD, Warner Bros. 48882-2), the xylophone’s opening line of melody is joined by another line an octave higher. With the DAC2X, the difference in timbre between the lines was striking. Moreover, each note brimmed with its own set of overtones. Never before had a component so poignantly driven home the point that timbre is not composed of a single frequency, but numerous frequencies that combine to produce a sound.

The DAC2X was equally revelatory with respect to cymbals. Yes, as mentioned above, crashes were as clean and elegantly structured as I had heard. However, the DAC2X also conveyed the cymbals’ complex personalities. When I played “Take Five,” from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out (16/44.1 AIFF, Columbia), the DAC2X unexpectedly revealed that Joe Morello’s cymbals were round, lush, and fleshy, with dark, warm, washy overtones -- this is in contrast to cymbals on rock albums, which often sounded thinner, cooler, and sharper. Perhaps this should not be a surprise, as the cymbals with more high-frequency content seem a bit better at cutting through the dense electronic thicket of many rock recordings.

All in all, the DAC2X paired cutting-edge technical proficiency with incredible midrange beauty and musicality. This is not to say that it will be all things to all people. Some may prefer a more forgiving sound. Bad recordings run through the DAC2X sounded very bad. But this is the price you pay for a machine that can also make great recordings take your breath away.

And while the DAC2X excelled at midrange harmonics and leading edge, other high-performance DACs bring to the table their own sonic signatures. As discussed below, my Esoteric K-03 SACD/CD player emphasizes transient impact and performance at the frequency extremes. Different stokes for different folks. But matters of taste aside, there can be no dispute that the DAC2X is one of only a few one-box DACs that can reasonably claim to intrude on the state of the art.

Comparison: Yin vs. Yang

I compared the DAC2X to my Esoteric K-03 SACD/CD player. Bear in mind that in order for the K-03 to output PCM resolutions higher than 96kHz, you must download its proprietary drivers. Of course, like any good music server, the Weiss lacks the complete functionality of a home computer, and doesn’t accept drivers. I therefore could not obtain resolution higher than 96kHz from the K-03, although I regularly do from my MacBook. In light of the above, I performed my comparison with files of that resolution or lower.

In terms of operation, the DAC2X and the K-03 are very different beasts. While the K-03 is laden with filtering and upsampling options, the DAC2X is pretty much plug and play. If you’re an inveterate tweaker who relishes the opportunity to manipulate the digital datastream, the Esoteric is a mandatory addition to your (very) short list. If, however, you prefer to relinquish control of that datastream to an algorithm, albeit a very sophisticated one, the DAC2X may be your ticket.

It also must be kept in mind that, at $10,900, the K-03 costs substantially less than the DAC2X, and is taxed with not only converting digital data, but also spinning CDs and SACDs and offering digital volume attenuation. Undoubtedly, these factors caused it to suffer a severe and unfair handicap in this fight.

So it should come as no surprise that the DAC2X simply sounded better than the K-03. In my room, the EMM Labs was quieter, more detailed, and had better transient precision, cleaner leading edges, and better decays than the Esoteric. It also offered a more fully developed midrange. For example, Aretha Franklin’s voice in “Drinking Again” had more warmth and richness with the DAC2X.

Unable to keep pace with the DAC2X in those areas, the K-03 sounded a bit rounder and was more forgiving of recording flaws. It also projected a slightly smaller (although still very large) soundstage. Even so, for the money, and considering the many things that it does, the K-03’s performance was nothing short of spectacular, particularly for its incredible dynamic impact and stellar showing at the frequency extremes. In “The Last Resort,” from the Eagles’ Hotel California (16/44.1 AIFF, Asylum), ultra-high-frequency cymbal strikes showed no noticeable sign of harshness or rolloff through the K-03. In this regard, despite the aforementioned handicap, the Esoteric was as good as or better than the EMM. Moreover, the kick drum that opens this album’s title track was presented with a weight and solidity that rivaled the more scalpel-like DAC2X.

Conclusions: Convert me

Twenty years from now, when some reviewer again recounts Ed Meitner’s storied accomplishments, I’m sure the EMM Labs DAC2X will be judged worthy of prominence in that list, much like the Meitner IDAT DAC of 1992. Like the IDAT, the DAC2X pushes the performance envelope of digital conversion. More important, it taught me a few things about the art of music. If that doesn’t warrant a Select Component award, nothing does.

. . . Howard Kneller
howardk@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Sources/DAC -- Esoteric K-03 SACD/CD player, Weiss MAN 301 music server, Apple MacBook Pro laptop running Amarra, Windows 7 netbook running JRiver Media Center 17
  • Preamplifier -- Esoteric C-03
  • Amplifier -- Esoteric A-02
  • Speakers -- YGA Kipod II Signature
  • Interconnects -- Synergistic Research Element
  • Digital cables -- Synergistic Research: Tricon USB, Active FireWire 800
  • Speaker cables -- Synergistic Research Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver
  • Power cords -- Synergistic Research: Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver Analog (amplifier, preamplifier), Copper-Tungsten-Silver Digital (disc player, DAC), Tesla Precision AC SE (speakers), Element Copper-Tungsten (Powercell 4 power conditioner, Powercell 10SE Mk.III power conditioner), Element Copper-Tungsten-Silver Analog and Digital (Enigma power supply fed by two power cords), Tesla Hologram A (QLS strips with Galileo MPCs)
  • Power conditioners and distribution -- Synergistic Research Powercell 4 (digital only) daisy-chained to Powercell 10SE Mk.II
  • Isolation devices -- Custom Isolation Products amp stand (source), Bright Star Audio IsoRock reference platform (preamp), Silent Running Audio VR fp Isobase (amp), Synergistic Research MIGS, Mapleshade Heavy Hats, DIY amp stands
  • Misc. -- Synergistic Research: Galileo Universal interconnect and speaker cable cells, Acoustic Art System

EMM Labs DAC2X Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $15,500 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

EMM Labs
119-5065 13th Street SE
Calgary, Alberta T2G 5M8
Canada
Phone: (403) 225-4161
Fax: (403) 225-2330

E-mail: Info@emmlabs.com
Website: www.emmlabs.com