Now we’re getting to the nut of it. In my November editorial, I recounted the first step in adding digital playback to my main review system, which is in the basement listening room of my Toronto townhouse. Until then, that system had been analog only (or mostly analog). The first step was getting my Roon ROCK to pump out music through a Logitech Squeezebox Touch streamer to the secondary system on the main floor. Then in December, I started a deep dive into Roon and also added the Meitner Audio MA3 streaming DAC, which now sits defiantly next to my VPI Prime Signature turntable.
I was more than a little apprehensive about introducing the MA3 to my reference system. I’d brought my Squeezebox Touch streamer downstairs once or twice in the past to run through some test signals, and while it was down there, I took a quick listen. It astonished me how good this 13-year-old, $300 DAC sounded. Both times I did this, I quickly disconnected the Touch and scurried back upstairs with it, unwilling to conceptualize what a high-end DAC might bring to my reference system. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “You can’t fight progress. The best you can do is ignore it, until it finally takes your livelihood and self-respect away.” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
As I write this, I’ve had the MA3 in my main system for a month, and the nervousness has worn off. First things first—as I’ve been keen to point out, I’ve never had a high-end DAC in my reference system before, so I’m not going to make a judgment call on how it sounds compared to other DACs. This isn’t a review.
I’m going to do something far more dangerous—compare the sound of the MA3, and my reaction to it, to my VPI Prime Signature, which is right now armed with a DS Audio W3 optical cartridge feeding an EMM Labs DS-EQ1 optical phono equalizer.
Mark this, though. I am not going to wade into a which-sounds-better swamp—a perilous place filled with potential pitfalls. But I may well express preferences.
As I stated last month, the MA3 works perfectly with Roon. As such, it allows me to immerse myself in Roon’s labyrinth of musical choices as I hop from one band to another based on degrees-of-separation of their personnel, or any other bolt of lightning that strikes my fancy.
Strikes my fancy. That’s an anachronism, but it’s appropriate here. For the first couple of weeks, I found myself jumping from one song to another, as the novelty of having musical choices at my fingertips overtook my desire to just listen. I was expecting this, so I just ran with it. Sure enough, after a while, I settled down and started listening through the software and experiencing the music at a deeper level.
Another instant benefit—remote volume control! The MA3 comes with a high-quality remote that has a wonderful hand feel. The on-board VControl volume control, first used in sister-company EMM Labs’ DV2 DAC, “maintains the input signal without re-quantization, allowing for complete transparency at any volume setting, a wide attenuation range, and no loss of audio resolution.”
As my own Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp doesn’t have a remote control, I found it quite handy to be able to adjust the volume from my listening position. When I was using the MA3 in isolation, I’d just knock the SFL-2’s volume knob up a few notches beyond my day-to-day maximum and fine-tune it downward with the MA3’s remote.
A more significant benefit was the ability to match the volume between vinyl and digital. I’m not sure if it was coincidental, but the output levels of the MA3 and the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 phono stage were pretty damn close. When I played the LP and digital file of the same recording, the LP was consistently just a hair softer, but I never had to lower the MA3 any further than 92 (from its maximum volume level of 100) to get a close match. I did not use an SPL meter; I just matched levels by ear.
Okay—I hear you. I didn’t try very hard to verify that I was hearing the same master during vinyl and digital playback. With most selections, I’d try, but there are no guarantees in life, and who the hell knows the provenance of Tidal’s albums anyway? And the CDs I’d ripped to my local library? I got rid of the physical media several years back, so I’m not sure about those masters either.
Still, the digital and vinyl versions of some albums sounded so similar that it was seriously difficult to tell them apart. These recordings, I convinced myself, must be from the same master tape. But more on that later.
Some more about the MA3—this DAC-streamer is designed and built from the ground up here in Canada by Ed Meitner and his team. Whereas most audiophile DACs employ off-the-shelf DAC chips from companies like ESS Technology and Texas Instruments, the MA3 uses EMM Labs’ in-house MDAC2, a fully discrete, single-bit D-to-A converter with an internal conversion rate of 1024fs (16xDSD). It’s important to note that Meitner was one of the pioneers of DSD and worked hand in hand with Sony and Philips on its development. My ears perked up when, in one of our conversations, Meitner responded to a question about the benefit of DSD256 versus DSD64 files. He explained that he worked on an early DSD64 analog-to-digital converter and that this was already total overkill as an audio format.
So this guy developed his own DSD-capable DAC after developing a DSD ADC. If there’s a more authoritative expert in this field, I’d like to meet that person.
My physical interactions with the MA3 have been very limited. I control it via Roon and have little need to approach the component itself other than to take note of its informative display, which tells me the sample rate and title of the currently playing track. It’s possible to interact with the MA3 by way of the Mcontrol app, but since Roon gets in the middle of things, the only reason I’ve needed to use Mcontrol is to check for firmware updates. The volume knob on the front of the MA3 is a pleasure to use. There’s just enough tactile feedback to the knob to stop it from feeling detached from its purpose. But as I said earlier, the slim, metal remote is just great, and relying on it means I rarely have to touch the MA3 itself. Furthermore, I can control the MA3’s volume via the Roon app itself, so there’s another reason I don’t have to get close to the DAC.
As the MA3 is fully balanced, I connected the balanced output to the balanced input of my SFL-2 preamp and moved the EMM Labs DS-EQ1’s output over to the direct single-ended input.
Listening to the MA3 in isolation was, and continues to be, a delight. During my first week with the MA3 in the system, I noted a smoothness, a sense of ease to its sound that made me want to keep listening. There was plenty of extension in the highs and tons of detail through the midrange and above, but it was never forced. I found myself relaxing into the music in a way that I hadn’t expected from a digital source. Difficult, jangly, bitey music such as (pick a track, any track) Koby Israelite’s Orobas: Book of Angels, Vol. 4 (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Tzadik Records / Tidal) benefited greatly, as I was able to hear and understand the intent, to feel the aggression.
In a subsequent discussion with Ed Meitner, I discovered that he’d paid careful attention to the way his DACs handle transients. According to Meitner, 16-bit/44.1kHz PCM isn’t sufficient for precisely encoding transients, as the leading edge can bridge two samples. The MDAT2 DSP, which upconverts all incoming signals to DSD1024, performs real-time transient detection and mitigates this issue. This manipulation may well explain my reaction to how the MA3 presents music, to its overt smoothness, and my response to its analog-like nature.
Enough blather. After listening to a bunch of recordings where it was obvious that the mastering of the digital and vinyl versions was radically different, I found a few where it was so close that the similarity between the two actually shocked me.
First up—Astor Piazzolla’s Tango: Zero Hour (LP, Pangea PAN-42138), a record I’ve known and loved for decades and a startling piece of vinyl. My version is a thin late-1980s wafer. I don’t think there’s been a high-quality reissue (I’ve looked), which is a tragedy. Regardless, my copy sounds magnificent. Despite a few ticks and pops, surface noise is impressively low, and the soundstage is miles deep with superb placement of instruments. The music makes my heart fill with sadness, with love that’s ended. It’s a breakup of galactic import with no possibility of resolution.
Whenever I think I’m becoming jaded in this business, whenever I feel like the equipment and the process of reviewing it is souring me on the act of listening to music, I toss this LP on the VPI and sink down into a dark pool of someone else’s unhappiness. Then I rise out of it refreshed.
So yeah, it’s great music, and the digital and LP versions sounded startlingly similar. I have my own ripped copy stored locally, but the Tidal version sounds just a hair richer and more dynamic, so that’s what I went with. After level-matching the two sources, I cued up “Milonga Del Angel” and let them rip.
My preamp doesn’t accommodate remote switching of sources, so I popped the Hegel P30A preamplifier back into the system, with both the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 and the MA3 getting their own balanced connection so I could switch between digital and vinyl from my listening position.
As I suggested earlier, the two versions of this track were disconcertingly similar. Just listening casually, I found myself getting turned around, often forgetting which source was playing. Of course, I could concentrate on the surface noise (like I said, my copy has been around the block), and it’d be immediately apparent as soon as I heard a snap or pop. However, I’ve become quite adept at coaxing my brain to ignore surface noise, so I have a built-in blind (deaf?) spot for that artifact.
Once I’d oriented myself, I found the most notable sonic difference between the two sources was in the highs. Contrary to my expectation, the highs were smoother and rounder through the MA3 than via the vinyl rig. LPs are softer, right? Digital is more “accurate” and therefore more extended, right?
Not in my room. While the actual level and spectral content were similar, the LP’s presentation added a feeling of granularity to the top notes of Fernando Suarez Paz’s violin, a feeling of harmonic richness that at once made the instrument sound more abrasive but also more involving. Tango: Zero Hour isn’t a bright or etched album by any stretch, but it’s lively and very open sounding. Which is more accurate? Who knows—I wasn’t at the recording session. That said, in this particular instance, the highs on the LP seemed more sophisticated and multidimensional than those of the Tidal version. But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking to myself that LPs are notorious for additive distortions (or so I’m told). Could this harmonic dimensionality be an additive distortion?
Flipping back to the MA3’s presentation of Tidal’s version, I found myself better able to relax into the music. I was less on the edge of my seat. Not less on edge—mark that. The LP pulled me in a touch deeper, gave me a feeling of texture, whereas the digital version gave me more of a back-of-the-room perspective.
Again, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t decide whether the LP was adding something or the Tidal version was leaving something out. In the end, I preferred the LP, as Tango: Zero Hour is dirty music, full of base emotions, and the added granularity made it more of an emotional event.
Another recording in which the LP and digital versions should match up perfectly is Pink Floyd’s Animals (2018 Remix). I wrote about the LP (Pink Floyd Records, PFRLP28) in my “For the Record” column a few months back, as it’s a long-time favorite. Given that Tidal confirms it offers this specific remixed version, I figured it was a slam dunk.
Here, the big difference was down at the bottom. Back when I first began writing this editorial, I felt that Roger Waters’s bass benefited hugely from the remix—there was more definition to each note and the level felt like it had been bumped a touch. This change gave the whole album more body and presence. I loved it.
The bass was even more pronounced when I was listening to Tidal’s version, but it wasn’t boomy or out of control. I much preferred the bass here, as it gave even more of a bump to the immediacy, the drive of the album, especially Waters’s tasteful, loping bass line on “Dogs.” Further, the LP version didn’t feel as if it were adding anything to my enjoyment of the music. The masters sounded essentially the same, except for this difference, so maybe my pressing was a bit off? Who knows? With vinyl versus digital, there are so many variables that eventually, my head began to spin trying to make objective sense of it.
Right now, I feel like I’ve painted myself into a corner with this attempt to determine which is best for me. Part of me wants to take the coward’s way out and say I like them both and slink off into my basement. Because honestly, sound-wise, I could easily live with the MA3 as my only source. It’s a wonderful-sounding component.
I’m not going to do that, though. I’m going to stick my neck out and make a pronouncement. I still prefer vinyl. In the end, it’s not entirely about the sound. I still derive great pleasure from the tactile interaction I get with LPs and the whole process of physically handling them.
There’s a big but coming, though. The process of installing Roon and the MA3 has opened me up to a whole new world of convenience and—yes—great sound. Some albums sounded better via the MA3, and some sounded better through my analog chain. What I’ve figured out is that, if the source is of commensurate quality, the music will sound great either way. The convenience of digital, the ruggedness of the MA3, and the rich user experience of Roon are powerful draws.
Installing and listening to this digital system has been a pleasure. The process of writing this editorial has forced me to consider, in great detail, what these two sources bring to my system. Rather than take my turntable for granted, I’ve had to delve deeply into both the musical result and my own preconceptions. I wanted to prefer my LPs, but I wasn’t willing to just make it so by way of inbuilt prejudices. I needed a hard challenge, and I got it. LPs still own my heart, but I’m really enjoying the digital life. After proofreading this piece, I’m going to head downstairs and fire up the MA3 for a good long listen. I’m going to flit from song to song because I can, and then I’m going to let Roon Radio take me wherever it wants.
. . . Jason Thorpe