EMM Labs DAC2X Stereo D/A Converter

Device Type: Digital to Analog Converter
Input: EMM Optilink, AES/EBU, USB, 2x Coax S/PDIF, 2x Toslink
Output: unbalanced RCA, balanced XLR
Dimensions (W x D x H): 435 x 400 x 92mm
Weight: 12kg
Availability: through authorized dealers
Price: $15,500.00
Website: www.emmlabs.com

Engineering Cred
Ed Meitner, the man behind EMM Labs, has some serious engineering credentials. These include a number of patents and a few decades' worth of product design and innovation including preampfification, amplification, and all things digital (like the Meitner Intelligent Digital Audio Translator (IDAT) digital processor form 1993). I owned and enjoyed the Museatex Meitner STR55 Stereo Amp back in the '90s when I was living the life of an IT guy by day and loft-living painter by night in NYC. I can still remember loving the ST55's design and sound, a nice change from the behemoths populating the floors of high-end shops like immovable metal heat generating odes to speaker design gone awry.

The EMM Labs DAC2 was first introduced in 2002. I asked my contact at EMM Labs, Shahin Al Rashid, Director of Sales, for some history on the revisions that led to the current version. Here is his response:

EMM Labs introduced the original model DAC2 in 2008. Its concept was a no compromise stereo consumer version of its famous DAC8-Mk4 8-channel studio DAC, in use at most of the top recording and mastering studios in the world as the sonic reference. The DAC2 met with instant success among audiophiles.

Answering customer demand and always in pursuit of the ultimate in faithful sound quality, Ed Meitner launched a redesigned DAC2X in 2012 - an all-out attempt to surpass his own DAC2. The analog section, the digital processor, and even the power-supply of this new flagship stereo converter were brand new designs with higher performance than before. The DAC2X was quickly recognized by many critics and music lovers as the best audio converter in the world. New owners everywhere happily confirmed this verdict time and time again. And owners of the DAC2 model were excited to take advantage of an EMM Labs upgrade programme to have their converters re-made to become the world's best -- the DAC2X.

But as any perfectionist would understand, Ed Meitner could not rest easy even after his product was acclaimed the finest on earth. He continued his tireless pursuit of the "absolute" sound and continued to apply new innovations to his single-bit conversion technology. Thus it was that as 2014 began, the DAC2X was re-introduced -- because Ed and his engineering team had completely rebuilt its digital sub-systems in a major firmware upgrade. This included the patented "MDAT2" signal processing engine and the overhauled "MFAST" (high speed asynchronous data acquisition system).

Then by 2015, with the new architecture in place we could once again improve and refine the DAC2X's performance such that another upgrade was possible and it is what you hear currently. This new update is once again not subtle as you know, but a significant elevation of sonic performance. All three systems MDAT2, MFAST and MCLOCK were once again updated after a further year of careful work. Jitter was lowered and an advanced dithering method was introduced. This ability to manipulate and upgrade every portion of a DAC is precisely the reason why Ed has always stressed building our proprietary discrete circuitry and software algorithms in-house; making the best use of our unique single-bit DAC design -- and not use any of the conversion and signal processing chips found everywhere in the high-end industry.

According to the company, MFAST (Meitner Frequency Acquisition System) technology provides instant signal lock and "jitter-free performance", MDAT (Meitner Digital Audio Translator) refers to their proprietary digital signal processing (DSP) technology which, among other functions, filters and upsamples all incoming data to 5.6 MHz DSD before passing it along to the proprietary 5.6 MHz discrete dual differential MDAC converters. The unit's internal clock sits on the same aerospace grade composite laminate PCB as the MDAC modules, think very short signal path. The digital section resides on its own, separate, aerospace grade PCB. Another interesting but normally unseen internal feature is the Charge Management Plate, "a pattern of isolated copper dots which stabilizes the electrostatic field across the DAC2X's analog circuitry."

The DAC2X supports PCM resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz on all inputs and 2.8Mhz DSD via USB (DoP) and via the proprietary EMM OptiLink for use with the company's TSDX CD/SACD Transport. The review sample was also marked "8fs 2xDSD demo proto" offering the ability to play 2X DSD files. This will become a standard feature. The chassis is wrapped in 1/4" think precision-machined aluminum as is the included remote. The front panel includes three blue LEDs which show Clock lock status and the incoming data rate (44.1kHz and its multiples, 48kHz and its multiples, and both lit simultaneously for DSD). There are also buttons for polarity inversion, mute, and ALT (intended for future use) and input selection.

All of the front panel controls are duplicated on the included remote which also has playback functions when used with the TSDX CD/SACD Transport. The DAC2X looks and feels the part of a very well made piece of kit. The DAC2X was placed into my system consisting of the DeVore X speakers and Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amplifier. I used a length of AudioQuest Diamond USB cable to connect my MacBook running Roon to the DAC.

Brains, Brawn, & Beauty
The EMM Labs DAC2X announced itself in my system with a muscular and, dare I say, masculine sound. Control, crystal clear clarity, and the ability to dig into and pull out what sounds like every last ounce of the recorded music, despite it's bit depth and sample rate, are other immediately recognizable traits, especially when compared to my every day DAC, the Auralic Vega.

Richard Goode's take on Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25, with the help of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, lays out beautifully in-room across a wide stage while offering the ability to hear the orchestra as one, or if you prefer, as various players very clearly 'there' for closer inspection. There's also a sense of power when played through the DAC2X, a physicality to music, that grabs one's attention and doesn't let go.

I'm not sure I've heard better bass reproduction, as the DAC2X delivers big, bold, and very well-controlled bass, plumbing the depths of Nils Henrik Asheim hitting keys and pulling out all the stops on the church organ in the chapel of Weissenau Convent near Ravensburg, Germany. The first slaps of bass in "God Is Great" from African Head Charge's lovely Songs of Praise (see review) are truly startling through the EMM Labs DAC, and I'd add the ability to capture music's acceleration and deceleration with life-like deftness to the DAC2X's growing plus column.

EMM Labs ships a custom power cord from Kimber Kable with every DAC2X so that's what I listened with for some time. When digging into the comparisons with the Auralic Vega, one thing was very apparent—the Vega's overall presentation sounded much airier and much more relaxed. While I heard this quality as a plus in the Vega's column, definition sounded fuzzier, edges more vague, and bass more bloated; a more romantic sound overall and, dare I say, more classically feminine.

I had a thought, which can be dangerous in our hobby, and this thought led me to move the Shunyata ZiTron Alpha power cable from the Vega to DAC2X and hit replay. There was some of that air I was missing coupled with what I'd describe as a subtle but welcome relaxation in the overall presentation. The remainder of my listening time with the DAC2X was spent with the Shunyata power cord.

I also have the dCS Rossini DAC ($23,999) here for review, and while I'll save the heavy dCS lifting for its own review, I will say that the DAC2X and the Rossini do not sound the same. The Rossini adds dimension to every dimension of the sound picture as compared to the EMM Labs DAC and a lovely liquid quality, dare I say analog?, while maintaining the DAC2X's positive sonic strengths. That said, the new EMM Labs DA2 DAC ($25,000) would make for a more fitting comparison.

I listened to the DAC2X for a period of over 2 months and enjoyed every minute. I also played a ton of music of all styles, genres, bits and sample rates, even spinning a number of 1-bit wonders including Cat Stevens Tea For The Tillerman in 2x DSD. As has become an important aspect of my daily listening, I also explored new and old music that was new to me streamed from Tidal's CD-quality HiFi service and it all sounded equally compelling. The DAC2X takes whatever you give and gives back your music in a purely musical manner. I'd imagine most every DAC2X owner will soon forget about any industry approved sticker attached to their download, and instead focus on what matters most—the music.

A Musical Equalizer
The DAC2X is a very captivating music maker. If you like to listen to all manner of music in all manner of formats including streaming, and you want it all to sound stunning, muscular where called for, incisive, powerful, with superb clarity and edge-of-your-seat dynamics, the EMM Labs DAC2X has what you're looking or longing for.


Associated Equipment

Also in-use during the DAC2X review: Auralic Vega, dCS Rossini

COMMENTS
audiodoctornj's picture

Dear Michael,

I love reading your column but I am puzzled at some of your findings.

Audio Doctor, was the first dealer in the country with one of these dacs, we showed it at the 2012 and 2013 High End Audio Shows in NYC. In fact it was the Dac 2Xse's North American preview.

We also were the first dealer in the US with the Auralic Vega, we also premiered it to the North American market.

My point is we have a lot of experience with both of these companies outstanding products.

I have put the Vega side by side to the Dac 2X and there is no way the Vega is close, I will say that the Vega is still one of the best bargains in digital under $5k and the Dac sounds remarkable for its price point.

The EMM Labs Dac sounds much more like listening to a $30k plus analog rig, and there is absolutely no comparison between these two products, nor should there be considering their price differences.

The stock EMM Labs power cable is decent, the Shunyata cords are very good, but do have a tendency to make digital products considerably warmer, which can tame the top end of many digital products, however, this aural tendency can sometimes remove a bit of air and detail at the same time, which may have been the cause of some of your findings.

The stock Meitner sound is very clean and clear without a lot of editorializing. The Dac is not bright but it is not warm either, so it all comes down to taste and system matching.

We have used the remarkable Enklein Power Cords for several years now, with the EMM Labs equipment and if you want to really hear what this Dac can do add a Taurus, Trex, or a David power cable, you will find out just how remarkable this dac really is!

We have also used the Less Loss Black body which also did seem to improve the dac, and we also routinely use really top of the line power conditioning, Audio Magic's Oracle, and when we compared the two Dacs in our reference system again no contest EMM Labs Dac 2X by a long margin, I have been doing this professionally for over 25 years and I have yet to hear a Dac that really beats the DAC 2XSe with the latest firmware.

We do have a pre production EMM Labs new top of the line DA2 and it is even better with a gigantic sound-stage and a more fleshed out sense of space and overall realism, you should hear it is magnificent.

If you are in the NYC area I would invite you over to hear our reference setup for yourself, and to corroborate my findings.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
You've misread what I wrote.
audiodoctornj's picture

The stock cord is an inexpensive cord, so of course the more expensive one you substituted would be way better, however we have customers who have made this comparison and came up with the same findings, that the Shunyata cords have a tendency to make things richer which can also diminish the top end, the Enklein power chords bring out everything, without changing the tonal balance of a component, again I would invite you over to our shop to hear the setup, we have one of the most life like demo systems you will ever hear, Polymer Research loudspeakers with the diamond tweeter and diamond midrange drivers, and we use Conrad Johnson GAT and Art electronics or the Manly Labs gear with the Aurender server and the EMM Labs Dac truly something special, and of course the Enklein cables.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
..."there is absolutely no comparison between these two products"

Of course there is a comparison between these two products, I just wrote about it. I typically compare each DAC under review to the Auralic Vega since it's what I use as my daily DAC. You seem to be saying that I made a qualitative statement relating to the Vega and DAC2X where I suggested they were somehow equal. I did not.

Thank you for the invite. My spare time is very limited and I try to spend it with family and friends.

Cheers.

Steven Plaskin's picture

The Alpha and Sigma Shunyata AC cords have filters that reduce noise on the AC line. Shunyata posts graphs on their site that demonstrate this effect of their AC cords. I'm not surprised that some other cables seem to have more presence to the high end with their sound. Personally, I don't find this to be a positive virtue nor do the Alpha or Sigma AC cords diminish the high end.

audiodoctornj's picture

Dear Michael,

I do compare a lot of dac's to the Vega, which still after roughly three years in the market is still one terrific dac, makes us in agreement.

When I read your review it certainly seemed that you in one of your passages was alluding to the Vega sounding in certain ways better than the Emm Labs product, which I haven't found.

As per spare time, hey you never know who your new friends might be, so my door is always open.

As always Michael, you are a terrific writer, your column is something I religiously read. We just got in the new Cary DMS 500 and it is a terrific dac/streamer, if you haven't heard it, it looks to be a very promising contender for best sound in the $5k price range. I am curious if you have a DMS 500 slated for review, now that is is a finalized production piece?

We also recently got a demo of the new $4k T+A Dac 8 DSD and that dac was also extremely musical in the $4k price range, plus it is also an analog preamp and a headphone amplifier, if you haven't heard it you should get one in a very cool and very practical product.

It appears to me that it is an exciting time in the market with MQA, Roon, Tidal streaming, and the evolution of better and better dacs and servers, digital is becoming more and more pleasurable a listening experience.

Keep up the good work and thanks for the stimulating conversation!

miguelito's picture

I'm wondering what firmware you tested the DAC2x with. I have an EmmLabs XDS1v2 - same DAC section as the DAC2x. The latest firmware with MDAT2 is from Nov 2014. MDAT2 makes a big difference in the sound. If you got this DAC from EmmLabs for review in 2015, I presume it would have the MDAT2 firmware.

Thx.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...with the current firmware.