Meitner MA-2 Integrated Playback System
Input: 1x USB, 1x AES/EBU, 1x Toslink S/PDIF, 1x Coax S/PDIF, RS232 serial port for wired remote control, "Service" USB
Output: 1x AES/EBU, 1x Toslink S/PDIF, 1x Coax S/PDIF, 1 pair RCA, 1 pair XLR
Weight: 9.0 kg/19.8 lbs net with remote control
Dimensions (W x D x H): 435 x 400 x 140mm
Availability: through Authorized Dealers
"It’s the undigital digital."
That's a quote from Ed Meitner from an interview in Positive Feedback Magazine (see interview) regarding DSD. And I enjoy that, the undigital digital. For those of you who don't know Ed Meitner, he is an electrical engineer by education and has been involved in audio design for more than 30 years. Ed got his start with Olive Electrodynamics Company where he was involved in designing and building the first VCA controlled recording console in 1972. Next was a stint with Amber the test equipment manufacturer followed by his position as head designer at Museatex (which became A/D/S) [I owned the Museatex STR-55 stereo amp back in the day]. During this time he also wrote about and built the LIM detector, basically the first jitter detector. After ADS, Ed was one of the engineers behind the development of DSD/SACD for Sony. He is currently the head designer for EMM Labs and Meitner Audio which can be viewed as the more affordable arm of EMM Labs. Meitner Audio has two products—the MA-1 DAC and the MA-2 Integrated Playback System that we'll be looking at and listening to here.
The MA-2 offers a slot drive for playing back redbook discs as well as a number of digital inputs. Since the asynchronous Class 2.0 USB input is capable of playing back native DSD64 content (via DoP), I mainly focused my listening attention here. Meitner is working on DSD128 support and expect to have this update ready later this year. Mac users are good to go for up to 24/192 and DSD playback while Meitner provides Windows drivers so that PC users can get the same playback options. The S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs can handle up to 24/192 data for those so inclined. The MA-2 USB receiver comes courtesy of XMOS but employs their MFAST technology. I asked Meitner for some more information on MFAST:
MFAST - this is an asynchronous data receiver front-end we use which does not do clock-recovery, and thus is insensitive to jitter of the clock in the incoming stream of data, a problem inherent in all PLL's. It is similar to something called data-capture, a well-proven technique which has been preferred in communications for decades. The bitstream is digitally sampled at a high rate (about a hundred MHz in our case) and then the waveform is analyzed by an algorithm to determine where the ones and zeroes are. Then we use another algorithm to decode the AES or S/PDIF frames and extract the audio data. This data is additionally buffered and read out with a precision clock.The proprietary 5.6Mhz DACs are designed by Ed Meitner and all incoming data is reclocked using Meitner's MCLK™ "high-purity master clock modules" and up-converted to 5.6MHz DSD. From Meitner, "The Meitner MDAC is a one-bit d/a circuit (no resistor ladders) implemented not inside a monolithic chip but with precision matched discrete components. This uniquely gives us 100% control over component quality, power-supply structure, and clocking. Not having multiple bits means there is zero differential nonlinearity (DNL) error. It is currently operated at 128fs (DSD128) because that is a 'happy medium' at which performance is maximized."
The nicely spartan front panel offers some basic playback controls for the CD drive, an input selector, on/off button, and display. The included remote provides even more navigation options for the CD drive including track selection as well as input selection. The rear panel houses the inputs and outputs which are laid out with plenty of room to spare along with the IEC inlet for power and System Inputs including a RS232 communication port for a wired remote and a USB data port for software updates. I connected the MA-2 to my Pass INT-30A with the Kimber Kable Select KS 1126 Balanced ICs, and to my MacBook with the Light Harmonic Lightspeed USB cable. I mainly used Pure Music as my music player and an iPad running Apple's free Remote app to control file-based playback.
If asked to describe the sound of the MA-2, I'd be comfortable quoting Ed Meitner as uncritical as that may seem. From pretty much the first few notes I heard coming through the MA-2, my attention was grabbed, shaken, and stirred. Really? I thought as I sat listening. Really? Can it really be the case that the differences between the Meitner MA-2 and all of the other wonderful sounding DACs I've had through here would be so blatantly obvious? And the answer is yes. The MA-2 seems to gather all of the strengths of the other DACs I've heard here and corralled them together into one exceedingly musical package. This Meitner swings, baby.
Perhaps the most prominent feature of the Meitner's sound is an uncannily clear, concise, and immovable sound image that breathes lifelike music into your room. I'm talking about the way music emanates from nothing, how sounds form and disappear, and perhaps most striking how different instruments and vocalists exist in lifelike relation to one another. This sense of finely delineated presence coupled with an utterly believable sense of scale is in my experience unequalled and damn addicting. Music sounds as if its being made right there and then, leaving very little doubt that I am witnessing a performance.
Individual voices and instrumental timbre sound out in as natural and realistically varied a way as I've heard and there's a gentleness and forcefulness to sounds that mimics the real thing. The micro-fine nuances and subtle variations that account for music's ability to convey meaning are delivered in as full and complete a voice as I've heard. This holds regardless of the given frequency range where an instrument resides so bass is fit and fully voiced, piano rings out true from both hands, and otherwise troubling higher-voiced instruments like violins sound sweet and clear.
Another aspect of the MA-2's performance that's worth highlighting is the gap between CD-quality playback and HD PCM as well as DSD is closer than I've ever heard. While the Chord Chordette QuteHD (see review) more than hinted at this kind of convergence, and the Luxman and MSB nudged things even closer, the Meitner all but zips up the remaining loose ends. Well recorded music of nearly any resolution sounds very nearly equally compelling. That said, I would not want to give up my higher resolution music for its CD counterpart and something like the truly stunning 24/88.2 A Calm In the Fire of Dances by Deep Rumba from Kip Hanrahan's American Clavé label from HDtracks is downright dripping with flavor when played through the MA-2.
I've been very fortunate to have had a number of DACs through here of late that have been pretty much pure pleasure. These include the Luxman DA-06 (see review) and the MSB Analog DAC (see review) and while they each offered their own distinct voice, I could easily see myself living with either. As I mentioned in the MSB review, the Analog DAC struck me as offering greater resolution as compared to the Luxman and I would say that the MA-2 offers an even greater sense of resolution and an even more uncanny sense of scale and physicality. The only restraint on the perceived size of the presentation seems to be limited by the recording, with sound emanating from well behind and outside my speakers. There's also an effortless quality to this physicality and I'd say the MA-2 oozes finesse.
The Auralic Vega (see review) whose praises I've sung on more than one occasion sounds flatter in direct comparison to the Meitner. This A/B was very interesting as it really emphasizes the sonic differences between these two DACs and highlights the degree to which the Meitner offers up that uncannily solid, wide, and deep sound image that really does place a sensual sound image in-room. There's a believable dimensionality to the stuff that's making the music with the MA-2 that I've not heard to this extent from any other DAC here at AudioStream central. What this translates into in real terms, at least the way I hear it, is a musical presentation that begs for your full and undivided attention. Lovely.
I also played a number of good old CDs through the MA-2s slot drive and they sounded equally involving. The MA-2 sends your CD's data through the 2x DSD upsampler breathing new life into the redbook format. On a personal note and by force of habit I immediately rip every new CD I buy so the DAC-only MA-1 which, according to Meitner offers the same DAC as the one that resides in the MA-2, is more appealing at its lower price point. But for those people who still want to spin discs, the MA-2 is for you.
Analog's Digital Analogue
There's an internal logic, if you will, to every piece of hi-fi gear. The musical picture we enjoy is presented as a whole made up of various parts and its the relationship between these various parts that add up to provide a convincing, or not, presentation. If some part sticks out more or less than it should, this ideally seamless image is shattered. The Meitner MA-2 presents as complete and compelling a sound picture as I've heard, transforming digital data into a seemingly living, breathing, and utterly believable musical experience.
Also on hand and in use during the Meitner MA-2 review: MSB Technology The Analog DAC, Auralic Vega, Luxman DA-06