EMM Labs is the company that Ed Meitner founded in 1998 to produce digital electronics for the professional market and specifically for use with Sony’s DSD 1-bit encoding system. I first came across Meitner’s name when he produced a very unusual turntable called AT-2 which dispensed with the platter altogether and clamped LPs at the label, clearly a man capable of thinking outside the box. There is inevitably more to his story than that. Meitner was building mixing consoles for Olive Electrodynamics in the early seventies and went on to produce electronics under the Meitner, Museatex and Melior brands. Among these was the Meitner IDAT DAC in 1993 which is claimed to be one of the first to upsample digital signals without ringing or overshoot. It was probably because of the technology created for that product that in 1997 he was commissioned by Sony to build A to D and D to A converters for use in the studios that were to make the first DSD recordings. Which is why EMM Labs hardware was used in all the early demonstrations of SACD and why it remains a key brand in the pro audio world with a who’s who roster of labels and mastering facilities using the kit today. This was the first company to make a no compromise multichannel preamplifier for DSD/SACD and the chances are it will be the last unless the fortunes of six channel SACD make an abrupt change for the better. Suffice to say that Meitner knows as much as anyone about converting DSD signals into analogue, so the TSD1/DAC2 pairing which is EMM Labs’ flagship player should represent the pinnacle of what can be achieved with the medium.
The key technologies employed in EMM Labs products include MDAT or Meitner digital audio translator which is two times upsampling of the DSD signal at the transport to 5.6Mhz and the use of a single cable Optilink system for sending that signal to the DAC. In a recent AES lecture renowned mastering engineer George Massenburg mentioned that he doesn’t like DSD in its standard form but thinks that 5.6Mhz is a good system, so presumably he’s a customer too. The converter in the DAC2 is fully discrete which allows the company to build a system that works with MDAT from the ground up and offers complete freedom of tweaking for the desired end result, something that is very hard to achieve with chip based DACs.
Rather than using a PLL (phase locked loop) to synchronise the system EMM Labs has its own proprietary MFAST system which is claimed to be able to lock onto any digital source more quickly than a PLL and completely eliminates source jitter because it doesn’t depend on the incoming signal for clock generation. The Optilink system that transfers the signal from transport to DAC uses an ST coupling to a glass fibre optical cable, and as the TSD1 has its own MDAT upsampling processing this part of the DAC is shut down when the two are operating in tandem.
All this technology, and to be frank that is just the bare bones of the system, is reflected in a high price and a very high standard of build and finish. The casework may look straightforward but the way in which the cover mates to the rounded corners of the fascia suggest an extremely high level of care has gone into their design and construction. It’s relatively easy to stick a thick slab of aluminium on the front of a folded piece of sheet metal, it takes a lot more effort to get the two to meet so perfectly with no overlap.
One thing that confused me initially is that the display on the DAC2 shows no indication that it is receiving a DSD signal, the indicators merely show 44.1kHz or 48kHz which gives the incorrect impression that a PCM signal is being received. In fact these indicators show the base frequency and as DSD’s 2.8Mhz is 64 times 44.1kHz this is the light that shines. If you were to connect the 96kHz output of a DVD player to the DAC2 the 48kHz light would come on.
Hooking up alternative digital sources can be done via AES/EBU, RCA coaxial or two Toslink optical inputs alongside a USB socket which covers most of the options. Output from both balanced XLR and RCA phono can be varied between 2V and 4VdBu on the latter and 4V and 7.2V on XLR with a single switch. The TSD1 offers digital outputs in Optilink which is marked DSD and AES/EBU via XLR but the latter will only stream CD and MP3, the other connections are for an external clock link on a BNC, external remote sockets and service sockets.
The transport can be set to output either two or multichannel DSD layers where both are available and you can toggle between CD and SACD layers using a button marked M on the front panel. The DAC2 inevitably has a few more buttons to play with but unusually doesn’t have a display to announce incoming signal sampling rate or similar, this apparently because Meitner believes that all display types have a negative effect on sound quality due to the noise that they add to the system. It has a row of input buttons which include the mysterious PDAI which selects a serial port on the back that is “intended for future use.” The indicators on the top row include polarity invert, mute and alt, the latter also being for future use. These latter functions can be accessed from the high quality remote control, a hewn from solid creation with a good array of functions but no symbols and a strange layout – it takes a bit of scanning to see the word ‘play’ for instance, and however long I looked I couldn’t see the legend ‘drawer open’ as, for some reason, it is not been included. The drawer itself is a chunky affair with side rails and a slightly laboured if largely silent operation, once the disc is spinning you can hear it whirring away in a subtle low frequency fashion that’s audible two or three metres away. The transport is described purely as being a custom made German unit which makes it the first example of the genre that I for one have come across.