An awful lot of effort and original thinking appears to have gone into these products so it should not perhaps come as a surprise that the results they produce are pretty unusual. On the one hand this pairing can sound slightly smooth but on the other it is completely devoid of anything digital in its character. This is such a rare situation that it’s almost as if something is missing, the mids and highs are so clean and yet incredibly revealing that it takes a while to come to terms with. It’s like there’s a subtle glare with nearly all other CD players that this combo manages to eliminate, a result which as you can imagine is extremely appealing to those of us who have an appreciation of what can be achieved with great analogue replay systems.
It’s not a case of the high frequencies being rolled off to create a clean result, there is plenty of extension and the fact that there is no shortage of attack when it’s required suggests that the mid hasn’t been cleverly reined in either. In fact this is an extremely dynamic player that responds to good recordings in an entirely convincing manner. Trilok Gurtu’s percussion on John McLaughlin’s Trio at the Royal Festival Hall ’89 is revealed in all its power and glory in the context of the large acoustic of the venue. Joined by Kai Eckhart on bass the pair go a long way to making up for McLaughlin’s ill advised use of the guitar synth on certain tracks.
By removing digital glare the EMM Labs system is better able to expose the full scale and depth of recordings, this is apparent on all the discs that have something of this nature whether it be artificial or natural. Tord Gustavsen’s The Ground is an ECM record of the pianist accompanied by a drummer and double bass player, they make fairly quiet, subtle music that is beautifully recorded. ECM uses subtle amounts of reverb to accentuate its studio recordings and this one is no different, here there is seemingly acres of space for the music to unfold in. In fact the speakers disappear in the process, close your eyes and you can’t place them. This of course depends on the quality of those speakers but I’d be surprised if anyone were to use poor transducers with a source of this quality.
My listening was for the most part done with ATC SCM150 SL active speakers and an AudioZone TVC passive volume control, speakers that are not perhaps the greatest when it comes to imaging in normal size rooms but they can be induced to produce very believable results with a high quality source. I played a mix of CDs and SACDs and have to say that the player makes an excellent case for the high resolution medium. In this day and age it would be useful if the transport could handle the WAV files that Reference Recordings and Naim among others are beginning to offer extremely high resolution recordings on and which some of the competition is able to replay. I refer to Boulder’s 1021 player which will play PCM and WAV files albeit not SACDs, this machine happened by the listening room whilst the EMM Labs was in-situ and proceeded to make what seemed like a most refined and resolute player seem boisterous. The Boulder is sedate by comparison and extremely revealing yet at the end of the day it can’t deliver the musical goods in the same compelling fashion that this two-boxer can, and as most of my preferred music is not on HRx and the like, it’s not difficult for me to express a strong preference for the EMM Labs.
A closer call however is the MSB Platinum III DAC which was compared to the DAC2 using the AES/EBU output of the TSD1. In these circumstances the MSB brings considerably greater dynamics and harmonic detail to the party, making the DAC2 seem a little bit up tight and retentive by comparison – which was a surprise given the results achieved with the normal pairing. It was only when the EMM Labs units were connected with Optilink and compared to a Denon 2930 universal player with an MSB digital output board connected to the MSB DAC III did the musical superiority of the EMM Labs become apparent. The MSB pairing is more open and has distinctly more precise imaging but the black boxes time rather better and makes for more compelling musical entertainment. Whether things would be different with an MSB transport is hard to tell but I would suspect not.
This quality of musicality is what sets the EMM Labs pair apart, it can find the groove where other players fail. For instance in the likes of Jerry Granelli’s sparse improvisations, music that can all too easily sound like jazz noodling with little purpose on even very good CD players. So when you put something truly great on, I’m talking Lambchop’s Is A Woman here, the result is entrancing. Kurt Wagner’s voice is literally in the room with a backdrop of sound that extends outwards through the walls into the street. Quiet music like this is spectacular but so is more demonstrative stuff where the lack of grain allows you to play at higher levels without discomfort, the impetus on this occasion being provided by Yo Miles which drums up the spirit of that great trumpet player at his most adventurous.