EMM Labs’ DV2 ($30,000 USD) digital-to-analog converter is the product of a three-way collaboration of Ed Meitner, EMM’s founder and chief designer, responsible for the DV2’s overall design, hardware, and layout; Mariusz Pawlicki, who engineered the DSP and firmware; and Kris Holstein, who designed the case and mechanics. The DV2 is based on the circuitry of EMM’s DA2 DAC ($25,000), but partners it with EMM’s VControl -- an all-new, very-high-resolution (50-bit), digital volume controller.
The DV2’s VControl was engineered by Pawlicki and Meitner for a single purpose: to attenuate the volume without sacrificing sound quality in any way. EMM says that they’ve inserted the VControl in the digital signal-processing (DSP) chain where it can optimally maximize resolution without degrading sound quality, and that it’s so transparent that it can maintain a level of resolution far exceeding the sensitivity of human hearing. Even at its minimum setting (-80dB), the VControl maintains a signal resolution of 18 bits. EMM also claims that the VControl is the only digital volume controller on the market that imposes zero audible degradation on DSD streams.
In use, changes in attenuation are indicated visually and tactilely. Each of the 100 steps in attenuation is felt through a notch corresponding with a volume level, providing the user with a precise sense of control.
The DV2 measures 17.25”W x 6.35”H x 15.75”D and weighs 38 pounds. Its case, available in silver or black, is made of 1/2”-thick panels of aluminum alloy of a specific density to prevent ringing and other vibrations, with a textured finish that feels a bit like fine velvet. The effect is unusually enticing and extremely luxurious, and the fit of each panel to the next is remarkably tight -- the best I’ve seen. The top panel is etched with a large EMM Labs logo, while the side panels are CNC machined with decorative shallow grooves.
The central segment of the faceplate, containing the display and buttons, comes in slate gray or, at additional cost, plated in dark nickel or gold, or almost any custom finish desired. The left and right thirds of the faceplate are aluminum: deeply engraved at left is the EMM Labs logo, and below it a flush-mount On/Standby button; at right is a large volume knob, also in aluminum, with the model number at bottom right.
At the center of the faceplate’s upper half is a large LCD screen that clearly displays the volume level, sample rate, signal-lock status, and input selected. The screen’s brightness and contrast are adjustable. Directly below it is a row of five buttons whose positions correspond with function choices displayed on the screen: from left to right, Mute, Units, Menu, and left and right Input arrows.
The black rear panel is virtually identical to that of the DA2, with a row of seven digital inputs, from left to right: AES/EBU (XLR), two S/PDIF coaxial (RCA), two S/PDIF optical (TosLink), USB Type-B, and EMM OptiLink, the last for connection to an EMM Labs SACD/CD transport or EMM’s NS1 network streamer. Each input can accept PCM datastreams of resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz, while the USB link (compatible with Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux) provides support for DSDx2, PCM up to 24/384, and, for the first time in an EMM product, MQA decoding.
Shahin Al Rashid, EMM’s director of sales, told me that proprietary EMM Labs technologies are used in every step of the DV2’s digital signal path, from input to output. All inputs use the Meitner Frequency Acquisition System (MFAST) to lock to an incoming datastream. Typically, DACs use a phase-locked loop (PLL) circuit to lock to incoming streams; MFAST offers two distinct advantages over PLLs. First, it’s a high-speed, asynchronous system that acquires any datastream almost instantaneously. Second, where a PLL merely attenuates jitter, EMM claims that MFAST strips jitter out of the datastream completely. MFAST is used on all of the DV2’s digital inputs except the USB, for which an independent version of MFAST is incorporated directly into the USB system.
Also specific to the USB audio interface is proprietary high-speed hardware designed to provide galvanic isolation. Once past the interface, the digital signal is locked onto with MFAST, then quickly routed to the Meitner Digital Audio Translator (MDAT2) signal-processing technology, a DSP that eliminates pre- and post-ringing using filters at 44.1 or 48kHz, manages transients, and upconverts all incoming signals before sending them to the D/A section. This helps to preserve the waveform’s phase, frequency, and dynamic integrity, and results in the quality of CD-resolution sound being elevated closer to that of high resolution.
After the signal is processed by MDAT2, it’s attenuated by the VControl, then sent along to the single-bit Meitner Digital/Analog Converter (MDAC2). Al Rashid told me that the MDAC2 is the world’s first true fully discrete, dual-differential DSD1024 DAC, and that when Ed Meitner was designing it, cost was not a consideration. Signals processed through the MDAC2 are clocked using EMM Labs’ asynchronous MCLK, which sits just next to the D/A section. Meitner is adamant about the MCLK’s high performance. It’s 1024fs (DSDx16) time-based, and reclocks audio signals at the precise transition boundary between the digital and analog domains. It’s temperature stable, vibration resistant, and designed for ultra-low jitter. After the signal is processed through the D/A section, freed of nonlinearities, and precisely clocked, it continues on through a class-A analog output stage before being sent directly to the user’s amplification stage.
My first review sample of the DV2 was an early production unit -- Al Rashid’s own demonstration unit. On the back was a tiny toggle that let the user switch between Hi (7V) and Low (4V) Level, to tailor the DV2’s output to the gain and efficiency of the attached amplifier and speakers, respectively. About a month later, I was asked to return the unit for an upgrade. When I got it back, the toggle had been entirely removed from the signal path, and the gain adjustment was now included in the DV2’s DSP engine. Making this adjustment software-driven, Ed Meitner was able to use and optimize just one voltage level (higher), thereby, he claimed, improving the sound quality. Unfortunately, by then too much time had passed -- I no longer had a dependable memory of the original unit’s sound -- so here I comment only on the sound of the upgraded version. EMM Labs will upgrade early-production DV2s for free, other than shipping costs.
Beyond the new VControl and the proprietary “M” technologies, the DV2 is rich in other features: custom-made, aerospace-grade, low-resonance ceramic circuit boards; isolated clock and DAC circuitry; and a newly revised switch-mode power supply (SMPS) that includes several unique innovations. For starters, the power supply is massively oversize, and encased in a tomb of thick metal. This is done to ensure that power demands never approach the supply’s maximum output, and to ensure that any stray noise generated by the SMPS is isolated from the D/A section. The DV2’s SMPS is a fanless, zero-feedback design with two custom-wound transformers, active power-factor correction, and is synchronized to the DV2’s high-precision audio clock to further reduce jitter. Ed Meitner maintains that it’s more efficient than linear power supplies and, perhaps more important, that it sends less noise back into the mains line -- noise that can make its way into other components. So confident is Meitner in its design that variations of this SMPS can be found in all of his digital components.
The three polished aluminum feet on which the DV2 stands are equally impressive in design and function. Each is milled from solid aluminum, equipped with a mechanical isolator, and further damped with a rubber contact patch that absorbs vibrations. Each shelf of my equipment rack is a 1/2”-thick slab of marble supported by four small gel packs. Placed alone on one of these shelves, the DV2’s 38 pounds made each rubber isolator hold on to its slab with an almost suction-cup-like grip.
The DV2’s remote-control handset is intuitive to use. Milled from a solid billet of aluminum, it’s heavy and costly to make, and a far cry from the off-the-shelf models that accompany so many high-end components. I appreciated that each of its 31 buttons is also made of aluminum, and how each press of a button was acknowledged by an indicator light.
System and setup
Also on my rack are an Audio Research Reference 6 preamplifier, a PS Audio DirectStream DAC, two Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M monoblocks, and a Torus AVR 20 power conditioner. All components are connected with Kimber Kable KS-1116 balanced interconnects (XLR), Analysis Plus digital links, and Clarus Crimson power cords. The monoblocks drive my Paradigm Persona 7F speakers via Kimber Select KS-6063 speaker cables. I streamed music from an outboard USB hard drive via an Intel NUC computer running Windows 10 and Roon.
Setting a new standard
I first set up the EMM Labs DV2 to function as a standalone DAC only, and was immediately rewarded with the most transparent and focused sound I’ve heard from my system -- and some damn fine gear has made its way through my room over the years. The DV2 set a new standard for what I can expect from a world-class DAC. The specificity of aural images -- their focus, body, tonal color, and density -- were exalted to new levels in my room.
The sense of space surrounding Sarah McLachlan’s voice as I listened to her sing “Angel,” from her album Surfacing (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Nettwerk), was immense and completely unconstrained. I don’t recall ever having been able to hear McLachlan taking those shallow breaths, yet there they were, supporting every beautifully phrased line. Equally beguiling was the deep, plummy, yet coherent sound of Jim Creeggan’s double bass, while the recording room at Wild Sky Studios -- it sounded more like a large hall -- ran deeper and wider than I ever realized had been captured on this recording.
But the DV2 is more than just a world-class DAC. It’s also EMM Labs’ flagship digital preamplifier, and in order to review it as such, I had to move some cables from my ARC Reference 6 preamplifier to the DV2, and let the DV2 drive my power amps. Again there was a change in the character of the sound. Music now sounded somewhat demure in comparison to the DV2 and Reference 6, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. There was an apparent loss in gain, images shrank a bit, the bass seemed a bit dialed back, and the soundstage narrowed by about 15%. I checked to see if I’d made all connections properly and securely, and I had. Then I realized that I hadn’t changed the DV2’s output gain from Low (4dB) to Hi (7dB). That leveled the playing field a bit, but only in terms of volume -- there was still something missing.
It took a little while for me to understand and acclimate to how music was now being re-created in my room, but the more I listened and the deeper I dug, the more I liked what I heard. While the soundstage was a bit smaller, bass a smidge less pronounced, and images a tad freer, the DV2 was now better at limning the boundaries of the recording venue, refining the textural nuances of various bass instruments, and presenting images with the finest balance of precision and warmth I’ve heard in my room. “Hold On,” from McLachlan’s Mirrorball (16/44.1 FLAC, Nettwerk), had an uncanny sense of liveliness chock full of inner details and nuances I hadn’t heard before. For example, at the beginning of the track, as McLachlan plucks her acoustic guitar, I could better hear the crackle of applause and, as the audience quieted, one intricately delineated person still clapping on the left, who before had been barely audible, was now obvious. The senses of definition and distance that were communicated were uncanny, and they continued throughout the track, letting me further relish the taps of Ashwin Sood’s brass, their long decays, and the fervor with which McLachlan melodiously imbues every note she sings.
Later, during “Bring on the Night,” from the Police’s Reggatta de Blanc (24/88.2 FLAC, A&M), I was again enthralled by the speed, complexity, and precision with which cymbals and other percussion were communicated. Sting’s plucks of his electric-bass strings were immediate and wonderfully nuanced, and I was taken aback by how deep, crisp, and airy Stewart Copeland’s drum thwacks sounded. But it was Andy Summers’s electric guitar that really drew me into the music. I’ve come to expect a somewhat melodic rhythm to his rapid string plucking in this track, but through the DV2 the plucks sounded more like a rapid cascade of independent notes peppering my ears.
Impressed by the levels of realism and tactility the DV2 was producing, I switched gears and cued up “Resta Con Me,” from Ludovico Einaudi’s Una Mattina (16/44.1 FLAC, Decca), to hear how the DV2 conveyed more richly nuanced, more melodic music. This would not be the first highly resolving DAC I’ve heard or owned that fumbled the warmth and organic fluidity of a well-recorded acoustic piano. The DV2 married utter transparency to the warmth and emotion expressed by this master pianist-composer. I could hear Einaudi’s depressions of his instrument’s pedals clearly enough to tap my foot to them, while the weight and liquidity of each keystroke seemed to redefine the positions of my speakers. Earlier, about 15 seconds into the track, Marco Decimo’s passionately bowed cello anchored center stage behind Einaudi more vividly than I’d ever heard. As I listened to this track over and over, I found myself getting lost in Decimo’s cello, and forgetting all about Einaudi’s ardently played piano at the front of the mix.
A cut above
During my time with the EMM Labs DV2, I performed several comparisons using it as a standalone DAC and as a digital preamp-DAC. Adding and subtracting my ARC Reference 6 from the chain immediately reminded me of why I love and bought the Ref 6, and what I love about tubes: huge soundstages, weighty yet impossibly three-dimensional images, and a top end as smooth, delicate, and inviting as fresh silk sheets. But the allure of these attributes, I later came to realize, don’t always equate with realism, particularly in direct comparisons with the DV2.
I performed some A/B comparisons between the DV2, my PS Audio DirectStream DAC ($6799), and a Simaudio Moon Evolution 780D DAC ($16,000), the latter of which I reviewed in mid-2016, and still had on hand as a long-term loaner. The comparison between the DV2 and DirectStream was short-lived -- the gap in performance was immediately apparent, most notably in terms of noise and transparency. Like the DV2, the DirectStream has high and low output settings and a digital volume control. When I used the PS Audio as a digital preamp and increased its volume level, its noise floor increased considerably -- but there was no change in noise floor through the DV2, regardless of volume setting. When the PS Audio is used as only a DAC with its volume set to fixed, this problem largely disappears, but regardless of how it’s used, I found its sound a bit warmer and fuller than the DV2’s, yet ill-defined in terms of transparency, resolution, and image specificity. I still consider the DirectStream to be an outstanding DAC, and an incredible value at the price -- I made one my reference DAC. But it couldn’t keep up against a technological juggernaut like the DV2 at more than four times the price.
Then, just before I had to send the Moon 780D DAC back to Simaudio to be upgraded to V2 status (Roon and MQA compatibility), I compared it to the DV2. The Moon 780D offers no choice of high or low output, and putting an ear to a tweeter told me that it was a wisp quieter than the DV2. The 780D sounded a bit cooler, drawing images with a perspective more front-row than tenth-row. Bass notes were reproduced with a hint more volume and slam, but were less articulate and tonally defined.
Further separating DV2 from 780D were the differences I heard in image specificity, focus, spaciousness, and resolution. With the Police’s “Bring on the Night,” the 780D didn’t articulate Summers’s electric guitar quite as cleanly or as crisply as did the DV2. I could definitely hear the start and end of each pluck of string, but not with the same level of realism and air, or balance of depth and detail so effortlessly communicated by the DV2. That same depth and detail helped give the EMM Labs the edge in reproducing the delineation of Sting’s reverently plucked bass notes. While these notes were louder and perhaps more exciting through the 780D, the DV2 better laid bare the subtle nuances required to portray a truly realistic image on stage.
Likewise with Sting’s voice: Through the 780D, he was imaged front and center, sounding bold, chiseled, and vivid; through the DV2, he sounded a bit more relaxed yet refined, smoother and more focused, airy, and ultimately more three-dimensional.
My final point of comparison was of these DACs’ ergonomics. The PS Audio and Simaudio offer fully featured, aluminum-clad plastic backlit remotes that performed well from anywhere in my room. The DV2’s remote, while clearly more luxurious, isn’t backlit, and didn’t work quite as well. When I asked Shahin Al Rashid about this, he conceded that the problem stems from the size and position of the IR sensor on the DV2’s faceplate. In this case, appearance trumped functionality.
I consider Ed Meitner to be one of the leading minds -- if not the leading mind -- in digital audio playback devices today. His DV2 D/A converter is the best-sounding DAC I’ve ever heard, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. In terms of life, warmth, fluidity, resolution, and realism, the DV2 has redefined what I thought possible from a fully digital product. It’s also built to some of the most exacting standards I’ve seen in the industry. While $30,000 is not cheap, when I consider what its price would have to be for its sound quality to be improved, it’s a steal.
But as I reflected on how enjoyable my time with the DV2 D/A converter has been, I fell into a funk as I tried -- and failed -- to deny one simple fact: I had to give it back to EMM Labs. Typically, any component that makes this profound an improvement in the sound of music in my room is a component I keep. But even at an industry accommodation price, the DV2 costs more than I can now afford. So I’ll relish the little time we have left together.
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers -- Paradigm Persona 7F
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f112 (2)
- Amplifiers -- Parasound Halo A 51 (five-channel), Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M monoblocks (2)
- Preamplifiers -- Anthem AVM 60, Audio Research Reference 6
- Digital-to-analog converters -- PS Audio DirectStream, Simaudio Moon Evolution 780D
- Sources -- Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player; Intel NUC computer running Windows 10, Roon
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus (USB, S/PDIF), Kimber Kable Select KS-1116 (balanced, XLR)
- Speaker cables -- Kimber Kable KS-6063
- Power cords -- Clarus Crimson
- Power conditioner -- Torus AVR 20
EMM Labs DV2 DAC-Preamplifier
Price: $30,000 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
EMM Labs Inc.
115-5065 13th Street SE
Calgary, Alberta T2G 5M8
Phone: (403) 225-4161
Fax: (403) 225-2330