Digital music playback can feel like stepping into someone else’s shoes—rarely do you get the perfect fit. Whether too loose, too tight or too loose, getting digital rights can be an elusive task.
The EMM Labs NS1 Streamer (Review) with EMM Labs DA2 V2 DAC felt custom made for my musical tastes, striking a balance between resolution and body, making digitally stored music feel human again.
From EMM Lab:
Our multi-award winning MDAT2™ DSP has been refined and updated to work synergistically with the new 16xDSD MDAC2™. The new MDAT2™ DSP performs real-time transient detection, processing and up-conversion of all incoming audio, PCM and DSD before sending it to the new 16xDSD DAC.
16xDSD Proprietary Discrete Dual Differential D-to-A Converter (MDAC2™)
NEW HIGH HIGH/LOW OUTPUT GAIN CONTROL Latest generation Meitner Digital Audio Translator signal processing technology (MDAT2™)
Advanced technology for instant signal acquisition and jitter-free performance (MFAST™).
Proprietary Asynchronous Clocking System (MCLK2™)
USB interface with custom hardware galvanic isolation
Up to 24bit/192kHz and DSD support on all inputs
2xDSD, DXD (352/384kHz) and MQA® support via USB
User controlled signal polarity
Custom aerospace-grade ceramic circuit board
EMM Optilink for transport or streamer connections
Precision-machined aluminum chassis and remote control
Service USB port for future software upgrades
RS-232 serial port for wired remote control
If you don’t already know, Ed Meitner is the man behind EMM Labs and has had more than his hand in the development of digital audio technology, particularly DSD/SACD, so if you want to argue with the approach taken to convert bits to analog waveforms in the DA2, be my guest To put a finer point on this, the D/A conversion system in the flagship DA2 was designed and built from the ground up in Calgary, Canada, where EMM Labs calls home. “We are unwilling to accept the non-linearities inherent in every mass-market chip made to date. Neither should you.”
The DA2 offers many digital inputs, including EMM’s proprietary Optilink interface, which I used throughout this review, along with the EMM Labs NS1 Streamer ( review ). In my mind, they should be considered permanent partners because they were literally made for each other. I used the Roon to control playback and connected the DA2 to a few different amps with a pair of AudioQuest Firebird RCAs.
DA2 received an extensive workout while in his barn. Starting with the Big System ( review ) where it partnered with all EMM Labs Electronics driving the Credo Cinema LTM speakers, the EMM Labs Reference DAC also saw time playing with the stunning Riviera Labs APL10 Preamplifier / AFM25 Monoblock Amplifiers ( more info ). O/96 and Credo EV 1202 Ref. Loudspeakers from more modest companies like the Q Acoustics Concept 50 speaker (review) powered by the PrimaLuna Evo 300 (review) (more info). While I take the opposite approach of source-first advocates, loudspeakers offer the potential for the most dramatic changes to a system’s sound, the DA2’s smoothly refined character makes every system shine.
The DA2 is big and heavy for a DAC, and its build quality is pretty good. I enjoy the no-nonsense industrial design with brushed aluminum with matte black accents along with the heavily embossed logo and model name, which gives you a nice idea of the thickness of the chassis.
The front panel display offers track titles and file sample rates, including access, with a button bar and its context sensitive function buttons directly below, along with several menu options. This includes adjusting the contrast and brightness of the display and assigning up to two of the DA2 V2 inputs to the front panel buttons.
Let’s start with a standout quality—DA2 delivers bass that’s thick, rich, and ready to be picked like a ripe late September Roxbury russet. I’m not sure I’ve heard better from digital. Whether we’re talking fat acoustic bass, slappy electronic boogie bass, or burn-shaking electronic almost subsonic rumbles, the DA2 gets every aspect of these distinct sounds so right, I laughed out loud hearing familiar tracks reinvented and sounding more fully down than I’m used to. Down below. That kind of difference is obvious and infectious, something I’ll definitely miss when it goes back to DA2’s creator.
The delicate acoustic music sounded as playful and joyful as I’ve ever heard, the sounds of an acoustic guitar strumming its strings just like in real life. I have a couple of burn guitars, 2x acoustic and 1x electric, that I play (badly) so I’m reminded of different guitar sounds whenever the mood hits me. So when I say that the DA2 gets the sound of an acoustic guitar, I’m speaking from a real-life, regularly heard reference. When the sounds of the instruments startle with live-like realism, music reproduction transforms into a direct experience of the music and performers at hand. No distractions, no distractions, just the bottom line of what I want from a hifi.
The DA2 gets damn near perfect recording spaces (perfection is overrated), turning the barn into an intimate studio setting, grand cathedral, bedroom, barroom, ballroom, stadium and more, turning my space into a recording space architectural wizardry. From Fritz Hauser’s insanely long reverb trail Solo drumming Recorded in the glass-roofed courtyard of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, the intimacy of Springsteen’s hotel room Nebraska, taking up residence in the recording space barn, effortlessly move the walls and ceiling to fit the recording. excellent
Digital reproduction can have a hard time with the sweet and sour, subtle tonal shadings that give things their unique voice (otherwise known as harmonic structure). Whether we are focusing on Adrianne Lenker’s “Music for Blue”. machine and its acoustic guitar blended with the natural sounds of its surroundings, to Anohni’s trembling voice on Anthony and The Johnsons’ “One Dove.” The Crying LightTo Cello by Frances-Marie Witti in Giacinto Scelsi Natura Renovature, I was served a rich palette of flavors that felt fully formed and fleshed out. In my experience, getting the voice of things right goes a long way to our true emotional connection, which is where I want to be. From The Rolling Stones “Lady Jane”. flowers Offering a beautiful sound bouquet with distinct vocals, the DA2 delivered a rendering as rich and distinct as I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in Bern.
Part and parcel of an engaging experience that transcends reproduction is an appropriate sense of scale. It’s the small things as presented and the big things in relation that create a sense of drama in music reproduction, and once again the EMM Labs DA2 has served as a sonic excavator in perfect, okay perfect, proportions from micro to macro. From “I Can’t Express My Deep Love” by Hauschker what if Paired with electronics (a Roland Jupiter 4 synthesizer and an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer) and player pianos in a wide space, the DA2 presented this great repertoire of sounds, from tiny blips to clustered chords, with surprising skill.
The Balkans: Honey and Blood A deep meal of music from Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI The music of the Balkan peoples and their Gypsy and Sephardic diasporas belongs to the many living traditions that make up the vast mosaic of culture.. As wide an array of sounds and textures as you can hear with an aid, the DA2 conveys a mosaic of textures, tones and movements with balletic grace, from the tiniest pluck to the flutter of strings. amazing
I could (and could) sing DA2’s praises with countless musical examples but I see no need. The EMM Labs DA2 V2 Reference Stereo DAC is among the best converters I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing, turning digitally stored music back into flesh and blood and bones.
EMM Labs DA2 V2 Reference Stereo DAC
the price: $30,000
Company website: EMM Labs
US distributor website: AudioShield Audio Distribution
EMM Optilink (CD/SACD)
AES/EBU, 2x S/PDIF Coax, 2x S/PDIF, TOS and USB up to 24bit/192kHz and DSD
USB also supports 2xDSD, DXD (352/384kHz) and MQA®
Stereo analog output: XLR and RCA
output impedance: 300 ohms balanced (XLR) | 150 ohms unbalanced (RCA)
Output Level (High/Low): XLR Output: 7.0/5.0V (+19.1/16.2dBu) | RCA Output: 3.5/2.5V (+13.1/10.2dBu)
dimension: W x D x H: 438 x 400 x 161 mm
weight: 17.2 kg