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First Impressions: From an Editor's Notes, Part
1 - The New Signature Line from EMM Labs
In which our hero meditates…
A number of my PFO projects have been held up over the last six months, while I set them aside to finish my dissertation and complete my doctoral program. Now that this is accomplished, I can turn my attention back to essaying on the fine audio front. Good thing, too; my notebook is full.
This is the first installment of a collection of thoughts and notes for you, meant to catch up on the backlog. None of these will be particularly long, but every one will be complete to this point in time. Though I love Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, Flannery O'Connor has her own fineness, no?
And there are times—lots of them—when you don't (or shouldn't) have to write War and Peace to get the point across…
The EMM Labs CDSD Transport Signature Edition, DAC 6e Signature Edition, & DCC2 Signature Edition
When it comes to digital playback systems, one name has been at the top of my reference list for a few years now: EMM Labs. Anyone who's been reading my audio commentary is (or should be) well aware of the fact that the work of Ed Meitner, Andreas Koch and company at EMM Labs represents the best that I've had in my listening room for both SACD and Red Book CD playback. I've listened to the line throughout its development: from the Meitnerized Philips SACD 1000 transport with the original DAC 6, to the same with the DAC 6e, to the CDSD transport with the 6e. At every step along the way, EMM Labs has improved the playback of SACD's and CD's to remarkable levels, eclipsing other digital playback systems and setting the standard that I judge other players and modification systems by.
Just recently I was contacted by Jonathan Tinn, asking if I would be interested in hearing the new EMM Labs Signature series components: the CDSD Signature transport, the DAC 6e Signature, and the DCC2 Signature preamp/DAC. (This has got to rank pretty high on my list of rhetorical questions for 2006.)
As a veteran of EMM Labs' work, I say—bring it on!
EMM DAC 6e Signature
I've gotten to spend the past couple of months with various combinations of the new Signature line. The first to arrive was the new DAC 6e Signature, which I auditioned with the non-Signature CDSD transport, via the usual three fiber optic connectors, with the transport slaved to the master clock in the 6e Sig. (Digital listeners, take note: this clock slaving drops the effective jitter rate on the EMM Labs system to splatto. Transparency galore results.) The new unit looks somewhat trimmer than its predecessor, and sports a slightly re-designed faceplate, which otherwise remains the standard brushed aluminum finish. There is also a minor rearrangement of the I/O connectors on the back. Other than that, there are no obvious cosmetic changes…it would appear that the fireworks are reserved for the guts of the DAC.
As usual, I let the new component warm up for a few hours, then started running some SACDs through it. Top Music …RCA Living Stereo …Mercury Living Presence …Telarc …First Impression Music …some of my Japanese SACDs …the usual suspects. The results were immediately bloody high on my personal amazing!-o-meter. I had thought that there would be an incremental improvement of some kind, but I was wrong. There was a really serious gain over the previous generation of the DAC 6e. The chief improvements were in the area of a noticeably greater sense of quiet, almost as if the noise floor had been lowered by a handful of dB. This isn't a "dead" quiet, though; there is a better sense of presence, particularly in the pure DSD SACDs.
I also noted something very different in the 6e Signature: my soundstage to the left and right widened noticeably, an effect that I hadn't heard when I did the earlier upgrade from the DAC 6 to the DAC 6e. The result was close to a wrap-around, with stereo sound that was almost directly LEFT and RIGHT on SACDs like Super Furry Animals' Love Kraft (an excellent alternative rock SA, by the way). Since I had just heard this SACD the day before the change to the 6e Signature, I was startled by the improvement.
Transparency, my growing amour, also definitely advanced in SACD playback once again with the 6e Sig.
And since EMM Labs told me that they had paid some special attention to the PCM section, I also tossed some of my CDs through 6e Sig. I have some CDs that have been particular favorites over the years, and which aren't bad for CDs. For example, Stephen Still's Stills Alone is a superior recording, with excellent immediacy and presence. The DAC 6e Signature showed a surprising ability to lay out more detail musically with this disc than I had heard through other digital playback in my system to that point in time. Sundazed's reissue of Cyrkle's Red Rubber Ball, a surprisingly good vintage recording, also sounded much improved. (Sundazed has been doing some terrific work in reissuing classic hard-to-find rock out of the '60s; here's a tip o' the hat to their efforts.) And so it went with every standard CD that I tried: the 6e Signature was noticeably better than its predecessor.
Whatever EMM Labs has done on the PCM side of the ledger, the 6e Signature is definitely better than the earlier DAC 6e.
…and then I added the EMM Labs CDSD Signature transport…
…to the mix. When the EMM Labs package arrived with the new CDSD, I pulled the previous generation CDSD transport from my system and installed the new transport. Like the DAC 6e Signature, the CDSD Signature looks slimmer than its predecessor. There is also a slight redesign of the logo area. Of greater interest to me was the fact that the metal tray of its predecessor was replaced with a new plastic tray with a more definite scoop, minimizing the possibility of loading errors. The action is pleasantly quiet, with good TOC load times.
After letting the unit warm up in repeat mode for a few hours, I sat down to listen to a highly agreeable recent SACD, the Mozart Gran Partita with the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble on NBELive.
The results were no less than startling. As much as the DAC 6e Signature improved on the 6e, so did the CDSD Signature transport over the prior generation…and the combination together was dynamite! I could scarcely believe the clarity and detail of what I was hearing, while the soundstaging had become nearly enveloping. I have put countless hours on my earlier iterations of EMM Labs designs…I know the unique excellence of the sound intimately. And yet I was instantly disoriented by the qualitative gains I was hearing. In moments there was no doubt about it in my mind: the EMM Labs Signature series DAC 6e and CDSD had trumped the only reference standard that I had known…which, ironically enough, happened to be the earlier generation of EMM Labs gear. And had done so by a very substantial margin.
By the way, this new level of playback excellence also applies to standard CD playback. In fact, many readers may find that the enhancements EMM Labs has brought to CDs is even a bigger story than its superlative SACD playback. I have several thousand (Three? Four?) CDs in my music collection. Somehow, Meitner and company have made a breakthrough in the handling of 44.1kHz/16-bit that makes the little silver beasties more bearable than I've ever heard before, which would be a big relief to me. Unfortunately, some of these recordings will never be issued as anything but CDs, and it would be good to know that their playback could reach the level of—if not excellent—then at least acceptable. The CDSD/DAC 6e Signature combination is doing precisely that for me, which is an accomplishment that I would not have believed possible a couple of months ago.
As always, the proof is in the sound—and my ears are not deceiving me.
Then came the EMM Labs DCC2 Signature...
…which gave me the opportunity to substitute the two channel Meitner DAC with stereo preamp for the six channel version. This gives the listener the opportunity to have a preamp of truly superior quality integrated with the reference standard for stereo digital playback. The DCC2 Signature has I/O for PCM, for SACD (via fiber optic), and either preamplified output, or simple line-level pass through output to another stereo preamp.
The rationale behind the DCC2 Signature is simple: there are a number of audiophiles who do not choose to deploy full multi-channel surround for their SACDs, and who are also looking for the best in CD reproduction.
Friends, as far as I've heard, this is it.
The DCC2 Signature sounds every bit the equal of its six channel sibling. It integrated with the CDSD Signature in a couple of minutes, and signal locked flawlessly. In extended sessions I have heard no difference between the DAC 6e Signature and the DCC2 Signature. For both SACDs and CDs, the DCC2 Sig gave me the same immediate and overwhelming sense that I was in the presence of true audio greatness. In fact, I am choosing to use the DCC2 Signature for the foreseeable future in my room; its superlative sound and sophisticated capabilities make it sine qua non for future listening and review projects. I've never heard optical sound reproduction at this level before; "mic feeds and master tapes for the masses," in spades!
Listen up! Consider this to be an alert, and a word to the audiowise. The EMM Labs Signature Series is an unparalleled design accomplishment, and sets a new global benchmark for SACD and CD reproduction. Ed Meitner, Andreas Koch and company have exceeded their own previous work by a considerable margin.
So much so that if you were to ask me, "Is it worth an upgrade?" my response would be: Absolutely. No doubt. Run, don't walk. And all that. Even if you have the current generation of EMM Labs gear, you simply must consider the Signature edition. It's that good. And don't stop at the DAC 6e Signature or DCC2 Signature and keep the older CDSD transport. If you can afford it, the highest results are unquestionably achieved with the combination of the 6e or DCC2 Signature and the CDSD Sig transport.
Want the best? In my ever-lengthening experience, this is it.
So once again, for a whole new generation of equipment, my answer for SACD and CD playback is a simple recommendation: Get thee to a Meitner!
You can thank me later…
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