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EMM Labs TX2 Limited Edition CD/SACD Transport & DA2 Stereo DAC Review

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Initial Listening

I have always found the CD of Emmy Lou Harris’ Wrecking Ball to be extremely difficult to reproduce.  The recent Nonesuch re-issue is clearly better in this regard than the original, but still challenging.  Portions of the lyrics are almost indecipherable on most systems.  Intelligibility of her lyrics is reasonable indicia of the overall quality of a digital front end.   For this reason, it seemed like a good place to begin my exploration of the sound of the EMM Labs DA2, a torture test, so to speak.  Harris’ voice/words were clean/clear and intelligibility was the best that I have ever achieved on this disc.  When she chooses to let a word drift away, the intent is clear; it isn’t just a recording or microphone issue.  The fullness of the instruments’ timbre in all areas was outstanding.  On Track 2, the guitar solo was clearly placed left of center.  The slight nasal quality of Harris’ voice was apparent.  The sound of the tom-tom was rounded with excellent timbre and nicely delineated edge definition.  Systems that do a nice job of creating a sense of “air” around instruments in the midrange and treble often have difficulty achieving the same effect in the lower octaves.  That is an area of real strength with the EMM Labs DA2.  The air around the drum was palpable.

At this point, it seemed advisable to switch to something completely different, Prokofiev’s 6th Symphony with Andrew Litton conducting (BIS 1994) which was rendered very cleanly and musically.  This SACD is stunning in every sense; however, it can sound rather bright with an edge to the strings, if played on the wrong equipment.  The EMM Labs gear was certainly not the wrong equipment for this disc.  The bite of the instruments was there – when it should be, particularly evident in the buzz of the lower brass and the lower strings during louder passages.  At no time was there ever any glare.  The chamber music-like sections of the 6th were intimate with lovely color and excellent leading edge definition.  While I normally expect massed strings on digital media to disappoint, here they were smooth and a bit silky, if lacking in just a bit of warmth.  There was occasionally just a hint of coolness or digital edge that may signal the need for further break-in.  The same was true with respect to the reproduction of wire brushes on cymbals.  [After about a month of daily use, the slight hint of coolness or digital edge disappeared entirely.]

Another aspect of the sound in which the DA2 excels is the ability to create space around and between the instruments.  Here, I mean the type of space that allows you to hear all the instruments and between the instruments as well as all the voices in an instrumental choir, and where everything is on the stage.  Don’t get me wrong.  It is not overdone or clinical.  I had no trouble getting lost in the music, except in those instances where Litton occasionally wanders himself, as he can sometimes do – one can hardly fault him given the sensuousness of the orchestration and the development of the material.  The level of resolution here is such that I found myself occasionally thinking that I could hear the fingerprints of the harpist plucking the strings.

On the second cut of Colin Valin’s Le Vent (ECM 2347), there is the sound of a single tom-tom near the end of the cut which disappeared with the Esoteric but was very evident with the EMM.  Unlike the Esoteric P-02/D-02, bass was never boomy or uncontrolled.  The size of the piano seemed natural.  Here the music on anything less than a top notch system can sound deceptively simple; yet on the right system, it is complex and draws the listener into the music.

Another favorite is Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory, the Sweetest Punch, arranged by Bill Frissell (Mercury 314 538 002-2).  Normally, that the songs are recorded in various places at various times is not obvious, but on this gear, it would be hard to miss (this is not intended as a negative, just a comment about the resolution).  The stage was wide but not extremely deep.  Detail was exceptional, but in a perfect world I might wish for a touch more midrange warmth, particularly on voices, although I know that would be euphonic, not real.  The Meitner gear was neutral, neither adding nor subtracting warmth or detail.  Ed wants everything there with as little distortion or editorializing as possible, but always without loss of musicality.  Another disc which I played was Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Reflections.  On the TX2/DA2 this SACD has a really “you are there” quality. Drums are stunningly real.

The last selection of this particular listening session was Oscar Petersen’s We Get Requests (Verve/Analog Productions CVRS 8606SA) as re-issued by Analogue Productions.  In this instance, there are only three instruments playing.  On a typical hyper accurate transistor system, this can sound bare and exposed, but not here.  Here the sound was full, warm and big, like what you might hear in a club, including the snap and sizzle of live drums.  Indeed, as is often the case with Ed’s gear the drums are remarkable – so “right there” right down to the last hint of decay.

The recent BIS classical issues on SACD have been exemplary.  The recent Debussy, La Mer (BIS 1837) with Shui conducting the Singapore Symphony is a personal favorite, particularly when played in the EMM Labs TX2/DA2.  As I listened to this piece last night, I reflected on the best recordings of this piece which I have heard over the last fifty years.  I just do not think that orchestral sound reproduction will get much better than this during the remainder of my lifetime.  It certainly does not need to improve further.  This recording was such a sensuously gratifying experience.  This was not really about digital or analog, CD or SACD or even tubes vs. transistors.  It was about the way the orchestral instruments, separately or together, when they are played at their best by musicians dedicated to doing so and soundly invested in the musical world of Debussy, led by a conductor with the same level of passion and dedication.  The details of the timbre, the attacks (which were never hard), the bows drawn across the strings, the plucking of the harp, the warmth of the winds, the placement, it was all there as superbly as I have heard it in a recording and so damn close to seeming “real” (even though I knew that it wasn’t) that I set my pen down for thirty minutes during which time I felt not the least need to do anything but listen to the music.  That is until I hit the repeat button.

To say that the TX2 Transport and the DA2 digital-to-analog converter are sonically stunning does not do them justice.  Their performance far exceeds that of the Esoteric P-02/D-02 in exactly those areas in which the Esoteric units are the strongest – resolution of detail, delineation of leading edge, and dynamics.  Orchestral lines and massed vocals are significantly easier to sort out and more distinct.  The frequency extremes are particularly well served.  Bass has added presence and impact but is also better controlled, eliminating boominess and bloat.  The sound produced is rich with complex overtones, essentially the exact opposite of one-note bass.  In addition there is a sense that there is air around drums that is often absent with other digital gear.  Strings (and for that matter female voices) are particularly sweet and seductive, combining liquidity with superb detail, but with no edge or artificial hardness.  Dynamic contrasts on both a micro and macro level are also much improved over the Esoteric.  Orchestral lines are much easier to sort particularly during complex passages.

I have had a number of conversations with Ed Meitner.  He has been abundantly clear that his first priority has been to eliminate distortion, followed closely by increasing resolution and maintaining neutrality; however, never at the expense of musicality.  With his latest generation of equipment — and here I mean specifically the latest version of the MTRX amps and the DA2 digital to analogue converter — he has succeeded in spades.

 

Comparison with XDS1:

I began with Murray Perahia playing Chopin then Brahms, first on the EMM Labs XDS1 v.2, then on the DA2.  Piano notes at the upper octaves seemed a touch more extended with a harmonic envelope that on first listen seemed a bit leaner and clearer than with the XDS1.  In contrast, the XDS1 was slightly warmer and richer, but without quite the amount of sustain on transients.  Both are excellent.  If you are familiar with the sound of a Steinway Concert “D” in a good hall, you quickly realize that the sound of either is realistic, more a matter of preference.  Consider the difference between sitting on Row K of a concert hall versus sitting farther back from the stage (say Row P).  Sitting closer to the stage changes the relationship of direct to reflected sound that the listener hears.  The Row K seat yields a sonic landscape that is more focused, a bit clearer and more detailed with slightly more treble energy.  The mid hall location sacrifices some focus and detail for a warmer, more blended sound.  Once I heard the extra detail and sharper focus with the EMM Labs DA2, it became easy in future comparisons to identify it.  Where the superiority of the DA2 evidenced itself was in listening to Mozart’s violin sonatas played by Itzak Perlman conducted by Daniel Barenboim (Mozart Sonatas for Piano and Violin K301-303 305/296 DG Collector’s edition).  The violin was silky, almost magical, high pitched but delicate and sweet as only a solo violin can sometimes sound.  Had I not heard the silky delicate string tone on the DA2, I could easily have been satisfied with the somewhat warmer sound of the XDS1.  But having heard the sound of the gorgeous higher notes through the DA2 without even the slightest trace of hardness or grit that is often the artifact of this level of detail, I marveled in the sound.  As with the EMM Labs MTRX amps, the detail transmitted itself across the frequency spectrum.  At some point, I stopped making comparisons and instead tried to fix the sound of the DA2 in my head.  One thing which I increasingly appreciated was the difference in the presentation of bass on the Acapella Triolon Excalibur.  Fed by the EMM Labs DA2, the bass was more focused, quicker and more intense than it had been with the XDS1.

 

Conclusion

A few weeks after doing the listening described above, during which the gear seemed to continue to break-in, I concluded that it was time for a final evaluative session with which to conclude this review.  I brought back my team, and we experimented with some of our earlier choices and a few new ones.  From the start of the evening, one problem came clear — it was awfully easy to get distracted from the task of reviewing and get lost in the pleasure of music.  In this, I must confess some amazement, as much as I’ve tended to prefer vinyl to digital over the years.  I still love the sound of vinyl.  But, dammit, there is so much terrific material available only in digital — indeed, only in red book.  I had no idea, for example, how much I would admire and enjoy Elvis Costello’s and Burt Bacharach’s collaboration, which we listened to again during the last review session.  Although it is clearly a studio album, with somewhat unnatural balances, Bacharach knew exactly what he was doing when he put the arrangements together, no doubt layer by layer, and the end result is terrifically effective — evoking a nostalgia for an earlier generation of superbly constructed pop music of the first order, seen with a bit of clear-eyed late 90’s lookback…and heard with a near breath-taking precision, clean, yet utterly musical.

We closed out the night with two cuts off Colin Vallon’s Le Vent, 2 and 3.  I described earlier an impression that the cymbals on some discs – this one included — could sound just a hair bleached.  That sense was gone this time around; I’m not sure why, other than break-in (which could have been a power cord issue on my part, I belatedly realized).  The sound was absorbing.  I put down my pen and note pad and just listened.  When I finally picked them up again, this is what I wrote:  “I can stop here.  If it gets any better than this, I don’t need to know.”

I think that about sums it up, except that the next day, I wrote a check.  The EMM is staying here.  And I’m very glad.

11 Responses to EMM Labs TX2 Limited Edition CD/SACD Transport & DA2 Stereo DAC Review


  1. Calax says:

    I have had my Da2 several months
    Is wonderful from getting but improves even till now I went away for two weeks and couldn’t believe change
    I think it is definitely better balanced though still very good Se
    The bass is exceptional
    But all timbres are great
    I disagree about warmth I found it very track dependent

    I agree about telling difference track to track

    My soundstage is massive extending beyond speakers and frontal well as recording allows
    Layering of string and instruments Suberb
    Tonal space and recognition of instruments with similar timbres eg bass trombone compared with trombone best heard
    It is sensitive to power cords finding Oyaide pc excellent results

    I agree about vinyl versus the DA2 it’s getting very close especially on dsd2 and 176.4 and 356 recordings

    I used with server with excellent results
    I found the impedance of spdif quite critical to obtain worth

    Excellent review

  2. miguelito says:

    What firmware was your XDS1V2 running?

  3. Scott says:

    Congrats on your EMM Labs purchase! Have you had a chance to compare or hear the Playback Design DACs or the PS Audio with new firmware? Thanks!

  4. Fred Crowder says:

    The EMM XDS1 which I heard for comparison has the newest software, so I believe that the comparison was valid. I should also note that I have used the XDS1 as a transport for the DA2 and for those who already own an XDS1 that is an excellent, cost effective solution. I have spoken with Ed Meitner about “break-in”. He does not particularly like that term and feels that what is actually happening is that the boards and components within the unit are reaching “dielectric equilibrium” and that this takes about 250 hours. In any event, my DA2 has continued to improve, particularly with respect to dimensionality, resolution and dynamic range. The units as pointed out are sensitive to both vibration control and to power cords. I have had excellent luck with the Stage 3 power cords (Kraken) and with the Finite Elemente Cerabases.

    I have not heard the latest Playback Design gear so cannot really comment on its sound, although the sound at shows using Playback Design gear is uniformly excellent. The same could also be said for the top of the line Esoteric gear (i.e. the sound at shows is excellent). I am always reluctant to make rankings of gear which I have not auditioned in my own home or in a system with which I am intimately familiar.

  5. Andy Yuen says:

    Hi Fred Crowder Thank you so much for the very fine review! I got my DA2 last Monday I am currently running it 24/7 Any suggestion how long I should run-in? I am thinking of some 500 hrs Will that y sufficient? Thanks

  6. Fred Crowder says:

    Strangely enough I asked Ed Meitner the same question. His response was 250 hours, although I am well beyond that and think that I am still hearing improvements. Ed corrected my terminology. He says that what is occurring is not so much break-in as the ceramic boards and parts reaching dielectric equilibrium. In any event, the phenomenon is audible. I hope that you enjoy your unit.

  7. Andy Yuen says:

    Thank you so much for the reply. Compare to my EMM Labs DAC2X, the resolution, dynamics and transparency are so much better. I am very happy with it. My sound system is now at the next level. I am currently using the Magico Q1 speakers together with the Magico Q 15 subwoofer, the EMM Labs Pre-2, Constellation Centaur power amp, Nordost Tyr II interconnect, shunyata anaconda speaker cables, Shunyata Sigma power cords, and Shunyata power conditioners. On very good recordings the acoustic instruments can sound very real. Once again thank you so much!

    I My sound system now has very good dynamics, presence, and a tovery low noise floor. It sounds like a turntable. Once again, many thanks.
    .

  8. Andy Yuen says:

    Hi I forgot to mention that I am using EMM Labs TSDX transport, playing only SACDs, mainly classical, some jazz, some folks. All my equipment are placed on Critical Mass System rack and amps stands. I also use Critical Mass System footers, and Soundtillpoints. I have to say that all the components are essential to the system low noise floor, dynamics, and presence. The CM rack and amp stand contribute greatly to it, also the Shunyata Sigma power cords.

  9. Tony Tsui says:

    Hi Fred,

    Thanks for a great review. I took delivery of the TX2 and DA2 a few weeks ago – apart from the EMM optilink cable, have you tried connecting the two with AES/EBU? Thanks!

    Tony

  10. Fred Crowder says:

    Hi, Tony,

    I spoke at length with Ed Meitner about the optimal way to connect the TX2 and DA2 and he was adamant that there were significant sonic advantages in using the provided optical cable. This has something to do with ground loops/galvanic interactions which are eliminated with the optical. For this reason, I have not tried AES/EBU.

    Sincerely,

    Fred

    • Tony Tsui says:

      Thanks Fred for your response. The reason I asked about the optical cable is related to it’s long term stability and variance in quality of optical cables. An audiophile friend who manufactures very sophisticated optical cables (according to him optical cables for hifi use is nothing sophisticated) has his engineers look at three different hifi optical cables (Aural Symphonic, Jadis and EMM Labs) with professional magnifying glass and found various levels of scratch and dirt. As optical cables use glass it is prone to scratch after pluging and unpluging, and of course dirt after long use. His engineers then cleaned all three cables (using whatever machines and methods unavailable to us). My friend then listened to all three cables, and found the Aural Symphonic to sound the best, and the EMM the worst. If this is indeed true, I wonder if we should try other optical cables, or use AES/EBU as backup to ensure no deterioration of the supplied EMM optical cable?

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