The EMM Labs DV2 is the best sounding product the company has ever made and may be as good or better than any DAC on the market today. There, I said it. That's my unequivocal opinion after listening to the DV2 in my system for several months. I used the qualifier "may" because I haven't listened to every product on the market, but I can throw that qualifier out when discussing DACs I've had in my system at home. The EMM Labs DV2 is as good or better than anything I've ever heard in my reference system. Period. No need to read between any lines or guess what I really mean by that statement. The DV2 is just that good.
Let's move on to what I really think. Only kidding, but moving on to how the DV2 performs in my system, followed by some technical details and information about what makes this DAC tick are in order.
In Concert This Evening
Note: Over the course of my time with the DV2 I used both its AES and USB inputs. The best sound, without question, was had by pairing the DV2 with the Sonore Signature Rendu SE Optical feeding the USB input of the DV2. I also set my Constellation amplifiers to their "standard" XLR inputs and the DV2 to its 7 volt output for the best results. Now, on with the show.
Yesterday my wife and daughter went to Florida for a long weekend of nice weather and visiting with family. This left me alone with an ultra quiet house, on the eve of a blizzard scheduled to dump a foot of snow on us in Minneapolis. I'll take the trade-off. Having an empty house for nighttime listening can be extremely enjoyable. And, it was.
In addition, Pearl Jam just announced its forthcoming album titled Gigaton, to be released March 27, 2020 and I ordered tickets for the PJ concert at Madison Square Garden in NYC on March 30, 2020. It was no surprise that I felt the need to play the band's MTV Unplugged concert recorded on March 16, 1992 at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York. This album was released as a DVD along with the debut album Ten (Deluxe Edition) re-issue in 2009. I ripped the two channel audio from the DVD as 16 bit / 48 kHz files.
On the opening track Oceans, as the band takes the small stage, drummer Dave Abbruzzese gives his bass drum a few warm-up kicks. Upon hearing this, I instantly perked up because I'd never heard this recording sound so realistic. I hadn't even made it to the first notes of the first track, yet I was all in. The illusion was presented right in front of me as a stage full of my favorite musicians playing my favorite songs. My brain was taken back to May 13, 1992 when the concert first aired on MTV and my fifteen year old self watched from my parent's living room. But this time, the sound was amazing and the picture in my head was far better than the 480i SD image presented on our RCA 54" "big screen."
As Eddie Vedder starts the track with the lyric, "Hold on to the thread, the currents will shift," bassist Jeff Ament lays the foundation with a heavy bass line while drummer Abbruzzese seems to tickle the cymbals in the most delicate way. All of these instruments are presented in such separate spaces, yet as a whole, that the sound is absolutely amazing. I don't say that lightly. Oceans isn't even close to my favorite Pearl Jam track, but this rendition, sounding this good through the EMM Labs DV2 was something to behold.
When Stone Gossard's and Mike McCready's guitars kick in on the right and left channels respectively, the track is pushed to another sonic level. I could hear each individual string as chords were played and I have no doubt that if I was a musician I could pick out the brand of strings being used and possibly the brand of guitar pick. OK, I know that last one is a bit over the top, but it's illustrative of how much of this recording I could hear through the EMM Labs DV2.
Setting aside all the individual elements that make up the whole, I enjoyed this track more than ever. I was able to sit and listen to the music without thinking about some typical audiophile nuances that can get in the way of one's enjoyment. It's as if the realness, delineation within, and separation between the instruments enabled me to put them together in my head more coherently than ever before and I was able to enjoy this music as it was intended to be enjoyed.
It would be easy and enjoyable for me to walk readers through every song in this short set, but I'll spare those who are less interested. I'll skip to the closing number that nobody who has seen this concert can ever forget. Pearl Jam closed with a nearly six and a half minute version of Porch. Not one of its publicly released singles or a hit by any means, but this rendition of Porch has yet to be topped.
Identical to the previous six tracks in this set, each instrument comes through wonderfully. We're talking about a grunge rock band here, yet the sound is reminiscent of a tight jazz quintet. The Emm Labs DV2 reproduces Mike McCready's acoustic guitar solo with such an organic and texture rich sound that the listener is figuratively placed on a stool right next him. Each pluck of a string is right there in the left channel as Dave Abbruzzese keeps the beat by working every surface of his drum kit. As the jam session in the middle of the track nears its conclusion, the part that gives listeners goosebumps is placed on a platter by the Dv2, right between the speakers.
While listening to this part, I could easily picture Eddie Vedder grab a marker and stand atop his stool in an unsteady yet confident pose, as he writes "Pro Choice !!!" on his arm from bicep to knuckles. It was an unforgettable scene made all the more realistic in my head by the DV2's stellar reproduction. Topping off this theatrical performance, after Vedder jumps down from his stool and eases back into the lyrics with some ad libbing, he grabs the microphone tightly and belts out a chill-inducing series of elongated "yeahs." This must be seen to get the full picture (video below). However, this must be heard through the EMM Labs DV2 to get the fullest picture and feel the emotional impact of this vocal performance. I don't have another DAC in my house that can reproduce the emotion and reality of this performance better than the DV2. I can't and won't stop listening through this DAC.
Next up is another obsession of mine, music out of Japan from the Three Blind Mice record label. Specifically, the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio, Yoshio Otomo Quartet, and George Kawaguchi. Listening to albums from these three, through the EMM Labs DV2, has given me new respect for the musicians, music, and sound quality on display. Again, I don't say this lightly and I don't beat around the bush for fear of hurting another manufacturer's feelings. The EMM Labs DV2 has enabled me to hear these recordings like no other DAC I've ever heard regardless of location. Whether in my own system, a friend's system, a dealer's showroom, or an audio show, nothing reproduces the Three Blind Mice catalog like the DV2. Sure the DV2 reproduces all the magic, tones, overtones, air, etc... but the biggest differentiator between the DV2 and its competitors is the way it reproduces transients. There's nothing like it. Let's dig in.
Listening to the title track from the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio's album Midnight Sugar puts the DV2's capabilities on full display. Right from Isao Fukui's double bass intro, one can hear the instrument laid bare. The plucking of strings, vibration of strings off the fretboard, resonance within the body of the double bass and the rich tones ringing out through the F-hole are all reproduced with tight authority and realism. But the real magic happens when Tsuyoshi Yamamoto's fingers start floating up and down the keyboard of his piano.
Yamamoto eases into the track like a butterfly landing with sore feet. Light, airy, and ethereal are good descriptors of the sound of his playing. But listeners are jolted to attention by the hammer striking the strings at 2:26 of the track. The immediate start and stop of this note are so critical to the realism of his piano playing, that anything less than the EMM Labs DV2 just doesn't cut it for me anymore. Now that I've heard what's possible, I can't go back. Again at a little after the four minute mark the DV2 shows its worth by not memorializing the hammer strikes of Yamamoto's piano while at the same time letting through all the glorious sustain and decay fo the notes. This track is truly twelve minutes of pure bliss when played through the DV2. Yes, other DACs do a wonderful job with this track and album, but I just can't duplicate the DV2's reproduction of transients with any other DAC.
Switching up to tone and air for a moment, I listened to the Yoshio Otomo Quartet's album Moon Ray more than a few times through the DV2 (as I do every DAC that enters my listening room). Otomo not only plays his alto saxophone magically on the opening track, Moonray, but it's recorded masterfully. The tone, harmonics, and decay that can be heard as the bell of Otomo's alto releases its magic to reverberate into the environment, is fantastic. This lush sound pulls the listener in immediately and hooks him for the entire 37 minute / 5 track performance. It's truly incredible how much information is contained on this recording from April 1977.
Track two, Emily, shows off the DV2's ability to reproduce delicate fluttering notes from Otomo's alto sax and maintain every admirable trait shown in more dynamic passages. At many audio shows manufacturer's like to cure all their product's ails with a dB of increased volume for each one. The DV2 however is in another league, and requires no increase in volume to hear the magic of brilliant musicians. Otomo's alto sounds simply beautiful and raw throughout the first 1:30 of the track. Yes the beauty continues until the end, but the piano and drums enter the picture and Otomo must share the spotlight with Tamiko Kawabata on bass and Arihide Kurata on drums. All three are masters at their crafts and true delights to hear reproduced through the EMM Labs DV2 that does each musician and instrument justice as well or better than any DAC on the market.
So often well-recorded bands fronted by amazing drummers produce albums that are more HiFi demonstration than music. This isn't the case with George Kawaguchi's album The Big 4, also on the Three Blind Mice label. The Big 4 features excellent musicians playing fast-paced hard bop jazz and stepping back to let each musician have a few moments in the spotlight. Of course Kawaguchi's moments in the spotlight are a bit better than the others as evidenced by his amazing solo work in the track Invader 7. The EMM Labs DV2 reproduced Kawaguchi's playing and kit extremely well, from the loudest BAMS! to the quietest taps of the drum heads. Starting around the 5:05 mark of the track Kawaguchi lets it rip. The texture of his drum heads and metallic shimmer of his cymbals is all there for the taking.
Last but certainly not least is the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio's album Misty. Circling back to the ability of the DV2 to reproduce transients like no other DAC I've heard, this album is yet another example of amazing attack, release, sustain, and decay. Individual hammer strikes throughout the title track are just glorious as they fit into the larger whole that is Yamamoto's masterful piano playing. Yamamoto meanders softly up and down the keyboard while throwing in some jolts of dynamics throughout this piece with a dynamic range score of 20! I like to mention individual aspects of performances, such as specific dynamic passages, hard hammer hits, etc... as examples for readers to listen for specifically. However, the bigger picture is that this music is wonderful and sounds fantastic as a whole piece of music played by world class musicians. Without this, I'd have no interest in listening or writing about it. I highly recommend the Three Blind Mice catalog as it hits all the nails right on their heads and enables the best HiFi equipment to really shine. Such is the case with the Emm Labs DV2. Absolutely amazing music when played through the DV2 and the rest of my system.
DAC Details | What, Why, and How
The EMM Labs DV2 isn't a radically new design from the mind of Ed Meitner, but it's the first digital to analog converter from EMM to include built-in volume control. What took so long? Other manufacturers have offered DACs with volume control for over a decade. To answer this, and other questions about the DV2, we must take a step back and look at the EMM Labs ethos.
I've known about Ed Meitner for many years, but over the last several months, starting with my interview of him at RMAF, I've really started to understand Ed and his approach to building products. The three things that define Ed and EMM Labs more than anything are freedom, bespoke design, and doing things, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." In no way am I suggesting Ed is another JFK or that designing a DAC is the audio equivalent of going to the moon in this decade, but I am saying that this JFK quote completely encapsulates the attitude taken at EMM Labs.
How does this related to volume control? Hang on, I'm almost there. Let's start with freedom. EMM Labs DACs don't use an off the shelf digital to analog converter chip. When I asked Ed about this, he said a big reason for not using commercial chip technology is freedom. Using its own design enables EMM to control its own destiny and give the company autonomy and freedom from the major chip manufacturers. These manufacturers have many customers driving the designs and features set of products. High end audio and the pursuit of the best home audio playback are but a blip on the radar of companies like Analog Devices, Wolfson, AKM, etc...
Maintaining this freedom requires EMM Labs to design its own DACs from scratch, thus why I use the term bespoke to describe the company's products. According to Ed Meitner, all of the individual components that make up the conversion hardware in the DV2 are available at places such as DigiKey. There are no magic components in use. The real magic is in intellectual property, software, and firmware. The software and firmware used in the conversion circuit is a complete EMM Labs creation.
As part of the conversion from digital to analog EMM uses its own filters, as readers should've guessed by now. Design of these filters is done using solid engineering principles, but the final tweaking is based on subjective analysis. The goal at EMM Labs is to make its DACs sound as un-digital as possible, which means absolutely no flavor to the sound according to Ed.
One reason why the DV2 sounds so spectacular is EMM's use of 16x DSD upsampling at the digital to analog conversion point. This has nothing to do with the incoming sample rate or frequency of the music. The most critical part of converting D to A is at the conversion point where EMM uses a single bit data stream at 16x DSD. When asked if this number was important, Ed said he'd go to 32x DSD if he could and that this is very different from the sample rate arms race for recorded music.
The reason for such high frequency at the conversion point is because it increases precision. Think about it this way, when there are two lines converging at a single point, the smaller the point the more perfect or precise things are at the intersection. Using 16x DSD enables a smaller moment in time and more precise conversion. This is objective and can be verified by anyone with the requisite skills. What I was able to verify during my time with the DV2 was how amazing this product sounds.
It's time to bring the discussion back to volume control. In high end audio some manufacturers use the attenuation that's built into whatever commercial DAC chip is used in the product. This is really easy to do and can lead to fairly good results. Other manufacturers design and build elaborate analog volume controls such as Spectral's Super Fader and Ayre's Variable Gain Transconductance (VGT) volume control. Who'd have guessed that EMM Labs rolls its own volume control as part of the entire signal chain in the DV2? That was a no-brainer.
The DV2's use of an internal volume control came about for a couple reasons. The first is consumer demand and the fact that many audio enthusiasts have only digital sources. Second, according to Ed, an additional piece in the audio chain, for example a preamp, is a compromise that can't improve the end result. That's why putting a volume control inside the DV2 DAC and enabling one to connect it directly to power amps is highly desirable. The reason EMM hasn't released a DAC with built-in volume control boils down to perfecting noise prevention and getting rid of other pops/clicks that can arise when implementing internal attenuation. EMM is the equivalent of the cooking world's slow food movement. Product are in the oven at EMM for years at a time.
EMM designed its own custom algorithm for digital volume control that shouldn't be looked at as an isolated feature, but rather a part of the entire signal chain. The volume control is deeply embedded into the overall signal chain that uses one bit processing. The DV2's level changes are always accurate no matter how much attenuation is used, creating zero quantization errors even at low volume, unlike a PCM-based digital volume control. EMM Labs eschewed commercially available options as taking the easy way, instead opting for something entirely bespoke built by EMM's audio DSP engineer Mariusz Pawlicki.
My listening tests only confirm the high quality of this volume control design and implementation. I'd never place a preamp in an audio chain with the EMM Labs DV2. Given that the DV2 drove my amps directly, I set it at the high output level. This is 7 volts as opposed to the low level of 4 (balanced XLR). I'm a fan of high output voltages because in my system DACs just sound better with more voltage.
A couple months ago I sent the DV2 back to EMM Labs for an update. This is part of EMM ethos as well. The company never stops improving existing products and, if possible, offers a way for customers to upgrade their purchases down the road. When I received the DV2 back in Minneapolis, it had the Low/High output voltage toggle switch removed from the rear of the chassis. This feature was now implemented as a user selectable option within the front panel menu. According to EMM Labs, "Formerly, the physical switch changed the reference level at which the audio output section operated, it therefore worked at two different voltages as you moved the switch, which meant it wasn’t fully optimized for either. By moving this high-low range adjustment inside the DAC firmware, the analog output section now always runs at one fixed voltage and is therefore fully optimized for that one voltage."
As part of my discussion with EMM Labs, I asked why the DV2 was so good reproducing transients. Without giving too much away, Ed said the DV2's analog circuitry and unconventional analog filtering certainly play an important role. He then followed up by saying, "the whole thing is unconventional." In my view not only is the product unconventional, the company and its founder are unconventional. Unconventional in the best way.
Reviewing the EMM Labs DV2 digital to analog converter is a great way to start this decade on the highest of high notes. The sound in my audio system has never been better than when the DV2 is at its heart. All of my favorite music from the rock of Pearl Jam to jazz of Yoshio Otomo and everything in between, sounds fantastic through the DV2. I literally sat in my listening room giggling to myself a few times while enjoying the likes of Natalie Merchant, Sarah Vaughan, and the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio. Giggling because I was in disbelief and in awe of the sound quality and realism heard through my reference system. This is what HiFi is all about and what hooked me decades ago.
I'm not one to value unconventional bespoke designs just because they are unconventional. I've seen my share of "custom" designs that don't pass the smell test and I've heard many off the shelf components sound very good over the years. The EMM Labs DV2 is in that rarest of categories featuring entirely bespoke and unconventional designs that truly deliver on the promise of high end audio, to further the state of the art. The DV2 is the best sounding product I've ever heard from EMM Labs and is equal to or better than any product I've ever heard in my reference system. In addition, when it comes to reproduction of transients that are a necessity for lifelike sound, the DV2 is without question the best DAC I've ever heard. Here's to freedom, unconventionality, bespoke design, and the love of music.
- EMM Labs DV2 Integrated DAC ($30,000)
- EMM Labs DV2 Product Page
- EMM Labs DV2 Brochure (1.9MB PDF)
- EMM Labs DV2 User Manual (1.5MB PDF)
- EMM Labs DV2 Windows USB Drivers (2.2MB ZIP)
- Where To Buy
Other EMM Labs / Meitner Audio Product Options
- Source: QNAP TVS-872XT Roon Core, Aurender W20SE, LattePanda Alpha 864s
- DAC: dCS Rossini, Berkeley Audio Design RS3, Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DSD Twenty
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, EMM Labs NS1 Streamer, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, JRemote, Aurender Conductor
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver, JPLAY FEMTO
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): QNAP TVS-872XT
- Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables, Gotham GAC-4/1 ultraPro Balanced XLR Audio Cable (40')
- USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable
- Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables
- Power Isolation: Transparent Audio Reference Power Isolator
- Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables
- Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption, ATS Acoustics Bass Traps
- Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 16 XG, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x6, Commercial Grade Fiber Optic Patch Cables, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
This graph shows the frequency response of my room after tuning by Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The standard used for this curve is EBU 3276. This tuning can be used with Roon, JRiver, and other apps that accept convolution filters. When evaluating equipment I use my system with and without this tuning engaged. The signal processing takes place in the digital domain before the audio reaches the DAC, thus enabling me to evaluate the components under review without anything changing the signal further downstream.