Have you ever heard people talking about two products at the store, and suggesting they were nearly identical, probably made in the same factory, but have different packaging and substantially different prices? I certainly have. Perhaps I missed an exposé on national television back in the day, when everyone learned about such practices. Or, this is an urban legend that makes people feel even better about throwing the less expensive products in their carts. I can see it now, a couple guys at the next audio show talking about the EMM Labs DV2 ($30,000) and Meitner Audio MA3 ($9,500), and suggesting they were nearly identical, probably made in the same factory, but have different packaging and substantially different prices.
Let's put the speculation to rest. The "nearly identical" part is a bit over the top with respect to performance and external build quality, but everything else is true. The Meitner Audio MA3 Integrated D/A Converter was designed by the same team, including Ed Meitner and DSP engineer Mariusz Pawlicki, as EMM Labs components, manufactured in the same factory as EMM Labs components, and is 1/3 the price of the flagship EMM Labs DV2 converter I reviewed in 2020, and still use to this day. While not nearly identical to the DV2, the MA3's sound quality is very close. So close in fact, that I've recommended the MA3 to friends, with reference level systems, as the place to start with EMM Labs/Meitner. These friends still use the MA3 today, despite the wherewithal to have a DV2 delivered tomorrow.
The Meitner MA3 is the sweet spot in the complete lineup and the place to start or end one's EMM Labs / Meitner journey. The chances are good that an upgrade to full blown EMM Labs level products won't be necessary for many folks. Yes, some of us are a bit more like Oscar Wilde in that we have the simplest tastes, always satisfied with the best. In this case, only a DV2 will do. For everyone else, lets dig into how good the Meitner Audio MA3 actually is and where it differs from the EMM Labs components.
MA3 Integrated D/A Converter Details
I'll start with an accurate and quite honest quote from Meitner Audio, about the MA3.
"Introducing Meitner Audio’s ground breaking MA3 Integrated D/A converter. The first of our next generation products. The MA3 combines Ed Meitner's proven world-class sound techniques from our beloved DA2 V2 and DV2 converters, with network audio streaming functions from our popular and simple to use NS1 Streamer - creating one sleek, affordable package to serve your greater enjoyment of music."
Seriously, when the manufacturer agrees that its far less expensive product is this close to the flagship, it's a great thing for consumers. The MA3's similarities with the DV2 include critical items such as 16xDSD MDAC2 DACs coupled with proprietary MDAT2 DSP and VControl volume control. This is the heart of the digital section of both DACs. Both also feature EMM's proprietary USB isolation hardware, MFAST jitter removal, and custom MCLK2 clock.
The MA3 diverts from its flagship-level brothers when it comes to inputs. The MA3 includes a Conversdigital Ethernet input that supports UPnP/DLNA and is Roon Ready. This is my favorite interface on the MA3, as I used it extensively during the review period.
With respect to sample rate support, the MA3 is like other Meitner and EMM Labs products. Support for PCM through 192 kHz and DSD64 via DoP (384 kHz and DSD128 over USB). Everything coming in to the MA3 is upsampled to DSD1024 using EMM Labs' custom DSP. This use of DSP should be very familiar to fans of HQPlayer and also lends credibility to the concept of using extremely high sample rates to improve audio quality in the frequencies that humans can actually hear. Also note, the DSD1024 upsampling is done in multiples of 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz (DSD1024x41 or DSD1024x48).
The front panel display on the MA3 is much nicer than any of the other EMM Labs or Meitner products I've seen to date. It isn't fancy and full color, but it's easy on the eyes and informative, while enabling limited touch selection of inputs. The large volume knob is nearly identical to that on the DV2. Smooth, with physical detents easily felt by the finders.
Huge cost savings were passed on to consumers with the new all metal chassis, smaller remote control, circuit boards, and different power supply of the MA3. The DV2 employs Ed Meitner’s proprietary switch mode power supply and ceramic circuit boards with tighter tolerance components, whereas the MA3 has a custom specified power supply meeting the voltage, noise and current performance requirements of Ed and his team, and conventional FR4 circuit boards.
In terms of magnitude, this is the biggest difference between the MA3 and DV2. Chassis and remote control metal, anything proprietary, and ceramic boards are extremely expensive, especially in low quantities. Meitner Audio used a very sturdy, but much thiner chassis for the MA3 and the remote is fairly pedestrian compared to the self defense device that is the DV2 remote. I expect readers to know where they stand on items like these. Some appreciate the elevated build quality, while others put components in a cabinet and never look back.
My system for this review, and every review, consisted of Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 loudspeakers, Transparent Audio Reference cable, Constellation Audio Inspiration mono amps, and 512 Engineering symmetrical power transformers. It was very nice to have both the MA3 and DV2 sitting next to each other in my system, enabling simple comparisons. I connected both units directly to the Constellation Audio amplifiers's XLR input, not to be confused with the Direct input used in conjunction with a preamp.
I controlled music playback two ways. Eighty percent of the time I used the forthcoming JPLAY for iOS application to pull music from Qobuz and MinimServer running on my QNAP NAS to send audio to the MA3 via DLNA. The other 20% of the time I used Roon and my convolution filters created by Mitch Barnett from Accurate Sound.
Starting with the track Prodigal Daughter from Aoife O'Donnovan, an artist to which I can't stop listening lately, the MA3 just shines. O'Donnovan's 1934 O-17 Martin acoustic guitar and Tim O'Brien's mandola both sounded delicate and delineated. The MA3 has a smoothness that, on this track that, puts the listener at ease, yet it isn't coloration type of smoothness. O'Donnovan's lyrics appear to roll right off her tongue with grace that can be heard crystal clear when she sings verses such as "Prodigal daughter returns like a lamb to the slaughter. She yearns for the things that you taught her." Strange I know, but listening to this track through the MA3 made me wonder many times, how the heck O'Donnovan thought she would get those lyrics to sound so sweet. Components at this level bring out those type of thoughts while I'm listening.
Note: If readers want even more greatness from Aoife O'Donnovan, I highly recommend her acoustic album titled In the Magic Hour, on which she covers Brice Springsteen's Nebraska. It's absolutely delightful.
A song I recently rediscovered, that I used to annoy all my friends with by playing frequently, is Beautiful Girl from INXS. This is such an underrated gem. Listening to the Mendelsohn version of Beautiful Girl through the MA3 was as enjoyable as any system on which I've ever heard this track. The opening keyboard and bass line are unforgettable. When the deep, punchy, and visceral bass kicks in, it's easy to notice the MA3 has serious authority on its XLR outputs. Not every DAC can drive an amplifier directly. The MA3's 4.36V brawn was a bit surprising. I expected the flagship DV2 to drive my amps easily, but the way the MA3 handled this task was just terrific.
As the track continued, Michael Hutchence's centered vocal sounded a bit processed, as it should, but it also sounded a bit like a high dynamic range photo looks. Very rich and overly real. This is how the vocal should sound in my estimation. It's just lovely. Kirk Pengilly's saxophone has an airy sound to it at times, and a solid, forceful, reenforcing sound at other times. The MA3 is excellent at reproducing both airy and solid details in a way that's easy to delineate from the other instruments and doesn't meld the sound into a single saxophone / one note bass type of sound. There are some beautiful details within this track and the Meitner Audio MA3 reveals them all, individually, in their own spaces, with a balance of power and delicacy.
There is no question in my mind that the MA3 is a DAC that has outputted its coverage. It's a DAC on which I'd spend my own money and on which I've "spent" friend's money. What does "very close" mean with respect to sound quality differences between the MA3 and the DV2 and what are the differences? By the way, is there a better job in the world than comparing these two DACs over and over? I think not.
There are three main differences between these two DACs. The differences relate to power, endless reverb delicacy, and smoothness. Based on my experience in my system only, the DV2 has more subjective raw force and power when driving my amps directly. Perhaps this is because (checks notes) it's 7.0/5.0V user selectable output. This difference will greatly depend on one's amplifiers and the use of a preamp if desired.
Another difference I heard was the DV2's sustain and decay seemed to go on longer with more delicacy, air, and detail than the MA3. When I say more, I don't mean double. This is a subjective "more" that is hard to quantify. It also depends the type of music. Listening to Larry Karush's album May 24, 1976, it was possible to hear this difference easier than say with Eddie Vedder's new album Earthling.
The biggest difference between the MA3 and DV2 revolves around smoothness and transients. Again, on the album May 24, 1976 this really comes through loud and clear. The opening track, when played through the DV2 can be devastatingly sharp or pointed, not harsh, because that's what's on the track. Through the MA3 this was slightly smoothed over, but in favor of a more organic, fuller sound. I can already envision some of my friends telling me they'd go for the MA3 because this is the sound they prefer. It's a distinction with a big difference if one is a knuckle dragging audiophile like me, but depending on one's musical selections and system it may not be that pronounced. I imagine on some tube based systems, the playing field may be a bit more flattened, bringing the sound of both DACs closer together.
Circling back to the first track I used in this review, Aoife O'Donnovan's Prodigal Daughter, the DV2 tightened things up just a touch and offered a bit more air across the soundstage. The MA3 offered the smoothness I mentioned, but again, not a colored smoothness like I've experienced with tube amps from Balanced Audio Technology in the past.
The Meitner Audio MA3 Integrated D/A Converter is the beneficiary of decades of R&D, skilled engineers designing flagship products, and mostly cosmetic cost reductions. This DAC really belongs in the EMM Labs lineup, if the considerations are sound quality, who designed it, and where it's manufactured (Canada by the way). We've all heard of manufacturers slapping expensive badges on cheap components, to sell them for much more money. This is a case of the opposite phenomenon. EMM Labs designed its flagship DV2, which I went crazy for, then essentially put it in a less expensive chassis (and scaled back a couple costly items), and called it a Meitner Audio MA3. This is a huge win for high end audio consumers.
The MA3 is a great sounding DAC, capable of receiving content directly via its Ethernet interface, and driving amplifiers directly without a problem. It offers delicacy, delineated reproduction, and an organic sound that will make listeners smile for years. If you're only satisfied with the best, the EMM Labs DV2 is for you. I highly recommend everyone else consider picking up the MA3, sitting back, turning up the volume, and thinking about what to do with all that cash saved. Speaking of cash, the Meitner Audio MA3 is unequivocally CASH Listed.
"Our goal with the Meitner Audio MA3 is to bring state of the art audio enjoyment to a wider demographic. We firmly believe that the MA3 is a “welcome to the family” product and audio enthusiasts can be confident owning one for many years to come. Our commitment to Meitner customers is the continual improvement of our designs and the future implementation of software and hardware upgrades to keep the MA3 at the top of the pack. We are humbled and thankful for the accolades and feedback received so far. Especially from the great community at Audiophile Style.
Music... One bit at a time."
- Meitner Audio MA3 Integrated D/A Converter $9,500
- Meitner Audio MA3 Integrated D/A Converter Manual
- Meitner Audio MA3 Integrated D/A Converter Brochure
- Source: QNAP TVS-872XT, Aurender N20, CAPS 20, Roon ROCK
- DAC: EMM Labs DV2, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil LiM, Denafrips Terminator II
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, CAPS 20.1
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers, Constellation Audio Inspiration Integrated 1.0
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2, Wilson Audio TuneTot
- Headphones: RAAL-requisite SR1a
- Digital Signal Processing: Accurate Sound, HQPlayer
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, Aurender Conductor, HQPDcontrol v4 (iOS) (Android), JPLAY for iOS
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro (M1)
- Playback Software: Roon, HQPlayer
- 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'), AudioQuest Robin Hood SILVER (ZERO)
- USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable
- Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables
- Power Isolation: one 4kVA and one 5 kVA 512 Engineering Symmetrical Power Source
- Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables
- Fiber optic Cables: Single Mode OS1-9/125um (LC to LC)
- 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, UniFi FlexHD AP, 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 before (top) and after (bottom) 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.
My RAAL-requisite SR1a headphones using a convolution filter created my Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The blue trace is the raw measurement and green is the corrected response. Here we bring down the two peaks above the green curve, in addition to smoothing out the response.
Here is an article all about the headphone filter - Taking the SR1a to Another Level