Audio designer Ed Meitner and his firm, EMM Labs, are well known for their work in developing state of the art audio products for the professional audio market. These products include the well-regarded Switchman II 6 channel preamp/switcher and the Meitner 4th generation DSD converters – the DAC8 DSD digital to analog converter (DAC) and the ADC8 DSD analog to digital converter (ADC). A visit to the EMM Labs web site shows that the users of these products represent a veritable who’s-who in the recording business, including some recording artists, engineers and producers who have yet to release SACD material.
The popularity of the Meitner products was driven home at last year’s AES Convention in Los Angeles when SACD Project Director David Kawakami said that the new 4th generation Meitner DSD Converters have been such a hot product that almost every new SACD disc in production at that time was made using the Meitner DSD converters.
Recording Studio Playback of SACDs with Professional DSD DACs
One of the interesting things available to the pros, but not audiophiles, is the ability to listen to SACD discs through professional, reference level DSD DACs like the Meitner DAC8. In professional use, some studios have employed specially modified SACD players to connect to professional DSD DACs so they can compare a DSD master tape to an SACD test pressing.
In fact, at the AES Convention in Los Angeles last year, the folks at Telarc brought along one of these modified players (in this case, a Philips SACD-1000 multi-channel SACD/DVD-Video player) so attendees could hear how good SACD can sound. The question this raised was how do audiophiles obtain this level of performance at home? To address this market, Ed Meitner has brought two new products to market for both the recording studio professional and the audiophile.
Meitner SACD-1000 Digital Output Module
The first of these products is the new Meitner Digital Output Module for the Philips SACD-1000 multi-channel SACD/DVD-Video player. The output module is a circuit board that fits into an expansion module space on the left side of the SACD-1000 player. (I’m not clear on why Philips made a provision for an expansion card in the
SACD-1000, but it’s fortunate that they did.)
Once the module is installed, the SACD-1000 player continues to operate as it did before – but it now has several new connectors and features. These include:
- 6-channel DSD audio output in EMM’s proprietary ST glass format (compatible with the EMM Labs Pro DAC8 Mk IV DSD converter and the new EMM Labs Audiophile DAC6 Mk IV DSD converter)
- 2-channel PCM output in AES/EBU format (only for CD-DA discs)
- Upsampling of PCM audio from CD-DA discs to 2-channel DSD for the “highest possible quality conversion to analog audio”
- External clock input for clock slave operation (selectable clock sources are BNC input or optical input)
- Plays both SACD and CD-DA discs
I should note here that since the digital optical module is specific to the SACD player mechanism in the SACD-1000, it is not usable with SACD players other than the SACD-1000.
When the Meitner Digital Output Module is installed into your Philips SACD-1000 player, you suddenly have an SACD transport, which can be connected to a Meitner DSD DAC using the module’s proprietary ST glass format. Since this set-up works with Meitner’s DSD8 Pro DACs, the first batch of modules were sold to and installed in the SACD-1000 players used by several companies and individuals in the recording industry. In January, this product was introduced to the audiophile market at the CES 2003 show in Las Vegas and orders were taken for the product shortly thereafter.
The DAC6 6-channel DSD Converters
Now that there is a way to convert an SACD-1000 player into an SACD transport, the next step to obtain reference level SACD playback is to connect the transport to a DSD converter. To address this need, EMM Labs obtained an SACD hardware license through Philips and developed the new DAC6 6-channel DSD DAC.
Looking at the new DAC6 you will probably note that it is very similar in appearance to the professional DAC8 Mk IV DSD DAC from EMM Labs. In fact, the main differences between the two products are that the DAC6 offers 6 channels of 4th generation digital to analog conversion (DAC) while the DAC8 pro model offers 8 channels of DAC conversion. The DAC6 also omits the BNC digital outputs present on the DAC8 to comply with the terms of the SACD license. Otherwise, the conversion and audio circuitry is the same. I asked Ed Meitner about this and he confirmed that both the DAC6 and the DAC8 Mk IV contain the exact same converter cards and circuitry.
Connecting the SACD-1000 Transport and the DAC6 DSD Converter
Once you receive the SACD-1000 transport and the DAC6 converter, the next step is to connect them to each other and then to your audio system. When you purchase the SACD-1000 transport and the DAC6, you’ll also most likely purchase two pairs of EMM Labs ST Glass optical cables. These carry the optical data information from the SACD-1000 transport to the DAC6 as well as the word clock in and out signals between the two units. According to Ed Meitner, by carrying the DSD optical data and the word clock as separate signals, the combination of these two products can re-clock the data to avoid jitter problems.
Another interesting feature the DAC6 offers is a choice of clock signals. You can either use the native clock on the SACD-1000 or you can have the DAC6 provide the clock to the audio source in a unique “pull mode” where the DAC6 pulls the audio signal from the transport. Meitner recommends the latter setting for best results and that is what I used during listening tests of the two units.
I should also mention that the initial production run of the DAC6 DSD converters only offers balanced XLR analog outputs. Unlike most consumer and audiophile products, there are no unbalanced RCA output jacks available. To connect the units to my system, I connected the two sets of ST Glass cables (mentioned above) and then connected six XLR balanced cables from the DAC6 to my Meitner Switchman II preamp/processor, which offers two sets of each type of connectors (XLR balanced and RCA unbalanced). It would be possible to use balanced to single-ended converters, if your system does not have multi-channel balanced inputs.
And then I was ready for some listening tests…
Listening to Stereo CDs Through the DAC6
As previously mentioned, one of the unique features of the Meitner SACD-1000 Digital Output Module is that it includes circuitry that upsamples regular 16-bit 44.1kHz CD audio to DSD so that the music can played back with the Meitner DAC6 DSD DAC. At CES, some audio experts told me that they thought some people may choose to buy the Meitner SACD Transport and DSD DAC for this feature alone.
To test these claims, I played back a series of garden variety CDs as well as some well-known audiophile and gold disc CDs in my collection. All benefited from the detail and definition provided by the Meitner DSD DAC. Not surprisingly, CDs that had minimal compression, air, detail and stereo separation fared best. In these cases, the Meitner took a really good CD and made it even better.
In my listening tests, some of the audiophile CD standouts through the Meitner SACD-1000 Transport/DAC6 combo’s DSD upsampling included ‘Return to Sender’ from the Steve Hoffman re-mastered album ‘Elvis: 24 Karat Hits’ on DCC Compact Classics, ‘Surfin’ USA’ from Telarc’s album ‘California Project’ by Beach Boy imitators Papa Doo Run Run and ‘Wooly Bully’ by Sam The Sham and the Pharoahs from ‘45’s on CD, Volume II (1960-1966)’ on Mercury that was re-mastered by Dennis Drake. All three of these CDs are well known for their excellent sound and the Meitner SACD transport and DSD6 DAC only added to the definition, sonics and separation.
I also found very impressive results on several non-audiophile CDs by artists like Tom Jones (‘Green Green Grass of Home’ from ‘Best of Tom Jones’) and the 5th Dimension (‘The Sailboat Song’ from Stoned Soul Picnic). The Meitner system was very good at bringing out previously undiscovered detail and definition from these discs as well, although the results again varied based on the quality of the original CD and the amount of compression and detail present on the original. Even so, I can see I’ll have a lot of fun in the weeks and months ahead “rediscovering” some of the CDs in my collection through the Meitner system.
Playing Some Stereo SACDs
Next up, it was time to move to stereo SACDs and see what the SACD-1000 Transport/DAC 6 combo would bring to the table. In this listening test, I hooked up the equipment through the Meitner Switchman II preamp/switcher so that I could listen to both the Philips SACD-1000 SACD player in normal mode as well as the SACD-1000 Transport/DAC6 as a system. This proved to be an interesting comparison.
The Philips SACD-1000 is known for its low jitter, High Definition Analog Module (HDAM) output stage designed by Marantz and Philips and its warm sonic signature. My SACD-1000 has over four hundred hours of playing time on it, so it is completely ‘broken in’. In comparison, the SACD-1000 Optical Card/DAC6 combo only have over one hundred and fifty hours of playing time. So the player has the ‘break-in’ advantage, if you believe in such things.
When comparing the two systems, the SACD-1000 did well for a consumer SACD player with an original list price of $2,000. But I have to say that on well-recorded stereo SACDs, the Meitner SACD-1000 Transport/DAC6 was significantly better. The DAC6 brings a host of benefits to stereo SACD playback. You immediately notice a lower noise floor, better definition and detail and excellent and precise imaging.
Another thing that was immediately apparent was the wisdom of the decision by Sony and Philips to focus on and bring a lot of audiophile label material to the SACD market early on in the format’s life. A number of these stereo SACDs, which had sounded good in the past, are brought to an even higher level with the SACD-1000 Transport/DAC6 system. This is especially true with SACDs made from DSD and analog masters such as ‘Stir It Up’ by Monty Alexander on Telarc, ‘A Song for You’ by the Jeremy Monteiro Trio on FIM, ‘Our Gang’ by the Anthony Wilson Trio on Groove Note and ‘Double Vision’ by Paul Bollenback on Challenge. On these discs, the music featured excellent sonics, air and definition on instruments such as drums, guitars and piano.
The stereo SACD catalog also features a number of discs re-mastered from the original studio master tapes, many of which also scored well with the Meitner. Some highlights included the Creedence Clearwater reissue series on Analogue Productions and the Zombies Greatest Hits on Audio Fidelity (both mastered by Steve Hoffman), the Vince Guaraldi Trio on Analogue Productions (mastered by Doug Sax) and several others.
Also of note were some of the Sony Music Japan SACDs including ‘All ‘N All’ by Earth, Wind and Fire and ‘Caravanseri’ by Santana. These discs also offered some fine sonics and a sense of air and definition. If you’re looking to buy a high end SACD player or system like the Meitner, I’d suggest checking out some of the following SACDs and tracks which scored well in this portion of the Meitner system listening sessions.
Standout Stereo SACD Demo Tracks:
- ‘Wild Horses’ from ‘Hot Rocks’ by the Rolling Stones (ABKCO)
- ‘Suzie Q’ from ‘Creedence Clearwater Revival’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival (Analogue Productions)
- ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’ from ‘Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus’ by Vince Guaraldi Trio (Analogue Productions)
- ‘She’s Not There’ from ‘Greatest Hits’ by the Zombies (Audio Fidelity)
- ‘Thank You Herbie Hancock’ from ‘Double Vision’ by Paul Bollenback (Challenge)
- ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ from ‘Mingus Ah Um’ by Charles Mingus (Columbia)
- ‘There’s A Kind of Hush’ from ‘A Song For You Karen’ by the Jeremy Monteiro Trio with Two for Brazil (FIM)
- ‘Chitlins Con Carne’ from ‘Our Gang’ by the Anthony Wilson Trio (Groove Note)
- ‘Fool on the Hill’ from ‘Modern Cool’ by Patricia Barber (Mobile Fidelity)
- ‘Pavane’ from ‘Hans Rucker: The Musical Legacy’ by Jos Van Immerseel (Northwest Classics)
- ‘Angel in the Dark’ from ‘Angel in the Dark’ by Laura Nyro (Rounder)
- ‘I’ll Write A Song for You’ from ‘All ‘N All’ by Earth, Wind and Fire (Sony Music Entertainment Japan)
- ‘Waves Within’ from ‘Caravanseri’ by Santana (Sony Music Entertainment Japan)
- ‘Could You Be Loved’ from ‘Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley’ by Monty Alexander (Telarc)
- ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ from ‘Getz/Gilberto’ by Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto (Verve)
Moving On to Some Multi-channel SACDs
Since the Meitner DAC6 is a 6-channel DAC, I would remiss to not do some listening with the system in multi-channel mode.
Here the “sound mode” button on the SACD-1000 player/transport proved handy. It lets the listener toggle between the stereo SACD and multi-channel SACD tracks on multi-channel SACD discs – with only a slight delay before the mode switches.
Comparing the stereo and multi-channel tracks of the SACDs at hand was quite interesting. The multi-channel tracks that were primarily ambient in nature gave a very nice sense of a concert hall or listening environment that quickly disappeared when switching back to stereo SACD mode. For the more “immersive” surround mixes, a similar shrinking of the sound field occurred when the sound mode button switched back to stereo SACD mode. The bottom line was that once you hear either type of surround multi-channel mix via the DAC6, you are unlikely to switch back and listen to it in the stereo mode.
Another interesting finding was the impact of multi-channel SACDs that featured a vocal that was mixed completely into the center channel, rather than those that use a phantom center vocal, very much like what you get on a stereo SACD or CD. With the Meitner DAC6, the multi-channel SACDs with a strong center channel vocal were much more compelling – almost as if the singer was in the room singing to you live.
I also reflected on Telarc’s past comments that they compare their SACD test pressings via an SACD player modified so it would connect to a Meitner DAC8 DSD DAC before approving it for replication. After hearing several of the Telarc SACDs through the DAC6, I’m very sure that is indeed the case. The rich detail on Telarc SACDs by the Ensemble Galilei and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet were very impressive indeed. And the real highlight was one of the lesser-known Telarc SACDs named ‘Scary Music’. Released just before last Halloween, this SACD features DSD sound effects, vocals, choral singing and orchestral performances that are truly three-dimensional when played through the DAC6.
Other multi-channel highlights included DMP’s gospel SACD ‘Grace’ (Wilson Audio’s Peter McGrath called this SACD via the Meitner DAC6 “scary good” at CES 2003 – based on my listening, he’s right), the excellent channel accuracy from the O’ Jays ‘Ship Ahoy’ SACD and some wonderful orchestral music from several SACDs from Verve. Here’s a list of some of the best of the multi-channel SACDs I listened to through the Meitner DAC6.
Standout Multi-channel SACD Demo Tracks:
- ‘Changed My Name’ from ‘Grace’ by the Broadway Inspirational Voices (DMP)
- ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘The King’s Medley’ from ‘My Tribute to the King’ by Helmut Lotti (EMI Electrola)
- ‘For The Love of Money’ from ‘Ship Ahoy’ by the O’ Jays (Epic)
- ‘You Saved My Life’ from ‘Strange Beautiful Music’ by Joe Satriani (Epic)
- ‘The Golden Age’ from ‘Sea Change’ by Beck (Geffen)
- ‘He’s A Carioca’ from ‘Waves’ by Eden Atwood (Groove Note)
- ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ from ‘In Full Swing’ by Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio with Jane Monteith and Wynton Marsalis (Odyssey)
- ‘New Favorite’ from ‘New Favorite’ by Alison Krauss and Union Station (Rounder)
- ‘Scollay’s Reel’ from ‘From The Isles’ to the Courts by Ensemble Galilei (Telarc)
- ‘SFX: Haunted House Fun’ and ‘Theme from Addams Family’ from ‘Scary Music’ by Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops (Telarc)
- ‘Hasta Alicia Baila’ from ‘LAGQ: Latin’ by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (Telarc)
- ‘Ask a Woman Who Knows’ from ‘Ask a Woman Who Knows’ by Natalie Cole (Verve)
- ‘The Look of Love’ from ‘The Look of Love’ by Diana Krall (Verve)
- ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ from ‘When I Look In Your Eyes’ by Diana Krall (Verve)
- ‘Tubular Bells’ by Mike Oldfield (Virgin)
Pricing and Availability
The Meitner DAC6 Multi-channel DSD DAC and the Digital Output Module for the Philips SACD-1000 multi-channel SACD/DVD-Video are now available. The pricing of these products are:
EMM Labs Meitner DAC6 Multi-chanel DSD DAC – $8,995
EMM Labs Meitner Digital Output Module for SACD 1000 Player – $999 (installed)
EMM Labs ST-Glass Cables (2 Sets) for SACD Transport to DAC6 Connection – $80
Professional audio sales of these products are being handled through Studio Audio Digital (Sadie) in Nashville, Tennessee and Canada Promedia in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Consumer sales of these products is being handled by Chambers Audio in Washington and Oregon. Chambers Audio also has a web site at http://www.chambersaudio.com/ where you can find more information about their company.
Future Products from Ed Meitner’s EMM Labs
As you might expect, there’s more to come from Ed Meitner and EMM Labs in the months ahead.
Now that the Philips SACD-1000 player is out of production (EMM Labs had a limited stock on hand for modification last month but these have already sold out), EMM Labs is developing their own Meitner SACD transport. This product will include the same SACD player mechanism that is in the SACD-1000 along with the Meitner Digital Output Module card already built in for use with the DAC6.
Ed Meitner says that some audiophiles who are interested in the DAC6 DSD DAC have asked about a version of the unit that would include unbalanced RCA output jacks as well as the current XLR balanced outputs since their preamp doesn’t support XLR balanced inputs. Ed Meitner tells me that the next production run of the DAC6 will have a set of unbalanced RCA output jacks added to the product to address those requests.
The current version of the Meitner Switchman II 6 channel preamp/switcher has been sold out. The good news is that a new edition of the Meitner Switchman 6-channel preamp/switcher is under development. The main advantage of the new Switchman will be that the connections will all be on one side of the unit for easier configuration and use by audiophile and consumer buyers. I’m told that the new Switchman will be on the market in about ninety days.
As I said earlier, to my ears, the Meitner SACD-1000 SACD transport and DAC6 DSD DAC has set a new standard for multi-channel and stereo SACD playback. The very revealing nature of this combination will delight SACD and CD fans alike. I could go on, but I still haven’t had a chance to play a number of my CD and SACD discs through it yet. So I’m heading back to the listening room.
I’d encourage you to take a listen to the Meitner SACD-1000 transport and DSD DAC6 when you get a chance. You won’t be disappointed. But you may need to get your credit card ready when the demo is over!