EMM Labs TSD1 CD Transport and DAC2
While vinyl keeps popping up in the audiophile news, compact disc is the most common way audio enthusiasts are enjoying music today. When it comes to digital audio, few names command as much respect as EMM Labs and their designer Ed Meitner. The subject of this review is a completely over-the-top system for two-channel CD and SACD playback. EMM Labs' new reference system's stated goal is clear: produce the absolute best sound one can imagine. The TSD1 is a compact disc and SACD transport and the DAC2 is a two-channel digital-to-analog converter. The TSD1 transport retails for $11,000 and the DAC2 sells for $9,500, making the total system cost a whopping $20,500.
All EMM Labs gear is designed for absolute maximum performance and built for the task. The cases are machined out of one-quarter-inch aluminum and the faceplates are a half inch thick. The cases are beautifully over-built and machined to perfection. The included remote is also machined from a single block of aluminum and could easily be used as a weapon as effectively as a remote. Connectors are equally well made and the pair even comes with Kimber PK-14 power cords and an ST glass digital cable. All you need to do is connect the cables to your audio rig and you are ready to make sweet music.
The new TSD1 digital transport offers only ST glass and AES/BSU digital outputs, using proprietary EMM Labs Meitner Digital Audio Translator signal processing, as does the matching DAC2, which allows the pair to upsample CDs and SACDs to 5.6 MHz, twice the SACD standard, while preserving the phase and frequency integrity of the original signal. The TSD1 employs a new German-made transport for increased reliability and EMM Labs has employed their own proprietary technology to isolate the laser assembly from any vibration. There is sync for use of an external clock, a USB port for firmware updates and an RS-232 control port.
The DAC2 is EMM Labs' newest two-channel reference level DAC. It allows for ST glass, AES/BSU, coaxial, two TosLink and even a USB input and offers both single-ended and balanced outputs for its two channels.
The DAC2 is the first D to A converter to use EMM Labs' proprietary MFAST or Meitner Frequency Acquisition System Technology, a high-speed asynchronous system that locks almost instantly onto any digital stream, while simultaneously completely stripping away jitter. When using the EMM Labs' link (ST Glass connector) between the two, you get all your discs upsampled to 5.6 MHz in the TSD1, with the D to A conversion accomplished by Meitner proprietary discrete dual differential D-to-A conversion circuits in the DAC2 for maximum performance, but the DAC2 can also upsample all other sources to 5.6 MHz on its own. The DAC2 also has a USB port for firmware updates and an RS-232 control port.
EMM Labs system gives you everything you need. The samples I was sent were already broken in, so after clearing some rack space, all I had to do was open the boxes and place the gear into my reference rig and connect the two together with the supplied optical connector. I plugged them into my APS PurePower 700 with their included Kimber power cords and ran the balanced outputs into my Krell Evolution 707 AV preamp that fed my Krell Evolution 403 amp and Escalante Fremont speakers, all wired with Transparent Reference interconnects and speaker wires.
When you first power up a $20,000-plus compact disc and SACD player to your system, you expect good things. Actually, you expect amazing things, but even with those expectations, I wasn't ready for what I was about to hear. I cued up Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company (Monster Music) and went to "Fever" with Natalie Cole. I love this song, but the Meitner system added the depth and separation beyond anything I had ever heard before. It was simply awe-inspiring. Each and every element of the song was clearly distinguishable and well-located in the soundstage, which was huge and deep. The music seemed to freely emanate from my system with an ease rarely ever heard. This is not to say the playback was relaxed or subdued; it was so effortless in its presentation that I just got lost in the discs.
Digital music haters often cite the edge and glare that can be found in the midrange and highs of digital playback systems. None of that was present with this set-up. "Sweet Potato Pie" with James Taylor further impressed me, as both men's voices were perfectly natural. This was the best presentation of male vocals that I have ever heard. Horns had just the right amount of brassiness to them, but were never harsh at any volume. Throughout the disc, I was impressed by the degree of separation and clarity, but not overtly analytical distinction. The EMM Labs gear made the most musical and natural presentation I have heard to date.
I proved this system could do simply magical things with audiophile recordings, but what was even more impressive was how good a job it did with poorly-recorded music. When I first fired up this system, I spent over three-and-a-half hours going through my discs. I started with many favorites and my usual test discs, but after a while, I found myself trying to find something it didn't play well, but I never did. No matter what I threw at it, from Bow Wow Wow's "Lois Quatorze" to The New York Dolls' "Personality Crisis," even these poorly-recorded musical passages were raised to a new level. When I cued up Sublime's 40 Oz. to Freedom (MCA), the title track blew me away. Sublime isn't known for being well-recorded, just being great music, but the EMM Labs gear brought detail and distinction I never thought existed in these tracks. Bass lines were perfectly clean and clear and seemed to emanate independently of the rest of the song. In fact, every instrument was so distinctly portrayed, it floored me. It didn't slap you in the face like some players can; it maintained the musicality and emotion of the music perfectly. "What Happened" continued to show me definition and distinction, while maintaining the best midrange and highs I have ever heard from digital music, while keeping the pace of the song perfect.
Having spent an entire afternoon trying to find something this combo didn't do well, I next connected my Apple Airport Express to one of the TosLink inputs to see what it would do with compressed signals. I cued up Puscifier's V is for moo (Puscifier Entertainment) in the TSD1 transport and on my laptop in 128 kbps AAC. I cued up "Momma Sed" and was impressed with how good the AAC files sounded. While not as clear as the direct feed from the transport, they were detailed and pleasant to listen to with almost no hash to the upper end. "Rev 22:20 (Dry Martini Mix)" was amazingly good for a compressed file, sounding better than I expected it to sound. There was a noticeable loss in dynamics and upper-end detail when compared to the TSD1 feed, but it was very good for 128kbps AAC files.
Switching to SACDs, I cued up the classic John Coltrane Blue Train (Blue Note). The start of the title track's horns was spot-on perfect, well-placed and, again, showing more distinction and clarity than any player I have ever heard. The subtle brushes on the drums were done equal justice, while the piano was lively and true to life. "Locomotion" had all the detail and separation I had come to love with this system. I found so much more detail when discs were played in this combo that I often found myself listening at lower than normal levels, as the music seemed to flow so easily from the EMM Labs TSD1 and DAC2 without ever sounding recessed or laid-back. Everything was there, just in a more perfect way than I had ever heard it before.
Many people will try to tell you a transport is a transport, but when I compared my Teac Esoteric DV-50s (connected to the DAC2 via a coaxial Transparent Reference Digital cable and to my PurePower with an Audience Au24 power cord) to the TSD1, it immediately became clear that transports make a big difference. I loaded two copies of Tori Amos' Boys for Pele (Atlantic/WEA), one in each transport, and cued them both up. I sat down to listen, switching remotely between the two inputs on the DAC2. The TSD1 was much smoother and more natural, while the Esoteric seemed forced and a bit strained. Separation wasn't as good either, nor was the texture of the upper end. With the matched TSD1, music seemed to freely rise from my system, while the Esoteric seemed like it was forcing the sounds. Image focus was also worse; in fact, the TSD1 simply blew away the DV-50s as a transport in a way that was far from subtle.
When a piece of gear, or in this case two pieces of gear, that serve one purpose, are added to your system, and it is so simply amazing as this pair is, it is extremely tough to fault. The cases are perfectly machined, but you should watch the bottom edges of the sides, as they can be sharp. The remote seems better designed as a weapon than as a remote. It isn't backlit, the buttons are all the same size and aren't particularly well-placed, but the heft and feel of holding it in your hand is infallible. I would have liked power and eject buttons on the remote. The transport can be a touch slow to respond to remote commands, but it is nothing that anyone but the pickiest will ever complain about. Sonically, I just can't fault this duo in any way.
Ed Meitner has been well known as one of the best and brightest in designing both professional and consumer digital products, and for good reason. His new EMM Labs TSD1 and DAC2 combo not only improved on the company's normally Spartan cosmetics, but has also elevated the standard of what can be done with both CD and SACD. Many companies call their products "reference level." I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that this is my new reference for just how good digital audio can sound. The detail and separation best anything I have ever had in my system to date, and the clarity of the upper end is so true to life and smooth that it sounds more like analog than digital, while maintaining all the good aspects of digital, with ease of use, dynamics and high- and low-frequency extension and remaining perfectly musical.
I particularly like the added touch of including the matched power cords and digital cable with the pair. I am sure this comes at a price, but it is very welcome to find everything I needed in there already. Knowing the units were voiced for the included cables also insures that you will get the intended sound straight out of the box. When you factor in the multitude of inputs on the DAC2, it can impart its sonic benefits to all your digital media, be it silver or hard-disc format, and even does a superb job on compressed files. However, for maximum performance, you will want to pair it with the TSD1 transport.
I have never in my life been made so agog by a single change to my system as when I added this combo to my reference rig. The first time I played it, I spent hours going through all my favorite music. Towards the end, I tried to find the worst recorded material, only to find the made these recordings sound great, too. This earns this combo my highest praise. The new EMM Labs TSD1/DAC2 combo is the best player of digital media of all time. This is undeniably an expensive combo, but if you have the system to match and want the best sound possible, you owe it to yourself to listen to the TSD1 and DAC2. They will redefine what you should expect from digital playback. I know they did for me; I loved them so much I bought them rather then send them back when the review was done.