Meitner on the EMM DV2, DSD, MQA, & Digital Audio

Imagine my surprise while I was preparing my review of the EMM Labs DV2 D/A processor in this issue, EMM Labs' manager of production and social media, Amadeus Meitner, informed me that what I'd thought would be a one-on-one chat with his father, EMM Labs founder and CEO Ed Meitner, would also involve himself and EMM's managing engineer of the past 15 years, Mariusz Pawlicki. Once all three had come to the phone, however, information flowed more or less smoothly. My first question was what makes the DV2 special?

Ed Meitner: It sounds good. At the end of the day, that's what matters. Rarely a product of ours becomes old. It's always upgradeable, because we control everything about it.

Jason Victor Serinus: Besides the addition of a volume control, what is the difference in the DA2's and DV2's DAC architectures?

Amadeus Meitner: The DV2 is an evolution of the DA2. Mariusz and his team developed the volume control, and we were able to integrate it into the DV2, along with hardware updates on the analog side.

EM: There are some people who don't have any or want any analog sources [such as a preamp]. They need a DAC that has a volume control.

JVS: Do you work with chips, or . . . ?

EM: We make our own DAC from discrete components. We don't use any chips.

Mariusz Pawlicki: There are various components, including FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays]. However, we don't use any commercial DAC chip. The very core is not a typical market solution. We have various semiconductors; it's Ed's unique digital architecture. Every piece is unique to EMM.

EM: There is something fundamentally wrong with a commercially available DAC chip, no matter who makes it. The life of that chip is very limited, because they're building it to go into mass-produced consumer products rather than high-end components. When you totally rely on a chip that is only available for a limited amount of time, you can never evolve a product over years and years and years. But when you roll your own, you're free to do what you want as time goes on and you want to expand the product further and further. That was my path in this business, and I've done it pretty much without looking at what the rest of the crowd is up to and doing.

MP: Perhaps the DV2's core technology is that it's a 1-bit converter. Our conversion philosophy calls for true native single-bit conversion from digital to analog. Deep inside the DAC, the very conversion point is the equivalent of 16 times DSD, which is a very, very high sampling rate.

JVS: I don't see any mention of upsampling, which is done automatically in the CH Precision I1 integrated amplifier and the dCS Rossini DAC.

EM: They're working with multi-bit DACs, which is a different thing altogether. Ours is a single-bit DAC that runs at a very, very high clock frequency, like 90MHz, which means that it upsamples everything to much, much more than 352.8 or 384kHz.

JVS: You don't believe in using an external word clock. Why?

EM: Because I think this is the most stupid thing I've ever heard in the audio business. That means you have a precision clock that you have to connect to a wire to connect to a DAC, when the clock should be straight away where it belongs, inside the DAC, beside the DAC chip, if there is such a thing—not through a cable in a different box. This is so idiotic, it's not even funny. It's a money grab.

JVS: I believe one of the arguments for an external clock is that it offers better shielding from power supplies, and will thus operate better.

EM: Yeah, especially with units [that] have a separate power supply. There's a lot of shielding there. The whole thing is funny.

MP: In our DACs, the reference clock is inside the product and an inherent part of the conversion circuitry. Anything that comes from the outside world, on whatever input we select, is buffered and reclocked, so we don't have to worry about the artifacts of an external clock. Everything is reclocked to our internal reference. That's what we mean by asynchronous clock design.

JVS: dCS gets around how high a signal you can reliably convey over single AES by using a dual-AES connenction. You, instead, have chosen USB. What is your thinking behind that?

MP: This is, in principle, a consumer product, and consumer audio and network audio have taken over. From a consumer point of view, USB is fundamental in terms of getting high-resolution content, including DSD and MQA, into a DAC. USB is the principal computer audio input.

MQA tries to solve the problem of transporting high-resolution PCM audio at limited bandwidth/sampling rate by transporting it to the consumer at 1fs-equivalent bit rate. Later, MQA reconstructs the signal to higher resolution at the converter, saving the bandwidth over the network. From an audio-quality point of view, it is progress if we keep in mind that you want to restrict the data rate while transporting most of the high-resolution original. [The] MQA encoding system does that.

MQA does not claim to reconstruct high-resolution data perfectly. The intent is to deliver a high-resolution audio signal that is perceptually very close to the original high-resolution content. MQA involves signal processing that hides information in audio noise. Therefore, MQA is not data-lossless. Perceptually, however, it is almost lossless, and enables 2fs and 4fs material to be transmitted by a 1fs system. It offers a tremendous advantage if we compare it with CD audio, which is built on 1fs-equivalent bandwidth.

JVS: Ed, how do you feel about how Sony dropped the SACD?

EM: I can tell you why it's a niche product. When Sony and Philips got together, they were desperate to get coupon clipping going because the [Compact Disc's] "Red Book" patent ran out, so no more coupons. They were desperate to do something new. Philips had Bitstream, which was based on 192fs single-bit, and Sony had nothing. So they decided to make a dual-layer disc, with six channels on one layer and two-channel PCM on the other layer. But in a single-bit system, especially the way it was done, no matter what you do, there is a lot of out-of-band noise that a lot of analog gear in the studios doesn't like. So that was difficult to get started.

Then, the big flaw was that the music industry doesn't have much money, or if it did have money, it didn't want to spend it. So they weren't interested in a new format. Furthermore, the format didn't support 48kHz, so they couldn't approach the movie people, who had the money and were interested in SACD. The whole thing was a big kerfuffle that was ill-conceived. Copy protection and how quickly they could get it to produce money from royalties, again, were more important than the quality. Now there's no more copy protection, and people are removing copy protection so you can put it online and download it. Nobody was ready for another format.

The other thing was their fight against DVD-A, a format that could better fit into video, which was Warner Bros. with their big catalog. The video part was ignored by SACD—instead, video came out on Blu-ray.

By the time you're at 2fs in the digital domain, you're cool. The only time you want the 1-bit is just at the conversion, at that singularity where analog comes together with digital, because 1-bit doesn't give you any errors. But in the computer as a machine, where you can [do] mathematics and signal processing, SACD is about as alien as it gets. So if you look at the Workstation, they'll convert it to high PCM rate and do the mathematics and signal conversion in PCM, and then convert it back to 1-bit. It's only the conversion where it matters.

JVS: In some quarters, there's rivalry among DSD, PCM, and PCM-based MQA. What do you want to say about those different formats and—

EM: Bullshit. It's just disruptive. You have one format where it's demonstrated that if you have your chops and learn about it, you can have good audio. PCM is readily available in chips; hence, it lives. I don't know where the rivalry comes from, because whoever uses DSD DACs? It's all chips. So I don't understand the rivalry. I don't get it. The only place that matters is right at the conversion point from analog to digital and digital to analog. About the rest, I could care less. The rest doesn't matter. The rest is bits.

Postscript: After our conversation had concluded, I regretted not asking for clarification when Amadeus had said, "The idea of music is not a selling point for Ed. He is really interested in audio, which is a completely different concept, believe it or not." When I e-mailed Amadeus about this, he brought my question to Ed, then got back to me:

AM: Ed is passionate about taking audio technology to the highest level of performance possible. The fact that you use it to play music is only secondary. In our business, we have to accommodate every type of sound, so using music to develop a product is not our primary focus. In Ed's belief, we are in the sound business, not the music business. I believe that he makes this distinction because of his direct involvement in the music business in the past, and the difference in the design work that he does now.

13DoW's picture

"There is something fundamentally wrong with a commercially available DAC chip, no matter who makes it". I understand that you might want to design your own DAC architecture, and kudos for doing so, but to damn all other DACs as fundamentally wrong seems a little, perhaps, arrogant.
External clocks are the stupidest thing and a money grab - no words minced there (and this time I agree with EM).

Archimago's picture

Not only arrogant, but a real "turn off" as I think many audiophiles will either feel angered or laugh at that claim with nothing else to go by.

If truly there is something "fundamentally" wrong, perhaps as a good scientist/engineer, EM should demonstrate the issue rather than use such dramatic and inflammatory words. Perhaps then he can altruistically inform the industry and improve sound quality for all audiophiles.

@JVS: Looks like another postscript you should follow up on?

T.S. Gnu's picture

I believe that there is a bit of confusion regarding Ed’s intent with his statement, and this may be alleviated by the judicious use of the punctuation below:

‘There is something fundamentally wrong with a commercially available DAC chip, no matter who makes it — the life of that chip is very limited, because they're building it to go into mass-produced consumer products rather than high-end components.”

Ed is referring to the notion that the chips have a finite production run, and that as a designer he does not wish to be bound to the schedule of an external entity. He is stating that, as a designer, he sees it as being fundamentally wrong have dependence on another entity when one is looking at a product design that may evolve over a period longer than the availability of a commercial DAC chip. He is not implying that there is anything fundamentally wrong in the design of a commercial chip, but rather that he philosophically views at ad fundamentally wrong to design with the dependence on any chip that may be discontinued due to factors beyond the control of the designer of said circuit/component/product.

A great example of this issue is the situation which Nelson Pass found himself in with the SIT chip from SemiSouth. Nelson designed the most elegant circuits in the SIT-1 and SIT-2 amps which were produced in limited numbers so that he could have some spares for possible repairs. Once the reliability of the two products was established, he was content to use the stash of spares in the SIT-3 amp. However, he can no longer pursue an evolutionary design path or even an innovative design with this brilliant chip much though he may wish to because SemiSouth is defunct. Nelson used the SIT in his "hobbyist" First Watt endeavours mainly to satiate his curiosity and pursuit of very simple circuits, so this isn’t a bad turn of events in the grand scheme of things since the SIT based products were always meant to be very limited in number.

Ed is pretty opinionated and relatively blunt in his use of language, but he isn’t referring to commercial DAC chips as being technically flawed; it’s just that he is, with perhaps poor phrasing, stating that he sees designing with a built-in dependence on something that may disappear is fundamentally flawed.
i.e. There is something fundamentally wrong with a commercially available DAC chip, no matter who makes it...because they can stop making it at any time.

Archimago's picture

That certainly makes a heck of a lot more sense than a "straight reading" that makes EM come across as a more than a little arrogant...

tonykaz's picture

I just re-read these two Meitner reports for the third time in 15 days. I keep getting lost and confused.

I'm suggesting that the writing does not describe the technology being presented.

While I struggled to build an useful understanding, I notice an Advertisement for an Audioquest Firefly ( somebody's Audio Product of the Year ) .

Jason's two if's vs. SACD's unlikely future has me wondering why Stereophile is bothering to look at this device or at those silly $15,000 US Dollars worth of Mono Phono Cartridges?

If HighEnd Audio as niche as all this, it's no wonder our families make us put this gear in the Garage or Basements.

Tony in Michigan

Anton's picture

I installed MQA on my computer and now the picture is much higher resolution!

I was like lifting a veil!

tonykaz's picture

I just now resorted to PS Audio for help understanding the significance of these two formats.

Turns out that PS Audio converts PCM to this format because the Sound Quality improvement is significant. PS Audio also houses a DSD Recording Studio.

So I'm coming around to a better grasp.

Thanks to JVS and Meitner for trying enlighten this Format.

Tony in Michigan