Meitner MA3 Integrated D/A processor

Music lovers (and reviewers) long for those listening moments when their entire being lights up with joy. For me, that divine spark surfaced unexpectedly one February afternoon when, late for an appointment, I dashed into the music room, searching for my keys. That's when I heard a bit of the 24/96 WAV files of this issue's Recording of the Month, conductor Andris Nelsons's mammoth survey of the complete orchestral works of Richard Strauss, which I'd cued up on repeat to help Meitner's MA3 integrated D/A converter ($10,500) settle in. I didn't know which of Nelsons's two orchestras, the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, was playing—what was clear, even from the hallway, was the glorious, silken smoothness of the strings. Those strings sounded so heavenly, so right, and so absolutely in tune with what a superb conductor can bring forth from the finest orchestras that I immediately knew my time with the MA3 would be a treat.

What it is
The MA3 is manufactured in Canada by Meitner Audio, the lower-priced brand of digital audio pioneer Ed Meitner's EMM Labs. A trickledown product derived from EMM's DV2 Integrated Converter ($30,000) and flagship DA2 V2 Stereo D/A Converter (also $30,000), the MA3 uses the same fully discrete, one-bit DAC circuit, with an internal conversion rate of 16×DSD (alternatively described as DSD1024); incoming data is upsampled to that frequency—1024 × "Red Book's" 44.1kHz—then converted bit by bit. Meitner/EMM's DSD technology stems from the company's work with Sony/Philips to refine the SACD's possibilities through innovations in DSD recording, mastering, and playback (footnote 1).

"Integrated" means that the MA3 has a volume control—the same "VControl" used in the DV2. VControl works in the digital realm but is said to maintain the input signal without requantization; the result, EMM/Meitner claims, is "complete transparency at any volume setting, wide attenuation range, and no loss of audio resolution." The MA3 can do one important thing that the DV2 cannot: stream music from a network-attached storage device (NAS) or streaming service via its RJ45 (Ethernet) input. What services? The MA3 supports Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, Deezer, and VTuner internet radio. The MA3 is certified Roon Ready, so it can effortlessly pair with an external Roon streamer/server such as a Nucleus+.

The MA3 supports PCM up to 24/192 and base-rate DSD (DSD64) at all its inputs. Its USB input supports PCM up to DXD frequencies (352.8/384kHz) and twice the basic DSD rate (DSD128) via DoP. At its USB and network inputs, it fully decodes MQA. MA3 can also play files stored on a USB stick plugged in to the "USB Media" port on the rear panel.

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The MA3's MFAST high-speed asynchronous jitter removal technology is said to work in tandem with the company's custom-built MCLK clock to completely remove jitter "from all digital sources." (footnote 2)

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While the DAC circuits in both the DV2, DA2 V2 Stereo D/A Converter, and MA3 are identical, the analog architecture of the MA3 has a slightly different implementation. The circuit board material, which is a big part of the cost, is less expensive in the MA3.

Another expensive difference: In the DV2, more of the parts are hand selected. "There was no need to change the circuit, because those parts are 'jellybean parts'," Ed Meitner said during a Skype chat that also included R&D Manager Mariusz Pawlicki and Operations Manager Amadeus ("Deus") Meitner. "You can't save money by changing them." Body construction differs, and "mechanical simplification" has lowered costs. Because the MA3 has less constrained tolerances and fewer inputs, the input implementation is less costly. It also uses a custom, fine-tuned OEM power supply rather than the DV2's proprietary switch-mode supply. According to Meitner, that proprietary power supply delivers more current with less noise and features "better isolation from primary to secondary, ie, between power received from the wall and power supplied to the DAC circuits."

"The MA3 will deliver DV2 quality with minor perceptible differences," Pawlicki told me.

Which input is best? "Up to 4Fs, the inputs should sound the same. They all converge on the same signal path. The exception is the USB, which can do higher sample rates. Obviously, the preference would be to listen to as high a sample rate as possible through USB.

"For the price, I think the MA3 is the best DAC we have so far. It's a new entrance point into what we're about."

Ed Meitner elaborated further. "The DV2 and DA2 are experiments in how much performance we can achieve and how far we can push it. When we received confirmation from the industry measurement guru John Atkinson that our homegrown DAC can be as good [as] or better than any of the other industry-designed DACs, we took control of the main component in a DAC system—the DAC chip—to lower the price and produce the MA3. In the future, we may offer A-to-D conversion in a new product."

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Reflections
Since they raised the subject, I asked how they felt about measurements. "There is a reason for measurement up to the point that you reach a certain level of what I call 'hygiene,'" Ed Meitner said. "Beyond that, you need to perform a voicing that produces 10 octaves of sound. It will always come down to the sound you hear. The measurement is the 'hygiene,' and the listening is the final performance. Only after that do we put our name to it. We hope that we make as transparent a sound—I would say 'no sound'—as possible. We are in the anticoloration business.

"I think some people think that a microphone hears the same way as our ears. So, we have these room correction devices that fool you into believing that they create the perfect listening environment because the microphone tells you so. The same thing happens when you look at your distortion analyzer or whatever makes you think you're okay. You're far from okay.

"There are sonic differences that cannot be measured. I won't say they will never be able to be measured, but as far as we know, there's no current measurements that will guarantee sound. I can give you an example. When solid state amplifiers came on the scene, people hated the sound because they used maximum power distortion measurements [to gauge success]. But all the problems were at zero-crossing distortion, which was a measurement that wasn't really included. As the level was going down, the distortion was going up relative to it. So, it was only after listening that the measurement was finally included. "There will always be a new measurement that will be discovered. For example, the effect of jitter was initially ignored."

Pawlicki delivered the second part of the EMM/Meitner one-two punch. "To reinforce Ed's statement, all the typical classical measurements in audio typically involve steady-state sinewave tests. Music, however, has ... transients and continuous changes. Part of EMM's philosophy is to take care of the constant transients with the MDAT circuit. Of course, we perform the steady-state hygiene measurements to ensure that it always works. But the constantly changing transient part, which is music, needs to be treated a bit differently. That has been our philosophy from the very beginning. To this day, people ignore how continual changes to the signal—transients—are handled in real circuits."

Consistent with EMM's core philosophy, the MA3 is a "lifetime product," citing 16-year-old EMM DACs that are still in use. The MA3, Meitner said, can be continually upgraded.

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Transitions and strategy
The MA3 arrived during a transitional period for my two considerably more expensive digital references, EMM Labs' one-piece DV2 and the two-piece dCS (Digital Conversion Systems) Rossini Series 2.0 DAC ($26,000)/Clock ($9000) combination. Both companies were poised to move their technology a step further. EMM Labs' upgrades remain under development, for both its top-line EMM and lower-priced Meitner products. Release dates are uncertain. However, just before I began this review, EMM insisted on upgrading my reference DV2—an early production model that I received just in time for the review I wrote in late 2018—to "in-between status." In retrospect, I understand why. Because the MA3 was released well over a year after my DV2 was manufactured, it shares the sonic signature of current production DV2s. That sound is noticeably different from the darker, more contained sound I heard from the early DV2.


Footnote 1: EMM Labs manufactured more than 100 mobile professional recording systems, including a "Sonoma" DAW (digital audio workstation) with multichannel EMM ADC-8 and DAC-8 converters, which have been used worldwide to record, master, and publish the majority of SACDs. It also manufactured the "Switchman" preamplifier and various D/A converters. Having developed the first complete multichannel DSD playback system from disc to preamplifier, EMM claims that almost every new SACD is made by using its DSD converters somewhere in the production chain.

Footnote 2: Founder/President Ed Meitner received a patent in 1993 for describing the phenomenon that produces program-related jitter and explaining how to remove accumulated music-correlated jitter by reclocking an audio datastream. EMM Labs Director of Sales Shahin Al Rashid told me in an email, "Although re-clocking is now widely used, Ed is chagrined that it is often implemented ineffectively by not following the patent completely. The central point in Ed's patent that is often missed is that because jitter is propagated and amplified through power-supply interactions, each clock-generator and clock-distribution circuit, as well as every re-clocker chip, must have its own stable power-supply, individually regulated and separate from the system power supply." In 2012, Ed Meitner developed the first DACs with sub-picosecond (or femtosecond) clock jitter in their reference clock oscillators.

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COMMENTS
Archimago's picture

Interesting results John and thanks for Footnote 2.

Curious if over the years you have an idea of how this IDAT filter routing works in the modern DACs. Given the age of the technology (since 1993), if it's similar in implementation, it likely isn't anything complex.

I wonder based on these measurements if all it is is a detection of when you're just sending the DAC a single sine tone like the 19kHz, 1kHz, and 50Hz 0dBFS measurements. It then implements a steep FIR in order to achieve that -120dB image suppression as shown in the 19kHz graph.

Anything else more complex like the 19+20kHz CCIF (Figure 12, which is still very much "continuous") will just be treated with what basically looks like a straight forward linear interpolation resampler.

Related to this is the question of the latency between switching filters. Most of the time it must be just using the linear interpolation. And on the occasional time when it detects a constant tone, it then switches to the steep FIR filter. I wonder how many cycles it takes to detect and switch!? Would be very interesting to know within a piece of music just how frequently this filter switching takes place (if even ever in real music!).

Indydan's picture

Would it be possible for JVS to write just one review in which he doesn't dry hump MQA? Geez....

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

for Jason to state his honest feelings about MQA without some people feeling the need to oppose his viewpoint?

ayang90's picture

Thanks for the review of the MA3. I am in the process of looking for a new Roon ready DAC and a quality MQA implementation is important to me. Definitely going to audition the Meitner MA3.

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