EMM Labs CDSA SE Stereo SACD Player
The gold standard!
By Phil Gold
I'm going to say upfront that
this machine is capable of the best digital sound it has been my pleasure
to hear, the best by some margin. It will open your eyes to the stunning
potential of SACD, so often hidden by mediocre implementations, and can go
head to head with exotic vinyl spinners for ultimate fidelity. There is no
aural sugar coating, artificial warmth or hyped up dynamics designed to
impress in the showroom. This is the real McCoy — a machine dedicated to
extracting the maximum accuracy from a two channel SACD signal. But it is
not the user-friendliest piece of equipment, it won't do multi-channel or
DVD-Audio, and who knows where SACD is heading!
Interested? Read on....
It isn't the most expensive SACD player, although at
$9,995 it may be the most expensive two-channel-only SACD one box player
after the dCS P8i ($13,995). Until now, to put together EMM's complete
digital source you would have had to combine their SACD Transport, the
CDSD SE ($8,400), and either the DCC2 SE two channel DAC/Preamp ($13,500)
or the 6-Channel DAC6e SE (also $13,500), for a total of $21,900 either
way. So the CDSA SE may turn out to be something of a steal if you really
want the EMM Labs sound.
Why is this one box player so much less expensive than
have all the features of the separates —
you are losing either a spectacular preamp or 4 channels.
one chassis instead of two. This also saves you the cost of cables between
the transport and DAC.
connection between transport and DAC can be greatly simplified when both
are built into one chassis.
far fewer rear panel connectors to support and no digital inputs.
transport is a less sophisticated version of the one in the CDSD SE.
If you are only interested in two-channel music, you
like the performance of this one-box player and you already have a preamp
you are happy with, I don't see the downside.
box itself is quite big and heavy, 15.7 x 5.5 x 17.1 (DxHxW in inches),
weighing a total of 26.5 lbs. This makes it a tight fit in my rack, but I
have it nicely balanced on a Sound Fusion CD Platform for optimal
mechanical isolation. The unit is quite handsome, although no match for
the superb styling and finish of the Esoteric range or the other high
priced Japanese components that find their way to these shores. A large
LED display makes viewing easy from my listening position, with the
exception of some unevenly lit messages showing the repeat status or which
layer of a hybrid disc is being played.
What's in the box? The drive unit is a Philips unit, a
simplified variant of the one in the stellar CDSD SE Transport. Redbook
upsampling to a 5.6448MHz DSD bitstream comes courtesy of a Meitner
Digital Audio Translator (MDAT) circuit. MDAT examines the transient
nature of the signal and chooses instantaneously from a selection of
available conversion algorithms. The dual differential DACs are a
proprietary discrete design since Ed is not satisfied with the limitations
in integrated circuits of capacitor design and control of power supply
fluctuations. His discrete approach may be much more expensive to produce
and takes up more real estate but only this way can he avoid the
differential non-linearities he claims exist in all D/A chips. Even the
circuit boards are special, constructed of aerospace grade composite
laminate for low dielectric loss and improved heat conduction for smooth
temperature gradients and improved stability over time. Microscopically
smooth copper traces are used top and bottom to reduce skin effect issues.
I'm not a particularly happy camper here. I'm not fond
of the rows of identical looking buttons on the EMM's faceplate. I don't
much like the slow loading times, although many SACD players suffer a
similar fate, and some do much worse. It takes between 13 and 15 seconds
for the music to start playing from the time you press Play with a
disc in the open drawer. This is due to the low-level behavior of the
drive controller, which is beyond EMM's control. More distressing is the
complete lack of feedback for the instructions you key into the backlit
remote control. Normally, when you punch in a track number you can see the
digits show up on the unit's display panel, but not here. Five seconds may
pass before anything happens, and then the music starts playing the
desired track well before the display updates to tell you what's playing.
The remote is a substantial, well laid out plastic wand, and includes
useful buttons for phase and layer change.
You can turn off the display but I could hear no
difference in sound either way. Dimming the display is not an option. The
readout looks more like a scientific instrument (which it is) than usual,
with track times shown in an unusual format 0.06.18 meaning 6 minutes and
18 seconds into the track. On most players you can select from a range of
different ways to monitor the time elapsed or remaining, by track or by
disc, but this machine offers no choice at all. If the disc is playing it
shows you the track number and elapsed time on this track, otherwise it
shows you the number of tracks and the length of the disc. I found these
ergonomic limitations surprising, so I discussed this with the engineers
at EMM Labs.
It seems Ed Meitner believes the presence of the normal
microprocessor that implements the control logic in almost every other
player has a detrimental effect on the sound, so he has discarded it in
favor of a much simpler Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). The
advantage here is the removal of the continuous clock, which may have an
adverse effect on the other circuits. The clock need only be activated
when necessary so that functional blocks can remain in a quiescent state
when not required. This FPGA is capable of reacting to only a few simple
commands and does not have sufficient capacity to show the numbers being
pressed on the keypad. Instead, it can just show the track that is now
playing. This explains the relatively primitive display and control
options, and Ed believes the sonic benefits are worth the sacrifice in
utility. Now it all makes sense, and provided the player is still simple
enough to control and the sound does indeed surpass the competition, this
decision can be supported.
A Perreaux Radiance R200i and a Valve Audio Predator
were used in my tests with my reference Nordost Valhalla cabling
throughout, occasionally switching over to top of the line Crystal Cable
Ultra power cords and EMM Isopath Interconnects. The very revealing Wilson
Benesch Act 1s with updated drivers and Bybee Quantum Purifiers completed
the system. The Predator (a hybrid integrated amp with a tube preamp
section and a 200wpc MOSFET power amp) is not sufficiently resolving and
dynamic to release the full dynamic potential of the CDSA but the solid
state Perreaux makes a great partner.
Now for the acid test.
Part 1: Redbook on the EMM versus Redbook on the
The Meridian G08 makes it very hard for other CD Players
that come my way for review. It's so eminently musical, dynamic, involving
and spacious. If I hadn't heard its big brother, the 808 Signature
Reference, I'd have a hard time naming its better.
The EMM Labs comfortably exceeds the performance of the
G08 by providing higher resolution, increased dynamics and a bigger,
deeper and more precisely located image.
Joan Baez's Diamonds and Rust [Vanguard VCD3-127]
can overwhelm with its high energy and many layers of detail. The G08 is
full of color, weight and detail and the famous voice is present and far
from thin as through lesser players. Low-level detail can be heard easily
in the mix and the music swells and thrills. The EMM throws a larger image
where each instrument is more precisely located, and the level of detail
is even higher. Perhaps it is just easier to make out fine details because
the acoustic space is so large that the sounds do not run into each other.
Most notably, the bass line is stronger and the voice is even more rich
and intimate. A sensational performance from both machines, with a clear
edge going to the EMM.
The same verdict applies to the magnificent Haitink
recording of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony [DECCA 425066 2]. Each
machine brings its own special qualities. The Meridian majors in dynamics,
color and speed, while the EMM trumps the Meridian on detail, openness,
depth and beauty of string tone. There is a wonderful sense of purity to
the EMM's sound, and this is very effective in making sense of the
blinding crescendos that can so easily turn to mush in lesser hands. I
particularly enjoy the delicate layering which the EMM reveals in the
textures of the orchestral playing and the startling bite of the brass.
Each machine is capable of terrifying you in this music (most CD players
cannot), but the EMM makes more sense of the brilliant orchestration due
to its altogether remarkable imaging.
Beethoven Piano Sonata Opus 32 No. 1, played by Alfred
Brendel [Philips 438 134-2] has humor, passion and virtuosity by turns.
All of this is well demonstrated by the Meridian, with its excellent
timing, black backgrounds and strong dynamics. The long reverberation of
the grand piano is captured perfectly, as is the voicing Brendel gives to
each part. This is an extremely musical performance and it sounds like
Brendel is improvising, so fresh is his music making. Bass notes sound
clear and from middle C on up the piano sings. The EMM takes this one step
further. It allows you to hear the separate strands more clearly, and it
ruthlessly reveals Brendel's hard piano tone, a far cry from the beautiful
sound a Rubinstein brings to Beethoven. The Meridian may sound more
elegant, but I've heard Brendel in the flesh many times, so I know the EMM
is more accurate.
I spent a lot of time comparing Redbook on these two
machines, because the EMM is a candidate to be my new reference digital
source. Since I have so many excellent CDs any new reference will have to
be clearly superior to the G08 on Redbook. So I pulled out dozens of CD,
never once failing to prefer the EMM. I noticed a stronger deep bass, a
more open and refined top end, outstanding low level detail and the
blackest of backgrounds.
In short, a clear win for the EMM.
Part 2: Redbook on the EMM versus Redbook on the
Can the EMM top the Meridian 808 Signature Reference CD
Player on Redbook? The 808 improves on every one of the G08's fine audio
qualities and is certainly the best CD player I have ever heard. It has
presence, authority, explosive dynamics, extremely high resolution,
lightning responses — it simply brings music to life. It certainly
should at $12,995.
I don't have the 808 on hand so I'll have to go by
memory, with the help of my detailed listening notes. The CDSE SA comes
very close to toppling the 808 from its position as the CD player of
choice. It edges past the 808 on purity of sound and deep bass extension,
but cannot quite match its relaxed easy nature or its power and immediacy.
It may be more accurate than the Meridian, but accuracy to a 44.1kHz/16-bit
signal is not the same as accuracy to the original performance. On Redbook
the little bit of extra warmth the Meridian offers is welcome and tips the
scale in its favor.
I could happily live with either but I'll give the edge
to the Meridian 808.
Part 3: SACD on the EMM versus Redbook CD on the
This will be a very short section.
On every well-recorded SACD disc in my collection, the
SACD layer proved clearly superior to the Meridian G08's Redbook. It's not
even close. The EMM is at once more precise, more responsive and rich, so
that you very quickly lose the appetite for A/B testing. I am surprised to
be writing these words, since SACD has never fully convinced me before
now. Sure, the bass is exceptional, and I like the detail, but I've often
found the treble unconvincing and the music to have lost some of its
excitement. I've blamed the medium and remained happy with my vast
collection of CDs.
Today I've changed my mind. The problem was never the
medium itself, just the rather the particular implementations I've heard
from the Esoteric DV-50, the Sony SCD-XA9000ES, the modified Denon 5900,
and the McCormack UDP that have spent significant amounts of time in my
system and the various other players I've auditioned more briefly.
Part 4: SACD on the EMM versus Redbook CD on the EMM.
SACD on the EMM sounds quite different from CD on the
EMM. After auditioning a string of machines whose SACD performance was
only modestly better than that from CD, this comes as quite a shock.
Although certain sonic characteristics are common to both layers here,
specifically the high level of definition and the exemplary imaging, CD
sounds nowhere near as good as SACD on this beast. And why should it? SACD
boasts a bit-rate of 2,822,400 bps while Redbook checks in at 705,600 bps,
quite a difference. For comparison purposes 24-bit/96kHz clocks in at
2,304,000 bps — nearly as high as the DSD stream.
The SACD layer is much more palpable and present than
the CD layer. Intimacy is increased, the bass line is firmer and more
defined, the top more open, the detail greater, the image more realistic.
Every aspect of performance is improved, and improved markedly. Now it is
easy to understand why people fuss over their inconvenient analog
turntables rather than switch to the ubiquitous CD. CD is an approximation
to the analog signal and so of course is SACD. But SACD is a much better
approximation and therefore more faithful to the original sound. Good
enough to challenge vinyl head on and miles ahead in convenience. I'm not
saying the CDSA puts vinyl to shame or competes with analog master tape.
Let's just say it is much harder to dismiss digital on principle when it
sounds like this.
Game, set and match to the EMM.
Part 5 – SACD on the EMM
Forget about A/B testing. Let's concentrate on SACD exclusively. There's no better place to start than MAonSA, a compilation disc put together using
Holland's Crystal Cables by the Japanese/American specialty label MA Recordings using very simple high quality microphones to record small groups or soloists onto PCM at sample rates from 24-bit/96kHz to 24-bit/174.6kHz. So this is not a native DSD recording, but the conversion to DSD has been done superbly. The piano on track 2 is the most realistic I have ever heard. There is no temptation to compare with the Redbook layer on this hybrid CD since MA has encoded completely different selections onto the CD layer.
Many SACDs fall well short and are downright
disappointing. Bob Dylan's 60s recordings are thin and lacking in detail
and texture and the same goes for The Rolling Stones. Nora Jones' first
album [Blue Note 5414728] is a joke — the DSD Stereo layer being derived
from a Redbook source. Blood Sweat and Tears SACD only album [Columbia
63986] leaves me cold. I've had great recordings from Channel Classics,
Mobile Fidelity, IsoMike, Analog Productions, ASV, Telarc and Artegra,
while Columbia, Abkco and Blue Note have sometimes disappointed. Ideally
you should look for an original DSD recording, but there are many fine
recordings dating back to the days of analog recording.
Clearly Mr. Meitner is on to something. What is his
secret sauce? Is it the absence of a microprocessor, the discrete DACs,
the power supply, the transport, the output stage? Is it the fine-tuning
or fundamental design principles? I can't tell for sure, but I can give
you some clues. His colleagues tell me that Ed Meitner likes to think like
an electron, and designs his circuitry from the electron's point of view. If
I were an audio signal, what would make my passage through this analog
circuit as happy as possible? Listening tests are the final stage, and
Ed has a very good sense of how those tests will turn out before they
begin, because he has calculated and measured the performance of the
circuit in advance.
primary concern in his designs is preservation of the phase
characteristics of the signal. If you get this right, the imaging will be
spot on and the output has a chance to sound like music should sound. Add
high resolution, low distortion, tonal accuracy, black backgrounds and
broad bandwidth and you're nearly home. But a number of high end
components still fall down in the areas of dynamic range and transient
response. You need a broad dynamic range with headroom for the most
massive crescendos and you need lightning reflexes to capture the
excitement and tactile feel of live music. To achieve this requires the
most careful attention to the power supply and the independent regulation
and isolation of the various digital and control circuits. The CDSA SE has
all these qualities in spades, giving true meaning to the much misused
expression high fidelity.
Some will prefer a smoother or warmer SACD sound; others
may prefer the dynamics reduced a little for more comfortable listening.
They may be happier with an Accuphase or Audio Aero. EMM Labs makes no
concessions in this area, aiming only for the purest possible reproduction
of the original recording. This component does not romanticize the music
in the least, and is also very revealing of inferior recordings and flawed
components. You need to partner it with high resolution, wide bandwidth,
low distortion equipment to do it justice.
The CDSA SE has to be in very front rank of CD Players
regardless of cost. It will do wonders for detail retrieval, imaging and
accuracy complete with a fully realized bottom end and open top on the
best Redbook recordings. Its failings are those of the medium itself. As
to SACD, this is as good as digital gets, and far better than any Redbook
CD you will ever hear.
Not a mass market product, but clearly an exceptional
achievement and a challenge to vinyl lovers everywhere. Meet my new
reference digital source.
Type: Digital disc player and transport
Disc Formats: Redbook CD, Stereo SACD, MP3
Digital Outputs: AES / EBU - PCM
DACs: Proprietary Dual Differential DAC Circuit
Analog Output: Unbalanced (RCA), Balanced (XLR) - Pin 2 hot
Output Impedance: 50 ohms (RCA), 100 ohms (XLR)
Output Level (low): 4V (XLR), 2V (RCA)
Output Level (high): 7.2V (XLR), 3.6V (RCA)
CD upsampling: MDAT technology converts to 5.6MHz DSD
System Connections: Infrared remote and RS232
Software Upgrades: Via rear USB port
Power Cable: Kimber Kable PK14 (6ft) included
Dimensions: 17.1 x 15.7 x 5.5 (WxDxH in
Weight: 26.5 lbs
Warranty: 5 yrs (except drive - 1 yr), original owner
EMM Labs Inc
119 - 5065 13th Street S.E.
Canada T2G 5M8
Voice: (403) 225-4161
Fax: (403) 225-2330