If you have the patience, Iíll take you through each
of these in turn. All of them are important to the sound and some of them
include strikingly original design elements.
The box must provide a stable platform
for the drive mechanism and facilitate isolation of each of the major
subsystems from the others. The XDS1 retains the same reasonably compact
dimensions as the CDSA, but the bottom plate is now a thick slab of milled
aluminum instead of sheet metal. The feet, which include a mechanical
isolator, are machined from aluminum blocks. Improved shielding between
the components extends even to the display panel. A quick look inside
reveals the modular approach taken to shield the electronic components
from the power supply and control mechanisms. The chassis is internally
braced and damped to eliminate resonance. The unit weighs a substantial
37.5 lbs, well up from the 26.5 lbs weight of the CDSA SE. You can select
either a silver or black finish.
Ed Meitner has always used switching
power supplies in his digital components. He maintains that they are
more efficient than linear power supplies and inject less interference on
the line that can travel back to other components. This incarnation is a
newer version of his classic design, aimed at minimizing noise levels.
Like its predecessors it has power factor correction (PFC), and in this
implementation it is the superior active form of PFC rather than the more
common passive form. The XDS1 has been tested and is CE compliant. The
power supply is now more impervious to the imperfections on the input
power line, so will likely be less cable sensitive. It now reaches 95%
efficiency, contributing to the cool running of the unit. To achieve the
desired quality, the transformers are custom wound. A high voltage rail is
created from the input line, and lower voltages are derived from this high
voltage line rather than directly from the input. This isolates the low
voltage power feeds from phenomena present on the line. Switching
frequencies are synched to the audio clock, since experiments have shown
this approach minimizes jitter (timing inaccuracies). All the low voltage
feeds are very tightly regulated to ensure optimal performance in the
signal path. A good proportion of the cost and the performance of the XDS1
can be directly attributed to this remarkable power supply, which sits to
the left and runs the full height of the chassis. Youíll see it labeled
EMM Labs X Power System SMPS v. 3.
For the first time, EMM Labs specify an
Esoteric VSOP drive unit, rather than the European drives used in earlier
models. The box marked EMM Labs X Drive Systems contains the Esoteric
control system and the drive itself is mounted centrally and offers a slim
metal drawer for the disc. This mechanism loads discs much faster than
before (around 6 seconds for CD and 10 seconds for SACD). It also responds
instantly to commands, a huge improvement over its predecessor. A similar
mechanism is found in the dCS Puccini CD / SACD Player and several other
high end players.
asynchronous input circuitry from the DAC 2 has been further refined in
the XDS1. Currently it supports only TosLink and AES/EBU at up to
24-bit/96kHz, but we can expect a firmware update (uploadable through the
USB service connection) to support 24/192 inputs in the near future.
Although often dismissed in the past as a lower quality connection, EMM
Labs assure me the TosLink input included here is a very high performance
device capable of superb low jitter communications if the transmitting
device is well implemented. It is galvanically isolating Ė a fancy way
of saying it isolates the ground from the ground in the source component.
This is an important factor in attaining high audio quality. By contrast a
USB2 connector can transfer a lot of noise from the source, particularly
if that source is a server or a desktop computer, although laptop
computers are generally much cleaner than either servers or desktops. The
digital inputs are housed on a small daughterboard, and it is possible
that an alternative input board may also be offered in future with a USB
input option capable of a full 192 kHz/24bit transfer rate. In fact, over
the life of the machine, EMM Labs may offer various upgrades, both
hardware and software, to keep the owners up to date. All inputs,
including from the internal Esoteric drive, use EMM Labsí proprietary
MFAST (Meitner Frequency Acquisition System) asynchronous input mechanism.
MFAST appeared first in the DAC2 and has been further refined for this
application. Used in place of the more familiar Phased Lock Loop (PLL),
MFAST eliminates jitter from the input stream rather than merely
attenuation it, and locks rapidly to the incoming signal.
EMM Labs have developed their own high
speed clock module, the MCLK-1, which they claim sets new records is sub-picosecond
jitter measurements. There is now general agreement that the reduction of
jitter is a key to maintaining phase coherency and special integrity or
the audio output and no expense has been spared here in this vital
component or its power supply. Unwilling to surrender its competitive
advantage, EMM Labs would only say the clock generator is not based on
crystals or atoms. In the interior picture, the central of the 3 large
modules on the upper circuit board is the MCLK-1 module.
Hereís a component that really didnít
need any improvement. Ed Meitnerís DAC (MDAC-1 module) is a fully
discreet, dual differential design which upsamples all signals to 5.6 MHz,
twice the frequency of the SACD standard. This DAC features a further
refinement of MDAT (Meitner Digital Audio Translator) processing, which
avoids both pre and post ringing and preserves all phase information.
Conventional DACs convert a digital signal to analog by passing it through
a reconstruction filter using interpolation to smooth the analog waveform,
which leads to a perfectly flat frequency response but errors in the time
domain which show up as audible ringing. MDAT works by dynamically
adapting to the transient nature of the musical signal Ė the exact
opposite of the traditional one-size-fits-all algorithm. There have been
some small changes in the DAC. Ed believes it is not possible to avoid
non-linearities in chip based DACs which is why he prefers the far more
expensive discreet component approach. The two converters are better
isolated from each other and they are fed by a higher quality power
supply. In the interior picture, the 2 modules on either side of the clock
module on the upper circuit board are the left and right MDAC-1 modules.
the biggest innovation over previous EMM Labs designs is the output stage.
Unlike the CDSA SE or DAC2, which use high quality op amps in a multi
stage output section, Ed Meitner wanted a single Class A output stage with
the shortest possible signal path. He achieved this by using discreet
components of the highest quality, combining all the necessary filtering,
buffering and amplification into that one stage. Simpler is better.
Virtually all CD players use a
microprocessor to control the user interface and display logic. EMM Labs
prefers to use instead a state machine. This has the advantage that it
does not introduce a new source of pollution into the system, but it is by
no means as flexible as a microprocessor can be. As a result, while we can
vary the display brightness to four levels, and have all the usual track
access and scan buttons, we can only see the track number and elapsed time
for this track. All the controls work very well and the display is very
readable at a distance, but the layout of the identical looking buttons
takes some getting used to. The remote control is a very nicely milled
aluminum device, a good step up from the plastic wand that accompanies the
CDSA SE. When asked why we couldnít have a more intuitive and ergonomic
interface, the answer I was given is the Ed does not like to inflate the
cost of his products on improvements that do not directly relate to the
Before we turn to the audio performance, let me point
out that this unit has a much more luxurious and responsive feel than the
CDSA SE, as befits its $25,000 price, and is a much more flexible unit by
virtue of its digital inputs, not available on the lower priced unit. Once
again Ed specifies aerospace-grade composite laminate circuit boards. The
picture does not reveal the presence of a second circuit board mounted
below the visible one. It contains the logic boards for the state machine,
the RS232, USB and external IR connections and other non audio path
componentry. On the back you have analog balanced (5V) and unbalanced
(2.5V) outputs, plus digital outputs over AES/EBU and EMM Labs high
resolution Optilink. The internal layout is so perfect itís a shame the
top cover is not a glass window so we could admire it from time to time.
The one thing missing is a high/low output switch. EMM Labs components are
often used in professional studios, and this switch was provided on
earlier models for matching studio requirements for high output. This
component is priced out of reach for such commercial applications, so this
switch is not longer required. The big question of course is whether it is
priced out of reach for audiophiles too. Certainly weíll need a lot more
than a more responsive remote control and some digital inputs to justify
the asking price. It will need to be a big musical step up from the CDSA
Unquestionably, the XDS1 is the SACD
player I have ever heard. The increase in realism over the already fine
CDSA SE leaves me at a loss for words. Donít worry, Iíll find a few
and put them down here for you, but let me simply say for now that this is
for me the new reference SACD player, and Iím just going to have to
trade in the CDSA SE and pack up the Linn Sondek LP12 because Iíve now
found what Iíve always been looking for, the absolutely convincing and
easy to use source component. Blacks are blacker, dynamic range is
unrestricted, frequency response as flat as a pancake and imaging
holographic. Music appears unfettered by all the usual imperfections.
Of course youíll need some dam good equipment to go
with it, but you can do astonishingly well with a pair of Sennheiser HD800
headphones and a really good head amp like the Graham Slee Solo for under
$3000. My speakers, the Wilson Benesch Act 1s have never sounded this good
before, aided and abetted by a Parasound JC-2 preamp and the latest
Bryston 4B amp, all wired together with Nordost Valhalla cables.
I didnít take as many notes as usual while listening,
because I kept getting carried away with the music, but Iíll give you
some highlights. Let me get the bad news out of the way first. One
recording which I had thought pretty highly of before, Ravelís Bolero
played by the Minnesota Orchestra under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski [MFSL
UDSACD 4002] turns out to have a number of the string players very
slightly out of tune. On previous plays the strings merged nicely
together, but the greater resolution proffered by the XDS1 reveals the
slight discord and sharply lowers my enjoyment. That one recording aside,
every other disc gave me new insights and increased musical thrills.
Hereís the play-by-play.
Ivan Fischer - Brahms
First Symphony [CCS SA 28309]
The XDS1 pulls furthest away from the CDSA SE on complex large scale
pieces where its higher resolution, stronger bass extension and improved
dynamics are most easily assessed. You can hear the hall itself, one
listener remarked. It is so hard to get the power of a symphony orchestra
in full cry into your living room without losing the precise imaging you
can get in smaller scale works, and without a softening of transients as
the volume level rises. What we get here is big time linearity, and
thatís what makes it all so convincing. What a performance!
Miles Davis Ė Kind
of Blue [CS 64935]
The improvements here are certainly more marginal, since the CDSA SE does
such a superb job already. Yes there are some small details I hadnít
noticed before, and the image is a little better defined, but if this is
the kind of music you like to listen to, I would not pay the extra.
Coleman Hawkins Ė The
Hawk Flies High [MFSL UDSACD 2030]
This disc again gains very little from the CDSA SE, which was doing it
full justice already. Itís a delight from start to finish on either
MA on SA
Small scale music but this time superbly recorded. The CDSA does a superb
job here but it is left in the dust by the XDS1 which reveals depths,
subtleties and tonal beauty the CDSA simply misses. The piano tone on
Gabriella Kaferís Chopin Barceuse
is fuller, darker and richer, better suiting the material. Paganiniís
Carnival of Venice is both more intricate and more dynamic than before
while Kalman Olahís Improvisation on
a Love Song, always a stand out, is now a peerless testimony to
how little the recording process can impinge on a live performance. The
perfectly black background and impeccable transient response and sustain
capture the improvisatory nature of this performance to the fullest.
The Beatles Ė Love
is simply stunning Ė every musical strand is strong and crystal clear, a
significant advance on the CDSA. Come
Together illustrates the extra bite in the deep octaves,
Paulís bass guitar being fully realized at last. While
My Guitar Gently Weeps is more beautiful than ever, lean and
powerful by turns.
Lilison Di Kinara -
This superb record full of African rhythms reveals sharper, faster funkier
music than ever before due to the increased level of focus and clarity at
the lowest frequencies and the outstanding clear, sweet and smooth treble.
Unlike the Bolero recording, here the musicians sound like theyíve
improved their skills with this CD player upgrade. Imaging is wider and
deeper and the acoustic warmer and more relaxed. You know exactly where
every instrument is located, so the sound picture just makes more sense,
easier to listen to and enjoy. The closely recorded vocals are more
intimate and show less strain than before. Percussion is fast and tight,
as good as CD gets and a major advance on the CDSA.
Sonny Rollins Ė Alfie
In the swaggering title track, time seems to expand to allow extra layers
of detail to emerge. Thereís huge width and depth of soundfield here,
each instrument in its own space. The piano tone, notoriously difficult to
reproduce in this track, comes up clearer than before. The bass is
particularly tuneful and can be heard even at times when it is obscured by
the other instruments through lesser CD players. The percussion emerges
with delicacy and precision. Whereas the CDSA was leaner than the fabulous
Meridian 808.3 Reference CD Player, the XDS1 is bold, colorful and rich -
every bit as good as the Meridian, the first SACD Player Iíve heard to
reach that level of Redbook playback.
Mosaiques Quartet - Haydn
String Quartets [Astree E8786]
The CDSA is magnificent here and itís hard to do any better. The XDS1
conveys a bit of extra weight and presence, with imaging more precise and
more detail retained at climaxes, but itís a very close thing. So may
players fall down on this original instrument recording, bringing brash
strident string tones to the fore.
Artur Rubinstein Ė Chopin
Funeral March Sonata [JVC J-XR24008]
The XDS1, by virtue of its incredible ability to resolve fine detail,
breaks chords into their component notes. There is superb weight here, and
wonderful lustrous tone, a magnificent achievement for a track that sounds
murky on lesser players. This player, even more then the CDSA, reveals the
incomparable touch of Rubinstein in his element in Chopin. Every octave of
the magnificent instrument Rubinstein plays sings clearly. Superb in every
Hamelin - Shostakovich
/ Shchedrin Piano Concertos [Hyperion CDA67425]
In this larger scale music, the improvement over the
CDSA is very noticeable. The various orchestral strands are clearer and
more precisely located, the piano has a fuller fleshier tone, the pace is
fantastic, while miraculously, power and delicacy co-exist in full ensure.
The orchestra is laid out before you like a battlefield, with superb
depth. Leading edges are cleaner and more colorful. The slow movements are
magical, with the piano floating effortlessly above the orchestra. All
registers are equally clear, with greater texture to the string sound.
Once again the low level deep bass is not drowned out in climaxes, and the
bottom notes of the piano are so clearly pitched. In forte sections of the
Shchedrin, the piano is commanding, precise and massive, while the
orchestra displays spiky power with unrestricted dynamics. The XDS1 raises
the already magnificent performance of the CDSA to sublime levels. This is
absolutely demonstration class, like listening to master tapes.
The XDS1 As A DAC
The XDS1 has digital inputs on the back, so let's try them. My first test was to see if I could drive it as a DAC using the digital output from the machine itself. No dice. You can use it as a CD Player or as a DAC or as a Motor unit, but you can't get this particular combination working. So I used the AES/EBU balanced output of the CDSA SE as a digital source using a sleek Valhalla digital cable kindly provided by Nordost for the occasion. It locks onto the signal immediately, as it does using a TosLink connection from the output stage of a Meridian G08 CD Player, but it does not show you the data rate. Room for improvement there.
The CDSA SE driving the XDS1 gives a more robust, forceful presentation than the CDSA SE alone. The image is stronger and the background darker, while the level of resolution rises considerably.
The step up from this arrangement to the XDS1 used as a CD player is a big one, perhaps twice as big. There are so many variables here it's difficult to know how much to attribute to the far more expensive motor unit in the XDS1, how much to the clock, how much to the AES/EBU connection itself, how much to the power supply, shielding and chassis. I would say it is unlikely you would ever use an external SACD or CD drive unit with the XDS1 since the internal one works so well on an absolute basis and as a package with the internal DAC. Those digital inputs are more likely to be useful for music servers, hirez downloads, even iPods. The fact that the DAC in the XDS1 was able to improve on the performance of the CDSA SE's internal DAC (certainly no slouch and directly connected to boot) shows it reaches a very high standard indeed.
The XDS1 Versus EMM Labs TSD1 / DAC2
Clearly the XDS1 trumps the CDSA SE in every important way (except price), but how does it compare to EMM's best two box solution, the TSD1 and DAC2?
(see my review of those here)
This question is a little harder to answer because I don't have that combination on hand but on the other hand I do have detailed notes and quite a good memory for these things.
The two box combo bests the CDSA SE in all respects (except price and compactness). It's a great combination and offers more flexibility than the XDS1. But it does not have the responsiveness to user input that the Esoteric drive brings to the equation, and the sound quality is roughly half way between CDSA SE and XDS1. Blacks are blacker, presence much stronger, dynamics amazing. All of these units are superb sonically, and you'd be hard pressed to find another manufacturer's product to touch them for musicality. But the degree to which the TSD1 / DAC2 surpasses the CDSA SE took my breath away at the time. The leap up from there to the XDS1 brings a broad grin to the face and surprise at how much more satisfying my music collection is than I'd ever known. As you move up the EMM Labs range, all the earlier strengths are built upon and refined, as you hope for and expect. The only real change in the character of the performance is the move away from the leanness of the earlier designs to a more muscular strength - meat on the bones.
In short, SACD performance is raised to
unmatched levels in my experience, while CD comes closer than ever before
to SACD. In every single area of performance, resolution, timing,
transient response, decay, image size and depth, frequency response,
dynamics and tone color, the XDS1 improves on all digital players I have
heard before. Iím sure one day this machine will be surpassed, and maybe
that will be by some future model from Ed Meitner, but for now, this is
the state-of-the-art, and as musically satisfying a machine as I could
wish. For that reason, and for how it performs in comparison with other
expensive hardware, I am forced to admit it represents good value for
money too. You canít get there for less.
EMM is gratified that our efforts to make the best player/converter that we know how has not escaped Mr. Gold's notice. We believe the XDS1 is the most musically satisfying and sonically accurate converter we have ever made. We are proud that Mr. Gold has made it his new
Shahin Al Rashid
Director of Sales.
Type: CD/SACD Player and DAC unit
Supported Formats: Redbook CD and SACD
Digital Inputs: AES/EBU XLR and TosLink
PCM Input Frequencies:44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz
Digital outputs: AES/EBU and EMM Optilink
Polarity: Inversion in digital domain through remote control
System Control Input: Wired remote, Serial RS 232, USB for upgrades
Display: LCD with four levels and off
Size: 17 x 15.7 x 5.7 (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: 37.5 lbs
Finish: Black or silver
Warrantee: 5 yrs, except 1 yr on drive and associated electronics
EMM Labs Inc.
119-5065 13th St SE
Canada T2G 5M8
Voice: (403) 225-4161
Fax: (403) 225-2330