Palm Trees and Perfect Sound
DACs have been abounding at my residence in Santa Monica—the Holo Audio May most recently, and now the Meitner MA3 (website), which is the subject of today’s review. I’ve also been taking a listen to some other very exciting and top flight DACs, including a fortunate week or two with a Lampizator Pacific from T.H.E. Show Long Beach, and the Weiss DAC502 at NAMM. Needless to say, I’ve been spoilt by excellent digital, and am starting to think about what my forever digital setup will be.
Words and Photos by Grover Neville
Enter, the Meitner MA3, who is less an exciting new face and more a descendent of an old friend. When I was studying music at the Oberlin Conservatory, I had a few chances to work in the Clonick commercial recording studio, an absolute paradise of the best sounding gear around, which also served as a DSD conversion and mastering space for Five/Four Productions—better known as the team behind Telarc’s famed classical records and frequent sweepers of the classical Grammys.
The conversion racks that we used at the big studio in Oberlin were built by none other than EMM Labs—Meitner’s parent company. To describe the sound of the Meitner racks would be difficult—they had no identifiable tonality other than a very slight liquidity and warmth that made everything involving and listenable, but never strayed from ultimate accuracy to the signal. I was more than a little excited to hear that the MA3 was headed my way because of this prior experience.
On Digital Tides – Meitner MA3
The Meitner MA3 comes in straightforward packaging, nicely and safely packed in sturdy cardboard. A remote and some informational material accompany it, but the unit is easy if you’ve ever used a streamer of any kind. A classy and simply front panel with black knob and LED display are part of this decidedly understated Canadian package.
The Meitner MA3 works as both a streamer and a DAC—plug it into a router via ethernet and you can run roon or Meitner’s own application, though I’d highly recommend Roon over the rather barebones Meitner app. The remote sets inputs, volume position, mute, etc. Operation really couldn’t be simpler, as either a DAC or Streamer/Converter.
EMM Labs’ materials mention that the Meitner MA3 uses “16xDSD MDAC2™ DACs coupled with our proprietary MDAT2™ DSP” and same “VControl™ volume control used in our EMM DV2 converter.” For those who aren’t familiar with Ed Meitner and his work, he worked very early on with Sony and Philips, to develop the SACD and by extension DSD format. EMM Labs has the unique distinction of being almost solely responsible for SACD and large format classical DSD recordings—to this day a majority of the recordings made use EMM Labs units. Quite the pedigree. But how does it sound?
Sound Waves – Meitner MA3
Firstly, let me say that $10,000 (US) is a rarefied territory for digital converters. Can you achieve small amounts more past this price point? Sure, but at $10,000 (US) you’re listening to some of the very best DACs out there, and expectations should be high. Beyond this price point diminishing returns set in very heavily and differences become miniscule.
The Meitner MA3 is one of those rare DACs that is good enough to live up to the price point. It is vanishingly transparent, fast, smooth and incredibly wide bandwidth. The phantom image is wide, deep and pleasingly tangible. Our own Dave McNair and Eric Franklin Shook spent some time with an MA3 as well and pointed out a sort of low end and low-mid punchiness that lends the MA3 a slight increase to the “it’s here in the room” sensation. Not enough to unbalance the presentation, though.
Across the frequency spectrum the Meitner MA3 has one defining characteristic, to my ears at least – its smoothness. Nothing is ever harsh, and while the dCS or Mola Mola Tambaqui DACs use high oversampling rates, the Meitner most reminded me of the sound of DSD, an inner smoothness that pervaded every register in a very pleasing way.
In the high registers this sound smoothed over any harshness, making every listening experience a joy at any volume. Despite that smoothing effect, there was no loss of perceived transparency or detail, which I must admit is a pretty neat trick. Again, the sound reminded me somewhat of DSD which presents an enormous amount of detail in a very musically coherent and pleasing arrangement, and without imprinting an objectionable coloration on the sound.
I did find that when paired with an overly romantic tube amplifier or particularly warm pair of speakers, this effect could almost be taken to a point where I felt transients were being rounded off. However, with speakers and amps that sat in the bright, neutral or even moderately warm of neutral zones this was not an issue, and especially with bright gear was actually an asset.
I don’t want to imply that one should tame bright gear with a warm DAC, because the Meitner MA3 is fundamentally honest to the source recording. But based upon my observations, I would not insert the MA3 into a warm system and expect it to counteract that warmth. I think the particular character of this DAC is an excellent choice for the many audiophile systems which may tend towards the slightly bright or dry as a way to extract an extremely smooth and non-harsh sounding digital performance from them.
Where many DACs that fall into the smooth category fail is this trick—they overly smooth out the sound with an obvious coloration that rolls the treble level off or loses detail. By contrast, the Meitner MA3 reminds me of a popular audio plugin called Soothe, which gently scrubs off harshness in tracks while retaining detail and revealing clarity. It takes a huge degree of finesse to do this well, and the MA3 has it in spades. One could say that this DAC sounds expensive—an apt descriptor in my mind. The Meitner MA3 is one of the most detailed sounding DACs I’ve heard, something that almost seems like a circus trick to balance with the aforementioned smoothness. It certainly reminds me of the same basic character as the EMM Labs conversion racks I remember from Oberlin, and which I immensely enjoyed.
Washing Ashore – Meitner MA3
So we have a DAC/Streamer which scores points for the latter part—being easy to use, with a transparent volume control and nice interface—and points for the former due to its supremely smooth and detailed sound. I think especially for those listeners desiring a DAC which will never fatigue them in the high end, the Meitner MA3 will accomplish that trick while never leaving you wondering if you’re leaving detail on the table. At the price point, Meitner MA3 is amongst the top contenders for any DAC/Streamer I can think of.