EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD Player (TAS 206)

Equipment report
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Disc players
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EMM Labs XDS1
EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD Player (TAS 206)

Digital sound now suffers from an embarrassment of riches. In addition to my casual listening to new products, I have had the opportunity to explore in depth four ambitious efforts during the last few months. Each has taught me that there is more musically natural sound on CDs than I previously suspected, although each is different in design, circuit topology, and function. TacT has improved the quality of its 2.2XP digital preamp and room-correction unit, and has added a major new sound feature called “ambiophonics.” The Boulder 1021 has taken new approaches to reproducing CD sound and “high-res” discs. PS Audio has introduced the new Perfect Wave digital transport and digital-to-analog processors, which form the core of what promises to be an extraordinary combination of a transport, DAC, and audio server.

The new EMM Labs XDS1 player is the fourth of these units, and the subject of this review. Unlike the other units, it plays both CDs and SACDs. It also acts as a digital-to-analog processor with both AES/EBU and TosLink digital inputs and AES/EBU and OptiLink digital outputs. It builds on Ed Meitner’s years of experience as one of the top designers of digital equipment in the audio world, and is a truly superb unit—as it should be for a price of $25,000.

I can’t say it is the best CD/digital player I’ve have ever heard—the Boulder 1021 proved to be a rival and so did the Meridian 808.2 in earlier listening. The PS Audio combination offers truly outstanding CD sound and “high-res” digital at a far lower price ($6000) than either the Boulder 1021 or EMM Labs XDS1. The TacT 2.2XP combines far more features, at a far lower price per feature, than any other unit I know of and is a great sounding unit for the price.

What I can say it is that all of the praise that HP has given to Ed Meitner and EMM Labs in the past has been justified by my own listening experience, and that the XDS1 greatly outperforms the EMM Labs CDSA SE CD/SACD player I have been using in my reference system. It is by far the best SACD player I have ever heard. Speaking personally, it also does more to reproduce the kind of natural musical nuances that I want to hear from my collection of classical CDs than any other unit I have yet heard. It is the kind of CD player that almost pushes you into the listening position and makes you listen and relisten to music for hours on end.

I’ve relistened to virtually every SACD in my collection and worked my way through my high-resolution downloads and the XDS1 has been outstanding in every respect. What will be far more important to most music lovers, however, is that I have also ended up relistening to my far larger library of CDs with good to great performances that I previously wrote off as having mediocre sound with the listening fatigue I expect from “CD edge.” No player can make 44.1kHz/16-bit sound the equivalent of 96kHz/24-bit sound. The XDS1, however, may well come as close as any player ever will. Any serious CD collector is going to find it a real joy.

 

Technology and Features

The XDS1 also represents a different level of digital technology than any of its competitors. I’m always leery about describing manufacturer claims, but there are times I believe that this is necessary. On the one hand, I have listened to far too many different technologies to believe there is ever a final answer, and it is amazing how often radically different technologies can produce excellent sound quality. On the other hand, I believe that you need to understand enough about a product to know why it is different and what drives its cost and sophistication. Moreover, few people have done as much digital engineering as Ed Meitner, or can claim to have helped develop SACD on both the recording and playback side. A look at the EMM Labs Web site will show you a range of professional recording equipment as well as consumer products, and that digital sound is not an add-on to analog but a key focus.

This may explain why the XDS1 looks and feels more like a piece of professional equipment than a standard consumer-audio unit. It is far better made than EMM Labs previous player, the CDSA-SE. This is clear in the careful machining of the chassis and the remote control, but it is the inside that counts. The XDS1 uses the time-proven Esoteric drive which has justly been praised as one of the best and most reliable around. It is important to note, however, that the Esoteric drive in the XDS1 will only read CDs and not any form of DVD. It will not read DVD-ROM discs like the Chesky and Reference Recordings 192kHz/24-bit discs, or the Classic Records HDADs. It also is not capable of reading Blu-ray Discs, although this is of little or no importance in a stereo unit, and you can easily get high-res digital sound by downloading and storing the music on a computer or music server and using the XDS1’s AES/EBU or TosLink digital inputs.

The electronics use high-quality parts throughout, including hand-matched components for sensitive circuitry. The XDS1 uses aerospace-grade composite laminate circuit boards, heavily shielded enclosures, premium resistors, capacitors, connectors, and ICs. It also has an advanced power supply. Although I’m in no position to validate all of its claims, EMM Labs states that this power supply is proprietary to both EMM Labs and the XDS1, and that it is “significantly quieter than typical switchers and even linear power supplies.” EMM Labs also states that it “synchronizes its operating frequency (or resonant mode) to that of the primary system clock within the XDS1, reducing digital noises to the vanishing point,” and “offers ultra-tight regulation and virtually complete isolation from power-line irregularities and fluctuations.” In layman’s terms, this means that the power supply offers the efficiency, power-factor correction, stability, and isolation of the best switch-mode power supplies together with the low impedance and silence of the best linear supplies. The XDS1 uses at least two further stages of regulation and filtering beyond the power supply to protect the all-important circuitry handling the audio and clock signals—both analog or digital.

For digital audio processing, the XDS1 uses what EMM Labs calls a “Meitner Digital Audio Translator DSP.” In practice, this DSP uses a special algorithm to upsample both PCM sources and DSD sources to 2x DSD form for “seamless conversion by the pure-DSD discrete Meitner DACs.” EMM Labs states that conventional digital players convert a digital signal to analog by processing it through reconstruction filters that use interpolation (oversampling) to smooth the analog waveform. This works well in the frequency domain, but “in the time domain, errors are introduced in the form of pre- and post-ringing” that distort both impulse response and square wave response.

EMM Labs states that the Meitner Digital Audio Translator eliminates such pre- and post-ringing, giving it a unique capability to preserve the phase, frequency, and dynamic integrity of the original sound waves. These are ambitious claims, and ones where it would be interesting to see what a range of independent technical measurements would show, but I can validate them in one key way: There is no question that the XDS1 does produce some of the cleanest musical detail I have heard from any audiophile or professional digital playback equipment.

The XDS1 has a new modular DAC that does not use mass-manufactured oscillators and converter chips as most other units do. The DAC is a discrete dual-differential circuit that EMM Labs claims is “free from differential nonlinearities” inherent to all multibit DACs and provides exceptional control of the digital and analog signals. This further improves sound quality because “it entirely avoids a universal multibit DAC distortion.” This DAC is combined with a new ultra-low jitter synthesized clock. This sub-picosecond level of jitter is a major improvement in reducing the noise floor that EMM Labs says, “creates a more precisely defined three-dimensional soundstage,” and improves “transparency and imaging.”

The XDS1 does not use the phase-lock-loop circuits that are used in most units to lock into incoming digital datastreams. Instead it uses an advanced data receiver called a Meitner Frequency Acquisition System to acquire digital data within milliseconds and to avoid inheriting the jitter within the incoming data streams by locking to frequency but not to phase. This not only helps in receiving the signal from the SACD drive, it ensures that you can get the best out of a digital signal from a computer, music server, and outside source like an MP3 player. (This is a critical practical advantage, particularly if you have an older or less advanced server. You can keep your server and your existing digital collection, feed the XDS1 a PCM signal through its AES/EBU or TosLink input, and get the best out of any digital signal up to 96kHz/24-bit recordings—the highest level of sampling that currently is easy to store at home.)

If one sums up what all these changes in digital engineering mean, they improve the sound of CDs by reducing or avoiding common DAC and DSP distortions. They also offer special advantages in improving the sound of SACD by doubling to a 2x DSD rate—which removes out-of band-noise above 44.1kHz, which is particularly common in the many SACDs made from older PCM tapes sampled at 48kHz. They also make the XDS1 more or less obsolescence-proof by allowing it to get the best out of music servers and other outboard sources of digital signals due to internal firmware that is updatable via USB. EMM Labs indicates that it plans to use this feature to include updates that will allow playback of 176/192kHz/24-bit material.

In a more familiar area, the XDS1 has a Class A audio output section using all discrete components and only one gain stage from the DAC to output. In this case, as Pass Labs and other top audio designers have shown, less is always more—at least with the right components and execution. The audio path contains no connector-contacts and is DC-coupled, and EMM Labs claims it has the shortest audio path of any player. As for other features, they include a very flexible remote control, a USB port for software upgrades, a wired RS-232 connection, and an external IR jack.

The Sound

I’d be much less likely to go into this level of detail if the XDS1’s sound quality did not track so closely with the manufacturer’s explanation of its design features. I’ve listened to far too many players and processors where the hype did not make them notably better than more conventional and cheaper players. To take digital filters as an example, I have found that most of the “advanced filters” that some players claim to have end up making minor differences in sound quality that don’t really solve any of the lingering problems I hear in CD and SACD recordings of acoustic instruments, and that units offering different filter options usually do little more than alter the problem rather than solve it. (The PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC is an exception in this regard, making it an extraordinary buy for $3000.)

The XDS1’s technology cannot perform sonic miracles. It can’t correct the fundamental sonic limitations inherent in an outdated CD medium whose technology is now approaching the equivalent of the century mark in “digital years.” It can’t overcome the limitations of badly miked, recorded, and produced CD and SACDs—or improve a lousy performance. No player or processor can overcome the midrange glare built into many CD and SACD recordings that comes from aggressively close miking and from efforts to emphasize detail and more apparent and sharper “attack” at the expense of realistic timbre and more musically natural “attack” and microdynamics The best player in the world can only reveal that classical music should never be recorded in this way in the first place.

What the XDS1 does do, however, is remove more of the faint digital edge that affects CD and some SACDs better than any other player I have yet heard, including EMM Labs’ earlier and much cheaper CDSA-SE CD and SACD player. It not only comes closer to the very best of LP and analog tape in this regard than the competition, it comes closer to the warmth and harmonic integrity of live music.

HP made a point during the founding years of TAS that every reviewer should base his or her listening standards on listening to live acoustic music. The late Gordon Holt also emphasized this standard, and it is one I take particularly seriously because I travel almost constantly. Listening to live music has been my key source of relaxation in areas with radically different languages and cultures, and it is surprisingly cheap, easy, and convenient outside the United States. I can travel to western China, cities in the Middle East, and Budapest and still hear live classical music in hotels or small concerts. I can hear live music from the local culture on the street, in cafes, churches, and often in my hotel bar or lobby. In most of Europe, a major concert is only a few blocks away. (One of my favorite hotels in Rome has a direct private entrance to the Opera House.)

The sound of live music—and its sweetness, timbre, and natural dynamic and harmonic structure—is the sound I want to hear in my home, and all of the units I have mentioned in this review do an exceptional job of providing it without the exaggerated attack and brightness common to most other digital players, including some of the most expensive units available. The XDS1, however, is consistently slightly cleaner in natural musical harmonics and what I can only call dynamic timbre.

A loud solo flute recording sounds slightly more like a real flute. The character of a particular violin comes through slightly more clearly and with more of the balanced midrange energy and upper-midrange sweetness that you hear from a live violin. The piano is slightly more natural in timbre and sweeter in its upper register. Even close-miked woodwinds and brass—like clarinet and trumpet solos—sound more real. More naturally miked instruments sound much better—particularly with the kind of simple miking and minimum mixing and processing that preserves the soul of a performance rather than tries for mechanistic and hollow perfection.

Female voice is “quieter” in the sense that it lacks the slight edge on breathing sounds and soprano peaks that CD seems to introduce far too often relative to the same voice in a live performance, LP, or analog tape. Percussion detail is more realistic, particularly with brush or cymbal, although many of the problems in percussion sound quality that are ascribed to digital show up in the analog record as well and the XDS1 cannot fix this aspect of the original recording any more than it can fix another.

This natural musicality also comes through in SACDs, but is much less apparent in good 96kHz/24-bit recordings, which do not have many of the problems of CD. If you are looking for the absolute sound, it does make the best recordings sound better. What I find most striking, however, is how much it can improve the playback of normal CDs and even those that do not have music with a lot of upper midrange content.

Take two different recordings of the Brahms cello sonatas as an example: The Kanka-Klansky SACD and CD recording on Praga, and the Diaz-Sanders CD recording on Dorian. These are not “audiophile” recordings, but they do clearly represent an effort to provide natural musical sound quality, and both emphasize the natural warmth that the cello and piano can have in the lower midrange and upper bass rather than highlight the mid and upper midrange where the problems in CD sound are most apparent. Yet, the XDS1 does give them a more natural and nuanced sound that comes through very clearly with demanding speakers like the Quad 2905 or a precisely set-up Vandersteen 5A. There simply is less edge, a more natural, softer, sweeter level of harmonic detail.

My emphasis on this aspect of sound quality is, of course, a matter of personal preference. Many of my friends—audiophile and musician alike—seek out crisper dynamics, a fast “attack,” and more upper-midrange detail than I do and might find the Boulder 1021 to be the better-sounding unit. The differences I am describing are also far clearer on acoustic chamber music, solo instruments, and voice than they are in most rock, pop, and jazz recordings, and on those concertos and symphonies that do not spotlight given instruments. The special merits of the XDS1 are to some extent clearer with a given taste in music and when your reference really is live acoustic music. And yet, I do hear the same improvements in the better MJQ, LA4, and Blue Note jazz recordings; in those by singers like Willie Nelson; and in acoustic rock where the emphasis is on complexity rather than power.

I have toyed with the idea of calling this set of nuances the “sound of silence.” The phrase doesn’t really work, but it does hint at the fact that far too often I hear an aggressiveness and heightened level of upper midrange energy in high-end systems that I never hear in unamplified live performances in anything other than a close-in seating position in the hardest and most reflective halls. Moreover, the XDS1 does a superb job of providing depth, hall sounds, the sound of movements by the performer, and natural imaging size and placement when these are on the recording. How much of this you hear will still be exceptionally dependent on your speakers, their placement, your listening position, and your listening room. The XDS1 does, however, offer as good a three-dimensional balance of soundstage and imaging quality as I have ever heard. A great front end is only part of getting the best soundstage, but it is very audibly a critical one.

The XDS1 also has a very natural balance in the deepest bass. It does not seem to tweak lower bass energy upward as some units do, but all of the energy and detail are there and the mid and upper bass are very detailed and natural. It pushes the Vandersteen 5As to their considerable limits with the usual bass drum and organ spectaculars. As for synthesizer and bass guitar, too much of either can make you go blind—or more accurately drive me out of the room—but my sons are more than happy with the result.

As for the treble and highs, much will depend on how much you really distinguish between the upper midrange and the treble, and the sensitivity of your ears. To me, the XDS1 does an exceptional job of revealing the musical character of the highs in a natural and revealing way to the extent the recording actually has such information and its sound is not colored by noise, hall, and production. The treble and top octaves in the XDS1 also pass the “demanding young female listener” test. We all hear differently and some women hear highs exceptionally well and suffer accordingly. I brought a couple of young women in their twenties into a comparative listening session, and both praised the XDS1, although it was clear that it could not overcome problems like basic mistakes in producing SACDs that affected upper-octave noise. Age and sex have both their mercies and their curses.

I realize that I have emphasized CD in this review. If you are heavily into SACDs, the XDS1 competes with, and sometimes surpasses, the sound quality of the best DVD-As, even played back through top-line Meridian players. I don’t mean in saying this that the best SACDs are better than the best DVD-A. I don’t hear any superiority in even the best SACDs to Chesky 96kHz/24-bit recordings, Reference Recordings 176kHz/24-bit recordings, AIX 96kHz/24-bit DVD-As, Tacet 96kHz/24-bit DVD-As, and Classic Records 96kHz/24-bit, 192kHz/24-bit HDADs.

The EMM Labs XDS1 player does do a notably better job than the CDSA-SE in reproducing SACDs produced with all-DSD equipment rather than upsampled from old PCM recordings. I only wish that it was easier to determine which of my collection of classical SACDs from companies like BIS, BSO, Challenge, Channel Classic, Chesky, Harmonia Mundi, Etcetera, Linn, and Pentatone were miked, processed, and mixed in this manner. Telarc seems to be the only firm that explicitly advertises “pure DSD” on some of its SACDs. (Try the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s Lago Brazil on Telarc SACD and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, also on Telarc.)

Unfortunately, no label—no matter how “audiophile” it claims to be—seems to consistently provide the necessary level of detail to show which SACDs are true DSD recordings. As a result, some may be true DSD recordings while others may be digital hybrids or good 48-bit recordings. What I can tell you is that I hear a level of musical life and realism with the best SACDs and the EMM Labs XDS1 that I have not heard from any other SACD player.

Summing Up

The most musically natural SACD and CD player I have yet encountered. A true pleasure to listen to! I owe HP one for introducing me to EMM Labs. I should also say that I am making the XDS1 one of my references, although I should keep this in perspective. You should audition the Boulder 1021 if you want to hear a contrast in a truly excellent unit. The EMM labs CDSA-SE does not have the XDS1’s sound quality, but it does have many of its sonic merits at less than half the price. The PS Audio PerfectWave digital transport and digital-to-analog processor offer some of the best sound and technical value around for $6000. The Cambridge Audio Azur 650C and 840C provide “inexpensive” options, and the less expensive NAD, Marzantz, and Oppo BDP-83 or DV-980H players offer entry-level options for anyone reading this review who approaches the kind of budget I had when starting in the high end.

The XDS1 is a great product—and more than a bit of a breakthrough in terms of natural, musically realistic sound—but there are many ways to improve the quality of your digital sound and then eventually work your way up to this quality of unit.

SPECS & PRICING

EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD Player
Supported disc formats: Red Book CD, stereo SACD
Analog outputs: Balanced (XLR), unbalanced (RCA)
Digital outputs: AES/EBU (XLR) PCM digital audio output for CD only, EMM Labs OptiLink
Dimensions: 17.1" x 15.7" x 5.7"
Weight: 37.4 lbs.
Price: $25,000

EMM LABS
119-5065 13th Street S.E.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2G 5M8
(403) 225-4161
emmlabs.com