CES 2014: EMM Labs MTRX Amplifier

These amps really drove the poop out of the speakers. Yep, poop ALL over the floor. You could hear exactly what the amps were trying to get the speakers to do, and whether the speakers were capable of doing it or not. Do not think ‘yet another big mofo solid-state amp’. Those other solid-state amps sound wimpy and weak and are probably in need of a flu shot. There really is that big of a difference – this is not one of those subtle audiophile-ish things.

The tone here is very Meitneresque: tuneful and clear sounding and not at all solid-state-ish, although it is certainly not tube-ish either. It is kind of like you always thought solid-state amps were supposed to sound, before you learned that the vast majority of them are stereotypically harsh, lean, uneven, aggressive and unpleasant to listen to.

These amps seriously change the landscape and set a new bar for performance, much like their CDSA CD player did several years ago, sounding better at $10K than the $60K top player at the time. At $130K these 1500 watters arn’t cheap, but there is finally [finally!] a solid-state amp commensurate with the extreme high quality of the bevy of hard-to-drive statement speakers from Magico, YG Acoustics and, more recently, Marten [not to mention Sonus Faber, Venture, Avalon, etc. Lots of hard-to-drive speakers out there that have never been driven well]. Word to the wise: Once you hear these on your favorite speakers, whether at a friends house or dealership, you are going to feel really silly [or perhaps some other emotion :-/] for having bought one of those other mega amps. Just sayin’.

[This is an excerpt from a previous post posted last January. We’re trying to modernize and make posts like this available to other parts of the website].

 

CD/SACD Player Shootout: EMM Labs XDS1 versus Esoteric K-01

In this corner, weighing in at about 200 lbs [well, that is what it FEELS like – leaning over to get this on a rack is no feat for the timid. Neli was able to do it, but not without a few remarks :-)], but really at 68.4 lbs, the Esoteric K-01. And in the other corner, at 37.5 lbs, the EMM Labs XDS1.

We have been dealers for EMM Labs for about 7 years, if I remember correctly. We would like to be dealers for Esoteric someday, when we expand our operations, [in the not too terribly distant future we are fervently hoping!].

That said, the shootout did not reveal any serious surprises that a skeptical reading through the current voluminous content on the web does not already point out.

The system was for this shootout was:

Hansen Prince speakers
Lamm ML2.1 amps
ARC Ref 5 preamp
Nordost Odin speaker and interconnect
Elrod Statement Silver power cords on pre and amps
Bybee power distributor
Harmonic Resolution Systems SXR equipment rack, M3x platforms and Nimbus
Jorma Design Prime (single-ended) interconnect on the CD players
First Synergistic Hologram D then Nordost Odin power cords on the CD players


A photo of the Esoteric K-01 remote


A photo of the Esoteric K-01 remote


A photo of the EMM Labs XDS1 remote (we forgot to bring it to the shootout [it’s always something], so this is a photo from this morning)


Here are Neli and P. configuring the Esoteric K-01 to generate output on the single-ended outputs. We also tried both the 4X oversampling and DSD filters [I thought the DSD filter was more digital sounding, Neli and P. thought it had more resolution and liked it better]. Previous tests had shown little difference in performance between balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) interconnects [irregardless of the ARC reportedly being a balanced architecture].


[The Fluke multimeter was used to bias the Lamm amps after their recent move to this location, with presumably a different wall voltage than the previous location across town].

That Odin interconnect is kind sticking out of the rack at an odd angle, isn’t it? :-) All I know is that *I* was out of the room at the time :-).


The Esoteric K-01

Both the K-01 and XDS1 were put up on HRS Nimbus Couplers – significantly better than the sound with the standard feet.


The Esoteric K-01


The EMM Labs XDS1


The EMM Labs XDS1


The EMM Labs XDS1

We played mostly light Jazz, large scale classical, and the 1st cut off of Radiohead Amnesiac. All told we spent about 5 hours at this shootout.

We first did a round of shootout with the Synergistic power cord on the players, and then a round with the Nordost Odin power cord.

The Odin brought the performance of the 2 players MUCH closer together [bringing subtlety and imaging to the K-01 and more slam to the XDS1] but their differences were still quite evident.

Esoteric K-01
[Note that other power cords may do as well here in place of the Synergistic – not just the $$$ Odin, but just note that this player IS power cord sensitive, more so than the EMM Labs I think]

* More authority [in the end, I thought this the most compelling aspect of the sound of the K-01]

* More HiFi sounding [sounded more like a stereo than music – a lack of subtle information made each note stand alone as opposed to forming a whole. 95% of this went away with the Odin power cord. There was little or no imaging(!) either until we replaced the power cord]

* A little leaner [but not in such a way that detracted from the music, IMHO]

EMM Labs

* More like music [for many reasons, I think. Voices had more information in them, allowing us to hear emotion. Notes had more information, allowing us to string them together into songs. Much more listening to music as opposed to listening to how each note sounds]

* Softer, more laid back [The K-01 was more forcefully dynamic]

—————

This shootout really revealed the strengths of these 2 players: The XDS1 sounding like music in spite of being solid-state :-), and the K-01 having great powerful midi- and macro-dynamics [and not just in the bass], in spite of being solid-state :-)

Strangely enough, these 2 players were closest on the track I played, the Radiohead. Notes are coming from all over the place anyway, so the K-01 did great, and the XDS1 really brings out the voice of the singer and his longing to be left alone. On this track the K-01 was more like a kid running around in a candy store, listening to this note, then that note…the XDS1 more holistic, more drug-like .

I also want to say that, contrary to what I have read elsewhere, the K-01 does NOT have more resolution – in fact it has less – the K-01 does emphasize the main body of each note more than the XDS1 however, and that might be interpreted as detail by some, but the overall information here is really is less because the subtle, more nuanced parts of the notes are quite a bit less prominent.

Emm Labs CDSA + Nordost ODIN versus Emm Labs TSD1 and DAC2

The question: Does an ODIN power cord on the back of a CDSA make it the equal of Emm Lab’s new ‘black badge’ TSD1 transport and DAC2 pair?

[Thanks Steve G. for the idea for this shootout.]

Starting off with a question like that makes me think of Carrie in ‘Sex and the City’ writing her column [just got done watching the movie. Liked it but it should have been called Spoiled Women and Wimpy Men in the City. Am I right or am I right? :-)].

The question is especially relevant because the price of an ODIN + CDSA combo is about equal to the price of the TSD1/DAC2.

We decided to do a slightly different shootout, perhaps unfortunately, that compares the CDSA + ODIN against the TSD1/DAC2 using fairly decent power cords [Valhalla and ELROD]. At the time this seemed to make more sense – most people would put a decent PC on the ‘Black Badge’ pair [the ‘Silver Badge’ pair being the CDSD/DCC2]. And the Kimber PC that comes with the Emm Labs gear had not been broken in at all – otherwise we should have used that power cord.

Anyway, we learned a lot from the shootout – or at least confirmed what out other – very lengthy shootouts [appearing soon in the Magazine] told us about the two players.

For this shootout, we were able to just switch back and forth between the two players. They were both run into the Audio Note Ongaku integrated using Nordost ODIN interconnects. The Ongaku was connected to the Marten ‘Coltrane’ loudspeakers using ODIN speaker cable. Every thing was sitting on Acoustic Dream’s amp stands.

Since we were eagerly anticipating the luxury of being able to switch back and forth between the two players in real time [usually we have to do a lot of disconnecting and connecting between listening to one component and other – trying to do it as fast as possible to keep as much aural information in short term memory as possible], we needed to find discs that we had two of. We did and they were: red book Radiohead’s Amnesiac, SACD Santanna’s Abraxus, and SACD Janis’ Rachmaninoff.

Radiohead:

The CDSA sounded a little ‘dirtier’, with a little more ‘spit’. Perhaps a little more romantic – but we later decided that the reduced separation here was more familiar, more comfortable, and more accessible. We talked about this before – how as a system gets better and we leave the old familiar problems behind – we miss them. Many people think those problems are part and parcel of the way music is supposed to sound and they [and their poor roommates] get stuck in a sonic rut, a backwater, a musical ‘hell on earth’ [but I probably exaggerate a little].

The Pair had way more separation, a much deeper [spooky] blacker background, and better purity. By purity here I mean that the notes were not more harmonically pure – they are about the same on both players – but that the black background and separation allowed notes to be heard, that they were allowed to live out there lives the way they were meant to, that – well that is what I am calling purity until I can think of a better name [I would say ‘clean’ but that is taken by people describing the lack of note attack aggressiveness. Maybe ‘spotlessness’?? Integrity??].

Anyway, I hope people can begin to see that these 3 things: separation, an incredibly black background, and purity/cleanliness/spotlessness/integrity are all related and are a major factor in the difference between the two players on this particular system. [Previously, the Pair also seemed more linear, more well-balanced, than the CDSA but the ODIN PC helped out a lot on this. It also increased resolution, separation and the ‘romantic/engaging’ aspect of the CDSA as well].

Neli: CDSA fuzzier, not quite as crystalline.

Abraxus:

The Pair: The ability for greater separation between the notes helps out a lot here. The first track is actually quite complicated – and the pair was able to separate out separate strains of the music much better than the CDSA. [there was a feeling of… wow, I didn’t even know that those were separate instruments before…]

The CDSA: Again, somewhat more accessible, but in comparison with the Pair, it sounded like things were mixed up, much more the familiar amorphous mass of cool sounds we usually hear when we listen to Abraxus.

Rachmaninoff:

The Pair: the spatial connectedness is better. The rhythm is much more life like.

The CDSA: A little harsher.

PRaT and Presence/Solidity were ….different between the two.

—————-

OK. It is time fasten seatbelts and leave the standard digital player shootout and discuss just what I think this Pair does to the digital playback universe.

First, I think that finally, digital, THIS digital pair, is now perhaps the equal of analog playback. Before you all click the back button on your browser, let me say what I mean by that.

First, it is OK, for me, that digital be *different* than analog. Why make it sound like analog, we already got analog and it does quite fine, thank you.

Second, what are the ways that analog is better than digital? Separation, midi-dynamics, and sense of rhythm [not PRaT]. It also has a harmonic distortion that many of us enjoy.

OK, in what ways does the TSD1/DAC2 pair excel? Separation. Black background [revealing the midi-dynamics in a way much like analog]. And a sense of rhythm that is not like PRaT.

So, let us talk about PRaT – which in general we can describe as a strong emphasis on the main beat of the song – resulting in an urge to perhaps do some toe-tapping. The idea here is that perhaps it is the lack of separation, causing things to collapse, both spatially and timewise, so that too many things happen at once, and too many things in one amorphous image, causing:

1. an abnormal emphasis on the main beat, and deemphasizing the natural delays between the actual notes and the interplay amongst musicians as they play off one another and which, in reality, are not exactly 100% on the beat each and every beat.

2. an abnormal collapse of the spacial image, in the soundstage, into a solid mass, that makes it seem like there is a solidity and presence there that doesn’t really exist. That in reality there is actually a guitar body, and a guitar neck, and a voice,and the voice reflecting from the microphone…. which makes ‘presence’ and ‘solidity’ more real, and more 3D. And less of a ‘lump’.

So rhythm should be what it should be: and notes should happen on the beat when they were recorded that way, and a little before or after if they were recorded that way. When the notes are smeared the least little bit – it is perhaps made up for in the mind of the listener by assigning them to the nearest ‘beat’. But when they are clearly off of the beat, they are interpreted as the natural interplay between musicians, the natural human failing of not being perfectly on time [and this is a good thing – it is how things sound like, live].

So what the pair did, on this system [and make no mistake, this is a *system*. We’ve done so many, many shootouts here lately, everything contributes: the speakers, the ODIN – the decay of the notes are unbelievably beautiful, on both players – and the Ongaku is not chopped meat either :-)], was to allow us to experience, to enjoy, the music in more ways than we have before using digital playback.

A lot of people [who have lived with audio for awhile and graduated from the impressive], say they want a richer warmer sound. That they want more PRaT. That their system is not involving enough and that adding warmth and toe-tapping PRaT is the way to fix that.

Well, that would certainly help. For awhile.

But what people really want, deep down, beyond this or that tweak or enhancement – if I can be so bold as to say it in print – is to have a convenient playback that evokes the real – that allows them to hear the wonderful interplay amongst the singers and musicians, to hear the beautiful tones and decay and care that went into every single darn note in every single darn piece of music in their music library.

Neli thinks the TSD1/DAC2 Pair is evolutionary. I think it is revolutionary. But maybe she is right. The way way black background [not like stupid power conditioners that strip away detail at the same time], and the ability to keep the different notes from collapsing into each other – is probably just evolutionary.

But there is a tipping point to things. And I think this is one of those ‘tipping point things’. [Boy, and I thought this was going to be a short post].

In this idea, suggesting that the Pair is like analog – different but equal – is the idea that it must be the depth and variety of the ways we can enjoy the two mediums that we need to compare and contrast. It is my sense that the Pair adds more ways to enjoy music – that some of these ways are similar to analog – and unlike the digital of the past – as described above, but that they get there a different way [lower noise floor versus greater dynamic response to notes at ordinary loudnesses, etc.].

More later on all that…


Neli with the Audio Note, Kharma and Acoustic Zen speakers in background, and Jorma Design PRIME interconnects on floor at left.

So, :-) we went upstairs and played the same Rachmaninoff music, but on LP on the Brinkmann turntable, Audio Note M9 Phono preamplifier, Kegon Balanced amps and Coltrane Supremes. With the low-gain Lyra cartridge and a problem with noise on the line getting into the sound – it wasn’t an optimal setup by any means.

OK, OK…. But when the massed strings played over on the left, on both systems I enjoyed them, and in similar ways. I could pick out this or that guy a little louder than the others or a little too long with the note… [in some ways, it is the ability to hear the mistakes in the music that make it seem much more real :-)]. I got the same feeling of ‘wow’ that the music was trying to invoke in the audience.

I got the same feeling at being present at a concert – the conscious and subconscious cues each medium was giving me that this was REAL were different but equal.

More about THAT later too. This is all just supposition – that the TSD1/DAC2 pair can offer as convincing an experience as analog – it seems like this is something that will come to pass someday – and it seems like that is today, to me, now – but it will take a long time to verify.

Personally, we do not differentiate here between SACD and red book CDs on the Emm Labs gear. The differences between them has more to do with the recording and mastering than the medium. But lately, and maybe it is just me being lazy [and heaven knows I would love to be less of a perfectionist, it would certainly reduce our high-end audio expenses – Oh, wait, Neli would have to get lazy too] – I did not feel I had to care if we were playing CDs on the TSD1/DAC2 pair and LPs at RMAF, and that has been true here as well. Sure they are different. But all the dimensions in which I enjoy LPs I now can enjoy CDs. This was not the case with previous digital gear.

————–

So, do we still like the CDSA? :-) We had to send our TSD1/DAC2 pair back – it was just loaned to us for the RMAF show – we had previous commitments and were not able to buy this demo pair :-(. Big unhappy frown for Neli. Big unhappy frown for me, too, but I am an optimist – or maybe just a masochist :-) – we’ll have our own soon. And then we can think about what it will sound like putting a pair of ODIN powercords on the TSD1/DAC2 instead of the CDSA….

YES we still like the CDSA – it does almost everything as well as the Pair, and we still have the ‘silver badge’ Pair, too. But………………….. stay tuned :-)