EMM Labs is not a big name in the UK, but it does have a strong reputation in its native Canada and across North America for its domestic and professional SACD players. The company's CEO, Ed Meitner, also enjoys near-legendary status amongst hi-fi cognoscenti, not least for his personal contributions to the science of DSD signal processing, the core component of the high-resolution SACD format.
Meitner's players are individualistic, verging on idiosyncratic. There are just two key models at present - a two-box D/A converter and transport flagship, which also functions as an audiophile preamplifier. And then there's the CDSA, the subject of this review.
A single- box, stereo-only CD/SACD player which is an uncompromising beast by any standards, and certainly no raving beauty. Indeed, there are some clear compromises that will seem puzzling at first sight, including the counter intuitive behaviour of the absolute phase switching and a track numbering system that requires three digits to be entered (for example- 012 for 'track 12' of an SACD).
Okay, nuts and bolts time. The CDSA (sometimes known, for no apparent reason, as the CDSA SE) is a single-box dual format player that's compatible with SACD and Red Book CD discs, and MP3 discs. However, the SACD element in this case is stereo-only. More specifically, it can play the stereo channels on the multichannel layer of SACDs, but it chooses to default to the stereo layer.
There are relatively few bells and whistles on what is, above all, a very functional player, although you do get single-ended and balanced operation, and there's an electrical digital output for CD using an XLR connector. The USB and RS232 connections facilitate custom installations and firmware updating.
The internal clockwork is the most unusual and interesting part of the design. First, this is an upsampling player, though there is no user choice of sample rates. DSD data from SACDs is upsampled to twice the normal data rate, and any PCM data also goes though a similar chain, using a proprietary upsampler to double the sample rate.
Other technical highlights include a proprietary dual differential DAC circuit (not based on any commercial design) and proprietary PCBs with the tracks polished to a high level of smoothness, to avoid skin effects. The signal voltage from the XLR output is nominally twice that of the single-ended output, but both can be switched between low and high voltage settings, which means up to 7.2 volts from the balanced output, and four volts from the single-ended output, which may not always suit all preamplifiers.
When asked about the future of SACD, EMM Labs's sales director, Shahin Al Rashid, describes the company's line in terms that equate with vinyl. Rashid confirms that there is a general shortage of mastering capacity for SACD and that, if anything, this situation will get worse as the growth in small specialist companies (such as the San Francisco Orchestra, the London Symphony house, and the M&A label) increases demand.
The CDSA is an exceptionally good CD player, and crucially, is one which goes further than most to closing the gap between CD and SACD performance.
Many SACD players offer a degree of softness - a lack of presence and focus in the very highest octaves. The CDSA, however, is quite a different story. Vocal quality is both sweet and pure, and with material that has real depth and substance (for example, Madeleine Peyroux's Dance Me to the End of Love, with its elements of Billie Holiday that sound anything but slavish) the player offers real depth and gravitas when required.
In addition to this, the CDSA also boasts a lightness of touch that helps the player express something meaningful about the music. Nothing about the sound could be described as heavy-handed or clumsy, and it does this without sounding obviously euphonic or soft.
Stereo behaviour is also unusual, with real precision laterally and more than a hint of image depth and a large image space that presents itself in a way that suits the musical material of the moment.
Dynamics are also first-class, and the result is an engaging, enjoyable sound, one that has musical credibility and strength, along with the kind of range and variety, the ebb and flow, and the sense of detail that somehow manages to elude many otherwise worthy high-resolution players.
While there is a clear demarcation between CD-style PCM, and DSD from SACD - the later is clearly superior under almost all circumstances - CD sound quality is very impressive and although the sense of detail and presence is not in quite the same class, the quality of separation between voices and instruments is very well handled.
Intriguingly, SACDs made from PCM masters, of which some of the best examples are on the M&A label, are not noticeably inferior to DSD recordings. But M&A is a wholly exceptional label from the sound quality viewpoint and there are some particularly fine short piano excerpts on this disc, with unusually expressive fingering and a tonal purity, extreme treble quality and refinement that are simply beyond criticism.
The CDSA is not quite the smoothest or most refined player in either of its two main disc formats. The Marantz SA-7S1, and the Esoteric X-01, are unusually fine CD players, in addition to their very impressive credentials as SACD players, but clearly lose out to EMM Labs' player when reproducing CD material. In truth, both sound smoother and more refined then the CDSA, but the latter is actually lighter and offers greater resolution, as well as greater stereo focus.
While the CDSA is clearly at its best with SACD, there is greater consistency between the two formats with this player. The test player from EMM Labs is less euphonic than the other two (though in fairness the time gap between the three review timetables meant it was not possible to compare the three players side by side, except by referring to contemporaneous listening notes), but the CDSA player seemed unusually true to the musical intentions and structure of the various test pieces, using Moon Andromeda amplification, Nordost Valhalla cables and Monitor Audio PL300 speakers.