A little over a year ago, I reviewed EMM Labs’ DV2 digital-to-analog converter-preamplifier ($30,000, all prices USD) and concluded that it was the best-sounding DAC I’d ever heard. That remains true, and so in January of 2021, when Meitner Audio—headed by Ed Meitner, EMM’s founder, chief designer, and the brains behind the product lines of both EMM Labs and the lower-cost Meitner Audio brand—released its MA3 DAC-preamplifier ($9500), I naturally requested a review sample.
While I was waiting for one to ship, I spoke with Shahin Al Rashid, Meitner Audio/EMM Labs’ director of sales, about the intent behind the MA3’s development. Shahin responded that the MA3 marks the first model in what promises to be an all-new line of Meitner Audio products. While I can’t tell you what those upcoming products are, I can tell you that each model will incorporate trickle-down technology from EMM Labs’ products.
The MA3 was derived from three EMM Labs products: the DV2 DAC-preamplifier ($30,000), the DA2 V2 DAC ($30,000), and the NS-1 streamer ($4500). Meitner himself is responsible for the MA3’s DAC design, analog section, hardware, and internal architecture. Mariusz Pawlicki engineered the digital-signal-processing (DSP) section (MDAT2, more on this later) and firmware, and Kris Holstein oversaw the MA3’s industrial design.
More for less . . .
The MA3 measures 17″W × 15.75″D × 3.65″H and weighs just over 15 pounds. Both its chassis and external panels are crafted from high-grade aluminum. The 1/4″-thick, bead-blasted aluminum front fascia can be ordered in silver or black. The faceplate sports dual, seamlessly merged OLED displays located center mass and has a large aluminum volume dial positioned to the right of the display. I prefer the MA3’s display to that of the DV2 because it’s bigger and seems easier to read; it shows the digital input, file type, sample rate, and metadata information, with the volume level appearing in larger text. A slick new feature unique to the MA3 is a soft-touch control that enables the user to change the display brightness (Normal, Dim, or Off) and source selection by simply placing a finger over a small light. The IR receiver for the new, smaller aluminum IR remote is concealed to the left of these controls, and further to the left, “meitner” is machined into the fascia. “MA3” has been similarly machined in the lower-right corner.
The rear panel of the MA3, like all Meitner and EMM Labs products, is logically laid out, with plenty of space between inputs and outputs. Digital inputs span the upper left, including (from left to right) one AES/EBU on XLR, one S/PDIF coaxial on RCA, one S/PDIF optical on TosLink, and one USB Type-B (labeled “USB Audio”). Thanks to the incorporation of EMM Labs’ NS-1 streamer circuitry, there is also support for mass file storage, through a USB Type-A port (labeled “USB Media”), and network content, through both Ethernet (on an RJ45 connector) and Wi-Fi. All digital inputs accept 24-bit/192kHz PCM and DSD64. The USB Audio input also supports DSD128, DXD (24-bit/352.2kHz), up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM, and full unfolding of MQA files. The USB Media input accepts AAC, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, MP3, WAV, WMA, MQA, and DSD in DSF or DFF file types. The network input supports UPnP/DLNA network streaming and NAS file playback of AAC, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, MP3, WAV, and WMA files, including full MQA unfolding where applicable. Through the network input the MA3 can stream Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, Deezer, and vTuner. The MA3 is also Roon Ready and can function as a Roon endpoint.
To the right of the digital inputs, there’s an RS-232 communication port for remote wired operation and firmware updates, as well as a Wi-Fi reset button. Further to the right are an IEC power inlet and a cleverly recessed power toggle allowing for oversized power cable connections. My niggle about this is that the toggle switch is the only way to power the MA3 on or off; there’s no standby option. If you use a larger power cable, it can get cumbersome squeezing a pinky finger into the recess if you need to turn the MA3 on or off regularly. The MA3 provides one pair of balanced (XLR) and one pair of single-ended (RCA) outputs located directly beneath its digital inputs.
When I reviewed the DV2, I struggled to figure out how to remove the top panel because the aluminum casework was so meticulously assembled—there was no obvious disassembly path, even when I turned the unit over. The MA3 is beautifully put together as well, but its casework is far less exotic, and thus, I was able to remove the one-piece aluminum cowl spanning the top and both sides of the MA3 for a peek inside. In doing this, I noticed that the top panel is damped—and then some. Shahin informed me that, in addition to the damping provided by the new damped feet supporting the chassis, the damping attached to the top panel is what Meitner calls their proprietary Charge Management Plate. He described it as follows:
Charge Management Technology was developed by Ed Meitner; it uses a proprietary PCB material together with a layout, structure, and distance that make it possible to quickly and more definitively stabilize the multitude of charges and instabilities associated with an electrical/electronic system. It allows a system to more quickly come to steady state and stay in this stable mode over an indefinite duration even when parts of the system are inherently changing during this period. It’s difficult to explain, so we don’t normally talk about it; it basically accelerates the burn-in process, but more importantly, it allows our systems to achieve overall electrical stability.
When you look at it, the plate is unique in that it incorporates a group of small copper pucks strategically located above the ground plane. If I understand Shahin’s comment, when charged, the plate is supposed to help stabilize the electrical field around sensitive audio circuits, while its mass helps curb vibrations induced into the top panel.
Focusing on the internal electronics, I had Shahin walk me through what I was looking at and more importantly, give me an idea of why an MA3 costs less than one third the price of a DV2. The first reason, I’ve already covered: the EMM Labs DV2 uses a non-resonant CNC-machined chassis cleverly concealed by luxuriously finished 1/4″-thick slabs of aluminum, constituting some of the most painstaking casework in the industry. The MA3’s chassis and casework are significantly less complex, incorporate less expensive materials and finishes, and are simply easier to assemble. This approach is applied to the electronics inside as well—the DV2 has considerably more custom-made components; in-house, hand-matched parts; and custom-made ceramic PCBs for the DAC and analog circuits. It also has a significantly more complex power supply. The MA3 uses some of the same parts, but in general, it was engineered with more standard audio-grade components throughout.
Because the MA3 is based on the same technology used in the DV2 and DA2, the signal path remains the same. Meitner’s proprietary Frequency Acquisition System, which they call MFAST, detects and locks onto digital signals entering the MA3 from any digital input or source. One version of MFAST is used across all of the MA3’s digital inputs, except USB. For USB, an independent version of MFAST is incorporated directly into the USB system. Once a signal is locked, it’s sent through custom-built clock (MCLK2) circuitry, which the company claims removes jitter from all digital sources, including the streaming system. Shahin mentioned that while all of this is happening, critical power stages near the left- and right-channel DACs are isolated and regulated, and each USB interface is galvanically isolated to maintain the utmost signal purity. Next, digital signals are upconverted through the Meitner Digital Audio Translator (MDAT2), the company’s proprietary DSP technology. The MDAT2 is said to eliminate pre- and post-ringing using a pair of filters (one each for multiples of 44.1kHz and 48kHz) and by managing transients and upconverting all incoming signals to 16xDSD.
Once filtered and upconverted, signals are attenuated using a less exotic version of the DV2’s VControl, then sent to Meitner’s single-bit dual-differential discrete DSD1024 digital-to-analog converters (MDAC2). The MDAC2 module used in the MA3 is the same as that in the DV2; it is 1024fs (16xDSD) time-based, temperature stable, and vibration resistant. It also re-clocks audio signals at the precise transition boundary between the digital and analog domains, and of course, it’s been designed for ultra-low jitter. The asynchronous MCLK2 is responsible for processing signals through the MDAC2, which is also the case with the DV2. It’s mounted directly beside the MDAC2 to ensure the shortest possible signal path. After signals have been precisely clocked and converted to analog, they exit the MA3 through a fully balanced, pure class-A analog output stage, which is also fundamentally similar to the one used in the DV2.
While this all sounds analogous to what’s happening inside the DV2, there are differences, as I mentioned above, in the implementation of these technologies, starting with the circuit boards. While the DV2 uses custom-made aerospace-grade ceramic circuit boards, the MA3 uses high-quality FR4-grade circuit boards replete with pure 2-ounce, non-plated copper throughout. The power supply in the MA3 is simpler, too: it’s custom-built by an external OEM as opposed to the proprietary no-feedback power supply found in the DV2, which is built in-house. The fact that the MA3 is made up of less exotic parts, less expensive circuitry, and less complex casework had me wondering just how different the MA3 would sound and function compared to the DV2. I am happy to report that, ergonomically, I favor the MA3. But sonically . . . ?
In general (see exception below), I reviewed the MA3 in the way I expected most people would use it: as a DAC with a built-in volume control. To do this, I removed my PS Audio DirectStream DAC and Audio Research Reference 6SE preamplifier from my system and replaced both with the MA3. I connected the MA3 to my Classé Audio Delta Mono monoblock amplifiers using Kimber Kable KS-1116 balanced interconnects (XLR). I used Analysis Plus digital links to stream music to the MA3 from an outboard USB hard drive via an Intel NUC computer running Windows 10 and I used Roon. Kimber Select KS-6063 speaker cables tethered the Classé Monos to my Paradigm Persona 7F speakers. Power was supplied through a Torus AVR 20 power conditioner from a dedicated 20A outlet using Clarus Crimson power cords.
A new ethos
Unlike the DV2, the MA3 provides a host of onboard streaming options. There’s also the dedicated USB Media input for connecting a thumb drive. Control for both is provided using the mConnect HD app, which is available for Android and iOS tablets. Fortuitously, my reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Bridge II ($6899) also uses mConnect HD, so I was already quite familiar with how to set up and navigate my way around the app, but for those who are new to it, the MA3’s manual offers excellent step-by-step setup instructions on how to properly configure each digital input and streaming option. During testing, the app found the MA3 instantly and recognized an attached USB thumb drive just as fast. There was no configuration required for either, other than signing in to the preferred streaming services or selecting the “Meitner_MA3 Server” to bring up files stored on the attached thumb drive. In back-to-back listening sessions, I heard no difference whatsoever when I was streaming services direct through the MA3 versus accessing music via the USB input from my NUC running Roon. Likewise, I didn’t notice any differences when I compared music from a thumb drive to Roon over USB. Therefore, I simply used Roon as my music source for the remainder of this review.
The MA3 sounded different than any other EMM Labs or Meitner product I have heard, which is surprising, considering the DAC circuitry is so closely related to what’s found in the EMM Labs DA2 V2 standalone DAC. When I reviewed the DV2, which is essentially a DA2 V2 paired with Meitner’s VControl, I was beguiled by how transparent it sounded: microlevel nuances were projected into my room effortlessly, and in part, this effortlessness is what made the DV2 so endearing to listen to. The MA3 communicated music in a more relaxed manner. Its overall sonic persona leaned more towards lush and fluid than vivid and detailed, yet it never sounded unbalanced, and that’s just one of the qualities that made the MA3 so captivating to listen to.
Before removing my reference preamp and DAC from my system, I did listen to the MA3 connected as just a DAC. In this configuration it was paired with my ARC preamplifier. When I focused on Sarah McLachlan’s voice as she sang “Angel,” from her album Surfacing (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Nettwerk), the soundstage within which she was singing was presented as massive, just as I recall it being through the DV2 when it was similarly connected. I also enjoyed how warm, dense, and melodic piano notes sounded against the body, depth, and power of Jim Creeggan’s double bass.
This led me to queue up one of my favorite albums from the Police, Synchronicity (24/96 FLAC, A&M), and I skipped ahead to “Tea in the Sahara.” My attention was immediately drawn to the depth and weight of Sting’s bass; the symbiosis between Sting’s guitar work and Stewart Copeland’s drums was something special to hear because of the way the MA3 made child’s play of differentiating the two. Again, the MA3 painted a massive soundstage replete with synth effects floating between and all around my Paradigm Persona 7F speakers, and the MA3 did nothing to mask the bite and attack of every thwack of Copeland’s drums. Taps of the brass were precisely rendered with plenty of shimmer, and the MA3 illustrated Sting’s vocals with a welcome sense of fluidity, in contrast to the grainier, texturally focused presentation I have experienced through other DACs, such as my PS Audio DirectStream.
Now that I had a good idea of how the MA3 sounded as just a DAC, I reconfigured my system to put the MA3 in the driver’s seat, directly in front of my Classé Audio Delta Mono amplifiers. When I did this with the DV2, I recall hearing an immediate difference in soundstage scale and bass presence, which rendered music in a slightly leaner fashion. This was not the case with the MA3. Soundstages were portrayed as deep and wide just as they were while using the MA3 as just a DAC, and I heard no change in bass presence, precision, or articulation. I did most of my listening with the volume pegged at 50 on the MA3, which equated to roughly 80dB according to my Scosche sound-pressure level meter. My Reference 6SE produced similar sound levels with its volume set at 32, and this differential was similar to what I recall witnessing when performing an equivalent test between the DV2 and the Audio Research Ref 6SE preamplifier. The MA3 produced vanishingly low levels of noise even with my ear darn near touching one tweeter.
When I revisited “Tea in the Sahara” with the MA3 driving my amplifiers directly, Sting’s bass remained deep and plummy, and there was no degeneration of the symbiosis between Sting’s bass and Stewart Copeland’s drums, nor were the soundstage dimensions diminished. I did hear a hint less air between Sting and Copeland’s playing, and images weren’t quite as holographic as they were when I was using the MA3 as just a DAC through the Ref 6SE, but the differences were so subtle they would likely go unnoticed unless you were performing an A/B comparison. Listening to parts 1 and 2 of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” from their 11th studio album, The Wall (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia), I really started to understand the MA3’s character. Earlier, I described the MA3 as sounding relaxed, but there’s more to it than that: the MA3 was also articulate; dynamically unrestrained; unabashedly competent at communicating the full grandeur of the impact, tone, and texture of any bass instrument; and transparent to the source material. It’s the sense of ease and fluidity and the openness with which these attributes are communicated that allowed the MA3 to sound so relaxed, and ultimately, so enjoyable.
Raising the bar
When I reviewed the DV2, it redefined what I expected from a DAC. At less than a third the cost of a DV2, the MA3 is really no different. The MA3 surpassed the DV2 in terms of ergonomics, connectivity, and value, because it provides onboard streaming, Roon integration, a media port, and a newer, more responsive IR remote.
My reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Bridge II—which, as I mentioned, also uses the mControl app—can function as a Roon endpoint. It also has a far more responsive, feature-laden backlit remote and a color screen capable of displaying metadata. Another plus is that it can be upgraded wirelessly with superior firmware offering performance improvements for free. However, the PS Audio doesn’t provide a USB port for local music file storage, its color screen is unreadable from my listening chair (which is around nine feet away), except for the album art and volume level during adjustment, and it doesn’t communicate quite as seamlessly with the Roon or the mControl app. I’ve also experienced the odd driver hiccup that required a reboot of the PS Audio, whereas the MA3 was rock solid. Lastly, the digital volume control implemented in the PS Audio seems like an afterthought by comparison; I found the MA3’s volume control easier to use and much quieter when I adjusted it.
I revisited part 2 of Another Brick in the Wall with the volume set at 67 on the PS Audio, and the soundstage sounded smaller in every dimension. Images were well placed with laudable body and focus, but they weren’t cast as vividly or quite as well fleshed out as they were through the MA3. Nick Mason’s thwacks on the skins weren’t hitting me in the chest like they did through the MA3, and the way Roger Waters’s bass came across was a hint recessed compared to the MA3. What really cinched it for me, though, was the texture, shimmer, and realism the MA3 was able to articulate as I listened to Mason’s taps on the brass—they sounded more real and less like a tsst, tsst. To be fair, I think a lot of these limitations are the result of PS Audio’s volume control because, when used strictly as a DAC with its volume pegged at 100, the gap in performance between the PS Audio and the MA3 narrowed considerably. But while the PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Bridge II has served commendably as my reference DAC for the past few years—and I still consider it a stellar product—quite simply, the MA3 is sonically superior across the board.
The term value gets thrown around a lot in this industry. Heck, I’ve already used it in this review, and I’ll tell you why: Meitner Audio’s MA3 DAC-preamplifier has redefined what I expect from a product of this kind that’s priced up to $15,000.
The culmination of network streaming, Roon integration, local music file storage, and unflappable ergonomics supplemented by numerous proprietary technologies borrowed from the MA3’s more exotic brethren result in a product that not only redefines the benchmark in this price category, but raises the bar significantly. Yet again, Ed Meitner should be proud of what he and his team have created here, and the competition should be on alert. The Meitner Audio MA-3 is enthusiastically recommended!
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers: Paradigm Persona 7F.
- Subwoofers: JL Audio Fathom f112 (2).
- Amplifiers: Classé Delta Mono monoblocks (2), Parasound Halo A 51 (multichannel).
- Preamplifiers: Anthem AVM 60, Audio Research Reference 6SE, Musical Fidelity M6x Vinyl phono stage.
- Digital-to-analog converter: PS Audio DirectStream with Bridge II network sound card.
- Sources: Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player; Intel NUC computer running Windows 10, Roon; Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon turntable with Sumiko Starling cartridge.
- Interconnects: Analysis Plus (digital), Kimber Kable Select KS-1116 (analog).
- Speaker cables: Kimber Kable KS-6063.
- Power cords: Clarus Crimson Z.
- Power conditioner: Torus AVR 20.
Meitner Audio MA3 DAC-Preamplifier
Price: $9500 USD.
Warranty: Three years, parts and labor.
EMM Labs Inc.
115-5065 13th Street SE
Calgary, Alberta T2G 5M8
Phone: (403) 225-4161
Fax: (403) 225-2330