Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click here.
Last year my analog life was turned around in a way I did not expect. I’ve always loved turntables and records, but for the most part, I’ve viewed the phono cartridge with equal parts of fascination, apprehension, and disgust.
Look: the phono cartridge is an absolute miracle. Operating at the micron level, this tiny machine pulls information out of a tiny plastic valley and generates sound so impossibly lifelike that it’s essentially as good as anything yet developed. At the same time, that little machine degrades from the moment you start to use it, and will need to be replaced.
Over the years I’ve used and then discarded a whole bunch of expensive cartridges. I’ve resented each purchase, knowing that the replacement will also fail. It’s the audio equivalent of buying new brake pads for your car.
But my viewpoint has changed considerably since I received an optical cartridge from DS Audio a year ago. While the DS 003 that’s now attached to my tonearm will still need rebuilding or replacing, it’s now a valued, treasured part of my audio system as its sound quality far surpasses anything else I’ve previously used. And the same goes for the optical phono stage that provides power to and decodes the signal from that cartridge. Right now, I’m listening to the third optical phono stage to pass through my system—the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2. I know I should keep my powder dry, but let me tell you, this is an absolutely wonderful component.
His reputation precedes him
If the Meitner Audio name doesn’t conjure up an image, it really should. Ed Meitner is an audio legend, one whose resume reaches back over 50 years. Among other achievements, he’s the guy who worked in partnership with Sony and Phillips to create the SACD.
Meitner had long given up on vinyl, having turned his full attention to lossless digital in general and DSD in particular. However, a sampling of DS Audio’s optical cartridges and phono stages rekindled Meitner’s love for vinyl, and led to the development of the EMM Labs DS-EQ1.
EMM Labs’ sister company, Meitner Audio, aims to bring the EMM Labs sound down to a more attainable price point. As such, Meitner Audio has a small lineup of components: two DACs and a recently introduced preamp. Since Meitner already had the circuit for the DS-EQ1 figured out, it made sense to release the $5000 (all prices in USD) DS-EQ2 optical phono stage.
If you haven’t already done so, hop on over to my review of the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 optical phono preamplifier. And while you’re at it, have a look at the DS Audio DS 003 cartridge and phono preamplifier review that marks the start of my descent into this whole optical cartridge thing.
As a summary, the most important points to note about optical cartridges are as follows.
First off, an optical cartridge contains no magnets or coils. Instead, there are powered LEDs inside of the cartridge that shine toward the rear, at photoreceptors that convert variations of light into an electrical signal. The interface with the record is the same as a conventional cartridge—a stylus mounted on a cantilever. A sort of sail is attached to the cantilever, between the LEDs and the photoreceptors. As the stylus moves in reaction to the grooves on the record, the sail moves in sympathy, and modulates the amount of light reaching the photoreceptors. Those variations in light hitting the photoreceptors are converted into an electrical signal.
There are two important takeaways here. The most important is that the signal is entirely in the analog domain. The optical epithet might make you think that this whole thing has something to do with TosLink or other digital signals travelling down a glass fiber. Nope, this is an analog signal.
The second point is that the cartridge itself receives electrical power from the phono stage, and that the cartridge in turn generates a signal that is significantly different from that generated by a magnetic cartridge.
The upshot here is that if you’re planning to use an optical cartridge, you need a dedicated optical phono stage. In my review of the DS 003 cartridge, I evaluated it as a package with the supplied DS 003 phono stage. As you can tell from the review, I was mightily impressed, blown away even. But DS Audio has done a clever thing. The company has made the specifications of the requisite phono stage readily available, and it seems that they actively encourage the development of optical phono stages by outside companies. This is brilliant, in my opinion, as having a variety of stages to choose from can only help grow their cartridge business.
So that was the genesis of my review of the EMM Labs DS-EQ1, which I proceeded to rave about in no uncertain terms. In retrospect, the DS-EQ1 certainly should sound better than DS Audio’s own DS 003 phono stage. The DS-EQ1 retails for $12,500, compared to $3500 for DS Audio’s DS 003 stage. Primarily, though, it’s important to remember that EMM Labs is the brainchild of Ed Meitner, the engineer whose career is intimately intertwined with an astonishing number of high-end audio breakthroughs. As I’ve said before, Meitner has probably forgotten more than most audio engineers will ever know.
The DS-EQ2 is nicely put together. At 2.7″H × 13.3″W × 11.7″D, it’s just slightly smaller than your standard audio component; but at 8.2 pounds, the DS-EQ2 feels substantial and solid. In case you’re wondering about the writing on the top panel that is visible in the photos, Ed Meitner wrote a note and signed my review sample. The front panel is milled from thick-enough aluminum, and the chassis is steel. The top panel is well damped, which adds an of-a-piece feeling. Why so many manufacturers skimp on this is beyond me. On the front are two recessed touch-sensitive buttons. One button cuts power to the cartridge so that you can leave the DS-EQ2 powered up without fear of burning out the cartridge LEDs. The other button toggles a 15Hz high-pass rumble filter that I found most useful when playing rock music at stupidly loud levels. I left it engaged at all times.
The back panel of the DS-EQ2 is quite sparse. There are RCA inputs and outputs, and a ground screw. The power switch is integrated into the IEC socket. As the DS-EQ2 is single-ended, as opposed to its balanced big brother, I swapped over the DS-EQ1 and used its RCA outputs for a spell to acclimate myself, in order to get a handle on an apples-to-apples comparison between these two phono stages.
Beyond that slight wiring wrinkle, the DS-EQ2 slid right into my system with the simplicity of a DAC. RCAs in from the tonearm (well, power out to the cartridge also, right), RCAs out to the preamp du jour. There are no resistance, capacitance, or gain settings involved, remember? The cartridge and phono stage form a closed system, so the DS-EQ2 sets up more like a DAC than it does a traditional phono stage.
I’ll tell you right off that I had high hopes for the DS-EQ2. From chatting with Meitners Ed and Amadeus (Ed’s son), I came to understand that the alterations from an EMM Labs to a Meitner Audio product are ones of degree. The circuit is the same, and both products are designed and made in Canada. The differences are in build materials. The chassis is more conventional, eschewing the milled aluminum panels in exchange for steel, but still retaining a nice, thick faceplate. The power supply is an off-the-shelf unit instead of the more expensive in-house EMM Labs design. The DS-EQ2 employs a conventional FR4 circuit board, as opposed to the DS-EQ1’s aerospace-grade ceramic circuit board.
Context of a point in time
Some background on what I’ve been living with for the past while. I’ve been just soaking up some of the best sound of my life while living with the DS Audio DS 003 and EMM Labs DS-EQ1. It sure as heck doesn’t hurt that for the past couple of months, I’ve had the ginormous Hegel Music Systems H30A amp spanking my Aurelia Cerica XL speakers. I’ve lived with detail and resolution from my vinyl rig like I’ve never experienced. While I have given up some of the ease and fruity smoothness that I have come to realize is actually a sort of euphonic homogenization, I’m thrilled—just thrilled I tell you—with the payback. It’s now clear to me that there’s much, much more information on LPs than I previously thought.
So far in the game, the DS 003 cartridge and the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 just nails it in my system. So if I were able to replicate that performance and save $7500 in the process, well, that would warm my cold, frugal heart.
And now we’re at the part of the review where I come close to admitting defeat. Picture me, the audio professional, finishing the setup of the DS-EQ2 and sitting down to listen with laptop poised, ready to take detailed, flowery notes about how my system’s sound changed due to the insertion of a new component. Aaaaand . . . it sounded exactly the same. Somewhat flummoxed, I decided to not worry about actually writing the review, and instead just sit and listen for a spell.
One of the first records I cued up was the recent reissue of King Crimson’s Red (LP, Panegyric KCLP-7). I flipped straight to side 2, because I’ve been a touch anxious lately about hitting 60 years of age, and I knew that “Providence” is intensely jangly, and would wind me up further. Why I do this to myself is a good question. Anyway, through the DS-EQ2 I got a full dosage of the frantic interplay between Bill Bruford’s assorted percussion bits and pieces and John Wetton’s hammering, angry bass. The side continues with “Starless” and a brief respite from Crimson’s combined fury via Wetton’s rich, crumbly tenor. It’s a ruse though, as the track begins to thrash, but in a more cohesive manner than does “Providence.” Again, I was listening closely here to see if I got as much separation between the disparate percussion instruments and the massive, almost overpowering bass overtones as Wetton quite literally beats his bass within an inch of its life. And yeah, it was all here—all the detail, all the separation, the extension at both frequency extremes. Not much to report at this point other than a much cheaper component sounding disconcertingly similar to a really expensive one. But that’s a story worth telling, neh?
In situations like this, where I insert a new component and don’t initially get a good handle on it, I just sit back and listen without judgement, confident that time and a ton of music will peel back the layers.
So on with it. While I’m not generally a solo-instrument kind of guy, I recently bought from Discogs a new copy of Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G, D.894 (LP, London CS 6820). My original copy was a garage-sale purchase and was too beaten up for me to live with. This is stunning, massive music, with side 1 in its entirety having the density of collapsed matter. On a good system it feels like you’re listening to a real, live grand piano, with huge weight on the left hand and a light touch on the right.
Via a great system, via the DS 003 cartridge and DS-EQ2, it honestly sounds like that piano is right there, smack in the middle of the room. It pulled in an enormous piano, enlarging it from the LP’s tiny groove in a manner that, now that I think about it, makes my head spin. Part of what makes this record so great is the slow, ponderous pacing. The space and tension between the notes makes time slow down, and the DS-EQ2 imparted, by way of its clarity and density of image, a sort of hypnotic, out-of-body, falling-into-a-singularity effect. I listened to this album repeatedly over the review period, and it never failed to grab and hold my attention.
From one extreme to another, going from solo classical piano to live rock. I’ve written at length about The Tragically Hip, how they are a part of this Canadian’s DNA, how they are the soundtrack to my 30s and 40s. Now that I think about it, I mentioned The Hip’s Live At The Roxy (LP, Universal Music Canada 4517763) in my review of the EMM Labs DS-EQ1, so I guess that it’s fortuitous to cover it again here. This whole album is a barnburner, a crisp, crackling concert of over-the-top energy. And the DS-EQ2 relayed everything that’s great about The Hip. I got full-throttle guitar energy, with refined highs—more refined than the already excellent performance generated by the DS Audio DS 003 stage.
Flipping over to Road Apples (LP, MCA 3844804)—the reissue in blood-red vinyl—I found myself dragged deep into the tight, lyrical world of The Hip in their heyday. This is straight-ahead guitar rock, but the DS-EQ2 has a cohesive manner by which it lets the music flow through while still retaining tight control of the signal. What I mean here is that the Meitner Audio stage took those two blazing guitars, which are spread across the front middle of the soundstage, and kept them distinct from each other so that I could focus on each in turn.
At the same time, “Fight” is built on a loose, sloppy backbeat, and the DS-EQ2 didn’t tighten it up so that it no longer had that sexy swagger. As “Fight” progresses, that strut, that sense of Gord Downie winding up the band, builds, and as I write this, I’m truly enchanted by how of-a-piece this track sounds through the DS-EQ2. It’s a wall-to-wall extravaganza, and the DS-EQ2 just layers on the depth and definition between those disparate, thrashing instruments and Downie’s gritty, emotive voice.
As time wore on and I listened more and more to the DS-EQ2, I began to get a handle on what this component was not giving me, where it fell short of the DS-EQ1. Compared to its big brother, the little guy didn’t have quite as much soundstage depth. Please consider that I really, really had to work hard to come to this conclusion. Listen to these two phono stages back-to-back, swap one for another until you’re blue in the face, and I have little doubt you won’t really notice that the DS-EQ2 doesn’t quite have as much sheen and halo around instruments and voices.
I almost hesitate to make much of this comparison, to draw any attention to what on the face of it sounds like a shortfall. Why I say I’m rather sheepish in this regard is because I had to do so many swap-arounds in my system to directly compare the two. Balanced to RCA, RCA to RCA, with the two different inputs to my Sonic Frontiers preamp, each going through different circuits, and still I kept getting turned around. In the end, I ran both components through the non-direct RCA inputs to my preamp and still had to sweat and strain to come to a definitive conclusion, and I still had to physically look to determine which one I was in fact listening to at that moment.
So I think it’s safe to say that in just about any meaningful way, there’s so little difference between the Meitner Audio stage and the EMM Labs unit via their RCA outputs that it’s almost not worth discussing, especially considering the significant price gap. Now, when I ran the EMM Labs stage via its balanced outputs, I was more readily able to pick up that increased soundstage depth, a slightly tighter control of images. But my preamp is fully balanced, so all bets are off when connecting to a single-ended component.
I think it’s important to frame this review in the context of a full analog front end. Combine the DS-EQ2 with the DS 003 cartridge and, my god, you’ve got a world-class system that will likely make you question whether you could ever go back to a magnetic cartridge system. Now, as I’ve said on other occasions, the increased resolution and attendant change from the soft, gently rounded, warm sound of a good moving coil might not suit everyone, and I understand that. But for me, going back to full-time life with a moving coil would be akin to deciding to go back to candles because electric lights are too damn bright.
I’m haunted by the feeling that I’ve already written this review. I guess that’s because, in some ways, I already have. I just went back to my review of the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 and had another read. When it comes to my evaluation of the DS-EQ1’s sound quality, I could have cut-and-pasted many of my comments into my review of its little cousin, the DS-EQ2. The two are very, very similar in their aural attributes, and they both shine in their ability to extract insane amounts of detail, ease, and resolution, and thus musical enjoyment, from the information that the DS 003 cartridge pulls off the record.
Is the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 the better component? Well yeah. Its build quality is heroic as opposed to merely excellent, but that’s a given considering the cost-constrained mandate of the DS-EQ2. There’s also a very small amount of imaging prowess that the little guy cedes to its big brother. But we’re talking very small differences in sound quality and a very large difference in price. The $7500 differential between these two components buys one heck of a lot of records.
At the tail end of the review period, I swapped back from the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 to the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 via its balanced outputs, and yeah, there’s a tiny bit of added refinement to how the much more expensive component organizes its images. Given a choice, I’d prefer this much more expensive component.
But pulling myself back into the real world, the price of the DS-EQ1 is 2.5 times that of the DS-EQ2, and if your system is single-ended rather than balanced, you most likely wouldn’t get your full money’s worth out of the EMM Labs stage, and would be just as happy with the DS-EQ2.
The bottom line here
So the bottom line here is that the DS-EQ2 is a superb component, one that, in the end, can stand alone in the admittedly limited pantheon of optical phono stages. I’ve said it before, and the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 makes me say it again: If you want to find out just how much information is hiding in your records’ grooves, you need to hear them via a DS Audio optical cartridge and this phono stage.
. . . Jason Thorpe
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click here.
- Analog sources: VPI Prime Signature turntable; EAT Jo No8, DS Audio DS 003 cartridge.
- Digital source: Logitech Squeezebox Touch.
- Phono stages: Aqvox Phono 2 CI, iFi Audio iPhono 3 Black Label, Hegel Music Systems V10, DS Audio DS 003, EMM Labs DS-EQ1.
- Preamplifiers: Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 Hegel Music Systems P30A.
- Power amplifiers: Bryston 4B3, Hegel Music Systems H30A.
- Integrated amplifiers: Hegel Music Systems H120, Eico HF-81.
- Speakers: Focus Audio FP60 BE, Estelon YB, Aurelia Cerica XL, Estelon XB Mk II.
- Speaker cables: Audience Au24 SX, Nordost Tyr 2.
- Interconnects: Audience Au24 SX, Furutech Ag-16, Nordost Tyr 2.
- Power cords: Audience FrontRow, Nordost Vishnu.
- Power conditioner: Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II.
- Accessories: Little Fwend tonearm lift, VPI Cyclone record-cleaning machine, Furutech Destat III, Musical Surroundings Fozgometer azimuth meter, DS Audio ION-001 Vinyl Ionizer.
Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 Optical Phono Preamplifier
Warranty: Three years, parts and labor.
EMM Labs and Meitner Audio
119 - 5065 13th Street S.E.
Calgary, Alberta T2G 5M8
Phone: +1 (403) 225-4161
Fax: +1 (403) 225-2330