Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click here.
When contemplating the very best in digital audio, Canada’s EMM Labs, along with dCS and certain other brand names, comes to mind. EMM Labs is equally adept at analog electronics, to be sure—the company’s founder, Ed Meitner, has long been involved in both analog and digital electronics—it just may not be the first company you think of in the vast analog domain. Ed Meitner’s most recent exploits include developing the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 optical phono equalizer for the DS Audio line of optical cartridges. The current EMM Labs range also includes the PRE analog preamplifier, the MTRX and MTRX2 monoblock amplifiers, the MTRS stereo amplifier, the NS1 streamer, and two DACs: the variable output DV2 and the fixed output DA2 V2. These highly regarded products are designed for maximum performance rather than being built to hit a particular price.
Alongside his flagship EMM Labs line, Ed Meitner has a second brand, Meitner Audio, which brings much of the performance of the EMM Labs products to audiophiles on a more limited budget. The current Meitner Audio range comprises the DS-EQ2 optical phono preamplifier (a niche product if ever there was one), the MA-1 V2 Stereo DAC and MA3 DAC-preamplifier, and the Meitner PRE stereo preamplifier, which is the subject of this review. While the EMM Labs PRE lists for $25,000 (all prices in USD) and its predecessor, the PRE2 (now discontinued), sold for around $15,000, the Meitner PRE will run you a more modest $7500.
Where it fits
Let’s look at the differences between the EMM Labs PRE2, which I had on hand for the review, and the Meitner PRE. The PRE2 weighs 26.4 pounds and measures 3.6″H × 17.1″W × 15.7″D. The PRE is identical dimensionally but is lighter, weighing 16.4 pounds. While the PRE2 has two pairs of XLR inputs, four pairs of RCA inputs, and an RCA recording loop, the PRE has just one pair of XLR inputs and two pairs of RCA inputs. Both preamps have RCA and XLR outputs that can be used simultaneously. Both feature contactless switching between sources. The Meitner PRE, being the more modern design, has some features the EMM Labs PRE2 lacks, such as three preset volume levels per input and a balance control. Both have a power-factor-corrected power supply and operate in class A.
The top-of-the-line EMM Labs PRE offers three balanced and three unbalanced pairs of inputs, two balanced pairs and one unbalanced pair of outputs, and a switchable high-output option to match low-gain power amps. Its chassis, at 6.34″H, is taller than the EMM Labs PRE2 and the Meitner PRE but has the same width and depth and is significantly heavier, weighing 40 pounds. (In size and appearance it matches the EMM Labs DV2 and DA2 DACs.) It, too, has three volume presets per input and comes with a remote control that also works with the EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD Player.
The disparity in price between EMM Labs components and Meitner Audio components—the EMM PRE costs more than three times as much as the Meitner PRE—and their performance differential reflect important differences in some of their constituent parts. Generally, EMM Labs employs higher quality, more tightly controlled parts than Meitner Audio does. It uses aerospace-grade composite laminate circuit boards exclusively, not the conventional circuit boards used in the Meitner Audio range; it uses more highly regulated power supplies that have greater headroom; and it uses more substantial machined-aluminum cases, as evidenced by the components’ greater weights.
Both the EMM PRE and Meitner PRE use discrete dual-balanced signal paths. In both cases, the all-important volume control is a proprietary software-based analog design. Volume adjustment transitions through 100 discrete steps and produces no audible clicks. The volume range is scaled differently between the EMM and Meitner PRE preamps and the EMM PRE2: The Meitner PRE has a range of 74dB and a system gain of 6dB; the PRE2 has a smaller range, 62dB, and a significantly higher system gain, 12dB, making it a better match for low-gain power amps.
Essentially, the Meitner PRE is a simpler version of the EMM Labs PRE2 and PRE preamps, offering the same basic circuitry with fewer input options in a much lighter chassis. Ed Meitner has been so pleased with the Meitner PRE that he has designated it successor to the EMM Labs PRE2 whose production run has ended. What I wanted to know was how close the Meitner PRE is in sound to the EMM preamps and what effect it has on the sound of the system sans preamp (using the variable digital output of the EMM Labs DV2 DAC).
The remote control that accompanies the Meitner PRE is a small 13-button aluminum wand powered by a CR2025 button battery. It is simple, attractive, and ergonomic, and it offers control of several useful functions: muting and adjustment of volume, storage of volume presets, selection of source input, adjustment and storage of channel balance, and the setting of brightness level for the display.
On the preamp itself, controls are a simpler affair. On the left side of the short, wide display is a touch button for the mute function, next to a small icon that shows when it is engaged. Below is a touch button that cycles through the three inputs; a large display to the right shows the current input selection. On the right is a sizable digital reading of volume level. The large volume control knob defines the right edge of the display. It is perfectly weighted to have a satisfying flywheel effect.
Touch and hold the mute button to pull up the function page, which includes settings for balance, screen saver, and reset. To assign a volume level to one of the three available presets for each input, simply set the volume to the desired level then press and hold the A, B, or C button on the remote. The volume presets assigned to the active input and the one selected are shown to the left of the volume level display. Providing each input with volume presets is a nice touch.
The DC detection system will lock its outputs if a DC offset is detected on any of the inputs, and an error message will display.
Altogether, the unit is a delight to use. I wish the Meitner PRE offered the option to display volume directly in dBs as well as a level on a 0 to 100 scale as the EMM Labs preamps do, but that is a minor quibble.
The rear panel
The rear panel is laid out as neatly as the remote control. On the left is the analog input section, with two RCA pairs and one XLR pair. Next to it is the analog output section, which includes one RCA pair and one XLR pair. An RS232 port for system remote and service is next, above the model and serial number. The power socket and switch are on the right, next to the voltage parameters (90–260 volts AC, 50Hz/60Hz, 50W max).
The connectors appear to be identical in quality and design to those in EMM Labs components.
Bearing in mind that a spec sheet is not necessarily a reliable indication of how well a component performs, it is noteworthy that the Meitner PRE is specified to have extremely low noise (S/N ratio > 116dB), very low distortion (THD < 0.004%), a very wide bandwidth (frequency range 0Hz to 200kHz), and a signal gain of 6dB, which will suit most domestic amplifiers. The Meitner PRE is designed and built in Canada, which to me, a Torontonian, is always nice to know.
The rest of the system
My digital sources in this audition were an EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD player ($25,000), used only as a transport, and an exaSound Delta Server ($3,000) containing a large music library. I also streamed from Qobuz. I used an EMM Labs DV2 DAC ($30,000) with a fixed output (100 on the volume control) to feed the preamp and, for comparison, with a variable output (0 to 100) to drive the power amp directly. The speakers were the YG Acoustics Hailey 2.2 ($46,800/pair), a three-way sealed design with a sensitivity of 87dB (2.83V/1m) and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. Driving the speakers was the exotic Soulution 511 stereo power amplifier ($32,000). The cabling was Nordost Valhalla 2, with two exceptions: The connection from the EMM Labs XDS1 to the EMM Labs DV2 DAC was a proprietary EMM Link glass cable, which can transfer DSD streams directly, and the USB cable from the Delta Server to the EMM Labs DV2 DAC was Nordost Tyr 2.
General listening impressions
The Meitner PRE proved thoroughly musical in its presentation across all types of music and was easy to audition. What was difficult was to distinguish its sound from that of the EMM Labs PRE2 and from the sound of the system without a preamp, when the variable output from the EMM Labs DV2 DAC was feeding the Soulution amp directly. Once volume levels were evened out, I had to strain to discern the differences between the three devices. On a few recordings, I sensed a greater ease of presentation from the variable output of the DV2 DAC, which made me forget about the job at hand and lulled me deeper into the music. I felt that the image in this presentation was somewhat broader, too, than it was through the Meitner PRE.
The reference system for this audition, as a whole, was supremely transparent. The digital front end is among the very best available, and the Soulution 511 amp and YG Hailey 2.2 speakers are ultra-wide-bandwidth, high-resolution devices with enormous headroom and dynamics, capable of throwing a large and precise image. These components and the Nordost Valhalla 2 wiring loom, I was sure, would reveal any weaknesses the Meitner PRE preamplifier might have as it served as a source selector and volume control.
Performance weaknesses in the Meitner PRE were hard to find despite my diligent attempts to trip it up with recordings that proved challenging to test components in the past. Almost invariably, I found the system coherent, musical, and unstrained, with no hint of harshness or compression. At the frequency extremes, where so many components let you down, I heard startling resolution and clarity without any hint of bloat or veiling.
I don’t actually need a preamp—I sold my Linn Sondek turntable and vinyl collection when I downsized, and I do have a variable output DAC—but I could happily live with this preamp at the heart of my system.
Specific listening impressions
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” is as tough a test as any for a review component. A massive orchestra, offstage brass, an organ, church bells, a large choir, soloists—all present a serious challenge to the conductor, players and singers, to the recording venue and the recording engineers, and later to your equipment and listening space. One of the best modern performances comes from Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (SACD, Channel Classics CCS SA 23506). The Meitner PRE delivered a relaxed but detailed flow of music with a fast, precise bass. The tonality of the orchestra was very well reproduced, and clarity was maintained even in the thickest of orchestral textures. My notes read “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” But this most challenging recording exposed a minor weakness too: the dynamic range, albeit relatively wide, could have been wider still to fully reveal the finest level of detail and leave peak outputs uncompressed.
The sound of gut-stringed period instruments is difficult to reproduce faithfully. Too often it is thin and wiry. Not so with the Meitner PRE on the fine recording by Quatuor Mosaïques of Joseph Haydn’s String Quartets, op. 20 (CD, Astrée E 8784). The string tones were rich but somewhat smooth, which slightly dulled the thrilling edge of this work. Nevertheless, the Meitner PRE came closer to the ideal with this recording than it did with the Mahler—an excellent result.
Another instrument that is difficult to reproduce is the piano, given its huge dynamic range. Arthur Rubinstein’s recording of Beethoven Sonatas (SACD, RCA 828767 16192) has revealed weaknesses in other equipment but none with the Meitner PRE. The sound had superb instrumental color and realistic weight. To my surprise and delight, Rubinstein’s piano emerged unscathed from this recording in all its glory.
In other listening sessions, I played less challenging recordings and heard very few departures from the ideal. The fast bass lines in “And When I Die,” from Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro (CD, Columbia C2K 48880), were reproduced flawlessly, and the rather forward recording of “Eli’s Comin’” thrilled through power and beauty, not hard edge. “Stoned Soul Picnic,” a track that tripped up an amp I recently auditioned, sounded glorious.
Ed Sheeran’s Subtract album (24-bit/48kHz FLAC, Atlantic Records / Qobuz) has deep bass that can be felt as well as heard when played through the right equipment. This was definitely the right equipment, to judge by how tangible the bass was, but it wasn’t perfect: it was slightly closed in on top and lost some detail when it got loud. Were these weaknesses of the recording or of the Meitner PRE?
Mingus Ah Um (24/192 FLAC, Columbia Records / Qobuz) sounded spectacular through the Meitner PRE. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” emerged with a full dose of warmth and offered rich instrumental color. The sound extended to the lowest depths and remained open in the extreme treble. It was, in a word, effortless. If you like clear sweet tones, fine imaging, and exquisite detail, then you’ll be happy to know I found all that and more in “Fables of Faubus,” my favorite track on the album.
Subsequent listening sessions included the Beatles, Béla Fleck, Barry White, Antonio Lysy, Bruce Liu, and Cannonball Adderley, but none of these recordings elicited new findings.
The EMM Labs DV2 DAC has a superb variable output (not many DACs do) that I put to the test by connecting it directly to the power amp, removing the preamp from the signal path altogether. In this configuration there was very little to gripe about. The dynamic range expanded markedly—this was most evident in the Mahler and Haydn recordings—which made for a more exciting listening experience. The flow of music was more relaxed and natural, the image size increased, and string tones became more realistic. The Rubinstein recording, though, as indeed most of the others, sounded the same with and without the Meitner PRE. Ed Sheeran’s Subtract sounded the same, too, which suggested that the imperfect bass I had noticed is inherent to the recording itself.
My final listening session was the most intense. I recently heard the Danish Quartet playing in Toronto’s Koerner Hall, an exceptional venue in both architecture and acoustics, so I have a good idea of the quartet’s live sound. Fortunately, the Danish Quartet records for ECM, which maintains high recording standards and serves the quartet admirably. This was particularly evident on the five-album Prism series, which features, among other works, Beethoven’s String Quartets Nos. 12–16 (the “late quartets”). I listened to the Adagio and Allegro from Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, op. 131 (24/96 FLAC, ECM Records / Qobuz). While the EMM Labs PRE2 exhibited magnificent power against a black background in this recording, the Meitner PRE was more detailed and more relaxed. The EMM Labs DV2 DAC’s variable output, feeding the amp directly, combined the best parts of the two presentations and proved to be the clear winner, if only by a nose.
What about the EMM Labs PRE?
At the time of this audition, I didn’t have the EMM Labs PRE, Ed Meitner’s statement analog preamp, on hand. But I do have my listening notes from a couple of years ago. At that time I compared the EMM Labs PRE to the EMM Labs DV2 DAC with a direct connection to the amp. My preference was for the latter: aside from not needing analog inputs, I preferred its sound—it was a touch more resolved in the deep bass—and felt it threw a more spacious image. This setup also saves a pair of interconnects and a power cord for the separate preamp and takes up less space in the rack. Quite possibly, the small differences I detected might have disappeared had I used Nordost’s top-of-the-line Odin 2 interconnects and power cable to feed the EMM Labs PRE instead of the Valhalla 2 cables.
Compared to the EMM Labs PRE2, the EMM Labs PRE has a much nicer case and a bigger and brighter display. It revealed more detail while maintaining silent backgrounds even at full volume. The EMM Labs PRE is a more modern design, matching the EMM Labs DV2 DAC and the form factor of the EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD player.
The Meitner Audio PRE easily wins the battle for value for money since it is almost identical in sound to the EMM Labs PRE2, PRE, and DV2 DAC in a direct connection. But all four are fabulous performers that do justice to all but the most demanding recordings. If you are in the market for a serious preamp and can live with a limited number of inputs, no digital streaming, and no headphone output, then the Meitner PRE is worth your consideration. It is an exceptional preamp, beautifully built and a pleasure to use, at a realistic price. I have not heard anything like it below $10,000. I give it a most enthusiastic welcome and my unqualified recommendation.
. . . Phil Gold
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click here.
- Digital sources: exaSound Delta streaming server, EMM Labs XDS1 SACD player.
- Digital-to-analog converter: EMM Labs DV2.
- Preamplifier: EMM Labs PRE2.
- Power amplifier: Soulution 511.
- Loudspeakers: YG Hailey 2.2.
- Power, interconnect, and speaker cables: Nordost Valhalla 2.
- USB link: Nordost Tyr 2.
Meitner Audio PRE Preamplifier
Warranty: Three years, parts and labor.
EMM Labs and Meitner Audio
119-5065 13th Street S.E.
Calgary AB T2G 5M8
Phone: (403) 225 4161