In the early days of digital audio, Ed Meitner was frequently asked about circuit design from industry people interested in his ideas. It was this recognition of an insight into digital audio that led to one of the most innovative and celebrated careers in not only professional audio gear, but also the consumer products so important to audiophiles.
What began as collaborations between Meitner, Sony, and Phillips on the SACD format ultimately became two companies: EMM Labs and Meitner Audio. EMM Labs caters to professional and consumer customers alike. Their consumer lineup includes world-class digital-to-analog converters, amps, preamps, and streaming devices. Meitner Audio is a more cost-competitive branch of EMM Labs using some of the same technology but at a lower price point. It is from this lineup that the Meitner Audio MA3 D/A converter comes.
What Makes the Meitner Audio MA3 DAC Special?
- Based on features and performance relative to its retail price, the Meitner MA3 DAC offers real-world value. Much of the design is a carryover or trickle-down from the vastly more expensive EMM Labs DV2 ($30,000)
- The MA3 can convert PCM signals up to 192/24, DSD128, 2xDSD (via DoP), and DXD over USB Audio. This DAC is not afraid of high-resolution digital audio.
- The MA3 is a Roon Ready Endpoint and may directly stream services such as Tidal, Qobuz, and other popular music services. It also has the capability for full MQA unfolding.
- File format processing include AAC, AIFF, FLAC, MP3, WAV, and WMA.
- Digital Inputs include AES/EBU, S/PDIF, COAX, TOSLINK, and USB Audio. Analog outputs are either balanced (XLR) or unbalanced (RCA).
- A fully discrete, one-bit DAC circuit internally upsamples all PCM and DSD audio to 16xDSD.
- The volume control on the MA3 enables a direct connection to an amplifier and provides volume attenuation. It may also be connected to a preamp and act as a standalone DAC.
- The mConnect app allows for network control with the use of Android or iOS devices.
- The Meitner MA3 DAC design employs fully discrete circuitry with no op-amps. This is not something you often see on similarly priced products.
- The one-bit discrete DAC is a Meitner design and it, along with other relevant operations, may be user-upgraded. This helps keep the MA3 somewhat futureproof, which is a major issue in the world of high-end digital audio.
- The MA3 does support MQA unfolding via both USB Audio and Ethernet input plus it does have USB media drive input so you can use portable USB thumb drives to playback audio files.
Why Should You Care About the Meitner MA3 DAC?
EMM Labs and its partner company Meitner Audio are both leaders in digital-to-analog conversion technology and manufacturing of highly regarded, world-class components. Because the MA3 is a lower-cost unit, it obviously allows the user to take advantage of a more competitive cost structure. That the MA3 does so with the list of available features and capabilities is perhaps the most surprising asset of this product.
This is a device that owes its performance to a legacy of innovative and patented designs from Ed and his team at EMM Labs/Meitner. His groundbreaking work on D-to-A conversion is quite nearly unchallenged. And in the MA3, this legacy of technology and impressive list of features are supplied at a price point many other competing products simply do not offer, or, at the very least, choose not to match.
Some Things You Might Not Like About the Meitner MA3 DAC…
- The user has no choice but to upsample his or her digital audio. The unit converts all digital audio signals (PCM or DSD) to 16xDSD. While most listeners will champion this capability, others may prefer being able to make their own choices regarding upsampling.
- There are no user-selectable reconstruction filters, so you can’t customize the sonic presentation as you can with some other audiophile DACs in and around this price point.
Listening To the Meitner MA3 DAC…
Generally speaking, the Meitner MA3 provided a warm, fully fleshed-out sound. The detail I heard from it was superb, as was the clarity. Jitter management through asynchronous clocking used in the Meitner MA3 seems to be doing its job. In terms of imaging, it was equal to any of the other three high-end audiophile DACs I’ve reviewed recently. Musical images appeared some 16 to 20 feet from the listening chair. Side-to-side imaging—that is, beyond the lateral speaker boundary—was adequate, but perhaps not quite as wide as the PS Audio Direct Stream DAC II or the Bricasti M21 Platinum Edition. Both of those two DACs spanned the 22-foot width of my listening room. All imaging occurred behind the speakers. While midrange was superb, as was the treble presentation, the bass lacked the full authority and dynamic power of the much more expensive T+A SD3100 HV. Bass response in the MA3, however, was still excellent. It should be noted, the T+A SD3100 HV had a more authoritative bass response than any of the other three DACs that I’ve recently had the chance to evaluate. Given the significant cost of the T+A, though, it better differentiate itself from the pack.
To a great degree, listener’s preference matters. If a highly dynamic, very articulate, more forward type of presentation is preferred, the Meitner MA3 may fall somewhat short. It has a very easy, highly listenable, more relaxed presentation. Long listening sessions would be no problem with the MA3. This is exactly how Meitner voiced the unit to perform, so it absolutely meets that design threshold. If the listener enjoys a warmer, more sumptuous type of sonic presentation, the Meitner MA3 should be on the short list of new potential DACs.
Listening to the Miley Cyrus song “Flowers” from her recently released eighth studio release Endless Summer Vacation (buy at Amazon), the MA3 portrayed this song in all of its pop glory. Cyrus’ voice is somewhat naturally gravelly, and the clarity of the presentation allowed her raspy voice at the very beginning of the song to become a prominent feature. Also somewhat prominently on display was a very tight and precise thumping bass line accompanied by a strong drum track. The Meitner MA3 handled the delineation of instruments effortlessly and allowed both instruments to be tracked and enjoyed separately. Despite being a DAC with a more relaxed presentation, the Meitner MA3 allowed this song to really thump, bump, and pump in my audio room—just as I suspect it was intended to be portrayed.
A song that for many people instills some measure of an emotional connection is the Howie Day track “Collide [Chris Lord-Alge Mix aka Radio Edit]” from the All the World Now album (buy at Amazon). Starting with a very simple acoustic guitar line, the strumming of the strings sounded almost like someone was standing in front of me playing live. That the MA3 presented this intro in such an accurate fashion was commendable. Throughout the track, the drums mesh very nicely with the ever-present acoustic guitar and play off each other with equal clarity. Once again, the Meitner MA3 was able to portray both instruments in a recognizable fashion and made listening to this song an absolute joy.
Does the Meitner MA3 DAC Have Any Resale Value?
Because the retail price is so attractive, especially when considering the generous list of features and benefits, the Meitner MA3 should have excellent resale value. Go to any of the more frequently utilized pre-owned audio gear outlets and Meitner or EMM Labs will almost always be found—and selling quickly. And unless the used asking price is completely out of whack, the time Meitner equipment remains for sale as a pre-owned product is very often very short. Basically, if you see one for sale used, better snap it up because it won’t be around long. This makes the resale proposition excellent. The downloadable upgrades only help to make the Meitner MA3 that much more excellent.
Who Is the Competition for the Meitner MA3 DAC?
There are any number of $10,000-and-up audiophile DACs available, and most are really strong performers, as you would expect. As such, I thought it would be interesting to specifically examine four DACs at four different price points to see how sonically close they were to each other—or how far apart.
- Of the four DACs I’ve had hanging around my audio room for review, the closest in price is undoubtedly the PS Audio Direct Stream DAC II ($7,995). While both units convert PCM to DSD, the PS Audio is 20xDSD as opposed to the Meitner being 16xDSD. Both units are quite detailed and render excellent imaging. The Meitner has the capability to stream music services such as Qobuz and Tidal directly; the PS Audio cannot. Both have similar inputs and outputs. PS Audio does have two HDMI inputs; however, they are not HDMI in the video/home theater sense. Rather, they are proprietary I²S connections designed for DSD data transmission and intended to work with other PS Audio components. Sonically, the PS Audio has a more analytical sound as opposed to the Meitner displaying a softer, warmer, more relaxed sound. Both are equally detailed.
- Compared to the Bricasti M21 Platinum Edition, the Meitner is both similar and different. With two user selectable filters for PCM, the M21 allows the user to tailor their own sound to some degree. One yields a more analytical, more dynamic and slightly forward sound and the other is a softer, more relaxed presentation similar to the Meitner MA3. The Bricasti has two linear power supplies: one for the digital input and one for the analog output. The Meitner only has one power supply. At almost twice the price, the Bricasti M21 obviously has a higher level of features and technology. That said, both devices deliver an excellent sonic presentation.
- Perhaps most difficult is the comparison of the Meitner MA3 to the T+A SD3100 HV. T+A offers the user a world of available customization options. It is perhaps easier to ask what the T+A does not do (very little) as opposed to what it does. Both units utilize fully discrete circuitry with no op-amps. Both have custom, in-house-designed DAC chips. Both take advantage of Internet-based software updates. T+A has two power supplies, the MA3 only one. T+A also makes use of a heavy walled aluminum chassis and complete galvanic isolation of the left and right channels inside the unit. T+A has multiple user-controlled setting choices where the MA3 does not. Sonically, the T+A would tend to side more on the analytical and highly detailed, very highly dynamic, tightly controlled bass presentation, whereas the MA3 is slightly more rounded and warmer. Price wise, there is a pretty wide gulf: $10,500 for the MA3 compared to $36,300 for the SD3100 HV.
Final Thoughts on the Meitner MA3 Streaming DAC
When it comes to a lifetime legacy of excellent D-to-A conversion, few equipment designers have had the stellar career and history of innovation of Ed Meitner. His devices are very well designed, with considerable attention to build quality.
When considering the MA3, the list of available included features is very impressive. Few other DACs in this price class possess a similar list of capabilities, build quality, and overall reputation. While $10,500 may be very expensive to some—maybe to many—what is included for that price outshines many other DACs with a similar cost. Add to that the excellent sonic presentation and the Meitner MA3 DAC is a product absolutely worth closer examination. No audio device is perfect for everyone, and many would prefer the MA3 have a longer list of available features. It could, no doubt. It would also have a higher retail price. All told, and for the price, the features on the Meitner MA3 are very impressive.