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Fascinating. Ed Meitner's MA-1 does something I didn't know could be done. Current SACD players all convert DSD to PCM. That's because they run multi-bit chips. They're the only kind which today's suppliers make. Here the MA-1 goes retro with its discretely assembled true 1-bit converter. It converts PCM to DSD instead. While this won't transfer the previously noted DSD distinctions wholesale—after all the dff/dsf files I had on hand were processed natively to exhibit these traits to a more pronounced extent than converted PCM files—it does infuse them. That makes the MA-1 sound different. As such the answer to whether just because it could be done equals should remains in the ear of the beholder.

The core difference involved the tacitness of images relative to space. This wasn't about soundstage width or depth. My other converters cast the same basic stage dimensions. Though an aspect of this difference did involve depth perception, it wasn't about how far away performers appeared to the listener. Nothing truly moved backward. It was about an altered sense of dimensional sculpting, a greater depth of spatial relief. As such it was about context. What did sounds arise in and how. With the Meitner the perception of living space was more profound. That warrants an explanation to not just sound fuzzy. I've always loved the cleverness of the tag line to Ridley Scott's 1979 movie Alien. In space no one can hear you scream. It's suggestive of outer space as a cold absence or frigid vacuum. And I'm reminded of it whenever audiophiles invoke jet-black backgrounds. Something about that quietude is unnatural. Alien. Musical silence isn't dead. It's not like an overdamped anechoic chamber. It's energetically vibrant. Of course silence per se is inaudible. Yet the moment sounds arise, they describe the silence by contrast and are described by it. It's precisely here where the Meitner had the more believable contrast. Its silence was more alive. The sounds were more elastic.

Still fuzzy. Those aren't conveniently hard facts like "a measurable dip of 0.6dB@200Hz". But particularly with properly engineered digital, fuzzy (logic?) is mostly what's left. The crass idiosyncrasies which plague loudspeakers in particular stop to apply. Amplitude errors of more bass, less treble are gone. Tonal balance is centered right in the middle. What opens up when those grosser deviations no longer factor? One key issue becomes transient fidelity or the time domain. In hifi discussions time gets abstracted and irrelevant quickly. The majority of speakers through which we must come to our conclusions show little respect for proper timing. They literally confuse the issue. More phase-coherent speakers do less damage to leading-edge integrity. Wide-bandwidth amplifiers with little or no corrective feedback can help further to make improvements in this domain more apparent. Then results require seemingly poetic words like 'flow' to be described properly or at least hinted at. Or big words like 'temporal continuousness'. It's not about fancy or advanced verbiage though. It's about describing things beyond the hifi basics which are just as real but harder to quantify.

Fundamentally the Meitner differed from the Eximus and Antelope Audio decks in feeling rounder, smoother, spatially wetter and imbued with a nearly subliminal misty sheen. They sounded more damped and dry. Spreading the gulf between flow and rigidity too far would miss. Ditto for involving light changes from bluish to more golden. Yet something resonates. That slightly greater elasticity of the Meitner also had a small textural aspect to it. It was less than the sweetening effect of native DSD files and far less and different from the pentode/triode polarity and thickening effects of 3rd versus 2nd-order harmonic distortion which show up in the NWO-M's transformer-coupled valve outputs. But perhaps Morton's terse "Hollywood soft focus" captured an essential. Compare a photograph in razor-sharp focus to one where that focus is ever so slightly less. Absolutely nothing has been lost except for a sense of artifice once we compare that hyper-realist rendering to how our own eyes would actually see the same scenery.

FirstWatt SIT-2, Aries Cerat Gladius

Listening to my 16/44.1kHz CD rips over the Meitner sounded more pleasing in those ways. Unlike pure DSD I didn't relate to this as just a tad too soft or sweet. Of course at more than twice the tariff of my Eximus, the MA-1's difference of gestalt neither reads terribly weighty nor can I predict how it will translate from system to system. Even so I found this shift very pervasive and compelling. It wasn't something I'd encountered before exactly like it. Again, my familiarity with SACD as a delivery format approaches zero. I own probably four or five of the discs. I simply can't remember what they are. So I don't know how to find them amidst my many silver discs. I expect SACD aficionados and now DSD file fiends will be very familiar with these differences. They should relate to the above like intuitive short hand and be amused by my troubles to explain them better.

Before their formerly autonomous division became dissolved in Teac and Ohmachi-San and Tsuda-San were retired, those two men fiercely championed SACD decks for Esoteric and published certain music titles as special-edition SACDs. It's because they were heavily into vinyl and classical. 'SACD is more analogue' has been a battle cry I've seen repeated in many places and not just there. How true that is I don't know. I don't do vinyl either. But even non-vinylists should be able to hear how the Meitner is different if their systems can magnify its particular virtues. Much of modern music is hard and edgy. Conditioned by that, our pursuit of higher resolution perhaps reaches for a form of hyper focus, striation and crystallization when what's closer to realism would in fact be rounder and softer. Yet it needn't give up anything in intelligibility and still can add a different type of sensory appreciation.

For me that appreciation of the MA-1's difference kicked into high gear whilst listening to Miguel Poveda's Coplas Del Querer and the final "A Ciegas" with its sweeping symphonic strings. This initiated a return to properly classical fare with plenty of romantic piano. And that apparently assisted my personal meitnerization. By the time I returned to 21st-century fare, I'd keyed in more to its qualities to now also fancy them on the hard edgy stuff. If that suggests a process of acclimation it's probably correct. Those still expecting a check-list comparison to my resident converters will be disappointed. That's because at this juncture I thought it quite a disservice to the MA-1's core appeal to dilute it with the usual trivial commentary of the "a bit stronger bass, somewhat lighter treble" sort.

To completely get the Meitner should also depend on trusting one's own auditory responses beyond the ears to include how the process of listening feels in the body. One needn't be able to explain why one wants to listen more and not less. One simply needs to notice it and delight. The rest is for the clever engineers to worry about and the crackerjack writers to describe and explain. That again is above my pay grade.

Voxativ Ampeggio

Digital converters as a category cull their silicon from a short lineup of the usual suspects. Those are AKM, Analog Devices, Burr Brown, Crystal, ESS and Wolfson. Here Meitner's MA-1 begs to differ. And that shows. How it shows is different too. As a genre DACs have matured. Today $3.000 to $4.000 mark the spot whence very diminishing returns kick in hard. To improve significantly beyond Simon Lee's Eximus DP1 will cost significantly. The MA-1's $7.000 sticker isn't yet significant enough to pull ahead in ways I think the usual hifi commentary would find decisive enough. Those basics are completely and very satisfyingly covered by the very best examples of that lower class already.

The Meitner's difference operates in another domain. I'd not previously heard a digital machine broach it. At a fundamental level my string of prior DAC encounters had essentially been more of the same. The MA-1 is the first which already at the digital input receiver applies different thinking but doesn't stop there. This comprehensive application of out-of-the-box thinking alters and shifts the playback's gestalt. Like Dustin Hoffman's famous 1970 character, it's a little big thing. Conventional commentary will call it little since it won't play to the usual values. I think of it as bigger because it seems very uncommon. At least the $6.500 MPD-3 from Playback Designs should likely hit very similar markers given its overlapping design DNA. But that still makes the MA-1 a very rare critter. In Meitner's own catalogue it takes $15.000 to revisit the subject again in ways they feel are demonstrable enough to warrant that jump.

What is that difference? Having now spent time with a sufficient number of pure DSD files to perceive a common denominator, I would simply say that it transfers their essential flavor on standard PCM. How big of a shift you'd consider that should depend on your familiarity with the SACD format—I had some catching up to do—and whether you relate to its different core flavor as better, truer or more right. If you listen to a lot of well-recorded classical music, you might embrace the Meitner very readily. If your musical values are primarily educated by contemporary music with its spliced productions, synthetic sounds and hard-edged undertones, I'd expect a process of acclimation with a 50:50 outcome. There are similarities with how the best of the widebanders like Rethm and Voxativ differ from many conventional speakers. Unless you've actually heard a superior zero-xover widebander, you won't know that particular sensation. I'd say the same about this Meitner. Fascinating.

Conclusion. With its readiness of DSD64 over USB and 24/192 PCM, the Meitner MA-1 allows music lovers to explore 'studio master' files. Because of their data density, high-resolution playback of such files becomes the audiophile's reason to embrace PCfi beyond its sheer convenience. Transcend ordinary 16/44.1 CD limits is the motto. But not only will the MA-1 process hi-rez PCM files (FLAC, WAV, AIFF), it can access the online DSD catalogues to natively play back dff/dsf files without format conversion. Meitner's asynchronous clocking scheme creates complete independence from the send clock of any input. Remaining quality offsets between its 2 x Toslink, 3 x S/PDIF, 1 x USB inputs are much minimized and mostly due to the user's cable interface and how well a source component implements its various digital outputs. Sonically the Meitner aces the same bases the very best of the $3-$4K converter club do. The decisive difference for those in sync with it will be the DSD128 processing of all PCM data via a true 1-bit converter.

Zero-chip fully discrete TotalDac, APL Hifi DAC-M | Kondo M77, Trafomatic Audio Vilobha, Aries Cerat Gladius

That design choice has a subtle but consistent impact on how one perceives music relative to recorded space. This is likely a function of time-domain behavior. It is marked by words like liquid, elastic and supple to distinguish it from presentations that appear more damped, dry, taut and rigid. The effect is minorly soft and lightly sweet. Importantly those qualities are utterly unrelated to how these terms are usually applied to describe high-THD valve sound. Here they have no impact whatsoever on tonal balance or resolution. It's simply about something a bit gentler, easier and more pliable than the crystallized needle-point high-resolution digital sound the vast majority proposes. Once I got my ears wrapped around the Meitner aesthetic, I found it exceedingly persuasive. It's one of those things one can't speculate about. One must experience it to understand this small but big difference. Reactions to it should vary. But just as SETs and widebanders ought to be rite of at least audition passage for those who embrace multi-ways and massively paralleled transistors, so this particular DSD-für-alles approach should be mandatory hearing for all digiphiles just so one learns about this unusual digital option and how it can affect our perception of musical flow.
Quality of packing: Good.
Reusability of packing: A few times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: A cinch.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Perfect.
Human interactions:
Unusually candid and transparent even relative to proprietary solutions (with the expected proviso to keep such revelations confident in the context of this review). Tech support was very helpful to talk me through a firmware upgrade and to respond to an OSX 10.7.3 anomaly.
Pricing: Fair given how this machine is from a small specialty firm with Canadian manufacture and incorporates many proprietary solutions previously available only in professional studio-level models.
Final comments & suggestions: At this price some potential hifi clients might want volume control to eliminate a preamp. The hard-core hi-rez brigade will ask for 32-bit/384kHz
support. The onboard hardware is already ready for the latter. To enable it will require a different USB transceiver solution however.
Meitner Audio website