Meitner Audio MA3 Integrated DAC Review
Mark Gusew auditions a high-end streaming DAC that borrows tech from its even more expensive siblings…
EMM Labs Meitner Audio
MA3 Integrated DAC
AUD $15,000 RRP
Ed Meitner is a legend in the digital audio world, having worked with Sony and Philips on the DSD format back in the nineteen nineties. His other company is EMM Labs, which some think is the de facto DSD reference of the recording industry, given that many SACDs are made with EMM Labs DSD converters. He and his team have an incredible engineering provenance, making the new Meitner Audio MA3 streaming DAC you see here of particular interest.
This slick-looking, premium quality product leverages the technology of EMM Labs and introduces it into the market at a more accessible price point. To many, it’s still very expensive, but the MA3 is based on the $43,800 EMM Labs DA2 V2 and DV2 Reference DACs, and the $7,200 EMM Labs NS1 Streamer. If you think about it this way, it suddenly seems pretty keen value for money!
This streaming DAC offers all standard digital inputs, including USB type B, AES, S/PDIF TOSLINK and coaxial, and will convert up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD on them all. The galvanically isolated USB audio input goes further with DSDx2 (via DoP) and DXD 352/384kHz. The MA3 also features a wired (RJ45) network streamer for popular apps like Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer, vTuner and others. There is also UPnP/DLNA support and ROON Endpoint functionality. It plays stored files on a NAS connected to the network. USB thumb drives and hard drives (with a 1Tb limit) are supported via a USB Media type A connector.
Most audio file types are supported, along with full MQA unfolding via the USB audio and network inputs. Bluetooth is potentially the only input that might be missed, but considering that the MA3 has high-end audio intentions, it’s understandable. An auxiliary USB type A connector is located below the Ethernet port that can be used as an optional Wi-Fi port, but a Wi-Fi adaptor is not included.
XLR and RCA analogue outputs are fitted, with the VControl front volume dial controlling their levels; this is borrowed from the EMM Labs DV2 DAC and is claimed to have no loss of audio signal resolution or transparency at any volume setting. A dimmable, fine-pitch white OLED display shows the input, track and artist names, along with the sampling rate, volume setting and more.
Ed Meitner has always refused to use mass-produced DAC chips, so-called off-the-shelf technology. Two discrete, proprietary single-bit, dual differential 16xDSD MDAC2 digital-to-analogue converters are featured in the MA3, together with MDAT2 (Meitner Digital Audio Translator) digital signal processing, which performs real-time upconversion of incoming audio. The MFAST (Meitner Frequency Acquisition System) is also used, which is a high-speed asynchronous jitter removal technology that works with a custom-built master clock.
Designed and manufactured in Canada, the MA3 is solidly turned out at 7.3kg and comes in a choice of either silver or black finishes. It can be connected directly to a power amp and used with the volume control, or to a preamplifier as a source component. The streamer can be accessed via the mConnect mControl app for Android and iOS, although I found that other UPnP apps like Bubble also worked well. Roon integration was seamless, and operationally the MA3 proved robust and stable. A supplied metal remote control allows input selection and volume changes.
Throughout the audition period, I mostly used a Classe Delta Pre preamplifier and Stereo power amplifier, driving JBL HDI-3800 loudspeakers. A Mark Levinson No5101 SACD player and a Melco N1A music library were my primary sources.
Meitner Audio’s MA3 does not sound like a conventional mass-produced chip DAC. Instead, it has a natural and open sound that’s not processed or tonally bright. It doesn’t shout or glare at you and has no sharp edges. Indeed, you might even call it rather ‘analogue sounding’. This is because there’s no hint of any digital artefacts; it is harmonically whole, making organic music with substance, body and fluidity.
For example, Exile by Taylor Swift & Bon Iver had a wonderfully full piano sound; the notes seem to sustain longer with more meat on the bone, so to speak. Each note sounded completely fleshed out. The longer you hear the Meitner, the more you appreciate its subtlety and overall ease, making listening entertaining yet relaxing.
The lack of harshness and glare was appreciated even after weeks of hearing it. Listening to the Tord Gustavsen Trio play Curtains Aside, it flowed effortlessly and sounded like acoustic instruments should. The piano, double bass and drums harmoniously filled the room with fast attack, accurate reverb and correct decays. The timbre of each instrument was fleshed out, but with the dynamics remaining fully intact.
Tonally the MA3 is impressively neutral, neither adding or subtracting bass or treble energy. For example, Happiness is Easy by Talk Talk sounded wonderful and without the thinness or glare that I have often heard, bringing it closer to the vinyl version. Bass extension on Trentemøller’s Vamp was thunderously deep and with loads of texture. The track sounded ultra-clean, with lightning-fast speed, attack and power.
The MA3 is a spatial specialist with excellent detail retrieval. Bubbles by Yosi Horikawa was extremely lifelike. No doubt helped by its inherent speed and accurate timing, I heard an audible distinction between things like ball bearings, marbles and ping-pong balls bouncing in three-dimensional space. I found some of them seemed to bounce halfway into the room, and then all around its far sides – not something I’d fully heard before.
The Meitner is so good at retrieving spatial information that it clearly outperformed my reference Mark Levinson No5101 SACD player. The latter sounded smaller and less three dimensional in its soundstaging, lacking transparency, definition and space around the instruments. The holographic effect was lessened, and it became less involving and interesting. It was the same story when using the Classe Pre’s onboard DAC, with more resolution, musicality and timbre coming from the Meitner.
Interestingly, connecting the Melco N1A music library network before the Meitner added a wider and more holographic soundstage to the MA3’s sound. Its USB input worked very well and paired very well with the Melco, something that not all USB inputs manage to do well. For example, Toto’s Africa was lots of fun to hear – with the opening drums having more wallop, depth and texture than I’ve heard before.
Streaming Duel of the Fates by John Williams had the orchestra sounding balanced, large and powerful with impressive depth to the soundstage. On the other hand, vocals sounded harsh and edgy; this was likely due to the overdubbing of the voices to multiply the size of the choir. To its credit, the Meitner doesn’t sugarcoat the vocals. Instead, it is truthful and honest – which is my definition of accurate.
Listening to the Qobuz hi-res recording of Augustin Hadelich playing Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor was quite uncanny. I heard the artist breathing and moving around in front of the microphone, with all three-dimensional spatial cues intact. It convinced me that this is a talented man at the top of his game and recorded in one take. The Meitner took me closer to the performance than any other digital source I have heard to date.
The Meitner MA3 streaming DAC is an excellent product, providing you have the funds for it. For some, it will be just within reach, and to those lucky people, it offers a taste of cost-no-object high-end esoterica that most will never hear. The metric by which it is judged is accuracy, and it excels on this score. It doesn’t focus on making any single performative aspect stand out, rather it sounds consummately balanced and neutral.
If you divide up individual aspects of its performance, it excels. For instance, it is very dynamic, has loads of detail retrieval and soundstages superbly. Yet this is to miss the point because the listener’s attention is not drawn to this; it’s not a showy sounding DAC. The MA3 simply makes beautiful music, and that’s it. Think of it as a destination device for those who are tired of playing hi-fi leapfrog.
That’s not the end to its talents, because as a streamer, it outperforms most too. The recommended operating software is a pleasure to use, and with Roon compatibility, its operation has added depth and usefulness. So I believe that despite it being expensive, the MA3 offers outstanding value for money, especially when considering the price of the flagship components that the technology has trickled down from. This single-box solution has no apparent weaknesses and draws a performance line that very few can cross.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.