Upgrade from PS Audio Directstream SR to EMM Labs DA2 v2...but downgrade from I2S to USB?

Ian B

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Oct 20, 2020
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I'm looking to do a major upgrade from my PS Audio DSS to the EMM Labs DA2, but I am concerned it may be two steps forward, one step back in terms of the digital input quality. Over the years I've found that my digital input chain is more crucial than the actual DAC it is plugged into.

I know the DA2 is a much better DAC, and will have a better USB input stage, but I'm concerned about losing the refined sound quality I get from my I2S chain. I'm curious if anybody who has experience with the DA2 or DV2 via USB (or even AES) can chime in about the digital input quality vs the overall DAC value/sound quality.


My current USB->I2S digital source chain is an Innuos Zenith MkIII, iFi iGalvanic 3.0, Innuos Phoenix, and Matrix X-SPIDF2 into the DSS using a mix of Shunyata Sigma and Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7 cables. With this setup I hear no grain, noise, or fuzziness at all, just totally smooth. However, remove the final step of I2S conversion and HMDI cable and things start to sound more grainy and digital, even going from the Phoenix to the DSS USB input.
 

Yuen A.

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Jan 4, 2018
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I'm looking to do a major upgrade from my PS Audio DSS to the EMM Labs DA2, but I am concerned it may be two steps forward, one step back in terms of the digital input quality. Over the years I've found that my digital input chain is more crucial than the actual DAC it is plugged into.

I know the DA2 is a much better DAC, and will have a better USB input stage, but I'm concerned about losing the refined sound quality I get from my I2S chain. I'm curious if anybody who has experience with the DA2 or DV2 via USB (or even AES) can chime in about the digital input quality vs the overall DAC value/sound quality.


My current USB->I2S digital source chain is an Innuos Zenith MkIII, iFi iGalvanic 3.0, Innuos Phoenix, and Matrix X-SPIDF2 into the DSS using a mix of Shunyata Sigma and Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7 cables. With this setup I hear no grain, noise, or fuzziness at all, just totally smooth. However, remove the final step of I2S conversion and HMDI cable and things start to sound more grainy and digital, even going from the Phoenix to the DSS USB input.

Hi Ian B,

I would say that the quality of the inputs certainly matters. You needs to experiment to find out which sounded best. I think, for the DA2, using the optical link from the EMM Labs NS1 streamer is the best option.
 

Ian B

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Oct 20, 2020
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Hi Ian B,

I would say that the quality of the inputs certainly matters. You needs to experiment to find out which sounded best. I think, for the DA2, using the optical link from the EMM Labs NS1 streamer is the best option.
I would imagine the optolink with the NS1 is the way to go, but as I've already got a USB server and reclocker I'm hoping it works out. The last DAC I owned was the DCS Bartok and I found that USB sounded better than AES on that one, and actually a little more natural than the ethernet. I was able to order a DA2 for a pretty good price today, so we shall soon find out. I've heard that with the new version the difference between inputs is not huge.
 
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Yuen A.

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Jan 4, 2018
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I would imagine the optolink with the NS1 is the way to go, but as I've already got a USB server and reclocker I'm hoping it works out. The last DAC I owned was the DCS Bartok and I found that USB sounded better than AES on that one, and actually a little more natural than the ethernet. I was able to order a DA2 for a pretty good price today, so we shall soon find out. I've heard that with the new version the difference between inputs is not huge.

Hi Ian B,

Congratulations! Let us know the outcome!
 

Ian B

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Oct 20, 2020
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Wow, this thing is something else! Just 1 hour out of the cold and rain, but already slays my previous DACs (looking at you Bartok!). It is somewhat familiar to the PS Audio flavor, but much more transparent. Sound over USB is very good and I have not tried AES yet. I imagine my digital input could be improved with Optilink, as I can detect a *little* bit of USB signature, but good for now.

Nonetheless, as has been said before the level of detail is staggering while there is virtually no sibilance with any of my most sibilant recordings. The detail is almost more than my brain can handle! Huge soundstage. So far it's a bit like DCS, but having fixed all the fatiguing, bitey, sharp-edged, digital quality of their DACs that I don't like (I've only hear Bartok and Rossini). Honestly, I did expect it would sound a bit more analog, or even DSD-like than it does, but it's barely warmed up and not at all burned in.

It does seem to like PCM a lot better than DSD and something about the DSD playback is a bit weird. It surprises me that DCS does it considerably better considering so many of the best DSD masters were made with EMM Labs A/D converters.

I might have to get more tubes into my system because this DAC is so transparent!
 
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Yuen A.

Well-Known Member
Jan 4, 2018
151
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83
Wow, this thing is something else! Just 1 hour out of the cold and rain, but already slays my previous DACs (looking at you Bartok!). It is somewhat familiar to the PS Audio flavor, but much more transparent. Sound over USB is very good and I have not tried AES yet. I imagine my digital input could be improved with Optilink, as I can detect a *little* bit of USB signature, but good for now.

Nonetheless, as has been said before the level of detail is staggering while there is virtually no sibilance with any of my most sibilant recordings. The detail is almost more than my brain can handle! Huge soundstage. So far it's a bit like DCS, but having fixed all the fatiguing, bitey, sharp-edged, digital quality of their DACs that I don't like (I've only hear Bartok and Rossini). Honestly, I did expect it would sound a bit more analog, or even DSD-like than it does, but it's barely warmed up and not at all burned in.

It does seem to like PCM a lot better than DSD and something about the DSD playback is a bit weird. It surprises me that DCS does it considerably better considering so many of the best DSD masters were made with EMM Labs A/D converters.

I might have to get more tubes into my system because this DAC is so transparent!

Hi Ian B,

Thanks for sharing. The DA2 requires some 500 hours of burning-in. Don't worry. It will sound great after that!
 
Jun 30, 2020
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I know the DA2 is a much better DAC, and will have a better USB input stage, but I'm concerned about losing the refined sound quality I get from my I2S chain.

The DA2 is a very nice device, which also appeals to me in terms of design. Isn't it the case that, regardless of the source format, everything is converted to 16xDSD / DSD1024?

With my Terminator Plus I will try I2S over RJ45, because USB has its pitfalls. I would also be interested in your experiences.
 

Ian B

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Oct 20, 2020
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Hi Ian B,

Thanks for sharing. The DA2 requires some 500 hours of burning-in. Don't worry. It will sound great after that!
It's sounding great right now and I can imagine that gets more sweetness, depth and fullness over the next few weeks. The one thing I have my fingers crossed about is the DSD sounding better. I hope it does.
 

Ian B

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Oct 20, 2020
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The DA2 is a very nice device, which also appeals to me in terms of design. Isn't it the case that, regardless of the source format, everything is converted to 16xDSD / DSD1024?

With my Terminator Plus I will try I2S over RJ45, because USB has its pitfalls. I would also be interested in your experiences.
You are correct, it does convert everything into 16x16DSD and for PCM there are also special transient correcting filters that make it almost unconstrained in how fast and punchy it is and give instruments excellent depth separation. I was also really attracted to the design because I knew of Meitner's history with the DSD format, and also I've found that DSD converters just sound more "right" to my ears.

IMO I2S over RJ45 is the way to go, and I've heard I2S sounds great with the Denafrips. Even I2S over HDMI has a 5v line like USB, so RJ45 is going to be even more electrically isolated.

So far it seems the EMM Labs does really do a good job at isolating and clocking the USB input, but it is not quite as smooth as I2S on my Directstream. On the other hand, the overall DAC sound quality improvements are so great, it is a fair tradeoff.
 

Ian B

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Oct 20, 2020
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Just to update this, I did some comparisons between USB and AES and while AES had a little lower noise, USB sounds better. That confirms what I think about USB, it's noisy but less jitter. In other DACs I2S has been the best of both worlds, like USB without the noise.

Also to follow up what I said about the DSD performance, after a couple days the quality of the DSD increased considerably and now sounds better than PCM (as it should, IMO). I was surprised that during the early stabilization, burn in, DSD sounded so much worse, but now things are more where I would expect them to sound, which is excellent. I'm not even at 100 hours.

I will update this again when the DA2 is more fully burned in.
 
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Alrainbow

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Hi Ian B,

Thanks for sharing. The DA2 requires some 500 hours of burning-in. Don't worry. It will sound great after that!
500 hours lol. Wow
 

Mikem53

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Oct 1, 2020
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Ian B

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Oct 20, 2020
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Maybe that includes the listeners burn in as well...
My former PS Audio DAC did change its sound in somewhat dramatic ways multiple times over 600 or so hours. It could be because the transformers they use.

I think I'm around 350 hours on the DA2. It definitely improved over the first 100 hours (at first the DSD sounded bad) and then again around 200-250. Since then the sound has changed, but I also switched from USB to AES and from unbalanced outputs to balanced. What I can say is that the AES sounded harsh for about 100 hours, and I think each individual input and output needs 100 hours. At present, AES now sounds better than USB.

Since 500 hours is such a long time, it is very hard to judge overall changes over that span of time, especially when you are messing with other things. My DA2 is sounding a lot better than when I started, however.

One thing I discovered was that the balanced XLR outputs sound A LOT better than the unbalanced RCA in my setup, despite the fact that my XLR cables are lower quality than my RCAs. The amp I'm connected to unbalances XLR internally, so I figured there would be no difference between unbalanced and balanced cables, but that turned out to be untrue. Could be the voltage, impedance or design, but the XLR outputs sound much better.
 

Mikem53

Well-Known Member
Oct 1, 2020
270
113
45
My former PS Audio DAC did change its sound in somewhat dramatic ways multiple times over 600 or so hours. It could be because the transformers they use.

I think I'm around 350 hours on the DA2. It definitely improved over the first 100 hours (at first the DSD sounded bad) and then again around 200-250. Since then the sound has changed, but I also switched from USB to AES and from unbalanced outputs to balanced. What I can say is that the AES sounded harsh for about 100 hours, and I think each individual input and output needs 100 hours. At present, AES now sounds better than USB.

Since 500 hours is such a long time, it is very hard to judge overall changes over that span of time, especially when you are messing with other things. My DA2 is sounding a lot better than when I started, however.

One thing I discovered was that the balanced XLR outputs sound A LOT better than the unbalanced RCA in my setup, despite the fact that my XLR cables are lower quality than my RCAs. The amp I'm connected to unbalances XLR internally, so I figured there would be no difference between unbalanced and balanced cables, but that turned out to be untrue. Could be the voltage, impedance or design, but the XLR outputs sound much better.
It took My Yggdrasil Dac a good while to open up as well.. If I have to turn it off, it takes a couple of days to sound its best.. I didn’t keep track during break-in.. but I did feed it a signal for the first two weeks constantly.
Funny you mention the balanced vs single ended outputs. I ran balanced from source to amp in many of my setups For years. I recently went single ended on my current amp, I was going for a minimalist semi low power system, I had to get New cables and went single ended from source to amp. All was well until I tried the balanced output from the DAC to the preamp, both are dual differential balanced components, Wow.. much better everything, even with the SE Pass amp in the chain. I also tried my Transformer volume control using the balanced output of the DAC, the TVC splitting off the balanced signal to SE. The 4 volts out of the DAC drives the amp pretty well and with more transparency.. but seemed lacking in punch compared to the tubed pre.. Nice to have choices.
going to revisit the passive again.. it’s pretty sweet sounding and transparent..
 

Ian B

Member
Oct 20, 2020
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So it took between 500-600 hours for the DA2 to really settle, but it was honestly an extremely gradual change. I tried USB, then AES, then USB and each input sounded a bit bright for the first 100 hours. The AES connection had less noise and grain, the USB had more clarity and precision. And now I'm using Optilink from the NS1, and it's a lot better than either, although maybe a tad less warm than the electrical connections. The bass definition from the NS1 is really something, and as you expect the dynamics are better, background is totally black, and the soundstage is much wider.

So, in the end I think the Optilink connection is better still than the I2S I had been using with my old PS Audio DAC (which is now second best of any digital connection I've used), but the other two just aren't as good though they still sound great with the DA2.
 

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