In Jason Thorpe’s July 1 review of the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 optical phono preamplifier, he recalled that his “analog life was turned around in a way [he] did not expect” about a year ago. That turnaround happened in July 2022 when he reviewed the DS Audio DS 003 optical phono cartridge and its companion preamplifier. Jason was wowed by the superiority of the sound of that combination over any other phono cartridge and preamp he had ever heard before. So much so that he purchased a DS 003 cartridge to use as a reference, and then reviewed two more optical phono preamplifiers—firstly, the EMM Labs DS-EQ1, and now, the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2.
As Jason explained in his DS-EQ2 review, an optical cartridge is very different from a traditional moving-magnet (MM) or moving-coil (MC) cartridge. “An optical cartridge contains no magnets or coils. Instead, there are powered LEDs inside of the cartridge that shine toward the rear, at photoreceptors that convert variations of light into an electrical signal.” Because optical cartridges work differently than traditional cartridges, they require a different kind of phono stage. DS Audio offers optical phono equalizers that work with its optical cartridges, and so do a handful of third-party brands, including Meitner Audio and EMM Labs.
Meitner Audio and EMM Labs are sister brands. They were founded by legendary electronics designer Ed Meitner, who still leads the design efforts for both brands. EMM Labs is the premium brand, while Meitner Audio offers more affordable gear: the DS-EQ1 sells for $12,500 and the DS-EQ2 costs $5000 (all prices in USD). The DS-EQ1’s design represents Ed Meitner’s uncompromising approach to optical phono cartridge equalization, while the DS-EQ2 uses technology trickled down from that flagship. Neither product supports MM or MC cartridges, and neither brand includes a phono stage for traditional cartridge types in its offerings. That’s because Meitner believes in the superiority of DS Audio’s cartridge technology. And after enjoying it in his system for a few months, Jason agrees. In the preamble to his DS-EQ2 review, Jason wrote: “So far in the game, the DS 003 cartridge and the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 just nails it.”
The DS-EQ2 is physically smaller and lighter than the DS-EQ1, but as Jason observes, the DS-EQ2 still feels “substantial and solid.” The DS-EQ2 lacks the DS-EQ1’s fully balanced circuitry and balanced outputs, so the user is limited to single-ended connections. Jason highlighted some other cost-saving aspects of the DS-EQ2’s design: “The power supply is an off-the-shelf unit instead of the more expensive in-house EMM Labs design. The DS-EQ2 employs a conventional FR4 circuit board, as opposed to the DS-EQ1’s aerospace-grade ceramic circuit board.”
While there are significant physical differences between the DS-EQ1 and DS-EQ2, Jason found a minimal difference in sound quality. When he substituted the DS-EQ2 for the DS-EQ1 in his system and played “Providence” and “Starless” from “the recent reissue of King Crimson’s Red (LP, Panegyric KCLP-7)” on his VPI Prime Signature turntable, Jason found that the two phono preamplifiers sounded “disconcertingly similar.” Consequently, he was unable to “get a good handle on” on the effect of the component change in his system, right off the bat.
Jason was sure that “time and a ton of music” would “peel back the layers” of sonic performance, so he pressed on with a recording of Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy: “The space and tension between the notes makes time slow down, and the DS-EQ2 imparted, by way of its clarity and density of image, a sort of hypnotic, out-of-body, falling-into-a-singularity effect. I listened to this album repeatedly over the review period, and it never failed to grab and hold my attention.” He then went “from one extreme to another” and played the Tragically Hip’s Live at the Roxy. With this album, Jason heard “full-throttle guitar energy, with refined highs—more refined than the already excellent performance generated by the DS Audio DS 003 stage.” Next, Road Apples—another Hip album, which Jason described as “straight-ahead guitar rock”—went onto his turntable: “The Meitner Audio stage took those two blazing guitars, which are spread across the front middle of the soundstage, and kept them distinct from each other so that I could focus on each in turn.”
Playing these albums, as well as others, through the DS-EQ2 allowed Jason to finally figure out “where it fell short of the DS-EQ1.” Using each phono stage with single-ended connections to his Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp (which is a fully balanced design), Jason determined that “the little guy didn’t have quite as much soundstage depth,” but confessed that he “really, really had to work hard to come to this conclusion.” Jason also pointed out that the DS-EQ2 “doesn’t quite have as much sheen and halo around instruments and voices” as he heard from Ed Meitner’s flagship phono stage. But Jason added: “There’s so little difference between the Meitner Audio stage and the EMM Labs unit via their RCA outputs that it’s almost not worth discussing, especially considering the significant price gap.”
Comparing a balanced connection from the DS-EQ1 with a single-ended connection from the DS-EQ2 through his Sonic Frontiers preamp, Jason was “more readily able to pick up that increased soundstage depth, a slightly tighter control of images.” But along with that determination came the caveat that “the price of the DS-EQ1 is 2.5 times that of the DS-EQ2, and if your system is single-ended rather than balanced, you most likely wouldn’t get your full money’s worth out of the EMM Labs stage, and would be just as happy with the DS-EQ2.”
Jason’s exuberant reviews of the DS Audio DS 003 cartridge / phono preamplifier and the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 phono preamplifier earned them Reviewers’ Choice, Recommended Reference Component, and Product of the Year awards in 2022. Bestowing all three awards is the highest praise we can give to any component.
As Jason concluded in his DS-EQ2 review, the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 is superior to the DS 003 phono stage that DS Audio supplies for its optical cartridge, but not quite as good as the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 stage. But the performance spread between the EMM Labs and Meitner Audio designs is miniscule compared to the difference in their prices. As a result, the DS-EQ2 earned a Reviewers’ Choice award when Jason’s review was published on July 1, and we are now recognizing it with a Recommended Reference Component award.
We’re more than halfway through 2023, but it’s still too early to be sure if the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 will be a contender for our 2023 Product of the Year awards. What’s more important to potential buyers is Jason’s take-home message: “If you want to find out just how much information is hiding in your records’ grooves, you need to hear them via a DS Audio optical cartridge and this phono stage.”
Manufacturer contact information:
EMM Labs and Meitner Audio
119 - 5065 13th Street S.E.
Calgary, Alberta T2G 5M8
Phone: +1 (403) 225-4161
Fax: +1 (403) 225-2330