Musings About Fidelity With The
Musical Fidelity A3.2 CD Player
Review by Karl Lozier
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Unpacking the four boxes revealed attractively styled matching components. My wife commented favorably on the brushed aluminum front panels; we had grown tired of a continuing parade of blah appearing dull finished black components. These Musical Fidelity products are not their most expensive units, but their more expensive line has some voids now, until new models are released starting within a few months. They have run out of the little known nuvistors and the "replacement" products will feature the even rarer
trivistor. A trivistor can be described as a triode tube (miniature size) version of the
nuvistors; both of these tiny tubes are encased in metal not glass. Musical Fidelity believes they have obtained what is possibly the world's stock of them, approximately 25,000 units. As they did with their nuvistor components, they will retain a spare set of trivistors for every product sold. Enough news about the future; for the present I have on hand MF's CD player A3.2, the A3.2 preamplifier and a pair of model M-250 power amplifiers. Musical Fidelity also offers an attractively matching A3.2 FM tuner and an integrated A3.2 amplifier. I plan to present one review each month and a final review of all of them used together at the same time as a system. This month, their newly released A3.2 CD player steps into the spotlight.
David Solomon, Vice-President Sales and Marketing for Musical Fidelity USA products, had told me that these products needed a particularly long break in time. I decided to break in all these Musical Fidelity components at the same time. I had an extra pair of old, very old that is, Siefert bookshelf loudspeakers sitting in the bookshelves in our bedroom. So I hooked everything up to them and basically let all run continuously for almost 300 hours (many with Purist Audio's excellent System Enhancer Rev. B burn-in CD) before listening to MF's components, one at a time substituted in my main system. Though I seldom do any serious listening in my bedroom I want to mention that I had never heard these Siefert loudspeakers sounding as good as they did with the entire Musical Fidelity system feeding them; many years ago they had resided in the built in bookshelves in my family room. This bodes well for other bookshelf size loudspeakers used with the MF components. The Sieferts with rather low efficiency manage to go lower than fifty Hertz, albeit at a moderate listening level.
Let's Play Operation!
Inserting the attractively styled, with the appearance of a particularly solidly built chassis/front panel, the Musical Fidelity A3.2 CD player slid easily into place in my main system. It was approximately two inches deeper than the last few CD or CD/DVD-A players I had reviewed, but still less than fifteen inches deep. The installation guide/owners manual is a model of its kind with particularly clear and detailed diagrams and drawings of even the display area. The display area is a rather brightly lit green display; the remote control has an on/off button for it. The play button on the front panel also functions as a pause control; push it once and the unit plays the CD, push again and the unit is in a pause mode. In the pause mode the CD continues to spin, but the track does not advance and the output is muted. Pressed again, the unit continues to play from the spot where it had paused. If I have not overlooked something, all the bells, whistles and other features of the last few CD players I have reviewed, are on this unit or the remote control. All are clearly explained in the accompanying booklet. If the booklets for some of the Japanese based products were written half as concisely and clearly as Musical Fidelity's, it would be a reason for celebration.
I had just finished a number of listening sessions evaluating recordings for this month's music reviews. That seemed like a good time to substitute Musical Fidelity's A3.2 CD player for one of the other players I had been using for those reviews. This done, I was now into my equipment reviewing mode instead of the music reviewing mode; that is a definite change in approach and attitude. Remember that I had put in excess of 300 hours on this MF player before inserting it into my main listening system. During the first few hours of listening, the same general impressions kept floating through my mind. I had decided not to continually go back and forth between players until later on in the review process. These initial impressions remained beyond the first evening of serious listening.
The MF player continued to give three areas of apparent difference compared to the players preceding it. First, there was the added fullness or richness over most of the bass range and it was definitely not a relativity resultant of balance with the top end. It simply was a particularly full and enveloping bass range. This even though the power cord used with it was Kimber's Palladian PK 10
A.C., which uniquely features the most solid and tightly controlled bass response of any
A.C. power cord that I have yet evaluated; in other words it does not add any bass fullness or richness. The A3.2 player was doing it on its own. Secondly, it was apparent that the high end and presence range were a bit smoother than usual. Nothing was being added at any time to the sense of brightness, frequency emphasis or harshness. A bit of the opposite was true; on "typical" CDs any sense of edginess or harshness in the treble range was seemingly reduced with the result that could be described as a somewhat sweeter high end. There was not as much difference with the newest offerings from companies such as Telarc as with older CDs. Thirdly, everything led me to think of the MF A3.2 player as a music lover's player as contrasted to being an audiophile's player.
Most audiophiles tend to want or prize detail or detailing from the insertion of a new component into their listening chain. In fact the word hyperdetailing has been coined to describe excessive amounts of detail. How can there be excessive detail you might ask? There is a fair number of ways it can happen, starting with the recording engineer. Let us assume that a given recording is essentially perfect, that enables us to skip over some possible causal candidates. Now, starting with our "perfect" recording, we substitute a new component. The new component has a different tonal balance with a "leaner or tighter" bass range than the original component that had a particularly full or rich bass range. That extra output in the bass range affects what we hear. In addition to a covering-up effect it tends to modulate other sounds in the mid frequency range for example.
In addition, the tonal balance changes and even if the response in the upper half of the audible range did not change, we perceive a change. Call it a form of the "theory of relativity - audio division". So if the component with the leaner (very lean) bass/lower mid range output is in the sound producing chain the perceived sound is going to be relatively brighter and more detail will be heard, whether musically related or more revealing of flaws. If the musically related detail is noticeably more than the recording engineer captured and got into the recording, the result is referred to as
"hyperdetailing". As a corollary, many old timers in the audio field (yes, me included) believed or still believe that a component that reveals more detail in a recording than another component, without sounding brighter or leaner in the bass range is the better piece of audio equipment.
Extensions In Listening
Extended listening sessions revealed that this fine Musical Fidelity A3.2 CD player is certainly not perfect but makes quite an effort toward that goal for its relatively moderate price. The areas where it slightly errs are a bit of added fullness in the mid and upper bass area and seemingly an unrelated subtly diminished response in the upper two or two and a half octaves. Here I
do not feel on particularly firm ground. This MF product features their highly touted version of upsampling (not oversampling). What all might be happening, in addition to adding 8
bits to the word length, changing 8 to 16 bits and upsampling to 96kHz, I do not know. There can be some innovative filtering or contouring taking place. In any event, Musical Fidelity claims to be smoothing, sweetening and lowering distortions in the treble range. That appears to be true for the most part from what I hear. Their similar A3.2 DAC offers a choice of 96kHz or 192kHz upsampling. There is some debate as to whether that should make an audible difference as it may not make a measurable one. All this works out fine for most music lovers. Play one of your older CDs such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett or whoever and you'll be treated to a fuller sound with less irritation from added harshness or digital edginess when you hear the singers hit their high notes or with massed violins in the upper frequencies. Turn that listening coin over and there will be some dissenters.
Their rebuttal, with many of the well recorded and produced newer discs, will be something like, "yeah, but the bass sounds a bit overblown and missing a bit of initial impact and the high end seems to be lacking that last little bit of detail". In that infamous nutshell, there you have it. You might find yourself on the horns of a dilemma. As with most audio equipment, you cannot expect this Musical Fidelity A3.2 CD player to be everything to everybody, but there's an excellent chance if you are a music lover looking for a CD player in the $1K-$1.5K range that this MF player may be the one for you.
Post Finale Addendum
After using only the fine Musical Fidelity A3.2 CD player for a couple of weeks and becoming very used to it, as if it had become "my reference", I did some intensive one on one comparative listening sessions. By now the player had at least 400 if not 500 hours of use. All my above comments remained basically unchanged in these wrap up sessions. The bass range is definitely pleasantly elevated to a slight degree and just far enough into the lower mid-range to add a bit of extra fullness to baritone voices such as Frank Sinatra. In the high end, say on a typical Sinatra CD or other early CD recordings, much of the common edginess or harshness is definitely ameliorated. On top-notch current releases it is also apparent that a touch of the leading edge or initial transients of many instruments is slightly blunted. For example the right hand keys of the piano are not reproduced with the sometimes almost startling percussive impact of the sound of a live piano, same is true for the almost bell-like sound of some notes. With the Musical Fidelity player it is almost as if the pianist had an unusually light touch. Part of the presence range is subtly recessed. Whatever, it still remains an extremely musical sounding CD player. It is competitive with or better than other solid-state choices in the range up to fifteen hundred dollars.
There is one or two tubed CD players that are very strong competition at a slightly lower price point, but any tubed unit comes with the caveat that you must hunt down some of the very best NOS (New, Old-Stock) tubes to replace the factory supplied tubes to obtain that level of performance. That adds to the price obviously and sometimes it can be a bit of a tough search. As with many CD players the MF does not play the outstanding, but rare, DAD discs such as by Classic Records. The more common HDCD beautiful recordings by Reference Records are reproduced with outstanding quality and beauty even though the A3.2 does not list having the HDCD decoding chip. If true, then their upsampling process does an admirable job on its own. I would like to repeat that this is an extremely musical sounding player for music lovers that are not trying to dissect all its areas of performance. Audiophile types might look elsewhere for something that has a unique feature or a certain area of excellent performance rather than overall musicality.
As I was finishing this review and listening sessions I was starting a session with a new line of low cost interconnect and loudspeaker cables by Harmonic Technology. One of those neat coincidences occurred. In respect to tonal balance they apparently matched up very well in at least that one respect with this MF player. Time constraints precluded any extended evaluation unfortunately. As usual I ask that you take the rating numbers listed below with at least a few grains of salt. If my review has not described the audio qualities to your satisfaction, I've not done my job and the numbers will probably not fill in any missing gaps.
DAC Architecture: 24 bit Delta-Sigma (Bitstream) with 8x oversampling
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 20kHz (±0.2dB)
Signal To Noise Ratio: >96dB unweighted,
>105dB 'A' weighted
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.006% 10Hz to 20kHz
Total Correlated Jitter: <170 pS
De-emphasis Error: <0.1dB
Linearity: <0.2dB down to -80dB
Audio Output: 2.14VRMS at 1kHz peak/nominal
Dimensions: 17.5 x 15 x 4 (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: 13 lbs.
Musical Fidelity Ltd.
Wembley England, UK.
Kevro International Inc.
902 Mc Kay Road
Voice: (905) 428-2800
Fax: (905) 428-0004