I love relaxing and listening to music through FM broadcasting. After a long day, it's nice to come home and relax and rejuvenate by listening to music that you don't have to choose, set up or think about. In Canada at least, the stations on the FM band are generally very good sounding if you are using a very good quality tuner. Listening to FM is delightful, because I can enjoy music that I don't have to go out and purchase, or even research. There is such a wealth of music that I would not normally be exposed to by simply moving the dial on a good FM tuner. And all of this for free! Even in this modern world where more and more stations are using more processing equipment, listening to FM is still highly enjoyable if you are using an excellent tuner.
I have owned some excellent tuners in the last several years, namely McIntosh MR-71 and the Marantz 10B tube tuners. These are classic tube tuners from the 1960's and 1970's and are considered some of the best, if not the best, tuners ever manufactured. Owning these classic tuners was a real joy for me and they have brought me great pleasure. One of the drawbacks of these classic tube tuners is that very few excellent technicians are around anymore to service them and align their front ends for optimum sound. This is especially the case with the Marantz 10B which is considered a "mother to align". It takes a real master to align the highly esteemed Marantz 10B tube tuner. But man, these vintage tube tuners are exceptional. The sound is warm, sweet, articulate, seductive, with a soundstage, particularly in the 10B, that is to die for. Listening to virtually any station, including even some of the pop and rock stations, is pure joy. At least this is the case in Toronto, Canada where I live. I have been told by Frank Gow of Audio Classics (a vintage and used audio store) that the stations that we have here in Canada are much better in fidelity than the ones in the USA. Frank has listened to stations on both sides of the border. The tuner that I've reviewed here, the Magnum Dynalab MD 106T tube output tuner is in the same vaunted class as these vintage tuners and actually surpasses them in most areas. Let's take a look at this new, modern "classic" tuner.
Features And Layout
This tuner is absolutely gorgeous to look at and even more gorgeous to listen to. It is such a pleasing combination of vintage and modern looks. One of the real nifty things about the MD 106T is the magic "tuning eye". The tuning eye is actually for center tuning of the stereo signal and is located at the middle of the front panel. This eye is actually a vacuum tube, which glows in a varying degree of "pie-shapes" to show the centre stereo tuning of the unit. This is just so cool to look at and adds a sense of aesthetics to the product, which I like. From left to right on the front face there is a large knob that switches between the two antenna inputs, both 75 ohms, which the tuner accepts. There are two traditional analog meters, for multipath and signal strength. There is of course the magic tuning eye mentioned above, along with a digital read-out which displays the number of the station. The switches on the front panel include a power switch, a muting switch, a stereo/mono switch and a narrow/wide bandwidth switch. There is also a sensor that accepts the optional remote control, which can be ordered with many of the Magnum Dynalab tuners. The tuner that I reviewed did not have the remote control option, so I can't comment on this feature. There are also two LEDs that show that the muting is on and the more traditional stereo LED indicator.
On the back panel, again from left to right, there are the two 75 ohm antenna inputs labeled A1 and A2, an EIC power connector and both balanced (XLR) as well as unbalanced (RCA) output connectors are provided.
The interior construction of this tuner is just as lovely as the exterior. The board is very well laid out and shows excellent workmanship and assembly quality. There are four Multicap capacitors, five microfarads each which are all bypassed with a smaller 0.7 microfarad capacitor also from Multicap. The power transformer is a toroidal type and is relatively large for a tuner. Almost all the wiring is soldered with the exception of the power wires at the IEC connector as well as the wires from the two secondaries of the power transformer. These are all connected with snap-on connectors to the circuit board.
A really neat feature of this tuner is that the output stage is a single-ended triode tube circuit design. The output circuit has no negative feedback according to Larry Zurowksi, president and owner of Magnum Dynalab. Larry also told me that the triodes actually amplify the signal after the RF section to handle the amplification of the output section. This is different from the tubes used in their top model, the MD 108, where the tubes are there as an output buffer only. The two tubes used in the output stage are 6922/6DJ8 and are labelled Amperex. These are Amperex Bugle Boy new old stock (NOS) tubes which some tube aficionados prefer. The RCA output connectors appear to WBT's. For protection, there is a mini-sized fuse right on the circuit board. All in all, this is an excellently executed, well-designed and meticulously assembled piece of audio gear.
Operating and using this tuner is just a real delight. The front faceplate, the magic tuning eye, as well as the feel of the knobs and the switches, provide a luxury feel and a real pride of ownership. For me, I found the two antenna inputs very useful here. I use the whip antenna that is available from Magnum Dynalab into one input and a smaller 300-ohm T-type antenna with a transformer for the other input. One can also use one of the larger exterior antennas, and this is also available directly from Magnum Dynalab. One can argue that having a switch between the two antennas might compromise the sonic quality, but I have no way of comparing the antenna switch with a no-switch. The tuning knob is large and has a good weighted feel to it that makes it a real joy to use. One thing I found with trying to use the magic tuning eye is that there is a slight lag in its movement when the tuning dial is turned. Its movement is not as precisely tied to the movement of the tuning dial as compared to the stereo tuning "needle" meter of my Magnum Dynalab FT 101A analog tuner. This is not such a big deal. It just means that you have to be a little bit more precise in using the tuning knob to get the station directly on center.
Listening To This Beauty
I'll tell you right up front that this tuner is an absolute joy and a real pleasure to listen to. You can listen to this tuner all day long without fatigue. You can listen to it critically to gauge the quality of the station and the quality of the music. You can also enjoy it as background music while you are doing your daily tasks, and even while just relaxing, unwinding and rejuvenating. In all these cases, this tuner sounds absolutely wonderful.
The MD-106T has got an incredible balance of warmth, musicality and bloom on the one hand, and air, ambience, spaciousness, an excellent soundstage and, I'd like to say detail, but it's not "detail" per se. It's exceptional resolution, nuances and finer distinctions. This is not a "detail", bright, exaggerated, top-end component at all. Getting this incredible balance between warmth, bloom, musicality AND air, spaciousness, distinctiveness is extremely difficult in any audio equipment, and also extremely rare. The MD-106T has this balance spot-on in my opinion.
So many of today's products highlight or spotlight the upper mid and highs to give a false illusion of detail and spaciousness, which is neither. These are hi-fi effects and artifacts and, I believe, are not real, because I never hear them in live or un-amplified music.
This great balance between musicality and resolution makes listening to FM music broadcasting a pure joy. Excellent classical or jazz stations here in Toronto sound absolutely delightful. Even the majority of bad sounding stations, which are compressed and limited, sound acceptable to wonderful. It is a treasure to discover new music, music that I would not normally be exposed to, through this marvelous FM tuner. The sound of this tuner is so good that I was not motivated to play CDs or records for quite a while, when I was reviewing this tuner.
The tonality and spectral balance of this tuner is exemplary. The lows, mids and highs were extremely well balanced, as well as sounding very cohesive. The sub-bass region also was very good especially for a tube output stage, but does not reach the subterranean levels of some solid-state output circuits. This is not entirely easy to gauge, nor that important, because so few of the FM stations really do broadcast very low bass energy. The mid bass is excellent with plenty of body and mass behind it. The midrange is truly exquisite. Not just as good as the classic vintage tuners, but actually even better. The midrange is smoother, as well as more open than the McIntosh MR-71 and more clear and articulate than the Marantz 10B, in my experience. The highs are natural, sweet and not aggressive. If you are a "detail" freak you may be disappointed here. This tuner has no exaggerated or spotlighted upper frequencies at all -- and "that's a good thing", as Martha says.
The attack of the notes is good but not exceptional, which is typical for a tube unit, especially with NOS tubes, which are used here. My experience is that most of the NOS tubes sound warm and mellow but sometimes do not have the clarity, the attack and the resolution of modern tubes. My friend and audio designer, Ed Wolkow of Foundation Research, which builds excellent tube preamps and phono stages, tells me that some NOS tubes have very little vacuum still left in them. Some of these tubes test average to very bad on the test bench. Substituting modern made tubes such as JJ, Sovtech or EI tubes would help here. I had a pair of new modern JJ tubes that I substituted for the standard Amperex Bugle Boy NOS tubes. The JJ's produced a better overall attack, however the sound was not as magical or musical and it was also slightly harsher. It was a touch more difficult to "relax into the music" or, as I call it, "release into the couch". The standard Amperex tubes were better overall, I thought.
This tuner also had incredible inner resolution, but real resolution, not "exaggerated" detail like so many components. This is real, honest and true resolution that I hear when I go to see the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall or a well known jazz band at The Pilot Tavern in the Yorkville section of Toronto.
The soundstage is big and deep, with instruments each within their own acoustic space. There is no cardboard cut-out imaging here which, by the way, I never hear at The Pilot Tavern, or at the concert hall.
There is also good sound staging depth as well. Depending on the music and the quality of recording, the music comes from a spot behind the speakers, at the speakers, or sometimes forward of the speakers in the case of some highly processed pop or rock. The MD 106T just simply reproduces what's on the FM broadcast.
In the case of imaging, if you expect pinpoint, edge defining imaging, you won't get it here. By the way, I never hear this type of imaging in a concert hall or jazz club. Real imaging is, in my experience, more holistic, rounder, where the music just blooms from the instruments or the vocalists' location. The image and location is always slightly diffused as opposed to crystal-clear and edge defining. This is what I always hear listening to excellent jazz bands at the Pilot Tavern or the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall.
Swap Those Tubes
I also own a different set of Amperex 6922/6DJ8 NOS tubes. I placed my own NOS tubes into the MD 106T just for comparison. Inserting my tubes changed the sound a little. It was more mellow, and smoother. There was more "meat on the bone" quality to the music as well as a denser presentation. The soundstage however was a little shut down, a little more dark sounding, although this was not objectionable. The differences were audible but not major. My tubes may be a better match within brighter system common today's home theater world and may be less desirable within warmer sounding systems that include Spendor classic series, Quads etc. The NOS tubes here were less open, had more mass or density but also at the same time were less airy and ethereal sounding.
Overall, I prefer the sound of the standard Amperex Bugle Boy 6922 NOS tubes that come with this tuner. I think they are overall better balanced, as well as more musically satisfying. The sub-heading in this review of the Magnum Dynalab MD 106T tube output tuner, says: "the modern classic tuner". And that's exactly what this is. That as good as the vintage tuners are, such classics as the McIntosh MR-71 and the Marantz 10B tube tuners, both of which I've owned, the MD 106T exceeds the sonic performance of these tuners in virtually all areas. I believe that the major reason for this is the increased performance of today's modern analog FM front-end sections.
This is the tuner that you can listen to all day long without any listening fatigue whatsoever. My guess is that you have no idea how good FM sounds with this incredible tuner. I've discovered many great stations playing a wider range of music than I own on records or CD's. This has exposed me to music that I normally would not have heard. I consider this tuner not just a tuner, but an excellent "source component" as well. In my opinion, it is every bit as good as the finest CD players, SACD players, as well as the finest vinyl playback systems. It truly belongs in this vaunted class.
Summing It Up
Listening to this tuner for this review, I was not motivated, in the least, to put on CD's or records, but to just simply enjoy the music and discover all sorts of wonderful songs on stations that I normally have not been motivated to experience. Just think of it...all this music for absolutely free, with the only possible drawback of having to listen to a few commercials, or very few, in the case of some classical and jazz stations. This tuner in combination with my pair of Acoustat Model X vacuum tube directly-driven electrostatic speakers, produce some of the best sounds I have ever heard, not only in my house, but including some of the best sounds I've ever heard anywhere. This tuner has an excellent balance between musicality and resolution, which is an extremely difficult thing to achieve in any audio component. It has excellent sound staging that is totally natural.
Most importantly, this tuner is musically satisfying; it gets to the heart and soul of the music. It flat out grabs your emotions that is, in the final analysis, what all music is intended to do. If you're looking for the typical hi-fi attributes you'd best search somewhere else. The MD 106T has a very musical, easy to listen to, stress-free sound that is warm, open and expansive, with good resolution. What a balancing act. Well done, Magnum Dynalab!
This review represents my experience and opinion on this wonderful product. I invite you to hear this tuner because I truly consider it a world class audio component.
As much as we love this hobby, as much as we love music, and the equipment to reproduce it, in the final analysis, please trust your own ears and nobody else's. Other people can give you their point-of-view; however, if the music or sound, through that component, doesn't move you, does not grab your emotions, then look for another product. Trust your ears. Trust yourself. In the end, what truly is important is that you…Enjoy the music.
50 dB quieting stereo: 25.0 dBf
Price: $3,995, remote control option adds $300
Magnum Dynalab Ltd.