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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, RB1000 & Hadcock GH Export arms, Benz Micro MC Silver, Rega Super Elys & Garrott Bros Optim FGS Cartridges
Digital Source: Accustic Arts Drive 1, Audio Aero Prima SE DAC
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre2P
Power Amp: Art Audio Carissa, Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and Canary CA 160 monos
Speakers: Hørning Perikles, Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.1, Ohm Acoustics Walsh 4 with 4.5 mk.2 upgrade, Thiel CS2.4, Era D4 and D5 [in for review]
Cables: JPS Labs Superconductor and Superconductor FX interconnects and speaker wire, Furutech Digi Reference digital
Power Cords: ZCable Heavys & Black Lightnings, JPS Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC and Kaptovator power cords
Powerline conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Cyclone Power Cord
Sundry accessories: Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Ultra & Heavy Z-Sleeves, Viablue QTC spikes under speakers, Auric Illuminator, Sound Mechanics Performance Platform
Room size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review component retail: A5 integrated amplifier $2495; A5 CD player $2495
When approached to review the Musical Fidelity A5 components, I figured why not. I hadn't stepped on any landmines lately. Reading the letters to the Stereophile editor or discussions on Audio Asylum taking 'phile to task for their extensive coverage of Musical Fidelity products, one anticipates possible wrath from readers. But that's okay. I'm a big boy. I've been reviewing gear since 1997 and written more than 125 equipment reviews. The fact is, I understand exactly where certain writers are coming from when they seem to lavish undue amounts of attention on certain manufacturers. After years of reviewing gear and dealing with manufacturers, it's inevitable that some will become favorites. Once you've identified a maker whose wares you fancy -- and who does what he says he'll do and when; and who doesn't try to interfere with the review process -- you'd want to step back into those waters again, too. And why not? If another company can't get decent product to a reviewer or produce on schedule, why assume they'd treat a customer better? At the risk of tipping my hand so early in the review then, I'll say that all the criteria were met and it's my sincere hope to have Musical Fidelity gear under my roof again in the future.
I admit that while I've always been intrigued by the line, I haven't always been enamored with its looks. For my tastes, Musical Fidelity gear was getting rather garish for a while. But this is not the case with the highly finished yet more conservatively styled A5 components. At 36.6 lbs, the A5 integrated amplifier is a traditionally handsome piece. It's hulking in all the right places and connotes high quality build without looking as though raised on a diet of steroids. At 17.3 inches wide, 4.9 inches high and 15.75 inches deep, it's massive enough to separate itself from mass-market gear but not so much as to suggest conspicuous consumption. At 250wpc (400 into 4 ohms), it packs the clout to drive most any speaker. Around back are four pairs of gold-plated line-level RCA inputs as well as another pair for the included moving magnetic (and high output MC) phono section. The A5 doesn't make use of the same ultra-sturdy chassis-mount RCAs that one would find on most preamplifiers in this price range but they seem sturdy enough (they don't flex as you muscle the RCA into place). And most preamplifiers in this price range come with neither a phonostage nor 250 watts and 75 amps of current. It seems like a fair trade-off. An IEC power inlet, a pair of preamp outputs and two pairs of plastic-nut 5-way binding posts round out the i/o ports on the A5's rear apron.
Up front, the A5 looks first class. A huge centrally located volume control is the A5's most obvious feature. Below it are 8 positive-action metal buttons that activate power/mute, tape monitor, home theater direct input (bypassing all active preamp circuitry within the A5), Phono, CD, SACD and Tape inputs, all indicated via subtly lit blue LEDs. Also included is a full-function remote control that operates the A5 Integrated, the A5 CD player, my Audio Aero Prima SE DAC, my Accustic Arts Drive 1 CD transport and probably anything else that's coded with Phillips IR software. There's no balance control but the remote gives complete operational control of everything else, including muting of the amp and programming of the CD player.
The A5 CD player is a perfect cosmetic match for the integrated amplifier. It measures the same and the same milled metal buttons as found on the amplifier control all the functions on the CD player, though there are no front-panel provisions for programming - use the remote. The blue display screen and lighter blue alphanumeric display are significantly less sexy than the rest of the A5's visual. This player deserves a larger and sexier display. Inside the A5 is a dual differential 24-bit Delta-Sigma bit-stream DAC with 192kHz 8 x oversampled architecture claimed to feature very low jitter on the order of 135 pps, plus a single mu-Vista 6112 tube in the output stage. Frequency response is quoted as 10Hz to 20kHz +0/-0.02 dB, signal-to-noise ratio as 113dB 'A' weighted and channel separation as greater than 105dB throughout the audible range. Audio output at digital 0dB is 2.15VRMS at 1kHz and analog output impedance is 47 ohms. The A5 also provides one optical Toslink and one S/PDIF RCA digital output. A detachable power cord means you can experiment with after-market cords to your heart's content. All in all, the A5 seems to have all bases covered.
As beautiful and well designed as the A5 components are, there's one criticism - the cases ring like bells. Tap the top of either and it rings with a sustain I've never encountered before. Much more on this in due course. For now I'll say that it didn't seem to have an audible affect on the music but eventually offered an opportunity to greatly improve stock performance.
|The philosophy of design
Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson plays the clarinet and has a handful of recordings that are available to customers of Musical Fidelity. US distributor Jim Spainhour of Signal Path told me that during one of Michaelson's recording sessions with a quartet, his curiosity as an engineer caught up with him. He made a 'dry' recording of the group with a microphone sitting one meter away. He then replayed the recording through a set of speakers rated at 88dB 1/watt/1 meter. The same microphone was set up one meter away from the speakers. He found that he needed 350 watts RMS to achieve the same dynamic peak levels of the live performance. That's why Michaelson and Musical Fidelity make big power amps, many with separate power supplies and high current output capability.
The problem with big power is big noise but ultimate dynamic range -- the ability to capture the delicacy of the solo acoustic guitar to the biggest and most bombastic of symphonic peaks -- is of the highest importance. Qualities such as tonality, timbre, rhythm and pace are very important too and they cannot be ignored. But it just doesn't matter as much if you can't suspend the instruments within a 3-dimensional soundstage. According to Musical Fidelity, that takes power.
In the listening room
With about 40 hours of warm-up (my review samples were both well broken in upon receipt), the A5 components started to show their colors. The combo's presentation was actually very much akin to what I had heard from the Cayin A 88T integrated. The A5s produced a large and airy soundstage with excellent intelligibility and a high degree of transparency. Not the least bit bright, I like to call the presentation more illuminated than what my Bel Canto REF1000s or EL-34 Canary CA-160 monos produce. Tonally not as highly saturated as either, the Musical Fidelity components produced a greater sense of hear-through-the-music clarity and openness. In short, the A5s got all of the nuts and bolts of the recording right, it was a very nice sound, easy on the ears and... well, a little unexciting - exactly what I'd expect from a pair of $2500/ea. components. They did nothing wrong but just didn't inspire.
But stick with me here. Things were to get better. Much better.
Still, my first question was this - what could I think of in this price range that did inspire? Actually, nothing. I take no satisfaction when I say that system components in this price range usually provide all the nuts and bolts required to drive a pair of speakers appropriately and transparently. But that alone doesn't inspire crazed audiophiles. Don't get me wrong - this kind of performance is more than enough to satisfy music lovers and the A5 components would more than please anybody I personally know. Actually, most of my acquaintances would find the A5 components to die for and for the asking price, they certainly represent good value, period.
Period yes but not end of story.
One day, the A5 CD player met the Sound Mechanics Performance platform and my ho-hum turned to holy shit! I mentioned earlier that the covers of the A5 components ring like bells. While normal listening indicated no ill effects, when placed on a platform to decouple the A5 CD player from the equipment rack, it sounded like a new player. A newer better player. A much more expensive player. The soundstage exploded. Bass had greater weight. Details emerged from a significantly reduced noise floor and images gained focus. But more than that, the entire presentation took on an unusual correctness that was completely liberated from the speakers in a way never experienced before. I could see the speakers sitting there but it seemed the sound was coming from everywhere but them.
As I sat listening in amazement, I wondered about the Sound Mechanics platform. There's a lot going on with it including magnetic shielding that purportedly converts RFI and EMI into energy to be whisked away via a grounding scheme. But there's a lot of mass as well. I started wondering how much that mass had to do with the A5's transformation. I recalled reading about maple butcher block cutting boards used as equipment supports. As it happened, I had two very heavy ones at my kitchen at work. The next day they came home with me. Eventually those boards were replaced by some from Old World Butcher Block. I ordered 4 boards 18" by 15" big and 2 inches thick, at $57/ea. plus shipping. $57? It turns out that this is one cost-effective and highly recommended accessory that takes the A5 CD player to the absolute top of its class and beyond. Its effects on the A5 integrated are profound as well and the maple boards' price is so insignificant that I consider them mandatory to reap the special rewards awaiting us within these fine Musical Fidelity components.
At 250 watts per channel, the A5 integrated amplifier is among the most powerful amplifiers I've ever used. On a watts-per-dollar basis -- particularly once you consider that its MSRP includes a full-function preamp with phonostage -- it's also one of the cheapest by good measure. It's the cheapest in memory as a matter of fact. If I split the price right down the middle, the A5 equates to a $1250 preamp and a $1250 250-watt stereo amplifier. That's a lot of product -- and performance -- for the money.
Proponents of integrated amplifiers have always cited the economic savings when the control and power amplifiers are combined in a common chassis. Casework is expensive and adds significantly to the price of components. Subtract the need for one less pair of interconnects, one less after-market power cord or even one less receptacle on the power conditioner. These are all real and important savings that one needs to consider, particularly when an integrated product of the A5's performance is available.
As I've begun to investigate the effects of well-designed equipment racks, there's one unavoidable truth; they are expensive. Really expensive. So I now consider the savings of one less shelf/tier when I contemplate the A5 integrated. Because I'm sure that the A5 components placed on a top-notch stand from Grand Prix Audio, Sound Mechanics, HRS or Silent Running will outperform far more costly components placed haphazardly on flimsy racks, it makes buying integrated components ever more cost-effective and sensible. And of course, my own listening impressions bear this out. Throughout my time listening to the A5 components, I never missed my reference gear. By the time I was convinced that I had squeezed everything possible from the A5 CD player, A5 Integrated and Gallo Ref 3.1s plus the aforementioned maple platforms, I had no desire to change a thing. I listened to this system blissfully for weeks and know that I could continue to do so indefinitely. It simply needn't be more complicated than this; not if the goal is to serve the music rather than the ego.
A5 integrated amplifier
In the listening room, the A5 isn't exactly what you'd call a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's all carnivore. Next to the Bel Canto e.One REF 1000 monos, the A5 filled out the bottom end of the Gallo Ref 3.1s better than any amp I've tried. Used in conjunction with the A5 CD player, it drew bass from the Gallos I didn't know existed. I'd never before heard these speakers roar this way. If the integrated left anything untapped inside the Gallos, I'd be amazed. Bass was so extraordinarily taut, tuneful and propulsive that it surprised even me. Donald Fagen's "Snowbound' from Kamakiriad [Reprise 9 45230 2] became a cut I'd come back to time and again. It opens with an electric bass recorded with a very up-close perspective and sounded fantastic through the A5 components and Gallo Ref 3.1s. This is one fairly bright recording. Yet through the A5s, the sound was bright but not edgy or nearly as fatiguing as I've heard in the past. It was as if the tonal balance was unchanged yet a layer of fatiguing grunge (distortion?) had been removed.
My Thiel CS 2.4s are more demanding speakers than the Gallos. With an impedance that dips to a thorny 2 ohms, the Thiels require real current to sound their best. The A5 was more than up to the challenge and handled the Thiels with a sense of ease and authority. It was only at the end of a particularly spirited listening session that I found the A5 to be fairly warm when I placed my hand on it. Not hot but warm enough to indicate that I'd finally succeeded in allowing the amp to stretch its legs.