SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published August 1, 2000

 

The Musical Fidelity A3CD CD Player

They finally released DVD-Audio last week, so we have yet another digital choice when it comes to music storage. For that matter, there’s an increasing number of 24/96 two- channel recordings on DAD under the old DVD-Video standard. And let’s not forget SACD, which is also out there scrambling for a toehold. Of course, it wouldn’t do to dismiss the proliferation of downloadable digital audio files on the web, either.

So what’s a music loving audiophile to do? Pick a format at random and bet it will be supported two years hence?

Not this audiophile. For one thing, despite DVD-A’s theoretical availability, I still haven’t actually seen a consumer-ready sample. And I’m not sure I can afford it this early in the game anyway -- ditto for SACD.

I think I’m going to sit this one out for a while and let the dust settle. But I’m certainly not going to suffer in silence. After all, I have several thousand CDs that I want to be able to enjoy now -- as well as in whatever digital future evolves. So I just bought myself a new CD player that’s built like a tank and plays all my CDs like a dream. Oh yeah, it also upsamples to 24/96, so I’m even getting a taste of that digital future right now.

And best of all, it was less than $1000.

The Musical Fidelity A3CD CD player just might be the answer to us music-loving audiophiles’ prayers.

"Your better parts must dance with them forever"
...Sir John Davies

The A3CD is part of Musical Fidelity’s new A3 line -- joined by the A3CR Power Amplifier (see archives) or the A3CR Preamplifier (see SoundStage! soon). All three components were designed, MF’s Antony Michaelson immodestly declares, "to be among the best in the world, regardless of price." Actually, he went further, classifying it as "all performance/no bullshit." Strong words, but not necessarily just another example of audio company hyperbole -- they are built to impeccable standards utilizing top of the line components wherever appropriate, and they even include the luxurious audio jewelry that has long distinguished the finest high end components.

Taking that element first, the A3CD sports a thick faceplate of brushed aluminum which contrasts nicely with the black powder-coated chassis. The CD drawer is surrounded by gold-plated brass strips, affixed with gold-plated Allen screws. A matching strip runs along the bottom of the faceplate. There are six soft-touch switches on the front panel (power on the lower left, as well as open/close, play/pause, stop, skip back, and skip forward), lending it an uncluttered look. These buttons are milled aluminum, with thick latex pads underneath to ensure they have the luxe feel appropriate to a high quality instrument. All other functions are accessed through the remote.

The rear panel has two digital outputs (coaxial S/PDIF on RCA and Toslink), a pair of high-quality gold-plated RCAs handling the analog output, and an IEC mains socket.

This is a solid, extremely attractive-looking unit. Pride of ownership is guaranteed.

The A3CD’s transport is sourced from Sony and seems substantial and reliable.

The A3CD utilizes the same Burr-Brown PCM1716 24-bit Delta-Sigma D/A converter employed in Musical Fidelity’s X-Ray CD player. The DAC automatically upsamples 16-bit data to 24-bit/96kHz, giving the unit exceptional detail recovery and an exceedingly low noise floor (THD is less than 0.0025% at 20kHz).

MF’s exclusive five-pole hybrid analog filtering is said to remove both unwanted HF harmonics and digital aliasing artifacts. A separate proprietary oscillator circuit -- one that doesn’t derive its data from the existing clock or CD circuits -- ensures that the A3CD manifests astonishingly low jitter (less than 130pS according to Miller Research measurements).

"Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length"
...Robert Frost

The Musical Fidelity A3CD satisfied me from the moment I opened its shipping carton. Its handsome livery simply screams high-class and it has a satisfyingly solid heft. The brushed aluminum faceplate’s texture is enticing -- I almost wanted to pet this CD player.

Still, handsome is as handsome does, and here the A3CD definitely did not disappoint. Since I have a large CD collection, which I intend to continue to enjoy for years to come, I put great store in a player’s ability to make older CDs sound as listenable as possible. (This is an area in which the exempary Linn Sondek CD player excels -- as it should with a $20k price tag.)

The Musical Fidelity played my copy of the Debussy Preludes for Piano, Books I & II [Paul Jacobs, piano. Nonesuch 73031-2] about as well as I’ve ever heard it done. I bought this CD hoping it would match the sound of Nonesuch’s LP, which has a lovely bell-like clarity I adore. The CD, which was mastered at the very dawn of the digital age, has always had a dark, dull sound -- I suspect that Nonesuch went a little heavy on the noise reduction, trying to eliminate every vestige of analog tape hiss.

On some players, the instrument is almost unrecognizable as a full-sized piano. The A3CD certainly didn’t make it sound like the best piano recording I’ve ever heard, but it did allow me to concentrate on Jacobs’ unrivalled performances rather than its sound.

Does that sound like faint praise? Well, it’s not. I would question the performance of any player that made a silk purse out of this sow’s ear of a transfer -- it would be changing the data, which is not what we want in a CD player. The best we can ask of it is to make a truly recognizable sow’s ear out of a sow’s ear. The Musical Fidelity allows me to listen to some of my favorite music when most players don’t -- any player that can do that is worthy of praise.

Feed it a well-recorded, competently mastered disc, however, and the A3CD will have you searching for superlatives. I slipped in Antonio Forcione’s Dedicato [Naimcd 013] one evening and it was like hearing the disc for the first time. The Musical Fidelity’s ability to portray rhythm and pace -- qualities at the core of Forcione’s music -- is simply first rate. I was immediately captivated. The A3CD presented Forcione with startling solidity and warmth. Its articulation allowed me to follow his trickiest guitar runs easily, and it placed Forcione and his fellow musicians concretely within a deep, wide soundstage.

Forcione’s gentle music has always seemed sort of pleasant to me, but I’ve never felt compelled to listen to it. I’d spot the disc as I scanned through the collection and think I really ought to play this one again sometime. The A3CD’s presentation of the music allowed me to connect to it emotionally in a way I’d never done before. This week, at least, the disc sits on my most played pile, awaiting my next late night listening section.

Show me the measurement for that!

"What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"
...John Keats

I also couldn’t get enough of the two discs of the Corelli Concerto Grossi, Op. 6 by Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque [Harmonia Mundi HMU 907014/HMU 907015]. These delightful recordings are a must for anyone drawn to the cheery sound of Baroque chamber sonatas -- Peter McGrath recorded them at Skywalker Sound and they are virtually primers on what a small chamber ensemble (17 pieces) recorded in a large space should sound like. The strings are bright and filled with tonal color -- on the A3CD their overtones seems to linger forever, sustained on a cushion of air that is almost tangeable. The sound doesn’t appear to fill the big hall, that would be wrong. Instead, it defines the space by delineating its volume and lovely sustain.

Philip Brett’s baroque organ continuo hoots and gurgles away sunnily underneath the strings, lending some welcome bottom to the sound -- just the right amount, not enough to overwhelm McGegan’s harpsichord. In fact, balance is what this recording is all about. Tones and textures are contrasted, as are sound and silence, darkness and light. And the A3CD preserves this delicate balance, while enhancing the tonal purity and sparkling harmonics of all those strings. You can go so far into the soundstage that you can practically hear the dust bunnies thunderously tumbling around the back of the hall. And if I can’t claim to hear Corelli’s very thoughts, I can certainly hear McGegan’s.

How does the A3CD do it? Perhaps it’s the almost complete lack of jitter or the low THD. Surely those properties don’t hurt.

Thinking to truly challenge the player’s amiability, I pulled out Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball [Asylum 61854-2], an HDCD encoded disc that has a tendency to sound, shall we say, mushy on less than superlatively engineered players. Bingo, again! The Musical Fidelity doesn’t have the HDCD circuit, of course, but it sorted out the various lines of Daniel Lanois’ murky mix with grace.

Bass was a profound foundation for the sonic landscape sculpted by Lanois and Harris. I initially had quite a struggle comprehending what the two of them intended, seemingly submerging Ms. Harris’crystalline vocals within a swirling, phasey mass of instruments and other voices, but repeated auditions with CD players like the Mark Levinson No. 39, Levinson Nos. 31.5/30.6, Linn Sondek, Wadia 850, and Krell KPS-20 finally bore fruit.

Like the pinon trees that flourish in the midst of the forbidding desert, Ms. Harris’ voice blossoms from the parched sound of this production. Or it does with the best CD players I’ve heard. And I count the A3CD among them.

This doesn’t mean that the A3CD is the equal of the Wadia 850, Linn Sondek or Levinson Nos. 31.5/30.6, dang it all. As good as it is, those other players still get a little closer to the magic of live music. The very best -- and, of course, some of them are among the most hideously expensive -- CD players haven’t been trumped. Yet.

And what is it they have that the A3CD doesn’t? That’s really hard to say because, whatever it is, we haven’t tamed it to fit into any neat little category. It’s almost a physical response, a lack of effort on the part of the listener, perhaps. All I can say is that when you experience one of the top tier CD systems, there’s a sense of surrunder to the music that’s as profound -- and as comforting -- as stepping into a cool room on a hot, humid day.

Ahhhhh.

But the Musical Fidelity doesn’t give up much to the best players either. Of course, that’s just my opinion -- it’s possible that you wouldn’t feel there was any difference between it and the upper echelon players. Or maybe you’ll feel the gulf is vast, although I have a hard time envisioning that.

"Virtue is like a rich stone, best palin set"
...Francis Bacon

But what if it was? What would it be worth? That’s the question, ain’t it?

You can spend as much on a state-of-the-art CD playback as you would for a luxury sports coupe. Or can buy the Musical Fidleity A3CD CD player for less than a grand.

Hmmmm.

You already know what my final answer was. I bought the damn thing. I’d love to own any of the top tier players I’ve lived with, but the economics just don’t work out for me. If I had a little more of what is (I assume) jokingly referred to as "disposable" income, I probably would dispose of it that way. But my landlady is picky about receiving my rent every month, and the credit card companies never neglect to send me those monthly bills, so I must prioritize.

And who doesn’t? But with the Musical Fidelity A3CD CD player available, economic conservatism doesn’t mean I have to settle for less. At $995 it is as well built as anything out there -- it’s solid as a brick and seemingly reliable. It’s even good looking. It comes darn close to the performance of any CD system and leaves a great many in the dust. It’s a great player for these unsettled digital times.

And, of course, it has those digital outputs just in case the future springs a surprise.

Until then, I intend to listen happily to my CD collection, content in the knowledge that it doesn’t get much better than this.

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com


The Musical Fidelity A3CD CD Player
Price: $995 USD

Musical Fidelity Ltd.
15/16 Olympic Trading Est, Fulton Road
Wembley, Middx
HA9 OTF
England
Phone: (44) 208 900 2866

Website: www.musicalfidelity.co.uk


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