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, theres an increasing number of 24/96 two- channel recordings on DAD under
the old DVD-Video standard. And lets not forget SACD, which is also out there
scrambling for a toehold. Of course, it wouldnt do to dismiss the proliferation of
downloadable digital audio files on the web, either.
So whats 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-As theoretical availability, I still havent actually seen a consumer-ready
sample. And Im not sure I can afford it this early in the game anyway -- ditto for
I think Im going to sit this one out for
a while and let the dust settle. But Im 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
thats built like a tank and plays all my CDs like a dream. Oh yeah, it also
upsamples to 24/96, so Im 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
...Sir John Davies
The A3CD is part of Musical
Fidelitys new A3 line -- joined by the A3CR Power Amplifier (see
archives) or the A3CR Preamplifier (see SoundStage! soon). All three components were designed,
MFs 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 A3CDs 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 Fidelitys 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).
MFs 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 doesnt 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"
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 faceplates
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 players 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 Ive ever heard it done. I bought this CD hoping it would match the
sound of Nonesuchs 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 didnt make it sound like
the best piano recording Ive ever heard, but it did allow me to concentrate
on Jacobs unrivalled performances rather than its sound.
Does that sound like faint praise? Well,
its not. I would question the performance of any player that made a silk purse out
of this sows 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
sows ear out of a sows ear. The Musical Fidelity allows me to listen to some
of my favorite music when most players dont -- any player that can do that is worthy
Feed it a well-recorded, competently mastered
disc, however, and the A3CD will have you searching for superlatives. I slipped in Antonio
Forciones Dedicato [Naimcd 013] one evening and it was like hearing the disc
for the first time. The Musical Fidelitys ability to portray rhythm and pace --
qualities at the core of Forciones 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.
Forciones gentle music has always seemed
sort of pleasant to me, but Ive never felt compelled to listen to it. Id spot
the disc as I scanned through the collection and think I really ought to play this one
again sometime. The A3CDs presentation of the music allowed me to connect to it
emotionally in a way Id 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
I also couldnt 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
doesnt appear to fill the big hall, that would be wrong. Instead, it defines the
space by delineating its volume and lovely sustain.
Philip Bretts 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 McGegans 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 cant claim to hear Corellis
very thoughts, I can certainly hear McGegans.
How does the A3CD do it? Perhaps its the
almost complete lack of jitter or the low THD. Surely those properties dont hurt.
Thinking to truly challenge the players
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 doesnt 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. Harriscrystalline 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 Ive heard. And I count the
A3CD among them.
This doesnt 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
havent been trumped. Yet.
And what is it they have that the A3CD
doesnt? Thats really hard to say because, whatever it is, we havent
tamed it to fit into any neat little category. Its 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, theres a sense of surrunder to the music
thats as profound -- and as comforting -- as stepping into a cool room on a hot,
But the Musical Fidelity doesnt give up
much to the best players either. Of course, thats just my opinion --
its possible that you wouldnt feel there was any difference between it
and the upper echelon players. Or maybe youll feel the gulf is vast, although I have
a hard time envisioning that.
"Virtue is like a rich stone,
best palin set"
But what if it was? What would it be worth? Thats
the question, aint 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.
You already know what my final answer
was. I bought the damn thing. Id love to own any of the top tier players
Ive lived with, but the economics just dont 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 doesnt? But with the Musical
Fidelity A3CD CD player available, economic conservatism doesnt mean I have to
settle for less. At $995 it is as well built as anything out there -- its solid as a
brick and seemingly reliable. Its even good looking. It comes darn close to the
performance of any CD system and leaves a great many in the dust. Its 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 doesnt get much better than this.
The Musical Fidelity A3CD CD Player
Price: $995 USD
Musical Fidelity Ltd.
15/16 Olympic Trading Est, Fulton Road
Phone: (44) 208 900 2866