SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published July 1, 2000

 

The Musical Fidelity A3 CR Power Amplifier

Anthony Michaelson, the man behind Musical Fidelity, is not the reserved British type that is content to faintly praise his products. He’s enthusiastically forthright -- maybe even a bit cocky. He called me a few months ago to discuss his newest line of products, the A3 line, which includes the A3CD CD player, A3 CR preamp, and A3 CR power amplifier (the CD player is not technically a CR component, but is part of the A3 line).

"Wes, these are designed to be among the best products in the world -- regardless of price!"

"That’s a pretty sweeping claim, Anthony."

"Honestly, I don’t know how I could make these any better. Well, maybe I could, but it would be stupidly expensive to actually get them to sound better than they do now. The A3 pre/power were simply designed to be among the best in the world at any price. I know that sounds self-serving, but that’s how they were designed. It doesn’t have to cost that much -- if you don’t use bullshit components and bullshit front panels and make obscene profit margins, you can get affordable prices and have massive performance."

"So you’re claiming that the A3 series is the equal to anything out there?"

"I suppose I have to allow for preference, so perhaps I should simply say that they are as well built as anything one can buy and that they sound competitive with the very best that’s ever been manufactured -- although, of course, by high-end standards, they don’t cost very much."

I’ve heard that song and dance before -- there’s a lot of leeway in the old by high-end standards argument. "So what are we talking about here?" I asked.

"$1495 USD each for the preamp and power amp."

A $3,000 pre/power combo that was billed as the equivalent of the best gear out there? This I had to hear!

Enter stage left

Which is why I came to receive four rather massive cartons one day in May. The pre, power, and CD player were expected, but I was startled to also receive a carton containing NuVista interconnects and power cables (see sidebar below). I was also startled by my first glimpse of the new A3 line -- it is beautiful stuff.

My intention initially was to review the three components together, but the more I used them, the more I realized this was unfair to them and to you. They are special performers and they need to be discussed individually at some length. I’ll be reviewing the power amp and CD player here at onhifi.com (the CD review will appear next in this space), while the A3 CR preamp will be dealt with over at SoundStage!

Each component boasts a 1/4-inch-thick luxuriously textured aluminum faceplate sporting gold-plated details -- in the case of the amplifier, this consists of a simple gold strip bolted to the bottom of the faceplate. The only other details on the front panel are a power button and LED, giving the A3 an elegant, but essentially understated, look.

The rear panel of the amplifier is uncluttered, with well-built, high-quality RCA inputs on each side, flanking Musical Fidelity’s proprietary multi-way binding posts. These are huge and have locking nuts with truly substantial finger grips on them, making them easy to tighten. I love these connectors although I understand that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. The rear panel also has an IEC power cable socket.

And, at nearly thirty pounds, it’s a hefty little sucker. Fit’n’finish, as I said, are first rate and the build quality is impeccable. I’d be proud to own an amplifier that looks and feels this nice.

I twitted Anthony about the poshness of it all.

"I allocate a certain amount for the way things look, because the way things look is important. You could easily say ‘let’s not have a front panel,’ or ‘let’s have a cheap plastic knob’ and so on, but pride of ownership counts for something. So I buy things in quantity -- for instance, I bought enough of the gold trim that surrounds the push buttons on the A3 series to cover the next year-and-a-half’s manufacturing. That’s a huge investment, but it saves us more than 75% of what a typical high-end company would pay for small quantities. So any single panel assembly doesn’t cost me all that much.

"Most high-end companies operate in the most inefficient way possible . . . And surprise, surprise! A large portion of the cost is things like the front panel.

"But once you’ve decided to do it, you might as well do it right. Tactile impressions are important. Take the push buttons -- ours are metal, not plastic, and they have a large latex pad behind there to buffer them so they feel just right. I know it’s crazy, but I like to do things properly.

"Doing it properly doesn’t cost any more, but it does require quite a bit of knowledge and application."

Meaty, beaty, big and bouncy

The A3 CR has unbelievably wide bandwidth -- Musical Fidelity quotes it as 10Hz-100kHz +/- 2dB. (That’s lower distortion at 100 kHz than most amplifiers have at 10k!) It outputs 120W into an 8-ohm load; 210W into 4 ohms. It utilizes six output transistors per channel and employs two separate toroidal transformers in addition to two twin-wound E-core chokes. These chokes provide power supply filtration, which is further augmented by four 6800µF smoothing capacitors per channel."

Musical Fidelity NuVista Silver Interconnects and NuVista Copper Speaker Cables


I was startled to find Musical Fidelity cables included with these components because I’d never thought of Musical Fidelity as a cable manufacturer. But the cables were nicely packaged and seemed well put together. The interconnects were covered in flexible fabric braid and sported three metal cylinders per cable -- sort of like a boa constrictor trying to digest three pigs. These turned out to be RF clamps. The interconnects were constructed from PCOCC silver with high-quality locking RCAs and quadruple shielding.

The speaker cables were reasonably flexible, although fairly thick. They were constructed from PCOCC copper and had high-quality bananas at one end and substantial spades at the other.

I auditioned them with the A3 series of components and found them remarkably fast and uncolored. And, as cables go, they’re reasonably priced, coming in at $199.95 for .7-meter interconnect and $599.95 for 3-meter speaker cables.

I asked Anthony Michaelson about his cable philosophy -- and did I ever receive an earful!

"Our idea about the interconnect was pretty bloody simple. In my experience, most problems encountered with cables are caused by RF pickup. I thought the obvious thing to do was get rid of the RF, which is dead easy to do. You just put your inductors on it and that’s the end of it."

"You can measure it. Put RF on one end of them and it’s not there at the other. The other factors are capacitance and resistance. We opted for very low capacitance and very low resistance, we got rid of the RF, and we screen them properly -- these cables have multiple screens in them, so that little interference can get through. It’s getting on to the perfect cable. There’s not much bullshit factor."

"The speaker cables are pretty much the same idea as the interconnects, except that RF isn’t a factor. We’ve got two very low resistance, low capacitance inductors with proper screening. And because some people believe there’s microphony in cables, we’ve provided some form of damping within the cable, which makes it about 30% larger in diameter than it would otherwise be."

"I was naive when it came to pricing the cables. I just tacked on my typical profit margin of about 33% without realizing that the margin on cables is traumatically larger. In England, not many dealers will handle my cable because they don’t make enough profit on them."

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com

Choke regulation is an example of what Michaelson calls "doing it properly" (hence the CR designation on the amp and preamp). Back in the days of tube gear, choke regulated power supplies were the norm -- really large capacitors were either hideously expensive or not available. As a further benefit, the choke acted as a filter against power supply noise.

Michaelson says, "When the changeover from tube to solid state occurred, designers jumped to the conclusion that power supply noise, which chokes filtered so effectively, just wasn’t there -- they didn’t bother to look at the power supply noise residual and the way that it reacted in time and tune and amplitude with the music. And, frankly, measurement techniques just weren’t sophisticated enough to catch this noise. So people forgot all about it."

Most solid-state gear employs a diode-bridge/reservoir-capacitor power supply that charges with quick100kHz bursts. These bursts have sharp transitions as the rectifiers switch on and off. Between pulses, the amplifier cruises off the stored energy in its capacitors.

Adding inductance to the equation, according to Michaelson, is the key. Since inductors are passive devices that offer minimal resistance to DC and very high resistance to AC, giving them a beneficial filtering effect on high-frequency power supply artifacts and RFI.

"Choke regulation is the way to go -- it’s like multiplying your capacitance fifteen times. The noise residual left by the choke is almost pure sine wave as opposed to some nasty sawtooth. A sine wave, obviously, has a very simple harmonic structure, as opposed to the very rich harmonic structure of the normal power supply residual, so there’s less for the feedback circuit to compensate for.

"In recent times, people have gotten addicted to seeing all those rows of huge capacitors -- they’re impressive whereas a choke is just a little piece of iron. But it’s efficient and it works, which is all I’m interested in."

The A3 CR boasts phenomenal bandwidth and low distortion. Michaelson claims that Musical Fidelity has achieved these frequently mutually exclusive goals through careful circuit layout.

"In a poor layout, capacitance and inductance and pickup problems of the circuit itself compromise HF performance. It’s audible. Whereas, if you can get your layout to work at very high frequencies, the capacitance and inductance and so on are in balance, and these effects are not audible. Despite the common belief to the contrary, I don’t personally believe there is any significant signal at 20-30k which might intermodulate down to 1kHz. I think that’s probably fantasy.

"So, if it’s not signal related, what is it? I think you’re seeing the effects of poor layout, which are not apparent to the test equipment at lower frequencies. When you measure distortion at 10kHz and get 10 or 20 or 50 times more distortion, that’s when you’re seeing the capacitance of the track and the inductance of the track. The power supply is interacting with all the things around it. That affects the sound when you have a dynamic music signal even though you might not see it with a 1kHz sine wave."

Stop squirming! I know what you’re asking yourself is . . . so how does it sound?

Sounds like . . .

About as close to nothing as I’ve ever heard. And that’s a good thing.

The A3 CR is essentially neutral -- if it possesses a marked sonic signature, I certainly couldn’t detect it. Paired with ancillary components that were also sonically transparent, it just reported the facts. Put a preamp in front of it with a sound, however, and that’s what you heard.

However, its wideband frequency response was manifest in the way that it presented CDs with substantial low-end or high-frequency information. If you want to hear the benefits from upsampled CDs or the 24-bit/96kHz information on Classic’s and Chesky’s DADs, this is the amp that will do them justice.

Take Tibetan Bells III by Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings [Celestial Harmonies 13207-2] for instance. Every sound on the disc is created by Tibetan prayer bells and bowls, gongs, cymbals and wind chimes. Some are struck, some rubbed -- no electronic effects are used. The result is a sonic world of crashes, clangs, purrs, and roars unlike almost anything else out there (except, of course, for volumes I & II). There is an incredible amount of harmonic information going on -- and lots of long, slow tone decay, as well.

Reproduced through run-of-the-mill components, it all sounds like a Weird Al Yankovich parody of New Age music. But through responsive components, the sound is enveloping. Overtones float around the room, stand still, and then slowly fade into silence. Deep rumblings crash into one another -- silver Prayer Bells pierce the silence like a ray of sunshine striking an Eastern peak seconds before dawn.

And hearing it upsampled on the A3CD CD player through the A3 CR power amplifier was like hearing it for the first time. All of that was in there?

And is this amp ever quiet! A low noise floor is a must with this music and the A3 obliged with the darkest, blackest, quietest silence I’ve ever not heard.

I also spent hours immersed in Rhino’s new single CD The Very Best of the Meters [Rhino R272642 CD] -- I have the older 2 CD version and the new one is a great illustration of how a shorter argument can be more powerful than a longer one. Every track is a killer!

Even the earliest songs by the Meters were complex -- the four instruments played interlocking parts that mixed New Orleans second-line rhythms with the funkiness of a James Brown single. Not only did the A3 CR neatly present each part clearly and separately, it did so with a rare rhythmic grace. Zig Modaliste, the Meters’ drummer, was a polyrhythmic phenomenon. If you don’t move your bottom to one of his beats, you may already be dead!

But add George Porter Jr’.s rock bottom bass lines, which lock perfectly into Leo Nocentelli’s skittering guitar and Art Neville’s keyboards, and you have music that will make you dance even if you are dead! And the A3 CR proved the perfect amp to let all that through without fattening Porter’s supple bass or stepping all over Modaliste’s graceful momentum.

Massed choral masterpieces, such as Phillippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent’s performance of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion [Harmonia Mundi HMC 951676.78 CD] posed no problem for the doughty A3 CR . Massed choruses filled the soundstage from side to side and were layered with a delicacy that very few solid-state amplifiers can match.

That said, I have heard a few -- the Ayre V1, the Krell Audio Standard and FPB600, and the Mark Levinson No. 33H -- that did an even better job at the layered presentation of front to back soundstage. But take note that these amps all cost anywhere from five times to more than ten times the cost of the A3 CR !

And, to be truthful, that’s pretty much what I was reduced to in trying to find fault with the A3 CR -- it was pick at the nits or just sing its praises all night long. There are amplifiers with a richer sounding harmonic structure, but I had no complaints about the Musical Fidelity. It struck me as neutral rather than harmonically threadbare. And you’ll find warmer sounding amplifiers -- although again I had no complaints about it sounding cold.

The fact is that any two Class A phono cartridges have a greater range of differences than the A3 CR power amplifier and any Class A power amp of your choice. It’s just flat out a good ‘un.

Thank you sir! May we have another?

So, maybe I was wrong -- it’s entirely possible that Anthony Michaelson is another one of those self-effacing British types who resorts to faint praise as a form of overstatement. When it comes to the A3 line he was simply stating the facts, not bragging at all. The Musical Fidelity A3 CR power amplifier is comparable to the very best components out there without any fear of embarrassment.

It’s good looking, well built, and very reasonably priced. If you’re looking for an amplifier at any price point above $1000, your search should start with the A3 CR . I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it ended there too.

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com

The Musical Fidelity A3CR Power Amplifier
Price: $1495 USD
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

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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