The Musical Fidelity A3 CR
Michaelson, the man behind Musical Fidelity, is not the reserved British type that is
content to faintly praise his products. Hes 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!"
"Thats a pretty sweeping claim,
"Honestly, I dont 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 thats
how they were designed. It doesnt have to cost that much -- if you dont
use bullshit components and bullshit front panels and make obscene profit margins, you can
get affordable prices and have massive performance."
"So youre 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 thats ever been manufactured
-- although, of course, by high-end standards, they dont cost very much."
Ive heard that song and dance
before -- theres 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
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
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. Ill 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
Fidelitys 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 theyre not everyones cup of tea. The
rear panel also has an IEC power cable socket.
And, at nearly thirty pounds, its a
hefty little sucker. Fitnfinish, as I said, are first rate and the build
quality is impeccable. Id be proud to own an amplifier that looks and feels this
I twitted Anthony about the poshness of
"I allocate a certain amount for the way
things look, because the way things look is important. You could easily say
lets not have a front panel, or lets 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-halfs manufacturing. Thats 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 doesnt 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 youve 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 its crazy, but I like to do things properly.
"Doing it properly doesnt 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. (Thats 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
I was startled to find Musical Fidelity cables included with these components
because Id 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
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, theyre reasonably
priced, coming in at $199.95 for .7-meter interconnect and $599.95 for 3-meter speaker
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 thats the end of it."
"You can measure it. Put RF on one end of
them and its 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. Its getting on to the perfect cable.
Theres not much bullshit factor."
"The speaker cables are pretty much the
same idea as the interconnects, except that RF isnt a factor. Weve got two
very low resistance, low capacitance inductors with proper screening. And because some
people believe theres microphony in cables, weve provided some form of damping
within the cable, which makes it about 30% larger in diameter than it would otherwise
"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 dont make enough profit on them."
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 wasnt there -- they didnt
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 werent
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 --
its 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 theres less for the feedback circuit to
"In recent times, people have gotten
addicted to seeing all those rows of huge capacitors -- theyre impressive whereas a
choke is just a little piece of iron. But its efficient and it works, which is all
Im 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. Its
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 dont personally believe there is any
significant signal at 20-30k which might intermodulate down to 1kHz. I think thats
"So, if its not signal related,
what is it? I think youre 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, thats when youre 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 youre asking
yourself is . . . so how does it sound?
Sounds like . . .
About as close to nothing as Ive ever
heard. And thats a good thing.
The A3 CR is essentially neutral --
if it possesses a marked sonic signature, I certainly couldnt 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 thats 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 Classics and Cheskys DADs, this is the amp that will do them
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
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
Ive ever not heard.
I also spent hours immersed in Rhinos
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
dont 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 Nocentellis skittering guitar and Art
Nevilles 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 Porters supple bass or stepping all over Modalistes graceful
masterpieces, such as Phillippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gents
performance of Bachs 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
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
And, to be truthful, thats 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 youll 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. Its just flat out a good un.
Thank you sir! May we have another?
So, maybe I was wrong -- its 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.
Its good looking, well built, and very
reasonably priced. If youre looking for an amplifier at any price point above $1000,
your search should start with the A3 CR . I wouldnt be at all surprised
if it ended there too.
The Musical Fidelity A3CR Power
Price: $1495 USD
Warranty: Five years parts and labor
Musical Fidelity Ltd.
15/16 Olympic Trading Est, Fulton Road
Phone: (44) 208 900 2866