Fidelity CD Pre 24 CD Player/DAC/Preamplifier
Somebody once defined
sanity in the 20th century as being the ability to simultaneously consider two
contradictory propositions without apparent strain. No, wait -- maybe that's the mark of a
seriously unhinged mind.
I could probably argue the point either way, come to think
Audio is like that, too.
On one hand, what most of us want is simple: to enjoy the
rich tapestry of music in our homes.
But that's a tall order. It requires stuff -- lots
of stuff. A CD player, a preamplifier, a power amplifier, speakers, cables
a simple system! What if you have a tape deck? A DAT machine? A CD changer? A turntable? A
MiniDisc or MP3 player for the gym? Sure gets complicated, don't it?
The problem is, you usually have to give things up when you
simplify. Performance quality, for instance. A boombox is simple, but most of us would
have a problem enjoying the rich tapestry of music in our homes (ETRTOMIOH) with a
And what about choices? A boombox might have CD and
cassette capabilities, but what about making MiniDiscs for those two-hour jogs or MP3s for
that step class? What about those shelves of LPs?
Life is hard.
Fortunately, hi-fi doesn't have to be. In recent years,
we've seen a renaissance of audio products that sensibly combine functions giving us
convenience and superior sound. There's a whole new wave of high-end integrated
amps, a handful of great receivers, and even a smattering of products that combine the
latest digital technologies with traditional audio products -- components such as Krell's
revolutionary KPS-20 and KPS-25S, each of which combines a CD player with a superb analog
volume control. Those Krell components -- like the Mark Levinson No.39 CD player -- also
went so far as to offer separate digital inputs and even digital source switching, further
expanding their possibilities (and simplifying their owners' lives).
Good as those products were, they still didn't simplify my
life in actual practice. I still had analog needs -- a tuner, for instance. Not to mention
a cherished collection of Grateful Dead performance cassettes. And a DAT machine. In other
words, I still needed an analog preamp to switch sources and control volume for my
non-digital products, so the superb volume controls on the Krells and the No.39 went
unused. So much for simplifying my life.
Enter the Musical Fidelity CD Pre 24, a CD player with a
true upsampling 24-bit/96kHz DAC, digital source switching, two digital inputs, and an
internal CD transport, coupled with an analog preamplifier with three analog inputs and
both digital and analog tape loops. Oh yeah, unlike the analog inputs, which function
completely in the analog domain, the tape loops are digital -- that means it has an
A/D converter, so no matter which input you choose, it appears in the digital tape loop as
a digital signal, so digital recording or, heaven forfend, computer-based signal
manipulation or transmission is made simple. All for $3000.
Ah! Simplicity and flexibility -- my mind can encompass
both of those concepts. But reasonable? That's hard to believe.
Don't fight the feeling...
If you've been following Musical Fidelity's recent run of
products, you're already familiar with many of the CD Pre 24's attributes. Its analog
preamp stage is based upon that of the A3CR preamp, refined by the company's experience
with its flagship line of Nu-Vista products. These refinements basically consist of
completely separate power supplies and an innovative grounding scheme that minimizes
interaction between the digital and analog sections of the unit.
The CD player and DAC are, similarly, changes rung upon the
firm's universally acclaimed Nu-Vista CD player. The CD Pre 24 shares the Nu-Vista's
24-bit/96kHz upsampling DAC, filter, control electronics, drive mechanism, and power
Antony Michaelson, Musical Fidelity's director, is
understandably quite chuffed about the CD Pre 24. "It's a very high-quality analog
preamplifier and inside of it is an extremely sophisticated 24-bit/96kHz DAC and CD
transport. There's also a digital tape-monitor loop, so all digital signals that come in,
go out as pure digital. That makes it appear to be a digital preamp, which is why I stress
that it's an analog preamp. But it also has an important feature: an analog-to-digital
converter. So all analog inputs -- apart from their usual functions in the analog preamp
-- also get converted to digital through the digital tape-monitor loop. That way, whatever
input you select will appear on the digital tape-monitor loop, so you can digitally record
your music from tape or whatever and record it to a digital format. I tried not to be
completely analog-obsessed and claim that digital doesn't exist, but I refused to go to
the other extreme and ignore analog completely. And since I believe that analog
amplification is superior to digital amplification -- and that's what we do -- I made it
the best I could. But it's also a damned good digital converter."
And reasonably priced, too, in a world where CD players,
DACs, and analog preamps individually can go for more than its $3k price tag. " I've
said it so often people think it's a shtick," Antony said. "But it's the
casework and the power supply and the front panel and the connectors that cost the money
in a hi-fi product. Once you've paid for those, the electronics are relatively cheap. So,
once you decide to, you can do all these things and it doesn't have to cost a lot
of money. You simply have to decide what you want to give the consumer in exchange for his
"We put in the same DAC we used in the Nu-Vista CD
player. This is another example of what I'm always talking about. Once we worked out that
circuit, the cost difference between doing it as a no-holds-barred product and producing
it with an eye on costs is maybe 10, 12, or even 14 pounds cost. I decided to abandon the
prevailing practice of value-engineering down in performance for the modest savings in
cost. I think the audio industry has shot itself in the foot by compromising performance
quite a lot in order to save 25 cents."
But wherever Antony did determine to skimp on the CD Pre
24, he didn't stint on its cosmetics. It has the same now-familiar brushed-aluminum
faceplate with platinum accents and heavy casework as the firm's Nu-Vista products.
"We're in theater -- or should I say, the entertainment business," Antony said.
"So I fail to understand why products can't be aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes, in
high-end audio, we get the cart dragging the horse and the aesthetically pleasing part of
the formula costs more than the amplifier inside it, but that's just stupid."
But the CD Pre 24 is more than just a pretty face. Its
commodious rear panel is chock-a-block with high-quality connectors: three pairs of analog
RCA inputs, two TosLink inputs, two S/PDIF RCA inputs, an analog tape loop, analog output,
an S/PDIF RCA digital monitor, and both a TosLink and S/PDIF RCA digital output. There's
also an IEC mains plug, which means that them what wants to can play with power cables.
No matter where you are
keep on havin' that party
Is the CD Pre 24 everything I could wish for in a digital
switcher, DAC, CD player, and preamp? Not quite -- but I'm not a reasonable person. I'd
love a DAC that automatically -- and instantaneously -- sensed the active input and
switched to it. I've searched for years and still haven't found one, although I have found
a modular digital source switcher that will do the job for four inputs -- at a cost of
$595. Other than that, why yes, the CD Pre 24 is exactly what my system needed.
"My guess is that the vast majority of users have
systems consisting of a CD player, a preamplifier, and a power amplifier in some
configuration or another," Antony speculated. "And that's it -- maybe a tuner or
a tape deck, too. Most people don't have 53 different inputs and they're not disconnecting
and reconnecting different CD transports all the time. There's no reason why they should.
All I'm trying to say is this is a rational, stylish, economical, high-performance
solution for everybody."
Well sure, but powered loudspeakers make a lot of sense,
too, and audiophiles have notoriously resisted them for as long as they've been made.
"I understand why people don't accept powered
loudspeakers, for all that they make sense. It's very simple: People like kit. They
like the gear -- they like to pick it up and touch and feel it and ogle it and look at it,
and I don't know, rub up against it for all I know. It's a tactile thing -- an active
speaker is just a box. It may be a well-styled box, like Meridian, but it's just a box.
The reason active speakers have never worked -- in 50 years, is it? -- is that they don't
give the audiophile what he wants. What he wants is some visual confirmation of what he's
got. What he doesn't want, I reckon, is box on top of box on top of box. The CD Pre 24 is
four boxes in one and it's stylish and it's hunky and it sounds bloody wonderful and it
doesn't cost silly money. Wes, it's purely a punt. When the product's been out for six or
seven months, we'll find out how many people actually want it. Then I'll find
What's that you said, Antony? I couldn't hear you over the
sound of your brass balls clanking.
At first I thought it was infatuation, but ooohhh!
What can I say? The CD Pre 24 sends me. Honest it does. It
just makes sense. It looks great. And it works like a dream.
Up close, the physical layout of controls is logical and
well grouped -- all the switching is over to the left of the centrally located display and
transport drawer, while the transport controls flank them. The right quarter of the front
panel is dominated by the CD Pre 24's huge volume knob. The knob's position and the source
selected are indicated by bright blue LEDs, which make the unit just as easy to use from
across the room with its remote, which, while not the most intuitive I've ever used, is
far from the worst. The buttons are spaced well apart and are clearly labeled.
I connected my DAT to the CD Pre 24's digital tape loop,
two CDP-CX400 megachangers to its digital inputs and my A3CD CD player and tuner to two of
its analog inputs, which still left me with a spare input for a phono section or some
other source. Obviously, I could have connected the A3CD to the upsampling DAC, but I
wanted to compare the CD Pre 24's "improved" CD operation with a well-known
Sure enough, the CD Pre 24's player sounded noticeably
sweeter, more extended, and "live-er." Ummm, that last isn't a frequently used
audio descriptor, but it's the closest I can come to an electric, almost pulsing sensation
that a sound source is actually in the room with you. It's less a sound than an almost
subliminal "beat," as when a guitar string is ever-so-slightly out of tune.
That sounds like a bad thing, but it's not. You hardly ever
hear it through hi-fi, which seems to round off those little "beats."
The CD Pre 24 was also better than the very fine A3CD at
conveying the emotional component of music. This sort of statement drives some audiophiles
nuts, but it's a quality that not every expensive audio component possesses. Some do --
and so do some surprisingly affordable components -- so it's not a function of cost alone.
This is noticeable to some degree with pretty near any
recording, but it is most noticeable on the less-than-superb recordings of fantastic
musical events. Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 [RCA PCD1-5181] is
a good case in point, since it is far from a flawless recording. In fact, the tape
overloads and there's almost no soundstage -- it sounds like a single mic stuck in front
of Sam and the band, although Peter Guralnick's liner notes claim RCA cut a three-track
tape that January night. Perhaps the poor sound quality accounts for the fact that RCA
didn't release it until 1987.
But the performance is electrifying and revelatory. If your
only experience with Sam Cooke live is the mid-1964 At the Copa [Abkco 29702], you
ain't heard nothing yet. At the Copa captured Cooke in front of a predominately
well-off white audience and he's at his smoothest, suavest peak, fronting a big band with
strings and singing material like "The Best Things in Life Are Free," "Bill
Bailey," and "Tennessee Waltz," in addition to listener-friendly versions
of his hits.
The Harlem Club, by contrast, was a working-class black bar
in Miami, and Cooke fronted a band that primarily belonged to that night's co-headliner
King Curtis. The material eschewed show tunes entirely, concentrating on Cooke's own tunes
-- and it was a hot night in Miami. Cooke begins to work the audience the minute he
hits the stage, exhorting the crowd to hold their handkerchiefs high and crying have
mercy! and all right! It's a masterful performance -- fun, funky, and
absolutely sweat-drenched. Or, if you can get beyond the so-so sound quality, it should
Through the CD Pre 24, it was.
Did it sound real?
Well, no. But it sounded convincing. And lacking a time
machine, that's as close to January 11, 1963 as I'm likely to get. And that's plenty close
Great sounding CDs, on the other hand, sounded great.
James Horner's Iris [Sony Classical SK-89806], recorded at Lyndehurst Studios, was
seductive and simply dripping with airy, spacious ambience. The sound of this lovely space
is instantly identifiable to anyone who has heard any of the hundreds of classic
recordings made there -- and that goes double for hearing it through the CD Pre 24. A
single lingering note of any of Joshua Bell's lovely violin cadenzas was enough to tag its
place of origin -- and its precise position within that hall and, practically, the color
of the sunlight on the day of the recording. Well, maybe not -- but the sound was
The CD player and analog preamp must be quiet as all
get-out -- there's no other way to account for the incredible accretion of detail and the
way I could hear so deep within the various recordings I auditioned. This was consistent,
whether I was using the CD Pre 24's internal CD player, an external digital source, or a
high-quality analog source.
The silence and total lack of character of the unit's
preamp section was uncanny. It isn't simply an added-on feature, but rather a high-end
preamplifier worthy of comparison with some of the finest I've ever auditioned.
Being able to switch analog and digital sources easily was
liberating. I listened to my DAT copies of the original session takes for Jerome Harris' Rendezvous.
I programmed the Sony megachangers to play back hours of music. I cruised NY radio. This
is, of course, the way normal people use their hi-fis, but as a reviewer, I frequently
have to leave certain components disconnected for long spells simply because it's too
complicated getting everything attached in all-too-frequently minimalist high-end gear.
Preamplifiers: Ayre K-1x
CD players/transports: Krell
KPS-28c, Sony CDP CX-400, Musical Fidelity A3CD
DAT player: Aiwa HD-S1
Power amplifiers: Monarchy Audio SE-100, Musical Fidelity
Nu-Vista 300, VTL TT-25
Loudspeakers: Dynaudio Evidence Temptation
Cables: AudioTruth Midnight, DiMarzio M-Path interconnect,
AudioQuest Dragon, DiMarzio M-Path, DiMarzio Super M-Path speaker cable, Illuminations
Orchid digital cable, Kimber KCAG
Accessories: Osar Selway Audio Racks, AudioQuest Big Feet
and Little Feet, Vibrapods, Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra 116
Room treatment: ASC Tube Traps, Slim Jims, Bass Traps
As much as I liked using the CD Pre 24 and
as good as I thought it was, $3000 doesn't buy you everything. The Ayre K-1x has a
sweet, grainless top end that is unmatched by anything I've ever heard when it comes to
the effortless re-creation of the way that real notes decay in real space. Think that's a
trivial matter? Maybe so, but it blurs the border between real and reproduced more
completely than any other component I've ever heard. The CD Pre 24 gets you close, real
close, but it just can't match the $7000 ($8600 with remote and phono stage) Ayre.
Similarly, the $7000 Krell KPS-28c recreates Lyndehurst
Studio's clear air down to its smallest dancing dust mote even more convincingly than the
Musical Fidelity unit does. On the other hand, it makes one even more aware of the audio
shortcomings of a CD like Cooke's amazing Harlem Club appearance.
Well, there's certainly no shame in coming in a close
number two to the finest, is there? It's even more amazing that the Musical Fidelity can
do so at only a fraction of the cost of the other units.
Bring it on home to me
The Musical Fidelity CD Pre 24 is a well-thought-out
product that simplifies audio life in the 21st century. By combining an analog preamp with
a digital switcher, DAC, and transport, it eliminates an entire edifice of boxes and at
least two pairs, if not more, of cables -- not minor considerations, either logistically
or financially. Add its marvelous digital taping and routing options and it just gets
better. Factor in its superb sound and ease of operation and the unit becomes nigh
irresistible. And all that is without even factoring in its more-than-reasonable price.
I can think of a world of reasons for owning a CD Pre 24,
but only two to resist. If you can't spend $3000, it doesn't matter how good the unit is.
Similarly, you may demand the last scintilla of performance that the K-1x preamplifier and
KPS-28c CD player deliver -- if this describes you and you can afford such lofty tastes,
go for the ultimate. But let's keep this in perspective: you'll need both to get a
superior CD player and a superior preamplifier and, having spent $15k, you still won't
have the CD Pre 24's ability to upsample from and switch among multiple external digital
For the rest of us, the CD Pre represents a combination of
features, functional performance, and affordability that seems like an audiophile dream
come true. I'm not convinced the audio realm is ready for a product that makes so much
sense, despite the fact that this audiophile fell deeply in love with the unit. Antony
Michaelson thinks there's a place for a well-engineered, innovative product that crosses
traditional boundaries, but even he is reluctant to peer too deeply into a crystal ball.
"Only the consumer will know whether or not I'm
Musical Fidelity CD Pre 24 CD
Price: $3000 USD
Warranty: One year parts and labor
Musical Fidelity Ltd.
15/16 Olympic Trading Est, Fulton Road
Phone: (44) 208 900 2866