SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published March 15, 2004


Musical Fidelity X-Can V3 Headphone Amplifier

When Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson mentioned on the phone that I hadn't written about any MF products since last May, my first thought was one of relief: Keep your head down, Wes. It's much safer that way.

But Antony's a persistent sort. "I think you'd like the new X-Can."

"I reviewed the original, remember?"

"This one's much better. We're using the Tri-Vista SACD player's output stage, only we've replaced the trivistors with 6922s."

"I'm sure that's nice, but . . . "

"The original X series was good -- better than good -- but with the Nu-Vista, Tri-Vista, and kWs knocking about, our standards have gone up dramatically. I reckon it's even better value for money than what we used to make."

"Well, people like to read about good value." I could feel my self-resolve dissolving.

"It rivals -- no, betters -- headphone amps at four times the price. I have one that a reviewer in your neighborhood just finished with. Why don't I have him drop it by? If you don't like it, don't write about it."

It would have been rude to have refused, wouldn't it? And when some manufacturers won't even return phone calls, how can you turn down one who has the competition acting as an errand boy? Especially if he was right about how good a $449 USD tubed headphone amp could be.

And what's the point of having your own website if you can't write about the stuff you actually use?

Times change and we change with them

The original X-Cans (V1 and V2) were cheap'n'cheerful designs housed in extruded-aluminum tubes. The X-Can was driven by an external wall-wart power supply and was built around a pair of tubes (also 6922s, if I recall correctly). The basic design was good, although many owners felt that it could be substantially improved with a heftier power supply and different power tubes.

The X-Can V3 isn't big, but it's solid and extremely posh. It eschews the extruded-aluminum tube for a more conventional extruded-aluminum box. It sports an impressively rigid faceplate with bullnose beveled edges and a hefty 500mA external power supply, which, Michaelson suggests, removes magnetic interference from the vicinity of delicate small-signal pathways -- and that, he says, means "bigger dynamic range and greater low-level detail."

Inside the unit, two American 6922 tubes replace the four milspec 5703 triodes used in the Tri-Vista SACD player. The Tri-Vista's output was said to be equivalent to a 5W class-A amplifier -- with the 6922s, the X-Can V3 puts out about 1W, complete with low output impedance and high damping factor. For an integrated amp, that's not much power, but it's a lot of grunt for a headphone amp.

The V3's rear panel has a pair of RCA inputs and another pair that pass the signal straight through without amplifying it or sending it through the volume control. This is a nice touch -- it allows you to insert the X-Can in a tape loop or ahead of your preamp. The only other feature on the rear panel is the DIN-style power-supply input.

The beautifully milled front panel sports only a 1/4" phono plug socket, a tiny blue power LED (there's no power switch; the LED indicates that the unit is plugged in and functioning), and a very nice "top hat" volume knob. The "brim" of the top hat has silk-screened dB numerals counting down around its periphery: "70" indicates that it’s fully potted down, and "0" means it’s wide open.

The potentiometer under that knob is a high-quality Alps dual-gang model that feels substantial and silky in operation -- sexy, as I commented to Michaelson. "We had numerous complaints about the original X-Can's pot -- which was perfectly adequate -- so we thought we'd put something there that's beyond reproach," he said.

That kind of frankness is a little startling, coming from a manufacturer -- especially one who’s seldom reticent about making performance claims. "That's just audio jewelry. In my opinion, it doesn't affect the sound quality, but it makes people happy, so we do it. It feels good and we can put that nice knob on it, and it only costs 5 or 6 pounds, so we bang it on there."

Who will change new lamps for old?

While we were on the subject of things that made people feel better, I asked Antony about the tubes Musical Fidelity used in the X-Can V3 -- after all, so many people insisted on playing mix’n’match with the tubes in the V1 and V2.

"Reliability is what's important to us -- we've only had about 2% tube failure ever on our tube products. In my opinion, [tube rolling] is all BS anyway. Providing the tube is roughly the right gain group, roughly the right current group, it should work -- if it doesn't, you haven't designed your circuit properly. I think things should be consistent and predictable, which is why we went back to first principles in designing the V3."

First principles?

"Very low output impedance, sufficient gain, and lots of load-driving ability. The V3's circuit is amazing -- you could use it as a preamp if you got a cable terminated in a phono plug. Actually, I thought about adding an output connected to the volume control, but then you'd need a switch. And then we could have added an extra input (or two), and we'd need to add another switch -- and where would it all end? With a product that was a preamp and cost $1000, and that's a different kettle of fish entirely."

Won't you change partners and dance with me?

So it came to pass, one sunny Saturday afternoon, that a very influential audio critic called me on his cellphone. "I'm in front of your house in my car, big shot. Come and get your blasted headphone amp."

"You said you'd deliver it." Ain't I a little stinker?

Once I’d brought it in and unpacked it, I was sooo glad Antony had pushed me to procure it. He'd brought up the term "audio jewelry," but the X-Can V3's solidity and elegant livery did inspire audio lust -- assuming, of course, that you're susceptible to that kind of thing.

Obviously, I am. I immediately installed the V3 atop my Apple G5 (it's a nice fit, surprisingly), using a perpetual Technologies P-3A as a DAC, and plugged in my Sennheiser HD 600 headphones with their Stefan AudioArt Equinox cables -- my usual reference headphone system. I even still had the Sugden Bijou HeadMaster on hand for comparison.

Over time, the V3 migrated into a few other systems, including the big rigs featuring the Ayre CX-7 and Classé CDP-10 CD players.

How will change strike me and you

The Sennheiser HD 600s sounded as though the V3 had been made for them. The phones have a neutrality that can sound almost bland unless they’re driven by an amplifier that takes 'em firmly in hand. The V3 showed ’em who was boss, all right.

The first thing I noticed was the bass -- it was powerful and punchy, but completely under control. Miroslav Vitous's Universal Syncopations [ECM 1863] is driven by its bandleader's earthy bass pulse, and the HD 600/V3 combo delivered that with an organic intensity that was impressive.

Jack DeJohnette's skittering, rhythmically angular drumming surfs through Vitous's muscular propulsion, adding to its bodily heft and constructing a brassy filigree along its upper limits. The V3's ability to capture DeJohnette's cymbal work is a marvel to behold -- I've seldom heard such a variety of textures, touches, and overtones as it revealed on this disc.

Alan Hovhaness's Mount St. Helens [Telarc SACD-60604] confirmed the V3's ability to portray powerful bass and acoustic mass, although never at the cost of the recording's timbral accuracy. The rich acoustic details of that exemplary recording came through loud and clear. Big hall, lots of air, pinpoint clarity -- what could be better?

If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change

Not much -- although I haven't heard the X-Can V1 in almost five years, nothing in my recollection of it comes even close to the sound of the V3. The new model had more slam, more nuance, more detail, more heart than the original. Of course, the V3 costs about three times as much as the V1. On the other hand, you have to look at headphone amplifiers that cost substantially more to do better.

Something like the $995 Sugden Bijou HeadMaster, for instance. In many ways, the two headphone amps are extremely competitive. Both excel in the reproduction of the bottom end, both share an engagingly satisfactory warmth, and both handle the Sennheiser HD 600s with authority.

However, despite the conventional wisdom concerning the differences between tubed and solid-state designs, the Sugden did a better job of revealing subtle depth cues within the Hovhaness's soundstage. (This is something that HeadRoom's BlockHead does even better, but gosh, at $3333, it really ought to.)

It's only fair to point out that the Sugden HeadMaster does have multiple inputs, a source switch, and output that passes through its own very-high-quality potentiometer -- all of which undoubtedly contribute as much to its price tag as to its versatility, exactly as Antony Michaelson pointed out.

Ultimately, everything comes down to horses for courses. If you need versatility, a product like the Sugden HeadMaster will satisfy you more than a specialized product like the X-Can V3; if you relentlessly seek the ultimate performance possible from any pair of headphones, only a no-holds-barred design like the HeadRoom BlockHead will serve. Somewhere in the middle -- but offering profound insights into both worlds -- is the X-Can V3.

If we want things to stay as they are, things must change

Where does that leave the casual headphone listener? Who said we were taking about casual listeners? If you're even considering a $449 headphone amplifier, you’re not remotely casual.

The Musical Fidelity X-Can V3 is a specialized product that can add to the versatility of any system by adding extremely high-quality headphone amplification. If that's what you need, why pay for more? Especially when the X-Can does what it does so well.

My daddy used to say, "If it's a fact, it ain't braggin'." Once again, Antony Michaelson was telling the truth when he tempted me into auditioning yet another Musical Fidelity product.

If you play your cards right, you might be able to get one delivered, too.

 ...Wes Phillips

Musical Fidelity X-Can V3 Headphone Amplifier
Cost: $449 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

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


US Distributor:
Signal Path International
215 Lawton Road
Charlotte, NC 28216
Phone: (704) 391-3397
Fax: (704) 391-3998


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