Thursday, May 1, 2008

Musical Fidelity X-T100 integrated amplifier

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Specialization seems to be an inevitable consequence of progress: As the products of man and God become more and more complex, they're called on to do fewer things in more focused ways.

So it goes in domestic audio, however much we pretend otherwise. We buy an amplifier, bring it home, and give it a job to do—which, in terms of associated equipment, room size, music selection, and listening style, is very different from the job it will be called on to do elsewhere. Thus, direct comparisons often provide strangely little insight, and products that are truly universal are few.

The appealingly small Musical Fidelity X-T100 ($1500), a hybrid integrated amp with an outboard power supply, cooperated nicely with that intro. When I used it—in place of an expensive, handmade 10Wpc amplifier—to drive a pair of very efficient loudspeakers, the X-T100 was adequate but no more. Yet when I gave its output section a bit more to do—much as one tries to keep a border collie busy at all times, to prevent it from behaving badly—it rose to the occasion handsomely.

Design and construction
Here's why, from a technical point of view: This newest member of Musical Fidelity's X series was intended to offer a decent amount of output power (more on that later), as well as a reasonably good batch of convenience items, such as a Mute button, a remote control, and a built-in moving-magnet phono section. To do all that while keeping cost and size below certain levels, Musical Fidelity designed the X-T100's output section around bipolar transistors, operated in class-A/B instead of the arguably sweeter, more timbrally (though not necessarily temporally) nuanced class-A. (The latter would require more heatsink area, to dissipate the energy that's been sacrificed to the gods of inefficiency, and might also require an increase in the number of output devices, if comparable power is to be had. So while it's true that less is more, it's sometimes just as true that more is less.)

Because Musical Fidelity's managing director, Antony Michaelson, appreciates the distinctive sounds of tube circuits, and because he knows a few things about putting them to work, it was determined that the X-T100 should have dual-triodes in its preamp section, which is arguably where they can do the most good for the least money in a product such as this. Michaelson also opted for a remote power supply, which energizes the amplifier by means of a 44", six-conductor cable. The power supply, called the Triple-X, is included in the price of the X-T100, and can also be used to power a companion CD player, the X-Ray, and an expected tuner, the X-Plora. (It could be worse: If this were Linn, we'd have the K-Sedilla, the K-SeraSera, perhaps even the K-Why.) One can buy a Musical Fidelity X-T100 and X-Ray at the same time—they'll share a single Triple-X, of course—for $3000, or an X-Ray with its own Triple-X for $1999. Oddly, there is no published price for an X-Ray without a Triple-X.

While Musical Fidelity's management and design departments remain in England, manufacturing has been outsourced—to Taiwan, in the case of my review sample. Construction and parts quality met my expectations for the price, and Michaelson's distinctive form-as-function approach to styling remains healthily in place. Alloy extrusions comprise the sides of the chassis and double as heatsinks, playing host to the complementary pairs of San-Ken output transistors and the largest of the amp's positive-voltage regulators. The main circuit board is modern and clean—where do they get tube sockets for those things!—although some of the connective wiring seemed to meander a bit. Each channel has a single ECC 88 (6DJ8, 6922, et al) dual-triode tube, for voltage gain. The moving-magnet phono section, housed on a very small board of its own, uses a Texas Instruments op-amp for gain.

Apart from those phono inputs, the X-T100 has three pairs of line-level inputs. Of those, Aux 1 is addressed by a front-mounted 1/8" stereo jack in addition to the usual RCA jacks: An MP3 player plugged into the former will override the latter. There's also a buffered Tape Out pair, as well as a pair of Preamp Out jacks—the latter notable for an exceedingly low (47 ohms) output impedance. The amp's front panel has soft-touch buttons for source selection and muting, all of which straddle a large-diameter volume knob. My usual complaint, which with each passing month probably sounds more like an elderly man wheezing about the artificial bacon-bits at the Ponderosa salad bar, is sadly germane: There's no balance control and no mono switch.

Installation and listening
If you buy a Musical Fidelity X-T100 integrated amplifier and X-Ray CD player at the same time, they'll share more than just a power supply: They'll also have a remote handset in common. The handset is nice looking and uncluttered as such things go, and I was grateful that its large, color-keyed volume buttons didn't confound my middle-aged eyes.

Because the X-T100 is small, light, and ran only slightly warm to the touch, and because its designers dispensed with individual feet in favor of a pair of long rubber ridges—an especially nice touch—I had more installation flexibility than usual. I tried it on a variety of shelves and supports, noting as I did that the amp's performance could be improved with various isolation products, including my preferred Ayre Myrtle Blocks. (The Triple-X power supply seemed immune to such things.) I used only banana plugs with the X-T100's five-way speaker connectors, and only RCA plugs with the inputs. I stayed with the stock tubes and didn't experiment with alternatives, for fear that the very opinionated Antony Michaelson would make fun of me. Had he done so, I would have had my revenge in using a nearly $8000 moving-coil step-up transformer, the Audio Note AN-S8, with his $1500 integrated amp. (I used some cheaper ones too, of course.)

I used the X-T100 in two different systems. In my small-room system, it mostly drove the very sensitive Audio Note AN-E/Spe HE (for high efficiency), although it also spent some time driving the new DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Nines. In my large-room system, the Musical Fidelity amp drove my restored Quad ESL speakers. In all cases, the X-T100 required at least half an hour of warmup before sounding its best. It didn't appear to invert signal polarity.

Alrighty then: If recent press releases are any indication, Antony Michaelson and Musical Fidelity, Ltd. would be happy to see audio consumers become much more concerned than they already are with amplifier power. One recent MF fax went so far as to blame an industry-wide sales slump on those companies that don't make powerful amps, suggesting that otherwise hopeful shoppers are rendered apathetic by what they hear when they go into shops looking for upgrades, and thus fritter away their money on other diversions. I don't share that point of view—a theme to which I'll return in December's "Listening" column. In fact, the 50Wpc X-T100 was among the most powerful amplifiers I've had in my home in recent months, remarkably enough. Then again, for Michaelson to send me his amplifier anyway is a sign of both good sportsmanship and the sort of faith in his product that would encourage a closer look.

I'm sure my fondness for high-sensitivity loudspeakers also contributed to this opportunity to review what is essentially Musical Fidelity's lowest-power amp. Because of that, and because I'm an agreeable sort who's happy to abide by an equipment supplier's setup suggestions (at least at first), I started out using the X-T100 to drive the most efficient full-range speakers I have at hand: the Audio Notes.

I didn't care for the pairing. There was a colorless, almost chalky quality to instrumental timbres, such as the flutes in conductor Odd Gruner-Hegge's great recording of Grieg's incidental music for Peer Gynt (LP, RCA Victrola VICS-1067), which sounded gray instead of silver. And while dynamic contrasts seemed wide enough in a superficial, hi-fi sort of way, music remained utterly unstirring, whether played soft or loud. The experience was, in fact, a sort of a paradigm for the kind of high-end performance that seems to get the sound right but misses the music. On record after record, I heard fine imaging but little real presence, superficially good pacing but little momentum.

I replaced the Audio Notes with the DeVores: wonderful dynamic loudspeakers of higher-than-average (91dB) if not quite horn-high specified sensitivity. That was a step in the right direction, and the little Musical Fidelity amp came a bit closer to the kind of color, drama, and overall involvement that I want from an amplifier. Well-recorded pop music in particular—such as John Legend's Once Again (CD, Sony CK 680323) and Corinne Bailey Rae's Corinne Bailey Rae (CD, Capitol 66361)—was more fun with the X-T100 driving the DeVores instead of the Audio Notes. (The exact opposite is true with the 10Wpc Shindo Cortese, which loves to play those very records over the AN-Es.)

But I wasn't there yet, so I did what I tend to do with all powerhouse amps that come my way: I tried it in the other room, on my Quad ESLs (not as dangerous as it sounds, given that I've wired Wayne Picquet's fine protection circuits in parallel with my treble panels). The combination was wonderful.

I'm oversimplifying, because there was more to it than that. Although the pairing flat-out worked, and to a degree that eludes some or even most ESL-amplifier matchups—ie, there was none of the crazy frequency tilt one hears with a zero-feedback amp that simply can't cope with the Quads' similarly crazy impedance curve, and no apparent clipping—the X-T100 still needed to warm up a goodly while, even after being switched off only briefly. Nor do I mean to suggest that, of all the ESL-happy amps I've known, I loved it best. But I've never heard an affordable, full-function integrated amp do that well with that speaker. I could live with it, and that's saying something.

My notes are littered with examples, but the best may be the afternoon I entered the house and my wife was using the X-T100 and X-Ray CD player with the Quad ESLs to play Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch 79478-2). The experience was close to ideal in terms of combining musical involvement with sonic realism: There was momentum and lots of rhythmic nuance, and an especially compelling way of putting across the sweetness of the melodies—all that, plus real clarity and presence: singers and instrumentalists fairly leaping from the speakers. It was very cool.

For comparison's sake and the sheer fun of it, I connected the X-T100's Preamp Out jacks to my restored Quad II tube amplifiers, also to drive the Quad ESLs. The Quad II amps, which I adore, had a little more bass. But they also sounded less clear, open, and explicit than the X-T100. In fact, the Quad amps sounded downright fuzzy by comparison; if I had to choose the amp that I enjoyed most with my ESLs, it would have been the Musical Fidelity, blasphemous though that sounds.

Make no mistake: The combination did not test the dynamic boundaries of domestic audio. That's not what the Quad ESL is all about—and the fact that it has extreme strengths elsewhere speaks to its endurance as a true classic loudspeaker, and the enduring search for good, affordable amplifiers to work with it. The latter are rarer than you might think—but they've just gotten a little less so.

Because this is Stereophile and not Quadrophile, I suggest that the X-T100 deserves strong consideration for other specific loudspeaker loads. Even limiting our search to other speakers known less for dynamics and drama than for purity, presence, and melodic rightness, there are some superb choices—many of them classics—that I think would work well with this amp: Spendor's SP1/2, SP 2/3, and SP100 (née S100); Snell's original E, J, or K, and maybe even the weird but underrated Type 1; literally any of the better ProAcs, especially from the more sensitive Response series; and some of the Totems and Aperions. Think small, think affordable or used, think fun.

Ten years ago, there was no such thing as a perfectionist-quality integrated amplifier that was designed in the West, manufactured in the East, and priced between $1000 and $2000. Today the woods are full of them. How's that for progress?

Depends on who you are. For the time being, given the steadily growing selection, the situation is clearly best for the consumer—for whom the Musical Fidelity X-T100 offers a distinct alternative: a punchy, ostensibly powerful sound with decent onboard phono capabilities and very good styling.

The alternatives? The PrimaLuna Prologue One ($1195) offers better build for less money, and a more decidedly tubey sound for those who want that. On the downside, it's less powerful—and sounds it—and lacks a built-in phono section. The Cyrus 6vs ($1195) offers less tubey and slightly less powerful sound, with no phono stage—but it's still made in England, for those who want that. Speaking of which, the persistently Salisburian Naim Nait 5i ($1495) also lacks an onboard phono stage, and has yet a different sonic presentation from the others: forthright and substantive, not as open or airy.

I can't say for sure, but my sense is that the Musical Fidelity X-T100 would please me more than any of those integrated amps when it comes to driving my restored electrostats. (I didn't own original ESLs when the PrimaLuna was here for review; my Quads at that time were the easier-to-drive ESL-989s.) As for using it with a considerably more efficient loudspeaker, I'd look elsewhere: When it comes to that first watt, the Musical Fidelity X-T100 can be bettered; where it really shines is in watts 2 through 50.

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