Sugg. Retail: $2399.00 ea. (CAN)
Distributor: Kevro International Inc,
900 McKay Road, Pickering,
Ontario, L1W 3X8
(905) 428-2800 FAX 428-0004
Reprinted From the Spring 2001 Issue
If you’ve been keeping an eye on the British and American audio press lately, you’ve probably already heard about Musical Fidelity’s much hyped A3CR and Nu-Vista lines. The more exotic and expensive Nu-Vista power amp, preamp and integrated make use of a rare and tiny tube called the nuvistor, which is noteworthy for its extremely long life and metal, rather than glass, casing. Introduced by RCA in the 60’s the nuvistor was designed mainly for military applications and was intended to compete with solid state designs. The limited edition Nu-Vista series is also noteworthy for its use of choke regulation power supplies, essentially a filtering system to clean up noise and grunge created by AC rectification (conversion to DC).
The A3CR power amp, preamp and integrated share very similar circuit topologies with their much more expensive counterparts, including choke regulation in the power supply, but use solid state devices instead of the scarce nuvistors. The result, according to Musical Fidelity head honcho Anthony Michaelson, is performance very near the level of the Nu-Vista series at a much more affordable price. With their reputation as value packed separates growing steadily, I decided to find out what all the fuss was about, and asked Canadian distributor Kevro for review samples of the power amp and preamp (Musical Fidelity gear is available in the U.S. from Audio Advisor).
Sharp Dressed Amps
Both amp and preamp are housed in compact black boxes with lovely silver brushed aluminum faceplates accented with a shiny gold bands at bottom. The preamp is particularly striking with it’s big, beefy volume control surrounded by a polished gold ring punctuated by eight small allen bolts. After heaving the mighty Rotel 1090 (summer/fall 2000) around it was nice to have an amp that would actually fit in my rack with plenty of room to spare for tweaks like cones or isolation platforms. It may be smaller than most North American amps but the A3CR is no lightweight when it comes to power, with what appears to be a very conservative rating of 120 watts into 8 ohms (210 into 4 ohms).
Both of these separates are fully dual mono designs with high current outputs and very wide bandwith (10hz - 100Khz +- 1.5 dB for the preamp and +- 2 dB for the power amp). LP lovers and early adopters of high resolution digital formats might thus be heartened to know that the high frequency content of these signals is getting all the way to their speakers. Weather the speaker can reproduce it, and weather this is actually of sonic benefit is another matter which I won’t take up here. It’s clear, however, that Anthony Michaelson had SACD in mind from the beginning, even dedicating one of the preamp’s line inputs for it.
There are lots of other nice touches too, particularly in the preamp. Five line inputs and a quality MM/MC phono stage are both crowd pleasers, as is the simple and functional remote, which allows adjustment of volume, source and mute. Some might long for balanced inputs and outputs, a headphone jack, as well as an extra set of outputs and a balance control, but once you’ve heard the A3CR pair it’s hard to quibble with what you get for the money. Spade lovers might also be disappointed by the huge speaker terminals on the A3CR power amp, which, while impressive to behold and handle, and great for bananas, don’t accommodate spades with much finesse, the oversized post forcing the user to stick one prong of the spade down the centre hole instead of straddling the entire post. Perhaps to make up for the lack of extra outputs on the preamp, the amp features line level pass through output jacks adjacent to the input jacks, facilitating bi-amping or the connection of a powered subwoofer. Both pieces are deceptively heavy at about 30 pounds each, display excellent build quality, and feature detachable power cords.
After about ten days of burn in I started to do some serious listening to the amp and preamp. This proved to be no chore, especially with the help of an MSB Link III with Half Nelson and upsampling upgrades which I borrowed from the office taking over D to A processing duties from the Rotel RCD-951. With all parts warm and toasty the sound emerging from my Energy Veritas 1.8’s was most impressive indeed.
If I had to characterize the sound of the A3CR power amp in one word I would probably choose “lively”. More than any amp I’ve heard the A3CR seems to be imbued with a remarkable consistency of character, with cohesive and complimentary sonic attributes which, like the diverse elements of a well directed film, are skillfully combined to create a consistent, focused, and highly effective finished product. When every part of the whole works to precisely the same end, with no asides, digressions, or compromises, you end up with something very special indeed. The A3CR is one of those things.
The A3CR’s liveliness starts in the bass. Taut, punchy and powerfully deep when called upon, the A3 can slam with the best of them. It doesn’t bloom like the Rotel RB-1090 or plumb the deepest depths with the vice like control of the Anthem Amp-2 (Winter/Spring 2000), it’s got some funk. The palpability and immediacy of drums was phenomenal, the elusive quality of “rhythm and pace” prized by British reviewers and audiophiles demonstrated in spades. Put on something funky, like Beck’s Midnight Vultures (DGC 0694904852), which I used repeatedly to help get a fix on the MF gear, and you’d better be ready to move. Midbass doesn’t get much better than this.
Palpability and immediacy also reigned supreme in the A3’s midrange. Perhaps just a touch on the warm side of neutral the midrange fit perfectly into the amp’s cohesive package, offering a vivacious, up front perspective with tons of inner detail and compelling, complex tonal colour. This added up to extremely convincing and involving vocal reproduction. Massed strings were even more impressive, coming across better delineated and silkier than they had any right to out of an amp that costs this much. I was particularly impressed with the sound on a Denon CD of the Malher 7th (Denon, 60C0-1553,4) and a BIS CD of Sibelius’ Second Symphony (BIS CD-252). Much of the credit here goes to the fantastic sound of the upsampling Link DAC, which made the DAC in the Rotel RCD-951 I was using as a transport sound downright broken by comparison. With the MF amp the differences between the two were stark, the MSB passing along MUCH more information, especially in the midrange and top end. This was true of most music I fed the Link III but was an order of magnitude greater on good classical recordings, where the space would open up dramatically and a heavy layer of haze would be lifted of the strings. Feed this amp a high resolution source and you’re going to hear what you paid for.
Lightning fast, crystal clear, and exquisitely detailed the A3’s top end blended into the sonic package seamlessly. This detail held up beautifully at low level, giving the amp great dexterity and delicacy with low level signals. Macrodynamics were first rate as well, the amp unflappable and punchy as all heck right up to levels which made me worry about the integrity of the plaster in my walls. Recently I’ve been using Bjork’s “The Hunter” (from Homogenic, Electra 62061) as a test track, the huge electronic soundscape and ultra percussive staccato synth bass making for a thrilling high level workout. On the A3 combo this track was breathtaking and utterly immersive.
Some may find that they need two A3 power amps to really get their mojo working, but I suspect that those that do are either owners of “difficult speakers” or truly degenerate power freaks. Loud or quiet, transients jumped out of the speakers with startling speed, upping the realism and involvement quotient significantly. One of the things that makes the A3CR so musical is that its speed and detail are the real deal, legitimate musical and ambient information not to be confused with cheap, tipped up treble. Even at very high levels I never found the top end aggressive or “zippy”, and if the amount of time I spent listening for pleasure to the MF gear is any indication, it passed the listener fatigue test with flying colours.
Serious soundstaging prowess was in full evidence as well, the A3CR painting a sonic picture which transcended the speakers and brought big acoustics to life very convincingly. Direct comparisons revealed that the Rotel RB-1090 had a bit of an edge when it came to absolute width, if not with image specificity. The Rotel could also be a little more flattering to recordings of mediocre quality and many will prefer it’s bigger, lusher sound and plumper bottom end. I think it’s way too musical to be called analytical, but the A3’s resolution and detail will inevitably expose flaws in recordings and upstream equipment.
By the end of my comparisons with the Rotel RB-1090, I was pretty excited about the A3 and wanted to hear it against AM’s perennial favorite, and value knockout, the Bryston 3B ST. At the price either amp is a serious bargain, both capable of shaming lots of much more expensive gear. Very similar in terms of top end resolution and overall smoothness, the Bryston is probably more the purist’s choice, with more linear bass response and a dead neutral midrange. If I listened largely to classical music I would probably lean in that direction, and I now have a better understanding of why it has found its way into so many professional monitoring systems. However, with so much rock, jazz, electronica and other music in my collection the A3 is too fun loving a partner to pass up. I could happily live with either, but I chose to keep the A3. If you’re shopping for a power amp, at ANY price, these two should be at the top of your audition list.
More of the same
Since I used the A3 preamp in all of the amp comparisons much of what I said about the sound of the A3 power can be applied to the preamp as well. Not surprisingly it’s the perfect match to the power amp, being exquisitely detailed, smooth, fast, and deliciously crisp. Like the amp it’s also dead quiet and seemingly capable of passing along as much musical resolution as you can throw at it. The synergy between the two was obvious, and the pair made for extremely transparent and musical sound. The somewhat more affordable Anthem Pre 2L (see review elsewhere in this issue) sounded a little more laid back by comparison and didn’t quite have the detail and imaging precision of the A3. It did, however, throw a slightly wider soundstage (which means HUGE) and, produced fuller, rounder bottom end. On recording after recording the A3CR pair demonstrated their knack for sparkling, energetic sound, making the Anthem preamp sound slightly blunted and mellow, but, arguably a little smoother, by comparison.
At the price, and considering its stellar sound, the A3’s MM/MC phono stage can be looked upon as generous bonus. While not likely to satisfy serious phono folks, it’s no afterthought. Even with my low output Audio Technica OC9 moving coil cartridge the phono section was stone dead quiet. I found my Rotel RQ-970 BX phono preamp to be a little more liquid sounding, with a touch more resolution, but the inboard stage certainly held its own, and saves the cost and sonic compromise of an interconnect cable if you decide to use it. For the casual to moderate vinyl enthusiast it will likely be more than adequate.
Spend Less, Get More
If your system balance is already a little on the dry and bright side, or you prefer your audio a little more laid back, these Musical Fidelity components might not be an ideal match. Other than those caveats, however, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the A3CR pre and power to anyone, even those considering spending much more. I ended up falling hard for the pair, and bought both, if that makes any difference to you. If you’re considering spending much less, you’d be well advised to check out Musical Fidelity’s A3CR integrated amp, which, although less powerful, will likely share many or most of the sonic qualities of the separates.