When in the spring of 1982 Anthony Michaelson sent his CV to all possible headhunters, he started to construct a preamplifier, just to not go mad. His previous company, that produced tube amplifiers was just a memory, but in his system he still had one – of the quite average – preamplifiers from that era and he just wanted to have something better. And so on the kitchen table a device was born, in a plain aluminum box, that absolutely had no intention to be anything else than it was – a DIY preamplifier. And it became the igniter of a brilliant career, big by our standards. This is how Musical Fidelity was born.
The device, name simply The Preamp, was the first product of Musical. But it was also the first of the many archetypical products that jumped out of the head of Michaelson just like Athena from Zeus’ head. One of the subsequent products of that type, that changed the viewpoint of many audiophiles, was the amplifier, introduced to the market two years later, the integrated A1. The British magazine “Hi-Fi Answers” appearing at that time wrote about the A1:
“The A1 is the most important development on the British hi-fi market to date…” („Hi-Fi Answers”, December 1985).
What was in that insignificantly looking, actually quite ugly, device that momentarily all people got mad about it, the buyers and the reviewers from specialist press? For sure not the looks… It just sounded very nice. And it was only 20W per channel, but in pure class A. It got hot like hell, and until today, it is probably a cliché, it is being told, that one could fry eggs on its top cover.
Much time passed since then, twenty four years, but the A1, with 100 000 sold units, still is among the hits of Musical. Maybe because of that, from sentimental reasons, but also from the brilliant market ‘feel’ (I think that one of the reasons is the need to create demand for the ‘superchargers’, Musical’s high power amplifiers, that are to add pure power to small amplifiers without changing the sound, and Anthony believes in power above everything), the company announced the return to that project and its modernizing. But not by much. It remains the same design, also on the outside, and it is still class A. In 1984 Musical produced only amplifiers. But much has changed since, and we get a stylistically adjusted player with the A1, the CD A1 CD PRO and a preamplifer – power amplifier set.
The Musical player connects many opposite choices, strivings, etc, in one enclosure, that create a new quality. Somewhere else, those could be separated and cancelling one and other out. But the most important information for today is that this is the most leveled, most ‘true’ player in the 10 000zl range. Does this mean it is the best one? Not necessarily – it is just one of the most thorough. This means, that it is hard for me to find another digital source in this price range, that would present music in an equally even and orderly way. There is a catch in that, that for many listeners will make for example the Yamaha CD-S2000, or CD-1 Ayona more attractive. And this is not all – like all devices, especially from the basic price regions, the Musical CD PRO puts its own seal on the music. And this despite the impression that it does not beautify anything. I hope this does not sound too stupid, but the case is that this is all the truth.
It turned out, that the final evaluation was influenced by the exchange of the AC cable. Similar to the change of the disc, the difference was quite obvious, although seemingly nothing changed in the sound. With the standard power cable I had the idea, that the upper midrange is too glassy. I was not fully sure, because the Musical is very even. In its sound there are no fountains of sound, no outstanding polished elements, but also no evident flaws. It can be done better, no doubt about that, because the mentioned Yamaha was more resolving, bass reached down deeper, etc, and the Ayon had more saturated timbres and longer reverb, but those did not sound so even. I repeat myself, but this is the characteristic, that made John Atkinson, the editor in chief of the “Stereophile” use the devices on Mark Levinson, not the best ones available, with their shortcomings, but very credible in that what they did. And this is how the A1 must be treated. But I started to talk about the power cable. I plugged there my (it just arrived) Acrolink 7N PC7100 and everything changed. But plugging in a cable that is more expensive than the device itself is something weird even for me. But it allowed to notice, that the changes brought are going in the right direction, and secondly, that they are not very profound. So I exchanged the AC cable to the very good and inexpensive model L/i 50 EXs Oyaide. The changes were smaller than those with the Acrolink, but the change was not as dramatis as in my Lektor Prime. Anyway, the mentioned glassiness disappeared.
And this is important, because that part of the frequency range is quite strong with the Musical. This is probably done as the A1 CD PRO is to accompany the A1 amplifier, which has quite warm sound. I heard this combination, and it is true, the Musical player gives much energy without brightening the sound. But this does not mean, that in another system the sound will be too bright. This is one of the paradoxes I mentioned in the beginning. Plugged in just after the Prime it did not change the overall sound balance of my system. The differences were noticeable, all aspects of the sound worsened (the player is 5 times cheaper), but on this systemic change it faired better, that if the change would not be even. The Musical sounds with a saturated, but not in the Ayon way, sound. It is not as dynamic as the Yamaha, it has a more tamed, quieter sound, but when Keith Jarret hits the keys, both on his best recorded disc like The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM, 1989/90, 2 x CD), as well as on the most renowned one, at the same time much criticized recording wise - The Köln Concert (ECM, UCCE-9011, gold-CD). The latter in the Japanese gold version, that is the one I have, is warmer than the aluminum original, and shows – in my opinion – the left hand much better. Despite this, Musical showed Jarrett’s specific way of playing, defined the timbre and the attack well. It did not cross the thin layer between the sound and us, that is characteristic for most digital sources, but it did not make a problem of it, and did not try to mask it with aggressiveness, twisted up midrange or similar tricks.
Listening to the British player, I had the idea for some time, that it favors the midrange. When Allan Taylor sung, from the reference disc Old Friends-New Roads (Stockfisch, SFR357.6047.2, CD; review HERE), he had a really strong and full voice. The same was with the beautiful disc iMogen Heap Speak For Yourself (Sony Music Japan, SICP 1387, CD) – a disc I warmly recommend, it is available in the Japanese version from CD Japan – where the track Hide and Seek is just a processed voice of the singer, something like Laurie Anderson experiments from Big Science. The transmission is strong, quite full, and although the whole had a smaller volume than from the Lektor aor Ayon, still the attack or asperity were not underlined – nothing that could ‘pump up’ the sound, and would be a departure from neutrality. Fortunately the Musical is not neutral in the way many devices are, that do not add anything from them (hence ‘neutrality’) do also steal something from the music, generate thin and bright sound, without the good saturation background. The Musical was different – this is a true neutrality, only at the give price level. This was confirmed with the more difficult material from jazz records. The guitar of Wes Montgomery form the disc Groove Yard The Montgomery Brothers (Riverside/JVC, JVCXR-0018-2, XRCD), and the saxophone of Art Pepper from ...the way it was! (Contemporary Records/Mobile Fidelity, UDSACD 2034, CD; review HERE) had a credible timbre and were drawn very well. Their resolution and structures were not especially evolved and looking at this aspect we can find something else for the money. The structure of the sound and its overall truthfulness were above average.
All kinds of music are played that way. Musical Fidelity is exceptional in terms of ‘stability’ in the presentation of different discs – regardless if this is jazz, rock or electronics, like from the disc Geometry of Love Project by Jarre (Aero Prod, 60693-2, CD), the player sounds in an even way. Frankly speaking, if I would be designing audio gear, and I would need a thorough player, that could represent the players from this price segment, I woud choose the A1 CD PRO without hesitation. Not because it is the best one – I return to what I wrote in the beginning – but because it has no weak points. This is not the same, because one values some other things in music that another person, and in every price range we have to make choices, what we value most. The tested player guarantees us always the same results, if you know what I mean, it is as reliable as the Swiss Frank – maybe not the best currency, if we want to get rich quickly speculating on its course, but splendid if we need a reference point. And I would like to point your attention to two things. One is related to resolution – this is the middle level from the price range, nothing bad and nothing exceptional. Just the mathematical middle. And the second thing is about reverb – those are visibly shorter than in for example the Yamaha player, and do not create a wide and deep sound stage. The latter is not pushed forward, it spreads nicely behind the speakers, but does not show much behind the instruments. Except for those things, the A1 CD PRO is like a golden standard for a player below 10 000zl – just like a length standard it does not create any special emotions, but it is hard to discuss anything without relating to it. This is really something exceptional.
The CD player A1 CD PRO is a small device with a very, I will say, uncommon appearance. But this is how it must be. This is the repetition of the looks of the A1 amplifier from 1984 – the biggest hit of the company. The whole looks ‘different’ but is made very well. The chassis is made from thick aluminum sheets, and the top cover is a very thick and rigid (also through corrugation) aluminum plate. In its middle part a big hole is drilled, the CD PRO is a toploader, with a manually operated black acrylic cover. This is not a novelty for Musical, the primacy must be given to the model A1008 from the top line. The disc is clamped to the shaft by a small plastic puck with a magnet, similar to the Naim one. In the Nagra and the Ancient Audio the pucks are heavier and made from metal. The cover is quite long and has no mechanism that would damp the movement, so we have to be careful operating it, or it will hit the chassis quite strongly. In the front a milky white display is placed, and below it four buttons operating the drive functions. On the side we have a mechanical power switch. The markings are blue. On the back plate we have the same, where besides an IEC socket a stereo analog output RCA based and two digital outputs were placed – S/PDIF coaxial and a TOSLINK optical one.
After unscrewing the top cover a nice view opens. Actually, it can even be seen after opening the cover – in the CD PRO the phenomenal Philips CD PRO2-LE drive unit was used (LF stands for lead free – it is the newest version of the CD PRO2-M, just without the lead in the solder), just like in twice as expensive devices, or even top offerings like the Grand SE Ancient Audio. It was mounted to a rigid frame and the frame to an enforcing partition. To the back of it the mechanism for the cover is located. To the side a small toroidal transformer with four secondary windings is visible, there are also four separate power supplies, each for one section. The Philips drive comes usually as a kit – with a servo and display. Musical did not use those, but programmed the servo himself. Hence the lack of the characteristic PCB below the drive – the signal from the pickup goes directly to the main board. The latter is a very sensible thing, with a microprocessor being responsible for signal decoding and drive control. Technical data (according to manufacturer):
The company materials state, that the output circuitry was borrowed from the very nice D/A converter X-DACv8, which first version was placed on the market in 1996, so quite some time ago. But since then seven newer versions of the device appeared. Next to it a upsampler is placed (Musical uses those in all its players) SRCA4391 from Burr-Brown, that converts the 16/44.1 signal from the CD asynchronously to 24/192. Further we see the Burr-Brown digital to analog converter DSD1792. This is a nice, often used converter, that is the base of many expensive devices. Because it can also covert DSD signals, it is also to be found in many SACD players. The chip can output balanced and unbalanced signals. The latter was used in the Musical. Next to those three chips – converter, upsampler and servo a nice clock was placed, mechanically and thermally stabilized. I/V conversion, filtering and amplification is handled by three additional (per channel) ICs, the JRC5532. Those are not very outstanding elements, but I just remind, that Accuphase also uses cheap components, only selecting them. The passive elements are nice, polypropylene capacitors and metalized resistors. Nothing extra, but solid enough. Near those ICs stabilizing elements were placed, with significantly sized heat sinks, suggesting hard work. The output is switched by a good relay. The output terminals are not gold plated. The device has shaggy plastic feet and has an ugly, plastic, system remote control. Looking at all this, we have to say, that if it would not be made in Taiwan, it would have to cost over 10 000zl.
Pre-out impedance: 50 Ohms DAC circuit: 24 bit Delta-Sigma (Bit stream) dual differential 8X over sampling Total correlated jitter: < 135pS Linearity: <0.1dB down to -96dB Output digital 0dB level: 2.18VRMS at 1kHz nominal Frequency response: 10Hz to 20 kHz -0.2dB max Channel separation: >95dB 20Hz to 20 kHz Signal / noise ratio: > 117dB "A" weighted Total harmonic distortion: <0.003% 10Hz to 20 kHz Dimensions:Main unit: 440mm, 17 1/3 inches wide; 78mm, 3 inches high inc. feet, lid closed (250mm [9 3/4 inches] minimum height clearance required to fully open lid) 280mmPower requirement: 100 / 115 / 230Volts AC 50 / 60 Hz (factory pre-set) 15 Watts maximum