The Entry Level #17 Page 2

The original V-series products were housed in small (3.75" wide by 1.7" high by 6.7" long), black extrusions, and featured garish lettering in a font that goes by such names as Fiesta and Salsa. The products' names—V-CAN, V-DAC, V-LPS—seemed to dance across their faceplates. The whimsical logos had struck me as a failed attempt by Musical Fidelity to relate to a younger audience. Perhaps they went too far: If five-year-olds were buying hi-fi, the strategy might have worked. The products were affordable, but I would never want them in my home. Was it possible that MF, despite its success at the luxury end of the market, had lost touch with the budget-conscious audiophile?

I asked Musical Fidelity's CEO, Antony Michaelson, about the company's target audience. Was the V series developed with existing customers in mind, or was it an attempt to gain new ones? Michaelson responded: "Our target is to give superlative performance for an unbelievable price. So you might say our target is anybody who gets the idea of true value as opposed to trouser stuffing."

Fair enough—Musical Fidelity doesn't want to limit its reach. The company markets the V-series products as "Essential Accessories for the Hi-Fi Connoisseur." When I asked why, Michaelson replied, "Why not?"

I didn't press for a more detailed answer, but I continued to wonder. Could it be that Musical Fidelity's V-series products were not designed with the young, cash-strapped audiophile foremost in mind, but were instead intended to satisfy the everyday cravings of MF's wealthier customers—to be used as backups or in a second system? I suppose it's possible. I've been told, however, that many young audiophiles are purchasing MF V-series products from online sellers like Amazon.com. Then again, one of the most popular phono preamplifiers available from Amazon is the Bozak Madisson CLK-PH2 ($14.95; review planned for later this year). And who's buying that? Probably not Musical Fidelity customers.

One thing is for sure: Compared to the originals, Musical Fidelity's new V models have a much more attractive, no-nonsense appearance. The black extrusion is now a handsome silver, and the ugly lettering has been replaced with a much simpler and more dignified-looking font. I asked Michaelson about the new look.

"The V series was conceived to be hidden away," he explained. "As it turned out, we were wrong about how intelligent audiophiles want to use their equipment. They do like it to look good, even if they don't really see it."

In addition to the new look, the V-LPS II has a revised RIAA EQ circuit and a redesigned discrete input stage. According to Michaelson, these changes improved the V-LPS's distortion and signal/noise specifications. Like the original V-LPS, the II has its inputs on one end and its outputs on the other, making placement trickier than usual—I never found a truly satisfying way of situating the phono preamp so that my interconnects could be neatly tucked away. The form of the V-LPS II is not a result of budgetary constraints, but instead follows function. Michaelson explained: "The signal flows in a linear fashion, maintaining constant separation between both channels."

The V II products share the size and shape of their predecessors. The phono preamp weighs just 12oz; the power supply is a bit heavier, at 1.75 lbs. These dimensions were dictated by the circuitry. According to Michaelson, the V products represent a purist, anti–high-end philosophy: "High-end is some circuitry (often not very good) in a huge, expensive, flashy box. By contrast, the V series is super-performing circuitry in a simple, modest package. Think Cadillac Escalade vs Lotus Elite."

That's where Michaelson lost me again. The last car I drove was a 1988 Toyota Corolla station wagon—a very generous gift from Nicole. It was white on the outside, blue on the inside, and so noisy that it set off car alarms as I drove down the street. I miss her.

Back in the kitchen
Christine's record had baked and cooled, and it was time to see if it was now flat. I quickly and easily unscrewed the Vinyl Flat's top plate, but when I attempted to extract the LP, I found that it was stuck between the Groovy Rings. Something had gone wrong. I very carefully twisted the Groovy Rings until I finally freed the LP. Though the LP was wonderfully flat, almost incredibly so, its surface appeared to have suffered some heat damage—the grooves looked strangely smooth and glassy. My heart sank. When I played the record, I found that its big, bold sound had been replaced by an awful distortion eerily similar to what I'd heard when my stylus was littered with dust and debris. I cleaned the record again, shot it with the Milty Zerostat, pleaded, prayed. But nothing was going to bring Christine's LP back to life.

When I mentioned this to Vinyl Flat's John Martindale, he explained that the Groovy Rings are designed to withstand temperatures of up to 180°F. Though I'd set my old oven to the required 150°F, it was probably heating closer to 185°F. (This also explains my recent meatloaf mishap.) Christine's record was ruined by too much heat.

Now we know: It is absolutely essential that you properly calibrate your oven before using it to flatten your LPs. On the Vinyl Flat website, you'll find detailed instructions on how to do this. Martindale also recommends using an inexpensive digital kitchen scale to verify the weight of your LPs. Once your oven is properly calibrated and you've confirmed your LP's weight, you can confidently use the Vinyl Flat. Sure enough—in relatively little time, I was able to successfully flatten badly warped and dished LPs.

I also tried the Groovy Pouch ($59.95), a specially made, soft enclosure that uses carbon-fiber heating elements to surround the Vinyl Flat with even heat. Place the Groovy Pouch on a nonporous surface, tuck the Vinyl Flat inside, tightly seal the Velcro opening, and plug the power supply into an AC receptacle. I used my copy of the XX's self-titled debut (LP, XL 450), which had a noticeable but noncritical warp, and heated it for the 4.5 hours recommended by the Vinyl Flat's instructions. When the unit was cool to the touch, I disassembled it, easily removed my LP from the Groovy Rings, and anxiously inspected it. Heating the record in the Groovy Pouch had reduced but not entirely eliminated the warp. Most important, however, there was no sign of heat damage, and the record sounded great. I felt as light as a feather.

Over time, I experienced mixed results with the Groovy Pouch: It worked effectively with severely warped records, getting them to a playable level, but, paradoxically, results were often less impressive with more mildly warped records. Martindale explained: "Some records are harder to flatten because an important variable in the flattening equation is the chemical composition of the record itself—a factor that we can't control or even reliably predict."

So, when flattening warped and dished records, the Vinyl Flat and Groovy Pouch can provide only the proper pressure and heat; the user must provide the time. For just $160, that seems fair to me.

Back in the listening room
Without the outboard power supply, the Musical Fidelity V-LPS II ($189) presented James Blake's "Limit to Your Love" with very good tonal color, a fair amount of detail, and fine image specificity, but sounded soft on the top and bottom, and lacked some weight and impact. I had a difficult time distinguishing the V-LPS II from NAD's PP 3 ($200). Maybe the MF was a little more detailed, and maybe the NAD had a slightly better sense of momentum and flow. But I wasn't sure.

Adding the V-PSU II power supply ($249) created a larger and more involving overall sound, and also seemed to provide greater clarity and presence. While listening to "Heyr Himnasmiour," from Hildur Gudnadottir's excellent Without Sinking (LP, Touch TO 070LP), I noticed more space around Gudnadottir's voice, and had less trouble understanding the Icelandic artist's words. Additionally, piano keys were struck with more force, and accompanying notes trailed off with greater delicacy and grace. Now the sound of the V-LPS II more closely approximated that of the Parasound Zphono•USB ($349), but still couldn't quite match the Parasound's drama and impact. Even with the V-PSU, the V-LPS lacked a bit of "jump factor": the ability to surprise me—if only momentarily—into thinking that I'm listening to the real thing.

I'm glad that Musical Fidelity, a company perhaps best known for its massively powerful, extremely expensive amplifiers, also offers a line of truly affordable components. How are they able to do it? Why don't more high-end companies offer such affordable products?

"At heart," Antony Michaelson said, "Musical Fidelity is an idealist enthusiast company. Our mission is to make a profit by giving the customer the maximum for their money. We passionately care about audio and music and are trying to do something about it."

I appreciate that. Now I just have to do something about Christine's damaged LP. Maybe I'll find a suitable replacement on eBay. And, while I'm there, maybe I'll find a few other things: a magic gong, a jar of P.W.B. Electret Cream, a photo of Mikey Fremer . . .

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COMMENTS
MWaehner's picture

I love when you review things I already own. The V-LPS was definitely the most phono stage I could afford, and I have been so impressed with its performance over the built-in stage in my receiver. I got to upgrade the power supply a few months later, but I used a Pyramid PS-3KX for $30--talk about affordable audio, and it made an enormous difference in soundstage depth and sibilant distortion (which I've been fighting consistently since getting into vinyl three years ago). Based on my research before buying and my own experience, I think MF's audience is, indeed, young budget-conscious audiophiles like myself. And if that wasn't their original audience, it's the one that has met them.

I sympathize with the difficulty of placing the stage, though. It had to go on top of my receiver at an odd angle, then, when I was first listening, I was annoyed by an audible buzz. Moving the box around led to increases and decreases in the buzz, which I haven't enough electrical knowhow to explain--I just found the least awkward possible position with no noise and threw my hands up, vowing never to move it again!

SpinMark3313's picture

There needs to be some love out there for the Mapleshade Ionoclast...  About 1/2 the cost of the Zerostat and in my experience, very effective.

Brown Sound's picture

Geesh, what happened to Zerostats? Are they labeled with gold leaf or have a titanium lever? Back in the 80's, when Diskwasher still made them, I think I paid around $20 for one. It's not like the concept or process has changed, right? One hundred dollars, please.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Geesh, what happened to Zerostats? Are they labeled with gold leaf or have a titanium lever?  Back in the 80's, when Diskwasher still made them, I think I paid around $20 for one.

Disbelief and/or shock seems to be a popular reaction to the price increase.  But I don't understand why.  The 80s happened a long time ago. 

John Atkinson bought his Zerostat in 1976, for around $20, also.

Say you spent 20 bucks on anything in 1970.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $110 in 2012 dollars. And that's without taking into account the rising cost of metals and plastics, which have outpaced a general rise in prices.  So, what's the big deal?

More discussion on this topic can be found in our forum.

Et Quelle's picture

Neither look stylish as components. Ill probaly buy Clearaudio. Audiophiles are often picky about looks? So many phono stages resemble old car radios or metallic cig packs!

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