The Fifth Element #32 Page 2
Be that however it may, Harbeth's HL-3P-ES2s were nothing short of brilliant on a trio of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD/CD hybrids of mono jazz reissues from 1956, '57, and '58: Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (UDSACD 2019), Sonny Rollins' Plus 4 (UDSACD 2006), and John Coltrane's Soultrane (UDSACD 2020). SACD playback was via Esoteric's X-01. (Yes, I know; it should go back. Breaking up is hard to do.)
Do not for a moment let the fact that these SACDs derive from monophonic masters stop you from enjoying the wonderful playing. In terms of timbre and dynamics, their sound (Rudy van Gelder engineered) is actually very good, lacking only the last quanta of luster and punch. Concerning imaging and soundstaging, I prefer honest mono to sound that masquerades as stereo, but in fact is a compilation of mono tracks artificially panpotted to left, right, and center (Kind of Blue, anyone?). In addition to the original liner notes, MFSL's SACD reissues include new critical essays that place the recordings in a larger context. Highly recommended. If you can spring for only one, I recommend Soultrane, for the plangency of "I Want to Talk About You" and "Theme for Ernie."
Interestingly enough, while listening to these three mono jazz recordings from the 1950s (each, of course, with an upright double-bass) through the Harbeth HL-3P-ES2s, I felt that I was not missing much at all in the low bass, whereas on large orchestral works and rock I very much missed the bottom octave. What follows is merely a partially educated guess, but: perhaps a hollow-body acoustical string bass has an even more harmonically rich frequency spectrum than that of an electric bass guitar.
As JA has pointed out in his online annotations to Stereophile's Test CD 2, an electric bass guitar's lowest note is E=41.2Hz, but the overtone at the first octave (82.4Hz) is 11dB louder than the fundamental. That is, that overtone has nearly four times as much energy as the fundamental. If that's how an electric bass works, and if a string bass has even stronger harmonics compared to its fundamental tones, then it would indeed be easier to follow the bass lines on these recordings, even though the HL-3P-ES2s were not doing justice to the fundamentals. Hmmm...
The first amplification component I tried with the HL-3P-ES2s was the compact but rugged Audio Analogue Primo 70Wpc integrated amp ($850), which so impressed Sam Tellig in the June 2004 "Sam's Space." The Primo had very nice sound and surprising drive capability. It's good value for money, and I enjoyed my time with it.
But there were a few purely ergonomic issues. Because the user controls are microprocessor-based, powering the Primo down and up would always reset the input selection to Phono and the volume to zero. Now, to have one's car radio's volume reset itself automatically to zero whenever the car is shut off is something devoutly wished by parents of teenagers, but it is not what most of us are used to from our stereos.
Eventually (by no means shortly; it took weeks of annoyance), I developed the knack of turning the Primo on and then, instead of moving on to the CD player, pushing the amp's input selector button and twitching its large, circular volume knob. The Primo's volume knob, you see, has a very limited range of motion; it wants only an indication of which direction, up or down, you want the volume to go in. Also, the volume increments were a bit too large, and the input indicator lights seemed less than 1mm in diameter and were recessed. The lights were visible only when looked at strictly on axis. Moreover, the remote control was small, and the legends for its buttons were slightly confusing. In short, if your weekly load of junk mail includes invitations to join AARP, perhaps the ergonomics of this otherwise fine amp will exasperate the dickens out of you. Apart from that, the Primo is a contendah for our hypothetical music teacher's system. But I still had a hankering for something a little more old-school.
Until vintage-kit maestro Peter Breuninger can get around to writing up the joys of 1970s Marantz receivers, both quad and stereo, one's old-school hankerings are in good hands with Magnum Dynalab's MD-208 FM-only receiver (100Wpc, $2975). Chip Stern gave the MD-208 receiver a full and enthusiastic review in January 2001 . I included it in one of the systems I suggested for Victoria's Secret lingerie model Rebecca Romijn in "The Fifth Element" of May 2002 (Vol.25 No.5). It is a good example of what I was talking about a few columns ago: good products that remain in production may tend to fall off peoples' radar screens. Beware "the tyranny of the new" (footnote 2).
The Magnum Dynalab MD-208 combines an FM-only tuner and an integrated amplifier in one handsome, slightly retro-styled cabinet. (MD also makes an integrated amplifier that is in essence an MD-208 without the tuner. But with all that music on the air for free, I can't see why anyone wouldn't choose the receiver.) The front halves of the side panels of its chassis are adorned with thick, sculpted pieces of hardwood trim. The display panel is bracketed by two pivoting-needle analog meters, one for tuning, the other switchable between signal strength and multipath. The middle of the display panel is given over to two LED-segment numerical readouts. One indicates volume or the selected input, the other the station tuned to. Tuning is analog, via a large knob with a very silky feel.
The MD-208 has already been covered, so I'll just note a few points and then come to a conclusion. The MD-208's sound falls slightly on the smooth side, as distinct from hyperdefined. This very slightly forgiving sound is wonderful with most recordings. FM radio, however—especially, in my opinion, male announcers' voices—might benefit from some slimming down and sharpening up. Most male announcers seem to cultivate a chest-heavy vocal production, which is exacerbated by certain microphones' "proximity effect" of a 6dB/octave bass boost. I find it annoying, but you may not. (Johnny Carson, I'm told by someone in the know, had a reedy and somewhat annoying speaking voice, which is why his iconic desk microphone was an antique ribbon design with a figure-8 pickup pattern. Such a microphone has a very strong proximity effect and a very sweet top end.)
The MD-208's volume control is on its left side. I find the right side a more intuitive location. You may not care. Input selection is accomplished by paging through all the inputs in order by repeatedly pushing the Input button. If you use only the Tuner and the CD input, going from CD to Tuner will involve several button-pushes.
One other issue is that although the MD-208 has a tape output, it does not have a tape loop as such. Similarly, its Process mode allows the connection of an HT processor that will override the MD-208's volume control while using the MD-208's power amplifier to drive your front channels. But again, that is not a loop. While the MD-208 does have Preamp Out jacks, it does not have Amplifier In jacks.
The only situation where all of that would make a difference is if you wanted to use an outboard equalizer or a processor such as Rives Audio's PARC, which requires both a "send" and a "return"; ie, a loop. Very much on the plus side, though, is the fact that the MD-208's front Power switch is actually a standby switch; your volume, input, and station selections are saved and will come right back up.
The MD-208 quietly exudes class and is a delight to listen to. I would unhesitatingly recommend it to any music lover as the foundation of a high-quality music system that is long on performance and convenience and short on needless expense and complication. Are there better-sounding ways to skin a cat? Of course. But they are firmly in the land of diminishing returns.
Right under the wire: I raved about Stereovox's cost-no-object reference-grade interconnects and speaker cables in the December 2002 "The Fifth Element" (Vol.25 No.12). Stereovox has now issued Rev.II versions of both that are roughly 40% less expensive. (Changing the packaging from the totally over-the-top, black ballistic-cloth, red-velvet-lined orchestral cymbal cases to somewhat chintzy famous-maker aluminum attaché-case knockoffs probably contributed to the price reduction.) On preliminary but nonetheless high-confidence-factor audition, they are as impressive as the originals. The music had a more organic balance, yet with a full measure of detail. Good show.
Next time: More speakers for our hypothetical music teacher.
Footnote 2: The MD-208 has remained essentially unchanged since 2001. However, by the time you read this, Magnum Dynalab will have made available an optional phono-input card, retrofittable to units already in the field.