Final Laboratory Music-4 phono preamplifier, Music-5 line preamplifier, & Music-6 power amplifier Michael Fremer January 2002
My honeymoon with the Manley Steelhead phono section is over. Not that I didn't buy it after my review last month, not that I don't love it, and not that it isn't now my reference—it's just that it isn't perfect, nor does it do everything better than every other phono section I've heard.
For instance, take the quirky Final Labs Music-4 from Japan ($3700), which requires an outboard power supply. Final Labs sent both power options: the AC-5 ($2750), which uses vacuum-tube regulation, and the DC-5 ($450). The AC-5 features eight 5U4GB rectifier tubes (included) and a special transformer in a cool chromed chassis. (I did a Google search on "5U4GB" and got 366 sites! Who said tubes are dead?) The DC-5 is basically a box in which you install 28 C batteries—preferably manganese, according to FL; they include a set.
Using either power supply (connected via an XLR-terminated umbilicus) is relatively straightforward. You check both positive and negative sides of the supply using the top-mounted voltage meter. If it reads ±18V, you're good to go. While the Music-4 is designed to be used only with moving-coil cartridges, resistive loading is locked in at 560k ohms—ie, basically unloaded—and gain is a marginal 40dB. Yet the Music-4 is also fitted with a pair of attenuators—for what reason I don't know, given the minimal gain offered. I always found it necessary to max out the attenuators; even then, gain was "just enough" with the 0.45mV Helikon cartridge.
Switching to a high-output MC (like the Adcom Crosscoil that Garrott Brothers (footnote 1) rebuilt for me) resulted in more than enough gain, but at the great expense of the very qualities this phono section absolutely excels at: transparency, purity, speed, detail, and delicacy.
To hear what the Music-4 does best, you need to go with a moderate-gain low output MC like the Helikon. Then you get just enough (or barely enough, or maybe not quite enough) gain for it to deliver the most delicately drawn, non-mechanical, yet perfectly focused, almost effervescent sonic picture ever to tickle your tympanic nerve. Well, mine, anyway. Talk about "floating a soundstage." This one floated so freely that I listened enraptured, almost fearing that if I didn't sandbag it, it would just float away.
I thought the Manley Steelhead was speedy, and it is, but the Music-4—especially with its battery power supply—managed to draw an ultra-pure musical image, wash it away and leave no residue, then draw another, all with an exceptional freedom from the mechanicalness and sonic overhang that seemed to define the reproduction of music. Every other phono stage I've heard, tubed or solid-state, sounds somewhat "electronic" by comparison. The Music-4 obliterated the distinction between tubes and solid-state.
Unfortunately, similar to the problems of mini-watt single-ended-triode tube amps—problems their devotees find easy to ignore—the Music-4 doesn't have enough gain to help the rest of the system deliver other important aspects of reproduced sound, such as large-scale dynamic swings and realistic SPLs. At least, that was the case in my system.
Perhaps mated with Final's other gear—a preamp, a 10Wpc stereo amplifier, and a 103dB-efficient horn-loaded speaker—the Music-4 can overcome its limited MC gain. I just don't think 40dB is enough for a low-output MC cartridge, but I'm sure the designer will disagree.
If you stick to listening to what the Music-4 does best and ignore its weaknesses, you'll be in for a magical, "transporting" listening experience. While bass dynamics were limited, within the Music-4's reproductive scale the bass extension was more than adequate, and the overall LF performance was rhythmically, tonally, and texturally stunning—as was the ultra-fast, etch-free transient response on top.
What accounts for the Music-4's purity and speed? The accompanying literature claims hand-wired, "high-speed" circuitry that uses no high-capacity (above 0.2µF) capacitors. When I popped off the bottom plate, I found densely packed three-dimensional component placement.
With its eight-tube or 28-battery power supply, limited gain, wide-open loading, and high cost ($4150 or $6450, depending on power supply), the Music-4 will appeal to a select group of analog devotees. I'm glad I spent time with it—despite its limitations, it points phono-section design in a promising direction. If its gain could be increased and its purity, speed, and transparency retained, the Music-4 might be a killer. Even in its current state, it will find some takers among Stereophile readers, but not me.—Michael Fremer
Footnote 1: Not the actual Garrott brothers, who are long gone, but some very talented guys who bought the company. More about them in a future column.—Michael Fremer