Micromega AS-400 D/A integrated amplifier Page 2
I wanted to try streaming music files from three software alternatives to iTunes that arrived at more or less the same time as the Micromega AS-400: PureMusic, Decibel, and Amarra (see my "Listening" column on p.39). Because the Micromega AirStream module is optimized for iTunes, that wasn't possible without jumping through one more hoop: downloading and installing a $25 utility called AirFoil, from Rogue Amoeba Software (footnote 2). Once AirFoil is in place, virtually any music file can be streamed to an AirPort Express base station, including files encoded with the FLAC codec, which iTunes doesn't otherwise support.
If anything, getting my iPod Touch to stream music files to the AS-400 was even easier: I chose WiFi from the Settings page of my iPod (which I'd already updated with OS 4.3), selected Music, and there it was: When I went to play music, I saw that the behatted planaria had appeared to the right of the Skip Forward symbol. As long as my iMac wasn't trying to hog the same airwaves, everything was cool.
Beyond all that, I used the Micromega AS-400 in two general ways: as an integrated amplifier with a built-in digital source, and as a source component only, driving my usual preamp and amps from its tape-monitor outputs. In the former mode, the AS-400 was auditioned through Wilson Audio Sophia 2 loudspeakersback for a brief stay on their way home to Provo, Utahand my own Audio Note AN-E SPe/HE speakers, plus a borrowed pair of Snell Type A-II speakers. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to try the AS-400 with my restored Quad ESL speakers, one of which now requires re-restoration after being damaged by a housecat, which survived. (In my office/listening room, which is off-limits to dander producers, I listen to Quads with their metal grilles removed. I got lazy and brought them out into the living room before reinstalling those grillesa mistake I intend not to repeat.)
A final, miscellaneous setup note: The AS-400 ran warm but not scary-hot. Still, I was a surprised that it didn't run cooler, given that class-D output sections tend toward the very efficient.
It seemed to me that the whole of the Micromega AS-400the sound of its preamp and power amp taken togetherwas designed to accommodate and complement the built-in digital source that is its raison d'àtre. That's wise: Although $4495 is no longer regarded as a terribly high price for a traditional (sourceless) integrated amplifier, there's no reason to buy something like that unless something like that is what you want.
And that something struck me as a hell of a lot of fun to listen to and to use. The first time I fired up my iPod Touch with the AS-400, I was not only impressed: I was surprised. That first number was "Afro Blue," from Phillips, Grier & Flinner's Looking Back (from CD, Compass 4342): a jazzy acoustic instrumental that opens with a string-bass improvisation by Todd Phillips. The instruments had most of the sound they should have, lacking only a little color. The ensemble had the scale and presence they should have. And the record had the fun it should have. I was pretty much sold.
Then I switched to the same music file, streamed from my iMac, and heard even better sound: slightly clearer, and with a more natural sense of flow. In fact, as the days progressed, there continued to be audible differences between the sounds of music files streamed from my iMac and (presumably) identical files streamed from my iPodbut those differences were often slight and hard to pin down, seeming almost to vary from one selection to another. (I used only 44.1kHz AIFF files for these comparisons.) Even after compensating for the different output levels of the two devices, music streamed to the Micromega from the iMac generally had greater scale and more apparent channel separation. Music streamed from the iPod tended to be sonically a bit grayer and musically a bit fussier, with less certain momentum and flow. But the latter wasn't nearly enough to impede my enjoyment or ability to respond to the music. I recall in particular one dark, rainy morning in early April when I streamed the Byrds' "Here Without You" from my iPod to the AS-400, and the sound and music were utterly enchanting.
Driven by whichever music-file source, the sound of the Micromega AirStream module didn't match that of the best (Ayre and Wavelength) USB D/A converters I've heard so far, nor that of the Linn Majik DS-I at its own best (with hi-rez files). Those alternatives all made music sound a little more present and colorful than did the AS-400: a little more flesh and blood. But it wasn't far enough from the mark to disappoint, especially in light of both the AS-400's price and its viability as a one-box, just-add-speakers solution.
Auditioned as an integrated amplifier, and setting aside for a moment its digital source capabilities, the AS-400 was enjoyable but not entirely to my taste, especially with line-level sources. On the plus side, the AS-400's ability to retrieve extremely subtle detail was nothing short of astounding. Drummer B.J. Wilson's very soft floor-tom roll near the beginning of Procol Harum's "Strangers in Space," from the recently reissued Something Magic (CD, Salvo CD029), was uncovered as never before, each little tap having its own distinct sound. And throughout Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer (CD, Vanguard 79844-2), the amp uncovered nuances in the performances that were otherwise lost to methe fluttery background voices in "Calvary" were especially delightful. On the down side, the Micromega amp was spatially a bit flatexcept for the most prominent lead vocals and solo instruments, few sounds stood proud of the mixwith insufficient timbral color compared with my reference amps, and a very slight trace of artificial texture in the trebles.
But the Micromega's phono section sounded like more than just an afterthought: Isolated from the rest of the AS-400 and driven with the Hommage T1 and Silvercore One-to-Ten transformers, it was slightly leaner than the phono section of my Shindo Masseto, but not at all shamed by the comparison. In phono mode the Micromega's top end was light and detailed but not bright, though it jelled better with the meaty Ortofon SPU pickup heads than with any of the alternatives on hand. A great new 45rpm reissue of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, with Donald Johanos conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (45rpm LP, Turnabout/Analogue Productions AAPC 34145-45), had tremendous drama, scale, and sheer whomp through the Micromega, with convincingly good bite in the loudest brass passages. Mono LPs and 78s had good chunk, too, although the Shindo's phono section was less perturbed by the noise on some worn-out discs.
Considered as an integrated amplifier, the Micromega AS-400 sounded best by far with the less sensitive Wilson and Snell loudspeakers, especially in my largest listening space. It's apparently more at ease at a gallop than a stroll.
The AS-400 didn't reach state-of-the-art heights in my system, as either an amp or a digital sourceyet it was consistently engaging, musically and sonically. And the performance of its wireless digital source was so surprisingly good that I couldn't help thinking that a maxed-out, standalone AirStream unit might be just the cat to scare the USB pigeons . . .
Even as it stands, the Micromega AS-400 strikes me as a virtually perfect choice for the audio perfectionist who shares space with other listenersand multiple iPods and/or iMacs. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think anyone else offers this combination of qualitieshigh output power, a nice preamp with adjustable balance and a healthy number of analog inputs, a phono stage, and instant, out-of-the-box wireless compatibility with the world's most popular music-playback softwarefor any price, let alone one that seems so reasonable for the design and workmanship on tap. The AS-400 is a unique, and uniquely recommendable, piece of gear.
Footnote 2: I'm sick of NerdNames, too. Ogg Vorbis could be the best-sounding lossy format on Earth and I'd still loathe it. And don't get me started on that stupid band that dresses like eyeballs.