Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC universal music controller
The taxonomy of audio products used to be easy. An amp, a preamp, speakers, a disc player or twodone. Now that hard drives, streaming clouds, and computers have entered the scene, unless your world revolves around only an iPod or a disc player, you have choiceslots of choices.
And so a new product type, along with dozens of subtypes, has emerged that helps you keep up with the incoming bits. I like to refer to this branch of the audio kingdom as digital "hubs." Think of a hub as the ultimate audio adapter: whatever you need to connect to or with, the hub makers try to have a port or software for it. Wherever you source your music, even if it's scattered across the physical and virtual worlds, they try to unify your ability to control it.
Musical Fidelity's M1 CLiC is one of the latest generation of digital hubs that can also function as a basic preamplifier. Though sourcing digital music has become a complicated process, MF has decided to take their hardware in the opposite direction, simplifying the front panel as much as possible while keeping the component's flexibility intact.
Anyone familiar with how the original iPod display (and quite a few other devices these days) allowed you to move from menu to menu on a small screen will get what MF has done with the M1 CLiC's control interface. Though Apple has moved on to apps and touchscreens, their original menu approach can still work within the confines of a small screen and the buttons (in this case on the provided remote control) needed to navigate those menus. With simplicity can come trade-offs, however, as we shall see.
Innies and Outies
Before we get to that, let's take a look at the basic hardware. On the front of the M1 CLiC's black box, which is about as big as a one-year stack of Stereophiles, is a Power/Standby/Mute switch, an LCD color display measuring about 3" wide by 21/4" high, an IR receiver, and a USB input. That's it.
The rear panel, however, bristles with connectors. At the top left are three sets of line-level RCA stereo input jacks, allowing the use of disc players, phono preamps, and maybe even a tape player as sources. Below that are two pairs of stereo RCA outputs: one set labeled Preamp Out, for connecting to your power amplifier, and one pair of fixed outputs for connection to a preamp.
To the right of the analog section are three rows of digital and networking jacks. The top row contains a USB jack labeled iPod, for connecting your iDevice; what looks like an RS-232 port for factory-only use; and a small connector for the supplied WiFi antenna. Below those is an RJ45 (Ethernet) jack labeled Networking, for connecting to the Internet and UPnP devices, and below that are the digital inputs: one labeled USB DAC, and one optical and two coaxial RCA-S/PDIF connectors. To the right of all that is the inlet for the detachable power cord.
When I looked at the M1 CLiC's specifications, a couple of things surprised me right away. First, the USB DAC input on the rear is set up as a 16-bit/48kHz adaptive port, which strikes me as somewhat primitive in these days of 24/96 and higher USB sources. The alternative asynchronous USB connection, which lets the DAC clock the data out of the source, is the USB buzzword these days, but Musical Fidelity claims that minimizing jitter is taken care of by their own reclocking-and-upsampling process. [M1 CLiC owners can get an asynchronous USB connection operating up to 24/96 by adding Musical Fidelity's V-Link, which Amazon was offering for $99 when we went to press.Ed.]
This USB DAC input is where you plug in the USB cable from a computer running something like iTunes. But the USB jack on the front, which is intended only for memory sticks and USB drives stuffed with music, is fully 24/192-capable. The M1 CLiC also provides onscreen navigation for a USB drive or stick plugged into the front, or an iPod connected to the third USB connector on the back. The iPod jack on the back and the front USB jack are not interchangeableyour iPod will not work from the front jack. The front jack supports only drives formatted as FAT16 or FAT32. I had to reformat one of my Mac drives to get it to work.
The internal DAC, built around the core circuitry of MF's $749 M1DAC, provides reclocking for jitter reduction and 24/192 upsampling. (See Sam Tellig's full review of the M1DAC in the March 2011 issue for more about how this works.) Unfortunately, I didn't have a standalone M1DAC on hand, so I can't really say if the M1 CLiC is a chip off the old block, though Musical Fidelity assures me that it is.
I decided to plug in the M1 CLiC and see what I could do without referring to the manual. Everything, it turned outsetting up the M1 CLiC was incredibly easy. The user interface is very intuitive and well conceived, and right awayafter using the remote control to navigate the input menuI was using the coax-S/PDIF input.
I began to explore the other menu items and came upon Network. I plugged an Ethernet cable into the back, then into an Ethernet switch, and was instantly online. I then proceeded to check for updates to the M1 CLiC (there were none), set my time zone, and poked around the other options. The MF's option for setting up a wireless WiFi network quickly found my Airport Extreme router.
After first running the M1 CLiC's fixed and variable analog outputs into my preamp to make sure there were no unexpected clicks, pops, or problems with runaway volume control, I proceeded to set up the MF as my main preampDACdigital hub, and connected the variable analog outputs directly to my Classé CAM 350 monoblocks.
I have a Western Digital Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive crammed with music and some photos. With the Twonky uPnP player installed on the NAS, the M1 CLiC recognized the drive right away (it also found my DirecTV box and Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player); I could easily find my tracks via the MF's onscreen menu, and display photos from the drive on the screen. I've been spoiled by my Sooloos music server's powerful touchscreen interface, which makes navigating among my thousands of albums a snap. In contrast, if you have more than a few hundred albums, using the M1 CLiC's onscreen menu will quickly become a chore. This is not a knock on MF's programmingthe same is true of Apple's click-wheel iPods.