Musical Fidelity X-T100 integrated amplifier Sam Tellig, February 2007

Sam Tellig wrote about Musical Fidelity's X-T100 in February 2007 (Vol.30 No.2):

The X-T100 integrated amplifier and matching X-RayV8 (no relation to the vegetable juice) CD player are both members of Musical Fidelity's new series of half-width X-series components.

The X-T100 updates two of the A1000's concepts: first, the notion that an integrated amplifier has certain advantages over separate pre- and power amps (less noise, less space, economy, no interconnects from pre- to power, and common grounding); and second, that there's a huge advantage in outboarding the power supply.

Talk about economy. With the X-T100, not only do the preamp and power-amp stages share the same chassis, they also have the same Triple-X outboard power supply as the matching X-RayV8 CD player.

Notice, too, that, the X-T100 is rated to deliver 50Wpc into 8 ohms (same as the A1000) or 80W into 4 ohms. This time, however, the power-amp section does not operate in class-A—that way, the X-T100 can be much smaller and produce far less heat. The preamp stage, meanwhile, has something the A1000 didn't, and that's tubes—one 6922 (aka 6DJ8 or ECC88) per channel, to be precise.

Don't touch those tubes! In fact, don't even think about removing the X-T100's top cover to look inside. If Antony Michaelson finds out that you did, your three-year warranty will be null and void. Accordingly, no instructions for doing so are provided—but all you need do is remove the uppermost side screws, after which the top of the chassis should slide off. I didn't tell you to do this.

I asked Antony how he or his distributor would know that someone had carefully removed the top cover. He replied that, in all candor, he wouldn't. But he'd know if some idiot audiophile had [ahem] modified the unit. (I prefer to call such activities tampering.) And the tubes that are in there, according to Antony, are perfectly good: tested and quiet. Of course, bad things sometimes happen to good tubes, but you should get at least three years' use from these before they turn noisy—and that's if you leave the amp on all the time, which I don't recommend. If you don't leave the amp on all the time, you might get 10 or 20 years out of the tubes (they're not output tubes, after all). By then, the rest of the amp may be shot. You may be, too.

Of course, tube rollers will likely have at it, convinced they know better, telling themselves they hear differences they don't, and possibly introducing inferior tubes in the process. Consider that some of the new old stock (NOS) tubes that you buy from obscure sources might actually be counterfeit junk.

"Regrettably, a very small minority of people want to fiddle with things and modify them," Antony declared. "It's not fair that we would be expected to pick up the pieces after they have messed around with them. Besides, there is no benefit whatever with this circuit configuration to using different tubes, because the whole basis of the way the circuit works is that it accounts for tube aging and all that stuff. They're just mad, these people. This product is not aimed [at] them. It is not for the Looney Tune audiophile. This is for the music lover."

In another word, for the melomane. As for the rest of you—you know who you are—Antony has told you: Do not buy the X-T100: "Looney Tune audiophiles, go on, goodbye, go and make someone else's life miserable. We're just interested in people who love music, and that's who this product is for."

The X-T100, X-RayV8, and Triple-X are sold as a package for $3000. The X-T100 alone sells for $1800, the X-RayV8 for $2000—each with the necessary Triple-X power supply. I think most buyers will go for the package. Sorry, but the power supplies from earlier X-series models won't work with the new series.

There will be at least two more products in the series: the X-PloraV8 FM tuner and the X-DACV8. The latter will have its own onboard power supply and will retail for around $1500. Intriguingly, the X-DACV8's onboard power will also be able to supply the X-RayV8 and the X-PloraV8. According to Antony, the X series will not include a separate phono stage, separate preamp, or separate power amp. But there just might be a killer headphone amp in the offing. Antony is keen on cans (Britspeak for headphones); I am, too. Because cans can do at price points where speakers cannot.

Like the matching CD player, the X-T100 is a half-width product—that is to say, it's just a tad more than half the "standard" component width of 17". The two components are built on chassis of the same size: 8.6" (219mm) W by 3.5" (89mm) H by 13.4" (340mm) D. The Triple-X power supply is smaller: 7.1" (178mm) W by 3.5" (89mm) H by 9.3" (235mm) D.

To further confuse things, there will be a new power supply—bigger and beefier than the Triple-X. The Triple-X 170, it's claimed, will goose the juice of the X-T100 so that it will deliver 85Wpc into 8 ohms. This will add several hundred dollars to the package (exact price not yet set). Even so, it shouldn't cost more than $3500. Musical Fidelity doesn't support an upgrade program, so you might want to consider buying the bigger power supply to start with. It should be in dealers' shops by the time you read this.

You'll want to note that integrated amp, CD player, and tuner have sockets and plugs with different configurations. In other words, the cable for the X-T100 integrated will plug into only the receptacle on the power supply marked for it. Ditto the X-RayV8 and X-PloraV8. Unfortunately, it was hard to see which cable was which when I made connections from the rear. (Antony said he will label the cables to make this easier.)

The X-T100 has a built-in moving-magnet phono stage that's also suitable for high-output moving-coils, and just three RCA line-level inputs. At half-width, only so much real estate is available.

A mini-jack input on the front panel is shared with Aux 1 on the rear. Labeled PDI (for Portable Device Input), this is for your iPod or whatever. When plugging it in, you probably will scratch the faceplate; so if you use this jack, just leave the cable plugged in. There's also a single pair of speaker jacks—plastic jobbies that idiot audiophiles (aka Looney Tunes) will be sure to overtighten. And that's it—except for a pair of preamp-out jacks useful for driving a powered subwoofer (or that new X-series headphone amp, should it materialize). No tone controls. No balance control. There is a remote control, with which you can also operate the integrated, the CD player, and the tuner. Hence, Triple X.

Nowadays most Musical Fidelity gear is designed in Wembley, England (suddenly fashionable—Wembley was hardly a destination before), and built in Taiwan. Musical Fidelity thus joins other iconic British brands, such as Quad and Pears Transparent Soap, in moving production offshore—in the latter two cases, to mainland China and India, respectively. MF's flagship kW series continues to be made in the UK. The fit and finish of the X-series components are excellent, even exquisite—were these components made in metropolitan London, I doubt this level of quality could be offered at these prices.

When it comes to hi-fi gear, Antony Michaelson seems to have something of a split personality. On one hand, he seems convinced that customers need massive amounts of power. On the other, he likes to make gear that's simple, basic, elegant, and affordable—all of which, of course, means that they're also of low to moderate power. In no instance does MF offer anything that is ridiculously overpriced. If you want to know why I'm keen on Musical Fidelity gear, this is the reason, and it has nothing to do with my friendship with Antony. (Most often, we talk about books, concerts, recordings, and food—almost never hi-fi.)

Antony would be tickled it if you bought some of MF's more upmarket gear—especially the kW series. Fancy 750W into 8 ohms? Then the kW750 stereo amplifier is for you. But do you need 750W into 8 ohms? If so, you might ask what's wrong with your speaker, your room, or you.

Antony shares no such reservations. (I laugh my evil laugh.) Because it's just possible, within its power limitations, that the X-T100 is one of the best-sounding amps he's ever made—rather like that original A1000.

Antony on power:

"While we may subscribe to the idea that the first few watts of an amplifier's power are the most important, we also feel that a couple of hundred more rarely go amiss."

"Of course, hundreds of high-quality watts don't come cheap."

"The X-T100 contains a direct descendent of the kW500's tube preamplifier circuit, along with a power-amp section closely derived from one side of the kW500's bridged output stage. These circuits were developed to produce exceptional sound and high output levels through large arrays of output devices [output transistors] and, when applied to a far smaller, simpler implementation, some would say that those critical first few watts will be developed in a more favorable environment than with the donor components themselves."

The X-T100's power-amp stage has a single pair of bipolar output devices per side, which may be one reason for its, well, stellar sound. Antony seems to think MOSFETs are misfits: "You can't get any peak current out of them."

One pair of output devices per channel "does seem to have a simplicity about it that works very well," Antony averred. It's when you have multiple pairs of output transistors that you sometimes run into things like "current hogging," a term I think he invented. That's when a stronger pair of transistors snatches current from its weaker neighbors, the result being poorer sound and lower reliability. "You have to select [output devices] very carefully to avoid that."

"All the X-T1000 integrated wants is to be paired with moderately efficient loudspeakers," Antony declared.

It helps, too, to listen in a smaller room, necessarily nearfield, and at moderate listening levels. It might help as well to use small satellite speakers and a powered subwoofer. It might help as well to fork over the extra dollars for the Triple-X 170 power supply, increasing the X-T100's power rating to close to the magical but meaningless Holy Grail of 100Wpc.

I set up the Triple-X combination (minus the tuner, so it was really the Double-X) in our living room, where it met with the approval of my wife, Marina. So nice, so small, so civilized. She might buy something like this if she walked into hi-fi shops, but fat chance of women doing that here in North America. I gather that in Europe it's more common, probably because gear there is smaller and can be found in the local equivalents of Linens and Things and Bed Bath & Beyond. Imagine if Tower Records had sold good hi-fi; they might still be in business.

As luck would have it, in the living room I still had the Klipsch La Scala II loudspeakers, whose sensitivity is rated at 105dB. I almost kept them; if I had, I would have had Klipsch send me the cherry finish instead of the walnut. But having the La Scala IIs in the living room makes it hard to audition other speakers; it's not as if I can easily shunt them off to the side or remove them from the room. Maybe when I retire I'll get another pair of La Scala IIs.

For the most part, I listened to the X-T00 integrated and the X-RayV8 together, the way most customers will opt to buy them. They're meant to play together, after all. The Klipsches mated beautifully with the Triple-X—or Double-X, as the case may have been. Despite the La Scala's high sensitivity, the sound was utterly quiet—no hiss, no hum, no buzz. Okay, there was a little noise through the phono stage, but that was to be expected. But the X-T100 integrated sounded like a muscle amp through the La Scala IIs—like a 750Wpc Musical Fidelity kW behemoth. I was able to achieve near-deafening sound-pressure levels. The dynamic range was just limitless.

I also tried the Triangle Comete Anniversaire speakers, which are altogether different: stand-mounted minimonitors, they're less sensitive and much smaller. They're still pretty easy to drive, at a rated 91dB with an impedance said to not dip below 4 ohms. Probably most Triangle speakers and most Focal-JMlab models would work well too, in most rooms. With the Triangle Anniversaires, I heard exceptional low-level detail. Tons of space, tons of space, space all over the place.

Musical Fidelity's X gear is almost portable. I took it upstairs for a date with the new Opera Quinta loudspeakers, which I reviewed last month (they're easy to drive), and with the Quad ESL-2805 electrostatics. It was here, with both speakers, that I began to hear some of the X-T100's limitations—mostly a lack of ultimate bass authority. This is a small amp rated at 50Wpc, after all. I plan to hold on to the MF gear for a while and try out the Triple-X 170 power supply. I also plan to write up the forthcoming X-DACV8. Let the dirty-fingernail crowd on the Internet flame away.

Back to the X-T100. I thought it sounded just a touch on the romantic side. It surely wasn't sterile or clinical. Indeed, it sounded as if I had a very good tubed line stage driving a neutral and highly resolving solid-state power-amp stage—exactly what I did have. I decided to play some tricks. Antony wouldn't approve, but then, I didn't ask his permission.

I used the X-T100's preamp outputs to connect its tubed line stage to my flea-watt wonder, the Sun Audio SV-2A3 power amp, which is rated to deliver 3.5Wpc. Alas, the La Scala IIs had by then been sent back to Klipsch. I used the Triangle Comete Anniversaires.

I heard a little more noise. But oh, I also heard the most glorious single-ended-triode sound. Flea-powered sound—the kind you can't get from larger tube amps, SET or otherwise. This little exercise showed me that I needed to get the Sun back into my life. Nothing like the Sun in the depths of winter. I also plan to try some different makes of 2A3 output tubes . . . and maybe another high-sensitivity speaker or two. Of course, I was challenged for power.

Meanwhile, I discovered that that tubed line stage in the X-T100 is phenomenal: sweet, detailed, delicate, tonally so right. Antony said it best on an earlier occasion, when he referred to "the ineffable magic of tubes."

I keep coming back to the quietness. It's an old clich of hi-fi journalism to say that "the music emerged from a black background" and all that stuff. But here, it did. I asked Antony about it.

"There's no transformer inside the box. There are two sides to this. There's the electromechanical quietness, which is no transformer noise, no hysteresis, no magnetic interference anywhere. So there's nothing to pick up and there is no induction at all. And then the circuitry itself is fundamentally very quiet." Not surprising, continued Antony, because it derives from the kW series.

"The tubed front end is the same as the kW 550 integrated amplifier." (The kW 550 is rated to deliver 630W into 8 ohms.) "It doesn't have the same voltage headroom because it's not converting from the same high-voltage rail. It's not quite as quiet because it doesn't have such fancy power supplies. But the basic circuit is the same."

When you buy the X-T100 and X-RayV8 together, your price for each (sharing the power supply) is about $1500. The line-level preamp stage alone is worth that much. As for the built-in moving-magnet phono stage, it's quite capable: hardly the state of the art (you lose spatial cues, for one thing), but serviceable, particularly if LPs are a secondary or tertiary source for you. You do get a lot for your money with the X-T100.

COMPANY INFO
Musical Fidelity, Ltd.
US distributor: Signal Path International
2045 120th Avenue NE
Bellevue, WA 98005
(704) 391-9337
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