Musical Fidelity A324 D/A processor
Few high-end CD players were available. Few digital-to-analog processors were on the market, and almost all were pricey. Audiophiles desperate for better sound sometimes purchased modified players—kludges, I called them. But this wasn't an attractive choice, either—$200 machines turned into $1000 wonders with maybe $60 worth of parts and an hour's worth of labor.
Enter Antony Michaelson, of Musical Fidelity. He (along with Arcam and PS Audio) introduced one of the first affordable DACs—a digital-to-analog converter called the Digilog. It retailed for $995. Less expensive processors soon followed from other manufacturers, but for a brief time the Digilog had little competition and was something of a bargain.
In my October 1989 report on the Digilog, I questioned the wisdom of sinking much dough into digital. Better to buy a good turntable, I thought. Drop too little money on digital, though, and you had to live with crappy sound. Same digital dilemma as now.
Fast forward to late last year.
Antony Michaelson called me shortly before Christmas.
"I have our new A324 processor and I'd like to bring it over Tuesday next, if I might."
"All the way from England?"
"Yes, no problem. Just hop aboard a plane and cross the pond."
I admire Antony's enthusiasm. When he's developed a product he's especially keen on, he must show it to reviewers immediately—even if it means a transatlantic flight.
Antony arrived a few days later, early in the afternoon, processor in hand, and we popped it into my system. Everything appeared to go well. The sound was satisfying, if unspectacular. The A324 sounded like a good product that needed some time to run in.
It was every manufacturer's worst nightmare. The product failed, not only in the reviewer's home, but while the manufacturer was present. Like the Titanic, the A324 sank on its maiden voyage. I shall never forget the look on Antony's face—like a little boy whose favorite toy had just broken. The processor had lost its lock on the incoming datastream.
Antony collected himself. After all, it might not be the processor's fault. Perhaps the CD player. Or the digital interconnect cable. Maybe...
We swapped digital cables. No difference.
We changed CD players, switching the Rega Jupiter for the Denon DCD-1650AR. Meanwhile, we had the processor turned off for 20 minutes or so. Perversely, the processor then seemed to work okay. Antony, my wife, Marina, and I went out to dinner.
"If there's any problem, please phone me tonight at my hotel," an exhausted Antony said. He probably turned in thinking all was right with the world.
And there was no problem. Not later that night, not first thing in the morning. But at precisely 9am, at the very moment Antony boarded his flight back to London, the processor lost its lock again. I hated to do it, but I "gave him a bell," as the British say, as soon as he'd arrived home.
The processor went back to England the next day. Meanwhile, I can only imagine what must have happened at the Musical Fidelity factory in Wembley. Was someone hanged? Shot? Drawn and quartered? All three?
As it turned out, the problem was minor and the fix was fast. According to Antony, there was a bad transistor in the input stage so the digital signal wouldn't stay locked. You can be sure that Musical Fidelity will check each unit to make sure that doesn't happen again. (Apparently, Antony was so hot to take the unit to America that his technicians hadn't had time to check it out.)
On Christmas Eve, no less, I had the processor back in my system, enjoying such holiday goodies with the family as "The Santa Claus Express," by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra (on The Spirit of Christmas Past, ASV CD AJA 5178). Somehow I doubt this will ever appear on SACD. I used the Purest Sound Systems P500 dual-mono passive "preamp," my reference McIntosh MC2102 power amp, and my Quad ESL-989 speakers. A few days later, I received the new McIntosh C2200 tube preamp. It's been over a month now, and no further problems with the Musical Fidelity A324.
Back to the Digilog for a moment. Like most DACs of its day, it was here today, gone tomorrow. Come to think of it, the A324 was also here today, gone tomorrow. But the A324 quickly came back!