Musical Fidelity M3 Nu-Vista integrated amplifier
The M3 packs improved versions of the English company's acclaimed Nu-Vista preamplifier and Nu-Vista 300 power amplifier (minus 25Wpc) into a surprisingly compact and dramatic-looking package. As with the separates, the integrated's power supply is outboard to keep transformer magnetic fields from interfering with low-level signals, but the supply, too, is smaller than the Nu-Vista 300's.
With its blue LEDs, intricate, jewelry-like knobs (each is composed of seven individual pieces), and brushed "ultra-pure HE39" faceplate heavily accented with 24k gold, you'll have to decide whether the M3 Nu-Vista's looks remind you of Cartier, or of a dumpy guy with a comb-over wearing a Star Sapphire pinky ring. And if that's you, I apologize.
Let's Get Physical
Appearance aside, there's no mistaking the M3 Nu-Vista's build quality: beefy and substantial outside, jigsaw-puzzle intricate inside, with circuit boards stacked like floors in a high-rise building and linked, in the case of the preamp board, with RCA-to-RCA interconnects. Despite the M3's compactness and complexity, its overall internal approach is impressively neat and orderly.
Both the volume and source-selector knobs are remote-controllable, while the front panel's only other control—a tape monitor button—isn't. The amplifier-sized power supply, while not nearly as dramatic-looking as the main unit, nonetheless merits visible shelf space—a good thing, as it has the M3's only On/Off switch. Like the Nu-Vista 300's power supply and amplifier, the two halves of the M3 are connected by three cables: one fitted with XLRs for the preamp power supply, the other two fitted with Neutrik power connectors for the juice.
There's a Mute button on the remote but not on the M3 itself; if you mute using the remote and then misplace it, you have to shut the amp down and power up again to un-mute. There's no front-panel "Mute" LED, so if you forget you've muted the unit and then go back to listen, you might accidentally start your source, hear nothing, and begin by turning up the volume. Once that doesn't accomplish anything, you might remember and un-mute with the volume fully up. How do I know? Guess.
You have a choice of six selectable line-level sources, one of them labeled "SACD," and there's a tape monitor. Also included is a built-in moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage. Given the M3's price, the phono stage must be considered a rather substantial freebie. Musical Fidelity reprises the 300's dual pairs of ridiculously oversized binding posts, thus guaranteeing that no spade lugs known to man will fit around them. Speaker cables tipped with banana plugs are the order of the day. The gold-plated RCA jacks are neatly laid out, with plenty of space between them for your favorite steroid-fed interconnects.
The M3's heft, custom-machined heatsinks (watch it—they'll slice your fingers), superb fit'n'finish, luxurious control knobs, and internal layout add up to a $4500 design extravaganza and an incredible value. Nor will Musical Fidelity be making their profits from volume sales. As with the other Nu-Vista products, MuFi will make only 500 M3 Nu-Vistas; if history is any indication, they'll sell out quickly.
The M3 Nu-Vista's output stage is essentially dual-mono. Each channel is fed by its own transformer/power supply, and each has its own dedicated printed circuit board, output transistor array, and heatsink.
Both the original Nu-Vista preamplifier and power amplifier (the latter reviewed in December 1999) include tiny, metal-can nuvistor (6CW4) triode vacuum tubes in their signal paths, but the M3 concentrates both pairs of these in its preamp section. Out of production for almost a half century, the nuvistor has a life span estimated at 100,000 hours. According to MuFi's Antony Michaelson, 500 Nu-Vista preamps and almost that many amps have been sold, and not one nuvistor has failed. Nonetheless, Musical Fidelity will stock a set of replacement tubes for every one of the 500 M3s it plans to build.
While the basic Nu-Vista preamp and amp circuits have not changed, Musical Fidelity claims to have made a few improvements for their implementation in the M3. Slightly less negative feedback is used, but distortion is said to be four fifths of its separate cousins, thanks to refinements in the mechanical and electrical layouts. As in the 300 power amp, choke power-supply regulation is used, which results in a more continuous source of current to the reservoir capacitors with less spurious RF radiation. There's a new wrinkle, however: the choke regulators are mounted on the heatsinks. MuFi claims to have discovered a sonic improvement when the choke-induced "micro vibrations" are "exactly in phase with the...related circuitry."
The end result is a preamp section claimed to be quieter, with wider bandwidth, lower distortion, and better overload characteristics. Though there is one fewer pair of output transistors, which drops the power from 300W to 275W into an 8 ohm load, the net result is a drop of 0.5dB in overall dynamic range, which is essentially meaningless in most systems. With about 40 amps of peak current, the M3 should be capable of driving almost any loudspeaker out there without ever clipping or distorting. The frequency response is said to be just about "DC to light" (actually to +100kHz), as the great engineer Bill Porter, responsible for Elvis' golden age of recordings, liked to claim for his work (Nashville Studio "B" 's finest).
No Sonic Fingerprints?
The first design objective for the M3 Nu-Vista, as listed on the press release I received with my review sample, was "No sonic fingerprint." Of course, that's the goal for most designs of most designers, none of which, in my opinion, and none of whom have ever succeeded at it. Despite Musical Fidelity's best efforts, neither have they. No big surprise—every amplifier I've ever heard has a sound of its own. This is what makes the "if it measures the same, it sounds the same" crowd so annoying.
I go into this review with an admitted prejudice: after I reviewed it in December 1999 I bought a Nu-Vista 300 power amp—essentially the amplifier section of the M3—and I have no doubt that John Atkinson's measurements of the M3 Nu-Vista will be as stellar as those taken of the 300. But I have another prejudice: I auditioned the 300 with the original Nu-Vista preamp, the sound of which I didn't care for at all. This despite the rave reviews it received, and the fact that all 500 preamps were snapped up in a hurry—when you find one on the used market, expect to pay more than it cost new. So what do I know?
I auditioned the M3 in two places in my room—between the loudspeakers, where my 300 customarily sits, using digital source material, and in the space usually occupied by my preamp—so I could listen to both digital and analog. That spot necessitated a 20' run of speaker cable—hardly ideal—but overall, I noticed no fundamental sonic difference using 8' or 20' of the Analysis Plus Oval 9 copper wire sent along by Musical Fidelity's then importer, Audio Advisor. I also tried 8' runs of other, more familiar speaker cables, including MuFi's own Nu-Vista brand.