Musical Fidelity kW DM25 CD transport & D/A converter

In the fall of 2005, while the People's Republic of China continued to hold political dissidents in prison without due process, the US government wiretapped its citizens with impunity, tensions rose on the border between Chad and Sudan, Israeli citizens annexed thousands of acres of land from poor Palestinian farmers, Saudi Arabia executed more petty thieves and adulterers in the name of Allah, Russia "lost" a few more tons of nuclear armaments, and the polar icecaps continued to recede as the levels of preventable greenhouse emissions climbed out of control, a small band of middle-aged men took to the Internet to express their seething outrage.

Sorry to say, their bile wasn't directed at any of those sins, but rather at the "fact" that the privately owned consumer magazine you're reading had published too many reviews of Musical Fidelity products. At least one of those critics, most of whom hid behind aliases ranging from the juvenile to the merely uninspired, became so angry that he lost all control and had to be removed from the forum in question: a sad day for everyone.

Also in the fall of 2005—October, to be precise—my evaluation samples of the new Musical Fidelity kW DM25 CD transport and kW DM25 D/A converter were manufactured: It says so right on their back panels.

Here's their review, then—neither a Valentine to Musical Fidelity nor a grenade lobbed in honor of the aforementioned heroes of the revolution. It's just a nice review of a nice product: a two-box CD source that plays music awfully well for the money, even as you and I have to admit that the money in question is silly-high to most everyone else.

That said, there's no disputing the quality of the engineering goods on tap in the DM25 transport and DM25 D/A converter. As have dCS and Cary Audio, Musical Fidelity and its managing director, Antony Michaelson, have pinned their corsage to the young bosom of upsampling: The DM25 transport can read virtually any 12cm "Red Book" disc and increase its apparent sampling rate, on the fly, to a full 96kHz; its companion product, the DM25 D/A converter, bumps that 96kHz signal—or any other, ranging down to a Paleolithic 32kHz—all the way up to 192kHz. "And when we say 192k, we mean it," Antony Michaelson assured me. "We've done 96k on a lot of things, and it doesn't have the same lovely, soft sound as 192k." Michaelson also observes that Musical Fidelity was among the first domestic audio firms to bring an upsampling product to market, having first used the technique in 1998, in their E624 CD player.

Inside these two robust aluminum alloy boxes I found an interesting mix of the tried and true and the very new. The parts that endow the Musical Fidelity combination with their upsampling ability are fairly recent integrated circuits from Cirrus Logic: their Crystal CS8420 sample-rate converter in the transport (two of them, actually; the DM25 is a dual-mono design), and their Crystal CS8427 clock recoverer in the DAC. Try as I might, I couldn't identify the chips used for the actual data conversion, and an e-mail to the thoroughly approachable Mr. Michaelson drew this cryptic response: "My attitude is that I don't really care whether it's PCM, bitstream, or old socks doing the conversion, provided the technical results are as they should be." One assumes, of course, that the old socks in question are hand-selected, and possibly even modified in-house.

At the other end of the timeline, the CD mechanism chosen for the DM25 transport is an audio-only device: the three-beam Philips VAM1202. Then we come to Musical Fidelity's liberal if not downright progressive use of very-heavy-duty chokes in the transport power supply, to help isolate various subcomponents (actually, the digital spuriae they emit) from one another—a practice that originated at Musical Fidelity, according to Michaelson.

The power supply of the DM25 D/A converter makes similar use of a choke: a fairly enormous frame-style device that looks out of place among all the integrated circuits. Older still are the active devices chosen for voltage gain in the analog output: a pair of Philips 6112 dual-triode vacuum tubes. To maintain small-signal integrity, the tubes are hardwired to the circuit board—they're also physically well damped—and while tube life can't reasonably be covered by the same warranty as all the other component parts, Michaelson suggests that a set of 6112s in this application could last upward of 100,000 hours. "We haven't had one go yet," he says happily, "but we do have spares for everyone—which is significant, since we are, by a massive margin, the world's biggest producer of tubed equipment."

Unfeeling modernists and the uncertain will be cheered by Musical Fidelity's inclusion of an alternate voltage gain stage in the DM25 DAC, this one using solid-state devices; selecting between the two is a simple matter of choosing between one pair of phono-plug outputs or the other during installation (output signals are always present on both).

Physical construction is excellent in every way. The alloy casework is chunky but not absurdly so, as one sees with so many high-ticket toys, and I especially admired the light-blue tint of the illuminated displays on both products (although I was distressed at first that the glow they cast in a darkened room was so similar to that of the old black-and-white television sets I remember from my youth).

The support and isolation system for these new products, which was derived from that of the Musical Fidelity M1 turntable (footnote 1) deserves special mention: Four 3" alloy pillars fastened to the top of the DM25 transport's case extend down through the inside of that chassis; an equal number of supports, built around intentionally flexible polymer cylinders, extend up through nylon-cored brackets in the bottom plate and thread into the former. Thus the transport is more or less decoupled from its own suspension. In a sense, the same is true of the DM25 DAC, which is intended to be stacked atop the transport, and whose own feet rest on the rubber tops of those alloy pillars.

Of course the idea behind this "suspension" is quite simple, and will come as no surprise to fellow Linnies (or fans of the Roksan Xerxes, for that matter, whose suspension "blobs" those polymer cylinders resemble): to convert the vibrational energy that comes at an object from every direction into energy that manifests itself primarily in just one plane of movement, from which state it can die away quickly and predictably. Nothing new, perhaps, but it's carried out here with real skill and originality.

Setup and listening
I installed the DM25 transport and DM25 DAC in my usual system and auditioned them exclusively with one another, using the supplied meter-long dual-mono XLR cables to go from AES3 output to AES3 input. Also exclusive was my reliance on the DM25 DAC's tubed output section. By comparison, the solid-state output section sounded "scooped out" in the manner of most major-label pop recordings of the past 10 years: Bass and treble were accounted for, but some of the midrange response (not to mention midrange color and texture) was AWOL.

The Musical Fidelity DM25 combination is among the most dramatic home audio components I've heard in any product category: "Like a Miyabi 47 cartridge with a laser and a remote," according to the notes I made one clearheaded night. Small dynamic surges that had otherwise escaped my attention now commanded it—as in violist Yuri Bashmet's own arrangement, for chamber orchestra and viola, of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in b (CD, Sony Classical SK 60550). I heard the same thing throughout the Richard Marlow recording of the Schütz Psalmen Davids (Conifer Classics 74321-16072-2); Ricky Skaggs' fine contemporary bluegrass album Ancient Tones (Skaggs Family SKFR-CD 1001); and countless other recordings whose dynamic distinctions tend to be less obvious than most.

The Musical Fidelity combination was also unsurpassed, in my experience, at getting out of the way of uptempo music. I listened carefully to many of my favorite bluegrass recordings, and while the DM25s gave the string bass a welcome sense of timbral color and richness, with a realistically long note decay, those qualities didn't slow or obscure the pacing of bass notes, as often happens with richer-sounding gear. Likewise electric music with electric bass—such as the more raucous numbers on Ryan Adams' utterly brilliant Cold Roses (Lost Highway B0004343-02). Of the many good players I've heard—and the five or so competitors that were in my home at the same time as the Musical Fidelity gear—not a single one sounded more involving.

The DM25s' stereo imaging was nothing short of stellar, with spatial presentation that managed to be precisely detailed on the one hand, yet unfussy and organic sounding on the other. Going back to the Schütz disc for a moment, the third number in the cantata, based on Psalm 23, "Der Herr ist mein Hirt," provided a good example of how the Musical Fidelity package could portray solo voices as being separate from one another on the stage—and from the massed voices that follow the soloists' entrance.

There was plenty of air—plenty of space around the performers—but the Musical Fidelity gear didn't make everything sound light and impressionistic. Great mono recordings, such as Dmitri Mitropoulos' fiery performance of Mahler's Symphony 1 (Sony Classical MHK 62342), sounded appropriately chunky and there, even when heard from between two speakers (but I still think it sounds better when heard from just one).

The last disc I enjoyed through the MF system before sending it out to be measured and photographed was Pierre Boulez's well-received interpretation of Mahler's Symphony 6, from 1995 (Deutsche Grammophon 445 835-2). The experience was as good as I've heard from "Red Book" CD, in every way: colorful and, again, highly dramatic. It made the side drum no less snappy or full of impact than Naim's CD5X and Flatcap 2X power supply (footnote 2) the string-bass rhythms no less insistent—yet the Naim was congested by comparison, while the Musical Fidelity combination was open and clear throughout. The spatial portrayal of the big Vienna Philharmonic was more convincing than I had any right to expect in my 12' by 20' room.

When the DM25 transport and DAC arrived here in Cherry Valley, there was half a foot of snow on the ground; today was the fifth day in a row when temperatures passed 70°F. Throughout the days in between, I played every CD I was in the mood to hear, and a few I wasn't—and the music never once failed to hold my interest. I can't find fault with the musical or sonic performance of the Musical Fidelity package. In fact, my only complaint is one of ergonomics: I wish it were supplied with something better than Musical Fidelity's standard remote handset, on which a less-than-comprehensive set of CD-player controls shares real estate with buttons for other MF products. Regardless of performance—or value—I think a $6500 digital front-end deserves something more substantial and attractive, and I wouldn't mind being able to invert signal polarity or even switch between those two output sections from the comfort of my seat.

Well now: I'll spare you the list of things that $6500 can buy; if you don't know already, you shouldn't be left alone with the checkbook in the first place. I'll also spare you having to wait until October—and give the saddies something to cluck about at the same time—by saying that, for "Red Book" CD playback, Musical Fidelity's kW DM25 combination belongs without question in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components," and offers at least decent value for the dollar as well. Yes, you can get somewhat more of a sense of musical flow from very good (read: true) DSD—not to mention analog—playback, but I've never heard regular CDs sound more involving overall than they did through this combo.

How much longer will CDs be around? How many more CDs will any of us be likely to buy over, say, the next 10 years? I wouldn't begin to guess. But even in the overhanging shade of such concerns, the combination of the Musical Fidelity DM25 transport and DM25 D/A converter is a lovely, sunny thing: a very fine product indeed, Mr. Michaelson.

Footnote 1: The same technology has also found its way into the Musical Fidelity Stable 1 isolation platform. I have a sample on hand, and hope to report on its performance soon. Pasty wankers of the more irritable variety should probably spare their delicate sensibilities and take that as a warning.

Footnote 2: A $4000 combination that I've praised in past issues as especially effective, and that I continue to enjoy.

Musical Fidelity
US distributor: Signal Path International
1824 30th Avenue NE, Suite 1
Bellevue, WA 98005
(704) 391-9337