Musical Fidelity M8xi integrated amplifier

Once upon a time, reviews of Musical Fidelity components frequently filled pages in Stereophile. But in all my years covering audio shows, I can't recall blogging about any of the company's products, not even once. So, when my editor offered a review of the new M8xi ($6490), a hefty 101lb dual-mono integrated amplifier that includes a DAC, I seized the opportunity to fill a black hole in my consciousness. (Kindly cast aside thoughts that it would take more than a hunk of audio equipment to fill the black hole in my brain.) As long as I didn't break my back lifting the M8xi, solo, to the top shelf of my rack—for this I humbly beg assistance from spouses, neighbors, and friends—new vistas were in store.

I had no way of knowing if the M8xi would lead me down the Yellow Brick Road to Oz, but I did know that, power-wise, it would have no trouble propelling my Wilson Alexia 2 loudspeakers in that direction: The M8xi is specified to output a whopping 870W into 4 ohms. It arrived at the perfect time to compare its amplification section with my reference D'Agostino Progression monoblocks ($38,000/pair), which are specified to output 1000W into the same 4 ohms, and to compare its DAC with both my reference dCS Rossini DACClock combo ($23,999 + $7499) and the Weiss DAC502 ($9850). Given that the price differences among these products are wider than the fabled parting of the Red Sea that allowed the people of Israel to escape from Egypt, the prospect of using the money saved to buy a few coveted yellow bricks proved so tempting that I gleefully mixed mythologies as I prepared myself to ignore the possible consequences of my metaphorical sins.

When I mentioned the Progressions to Austria-based Musical Fidelity President and CEO Heinz Lichtenegger during our cellular exchange, he set the stage for the comparison I had in mind. "I have the D'Agostino Momentums here. Dan is a very good friend of mine. I don't want to compete with Dan's products, which are in a different price range. We call the Musical Fidelity brand 'affordable high end,' and our Pro-Ject brand 'affordable hi-fi stereo.' Musical Fidelity prices will never rise to $20k; it's not the brand for it. We have to know what we are and want to maintain our tradition."

Musical Fidelity's tradition is certainly ambitious. "To me, Musical Fidelity was always the best product to find your way into high-end audio without spending crazy money," Lichtenegger continued. "It has very nice musicality, which it made a priority. Our design philosophy includes minimal feedback to ensure that we don't overdamp—we want to keep the life of the sound—and huge dynamic possibilities. The idea is to have huge, huge power to drive any speaker you wish while avoiding the pitfall of most high-power amplifiers that produce a hard, unmusical sound at low volume levels. You can use our [products] in a normal environment where you can't make head-banging sound."

Lichtenegger was equally forthright about the M8xi's limitations. "There may be a preamplifier in the M8xi, but mainly it is two mono amplifiers. It's not so far away from the Progression, but the Progression is for sure better and has more components inside. But any good amplifier with a radical design such as ours should have the same channel separation and the same power as two monos." That kind of talk makes me eager to see John Atkinson's measurements report.

Lichtenegger entered the business almost 40 years ago as a small retailer who wanted to sell hi-fi to his friends without having to jack up prices because of import fees. Soon, he began to sell and distribute Triangle loudspeakers from France and Musical Fidelity from the UK. In 1991, he founded Pro-Ject.

As he became one of Musical Fidelity's largest European distributors, Lichtenegger developed a friendship with company founder Antony Michaelson. Two years ago, when Michaelson opted to retire, Lichtenegger took over the company with the promise to rebuild the line while maintaining the Musical Fidelity tradition.

"Antony was never a designer," Lichtenegger said. "He was the idea holder, the man behind the sound whose specialty was electronic and analog design. For 10 years, I'd already been producing his digital and software line using Pro-Ject's digital engineers."

As part of the ownership shift, Lichtenegger welcomed the original designer of the company's analog layouts, Musical Fidelity's technical director and main engineer, Simon Quarry. David Popeck, who was involved in designing the digital side of the M8xi, also remained with the company and focuses mainly on software design for the Encore line of streaming music systems.

"Our philosophy involves both circuitry and components. You can take the best circuitry and components, put them together, and build something that measures really well but doesn't sound good. Antony knew how to balance circuitry with components. It took us two years to fine-tune the M8xi to its current level, which required finding the correct placement for components. The layout of every wire and transistor has a huge impact on distortion and sound. You don't just put something in and solder it and consider it done; sonic balance is only achieved by play, play, play.

It's very difficult to combine a certain warmth and sweetness with musicality in solid-state. Antony, whose first products were tube amplifiers, worked to get tube sound from solid-state amplifiers that could power big speakers. I'm very happy that I still have Simon and Antony on board to fine-tune the circuitry and components that create the famous Musical Fidelity sound."

The M8xi's DAC handles PCM up to 24/192 and does neither DSD nor MQA. More characteristic forthrightness from Lichtenegger: "We decided to put a DAC inside the M-series because some people want one without adding an extra box. But we have to say that it's not possible to include a proper-sounding DAC in an amplifier with a design that requires so much current and power. ... So, if you want a DAC that performs on the same level as the amplifier, you need a separate DAC."

Lichtenegger invited me to submit queries for Quarry, the M8xi's main engineer. Given my own fortes, I decided to limit my questions to basic information about the amp and preamp design. Having frequently read claims that a particular class-AB amplifier may produce its first 30W in class-A before switching over to class-B, I asked how the M8xi operates.

"Standing current in the M8xi is set so that 0.25W into 8 ohms would be within class-A region," Quarry wrote. "This is the point at which the audio transistors ... slide into zero glitching (crossover distortion) at the crossover point. Increasing the standing current beyond this point makes distortion rise again.

Quarry corrected my use of the phrase "switching over."

"Everyone says 'switches to class-B.' This is incorrect. The transistor supplying the current simply increases the output current into the speaker. Even the transistor that is 'not in use' on each alternate half cycle is not switched off—it is still drawing the standing current. So, no 'switching' is really occurring anywhere.

"The M8xi has a large power capacitor next to each of the output devices, separate from the main supply reservoir capacitors. This allows a huge amount of energy to be available to draw very quickly and close to the amplifier circuits. This in turn gives great output drive capability and much-improved transient response and dynamics, particularly into lower-impedance speakers.

"The preamplifier features all-analogue circuitry with a laser-trimmed, digitally controlled volume control. This allows 0.5dB steps matched to within less than 0.1dB between channels, from bottom to top [of the] volume range. So, no more increasing mismatch at the bottom end of the scale! The preamp section is set up so [that] no op-amp outputs more than its standing current, thus maintaining 'class-A operation' at all input levels. Pre-outputs would be class-A for next-stage inputs over 5k ohm impedance—nearly all are well above this; 10k ohm is standard lowest—but still keep distortion low [into loads below] below 600 ohms."

Musical Fidelity's Lubor J. Grigorescu subsequently wrote that the M8xi's analog volume control, which is digitally controlled by the front-panel knob, resides on a T1 PGA2320 chip. The company claims "channel and frequency matching less than 0.1dB, even at lower levels, which are normally problematic for usual mechanical pot." The preamp is separately powered to prevent high-current leakage from the mono amplifiers. The DAC and sample-rate–conversion parts are fed by a filtered 5V power supply.

1020mf.bac

Romping around the playground
When I first set eyes on the massive M8xi's front panel, with its two oversized knobs glaring at me from either side of an easily readable, dimmable input/volume display, the thought "This is a man's amp" came to mind. I admonished myself for such sexist terminology and asked the husband what he thought.

"Everything you've got looks like men's gear," he said rather dismissively. Well, at least he didn't call my components "boys' toys."

The back panel includes two sets of speaker outputs, two sets of balanced inputs, and one set of balanced line-level outputs. Unbalanced line-level connections (RCA) include four analog inputs (labeled CD, tuner, AUX1, and AUX2/ HT; there's a switch to turn the latter into a home-theater bypass) and two analog outputs (labeled LINE and PRE; the former is fixed while the latter is variable). Digital inputs include USB, S/PDIF optical (2), and RCA (2). There are also one RCA and one TosLink digital out, Trigger in and out, and a 20A-capable IEC receptor.

COMPANY INFO
Musical Fidelity
North American distribution: Focal-Naim America
313 rue Marion
J5Z4W8 Repentigny QC Canada
(800)-663-9352
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review- JVS.
No doubt, 2020 is the year of the Integrated Amp!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

jason

Ortofan's picture

... $100K for a DAC, power amp(s) and speakers and for a similar total cost, would the better system choice be the combination of a dCS DAC, a pair of D'Agostino Progression Mono power amps and a pair of Wilson Alexia 2 speakers OR this Musical Fidelity M8xi integrated amp (with its built-in DAC) and a pair of Wilson Alexx speakers?

Should we wait to make this sort of determination until JVS has had the opportunity to evaluate a Hegel H590?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

A speaker cannot make front end components deliver more than they can produce; all that better speakers can do is reveal more of what the front end (including cables) produces. With that in mind, I think the answer is self-evident.

Ortofan's picture

... to view the system hierarchy. It sounds much like the viewpoint, espoused for many decades by Linn, that the source component makes the most significant contribution to overall sound quality, followed by the amplifier, and finally the speakers.

Conversely, some speaker manufacturers would suggest that the development of electronic components - as opposed to transducers - has now reached a level such that the point of diminishing returns is reached at a relativity low price point. Thus, a much greater proportion of the system budget ought to be allocated to the speakers.

In the future, if JVS has the opportunity to evaluate another high-power integrated amp (with a built-in DAC), such as the aforementioned Hegel H590, perhaps it can be arranged for Wilson to supply a sample of their Alexx speakers, so that this matter can be resolved in a somewhat more definitive manner.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You wrote: "It sounds much like the viewpoint, espoused for many decades by Linn, that the source component makes the most significant contribution to overall sound quality, followed by the amplifier, and finally the speakers."

However, that is not what I said. In response to a specific question about a a specific budget and a specific set of components, all of which was named, I made a call. Truth be told, I am not one for either making blanket chicken or the egg pronouncements or subscribing to absolute laws, including the so-called "law of diminishing returns." As I've stated on other occasions, that law is relative to the taste and budget of the listener. What some would label or even dismiss as a "diminishing return," others will embrace as an engineering gift and a portal to audiophile nirvana.

JHL's picture

That law *is* relative to the taste and budget of the listener, making it less of a law and more of a method.

As examples, I've consistently found that once a speaker is good enough, the mind largely forgets it and finds nearly endless audible upstream elements to optimize. I've seen this play out for others. I've heard virtually identical assessments from users of similar equipment to confirm this, right down to the vernacular and descriptors.

This suggests that as an assortment of types, speakers toe that threshold non-linearly, and that some serve this phenomenon while others do not. They either do or they do not recede into the perceptual background for the other components to capture the ear. And since this plays out almost regardless of the size of the speaker, we conclude that the principle holds *across* the primary differentiator among loudspeakers, which is their size and therefore loudness.

And that in turn reinforces the view that it may be the front ends *of these better systems* that matters most, and from there we get into everything from cables to topologies to recordings.

A reverse is also true, at least from experience and observation but not from conventional wisdom: Electronics are not perfected - refuting the subjective assumption that they largely are and now budgets should be devoted more to speakers - at least in the sense that they can be predicted on paper. This also calls into question the wisdom of recommending more expensive speakers when we know that they differ more by their size than by their resolution. You can find the same tweeter in a 6" speaker and in a 7-driver 3-way, for example, and you can easily argue that the simpler 6" 2-way speaker can deliver a more believable recreation in ways other than power and scale. Increasing speaker budgets is less meaningful than refining the systems driving genuinely great ones.

Apparently there's a prevalent envious reductionism of a sort among theorists that prompts them to instinctively question expensive components, compare the basic data they generate, and draw conclusions not based in informed experience. To say that X + Y at $2500 must "blow away" the listener's value of A + B at $25,000 is bias. It's another reason rules are hard to nail down and the most objective analysis is the "subjective" reviewer.

The taste and budget of the listener is a variable but not as a function of excellent sound, which stands apart, is quite self-evident, and isn't terribly subjective. It's a variable in that some never understand great sound while others are immediately impressed by it when they hear it. None of the latter camp I've met subscribe to the rules or the purported valuations of those who make them.

Glotz's picture

Just so well written and conveyed.

Ortofan's picture

... embrace as an "engineering gift" a power amplifier, such as you use, whose $38K/pr. cost encroaches on the price spectrum of luxury motor vehicles.

How much of the cost of that amplifier is attributable to the ostentatious power meter (designed to emulate the appearance of a certain luxury timepiece)? Likewise, for the elaborate chassis - as opposed to the electronic components contained therein, especially when the performance of those components includes an output impedance sufficiently high as to result in audible variations in frequency response when connected to the load presented by a typical loudspeaker.

If you want to see a power amplifier that might somehow be worthy of being deemed an "engineering gift", then cast your vision toward the ($3K) Benchmark AHB2 or, possibly, the ($2K) NAD C 298 which incorporates the latest Purifi amplifier modules. Neither unit is much to look at, but should that be of any concern for sound reproduction equipment?

georgehifi's picture

"means that the volume control will never be used anywhere near its maximum.—John Atkinson"

You know him JA, is Antony Michaelson a gain junkie?
This seems to be common place with MF, their gear usually has massive gain structure's going on, and why probably to me they always seem to sound on the sterile side of things.

Cheers George

krishk's picture

Hi, thanks for posting a detailed review. Can anyone please clarify whether this amplifier has any issue with excess heating? The gain on the digital input, which was noted as too much, how does that affect? What exactly it means? Also, can you suggest a good MM phono preamp for this amplifier? Would appreciate your comments.

latinaudio's picture

I thought that Jason was going to compare the Musical Fidelity vs the Yamaha, after the heated discussions of the recent review of the latter (127 comments!), taking into account that both are at the same price level.
The readers deserve a proper explanation.
Can you enlighten us a bit, Jason?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I would take the M8xi in a heartbeat over the A-S3200.

latinaudio's picture

Thanks Jason, straight to the point. Adding a good phono stage of around $ 1000 (Graham Slee and Leema Acoustics come to mind) we arrive at the price of the Yamaha.
That is a clear and concise help.
You are very nice, continue your good writing.

AbsolutesoundReader's picture

Hello,

In the second paragraph you say, "the fabled parting of the Red Sea that allowed the people of Israel to escape from Egypt, the prospect of using the money saved to buy a few coveted yellow bricks proved so tempting that I gleefully mixed mythologies as I prepared myself to ignore the possible consequences of my metaphorical sins."

Fabled ? Mythologies ?

I am not accusing you, and perhaps I am not correctly understanding your intent or meaning / context, but the parting of the Red Sea is not a fable and Christianity is not mythology. Please fully clarify your thoughts on these two items as they come across as diminishing of the validity of the event and reducing a valid faith to mere myth.

Thank you.

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