Listening #8 Page 2

But the A3.2's remarkable clarity and extended top end created something of an obstacle to enjoying indifferently recorded rock. On World Party's Bang (Ensign/Chrysalis 321991 2)—which is only moderately badly recorded, and not terrible by any means—the crisper guitar lines, cymbals, and even vocal sibilants were harder to take than with my usual single-ended triodes or vintage Naim amps.

Nor was the A3.2 any better than average in its ability to keep bass notes from pulling back on and even lagging behind the beat—which is to say, even allowing for the Quads' own shortcoming in this sense, the A3.2's bass was a bit disappointing. Pitch definition and clarity in the lower registers were actually very good, but a touch of overhang in the bass gave the appearance of slowed tempos—as on "Kingdom Come," from the above-mentioned World Party record, a very upbeat 4/4 number with a double-time drum part (an especially revealing test for bass overhang). But except for that bit of sogginess in the bass, the A3.2 did not distort tempos, leaving me open to the suggestion that I was hearing nothing more serious than an imperfect match between the MF and the Quads.

Throughout the rest of the spectrum, the amp was unmistakably and gratifyingly fast. It did a fine job with pitch relationships. Decay or "die-away" was fine through the mid-frequencies and highs. And its stereo imaging was nothing short of superb, with the best sense of presence I've heard from an amp that doesn't use tubes or work in single-ended mode.

Even if it failed to convey all the prurient thrills of bongo-bongo music, the A3.2 more than made up for it in the way it handled musical drama of a more cerebral sort. Loudly recorded voices are, for me, the most demanding test of an amplifier's power output, and the A3.2 did a splendid job with my favorites by Wagner (Solti's Ring, Kempe's Lohengrin) and Puccini (Antonicelli's La Bohème, almost anyone's Turandot). In fact, the last recording I enjoyed with the A3.2 was that nice Mahler Fourth with Fritz Reiner and Lisa Della Casa (RCA LSC-2364 in a good Classic Records LP reissue), and while the crescendos therein are less than Wagnerian, they're sufficient to trip up a lesser amp. The A3.2 sailed handily.

Also apart from that slowish bass, music of virtually every stripe sounded unusually clear and right through the Musical Fidelity. Instruments and voices were appropriately colorful, with excellent texture and a good sense of presence in the room. For whatever reason, percussion instruments in particular sounded rich in overtones through the A3.2: There was a lot going on in every drumbeat, even with indifferently recorded pop. Listening to Roxy Music's Stranded, I was reminded of how drummer Paul Thompson was said to have coated his snare-drum heads with electrician's tape—because through this amp, it both sounded and felt as if he had.

All in all, it's hard to listen to an amp like the A3.2 and still think pleasant thoughts about "lesser" electronics, not because the Musical Fidelity is a better value at $1500 than, say, the NAD C320BEE at $400, but rather because it has certain qualities that I don't usually think to ask for from inexpensive or even moderately priced amplifiers: color, drama, presence, and a very satisfying sort of clarity. If you have only $400 to spend on an amp, buy that NAD and wear it proudly—but avoid listening to an A3.2 while you're at the shop.

How does Musical Fidelity achieve this kind of performance in a single $1500 box?

In recent years, Musical Fidelity made their name with electronics that use nuvistors—high-impedance subminiature tubes that turn up most often in old garage-door openers—as voltage amps. But the A3.2 doesn't have any of those, or any other kind of tube: All its amplifying devices are discrete transistors, and most of these are the kind that have been around for more than a decade or so.

Musical Fidelity's designers have instead torn a different page from the tube cookbook: Rather than follow the high-end herd and use huge banks of reservoir capacitors in their power supplies, MF does what most smart makers of single-ended triodes (SETs) do: They use big frame-style chokes to smooth the last bit of AC ripple from the amp's working voltages. The result is arguably a faster power supply, with performance characteristics—and an overall impedance—that is more appropriate to the demands of a constantly changing music signal.

Like all of Musical Fidelity's products, the A3.2 is also fully dual-mono, from the AC that goes in to the AC that comes out, and that undoubtedly has something to do with the amp's good stereo imaging capabilities. On the down side, that also calls my attention to what I consider the A3.2's most egregious failing: its lack of a balance control, or even separate level controls for the two channels. That, along with the lack of a mono button, borders on the unforgivable in my world-view, and while I don't want to turn into Mister Cranky One-Note so early in the game, the truth is that I'm turning into Mister Cranky One-Note. Having said that, it's still inexcusable.

But just when I feel a good sulk coming on, the A3.2 kisses and makes up: Here is a rare contemporary integrated amplifier with five line-level inputs—and a phono section that you don't have to ask for as an option. Not only that, but with the push of a button, the phono section toggles between low-gain and high-gain configurations, to suit moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. When it came to the latter, I preferred using my Audio Note AN-S2 moving-coil step-up transformer with the MF's low-gain setting over using an MC cartridge straight into the MF set for high gain—but, like the Bagel setting on my toaster, which I also never use, it's nice to know it's there.

Last but not least is that most inscrutable feature of all, value for money. While I wouldn't care to own an integrated amp that lacks a mono button and a balance crank, I do think the A3.2 offers $1500 worth of sound and music. And I think it's rather nice that the A3.2, which sells for about $l900 in the UK, goes for roughly the same amount of dosh over here—a sure sign that someone, somewhere, is working hard to keeps costs down. Good for them.

Of course, the A3.2 isn't the only ca-$1500 integrated amp that deserves your attention. The Simaudio Moon i-3 ($1695) is another likely lad, and a sample is on its way as I write this. Talk Audio's Cyclone 2.1 ($1699) is another possibility, and another amp I intend to hear before the summer is over. And then there's something completely different...

Naim Nait 5
Just think about it: Naim has made a Nait integrated amplifier for 20 years now, with no sign of giving up. Will there be a Nait 10 by the time my daughter graduates from high school?

Cooked up at a time when the hi-fi world was just shaking off its long affair with specsmanship, the Nait of 1983 was among the first forks in the road for audio enthusiasts who were unused to trusting their ears: Two decades of buying only mass-market junk left them hungry for better sound, but here was an amp that promised better music.