Musical Fidelity A3.2 integrated amplifier Page 2

The A3.2's exemplary midrange performance combined with superb and continuous low-level dynamics to make it an excellent match for singer-songwriters. On "Hey, Sweet Man," from Madeline Peyroux's Dreamland (CD, Atlantic 82946-2), the vocalist's naturally breathy presence was perfectly captured with all subtle dynamic nuances intact, as was Marc Ribot's quirky dobro accompaniment.

The Musical Fidelity deviated from neutrality only in the midbass, where there was a slight warmth or ripeness. Although this didn't detract from my enjoyment of any of the classical or jazz recordings I used, it occasionally combined with the amp's laid-back personality to make it seem a bit too relaxed on certain rock recordings. My reaction to this varied with each rock disc I tried. On Mighty Sam McClain's Give It Up to Love (CD, JVCXR-0012-2), McClain's voice was rich and growly, as was the Hammond B-3—but the slightly rich bass guitar and the laid-back presentation rendered the music a tad too relaxed.

On "Ordinary Love," from Sade's Love Deluxe (CD, Epic 53178), the bass synthesizer runs were a bit fat and rounded, and the slightly relaxed quality of the guitar and drum-machine rimshots combined in a presentation that was slightly less than punchy. However, on "Feel No Pain," from the same album, the synths and drum machines were programmed to different patches—the A3.2 delivered this tune in a manner driving, energetic, and dramatic.

Finally, Gary Wilson's animated bass figures on "When You Walked into My Dreams," from You Think You Really Know Me (CD, Motel MRCD007), constantly jump from the lower to upper extremes of the instrument's range. The notes fingered at the upper end of the bass's neck were crisp and clean through the A3.2, but the lower notes noticeably thickened throughout the piece.

For fun, Antony Michaelson sent along Musical Fidelity's A3.2 CD player, a companion to the A3.2 integrated in looks, size, and price. [The A3.2 player was reviewed by Sam Tellig in July 2002.—Ed.] The CDP was cut from the same sonic cloth as the amp, with noticeably airy and detailed high-frequency reproduction. No surprise, therefore, that the two went quite well together sonically. After a quick spin of Michaelson's own performance of the Brahms Clarinet Sonata in f, Op.120 No.1, on his Brahms Clarinet Sonatas CD (Musical Fidelity MF012), my notes read: "That's a clarinet!"

The bulk of my reviewing was done using the Alón Petite and NHT SB-3 loudspeakers. However, as the A3.2's power rating of 110Wpc is atypically high for a $1500 integrated amp, I also gave it a whirl driving the $12,000/pair Alón Circe floorstanders. The Circe is highly revealing and not the easiest speaker to drive, but I can happily report that the A3.2 drove a pair of them with ease. All of the amp's strengths as revealed by the two bookshelf speakers were preserved by the more demanding Circe.

I get by with a little help from the competition
I compared the Musical Fidelity A3.2 with my reference affordable integrated amp, the Creek 5350SE ($1500, reviewed in March 2001); and with Sam Tellig's reference, the Cairn 4808 ($1595, reviewed in July 2002, Vol.25 No.7). All three were outstanding performers; preferring one over the others will ultimately be a function of the user's listening biases, musical tastes, and associated gear. In my view, each of the three outperformed any integrated amplifier I heard that was on the market five years ago, regardless of price.

The Creek 5350SE was, overall, a more neutral performer than the Musical Fidelity A3.2, with more detailed and extended performance at the frequency extremes, and a more natural midbass performance. It also slightly bettered the Musical Fidelity in two of the A3.2's areas of strength: resolution of detail and high-level dynamics. However, the A3.2 had more dimensional body, particularly in the midrange, which gave vocals a more intimate, seductive quality. With classical music, the Creek also lacked the Musical Fidelity's laid-back, back-of-hall perspective; it was more "audience-neutral."

The Cairn 4808's gorgeous midrange combined the A3.2's rich dimensionality with the Creek's detail-resolving abilities. The Cairn may be the integrated amp for intimate vocal recordings. The articulation of the lower high frequencies was superb through the Cairn, but I thought both the MF and the Creek exceeded the Cairn in upper-high-frequency sparkle and air. The Cairn's midbass was more natural than the A3.2's, but I thought both the MF and the Creek exceeded the Cairn's performance in high-level dynamic slam.

Note that I compared the three amps using the Alón Petite and the NHT SB-3; although each is a small bookshelf speakers, neither is particularly easy to drive. That said, it was not obvious to me, except perhaps in the Cairn's high-level dynamic performance, that I was listening to amplifiers of three quite different power ratings: 30W class-A (Cairn), 85W (Creek), and 110W (MF). Each performed well with both speakers at all volume levels, with no sense of strain or congestion.

A day in the life of a reviewer
With the A3.2 integrated amplifier, Musical Fidelity has produced a winner. There's that slight warmth in the midbass, but it's difficult to fault the amplifier in any other area. In particular, its character is likely to appeal to lovers of expensive tube gear who don't quite have the green for pricey separates. Finally, the A3.2's superb construction quality and sexily expensive looks keep me scratching my head, wondering how Antony Michaelson can market such an intelligent design at such an affordable price. Well done Sgt. M.!

Musical Fidelity
US distributor: Kevro International
902 McKay Rd., Suite 4
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3X8, Canada
(905) 428-2800