Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC universal music controller Page 2

However, there are quite a few apps, some of them free, that let you control your M1 CLiC-NAS library from an iPad, iPhone, etc (footnote 1). Using Linn's free Kinsky app on an iPad2, I now had a more complete touchscreen experience—not quite Sooloos easy, and still a major pain with a large library, but a night-and-day improvement over the M1 CLiC's screen and remote control. However, I found one Kwirk with Kinsky: The track-timing information of high-definition files with sample rates higher than 44kHz was multiplied by as much as four for 24/192 files.

Other than that Kuriosity, everything played fine—until I tried a 24/176.4 file that had been originally sourced from an SACD. That's when things went the opposite direction, in that the music slowed down. It sounded as if the file was playing at half speed. According to the M1 CLiC's manual, FLAC files up to 24/96 and at 24/192 will play over the network, but sampling rates between 96 and 192kHz will not. This was addressed in a mid-December 2011 firmware update.

I also set up a memory stick for use via the front USB port, connected my computer via the USB DAC input on back, and hooked up an iPod Touch to the iPod USB port. I connected the Sooloos via one of the coax-S/PDIF inputs and ran my Monolithic Sound PS-1 phono preamp, driven by an Oracle Delphi 2 turntable, into one of the analog inputs, with my Oppo disc player plugged into another. Last but not least, I set up several Web radio stations via the excellent built-in vTuner software. I should note that the M1 CLiC's three analog inputs are not digitized and are analog from ins to outs.

Everything worked, but using the front-panel interface to switch sources was a bit tedious—especially if I'd just navigated out on a branch to find a song. The remote's Play View/Browse button helped a little, but I would have loved it had it had a button for direct access to each input, instead of my having to go back and forth through the menus—even just a Home button would have been a help. The remote includes control buttons for a Musical Fidelity disc player; I would have easily traded them for more direct control of the M1 CLiC's preamp functions.

While I'm at it, I would also have liked a volume up/down button on the front panel (only the remote has them), for those times when the remote was at the other end of the room. Still, I can understand the desire for an uncluttered panel—Apple would have left the buttons off. Maybe MF should release an app for the M1 CLiC with these functions, as well as built-in control of an NAS or memory-stick library.

Listening in Guilty Mode
After playing with the M1 CLiC's comprehensive input options, I had two ways to compare its sound with those of other DAC-hubs: run them side by side into another preamp, or run the external DAC into an analog input on the M1 CLiC and compare to the same source via the M1 CLiCs digital input. I decided on the former, as it seemed more fair: an external DAC would not have its sound possibly changed by the M1 CLiC's analog circuitry. A quick comparison didn't reveal that the analog input sounded obviously different, but I wanted to reduce as many variables as possible for the duration of my long listening period. I used FLAC files for testing.

Comparing the various inputs, I quickly concluded that I preferred the sound of an NAS drive via the M1 CLiC's Ethernet networking input, or the Sooloos via the MF's coax inputs. The differences were subtle and may not matter to a lot of listeners, but were apparent after several tests. So from here on out it was NAS/Ethernet and Sooloos/coax, to show the M1 CLiC in its best sonic light.

I'd always wanted to use a Herb Alpert track as a reference recording, but hesitated—what would John Atkinson and the rest of the bunch think? But when JA himself bravely blazed the trail with an Alpert-inflected track in his September 2011 review of Musical Fidelity's AMS100 amp, I knew that light had turned green. So many of Alpert's albums still stand up today for their tight arrangements and playing and their simple, honest engineering. Okay, you either like the music or you don't—but I played trumpet as a kid, and Alpert got the girls.

Looking for some context, I cued up several cuts from the excellent Signature Series reissues of the Tijuana Brass catalog, and noticed right away that the M1 CLiC had a slightly different sound from the Resolution Audio Cantata digital hub that had been in my system for the last few months following my review last November. For example, in "Work Song," from S.R.O., (ripped from CD, King 3107), the edges of images were rounded a tad, and the soundstage flattened a bit. To be fair, the ca $6000 Cantata earns its better depth and detail at three times the price of the M1 CLiC (it also includes a world-class CD player), and it's tough to beat. I cruised the TJB catalog some more and further confirmed these characteristics.

Since we're doing guilty musical pleasures, I moved on to Tommy James and the Shondells and pulled out my reference D/A converter, a Benchmark DAC1 USB. Having just finished reading James's fascinating autobiography (with Martin Fitzpatrick), Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells, and though he still comes off as a bit of a dork (white leather shoes and matching belt!!), I have a better appreciation for his recordings and how they were made—and, of course, for how corrupt the music business can be. Though they start out sounding wonderful, some of the instruments in the title track of the remastered Crimson & Clover (ripped from CD and originally released on LP in 1968) develop a hard, glassy edge; the M1 CLiC helpfully rounded things off a bit compared to the Benchmark, which, though providing more precision, was somewhat irritating on the brighter peaks.

One of the greatest guitar-bass-drum intros in rock'n'roll is found at the beginning of James's "Draggin' the Line" (from James's Christian of the World, a 1971 Roulette LP release). This later recording sounds better than "Crimson & Clover" until the chorus, where the upper midrange and compression are goosed to help crank up the energy—a typical pop-song problem. Again, the M1 CLiC smoothed out the dynamics and imaging a bit. Some might prefer this, but I missed the Benchmark's overall more detailed and tighter sound—as long as I didn't turn it up too loud.

A few more Shondells tracks later, I'd begun to get the sense that the brighter the recording, the more the M1 CLiC's sound worked to its advantage—but thrown a muddled mix, it had a little trouble untangling the parts.

Take Young Men Gone West, a long-lost guilty-pleasure gem from City Boy (CD, Renaissance RMED00298). The band's Queen-ELO-Supertramp tendencies never caught on in a big way, but this album is a carefully crafted time capsule of mid-'70s pop with strong tunes and arrangements. The mix gets congested, compressed, and all around not so fun when things get going, and the MF just couldn't make the most of it, compared to the Peachtree iDac or the Benchmark. But it did take the edge off.

Crank up a guilty-pleasure hi-def track like "A Hit By Varèse," from Chicago's V, and the sonic gap closed. I've been ripping my DVD-Audio discs to hard drive this past year, and two of the sonic standouts are this album, which was released in both 24/96 and 24/192 versions, and the Doors' catalog in two-channel 24/96. (This edition of the Doors albums boasts different mixes from the original vinyl and CD releases, with added details, instruments shifted around the soundstage, and in some cases different track timings.) Here's where the Musical Fidelity could hold its head high; the sheer weight and assuredness of these recordings came through loud and clear.

I still give the Benchmark and Peachtree the nod for detail and soundstage size, but the louder I played HD music through the M1 CLiC, the better it compared. At lower levels, dynamics and detail again receded. What this means for your listening pleasure depends on how you listen and what you look for. Ultimately, I opt for extra detail even at the expense of pleasant sound. Others may prefer something more forgiving. Luckily, we have choices.

A CLiC Conclusion
What to make of such a versatile and ambitious component that demonstrates clear trade-offs in usability? It depends on what you need going into it. I can't see using a product like this if all you need is a really good $1000–$2000 DAC without all the features. And if you're put off by anything that requires menu navigation (which is why I've never taken to Logitech's products), steer clear—especially if you have a huge library on hard drive and don't plan on using an iPad as a controller.

I've been a little tough on the M1 CLiC's sound, but really, the differences between it and other DACs are subtle and subject to personal preference. Sam Tellig loved the M1 DAC's sound, but I found, at least in its implementation in the M1 CLiC, that it sounded softer than what I had on hand.

But—and it's a big but—if your emphasis is on flexibility and a wide variety of input choices, both analog and digital, in a clean, minimalist package, all for a reasonable price, then the Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC may be the perfect balance of features, performance, and sound. I recommend you play with it before buying something else. And its options are bound to grow as new apps come online for leveraging all the stuff you can connect to the M1 CLiC. Its small footprint and ease of setup are just icing on the cake.

Footnote 1: Musical Fidelity will have released its own control app by the time this issue hits the stand, but it was not available when we went to press with this review.—Ed.
Musical Fidelity Ltd.
US distributor: Tempo Distribution LLC
PO Box 541443
Waltham, MA 02454-1443
(617) 314-9227

TerryM's picture

Hey, I tried the UK phone number for MF and discovered it changed in 2000 :-)