Musical Fidelity M3 Nu-Vista integrated amplifier Page 2

When I closed my eyes, it wasn't easy to tell that I was listening to an integrated amplifier. Despite having two less output transistors, this package shared much of the 300's power, authority, dynamics, and overall sonic grace, though it didn't have the 300's bottom-end "slam" and control. It seemed ever so slightly softer in the lower bass, especially when reproducing well-recorded kick drums. But overall, I preferred the M3 to the more expensive separates because of its richer, warmer, quieter presentation.

No matter what I threw at it or how high I turned up the gain, the M3 always sounded at ease, never stressed or strained. Whether it's the nuvistors, or the care that went into the board layout, or whatever, the dryness, etch, and two-dimensionality that frequently parch moderately priced solid-state gear has totally eliminated. (Although the M3 costs $4500, that price must be considered "modest," given the design's power, build quality, and overall performance.)

When I played the CD-Rs I'd recorded off of the Rockport System III Sirius turntable, the M3 sounded somewhat more rich and lush than the separate Nu-Vista combo, as I remember it, though I still wouldn't call the sound lush or sweet. It was more pristine, delicate, and ultra-resolving. The added quiet was an obvious benefit in revealing low-level details in most of the LPs and CDs I played. Reverberant trails extended in space and time the way they do on far more expensive separates. Spacious, atmospheric recordings like John Hiatt's "Lipstick Sunset," from Bring the Family (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-201, LP) were reproduced with impressive width, depth, and air.

On tracks like Davey Spillane's incredibly well-recorded "Atlantic Bridge" (from Atlantic Bridge, Tara 3019), which has subterranean bass and the best recording of Bela Fleck's banjo you'll ever hear, the M3 stepped out in style, delivering plenty of bottom-end weight, midrange richness, and top-end sparkle. The banjo strings had a nicely developed metallic ring in front of the instrument's distinctive-sounding body.

The overall sound of the M3 reminded me in many ways of the top-of-the-line PS Audio preamps of the late 1980s, which had remarkable high-frequency delicacy, purity, and freedom from grain, as well as wide soundstages that I could see way into (at least on the equipment I owned at the time). They also tended to have a paucity of image body, solidity, and weight. If I were to criticize the M3 in any way, it would be for those same deficiencies, though to a far lesser degree—the M3's midrange was much richer and sweeter than the midranges of those PS preamps. And the M3 possessed an overall liquidity managed by few solid-state preamps of my experience at any price.

I also still heard some of what had bothered me most about the sound of the original Nu-Vista preamp: a mid- to high-frequency bubble of smoothness that was pleasing and refined, but that robbed instruments of their natural solidity, edge, and grit. It kept me from feeling cymbal rivets rattling as the metal rang. It also tended to reduce the sensation of blackness and definition between images. Remember, I'm comparing the M3's performance to preamplifiers that, alone, cost much more than this integrated. But in absolute terms, that smoothness diminished the sensation of musical "traction" that helps create a sense of a real musical event occurring in your room.

Getting that level of performance from low-voltage electronics always costs big bucks. That's why the Ayre K-1x preamplifier costs more than eight grand, and the Audio Research Reference Two line stage costs ten! So don't think I'm being too negative. As fantastic a product as I think the M3 is, it would be unfair to other manufacturers—and, more important, to you—to be left thinking that the M3's preamp section leveled the playing field.

If an amplifier has to err on one side or another, give me smoothness over abrasive, grainy, rough edges. The M3 tended toward the smooth, but it had the power, dynamic presentation, and finesse to rock hard and reproduce lush massed strings and female vocals with equal aplomb. The M3's presentation was of a piece, leaving no loose ends hanging out to get in the way of the music. Its ease and liquidity had me listening hour after hour without fatigue.

Phono Section
The switchable moving-magnet/moving-coil phono section had enough gain and low enough noise for just about any cartridge I wanted to use with it. I could run the 0.5mV Lyra Helikon into the MM section, but the bass was somewhat weak. I got deeper, tighter bass and richer mids when I switched to MC. (The switch is inside the chassis, where dangerous currents lurk; Musical Fidelity prefers that this switch be set by the dealer.) The MC section also had no trouble with the ultra-low (0.2mV) Lyra Parnassus D.C.t. Both MM and MC settings are loaded at 47k ohms.

The M3's phono section sounded like the very fine, three-can Musical Fidelity X-LP2 phono stage ($800): spacious and detailed, but a bit thin and cool in the upper midrange. I played a bunch of favorite test discs, and with Janis Ian's Breaking Silence (Analog Productions APP 027) noticed a bit of roughness in her voice that wasn't present when I ran the Audio Research Reference phono stage through one of the M3's line-level inputs.

I hear you: "What do you expect? The Reference phono stage alone costs more than the preamp/amp/phono M3!" Well, here's the problem: The M3 Nu-Vista was so good overall that it demanded to be compared to the best out there, even if it fell a bit short in some areas. Bottom line: The M3's phono section is good enough to carry you until you're ready to spend more on an outboard device.

I don't know how a relatively small company like Musical Fidelity can offer this level of power, performance, flexibility, superb build quality, and aesthetic refinement at such a reasonable price. After all, the Nu-Vista 300 power amplifier alone cost $5495. If you contemplated buying the Nu-Vista preamp/300 amp combo and missed out, here's your second chance. For a lot less money, you get what I think is, in some respects, more refined performance (though with slightly less power) in a single package.

Reviews emphasize sound quality, but there's also pride of ownership. It counts. Most audiophiles would be proud to own an M3 for its physical and sonic qualities. At this price, the specialty audio world is populated mostly by black boxes. The M3, Musical Fidelity's final amplifying device in the Nu-Vista series, is a welcome exception. With MuFi making only 500 for the entire world, if you're thinking about owning one, now's the time. If the Nu-Vista preamp is any indication, you might have to pay more if you wait to buy one used.

Musical Fidelity
Signal Path Imports
215 Lawton Road
Charlotte, NC 28216
(704) 391-9337