Musical Fidelity M8xi integrated amplifier Page 2

Once the M8xi had been hoisted, with assistance, onto my rack, I did some thinking about power conditioning. I'd already inquired about the use of a power conditioner and received an email that said that while Musical Fidelity had striven to build "a power supply with very low internal impedance in order to achieve maximum possible dynamics," conditioners that didn't limit current and squash dynamics could possibly improve things further. After listening and comparing, I opted for the same AudioQuest Niagara 5000 I use with the Progressions. I also used the same Ansuz Darkz T2S support feet I use with the D'Agostino monos. I continued to use them because they enhanced the depiction of air, depth, and space—what stood out most was the clearer depiction of space between vocalists, instrumentalists, and the wall behind them—but I should note that the M8xi did quite well on its stock feet.

To test the M8xi as an integrated amplifier without engaging its DAC, I ran balanced interconnects from either the dCS Rossini DAC/Clock combo or the Weiss DAC502 to the M8xi and turned the DACs' digital volume controls up to 0dB to remove them from the signal path.

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Although the M8xi is not Roon-tested, its DAC had no problem recognizing signals sent directly from the Roon Nucleus+ server via USB. Hence, I used the Nucleus+ as the music source throughout this review. When the Rossini and DAC502 were in use, the Nucleus+ fed them by either USB or Ethernet; when the M8xi DAC was engaged, I either fed it by USB or used Ethernet to send signal through the dCS Network Bridge via coax. (I didn't hear a big difference between USB and coax, but then, so many new variables were introduced when I added the Network Bridge and additional cabling that I can't swear there aren't any differences.) By choosing tracks within the M8xi DAC's limit of PCM 24/192, I was able to compare the same music on all three DACs.

Play
First listens to the M8xi followed an intense period of using the Progressions to compare the dCS Rossini and Weiss DAC502 DACs. When I switched from the Progressions to the M8xi, its sound was virtually as pleasing, and spot-on neutral, albeit less transparent and airy and less precise in its depiction of acoustic space. The M8xi conveyed the warmth of Yo-Yo Ma's cello on his Bach Trios recording (24/96 WAV, Nonesuch 558933), with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and bass player Edgar Meyer, but I missed the mandolin's undertones. Instruments seemed to hang, separated from each other, as though recorded by separate microphone feeds that didn't blend into a coherent whole; they do blend together with my reference monoblocks. But I could hear the delicacy of every pluck of the mandolin string and the unique textures of Ma's cello.

"This is very natural and beautiful sound that just about any music lover would enjoy," I wrote in my notes. "Even if the bass line isn't as firm and full as with my reference, soundstage boundaries aren't as well-defined, and depth depiction isn't as strikingly realistic, the sound is very organic and resolved. If I hadn't heard better, I could imagine myself content with this integrated for the rest of my life." (My closest friends might say that they've never seen me content for days on end, but there's little harm in waxing Panglossian now and then.)

Turning to very different music, Yello's bass-pounding, wall-to-wall, immersive "Electrified II" from Toy (24/48 WAV download, Polydor 4782160), the wow factor was diminished. A little. But even if its bass wasn't as gut-shaking—even if the soundstage didn't seem to reach out to me and gobble me up body and soul—it sounded really good.

How did the M8xi's DAC compare to the stand-alone Rossini DAC/Clock combo? Musical Fidelity's baby lacked profundity on the bottom, wasn't nearly as open and transparent, threw a smaller and less convincing soundstage, had a less-differentiated color palette, and so on. But, if memory serves me correctly, the M8xi's DAC was more satisfying than the Aurender A10's, whose sound I begrudgingly described as "okay"; it also bettered the optional DAC in the Krell K-300i integrated ($7000; DAC $1000 extra), which I termed "surprisingly musical and satisfying for the price." It certainly sounded better than Lichtenegger suggested it would. If you don't want to add another box, power cable, and set of interconnects to your system and you're content with resolutions up to 24/192 PCM, the M8xi's internal DAC will not leave you feeling shortchanged.

The limits of what the M8xi could reveal became clear when I enlisted both it and the Progressions to compare the Rossini and Weiss DACs. I chose a new, excellently engineered recording of Handel's sprawling soap-opera oratorio, Saul, with the period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, and the Philharmonia Chorale, conducted by Bruce Lamott (24/192 WAV, PVP-14). The recording includes seven distinct-voiced soloists and a large group of instruments, including a keyboard glockenspiel that brought to mind Papageno's magical enchantment in Mozart's The Magic Flute.

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After spending several hours immersed in Saul's troubled universe, it became clear that all the differences between DACs that I heard with the Progressions were also conveyed by the M8xi—just not to the same degree or with quite as much clarity. I could hear the fetching innocence of Yulia Van Doren's lustrous highs, the "splat" of horn on the big orchestral movements, and the resonant acoustic of Berkeley's First Congregational Church, a venue I know well.

Nonetheless, there were some distinct differences. Baroque instruments have more uniquely contrasting timbres than their smoother sounding, bigger-boned modern counterparts. Because the Progressions convey a greater range of orchestral color, everything I love about well-recorded period-authentic instruments came to the fore. In Saul's 10-minute overture, whose repetitive patterns grew tedious through the M8xi, the Progressions revealed how much care McGegan and his players devoted to subtle changes of dynamics and emphasis. They enabled me to understand why Handel devoted so many measures to passing the same multinote pattern from strings on the left to other instruments on the right. The color contrasts revealed by this back-and-forth were so captivating and delicious that, instead of yawning, I wanted to applaud.

Replaying the "Chorus of the Israelites" through the Progressions, their greater ability to locate instruments and singers within the soundstage led me to realize just how fine an engineer David v.R. Bowles is and how faithfully his recording conveys what music sounds like from a center-aisle seat maybe 4 or 6 rows back in this familiar venue. When a soloist sang, I could sense how far forward they were from the orchestra. The extra resonance around the voices of the chorale, which was situated in the rear, clarified their (greater) distance from the microphones. I could also hear how well Lamott had tuned his singers, save for the brash tenor voice or two that occasionally stuck out from the pack.

Using two sets of balanced interconnects, I briefly evaluated the M8xi as a preamp only, with the Progressions providing amplification. (I didn't spend much time with this, since few people will use the M8xi this way.) The sound improved a noticeable notch over the M8xi working as a full integrated. There was more color and detail in harpsichord plucks and more air and body. I ended up feeling that the M8xi's preamp and amplification sections were well-matched.

At the end of the review period, I invited neighbors Vicki and Dana over for a masked, socially distanced listen. First, they heard the Rossini feeding the M8xi. When I cued up Mark Knopfler, the artist of Dana's choice, performing "Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes" from Tracker (Deluxe) (24/192 FLAC, Qobuz), the couple eschewed the standard "sit in your place and take copious notes" reviewer routine, jumped up, and started dancing. (Knopfler's is far more danceable music than Handel's "Chorus of the Israelites.") But when I switched to the Progressions and they sat back down to take another listen, they immediately commented on the difference. "Every flavor is distinct from the other," Vicki said. "It's like the difference between crock-pot food and stir-fry." Crock pot may sell the M8xi short—it certainly serves up quite a meal—but you've got to love her for that one.

Picking up the toys
After reviewing six moderately priced integrated amplifiers (and at least one expensive one) in the past few years, I can say with confidence that the extremely neutral Musical Fidelity M8xi is not only the most powerful and least expensive of the bunch but also one of the best-sounding. It may not sound as brilliant and warm as the more-expensive and easier-to-lift Krell K-300i, but it delivers a similar share of seductive musical truth. Given that the M8xi also has abundant power to manage difficult speaker loads and convey dynamic contrasts generated by huge forces, it is a major achievement in its price range. Highly recommended

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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