Musical Fidelity Titan power amplifier Page 3

But once my ears had gotten a grip, the Titan treated me to effortless transparency and palpable images free of even the suggestion of etch or edginess. There was nothing crispy in the Titan's playbook, yet the amp rendered transients precisely and cleanly, without boredom-inducing softening. While I would never mistake the Titan's sound for that of a romantic-sounding tube amp—or any tube amp—it produced a tube-like musical flow and textural suppleness completely free of clichés of solid-state hardness or starch.

Classic Records recently reissued a great recording of a minor but fascinating impressionist work by Villa-Lobos, The Little Train of the Caipira, from his Bachianas Brasileiras No.2, conducted by Sir Eugene Goossens (200gm LP, Everest/Classic SDBR-3041). It's a sonic spectacular I originally discovered at a garage sale back when it wasn't hard to find LPs from RCA, Mercury Living Presence, Everest, London, even UK Decca. I would buy them just for the expected good sound. This reissue, mastered from the 35mm master tape, sounds far superior to the original LP (which was mastered from½" transfers).

The London Symphony Orchestra produces a fanciful musical impression of a steam locomotive as it puffs and gasps its way up a mountain, pulling a train full of berry-pickers and other farm laborers from village to village. Along with flute, oboe, clarinet, assorted horns, strings, saxophone, celesta, piano, and other standard instruments, the work is also scored for reco-reco (a notched wooden cylinder), chucalho (a gourd rattle with seeds), ganza (a metal tube filled with gravel), and matraca (a ratchet). These native Brazilian percussion instruments represent the chugging, puffing, and blowing off of steam.

The recording includes every challenge to an audio system: enormous dynamic swings, great bass rumblings of kettledrum, sharply drawn transients of both natural and metallic origin, strings, brass, woodwinds—you name it. Interludes of both explosive and delicately drawn sounds are presented on an enormous soundstage, deep and ultrawide. If you need an excellent introduction to classical music that pulls out all the sonic stops, this is it.

But to realistically reproduce such a recording requires huge reserves of power, even with relatively efficient speakers. Both the kW and Titan handled the dynamic swings with ease and presented the kettledrum thwacks precisely, with depth-charge weight and extension, though the Titan put more drum skin in the game. During several crescendos early in the piece, the brass, woodwinds, and strings ignite. Through the kW, the sound hardened somewhat, and a thin sonic shell formed at the front of the soundstage. Through the Titan all remained sweet and supple, the brass, woodwinds, and strings maintaining separate physical and timbral identities. The percussive textures of the sounds of seeds and metals were cleanly delineated; the Titan revealed with clarity a profusion of musical information that the kW somewhat glazed over. The louder I played The Little Train of the Caipira through the kW, the more pronounced the glaze. The louder I played it through the Titan, the louder it got, without hardening or turning edgy.

In fact, the Titan seemed to have an unlimited ability to play loud, louder, and louder, without changing its sonic personality—and, with all that power, without ever sounding strained. The kW had the power but not the personality. Overall, what most distinguished the Titan from the kW was the Titan's consistency regardless of volume. Leaving aside the perceived differences of tonal balance represented by the Fletcher-Munson curves, the sound of the Titan remained sweet, full-bodied, airy, and texturally supple no matter how far I pushed it, revealing detail without harmonic stinginess.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the pairs of Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX 3 speakers in the rooms of Boulder Amplifiers and Lamm Industries sounded like polar opposites: warm, velvety, and romantic for Lamm; cool, clean, fast, and analytical for Boulder. Both sounds were appealing, yet both veered too much in one direction or the other for my tastes. You could probably pair a Boulder amp with a Lamm preamp or a Boulder preamp with a Lamm amp and get an ideal balance.

Driving the MAXX 3s (under review) in my room, and with either the darTZeel NHB-18NS (unbalanced) or Ayre Acoustics KX-R (balanced) preamplifier, the Titan split the sonic difference between the Lamm and Bouder presentations. Still, the two preamps presented very different sounds, each of which the Titan dutifully passed on to the speakers. While the Ayre was somewhat more dynamic and controlled on bottom and a bit more crystalline on top, and the darTZeel was more precise, relaxed, and flowing, neither detoured the Titan's full-bodied, ultrarefined presentation.

Antony Michaelson had brought along a copy of Piano Music in a Church, a recording of solo-piano works by Chopin and Debussy, performed in concert by Endre Hegedüs on a Steinway D grand and recorded in a small Irish sanctuary using a pair of microphones run directly into a Nagra IVS TC analog open-reel tape recorder (CD, Tone-Pearls TPRCD1; also available as digital downloads). Tone-Pearls calls its postproduction technique "Almost Analogue Digital." According to the liner notes, there's no post-recording processing—each CD is a "master disc" individually created and tested. How many plays they get before the tape wears out I don't know, but the copy I have is as fine a piano recording as I've heard on CD. Among other familiar pieces, Hegedüs plays wickedly fast and slinky takes on Chopin's familiar waltzes in D-flat Major and C-sharp Minor. There's also a short piece by Debussy, Le petit nègre, composed in 1909, that's pure ragtime.

It didn't hurt that playback was via the four-box Scarlatti stack from dCS ($80,000). The sound was impressively natural and utterly transportive through both the kW and the Titan, with all of each amp's power put to great use on the wide dynamic swings that well-recorded solo-piano performances require to sound convincing. Both did an excellent job of suggesting the space in which the piano sat, particularly as the softly played high notes mingled with the church acoustic.

However, whether because of its additional 3dB of quiet, or its lower distortion, or whatever, the Titan presented the piano more vividly against a blacker backdrop, with the church's reverberation in greater relief. The Titan produced a better-fleshed-out piano with a more supple percussive attack, a somewhat richer complexity of harmonic structure, and noticeably less glare in the dynamic peaks that excited the stone church's reverberant acoustic.

At the end of the 41-minute recital, the audience breaks into applause. Amazingly, throughout the recital no one had coughed, sneezed, or made any bodily sound whatsoever—I'd had no idea there was an audience at all. The kW rendered the sound of the applause with a harder, more brittle edge than the Titan, whose version was softer and more fleshy, yet with enough hardness to sound like the clapping of an audience in a stone church.

These sound like subtle differences, and in some ways they are. These are two big, powerful, slammin' amps, both capable of delivering huge voltage swings, enormous dynamic peaks, and the tiny microdynamic gradations that help produce a sensation of three-dimensional reality that no two-dimensional HDTV image can come close to managing. The kW tightly gripped the MAXX 3s' bass bins, producing a prodigious, deep, tight, well-textured foundation. The Titan was no better or worse on the bottom, but above that it painted a far more refined, delicate, and precisely rendered sonic picture that combined velvety smoothness with exceptional resolution of inner detail and clean, fast transients.

While the Titan's personality, like the kW750's, leans toward the velvety smooth, it was more than up to doing rock. After his visit here, the KEF America rep shot me an e-mail that read, in part, "I have to say that the track that blew me away the most was the Clash's 'Jimmy Jazz' [from an original UK pressing of London Calling, Columbia]. I literally wore that album out when it came out in 1980; I've never heard it like I did at your place. They were alive in three dimensions. To say that the early CD version of London Calling 'sucks' does a great disservice to the term 'suck.'"

I listen to a lot of rock, and the Titan rocked. Its sound was refined and pure, but not at all polite. The Titan exerted complete control over amplified electric guitar, electric bass, and mega drum kits. If the recording sizzled, so did the amp—perhaps not to the same degree as the kW, which probably adds a bit of kick to whatever the mixer inserted, but the tradeoff is well worth it when you play something like the recent reissue of Joni Mitchell's Blue (LP, Reprise/Rhino 74842), or any great recording of the female voice: the Titan produced levels of focus, physicality, delicacy, and airy transparency that the kW just missed.

Once you've experienced and lived with a mega-amplifier, whether tubed or solid-state, it's difficult to return to one of moderate power—and by moderate I mean even a few hundred Wpc—especially if your goal is to reproduce without strain the dynamic range of live orchestral performances, or even the SPLs of rock concerts, where dynamic swings tend to be somewhat narrower.

There need be no tradeoff between delicacy, sure-footedness, and precision and power, though some audiophiles insist that that's unavoidable, based mostly on conjecture and/or conventional wisdom. Play at low volume Musical Fidelity's Titan or kW, or some other modern high-powered amplifiers, and they won't sound sluggish or confused. Play them at high SPLs and ask them to deliver wide dynamic swings, and without complaint they'll do that too.

For reasons I can't explain, a high-powered amplifier loafing along sounds more relaxed, more in control, more musically involved and involving, than a low-powered one, even when the latter is operating within its power envelope. The big amps produce a sense of scale that the small ones simply can't. Convincing lovers of single-ended-triode amps and single-driver speakers of any of this is impossible, but in my book they're a lost cause anyway. I understand the attraction of such systems, but not if the goal is full bandwidth and the realistic reproduction of large-scale dynamic swings.

And if that's what you want, and you have the money and the space, big is beautiful. With the kW, Musical Fidelity joined the league of mega-power amplifier manufacturers with a product that was physically less than refined and, for some, was sonically as well. As a revealing reviewer's tool, it couldn't be beat, but it's easy to understand why some shoppers hesitated.

With the new Titan, Musical Fidelity becomes a player in the top echelon of makers of luxury, high-powered amplifiers. The $30,000 Titan is physically and sonically distinguished. Its build quality is impressive by any standard, and sonically, the Titan's combination of smooth refinement, aggressive grip, and silky transparency effectively bridges the gap between the sounds of tube and solid-state.

Here's hoping Musical Fidelity can come up with a trickled-down edition of the Titan that's considerably less expensive but puts out only slightly less power, while retaining all of the original's attractive and even-handed sonic personality. I can't imagine anyone hearing the Titan and not loving it.

Musical Fidelity Ltd.
US distributor: KEF America
10 Timber Lane
Marlboro, NJ 07746
(732) 683-2356