Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD player

Overachievers tend to rankle people after a while. Musical Fidelity, a relatively small British company run by Antony Michaelson, has issued a stream of high-performance, high-value electronic products over the past few years, along with a limited-edition line of pricier designs based on the military-spec nuvistor vacuum tube. With few exceptions, Musical Fidelity products have garnered outstanding reviews worldwide, with consumer acceptance to match. Michaelson is also an accomplished clarinetist, recording and issuing classical-music CDs in his "spare" time.

What's wrong with this picture? Nothing. Yet if the e-mails I've been receiving lately are in any way representative of the market, some audiophiles are annoyed. They complain of an excess of Musical Fidelity coverage in Stereophile. They complain of the seemingly endless parade of new Musical Fidelity products—some replacing highly touted ones from the previous year—and wonder how a small company can manage it.

Aside from a few clunkers—mostly in the home-theater arena—Musical Fidelity has been on a roll, turning out many affordable products any audio company would be proud to sell and that any audiophile would be proud to own—even those who can afford more expensive products. As another reviewer for this magazine said to me after receiving some of the complaints, "When MF stops making great products, I'll stop reviewing them."

Nonetheless, with the launch of the Tri-Vista SACD/CD player ($6495) issued to celebrate the company's 20th-anniversary, Michaelson has opened himself up for some criticism. Less than two years ago, when he introduced the Nu-Vista 3D CD player ($4500, reviewed in October 2001), Michaelson insisted that SACD was not yet a viable format. His press release complained about the lack of software and the quality of what little there was, most of it sourced from old analog tapes or from upconverted PCM. He also noted the high cost of SACD chipsets and of the difficulties involved in implementing SACD without compromising CD sound quality. Michaelson's conclusion then was: better to put the money into making a great-sounding player for the 2 billion CDs out there than to compromise just to offer SACD playback.

The Nu-Vista 3D's press blurb claimed it made "ordinary CDs sound as good as SACD." Michaelson told me the statement was not hyperbole—he really believed it. I didn't find that to be the case, though the 3D sounded so good that I ended up buying the review sample at an "industry accommodation" price. But I get that for any A/V gear I buy. I bought the 3D because I found its sound so enticing—better than the CD performance of the Marantz SA-1 SACD player, which costs $3000 more. The Marantz's performance on SACD was another story entirely, but how many SACDs did I own, and with most of them sourced from analog tapes, how many would I buy when I already owned the original LP?

More recently, I reviewed the Accuphase DP-85 SACD player ($16,000, September 2002). Again, I preferred the Nu-Vista 3D's CD playback to the DP-85's, though the DP-85's SACD performance was the best digital sound I'd heard up till then. But until an SACD player could beat the Nu-Vista 3D's CD performance, I wasn't buying into the new format.

What has happened over the past two years to convince Antony Michaelson to make the Tri-Vista the company's first SACD player? There are now more 1000 SACD titles available, with many more to come, and quickly, as new pressing facilities are built and major labels such as Universal commit to the format. The sales success of the first 20-odd Rolling Stones albums on SACD/CD hybrid discs (well over 2 million sold) was a signal for the music and audio industries to move full speed ahead. But most SACD titles are still mastered from analog or PCM sources—the number of DSD mastering facilities remains small. I never bought the complaint about analog master tapes—especially those from the "golden age" of sound. I'll stack the good ones from the 1950s and '60s with anything being tracked today. It's about time non-vinyl-loving audiophiles got to hear a high-resolution facsimile of those great masters. But I'm still not sure there's much value in SACD right now for longtime vinyl collectors.

What seems to have changed Michaelson's mind was the format's rapid acceptance among audiophiles, the availability of reasonably priced OEM chip and transport sets (the Tri-Vista's transport is from Philips), and the company's belief that it had come up with a way to offer SACD without compromising CD performance. Musical Fidelity boasts that the Tri-Vista's CD performance is actually superior to that of the Nu-Vista 3D. It ought to be: at $6495, the new player costs $2000 more than the 3D. And however good the Tri-Vista is, it is not a universal player: It can't play DVD-Audio discs or output multichannel sound from SACDs.

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