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Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL
phono preamp

07.09.2012..
..

I guess reasonably unlikely that a middle-aged Hi-Fi enthusiast or audiophile has never had in his own system, although for a short time, a Musical Fidelity gear. In fact, this prestigious brand has been in the High-End sector for thirty years, with a production that varies from entry levels segments to high or even top levels. Among them, the mythic A1 amplifier: a 20 W class A integrated amp, made in 1984. On its grid, with a temperature of 50°- 60°C when switched on, you could even cook a steak. But the music…what a delight! Dynamics, detail, lightness, an incomparable harmony for an ultra-minimal little box, full of real matter. Also today it is a sought-after machine, emblem of what has always been the manufacturing philosophy of Musical Fidelity: creating devices with excellent performances but of moderate price.

 

I was excited in unpacking this umpteenth creature and finding out an envelope and a white cartooned card, like an invitation to a ceremony, where Antony Michaelson signs a nostalgic miniature manifesto reminding the home made, better the kitchen made dawn of the English company. They then arrived to the global dimensions of the recent past and of the actuality, always aiming to offer sound solutions to music enthusiasts. This intimate note, written by who, like Michaelson, is also a committed musician, appears like a declaration of love. The good Antony has also an excellent nose besides his innate ability of seconding the market trends that makes him designing machines in step with the changeability of the mass listening trends. In class A is required the low power? High power? Digital? Analogue? High resolution? No problem! There is an offer for every season. Maybe the analogue sector has been less handled - although on each MF amplification you will find a good integrated phono board - with some sorties in it, like the M1 turntable. Besides, as invoked by the renovate attention towards the vinyl, there are also phono preamplifiers.

 

The Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL, is proudly introduced as a top quality phono stage with switchable RIAA/IEC that makes of it one of the best Hi-Fi systems in every price range. An ambitious premise considering a list price of about 800.00 Euro. ReMusic is here to verify.

Before starting, I would like to underline one thing. My audio chain pivots around a transformer preamp, the Audio Tekne TP8301 MKIII: this setting is not usual and constitutes a different electrical and sonic dimension, both for the transformers along the signal, and for the quality of the cores in superpermalloy. I have always made my tests with two systems: this one and a classic system, that is, source-integrated amp-loudspeakers. Well, sometimes the differences has been abyssal. For reasons of time, there will be no parallel comparison here, but only the main system will work.

 

The ViNL, designed for MM and MC cartridges, has a weight of 3,5 kg with a simple chassis whose dimensions are 22 cm of width, 10 cm of height and 30 cm of depth. In the gray frontal fascia, besides the small on/off switch, are six buttons that offer a considerable versatility. In sequence, it is possible to operate on the MM selection, on the relative resistive and capacitive loading, on the MC and on the resistive loading, to end with the possibility of RIAA/IEC switching.

I cannot be exhaustive on this topic, since it is wide and complex. I just want to point out that the RIAA, acronym of Recording Industry Association of America, was born in 1952 to uniform the various typologies of equalization applied to the analogue recordings. Previously, every label used to work on its own equalization, forcing the Hi-Fi manufacturers to envisage as many curve varieties. There were more than 100 combinations: among the main Columbia78, Decca U.S., European, Victor78, BBC, NAB, Columbia LP, AES. The RIAA curve became standard when the stereo recording was introduced. In 1972, an alternative version was proposed by the International Electrotechnical Commission. It introduced a modification at 20 Hz of frequency in order to reduce the subsonic output of the pre phono since it is conditioned by the deformations of the LP surface and by the rumble of the turntable. Such curve, mainly adopted in Europe, is of no valid attractive, since it insert considerable alterations and phase errors in the low frequencies during the playback, in addiction to a minor rumble reduction. Basically, the two curves are very similar, and the IEC recordings are very few.

For these reasons, although we appreciate the standard equipment of our phono, it would have been more involving, also for didactic and researching purposes and mostly for who has a wide collection of mono recordings, an offer of more curves options. I have tried to “play” with the switch, but the differences between the RIAA and IEC position have turned out as quite imperceptible.

 

The MM input has two options of resistive loading - 47 Kohm or 67 Kohm. Eight are the options of capacitive setting: 50PF, 100PF, 150PF, 200PF, 250PF, 300PF, 350PF and 400PF. For the MC stage, there are ten levels of resistive setting: 10R, 18R, 25R, 50R, 100R, 200R, 400R, 800R and 1600R, included a value of 47 Kohm, suggested for Moving Coil cartridges with an output equal or superior to 1 mV. The input capacity is not adjustable.

With all these opportunities and the disarming facility to tweak the cartridge, also contextually to the music playback, we have already laid solid foundations to evaluate the machine. This is the main reason to be interested in purchasing this device. The fact that you can modify the setting while the record is spinning is like having a series of amplifications, identical, but with different values. In such way, you can recognize a fine-tuning of the loadings finalized to the maximum expression of the interfacing and to a linear tracking. I just want to add that, while the gain for the MM stage is 40 dB, the classic one, for the MC is below 60 dB. This will require a deep attention to the level of the cartridge output and, chiefly, to the input sensitivity of the other components of the audio chain, which has to be progressive, otherwise the risk is that the system will not perform correctly, also with very expensive components. This is a universal rule. Keep it always in mind when you assemble your hi-fi system. Another thing are the balanced outputs faced with a circuit that is not balanced.

 

Inside, the power supply is underdimensioned and there is an invasive use of op amps. There is no transformer, no coils…nothing, only microchips of every shapes, luckily of low noise. Positive is also the brevity of the signal paths, which enables the M1 to reach a remarkable level of signal to noise ratio: 90 dB for the MM and 88 for the MC.

 

Be indulgent if I insist on the importance of eliminating the noise floor of the electronic devices, mostly in the phono stages. The ground silence is fundamental: it is the lifeblood of the reproduced music. Imagine yourselves comfortable seated in the first rows of an Auditorium to listen to your favourite musician in a live event. You have paid one hundred euro for the ticket and all of a sudden at your left side seats an anxiety-inducing Jane Doe who texts to her boyfriends and at your right side a bad lot who bolts pop-corn and coca-cola: dear friends…you have wasted one hundred euro!

 

Beyond the metaphor, noise reduction is a golden point of this machine. What immediately follows is an innate aptitude in taking out the details, even the more hidden, and the micro nuances, at the boundaries of the subsonic.

 

To have a confirmation listen to Tudo bem!, by Joe Pass, Pablo Records, where the most virtuoso of the jazz guitarists, fulminates on the road to Rio de Janeiro and to Carnavao, takes into the studio the great percussionist Paulinho da Costa and his band, to give us a fresh oasis of Brazil, proposing melodic standards of authors like Jobim, Deodato, Oscar Neves, Marcos Valle, Roberto Manescal and others, filtered by his worthy instrumental style. The smiling Paulinho hits everything around him, wood, metal, peels and other sounding objects that I have not been able to recognize but that I heard thanks to the Musical Fidelity. Nothing escapes from its tights tangles. The attacks are clean and rapid, although with a decay too much fast. More sustain would have been desirable. The huge quantity of details gives a good spatial presentation, with a wide scene although defective in depth.

This weakness affects the three-dimensional relation among the instruments, degrading the ambience and making the soundstage thinner. It seems that the musicians are in the same row, also in the soloist interludes. Although the holographic reproduction is remarkable, the listener is not stimulated in chasing, not only through the hearing, but through all the senses, the instrumental micro nuances in all the three dimensions of the room. For sure, rarely I have had the chance of listening to such cleanness and high fidelity in phono stages of the same category than the M1 ViNL.

 

A partial overtaking of these primary sensations has happened when the cartridge has started to track the grooves of the Opera Daphnis et Chloè, by Maurice Ravel, EMI Testament, performed by Andrè Cluytens and the Orchestre de la Société des Concert du Conservatoire Paris. A magnificent, sumptuous performance, without sharpness or metallic sounds, full of airiness and extension, rich of detail, with a density of instruments positioned on different depth stages, with the pleasant result of a spatiality closer to the reality, and of a much more electrifying sound. In some passages, I have felt little refinement and little weight of the bass lines, besides some shrill notes in the high pitches of the strings.

The M1 is not a real dynamic genius. To appreciate its qualities you have to pump up the volume. The designed based on the opamps, rather than on a pair of good transformers, fatally orients linearity and tone, projecting it in a pseudo-analogue dimension. I mean that the original recordings are polluted by a digital patina that strip them of naturalness and heat. In sum it deprives them of a part of the soul. The playback is aesthetically perfect, gorgeous, fluid, rich, reliable, appealing, but artificial, android, like Rachel in Bladerunner.

 

The performances of the MF phono stage are however surprising. I think that the design efforts have reach the goal of expressing the highest level of realism for this price range. Notwithstanding objective limits to reveal all the potential held in the grooves of a black record, this small big phono preamp - thanks to its versatility and simplicity of use - has all the stuff to take by hand also the inveterate lover of the MP3 and accompany him, like a modern Virgil, in the supernatural world of the vinyl.

 

 

SCHEME SUMMARY

top score ✳✳✳✳✳ ReMusic Sparks

Tone colour: ✳✳✳ | How much balanced and natural can be an analogue recording reproduced by operational amplifiers? There is no blood in the veins.

Dynamics: ✳✳✳ | There is no slam. That emission of sound, that waves of notes that assails you also with one volume notch are missing.

Detail: ✳✳✳✳✳ | At a certain point you are urged to say “Stop! I get it!”

Clearness: ✳✳✳✳ | Transparency and cleanness, on a bed of silence. More effective in the studio reproduction than in the live event.

Image: ✳✳✳1/2 | It is not all that difficult to understand that the dimensions are three.

Tone: ✳✳✳ | No colouring. Ah! Ah! I was kidding.

 

Official technical specifications:

MM input

Frequency response: RIAA or RIAA/IEC (selectable) ±0.2dB

Input sensitivity: 3mV in for 300mV out (at 1 kHz)

Input impedance: 47KΩ or 68KΩ selectable

Input capacitance: 50-400pF selectable

THD: at 1 kHz <0.01%

Overload margin: 31dB

Signal to noise ratio: >90dB “A”-wtd.

MC input

Frequency response RIAA or RIAA/IEC (selectable) ±0.2dB

Input sensitivity 500μV in for 300mV out (at 1 kHz)

Input impedance 10Ω to 47KΩ selectable

Input capacitance 470pF fixed

THD at 1 kHz <0.01%

Overload margin 31dB

Signal to noise ratio >88dB “A”-wtd.

Line level outputs

1 pair RCA (phono) left and right 300mV nom 10V max

1 pair XLR (balanced) left and right 600mV nom 20V max

Trigger control

Input 3.5mm (⅛”) mono jack ±4.5 to ±15V DC

Output 3.5mm (⅛”) mono jack +12V DC

Power requirement

Mains voltages 80-250V AC 50/60Hz universal power supply

Consumption 10 Watts maximum

<0.5W in standby (orange LED on)

Weight

Unit only, unboxed 3.5 kg (7¾ lbs)

In shipping carton 4.0 kg (8⅞ lbs) including accessories

Dimensions

220 mm (8⅔”) Wide

100 mm (4”) High, including feet

300 mm (12”) Deep (front to back) including terminals

Standard accessories

IEC moulded mains lead 10-Amp type

 

Official Italian dealer: to SO website

Official current price in Italy: 876.00 EUR

Associated equipment: to Giuseppe "MinGius" Trotto system

by Giuseppe Trotto
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