April 2000Magnum Dynalab MD 208 Receiver
by Doug Schneider
Boxes, cables and connectors -- and more boxes, cables and connectors: Such is the system of an equipment-reviewing audiophile. Separate components abound, wires connect it all together, and the result is a mess of massive electronics splayed to and fro. At least thats the way it is around my house. Truth be told, although my system sounds really good, and I mean really good, many times I wish I could send it all back for some simplicity and convenience. And theres really only one way to do that -- fewer boxes, cables and connectors.
Magnum Dynalab is an established audio company whose name is synonymous with high-quality FM tuners. In fact, Ive heard some describe the company as simply the best at what it does. The lowest-priced standalone Magnum Dynalab tuner is the $875 FT-101A and the most expensive is the $5500 MD 108. You wont find an AM tuner among MD products, including the MD 208 receiver. What Magnum Dynalab is about is high-quality sound, and AM radio, no matter what way you bring it in, doesnt really accomplish this.
So what makes sense for a company whose expertise is in FM-radio reception? Some may suggest developing expertise in digital technology for the next wave of radio reception. Perhaps Magnum Dynalab is doing this -- I dont know. However, saner minds have prevailed. FM radio, what weve known and listened to for decades, is here and will be here for a long time to come. So the direction Magnum Dynalab has taken right now is the right one, at least in my estimation. Theyve taken their current expertise in tuner technology and leveraged the "strategic alliance" theyve formed with the highly respected Canadian-based electronics manufacturer Simaudio and made a high-quality product that will appeal to those who want simplicity and convenience. The result is the $2775 MD 208 -- an extremely well-built, very attractive high-end stereo receiver at what is a modest price given its construction, performance and features.
The MD 208 is really a mixture of a few very good products built into one gorgeous chassis. Controlling all this is a seriously rugged, very heavy, all-metal remote control with basic functionality to control the power, volume, channel balance and input selection.
At the MD 208s core is a 100Wpc solid-state stereo power amplifier with preamplifier section. In developing this, Magnum Dynalab worked closely with Simaudio, a company that is becoming increasingly well known for producing some of the finest solid-state electronics in the business. Whats included here is a push-pull, solid-state amplifier section capable of delivering 100Wpc continuously into 8 ohms and 160Wpc into 4 ohms. Unless you have some really unruly speakers, this amplifier will easily drive most loudspeakers on the market to high volume levels, as it did in my room.
The preamplifier section has a digitally controlled volume control, balance control (adjustable through the remote control) and six line-level inputs (five auxiliary inputs and one CD input). Flanking the back of the chassis are the six single-ended inputs and a preamplifier output. They are all good-quality RCA jacks. There is also a tape loop that can be used for recording, and allows flexibility for something like a surround processor to be added to the signal path. (Magnum Dynalab also offers the MD 10 Virtual Surround Sound Decoder that creates a surround-sound image from only stereo speakers.) Also on the back of the chassis are speaker connectors of good quality, but as is becoming increasingly common these days, ones that don't accommodate large spade lugs very well. Any which way I tried, the small slot at the bottom of the connector just wouldnt allow the spades in. Seeing no other way to connect my speakers, I changed to banana-plug-terminated cables, which worked like a charm. Incidentally, the banana plug is the termination Im recommending to almost everyone these days to avoid the increasingly common "spade lugs wont fit" dilemma. (Magnum Dynalab has informed me that the current run of MD 208s uses more standard posts that allow better spade connection.)
The tuner section is classic Magnum Dynalab -- simple, elegant and of very high performance. The company tells me that the tuner incorporated into the MD 208 is based on the existing Etude tuner as well as the new MD 102 tuner. Theres not much to operating it. Turn it on by selecting the appropriate input and start rotating the big dial on the front right to hear extremely good FM reception. There is not much gadgetry other than a couple of buttons and the two meters shining in the front window. The left meter tells the signal strength while the right tuning meter gives a precise reading to dial the station in exactly.
Overall, the MD 208 is a snap to operate and has a feature set that can be described as decidedly minimalistic. You wont find tone controls or the like on this audiophile-only piece. Still, despite its simplicity, a couple things did confuse me at first. Once the unit is plugged in and the switch is turned on at the back (this "switch" is always left on to keep the unit partially powered up for best performance), there are just seven buttons running the base of the front panel, and one of these is marked power. Simple enough? Almost, but not quite -- at least for those, like me, who dont read the manual.
There is stuff like the input button, which simply selects the source, whether that be CD, a tape deck, etc. There is also the signal button, which turns off the tuner signal-level meters, and a few other buttons you probably wont use much. Those were easy enough. However, it was the mute and stereo buttons that really confused me. I assumed that these would universally work for all inputs -- and I was wrong. They only work on the tuner section. Adding more confusion to this is the fact that the mute button doesnt really mute in the usual sense. What it does do is shut off the between-station noise when tuning to different radio frequencies (with the mute engaged you can still hear the station once tuned in). As for the stereo button, it again only affects the tuner. It toggles between mono and stereo mode should, say, signal strength not be strong enough to get good sound in stereo. The stereo button does nothing when playing CDs or any other source. Once I figured all this out, the MD 208 was simple to operate, but...
While I can live without a toggle for stereo and mono, I did miss the convenience of a real mute button. I like the ability to reduce the volume quickly should, say, the phone ring. As it stands right now, you have to decrease and increase the volume, which is simple, but a bit of a pain since it takes a few seconds. Then, the lights went on in my head. I figured that since Simaudio had been involved in the design, the remote-control functionality may be similar to, if not the same as, whats in their own units. I just happened to have a Simaudio multifunction remote control around for their Moon Eclipse CD player that I have in-house for review. That remote control operates all of the Moon components, including the preamplifiers. And yes, it does have a mute button -- a real mute. A simple point and click revealed that it worked just fine on the MD 208. Should you really need a mute feature, be aware that it is in there, at least on my unit, and there is a way to get to it.
Despite those few functional nit-picks, there is nothing to criticize about the styling of the MD 208. At 19"W by 6"H by 15.5"D and weighing in at 30 pounds, it is certainly not small, but it has nice touches that make it very elegant. Its more like furniture than a clunky audio component. For that reason alone I feel it will find its way into the heart of many living and listening rooms, just like those old console stereo/radios did decades ago.
I particularly liked the way Magnum Dynalab rounded the heatsinks at the back half of the side panels and then blended them into the wood panels that run to the front. The choice of wood color is good too. It has a rich, reddish appearance that works exceedingly well with the black metal. The front panel has a thick, black faceplate that is set off nicely with a large window that shows the input selection and volume in red digital letters, with the two goldish-white meters for the tuner. All in all, the MD 208 is a snazzy-looking unit.
I placed this sharp looker in my main system and used it with a number of digital sources including my Theta Data Basic transport into a Bel Canto Design DAC1, and then used both the Simaudio Moon Eclipse and Audio Aero Capitole CD players when those arrived for review. Speakers, for the most part, were all of moderate efficiency (about 86-88dB sensitivity) and included the likes of the Cliffhanger Audio CHS-2 and the Dynaudio Audience 40s. Toward the end of the review, I was able to use the MD 208 with Cliffhangers new Bulldog, a speaker that needs some brute-force power. Cabling was all by Nirvana Audio. I connected a simple wire antenna for FM reception, and because I'm in an area where reception is not a problem, it worked just fine.
It wasnt hard for me to hear the family heritage of Simaudio products in this amplifier design. Ive listened and become increasingly impressed with Simaudio's power and integrated amplifiers. Their newest designs, particularly in the Moon series, have an astounding sense of immediacy and neutrality. They are not bright or edgy and always sound very natural. With full frequency extension in the highs and lows, they have a seemingly unlimited sense of power. Those virtues extend to the MD 208.
Sound by comparison
A while back I reviewed the excellent $2595 Moon I-5 integrated amplifier, and my impressions are that the MD 208 has a sonic signature that is very close to that of the I-5, if perhaps just a little bit less refined, which I will touch on below. A nice comparison would have been to the $1295 Celeste I-5080 amplifier that was reviewed in SoundStage! by Paul Schumann. Unfortunately, logistics didnt allow for this.
Like the I-5, the MD 208 is lean and quick-sounding with excellent frequency extension. Instruments like piano and drums are rendered with weight and authority, but without any overhang or woolly quality that can obscure clarity. Vocals have excellent detail and body with a decent amount of palpability for a solid-state amp, but not the robustness of, say, an amplifier with classic tube-like sound or even some solid-state amps that have a warmer, fuller sound in the midrange. High frequencies are very well extended and not bright, edgy or grainy-sounding, as is often heard from lower-quality units.
When I received the Simaudio Moon Eclipse and Audio Aero Capitole CD players for review (which retail for $5000 and above), I immediately hooked them to the MD 208. Perhaps both these would be considered ill-matched in terms of their price relationship to the MD 208, but the results did prove interesting enough to talk about since the MD 208 proved itself deserving of this type of source up front. I found the MD 208 capable of revealing the differences in these excellent but subtly different source components. In fact, when I was testing different operational modes of the Eclipse, as well as doing initial comparisons to other components, I did it with the MD 208. And when listening to the smooth and liquid-sounding Capitole, I realized that if some listeners yearn for a little more tube-like richness with the MD 208, they can have it in the source since the MD 208 will let those qualities flow through. Resolution and detail, while not necessarily the pinnacle of amplifier design, are very good and can be considered excellent at the price point.
The MD 208 can throw a wide and stable soundstage that seems to hold firm at all volume levels. Ability to display depth is also good, but other amps, say like my $6300 Blue Circle mono amplifiers, which are some of the very best in this regard, do a bit better of a job in that department. A favorite depth test, "Virtue" from Ani Difrancos Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe Music RBR013-D], had excellent specificity through the MD 208, but the percussion at the back wall was foreshortened just a tad.
I found the MD 208 to have power to spare and feel it suitable for the majority of the speakers available today. Although Im sure that there are some speakers that can tax the MD 208's 100Wpc reserves to the limit (perhaps very low-efficiency speakers in massive rooms), I was able to crank the music to ear-splitting levels. I never found myself wanting for more power. To prove this point, I allowed the MD 208 to flex a little muscle with Cliffhanger Audios new Bulldog loudspeaker. This extremely large, stand-mounted speaker has lowish efficiency and an impedance that dips down to 5 ohms with a few nasty swings that can be a bit unwieldy for some power amplifiers. Tubes, for the most part, arent suitable for this speaker, and neither are lower-powered solid-state amplifiers. The MD 208 powered this speaker to very high volumes and never showed fatigue. Combined with the MD 208's excellent neutrality and tonality, whatever music I threw at it, whether jazz, classical, folk or hard rock, was handled with ease.
If there is something to criticize in an absolute sense, the MD 208 as a pre and power amplifier is, perhaps, a tad less pristine and not quite as ultra smooth as what you hear in some of the very best amplifiers today. When you pay more for a power amplifier, many times you get more power, but you also pay rather large sums of money for what are, in essence, very small improvements. While some of the improvements may be irrelevant and even indistinguishable to some, in the world of high-end audio, all-out performance regardless of price becomes the name of the game. Obtaining the last bit of pristine clarity in the midrange, achieving ultimate air and extension in the highest frequencies, and getting deep and powerful bass with ultimate refinement and detail are some of those things you pay for. You may also get an increase in microdynamic performance, which is, more or less, a lowering of the noise floor that results in things that some describe as "blacker" sonic backgrounds -- in other words, the quiets are more quiet and there is a more stark contrast between sounds. The MD 208 doesnt have quite that level of performance, but the fact that I even bring this up means that it still performs to a very high standard.
While the sound of the tuner in a component like this is obviously crucial, Id first like to touch on the importance of having a tuner -- if not one of this quality, then at least some sort of tuner. A reflective moment happened just moments ago as I was writing this part of the review. I was listening to the MD 208s tuner section when Cheap Tricks "Surrender" and Hearts "Dreamboat Annie" were played back to back on a classic-rock station. I dont have these on CD or vinyl, but I like them a lot. It caused me to stop typing as I was transported to memories from my teen years. Since I doubt, even now, that I will run out and buy the CDs on which these songs appear, it struck me how important it is to have a tuner that allows music lovers free access to a wealth of great music they might not otherwise go out and buy. Perhaps those songs wont strike you the same way, but others surely will. Whats more, with a good selection of stations, having a tuner is a great way to learn about music you may never otherwise get exposed to.
Regarding the performance of the tuner, I found it splendid and every bit the equal to the quality amplifier section. Tuning in is a snap, and sensitivity seems excellent. Im not in a troublesome reception area, so wrangling in plenty of stations proved easy. Bringing in all those stations did bring up a functional limitation, mind you. There are no station presets on the MD 208. To change a station, you must go to the big dial on the right and start turning. Not a big deal, and it does go along with the minimalistic nature of the piece, but it is a little inconvenient.
Undoubtedly, for nit-picking audiophiles who labor over every cable, connector and isolator in their systems, leaving the source of the music to some radio station located who knows where, using who-knows-what type of CD player (or turntable) to spin their discs will be a source of stress and consternation. However, once these concerns are set aside, it is hard to fault the fidelity of the tuner contained here. There is a bell-like clarity to Magnum Dynalab tuners. People used to listening to grainy radio will be in for a shock because this sounds extremely good and wholly suitable for a high-end system. Its also exceedingly easy to hear the broadcast quality (or lack of quality) of various stations.
I listened to the tuner section so much while working, tuning in a wide variety of stations, that I ended up jumping into the listening chair countless times when I would hear a song play that I knew very well from my CD collection. One in particular was Blue Rodeos "Falling Down Blue" from their Tremolo CD [WEA CD 19253]. It's an excellent vocal recording with nicely rendered piano and cymbals. No, the tuner could not match what my CD player could reproduce (if it could, frankly, I would be dumbstruck, because I can imagine the quality of electronics and associated components the radio station uses in comparison); still, I marveled at the fidelity that this tuner is capable of. If you dont think FM is a high-quality source, then I encourage you to rush out and audition a tuner of this caliber. You will find it hard to live without.
The MD 208 is an important product. High-end receivers of this caliber are a very rare breed. While $2775 is certainly not inexpensive, you must consider the quality of the components inside and the excellent build quality outside. Added up, the MD 208 is a very good value and leaps and bounds better than what you normally associate with receiver products. This isnt to say that someone could not spend equal the amount of money on either an integrated amplifier or a tuner and get better performance -- you can. For example, Simaudios excellent Moon I-5 integrated amplifier offers a slight step up in amplifier performance for $2595, but thats with no tuner. Magnum Dynalab has their own MD 102 standalone tuner, built to a higher standard, that undoubtedly outperforms whats included here, but thats $2400. And what about if you try separates for the same amount of money? Perhaps someone could go for Magnum Dynalabs FT-101A ($875) or Etude ($1350) tuner. That would still mean that you would have to come up with as good of an amplifier section for either a little or lot less than $2000, depending on the tuner selected. That wouldnt be easy since whats here is wholly competitive in the $2000 camp. And never mind the fact that you would have two boxes and the associated cables.
Its the combined package that makes the MD 208 a unique and formidable product. No, its not for people who want a rich feature set and may not necessarily be the right choice for those pursuing cost-no-object performance. But it is perfect for those who want simplicity with top-flight sound and outstanding build quality in a convenient package. In fact, Im not sure there is anything else quite like the MD 208. That makes it special, and I hope those waiting for something like the MD 208 will run out and audition it. In the market niche that it occupies, the Magnum Dynalab MD 208 is a top-notch piece of audio gear that has very few, if any, competitors.
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