When asked to review the Musical Fidelity A300 integrated amplifier, I was a bit, well, skeptical. You see, integrated amplifiers and I had long since parted company, my tortured soul being wooed by the performance gains brought about by the separation of power supplies and associated trinkets that dwell within a big, singular chassis. Ah, well, some things are just made to bring us back to reality and give us pause to wonder why we do what we do.
So what does $1695 USD buy you?
Out of the box, the understated 17 3/8"W x 4 1/2"H x 15 3/4"D A300 impressed me with its subtle cosmetics, solid build and substantial weight, which I later confirmed to be 35 pounds. Heck, even the large, glitzy volume knob electroplated with 22k gold grew on me after a while.
The A300 integrated is a minimalist design. It eschews all but the most necessary switching controls, although it includes a cool, handy little remote to cover the input switching and volume control/muting functions from the comfort of your "oh so sweet spot" listening position. Other features include a set of preamp outputs for those who may wish to drive a second amplifier, or add an A3 power amp for biamping. Musical Fidelity quotes 150Wpc available at 8 ohms (250Wpc at 4 ohms) with peak current capability of 20 amps. While I dont have measurements to back this up, nothing I heard would indicate that there is any less than ample reserve power available from the A300.
Taking its cues from the highly regarded A3 series, the A300 offers some innovative features under the cover, including a moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage, which I didnt have the opportunity to try. I know -- Im one of those bad audiophiles who gave up his vinyl collection some years ago, along with his turntable, in favor of the silver disc. Also on the hit list are such niceties as dual-mono power-amplifier modules, and separate transformer windings for the preamplifier as well as the digital remote-control electronics.
The build quality is excellent. However, one operational quibble I had with the A300 concerned the connection arrangement on the back panel. The left set of speaker-cable binding posts is awkwardly close to the main IEC power connection, giving rise to fits of audiophile nervosa for those of us using thick speaker cables and an after-market power cord the size of a garden hose. Even Musical Fidelitys own NuVista speaker cable gave me grief working it around the IEC power inlet.
For this review, I listened to the A300 in the company of a companion Musical Fidelity A3CD CD player (reviewed by Wes Phillips on www.onhifi.com), along with Musical Fidelity NuVista interconnects and speaker cables. I also had on hand my Transparent Ultra interconnects and Music Wave Super speaker cables. Speakers were either Monitor Audio GR 10s or B&W Nautilus 804s. Power cords for the A300 and A3CD were Blue Circle BC62s, borrowed from my displaced BC8 monoblocks, which shared time with a Blue Circle BC3000 preamp.
Getting jiggy with it
For someone who has been on a steady diet of upper-end separates lately, it was indeed refreshing to discover that a large percentage of the sound I normally associate with big-dollar gear can be found in something as approachable as the A300. In terms of what the A300 does, it perhaps might be more appropriate to talk about what the A300 doesnt do first. Complex music doesnt perturb the A300; it simply cruises through it. This is something I usually have not equated with the performance of an integrated amplifier, with the possible exception of the big Levinson No.383, perhaps one of the best of the genre. One of my favorite complex discs is the soundtrack from Titanic [Sony 63213], which is loaded with many varying layers of instrumentation. The A300 did a fine job of sorting out "The Sinking" while still managing to keep things part of the contiguous whole.
The A300 doesnt inflict too much of itself onto the music either. By this I mean that although it does have a subtly identifiable character, it is not so invasive that it interferes with its ability to play whatever variety of music thrown its way. So what is that slight character I refer to? A non-flashy sort of musicality. Some listeners may find that the A300 isnt vibrant or exciting enough, or that its lacking the bloom and sparkle of some tube gear, or that it doesn't offer the last amount of see-through ability that is the hallmark of much big-dollar gear. However, it excels at control, both controlling the speaker it's connected to and the signal as its source.
Listening to the Musical Fidelity A3CD CD player along with the A300 and Monitor Audio GR 10 speakers in my smaller room (9"W x 12"L x 8"H) connected with the Musical Fidelity NuVista interconnects and speaker cables showed this combination to be very capable. Together this system made a great case for itself, displaying fine resolution, depth and balance. The A300 was certainly up to generating room-filling volume levels in this situation, but more importantly it created an intimate performance of Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson playing "How Long has This Been Going On?" from the JVC XRCD Ella and Oscar [Victor VICJ-60097]. Both the natural tonality of the piano and Ellas voice were well portrayed.
The biggest surprise came when I moved the A300 and A3CD player into the main room, using the A300 to power my B&W Nautilus 804 speakers. I have commented in the past that the Nautilus 804 is a fine speaker when partnered with gear that is capable of making it really sing. Well, I think I have finally found what I consider to be an almost symbiotic relationship, and perhaps most importantly, an integrated amplifier with which I can suitably recommend driving the Nautilus 804s with little compromise. The smooth, controlled nature of the A300 made it a natural mate for the Nautilus 804s, and along with the A3CD player together formed a truly potent system capable of standing toe to toe with the fully dressed-up and ready-to-rumble big rig.
Which leads to comparisons
Substituting the A300 integrated amplifier for my reference Blue Circle BC8 monoblocks and BC3000 preamp had me partially questioning my own sanity. But Im glad I made the switch. It gave me reason to question what it is that the extra money really buys a music lover. It does indeed buy a higher level of performance, and for those who choose this pursuit, the Blue Circle electronics can be a worthwhile venture. However, I now have a recommendation to my friends and business associates who want performance at a manageable price that comes mighty close to the upper crust: buy a Musical Fidelity A300.
The Blue Circle pair conveys music more dynamically, with bigger swings on the macro level while retaining focus on the micro components embedded within. The A300 sounds, by comparison, slightly compressed, not achieving the same ability to explode and capture the full glory of the event. Midrange clarity for both the A300 and Blue Circle combo was exemplary. Not surprisingly, the BC3000 and BC8s were more capable in revealing a deeper level of detailing, with a broader, more articulate soundstage. The bass on the Blue Circle combo is more visceral and grand, revealing greater articulation and snap. The A300 sounds a touch slow and lacking in focus by comparison, but again only by comparison. Listening to Sades "Slave Song" from Lovers Rock [Epic EK85185] bore this out fairly quickly. The A300 showed good punch and extension down low, but it didnt quite display the same ability to track the punchy synthetic bass line that underlines this number. The A300s highs are sweet and never aggressive, which to me is a major blessing at any price point and is also one of the Blue Circle combos strengths. The A300 displayed a very slight electronic grain in comparison, but it certainly was smoother and more informative up top than I ever expected a $1695 integrated amp to be.
It is important to remember here that I dragged the $1695 A300 into the ring against close to $12,000 worth of gear. The fact that it was able to retain its charming demeanor in this heady competition goes a long way toward validating the true value of the A300.
Capable of handling real-world speakers with ease and distinction, the Musical Fidelity A300 integrated amp is destined to become a classic for many an audiophile, and for many music lovers who simply want something better than an average receiver but not the complexity of separates. Although the A300 may not be blessed with a plethora of features, it has enough useful features to form the heart and soul of a fine audio system.
But what really impressed me about the Musical Fidelity A300 was its ability to hang tough with the big boys and make no apologies for itself. This is a testament to the high level of value that Musical Fidelity has achieved with this integrated amplifier. I know of no better example of a Reviewers' Choice product.
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