Some reviews write themselves. In those instances, a product that has a distinct sonic signature, an idiosyncratic design, or a dramatic appearance can get a reviewers juices flowing and assist him in writing snappy prose and spicy metaphors. Whether this product is a good sonic example of its breed is often irrelevant. The fact that its provocative can make all the difference.
Other products can make a reviewers life difficult. The A3.2 integrated amplifier from Musical Fidelity is one such example. While this may seem to be a bad thing, its only that way for me, the reviewer. For you, the prospective purchaser, its a very good thing indeed. Why? Well, the A3.2 works well and sounds great. There we go -- review over.
But Im getting ahead of myself here. What is this integrated amplifier thats working me out of a job? Let me explain.
Slow and steady wins the race
Musical Fidelity is an innovative company. Theyve built their reputation on solidly designed gear that delivers high-end sound at a reasonable price. A few years ago they introduced two integrated amplifiers, the A300 and the A3, which were somewhat similar in both layout and price. Both of these integrateds garnered rave reviews in the audio press, and the A300 received a Reviewers Choice nod here at SoundStage!.
Musical Fidelity discontinued both the A300 and the A3, replacing them with the A3.2, which falls in the middle of the previous two models in both power and price. The A3.2 has more power than the A3 and a lower price than the A300, so it makes sense for Musical Fidelity to consolidate these two models into one.
In much the same manner as its predecessors, the $1495 USD A3.2 is a minimalist integrated amplifier that still manages to have enough inputs and features to satisfy the requirements of most systems. There are four inputs, plus a phono section and tape loop. The connectors are rather closely spaced, but of decent quality. Theyre attached to the circuit board rather than the chassis, so care is needed when using tight-fitting interconnects. The binding posts are of the sturdy plastic-nut variety and are much less dramatic than the tough-guy NuVista monsters that adorned the A300. The power cord is detachable and generic. The A3.2 never got more than slightly warm, yet its two output devices per channel seemed more than up to producing the rated 115Wpc (185 watts into 4 ohms).
The built-in phono section accepts both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges, which you select between via a button on the back panel. The gain isnt specified, but the manual says that the A3.2 will accept cartridges with outputs varying between 3.5mV and .35mV. There are no facilities for loading of cartridges; 47k ohms is used by default.
At 27 pounds, and 17"W x 3 3/4"H x 15 3/4"D, the A3.2 is a heavy but compact unit. The faceplate is 1/4" aluminum with a brushed finish. The trim and volume knob (theres no balance control) are also brushed metal, but with a coarser grain than the faceplate. I personally prefer the polished gold trim of the A300, but hey -- I like gaudy stuff. That volume knob is controlled from the accompanying full-featured remote. Its range is somewhat limited, as at anything over 17 feet I had to kind of wave it around to get the A3.2s attention. This remote has a full range of controls for other Musical Fidelity products, including their CD player, and allows switching between sources, control of volume and mute on the A3.2. Despite the remote's complexity, I only used the volume control (which is tricky to find in the dark) and mute -- I preferred the older, more compact five-button unit.
Internally the A3.2 is built very well. Each channel has its own bagel-sized toroidial transformer, and the circuit board has thick traces that are stuffed with parts of superior quality. In comparison to the A3, Musical Fidelity claims a reduction in power-supply noise for the A3.2, which is said to result in better soundstage width and depth as well as better image focus.
When I first received the A3.2, I installed it in my upstairs system, driving Tannoy TD10 speakers. The Musical Fidelity integrated amplifier replaced my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 line stage, and an Audio Aero TransTrac hybrid amplifier. Think about that: a $1495 integrated amplifier headlining after a $10,000 opening act. The Musical Fidelity integrated had its work cut out for it! The source here was a Rotel RCD-975 CD player used as a transport for an Audio Aero Prima DAC. Cables were Acoustic Zen Satori to the speakers and Stealth interconnects between the sources.
When I moved the A3.2 downstairs into my main listening room, It was driving Hales Transcendence Five speakers via AudioQuest Midnight speaker cables. The source was my Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz/Shiraz combo, and interconnects were the superb Acoustic Zen Matrix. All components were plugged into a Chang Lightspeed power conditioner.
One hand clapping
Since Ive written about and lived with the A300, which is the A3.2s kissing cousin, the sound of the A3.2 came as no surprise. Ice cold and with no break-in, the A3.2 gave forth solid, controlled, neutral and detailed sound. Yet this doesnt tell the whole story.
As with the A300, the A3.2 has a musical, harmonically right nature. Compared to the best of tube gear, solid-state amplification at the A3.2s price point tends to lack richness and expressiveness, substituting a sterility that sucks some of the life from music (keep in mind that Im contrasting gear at wildly different price points!). Many people misconstrue this tube richness for additive distortion. However, the A3.2 captures some significant aspects of this tube magic while definitely not adding any artifacts of its own.
Hard bop is a musical form that relies heavily on timing and drive for its emotional impact, but should a component inject any sense of thinness or sterility, much of the accompanying soul can get left behind. One of the first recordings I spun up through the A3.2 was Freddie Hubbards Ready for Freddie [Blue Note B1 7243 8 32094 1 5]. The A3.2 gave me all of that timing and drive without bleaching the sound in the way Id expect from a mid-priced integrated.
Argentinas a long way from Chicago, but Astor Piazzollas Zero Hour [Pangea PAN-42138] confirmed the A3.2s ability to portray the soul of the music. This albums nuevo tango goes from sparse and delicate to dense and intricate, with a wonderful sense of air around the instruments, especially the bowed bass and that crazy bandoneon. The A3.2 presented the hall intact and did nothing to tamper with the wonderful richness and complexity of this recording. In fact, the deep, rich tone of the bowed bass made me do a double take -- were my tube monoblocks still hooked up? Cellos and basses are wonderfully served by the A3.2, as it has solid and detailed upper bass that serves to highlight the rosin on the bows of these instruments without adding any sense of bloat.
Speaking of the bass, unless I consciously paid attention, the A3.2s lower registers didnt call attention to themselves. This isnt to say that the bass was thin or weak -- quite the contrary, as the Musical Fidelity integrated controlled my Hales Transcendence Fives 10" woofers with ease. But the natural, organic nature of the bass meant that I wasnt constantly bombarded with bass pyrotechnics. Instead, a bass guitar sounded like a bass guitar, and kickdrum shook the room, as it should. I noticed the music, rather than the bass as a separate entity.
Solo instruments and voice often show what a component does best, while dense, complicated music is full of opportunities to trip that same component up. When I want to lay a component bare, I listen to Mr. Bungles California [Ipecac 947447-2]. This album has earned me enemies at hi-fi shows, partly because its challenging to listen to but mostly because it can reduce some speakers and low-powered amplifiers to smoking, amusical rubble. So I slapped this CD into the player and let it rip. This time, however, there was no letdown. The soundstage didnt collapse into a pile of indistinct sounds and blurry images. Instead, each instrument and voice on "Goodbye Sober Day" retained its precise location in space. The power reserves of the A3.2 kept this track coherent, dynamic and, most importantly, didnt allow any sense of fatigue to add to the stress that this music naturally evokes. The A3.2 has a sense of poise and significant dynamic punch that allows it to track complicated music with ease.
Through the midrange, the Musical Fidelity A3.2 proved to be articulate and tuneful. The A3.2s midrange is a touch on the lean side, which has the effect of accentuating the attack and leading edge of transients as opposed to the body of those sounds. I noticed this while listening to Alice [Anti 86632-1], which, along with its companion album Blood Money [Anti- 86629], is Tom Waits latest dose of misery. Waits voice has a growl that sounds as though its being coughed up from the bottom of a tar pit, and via the A3.2, just the tiniest bit of that rattling phlegm was missing in action.
Up higher in the midrange, that slight incisiveness of the A3.2 gave the assorted percussion on Talking Heads Little Creatures [Sire 92 53051 ] a sense of dynamic attack that really grabbed my attention and made me put down the rather mediocre sci-fi novel that I was struggling through. The drums and other percussion instruments on "Walk It Down" floated in a detailed and realistic soundfield and had tons of energy and snap. This track perhaps best characterizes the sound of the A3.2 -- both the music and the A3.2 were incisive, dynamic and full of energy.
That snappy midrange didnt, as is sometimes the case, culminate in a bright or etched treble. The A3.2s high frequencies were smooth, detailed and grain-free, while still keeping an excellent sense of extension. When the highs on a recording are a touch hot, the A3.2 shows them as such, but the beauty of this integrated amp is that it in no way portrays this characteristic as worse than it is. Take the Astor Piazzolla LP I mentioned earlier; Zero Hour is recorded up close and personal, and the violin has a bit of an abrasive flavor. While I was aware of this recordings perspective, the A3.2 in no way encouraged me to turn the music down or off.
And when a recording has great highs, this British integrated amplifiers extension and lack of grain and etch makes the best of it. The Tannoy TD10s have an astonishingly sweet and pure treble, so pretty much any amplifier shows its best via these warm and friendly speakers. So it was with the A3.2. The cymbal work on "Let it Rain" from Patricia Barbers Modern Cool [Premonition 21811] sounded as delicate as it has with any amp. My Hales speakers, however, are somewhat more analytical, which makes the partnering amplifier a more crucial choice. The A3.2 held up its end of the game here as well, giving up very little to my reference all-tube setup. The Musical Fidelity integrated retained the silky richness of the cymbals without either smearing the image or lapsing into hardness.
Listening to the phono stage
Based on the quality of the rest of the integrated amp, I expected big things from the A3.2s phono stage, but unfortunately the results were only very good, and not excellent. Admittedly, my low-output Roksan Shiraz isnt exactly the type of budget cartridge thats likely to find a home with the A3.2, but its what Im used to. The Shirazs 0.3mv output is on the low side, but the A3.2 had plenty of gain and was very quiet, with no hiss and negligible hum. Thats a big plus in my book.
Bass via the A3.2s phono stage was good, with the utmost extension missing in action, but the region just above, say 50Hz, was as firm and taught as the rest of the integrated's sound. The basic character of the A3.2, namely its slightly lean, dynamic upper bass and midrange, carried through via the phono section. While the A3.2 imaged superbly though the line stage, the phono section presented instruments in much more of a two-dimensional manner. Some of the holographic depth that I value so highly was missing in action in comparison to my Sonic Frontiers tubed phono stage. Also in absolute terms, the highs took on a grainy character that added an aggressive edge to percussion and female vocals.
Please make certain that you keep this in perspective: I was comparing the built-in phono stage of a $1495 integrated to a standalone tube unit that retailed for over $1000 when it was available. Considered on its own merit, the phono section of the A3.2 sounds better than youd expect when you consider the price of admission.
The younger kid gets all the attention
Since I happen to own it, the A300 is a natural to compare against the new A3.2. Visually, the two integrateds are from the same cloth, except for the gold trim on the A300 and the blue LEDs on the A3.2. Personal taste will be the determining factor here.
Aurally, theyre cut from the same cloth too, which is as youd expect, given the close family history. Both the A300 and the A3.2 have that sense of harmonic ease, but they do differ in some significant ways. Down in the basement, the A300 is a touch more full than the A3.2. The newer integrated has at least as much bass, but seems to control it a bit better. The end result of this is that the A3.2 sounds a bit leaner, but more in charge of the speakers. This trend continues up higher as well. Throughout the midrange the A3.2 has a leaner tonal balance. Where the A300 is slightly warmer through the mids and can thus sound a touch laid-back, the A3.2 has a more up-front perspective. This isnt to say that its bright or aggressive -- its not -- but rather that its a bit more incisive.
I preferred the sound of A3.2 via the Tannoy TD10s as these speakers are rather warm and chocolatey through the bass and lower midrange, and the newer Musical Fidelity amplifier instilled them with a small amount of added vitality. On the other hand, my Hales Transcendence Fives are a bit on the analytical side when compared to the Tannoys, so they benefited from the slightly more full bass and mids of the A300. In absolute terms, I wasnt able to discern much difference between the highs of the two integrated amplifiers. The slight fullness of the bass and mids of the A300 do seem to soften the region above, so the older model tends to sound a little more plush in the treble. Both could be considered basically neutral, and, as always, system matching will dictate the components with which theyll sound the best.
Wrap it up, Ill wear it home
In the above listening notes Ive been hyper vigilant in terms of the A3.2's sound. Thats my job -- to tell you how a component sounds. And in order to do that, I have to magnify sonic traits in order to describe them.
However, after all is said and done, keep in mind that the A3.2 is a darn good integrated amplifier, and not just for the price, mind you. Its significant reserves of power coupled with its good-sounding phono stage are sufficient to justify its price. Add in a musical and reasonably neutral tonal balance, a great bottom-end, and a superb sense of space and youve an integrated amplifier thats worthy of your consideration -- and a Reviewers' Choice.
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