Magnum Dynalab MD 102 FM Tuner
by Paul Schumann
Ah yes, FM. Remember when it was the bastion of classical music, jazz, and album rock? While the cretins listened to their top 40 drivel in noisy mono AM, we had static-free music in stereo with very little commercial interruption.
Back then it was normal to have a tuner as part of your hi-fi system. Marantz, Dynaco and Pioneer all made great-sounding tuners that brought the best out of the programming available at the time. Then things changed. The FM airwaves were quickly gobbled up by giant entertainment conglomerates pushing a wide variety of formulated commercial formats. By raising the stakes, many mom-and-pop stations were bought out and their formats changed, leaving many cities without an alternative musical venue on the airwaves. To make matters worse, many stations started to process their sound to work best on a boom box or car stereo. This combination of events made the tuner more of a rarity in most American high-performance audio systems than commonplace.
But while we were losing the battle here in the States, a tuner cult was developing over in Great Britain. Two factors were encouraging this cult: the consistently high standards of BBC broadcasts, and offshore pirate radio stations. These pirate stations are set up on ships and normally broadcast at wattages much less than the street-legal stations. So while the tuner is as rare as hens teeth in the audiophile world in the States, the Brits proudly scan the airwaves with their electronic divining rods. And the Magnum Dynalab MD 102 is part of this tradition.
The most important design feature of the $2500 USD MD 102 is that its analog. Thats right folks, while it may have numeric display, you still have to spin the knob to tune in the station. Magnum Dynalabs old-fashioned system has one goal in mind -- the best sound. With this approach, Magnum Dynalab gives you best tuning possible, with several options to optimize the FM-only reception. With the mute switch on, you turn the dial until you reach the desired frequency. Then turn the mute switch off and dial the MD 102 until the center tune meter is perfectly centered. If problems still exist in the quality of the sound, switch the signal strength meter to multipath. This should be dialed in to read zero. If problems still exist, you can switch to narrow bandwidth setting, and if there is still a problem with the sound, then the MD 102 can be switched to mono. If this reminds you of using a good vinyl playback system, youre not alone. In this day and age, where digital tuners are commonplace in even the most humble boom boxes, youve got to love the MD 102. Remote-control on/off, station presets and fine tuning can be added to the MD 102 at the time of purchase or afterwards. The cost is $395.
Accompanying my review sample of the MD 102 was Magnum Dynalabs highly acclaimed ST-2 antenna ($99). This antenna is a 75-ohm indoor-outdoor bipole with 24 feet of coaxial cable. During the review, I used the ST-2 exclusively as an indoor antenna. I wanted to mount it outdoors, but I was too chicken to drill a hole in a window and mount it on my roof. Even indoors, it worked very well.
A bit of context
Living in Austin, Texas, Im lucky to have a choice of two high-quality non-profit FM stations for listening pleasure: KUT and KMFA. KUT, the radio station of the University of Texas, plays a wide variety of music, with jazz getting the most air time. KMFA is purely classical and totally supported by the community. Both stations have in-house studios for live broadcasts, which were an excellent reference point for my observations.
Since this is the first tuner review Ive done, several questions popped into my mind as I began the review process. The major factor controlling the sound created by the tuner is the quality of the front-end, which in this case is the radio station. I have no way of knowing how good the equipment sounds in the studio, so I must use a relative experience of comparing different radio stations. Also, I cant really use any reference recordings, so I must talk in more general terms than usual. With that out of the way, lets get to it.
So what first struck me about the MD 102? Its dead quiet. Every other tuner Ive listened to imparts an amount of noticeable background noise to the music. Once the MD 102 is locked in, its as noiseless as CD. This can be almost spooky while listening to quiet passages of music. This silent nature makes the MD 102 a low-level reproduction champ. There have been more than few times when I walked into the room that I had to ask myself if the tuner or a CD was playing.
If youre looking for a tuner that is going to sugarcoat things, you might want to look elsewhere. The MD 102 recovers the signal and reproduces it accurately -- warts and all. What really stunned me was the amount of processing that goes on at most popular radio stations. I wont name names, but offenses vary from hot treble, tubby bass, muddied midrange, and squashed dynamics. Sure, you can listen to these stations for a period of time, but these gross distortions eventually grow fatiguing on higher-resolution systems. It was only with the two previously mentioned non-profit stations that could I enjoy extended listening. The lesson learned? Unless you have high-quality stations available for listening, you might want to look elsewhere.
So how good is the MD 102/ST-2 at picking up stations from out of town? Over several evenings under varying weather conditions, I was able to pick up stations from San Antonio and Houston, 90 and 180 miles away respectively. Most of the stations from San Antonio were as quiet as the local ones. The stations from Houston were a bit noisier, but very rarely did I have to switch to mono to make them listenable.
To conduct critical listening, I listened to as many live programs as possible. As I mentioned previously, both KUT and KMFA have studios for live broadcasts. These broadcasts usually consisted of local artists or out-of-towners promoting their shows. Another live source I used on a consistent basis was the New York Metropolitan Operas Live at the Met Saturday-afternoon broadcasts. From listening to these programs, I was able to form a reasonable opinion of the tonal character of the MD 102. The MD 102 is quite neutral, imparting only a little extra warmth to the music. Several times while listening to the Met, I was stunned by the clarity and organic flow of the music. This definitely beats current CD technology in this area and is close to analog. I dont know what kind of processing the signal went through to get from New York to here, but it still manages to get the gestalt right.
While the broadcasts from the Met were good, local broadcasts sounded that much more tactile. Performances in the small studios really did retain the sound of the room filled with living, breathing performers. It may not be like being in the room with them, but I sure got a good idea what the microphone feed sounded like. In my book, thats pretty darn good.
If there are any true weaknesses to MD 102, they have more to do with the FM format than anything else. The biggest difference between using the MD 102 as a source and the usual suspects is the limited dynamic range. While at low volumes the MD 102 can sometimes mesmerize, once the volume is cranked up, it is obvious that compression is taking place. This is caused by the frequency-modulation limits inherent to the FM standard. The other big differences are at the frequency extremes. The highs arent as refined and the bass doesnt have a lot of punch. Once again, this is more likely due to limits of the medium than the MD 102 itself.
I really enjoyed the Magnum Dynalab MD 102/ST-2 combo, and Ill be sorry to see it go. I know that Magnum Dynalab has a top-of-the line model, the MD 108, but I have to work hard to imagine it sounding better than the mighty MD 102.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was sitting on my couch and listening to the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1, I had no idea who the artists were, but it didnt matter. It was just me and the music. I sat there attentively during the entire piece as I marveled at this different interpretation for the first time. The Magnum Dynalab MD 102/ST-2 combo allowed me to listen to a performance that otherwise I might have never heard, and was I enriched for the experience.
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