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Equipment Review

October 2003

Musical Fidelity A308 Integrated Amplifier

by Jason Thorpe

 


Review Summary
Sound "Smooth, refined highs, superb imaging, and naturally rich, organic bass"; "complete lack of noise, along with [a] slightly laid-back nature"; "self-effacing" -- "never seems to exaggerate any one facet of the music, nor does it blow you away with the typical audiophile trickery."
Features "Dual mono from the power cord back" and fully remote controlled, the A308 is "rated at 150Wpc into 8 ohms and 300Wpc into 4 ohms," and it uses "two pairs of bipolar output devices per channel." A moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage is included.
Use "Even when driving my large, fairly inefficient speakers at party volumes for an entire night, the A308’s heatsinks never got any more than slightly warm"; "the left- and right-channel RCA connectors are rather close together, which made for a bit of a struggle when attaching large, audiophile interconnects."
Value Costs twice as much as the Reviewers' Choice A3.2, but it "returns close to twice the performance" as well.

For a number of years I studied martial arts at an extremely tough, combat-oriented school. The most important thing I learned over those years was how to discern who the really tough guys were without actually having to fight them. The tough guys were invariably soft spoken, polite, and entirely unassuming, with a soft, gentle handshake -- in direct contrast to the loud, blustering braggarts who stick their chins up and out like angry Chihuahuas and make every handshake a bone-crushing affair.

Stereo equipment can be tough too. The most obvious example of this is the muscular, he-man solid-state amplifier. Large, heavy and bristling with heatsinks, these titans look the part. However, as with martial arts, looks and swagger don’t often carry the day in audio, and brawn isn’t always enough unless there’s some finesse to back it up.

Put ‘em up

Enter Musical Fidelity. Over the last few years, Musical Fidelity has gone from strength to strength, making its mark with amplifiers that don’t aspire to the utmost in brawn, but certainly make up for that with their speed and agility. This British company has created a line of electronics that has consistently pushed the envelope when it comes to value and flat-out cost-no-object performance. Last year I reviewed the A3.2 and found it to be a superb value and a great-sounding integrated amplifier -- a Reviewers' Choice. The next step up from the A3.2 is Musical Fidelity’s tough-guy assault on the state-of-the-art in integrated amplifiers -- the $2995 USD A308.

While Musical Fidelity’s Tri-Vista integrated is significantly more expensive, the A308 is by no means a poor relation. According to Musical Fidelity, the A308 uses much of the same circuitry as that contained in the flagship Tri-Vista and actually outperforms that limited-edition integrated in several respects. Rated at 150Wpc into 8 ohms and 300Wpc into 4 ohms, the A308 uses two pairs of bipolar output devices per channel. I would guess that the A308 is either underrated or over-heatsinked, as even when driving my large, fairly inefficient speakers at party volumes for an entire night, the A308’s heatsinks never got any more than slightly warm. If the A308 were ever going to overheat, that would have been the time. This integrated amp is tough, I tell you.

Weighing in at a chunky 45 1/2 pounds, the A308 looks smaller than it is due to its elegant casework. The aluminum faceplate is tastefully brushed, and the heavy-gauge steel top, bottom and heatsinks are unusually well mated, which results in a hewn-of-a-piece feel. The significant density of the A308 is in part due to the large power supply. Dual mono from the power cord back, the A308 is stuffed full, using two rather large toroidal transformers. Like the A3.2, the A308 isn’t choke regulated, although the A308 power amplifier -- another member of the A308 series -- is.

The A308 is a minimalist integrated amplifier in that it eschews balance and tone controls. It still has a full complement of inputs, a tape loop, and a preamp output for use with an external amplifier. Another useful feature is the home-theater-direct mode, which is accessed via the Aux 2 input. The only controls evident are the power, mute and selector switches -- the latter of which cycle through one by one at startup -- and the huge volume knob, which looks like something out of Spinal Tap. That volume knob, by the way, has five blue LEDs embedded in it, which certainly ups the alien artifact quotient in a darkened room when rotated from the listening position by the full-function remote control. Rounding out the feature set is a built-in phono stage that accepts both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges.

The binding posts are substantial gold-plated metal items, and the power cord is a detachable IEC type. Pretty much the only ergonomic beef I had was that the left- and right-channel RCA connectors are rather close together, which made for a bit of a struggle when attaching large, audiophile interconnects. There’s plenty of real estate on the back panel, so why not space them out a bit?

Sparring partners

For its time in my system the A308 displaced my EAR509 tube monoblocks and Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp. For speakers I used Hales Transcendence Fives exclusively, via Acoustic Zen Satori cables. My Roksan Xerxes turntable, Artemiz tonearm and Shiraz cartridge combination was the main source, with a Musical Fidelity A3 CD player bringing up the rear. The phono stage was my Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature, and for interconnects I alternated between Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference and Silver Reference, and Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval.

The A308 worked flawlessly for the entire review period, with nary an electronic hiccup or burp.

You talkin’ to me?

Just ‘cause you’re tough doesn’t mean you have to be coarse. That thought remained in the forefront of my mind during the A308’s stay in my house. There’s a sense of assured power and a complete lack of musical strain to the A308. This feeling of ease results in a quiet presentation, which makes it very easy to listen at volumes considerably louder than normal. One of the first albums that I spun up upon receipt of the A308 was Classic Records’ superb reissue of Holly Cole’s Temptation [Classic/Blue Note JP500 3]. That overriding feeling of silky calm was immediately apparent, making Ms. Cole’s rich, smoky voice stand out from a silent, black background.

There were times near the beginning of the review period where I found the grainless nature of the A308’s midrange and treble a tiny bit uninvolving, as it seemed that some of the bite that I’ve become used to was absent, most notably on cymbals. I adjusted to this characteristic quickly and concluded that this was more of a feeling of surprise at how clean the A308 sounded rather than any disappointment in its performance. In absolute terms, the A308's highs do seem very slightly softened, but the payoff for that is a complete lack of strain in the treble, and in my books that’s a tradeoff I’m very happy to make. This trait is not intrusive, and in fact is barely noticeable. My Japanese copy of Pink Floyd’s Meddle [EMI EMS-80322] has a split personality. Side two, which consists of "Echoes," is warm, rich and dynamic, with an open and extended top-end. Side one, however, is bright and harsh in its entirety. The A308 did nothing to soften or otherwise ameliorate the piercing nature of the treble on "Fearless," yet it also retained the extended and dynamic tone of the whale cries on "Echoes."

I usually keep listening volumes on the low side, as the limiting factor for me is any etch or glare in the upper midrange and lower treble. With the A308 in the driver’s seat, I wanted to turn it up. The sound was so effortless and clean that the urge to crank that massive volume knob clockwise was always present. "This sounds great," I found myself thinking while listening to Son Volt’s Wide Swing Tremolo [Warner 9 47059-1]. "Why not turn it up some more?" So I did, and found that I could revel in the A308’s dynamic, assured presentation at levels that would have me climbing the walls with any other integrated amp or amp/preamp combination I’ve had in my system.

Wide Swing Tremolo was a shocker for me. I bought this wafer-thin LP out of curiosity about the band, and due to outright snobbishness it took me a year or so to actually get around to listening to it. Live and learn. The crisp, articulate sound of this recording perfectly complements the band’s raw, countrified rock. The overtly simple sometimes is the most complex. WST is an album I should have discovered years ago, and it aided me in deciphering the A308’s high-frequency intricacies. While listening to "Driving the View" I was aware of the crisp bite of the guitars and could easily imagine the pick striking the strings, but I was never uncomfortable with the sensation. Instead, I sat there right through the album with a big grin on my face.

At all volume levels, the A308 presented music on a scale commensurate with that of the piece being played. Its ample power reserves make for effortless dynamics that flow with the necessity of the music but don’t draw conscious attention. I know that last sentence sounds somewhat contradictory, but it’s this self-effacing nature that lies at the heart of what makes the A308 so successful.

Down in the basement, for example, the A308 has substantial grip and wonderful extension. This British integrated does not, however, have that highly damped start-stop attack that large muscle amps use to announce their presence. I’ve often found that the bass pyrotechnics of large solid-state amps, while undeniably impressive, tend to draw my attention to the amplifier, rather than to the music. With this in mind, it’s possible to view that sort of bass as an artifact rather than a musical trait. The A308’s bass, on the other hand, is meaty, rich, and lithe. On Projekt II’s Space Groove [Discipline Global Mobile DGM9801], for instance, Trey Gunn’s Warr bass retained its organic warmth and complex overtones, while Adrian Belew’s kickdrum had an authoritative crack to it that didn’t end up sounding overdamped. I like to listen to this album loud, and the A308 gave me the excuse I needed. I sat there smiling right through the first track as the A308 slapped my speakers around and made them perform at an extreme level.

On Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil [Blue Note ST-46509 LP], Ron Carter’s bass had a round, woody quality that was perfectly integrated into the track. Every inflection of the bass was portrayed with a richness that never crossed the line to become indistinct or blurry. This is a fine balancing act, well executed. However, as good as the bass is on the A308, I rarely found myself consciously noticing it. The bass was simply there, and proper in level, tonality and realism. That’s what this integrated amp is all about -- it never seems to exaggerate any one facet of the music, nor does it blow you away with the typical audiophile trickery. Instead, it lets you concentrate on the music.

As I mentioned earlier, the A308’s midrange was grainless, clear, and exceptionally smooth, and this silkiness resulted in imaging that was very slightly recessed. The Musical Fidelity A308 presented instruments just slightly back from the plane of the speakers, in a manner that very subtly enhanced the feeling of depth and spaciousness. Those images were clearly delineated, precisely placed in musical space, and absolutely grand in scale. The soundstage was massive and realistic, and within it the instruments and voices had an incredible sense of realism and solidity.

That rich, full midrange is possessed of exceptional body, and it lacks any sense of flab or grit. Chet Baker’s trumpet on "How High the Moon" from the Analogue Productions reissue of Chet [APJ 016] has a smoky tone to it that is at once distant yet brassy and full. The A308 presented it as a real instrument captured in real space, without requiring that I suspend disbelief in order to feel the magic of this beautiful piece. Indeed, the complete lack of noise along with the slightly laid-back nature of the A308 rendered this entire album into the kind of musical experience that helps define why I got into this hobby in the first place.

Although I used my Sonic Frontiers phono stage for the majority of my listening, I did use the A308’s internal phono stage for a while at the tail end of the review period. I found the A308’s phono section to be very similar in nature to that of the A3.2. In comparison to the SFP-1, the A308’s phono section sounded somewhat flat and lifeless, with limited dynamics and foreshortened depth. This may well be a case of the A308 raising the performance bar, as the overall gains in ease and richness of that amplifier serve to make its phono section sound less satisfying than that contained within the A3.2. To its credit, the A308’s phono stage was dead silent and had good bass.

The A308’s phono section is certainly adequate, but definitely not up to the standard of the rest of the amp. Keep in mind, though, that a standalone ‘stage that’s commensurate with the quality of the A308 would, by itself, run a couple of grand. The one that’s built in to the A308 should be viewed as a freebie that you can certainly press into service until you get around to buying one that’s better.

Head to head

Those who insist that all amplifiers, integrated or power, sound the same should listen to Musical Fidelity’s A3.2 integrated and then switch over to the A308. Match the levels if you want -- I’m sure that the differences will be immediately apparent.

The A308 laterally placed instruments in an almost holographic soundstage. Whereas with the A3.2 I could hear music overlaid on an electronic canvas, with the A308 those same instruments were highlighted against a jet-black background. In some ways it’s like the difference between watching a movie via a projector in a pitch-black room as opposed to watching that same movie in a room with a small light. The A3.2 images superbly for an integrated of its price ($1595); however, the A308 is an order of magnitude better in this regard.

Bass-wise, the two Musical Fidelity integrateds are cut from the same cloth. Neither of these units immediately astounds with its bass prowess; instead they both impress you with how natural and organic they render instruments in this range. The extra power of the A308 does make itself known down in the basement, where it added a measure of control to my Hales speakers, which are not the easiest to drive.

Overall though, it’s the A308’s incredible ease through the midrange and treble that most sets these two amps apart. As good as it is, the A3.2 can’t come close to the smooth, clear and grainless feel that the A308 presents with such aplomb. Sure, the A308 is pretty much twice the price of the A3.2, but in my opinion it returns close to twice the performance. You don’t often get that in audio -- where a doubling of cost often results in a very small gain in sound quality.

Last round

In describing the auditory signature of the Musical Fidelity A308 integrated amplifier I realize that I’ve dissected this unit into its associated traits. While this is necessary in order to convey information to you, it doesn’t give full measure of just how musically satisfying this amplifier was to listen to. With its combination of smooth, refined highs, superb imaging, and naturally rich, organic bass, the A308 made pretty much every record I played a pleasure, and indeed was one of the most musically enjoyable components -- solid state or tube -- that I’ve yet had in my system.

However, I get the feeling that a lot of people may overlook the A308 if they only give it a short audition, as, just like the unassuming soft-spoken gentleman who’s scary-tough, the A308’s talents might not be immediately apparent. If you’re looking for the audiophile thrills and chills that come along with razor-sharp highs or concussive bass, you may want to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a component that will draw you in and help you enjoy the music you listen to for a long time to come, the A308 may well be what you’re after.

...Jason Thorpe
jason@soundstage.com

Musical Fidelity A308 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $2995 USD.
Warranty:
Five years parts and labor.

Musical Fidelity Ltd.
15/16 Olympic Trading Est, Fulton Road
Wembley, Middx  HA9 OTF England
Phone: (44) 208 900 2866

Website: www.musical-fidelity.co.uk

North American distributor:
Kevro International, Inc.
902 McKay Road, Suite 4
Pickering, Ontario, L4A 7X4 Canada
Phone: (905) 428-2800
Fax: (905) 428-0004

E-mail: info@kevro.com
Website: www.kevro.com

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