Unless you spent Christmas abroad, you'll know that winter 1991/2 found the high streets of this land wanting. Wanting for customers, that is, with a new sense of caution (perhaps out of necessity) limiting everyone's spending. And the natural reaction when times are this tough is to slash prices and batten down the hatches. So what has Musical Fidelity decided to do, when the sane thing is to maximise the gains and profits from existing models? It's chosen to launch, in our Winter of Discontent, a brace of pre/power combinations alleged to offer irresistable value for money.
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Discussions with Antony Michaelson make me think of Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry or maybe one of the more histrionic lawyers from L.A. Law. He doesn't merely promote his products to the reviewer, with the usual pitches designed to leave you convinced even before the boxes are opened. He lectures. He preaches. He berates. He browbeats. What he thinks of his competitors would amount to genocide if thoughts could kill. And it would be ludicrous if the products weren't so damned good.
Michaelson likes to cover all the bases (Americanese for 'prepare for any and all eventualities'). To this end, he runs two companies, Musical Fidelity for solid-state electronics and Michaelson Audio for valve gear. The former has a range running from budget integrated amps up to #10,000 arc-welders, while the younger valve line started with another ten grand system, then an affordable integrated amplifier. Given that the two companies cover just about every market sector, it's safe to assume that Michaelson pays a lot of attention to price points to avoid overlap and clutter while still offering so many choices to the consumer.
Upon receiving the review samples of Da Vinci, about which I was warned in mid-summer 1991, Michaelson launched into his usual tirade about the high end, with barrels of venom for American ballbuster amps in particular. His latest arguments fall into two categories, the first being that all high-end amplifiers besides his own are rip-offs. This is not an uncommon attitude most high-end manufacturers, and I'd distrust any manufacturer who didn't have the same faith in his own products. (One day, maybe some enterprizing journalist with a long memory will publish The Thoughts of Chairman Ivor, as the Linn founder's assembled pearls are nothing short of a primer for would-be gurus.) The second is that there's no reason that an amplifier combination selling for #500 can't blow away the best America has to offer at any price. More to the point is that such a bargain would rejuvenate sales activity even in an abnormally depressed market. And if I hadn't heard how well Acoustic Research is doing with the awesome yet cost-effective M1 loudspeaker during this recession, I'd have written off Michaelson's arguments as naive and dizzily optimistic.
What that beer-budget talk has to do with the Da Vinci pre- and power amp, which is not (at ten pounds under two grand for the pair) a budget package, is simple: Michaelson turned up with The Preamp and the Typhoon at the same time he delivered the Da Vincis. Without warning, I should add. And, as if to unsheath his own monogrammed petard, Michaelson asked me to compare The Preamp (#199) and the Typhoon (#299) in tandem and solo with the Da Vinci components. And hoisted he most certainly was, because the Preamp/Typhoon combination is so ridiculously good for what amounts to such a comparatively small outlay that it almost makes the Da Vinci look bad. Which it isn't. By insisting on this internecine duel, he's produced a textbook illustration of the Law of Diminishing Returns.
Maybe I should have reviewed these separately, the wee solid-state gear overshadowing the delicious but far costlier tube products. It's like any bargain-vs-luxury situation. It's not that the dearer stuff isn't good. It's just that the cheaper stuff is too good. I'd offer an analogy, but I'm stuck with the usual Rotring-vs-Mont Blanc pens or any quality Japanese camera-vs-Leica. The latter in each case is demonstrably superior to the former, but at what cost? And will most consumers notice the gains or be able to justify the extra outlay? So, not that it makes much difference, I'm giving Da Vinci the first crack of the whip.
The idea behind Da Vinci was to offer the Odysseus integrated amplifier in two-chassis form, adding to the basic product the option of mono-ing capability for the amplifier (with the purchase of a second da Vinci, of course); this is in addition to the expected gains of another power supply. Less publicized is the idea of producing a Chronos for the 'poor', with Da Vinci costing one-fifth the price of the Michaelson Audio flagship.
The styling is the latest incarnation of the Montezuma-meets-Gaudi Chronos look, with improved paint finish and a nifty triangular logo which triples as the on/off button and three-colour tell-tale indicator. The lighting procedure beings with red, followed after 25 seconds by amber, then another 25 seconds for the all-systems-go green. The refined finish and detail changes are part of the educating process, or How To Handle Buyer Resistance To Radical Styling.
The Da Vinci pre-amp is a line-level-only device, though provision has been made for powering the forthcoming phono amp via a socket at the rear. All six line inputs are specified the same, 310mV for 775mV, and I could detect no sonic differences among the inputs. Signal-to-noise ratio is stated as better than -75dB, with THD as less than 0.15% at 1V output. The valve line-up consists of eight ECC81s, the circuit employing parallel tube cascode output stages.
While the Da Vinci isn't quite 'ghostly' quiet, neither is it embarrassed by solid-state pre-amps for low noise and silent background. One reason for its excellence in this area is a noteworthy resistance to microphony; the addition of tube dampers made relatively little difference with the Da Vinci than with a number of other all-tube control units.
Like the pre-amp, the Da Vinci power amp sells for #995. But it matches the pre-amp not just with the price tag and styling, but with identical sonic character. Running in Class A, this amplifier turns any domestic room into a temperate zone, so it could be adjudged a wise economic move as it will allow you to turn down the thermostat during the winter months. The literature provides a comparison to two 150W light bulbs, which strikes me as understatement. I'd call it a toaster on 'Medium'. More to the point is the valve complement causing this heat wave: two ECC83s, two ECC85s and eight EL34s.
Converting the 45W/channel (at 8 ohms) Da Vinci into a 50W/8 ohms or 100W/4 ohms monoblock requires only the pressing of a button at the back. The front panel sports two LEDs to indicate either mono or stereo operation. As Da Vincis were in short supply during the review period, I wasn't able to borrow a second sample for monoblock listening, but I can't imagine why anyone would want more power with the recommended minimum loads of 4 ohms and 89dB sensitivity. The Da Vinci drove such tough loads (at Michaelson's insistence I should add) as the Sonus Faber Extrema and the Apogee Stages with power to spare, thus maintaining the reputation that Michaelson Audio valve amps have for sheer grunt and no fear of low impedances.
The Da Vinci system isn't just a 'grown up' or, more accurately, 'bisected' Odysseus. For one thing, it's far more refined than the integrated amp, with less of a runaway feel despite the same sense of untamed horsepower. For another, it provides even more slam and fewer signs of 'valveness'. No, this isn't an indictment, an accusation of transistorism nor a suggestion that tube lovers should look elsewhere. In the key areas – lush midband, top-to-bottom consistency, three-dimensionality, resistance to harshness, 'friendly' clipping – the Da Vinci is almost stereotypically valve-like. But the sledgehammer lower registers and the Jackie Chan attack make me think of Michaelson's nemesis: big bang Yankee amplifiers. The only other valve amp in my experience with this capability is the E.A.R. 509/519, not surprising as tube god Tim de Paravicini designed the Da Vinci with Michaelson and owns E.A.R.
This sonic signature is so clearly defined in both parts of the Da Vinci package that using either in another system means adding a Da Vinci flavour which dominates. I know that this goes against the notion that the ideal component will seem invisible, but the infusion of Da Vinciness is a boon because we're talking about virtues, not colorations. Either unit will do much to 'tighten' the sound in a loose system, which I find amusing when the rest of the system may feature vintage valves. A Da Vinci pre-amp may be the best upgrade you could make to a Quad II valve amp, though I wouldn't mate a Da Vinci power amp with a vintage pre-amp as most are too noisy and imprecise by today's standards. (Though I'd love to hear the Da Vinci power amp driven by a Marantz Model 7...)
Although the Da Vinci improves on Odysseus with the greater refinement I mentioned above, it's still a touch coarse in absolute terms. I compared the pre-amp to the Audio Research SP-14, which I hasten to add costs more than the Da Vinci package PLUS the Preamp/Typhoon, and noted slight texturing on female vocals, in particular the watery voices which charm habituees of the Grand Ol' Opry. The amplifier was less guilty of this, its only demonstrable vice being a shade less transparency than the Classé DR-10 which I use as an example of an 'almost affordable' high end amplifier.
As a package, the Da Vinci moves the goal posts for sub-#2000 all-valve set-ups. Homegrown rivals are numerous, with Croft, Art Audio, Tube Technology and others fighting with superb offerings in the same arena, but Da Vinci may have the edge on sheer gutsiness. If this is the price point you've targetted for a valve purchase, you have a new candidate to consider. Ignore the Da Vinci at your peril.
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The Preamp and Typhoon