Terry London has always had a great passion for music, especially jazz, and has amassed a collection of over 7,000 CDs covering the history of this uniquely American art form. Even in his teenage years, Terry developed a passion for auditioning different systems and components to see if they could come anywhere close to the sound of live music, and has for the last forty years had great fun and pleasure chasing this illusion in his two-channel home system.
Terry is a practitioner of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy by day, and runs the Chicago Institute for REBT. He has also authored nine books on this of type psychotherapy and education.
At the beginning of last year, I reviewed the superlative-sounding Canary Audio reference KD-2000 DSD tube DAC. Canary Audio designs and builds tube-based equipment. However, the company also has a solid-state division that is called Magnus Audio. All of Canary/Magnus Audio's gear is hand-built in Irwindale, California. Because of my positive experience with the KD-2000 and my familiarity with the company's excellent tube amplifiers, I was intrigued to review one of the Magnus solid-state amplifiers to see if it would have the same "musical touch." I decided to review Magnus Audio's new model, the MA-400 stereo amp, which has an introductory price in the U.S. of $7,950.
The single-chassis MA-400 is a large stereo amplifier, weighing 100 pounds and measuring eight inches high by 19 inches wide by 23.5 inches deep. Its appearance is reminiscent of classic Mark Levinson gear. Front and center is the engraved Magnus Audio MA-400 badge on a black plate with an on/off button. The rest of the front plate is grayish silver, and flanking the center black plate are two black handles. On the side of the MA-400 are heavy-duty heat sinks, a special thick rib design that ensures a lower operating temperature. On the back plate are two pairs of inputs (single-ended RCA and balanced XLR), with a toggle switch in between them to choose one or the other, plus the IEC power connection and a pair of high-quality speaker-wire binding posts.
The MA-400 is rated Class A/B 250 watts into eight ohms and 500 A/B watts into four ohms. The first 25 watts, into either eight or four ohms, are pure Class A. Additionally, it uses 24 carefully selected and matched MOSFET output transistors of very high quality. Another special feature of the MA-400 is its massive custom-wound, audio-grade toroidal transformer with separate windings for the left and right channels, ensuring a rock-solid and stable flow of current for massive peak transits. Because it uses very high-quality internal components, the chassis and build quality compete with higher-priced solid-state equipment. Its physical appearance is handsome with an old school, traditional style.
My first selection of music, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers' album Jahmekya (Virgin Records America, Inc), has massive micro-dynamics and powerful extended low frequencies, thanks to its use of a Hammond B-3 organ. The MA-400 sailed through the most thunderous passages effortlessly, with total control and precision. It provided a great foundation for this pulsating and hard-hitting music from Bob Marley's son.
My next selection was one of the most highly regarded Blue Note albums done by tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, Soul Station (Blue Note Records). This album allowed me to evaluate how the MA-400 would reproduce the timbres and tonality of Hank Mobley's sax and Wynton Kelly's piano. First of all, the amp was totally devoid of any grain and had an overall silky, smooth, slightly warm presentation, which was tube-like in its sonic signature. The tonality and timbres of the sax and piano had the correct color density and sounded natural, just as they would in a live performance.
My last selection was Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery's album Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes (Verve), to explore how the MA-400 would handle spatial qualities and soundstaging--the layering/location of different players within that soundstage and the MA-400's ability to present each player's performance with three-dimensional palpability and a sense of air around them. The MA-400 was able to place Smith's Hammond B-3 organ, Montgomery's electric guitar, and the seven-piece band in the very positions that they were in the day that this music was recorded in a small studio setting. The illusion that I was in the studio listening to the musicians playing in "real space"--with each performer standing or sitting in different locations in that space--and hearing the slightest decays reflecting off the walls was quite amazing and allowed me to connect with the music.
• The MA-400 is constructed of high-quality internal parts, is hand-built, and has massive current reserves that can control and drive virtually any speaker on today's market.
• Its overall sonic signature is silky-smooth and slightly warm, with the type of tonality/color timbres that normally are associated with tube-based amplifiers.
• Because it has a high level of transparency, it renders micro-details with great clarity and has an airy/detailed sweet top end.
• It delivers a powerful and taut foundation to the music because of its quick and dynamic presentation of the low-end frequencies.
• Its spatial qualities--such as air around individual players, realistic size of the soundstage, and where the different players are located--are excellent and very tube-like when compared with many solid state-designs that compress space and sound somewhat flat and less three-dimensional.
• The MA-400 is a large and heavy amplifier. Because of its dimensions, it might be difficult to place in a typical AV stand. It runs cool and does not generate that much heat; however, it still needs space around it to be properly ventilated.
• Its old-school styling might not deliver enough visual "eye candy" for customers who are looking for a flashier piece at this price point.
Comparison and Competition
Two competitive amplifiers that match the price point of the MA-400 are the Aesthetix Atlas, retailing for $8,000, and the Sanders Sound Magtech, retailing for $5,500. The Magtech is a very neutral, detailed amplifier. It also delivers very well-controlled dynamics and bottom-end extension, but it falls way short in two sonic parameters. First, the MA-400 has beautiful, lifelike tonal colors/timbres that are lacking in the Sanders amplifier. Secondly, Magtech does not have the overall silky smoothness of the MA-400 that allows you to relax into the music. On the other hand, the Aesthetix Atlas comes much closer to the colors/timbres and smoothness of the MA-400; however, it lacks the ability to present spatial qualities in a three-dimensional way in comparison to the MA-400, along with not being able to match the powerful dynamics and lower-end grunt of the Magnus amplifier.
I stated at the beginning of this review that I was very curious if Canary Audio could bring the same "musical touch" of its tube-based equipment to its solid-state Magnus line. The answer is a resounding yes. The MA-400 has tube-like sonic qualities, such as richer and more natural colors/tonality/timbres, three-dimensional imaging, and a grainless liquidity not often found in solid-state amplifiers. However, this does not come at the expense of transparency and micro-details or a lack of dynamics and lower-frequency extension or control. I believe that--based on performance, quality of parts, and the high level of construction--the Magnus Audio MA-400 stereo amplifier belongs in the higher echelon of solid-state equipment on today's market. If I did not already own the superlative Pass Labs XA-60.8 mono blocks, I would serious consider buying the MA-400 to power one of my systems.