If you’ve ever used an outboard DAC, you owe Micromega at least a nod of thanks. Not that this French hi-fi company invented the concept of digital-to-analog converters or anything, but its legendary CDF1-Digital was, to my knowledge, the first CD playback system to break the transport and DAC into separate components.
While the brand has changed hands since then, the original designer Daniel Schar has remained at the engineering helm the entire time, but these days you’d have to be daft to accuse Micromega of resting on its laurels or reputation. The company seems to have embraced a philosophy of offering something for everyone, from dedicated FM tuners and RIAA preamplifers to media streamers and everything in between. But it’s never quite offered anything like the M-One integrated amplifier.
Hell, I’m not sure anyone has.
The M-One represents not just a triumphant return to form in terms of fit, finish, and aesthetics for a company that has, admittedly, taken a slight turn toward the plastic in the past few years; it also represents an eye toward lifestyle-oriented design that other audiophile companies quite frankly need to be paying attention to. And, of course, it’s the exact opposite of a separate transport and DAC, given that it serves as a complete digital audio system all in one box.
Within its 56mm (2.2-inch) tall machined-aluminum chassis, the M-One packs a Class 2 USB audio input for PCM, DSD, DSD over PCM; a coaxial digital input supporting up to 768KHz/32-bit PCM, an optical digital input supporting up to 192/24, an AES/EBU XLR input, a Bluetooth aptX receiver, and two I2S connections, which are designed for future expansion. There’s also trigger in and outs, an Ethernet port for network audio, as well as a high-impedance unbalanced line-level input, a high-impedance balanced line input, a subwoofer out, and a switchable MM/MC phono input.
If that weren’t enough, the M-One also boasts a pair of beefy Class AB amps, each fed by its own power supply, though how much power you get depends on which of the two M-One models you opt for. The M-100 delivers 100 watts RMS per channel into 8 ohms and 150 watts RMS per channel into 4 ohms.
The M-150 ($7,499) reviewed here offers, by contrast, 150 watts RMS per channel into 8 ohms and 300 into 4 ohms. Other advantages of the M-150 include a built-in license for M.A.R.S., Micromega’s room correction system, as well as optional binaural processing on its 3.5mm front-panel headphone output.
The one thing you really can’t get a sense of from looking at pictures of the M-150--or even the box it comes in--is its size. Its packaging seems appropriate for one of those mini air hockey tables that you got for Christmas like ten years ago and never got around to setting up because, seriously? Who even has room for something like an air hockey table, miniature or not? Pull it out of the box, though, and--depth aside--the M-150 could be mistaken for a really, really nice UHD Blu-ray player. It measures in at just about 17 inches wide and nearly 14 inches deep.
In other words, you could easily rack mount this thing if you wanted to, though its height falls in between 1U and 2U, so it wouldn’t quite be a perfect fit. Seriously, though, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The M-150 (and the M-100, for that matter) is obviously designed for tabletop placement, and that’s evident in everything from its slick, customizable chassis (which can be ordered in your choice of black of grey for no extra cost, five glossy finishes for an extra Grover Cleveland, or any of 181 custom finishes for a bit more), to its dual displays (one on the front, one on the top), to its recessed input/output panel, which lends the unit a clean and tidy look even if you cram every possible interconnect possible into it.
About that, though. Given that the thick hood around the inputs and outputs eats up a weensy bit of space, and given that the M-150 is a little wisp of a thing to begin with, I’m not exactly making headline news here by proclaiming the back panel to be a little cramped. Micromega did a great job of thinking through the layout of the connections, mind you, assuming correctly that you wouldn’t use both the XLR pre-outs and the gorgeous binding posts at the same time. So, the former are wisely jammed right in between the latter.
But even with such a smart layout, things can get a bit cramped, and you should go ahead and muster up a little extra patience when making your connections. You might also want to invest in one of those rednecky baseball caps with the LED light in the end of the bill, since the hood over the connections casts a shadow over the whole affair even in a decently lit room.
If you’re using the M-150 as a USB DAC, Micromega provides a driver on its website, and setup of such is straightforward. So is M.A.R.S. (Micromega Acoustic Room System), except for the fact that you have to navigate the M-150’s sometimes-tricky menus to get that done. Getting into setup screens of any variety involves pushing the bottom button on the left side of the top-mounted display, using the right-side buttons to scroll up and down, pressing the bottom left button again to select, or the power button of all things to cancel out of your choice… I’ve been using the M-150 for a while now and I still feel like a monkey trying to mate with a football every time I need to dig into the menus.
But that’s thankfully infrequently. Most functions can be managed using the nifty horizontal remote. Just don’t be surprised if you spend a while navigating its screens looking for a function that isn’t there. The M-150 doesn’t, for example, feature crossover settings for its subwoofer out. Its low-pass filter is locked at 400Hz, so you’ll need a sub with its own crossover settings and such.
But back to M.A.R.S. for a minute: the system includes a really nice Dayton Audio mic (in fact, I think it’s the same mic I was using for CEA-2010 measurements before upgrading to a much swankier Earthworks model), and the system takes three measurements (center, left, and right), with a nice five-second countdown allowing you to get out of the room before the frequency sweeps begin.
The key things you need to know about M.A.R.S is that A) it’s very good, and 2) it’s very subtle. Unless my ears are deceiving me, it only runs sweeps up to 1kHz, and most of its work is done on the bass frequencies. Once you’re done and have the mic disconnected, you can navigate the menus and select between two different applications of M.A.R.S.: one that merely corrects for resonances in your room, and another that flattens the frequency response of your speakers, but only in the lowest frequencies. (For my thoughts on why this is a good thing, see my updated guide to room correction here).
With my pair of Paradigm Studio 100 towers, I didn’t really hear any appreciable difference between those two modes, dubbed Auto and Flat. I did, though, hear a substantial difference between “M.A.R.S. On” and “M.A.R.S. Off.” With it on, bass is much better controlled. I’m automatically suspicious of any new room EQ system that isn’t made by Anthem, Dirac, or Trinnov, but Micromega knocked it out of the park with this one.
One last thing worth pointing out is that to update the M-150’s firmware, you have to download a file from the Micromega website, load it onto a flash drive, plug said flash drive into the back of the unit, unplug the power, utter unmentionable incantations to the pagan goddess Dea Matrona whilst soaked in the blood of three virgin chickens… and, okay, maybe I’m making up that last step, but don’t just assume that you can plug an Ethernet port into the back of this puppy and get the latest firmware.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparisons & Competition, and Conclusion…
People often cock their heads at me like quizzical pugs when I say that Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill is a perfect album. Even “Forgiven”?! Yes. Even “Forgiven.” Here’s the thing, though: I kinda get why people don’t think this track lives up to the rest of the album. You can listen to “Hand in My Pocket” or “All I Really Want” or “Right Through You” through a tin can and some string and enjoy it.
But “Forgiven”? It sounds like poo on even a decent car audio system, much less a Bluetooth speaker or, heaven forbid, something like the speaker built into the Amazon Echo. It’s a dark and densely mixed track that really only thrives on a good and proper component stereo system.
Mind you, I’m not saying this is the first song you should pull out to show off something like the Micromega M-150. If that’s what you’re looking for, skip to “Not the Doctor” instead. I’m saying you pull out something like the M-150 to show off this song. What this integrated amp absolutely nails in regard to this track is the spaciousness of its mix, the depth of its image, especially those Alleluias around the 1:38 mark.
I’ve also often found that even great stereo gear can make Morissette’s vocals in the chorus (like, say, around the 2:20 mark) sound a little too strident and edgy. Mind you, there’s still plenty of edge in her voice through the M-150, but it’s more knife than cheese grater.
I also often struggle to hear many appreciable differences between the original CD release of Jagged Little Pill and its 2015 remaster. Those differences definitely stand out more via the Micromega. And again, “Not the Doctor” is probably the track you want to go to in order to really pick them out, but the M-150 does a great job of conveying the subtly more dynamic mix of the 20th anniversary re-release. (Yeah, no, not a typo. This is thankfully one of a handful of recent remasters that isn’t brickwalled to hell and back.)
Next up, I decided to test Micromega’s claims about the astonishingly low intermodulation distortion of the M-150 using some ultrasonic tri-tone warbles I cribbed from Monty at xiph.org. Not only did the amp play the 26kHz – 48kHz tones completely silently, but it also rendered the 26kHz – 96kHz tones without making a peep. The former? Not that shocking. Nice, but you’d kinda expect that for an integrated amp at this performance level. The latter? Yeah. Kinda surprising. The fact that the M-150 can render these files without a sound makes it one of a handful of amps I’ve auditioned in the past few years capable of playing 192/24 files without generating audible distortion.
I don’t have many 192/24 files, mind you, because I was raised better than that. But I did throw my 96/24 HDTracks download of Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers and Sisters (the 2016 version, not the earlier deluxe edition) at the M-150 and was impressed, to say the least. What I’m listening for here in particular is the way the amp handles the hi-hats (I think they’re Jaimo’s, not Butch Trucks’, but don’t @ me if I’m wrong). I’ve heard some mighty fine systems render those hi-hats as pretty much noise. Here, they come across with exactly the right amount of sizzle, but it’s the rest of the percussion that blows me away. Simply put, this little amp smokes. It pounds. It slams. If you can’t have fun listening to this song through this integrated amp, it’s time for you to start shopping for walk-in tubs.
Intrigued by Micromega’s extensive writing about the binaural processing applied to the M-150’s headphone output, I decided to give that a spin. And, well… the kindest thing I can say about it is that it’s pretty easy to turn off.
With James Taylor’s live version of “Mexico” from his excellent (Live) album, I found the heaviest application of the binaural processing to be the least offensive, for some reason. The medium version overemphasized Taylor’s vocals at the expense of the instrumentation, and the light setting resulted in more audible artifacts than the other two settings. None of them really blew wind up my skirt, though.
Thankfully, with the binaural processing off, the M-150’s headphone output is perfectly fine. Yes, it’s a 3.5mm output so you’ll need a quarter-inch adapter with your good cans, but I remind you once again what a premium we’re talking about in terms of real estate here. There just isn’t much room for a full-sized headphone jack.
I mentioned the tricky physical setup of the M-150 in the Hookup section, so I won’t regurgitate those same observations here. Plus, that doesn’t really count as a downside so much as a compromise, given the amp’s form factor.
If there are three nits to be picked with the M-150, two of them are quite subjective in my opinion. The first? It lacks a volume knob, and y’all ought to know by now that I’m a straight-up pervert for a good volume knob. Granted, we’re looping right back around to space considerations here, but for me, grabbing hold of a knob with the right amount of inertia and tweaking it to suit my tastes is part of the music listening process.
Secondly, $7,499 is a lot of scratch to spend on an integrated amp--even one that performs this well. And my goodness, it performs well. As counterbalance, I would submit that a lot of what you’re paying for here is form factor, fit and finish, and that’s a lot harder to quantify in terms of value. I’m trying to imagine a room so snooty in its adornment that its owners wouldn’t want the M-150 perched atop a tabletop along the edge of the room, and I’m struggling to visualize it. Hell, this thing classed up my two-channel listening room just by sitting there.
Thirdly, the mobile app for the M-150 can be a little hit or miss. At least on iOS. Some days it’s all, “Hey, there’s your amp! Here’s some internet radio you might enjoy!” Other days it’s more along the lines of, “Dude, you sure you own one of our products?” And on other days still it just craps the bed and dies. That might have something to do with my enterprise-grade network, which I know some audiophile products just don’t get along with. But the inconsistency of its reliability makes me think probably not.
Comparisons & Competition
The first competitor to pop into my mind is Classé Audio’s Sigma 2200i Integrated Amp, which rivals the M-150 in terms of innies and outties, give or take a phono stage here and a row of HDMI ports there. The 2200i is a bit cheaper, though just about as classy. It doesn’t, of course, sport the M-150’s swanky slim profile or its semi-hidden connectivity. The two also have radically different design and topology.
You want swank? Wadia Digital’s Intuition 01 Power DAC ups the swank game immensely and sells for about the same price as the M-150. The Wadia features a cool curved design that doesn’t even look like a piece of audio gear. It does come up somewhat short in terms of I/O as compared with the Micromega, though, it lacks a headphone output, and its remote control looks like it was designed by someone who drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon ironically.
In a day and age when high performance audio is starting to reach commodity-level pricing, I’m fully aware of the fact that $7,500 for an integrated amplifier is a lot of coin. More than anything else, though, what I think the Micromega M-150 does is draw a line in the sand between “high performance” and “high end.”
Look, the Corvette that my dad and I own together? It can go toe-to-toe with just about any Ferrari that pulls up to the line next to us. They’re both high performance. But our Vette isn’t “high-end.” The Ferrari earns its sticker price with all sorts of niceties, from design to styling to stitching to heritage to the quality of its knobs and switches.
So, yeah, if you belong to the “performance is all that matters” camp, you’ll certainly find a lot to love in the M-150, because it hangs with the best of its category, but it might not be the right integrated amp for you. If you’re a gear fetishist or someone who just likes the finer things in life, though, this saucy little minx is sure to get you a little hot and bothered with one of the sexiest form factors I’ve come across in quite some time, and some hellaciously delicious sound to boot.
• Check out our Stereo Amps category page to read similar reviews.
•Micromega AS-400 Integrated Amplifier Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit the Micromega website for more product information.