Musical Fidelity F-Series Power Amps Reviewed

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First timepieces, now military aircraft. There's no telling what Antony Michaelson will use as the source of model names for a new series of Musical Fidelity amplifiers. But fighter plane nomenclature is somehow appropriate for the F Series, because Michaelson looks at these new units almost as if they were an assault force on the high end.

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He's never hidden his distaste for the telephone-number price tags on most high end equipment, but he has accepted that the punter on the street is, to put it mildly, cautious when it comes to the look of his or her hi-fi...whatever the price. Having learned a painful lesson with the radical Chronos/Odysseus/Da Vinci products (of which I was probably the only fan), Michaelson has tempered his need to create attractive, stylish, individualistic products with reality: producing the what the market will accept. Aztec angularity, outr colours -- I doubt he'll ever waste his time again with anything which challenges the Ford Mondeo mind-set of the buying public. As for pricing, well, he's out to prove that you don't have to spend as much as you would for a Mondeo if you want good sound.

As of its launch in Hong Kong, the F Series consisted of three products linked by three main features: valves, balanced operation and a fresh yet earthly face plate. The F22 all-tube pre-amp, the F15 100W pure Class-A stereo hybrid power amp and the F18 'Mostly Class A' 220W stereo hybrid power amp all feature a concave, cast front-panel in a natural finish, with integral, contrasting black curved handles. They look, quite simply, about as elegant as any hardware I can name. And yet they break new ground without scaring off the retailers who have to sell the stuff and who fear iconoclasm. Michaelson even went so far as to commission bespoke, curvaceous heatsinks for the power amps rather than use off-the-peg items as do most other amp builders.

Perhaps the most important weapon in the arsenal is a black plastic wedge which comes with the F22: a remote control. The F22 is not the first-ever remote control pre-amp, but I can't think of another all-tube (ECC88s) line-level pre-amp with balanced operation, relay switching, bomb-proof construction and infra-red operation which sells for �999. Yes, three -- not four -- nines. And there's no obvious corner cutting, either. The switching feels great, the knobs are beautifully chromed and there are multi-coloured LEDs to indicate states of operation from warm-up to full 'on' to mute. Musical Fidelity fitted top quality sockets at the back, there's an easy-to-access toggle switch to choose between balanced (XLR) and unbalanced operation, the circuit is Class A triode linear cascode with separate regulation for each channel (DC and HT) and the layout is designed for maximum isolation of the various stages. I was told, too, that the F22 should prove immune to external influences and it did prove to be rather unfussy when it came to siting and cable selection. Its 480x335x105mm (WDH) is solid, chunky, serious.

There are only two options. The F22 will accept one of two plug-in boards, one containing a DAC (which I tried) and one with a phono section. The former sells for �200, the latter �100. And it raises the only sore point I can identify about the actual physical state of the F22: why couldn't Musical Fidelity have allowed the user to fit both? I'm sure it's down to costs, but the single slot does force the customer to choose between digital and analogue. Then again, the F22 sounds richer and warmer with a Tubalog than with the plug-in DAC, even though the plug-in DAC is based on the Tubalog.

Strip off the fascia's buttons and knobs, extend the front panel upward by 70mm and you're looking at an F15. This squat powerhouse, a manageable 375mm deep, features ECC88s driving four pairs of high current output transistors in Class A mode, classic hybrid topology but with the sound tweaked for maximum tube-y-ness. Increase the F15's depth by 300mm, double the number of transistors and you have the 220W/channel F18, a real floor-filler reminiscent of Musical Fidelity's earlier '470. Both use hefty hardware for the speaker connections, both feature toggle-selectable balanced or unbalanced operation and both run hot enough to make the mercury bubble in smallish listening rooms. Neither amplifier is afraid of low impedances, so they're bargain solutions if you must find something which can cope with silly loads and don't want a second mortgage. The F15 sells for �1899, the F18 for �4000 -- more than a Japanese midi-system certainly, but hardly in Gaku-On territory.

I treated the F'ers as if they were cost-no-object designs, using them with Wilson WATTs/Puppies, Apogee Stages, Sonus Faber Minima Amators and Extremas and the little Linaeum LFXes. With both the Tubalog and the optional DAC board to had, I tried a variety of transports, including the Krell MD-20 and the 'front ends' of the YBA CD2 and the Primare 204 with coaxial connections. All listening was undertaken with the system in balanced mode, which was audibly 'tidier' than single-ended.

If you were to s the fascia's buttons and knobs and,d be It also meant easy swapping with other XLR'd components for comparison's sake, including bits from Krell, Class and Primare.
A rush of responses, a flood of conflicts -- not unsurprising when you consider how relentless is one A. Michaelson's hyping of his own wares; you're almost afraid to criticise the stuff for fear that he'll whip out some effigy he made earlier. 'The F22 is underpriced!' 'The F15 sounds better than the F18!' 'I just burned my ankle!' 'When's the phono section gonna be ready?' Too much, too soon. Wait 'til he shuffles

I want to scream, off back to Wembley and listen to it in peace... Shuffle? The way he drives?

Continue reading about the F-Series on Page 2.

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