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.
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.
Anyway, I let the stuff cook for a couple of days, and – assured
that they were well and truly burned it – learned that they like a
good 30 minutes settling in if switched on from cold. There are never
any pops or clicks whatever your eagerness because built-in muting
circuitry prevents any signal from passing through to your speakers
before all is stable.
Trying hard not to expect Da Vinci Redux, I eased back and let the F
System deal as much with delicate material as much as I did with
forceful, demanding recordings possessing wild dynamics and thunderous
bass. There's something of a challenge in using a sledgehammer to crack
an eggshell, and Krells will always be cherished for that quality above
all else: the ability to hammer or caress, depending on the need.
Surprise, surprise. Or maybe not. The F15 tiptoed through the tulips
with far less stomp than the '18, the finesse evident more in
dimensional and ambient clues than in actual music. Each time I listen
to the soundtrack to Cabaret, I hear more and more
grow impressed by the sense of atmosphere, and not just because I can
picture that horrid little Aryan shit singing 'Tomorrow Belongs To Me'.
During the set pieces in the club, numerous little sounds like glasses
tinkling and audience members tittering fill the soundstage. The F18
plops 'em in front of you; the F15 lays them out like a table setting
at the Savoy. Or, more precisely, in a pre-War Berlin dive.
So, too, with communicating emotion. Sticking with Cabaret and Liza
Minelli's devastating turns with 'Maybe This Time' and the title song,
I've gotta say that the power of her voice is captured without strain
or stress with both amplifiers. In a way, the amps are almost too good
for the F22, which isn't quite as open and transparent as the
amplifiers showed themselves to be with other control units; then
again, that's in comparison to Krell's KRC at six times the price...
-High end or not, tweaky or not, you get the convenience of remote
control in an audiophile milieu. Which begs the question: why has
remote control only been either a low-fi or extremely high end) a
privilege? Here's a pre-amp smack in the middle with the full
complement of buttons, to suggest that the remote controller was
included as a trade-off for something else. The buttons offerprecise
operationrotate without graunching or clunking, they're easy-to-access
toggle switchsfacilities not featured as standardoptional inclusion of
only a , all their modeednover the next few sessions ike a good 30
minutes settling dow, though, to hear music -, for instance,though
isfine detail recovery and /ce captured by the recordingwith fastidious
care, n, Oscar-winninged without strain or stress by The amps swing
with greater ease from ultra-soft to pass-me-the-Anadin than does the
F22, but – and I emphasise this – the observation was made relative
to far dearer pre-amps. By any standards, the F22 is one of the top
contenders for pre-amps to the south of a thousand quid.
But I kept returning to the power amps, especially the F15, for
their sheer star quality. Hybrids appear all too regularly for me, at
least a half-dozen each year, and all of them juggle tube-v-tranny with
varying degrees of commitment. The Fs do not equivocate. The
'transistorness' is there strictly to prevent reverse techno-fear,
almsot in a self-defeating way because they run as hot as any tube amps
I can recall. But the use of solid-state output devices makes the Fs
somehow more acceptable to a wider audience. The avoidance of
schizophrenia – making the Fs sound more valve than solid-state –
should be written on all the point-of-sale material and the sales
staff's foreheads. These are tube amps for those who don't want to keep
stocks of KT88s.
Whatever the politics of the pre-amps used to drive the F-series
power amps, they always sound rich and lush. With the F22 all-tube pre,
they're fat and rosy, if not quite vintage in attitude. Solid-state
control units merely strip away some sheen and force the lowermost
octave into more taut behaviour. They're open and transparent enough to
allow any listener to hear cable changes let alone pre-amp swaps, so
don't let their overall composure lull you into sloppiness. Even though
they're relatively immune to siting considerations, they will respond
to latter The only way I could upset the romance was with skinny cables
in single-ended mode. running balanced via Mandrake, on brass (whether
electronically or acoustically created) audiophilic perversity. Indeed,
it was the F15 which forced me to accept that the Mana Acoustics racks
Whether or not the F-Series rewrites the rules in the middle sector,
where audiophiles and high end wannabees mingle with leftover yuppies
and well-heeled spec-freaks, remains to be seen. The stuff is too good
for the market it seeks to address, too stylish, too competent. The
problem? It's neither as flash as the Japanese offerings at these price
points, nor as sadistic/temperamental as the more traditional
audiophile fodder with which it must compete.
Is it as brave as the Chronos? Probably more brave. All Chronos
tried to do was rewrite the rules of audio aesthetics. The F Series
attacks the whole damned pricing structure. And while the staff at
Krell and Rowland and Threshold and Mark Levinson and the like needn't
consider an overdose of sleeping tablets, I can think of a few dozen
British brands which can look forward to sleepless nights
Which brings me to a horrid realisation: in the UK, 'innovation'is a four-letter word.