Depending on whether or not your world view is half-full or half-empty, one could argue that most mainstream British manufacturers have been pretty slow in jumping on the A/V bandwagon. Electronics, that is, not speakers; speakers, after all, mean only multiplying to reach the requisite five channels, with some shielding thrown in for (convincing) good measure. If you're positive by nature, you could argue that they're simply being cautious. If not, then you could argue that they're cowards or they're merely wallowing in the denial afforded by citizenship in cloud-cuckooland. Indeed, I'm sure there are assholes lurking in the bowels of various R&D departments, feverishly convincing themselves that Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS are never gonna happen. These, of course, are the anticipated, anti-film Luddites who will do to their credibility what they did 17 years ago when refusing to accept that CD was 'gonna happen'.
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Musical Fidelity categorically doesn't fall in that camp, so I believe Antony Michaelson when he states that Musical Fidelity wanted to do it right, no matter how long it took. To compound matters even further, Musical Fidelity - unlike isolationists who always think know better - chose as its yardstick the estimable TAG McLaren Audio AV32P A/V processor. As this isn't a shoot-out against the TAG, which I don't have to hand anyway, I will leave it to you to do side-by-side comparisons; and you should, in the way that anyone spending £20-£30k on a sports saloon
Now I could have borrowed an AV32P, but instead, I'm calling MF's bluff and comparing it to my (and others') reference: some £6000's worth of Lexicon MC1. Unfair? Perhaps. But references are there to allow us to gauge the performance of products both better and worse; that's why it's called a reference. If the Musical Fidelity HTP can even hold its own, then it will be an achievement of which the company can be proud.
Despite selling for a reasonable (in context, that is) £1999, the HTP boasts the sort of niceties you would demand of a cutting-edge processor. It features separate double-sided, silver-plated PCBs for the audio, video and digital inputs, each with a separate power supply, grounding system and screening system for total isolation. The company insists that this segregation of conflicting stages is what differentiates a so-so, compromised processor from one good enough to satisfy the fussiest videophiles. It costs more, requires more care in design and construction, and generally makes life difficult for the manufacturer, but if that's what it takes, so be it.
Thus the company chose to put all the video inputs - each one bandpass filtered - on a dedicated PCB, along with the accompanying switching, logic functions and controls to ensure that the video signal will not be 'trekking through the whole amplifier', wreaking havoc with the audio signals. The company boasts that - because of the extra attention spent to the PCB layout - the longest video PCB track in the HTP is a mere 2in. To ensure universality, the HTP accepts PAL and NTSC signals and provides four video inputs, for either Composite or S-video, with auto detection between the two.
MF applies the same fanaticism to the audio inputs, which are also buffered; so, too, the audio outputs, again each separately buffered. Even the front panel PCB has been laid out so that it is isolated from the video, audio or digital circuitry. Naturally, the 'fifth generation' DSP is equally isolated.
In direct contrast to the jam-packed back panel, the front is minimalist, with a standby on/off button (primary AC switching is at the back), two buttons to scroll up and down the sources, one to scroll through the music modes (analogue stereo, DTS and Dolby Digital surround and their lesser-channeled variants, PCM, party/natural/ concert/club modes and the like), a display which identifies the input and the status (analogue or digital, number of channels, level in dB), and a multi-function rotary with a press-button in the middle. This allows you to access the menu without the remote control, the latter containing all of the necessary functions bar overall balance for L-R and F-R. Also available is 'late night' mode, which reduces dynamic range but allows you listen while everyone else in the house is asleep.
Alas, the HTP requires lots of menu delving to perform even the simplest functions, and it's here that it loses out to the Lexicon - a model of sensible ergonomics. Antony Michaelson will swear blind that you can get used to anything, but that's just not good enough; you can get used to arthritis, but that doesn't make it any better. I've lost count of the processors and DVD players I've handled, and I know 'intuitive' from 'sadistic'. This one falls closer to the latter, and you
What the HTP offers over the Lexicon - which is notorious for its horrid looks, feel and build quality - is perceived value of a truly high-end calibre. The 17 1/4x3 7/8x15 3/4in (WHD) enclosure is fitted with a front panel 'hewn from high-quality HE6063/T6 mil-spec aluminium billet. The inserts are all machined from high-quality brass, then nickel-plated, then silver-plated and finally, 24K gold -plated.' It simply looks expensive. The same enclosure houses the matching power amp, the HT600 - also £1999.
Pumping out a substantial 5x120W, hence the 600 nomenclature, it's a bargain when you consider that it contains five channels' worth of near-to-A3 performance - that amp being one of the most fondly-received power plants in the company's history. As an A3 sells for £1000 for a stereo amp, the HT600 from the outset represents a savings of £500! Configured as five true monobloc amplifiers, the HT600 is not available in 2-through-5 channel, modular form. The company decided to avoid that confusion, pointing out that the A3 already exists for two-channel-only purchasers. And, what the hell, if someone is acquiring surround status gradually, the extra channel (should one buy three A3s) will come in useful a year or two down the road when 6.1 Dolby and 6.1 DTS are the norm.
Inside the HT600 are five separate, vertical PCBs, each with its own heat sink and toroidal power supply, close to the A3 but 'not quite' in that they don't have the A3's choke regulation. But even better, Antony said that the amp circuits are similar to the Nu-Vista, minus the NU-Vista drives. I thought it sounded familiar...
Its front panel contains the on/off button and a row of five LEDs which glow blue when the unit is on. At the back are stout gold-plated phono sockets and five pairs of multi-way binding posts. My only complaint about the practicality of this device is the failure of MF to fit remote power-on switching and a stand-by mode. I don't mind leaving electronics on at all times if there's a stand-by position; this lacks anything like that, and it takes a good 20 minutes to warm up to its optimal sonic performance. Moreover, I've grown lazy (as have all of you if you dare admit it) with DVD players, processors and the like which come alive when you touch just about any button on the remote. How much simpler it would be if the HT600 awoke from its slumber when the HTP was switched on.
I used the MF combination with the Theta Carmen and Pioneer DV-414 front ends, with the HT600 connected Martin-Logan Scenario, Script and Cinema hybrid electrostatics, plus the REL Strata III subwoofer. All the settings were flat throughout the sessions, the REL matched with its own level controls. And within seconds of switching on, with the
Let's back up a mo'. One complaint I've heard again and again from friends unimpressed with A/V is its predilection for inducing listener fatigue. It's a phenomenon which proliferated at least twice in the post-stereo era, the first being the dawn of solid state, and the second being the first two or three years of CD. In the case of transistors, it took a while before the implementation did away with the nasties - God bless Class A operation - while CD was made palatable when the audiophile brands came up with better DACs, the hobbyists uncovered tweaks and the record labels learned how to mix and master for CD. Home theatre aficionados seemed content to let nature take its course because two-thirds of the system - the amplifiers and the speakers - were 'mature' technologies. With players like the Theta Carmen, the source was dealt with in a fitting manner. But the control units? If you had less than the cost of admission to Lexicon's or Theta's or Krell's or Proceed's movie houses, you were plumb out of luck.
Because the Musical Fidelity alternative comes from a music-loving background and the company approached A/V with caution - Antony does not consider himself a film buff at all - the designers were not distracted by the artifice demanded of home theatre buffs whose idea of a good time is two hours' worth of helicopters, titties and torn T-shirts. (I suffer laddishness, too, but I try to temper it with 1950s film noir, golden-era musicals, classics featuring Edward G Robinson, Bogart or Orson Welles, and anything to do with Italy. In Italian.) Thus, the sonic performance was treated to the same regime as pure music, and it shows. What's so deliciously ironic is that the MF system is unfazed by the purely cinematic excess of whatever Bruce Willis is blowing up at the moment. (And, yes, even
Because there are no sonic sacrifices, this is an ideal system to assuage people who feel like they're being coerced into home theatre because of the way it's decimating pure music of the stereo variety. The sound is smooth in the MF manner, only now it's all-enveloping. Dialogue benefits from the neutral, open mid-band clarity, while the wide dynamic range pitches for the other team: I couldn't believe the sound of the boulder monster's footfalls in
But things were more interesting with the smaller works. , Stanley Tucci's masterpiece homage to Italians in America in the 1950s, is more of a play than a movie, so the dialogue - much of it sotto voce - is of paramount importance. With an Arnie or Sly flick, you could switch off the centre channel and it wouldn't make much difference. The MF package allowed the dialogue to cut through the party sequences, while the detail allowed the listener to detect changes in the Louis Prima music from record player to soundtrack.
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Although the HTP lacks the absolute authority of the Lexicon, the gains are only relevant in systems where the speakers have been optimised to the inch. The Lexicon sounds slightly 'bigger' with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 in 5.1 mode, the sound spreading outside of the ring formed by the speakers, with slightly more impressive image height. But the HTP matches the Lexicon in creating a seamless 360 degree sweep around the listener. In tonal areas, its DTS implementation is slightly richer than that of the Lexicon, especially on DTS audio CDs, its Dolby Digital processing a shade sweeter and less irritating. On the video front, the HTP matches the Lexicon for clarity and contrast, but the Lexicon was slightly more detailed and sharper. Will you notice it if you're not looking for flaws? Probably not - unless you watch with a loupe.