Musical Fidelity kW 25 CD Player

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Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson is too pragmatic to worry about climb-downs. After nailing his colours to the SACD mast by producing one of the best players that format ever enjoyed, he's returned to good ol' Red Book CD. He announced this in his justification for the kW 25 two-chassis CD player:

'Why a CD player when SACD and DVD-A are available? Well, for all intents and purposes, DVD-A is dead - while SACD still has only a thousand or fifteen hundred titles, most of them re-issues of old analogue tapes. And these discs are very expensive. So, thanks a lot. However, there are over 2� million CD titles available, in every form of music you could imagine, and all at intelligent prices.

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'For us, this means that CD is the only logical medium. In our view, there have been only a very few, cutting edge CD players that strive to wring every last drop of performance from a standard CD. That is where the kW 25 two-box CD player comes in.'

Fighting words, eh? But I know what he means. So cack-handed was the entire SACD (and, to be fair, DVD-A) project that you can understand any bitterness in Antony's missive. SACD deserved better, but far too many forces mitigated against it: the iPod, the economy, the iPod, the cruddy state of music, the iPod, industry politics and, oh, yeah, the iPod.

So Antony thought, to hell with it, let's produce a killer CD player. To achieve this, he opted for a two-chassis design, with dedicated functions that preclude total mix'n'match 'universality': the DAC will accept other transports, but the transport can only be used with the matching DAC.

Dubbed the kW 25 CD Player System, in keeping with the flagship amplification kW series, the package consists of the kW 25DM transport and kW 25DM DAC at �1999 apiece. Both units feature the now-familiar styling of the kW models, 440x138x390mm (WHD) cases with horizontal finned side panels and natural metal fascias offset by black anodised handles, all fashioned from high quality 'milspec' aluminium, with information provided by blue-lit displays. They look expensive and decidedly butch, very no-nonsense without being so minimalist as to vanish.

As expected of MF, they bristle with novelty. One of the first things you notice about the kW 25DM Transport are the four knurled discs on top, which might have suggested spacer feet. Uh-uh: they're rotatable and they provide a 'turntable-style suspension with user-adjustable ride height.' This is to address one of MF's preoccupations for CD playback: proper physical isolation from acoustic feedback.

Antony points out that, 'The best high quality analogue turntables have proper isolation systems to eliminate acoustic feedback. It has long been acknowledged that this is an extremely significant factor in a turntable's performance potential. We believe it is the same for CD players, but because it is expensive and inconvenient to do so, it is almost never done.' Or it's very expensive: the last CD player I used with adjustable suspension came from Oracle, and its price was nearly double that of the MF package.

Having produced a turntable, Musical Fidelity took its suspension principles and applied them to the kW 25DM transport. Antony states that, 'The point of the turntable style isolation is to ensure that the transport has a completely stable vibration-free platform so that it can concentrate on the job of information retrieval. The results are stupendous. The kW 25DM is immune to any acoustic feedback effects. This results in a clearer, detailed sound, and lets you hear right into the background, revealing previously completely inaudible details from familiar recordings. You have to hear it to believe it. It is an arresting experience.' Well, I'm still out of jail, but I get the drift.

A nice touch is the inclusion of a spirit level in the packaging. I deliberately set up the transport way out of whack and didn't hear any changes. I must be getting old. But it's something more to play with, and we, as audiophiles, can never get enough of that, right?

Once you stop messing around with the knobs, the rest is minimalist. To the left, a CD tray, to the right a display with the usual track, time and function data. Below them, from left to right, are small buttons for power on/off, open/close, play/pause, stop, previous and next. The unit is supplied with the MF system remote, which contains all the other functions, for programming and so on. The back sports only a pair of XLR outputs for - get this - separate left and right AES/EBU digital balanced outputs operating at 96kHz. No single TOSlink, no single coax - just the mono pair. Which means that you can only use it with the matching DAC or, if memory serves me well, the mono DACs from TEAC Esoteric.

Again, there's justification for seemingly going overboard: 'We have separated the digital signals so that the left and right channels each has an entirely separate cable to transmit the 96kHz balanced signal to the DAC. This ensures maximum possible information transfer to the DAC. All the electronics associated with the 96kHz digital balanced AES/EBU output have a sophisticated regulated power supply. They are separate, to ensure that there is no interaction with any part of the transport system.'

MF applied twin-choke regulation for transport, and separate power supplies for each transport function. 'Conceptually, CD transports have three main elements; motor, servo, and digital processing. Normally these all share power supplies and, not surprisingly, interact significantly with each other resulting in performance loss. With the kW 25DM transport there is a completely separate choke regulated power supply for the motor, another one for the servo system and separate regulation for the digital electronics.

'This deliberate over-engineering ensures that each element of the CD transport operates as it is supposed to, without any interference or interaction from other digital or power supply sources. As a result, each element of the transport is working optimally so that the absolute maximum data retrieval is possible.'

Read more about the kW 25 on Page 2.

HTR Product Rating for Musical Fidelity kW 25 CD Player

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As you'd expect, the kW 25DM transport worked beautifully, but I could only try it with the matching DAC, as explained. (Maybe I should have borrowed a set of the mono TEAC Esoteric DACs?) Whatever importance you do or do not attribute to a transport versus a DAC regarding the ultimate performance of a CD retrieval system, I doubt there's anything to criticise here. And I did get a kick out of the levelling system....

Probably more interesting is the kW 25DM DAC because it can be used with other transports, and it's something of a star in its own right, independent of the transport. Obviously, it is best exploited via the digital balanced AES/EBU left and right inputs. But even if you use it via coax or TOSlink instead of the one dedicated to the 25DM, it will accept and automatically switch between 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz and 96kHz. The DAC is dual differential (one entire dual DAC for each channel) and it upsamples to 24-bits at 192kHz.The input stage has its own separately regulated power supply for each stage.

Again with the novelty: the kW 25DM DAC has two outputs operating in parallel. One is 'super quality tube configuration' using a MuVista tube and the other is solid-state Class A. Both outputs operate at the same time allowing the user to connect both to a preamp and switch between them 'to get the optimum sound for each particular recording.' (Cary also has a CD player with this feature, but it has one output and the user switches between them on the player.) I tried both and expected vast differences. There were none.

So subtle were the audible changes that they could easily be masked by cables. You guys know I wanted the valve output stage to 'blow away' the solid-state outputs. Neither blew away the other. I must have spent three hours trying to choose between them. I gave up. So save yourself a set of cables and use either output.

MF states that the kW 25DM has an extraordinary noise ratio ('typically about -122.5dB'), that its linearity extends to better than -100dB and its distortion is typically less than 0.002%. Make of what you will of such numbers: the kW was deliciously quiet, but I can't recall the last DAC I used that was noisy. Suffice it to say that the DAC performed beautifully, as proven when fed from other transports, including the Marantz CD12.

There's an immediate silkiness to the sound of the kW 25 system, regardless of the disc - vintage material reissued and remastered, gold CDs of an audiophile bent, or fresh recordings from fastidious sources (Telarcs, Chesky, et al.) It's not the addition of texture: it's the absence of unpleasant digital irritants. Much has been made about vanishing jitter, competent power supplies, balanced operation, upsampling. I no longer care quite how such listenability was achieved, only that it was.

MF customers know that Antony is a clarinettist of note, now studying piano, and that he lives and breathes classical music. Which must explain the system's finesse and delicacy. What it doesn't account for, despite his fetish for 500W-plus amplifiers, the sheer mass and kick and force the player can convey. I know, I know: there's allegedly nothing more demanding than huge orchestras, but the last live rock gigs I attended generate more energy than anything I can imagine - not simply sheer SPLs. Whether using the kW 25 for the Persuasions' a cappella or George Thorogood describing the impurities in his skeleton, the kW swung from soft to hard, soft to loud with equal composure.

Assuming that the rest of your system is up to it, when a kick drum is hit via the kW, you feel it in the chest. The speedy plucking of Stevie Ray Vaughan stops and starts with utter precision. The overtones of acoustic guitar thrum just so. (And I hear my son practising daily for hours on end, so the reference is unimpeachable.) And voices...aah! From the blend of the Judds to the CalPop of Jackie DeShannon, Raitt at her raunchiest, Paulo Conte at his smokiest: I think I'm in love.

Given the inherent shittiness of digital, it's quite an achievement. If ever audio has its equivalent of a sow's ear/silk purse scenario, it's digital playback. And high-end CD players are the audio equivalent of the French bathing themselves in perfume rather than bathe per se. (Attention, EU Thought Police: historically-speaking, that is.) In the most basic terms, the kW combo makes sweet music, confined and defined only by the discs you play. Natural vocals, nice, open spaces, decent three-dimensionality, a proper sense of both perspective and scale: it's only when you flip over to LP that you become aware of CD's innate artifice.

Musical Fidelity feels that this is the natural successor to the kW SACD player, however retrograde it may seem to some the step back to CD. But think about Antony's remarks: SACD is a commercial failure, even if it did sound better. We have a few gazillion CDs to play. Not all of us want to use MP3 players. Take all that on board, and perhaps MF has done us a favour by rejecting SACD with such vehemence. Beyond any question, the kW 25 CD system delivers all you could want: superb sound, delightful ergonomics, and - self-deprecatingly - a couple of bizarre features with which to amuse your audiophile buddies. The kW system is so entertaining that I think I'd better start saving up for it before they sell out.

Musical Fidelity Ltd
MF House
15-17 Olympic Trading Estate Fulton Road
Middlesex HA9 0TF
Tel 020 8900 2866
Fax 020 8900 2983

Verdict: Hard to argue with Mr Michaelson: the sound is sublime. Subtle, free of nasty artefacts, solid, non-aggressive. It's so damned close to SACD that you can understand why MF was prepared to abandon the failed format for a return to CD. At the price, there's so much bang for the buck, er, pound that it's impossible to fault.

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Review System:
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Atlas Questor interconnects
Transparent Ultra balanced and single-ended cable
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