Musical Fidelity X-Ray Integrated Amp Reviewed

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For me to suggest that 'we saved the best for last' in our triumvirate of Musical Fidelity reviews would be to diminish the brilliance of the first two. Both the X-A1 integrated amplifier and the now sold-out Nu-Vista preamplifier were reviewed in seeming isolation precisely because they deserved not to have their thunder stolen by any other element of the series. But the X-RAY is the icing on the cake.

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To recap, the X-A1 was the first model to be housed in the 'double cylinder' (230mm wide) version of the X-series extrusion. And it signified not just a step up in size and price but in performance goals. The single-cylinder X modules - though including a number of whole components like pre-amps, mono power amps and DACs, as well as pocket-money add-ons - are rightly regarded as manna for the impoverished hobbyist. The X-A1 upped the stakes by emerging as a serious, if cost-effective, integrated amplify, one which just happens to sit next to the single-cylinder goodies without too much culture shock. Nu-Vista, on the other hand, is a slight aberration because of its limited-edition (and now-depleted) status.

But both units begged for a source component which matched them electrically and aesthetically, as does the single-cylinder X-Pre. And X-philes were wondering - prior to the release of the double-cylinder enclosure - what CD player or transport Musical Fidelity could or would possibly create to match the rest. The answer, apparent the instant we first saw the X-A1, was the double-cylinder case, just right for housing a CD tray.

By now, most of you are familiar with the chassis type: a rugged, handsome, functional-yet-funky enclosure which calls to mind the structural rigidity of submarine hatches and nuclear waste containers. In trying to explain how something so, so could have so much appeal to audio crazies, one has to look to steam-punk artefacts like Nemo's Nautilus or to studio wares from the likes of Nagra. You examine X-series hardware and understand that, even though it's devoid of any aesthetic frills, it just looks '

For the X-RAY, the upper half of the fascia has been opened to accept a CD tray, while below it is an LCD display of the exact proportions of the tray aperture. In keeping with the symmetry evident on the front panels of every X model bar the X-DAC, the X-RAY has its power on switch mirrored by the open/close button. Below the display are the four primary transport controls: play/pause, stop, track forward and track reverse. Given that Musical Fidelity's head honcho has a thing about the way controls operate (he can tell you things about the action of a clarinet in a way which makes audiophiles seem casual), it's no surprise that great attention has been paid to the X-RAY's tactile experience. Each push-button is machined from solid aluminium and cushioned by a latex buffer to give 'a heavy, solid quality and satisfactory rebound.' And I have to admit that the action of the X-RAY's buttonry made me think of Air-Tight pre-amps from Japan.

All of the minor functions, eg display illumination display format (time remaining, time elapsed etc), programming and numerical track access, have been placed on the comprehensive remote, thus freeing the fascia of clutter. Given the miniaturisation Musical Fidelity achieved with the X-TONE, I have no doubt that they could have fitted the lot on the front panel, but blissfully they showed restraint. The back contains solid, gilded phono outputs and - curious given the superlative quality of the onboard DAC - phono and Toslink digital outputs.

Inside, and it's something special for a player costing only �799. The transport mechanism is sourced from Sony rather than the land of Edam, hence its smooth, confidence-inspiring action. At the heart of the X-RAY is a Burr-Brown PCM1716 24-bit/96kHz Delta-Sigma D/A converter, which endows this player with near-to-cutting-edge performance. Musical Fidelity has added its own separate independent oscillator section, which they took pains to explain to me is NOT derived from the existing clock or CD electronics. And the digital signal from the controller is said to be cleaned up by a separate circuit. Musical Fidelity also developed a highly sophisticated, five-pole, linear-phase analogue filter developed by Musical Fidelity to significantly reduce high-frequency spuriae, and to deliver excellent noise and distortion performance.

What's interesting are the company's observations on areas still pooh-poohed by the dinosaur breed. When the complete X-RAY electronics and internal mechanism were fitted to a standard pressed-steel chassis with a plastic-style front panel, 'the unit sounded markedly inferior to the same electronics and mechanism mounted in a non-resonant X-RAY chassis, case and front panel assembly.' The company's designers feel that this may be related to the elimination of acoustic feedback due to the X-RAY's mechanical and structural integrity. Like other components in the X-series, the X-RAY chassis is a solid metal, anti-resonance extrusion with a the front panel milled from a military-grade, solid aluminium billet, which is then machined to produce the finish seen here.

Whatever way you slice it, the X-RAY is perfect executive toy/desktop jewellery, the sort of object which - like Greek worry-beads - you just want to, uh, fondle. Given that I used it mainly with Nu-Vista, I hardly spent time worrying about how it will look with a pre-amp or integrated amp housed in any other shape of case, but it's the kind of gem which warrants pride of place. Hence, it will probably stand alone on its shelf, aesthetically unencumbered by the proximity of something cubist. Other products used with or against it included the Roksan Caspian integrated amp and CD player (both among my current favourites), X-DAC and Theta Chroma converters, Quad 770-10L and Bolero Compakt speakers, and assorted cables from Kimber, Musical Fidelity and Steve Rochlin.

This is not, I repeat the sort of product which will worry retailers because customers will beg for laboured demonstrations. Provided that the unit has been run in and switched on for, say 15 minutes, you'll hear its worth within a few bars. That it has a signature sound, of which more anon, might contradict the notion that the best components are blindingly neutral, but there's no mistaking the X-RAY has a personality. What it also has, in keeping with its oh-so-apt name, are fabulously naked, Zeiss-inspired transparency, the sort of detail retrieval which would make a Hornby collector swoon and top-to-bottom consistency which means that I'm making the X-RAY my sub-�1000 reference.

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