It's easy to forget that, once upon a time, the doyen of Italian speaker manufacture made amplifiers. They were mainly valved, oozed the sort of woodcraft found in the company's speakers and sported daft names like 'Quid'.* They were not as successful as they deserved to be, but, hey, the company more than made up for it with a decade-and-a-half's worth of stupendous loudspeakers. Now, for whatever reasons which might motivate a manufacturer to stray from its traditional (or return to a previous) path, Sonus Faber has produced its first new amplifier in more than a decade. And it was worth the wait.
Dubbed 'Musica', which tells us that the firm learned a lot about nomenclature in the intervening years, this compact integrated amplifier looks exactly like something which could only have been created by the souls who gave us such exquisite, trend-setting aesthetic triumphs as the Electa Amator, the Concertino and the Guarneri Homage. Naturally, it's as heavily wooded as you'd expect from a marque with Sonus Faber's traditions, though use of this Mother Nature-sourced, biodegradable material is limited to the front panel. Hence, you get a sensation of a substantially be-timbered product like a loudspeaker, when in reality it's only one of the enclosure's six panels; the rest are metal. But not just any ol' tinny, folded stuff.
Here's where attention-to-detail alone is enough to make you want a Musica. Once you get past - if you can - the glorious, curved-and-grooved, solid-walnut fascia, with its slim, gold, inset panel housing the on/off, source select and level rotaries, you see a completely perforated metal lid finished in a textured black paint. OK, so the holes imply ventilation and therefore either pure Class A or tube circuitry, but within lurks neither. Rather, the orifices allow you to see the four red LEDs which indicate the safe operation of the various stages.
You might argue that this is unnecessary, given that a sexy blue LED on the front panel tells you that the power has been switched on. But you can forget any installation which limits the view of Musica to its front panel. So sublimely attractive are even the top and sides that you won't want to site a Musica anywhere other than on an open shelf or table, just so you can gaze on all its surfaces. Like other deceptively simple devices which continue to fascinate with slowly-revealed details - fine pens and wristwatches spring to mind - Musica doesn't shout out its stylistic fillips. You have to look for them.
You want f'rinstances? OK: The cage is held in place by four thumb screws so you can remove the lid with ease, either to drool all over the innards or for access to the fuses in the power supply. They also proved useful when I tried the NAD PP-1 phono pre-amplifier and couldn't find an earthing post on the back of Musica; hooking the PP-1's earth lead to one of the thumb screws worked perfectly. Next, there's a 35mm diameter gold disc on the top of the cage with the unit's serial number engraved in 6mm tall digits; not for Sonus Faber a mere etching on a sticker at the back. (In case you're wondering, the review sample was No. 049.) And when you do take off the lid, you notice other heart-warming touches like strips of felt on every surface where the cage makes contact with the chassis, to deaden it and prevent vibration.
Now I'm not saying that this is the only amplifier which appears to have been designed without a single detail omission, but - turntable earthing post aside - I can't find one unattended tweak concern...even underneath the unit. Musica sports not four but three feet for levelling on even rough surfaces, a trio of large copper cones plated in gold. And they're not sharpened to furniture-damaging points. Instead, they terminate in 10mm 'flats'. And why the need to worry about placing Musica on a less-than smooth surface? Because this baby would look stunning sitting on a raw slate slab...
At the back, as you'd expect given the rest of the unit's gilding, Musica contains substantial gold-plated phono sockets for all inputs and a single pair for the buffered tape outputs. For CE compliance, the amp is fitted with multi-way WBT binding posts, gold-plated but sheathed in clear plastic, while AC power reaches Musica through a three-pin IEC socket.
Inside are more clues to a thorough development program. The main circuitry resides on a large, thick PCB, fitted to posts which raise it around 25mm above the case. The power supply at the extreme left is assembled on a completely separate PCB, also well-isolated from the enclosure. The PCB is left/right symmetrical, with extensive use of surface-mount technology with an eye, er, ear to short signal paths. Input is via dual-differential JFET, while the output stage is 'error-corrected' MOSFET. Protection covers DC, short circuit and thermal, with a couple of easily-accessible fuses on the power supply PCB.
Users gain access to the device's half-dozen line-level inputs
through a mechanical selector with switched 'ground line', while level
is adjusted through a custom-made conductive-plastic volume
potentiometer. The on-off rotary completes a symmetrical line-up, the
switch positioned to the left, directly in front of the power supply.
And the power supply is the heart of Sonus Faber's Musica. At its core is a large
toroidal transformer, a brace of 'customised' 15000(F main capacitors,
independent supplies and ultra high-speed 'Schottky' diode rectifiers in
double bridge configuration for the input gain stages and output
stages, and discrete voltage regulators for the input gain stage.
Which seems like overkill for a rating of only 50W/ch RMS into 8
ohms. Low power is Musica's most intriguing puzzle when you factor in
its size and price as well. At 425x335x155mm (WDH) and with a weight of
16kg, Musica is no lightweight. And a price tag of 2490 means that it
must compete with some seriously heavy-hitters, not counting the myriad
separate pre/power combinations available at the price.
For the sake of brevity, can we accept one minor marketing
concession? Is it alright if, from this point on, we assume that - like
valves vs transistors - customers want either integrated amps or
pre/power combinations? Otherwise we could be here for months, setting
up face-offs between integrateds and like-priced pre/power pairings. OK
with you? Fine: that means you need only think of Musica as battling the
Krell KAV300i, the Classé CAP-100 and other 'high-end, entry-level,
solid-state' integrated amps. Besides, we all know that a separate
pre/power combination remains the committed audiophile's choice, if only
because it ensures an extra power supply...
I know what you're thinking: Musica was made to drive Sonus Faber
speakers, so you're expecting a litany of incestuous pairings. Wrong.
You can assume correctly that the Musica was voiced to work with
everything from Concertino on up, though the power limitations preclude
satisfactory use with the now-departed Extrema, and the Guarneri demands
the sort of amplification which knows no limits, including cost-based.
So let's dispense with the blood ties first: I have now heard Musica
with Concertino, Concerto, Concerto Grand Piano and Minima Amator, and
there are no signs whatsoever of internecine warfare. with
Sonus Faber speakers who's in the market for a sub- 2500 integrated amp
must add Musica to the shopping list. And it would be bizarre if this
amp work perfectly with its own kind. Far more revealing, then, are the other, non-Sonus Faber pairings I tried.
What you must understand from the outset is that (like Guarneri
Homage), Musica is all about subtlety and finesse, with sheer power
almost an afterthought. As such, Musica is not even in the running if
you want brute force, and the likes of the Krell KAV300i or Classé
CAP-100 with slaughter it in the muscle stakes. So, with this in mind, I
used Musica with speakers which would wallow in its virtues, like
LS3/5As, old Quad ESLs and the high-sensitivity New Audio Frontiers
Reference. And it was playback through the old Quads which made me
realise that I was in the presence of a very special amplifier indeed.
Using sources which included the Krell KAV-300cd and the Basis
2000/Rega RB300/Grado Prestige analogue front-end with NAD phono stage,
Transparent interconnects and A.R.T. speaker cable, I assembled systems
not that farfetched in terms of relative costs. What I did not expect
was a combination of transparency, and liquidity which can only be
described as valve-like, floating above bass which demonstrates all the
control of solid-state amplification and none of the aggression. At the
risk of sounding like a recent MOSFET convert, I have to say that this
is the sweetest, most relaxing, most seductive non-valve'd amplifier
I've heard since the original Primare.
Those with their ears to the ground know that Sonus Faber spent a lot
of time tuning Musica, and that some of Europe's most refined golden
ears were involved in the listening sessions. And two of those whom I
know were part of the team are among the most learned, experienced and
estimable listeners I've had the pleasure to know. As a result of this
teamwork, Musica has been honed to display uncanny precision, especially
in image positioning, retrieval of fine detail and transient attack.
The mid-band is so exquisitely lifelike that vocals possess both the
texture and the air which are required to make you think the singers are
in the room. But it's the character of the treble which defines the
Think bells or chimes, running water, anything which tinkles without
clatter. Dig out a recording with loads of glossy, glassy upper-octave
information. Xylophone, castrati, triangles, Guy Mitchell whistling -
doesn't matter. Just play it and listen to the way the upper frequencies
shimmer. It's spine-tingling. It will have you lock an Iris Dement CD
on repeat. And it's enough to make me want a Musica.
But nothing is perfect. I'd like to see a CD player in the same
cabinet so as not to spoil the eye-candy effect; Musica is too pretty to
place next to anything else. I'd like remote volume control. And a
price just south of 2000 would make it a more sensible choice for
owners of Concerto, Concertino and Minima Amator - especially now that
the lire sits at 3,060 to the pound. But maybe I'm just being
unrealistic. Or selfish. Because Musica, as it stands, is a gift.