By name and styling, Musical Fidelity sets out its plans for the A1008 integrated amplifier. Its name harks back to the classic A1000 amplifier of the early 1990s, so you know it's going to sound enticing. Its looks are almost identical to the mighty and current kW 550 amp, so you know it's powerful.
There's more to this amplifier than meets the eye on casual inspection. The A1008 is a large, two-box integrated amplifier design. That's not an oxymoron - the amplifier has a separate power supply, but the signal handling and gain stages are all in the one big box.
Alongside the normal line-level inputs, it sports not only a MM/MC switchable phono stage (now rare in new amps) but comes with a built-in 24-bit/192kHz Delta-Sigma DAC, not too dissimilar to the company's own X-DACv8.
This even includes a USB socket, allowing the computer to join forces with the hi-fi electronics without compromising the sound through a PC sound card. With an increasing number of computers being used as music servers, this is becoming an important aspect of hi-fi replay and Musical Fidelity has anticipated the increasing demand.
One of Musical Fidelity's mainstays in the catalogue has been the X-10D in all its guises. It's a tube buffer stage featuring ECC88 double triode valves, which effectively irons out any inconsistencies between the output of the source component and input of the amplifier - some source components deliver a high output impedance, which is precisely not what most amplifiers want at their input stages.
By buffering that input impedance and delivering a more amp-chummy lower output impedance, all's well. The X-10D proved extremely popular... and that circuit is in the A1008, nestling snugly at the input stage of the preamp section.
The rest of the amplifier is pure solid-state meat. The power amp stage comprises two monoblocks in the same case, capable of delivering 250 watts into eight ohms and a healthy 400 watts into four, running in Class AB.
This is essentially a scaled-down version of the kW 550 design, to such a close degree that Musical Fidelity claims that - if using loudspeakers of 89dB sensitivity or higher - the two products are indistinguishable from one another.
The bigger, more expensive kW 550 will have the edge when played through less efficient speakers because of its greater headroom. That's it.
If a two-box, one-box amp is not oxymoronic, how about this... the A1008 is an integrated amp that's almost totally separated. Musical Fidelity separates out the preamp, left and right channels almost totally.
Each one has its own separate power supply and is even fed from a different tap from the external PSU box. That means where most companies might be content with one hawser to tie the amp to its juice box, Musical Fidelity uses a trio of the things: two meaty Speakon-connected cables for the left and right power amps and a slightly smaller XLR-type connector for the preamp and DAC feed.
Ignore the last one at your peril: the amplifier will protect itself and your speakers, but it's not a good idea.
Because of the sort of power on offer here, you'd be wise to hook everything up and double check before powering up the device. A quarter of a kilowatt is like a slumbering amplifier beast; waking it up by making a source scream down the speaker wires isn't good for drive units (but is still better than overdriving an underpowered amplifier into speaker-killing clipping day in, day out).
Operationally, the A1008 is a 'fit and forget' device... but it's a big fit and forget device: the main box is larger than most standard hi-fi tables.
Fortunately, it will sit on the top shelf of every regular stand. It runs mildly warm in use (power consumption maxes out at 700 watts, and runs 120 watts in idle/standby mode) but nothing like the Class A devices of old - the small, sweet sounding 25-watt A1 had a ribbed top-plate that could just about double up as a griddle.
Build quality is good, although not without its quibbles. In particular, the motorised central volume control did get raspy through the speakers as it moved through the higher regions of its travel. In fairness, this was hardly audible at volume levels that would make a whisper seem like a jet engine at full throttle, but volume pots tend to get more noisy, not less, with age.
The oft-used cliche of 'the mail'd fist in the velvet glove' takes on new meaning here. Musical Fidelity has managed to combine the grunt of a 250-watt beast with the gentle sweetness of a sensitive, 25-watt, Class A flower. The result is musical mastery.
There's an enormous temptation to get things totally wrong and hook this amp up to some inefficient, concrete-coned loudspeaker to see how the amp behaves - this is, at best, of academic interest for a reviewer, useless in reality.
Instead, go for an efficient loudspeaker of 90dB sensitivity and see how the speaker behaves with 250 watts gripping it by the cones. Now that's an interesting exercise.
Couple this amp to such speakers and you get near-infinite headroom and dynamic range, together with a curious smoothing out of some idiosyncrasies in the speaker itself. No, the A1008 is not capable of transforming the worst speakers into the best, but it does give a loudspeaker the chance of showing what it can do under 'ideal' conditions.
Naturally, the amplifier goes loud - loud enough to leave some speakers a smoking ruin. But that's missing the point. It doesn't go 'loud', it goes 'right' - you tend to use the A1008's volume control to adjust the level to get the correct volume for any given piece of music, not just to wick the sound up and down in some arbitrary fashion.
Once again, this comes down to near infinite headroom and dynamics. Freed from having to place limits on the volume ceiling, you set the volume level according to the scale of the piece of music, not the point where the amp or speaker starts to get out of control.
You don't cut back because the flutes distort, because the flutes aren't likely to distort. You don't hold off because the bass guitar gets out of control for the same reason.
This doesn't mean the amplifier is without a sound. Far from it. It sounds controlled, detailed and yet sort of chocolatey-rich. But these are the sort of attributes that do not make themselves directly apparent.
The amp doesn't shout its features at you, you just realise that you are listening further into the mix and you can understand an awful lot of what's going on in the inner structure of the music. The midband is particularly fine: sounds project into the room beautifully and the nature of those sounds is extraordinarily easy to listen to.
The words 'listener' and 'fatigue' simply do not exist side by side with this amp. No audiophile minute-long chunks of sound, here - you get the full cut, the whole symphony not just the key movement, and still come back hungry for more.
This just scratches the surface. There's still the DAC and the phono stage to work through. In fact, these sound remarkably similar, in all the right ways.
Both deliver a similar performance to the line stages - rich, detailed (but not hyper-detailed and etched sounding), effortless. Of the two, the DAC is arguably more important these days, especially with that USB port.
This does wonders for the sound off a PC, raising even a humble stock soundcard to the performance of the best in computer audio. But don't count out the phono stage - it's a noise-free stage, far better than almost all integrated units and more enticing than many lesser aftermarket models. You'll get better stereo separation from the best standalone devices, but as it stands, this is a lot more than a makeweight.
This isn't the only 250-watt (or larger) amp on the market. Some are a lot cheaper, but generally sound cheap, too, with bright and steely tops and flappy, ill-controlled bottoms (now there's an image you might not want to think too hard about).
Some are more expensive, but tend to sound 'impressive' with extended high treble and an open midrange, at the expense of a well-controlled but slow bass. There are a handful of products that improve upon the Musical Fidelity sound.
Comparing the A1008 to the best of breed does pin-point a minor sense of disassociation between the bass and the rest of the frequencies, as if the bottom end is fractionally out of step with the rest of the sound. But this is the only limitation to the sound of the A1008 and, in fairness, it's both very slight and very difficult and expensive to eliminate without sacrificing the rest of the sound in the process.
Perhaps that's the key thing about the A1008. It does so much for the sound across the board, it's hard to think of anything that can do better without costing a lot more. That makes it a tough act to follow.