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The System Upgrade

The System Upgrade

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29 May 2017
THIS PAGE IS CURRENTLY BEING UPDATED

PLEASE REVISIT ON 18 JUNE 2017

Months on from the initial review, I can now update regarding reliability, repairs and customer service on components below. (The beauty of online reporting)!

Upgrading your hi-fi system or individual components can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience.

As a live gig photographer I meet musicians and music lovers of all genres who share the passion to reproduce music in their home to the highest (affordable) standard.

This is more intended as a shared ‘experience reference’ over a review. I have read hundreds of reviews over the years as a base guide before listening to any hi-fi component , however, I am sure many will agree, our ears, how we experience music, our homes are all unique! I have listened to music through many components or accessories that have received 5 stars and lauded as the next best thing only to find it did not work with my existing components or my room, or it just was not to my taste. However, reviews are still a good starting point!

My system upgrade actually began over three years ago after my existing Musical Fidelity A3cr pre-amplifier, power amplifier and A3 CD player were ‘internally’ upgraded (fine-tuned) by a’ third party. This seemed like a good idea at the time, especially as ‘I appreciated’, or was ‘accustomed to the specific characteristics’ of my existing system (and funds were limited). I just wanted to squeeze a little more out of my existing system. However it did not take too long for me to realise I had made a mistake. The end result was that I am now the owner of a system with completely different characteristics… punchier, deeper bass and greater speed; however, the flip side - disjointed timing, poor focus and lack of overall clarity…

Fast forward three years and it is now time to make a change. Listening to music was now almost a painful experience. My treasured vinyl collection had become ‘the untouchable collection’. I had resorted to just popping a CD on when doing the housework – What I call ‘convenience playing. It was definitely time to move on!

Stage I
Turntable Cartridge

Of course it is important to upgrade any system in stages. I wanted to keep my A3 CD player for now. It would also make sense (for continuity) when listening to music through other amplifiers. My main source is my Linn Lp12 with Origin live Ultra DC motor. Despite my system not performing as it should, it was imperative to ensure the ‘front end’ was right before proceeding with amplification. (Crap in crap out). The first change I needed to implement was the turntable cartridge. I continued to use my existing amplification as well a ‘non-upgraded’ A3CR pre & power amp (though not mentioned below). I also did not need to change my beloved Martin Logan Scenario electrostatic speakers.

Dynavector Karat 17D3

Dynavector’s entry level DV-10X5 had served me well over the years. At around £350 I consider the DV-10X5 as a great value all-rounder moving coil cartridge and felt the natural progression would be just to move up the Dynavector ladder. However, both the DV-20X2L (£600) and the Karat 17D3 (£850) with its easily recognisable gold metal coloured body and short (almost none existent diamond cantilever) both proved disappointing. Surprisingly both cartridges produced a poorly detailed ‘boxed in’ presentation. (The opposite of what I had read). To ensure the results were not caused by a phono stage mismatch, I listened to both Dynavector cartridges through my existing A3CR ‘upgraded’ built in phono stage as well as Dynavector’s external P75 III phono stage. This did not alter the results significantly so I decided to stop climbing the Dynavector ladder at this point.

Of course there are many other cartridges to choose from; however, it is not easy to actually trial a cartridge for obvious reasons. I contacted a few dealers in London who just seemed impatient ready to quickly reel off the specific cartridges they had in stock expecting me to choose one and hand over the cash!

After further discussion with various manufacturers and colleagues in the business I turned my attention to The Cartridge Man. I had met Len Gregory ‘The Cartridge Man’ in 2008 during my Origin Live Ultra DC motor turntable kit upgrade.

MusicMaker Mk III

Len Gregory ‘The Cartridge Man’ has been involved in all aspects of analogue reproduction for over 30 years.

I shared my experience of the Dynavector cartridges with Len. “You won’t get such problems with any of my babies!” he replied confidently.

After a brief impressive demo of the MusicMaker Mk III (moving iron) with isolator fitted to Len’s own custom made turntable, I returned home with a MusicMaker Mk lll with isolator fitted to my Linn Lp12.

From the outset it was obvious the MusicMaker Mk III was in a completely different league than the cartridges I have used before. Open, sweet, absolutely no hint of harshness, with a much clearer defined stereo image. The delicate textures of Miles Davis’ trumpet on “All Blue” and “Flamenco Sketches” more evident than ever before. The complexities of Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira” album at last refreshingly clear (specifically Jaco Pastorius’ bass guitar) dancing delicately around Joni Mitchell’s modulating childlike voice... I have owned this album for many years and always felt there was much more in those grooves than I was getting with previous cartridges. The MusicMaker III was able to unravel dark and light entwined musical passages throughout this album with ease. The name of this cartridge is befitting. I need look no further.

Months later, I reluctantly upgraded from the MusicMaker Mk III moving iron cartridge to the Teatro moving coil cartridge. This upgrade was a natural progression after upgrading from the Linn Lp12 to the stunning AMG Viella V12 turntable. I had access to two MusicMaker III cartridges during various changes and tests. One of the MusicMaker III’s developed a left channel fault, the second eventually developed an earthling issue. I do take into consideration the amount of extra handling both Musicmaker III’s faced, however, as a photographer I do consider myself to have very steady and ‘safe’ hands. Without doubt, the MusicMaker III delivers sweet music at a fairly reasonable price, however, I am concerned at the outcome of the two cartridges after such a short time.

Stage II
Amplification

After exploring many options outside of the Musical Fidelity range, I was eventually lured back to Musical Fidelity by the promise of something special from Antony Michaelson’s engineers. The NuVista 800 integrated amplifier and the M8 series PRE & power options are Musical Fidleity’s recent additions to their amplification range.

After much discussion with manufacturers and dealers, I chose Audio Venue to demo both the M8-500S power amplifier with the M8PRE preamplifier and the Nuvista 800 integrated amplifier. I also invited two colleagues along to share this listening experience. Roger Thomas - fellow live gig photographer (ex-musician and sound engineer) and Andrew Griffith - audio-video installation engineer (ex-sound engineer).

M8-500S power amplifier with the M8PRE preamplifie

The all black matt finished M8-500S as its name suggests is a 500w per channel amplifier. Both M8 power and preamplifier are equipped with balanced XLR as well as RCA phono input / output connections. For continuity we used the RCA phono connections to link pre and power for the initial demo with the turntable as the main source. First impressions... The driving drums of Incognito’s “Parisian Girl” definitely packed a more rhythmic punch with tighter control on instruments overall and Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” from her “Surfacing” album delivered with greater clarity and three dimensionality (even at low volume levels). Crank up the volume and M8 -500S continues to deliver… with ease… These qualities are all definite improvements over my existing system, but still not quite worthy of me parting with £8000. At this point we decided to switch sources with Rachelle Ferrell’s “Individuality (Can I be me?)” CD. Ferrell’s 6-octave vocal range is a serious stretch for any system. Though not as three dimensional as vinyl, CD presentation through the M8 is upfront, powerful and precise. The stereo image was slightly wider than what I am used to hearing with CD. Rachelle Ferrell’s powerful emotive voice delivered with precision, though slightly pinched on the higher notes. Nothing really to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention (or my short arm to reach for my moth ridden wallet). Perhaps I was expecting too much?

As previously mentioned The M8 power and preamplifier are equipped with balanced XLR as well as RCA phono connections. Considering I was personally advised by many a sound engineer that “balanced connections should make no audible difference to domestic hi-fi systems” and I had no intention (or capability) to utilise such connections previously. Also bearing in mind the A3CR CD player and Linn turntable use RCA phono cables, therefore, just using balanced cables between pre and power did not seem like a good idea.

Despite the above cynicism we continued with the switch over from RCA phono to balanced XLR between preamplifier and power using Luminist Revision Poseidon XLR balanced cables (£325). Surprisingly the difference was immediately clear (literally). We all picked up on the bigger, wider presentation with greater detail with CD. Rachelle Ferrell’s voice now had an urgent edge with her higher register now delivered with ease. Vinyl also revealed an even wider stereo image with a detailed presentation reaching out way beyond my Scenario electrostatic black panels to touch us in our listening chairs, as well as precisely placed echoes sinking in the deep shadowy foreground. We had one specifically placed chair to enable precise electrostatic ‘sweet-spot’ listening. We each took turns to relish in the joy of listening in this sweet space!

NuVista 800 integrated amplifier

I considered hiring the complete New Zealand All Blacks rugby team to assist in manoeuvring the NuVista 800 integrated amplifier into place. This unit weighs in at a back breaking 39kg+. Once in place (chiropractors booked) and unit switched on we were treated to a visual myriad of colours glowing from beneath the top grill indicating state of warm up - starting from red to yellow, finally to green. The NuVista 800 is also equipped with balanced XLR as well as RCA phono input connections, however, there is no internal phono stage so we used Musical Fidelity’s V90-LPS external phono stage connected to RCA phono connections for this demo.

I have heard nothing but great things about the NuVista 800, so my expectations were high. First impressions were favourable with the driving energy from Incognito’s “Parisian Girl” (12” vinyl) delivered with ease. With 330 watts cleverly engineered within its stunning machined body it was clear from the get go that the NuVista 800 has plenty of controlled punch in reserve. Rachelle Ferrell’s voice still had an edge (as with the m8 pre-power combo) but with slightly less bite. This is not a criticism; the NuVista 800 presentation just seemed a tad warmer than the M8 combo. This trait was even more evident with Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” on vinyl.

Conclusion

To complete this sound comparison we decided to switch quickly to M8 combo, then back the NuVista 800. We continued to use the external V90-LPS phono stage with both units.

There is no doubt the Nuvista 800 is worthy of the high praise given. This beautifully engineered integrated amplifier not only looks stunning, it delivers a warm inviting sound combined with clarity and controlled punch that will please those who have the feel for all-round relaxed ‘long listening sessions.’ Audio-video installation engineer (ex-sound engineer) Andy Griffith fell in love with this unit; however, I found the overall presentation slightly clinical.

The M8-500S with M8 pre-amplifier combined with the use of balanced XLR connectivity delivers all of the above with an edge and a controlled muscularity without being clinical. In fact we discovered the the M8 pre-power combo overall presentation even more favourable when using the V90-LPS external phono stage. Live gig photographer Roger Thomas and I revelled in the sheer musicality this combo had to offer.

Aesthetically the NuVista 800 and M8 pre-power combo units are strikingly pleasing to the eye. The NuVista 800 casing is machine aluminium finished in silver with a colourful illuminating top rear - side body ‘and feet’. The remote control unit is milled from aluminium and finished in satin. Using this solid remote alone gives you a sense of the precision engineering involved in the amplifier as well as the remote control itself. You may even feel a little more comfortable holding this solid remote in one hand while handing over the £8000 in the other!

The M8-500S power amplifier and M8 PRE-amplifier are available in black matt or silver machined aluminium finish. The brightness of the minimalistic red digital volume display on the front fascia of the M8 PRE-amplifier can be adjusted via the remote control unit; however, this flimsy plastic remote control unit is more akin to a plastic toy ejected from an oversized Christmas cracker. I grimaced holding this remote control while handing over £8000 for this combo!

Complete system details:

Sources
Linn Lp12 with Origin Live Ultra DC motor turntable kit. Cartridge Man MusicMaker Mk III cartridge. Musical Fidelity A3 CD player. Van den Hull The second RCA phono interconnects

Amplification
M8-500S power amplifier with the M8PRE preamplifier. Luminist Revision Poseidon XLR balanced cables

Speakers
Martin Logan hybrid electrostatic speakers. Chord Legend speaker cable

Table
Quadraspire Q4 EVO turntable wall bracket. Quadraspire Q4 Reference with Q4 EVO top shelf

Mains cables
Campaign Audio Design Conqueror-Elite 5 way block and IEC

Robin Francis
© Michael Valentine Studio Ltd.
November 2015
Revised June 2017

The System Upgrade

MusicMaker Mk III & Linn Lp12

Quadraspire Q4 EVO turntable wall bracket

The System Upgrade

The System Upgrade

Musical Fidelity M8 series PRE & power

 

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Phono stage shared experience reference right here...

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