I used an integrated amplifier for our reviews here for a long time. It was a flagship model from Marantz – the PM-11S3 – which was a lovely thing to own and did serve me well. It’s a pure analogue amplifier with a wide array of inputs and outputs and both headphone and phono stages which are exceptional by the standards of external units, let alone an integrated amplifier. It was a traditional class AB amplifier fed by a generously overrated power supply, able to pump out well over 150W per channel and easily doubling down into a 4Ω load.
But the one area in which it lacked, and where most other integrated amplifiers lack to a degree, is flexibility. I decided that a pre/power replacement was needed to accommodate a growing system, allowing further expandability and flexibility. Replacing an integrated like this wasn’t easy, mainly owing to the preamplifier. High-end separates are plentiful of course, but they either fall into the esoterically (and unnecessarily) expensive category, or they lack the wide array of inputs and outputs or conveniences such as a remote. The preamp I eventually settled on was the M8sPRE from Musical Fidelity, part of the no-compromise M8s range. Read the M8s story Here.
I’ve always admired Musical Fidelity’s emphasis on technical measurements over audio foolery. On paper, the M8 is everything you could want in a preamplifier. It has vanishingly low levels of distortion, a near-perfect frequency response across the audio band and way beyond, near-perfect channel balance and an exceptional signal to noise ratio. It also has a good selection of IO, including 6 single-ended and 2 balanced inputs, both single-ended and balanced preamplifier outputs, a line-level tape output with fully configured tape loop and monitoring facilities and trigger in and out to control the power status of external components. Two of the inputs (one balanced, one single-ended) can be switched into home theatre bypass mode, thereby allowing volume control via an external preamplifier such as a home theatre receiver, the M8sPRE acting as the front channels in a quality surround sound setup.
Internally, great attention to detail shows especially in the power supply. A pair of fully shielded 350VA toroidal transformers (larger than you’d find in some amps) feed a generously overrated supply with extensive regulation and filtration against noise and RFI. Musical Fidelity give special attention to their power supplies, and unlike many poorly designed audiophile components there are no overpriced ‘upgrades’ available nor is there a need to use power conditioning with these products. The preamp stages run in pure class A and are fully balanced from end to end, with a quad laser-trimmed volume attenuator giving accurate and linear gain control in 0.5dB steps. Both volume control and Input switching are solid-state and thus completely noiseless, and both are controllable remotely.
Unboxing the M8 pre reveals a unit of some considerable weight and bulk. It’s beautifully made with Musical Fidelity’s distinctive beveled front panel and ‘medical grade’ name badge, and substantial connectors at the back. Finned panels run down either side mirroring the heatsinks on the company’s amplifiers, though here they’re purely for aesthetic appeal. The casework, available in black or silver, is nicely finished with a finely-textured finish covering all panels aside from the smooth finish of the sides.
Perhaps one of the largest knobs I’ve ever seen on an amplifier sits centre of the front panel. The knob fronts a digital encoder though with an additional mechanism behind to support its weight and give a more luxurious feel with a soft detent when turned. Above is a decibel display and below a neat row of 10 buttons for power and input selection. That’s all you get – there are no menus, no tone or balance controls and no input naming. This is as close to an active volume control and source selector as you can get.
For me, the control interface was one of the M8sPRE’s selling points. With no sight, small screens and endless menus on hi-fi components can be a challenge unless I modify them for accessibility, or unless the contrast and font used on the display are well suited to be read by an iPhone camera. I also can’t stand motorised pots interfacing with volume chips when a digital control method is not only much simpler and more reliable (providing a decent encoder is used) but is also better for remote use.
Around back, the connectors are a cut above the norm in their quality of construction, more often seen in professional equipment and installations than domestic hi-fi. There are inputs for an inbuilt phono stage with a switch to select between moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, with the actual switching performed by a relay within. Unsurprisingly there are no loading or gain adjustments.
Joining these are 5 single-ended and 2 balanced line-level inputs, with an HT bypass switch accompanying one of each. Outputs are on single-ended or balanced jacks, and there are trigger input and output jacks above the IEC power inlet.
Perhaps the only nod too convenience I would like to have seen is a headphone amp. Finding a headphone amp with a fixed level input which can facilitate remote volume control via the preamplifier has proven surprisingly difficult. An inbuilt headphone amplifier, even a very good one, shouldn’t add significantly to the cost and would make this excellent preamp even better. Given that at this price it is likely that users will opt for an external phono stage, omitting it in favour of a headphone amp wouldn’t have been a great loss in my opinion. You can run a headphone amp from the preamp outputs but you’ll have an additional volume control in the signal chain which can introduce noise into the system or degrade performance, especially if it presents a non-linear impedance to the preamplifier when switched off. You can also use the tape out jacks, but you’ll lose the ability to remotely control the volume.
The remote is a letdown. It’s a cheap plasticky universal remote with little weight and a dated aesthetic. Some of the button locations are also somewhat illogical, including the controls for CD skipping and volume which are positioned in the inverse of how you might expect. It does, however, control a good number of musical fidelity components including the preamp (of course), DACs and CD players, and because it follows the widely adopted RC5 code standard it’s highly likely that it’ll control other components too. Similarly, if you should decide instead to opt for a universal remote or a remote with aesthetics and quality to match the preamp, any RC5 remote control will work. It is seemingly quite typical of British, or British-born manufacturers to include below-average remotes with the products and that is no exception here. A handset sculpted in aluminium is typical of Japanese manufacturers at this level.
A press of the standby button kicks the power supplies into action with a satisfying relay clunk, and after a few seconds, a second click signifies the release of the muting circuit. Input switching is instantaneous and happens without any extraneous noise. The volume is a linear decibel readout and thus must be turned up considerably to achieve a ‘normal’ output. This is expected behaviour but may confuse first-timers who are used to a logarithmic scale.
This is a difficult component to review sonically because its sound is, for all intents and purposes, neutral. Nothing is added, nothing is taken away. What goes in is what comes out, besides being attenuated by the volume control. There is a small amount of self-noise in the form of a faint hiss, but it is inaudible in use and the signal to noise is as advertised. I can’t hear any artefacts in the sound that I would attribute to the preamp regardless of the input used. I tested the unit both with the Musical Fidelity M6 PRX power amplifier and a pair of Hypex Nc400 monoblocks and as expected it drove both with ease. The character of the sound didn’t change significantly between the two, with any change being attributable to the power amps.
I will give a mention to the phono stage, however, which is impressively quiet and remains free of distortion even when the cartridge has an unusually high output. It’s quiet across both MM and MC, though does pick up mains-bourn interference such as interference from powerline ethernet adapters, improperly filtered switch-mode power supplies or wireless routers, especially on MC where the gain is much higher. The same goes for most decent phono stages, however, especially those with such low idle noise so this is an observation and not a criticism of the M8s performance.
The M8sPRE is everything I wanted in a preamplifier. It has plenty of inputs, versatile outputs and the line-level recording output that many manufacturers are now omitting given that recording devices are now far less prevalent than they were only a few years ago. Its performance is audibly and measurably linear from input to output, with near-perfect volume control and no superfluous features. I’m pleased to have an M8sPRE amidst my system. Highly recommended.