I’ve reviewed many components here on Audio Appraisal, yet I’ve never written about the test system in detail. The system mostly remained the same for years and consisted of Marantz’s recent flagship PM-11S3 integrated amplifier, a Technics SL-1210 turntable with Audio-Technica AT33PTG/II cartridge, and the 851N streamer / DAC from Cambridge Audio. A few other components came and went including various CD players and transports, a cassette player or two and a Technics RS-1500 open reel machine which is currently awaiting a full restoration.
I come from a pro audio and engineering background where many of the audiophile beliefs and eccentricities are openly mocked, and rightly so. When I assemble a system, there are a few key factors in my decision to use any given component.
There are many heavily praised components in this industry which are in reality quite poorly designed, technically speaking. They either do not measure at all well (why do some manufacturers avoid publishing measurements?) have major reliability or safety flaws, or require expensive ‘upgrades’ to get the best from them – a typical example being an outlandishly expensive upgrade power supply. A component must be competently designed, sensibly priced and measure well in objective tests.
Subjective sound quality
Note the word subjective here. Tastes differ from person to person. How a product sounds can differ between individuals, rooms and systems. This is the reason I don’t devote a majority of my reviews to discussing the subjective sound of a product. Subjective sound is nevertheless important. This is my personal hi-fi as well as a reviewing system, and it is something I want to enjoy listening to. Equally, if I don’t enjoy the sound of my reference system, I’m not going to enjoy reviewing products, and by extension, I’m not hearing the products I review at their best.
Reliability and build quality
Just as technical competency is important, so are reliability and build quality. My system sees a lot of use, often multiple hours a day. I have seen many components come and go because they simply were not up to the standards of reliability expected in any consumer hi-fi, let alone a reviewer’s reference system. I’ve seen kit fail due to cost-cutting in components, bad quality control in manufacturing and assembly and poor thermal design. I want a system that is dependable and low maintenance, with backup from the manufacturers or readily available service documentation should something go wrong.
Features and Functionality
I don’t entirely believe in the audiophile approach to minimalism. I don’t agree, for example, that adding tone controls to an amplifier comes at such a significant cost as to reduce the quality of the amplifier by any appreciable degree if implemented properly. The number of tone-shaping circuits a recorded audio signal goes through before the final master is enough to make any audiophile cringe. When I buy a system, I want the components to work in harmony but I also expect a few conveniences. A decent remote control, for example, 12-volt power triggering or extensive connectivity. I’m not going to pay huge sums of money based only on a brand’s reputation for a component so simple that manufacturing costs are negligible and the retail margins are through the roof.
All of my previous components fit the above criteria. However, the PM-11S3 being an integrated amp, was at times difficult to integrate with other components. I therefore decided to re-evaluate the system as a whole, and in doing so take the opportunity to detail the system that will now be used for Audio Appraisal reviews going forward.
I knew I wanted a pre/power setup. This is by far the most flexible configuration of components and is a setup I enjoyed greatly a few years ago before I switched back to an integrated amp for reasons of convenience and constrained space. I needed a versatile preamplifier with balanced and single-ended inputs and the highest quality volume control possible. I wanted a hefty power amplifier yet one which is relatively compact. I wanted some dedicated headphone amplification to power an increasing collection of cans for private listening. I need a phono stage to accommodate all cartridges. A DAC to handle digital duties, with a decent CD transport. I wanted a streamer, similar to what I am currently using but with the added benefit of Chromecast and AirPlay 2. And one of the best vinyl front-ends available at any cost. I eventually settled on a system that meets all of my needs, now and (hopefully) long into the future.
Having been a fan of their recently reviewed M2 range, I opted for amplification from Musical Fidelity. The M8s Preamplifier is the company’s flagship solid-state preamplifier, sitting below the Nu-Vista in their range. It has 2 balanced and 5 single-ended inputs with a fully configured tape loop, home theatre bypass and plenty of output options with the ability to drive any power amplifier over any length of cable. It incorporates a precision volume control with essentially perfect tracking and is one of the best measuring preamplifiers in the business.
I paired this with the Musical Fidelity M6sPRX. This is a 230W per channel dual-mono power amplifier with a peak current delivery of 140 amps and vanishingly low levels of noise and distortion. I considered a stack of Hypex NC400 class D monoblocks, eventually discounting them due in part to questions as to the reliability of the switching power supplies, and to the need to create custom bridged versions to produce a configuration with enough power, which still can’t equal the current delivery of the M6sPRX. I also consider the stereo and mono amplifiers in the M8s range, but given the size of the room I don’t need the extra power nor the additional power draw from the wall and cost constraints sealed the deal. The M6 PRX will comfortably drive just about any speaker to high levels without strain or distortion, and is measurably and sonically neutral.
Headphone amplification comes courtesy of Pro-Ject’s Head Box DS2B. This is a fully balanced, dual-mono design based around TPA6120A output amplifiers, extensively regulated power circuitry and phase inversion for the single-ended inputs. The included power supply is a cheap, lightweight and poorly specced universal wall adapter with below average performance so I built my own. It’s still a switching PSU, but with regulation to within 1%, better RF immunity, minimal RF leakage, more headroom and double the output current capability of the included adapter. This dropped the noise floor considerably and completely transformed the sound of the Head Box to a level I hadn’t expected.
The DAC again comes from Musical Fidelity. The M6sDAC is a fully balanced DAC with plenty of digital inputs, asynchronous USB, fixed and variable outputs in both single-ended and balanced and even a quality headphone amp onboard. It measures exceptionally well with four 32-bit ESS Technologies DACs in dual-differential mode providing class-leading noise and distortion figures. It sounds sublime.
The streamer is from Cambridge Audio. The CXN V2 may seem a downgrade from the 851N – and in terms of its analogue output it certainly is. Here however It is used simply as a transport to feed the M6sDAC, and unlike the 851N features the latest iteration of Cambridge’s Stream Magic platform and should therefore see support for the latest features for some time into the future. Again it measures well, and given the re-clocking capabilities of the M6sDAC, it is as good a digital audio source as is needed.
The CD transport is also from Cambridge Audio. The CXC is a bargain transport with an accurate digital servo and thus a highly accurate digital output. Also fed into the M6sDAC, it makes CDs sound quite remarkable. I don’t play CDs very often these days, and given the objective measurements from the CXC’s digital output, I doubt that a better transport would make a shred of difference. It is something I will try, but the CXC looks nice in the rack so it’s staying – for now.
The vinyl front-end will come as no surprise to regular Audio Appraisal readers. The Technics SL-1200G is one of the best turntables around at any price, primarily owing to its class-leading drive system and gimballed magnesium tonearm. It is beautifully engineered, sounds sublime and so it holds its position on the top of the rack.
On the end of the arm is an AT33PTG / II. I love this cartridge and still think it’s worth every penny even despite a recent price hike. I may at some point try the new OC9X with its special line contact stylus, having been impressed by the VM760SLC. Quiet in the groove, with plenty of detail and not a hint of distortion or sibilance, the AT33PTG/II is a great sonic match for the Technics.
I use a Vinyl Passion Dustbuster to keep all styli, including those that come in for review, spotlessly clean. This gives us the best sonics and extends stylus life.
We also have available the AAP12 and Project Maple, two of our recent builds. The former is presently fitted with an Audio-Technics AT-VM95ML, and the latter a classic AT95E.
The phono stage is the Musical Fidelity M6 Vinyl. It features 3 inputs, all of which are selectable between moving magnet and moving coil, with independently configurable loading for each. It’s also fully balanced and is one of the quietest phono stages on the market today with the added advantage that it is practically impossible to overload, and thus produces a sound that is clean and clear of any distortion.
Cabling and Ancillaries
Cables are a mix of pro-grade balanced XLR leads with combinations of Comus and Sommer cable and Neutrik plugs. My thanks to Designacable for supplying the latter, more specifically Sommer Carbokab balanced cable and the industry-standard Neutrik NC3FXX and NC3MXX plugs. You can purchase this cable Here.
The single-ended cables are a mix of Sommer Onyx 2025 and the Van Damme UPLC-OFC twin interconnect, again with Neutrik plugs. The speaker cables are Van Damme UPLC-OFC 6 mm squared, and the bi-wire links are 6 mm squared Summor Meridian. The CXC and CXN are connected to the M6sDAC via Hosa DRA-501 75 ohm coaxial leads.
Massive thanks to LucaSoundVision for supplying the Van Damme cables for this system. They supply a huge range of terminated and unterminated cables from a range of manufacturers, but with an excellent range of Van Damme cables in particular. The cables are beautifully made and terminated with AIRLOC plugs and finished with heatshrink. You can view their products on their Website or the LSV Cables eBay Shop.
Power cabling comprises standard earthed and 13A fused IEC C13 cables, with a C7 supplying the cassette deck. Most are three-core, 1.5 mm conductors, though a cable comprising 4 mm conductors powers the M6sPRX. Power distribution is via ordinary power strips with unobtrusive surge protection. All cable lines are tied behind the rack with power and interconnect cables separated from one another.
The system stands on the Lack Rack . Despite its extremely modest price, this rack of modified Ikea side tables remains one of the best racks I’ve owned. It’s lightweight, extremely rigid and resistant to external vibration while being deep enough to hold just about any component and take the weight of the system. Fitting the new system necessitated adding a few more shelves. While I was at it I refilled the legs with tighter-fitting timbers and added a pair of fans behind the amplifier as space around the amp is more constrained than is ideal.
Additional components include a Technics RS-B665 cassette deck. A custom trigger controller switches AC power to a standard power bar, providing outlets switched by the 12V trigger output of the M8s preamp.
I have yet to mention the speakers. As of the time of writing (October 2019) the speakers are undergoing a change. In the beginning I used Tannoy Precision 6.2s and latterly Tannoy DC8Tis and DC10s which are currently in use. I’m looking at various options, including a DIY design with top of the line Volt drivers and custom cabinets. I am also interested in models from Fyne Audio, which being a Tannoy fan are right up my street.
And of course, new Tannoys certainly haven’t been discounted. The speakers will have the most significant influence on the sound and must be chosen wisely, especially when reviewing components. The loudspeakers must fit the room in which they are used and in this case must work in perfect harmony with the system and produce a neutral response, as free from colour and imparting as little of their own character as possible. There are limits, of course, this being a hi-fi in a domestic environment. The room is not, and will never be perfectly treated, and listening enjoyment is a foremost consideration, but a compromise can always be reached. I will update this article once a decision has been made.
Our current crop of headphones include the Meze Audio 99 Classic, the ATH-M20X and ATH-M50X from Audio-Technica, Edifier’s H850 and H880,and some models from Sennheiser and AKG among others.
And that’s it. That’s my hi-fi. That’s the new reference system, which will hopefully see us through the next few years and beyond. This post will be updated to reflect future changes and kept as a historic reference to log the equipment used to create these reviews. This post was first published in October of 2019 and was last updated in December of 2019.
Nice newb system!
Ah, you must be an audiofool. Marketing and BS technology doesn’t make your music sound any better. Audiophiles could learn a lot from pro audio.
For 99.9% of the population, this is a dream system. I see a pragmatic and measured approach to the selections here. The fact that it is not a $100,000 rig means that a lot more people can relate to it… or at least be in the ballpark. It can be frustrating when people review gear and contrast it with an esoteric reference system that I will never hear. If I have any criticism, it would be that Musical Fidelity can be hard to find locally for many outside the UK. At least it is well reviewed so you can get some sense of what it’s like. (This from a guy who owns 2 MF amps already). Well done, Ashly.
Thank you. Though I could have one, I wouldn’t want a 100K system. There is a point where the money is wasted unless the environment is perfect, and even then you’re reliant on the source material. Assuming a perfect room and a 100K system, the source material then comes into question. Some have a limited taste that spans a selection of audiophile releases, but I’m not one of them. My system is assembled based on its technical performance and its suitability for all types of music.
Plus, one shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that more money directly correlates to better sound. That couldn’t be more true than in the hi-fi industry. In fact some of the best engineered products would be considered at the lower middle end of the market. Take turntables for example. You can buy a 350 kg turntable for 100k or so designed with a view to maximising mass in the belief that the mass, by absorbing the energy, will mitigate the effects on vibration. Or you can buy a low-mass turntable like the Rega Planar 10 for about £5.5k with a cartridge included, based on a fairly unique principle that has been thoroughly researched by a company who by their founder’s own admission are more of an engineering firm who just happen to make hi-fi than a hi-fi maker specifically. Or you can spend less on something like the SL-1200G and get one of the best drive systems available in a 20KG turntable where the materials, and not necessarily the mass, achieve the goal of mitigating vibration. All of these solutions are a compromise. The former I would never buy nor recommend, but to me either of the latter are perfectly viable.
I also see little value in over engineering for the sake of over engineering. Enormous power supplies for power amplifiers for example with a far greater capacity than the amplifier could ever need, even if operated in conditions that the components within simply couldn’t handle. If something is competently designed, it will do its job perfectly well and should do it as good as any other, with its character the only differentiating factor sonically.
Plus, there is always the room to consider. Most of us have to house our systems in a domestic environment, and in a typical UK home where thousands of watts of power will simply never be used, because the resultant volume would be unbearable. While it’s certainly true that high power is useful under dynamic conditions, there is only so much power that one can use at a given level and at the most dynamic a piece is likely to get. If an amplifier can achieve the desired sound level under those conditions, then it is ideal. If I had a large space, power hungry speakers and didn’t mind the electricity bill, I would likely have outfitted the system with the M8 monoblocks or the stereo amp at the very least. But given the space in which the system resides and my preference for efficient point-source loudspeakers, the M6 PRX is more than adequate.
I could ramble on about audiofools and their money for days. This article is due some updates which I will be publishing in due course.
As I noticed from the posts, you are considering new speakers for your reference system. I’m a speaker designer and custom hand builder with 30 years of experience. I would not only like you to review one of my Chris Little Acoustic Designs Reference Speaker Systems, but also consider incorporating them into your reference system. I’m relatively certain they are a very complementary match to the careful selection of components you have already gathered.
Hi Christopher, Thank you for your interest and kind offer. I’d be keen to discuss this further with you. For some reason my system isn’t giving me access to your eMail address, but please drop me a line at email@example.com and I will get back to you. Many thanks again.