Musical Fidelity has been mostly associated with hi-fi equipment above the entry level. But the firm’s recent introduction of its V90 models brings the brand into a price range perfect for the newbie or budget-strapped audiophile.
The company’s founder and boss, Antony Michaelson, told me that the V90 series was based on no overarching design philosophy. “Each unit has its individual purpose. The V90-LPS phono stage and V90-DAC build on their predecessors (the V-LP and V-DAC, respectively) to be ‘giant killers’ -- as good as anything at the price. But the V90-AMP grew out of my desire to listen to music via AirPlay without a lot of other gear cluttering my desk. So we designed a small, class-D amplifier that can handle both digital and analog inputs. We very much like that it’s unobtrusive in the way it works.
“There was a lot of design and programming that went into each of the products. We’re fortunate to have ‘extremist’ people who get it right. Sometimes, they take longer than I’d like, but in the end, they do get it right.”
My first impression of the V90 components was, “My, they’re small!” Each model in the series -- the V90-AMP ($349 USD), a standalone 24-bit/96kHz asynchronous DAC (the subject of another review), a phono stage, and a DAC-headphone amp -- roughly measures 6.6”W x 1.8”H x (depending on the model) 4” to 4.6”D. Each has a case powder-coated in champagne silver and a minimum of controls -- in the case of the V90-AMP, a single knob on the faceplate that serves as the power switch and digital volume control, and two tiny LEDs to indicate Power and Status. A push of the knob turns on the V90-AMP; another push turns it off.
On the V90’s rear panel are a USB Type B input, a tiny switch to turn the volume control on or off, a 3.5mm optical/stereo analog minijack, push connectors for one pair of speakers, a DC output jack “for future MF product only,” and a cloverleaf power-cord connector. I was slightly surprised that Musical Fidelity didn’t include a headphone jack on the front, but that would eliminate the need for the related V90-HPA DAC-headphone amp.
For all its smallness, the V90-AMP is claimed to output 20Wpc into 8 ohms, but will, Antony Michaelson said, “drive speakers of almost any impedance.” Its total harmonic distortion is specified as less than 0.1%, although the power level at which that occurs is not given. The A-weighted signal/noise ratio is said to be 85dB, the frequency response 10Hz-20kHz, +0/-3dB.
The V90-AMP’s several ingenious features are covered by the brief but concise instruction sheet. First, there’s that On/Off switch for the volume control, provided in case the user wants to control the volume with the source component, and use the amp only to power the speakers. That could be a useful feature for many people.
Second, the volume control itself is digital, a feature of the amplifier chip. Michaelson told me that each step is 0.5dB. “We thought that a full dB was too great a jump. Some people have complained that the 0.5dB increment is too small, but we prefer giving the listener greater control.” Although the control just keeps turning, maximum gain is cut off at 1dB below clipping, he said.
Then there’s the analog/optical input, something new to me. To use an analog source, one just inserts a stereo (tip-ring-sleeve) 3.5mm plug in the jack -- or, for a standard stereo patch cord, the provided dual-RCA-jack-to-3.5mm plug. If you have a digital source with an optical output, MF includes an adapter that you insert into the input, then plug in the TosLink connector. Michaelson says they can take no credit for the dual-input scheme, as it’s standard Apple kit.
Finally, there is the input switching. As you might have noted, the V90-AMP has USB, analog, and optical inputs, but no source-selector switch. That’s because it determines the active input by the presence or absence of a signal, with a protocol: If any signal is present at the USB port, that takes precedence over either of the other inputs. So if your computer is connected to the V90 via USB but you’re trying to use the analog input, you’ll have to disconnect the USB cable or turn off your computer. Of course, you can’t use the analog and optical inputs at the same time, as they use the same jack. This very small box contains some decidedly out-of-the-box thinking.
System and setup
For this review, I replaced my office system’s NuForce Icon integrated amplifier ($179) with the V90-AMP. The V90 was quickly recognized by my Hewlett-Packard computer and a driver loaded. The other source was a Sony CDP-CE375 CD changer, linked to the Musical Fidelity via its analog outputs. Initially, I thought I’d use some of my small speakers -- Celestion 3s or KEF Coda 7s -- but then thought of a pair of larger, mid-1980s-vintage Electro-Voice Interface 1 Series IIs that I’ve restored. The advantages of the Interfaces are more extended response than the minimonitors and greater efficiency (92dB/W/m, vs. 86dB for the Celestions or 90dB for the KEFs). I had the system up and running in less than five minutes.
The only problem I had was that JRiver Music Center 17 was unable to feed a 24/96 signal to the V90’s DAC. Media Center’s suggestion was to convert it to 16/48, which worked fine. Antony Michaelson told me, “While we believe the unit offers great value, it can’t, at its price, do everything. So very high-resolution formats are limited to 24/48 or 16/48.”
In the end, I was glad I chose the larger E-V Interface 1 speakers -- they gave the V90-AMP a chance to show off its chops. British audio gear and I have a long history: my reference CD player, preamp, and speakers are all from the UK. In my opinion, British gear couples a very detailed, revealing, yet sweet sound with lightning-fast transient response. I enjoyed the fact that, like its fellow Brits, the tiny V90-AMP offered this in spades.
While writing the first part of this review, I was playing John Pizzarelli’s My Blue Heaven (24/96 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks, downconverted to 16/48, as were all hi-rez recordings mentioned in this review). In “I’m an Errand Boy for Rhythm,” Pizzarelli’s guitar was reproduced with exceptionally fine detail, and the rhythm section was realistically arrayed across the soundstage. The attacks of the piano during its break were precise, with no slop whatsoever. The sound of Martin Pizzarelli slapping the strings of his double bass was suspended in front of the sound of the bass line itself. In all, a very satisfying performance by the V90.
Anyone who’s read any of my past reviews knows that I almost always use “Bali Run,” from Fourplay’s Fourplay (24/96 FLAC, Warner Bros.), and this review is no different. The interplay of the instruments -- guitar, keyboards, five-string bass, drums, percussion -- is certain to show up any lack of speed in an amp or speakers. And here, the V90-AMP showed one weakness of my 30-plus-year-old E-V speakers: they aren’t real quick. They gave the tune a pleasant but not scintillating sound, especially for Lee Ritenour’s guitar. So I pulled out my Celestion 3s, which are at least 15 years newer. The change was revealing: all of a sudden, the guitar riffs and tom-tom strokes were crisp, and the cymbals shimmered as they should.
Readers of a certain age may remember Bert Kaempfert, a bandleader whose instrumentals were typified by an almost staccato trumpet lead, high-register violins, and something called the “knackbass” or “crackling bass” -- a bass guitar plucked with a pick, then immediately “suppressed to cancel any sustain” (thank you, Wikipedia). The music certainly is not hip -- it’s fairly typical ’60s instrumental pop -- but Kaempfert’s recordings produced by Milt Gabler, who produced many of Decca’s biggest hits (and, incidentally, was Billy Crystal’s uncle), are technological gems, recorded on the very best equipment in Europe at the time -- their soundstages are almost exaggerated in both width and depth. The V90-AMP and E-Vs made a fabulous combination for “Magic Trumpet” (16/44.1 WAV) -- Fred Mock’s trumpet was waaay out front. The knackbass was largely on the left, while the strings wrapped around the two instruments like a silken wave. Most impressive!
Recently, I read a biography of record producer Phil Spector, an exceptionally strange individual who knew how to produce hits in the ’60s (anything by the Righteous Brothers, the Ronettes, or the Crystals, plus the Beatles’ Let It Be). Spector created his trademark “wall of sound” by recording in mono with three guitars, three basses (one acoustic, two electric), three drummers, at least one piano, strings, and various other instruments, such as maracas and a glockenspiel. Per the book, Bruce Springsteen admires Spector’s distinctive sound, which couldn’t be more evident in Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (16/44.1 WAV, Columbia). In nearly every way, it’s a re-creation of Spector’s wall of sound that hits you upside the head from the opening drum roll. With all the seeming chaos of the arrangement, an amp that isn’t quick will smear the sound. The V90-AMP was as quick as lightning! While the sound was a glorious mélange, it wasn’t hard to pick out individual instruments, and Springsteen’s hoarse growl came through. I was impressed at the very full and satisfying sound produced by the combination of the V90 and the Celestions.
A caveat: When I tried to play music at high volume while driving speakers that were less than the most efficient, the V90-AMP could sound somewhat strained, particularly in its usually sweet high end. Just for a hoot, I’d love to hook up the tiny V90 to a pair of ginormous, extremely efficient Klipschorns.
At a resale store, I recently bought, for $15, a Sony CDP-CE375 CD player, which completes my digital output collection: unlike any of my other components, it has a TosLink output. I immediately plugged it into the V90-AMP. The V90’s DAC chip outclassed the Sony’s DAC and analog output, particularly in the way it handled transients, such as the drum strokes in Fourplay’s “Bali Run.” Overall, the sound of the Sony’s optical output through the V90 was rich and meaty, yet sweet. Bass was full-bodied, while highs were crisp.
Before you buy: If you want more than modest volume, be sure to pair the V90-AMP with efficient speakers. Still, not once during the review period did the review sample become even slightly warm to the touch, even when played at loud levels.
I compared the Musical Fidelity V90-AMP with my 2008-vintage NuForce Icon amp (NuForce currently sells the similar but updated Icon-2). It also is a multi-input, low-power amp with a built-in DAC. It’s about the size of the V90-AMP, but is designed to stand vertically. Its inputs are selected the old-fashioned way, with a switch, and it has an analog volume control, a USB Type B jack for digital input, a 3.5mm stereo jack for one analog input, and a pair of RCA jacks for the other. Speaker output is by RJ45 jack (what one finds on a computer network card), with special 1m speaker cables terminated in banana plugs. It also has a line-out connection (3.5mm stereo) so that the Icon can be used as a preamp, as well as a front-mounted 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. It’s rated at 15Wpc. Like the V90-AMP, the original Icon doesn’t accept high-resolution files, so Media Center altered its output into the Icon as well.
When I listened to “Bali Run,” I had to turn the Icon’s volume control most of the way up to duplicate the level I had with the V90. The bass was slightly more prominent through the NuForce, but the transients weren’t quite as crisp, especially with the drums. Higher notes were slightly more prominent with the Musical Fidelity.
Those comments generally describe the sound of the other recordings I sampled. The bass was fuller and more robust through the Icon, and the mids had fine presence, but the V90-AMP came out on top with sound that was more of a piece, and in which violins were less strident.
The Musical Fidelity V90-AMP is an admirable little piece of gear and proof of the old adage: Good things come in small packages. It can be the perfect basis for a great computer- or iPod/smartphone-based system in an office, study, or bedroom. I’d like to give one (along with some good and efficient speakers) to some of my younger friends who think earbuds provide the best sound. Its response is incredibly quick, nicely sweet, and generally full-bodied and satisfying.
. . . Thom Moon
- Sources -- Hewlett-Packard Pavilion dm4-1160 computer with 4GB RAM and 1TB H-P outboard hard drive running JRiver Media Center 17; Sony CDP-CE375 CD changer
- Amplifier -- NuForce Icon
- Speakers -- Electro-Voice Interface 1 Series II, Celestion 3
- Interconnects and speaker cables -- Dayton Audio
Musical Fidelity V90-AMP DAC-Integrated Amplifier
Price: $349 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Musical Fidelity Ltd.
24-26 Fulton Road
Wembley, Middlesex HA9 0TF
PO Box 51206
Phoenix, AZ 85076
Phone: (480) 297-4053