Musical Fidelity X-A2 integrated amplifier - the original and the modified version
(a retroreview for the titillation of all MF fanboys)
The first MF 'X' amp I owned was the X-A1. It was a lovely amp with an iconic design and can still hold its own against the current crop of £600-ish amps IMO. I regretted selling it, a regret exacerbated by the collector's item status accorded to the original 'X' series today. So it was with great delight that I managed, after vying with another MF devotee, to nab this X-A2 the replacement model for the X-A1. I shall never sell this precious 'X' lozenge, ever!
The X-A2 is not a X-A1 successor with lightly fluffed-up internals and a change in the LED colour of the power indicator (from red to blue). Its design is the same as the £1000 X-A100R, but minus the remote control and priced competitively to wreak havoc on then £500 rivals. Herein we see the original design ethos of the 'X' series before audiogod A.M. had a brain fart with the subsequent X series. The power transformer of the X-A2 (same one used for the A-100R) is housed in a separate black box and linked to the lozenge-shaped main unit via a single cord. It was designed thus to be placed on the floor and "as far away from the X-A2 as possible", to thwart EMI (not that record company which specializes in classical CDs with sewage-quality sonics, but ElectroMagnetic Interference). Innovative thinking.
Well then, er, in the succeeding v3 X series, of which I had the X-80 and X-150, the power transformers were housed inside the same chassis as the amps. Then in the 3rd generation of X components (mystifiably designated the v8 series), of which I still own, the X-T100's power transformer is once again made separate but this time housed in a box with matching aesthetics so it can be positioned next to the sensitive main unit. Errr...
I reckon the original X series' design which completely isolates the power transformer makes more sense. I do wonder what will happen to the power transformer should there be a fourth X series; likely v9 (coming soon, especially if the current MF ranges flop.)
The X-A2's rated power is 75W. MF has a tradition of understating its amps' power specification and IIRC the first review in HFC measured it to as being closer to 95W. In use, it certainly feels like a high current 100-watter. The X-A2 has more than enough firepower to set my trio of insensitive monitors (80,82&84dB) ablaze.
The sonic signature of MF amplification has several defining characteristics that remain identifiable even when it evolves subtly with every new range. While the X-A2 doesn't sound exactly the same as my X-T100 or the X-150, it shares a common penchant for presenting all music genres in a smooth, flowing and full-bodied manner. This is the archetypal MF sound. Big and rich, yet not lacking fine detail. When orchestral instruments are playing, you get the impression that all the complex harmonic content of their tones is fully reproduced. All MF amps are great with classical music and the X-A2 is no exception. Being an older design than the X-150 and X-T100, I half-expected it to lag in dynamic expression. The 50W X-A1 and X-80 could falter when reproducing large-scale finales in Wagner's operas, specifically his huge, dense Ring. Surprisingly, the X-A2 coped better... much better. In fact, the dynamic slam it could muster across the registers at high playback levels shocked me on several occasions. I guess the 50% hike in power over the X-A1 and the uprated circuitry make the difference. In this respect it is equal to the X-T100 and X-150.
This dynamic ability meant the X-A2 could control the ATC SCM11's heavy woofers with the same authority as the X-T100, whereas the NAD C326BEE faltered and the Creek EVO blinked on occasions. What the two smaller amps have in advantage over the X-A2 is their agility in the mid-bass; they pump out synthesizer bass lines with more PRaT than the X-A2 can muster and are consequently more toe-tapping with pop music. The X-A2's midbass is timid by comparison. While it can still shape mid-bass notes cleanly, it isn't as prominent or as emphatic in its reproduction. In this respect, it is less entertaining with fast-paced, beat-driven music.
That Achilles heel is offset by the X-A2'a ability in the treble and lower bass. In the former, it is more open, clean and extended than either the EVO or C326BEE. The X-A2 was purchased with the intention of replacing the hot-running C326 as partner to the Spendor S3/5R. The C326 didn't disgrace itself in the Spendor's company but when the X-A2 was slotted in, the S3/5R's treble performance went up a couple of notches. The brilliance of the X-A2's upper registers enhanced the spaciousness of the already well-aerated Spendor sound. It also had this exciting yet disciplined attack that made orchestral brass perorations very thrilling. And the slam in the lower bass! It drew out all the bass the S3/5R had and made it sound much weightier than with the C326. Double basses grumbled and timpani rumbled with a new-found gravitas. The diminuative S3/5R stopped giving any impression that it was a mini monitor with limited low-end grunt. Within my study, it had seemingly transformed from Bruce Banner to the Hulk. Smashing.
Discussed separately on forums, MF and Spendor often cop the derision of being 'pipe n slippers' brands. I honestly cannot see how that can apply to the X-A2 and S3/5R. Paired together they are electrifying with symphonic and acoustic music. It is quite an edge-of-the-seat experience. (For pop and rock though, a Nait5i-Epos M12i pairing can outpace them IMO.) In absolute terms, I reckon the X-A2 is tailored with a couple of decibels boost to its frequency extremes. The S3/5R meanwhile seems to have a mild mid-bass boost. Thus they complement each other very well. The sound is impeccably smooth yet detailed, underpinned with very fulsome bass that belies the size of the S3/5R's five-inch woofers.
MF detractors who parrot on about how MF only reboxes its amps with each new range will be disappointed to know that the X-A2 and X-T100 don't sound the same. The latter is a hybrid design and bathes music in a burnished lustre. The X-A2 is less luscious in the midrange and not as taut in the bass, conceding the last ounce of control to the X-T100. It thus sounds fuller in this region and casts a bigger soundstage, but at the expense of imaging of which the X-T100's is better. The X-T100 also has superior resolution. When listening in a critical mood, it can be discerned that the X-A2 casts a slight opaque pall over the lower registers of female singers, whereas the X-T100 illumines that area very clearly. And that is with the X-T100's stock tubes. After a second bout of tube-rolling, it surges ahead in midband clarity. It is the X amp I would bring to a desert island.
X-A2's knob needs more tweaking...
If you're in the market for a pre-loved X-A2 yourself, you need to know that the gain setting on its volume knob is much more gradual than newer MF amps. Whereas the X-T100's already cooks at 9 o'clock and reaches ear-drum melting levels at 11, even with the inefficient SCM11, the X-A2's juice only begins to flow at 11 o'clock. I was initially concerned by this seeming lack in power but allayed such fears after a conversation with a fellow X-A2 wammer Alex_A (thanks gingerboi). He has jacked his knob past 3 o'clock on a few occasions (is that proper Inglish), yet it stayed clean at all times. So take note. Good times with the X-A2 start after 11 o'clock.
Being a sucker for shiny new things, buying a pre-loved amp wasn't the first priority when I started to look for another partner for the S3/5R. I demoed three models in the £400ish range: Cambridge Audio 650A, Rotel RA-05SE and Yamaha A-S700. All are competent modern designs but I sought a particular attribute which eluded them: a wonderful upper register that will accentuate and not subtract from the S3/5R's own smoothness and openness.
The 650A's treble had artificial brightness while the RA-05SE's was a touch synthetic and lacked the supple, flowing quality I sought. Yammy's A-S700 looked retro-cool. It had the cleanest treble response of the trio but wasn't detailed enough. It also lagged behind the outgoing C326BEE for dynamic punch and could create the dreaded 'pipe 'n slippers sound' with the S3/5R, I feared.
So should I be smug or alarmed that the cultured-sounding X-A2 can do what the above modern amps cannot? Mags constantly wag about improvements in the technology of today's affordable amps, how yesteryear's £1k performance can be had for modest rrp, but I couldn't find one with a superlative treble performance. (I would like to, because I wouldn't have to spend crazy money to get another impeccable amp to fix up with my next pair of mini monitors.)
If I were to extend the comparison to the more expensive amps I had looked at for my main rig, I'd say I prefer the X-A2's treble to the Rotel RA-1520's(bright), the Roksan Kandy K2's(slightly truncated; to offset previous Kandys' shrillness?), the Naim Nait 5i's(shut-in) and the Nait XS's (without the Flatcap add-on).
On the horizon... a Thouch-up
At the time of penning this part, the X-A2 has been despatched off for a bout of modification to improve its sonics. After scouring the classifieds for free-lance tweakers I settled on a dude (such thick eyebrows) who used to service Thule amplifiers. I specified the changes I want for the X-A2's sound: leave the fine treble as it is, improve clarity across the midrange, quicken the mid-bass response and tighten up the lower bass. Having heard the zippy quicksilver sound from a Thule amp once I reckon the X-A2 will return like a phoenix arisen from the ashes, with a new-found ability in PRaT. Basically, the sonics I'm after is MF for the top half of the frequency spectrum and Naim Nait-esque for the bottom half (audio-hell if it were the other way round). I'd given some consideration to taking the X-A2 back to the MF dealer for refurbishment but desisted as the good Sodbury said the MF tune-ups are just expensive little tickles which amount to putting new rubber bands around the capacitors.
This is the first time I have sent an amp for personalized modification and if the results are sensational, I may source other vintage MF amps for the same treatment (the X-150 with its huge knob will be highly desirable. SQUEEEE!!!). After years of having to shortlist, demo, buy and then live with new amps that have a few quirks not to my liking, perhaps the customized modding option is what I really need. Watch this space...
Musical Fidelity X-A2 (original form)
: powerful, weighty sound
: open, detailed treble
: good slam in the lower bass
: mid-bass is a touch laidback
: the volume knob's slow gain gives the impression of a lack of power
: the X-T100 edges it for resolution
The X-A2 is back and its main unit feels slightly heavier in my hands. After a fortnight of anticipation I finally found out if this modding adventure had a happy ending.
My initial reaction after the X-A2 was first fired up was to shed an invisible tear. That was because the original sound of the X-A2 had perished. Gone is the comforting MF house-sound that has a slight warmth in the bass. But the tear turned to elation when my ears became attuned to the new sound of the X-A2. There is a new-found swiftness in the bass and improved clarity in the midrange. Just what I had hoped the commissioned technician would effect. The first test material I played wasn't a CD but the Clash of the Titans (2010) DVD, fast-forwarded to the scene of the Kraken's emergence. It was the last thing I played through the original X-A2. Now, the sound of its tentacles bursting out from the sea cracked with greater impact. And when it opened its jaws to roar, there was this resonance in the X-A2's upper registers that showed a widening of left to right imaging. The overall presentation is also more forward and vital.
The midrange has also improved in clarity as a test of several Celine Dion songs revealed. Where on the original X-A2 her lower register was slightly veiled, now her voice shot out with laser-like clarity that was as wonderful to hear as the Kraken's roars. The mid-bass has gained sharper articulation and speed which makes the X-A2 quite a PRaTster now. It doesn't have the grunty ruggedness of a Nait (but of course... if I want that particular quality I should invest in a Naim amp), but it no longer makes the X-A2 a liability with fast-paced pop music. It can rock out.
The downside to this keener articulation is a fractional loss of weight in the low bass. It doesn't underpin orchestral tuttis like the massive boulder it was, but the overall presentation still remains weightier than the X-T100's. I guess this is a trade-off for the gain of that agility in the mid-bass. It is most acceptable.
The new sound has certain traits in common with that Thule Spirit amp I heard; namely a swiftness in the upper registers and an upfront wide screen presentation. I hereby christen it "Le SSpirit"!
Darn, I think I'm loving the X-A2 more than the tube-rolled X-T100 at the moment.
Musical Fidelity X-A2 ~ "Le SSpirit" (modified form)
: scintillating speed and clarity
: improved rhythmic timing
: punchy mid-bass
: low bass is a smidgeon less fulsome than the original