Musical Fidelity A1 Amplifier

The A1 integrated amplifier has been Musical Fidelity's major success story ever since its introduction in the mid 1980s. Its unique status has arisen from its idiosyncratic styling, a top plate you could fry eggs on, a controversial circuit configuration and its relatively low power for the price.

But it's the A1's highly distinctive way with music that's the stuff legends are made of. Guaranteed to elicit strong reactions, the A1 is, depending on your point of view, sumptuously smooth, easy going, natural, effortless and listenable, or unaccept-ably coloured, with a loose uncontrolled bass, pitifully underpowered, and incapable of capturing the timing of a performance.

Personally, I've always been a fan of the A1, albeit a frustrated one. I don't like the way the amp is put together, object to the awkward rear panel socket position, hidden away beneath the protruding top panel ribbed heat sinks which defy handling when the amp is switched on, and find the overall build quality a bit rough and ready. But I can forgive it these foibles, such is the level of musical insight and sheer pleasure the A1 gives. It's an amp you warm to.

Now Musical Fidelity has seen fit to introduce a MkII version, and I'm warming to that too. First impressions were of a slightly leaner, tidier bass, no loss of mid-range warmth or clarity and that distinctively crisp yet slightly understated top, characterised by a sense of real metal-on-metal ringing in hi-hat cymbals or a tangible feel of brushed drumskin. There's nothing fierce or obvious about the sound, but by the same token, the life isn't drained from the music. That's a rare achievement in any amplifier, let alone a £315 integrated amp.

Although Musical Fidelity has largely joined the CD lovers' camp, the A1 MkII retains a switchable moving coil/ moving magnet phono input. With a Linn Troika cartridge, it gave a very easy going, natural sound, but not nearly enough of it. That could have something to do with the relatively low output (nominally 150μV) of the Troika, but it could be a problem if you're the sort who listens to loud rock or big Mahlerian classical symphonies. The scale was missing. With a halfway decent moving magnet or high output moving coil, this problem may be overcome.

The power output of the A1 was never a problem using CD, however.

I found myself having to turn the volume down from halfway on the control listening to Jan Garbarek's magically clean, dynamic jazz rock CD I Took Up The Runes. If the fretless bass lacked a bit of welly, the clarity of bass and the textures of the percussion were a fine backdrop for Garbarek's mesmerisingly clear sax.

A recording of Vaughan Williams' 6th Symphony showed how the amp could capture the true power and atmosphere of a big, dynamic, orchestral work. Shimmering violins and solid menacing cellos set the scene for the brass and woodwind.

Well recorded studio rock was captured effectively, but the amp isn't the type of animal to get everyone out of their seats dancing. Elvis Costello's Veronica sounded pleasant enough, with the vocals expressive and easy to follow, but the aural picture was just a shade academic. Not so the following track, God's Comic - a much cleaner studio recording with spotless percussion - which was full of life and vibrantly real.

Musical Fidelity A1 Amplifier photo