Music Hall a 50.2 Integrated Amplifier
List price: $1,200
So Mr. Hall does it again, a new fresh face on the solid-state integrated amps scene . I’ve owned a couple of his cd players over the past few years, and was very pleased with their performance, and everyone knows his rep on the turntable scene – but now I had the chance to really get to know his new 90 watt integrated amp. Is this new amp as good as his past products?
FRESH FROM THE BOX
The new a 50.2 arrived packed to withstand a nuclear blast. While it's designed in the US, like most things these days it's made in China, but Roy was one of the first to set up manufacturing over there and he's learned how to do it right - he maintains very strict control over what goes into his designs. The Chinese often like to take shortcuts on parts quality, thinking one is as good as another.
Was I surprised at what I saw inside? No, not at all. It looked like another Music Hall piece. I LIKE that. Clean lines, simple layout, very solid build. No batmobilish curves, no large exposed razor sharp heat sinks, no cute little LED’s scattered about. I don’t want to offend those that prefer it otherwise, but one thing I’ve always liked about Music Hall is that they let their gear speak for itself through performance and value, not over the top aesthetics. Roy distributes Shanling if that's what crackles your Rice Krispies.
BIG SILVER BOX OF SOUND
Ok, the layout, I’m a fan. Two large knobs, one for source selection, one for volume control. Two buttons, one for power, one for record monitor. A window telling you what exactly you are doing (and it's dimmable via the remote - yea!), in case you forgot. There’s a jack for cans for those late night listening session, (When headphones are in use the speaker output is automatically muted) and something called an ‘iPod’, not sure what that is...but it must use a 3.5mm stereo mini-plug. The pre-out is always active and can be used to connect the a50.2 to a subwoofer or additional poweramplifier. Simply connect this output to the input on your subwoofer or amplifier. The AC cable can be replaced with a better one of your choice.
She looks just as good going, as coming. The a50.2 has 4 analog inputs, one tape loop, and one phono input. The rear is laid out just as clean, with just the right amount of Tiffany style RCA jacks (two speakers sets), including a phono stage FOR BOTH MM AND MC! Rather unusual for an amp at this price, but then Mr. Hall also makes a bunch of turntables, too, so this makes sense. There are no visible means to adjust cartridge loading though, so selection is important. But guess what. Musical Hall also sells cartridges so I'm sure he can fix you right up with something perfectly compatible. Binding posts are large WBT style, no connection issues here. The remote is sleek, featuring the same fit and finish as the facias, and is also laid out well.
How about guts? Yeah, it’s got them. Inside is a HUGE toroidal power transformer and regulated power supply board. Handling the output is a quad of Sanken output transistors (like you might find inside a Cary integrated), and 24000uF capacitance per channel. Now is that a large, grossly overbuilt stat? No, it’s not, what it is, is JUST RIGHT for an amp this size.
THE GOODS AND A BAD
I’m a tube guy currently; at least that’s what I own at present in the amplifier field, though I've owned more than my share of solid staters. So made a call to arms amongst my local audio pals, and gathered a couple other integrated amps to compare against the new 50.2. The Arcam A70, and a monster DK Design VS1. As far as speakers go, I just recently reviewed the Jaton AV803, so I threw them in the mix, along with a pair of Polk bookshelf speakers I’ve had for years, the RT7. Finally, just to make it interesting, I threw together a pair of something that could only sound BAD (that’s how I will refer to them from here). I had some small tower cabinets, cut a hole, inserted some Polyfill, and put it some Onkyo 5 inch full range drivers originally intended for automotive use.
I didn’t want to overcomplicate things too much, and lose focus on the music – but I did take time to switch out each amplifier, and run each of the following tracks on all three speakers, making notes along the way.
First tracks – ‘France’ and ‘Let Your Light Shine’ off Keb Mo’s ‘Keep It Simple’ CD from Epic / OKeh. The vocals were slightly forward on the A7 on both the RT7’s and AV803’s. Both the VS1 and 50.2 seemed to sound more natural, more articulate in the mid band. The RT7’s like an amp with some headroom and bass control, and the Music Hall seemed to have more weight and control on the bottom end than the A70, and better overall side to side imaging than the VS1.
All three amplifiers offered good pace and attack, but what was shocking was the 50.2 on my BAD speakers. The VS1 was listenable at best, and the A70 was all over the place as far as imaging, and the midrange was bordering glare – I actually doubled checked to make sure I wired the speakers identically, internally. They were wired right, and while the 50.2 didn’t make me mess my flat hat, it did allow me to actually finish the songs! Now granted, no one would ever want to listen to these ‘BAD’ speakers, but I found it interesting how substantial the differences were between the three amplifiers.
Sound wise, nobody is going to listen to the a50 and say "Ahhhh....tubes!", but nobody's gonna hear this and say "Ewwwww...Solid State!", either. Maybe just a tad on the bright side if I had to decide, but overall amazingly neutral for a bottleless integrated, at this price or higher. Hey, it smokes the British Arcam.
Next up – the self titled track off Katie Melua’s ‘Call Off The Search’. Katie has a sweet and delicate voice, and while the recording isn’t all it should be, I’ve heard her come through with finesse on the right gear. This was a tough one to judge, as all three amplifiers sounded really good. What I did notice were subtleties in upper mid band and imaging. The VS1 was involving, but the soundstage was slightly smeared compared to the 50.2. The Music Hall on the big Jaton’s was the best combination of gear, offering the most believable tonal balance and voicing.
Ok, so now let’s do something to check out the dynamics. Lyle Lovett sounds like a plan. Yeah, him and his large band. An outstanding track to do just that is track two off the ‘It’s Not Big It’s Large’ album, ‘I Will Rise Up’. Lyle’s voice is haunting, and the recording offers up a ton of dynamic range. The A70 showed itself pretty well, and although I didn’t ever reach a point of clipping, she started to gas around 98db on my meter. Granted, that’s louder than I would normally listen, especially in an extended session – but I wanted to put the spurs to these amps for a few minutes. Maybe it was just the forwardness I heard in the midband earlier making itself more apparent – but once I reach a certain point on the volume knob, the point of diminishing returns was apparent. Next up, the mighty VS1 which is rated at 160 watts continuous into 8 ohm. Dynamics in spades, as was expected. Weight and range were right there, and both the Polk’s and Jaton’s came alive with room filling sound. I was thinking, even though an unfair fight spec wise, this is where the Music Hall would gas, just like the Arcam. It didn’t, and if it did start to, I certainly couldn’t tell as I did with Arcam. I pushed it harder and harder, and the sound just got louder, but stayed balanced. Another aspect is that during all this, I still had a sense of coherence to the music – both imaging and layering. The Music Hall 50.2 offers the most solid 90 watts continuous I’ve EVER heard. I’d actually like to see this thing on a bench, and find out what it’s really doing number-wise.
Bass control, I wanted to test the Music Hall on a group that has some good bass laden tracks. I chose, among several others, ‘The Crystal Method’ and their 1997 release ‘Vegas’. Again, not the most audiophile of all recordings, but it’s fun music to demo, and offers up good stereo side to side imaging, along with good low, trolling bass. Besides, who listens to ultra-audiophile recordings of ancient lute music all the time? I didn’t hook the A70 up this time, and don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Arcam – but it was clearly the lesser of the three amps at this point, on the system I setup for this review. The VS1 manhandled the Polk bookshelf speakers, and was a real treat to listen to as far as bass extension while maintaining a sense of focus and air. The issue I wasn’t expecting was a slightly bloated, almost slow sound playing the same track on the Jaton’s. Some of the bass notes seemed to hang on too long, obviously too long in some instances. I went ahead and compared the Music Hall next, and while it didn’t have the overall low extension that the DK did, it had much better control over the big Jaton’s. Pace, attack, and decay are things I listen for in the lower frequencies, and maybe it’s just audio luck, but the 803’s and the 50.2 were a really good match here. Synergy, if I’m allowed to use that term.
A friend hooked up his VPI Scoutmaster table (sorry Roy) with a Benz Glider high output to the MM ins. He said the phono circuit was a good one, not equivalent to his $2,000 separate Whest phono pre, but very solid, pretty low noise and almost grain free. Dynamics were very good on Classic Record's reissue of "Witch's Brew", a classical orchestral sound spectacular. He said he was more than a little surprised at how good the a50.2 sounded through its phono section. I was, too. But then if I'm Mr.. Hall, I'd better build in a good phono section so his tables and cartridges don't suck, right?
At the asking price of a $1200, the Music Hall is a no brainer for simple, no nonsense two channel operation. It’s neat, it’s clean, it’s got just enough bells and not too many whistles. A couple of the whistles are a real value added at this $1,200 price, like the MM and MC phono inputs and the Ipod input, though any such player will work as well. Roy put the money where the sound is. It’s an integrated amp, as an integrated amp should be. I LOVE the high end, I really do, but Joe 6 Pack can’t always shell out the scratch to keep up with the audio Jones’, especially in this economy, right? MH stuff is also very dependable, but if there's a problem you don't have to cruise to China and hope you can get it fixed. The new a50.2 is affordable nirvana, and would be a great anchor to a true hi-fi system. I’ve actually put the lower powered 25.2 on my short list for a bedroom rig paired up with 25.2 cd player and be DONE with it. Kudos to Roy, keep the good stuff coming (and maybe with a black faceplate option? Please!).
Amplifier – Arcam A70 / DK Design Group VS1
Speakers – Jaton AV803 / Polk Audio RT7 / DIY Onkyo Full Range (codename – BAD)
Source – Marantz SA8260
Power Cables – Signal Cable Magic Power
Speaker Cables – Signal Cable Ultra Bi-wire
Interconnects – Cardas 300B
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