Musical Fidelity AMS 35i - Sound Quality

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Musical Fidelity AMS 35i
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As with everyone here at Hi-Fi World, I am an ardent fan of valve amplifiers, but I personally must confess that I don’t listen to them very much at the moment. My World Audio Design K5881 (heavily modded) is one of the most divine performers when in its comfort zone, but as valve aficionados will know, this is easier said than done. My own listening room is quite large and my choice of reference loudspeakers is demanding on any amplifier; while my NS1000Ms have a quoted 91dB sensitivity they’re a stiff load and reduce many transistor amplifiers to nervous wrecks. Hitting the loud pedal with the K5881 driving the Yams simply causes the poor old valve amp’s (admittedly very tough) transformers to saturate, and suddenly my hi-fi is doing a passable impersonation of a small motorboat chugging in to Portishead marina...


When the K5881 is in its comfort zone, it displays those splendiferous virtues of any fine tubular belle. It is tonally smooth, spatially accurate and rhythmically eerily natural; music just flows forth like the words of your mother-in-law who won’t stop talking. For this reason, and in the absence of any comprehensively bigger and better tube amplifiers, I found myself investigating Class A transistor amplifiers, and these have now become my preferred tool for listening in my own room.

The key drawback of Class A is the amps get hot, because they run in such a way that the output transistors are permanently switched on (whereas in Class AB of course they switch on and off at higher outputs). The key benefit is the lack of switching distortion, which invests the humble transistor amplifier with a profoundly different quality to what people are used to. Music is suddenly clear, almost icily so, like a frozen sea under blistering blue sky. All the grey ‘fug’ that the switching distortion of Class AB disappears at a stroke, and it’s like the sun has come out.


Still, just being Class A isn’t a guarantee of perfection. I very much like the £3,500 Sugden IA4 for what it does to the music - which is to make it very clean and fun - but there’s certainly a bright upper midband there to be heard, especially through speakers such as mine which, like most metal drivered speakers, aren’t backward in coming forward. It’s a great amp, the Sugden, but not perfect. Fascinating then to get the chance to try the Musical Fidelity AMS35i, which at £6,000 is surely the most expensive example of the integrated breed I’ve heard, and without doubt the most purposeful...


After about an hour’s warm up (the amp, my room and then me - in that order), my first instinct was to reach for the nearest LP. Duly, Wings’ ‘London Town’ (“ah, Wings, the band the Beatles could have been”, to quote Alan Partridge!) was cued up, and I sat back. As Musical Fidelity amplifiers go, this was one of the sweetest and most beguiling I’ve heard. Their kW stuff sounds impressive in my system, but the AMS35i sounded beautiful. There’s a smoothness, delicacy and warmth to this amplifier that I haven’t heard outside of a valve amplifier, and it was so pronounced that I’m still trying to fathom it weeks after first setting ears upon it.


‘London Town’ is a typical late seventies analogue recording (done mostly at Abbey Road Studios, of course). It has a richness and a sheen that’s simply not possible to hear anywhere now. I’m not sure if it was McCartney's (and Denny Laine)’s choice of exotic cigarettes, but the song lilts along with an unusually relaxed gait, and practically every transistor amplifier fails to catch this lackadaisical feel. Not so the AMS35i, which opened up the song and let the listener in. The slightly shambling, pedestrian rhythm with its various stop-starts wasn’t forced or muddled. Instead the Musical Fidelity remained in confident control, happy to amble when the song demanded, then ready to rock when the song's energetic, Hammond organ-driven bridge came to be.


Impressed as I was with the AMS35i’s unforced musicality, this amplifier’s tonality really made its mark. The brass section that permeates the song was rendered with unexpected accuracy, the strings had a supernaturally silken sheen and McCartney’s vocals were carried with an almost disconcerting realism, overdubs and all. Tonally this amplifier is a smoothie alright, but only in the sense that it doesn’t add grain or grit.


Warping forward twelve years, and The Orb’s ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, a classic slice of ambient house from 1990, was next on the turntable. With a heavy sequenced sampled drum loop driving the song, it represents a distinct upping of the pace compared to the Wings track, and immediately the AMS35i snapped into life. The amplifier was able to ‘pick up its skirt and run’, so to speak, showing its natural speed to great effect. Even at high volume, with the Yamahas’ twelve inch cones flapping like flares in seventies Coca Cola advert, the big Musical Fidelity served up large dollops of clean power, stopping and starting like its very life depended on it. Despite all its low frequency travails, the Rickie Lee Jones sample was rendered with cut-glass clarity, and the sampled keyboard loops chimed cleanly and purposefully out of the mix. Despite its low rated power, this is as confident a 35W as I’ve heard, with prodigious amounts of low frequencies served up. Compared to my reference Sugden, there seemed to be a whole extra octave of bass!


Time for a wilfully unpleasant recording, then. XTC’s ‘Skylarking’ is a great baroque pop album from 1986, but ambitious as it was, Todd Rundgren’s production was typically low rent mid-eighties,  sounding bright and brash with just a few too many clangy early digital keyboard sounds for my tastes. ‘The Meeting Place’ is quintessential XTC fare, Colin Moulding’s vocals counterpointed by chiming DX7s in a lovely melodic way, but it’s hard work on most high end hi-fi systems. Not so on the AMS35i, which seemed to cut through the top layer of grit like an expensive car polish, letting the recording’s true colour shine through. Although not exactly warm, this big integrated simply refused to ‘take the bait’ and go grainy, whereas I’m sorry to say that the (admittedly a lot cheaper) Sugden duly ran with it. This amp was able to unlock the recording, getting me closer to the song and its performer. Impressed as I was by its svelte tonality, all along the Musical Fidelity carried the song’s rhythm with remarkable subtlety. On this track the drummer shows a certain Ringo Starr sensibility when bashing his snare and hi hat, but his ability to float around the beat in a Beatles style has rarely been as apparent as through the AMS35i.


Moving to a great slice of modern jazz funk with sky-high production values and masterful recording quality, and The Crusaders’ ‘Street Life’ (Japanese pressing) was duly cued up. Here the big Musical Fidelity flew, showing its ability to drive my speakers with complete confidence. The system conjured up a wonderfully expansive recorded acoustic; the speakers disappeared and the listener took on a front row seat. The low level detail was breathtaking; I was amazed to hear maracas I’d never previously heard (despite listening to this song regularly since 1979!), and I loved the way it was suddenly so obvious that the drummer was playing the hi hats way off the beat. Singer Randy Crawford’s voice was about as rich as I’ve ever heard it via recorded music, and her phrasing was exceptionally well carried. Even though this amp isn’t dynamic in a shouty, showy way, it was better able to carry the emotion of a musical crescendo than any other integrated I’ve heard. It doesn’t ‘turbocharge’ attack transients, making them artificially pronounced, like some transistor amps I’ve heard, yet is nevertheless blisteringly fast and expressive.



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