When CD was introduced, the limited catalogue meant that people generally retained an analogue source and because of this. This meant that a volume control had to be accessible to both sources and this meant that it stayed put on the amplifier. I’m not going pretend that the choice of lossless and high res downloads is still anything other than a little limited but as streamers are able to make use of ripped CD’s, they have the ability to reuse the entire CD catalogue. With only ‘enthusiasts’ like me still using vinyl and streamers all offering internet radio, people can now assemble dedicated single source systems with the source acting as preamp connected either to a power amp or a pair of active speakers.
Musical Fidelity has never been a company to do what everybody else is doing though. At first glance, their CLiC is another streaming preamp but unlike the vast majority of the competition, as well as digital inputs, the CLiC also has a trio of analogue RCA inputs. This means that the CLiC is able to throw a lifeline to an analogue source, or become a media hub for a more complex one. Does it work or is this a technical blind alley?
The CLiC is described by Musical Fidelity as a ‘Universal Music Controller’ which is probably easier than ‘Analogue and Digital Streaming Preamp.’ Inside the relatively compact casework, the CLiC is a 24/192kHz capable media streamer with internet radio. It then offers four digital inputs (two coaxial, one optical and one USB-B), three RCA analogue inputs and two USB connections- one for attaching an iDevice and the other a USB stick. Two analogue outputs are fitted- one is fixed and one is variable and allows for using the preamp. This is a serious amount of connectivity and means that the CLiC can be anything from a straight source in a conventional system to a full blown media collator.
The control interface of the CLiC is dominated by a full colour display- still a relatively rare fitment to network streamers. This will show the menu interface and once you have selected an album or playlist, it then switches over to scrolling metadata and showing album art where present. The display is important because the only other control on the front panel is the standby button. This means that the CLiC is entirely dependent on external control to strut its stuff.
Whether this is a good or bad thing will depend on your control point. The CLiC is supplied with a full function remote control which is a version of the one I’ve had supplied with every Musical Fidelity unit I’ve ever tested. There’s nothing wrong with it but it is not the most inspiring device going. Rival offerings from products such as Naim and Cambridge Audio have remotes that are more intuitive and aesthetically pleasing. They also have front panel controls that will at the very least allow you to start and stop playback and navigate the menus- even the ultra minimalist Chord Index has more controls on the unit than this. You get used to it but it isn’t a great piece of design.
If you have an iPod Touch or iPad however, the news is rather better. The control ap for the CLiC took a little while to come to fruition but it is a really impressive example of the genre. It is clear, easy to use and allows you to make input and volume selections as well as media selections. The CLiC is an order of magnitude nicer to use with an iPad and if you are intending to use all the inputs, it is the best option available.
Musical Fidelity doesn’t release too much information about the internals of their product but the CLiC is built around the basic architecture of the M1 DAC. This means a Burr Brown chipset (which is widely used by Musical Fidelity and something that they have learned to implement very well over the years) and a well populated board of supporting components. The CLiC supports 24/192 via the digital inputs and the Ethernet connection. Wireless is limited to 24/96 but this worked well in practice and I found that streaming material over wireless was unconditionally stable.
The CLiC feels well constructed and the build is up to the asking price. The casework is well damped and non resonant and the panel gaps are small and consistent. The sockets all feel solid and substantial and overall effect inspires confidence that your CLiC is going to be around for a fair few years. The colour display offers reasonable contrast and is reasonably easy to read at a distance. Compared to the OLED efforts creeping into phones and tablets, it can look a little washed out but this is a better solution than most single colour display.
As is usually the case for streamers, the CLiC was parked on my home network and connected to my NAS drive. It was invited to scan a variety of music up to and including 24/192- this required a wired connection but for the most part I used wireless as I don’t really like having a fifteen metre run of Ethernet running up the stairs. I mainly use FLAC but I ran some tests with MP3 and WAV files as well. I generally used my iPad 3 for control but also used an iPhone 4 to see how the ap looked when shrunk down.
The good news is that with the variable output in use, the CLiC has much to commend it. Good digital reproduction is all about playing to the strengths of the format- excellent frequency response, no audible noise floor and flat frequency response (recordings permitting-don’t expect these attributes to be present on everything!)- while avoiding the result sounding too mechanical. Much is made of the role of increasingly capable DAC chips in this but I’m increasingly convinced that good filter implementation and high quality components in the output count for more. The CLiC is a good example of this. The DAC chip is far from exotic but used in this implementation but the results are very good.
Give the CLiC something well recorded like the lovely new re-interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Max Richter and the resulting performance is extremely open and tonally excellent. Massed strings can sound very hard and slightly brittle in some situations but the results with the CLiC were really convincing. Not only was there no trace of harshness or strain but it was equal to determine the number of individual instruments and the looped sequence was added to each time.
This realism and detail is also very apparent when you add vocals to the music. Imogen Heap’s Speak for Yourself is often nothing but vocals and the CLiC does a fine job of conveying the weight and the scale of a well recorded human voice. One of the most impressive areas is how there is a really impressive sense of fade and decay to notes once they have passed- it is something that sounds trivial but is one of the things that helps to suspend disbelief that you are listening to the real deal. This is further helped by the bass response. Not only does the CLiC have real impact with sub bass but the lower notes of a piano have weight and impact that the real instrument has in spades but can so often go missing with recordings.
The best bit about this ability is that it doesn’t vanish the moment that you switch to less ‘perfect’ recordings. El Camino by The Black Keys is rough and ready by comparison to the rather more elegant pieces mentioned before but the same basic attributes of the CLiC are still present and correct. Switch to an MP3 version of the same album and the CLiC manages to mask the most obvious issues and still produce an enjoyable performance.
The behaviour of the digital inputs is broadly identical to the streaming section. Connection was seamless and the CLiC didn’t have a problem being connected to a Sky HD box and being used as a decoder for that. The DAC section seems able to handle slightly unusual digital signals correctly and the Cambridge Audio iD100 (which uses a system of forced error correction to keep the signal from iPods in sync) didn’t prove a problem for it. Connecting an iPhone to the dedicated USB input on the rear panel was equally effective but like most of these systems, the ‘iPod’ section of the device is accessed directly which means you can’t use Spotify or other streaming service on the cheap.
The analogue inputs are also pretty good- that is to say I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between the Rega RP6 and Leema phono stage connected to the Naim though the CLiC or directly. There is no change in gain and the noise floor stays exactly where it is with the unit connected to it. These line inputs are clearly not a last minute addition to the design but something that has been designed in from the outset. The CLiC gives nothing away to a ‘normal’ preamp in this instance.
Switching to the direct AV input of the Naim and using the volume of the CLiC to control the level is slightly more of a mixed blessing. Progress is being made all the time in terms of digital volume controls and the system used by Musical Fidelity is sonically transparent right down to minimal levels. On balance I still prefer analogue volume controls however. The first problem is that the CLiC doesn’t have quite as many increments as I’d like for a really seamless control. On more than one occasion, the ‘perfect’ volume was between two fixed points. Using the supplied remote also seemed to introduce a slight delay in the response and led to a tendency to over correct. Using the iPad as the controller improved this and if you want to use the CLiC as a preamp it would be my recommendation to use it in this manner.
On balance though, the CLiC is an effective preamp and is capable of handling an impressive number of inputs. Although Musical Fidelity makes a stereo power amp that would be an ideal partner for the CLiC, my gut feeling is that a pair of active speakers would be the most effective accompaniment as you could use their gain settings to bypass any of the ‘holes’ you might encounter in the CLiC’s own volume control. The resulting system would be impressively compact as well.
- Excellent sound quality with a wide variety of file types
- Extremely flexible design
- Extremely good control ap
- Lmited volume control increments
- Not as cost effective as a line level source
- Needs the ap to perform at its best.
Musical Fidelity CliC Universal Music Controller
The CLiC defies easy classification as a device. There are other streamers with volume controls and there are others with digital inputs but the only device that then goes on to offer analogue connections is the new Naim NAC-N 172 XS which is more expensive than the CLiC and offers a (fractionally) smaller number of inputs at a higher asking price. Having established that it is certainly unusual if not totally unique, the next question is to establish if this is the streamer for you.
If you are looking to add a streamer to an existing system, the CLiC is a strong performer but you are effectively paying for functionality that you won’t use. There are other units that can offer the same excellent sonic performance for a little less money. Unless you have a critical shortage of inputs (in which case, the CLiC is a very useful input collator), there are more cost effective solutions out there.
If you are building a system (or a second system) from scratch though, the CLiC starts to look rather more significant. This is an impressively small unit for something that does as much as this and making use of the preamp section means that you can assemble a compact and extremely high performance system. The CLiC is undoubtedly a specialised unit but with the shape of hifi systems changing all the time, this is a very effective and high performing way to go about assembling a 21st century system that will still deliver a truly world class sound.
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