Introduction - what is the Musical Fidelity M2si?
The Musical Fidelity M2si is an integrated amplifier and the starting point of the Musical Fidelity amplifier range which proceeds to climb all the way to the NuVista 800 at a healthy £8,799. It is one of the newer designs to come from the company, appearing after it was acquired by Pro-Ject Audio Systems. Pro-Ject, in consultation with key distributors felt that a Musical Fidelity amplifier under £1,000 was commercially important and the M2si is an evolution of some existing Musical Fidelity engineering to achieve this.
What makes the M2si so interesting in 2020 is that it is an amplifier and that is your lot. It has travelled through the review process with the Leak Stereo 130 (I don’t know which of these reviews will appear first but both should be visible after a short period) which, shorn of its optional wood outer casing, is the same price as the Musical Fidelity. The Leak has a phono stage, headphone socket, Bluetooth and a digital input board. It’s also very, very good.
What happens then when you allocate your budget on a device that is an amp, a means of controlling it and a box to keep it all in one place? How much more are you getting from this single minded approach - taking into account of course that you will need to budget for source equipment - and does it make more sense than the alluring convenience of an amplifier that goes a long way to simplifying this? Let’s plug it in, dust off some source equipment and see what’s what.
Specification and Design
Even before we embarked on this latest evolutionary phase of two channel audio development, it would be fair to say that the M2si would have been considered impressively unadorned. The absence of digital inputs in something is mildly unusual these days (although Naim, Rega and a number of other manufacturers are perfectly content to keep making them so it’s not like Musical Fidelity is a particular outlier in this regard) but it’s the absence of phono stage and headphone socket that really marks the M2si out as being a bit on the minimalist side. In fact, the M2si has one (1) feature that might be seen to be a deviation from absolute minimum; one input can be changed to a volume bypassing home cinema input via a switch on the rear panel. After that it’s firmly into the irreducible minimum of what an amplifier needs to be considered an integrated amp.
With this in mind, it is worth focusing on the amplifier you are paying for. If you quickly scan the specifications of the M2si it can be a little easy to miss the what’s and the why’s of it. The power output is given as an exactingly specific 72 watts into eight ohms. This is a sturdy but not especially remarkable figure (and interestingly, no figure is quoted for four ohm running) but the devil is in the detail. That 72 watts arrives at a quoted distortion figure of 0.014% (or, should you not make a habit of browsing these things, ‘sod all’).
Furthermore, there’s another figure lurking in the specifications that is worthy of note. The M2si is able to swing 25 amps peak to peak. Again, this is a little meaningless in abstract so it needs context. The recently reviewed Audiolab 6000A Play, under the same conditions can swing 9 amps (and I’m not singling the 6000A Play out either - it’s a very good amp - it’s simply that Audiolab also publishes this figure where many other companies do not). Why does this matter? This measurement, more than available power, is the one that gives the best indicator of how an amp will drive a pair of speakers. It means that the M2si might not blow you away with its headline output but, when all its feature laden rivals are beginning to wilt a little, it’s just getting started.
This has long been a key aspect of how Musical Fidelity designs amplifiers. While the 72 watt output of the M2Si is 478 watts shy of the monumental M8xi, in microcosm it fulfils the same design brief; to have sufficient power to be largely unconcerned by the speaker you want to connect to it and as well as ‘working’ in the purely mechanical sense of the term, it can deliver the dynamic peaks of a musical program without constraint. The means by which this is done in conventional class AB is thematically similar to refinements in turntables. It is mechanical engineering and weight of metal and this is where your money is going.
The means by which you harness this power is also simple. The M2Si uses a conventional volume pot rather than a rotary encoder seen in the bigger Musical Fidelity amps and there are five RCA inputs (one with the aforementioned bypass), a tape loop and a preamp out. A single set of speaker terminals - unremarkable in design but sturdy and easy to use nonetheless - is fitted to the rear panel. There’s a certain irony too that while the specification of the Musical Fidelity is rather limited, the control interface is actually more ornate than many rivals. Each input can be discretely selected from both the front panel and the remote control; something that many rivals cannot do. The remote is the standard Musical Fidelity IR handset which is no design classic but does work well.
This is also a very well made piece of kit too. The chassis is entirely made of metal and the M2si feels burlier than many similarly priced rivals. The looks are classically Musical Fidelity too. Is this a pretty amplifier? I’m going to go with ‘no.’ Is there a certain purposefulness that stems from the lack of fripperies? Yep. There’s a degree of timelessness to it as well that it that might be useful in the years to come. This isn’t an achingly fashionable design right ‘now’ but this does mean that it’s unlikely to be achingly unfashionable in the years to come too. Finally, and no less importantly, the M2si is very well made. There’s enough care and attention combined with quality of materials used to ensure that you can feel some appreciation of where your money has gone.
It means that the M2si might not blow you away with its headline output but, when all its feature laden rivals are beginning to wilt a little, it’s just getting started
How was the M2si tested?
The Musical Fidelity was placed in a Quadraspire QAVX rack and connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Sigmas mains conditioner. It has been tested with a Chord Electronics Qutest and Topping E30 DAC, both taking a USB feed from a Roon Nucleus and an optical feed from an LG 55B7 OLED. An AVID Ingenium Twin, Rega RB330 arm and Rega Ania cartridge running into a Rega Fono MC phono stage has been used for some vinyl testing. Speakers used have been the Spendor A1, Sonus faber Lumina I and the Acoustic Energy AE1 Classic (the latter for reasons that will be expanded on). Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal and Qobuz, on demand TV services and some vinyl.
More: Audio Formats
The sample that arrived for testing was the official review sample and thus entirely run in, so critical appraisal began from the outset. Something that needs to be mentioned right away is that I review in a normal house and the speakers I have to hand for reviewing devices at this price point are deliberately chosen for their benign behaviour. This means that no recent amplifier review I’ve carried out, at any price, has seen me really reach, let alone exceed the design limits of an amp. The closest in recent months was birching the Audiolab 6000A Play into the JBL HDI1600 (that is, a speaker that costs more than twice as much as the amp), where it was possible to determine that I was reaching the limits of what the Audiolab had to give.
This is important because it has to be taken into account when judging the M2si in its primary role. However much the more heavily specified amps have cut back on the actual amplifying hardware, they are rarely found wanting in normal use. It’s also important because it doesn’t alter the fact that the Musical Fidelity brings something more to audio replay than I’ve recently found to be the case with sub £1,000 amps. The synopsis of why this is comes back to that current measurement lurking in the specifications. The M2si doesn’t power speakers, it drives them.
With the diminutive but fabulous Sonus faber Lumina I, the Musical Fidelity does a fine joy of extracting this compact speaker’s fervent desire to be a big one. The surprising low end heft that it possesses is filled out a little further and then controlled with an immediacy that makes material sound more convincing. Neither is this simply about pounding techno either. The gorgeous Only a Woman that opens Matthew Halsall’s Into Forever is underpinned with a plucked double bass. Each one of those plucks is deep, sonorous and resonant. They spark into life instantly and decay beautifully. Good bass is and always has been about more than being smacked in the ribcage (although, I won’t deny it helps) and the M2Si has great bass.
In delivering the bass with a consistent assurance, the M2si uses it as a foundation for its other good work. In some regards, the most impressive aspect of what it does is how often the same notes and descriptive phrases also occur in the notes for the M8xi. This is never going to feel as utterly composed as its monstrous big brother but there is the same sense of unburstable power in reserve that lends the presentation a composure that is sometimes absent elsewhere. It isn’t that its rivals lack composure so much as the M2si just has more of it.
The tonality is also extremely good with nothing across a spread of vocal styles and different instruments that really unsettles it. There is a very slight forward edge to the presentation that is something of a Musical Fidelity trademark. So long as it is respected, it gives the M2si an energy and bite that works brilliantly across a wide selection of music without being too problematic for genres where it isn’t so welcome. The availability of truly aggressive speakers has declined over the years to the point where a fair amount of wilful mismatching would be needed to really render this an issue.
Not all the family inheritances are quite so welcome of course. Like the M8xi and a few other products from the Musical Fidelity stable I’ve tested over the years, I don’t consider this to be the most spacious amplifier going for the price. It does respond to source equipment that can generate this spaciousness though. The Chord Qutest and AVID both have this capability and used with them, the Musical Fidelity is bigger and more confident, particularly with well recorded material. In some ways, the requirement of the Musical Fidelity to be used with source equipment is better placed to alleviate this than rivals where the digital board has been carefully engineered to sound like the rest of the amp.
What the extra heft on offer really means though is that the M2si can handle speakers that I’d be reluctant to suggest using with many similarly priced rivals. In the case of many of them, it leads to the same price disparity that I think is fairly unlikely in the context of most systems but in one specific instance, I think it has definite merit. The recently reviewed KEF LS50 Meta impressed in pretty much every aspect bar the demands it places on partnering equipment. Here is perhaps the most cost effective amp I’ve tested that can nullify that issue. As the KEFs have long since departed for another review, I dug my Acoustic Energy AE1 Classics out because they exhibit some of the same demands. The performance that the M2si extracted from them - again by driving them not powering them - was sufficient to suggest that the hypothesis has worth.
What the extra heft on offer really means though is that the M2si can handle speakers that I’d be reluctant to suggest using with many similarly priced rivals
- Sounds outstanding for the asking price
- Beautifully made
- Surprisingly convenient to use
- Pretty much devoid of features
- Remote is a bit of a mess
Musical Fidelity M2si Integrated Amplifier Review
Let’s crunch a few numbers first to remind ourselves of the additional costs of what Musical Fidelity is incurring with their back to basics approach. Compared to the Leak Stereo 130, which is a laptop or even a NAS drive away from being a complete system, the M2si needs to be a proportionately smaller part of your budget for the same to apply. Add £100 to your budget and the Audiolab 6000A Play is ready to come out the box needing no source equipment at all to work. Your friendly reminder that both of these amps are seriously good as well.
Where Musical Fidelity’s calculations start to pay off is how affordable great - not good, great - source equipment now is. The combination of the M2si and Topping E30 or iFi Zen DAC isn’t just a decent stop gap to get you up and running, it’s genuinely brilliant. Something a little more old school like the recently reviewed Rotel CD-11 Tribute or the endlessly capable Bluesound Node 2i would also likely be outstanding too. Then, if you do have the budget, it’s good enough to reap the benefits of the Chord Qutest, Lindemann Limetree Network, the matching M2 CD player or the analogue test gear I assembled that is a rough equivalence to a Rega Planar 3 or Planar 6. You do need more budget (or existing hardware) to make the M2si work but maybe not as much as you might think.
What this is then is an amp that does less to give more. This is a tremendously capable piece of kit that’s a pleasure to live with and demonstrates how a bit of extra heft goes a long way. The M2si is stripped back but it still delivers the essence of Musical Fidelity and for this reason it’s an easy Best Buy.
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