Musical Fidelity A1 Integrated Amplifier Review

Review

This is a review written by Terry Ellis January 2024.

For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here

Does it need to make sense

I love it when a HiFi product comes along where I look at the specs and in this case look at how small and light the case is, then look at the power rating of only 25 solid state watts no tubes and then the fact it comes with a warming label about how hot it might get. Some will think about the 130 watts of continuous electricity its going to draw and you look at that overall picture and think does the Musical Fidelity A1 really make sense in a modern world and in my modern life and I listen to it just once and I don’t want to imagine my life without it.  I love hifi products like that because they remind me what the whole thing is about in the first place, its about music being more than just sound, its about an experience that makes you feel something.

Nostalgia Kick

I know my audience, many of you will be old enough to remember when the original Musical Fidelity A1 was released back in 1985 so there will be a lot of nostalgia factor going on here. I was only 4 at the time so Musical Fidelity don’t score any brownie points from me and I do question at times the decision of the whole industry to keep bringing back products from past.

I do really like the look of the A1, it screams 1980s but in a good way.  Musical Fidelity in their own words say they have kept all the specification, the appearance and the circuits of the 1985 original but they have updated a lot of the amplifiers components to give it the benefits of a modern designed amplifier and that’s great for the consumer who intends to spend the £1499 as your getting a better and longer lasting amplifier

All the of the key changes are listed in detail on the Musical Fidelity website link here.  Some of the key changes thats stood out to me were the improvements to the power supply and layout for better performance, an ALPs RK potentiometer for volume control, better caps and more, all good.

For those of you who are new to the A1 in short summary its an integrated amplifier with a built in moving magnet and moving coil phono stage but there is no digital here so no DAC or streaming of any sorts. It’s a Class A design that can deliver 25watts per channel into 8 ohms but it can also slide into Class B to deliver more power if necessary so it doesn’t choke with demanding speakers or demanding passages of music. The transistors used can deliver 25amps of maximum output current and I think that coupled with the improvements to the power supply is what gives the A1 the surprising sound that’s nothing like what you expect from something so small, it sounds like a much bigger amplifier.

There is a great saying on the Musical Fidelity website that sums up the A1 perfectly, to quote

“the original A1 was designed to show people that there is more to an amplifier than just power” and that is 100% true here.

What I don’t like 

There are some things I don’t like about the A1, I know Musical Fidelity have stayed true to the original design but for me there are too many analogue inputs in a row extremely close together, this is fine when your installing cables but if you want to remove a pair that have a locking type of design maybe in the middle of the bunch it becomes very fiddly.  My advice here is if you don’t need to use them all be sensible and spread out your connections to make your life easier.

This is similar for the grounding post for the phono stage, its fiddly and hard to access with a spade terminal due to the close proximity to the overhanging case work. Then on the front the input selector feels a little clunky and the buttons feel quite not clunky enough in operation and the overall build quality is good but its not heavy weight and solid feeling like the Audiolab 9000a that I have here and have been comparing it to. I am nit picking here because apart from this I have nothing but good things to say about the A1.

A surprising pairing

I started listening to the A1 with the Bowers & Wilkins 603 S3 speakers for their review and here was my first surprise. Normally Bowers speakers we think of as being demanding speakers that need loads of power to sound good and maybe some of the bigger ones do but not the 603 S3.  The 25 watts of the A1 was more than enough to make the Bowers sound great and the A1’s sonic character, this amp definitely has one I thought was perfect for the Bowers.

The A1 sounds very full and warm in terms of its tonality and the solidity the whole musical picture it creates is extremely impressive and it doesn’t matter what music it is either, it always sounds bold, ballsy and warm.  With none of the negatives that can come along with that so the music is clean and clear in the main and full of energy and vivacity.

That is probably the best bit for me music is this lively thing that’s buzzing with excitement, music is an event that you listen to that makes you want to move your whole body to it, not just tap your foot and nod your head. Music has a lively fun, that is the key word fun, engaging factor to it that is a special thing.  Its very hard to explain without sounding corny and I doubt you can measure it but you will notice it very quickly.

The A1’s bass through the Bowers was surprisingly full and punchy like the amplifier was getting a bit more out of the speakers by giving them a bit of extra drive in the bass regions but again not in a bad way.  There was no blooming of the bass like some tube amps will do where the amplifier is losing composure of the speaker.  It was the opposite of that, with the Bowers it seemed like the A1 had more control to push them to deliver more impactful bass and more impactful deeper bass and none of this was I expecting from a 25 watt amplifier that I could hold in one hand, remembering its class A not class D.

Another really stand out characteristic is how music or the presentation of it has an extra sense of rounded three dimensionality to it.  Vocals, especially the side or backing vocals can sometimes can sound a little flat even if our main vocalist has a nice 3D character but not with the A1 the whole sonic picture from all the way left to all the way right every bit of the music has the same full rounded character and that makes every bit of the music pop off the background and sound just that little bit extra special.

The treble from the A1 balanced the sound of the Bowers “titanium” treble really nicely, its definitely not rolled off sounding I could hear that very clearly through the 603 S3 speakers.  There was a little bit of edge to the sound though but it was a managed edge and we all know Bowers speakers are lively sounding speakers in the treble region but I was not thinking about that at all listening to them with the A1.  To be fair the 603 S3 are a lot less treble lively than previous generations too so that of course helped.

But my big question now was is the A1 going to be a one trick pony, is it just pure luck that its sound character just happened to balance so well with the Bowers 603 S3? I was thinking the A1 should also work really well with my Mission 770, even though these are chalk and cheese speakers.  My concern was the Mission have a lower sensitivity at 88db compared to the 90db of the Bowers, but they are in theory the easier of the two to drive with a minimum impedance of 6 ohms compared to the 3.2 ohms of the Bowers.

So would the Mission show me some short comings of the A1. Nope.

If anything the A1 worked even better with Missions than the Bowers or equally as well.  The same full bodied sound came through, the 770s bass was not as obviously bold as the Bowers A1 combination but there was more musical information in it, with the right music you could hear more subtle detail in the playing of bass notes.

The Mission vocals sounded just a nice as always and the edge to the sound that was there with the Bowers was still there but it was now always on the pleasing side of the edge.  Where this edge to the music is just this combination of edge of the seat energy and liveliness that engages you but never oversteps itself. I will say it again this is the bit I like the most about the A1 amplifier, how energised I feel when I listen to it.  Through the Mission music had an extra special character in the energy and liveliness department that again is hard to explain but you won’t miss it when you listen.

The A1 Mission 770 combination for the treble was particularly nice as the A1 gave the Mission a little extra treble spice that I really liked and enjoyed.

Phono stage

These thoughts about the sound of the A1 was all from me sending a very high end analogue signal from a very high end digital front end but what what about the built in phono stage and vinyl playback.

So this is an interesting one. I preferred the sound of the built in phono stage with the Bowers 603.  I think the overall sound balanced better as the phono stage is warmer sounding but also a bit toned down sounding but relatively clean and still very enjoyable,. With the Mission I found I had to turn the volume up a lot for some reason and I was finding the sound a bit too warm it had become a little bloomed.  Now of course this is all related to the cartridge which is the Luxman LMC-5 moving coil.

I think the phono stage could be good for many, especially with less demanding cartridges than the Luxman and its totally inline with what I expect for a phono stage in an integrated amplifier at the price.  However it was not my favourite part of the A1, it didn’t have the same impact on me but I still enjoyed listening to. I have also been testing an Ortofon moving coil step up transformer the ST80 SE and I think it made a big difference to the sound of vinyl playing through the A1 and I have made a whole video about this you may want to check out here

Comparison

For my main comparison I have been testing the A1 against the Audiolab 9000a which I am very fond of and think is an excellent integrated amplifier.  I really enjoy the Audiolab’s easy going smooth sound and of course it has a good DAC in it too as an advantage over the A1 but it also costs more. With the Bowers 603 it was quite a close call for me between the two amplifiers, I liked some stand out things about both but from the two I did prefer the A1 for its more lively energetic and bass bold presentation which is more to my taste.

With the Mission I could hear and appreciate the Audiolab having more neutrality to its sound and more sophistication in some ways but to get the same level of drive and excitement and enthusiasm as from the A1 I had to have the volume up very loud  and then the Audiolab’s composure was wavering and the sound was still not as warm or bold or as full. So again my preference of the two would be the A1.

More Negatives

Are there any other negatives to be mindful of, yes there are. I want to mention on the front is a button called “direct”. My advice is don’t press it unless you need more volume adjustment. Direct is supposed to remove 10db of volume by bypassing a gain stage before the volume control. I thought it killed the bold upfront sound of the A1 and I was going to nick name it the disgusting button as a bit of light hearted humour.  Owners of the amplifier commented on my video they feel that Direct engaged seems to give the A1 a cleaner sound but I found it to sound more normal and less “special” so its worth you trying out to see.

With very efficient speakers it might be the magic button and main reason I am mentioning this is because if you demo this amplifier pay attention to this button as it may really effect your overall experience. You will probably tell if its engaged or not because the A1 is an amplifier that gets loud quickly or with the volume low so if your turning the volume up a lot maybe direct is engaged and you might be thinking the speakers are too demanding or the amplifier is not enough, but it could be as simple as the direct button being on or off.

Also the heat the amplifier generates is a real thing, it comes with a warning label and I have never seen that before. The A1 gets hot to the touch, not so hot you would burn yourself but hot enough you wouldn’t want to leave your hand on it for a long period of time so that is something to consider if you have very young children that might be hands on without you knowing.  Also if you like to hide your HiFi away in a cupboard with limited ventilation, I wouldn’t advise that. Its also a cold January here in the UK, on a hot summers day this might not be the one especially if you’re a leave the amplifier on all the time type of audiophile. Great sound aside these are very real world considerations you need to make and really just common sense applies here.

Also common sense should tell you that the A1 will not be ideal for all speakers, I would doubt very low sensitivity speakers below 88db or extremely complex speakers that you know requires more power than most, but don’t let the 25 watts as a number deter you.

Final Thoughts

That leads me on to a very easy conclusion, I think there are a number of situations where the Musical Fidelity A1 will not make sense for an audiophile. However I can see many audiophiles absolutely loving this amplifier with it delivering well beyond what they expect from its size and price. £1499 is a lot of money but I don’t think it is really in terms of how much genuine enjoyment you can get from A1

It’s a really cracking amplifier and I am really glad its back because there definitely is a place for it in the modern HiFi world, and a place for it in many audiophiles hearts, including me. I want one I will leave it at that.

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For the full specification of the Musical Fidelity A1 please see their website linked here