Component Reviews

Component Review, Part 3 of 4


Published on March 1, 2004

March 2004, Part 3 [Pt. 1] [Pt. 2] [Pt. 4] 

Music Hall Mambo Stereo
Integrated Amplifier
SRP: $1300

Music Hall
108 Station Road
Great Neck, NY 11023
516-487-3663 (voice)
516-773-3891 (fax)
http://www.musichallaudio.com/

Basic Description

Stereo class-A 50 wpc integrated amplifier with 24-bit/96kHz upsampling DAC; remote control; 1 toslink and 1 coaxial digital input; 5 analog inputs; 5-way binding posts; high quality detachable IEC power cord; 1-year warranty; 17” W x 16.5” D x 5” H; 50 lbs (packaged).

Equipment

B&W 703 loudspeakers, Marantz DV8400 universal player, NAD C521BEE CD player (for digital vs. analog testing), Musical Fidelity A3.2 Integrated Amplifier (for comparison), Audioquest King Cobra interconnect, VSD-3 coaxial digital, and CV-6 speaker cables.

Setup

After receiving the amplifier, I hooked it up and ran it for a couple of weeks. I was immediately impressed with the build quality of the amplifier. The power cord that came with the unit is particularly heavy-duty, and I can’t imagine anyone opting for an upgraded cord unless they wanted to spend more than a few hundred dollars for the upgrade. There is a hard power switch on the back of the unit, and a soft power switch on the front for remote control use.

As with most class-A amplifiers, this one ran hot. After ten minutes or so, the amplifier was almost too hot to keep your hand on it. For this reason, ventilation will be an especially important consideration.

There are a couple of limitations to note immediately. The first is the lack of a line level output and/or processor loop. This means no tape decks or analog recording devices of any kind, and no processors such as equalizers will work with this amplifier. I’m not really sure how much of a factor this will be to the average user anymore. This product is more likely geared towards the budget-minded audiophile who will probably only use CD or listen to records with the addition of a phono preamplifier.

An even larger limitation, in my mind, is the lack of a preamp output. For users who intend to use a subwoofer along with this unit, they will have to utilize the speaker/high-level outputs to get the signal to the sub. There are only two speaker binding posts, so you’ll have to double up the connections or use a combination of banana/spade/bare-wire connections. I didn’t plan on using a subwoofer in my listening evaluations, so I had no reason to fiddle with this connection. Arguably, this connection may not be the best, and most manufacturers of powered subwoofers recommend the use of the line level (low-level) input.

The remote control that comes with the amp is metal and probably weighs about a pound! Unfortunately, the buttons are tiny and may be too small for people with average-sized fingers. Also, the remote requires a small Torx wrench (supplied—although I was told a small Allen wrench would work) to open it for loading the batteries. At least if you drop it you don’t have to worry about it breaking. The claim is that the remote controls the Music Hall players as well the Shanling players. An owner told me that it would NOT control the CD25 CD player. The functions that it controls on the integrated are: mute, volume, input, power, and front panel dimming (three settings). It seemed very responsive and worked well the whole time I auditioned the unit.

I planned to do some testing with the digital inputs to gauge the quality of the DACs in the Mambo. There is both a toslink and coaxial input, both of which flash when there is no signal going to the amplifier. I was hoping that the quality would be good enough to use a computer, iPod, or similar digital device on the input. Ultimately, I tried to determine what level of CD player would be necessary to improve upon the performance of the Mambo’s built-in DACs.

The Music Hall is extremely solid and although the knobs looked a little strange to me, they had a good feel to them. As a side note, the amplifier has the right channel input on top (like some Audio Research equipment), so make sure you get the channel connections right.

Listening I – Comparisons with Musical Fidelity A3.2 Integrated Amplifier

I chose to use the Marantz DV-8400 mainly for convenience purposes. First, I wanted to be able to listen to SACDs. Secondly, it has two identical sets of L/R outputs, so I didn’t have to worry about plugging and unplugging the interconnect cables. I used a Musical Fidelity integrated amp for comparison ($1600) because not only are their products always highly-rated, but it seemed to be close enough in price to be a fair choice. The A3.2 offers an integrated phonograph section and a few of the features (like tape capability and preamplifier outputs) that the Mambo doesn’t have. The Mambo has an internal D/A converter, and both have remote control. I picked an appropriate (above-average) listening level and matched the outputs of the two integrated amplifiers with a multi-meter. I struggled with some of the sound quality differences (that were obvious to all that listened), but were a bit hard to describe. Each amplifier was ultimately compromised, but did manage to provide a very high level of performance that is most likely better than what most people have ever heard in this price range.

I let the amplifiers warm up for 24 hours and began the listening with track 5, “Conga Jam,” from Candido & Graciela Inolvidable. This CD is a standout in terms of sound quality, but this track especially is quite magical. The recording captures the placement of the drums both left to right and front to back. When Candido gets going you can clearly hear the sound of his hands hitting the drum moving all around the soundstage. Bass accompanies the drums and is also excellent. Both amps were quick and fairly liquid, although not as much as higher-end equipment or possibly tube equipment. The Mambo had a great sense of ease and control that was seductive on this track. Everything sounded precise and exact, and my feeling was the amp could give no more and no less.

When I switched over to the Musical Fidelity, the presentation changed. With the A3.2, everything was bigger, dynamics appeared to increase, there were differences in the presentation of both the highs and the lows, and the sound was more up front. The Mambo presented the sound a little farther back, had a comparatively lighter/finer balance, and the images were more clearly fixed in space. The A3.2 spread things out—both wider and larger. There was a very slight difference in high frequency output. Although the Mambo did a nice job with the echo and reverberation present in the church, the A3.2 made these sounds more noticeable. Normally I’d say that portrayal of information was a definite advantage with the Musical Fidelity, but not necessarily in this case. This extra “energy” was also noticeable on the other instruments, so it almost seemed additive in an unnatural way. However, it was so slight that it was hard to judge whether one sound was better or worse in this regard. More of my comments on this effect later.

Next, I tried track 3, “Whenever I Say Your Name,” from Sting’s Sacred Love SACD. This track features a duet with Mary J. Blige and is a fairly good recording. One thing I noticed on both amplifiers is that, for some reason, the voices on this track/disc seem to come from higher up than normal—as in a good two feet above what I thought was normal. With this recording, I felt the Mambo was sweeter than the Musical Fidelity, but not as expansive. At 1:30 into the track, there are a lot of different instruments, voices, and other sounds playing at the same time. The sound seemed restrained (partly due to the recording) and it was as if it wanted to do more, but the Mambo wasn’t letting it. The Musical Fidelity opened the soundstage, and sounded more forward. The voice was less defined in space in comparison to the Music Hall. The sound of the A3.2 seemed more open (perhaps due to the difference in power—the A3.2 is rated at 115 wpc). I noticed the same issue that I had on the previous track with the Musical Fidelity regarding the added “energy.” Describing it as a white noise would be blowing it out of proportion, but that is what I heard to a much lesser degree. I thought that perhaps it was the CD player creating this sound, and the Musical Fidelity was reproducing while the Music Hall was taking it away. Or, it might have been the Mambo that was being more correct, and the A3.2 was adding something. In the end, I believe it was a little of both. A friend who I asked to comment described the effect using a video analogy: “It’s as if the Musical Fidelity is turning the Sharpness control up too much, and the Music Hall is turning it down too much.” That is about as good a description as I can muster.

I was really starting to hone in on the sound of the Mambo, and track 4, “Snowbound,” from Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad helped. I was convinced that the Musical Fidelity’s distinctive sound involved a very, very slight high frequency tilt, punchy bass, extended dynamics, wide and deep soundstage, slightly forward sound, with images that were larger than life. The Mambo was more relaxed and laid back, not quite as open and airy on top. Although noise was extremely low and images were not only impressively well-defined, the background was black and made distinguishing between images in the soundstage easy. The Mambo’s sound was pristine, but strangely, in the way that most British speakers sound, the sound was almost too polite, as if the sound were being held back. It never really bloomed like the Musical Fidelity did.

I took notes with two more recordings: “Damascus” from Les McCann’s Anthology and Natalie Umbruglia singing “Troubled By The Way We Came Together” from the Go Soundtrack. The Mambo was a little restrained on the McCann track, but not having the sound in your face was pleasant with this jazz track. The Musical Fidelity again sounded bigger with the tambourine making its presence more obvious in the mix. The pop track was recorded at a higher level than some of the other music I heard. (I did not want to readjust levels after I had matched them, so I was listening to everything at the same volume settings.) The Musical Fidelity handled the volume level with no trouble, as did the Music Hall. The Mambo did not have as much high frequency extension, but also lacked any edge. The soundspace was smaller on the Mambo, but also had more pinpoint presentation. Again, I felt that the Mambo had the music in a vice and just wouldn’t let it escape. This restraint may clearly complement some music, while possibly detracting from others.

Listening II – Comparisons with NAD C521BEE digital vs. analog out

I was warned by a friend who owns both the Music Hall CD25 CD player ($600) and the Mambo that the he preferred the analog out of the CD player to using the internal D/A converter inside the amplifier. The truth is that the Mambo would be a good deal even if it didn’t have the converter built-in, so I view it as a kind of bonus. I didn’t really expect it to give a dedicated CD player a run for the money, but I thought I would try it anyway. I chose the relatively new entry-level CD player model from NAD, the C521BEE ($300).

I began with “The Girl From Ipanema” as done by Houston Person & Teddy Edwards from disc 1 of the Jazz For A Tropical Vacation CD set. It was a quick matter to switch between the digital and analog inputs on the Mambo via the remote control. I used a $100 coaxial digital cable vs. a $150 analog cable for the connections (for those who are interested). The digital input sounded a little bright and sizzly. The horn had more bite, but not really in a good way. The analog sound wasn’t as good as what I heard in Listening I, but was generally smoother and more natural. The piano was mellower and better represented in the mix. The sound of the analog input was much more like the sound I was getting in Listening I than that through the digital input.

I tried track 4, “Fake Plastic Trees,” from Radiohead’s The Bends. The digital connection made the sound thinner and recessed the sound of the voice to the point were it was harder to make out the words and hear what was happening in the recording. The analog input made the guitar strumming much warmer, smoother, and just plain better sounding. About 3:00 into the track, the sound was not as screechy as it was with the digital. I would recommend using the digital inputs with less critical sources and greatly encourage the purchase of a dedicated disc player (whether from Music Hall or another company).

Conclusion

There are some people who can’t stand solid-state equipment. They always point to a mechanical sound that doesn’t flow and sounds edgy, hard, and irritating. Those people need to listen to the Music Hall Mambo. You get a decent D/A converter that would sufficiently work with a modest priced digital component (like an iPod or other mp3 player), a cheap DVD player, or even a computer, and it comes with a remote control. The unit is built like a tank, and construction suggests it will last a lifetime. The Mambo sounded relaxed, slightly mellow, easy, and had about as little edge as I’ve heard with a solid-state piece of equipment anywhere near the price. If these qualities are important to you, then the Music Hall is a must-audition.

– Brian Bloom
big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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